Since you can’t go out to hear live music, I thought I’d share a live music recording with you.
Last year I premiered a new work that I composed using letters written by the artists Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro. What I’m sharing with you is a song I composed from a couple of letters written by Camille Pissarro.
One thing that attracted me to Camille Pissarro was how many of his letters were about his love for his family. He and his wife, Julie, had 8 children, one died at childbirth, while two others, his daughter Jeanne and his son Felix both died at relatively young ages. I was moved by a series of letters he wrote to his oldest son, Lucien, as he shared with him first the news about Felix contracting tuberculosis and then only a few days later a letter about his brother dying from the illness. If that wasn’t enough, Lucien was, at the time of his brother’s death, recovering from a brain illness that had almost cost him his life. In those letters I saw a father struggling to console his son while dealing with his own grief. And in those letters and in this song, I see a parallel to our own moment. How do we deal with our sadness and our love when we cannot be with one another? For Camille Pissarro the answer was art. Pissarro urged his son to use his art as way to recover from his illness and as a way to deal with the death of his brother. “I want you to wrap yourself up in art,” he wrote. I was so taken by this that I shaped those words into the chorus of one of the songs of the work.
Singing the words of Camille Pissarro is Cantor Malachi Kanfer. He’s accompanied by members of the Afro-Semitic Experience including Adam Matlock on accordion, Will Bartlett on clarinet, Jocelyn Pleasant on percussion, and Alvin Carter, Jr. who both plays drums and has the part of the narrator. If you’re interested, you’re welcome to watch the whole work (which means you’ll also get to see Cantor Martin Levson who sings the words of Edgar Degas), but this link is cued up to the song, “Wrap Yourself Up in Art.”
I hope you are staying safe. I hope you all stay healthy. And I hope you can find something meaningful and satisfying to do with this time apart. “Wrap yourself up in Art.”
Looking forward to seeing you all on the other side of this.
All my best,
In the writing room right now ...
In the writing room right now ... I have taken down the brown "butcher" paper that held ideas, photos, drawings, and my hand-drawn maps and plot outlines for the past five or six books. I've placed all those items into three-ring binders, and cleared the deck for paintings and photographs that involve courage, as I move forward in GHOSTKEEPER, the new novel set in Lyndonville, Vermont. My 1850 Vermont adventure THE LONG SHADOW is under contract with Five Star/Cengage -- I will give you a publication date as soon as I know! Scribbling lots of poems, too. And there's a possible route to publication of the "Vermont Nancy Drew" novel I built on Wattpad (see right-hand column). Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?
Sunday, March 29, 2020
"Wrap Yourself Up in Art": Clarinet, Accordion, Percussion, Voices, and a Father's Love, from David Chevan
Saturday, March 28, 2020
Context: The Covid-19 pandemic has not yet peaked here in northern New England, but we have reached the point where it's personal -- I know a family that's battling the infection, and they live about 10 miles from my place. At least two in our nearest shopping town have tested positive.
So I made a mask from a pleated paper towel and rubber bands and staples (thank you, Internet), added a pair of reading glasses for eye protection and nitrile gloves left from nursing my husband last year, and headed to a town where there's a friendly "food cooperative."
On the way, I stopped at the transfer station (what we used to call the dump), to drop off a bag of roadside trash. (Farming keeps Vermont green; picking litter up helps you be able to SEE the green, without cringing.) And things had changed. A lot.
"The dump" is where many of us count on a few minutes of old-fashioned socializing. Retired men in hunting jackets or ball caps exchange news. Fussy individuals drop their recycling into the correct bins and pull out the mistakes made by less fussy ones. Town trucks are parked nearby, at the town garage and the fire station.
And everybody smiles and says "how's it going" and "what a day!" and "I hate to let go of this old lamp but we're moving, know anyone who might want it?" Sometimes the school kids collect redeemable cans and bottles to fund end-of-term trips. Once in a while there's a lost dog poster.
Today: A stop sign. Directions to form a single lane. "Social distancing," one vehicle at a time, for those bringing bags of trash to the big compactor. And the young man watching over the recycling shed wore a bright green mask over his mouth and nose.
When I'd delivered my blue bag to the compactor, an older man in charge, with bristling winter beard and mustache, exchanged smiles with me from a safe dozen feet away. He called out, not "stay warm" or "keep out of trouble" (to which one may either grin wickedly and say "who me?" or nod and say "will do"), but "Stay safe!"
Then I drove more back roads toward the food cooperative, and along the way I passed a few couples walking along the edge of the road. Eager to add a little cheering up to the usual "I see you" wave that a polite driver offers around here, I waggled my brightly gloved hand and beamed a big smile at each.
