Friday, December 29, 2017

A Quick Trip, a Long Walk, and a Slow Train

I escaped the commercialism of the season this week, but didn't get very far away. 
This rough draft is in the museum.
I didn’t magically rediscover the true meaning of Christmas this week, but I have had some adventures in nature that made me feel more peaceful.

On Wednesday, my husband and I set out in the car to find a nice place to walk. We ended up half way across the state. There is a quirky museum in Fairview, Utah that combines art, geology, and history. Husband thought I would like it and was right. It was founded by the famous sculptor Avard Fairbanks and is filled with rough drafts of his work, but also features local artists and local history (including a mammoth skeleton neither of us managed to photograph). Here are pictures of some favorites.









After the museum, we took the long way home by going over the top of the mountains. The scenery was breathtaking. Only a few inches of snow, but frequent drifts across the road, reservoirs with multiple ice fishing huts, people skiing with parachutes, Utah blue skies. We should have taken pictures. 

Our trip finished up, inelegantly, in a Burger King in Price, which is usually more of a pass-through than a destination for us. But this time it inspired a future trip plan. Price has a great dinosaur museum and the neighboring town of Helper has a mining and railroad museum. We’ll be back soon. 

Thursday we went on the originally intended walk, down another stretch of the Jordan River Parkway. This is the best section we’ve seen yet. It is mostly wetlands. Right now that means dead vegetation, but it will be gorgeous come spring. Even with the current weedy look the fields are alive with ducks, Canada geese, hawks, a falcon, magpies, robins, starlings, and the homes of many house swallows.

 We went out 1 1/2 miles and found a sundial tribute to Utah’s Native American tribes. I want to learn a lot more about these peoples’ histories and present lives, so it was worth pushing it ankle-wise and I seem to have recovered just fine. 

During recovery time I watched “slow TV.” Netflix now has the Norwegian special commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Bergen to Oslo line. A camera attached to the front of the train filmed the entire 7+ hour trip. There are tunnels, stations, and announcements about the cafeteria car. Though lacking plot, it is strangely compelling. It is a perfect sort of white noise for resting after long walks or waiting for pain pills to kick in. I can even listen to podcasts and watch at the same time.

     I learned that yellow is a very popular house color in Norway and seems to be the required color for stations. I saw farm fields, but the crops were too short for me to recognize. There were a few sheep grazing.

 I also became confused. I thought the train left during the summer, but when it climbed the mountains into snow, I thought maybe it was spring. Five hours in, the train was back out of the snow, but the deciduous trees definitely looked like fall.

 I felt like I’d been on the train for a year by the time it made an unplanned stop for a long time at the national theater (suspense) then finally pulled in at the central station in Oslo.

Today’s plan is a trip with the whole family to the Utah Museum of Natural History. I’ve been there twice and quite enjoy it. I’m looking forward to seeing the dramatic dinosaur collection again and seeing my sons discover it all for the first time. 

We'll wrap up the holidays on Saturday at an old favorite, Wheeler Farm. Our quiet holiday "staycation" has been a peaceful, but active, adventure. 


THE KNITTING


I am making the last of the mermaid tails. Once that is finished, I need to photograph a number of things and get them into my shop. I also gave myself some yarn for Christmas and plan to design a Scandinavian type sweater. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

What the Dickens?


 I am being haunted by the ghost of Charles Dickens.

References to A Christmas Carol swirl around me. I suppose that is not unusual for the season, but they seem more prevalent than in previous years.

I did intentionally attend a very enjoyable and true-to-text presentation by Hale Center Theater.


However,  other appearances have not been of my planning. They range from the subversive Black Adder rendition to a plea from the Knit British podcaster not to say "Bah Humbug" or make Scrooge references to those who choose not to participate in what she calls "the festive season," because many people have good personal reasons not to.

I choose to celebrate, but Dickens may be on my case because I am not at all ready for Christmas.

Oh, I am physically ready. Teaching taught me to be disciplined about the holidays. Lacking time and money in December,  I formed a habit of buying and making gifts year-round. All the presents were wrapped by Thanksgiving. Likewise, more stuffers than will fit in our stockings have been stockpiled on my work table for more than a month. School usually doesn't let out until the 22 of December at best, so the job of decorating is always done on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving. My house looks like Christmas.

