Thursday, October 10, 2013

Spurtles, Sprottles, & World Porridge Day

I'm in the midst of getting a long-overdue remodeling of my kitchen done! For a woman who's never been much of a cook or baker, this entire project has been a source of excitement, a great deal of careful thought, and some bemusement. I’ve been in many kitchens during my life, listening to other women complaining about the things they don’t like about their own, and have had plenty of time to decide what I want and don’t want in my own. My mother hated the big kitchen in our New Street house; she felt she should be borrowing my roller skates to speed things up instead of trudging from one part to another getting meals in that big room—until, a few years later, she was struggling in a very small kitchen into which the four of us barely fit. She succeeded in getting that one enlarged in her own remodeling (an epic tale in itself deserving a separate post), and I've been musing that hers took place during her 25th year of being married; coincidentally, so has mine.

I’m going to post about that later, when I can include pictures of the finished project. 

Today is October 10th, and it is World Porridge Day. No, really!

Did you eat oatmeal porridge when you were little? Do you eat it now?

Granny and I did, when she wasn’t having shredded wheat. As a child, I ate it as a matter of course when she visited us, and/or in the winter. She was a purist, combining the oats, salt, and water in traditional Scottish fashion—although by then she was without her spurtle, making do with the biggest of the wooden spoons Grandpop had carved as a gift for Mother when she got married.

Oak & Cherry Spurtle
A spurtle is a traditional Scottish cooking and baking implement. Obviously, the earliest stirrers humans used were simply sticks, over time being crafted and developed into spoons. A spurtle is a tapered stick, often now with a thistle-shaped top, most often used to stir porridge. I think the theory is that a sticky or stiff batter is less apt to clump on one due to the tapered design.

I’ve been wanting one for some time. The Ligonier Highland Games this year were memorable for unusual, steady, hard, daylong rain; my voluminous skirts wicked up at least three small puddles almost as soon as I got out of the car. After my storytelling at the carousel, I went over to the vendors’ area by the Big Field. Normally, the farthest edge past the last tents is a bit boggy, even on a hot, dry day. Vendors are set up in two rows of tents, one with its back to the field, the other in front of a copse of trees, down a slight grade. Intending to look at that row first, I took one step off the gravel…and sank up to my ankles in oozing mud! Chickening out, I headed upslope to Scottish Gourmet USA, and emerged after an interesting conversation about kitchens and blackboards with my very own spurtle, hand-carved by a man in Maine. I chose an oak and cherry one, and when I got home, put it in the Hickory, PA salt-glazed crock with my other prized wooden implements, next to my sprottle. 

What’s a sprottle? Another Scottish stirrer, kind of a cross between a spoon and a comma-shaped stick-end that has a hole in the middle. This is to beat air into a batter.

When I mentioned I was going to retire a year ago last August, several people asked me if I had any plans. Other than being John’s caregiver, and continuing to tell stories, play my Celtic harp, blog, and write, my plans were vague. Somewhat to my surprise, over the last 14 months, my list of projects has gotten longer, taking some unexpected turns, including the latest.

I want to bake.

As I mentioned, I’m not much of a cook or a baker. It amused me somewhat that as soon as my old oven died the week before last Christmas that this yen to bake became so pronounced. Ah, the attraction of the unattainable! That has solidified into a persistent desire to master baking various Scottish pastries, beginning with fern cakes—another post, as well!

And there are so many things one can bake with oatmeal….

Having a spurtle of my own meant, naturally, that I was going to look into these subjects of oatmeal and porridge more than I ever had before, and I found out some interesting things. Dr. Samuel Johnson famously defined oats in his Dictionary (1755) as: “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”

He meant to be derisive, but was accurate; porridge of every kind has supported most peoples throughout the world for millennia. While we in the West tend to think of it as being made with oatmeal, porridges are made of many different grains all over the world, from the rice-based congee of Southeastern Asia, to the semolina and wheat kinds eaten in ancient Rome (frumenty, with fruit or meat added) and Finland to the cornmeal mush eaten by American pioneers (Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family ate it) to the potato-and-barley kinds eaten in Norway and Russia to varieties made with rye, quinoa, millet and sorghum in other places. Whatever grain is its base, it can be flavored with almost anything from fruit (berries, pieces or a spoonful of jam), nuts, spices, coconut, chocolate, butter, meat, fish, seafood, mushrooms, vegetables, milk or water, bread, eggs…the list goes on!

Did you ever play a clapping game, chanting or singing:

Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old;
Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, nine days old….

although it was unlikely to last that long! Yup, that’s another kind! Kind of greenish, I always thought it must be. I imagine that some porridges flavored with chocolate or cocoa, like the Tsampurado of the Phillippines, or the Champurrado drink of Mexico, must be brownish. The first time I had Italian polenta, fixed by my friend Betsy’s mom Elaine Ogden, it was bright yellow, and I suppose other kinds are various tints too. I’ve never had Shuco, which is a Salvadoran drink made with black, blue, or purple corn flour, ground pumpkin seeds, chili sauce, and some red cooked kidney beans, traditionally drunk out of a hollowed-out gourd in early morning, but doesn’t that sound colorful?

