Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas in Aliquippa

I may have been eight when the switch occurred, maybe younger, but not much older. I remember sitting at my grandparent’s table for a Christmas feast. Candlesticks gleamed, wine glasses shimmered, a hand crocheted table cloth lay over dark green damask, along with big linen napkins, and special dishes. I had graduated from the kiddie table, and was permitted to sit with the big people, use real silver, and sip a bit of Cribari Mellow Flame. Grandmom lovingly prepared and presented each course, one after another, in leisurely succession. The conversation hummed on. Stories told. Recollections of meals we had known and loved. Oohs and Aahs at each new course’s arrival.

Grandmom came by the many-coursed meal honestly. In her region of Italy, Abruzzi, an ancient feast to the gods was held, called a panarda. With Catholic influence, it was cleansed of "gods" stuff, and added to the repertoire of special occasions, like weddings and feast days. I never quite got the hang of it though. By the time I had a few olives and a piece of fennel, some of Grandmom’s incredible wedding soup, and a bit of homemade pasta in a sauce simmered for hours with a veal bone and three-meat meatballs, I was stuffed. No room for the turkey, ham, roasted vegetables, broccoli. No room for salad. No room for tangerines, walnuts and Torrone candy. And even when she served a certain cookie I adored and said, "I made this especially for you", I was hard pressed to eat more than one or two.

So we’d sit and talk and tell stories. Actually the adults talked, and I’d listen, big eyed. Grandpa’s tales included secretly borrowing his foreman’s car to learn to drive and knocking over outhouses in the process. Or the time he was harassed by a ham fisted drunk bully, and being so scared Grandpa knocked the guy down, sat on him, pummeled him with his fists, and won. (Grandpa was about 5'7") Or the little old lady with a cane in Montegallo who chased him out of her cherry tree when he was a kid. Uncle Tony spoke about more genteel things, the beautiful hills in his region of Sicily, and ewes bearing lambs in the spring. All very educational.

After an hour or so, a bit of stomach room opened up and Grandmom would say, "Can I get you a little something?" And Uncle Tony would say, "Un poco." So out came the meats and vegetables and salad and desserts and fruit and Torrone. With a little more wine, and a little more coffee. Uncle Tony would then unbutton his pant’s top button, pat his stomach and say, "I feel just like the Pope." With that benediction, the meal was over.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bill Hoffman

"Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord." What a thing for a person to hear the God of the universe say. I can’t help thinking Bill was awestruck by the beauty of heaven and Christ when he entered in. Not to become sloppily sentimental. But soak in the book of Revelation. John’s words fail him in describing what he sees and hears. You have to be at least a wee bit impressed with the overwhelming glory of it all.

Someone described Bill as an infectious Christian. That suits him. He loved painting, he loved music, he loved woodworking, he loved his wife and kids, and he loved God. If a library is gone when an individual dies, and no one’s read it’s pages, that would be an irreparable loss. But because of Jesus' gift to him, Bill was constantly giving away paragraphs and books of himself to people. And he cared about a lot of people. He’s added to all of our personal libraries, and we’re the richer for it. Now it’s our turn to give our paragraphs and books away.

Bill Hoffman died on December 7th around 11 pm at home. Just shy of his 63rd birthday. His memorial service will be held on December 19th at 11 am.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Dumpster Diving

I got admonished a couple months ago by some employees as I peeked into the thrift store dumpster. Broad daylight and on a weekday no less. At least it was out back. Since I frequent the paying side of the store I’m on a first name basis with almost everyone there. So the finger wagging was personally directed and kindly intentioned. They were worried for my safety (broken glass) and probably thought it a bit over the top that someone they actually had truck with would succumb to such devices. So there was some concern for my reputation as well. However, pretty cool things make it into that dumpster. On that particular occasion I was sorely tempted to return after hours and dig through. About a hundred marbles in a cracked vase sat right at the edge on top. All those marbles, and totally free. If I just had a box. Perhaps in another life, or in someone else’s town, or with a truly brazen friend. But not that time. Admittedly, I’ve been known to do it if something poked out on top that looked particularly promising. But never during store hours. Especially when people were coming out the back door during lunch. Perhaps next time I should wear a mask.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Place of One's Own

Ever since my younger days playing under a blanket draped table, I’ve liked cozy spaces. With concern for people’s carbon footprint, the small house movement is gathering adherents in the outside world, among grown up people. Several problem solvers stand out, and they’re not just from the green movement. Jay Shafer, whose Tumbleweed Tiny House Company produces gem-like-all-inclusive living spaces, and Maria Cusato, architect for the first Katrina House. Shafer offers plans for the do-it-yourselfer and finished homes for the non-handy. Cusato’s design is available through Lowe’s in several Southern states.