But I am not emotionally ready. For me, Christmas is an important religious holiday. Even during moments when I'm feeling testy toward God or my fellow Christians, the message of Christmas can reach me because it it so simple--love, hope, a newborn baby.

I am doing the right things to feel that message. All our decorations are from the nativity. My tree is a Jesus tree with angels and stars at the top and a happy herd of sheep at the bottom.

A gift from my parents is a twelve days of Christmas countdown. This year it is a daily reminder of the Savior, including a hand-drawn nativity by my mother with a picture to add each day after contemplating its meaning. I treasure the love and labor that went into this gift, but my contemplations are lacking.


Each December the LDS church produces a Christmas devotional with music from the Tabernacle Choir and sermons about love and service. I've watched three times, enjoying the music, but failing to absorb the message. Yet when the New York Public Library podcast rebroadcast the Neil Gaiman reading of A Christmas Carol I found myself listening with rapt attention to every word.

 I tried again by watching the PBS broadcast of the Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert. There was no reference to A Christmas Carol, yet I saw it in the choice of rather Victorian costumes for the dancers.  Then a reading of "The Little Match Girl" by Hans Christian Anderson irritated me. I hated the sentimental portrayal of a dying child, but felt sure it was a favorite of Dickens, though he was probably annoyed his Danish contemporary beat him to it.

Idealized pitiful child characters is one of the reasons Charles Dickens does not count among my favorite authors. I also find him preachy and way too fond of his own cleverness. And Dickensian endings are beyond silly. I will never be tempted to read his complete works. Yet if I get drawn into either A Christmas Carol  or Tale of Two Cities there is no escape. (I consider Madame Defarge my feminist knitter role model.) This year there is no escape even without opening the novel.

 The Ghost of Christmas Present haunts every grocery store. Cookies and candies  heaped at the end of every aisle echo the mountain of meats that form the spirit's throne. Carols blare on speakers. Sparkly decorations and required holiday greetings by tired staff convey an almost desperate gaiety.

(My oldest son, working 10 hour retail shifts, is starting to resemble Bob Cratchet.)

If we buy enough stuff, the right stuff, we can create the Christmas pictured in our dreams.

 Meanwhile, both the US Congressional tax giveaway to the rich and a  city-wide fundraiser for our homeless shelter system remind me of Want and Ignorance hiding beneath the skirts of the otherwise jolly ghost.

Dickens' message of giving to the needy as well as celebrating with friends and family is a worthy one, a good starting point, but I am frustrated by an inability to get beyond the starting point and closer to the central reason for the holiday.

Familiarity of the text plays a role, I'm sure. As an English major and occasional poet, I am drawn in by the rhythms of well-known passages.  I taught A Christmas Carol to my honors classes, reading and analyzing  it more than once annually for almost twenty years.

But I've been reading the Bible longer and I'm sure there is no chapter more familiar than Luke 2. So why does "Marley was dead: to begin with." pull me in more strongly this year than ". . . there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus. . . ?"

It could be that life is too noisy. I am still emotionally caught up in the national political train wreck. And my own life is not much more controllable. I live in limbo wondering whether I will eventually qualify for Social Security Disability and if my hearing will happen before I run out of benefits from work I can no longer do. Until that is decided, I'm told not to seek other employment.

My children are now adults with concerns grown beyond a mother's solving.

And Fibromyalgia is definitely part of the problem. Like the Grinch, my "brain is full of spiders." Without medication, they crawl around and nibble nerve endings. With medication, they wriggle in place. Either way, any feeling of concentration or meditation is fleeting. I can maintain a calm exterior but inside all is unfocused, unfocusable anxiety.

I doubt Dickens or the spirits he created can help me keep Christmas better, but I'm hoping that a very quiet Christmas week with nothing planned but long walks with my husband and as much time as possible with the boys will help me find the peace and hope I need.

 I wish you peace in the holidays and in the new year as well.


Friday, December 15, 2017

I Expected a Train Wreck, but . . ..


When I first learned there would be a new movie version of Murder on the Orient Express, I was skeptical.

When I saw Kenneth Branagh trying to look like Hercule Poirot, I was incredulous.


You see, I am a fan.

I'm a fan of clever murder, mysteries, of Agatha Christie, and especially of the world's greatest detective, Hercule Poirot. I have seen every episode the BBC made. As far as I am concerned, David Suchet's portrayal is Hercule Poirot.

