Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Smitten, as ever was.

On the last day of the year.

It's been a quiet Christmas here, which is fine.  We had good food and drink, mopped up the water that the quite exceptional wind and storms before Christmas drove in, had a modest and manageable amount of social contact, perhaps the best bit of which for me was meeting Iso in Lamballe a week or so before to give her the pullover I'd made her - she'd chosen the wool much earlier in the year but only on-line, and hadn't seen it - and also the scarf and hat which I'd quickly also done for her Pascal and Princeling respectively.  I asked her what she fancied doing; normally tireless, a walk, some window shopping, browsing in the bookshop might have been on the cards, but she just said that in fact she was rather knackered and could we just go and sit in the salon de thé? So we did, for over two hours just drinking hot chocolate and café crème and nattering, and a couple of times our husbands rang, mine to ask advice on making hot lime pickle and hers as to whether she might like and be available to come and see a show with him in Rennes in January. I'd wrapped the knitwear up and made her promise they wouldn't open it till Christmas day, and in the evening of the 25th I got phone pictures of them all posing festively in their garments, looking fairly merry, including this one of Princeling in his striped ear-flap hat with matching cracker:

Way too big, like his jumper which he's now just about emerging from, with the sleeves turned up, poor little waif. I put some matching candy canes in with the hat anyway.  I think that's just water in his glass.

I managed to complete a fair amount of knitting for presents, in fact: at the last count, one pullover, one scarf, two hats (plus one for myself),two pairs of slipper socks, three cowls and four pairs of gloves.  Lest I become one of those sad and tiresome archetypal females of a certain age who embarrass their unfortunate family and acquaintances with ugly and unwanted items of needlework which they then have to go through the misery of wearing so as not to hurt feelings, I enclosed a 'knitted gift pledge and returns policy' in each parcel which read thus:

While I make every effort to observe and remember which styles and colours people like (or perhaps more importantly, don't like), making presents for others is a hit or miss affair.  However, unless requested to do so, I would not generally make you anything which I would not be happy to keep for myself.  So, if you find that you could or would not ever wear or want to keep anything I've made you, you are free to return it to me within an unlimited period, and no umbrage will be taken. Alternatively, feel free to swap it or otherwise pass it on to anyone who likes it better, regardless of whether I might see them in it or not, and likewise, no offence will ensue. You'll just get a jar of jam next year.

The returns policy does not, of course, apply to kids' stuff, since I can't usually wear that and Molly won't either, but as most people with kids know other people with kids then just give it away.

Most of the yarn I knit with is fairly easy care and should wash well on gentle cycle, though some darker colours may run a bit, and drying flat and pulling back into shape while damp is efficacious. But you already knew that.

Hope you like it anyway!

So far no one's taken me up on it; Dutch E and B the German Doctor were both to be seen wearing their cowls (joined-up scarves) on Boxing Day; E e-mailed me more than once to tell me she was wearing hers at that moment and seemed genuinely enthusiastic, B was still wearing hers the next day when I ran into her by chance in Ecomarché when she didn't expect to be seeing me, so that was a good sign.  And since they're Dutch and German they're pretty rubbish at dissembling so I think they must really have been pleased. The Quiet American said his gloves were all right but I didn't seem to have finished them. Ha ha, very funny. They were of course (currently very trendy) fingerless gloves which you can use for reading maps or anything in a chilly environment, using camera or phone, drinking coffee on outside terraces etc.  My stroppy teenage step-grandson Benj, to whom I also sent a pair, didn't get the returns policy but I put in a note saying if he didn't like them not to worry, give them to someone else, but if he did please wear them for anything and everything, they weren't precious or to be saved but used.  This was all the encouragement he needed to wear them throughout Christmas dinner, quoting the permission slip at his sister when she told him to take them off or he'd get food on them.

Other than that, we haven't gone much on presents; we generally don't but some years we order ourselves things and hand them over to the other one as they arrive to exchange on the day, but we didn't much this year. However, I did remember to order a CD I've been meaning to get hold of for a little while.  This is Contratopia's Smitten.

