Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Stone Dust

          I look at old churches and yes I see the transcendence and holy beauty they were built to convey, but what I mostly see are the ghosts of men in smocks, powdered with stone dust, their pockets perpetually filled with stone chips, holding their chisels loosely as they step back to evaluate their work. They are dust themselves now, and yet I imagine them living and breathing and complaining about the quality of the stone or the lousy weather, or admiring a fellow-carver's technique.
          I see them most clearly in their incidental carvings. Not the monumental stuff that everyone looks at, but the acanthus leaves and grotesque heads and fleurs-de-lis and fantastical animals that crowd every workable surface of medieval buildings. That's what keeps me coming back to look a fifth or seventh or forty-ninth time. I have a great affection for these men and their More is More aesthetic. Big statues, little statues, gargoyles, finials, fluted columns, bas reliefs—if they could put a chisel to it, they decorated it, and you see their lives reflected in what they carved.

Yes, there's an angel, but the carvings that live and breathe
are the grotesques beside it. What do you want to bet the
demon with the tail wears the face of the carver's foreman—
or possibly his mother-in-law?
©Nancy E. Banks

          I was utterly charmed by carvings on the national museum of the middle ages in Paris of dogs nicely sharing a bone. The carvings are so affectionate that I assume the carver himself had dogs, and this makes me happy—to think that I share something in common with a man from another time.

Look at their wonderful toes!
©Nancy E. Banks

©Nancy E. Banks

          And when he ran out of dogs to carve, he started carving baby dragons, which have a notably canine charm.

©Nancy E. Banks

©Nancy E. Banks
           I wish I could shake his hand, the man who gave us baby dragons kissing. I think I would have liked to have known him.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

How to Call a Seal in Icelandic

          For the longest time, I had wanted to go to Iceland. I wanted to see Geysir, the geyser that gave its name to all the rest.* When we lived in France, I used to beg K to choose Iceland for our next trip.
          I usually did my begging in the bleak midwinter. Why K refused an Iceland winter vacation and instead insisted on Italy is still a mystery to me.
          Finally, worn down by my pleading, he agreed to go. In the summer.

There is less snow in Iceland in the summer.
©Nancy E. Banks

           So we went in the summer. We saw lots of lupine, and astonishing waterfalls, and distant blue mountains. We saw Geysir. It was beyond keen.

Geysir about ready to spout.
©Nancy E. Banks

          We'd been warned about the changeable weather, but we had sun the entire trip. Until the day I said I wanted to go see a glacier calve. As we drove east, to Vatnajökull, the temperature dropped and the skies lowered until visibility was a few hundred yards. Rain alternated with wind, lashing a landscape that was barren even for Iceland. When we pulled into the parking lot by the bay where pieces of Vatnajökull break off and float away into the sea, we had to fight the wind to get the car doors shut. We hurriedly pulled on our rain gear, sleet needling our exposed skin. I have been one other place in the world where the wind blew harder,** but this ran a very close second.
          Visibility wasn't that great, and the glacier calves were less than spectacular, but still—I got to see a glacier calving, and I was thrilled.

The iceberg formerly known as Vatnajökull.
©Nancy E. Banks

More bits of Vatnajökull.
©Nancy E. Banks

          K and I stood on the shore of the bay and watched icebergs like it was a spectator sport. Pretty soon we saw some little brown blobs bobbing in the bay.

See those little blobs in the center right? Those are seals!
(Clicking the photo will make it bigger, and you might  be able
to actually see their little seal noses.)
©Nancy E. Banks
          "Look!" I shouted to K, over the roar of the gale. "Seals!"
          K looked, and then, because they were far away, he clapped his hands several times and called, "Puppy, puppy, puppy!" The seals swam right over and eyed us, so I'm guessing that "puppy" is Icelandic for "herring."
          They were grumpily disappointed when herring failed to materialize, and they turned their sleek seal backs on us and swam off into the mist.

*I grew up near Yellowstone National Park. If it's geothermal, I want to be its friend.
**The headlands at the northern tip of Skye. You could lean on the wind. Literally.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Domestic Theme for the Month of May is…

        …Heavy Things.
         But first, a correction.
         It was only 4.5 cubic yards of compost that K ordered with a view to filling the new garden bed. It just seemed like 9 yards.

Two shovels makes short work of a pile this size.

         After we got the compost moved to its proper resting spot, we planted herbs and some flowers.

Lavender, rosemary, sage, basil, dill, mint, yarrow, and sunflowers.

