Talking out of My Hat

As predicted in last week’s blog, I got my Dickens copy to the Sun Journal editor on time.  It ran almost as delivered, with just a few editorial improvements.  The finished piece was artfully embellished by senior designer Heather McCarthy’s work.  McCarthy’s additions are like the glaze on a donut hole from the Cookie Jar in Cape Elizabeth.  Just enough sugary sweetness sinks into the fresh fried donut hole, but not enough to rattle the metal fillings in your mouth.  I never see McCarthy’s work until the paper arrives, so it’s always a fun surprise.

I am still reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of the great writer man and I recently ordered Jenny Hartley’s Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women in preparation for the Pickwick Club’s April 28 meeting.  The Pickwickians will discuss the latter book and although I have never been a “book club person,” the reading schedule is manageable and not overwhelming.  What do I have to lose?

Today, I’m chasing another story idea.  It’s due on March 26, a feature or “front” for the Sun Journal’s Sunday “b Section.”  I’ve promised Mogensen something on Easter bonnets.

Since the due date is still 12 days out, the story currently rests in a loose outline in my mind.  I’ve written a letter to my friend Sherry about it.  Another good friend in California found some archival images of Lewiston churchgoers in Easter finery.  I’ve got a line out to the Androscoggin Historical Society, looking for some information about Star Millinery, formerly located at 234 Lisbon Street and Vida’s Hat Shop, location unknown.  My mother is scribbling her recollections.  I’ve found an expert milliner to interview and a local woman who still wears hats.

And here’s an ad for Zelia Robie-Roy, “chapeaux de distinction” formerly located at 173 Lisbon Street.

I love hats.

Not the kind of hats women wear for political demonstrations, virtue signaling, elderly clubbing, or any other type of theatrical presentation.  And no odes to Auntie Mame, either.


In Gotham, the Women’s Committee of the Central Park Conservancy hosts the Frederick Law Olmstead Awards, more affectionately called “The Hat Lunch.”  It’s a major fundraiser and everyone wears hats.  Some are campy, but many are breathtakingly beautiful.

You can read more about it here.

We can’t forget the Royals, either, who still wear hats from time to time.

So you see, there’s a lot of ground to turn over in the next 12 days.  Right now, though, it’s time to don an old knit hat and head out to turn over the snow from yesterday’s storm.

Here’s a hat song to enjoy this fine Wednesday.

“Fare thee well, cold winter!”

Posted in Just Writing | Tagged , ,

It’s of No Consequence

If you are an astute blog reader, you have noticed a change in blog content over the past six years.  In my early days of blogging, I chronicled my relocation dream.  I wanted to kick the Hampton Beach sand from my feet, sell my chicken coop-sized condominium, and move home to Maine.  I first settled into an apartment on the outskirts of my Maine town and then into a house right in the middle of it.  Then, I started freelance writing.  My childhood desire to “be a writer” had not diminished, although the realities of “working for pay” consumes the time needed to “write for pay.”

A trifecta of unfortunate circumstances in 2016 caused me to reconsider the blog as a first-person narrative of my life.  I made a conscious decision to write less sentimentally and more factually.  Part of my rationale for this was born of necessity and self-protection; I did not want to process my grief in the public sphere.  Another part of my rationale was a dislike of “I feel” being passed off as “I think” in news, social, and fake media.  It troubled me and so I began to use my blog as a place where I could work out the stories I was writing for publication.

Like this post about a granite quarry in Jay, Maine.

I wrote this while investigating the granite used to build the upper portion of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine.

There is an old canard that “luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”  The opportunity to write for the Lewiston Sun Journal was a lucky one for me.  Was I prepared?  It didn’t matter because I was writing for Managing Editor Mark Mogensen, a patient and gifted “boss” who presented me with numerous opportunities to write about interesting topics and then made my submitted sentences better.  I’m grateful he tapped me to work on the paper’s 2017 year-long series about the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, which will soon be published in book form.

When I send content to Mogensen, I use the word BREAK to delineate the place in my content where I am changing direction.  I learned this technique from him.  In the early days of my freelance work, he’d send my stories back for review with slashes and the word BREAK in the places where his sharp editor’s eye divined my thoughts.  I don’t know if this is a technical term from an AP style guide or something from Mogensen’s magic book of copy-editing tricks, but it’s been a great help to me as a writer to know I could end one thought and go to another.  Just like that.

As noted, Mogensen is a patient guy and he’s been unruffled by my lack of production for January and February.  But it’s March now and I need to get some content to my easy-going editor.  I’m working on a story about Auburn’s Pickwick Club.


