Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Recently I gave some thought to constructing a family history. As the three of us siblings sat around the table looking at old photos and remembering, we re-proved the truism that no two children exist in the same family. Even shared events had different perspectives.

Organizing into some coherent narrative the multi-threaded events of three siblings and their parents and grandparents and friends and spouses and children over several decades is a daunting task. We started with a photo album our mother had created. The photo album, however, had no apparent rhyme or reason with photos from different times and places stuck without captions on pages with newspaper clippings or greeting cards whose connections, if any, eluded us now.

Some guidelines on constructing family history suggested organizing a history around houses. We started down that path, but were soon distracted. Another suggestion was pets, but that orgnaizational scheme too soon fizzled out. We agreed that perhaps a crazy quilt organizing scheme suited us best without saying exactly what we thought that looked like.

A crazy quilt is not, as the name might suggest, a random collection of colours and shapes put together in any way. Crazy quilt pattern, although freed from the constraints of a particular pattern such as log cabin or wagon wheel, offers the particular challenge of finding a pleasing pattern inherent in the materials provided.

This post and these ideas tossed and turned in the back of my mind for several days. It began with the title, "museum of curiosities" because I thought that a good way of organizing a history might be to look at those persistent inquiries that lingered throughout a life. The name was reminiscent also of those 19th century collections that were such bold, hopeful attempts at classifying and sorting the world like the Workingmen's Institute in New Harmony.

Conversely, I liked the thought of how those inquiries might be labeled from the outside. I liked the duality of the word curious, but such ideas usually lead me into smaller and smaller circles rather than into a proper conversation, so this post languished until today I found two keys.

The first key came in an email from a friend. I had joked that I was starting on another sweater and after having worked for a year off and on to create my first sweater following the pattern exactly, I was working on another pattern, but I had changed the yarn, the needle size, the color, and was doing it in the round and thought I would also change the design on the front a bit. I knew she would laugh. She has worked with me and played with me and knows that it is a rare occasion in which I follow the rules, even ones that I have made myself.

The second key came as I explored the web site for the Field Museum here in Chicago. They have a special exhibit about maps which I thought my husband would like, and my tech writerly self is also interested in the creation of information systems and what they say about the creators. An exhibit with something for both of us is a good find. As I scrolled through the exhibit description, I was captivated by the word "wayfinding." While I appreciated the flexibility of the English language to create a single word to enclose so much information, it struck me that the best way of organizing a history is to describe that wayfinding. How we got from place to place--whether houses or pets or curiosities is the pattern that makes the crazy quilt make sense.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Twice is a Tradition in America

My immediate family is small and we are all eccentric. Fortunately, for us at least, we can get our eccentricities to align periodically. When we sit around a table, we talk and laugh and talk in a rapid fire multilayered conversation that might include snips of song lyrics and, on occasion, a dance step or two to punctuate a story or provide a non verbal punch line.

That love of word-song-dance sharing has been a constant over many years and many translocations and dislocations. We have outgrown any family traditions and now we blend youthful iconclasm with middle aged nostalgia. In the midst of all this, we decide that in America where everything seems so new in contrast with Scotland, twice is a tradition.

So tonight we'll celebrate our new old Christmas tradition and after a little gift giving we'll go to a favorite steakhouse for a shared meal. My husband and I will have a dance or two and we will all have much laughing-talking-joking-and perhaps a song or two.

Sunday my husband and I will take a train north to celebrate with my daughter and we'll invent another tradition or two as needed.

Wherever you are and whatever your traditions old or new, enjoy this time in your own way. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Three Truths in a Winter Twilight

I had opened the package from Lands End with all the enthusiasm of a child at first Christmas and then settled into a backgammon game and conversation in the warm kitchen when I saw a horse trotting past the window. Before I can reach the door, I see the second horse following along. This is my introduction to Doodles and Belle Star, recently arrived from Tennessee. Doodles and Belle are the last of my sister's menagerie to get moved to Indiana, and, apparently, they have decided to explore the neighborhood on their own.

They prance through the corn stubble taking an occasional nibble. They are not rushing, but they resist any efforts to bring them back to their new home. They come when called, but dash away at the sight of a halter or a rope.