I did write drink—porridges can range from almost being as thick as a dumpling to gruel. The latter is defined as a "thin, watery porridge," not that manufacturers like Horlicks have wanted to mention the “g” term for the last 175 years. Ever since Dickens had Oliver Twist (1838)  ask for more, please, in the workhouse, it’s been synonymous with parsimony and poverty…and that’s why that most miserly of all literary misers, Ebenezer Scrooge, was making some when Jacob Marley clomped in. Yet, indicative of gruel's place as a diet staple in many cultures, earlier in that century Jane Austen had her middle-class characters, as well as the poor, eating it for their health (Mr. Woodbridge, in Emma), and so did Emily Brontë. More recently, in one of his Belgariad fantasy trilogy, David Eddings has two characters of opposite opinions of it—Errand happily calls it porridge, but Silk despises it as gruel. If Frodo and Sam had not had the Elvish lembas, they would have sustained themselves with gruel—and I bet that’s one reason why the orcs were so quarrelsome in The Lord of the Rings!

My research led me to the website for the Porridge Lady, who had a post about the World Golden Sprottle Porridge Championship in Scotland, held last week. They are teaming up this year with Mary’s Meals, a non-profit that, for example, helps 600,000 children in Malawi get a mugful of Likuni Phala, a maize-based porridge. They have to go to school to get it, and for most of them, it’s the only nutritious meal a day they get. The children have to take care of their own mugs; some carry them on a string around their necks so they don’t lose them. If you go to those websites, you can easily donate.

Oatmeal is well-known to be nutritious and filling, but wouldn’t you like the way even a small donation to such a worthy cause would help fill up another part of you?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Rarest Metal

Today is August 20th, 2013.

It’s also my husband, John McDowell’s, and my 25th wedding anniversary!

We were married in the chapel of Pitt's Lutheran Student Center, with the reception downstairs.

We have already posted on Facebook about that, but I wanted to post here some of the poems I’ve written for John over the years, those that aren’t too private.

Here is my favorite picture of the king of my heart…..

And the first poem, written when we were dating, and always his favorite:

Storm Creature

Climbing the rain-slicked hill,
I see him
flung across the sky,
maned neck arched,
echo of the earth’s curve,
vast vaned wings flecked with fire,
hooves spurning the green spume of tree-tops,
and I cry WAIT!
as the flank of another hill hides him.

I run.

Beech-leaves spin across my path.

I stop for breath.
The sky is empty
except for two salmon bars of cloud.

Love Is the Root
(lyrics from a song of mine, written in 1984, played at our wedding, 1988)

Callas and lilies white-gleamng,
   grey-weathered pillars, rose-scented water
poplars tall candles
                                pointing the way
  to Heaven above.

I stand, rapt with love

     the root of all,
       the root of All, and

Love is the fountain

    making lives flower.
Without its tender touch
     we wither, we die
we die    for
Love is the fountain,
   the fountain of life      and

Love is the bulwark,

    lending us shelter.
When it falls to dust
     we are ashes on the wind
         grieving     grieving
              grieving      for

Love is the bulwark

Love is the fountain    and
Love is the root
   of us all.

March Vision
(March, 1989)

Last night Mary Martin on wires,
Cyril Richard tangos
    --childhood link:
I watched in north Jersey,
  mad at Daddy’s reluctance
to clap belief in Tinkerbell.
You saw it in Hickory, PA;
broke your arm trying to fly.
Later arthritis attacked,
    prisoned you in a wheelchair,
       shortened your reach.

Last March we got engaged,

    part of a vision which loving people
had said  you could never have.
  Next day, up one of Pittsburgh’s seven steepest hills,
      from Fifth up Negley,
a pair of lace-toed sneakers
hung high over a cable,

One year later, celebrating
  your dozen years’ release from the chair,
going home with roses
     I see again those shoes
dancing on air
love you for your flying.

Stalking the Wild Wheaties
(August, 1988)

These hot mornings I’m an owl.
John is more awake,
   eating Wheaties from his dish.
Small black kitten 
   slips from under the napkin in my lap,
      hides behind blue kettle,
splashes into the bowl.

He’s the champ! 

John loses his cool;

I’m awake.

Valentine for my husband John
(Tuesday, February 14th, 1989)

Today last year
you brought me
a fantastic card,
a red carnation in an olive-jar vase,
the offer of a future   us.

We ate Greek,

played 221B,
 & rockets took off,
fireworks flashing behind my closed eyelids
again        still.

You are my size,  sometimes    larger.

Our hands fit.
Mostly      we      fit.
“Each can live alone,” you said,
  “and we know that. But the world is brighter

My husband, my love,
  like the Hawthornes,

our beginning marriage
 is in    C/concord.

Thank you for that offer,

for our new reality.

Youghigheny Autumn
(Ohiopyle, PA  Autumn, 1989)

Watching yellow and purple kayakers
  drive double-bladed paddles
against fall’s foam,
 drift from the rapids
    to quieter edges beside
     rocks pocked with stray pools,
you and I held hands,
   moved carefully over those brown slabs.
Casually you mentioned
     you’d gone whitewater rafting twice
        down below,
         fell out each time past the Double Hydraulic,
how you were harder to carry to your wheelchair,
    heavy with wet.

We sniffed leaf-smoke,
   eyed the tackiness of Fall’s Market,
     went back to the river.
  You were so gutsy, I said.

New camera busy, you shook your head.
     You’d been bored    foolhardy       nuts.
Then you smile.
      But it was fun.
     Wonder what kayaking is like…


(January 28th, 2011)

the Superb Bird
dances, black caped, iridescent feathergleam,
Birds of Paradise on their cleared platforms
vibrating ethereal call

Tribal elders take treasured

feathers from bamboo tubes,
lovingly kept for ritual moving to life-stages.

