Monday, September 21, 2015

Equinox Rocks!

For artsies like me, autumn is a state of mind—a point in time when I suddenly have the urge to take a drive in the country and stop at a roadside stand for apple cider.

Autumn leaves, photo by Takeshi Kuboki

For geeks like my husband, autumn begins precisely when the sun crosses the celestial equator—which this year occurs at 4:21 am on September 23rd. There are pie charts and graphs and equations to warm the heart of any geek. But I prefer to celebrate autumn with pumpkin pie, and plenty of whipped cream, thank you.

In terms of mythology, we are leaving the season of the sun and entering the season of the moon—since in the winter season, the nights are longer and the moon spends more time in the sky.

Ancient Britons built Stonehenge to mark the occurrence of equinoxes and solstices.

Attrib: Wigulf~commonswiki

Ancient Mayans built a pyramid at Chichén Itzá to mark these astronomical events. At the autumn equinox, seven triangles became visible on the pyramid's staircase.

Photo: Manuel de Corselas

Examples of early American "equinox markers" include Mystery Hill in Vermont and Serpent Mound in Ohio.

Serpent Mound

The ancient Greeks said that Persephone was returning to the underworld to be with her husband Hades during the winter months. Curse that stupid pomegranate!

Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyan

The Chinese celebrate with a Mid-Autumn Festival. They eat Moon Cakes,  filled with lotus, sesame seeds, a duck egg or dried fruit. Looks delicious, doesn't it!

Photo by Lybil Ber

In Japan, the equinoxes are a time to visit the graves of your ancestors, and clean and decorate the graves.

Photo: Akitoshi Iio
It's amazing that people all over the earth have attached such great significance to celestial events, including the equinoxes. And it's amazing that after all these gazillions of circles around the sun, the heavens still run like clockwork, sending each season in its turn.

The Creation of the Sun and Moon, Michelangelo

We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land;
But it is fed and watered by God's almighty hand:
He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.

All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above,
Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord
For all His love.

The Harvesters, Brueghel

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight -- Continued

King Arthur -- book jacket
Click here to read Part One of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

In the first part of the story, King Arthur was holding a New Year's feast, when into the mighty hall galloped a great green steed with a green rider. The Green Knight challenged Arthur to strike him with an axe — on one condition Should he somehow survive, Arthur must come to the Green Chapel in a year and a day and let the Green Guy take his turn with the axe. But a brave young knight — Sir Gawain — stepped up and took Arthur's place.

Gawain swung the axe and kerplunk! The Green Knight's head rolled. But then, to everyone's surprise, the challenger picked up his head, and the head continued to speak: "Don't forget. You must come to me in a year and a day, to finish this contest."

At the time appointed, Gawain mounted his horse and rode to a great castle near the Green Chapel. There he was greeted by the lord and lady, Bertilak de Hautdesert and his wife, Mrs. de Hautdesert. There was another resident at the castle as well  an ill-mannered old hag, who was not introduced. Remember her, for she will come into the tale later, as old hags are wont to do.

Sir Gawain, fresh from the Pearl Poet's typewriter
On three consecutive days, Sir Hautdesert went hunting. Before leaving on the first day, Sir H. made a bargain with Sir G. At the end of each day, Sir. Hautdesert would give Gawain whatever he bagged on his hunt, if Gawain would also give to him whatever he acquired during the day.

A hunt, in medieval times
And this, Dear Reader, is where things get weird — just in case a big green man who comes back to life after a beheading isn’t weird enough already.

Each day, while Sir H. was out hunting, Mrs. Sir H. tried to seduce Gawain, but each day Big G. resisted her wiles. At the end of the first day, Mr. H gave Gawain his catch, and Gawain gave Hautdesert a kiss — for Mrs. H. was only able to give the knight a kiss — which he returned to her husband. (I told you it was weird.) 

On the second day, Sir H. gave Gawain his catch, and Gawain gave him two kisses, compliments of Mrs. H. 