I pitched my Pickwick Club story idea to editor Mogensen early in February and I started “working it out” here on the blog.

When you read big books in the middle of other life commitments, it requires discipline.  I drank a little extra coffee to get through 35 pages of Dickens a day, but I finished Dombey and Son in 25 days.  I laughed.  I cried.  I loved the characters.  I started dropping Mr. Toot’s line “it’s of no consequence” here and there.  I was sad when I finished, as it had been a welcome distraction from the cares of the present day.  I looked forward to meeting the Pickwickians, albeit anxiously.

As I would learn from attending the meeting on February 24, the Pickwickians love Dickens and talking about all aspects of the great writer’s life and work.  The conversation around the table was energetic and interesting.  There were no hard and fast rules and it was not overly academic, per se.  The modern world did not intrude, except if there was a recent article, book, or event about Dickens.

Not everyone liked Dombey and Son.  One member said it was “a cry fest and a comfort fest.”

As a newcomer, I didn’t make many comments, although I did express my enjoyment of the work.  How can one not feel intellectually stronger after reading a good book?

As of February, 2018, the members of the Maine Pickwick Club have read 14 of Dickens’ 15 major novels since their 2012 founding.  Additionally, they’ve tackled novels by Victorian contemporaries Henry Fielding, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope.  The group has also covered biographies of Charles Dickens, his wife, and his mistress.

But that’s nothing for the Pickwickians because they all love to read.  Some of them are in other book clubs and participate in reading-themed events like the New England Great Books Spring Retreat and the upcoming Winter Weekend, sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council and hosted by Bowdoin College.

I enjoyed my time among the Pickwickians and was encouraged to buy Charles Dickens:  A Life by Claire Tomalin.  Pickwick Club co-founder Alexis Des Roches also recommends Life of Charles Dickens by his contemporary, John Forster.  As Des Roches says “you can’t beat a bio by someone who actually knew and loved the author, although, of course, he tries to make himself and Dickens look good.”

It was reassuring to know that even Charles Dickens got distracted from the task of writing.  Tomalin’s biography notes that while writing Dombey and Son, “he was still unable to settle to work, disliking his study, unable to find a corner anywhere else in which to write, moving the furniture about, distracting himself by writing letters…”

By the time I post this blog, my content on the Pickwick Club will be sitting on the editor’s desk.  I’m relieved to know, though, that I am in good company when I was walking, reading books, writing letters, and rearranging furniture instead of writing as the deadline loomed.

Posted in Books and Reading | Tagged , , , ,

In the Mist of a Memory

Early in January, I wrote a blog post about cultural confusion.  The post featured an image from the Maine Sunday Telegram, circa 1951; two college co-eds were whipping up some eggnog in a South Portland home.  The article said they lived in the Sylvan Site neighborhood.

I was in South Portland yesterday and motored through this neighborhood.  The houses are handsome and well-preserved, built in the 1920’s by Frederick Wheeler Hinckley.  He built them to stand the test of time and you can read more about the development here, on the Maine Historical Society’s website.  If you conduct an internet search on some of the properties noted, you can find a few of them on real estate listing services.  I found a listing for 6 Richards Street.  The pictures show oak throughout the house, original leaded doors, an interesting partial stone façade, and a detached 2 car garage.

After I finished my drive through that neighborhood, I parked my car near another neighborhood, Willard Beach, and walked around quiet streets.  In the mist of a memory, I found the very first house I ever toured as a prospective home buyer, closer to Meeting House Hill.

It was a beautiful almost-March afternoon.  The neighborhoods around Willard Beach and Meeting House Hill are lined with sidewalks and you can cover a lot of ground on foot.  Tuesday is trash collection day, evidenced by giant garbage cans arrayed like bowling pins after an unsteady frame at the lanes.  Green for rubbish and blue for recycling, these barrels are large enough for gangs of children to play in, although I didn’t see any young folks in my travels.

According to this Down East article, South Portland is a bit of a hipster enclave, with walkable neighborhoods, artisanal bakeries, and land-use planners.

The writer of the Down East article, Edgar Allen Beem, noted “it is that personal connection—the intimacy of neighborhoods where people get out of their homes and out of their cars and get to know one another—that lies at the heart of the new South Portland.”