We courted more than twenty years past

yet those brightgleam memories
vibrate still,
platform for our lives.

Note: these are two exotic birds found in Papua New Guinea, seen in a Richard Attenborough show on PBS,

The Rarest Metal
 (August 20th, 2013)

Many tellers tell one traditional tale that
   reflects their life.

Many harpers play a beloved tune that

    resonates their life.

 “Once upon a time, lang time past….”

…there was a boy trapped in pain

   --and a girl with a heart like a beating bird

…and the boy became a man forging his own freedom

with the magic of stars & math & sharing
     resplendent with courage & caring

   --and the girl grew to a woman whose heart was torn,

            trampled by fear, doubt, & loss
     stubbornly seeking    more
with words, notes, writing

and they met.

Like Aragorn fighting Orcs and Uruk-hai

   Like Arwen defying Black Riders

banishing old shackles of who they could/should be

venturing outward to newness

until the day dawned, crowned with love

until they wed,

lived five cubed years

          entwined/supportive  as trees, growing
music and laughter
   memories and stories,
rejoicing in each other.

We are more together than alone, in that brighter world

both forged and embroidered

Not our silver anniversary, but

rarer still:   mithril.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Queen B & Ginny Smiley

Finn McCool,
Chief of the Fianna
Once upon a time, there was a storyteller who lived with the King of her Heart and two cats in Pittsburgh. One of the cats was a BIG red tabby tom named StarFreedom Tailkinker, a former street cat who loved being an indoor cat, and another, slightly smaller and paler red tom named Finn McCool, who had lived in a fraternity house before coming to live with them in Squirrel Hill. Star was named after a feline character in a Star Trek novel; Finn was named after the great Celtic hero and leader of the Fianna, survivor of many battles, games of wits, magic, and Otherworldly encounters—but it didn’t take long to realize that it was a misnomer.

Finnie the kitty gave whole new meaning to the words “Scaredy-cat!” He was afraid of EVERYTHING, especially male humans, and spent the first eighteen months in this new household mainly hiding. The two humans could not pet him at all, despite Star’s reassurances that they wouldn’t hurt him.

The day that they moved to another home in Shadyside was awful for poor Finn, who was first shut up in a bathroom, then raced around empty rooms before hiding in the corner of a closet, and yowled and panted with terror as he was taken in a carrier to the new place. But gradually as he explored it, encouraged by Star, and realized that all the furniture, litter box, toys, and food/water bowls were intact, he began to relax a little…but still wouldn’t let the humans approach too closely.
Finn McCool the Cat

But Star got sick. From being a sleek, powerful, 24 pounds, he began to lose weight. A scratch on one eye wouldn’t heal, and after trips to the vet, the woman began putting ointment on the eye—which Star hated—and injecting insulin into the back of his neck twice a day for diabetes, and the humans were worriedly talking about something called “feline AIDS,” at that time epidemic among street cats in most large American cities. Poor Star had been infected long before he came to live with them. Good cat that he was, he did not infect Finnie.

One late November day, Star’s eye imploded. He was taken off to the vet…and didn’t come back. He had died there, of the AIDS.

Part of what made the next few days so horrible was that they had planned to board Star at the vet’s for most of a week, and have one of the wife’s students from her day job come in to take care of Finnie while they went to the wife’s family in New Jersey for Thanksgiving. The wife’s father was ill, and they didn’t want to miss the chance to visit him, so they went anyway.

Finnie was very lonely and sad, and so were the humans, even after they came back.

The student had left a note for them. “You aren’t going to believe this,” he wrote, “but Finnie’s had a complete personality change! He wanted me to pet him! I even picked him up!”

A week later, the man, John, said to his wife, “I walked by the Pet Pad on Walnut Street. They had some kittens in the window, and I saw one who was so beautiful! She’s a little Maine Coon cat, and you know how much I like them.”

“Mmm-hmm,” said his wife.

“I think that Finnie needs a friend to play with while we’re at work.”

“Uh-huh,” said the storyteller.

“When you’re ready, of course,” he added. “I know you’re still grieving. Star was your cat, even before we got married.”

He said it again the next day, and the day after that. All who love folk-tales know that when something is said three times, it’s significant. So the woman went with her husband to see the kitties in the Pet Pad window.

When they went inside, and Ginny opened the back of the window, one of the kittens came over and stretched up, putting her forepaws in their dainty white mitts up on John’s arm, asking very nicely to be petted.

The woman laughed. “Well, I can see that you’re completely smitten!” she said, and they brought her home.

She was named Bride—which is pronounced breed—Cloudshaker, because that is the Scottish variant for the name Bridget, after one of the three great Celtic saints of Ireland (Patrick and Colmcille, or Columba, are the other two). She was mostly black on her back, shading through brown, grey and cream to white on her stomach, mitts and boots, with a long, bushy black tail, and when she sat with it gracefully swept around her like the folds of a train, she looked very elegant and regal. She especially liked sitting on top of a clock on a washstand in the dining-room like a queen on her throne, alert for any really good human food they might be having for dinner.
Bride Cloudshaper
Finnie assured her that lap-sitting while listening to  the storyteller tell a legend or folktale about cats was a very cozy way to spend time with humans*, and that being groomed was a real luxury. But as a catling, she wasn’t too fastidious in her habits, and her fur became so matted that she wouldn’t sit still to be groomed, and finally the vet gave her a lion’s clip—shaving her body close but leaving her head, tail, and limbs still furry. Without all that hair on her body, she was tiny! She was also very embarrassed, so Finnie didn’t tease her (much) until after it grew back. If he tried to sniff at her, she’d swat him indignantly. From then on, she was much more fastidious about her appearance! It helped that Ginny suggested a new kind of clumping litter. Bride wasn’t getting as much of it caught in the fur around her toes or under her tail. A change in diet helped too. Ginny always gives good advice!