I have no idea whether this group is well known in the US, I'd not heard of them until a while ago when I was googling myself, as you do, in the context of this blog, and I came across a reference to a track on their first album called Lucy's Stroll / Box Elder Stomp.  This was nothing whatever to do with me, the album had been released well before I ever started here.  I chose the name of this blog rather haphazardly; I grew up under a box elder tree, a fairly unusual species to find in a small town garden in the English Home Counties (we didn't even know what it was and simply called it the maple tree) and a fairly large specimen at that, and I was fond of it. In the film Patience: After Sebald I saw recently, based on a work in which connective elements of coincidence and serendipity/synchronicity are fundamental to the structure and content, one of the contributors remarked that one's own coincidences are rather like one's own dreams: meaningful and fascinating to oneself and boring and insignificant to anyone else.* So I don't really expect anyone else to find this event as magical and remarkable as I do, but I had to act on it. I listened to the sample snippets (as you can on the cdbaby website in the link above) and thought it sounded pleasant, and now I have the full album, I quite love it.

Contratopia (their website) are a contra dance band from the Midwest. Contra dance comes from the French contredanse, a kind of dance where two lines of people danced opposite (contre) each other, a false etymology derived from the English 'country dance'.  It went from England to France and back, then to America, then nearly died out... It's a most interesting story and subject and the link wiki link will tell you more. The music, from fiddle, mandolin, piano, oboe and others, is melodious, rich and varied, its repetitions contain swirls and flourishes and grace notes and key changes and all kinds of things I know nothing about and am not sure I'm using the correct terms for but which please me anyway, and it's instrumental so there are no distracting words to worry about. Lucy's Stroll / Box Elder Stomp is a quirky swing number, I'd be happy enough to have it as a theme tune, and there are jigs and reels and airs and waltzes, tunes that make me smile and my feet tap, that make me want to get up and dance (and sometimes I do), and others that are lyrical and poignant and bring tears.  There are tunes you could imagine Emma and Mr Knightly and little Harriet and the obnoxious Eltons dancing to at the ball at the Crown Inn, and others that sound wild and Celtic and mysterious. There are tunes that take you to places in the back hills of America, and others that take you somewhere else entirely.

And not least I love the title, Smitten. Because I realise that I always have been and still am.  Sometimes it's just a passing thing, sometimes, happily, it's for the long haul, but I realise that for better or worse, I've always been smitten by something or someone, and I hope I always will be.

So those are some of the things that have been making me glad at this turn of the year.  There is worry and sadness too, as of course there always is somewhere, but it has come closer; losses and fears are felt keenly, whether our own or others', if one can even clearly make that distinction.

But at this moment, the latest lot of wind and rain has blown over and the sun is shining for a time.

The photos in the video slideshow below were taken earlier this month, the morning of the first real frost of the winter, in the Mayenne.  My brother had been in hospital going stir-crazy, we were about to come home.  He suggested a walk with the camera around the fishing lakes up the road, which their seasonal English neighbours had lately bought, drained and refilled, the same ones where Belle had shown her swimming skills back in the summer.  We left our loved ones, animal and human, at home, and he and I made a long leisurely circuit, with much stopping and looking and chat, ending with some scrambling over chain link fences and sluice gates and concrete ledges where the path ran out.  It was ever my brother's calling to lead his kid sisters clambering in somewhat precipitous places; we had a lovely morning. When we drove home later in low, bright winter light, there were still many autumn leaves on the trees, and they shone as if they'd been burnished. Within a week or so of sudden winter - for this is a year when all such changes have been sudden and surprising, the seasons shocked and hurried into readiness - most of them were gone, but they were lovely while they lasted.

The music is the title track on the Contratopia album, Smitten. (The full set of photos is on a web album here)

Happy New Year.

* unless transmuted into something worthwhile as art, was the coda.

Thursday, December 26, 2013


The moths came just before Christmas: 
dust-crumbling parchment specks
blowing in through opened doors 
glowing on the television screen
flecks of life against the dark and light. 
Then the storm took them.

I carry your sorrow through this time
in the cupped hands of my thoughts,
in spite of knowing that I can't
release it, whole, uncrushed, into the night,
or take even a moth's wing's weight of it away
from you.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Late marigolds at Christmas

Last from the summer wildflower patch, scarce, scruffy and storm-battered, but I'm too lazy/softhearted/busy-with-other-things/fairweather-a-gardener to mow them.

The wind and weather finally blew out the internet, and the phone, last night, and they've not that long been back.  Now the lull between storms, and we dry out and try not to worry about what the next lot might bring. But we are so blessed, really, and have so much.

