Sunday, January 12, 2014

Reading, Writing, and Riches

Perhaps this January, more than any other, I have felt the need to withdraw, hibernate, and read--almost to the exclusion of all else.  Maybe it's because I've got some kind of pinched nerve in my neck and shoulder area that makes it painful to crochet, write, or do much of anything with my hands... so I read.

The most recent two books that I've finished actually seemed to have some things in common.  They were both about wealthy families and the precious objects they came into contact with.  Both books were true--nonfiction--yet had incredible elements.  Both stories were quite compelling and thought provoking, though one was told much better.

The Hare with Amber Eyes (by Edmund de Waal) is a story about a collection of netsuke, tiny Japanese carvings, once collected and prized by the wealthy during the end of the 19th century when a love for all things Japan swept through Europe among the wealthy and artistic.  The author traces the netsuke from their first arrival in Paris, then to Vienna, and on until they arrived, full circle, back in Japan.  But more than just a journey for the netsuke, the book is about the rise and fall of a fortune and a family.  What struck me the most was the impermanence of money and class.  One day there was wealth, splendor, and all the comforts of life.  The next day, a new regime, and the wealth and everything else taken away.  Yet some survived, and so did the beautiful Japanese netsuke.  The author has a lovely writing style, which I found very conversational.  I felt as if I were listening to a story told by a friend, and it drifted along very naturally.  The prose was elegant, measured, but never got in the way of the events unfolding, even though the author, a descendant of the people in the story, had a personal connection to the history.

On the other hand, the next book I read was written very clumsily, sometimes awkwardly.
Empty Mansions (by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.) tells the story of W.A. Clark and his daughter Huguette.  W.A. Clark was one of those men who "tamed the west," founding a copper empire in Montana, and amassing a fortune because of it.  Huguette was his youngest daughter, and inherited much of his fortune, though she spent most of her life hidden away from society, almost never leaving her New York apartment.  The last twenty years of her 104-year life were spent in Beth Israel hospital, though she had no reason to be hospitalized.  The stories of W.A.'s life were very interesting, and it was mind-blowing to think that someone who was alive in 2010 had a father born in 1839.  But the most interesting part of this book, for me, was the moral question about what is a "proper" thing to spend money on, and who should get another person's money when they die.  Huguette was ridiculed by some when they discovered that she spent much of her time and money buying expensive dolls and commissioning intricate dollhouses for them.  One of her greatest pleasures seemed to be making gifts of money to her nurses and distant friends.  One can never know who was "taking advantage" of Huguette because every check she wrote seemed to come straight from her heart, and the ones who benefited from her generosity were also those who constantly defended her goodness, devoted enormous amounts of time to her, and made her happy.  In fact, just as I was beginning to wonder at the propriety of a nurse who accepts 5 million dollars from her "patient," I was disgusted by the distant relatives of Huguette who, though most had never even seen or conversed with her in all those years, descended on her estate the minute she died and sued to have it for themselves.  At least the nurse took care of Huguette and did something to earn the money! 

This was a fascinating story, but its main flaw was the terrible way in which it was written (so often the case with non-fiction, much to my dismay.)  Maybe terrible is too harsh, but the author(s) were so focused on the dollar amount of everything that it became annoying, and many times the direction of a paragraph seemed to lead nowhere, or jump from subject to subject for no apparent reason.  Perhaps they should have asked Edmund de Waal to write this book too.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

It's a New Year, It's a New Day

Well, it's not quite the new year yet, but it will be soon.  Anyway, Sunday seems like a good day to start things on, or at least prepare.  And I'm just raring to go for the new year, it seems.  I just want to revel in newness and turn over several fresh new leaves.

This morning I drove through torrential rain to see my baby niece Hannah Jean be blessed in church.  She slept the entire time, and afterward I held her through the rest of the service.  She is so new, so beautiful.  What fun to be a child!  But I feel like one still sometimes.  There is so much to do in this world--how will I ever do it all?