The humans soon found out that like Finn, the kitten had been misnamed, because Bride the cat was far from saintly. In true queen form, she preferred to delegate the mischief to her willing subject.

One warm day, the humans came home to find that the cats were out on the balcony, enjoying the sunshine. They had left the new heavy glass door open, and Finnie had figured out how exactly how to slam his body against the screen enough to hook in a claw and slide it juuuuust far enough to wiggle through.

Once the humans figured out how he did it, the wife called the door-installers, asking them to come back and put in a lock on the screen. “But you’re six floors up,” protested the salesman. “Nobody’s going to break in from that high!”

She sighed. “If any burglars got up that high, they’re pros and a lock won’t keep them out. No. What we need to do is keep our cats IN, and right now, they can open the screen door. We’re afraid that a siren might spook them and they’d fall, and we don’t want them to get hurt. If we were more than ten floors up, or less than four floors, they would have time to right themselves and land on their feet, but this high, they probably wouldn’t.”

The kitchen had a doorway but no door, which suited the cats. But the wife began noticing little pools of water on the floor. “Someone could slip and fall!”

A day or so later, she saw where they were coming from. Finnie was big enough that he could stretch up on his hind legs, and use one of his front paws to tap the lever on the refrigerator door’s icemaker to drop down an ice cube, and then he and Bride would play feline field-hockey with it. The woman taught them to play until they made a goal under the stove, refrigerator, or microwave stand, because if it melted under there, no one would slip.

Bride and Finn lived with their humans until the end of their last nine lives. The humans missed them so much that they got other cats—not that they could be replaced, because cats are as unique in personality as humans, but because the couple had learned how sociable and loving a cat can be. And they always made sure to fill the cats’ stocking at Christmas with new toys from the Pet Pad, as well getting the right food and other products.

Manager Brad & Ginny
By then Ginny had moved the Pet Pad to the Shadyside Plaza on South Highland Avenue, close to the little bridge that connects that street to Penn Circle. The trouble is, the bridge is being rebuilt, and detours have drastically cut into her business! We have known her and her staff for almost 25 years of the 40 years the store’s been in business, and they are the best pet store in Pittsburgh. As one of the two customer reviews we found of it said, it’s always good to support an independent store, and as another said:

During the "Snowpacolypse" incident, there was a period where every store in the area was closed. We had run out of hay for our rabbits but could not go anywhere to buy rabbit food. We called Smiley's to see if they were open and the owner said she was in to feed the cats there and that she would stay around for a few hours so we could make it down and buy rabbit food. We have been shopping here ever since. Definitely the best customer service I have seen from a store.

That characterizes Ginny’s professional, caring attitude. You don’t get that from big chain stores! While we always like going into the store and being greeted by Tonto the parrot or one of the shop cats, you can also shop online at
Can one person buying one or two things at a time save a store like this? Well, as an old Scots Gaelic proverb says, "An lion beagan is beagan, mar a' dh'ith an cat an snadan." In English that means, "Little by little, as the cat ate the herring."

Please click here for a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article about the Pet Pad; Ms. Jones makes some good points.

I will be posting about any special events on Facebook. Would you really like to live in a place that’s identical to every other? Bill Peduto remarked that the Pet Pad is like a tile in the mosaic that make up Pittsburgh neighborhoods and he’s right.

 If you have pets, which would you prefer: a big box store mainly out to make a buck and with questionable ethics regarding where they obtain the creatures they sell, or someone with deep roots in the area, who genuinely cares about your pet’s needs?

If you aren’t physically in the neighborhood, let your fingers do the walking to their website.
Ginny outside the Pet Pad in Shadyside Plaza


Please help us keep Smiley’s Pet Pad open!

Although there are many famous folktales and legends about cats, two of my favorite folktale collections about cats are: 
 The Folktale Cat by Frank DeCaro (August House: 1993), August House Publishers; 1st edition (May 1993) ISBN-10: 0874833035  ISBN-13: 978-0874833034


Twelve Great Black Cats, and Other Eerie Scottish Tales by Sorche nic Leodhas (Dutton Books: 1972). There's also a Penguin edition (USA) with this ISBN: 0525415750. Her books can be found in libraries, Amazon and ebay.



Sunday, May 12, 2013

Visible & Invisible Mothers

All over the country, people are thanking their moms for being their mothers. It’s a day when I really, really miss my own mother, Dorothy Dangler Jacob, and my two mothers-in-law, Betty Delaney and Myrtle "Matt" McDowell. In Tolkien fanfiction writings, in-laws are referred to as “in-loves”, as in “mother-in-love.” I love that, because motherhood is the personification of love, and I know that the mothers of my two husbands were strong, loving women who did their best to raise their children, and extended to me a welcoming affection, respect and kindness—and trust.