Hautdesert's wife tempts Gawain
On the third day, Mrs. H. continued her attempt to compromise Gawain's virtue, but she also offered him a gold ring — which he refused. Then she begged him to take her girdle. She promised that it was enchanted and it would protect him in combat. This was far more tempting to Gawain, since he would soon face the the Jolly Green Giant in battle. He took the girdle, and that night he presented to Sir. H. three kisses—but he kept the girdle a secret.

Finally, Gawain must leave the safety and hospitality of the castle and ride to the nearby Green Chapel, with the girdle wrapped twice around his waist. There he found his nemesis, the Green Knight, sharpening his axe.  Bravely, Gawain offered his neck to his opponent. Perhaps he remembered the sound of the knight's head rolling across the floor and wondered if his head would make the same sound.

The Green Knight swung his blade once, twice, three times — but he was only able to nick Gawain’s neck, not sever his head. 

Then pooooooof! The Green Knight revealed himself to be Sir Hautdesert, who had used magic to change his appearance. And the old hag at his castle turned out to be Arthur’s jerk-face sister, Morgan le Fey, who had decided to test King Arthur’s knights. Should have known! If anything bad happens in Camelot, she usually has something to do with it.

Morgan le Fey, in her high school year book

Sir Gawain rode home to Camelot, still wearing the green girdle as a symbol of his shame that he had failed in his resolve to accept nothing offered by Lady H. His fellow knights, however, congratulated him on his success, and they all vowed that thereafter they would wear green girdles to celebrate their comrade's bravery. 

Gawain had faced his worst fears and come out alive.

The Pearl Poet, author of this tale,
poses for his book jacket

For all of you lovers of chivalric tales, the Stark Raving Mythopath recommends:

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Arthurian Legends, Barnes & Noble books 


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Pearl;  Sir Orfeo--translated by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Random castle to set the mood. . . .

King Arthur

Bright banners streamed from the vaulted ceiling in a riot of color. The Lute and Lizard Jazz Band played a mashup of medieval hits. The air was heavy with the smells of roasted stag, meat pies, and plums stewed in rosewater. It was New Year’s Day in Camelot, and King Arthur’s Court was drinking and merry-making. Arthur and Gwenivere sat at the king’s table, surrounded by knights and courtiers and a starry-eyed poet or two.

Arthur asked if anyone had an adventure to share before the feasting began. At that moment, into the Great Hall galloped a green stallion, ridden by a Green Knight  even his skin was green. In one hand, he held a battle axe; in the other, a holly bough.

Big Green issued a challenge to Arthur: "Strike me one time with this axe. If I somehow survive the blow, then you must agree to meet with me in a year and day at the Green Chapel. At that time, I will strike you."

King Arthur was on the verge of accepting this challenge, when his nephew—Sir Gawain—stepped up and accepted in the king's stead.

With a mighty blow, Sir Gawain swung the axe, decapitating the Green Knight. Surely that was the end of the matter. But the Green Knight picked up his head and the head continued the conversation. After reminding Gawain of the terms of their agreement, the Green Knight rode away on his emerald steed.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Impending doom must have weighed on Gawain during the year that followed, but being a true and courageous Knight of the Round Table, he tried to put on a brave face. Still, green leaves budded and red and yellow leaves fell, as day followed day. Finally, snow fell on bare branches, and it was time for Gawain to keep his promise to the Green Knight, to ride away, not knowing if he would ever see his home and loved ones again.

Will Gawain survive his next encounter with Big Green? And who the heck is this mysterious Green Knight? 

The answer to the first question will have to wait until next week when we finish the story. As for the question of the Green Knight's identity — scholars and readers have been debating that for centuries.

Some say the Green Knight is the Green Man, who appears in sculpture and architecture as a leafy face — or a face hidden among leaves — a figure frequently referenced or spoofed in literature. The Green Man is usually seen as a symbol of rebirth. Others say the Green Knight is a Christ figure. Often in Bible stories, a mysterious stranger is an angel or an incarnation of the Divine. Of course, the Pearl Poet (author of this story) may have had something else in mind than either of these.

A Green Man sculpture
Maybe next week, we'll find the answers to our questions. Or maybe we'll just find more questions. Either way, it's a fascinating story that, though centuries old, continues to inspire readers and writers in the twenty-first century.