Looking back on 2013, it has been a good year in so many ways.  But I have so many things I still want to do better, or start.  And so many unfinished projects.  My goal to make a Christmas gift each month did not happen (but I did make 47 hats for my employees!), and my goal to paint a new painting each month did not happen (but when I did paint, it was fun!)  And so I am going to renew those goals and try them again.  I'm also going to add some goals to my 2014 list.  Here are the ones I've thought about so far:

  • Make two quilts.  One will be the Hawaiian quilt I promised to make for Loren and Nicole when they got married five years ago.  The other will be for Kraig and Claire.
  • Write letters.  Back when I broke my hand, I swore that "when my hand heals, I'm going to write a letter a day!"  Now that my hand has been perfectly recovered for over a year, it's about time to make good on that promise, although I'm hesitant to promise a full 365.  I'll keep a tally and see how I do!  Birthday cards count, but Christmas cards don't.
  • Keep a list of the birds I see and identify in my backyard.  I like making lists, and although I'm sure the birds of central North America are well documented, I would like to study them a bit myself, and learn who feasts on the black-oil sunflower seeds at my backyard feeder.
  • Paint.  As I said before, I'm renewing this goal in the hopes that I can do better this year.  I'm going to carve out a little nook on the back porch, where Chris used to do his crossword puzzles, and I'm also going to help myself out by getting some of my photos printed so that I can work from them.  Much as I love the purist idea of painting en plein air, it's just not practical when you work full time.
  • Make gifts for next Christmas.  Somewhere in between finishing a set of quilted place-mats and starting a set of fingerless gloves, I lost momentum last year.  However, there's no reason why I can't try again!
I'm also renewing the goal (for C) to clean out our front room so that by next year we can have a spot for guests, and even a Christmas tree.  Oh, and try to write on my blog more often!


A Flower unblown: a Book unread:
A Tree with fruit unharvested :
A Path untrod : a House whose rooms
Lack yet the heart's divine perfumes:
This is the Year that for you waits
Beyond Tomorrow's mystic gates. 

~Horatio Nelson Powers

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Only Way


The church of the week is a guest church, not from Durham, but from Wilton, NC.  I just couldn't resist it, so white and red and graphic against the side of a small country highway in a town with just one intersection.  I have no idea if it still in business, but there it sits. 

The Cantaloupe Festival


When C and I were on our honeymoon, we just wandered across North Carolina, taking blue highways wherever they led.  Along the way we saw a sign for a cantaloupe festival and for the past three years C has joked about it.  Finally this year I decided we should go see what it was all about.

Turns out that the town of Ridgeway, in Warren County, just a smidge before Norlina and the Virginia border, used to be a major producer of cantaloupes.  The Waldorf-Astoria used to serve Ridgeway cantaloupes in its dining room.  Well, I think Florida may have outpaced us--all the farm fields that I saw were growing tobacco and soybeans--but the Cantaloupe Festival lives on.

Parking in a hayfield was only a dollar, but I guess we didn't have to pay because we got there about an hour before the festival was over.  The first thing we saw was a rock band (well, four guys with electric guitars and a fifth guy singing) on a stage playing Lynyrd Skynyrd songs.  The singer used a music stand to sing from a book of "classic rock" songs.  A sparse crowd under an awning fanned themselves and relaxed in the 95 degree weather.  At the firehouse next door they served Brunswick stew, and the field was full of tables and tents and foodtrucks (mostly shaved ice and funnel cakes).  Some inflated kids games were on one side, and a stoic teenager drove kids around the entire thing in a sort of train.

At the opposite end of the small fair, a bluegrass band played, with a wider variety of instruments and talent.  And next to them was the most wonderful part of the whole fair--the homemade cantaloupe sherbet!  For only $3 it was heaven and a brain freeze.  But such a delicious one!  I would go back next year just for that.

Most of the people in the booths were from local businesses and the like: the roofing company, the Masonic Lodge, the historical society, and that sort of thing.  I snagged a foam cantaloupe slice with Warren County printed on it, and a pen.  Some people were selling handicrafts, including one eager girl who did some interesting woodblock prints.  I had to laugh at one guy, selling photos, because when C asked him where he took a particular photo, the guy said something like, "At the museum."  It was a photo of a photo!  And he was offering it for sale as his own work.  Sigh...

The most interesting table was manned by a wizened old man whose self-proclaimed "hobby" is to study rare and unique apple varieties.  I was just mesmerized by the way he displayed them, beautifully organized on a white board with their names written below each.

After we left the Cantaloupe Festival, C and I wandered around Warren County.  We saw the county seat of Warrenton, full of abandoned old mansions with historical markers and none to keep them up.  Some were so haunted looking.  The courthouse was very beautiful.  The town was so sleepy, but we did run into a local who advised us to drive out toward Inez, where some old plantation houses still exist.  We did so, and saw Cherry Hill, and others, in passing.

Unfortunately I didn't get a picture of the most bizarre front yard I've ever encountered.  In an otherwise normal little newly developed cookie cutter neighborhood, one house had four or five large rectangles in the front yard, outlined with wood, and in the center of each was a carved (fiberglass?) lion's head, surrounded with plain bark mulch.  They were five identical lion's heads in bark mulch rectangles, and the wood rectangles around them had a small piece of scroll molding at the bottoms.  So weird!  We could only stop and stare.