This morning in the Sunday newspaper, in an article of essays about being a mother, I found a German term: Verwaiste Eltern.

It means “orphan parent,” and it means me.

During my first marriage, I became pregnant three times—and each time, I miscarried early, before we announced it to anyone, before I really showed. And it hurt, more than anything else has ever happened to me, more than other deaths, more than health problems, more than pain after car wrecks and other accidents.

It hurt so much I could not even talk about it with my own mother for three years—and when I did, she didn’t want to hear it, I discovered, because she had herself had three miscarriages between my older brother and me, and suffered terrible anger, guilt, shame, grief and depression afterwards. Her reaction to my stumbling words about her unborn grandchildren was, “It isn’t as if they were real, if they weren’t born. Don’t wallow!” and walked out of the room. I felt as if I’d been slapped. We never spoke of it again.

But her reaction was more defensive, I think, than anything else. Years later at a women’s conference, I met a professional grief counselor for the parents of miscarried,and stillborn children, and those infants who do not survive. She listened to my bewildered anecdote, because above all, my mother was NOT a cruel or cold woman, and then she said softly, “Oh, my heart goes out to her! That tells me that she's never really grieved, she’s never let go of all those heavy emotions! The only way she can endure them is to shut them away behind a wall of denial, and she’s been dragging them around ever since she lost those babies, all these years!”

I left, and in the car, parked on a quiet street, I sat and wept for Mother, and for myself, and for all other women throughout time and the world who did not and do not and may not have the support of their families and communities, to help us/them with these deep wrenching hurts. So much of being a woman is defined by mothering. It is one thing to choose not to be a parent, for whatever reason. It is different and difficult to lose a child or children one longs to have. I understand my mother’s feelings of defensiveness and failure; I've had family members snatch their infants out of my arms after less than a minute on the grounds that having never officially given birth, I cannot know how to care for that child for even that short space of time. Never mind that I spent many hours babysitting my sister’s children, one almost from birth, as well as others, for years. Never mind that I successfully finished a course on caring for small children—something that is not required in a country that has more rules about legally driving a car than parenting.

But the hardest, besides all the times, particularly when I was in my childbearing years, were the nights I woke from dreams of searching for my lost three children.

My first husband and I were very active in a church that we attended during and after this period. Every November 1st, All Souls Day, there would be a special service. Its highlight was the reading aloud of the name of each person who had died during the year since the last such service, as family members were given carnations (red for a male, white for a female), to solemnly bring up to two huge vases on the altar, as everyone mourned and celebrated those lives.

There were no carnations for my sons and my daughter, nor for my unborn sisters and brother.

I’m a story lover who has always been immersed in tales. Like everyone else, I make sense of life events by making stories. This is one I have not told before. How long it took me before I began to not just mourn, but to celebrate them, I cannot tell you. They live in my heart. I know their names, the shape of their hands and feet, the sounds of their laughter and tears. I would know them immediately if I met them tomorrow, and I rest in the certainty that someday I will, that Mother has already been reunited with her lost babies, and at last has been relieved of her long burden.

As a storyteller, telling traditional tales, I wonder about the old women helpers at the crossroads, the wise ones who offer testing and help to the questers in search of a good future, whether of rescuing the princess and gaining half a kingdom, or finding their fortunes along a future path. Did they begin as questers themselves, who suffered some loss from which to glean wisdom? Who gave them aid?

I think today of all those my mother mothered: my brother, my sister, and me, and the many girls in her Brownie and Scout troops, and probably others during her long life whom I've never met. I hope that the tales, myths and legends I tell, and the songs I sing and play on my harp, are of use to those who hear them.

I ask that you consider these proverbs about mothers that I found, and if you hear of someone having suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth, that you will offer them some support, and say a prayer for them and their babies. My brother Rip Pelletier and my husband John McDowell never forget to recognize my invisible motherhood on this day; I can't express how grateful I am! Here are the proverbs:

• Who takes the child by the hand takes the mother by the heart. – German and Danish

• God could not be everywhere and therefore he made mothers. - Jewish

• The greater love is a mother's; then come dog's; then a sweetheart's. - Polish

• An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy. - Spanish

• What the child says, he has heard at home. - African

• A rich child often sits in a poor mother's lap. - Danish
• Children are a bridge to Heaven. OR Heaven is under feet of mothers. - Persian

• In every woman there is a Queen. Speak to the Queen and the Queen will answer. - Norwegian

• A baby is an angel whose wings decrease as his legs increase. - French
  • The mither’s breath is aye sweet. - Scots
• There is only one pretty child in the world, and every mother has it. - Chinese

• Children are poor men's riches. - English

• Friendship reminds us of fathers, love of mothers. - Malagasy

• The warmest bed is mother’s. - Yiddish

• A mother’s tears are the same in all languages. - Pacific Northwest

• Mothers hold their children's hands for just a little while... And their hearts forever.  - Irish

• Is blàth anail na màthair.  - Warm is the mother’s breath. - Scots Gaelic

I don’t know, and haven’t been able to find out about, the lady who said this, but I am delighted to quote her, and I hope it becomes a modern proverb:

My mother is a woman who speaks with her life as much as her tongue.-- Kesaya E. Noder

May that be true of all mothers, visible and invisible, today and every day….