Of course being a fan means I had to see this new production, but I did my homework.

First, I watched the 1974 movie. I wasn't impressed. I thought Albert Finney's Poirot lacked gravitas and presence. A lot of characters in Christie's stories initially see Poirot as just an odd little man, but Poirot knows who he is. I didn't see that contrast.

I did enjoy Anthony Perkins as the very nervous secretary, McQueen. And Lauren Bacall was excellent in her role as batty traveling American and the tragic actress playing that part. Ingrid Bergman received an Oscar for her role as the clueless missionary, but I'm guessing the academy was making up for awards owed in the past. Her character is more distracting than supporting.

Overall, it was draggy and disjointed.  Even though I couldn't remember how the story turned out, (Thanks to fibromyalgia, I can read the same mystery every few years and fully enjoy it.) I wasn't pulled into caring about the case or the characters.

So after seeing that movie, I reread the book, which was, of course, brilliant.

Thus armed, I entered the theater to see what Branagh, who is also the producer and director, could do to/with the story.

I was pleasantly surprised.

One thing the new movie does is give some background for those who haven't studied the entire Christie cannon. As the scene opens in Jerusalem, we see a restaurant staff trying again and again to meet Poirot's requirements for a simple, but perfect breakfast. Then the detective is called away to solve a crime that could have caused the entire city to erupt in violence. Based on one clue and knowledge of who would benefit from the crime, Poirot identifies the culprit and the audience recognizes his genius. And despite the physical differences between Branagh's Poirot and all others I have seen, ten minutes into the film I was sold--I was watching Poirot (not Henry V or a defense against the dark arts professor).

This version attempts to get into Poirot's psychology more than stories I have read or seen. Some of it works for me. Poirot is portrayed as having an obsession with symmetry and perfection. He measures and levels pairs of soft-boiled eggs. In Jerusalem, after finding he has stepped in a pile of dung, he claims that the imbalance is the problem and steps in with the other foot before proceeding. There is a quote, which I must paraphrase, which I thought was very good. "I see the world as it should be. What is wrong stands out like a nose upon a face. This makes life unbearable, but is very good for solving crimes."(I have a husband and son whose lives are made unbearable in that same way, which may be why it moved me.)

Less convincing was a photograph of a long-lost love that Poirot would speak to. Christie readers are given almost nothing of Poirot's pre-detective past. We don't have any clues as to Poirot's sexual preferences or why he, despite having devoted friends, must live alone. I'm okay with that.

At the end, Poirot is shown agonizing over what to do once the case has been solved and information must be given to the police. In the '74 movie, Poirot leaves the decision to the director of the train company, then mentions going to struggle with his conscience. In the book, he leaves the decision to the train director, probably knowing exactly what that decision will be, and keeps his soul to himself, as I believe the character rightfully would do.

The short trailer of the film shows more action that the story should contain, so I was worried. The novel follows a predictable pattern. Murder is committed offstage, Poirot talks to people. At the end the people are brought together and Poirot tells everyone what happened. I was afraid a Hollywood production would throw in more violence and chase scenes to spice things up--turn Hercule Poirot into James Bond. There is more action and it feels unnecessary, even silly, but none of it goes on long enough to distract from the core story.


The cast is as star-studded as the 1974 version and the acting is better. As a lead, Michelle Pfeiffer is every bit as powerful as Lauren Bacall. Characters are changed slightly, but without harming the story.  Penelope Cruz plays a Spanish missionary instead of Bergman's Swedish one, and convinces rather than confuses the audience. The doctor is combined with the British officer and portrayed by Leslie Odom Jr. so that a sub-story of a couple in love but held back by a pending divorce becomes a couple in love and navigating interracial relationships in 1934.

Over all Branagh does a masterful job. The scenery (apparently Malta and New Zealand with lots of artistic enhancement) is gorgeous throughout. We are brought on a train ride that is as impossibly beautiful and elegant as an audience could want. I can recommend this to anyone who can enjoy a character-driven movie with more conversations than explosions.

In the end, Poirot remains as great a genius as he believes himself to be and that may well be true of Kenneth Branagh as well.

But David Suchet is still the only real Poirot.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Eating from the Tree of Life

Appropriate to my sense of humor, my family visited this tree of life in a local cemetery. "Reserve your spot today!"