         And then, apparently I stayed out in the sun for too long, because I decided to clean the garage.
         Our garage is where Heavy Things Go To Die.
         Apparently they reproduce before expiring, though, because I dragged out and stacked more Heavy Things to be hauled away than can actually be contained within the square footage of the garage.
         This means, of course, that our garage generates miracles of weight. I would like to be grateful, at least for the miracles part, but my arms are too tired.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Building a Wall—Done and Done

          The wall made of stones that I mostly didn't have to lift which these days is my favorite kind of wall to build, is done.

          K ordered 9 cubic yards of compost to fill it up.
          So, soon we will be moving 9 yards of compost, a shovelful at a time.
          If you measure it by the shovelful, compost weighs less than a stone wall. If you measure it by the pile the nice guys from Missouri Organic drop on your driveway, it does not.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Miracle of the Carnation

          I grew up in a church that believed in miracles. Not just the long-ago miracles of the Bible, but real-life, everyday miracles, from the healing of the sick and the raising of the dead to the finding of a parking space right in front of the drugstore with time still left on the parking meter. Members of my church would often tell you about the miracles they, themselves, personally had experienced.
          My church which believed in miracles happening every day right in our very midst also had a bit of a cult of motherhood, if a church as relentlessly Protestant as we were can be said to have a cult at all. Certainly there were few outward signs. No chapels, no statues, no candles. We did not Go In For Those Things. This limited us pretty much to the predictable mention in sermons of the saintliness of the speaker's mother. Generally these mentions thickened around Mother's Day, the culmination of our celebration of motherhood, when in a ceremony that resembled nothing so much as the passing out of agendas at a business meeting, flats of petunias were hauled into the church and a plant was doled out to each mother present.
          The Mother's Day celebration I remember most keenly happened when I was in grade school. I was at Sunday School (it was there, inexplicably, rather than during the main service, that the Passing of the Petunias occurred) without an idea in my head that it was Mother's Day,* and also without my mother, and so the petunias passed me by. I was too shy to ask to take one home for my mother, but oh, I wanted flowers for her. Not because I had forgotten Mother's Day and this was a face-saving solution, but because she deserves flowers.

This woman deserves RUBIES.
      I went home broken-hearted. One, because my mom didn't get a petunia, and two, because I wasn't brave enough to just go ask for one on her behalf.
      But, as I said, in my church we believed in miracles. I remembered that we were starting some carnation plants in our cold frame, and I thought, surely if I asked God to make one of them bloom—just one—that wouldn't be a selfish thing to ask. Because my mom is a Good Woman. She deserves to have flowers today.
      I sat by that cold frame for hours and I prayed harder than I have ever prayed in my life.

      No carnation burst miraculously into bloom.

      I was very angry at God for not giving me this tiny small miracle when He was giving all sorts of other people in my church all sorts of miracles, big and little, every day.
          And then I was ashamed, because was it not selfish in the first place to ask for a miracle, when I had been too shy to simply ask for a petunia? And besides, even though I had tried to ask with purity of heart, and even though it was a selfless prayer I prayed, I knew to a thousandth of a gram exactly the weight of sin my unworthy soul carried, and was it not mocking God for a sinner such as I to ask for even this small thing, even selflessly (or at least as selflessly as someone so steeped in sin as I could)? And surely there were people who needed miracles more than I, so who was I to hog up God's time with my petty requests?
          So, no flower for Mom on that Mother's Day. And you know what? It didn't matter to her. I didn't have to buy her love with bedding plants because that's not how she measured her love.
          Other, better people would have ultimately found a more spiritual lesson in the experience than I did. Because that day taught me simply that God is distant—at best disinterested; at worst uninterested. But it also taught me that Mom is Always There, and Mom is Made of Love. She knows all my faults and shortcomings because who else has X-ray eyes that can see right into my soul**, and yet still somehow she finds me worthy of love. And that is the real, true, enduring miracle—because my mother's love makes me a better person than I have any right to be. 

*It would be perfectly accurate to say without an idea in my head full stop.
**The only correct answer here is, "My mom."

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Building a Wall

K and I are building a wall. Well, really you can hardly call it a wall—it's just two courses of  stone. Call it a border for the garden, then.
          Time was when we would have knocked a project like this out in one morning and then planted fifty trees after lunch. Today, as you can see, we almost got the trenching done and the first course laid. And then we had to take the rest of the day off.

Little tiny wall—easy schmeasy.
©Nancy E. Banks

          This is not our first stone wall. When we lived in Wisconsin, we decided we didn't like the fact that there wasn't a flat spot on our lot, so we dug out our front yard until it was level and built stone retaining walls and planters. We did this with minimal tools and little money. Because that's exactly what we had. Oh, and the fearlessness that comes with lack of good sense.