Now that I have some experience with quadrupeds, I try to put it into practice with these wayward horses. First, I note that they are not particularly agitated. That is a relief because it means that their actions will be a bit more deliberate. I just have to think like a horse would think. Food and familiarity come top of their lists if they are not agitated about something serious. As the sun begins to shrink behind the trees, I realize that we are a little short on time and that we are also a little short of help. Oddly, this feels comfortingly familiar.

As I move through the cornfields to stay close enough to keep the horses in sight without making them run any further, the cold rises as the sun sets. My toes feel the frost. I look down at the semi-frozen mud-slush oozing over my leather shoe-boots. These are not ideal shoes for chasing horses. If I had my wellies, my feet would be dry, but I couldn't run as I need to. When I realize with a sigh that there is no such thing as proper footwear for chasing critters on the run, this revelation makes me feel just a bit warmer.

After an hour of watching and trying to lure the horses with various enticements, we are no further along than we were. The horses are not upset, but they have no immediate interest in going the way we want them to. The horses are not in any danger, but that could change at a moment's notice. As this thought filters its way into my brain, I see a car moving up the road toward us. I can see that it is moving slowly and both the driver and the front seat passenger are carefully, quietly watching the horses in the field. They stop when they get close to me and laughingly assure me that they often collect their own or the neighbor's horses from the fields and offer to help. We need the help and she seems so eager to help that it seems wrong to decline. In a few minutes she is back with her wellies and our posse is now up to 5.

With more manpower, we can make a wide circle to try to move the horses toward the barn that is their new home, but they are wily and wary. As the circle moves, they find a hole and move to new openness. I know that haste is the enemy of retrieving lost animals, but I am not the master of the zen stillness that my husband and his son have around animals. Every opportunity to retrieve animals has carried with it for me a lesson in stillness.

While we are dancing in this dynamic standoff of circling and recircling to move the horses and have them elude us, my sister arrives. They are her horses. They respond to her right away. Belle Star, the younger of the two mares, named both for her beauty and for the notorious outlaw, raises her tail into a gentle arc and moves effortlessly and exuberantly toward Molly, but slows as she gets closer and stays just out of reach of halter, a rope or even a good hold on her mane while she nonetheless manages to take treats from Molly's hands.

Although both horses refuse to be constrained, they eventually are moved closer to the barn. With Molly in front and the barn in sight, they decide their adventure is ready to be concluded. As the last of the useful light of the twilight sun disappeared, with the two renegades back in the shelter of their new home, I realized yet again that cattle, horses or humans can only be persuaded to do something that they want to do.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Archetypal Indiana

I never lived with a red barn or a basketball hoop, but when I think of one single thing that would characterize Indiana, this photo called out to me. My Indiana is about being grounded--quite literally since much of the state still is covered in cornfields and soybean fields and tractor supply stores. As in Caithness, my other home, these vestiges of rural life and the groundedness I associate with them are disappearing. My sister searched long and hard to find enough land for herself, her family, and her horses and cats and dogs still close enough to transport and shopping. These 8 acres and the house and barn are available because no one could afford the entire parcel. The rest of what was once a single family farm has been sold or rented to a farmer caught in the "get larger or go under" dilemma.

I had to go to Caithness to learn to fully appreciate the beauty of a cornfield. Watching a vintage ploughing match where the rich dark loamy earth is turned with a precision that is both science and art helped me appreciate the carefully crafted rows of corn. Likewise, I had to go to Thailand to see a rice paddy to appreciate the homesickness for that luscious green in a poem I read many years ago by a displaced Vietnamese. Groundedness is not unique to Indiana or to a rural life style, but hard work, continual problem solving, and knowing that success or failure may elude you despite your best efforts and keeping on anyway are traits well rooted in the lifestyle of red barns with basketball hoops and foul lines defined by a cornfield.

My sense of Indiana and of that particular groundedness most likely comes from Sunday drives in the country when driving was recreational and moved at a speed that allowed time enough to read Burma Shave limericks on roadside signs stationed one line per sign. Perhaps the Caithness roads reminded me of those Sunday country drives of my childhood. I miss the Burma Shave signs and the escaped daylillies in their unhybridized orange that ran riot on the roadside, but the gift of those backseat rambles gave me a love of exploring and a faith in the beauty of things that has survived to see the return of the idea of wildflowers along highways.