Les Walker (writer of a family favorite, "Housebuilding for Children"), recently revealed his not-so-secret passion, in his book on minuscule historic dwellings. Though blueprints aren’t included, "Tiny Houses" is packed with photos, drawings, and enough information to enable someone to construct their own.

As my packrat box of treasured doorknobs and architectural debris attests, I’m quite interested in including salvaged materials in a future home. Texas Tiny House Company is already there. They construct one-of-a-kind structures using historic salvage. You scoff, but I’m actually thinking ahead. As housing is part of Art’s pay, we need to live somewhere else eventually. A subsidized apartment vs. a miniature house on a cooly wooded lot, with a two-seater porch swing out front. Really now, what would you prefer? I just have to convince Art we can make room for all his books.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Silk Purses

Some of the imponderables of life. Chinese legend attributes silk making to the wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor, 3000 something BC. Was she really the one who thought of soaking the cocoons of flightless butterflies, unraveling them, and twisting strands together to make threads to weave fabric? Cotton or wool or flax I can understand, much less time consuming. But silk making is the kind of process that leaves you scratching your head. Or take watermelon rind pickle. Did the lady of the house run out of cucumbers? I mean, pickles have been around before the Caesars. But taking something you usually toss and making it into food? That’s a concept. Here’s another, what guy in his right mind, chewed on the bark of a willow tree and discovered his headache went away? Hippocrates, 5th century BC, wrote about the bitter white powder from white willows that eased aches and fevers. Be honest now, which of you, when you have a wall-banger headache, go around chewing trees, even if you’re desperate? No, you’re in bed with the curtains drawn, and an ice pack on your head.

It makes you think. What mysteries are still out there to be discovered? Finding them is not a matter of status, wealth, power, or Mensa membership. It’s seeing everyday stuff in a slightly different way and poking around until they expose their secrets. Seeing the silk purses hidden in sow’s ears. So look, really look. Who knows what you’ll discover?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On Shooting Stars

November 17 was to have been a good early morning to spot them. I stood, head up, outside in the chill at 3:30 a.m., peering into the southeastern sky, waiting to see God’s glory. Just one. I wanted to see just one shooting star. But none came. Or at least none I could see. The stars blinked, mostly a steady white, some with a bluish tint, some red. Trees arched overhead, their branches playing with the sky. But no meteors. No great crackling flashes in the dark. Quiet. The steady hum of distant traffic and a few small rustling noises from night creatures. So I went inside.

But I had seen God’s glory. Not the mad flashes I hoped for, but the steady constant glory of stars and sky and trees with branches raised.

The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, and their utterances to the end of the world. Ps. 19:1-4a

Friday, November 13, 2009

Needs Vs. Wants

In the personal finance realm, this is the line that separates frugal wimps from triple black belt tightwads. It cuts to heart priorities. What must I have to be content? What must I have to survive? If I lose everything, will I really die? (As in, "I’ll die if I don’t have a cell phone.") It’s a useful exercise to take a sharp look at expenditures and priorities and align them with what they should be. Standard budgeting procedure.

A long time ago I co-taught a junior high Sunday school class. My friend Ruth used an ice breaker involving index cards. Each student wrote down the five most important things in their lives, one to a card. We formed a circle with our chairs. And so the story goes, disaster struck. A fire took one. They threw that card in onto the floor. A robber took another. Another discard. A flood took a third. An accident took the fourth. They were left with one card apiece. "Is this one thing the most important thing in your life? If it isn’t your relationship to Christ, it will not last." From there we segwayed into an overview of Job’s life, who having lost children, wealth, flocks, servants, health, the respect of his wife and friends, could still say, "the Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord". So what do I really need?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Thank You Nina Weissmann

Years ago, during an otherwise insipid vacation in Vermont, I attended a craft fair. (Do not vacation in a rural inn, with a friend on a liquid reducing diet, who brings work with her. Just so you know, I hooked a ride with someone else to get there.)