So love and best wishes my dears, hugs and hands outstretched to the friends I make and have made here, thank you for coming, for coming back, for all the things you have brought me; I wish you the very best of Christmases, and peace, love and hope for the coming year.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Three beautiful things for a cold-stricken time

Wasabi peanuts, from a special Christmas stall at the supermarket, with all kinds of odd dried and glacé things. I love wasabi, in a unique, slightly masochistic way, and I like the way these Japanese snacks incorporating it are sweet and savoury and dry and pungent all at once, and just now especially I like how they send a kind of delayed explosive charge through the soft palate, into the sinuses and tear ducts, finishing up somewhere in the vicinity of the Eustachian tube.  I also like the colour.


Librivox. Why didn't I know about this before?  The audiobook equivalent of Project Gutenberg: aiming to make every book in the public domain available free as an audio book. It's easy to access and you don't have to download the podcasts.  Scratching the surface of it would get me through several lifetimes and an awful lot of knitting.  I've just finished Emma; the reader was good, her American accent very quickly ceased to bother me (sorry, US friends, for this show of prejudice) and in fact her British accent and range of voices for the dialogue was impressive, I thought Emma's voice in particular was spot-on.


Something that made me rather tearful*, not because it's sad, quite the contrary, but because it's so touching and lovely: the astonishingly talented Colin and Li Yi's latest Christmas video.  I've yet to meet these two in person, they live in England and are good friends of my niece and sparkly nephew-out-law, but I've posted their previous ones twice, here and here, so I reckon three times constitutes a tradition. A little while ago I recommended Erin Morgernstern's book The Night Circus to my sister, who then thrust it on her daughter who then lent it to Colin and Li Yi.  When they returned the book, my niece opened it and there was a handmade thank you card in the shape of a pop-up model of the Night Circus.  In fact I think perhaps they belong in the Night Circus... 

Though they are clearly technically very savvy, much of the work is done with pencil and paper, the paper shapes cut out meticulously with scalpels, very hands-on (there's a page of stills about the making of this video here), and it takes a long time.  And though this kind of design is their profession, the videos are really made simply out of love, generosity and and overflowing creative spirit; one commenter here before said seeing them made her feel quite hopeful for the future. Enjoy, and thanks and happy Christmas to Colin and Li Yi.


*since, as Simone de Beauvoir (I think) said, no matter what tears you shed, you always end up blowing your nose. Which is one reason why it's good for a cold, the other is that cheering and beautiful things make you feel better anyway.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Comment response guilt, and 52

Natalie just posted on the matter of infrequent blogger's guilt.  I am not afflicted by this in terms of the (in)frequency of my own blogging, since that's no better or worse than it's been for a while, and I tend to think over-frequent posting might be as much of an imposition as the lack of it might be neglect, but I do worry a bit about my neglect of my friends' blogs, and also about my slackness about responding to comments; Tom was quite shocked to learn, as was I to reflect on it, that I haven't replied to a single comment in the threads of the last three posts.  This is a funny one, since it seems to me people who are very conscientious about regularly replying to their comments get a lot of people tracking back and conversations growing up, and other people never reply to comments and no one expects them to so everything's clear, but  with people like me who sometimes do and sometimes don't, it's not quite certain what should be done.  A couple of times over the years, when replying at great and thoughtful length to several people in one of my own threads, I've asked if anyone's actually reading and tracking these responses and answer came there none, but I know there are some who are very assiduous about returning, and a few good chats have taken place in my comments. I do try to reply if anyone asks a direct question.

Whatever, I just wanted to thank everyone for the nice comments I've had, they are always treasures and my non-response is not down to  any lack of appreciation!

Today is my fifty-second birthday.  Not a particularly significant number as far as I know.  We had plans for going out somewhere, either up the coast to Erquy to look at the sea and eat oysters or over to Dinan to mooch and eat curry, but I have developed the mother of colds since getting back from Mayenne, the same cold that my brother picked up from a nurse in the hospital who really should not have come in to work and breathed over already sick people.  So I don't feel very outgoing and eating out would surely be wasted on me, as nothing much tastes right anyway.  But I have various small but hopefully satisfying plans for the day, which may or may not include putting my supplies of knitting wool into the lovely seagrass hampers that I had for a present, and will fairly certainly involve watching Patience (After Sebald) which Film4 has kindly laid on today, and which seems the perfect thing, melancholy and wintry and reflective, a sad tale's best for winter, and a birthday and a cold are sure enough excuse to sit and watch an afternoon film, a thing I can't usually comfortably do. And Tom says he cook me a nice hot potato curry which should help clear the tubes.