One couple didn't even look. The other pointedly gazed the other way.
I want to guess they were among the folks who mostly live out of state and have come to their "summer place" in Vermont this month, seeking safety from the virus, seeking a place where they won't be exposed to how tough life can be, and how scary it is to be ill. I want to be kind and tolerant, and not picture how they'll react if they "have to" call for emergency services, which around here are often staffed with highly trained, compassionate volunteers as well as EMTs. I want to call "Stay safe!" out the car window.
Besides, they haven't had much exposure yet to how we all depend on each other and come through for each other up here. And I don't want to scare anyone. So I park at the food cooperative, pull my paper-towel mask into position, and wish I'd drawn the smile onto it that I pictured this morning. Nope, on second thought, next time I go shopping, I'll take a red crayon and write words on my mask. "Stay safe! And keep out of trouble. Smile!"
Thursday, March 19, 2020
Just for perspective, here's the electric company's graph of how the year has gone. No dueling TVs drawing power as Dave keeps tabs on the 24/7 news cycle. No air conditioning. One person's lighting use, minimized as much as possible. Still bread being baked, but far less laundry to wash and dry.
So here's my wish/prayer/petition of the day: Let me take all that "saved energy" and all Dave's love that I know is still with me, and infuse it into some darned good writing coming up. To life. L'chaim.
Tuesday, March 17, 2020
It's a day that I like to celebrate by making Irish soda bread, and this year, just for the fun of it, I tried out the whole-grain boxed mix provided by King Arthur Flour, one of our Vermont-focused businesses. Very tasty, and it didn't cut much into my work time this way!
It's a good moment to remember that being Irish once meant a great deal in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Just a few decades ago, the town's residents in response to the Census notched up 30% with Irish heritage. Significant in the area was the presence for decades of two Catholic churches: one "French" (mostly French Canadian, with Mass provided in both Latin and French), and "Irish" (Mass in Latin and English). The "Irish" church was St. Aloysius, pictured here; after the "French" church, Notre Dame des Victories, burned (yes, arson), the congregations merged and renamed the new church group St. John the Evangelist. Here's the building, from one of my late husband Dave Kanell's postcards.
The most recent available Census data, from the 2017 American Community Survey (the newer name for this batch of Census detail), showed 10.1% of Americans mentioning Irish heritage; 17.3% of Vermont residents; and 14.4% of those responding in Caledonia County (where another 14.4 percent mentioned French, 11.1% French Canadian -- should we add those together? -- and 18.2% English heritage; yes, Scottish comes in at 5.9%, and Italian at 5.5%). That's about one-seventh of the county with Irish heritage!
When I visit my New York City grandsons, I like to step across to their neighborhood's amazing Irish Hunger Memorial. Here are two photos of the structure, taken by Wally Gobetz and shared on flickr (thank you!); there's a description of the memorial added below, and if you don't have time to read it all, just keep this in mind: It's built from an actual stone cottage from Ireland, like the ones people lived in at the time of the potato famine there. I imagine the mud and stone and starvation made these homes feel terribly, frighteningly cold.
In fact, we have some great descriptions of exactly that, from Asenath Hatch Nicholson, a woman originally from Chelsea, Vermont, who left what comfort she'd found in New York City to go and see the starvation conditions for herself back in 1844. See my earlier discussion of her work here.
Now, before I go spread some good Vermont-branded butter on my next chunk of Irish soda bread, one more important history item: The first to use "baking soda" in bread recipes were not the Irish, but Native Americans, says noted food writer Gillie Houston -- see her explanation here -- and the recipe drifted to Ireland, as that region adopted agriculture and recipes for locally grown "soft" wheat.
You just never know what you'll come across, when you start digging into history. Or baking!
[memorial explanation originally published at https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/irish-hunger-memorial]
A winding path is lined with blackthorn, foxglove, and ling heather, marked with 32 rocks each engraved with the name of an Irish county. The quarter-acre of Ireland on the edge of Manhattan is a memorial to the over one million Irish who died during the Great Famine of the 1840s, as well as those who continue to suffer from hunger.
Designed by artist Brian Tolle, the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park incorporates a Famine-era stone cottage brought over from County Mayo, Ireland, and reconstructed as the heart of the monument. Visitors can enter directly from the street up a path through the suspended field, or through a tunnel lined with granite and words behind glass remembering worldwide hunger crises, while a ghostly recording plays voices recounting famine.
Room has been left for more words to mark new hunger crises. From the top of the field at 25 feet in the air, there is a view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the first stop for many of the over two million Irish immigrants to the United States.