Trees get a lot of attention this time of year. We bring them into our homes to decorate, string lights around outdoor trees, and travel to admire trees others have decorated. In this dark, cold season, it makes sense to embrace such obvious symbols of life--both the evergreens which stand defiant against winter and the deciduous trees that resurrect each spring.

It also makes sense that many different cultures world wide include a Tree of Life in their beliefs. Lately I have been pondering a Tree of Life story I grew up with.

**************************************
While dreaming, I find myself in a dark and dreary wilderness. Fog swirls around, obscuring any landmarks. I can hear, and occasionally see, a river, high and muddy with runoff. I also hear voices, some crying for help, some shouting that they know they way. But the only way that seems certain is to cling to a nearby guardrail and follow it slowly, step by step, trusting that it leads somewhere, hoping that it leads to safety.
painting by Minerva Teichert
After a long, difficult walk, I glimpse a light in the distance. The light is coming from a tree with fruit so brilliantly white it glows through the darkness. A kind guide welcomes me. At first bite, the taste of the fruit fills me with so much joy that the difficult journey becomes worthwhile.
**************************
I have always seen this prophet's dream, as told in the Book of Mormon as a metaphor for life's journey. If I stayed on the right path and resisted temptation, I would be rewarded in the end.

But my extra dose of pain this past week has given me additional insight. Right now this story is more helpful to me as a metaphor, not for the whole sweep of life, but for each individual day.
Tree of Life sculpture BYU

Many, maybe most, of us spend great stretches of life stumbling through a wilderness of physical or mental suffering. Giving up often seems like the easiest, even the most logical choice. But we find something--faith, hope, love--to cling to and put one foot after another day after day.

And the reward comes daily too--bright bites of joy that make the struggle worthwhile. Just now I saw and heard a bluejay at my feeder. That alone made it worth today's fight to get up and moving.

As I hobble through the holidays, I plan to eat as many of those bites of joy as possible (as well as a decent amount of chocolate). I hope you will be able to savor many small joys in your life as well.



Tree of Life in Draper, Utah
THE KNITTING

I finished the commission sweater. It is currently drying. I'm still not sure I'm happy with it. I hope its new owner will be. I've also received and wrapped the yarn for my January sweater this year. I'm looking forward to designing.

If you are still trying to find the right gift for someone special, check out my shop. There is still plenty of shipping time at least through the 16th.
Do you have your Solstice hat yet?

Friday, December 1, 2017

Twisted


I'm not usually thankful for my health. In fact, I don't generally consider myself healthy. Rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia have damaged my brain and body to the point that I cannot function well enough to work any more.

But, things can always be worse.

Tuesday morning I went out to fill the bird feeders and take my dog for a short walk. Somehow, while standing on a level sidewalk, I suddenly found myself on the ground with a sprained ankle.

As my mom always says, "No brain, no pain." I had what felt like an urgently busy day planned, so I kept moving. Somehow, I staggered my dog around the park, then went to the grocery store. Maybe I was in shock or had an adrenaline high because I haven't been nearly that mobile since.
I'm on the mend, but still have a more than few days that will consist mostly on sitting on the couch with ice on my ankle. I have to admit to being angry and not particularly stoic about these limitations. I want to do things!

In the meantime, I am thankful for aching, ornery joints that usually allow me

--to walk in the park and at the aquarium

--drive

--use the treadles on my spinning wheel

--go up and down stairs

--stand to cook or wash dishes

(I can still stand enough to do laundry, but am not currently in the mood to be thankful for that.)

Couch confinement did allow me to finish the very good Storm Before the Storm by Mike Duncan and to make some serious progress on my knitting.

THE KNITTING

I finished the Christmas blanket, and am almost done with the commission sweater, but it has me worried.

The lady I am knitting this for fell in love with the picture on the pattern. 

I don't blame her. That yarn is so fuzzy and lovely. I don't know if the pattern is all that impressive; maybe anything created in that beautiful material would be nice. The yarn shop lady did her best to match colors and gauge, but the yarn she chose is more than half synthetic, so I don't know if it will bloom as nicely after blocking as the original. And there are always nerves about whether or not things will fit. 

I'm not sure whether I would be better off finishing it this afternoon and ending the suspense or knitting something recreational to calm my nerves.

Though I am dithering about my knitting, I am finished with my Christmas shopping. How are you doing? Check out my shop for one of a kind cozy gifts.