The Green Knight, pictured in
The Boy's King Arthur
The plot thickens. Read Part II of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by clicking here.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Dog Days

As fans of the movie Throw Momma from the Train can attest, the night was sultry

photo by Tony Alter

And sultry is a good way to describe the Dog Days of Summer—those fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk days at summer’s end, just when we’re all in a mood to fill the bathtub with ice and lemonade and dive in.

How did the Dog Days get their name? Is it because at this time of year, you can see dogs panting and seeking shade under shrubs and bushes?

photo by xlibber

Actually, the reason is far more mythic than that. In this season, the constellation Orion rises in the morning—and with the celestial Hunter comes his trusty dog—Canis Major.

In fact, Sirius--the brightest star in Canis Major--is also called the Dog Star. Since the hottest days of the year coincided with the rising of the Big Dog (and the Dog Star), the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans came to associate the weather with the stars.

Parthenon, AndyLiang

The poet Homer alludes to Orion's Dog in the epic poem, The Illiad:

    Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
    On summer nights, star of stars,
    Orion's Dog they call it, brightest
    Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
    And fevers to suffering humanity.

Of course, we have to remember that Homer was penning these words in a house with no refrigeration or air conditioning or ice cream. No wonder he thought the Dog Star was bad news.

photo by paata

In some ways, I identify with those wacky, star-gazing ancient Egyptians. Before we moved back to the city, we lived in the country for sixteen years--on flat farmland away from city lights and city distractions. I never thought I would like living someplace that flat, but what it lacked in rolling hills, it made up for in spectacular scenery. We only had to look up. 

Each morning we could watch the red sun rise from the earth, and in the evening, we could watch it sink into the horizon. In summer I could stroll up our long driveway at night at look at Scorpio and Sagittarius, strung like Christmas tree ornaments across the southern sky. 

In winter, the landscape wasn't much--endless brown and gray and too much mud tracked into the house. But the sky-scape was ablaze with Orion, Taurus, Gemini, and Canis Major. In a place like that, the spinning pinwheel of the heavens is a bigger part of your life. Looking at the Milky Way, I felt like a small speck--but a small speck who is part of a grand and glorious design.   

Pharoah's Dog - Tesem

Since we moved, I have been suffering from too much time indoors and from stellar deprivation. For me, the biggest blessing of Dog Days is that the Hunter and the Dog return from their long absence in the glare of the sun. And although I left many dear friends behind when we left the country, my oldest friends--the stars--are with me still.

Egyptian sunrise--photo, Geagea

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Quilts: Stitches in Time

Every quilt is a story.

Sad to say, this butterfly quilt has spent most of its life in a garbage bag, waiting to be finished. My Aunt Doris made it for me when I was a child, but for some reason, no one ever finished it by binding the edge. I don’t remember exactly when the quilt was passed on to me, but I had every intention of finishing it myself--especially when after three boys, I finally had a daughter. 

Yes, I intended to finish it. I intended repeatedly. I intended fervently, but the bag was put away in a closet, and other projects (mostly computer-related) distracted me from this sewing job. Now and then, I would stumble upon the bag and think once again, I really need to put the binding on this quilt. Not that I knew how to do a binding, but it didn’t seem like it would be the stitchery version of rocket science.

This month I finally got up the gumption and went to Hancock’s Fabrics to buy some quilt binding. Hot pink seemed like the best match. I watched YouTube videos about how to do a quilt binding and then plunged ahead—making several mistakes. Apparently, it’s harder than it looks in the videos.

But with perseverance, I wrangled the binding onto the quilt, and in early September, I plan to present it to my daughter’s daughter for her third birthday. Her mom has just gone through a divorce, and they are making a new start in a new home. Amanda has a new room and a new big girl bed, and I think this quilt will be lovely for it. 

I remember lying in bed as a child under various quilts, made by my mom or her sisters. On a luxurious Saturday morning—before getting up to watch cartoons--I would stare at the little fabric pieces, magically joined together in kaleidoscopic patterns. Aunt Doris sewed clothes as well as quilts, and I could recognize scraps from cloth she had used to make a dress for my mom or a shirt for me. How odd to see all those little memories put together in a sort of fabric version of stained glass.