Clear light steaming through large windows filled the barn like exhibition space. Near the entrance stood a potter’s display. The pieces, though finely done, didn’t particularly resonate with me. Except for two matching bowls. I touched one. Picked it up and cradled in my palms. Totally satisfying. Subtle finger ripples curved up the sides, glazed inside and out in black with grey-green speckles. Sigh. They cost the equivalent of two hours’ net wages. Iffy for a freelancer with spotty job prospects. I put it down, and turned away.

Nearby a fellow played a hammered dulcimer of his own design. Crowds wandered in and out of the space. I must have stood there fifteen minutes soaking in the music. Then we talked. He described how he started making instruments, how his paying job was carpentry. Because he liked to hike, he designed the very narrow backpack guitar. It sounded surprisingly good. But it wasn’t for me. Those bowls kept imposing themselves on my mind. I thanked him and walked back to look again.

They would be beautiful filled with carrot circles. Or steamed bright green broccoli. Even oatmeal. The glaze was a delicious background to strong and soft colors alike. And that curve, not too squat, not too sharp. I pushed past the pottery table and climbed an open staircase to view weavings and art quilts. My ride popped out of no where and said it was time to go. "Can you give me a minute?" I impulsively hustled downstairs, plunked down money, and scribbled a short note in the mailing list book. "To Nina Weissmann, Thanks for your lovely bowls."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ode to Art Beer

In the1950's GM recruited sculptors to work their skills on a fiber glass bodied sports car, the Corvette. The artists exchanged their normal work man’s clothes and dressed the part in ties and white, starched shirts. For many, it also meant relocation. But at least the pay was steady and that meant a lot to artists with families. My folks had been married about three years by 1957, and I was quite young when they moved. They landed on their feet by finding a rental of "in-law quarters", with the Beer family in Warren, MI. Art was a commercial artist, his wife, Agnes, a gifted school teacher.

I don’t remember much from that time except certain portions of the apartment, and the smell of sweet marshes outside in warm weather. Art regaled Mom with stories about his youth. He held many odd jobs. One was as a traveling window dresser. He’d motor from town to town and do crepe paper ripples behind manikins and in drug store windows. It never paid much, but was enough for a young fellow. One night he found himself in a rural area as it was getting dark. With no place to stay, he considered his options. Art saw some lights in the distance. He made his way to the doorstep of a small farmhouse, and knocked. An elderly man opened the door. "I’ll pay you, if you can put me up for the night," Art said.

"No need for that, I’d be grateful for your company", the man said, and welcomed Art in. Art looked around. There wasn’t much furniture. A large, bare wooden box took a prominent place in the main room. With a start, Art realized it was the man’s homemade coffin. They chatted until late, and the gentleman showed Art where he might sleep. Art lay awake for a bit, then got back up. Taking his tacking hammer and red crepe paper, he worked his magic on the casket’s interior. When the old man woke, he greeted Art with tears in his eyes. "That’s the most beautiful coffin I’ve ever seen".

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Curbside Gleaning

The fine art of trash picking is much maligned and misunderstood. As the elegant area of Germantown in Philadelphia was encroached upon by squatters and students, marvelous things appeared in the Veteran’s Thrift Store on Germantown Avenue. Tuxes of a certain vintage, 78's to be played while you slept that guaranteed health, wealth, and happiness, and even Biedermeier furniture. When older family members died off the less than perfect, quirkier pieces were unceremoniously dumped curbside. We were the beneficiaries. My father loaded his station wagon with the likes of Bentwood rockers, brass drapery weights, cast iron eagles, and solid mahogany drawing shelf units.