Monday, April 29, 2013

A Tisket, a Tasket: Basketry

This morning I escorted a visitor outside the building I live in, and it was such a gorgeous April day! I barely needed my sweater! After the crazy winter weather and late spring, everyone seems ready for warmer temperatures. There are two schools nearby, and one was having recess; I could hear that schoolyard hum of their games. Do any elementary kids play “I Sent a Letter” anymore? I can remember Miss Roser teaching us the song when I was in kindergarten at Budd Lake School so long ago:

 A tisket, a tasket,
 A green-and-yellow basket,
 I sent a letter to my love,
 And on the way I dropped it,
 I dropped it!

In case you've ever wondered, a tasket is a dialect word for basket and a tisket is the handle.

For that matter, do kids even know what baskets are, or like me at that age, do they immediately think only of their Easter baskets? That was all I associated the word with until I was 6, and Mother decided to get a job at Welsh Farms Dairy as a Night Owl. That meant that she’d go to work as soon as supper was over, to answer phone calls from the various route managers and dealers (this was back in the olden days, when dairy products were delivered to people’s homes by milkmen). As each one called, she’d note down on long narrow forms called tickets what they’d need; when all of them had called, she’d transfer how many and what sizes of the different items (milk; eggs; cream; ice cream, orange juice, any novelty items) onto bigger forms called sheets, for the route managers. Before she came home, she’d stop at the loading dock to drop off copies of them; the loaders would know what to put one each truck for the managers to drive to other locations for their dealers to pick up and put in their own trucks early in the morning. She’d drive home over Schooley’s Mountain, getting home around 2 or 3 am, sometimes later depending on how late the calls were and the weather. She always made it home, though, no matter how late or icy or snowy it was. Once she mentioned how a few times she’d had to inch up the outside of the hairpin curve up above Long Valley (going against traffic flow) as the only way she could get traction up that steep turn, hardly able to see, praying that the car wouldn’t slip over the bank and roll down the hill.

The first night before leaving, she brought out a big wicker basket, a market basket—not that anyone I knew used them! This was before the ubiquitious plastic bags we see everywhere now; during my childhood, most folks where we lived carried things in paper bags or cardboard boxes. “What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s my basket,” said Mother. “Part of my wages will be in dairy products—including the flavor of the month in ice cream!”

This didn’t appease my brother, who was sulking because a) this was a Big Change, and b) none of his friends’ mothers worked outside the home except for one who was widowed. In his opinion, all mothers who had husbands belonged at home, not going off to jobs!

Unlike him, I loved ice cream, so I was delighted, especially since Granny, who of course knew all about it, said, “It’s yir mother’s creel.”

I knew about creels from the Scottish tales she told me; in fact, she’d recently told me the animal fable I retell as “The Twa Foxes & the Creel of Herring,” about that clever Scottish trickster, Gilmartin Fox. The kind of wicker creels used by sports fishermen may have descended from these, but originally, they were often carried on one’s back, and used to transport many different things, not just fish.

When I get interested in a new subject, I want to know all about it; that week it was baskets. Mother pointed out that she used a big oval one to take laundry to and from the clothesline (later replaced by a wheeled cloth bag hung from a folding metal frame when we moved to a second-floor apartment and she was hanging clothes from the landing window, then rendered obsolete later in the Washington Street half-house when the remodeled kitchen included a dryer next to the new washer). Years later, as a teen, my wooden toy-box was replaced by a wicker hamper that I would take with me for extra storage/flat space to set things on in college dorm rooms—I still have it, battered but serviceable, at the foot of the bed.

It was why, when we went on a vacation camping trip to the West Coast the summer I turned 11, detouring back through Arizona, that in the Grand Canyon's North Rim gift shop, I chose to buy a round Navajo coiled basket, with a black lightning design against a paler background. At first I used it as a sewing- and knitting-basket—until we began acquiring cats! Luckily, none of the recent ones have shown any interest in the miscellany I keep in it on the coffee-table, including the most recent issue of the Folk Harp Journal and a few catalogs.

Baskets, by the way, come in three kinds: woven, coiled, and plaited (braided). I learned this at Scout camp one summer when I earned a Basketry badge by making examples of each, none surviving the years since. It occurs to me each fall that you hardly ever see bushel baskets anymore; Daddy used to buy at least one each of Mackintosh, Red and Golden Delicious from the apple man up on Schooley’s Mountain, and we’d spread them out in big pasteboard cleaner’s boxes up in the attic for the winter. Every so often Mother would send me up to bring some down, or if I was hungry, I’d go take one of the red “sheep’s nose” ones. Apples are healthy, so no one minded.

Ailpin Bird with very long
green tail on lidded basket
These days I corral dry erase markers and pens in a very small woven one on a kitchen shelf; a larger white version holds lotions and medicines in the bathroom; bread baskets are stored in the dining-room sideboard; a wire one is filled with finger puppets I the study, and a lidded, woven, gingham-lined one sits on a windowsill, waiting, with the stuffed Ailpin bird perched inside it ,for my next Scottish persona gig.

Baskets have been made from so many different materials—straw, wooden slats, wicker twigs, pine-needles, even antlers! The pine-needle ones intrigue me; I saw some amazingly beautiful ones on sites such as Peg’s Basketry.

Peddler with basket
on his back

I found baskets in several nations’ folktales, from the Scottish fable I mentioned earlier, to the Italian “King in the Basket,” to the Welsh “Lludd & the Giant’s Basket” to the Chinese “The King in a Basket”—and I’m leaving out many!