On this trip back, my sister, brother and I have been looking over old photo albums and tape recording reminisces. Among the discoveries are not just details such as the name of the person in a certain photo or which house is in the background or even the differences among the three of us in our perceptions but an awareness of the unexpected outcomes of gifts that may not seem important at the time. The photo album is a hodge podge of photos and cards and clips from newspapers that make very little sense, but it is a gift nonetheless because it allows us to discover and celebrate a common resourcefulness, a resilience of spirit that defied the odds and brought us safely to a table together at Thanksgiving in a house in the country with a red barn and a basketball hoop.

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Second Snow

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Before I had a chance to write rapturously about the joys of the first snow, it had snowed again. This time I was not excited to see the fresh layer of about 2 inches of white stuff. My reaction puzzled me. How could something that was so wonderful the day before have so quickly lost its allure?

Perhaps the intensity of the first snow cannot be sustained. Like first loves, or the first phase of a deeper love, the sheen of the sunlight off the new fallen snow quickly fades or cloys. When the snow fell in soft luxurious flakes twirling like slow motion dervishes on a spiritual reunion with the ground, I watched starry eyed. I took the dog out and romped in the snow and threw snowballs and planned to see if I could still make a snow angel. Everything was put on hold for that first snow in a self imposed retreat from the world, a return to child like exuberance.

But even after that first romp, I began to realize that the steps and the walks needed to be shoveled and I was the designated adult. I saw the birds pecking hungrily at the snow clad branches and worried that I needed to put out food for them.

When the second snow fell, I thought first of the shoveling to be done again, the birds to be fed, and the now icy roads that I would have to navigate.

Worse still, came the reminder that I was no longer familiar with the business of snow. For three years I have seen only occasional flakes--nothing that built up on the ground. Despite living so far north that winter days are shortened to a few hours of daylight and the wind of the sea can chill your bones in a heartbeat, the actual temperature rarely dips below freezing.

I am struggling to find the new-old rhythms of this place that was so long home. The first and second fall of snow have melted into the early December detente--the temperature fluctuates around freezing and so the sky may offer snow or rain. Patches of still-green grass lie exposed next to craters of footsteps in the snow or ruts left by tires. The patches of compacted snow may linger through this thaw and lend their shape to the next layering or they may be gone in the morning washed away by the rain that might have been snow. Early December in Indiana. I recall that rhythm.

I remember also the names of the birds at the feeder: snow birds, the slate colored juncos who show up about the time of the first snow, a nuthatch, a few sparrows, a cedar waxwing, and now that I have put sunflower seeds in the feeder and a suet holder on top, I have seen a red-headed woodpecker. His size makes the juncos look even smaller than they are and he squawks noisily to the feeder sending the smaller birds scattering. They fall gracefully to the ground and contentedly pick the seeds strewn untidily on the ground where I needed another pair of hands to fill the feeder efficiently, but I was alone.

If the detente holds, the seeds will lie there for an all night deli for the birds. Either rain or snow may bury them and then they may become an unexpected crop in early spring. The sky over the cornfields is graying. In Scotland, this would be called, I think, a filled in sky. Here, it looks like a snow sky.

Monday, December 03, 2007

White Cap Wind

The wind picked up last night. It swirled huffing around the house and made it impossible to ignore it as it pushed a chair along the deck clearly in sight of us all as we sat in the cozy kitchen. We reassured the animals that it was just a wind that would quickly blow itself out. The words spoken out loud were as much a comfort to us as to them.

My sister says the weather reports gusts up to 45 miles per hour. When does a gust become something less benign sounding, I wonder. Back on the Pentland Firth, when we see white caps on the water, or white horses as some call them because they do look like the flashing manes of a horse running, we know the wind is about 50 miles per hour. It may be slightly less on shore, but the white horses let us know that we need to bundle up against the wind, park cars pointing into the wind, and hold on to car doors when we get in and out of the cars.

After all my years as Hoosier, it struck me as odd that I should try to make sense of the weather here in the cornfields by what I have so recently learned in a country now very far away. Today in the first officially very cold day of winter, I am content to see the universal signs of genuine winter: the cats lie down with the dogs. Instead of snuggling in the sun spots and lounging luxuriously around the kitchen, the cats have selected their favorite dogs and curled up in tight little balls on their dog blankets. The dogs compete with each other for the best bed spots and move into a rotation to keep spots warm: as one dog goes out, another moves into the spot he left. Some things are universal.