I especially remember one quilt that my family had made—a friendship quilt with appliqued blocks from various quilters, joined together and signed in embroidery.  It was tattered and torn by the time my sister-in-law gave it a new home after my parents passed away, but I’m sure she is preserving it as a piece of family history.

Okay, I had to take one picture of the binding!

As far as I know, all those family quilts were made by hand—pieces cut out and sewn together with fingers shielded with thimbles—then quilted, also by hand. Perhaps some of the bindings were stitched on treadle sewing machines, but I’m not sure. I don’t think my mom ever used a sewing machine. It took a staggering number of stitches to join all those little pieces of the top and then combine the layers together. Stitch, stitch, stitch. A lot of work went into these bed covers.

A double wedding ring quilt, made by my mother

I picture my mom and the other women quilting--a pot of green beans bubbling on the stovetop, a pie in the oven, and laundry dancing on the line in the backyard--making a sort of patchwork against the blue sky. And as if all the housework didn't quite satisfy their thirst for hard work, these women filled "leisure" hours with quilting. Apparently, the human spirit longs for beauty, even if forged from the scraps at hand.

I hand-hemmed the binding on the underside of the butterfly quilt, and it took a gazillion stitches--but only a mere fraction of the number of stitches in the quilt. They are stitches through time, joining families and generations and traditions and stories together in the colored pieces.

Until this humble binding project, I had never been a part of making a quilt. But with the butterfly quilt, I also inherited a stack of Grandma’s Flower Garden blocks that someone assembled. I'm thinking that my mom started this quilt and then had to stop when she injured her hand. I recently read that Flower Garden quilts are seldom made anymore because they are labor intensive. Maybe this would be another way to ease into quilting without the major commitment of doing it all by myself. Even with all the years that separate us, My mom and I could finally make a quilt together! And better still, maybe my daughter will help.

Grandma's Flower Garden, by Arria Belli

As an adult I discovered other quilts, not like the Kentucky farmhouse quilts of my childhood. Such as the Amish quilts with their use of more black pieces, giving stark contrast to the other colors. Or the art quilts by contemporary artists creating striking designs in abstracts.

Dawn Nebula Quilt by Michael F. James
Contemporary quilters create such phenomenal designs. But I recognize that the country quilters, with their simple patterns are also great artists, creating works that illustrate how the disparate pieces of our memories and our lives are stitched together by the loving and skilled hands of God to make a work of lasting beauty.

Robert Hillestad Textiles Gallery
Michael F. James

But my granddaughter doesn't have to think about all that. She can just sleep with the butterflies and with an inter-generational hug from Aunt Doris and Grandma.  

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Book It!

Reprinted from Cookies & Milk
a children's feature in SW Ohio newspapers

Where can you find dragons and dinosaurs, vampires and volcanoes, wizards and wildebeests, aliens from outer space and famous people from earth history — all under one roof?  

No, not in a new theme park from Disney-Pixar, but right down the street or around the your own local library! 

Huntington Library, by Aaron Logan

A library is a place of wonder and discovery — where fairy tales can come to life. Just open a book and plug in your imagination!

Do you have questions — about how computers work or how to become a champion rollerblader? The library has answers.
Are you looking for something fun to do? The library has a million good stories to share and fun programs just for kids. Do you have a bad case of the book report blues? The library can cure you — and show you all kinds of cool media to help with your homework.

Seattle Central Library, by Bobak Ha'Eri

Many ancient people revered learning and collected books and scrolls in libraries. In the great city of Ninevah in ancient Assyria, over 30,000 clay tablets have been discovered. They were once part of the Library of Ashurbanipal. Can you imagine having to check out your books in the form of heavy clay tablets? I hope you brought your camel to help carry them home!

Cuneiform tablet, by Fae

The most famous ancient library was in Alexandria, Egypt. This vast library featured lecture halls, meeting rooms, and gardens. It was a sad day for the world when this library burned down in a mysterious fire. 