Probably the oldest basket story I tell is the Welsh legend, one of the independent tales in the Maboginion. Lludd and his brother Lleuelys are kings of Britain and France, respectively, when three plagues oppress Lludd’s people: an enemy knowing all their plans and thwarting them; a horrible scream every night that is sapping men’s strength, making pregnant women miscarry, terrifying children, and making livestock barren; and all the harvests’ yields, other than what is eaten and drunk in initial feasts, is disappearing.

Because Lleuelys is so wise, Lludd travels across the sea to take counsel with him. He writes down the basic problem—and I explain to my listeners that at that time, writing was done by carving letters called ogham, or runes, into hazel rods, much more time consuming than using paper and pen. Lleulys has a brass horn made for one brother   to speak into at one end while the other listens at the other—but they find that what is being heard is garbled or the opposite of what was actually said. A demon has possessed the horn, and is drowned in the wine poured through it. Lleulys gives his advice undetected, Lludd follows it, and the enemy is destroyed.

Problem # 2 is caused by two dragons fighting; one screams when he is in pain from the other’s attack. Lludd is advised to measure  the length and breadth of his kingdom until he finds the exact center,  which is in Oxford. He digs up that spot; there are the dragons. He carries out the rest of his brother’s instructions and when the dragons eventually transform into two drunken pigs, has them sealed into a stone chest and then buried at Dinas Emrys.

The third oppression is solved by Lludd’s preparing a magnificent feast—and a big vat of cold water. He stands guard during the feast, and late at night, as the guests sleep, as wonderful, soothing music weighs on his eyes, keeps himself awake by jumping into the cold water when he is close to succumbing. Finally, he sees a giant coming in with a basket on his arm—and all the rest of the piles of provender goes into that one basket, which fascinates Lludd. He challenges the giant, they fight so fiercely their weapons strike sparks from the air, and Lludd prevails. The giant pleads for his life, pledging to return all he can of what he stole, and becoming Lludd’s sworn man. So Lludd acquires not only a strong warrior, but a magical basket that can hold more on the inside than it looks as if it couldon the outside.
Because I love proverbs, I looked up some, and besides the one from Carl Sandburg "Put all your eggs in one basket--and watch that basket!"), I liked these:

Nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou
ka ora ai te iwi
"With your food basket and my food basket
the people will thrive." – Maori

and this one from Viet Nam: "Go out for a day, get a full basket of knowledge."

May your enjoyment of spring, and your basket of food, knowledge and memories, increase!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Roadmaps & Cobblers' Lasts

So many people rely now on some form of GPS, whether installed in a car, dictated by an iPhone, or downloaded and printed out from a computer, that roadmaps may become as extinct as cobblers in fairytales! I was thinking about that because I enjoy taking part in Granny Sue's storyteller blog hops —and for this third one, she’s requested a blog “written about you--who you are, where you are, your specialities/focus areas, links to your websites and other information, and why you do what you do. As the hop gains readers, it would be good for them to know about the storytellers themselves and how to find storytellers in their regions.” The idea of a hop is that each participant links their blog to hers, so one can “hop” from one link to another, and I appreciate being included!

Barra the Bard logo
by Jen McPhillimy
When I was 15, my deepest wish was to somehow go around the countryside entertaining folks. How, I had no idea. At the time in the middle of
7 ½ years of being so shy that unless someone asked me a direct question, I was essentially mute, the mere idea seemed so preposterous even to me that I didn’t dare mention it to anyone else! Deep down, what I wanted to be was a modern bard,  defined as one who is a performer, tradition-bearer, historian, teacher, writer, and newsbringer.

Twenty-five years later, my 40th birthday present to myself was the decision to pursue this deferred dream. With my husband John McDowell’s support and help, I bought a Celtic harp from Dusty Strings, joined StorySwap, the Pittsburgh storytelling guild, and a harp circle of my teacher Faith Stenning's students, and evolved a 10-15 year development plan.

Celtic Bard with Harp
In college I had realized that far from being as shy as I thought myself, there was actually an extrovert inside dying to get out! I love talking to people, and I love sharing information. Now, planning to be a bard, I knew at the outset that I had a built-in repertoire of Scottish and Welsh folktales, folklore, ballads, poetry, prayers, hymns, incantations and proverbs, the heritage from my maternal grandmother, Abigail Jones Dangler. We had thought that she was the tail end of a long bardic tradtion; it turns out that I am!

My husband, John McDowell, is Scots-Irish, so he requested that I learn a few Irish tales. I did, and realized I was halfway to being a Celtic teller. So I added some Cornish, Manx, and Breton ones too.

Living in Pittsburgh, a city with a proud history of ethnic neighborhoods and societies, I’ve learned many multicultural stories, especially from other local tellers (too many to name; I’d be sure to overlook someone!) who have a rich variety of styles and specialties. There are other sources of tales to tell: because my family loves history, I do some historical tales and legends. As an English major, I know many literary stories, although I tell only a very few of those (another post subject as to why is on my list to do). As a writer, I’ll sometimes craft one of my own creation for telling. Over the last 10 years, I’ve had more requests for family/personal tales. I enjoy tailoring shows for particular gigs, as well as the programs I usually offer.

And all tales are told in the traditional manner: that is, from my memory, heart, and the gut, NOT read aloud; by now, my repertoire of stories, myths, and legends is well over 5,0000, including variants. 