A Bobcat would have been SO much easier. But not in the budget.
©Nancy E. Banks

          We got the stone at a local quarry, which charged $10 per ton, u-pick, u-load. I remember hauling at least 10 tons, although it was probably more. By the time we'd loaded the stone at the quarry, unloaded it at home, and hand-fit each rock course, I calculate that we had each moved each and every rock at least four times. That's forty tons of rock that we moved, one rock at a time.*
          For our little garden border project today, we went to the stone yard, picked out a pallet of cut stone (all the same size! What luxury, not having to puzzle odd-shaped stones together into a level course!), and had it delivered.  K moved each stone exactly once. I helped him lift if they were really big and heavy, but I find I have lost my taste for Picking Up Really Big Rocks and Carrying Them Around. I suspect it has something to do with the approach of my 50th birthday.** And when it got hot—we stopped. Even though I hadn't finished trenching and K could have definitely moved more rocks.
          We'll finish it tomorrow.
          Or next week. At the latest.

I can personally attest that each and every one of these stones is heavy.
©Nancy E. Banks

*No wonder I'm still tired.
**Although it's always possible that it has something to do with the long-overdue approach of good sense.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Word That Had Better Not Speak Its Name In My Presence, Darn It

          Normally, I try not to hyperventilate when I hear a new word coinage. English is an absolute Gumby of a language, bending and stretching to create all sorts of fascinating and disturbing words with or without my approval.*

Stretchy bendy Gumby. Fun to play with;
a great metaphor for the English language.
          It is not my place to have an attack of the vapors over every misguided new coinage that slithers into the language. It is not my place to summon the Language Police for crimes against wordity. Even though, really, someone should.
          On the other hand, I have a blog to feed. A post that reads, "I heard a new word coinage today, one that grates on the ear and seems gratuitously useless not to mention a real stuffed shirt, but this is how language grows, changes, and enriches itself, so I'll just sit on my opinion and talk about how inclusive English is and finish with a chorus of 'Kumbaya'" will only make readers say to themselves, "Hah! She calls herself a blogger? She can't even work up a decent rant!" and navigate over to languagenazi dot blogorama dot com for an entertaining screed on why "disinterested" and "uninterested" are Not The Same, You Useless Pack of Cretins.**
          So in order to provide an entertaining rant, with the goal of keeping your delightful readership, dear readers, I give you "impactful."
          And now I will grab your lapels and get right up in your face and demand to know what the useless waste of brain matter who coined it was thinking. Or smoking. I will command you to strike it from your vocabulary forever. I will attempt to sue people who use it.
          Please don't worry. My face always gets red like this when I'm talking about words. No, really. Yes, and then purple. It's really fine. No, I'm not about to have a stroke.
          Because, seriously. This is a Bad Word. 
          No, not that kind of Bad Word. This is the worst kind of Bad Word, a  namby-pamby, useless, yes-man of a word. A bloodless, lifeless hull that you just know was created by a committee especially in order to be inoffensive to everyone. A word that says, "I don't actually want to make an impact at all. Really. Just ignore me. I'll just sit over here in the corner and hum to myself."
          I always ALWAYS suspect words like this of passive-aggressive tendencies. A word that telegraphs its desire to be ignored is a word that only wants you to ignore it so that it can Trojan Horse its way into your writing and wreak havoc on your otherwise sparkling prose style. So that it can make wise people—people whose good opinions you have worked so hard to get—shake their heads and sigh sadly and say, "I remember how her writing used to shine with wit and vigor. Now it reads like a PowerPoint presentation."
          "Impactful" wants you to trade the sharp, onomatopoeic smack of "impact" for the forlorn wilted petal of a redundant "-ful" which drags along with it a limply passive sentence construction and dooms you to bore and offend readers left, right, and center. "Impactful" believes that flaccid prose is not a crime against humanity. "Impactful," in fact, wants your prose to fade away like mist, having no—ahem—impact whatsoever.
          And seriously, if I hear you use it, I will send the Language Police after you. And then you'll be sorry, for they will torture you with gerunds.

*Normally—and it pains me to admit this—without my approval.

**"Uninterested" means "not interested." "Disinterested" means "impartial" or "neutral." In case you wondered. There are three remaining English speakers who make the distinction. And they're not getting any younger. Also, I don't think you're a useless pack of cretins.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Because I Am Helplessly Unable to Resist an Opportunity to Use a Clash Song in a Caption

London calling, yes I was there too
And you know what they said—

Well some of it was true!
My sister. My niece.
©Nancy E. Banks (the photo; not, of course, the lyrics)