I extend contrarian apologies to Beem, who has been writing about life in Maine since 1978.  The empty bins and the silent streets make a statement about the nature of South Portland’s “community.”  The camaraderie that exists on Saturdays and Sundays, when long lines converge over steaming paper cappuccino cups at the artisanal bakery and the barrels at Willard Beach are plumb full of wrapped waste from doggie play dates is a weekly event, not some organic mass.  South Portland has become a valuable commodity, a strip mall of mixed use real estate inventory.  What will develop in the neighborhoods over time is difficult to predict.  It’s pleasant now, for sure.  But true community, that place of regularly present people who watch and guard the streets and each other by living long days and years in one place?  If it ever existed, it developed over time, maybe generations.  We’re too busy for that now.  We’re happy, atomized disenfranchised consumers.

Now be a lamb and pass me my cynic’s smelling salts, would you?

Posted in Lady Alone Traveler | Tagged ,

Symbols in Stone

The main portal of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine consists of two side by side doors.  Above is the tympanum, composed of a relief sculpture in limestone.  The sculpture represents a vision of Saint Dominic, accepting a book from Saint Paul and a staff from Saint Peter.  Above this is a panel of eight symbolic medallions, each one rich in theological meaning.

Over the weekend, I took a crash course in Christian symbolism in an attempt to identify the meaning of the eight medallions.  My studies began Friday at The Institute for Sacred Architecture and a telephone call to the firm of Duncan G. Stroik.  A kind soul answered the phone and listened to my “I’m a freelance writer” drill.

Could she recommend any literature on Christian symbolism?

She put me on hold for several minutes.  When she returned, she recommended two books written in the 1930’s, both available digitally.  I spent most of Saturday evening enlightening myself to the meaning of the Chi Rho, the bursting pomegranate, and the descending dove.

My research took me to the Basilica on Sunday morning, following an overnight drop of late winter snow.  With my binoculars handy, I spied a bounty of sculptured symbols.  Church goers leaving the Latin Mass looked at me curiously and I wondered if they knew such an abundance of artistic and Biblical richness was available to them.

Here is a picture taken within the main doorway, looking towards the sky and capturing two carved faces.  There are twelve of these carvings and I’m inclined to say to say it’s the Twelve Apostles, but I have not positively confirmed each face.

(That is snow coming off the building in the breeze.)

There are many flowers affixed to the building, in a multitude of patterns and arrangement.  I also found fish, roosters, daggers, feathers and scrolls.  Alpha and Omega, too.  On the Bartlett Street side of the building are flying creatures from the book of Revelation.  What an array it is.

These symbols are not unique to the Basilica or even to Christianity itself.  But in Christianity, they are an aid to devotion.  Christian’s don’t worship symbols; no, they shouldn’t.

I am always amazed at how much there is to know and learn and appreciate.  Even on the darkest days, when I think I am a stranger in a strange land, I notice a well-designed chimney or an architectural ornament on the humblest of houses here in Lisbon Falls and it brightens my spirits.  I wish everyone felt this way.

The time for writing of stone anchors of the soul comes to an end.  It’s time to think of spring and planting and sunflowers.  I will enjoy sunflowers more this summer because I now know they have a symbolic meaning.  Sister Justina Knapp, M.A., OSB, writes in Christian Symbols and How to Use Them, “The sunflower is suitable as a symbol of religious obedience.  In the morning at the first sign of dawn it raises its lovely head to greet the rising sun.  All day long it turns constantly facing the sun in the heavens.  At evening it bows its head and goes to rest thus the religious person raises his heart to God with the dawn, lives in His presence through the day, and at evening retires to rest in God.”

What a lovely devotion.

Posted in Just Writing | Tagged , ,

The Ashen Heart

The February 14, 1945 Lewiston Evening Journal’s headline read “Russians Crash Through Queis River Line.”  It was the second day of bombing raids on Dresden, Germany.

The Bill Davis Smoke Shop’s ad on page 10 simply offered four different brands of chocolates in “plain and heart-shaped boxes.”

The society page included both ration facts and a picture of the previous evening’s Valentine Formal given by the Junior Daughters of Isabella at the DeWitt Hotel.  A total of fifty couples attended and “the ballroom was decorated with red and white streamers and large red hearts.”

The last page of the paper featured a small item.  “Ash Wednesday Observed in Local Churches” and noted Episcopals, Lutherans, and Catholics had either services and/or the imposition of ashes.

There were no articles on spiritual ambivalence or the difficulty in choosing between chocolate perdition or religious devotion.

According to Monday’s New York Times, this year’s “confluence of events” (Ash Wednesday falling on Valentine’s Day) has “created a dilemma for Roman Catholics and followers of other Christian denominations who observe Ash Wednesday.”  The article’s author poses the question “How can one simultaneously mark a solemn day when foreheads are tapped with the symbol of mortality as a call to humility and repentance, while celebrating one that glorifies the kisses and champagne of romantic love?”