Benjamin Franklin, painted by Jean Baptiste Greuze

The first public library in the United States was established in Franklin, Massachusetts. The town of Exeter had been re-named in honor of Benjamin Franklin, and the city asked Ben if he would like to donate a bell for the townhall. Since Ben felt that “sense” was more important than “sound,” he donated a collection of books  instead. And so began the first library in the New World.

Not far from Franklin, the city of Boston had the first pubic library with a special section just for children. The Children's Room, opened in 1895, placed more than 3,000 books within the reach of children’s small hands. The Boston Library also was the first to introduce storytellers in their Children’s Library.

Children's library books, by Trevor Mantemach

People of long ago would declare an “Eighth Wonder of the World” if they could see all the treasures available in your local library. And your library card is the “golden ticket” to all of this entertainment and information, all of the world’s best stories. 

Let’s book it on down to the public library today!   

Burlingame Library, by Kglavin

Monday, December 1, 2014

Because of Kate DiCamillo

Every well-written book is a light for me. 
When you write, you use other writers and 
their books as guides in the wilderness.   
                          – Kate diCamillo

To me, Kate diCamillo looks like Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail. And her children’s books seem like the sort that Meg -- I mean Kathleen Kelly -- would write. Her stories are whimsical, touching, funny, serious, and altogether wonderful.

Kate Dicamillo
Katrina Elizabeth DeCamillo was born in Philadelphia in 1964. In childhood, she suffered from chronic pneumonia, and her mother took her to Florida to recover. Her father remained behind to sell his orthodontist practice. But years passed, and he never joined his family.

At age thirty, Kate moved to Minneapolis and found work as a “picker” on the children’s floor of the Bookmen’s warehouse. 

That first winter in Minnesota, the worst on record, Kate was suffering from "dog withdrawal." On her author site, she says, “I was living in an apartment where no dogs were allowed, but there weren't any rules about imaginary dogs. So I made a dog up, the best dog I could think of: a smelly, friendly, big old mutt.” And so Kate’s first book was born—Because of Winn-Dixie.

Winn-Dixie is the story of a ten year old girl who adopts a furry, smelly, and very loud dog after she and her father move to Florida. The book, published by Candlewick Press in 2000, was a Newbery Honor winner for 2001 and was awarded the Mark Twain Award for 2003. In 2005, the novel was adapted for film, starring Jeff Daniels and AnnaSophia Robb. In 2012, the School Library Journal included Because of Winn-Dixie in its list of the top 100 chapter books of all time. 

Not too shabby for a writer's first book -- but that was only the beginning.

The next year -- 2002 -- Kate published The Tiger Rising, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. In 2004, she won the Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux, and in 2006, she won the Boston-Globe--Horn Book Award for Fiction, for The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. The list goes on, and it's hard to imagine this children's author publishing any story that doesn't win an award.

Why is this writer so successful, with an audience comprised of both children and grown-ups? I think it's because her underlying theme is hope, even in hopeless situations. Her characters are on a quest. India Opal Buloni (Winn-Dixie) is trying to find out about the mother who abandoned her. Despereaux (a small mouse with big ears) loves light and words--and he dares to love a human princess. Edward Tulane is a china rabbit who journeys to the bottom of the sea and around the world, searching for home. Kate's stories are charming and whimsical and multi-dimensional. And a great deal of fun to read.

In 2014, Kate was appointed to a two-year term as National Ambassador for Children's Literature by the Library of Congress. Her latest book, Flora and Ulysses, won the Newbery Medal for 2014 as well. 

In this story, Flora watches in horror as her next door neighbor, Mrs. Tickham, accidentally vacuums up a squirrel with her super-suction, multi-terrain Ulysses 2000X vacuum cleaner.  And not just any squirrel, mind you. This squirrel is a superhero. And a poet. What can anyone say in such a circumstance but "Holy bagumba!"

Kate says that books are "guides in the wilderness" for writers. Kate's books are certainly a guide and an inspiration for me. I guess that if a mouse can dare to love a princess, I can keep hoping to someday write a story as wonderful as as the ones she writes. 

It's because of Kate diCamillo that I keep trying.

If you want to be a writer, write a little bit every day. Pay attention to the world around you. 
Stories are hiding, waiting everywhere. You just have to open your eyes and your heart.
                --Kate diCamillo