25 years ago, my eagle-eyed sister spotted a vintage Navajo blanket half hanging out of a dumpster and gave it to me on permanent loan as it matched my furniture colors. (She wants it back when I die.) With the advent of Antique Road Show, there has been less opportunity lately for really fantastic finds. Even so, our boys’ fort was made mostly from salvaged and freecycled materials. So here’s to trash day! Here’s to finding finds! Onward, to the quest!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fall Grasses

Have you ever considered the subtle colors in grasses and shrubbery along the roadside as you drive by? Amazing variety. From reddish tints to golds and greys, softer greens and even some blue-purples. All of it looks great together without human intervention. Even though color changes come from death really, they show a richness not seen in spring or summer. Full of sap and shining in bright sun, summer grasses scream green, a green with so much yellow a painter can’t truly reproduce it.

Character beauty is revealed more in twilight times too. Wisdom, gentleness, peace, attach themselves to those who learn from life, embrace Christ, and know where they’re going. They can let go of the green, become part of the tapestry God is weaving, enjoy the last of the sun’s warm rays before winter, and anticipate spring. So even though it looks like everything’s dying, it’s actually coming closer to resurrection.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


We just moved into the manse in Winner. The furniture hadn’t arrived yet, and I was looking out a picture window onto the front lawn. A bird fluttered to the ground and hopped around awkwardly. It was bigger than a Robin, a buffy grey brown color, darker on top than underneath, with a speckled chest, a black crescent at it’s neck, and black cheek markings. Someone had painted the back of it’s head with a slash of insanely red nail polish. A disconcerting bit of living vandalism. In a glimmer of yellow underwings another bird landed next to it, bearing the same red mark. Whoa! What have we here? I dashed to the phone and called my favorite expert, Dad. He said, "Oh, it must be a Flicker".That short interchange sparked an ongoing fascination with birds.

One unusual thing about the Prairie, was the wild life. Nestled between two regions, we’d encounter birds from the east and west. A Western Tanager in the Black Hills, both the Eastern and Western Kingbirds on my clothesline out back, a Baltimore Oriole playing in puddles on our driveway, and a solid yellow Warbler with a slightly aberrant song perched on our neighbor’s car door handle. Unexpected sightings became an encouragement that God was there during trying times, when people had backed off. A kind of love letter in a feathered envelope. During a particularly rough time, we saw an immature Bald Eagle plummet into a gully right next to our car as we drove. With two great, silent wing flaps it floated back into the sky. Awesome.

We moved back east, and for the most part it’s been pleasant. Several years ago a family pulled up stakes and left our lives. No explanation. I was sitting at a picnic table near a wooded area, thinking about it, when a huge form flew across the top of my vision and attached itself to the side of a tall tree. It’s crest was unmistakable. To that was added the singular deep drumming of a Pileated Woodpecker. It flew off, and returned, drummed a bit more, and then was gone.

So one afternoon last week, I spent a solid ten minutes enjoying a Yellow Shafted Flicker in our side yard pecking bugs out of the earth. After all these years, it’s still my favorite bird.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

La Maison Picassiette

On a winding road in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, near a stream, down the road from a peach orchard, sits a quirky, boxy building encrusted with mirror strips, bits of colored glass, and postcards sandwiched between glass. It still has beauty, like the face of an ancient, dignified neighbor, but like that old person, a little neglected, and needing repair.

Far away, off a main road in the center of Chartres, France, down a footpath, sits a ticket booth. Beyond that lays a narrow three room house, the 36 year work of one graveyard sweeper, Raymonde Isodore. It’s called La Maison Picassiette. (The house of stolen plates). What prompted this man to trowel concrete onto his home and furnishings and embed bits of found pottery, rocks, glass, and shells onto it’s surfaces? What kept him going? Walking for miles to pick up debris. Lugging all that stuff back. Meticulously carving and coloring concrete, laying bit and bit over surfaces, spilling out the house and onto the surrounding garden and courtyard. That driving force. To make order and beauty out of discarded material. To redeem them. To form something enduring. In the physical realm, this is the heart of a frugal bohemian. Making beauty with small resources. But isn’t that what Christ does to his own? He takes the foolish and broken of the world and builds them up into something enduring. Carves and places and lays bit and bit over surfaces, until he has a glorious church without spot, wrinkle or blemish. That’s truly redemptive art.

La Maison Picassiette can be seen on