I am wearing clothes I like although they are quaint and unflattering and I probably wouldn't wear them far outside the house; I have had a couple of phone calls, a couple of treasurable e-mails, lots of nice cards and a fab book from J called Knit Your Own Zoo.

My brother described my current mode of life as 'Gnitting for Stay-at-Gnomes' which I thought would be a good title for a knitting blog (which I'm not going to set up), though I think I would make it 'Gnitting for Gnostic Stay-at-Gnomes'.  I found this which I thought would make a good header:

She's not, of course, staying at home, but that could be figurative.

I also rather like this chap:

The sofa and a film awaits, thanks for being around.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Belle, the cat from Mayenne

We've lately been at my brother's and sister-in-law's place in the Mayenne, a hundred miles or so east of here. This departure from our general practice of not stirring our stumps to travel and stay anywhere during the winter months was brought about by matters health and hospital related for them, which I hope we've been some help with, so it wasn't a pleasure jaunt.  We were very lucky with the weather, however, which was quite cold but dry and often bright, and the lack of frosts until now has meant that there's still a lot of very beautiful autumn colour about, enhanced by lower and more dramatic wintry light than one normally gets to see it in, so the driving we had to do through the countryside was often a pleasure despite the somewhat anxious reasons for doing it. We're back in Brittany now for the moment.

Another unexpected source of joy and amusement was their latest cat companion. Some years ago my brother wrote a piece which I begged from him as a guest post here, following the decease of the last of the cats they had at that time.  For a long time that post had more page views by far than any other on this blog; I wasn't quite sure what the traffic sources were but it certainly deserved the attention.  As predicted, they didn't stay catless for long: now, as well as three plump tabbies and tortoiseshells and the obligatory skulking tom-cat on the periphery, they have been joined by this enchanting little wisp of smoke:

They call her Belle but she goes by many names, according to who's talking to her.

One of these was Sirène, which was given her by the children of the family up the road who she first presented herself to, because, when she was still quite a small kitten back in the summer, they were messing about in a boat on the fishing lake next to their house when she appeared on the bank, calling plaintively, then jumped into the water and swam out to them.  They would have happily kept her but are only seasonal visitors, so when they had to go back to England she very quickly fetched up at my brother and s-i-l's place. They certainly weren't looking for yet another cat, but she is such a special one, and I think has been a valuable source of company, comfort and amusement to them both at a difficult time. Despite the frequent problems experienced with introducing female cats in particular to one another, she has quite easily found her way to the top of the hierarchy, largely because her nature is almost entirely cheeky, playful and affectionate: everything is a source of potential fun to her, the occasional cuffs which she mostly dishes out to, rather than reeives from, the bigger cats are more of a claws-in game than any serious hostility, and she can run rings round them anyway.

She regarded Molly in a similar light, an opportunity to react melodramatically sometimes,

but really nothing to worry about, and possible a source of more fun and games.

Mol has always been quite fond of cats, having been largely raised by them, but in the past if a fluffy feline high-tailed it away from her she would often give chase.  Now she's really rather too old, deaf and blind to bother, but she enjoys endlessly following cat trails around the site and eating up cat biscuits at every opportunity.  Belle countered by eating her dog croquettes, which made her sick, unless that was the mouse she had for dessert. From time to time, if Mol was sitting with us, her head in Tom's or my s-i-l's lap, the cat would scamper up the arm and along the back of the sofa, onto their shoulders and hop-skip-and-a-jump over the top of the the dog's head before Mol knew what was happening. A couple of times Belle raised her paw and hissed a warning, and Mol seemed foggily to be aware that she should back off; only once was there an aggrieved yelp over the food bowl, but no visibly scratched nose.

When I suggested to her one afternoon of low sun and dancing gnats, golden leave and red berries, that she and I should take a walk around the grounds with a camera, she greeted the idea with enthusiasm, and pranced, posed and struck attitudes with the aplomb of an experienced model on a location shoot.

(yes, she can get through that fence easily)

 One cool cat, I reckon.