And that is why we love to explore.  Because you never know what you are going to find down the blue highways, the two-lane little byroads of North Carolina.



Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mount Gilead


The church of the week is Mt. Gilead Baptist Church on Dowd Street in Durham.  It was built in the nineteen-aughts, I believe, but that's all I know.  It has great hinges on its fabulous arched door!  Not in the picture, a great cast-iron bell.

Weekend Ramblings

Lately C and I have felt the urge to go explore our state on Saturdays.  Maybe it's because the weeks themselves have been so busy, we feel the need to escape on Saturday and go see something different.  This weekend we went to Hillsborough.  The county seat of North Carolina, it is a place full of history, but it also holds sentimentality for us because it was where we applied for our marriage license and celebrated our upcoming marriage in 2010.  And, since it is just a hop and a skip away from Durham, it's an easy place for us to go explore.  This Saturday we visited two walking trails in Hillsborough.  The first was "the Poet's Walk" around the grounds of Ayr Mount, an 18th century home that is now open as a sort of museum with guided tours.  We didn't go inside, but walked the Poet's Walk, a delightful meander through fields, woods, around a pond, and up and down gentle hills.  We glimpsed the Eno, full from recent rains, visited an old family cemetery, and marveled at the wildlife.  There were many butterflies, caterpillars, centipedes, birds, fish, and frogs.  Even some buzzards.  I'd like to go back and paint--there were some very picturesque vistas.  It would have been so lovely to live at Ayr Mount!

The next place we visited in Hillsborough was the old Occoneechee Speedway.  Once a busy auto racetrack, now a woodland walking trail, it was a little spooky.  The oval track is a mile, a nice walk, but there are other pathways into the woods where you can explore.  We glimpsed more of the Eno River, and looked around for signs of the old racetrack.  You can still see some of the guard rails, some wire fencing, and the cement bleachers, along with a lone light post that seems to be dropping brackets from time to time (I made sure not to stand under it!)  The ticket booth is shot up with bullet holes and the concession stand is a haven for wasps, but the flag stand has been recreated and advertises the history of the place, as well as its affiliation with Pepsi.


As we were walking through the woods, on what turned out not to be a trail (we were a little lost at that point!) we heard a loud hissing noise and suddenly C motioned for me to stop.  I froze, and he gestured to the tree in front of him.  There was a huge barred owl.  It hissed again, and we heard an answering hiss from a nearby tree.  There were two owls!  I couldn't see the other one, but the one near us was very near.  It was so neat to see it, although I know we were making it a little nervous.  We tried to stay still and silent, but in a few minutes a couple with a dog came along on the trail and the owl flew silently to a safer spot in a nearby tree, then turned around to continue watching us with its dark eyes.  




Sunday, June 23, 2013

Braggtown


The Durham church of the week is pretty typical of the classical revival style churches you see everywhere.  Built in the late 1930s, I think, it probably would not have looked much different if it was built a century or two earlier.  Maybe not.  I've determined to brush up on my architecture knowledge, so hopefully I will start having some useful and/or interesting things to say about the churches I highlight here.  For starters, here's a gem: those white stone blocks on the front edge corners of the building are called quoins and the pieces of wood that you can see on the inside edge and underneath the triangular pediment are called dentils (because they look like teeth, I guess.)  This beauty is in a neighborhood of Durham called Braggtown, and the church is thus called Braggtown Baptist Church.  I couldn't get a good picture of it, but there was a rose garden on the front lawn in the shape of a giant cross.  However, I have not yet found any information about how Braggtown got it's name.

It is located near the historic Stagville Plantation, once the largest plantation in North Carolina, which C and I visited yesterday.  There, you can tour the plantation house (not at all Gone With the Wind fancy), some of the slave quarters which are still standing, and a barn that was once the largest building in North Carolina, built entirely without nails.  It was amazing and humbling to think that about 900 slaves used to live on and work the fields that are now mostly woods as far as the eye can see, all for the benefit of one family. 

There are a lot of other very interesting historical sites here in North Carolina that I hope C and I can take the time to go and see when we have time to on weekends.  I am going to try and blog about those visits as often as they happen, as well as continue to post churches on Sundays, reviews of the books I read, garden highlights, as well as craft and art projects that I do.  Having the themes of travel, churches, books, garden, and arts will hopefully inspire me to blog more and also be my journal of sorts, since I neglect to write anything down otherwise.  We shall see how I do!