At The Carnegie,charity do
with Saltie the Silkie, harp seal puppy

I learn new ones, not only from reading, but also from other people. I’ve learned so much from members of StorySwap, Storytellers Unlimited, and StoryWorks over the years, and am eternally grateful for Mary Morgan Smith’s vision that brought about the Three Rivers Storytelling Festival, as well as Alan Irvine and Mary's bringing the National Storytelling Network’s 2006 conference here; both allowed me to learn in person from national tellers who generously, memorably, and sometimes hilariously shared their joy along with their talent.

Every storyteller I know has certain genres they love, and I’m no exception. These are tied to my interests: I collect harper tales. I love tales about the faery folk, especially silkies, brownies (pronounced “broonies”), the Tylwth Teg of Wales, and kelpies. If you’ve read any of my earlier posts, you know that I’m fascinated by traditional cloth-making methods, so I know dozens of stories featuring spinsters, weavers, seamstresses, tailors, a few about knitters, and even one about the origin of thimbles! I proudly tell about heroes in Scotland, Wales, and because I was born and grew up in the Muscanetcong Mountains of northwestern NJ, I collect stories of the Lenni-Lenape Native-American tribe whose homeland it once was, as I now also tell stories about Pennsylvania, particularly the Pittsburgh region where I’ve lived since my 20s. A convinced Quaker from the age of 20, I love reading about that history, although, thanks to my background and a request to tell stories at a church in Punxsutawney, PA, for a Scottish Sunday, I probably know more legends about obscure Celtic saints than anyone else in southwestern PA!

Harp Grove Teapot Song at
Faith's Tea
One thing I did early on, as soon as I became computer-literate while working at  Carnegie Mellon University in the early 90s (they wanted us to join interest groups on the Internet) was to join a listserv known as Storytell and another one called the Harplist.  Both are wonderful resources on many aspects of storytelling and harping, respectively, and I’ve made many virtual friends through them over the years. The harp circle I joined in '89 became the Harp Grove of Western Pa in 1997, a chapter of the International Society of Folkharpers & Craftsmen (ISFHC). With Faith and Joyce Emery, I was one of the three founders and its first president. We play out a few times a year, and occasionally I'll tell a tale illustrated by their playing. I also belong to the Scottish Harp Society of America (SHSA), and do a column of Scottish folktales for their journal, Kilt & Harp.

So here I am, almost a quarter-century (or if you add in my earlier dreaming, always the first necessary step in any journey), almost a half-century along, performing as Barra the Bard, a Celtic storyteller and harper, specializing in Scottish and Welsh tales. My initial goal was to combine my harping, singing and telling, and I am doing that more and more, either solo or with my duo partner Linda McNair in ClarSeannachie. Officially I’ve retired from the mundane jobs that helped pay the bills for so many years, but am now available to continue and enpand my telling even more. I’m beginning to work on my first CD, and am immersed in a number of other projects that include writing this blog and (under the pen-name of Barrabard) Tolkien fan fiction on the Henneth Annun Story Archive (HASA) and Tolkien Fan Fiction sites, besides a novel.

My goal in 1989, when I was trying to figure out what I “wanted to do when I grew up” was to find something that excited me so much I could hardly wait to jump out of bed in the morning, something I loved and could do well, that would use and expand my talents. In my ongoing quest to combine my two loves, harping and telling, I am now a harpteller. Along the way, I’ve taught classes and workshops in a variety of places (another post to write!), and done some harp- and storytelling-related writing for several publications here and abroad.

This June will mark my 6th year of telling Asian stories at the Pittsburgh Dragon Festival, a nice change from my usual fare, and in September, I’ll be telling as the official seannachie at the Ligonier Highland Games for the 23rd year. I usually tell there for at least an hour, and I’ve only ever repeated one story one time, by request. Granny taught me a lot of Scottish stories!

I have been telling for almost 25 years, in venues ranging from classrooms to churches, museums to shops, festivals to concerts, holiday programs to charity events, in six states. I’m constantly learning new stories, and I love doing background research on them and related subjects.

A few days ago on the Harplist, Jon Murphy used the old phrase, “A carpenter should stick to his last.” He thought it was from the Bible, but I wasn’t sure. Wikipedia informed me that no, it was thought to stem from a 4th century artist, Apelles of Kos, whom Pliny the Elder noted was in the habit of displaying his pictures in his window and hiding nearby to hear passersby comment. One day a cobbler grumbled that the shoes were wrong, and the next day was surprised to see that Apelles had corrected them overnight. Pleased to find his opinion vindicated, he criticized the painting of that subject’s thigh. The artist called out in Latin, “Let the shoemaker venture no further,” which over the centuries became transmuted into “The cobbler should stick to his last,” referring to the metal or wooden form on which custom-made shoes were formed before stitching in the long-ago days of pre-factorymade goods.

But I further found out that Apelles apparently wrote a lost treatise on painting; Pliny is the source for a few of his aphorisms, including “Not a day passed without a line drawn,” alluding to his diligence in practicing his art every day in his quest to “paint for eternity.”

There—the bones of a possible story to work on, and two proverbial quotations to help motivate me! In stark contrast to “painting for eternity,” harpers and storytellers use air and breath in our attempts to elevate our crafts into art, and what is more ephemeral than those? Yet the materials with which we're working—human emotion and folk wisdom, archtypical truths, cultures,story and music—are eternal.

So, friends, I hope that you too find your “last”— may it lead to many firsts!

Picture by Sue Schneider