Thursday, March 12, 2020
|Little brown bat, photo from Wikimedia Commons, by Enwebb.|
I was eleven years old, a sheltered suburban child, oldest of five and used to responsibility for the other kids ("You're the oldest, you're supposed to keep an eye on them!"). Incredibly, because my mother knew the camp director, I had been signed up for three weeks at a girls' camp out in the green forested part of New Jersey, among quiet mountains and clear blue lakes. If I'd known more of what would take place—archery lessons, modern dance, first taste of musical theater, the mystic power of singing around a campfire—I wouldn't have understood any of it. Facing the three weeks, the notion of swimming lessons (I hated getting my face wet) and sleeping away from home (I'd never been away from Mom for more than a few hours) terrified me. My mother, ignoring the emotions, made lists, stitched nametags into T-shirts, counted off stamps for me to write to her. And dropped me off with nearly a hundred people I'd never met, and one that I had: the camp director. Call her Lee.
The fifth night? Maybe. Supper in the dining hall, songs at the tables, some evening activity that kept us out among the stars and fireflies. I followed my cabin mates back, aware now of each one's name but still uncertain whether any of them liked me. A scream erupted from the first stacked bunks where a girl named Carol slept on the bottom bed, her best friend Michelle above her. It was Michelle screaming, waving her arms toward the ceiling. "A bat! A bat!"
Three counselors told us to each grab a sweatshirt, pull our hoods up over our hair, wait out on the porch. Armed with brooms, they struggled to shoo the flying mammal out the door, but it kept going back up into the eaves. Finally one counselor struck it with her broom and, stunned, the little winged body tumbled to the floor. Someone wrapped it in a towel. Ugh.
Who summoned the director? I don't know. But she brought a large lidded jar with her, maybe a gallon size, and deftly dumped the bat into it. And vanished into the night.
I woke early the next morning and, newly curious, trotted down the slope to the back porch of the director's house. I saw her sitting there, and called out, "What did you do with the bat?"
"I'll show you, if you want," she offered, eyeing me sideways.
What else could I say? "Yes, please. I want to see."
She fetched the jar, where she'd punched holes in the lid. That seemed familiar to me—at home, we also punched holes in jar lids when we held fireflies overnight, admiring their flashing.
But the grotesque furry face with its exposed needle-shaped teeth made me shudder, and the wings, cramped inside the jars, looked leathery and ugly. I asked, "What will you do with it?" I suppose I was thinking it would get released someplace else, away from the camp.
"Watch," the director replied. She took the jarred animal to one of the big sinks we used for cleaning up after crafts (already one of my less successful areas of learning), and turned on the water. Placing the jar under the tap, she let the water stream into it through the holes in the lid.
I only managed to watch until the jar reached about three-quarters full of water, the winged animal inside drowning in the process.
Maybe I said something. I can't recall now. But I remember running, running, and finding my cabin empty, and racing to the dining hall, late to join the others at the long table, gasping, unvoiced.
Now that I look back, I'm amazed I finished the three weeks. And I sing the camp songs. Sang them to hush my first and second babies when they were colicky and I sat in the rocking chair for hours, struggling to stay away enough to keep rubbing the arch of the warm little baby's back, waiting for a burp or a long fart and relief. I don't believe I thought about the bat, as I sang.
But now, as the virus from Wuhan spreads across the globe, and my grandson has suddenly reached the age when I went to camp ... I remember. May he never see a bat killed that way, even in this frightening pandemic. May his fears be small ones, easily comforted. May they be shared.
Thursday, March 5, 2020
Let's figure out how best to celebrate the book in Vermont, so everyone who wants copies for holiday gifts and holiday reading will be able to get them!
And the next big step will be the cover design, so ... watch for it!
More news on other topics, tomorrow.
PS: A taste of Chapter 1:
North Upton, Vermont, October 1852Chapter 1A cold wind off the ridge followed me as I trudged down the worn path, the pack basket of late apples heavy against my back. Dark clouds scudded from the west. When the first small raindrops struck my cheek, I tried to tug my woolen shawl forward, to keep my dark hair dry. But the weight of the apples and their off-balance shift in the pack meant I needed to grip the shoulder straps with both hands, so I couldn’t arrange the shawl any better.“Drat. Drat, again.” Had I spoken aloud? Well, nobody would hear my unladylike words. Cutting down through the field from my brother William’s home, toward the center of the village, wasn’t exactly ladylike, either. Pfui.Since I’d been a little girl, I’d taken this track. Of course, back then, the house beyond the mill belonged to my father’s older brother, Uncle Owen. Jerushah, my best friend, used to walk with me to visit Uncle Owen and Aunt Lina.Jerushah. I shivered.