Apparently, the writer was hoping for a special dispensation from some Catholic authority and got one from Newark’s Cardinal Tobin.  Suggesting that “joy and religious obligation can, and in fact should, coexist” the writer quoted Tobin as saying “take your heartthrob to a small-plates place, because fasting in the Catholic Church doesn’t mean you go without, or just water.”

The New York Times article, appropriating its title from a popular novel, can be read here.  I hardly know what to make of it.

Well-fed and indulgent hypocrite that I am, I offer my “small plate” offering for Ash Wednesday, featuring carrots and winter radishes from the local winter farm share.   And yes, that’s a vintage Bates tablecloth, courtesy of my neighbor, Dot Galgovitch.

I eagerly await the media coverage of the Easter/April Fool’s Day confluence.

Posted in Cooking and Food, Weather and Seasons | Tagged , , , ,

The Patriocalypse

A few weeks ago, I heard a radio personality discuss advertising, public relations, and demographics.  Without descending into a long history of cigarette marketing dating back to Bernays, I’ll summarize in five words:

After 50, you’re demographically dead.

What a relief!  No one cares about me, my opinions, or my money.  Amen to that.

(Caveat:  Down East magazine continues to fill their pages with ads for “premier retirement living.”)

There is a certain liberty about being demographically dead.  I can blog on obscure topics and not worry if I’ll acquire more followers.  I don’t have to have a social media presence.  Instagram?  It doesn’t matter.  Twitter?  Not necessary.  I’m already dead.  I am free to rattle around my old house in black yoga pants day after day, like a 21st century Miss Havisham.

With today’s dour theme and Dickensian hat tip to Havisham, I’m pleased to be reading Dombey and Son.  In December, a “Brief” in the Sun Journal piqued my curiosity.  Pasted at the end of an announcement of an ectoplasm workshop at the Spiritualist Church and a meeting of the United New Auburn Association was this:

“The Pickwick Club, Maine’s Charles Dickens and other Victorians reading and discussion group, will meet from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, February 24 at the Auburn Library.  The group will discuss the second half of Dickens’ Dombey and Son.  Moderators will be Lincoln Ladd and Alexis DesRoches.”

I’ll be honest.  My interest in Victorian authors is lukewarm.  I studied them briefly in college and was turned off to the topic by a professor who inserted her own particular agenda into every novel, from Tom Jones to Adam Bede to Cranford.  Her lectures, to quote Dickens, “had a Gorgon-like intent to stare…youth and beauty into stone.”

Uninterested, I turned to stone.  I was young and alive then, I wanted to think critically about writing as writing, not as a motive force to propel a belief system.  The professor’s teaching style repelled me and it wasn’t until much later in life I again picked up a Victorian novel.

And so I read on, little by little, chipping away at the novel.

And what of the Patriocalypse?  Given that I’m demographically dead, I’m still fond of Bill Belichick.  After all, at 66 years old, the greatest coach of all time is dead like me.  He’s not tweeting or posting to Instagram, defending himself and seeking alliances.  Supposedly, he’s read all the Harry Potter books and is known to quote Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  But who really knows.  He may be reading Dombey and Son right now.

Posted in Books and Reading | Tagged , ,

I Told a Whopper

A few weeks ago, I got a letter from a friend.  Not an e-mail; a letter delivered to my post office box.

My friend has been looking for a job.  She is not looking for anything fancy, just a part-time situation to supplement her family’s coffers.  She writes:

“Yesterday, my job search brought me to tears.  Honestly, it takes so much effort to find a job.  I don’t ever want to be in this situation again.  The barriers to getting a job in a job market with massive job availability are astounding.  It is as though the anarchy of this electronic world is creating a state of paralysis for everyone.  We are going back in time.  No wonder they have no workers for these jobs.”

I’m pleased to inform my readers that my friend did, indeed, find a part-time job that will meet her financial requirements.  After much electronic anarchy, she found a convenient situation close to home.

Her words are wise and true.  The electronic world, that world of binary digits, has made us anxious and fidgety.  I see it in my own personal and professional life.  Indeed, we are going back in time.

This regular Luddite lament gets me in trouble.  I’ve been scolded for not appreciating the progress of penicillin and shamed for not buying my groceries online.  Are my jitters and anxiety in the daily anarchy just a matter of coffee?  Or is it something more insidious?

Unfortunately, the bell has rung and it begins again.  We’ll not solve the problem today, short of an EMP blast.

Resume your digital posts.

Posted in Experiments and Challenges | Tagged ,