Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sisters of the Convent

This posting is dedicated to Mary Kane. She lived across the street from me when I was a little girl, and she was Roman Catholic. I am protestant. My father’s family came from old New England Puritan stock. My dreams of becoming a nun began about age seven, when I attended my friend’s first communion. Things really got serious when she taught me the sign of the cross, and the two of us erected a shrine in the basement of my house on Maxwell Avenue. Soon, I was reciting Hail Marys to the astonishment of my parents. All this should not have been so strange, since the other side of my family were French-Canadians and Irish!

How appropriate it was then, that I should find myself living in Belgium, a country with so many remnants of the beauty and theatre of the Catholic Church! Religious imagery and architecture are on show everywhere. In addition to the churches and shrines, many of the larger towns in Belgium had a beguinage, compounds where semi-religious women’s communities flourished in the 13th century. There was even a small roadside chapel or kapel across from our farmhouse. In Brussels, we discovered the “Musée du Coeur” devoted to the heart in religious iconography

On one of our many weekend antiquing excursions, we met a jolly Flemish man named Jan and his wife, Marcelle. They graciously invited us to their home which adjoined the medieval town walls of Mechelen. Inside was a miraculous collection of antique religiosa-statues, chapelets (crucifixes), and bénitiers (holy water fonts). The couple had even built their own chapel next to the wall in their garden.

Elsewhere in Belgium, we encountered other religious souvenirs. Near Antwerp cathedral is “Het Elfde Gebod” (Eleventh Commandment). This unique café offers its patrons sanctuary in an interior illuminated with church candles, and packed to the rafters with effigies of angels and saints.

The more we looked, the more new collecting passions were born within us. We trawled the antique markets and brocantes for delicate paper lace holy cards, ornate silk priests’ vestments and miniature travel reliquaries. The inspiration for my Sacre Bleu necklaces (from The Parrott Collection) with tiny blue enamel medallions, comes from this time. Frankincense and myrrh, purchased at a monastery shop near the Vatican, brought home the memory of the smoky-scented church interiors of Italy. The ancient pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella in Florence was a miss, but it is on my must-see list.

It is comforting to know that so many former religious buildings have been born again. In Australia, and other locales down-under they have the right spirit when it comes to reusing these structures. One example is the imposing Convent Gallery in Daylesford, Victoria, (once The Holy Cross Convent and Boarding School for Girls), whose shop was the source of my slender and graceful beeswax church candles. Near Melbourne is Abbotsford Convent. Eleven heritage listed buildings, once the cloister of the Sisters of the Order of the Good Shepherd, now shelter artists, writers, small organizations, a restaurant and a radio station. On New Zealand’s South Island at the Old Convent bed and breakfast in Kaikoura, we swam with the dolphins by day, and slept in a former classroom of the church school by night.

Long ago, I gave up my calling to become a nun. That doesn’t mean that I don’t weep watching Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story, Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus, or Donna Reed, the good sister in Green Dolphin Street as she takes her final vows.

These days my spiritual side is sated by a visitation to Diamonds and Rust, at 472 Lighthouse Avenue, Pacific Grove, California. Susie and Marilyn opened the shop two years ago in its current location, and it is ecclesiastical Nirvana! There, artifacts such as shell grottos, Virgin Mary statues, and ex-votos/milagros help me find my lost saints.

Dominus Vobiscum,

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Song of the Conch

Raise the Pearly Conch high,
Listen to the sound; of every wave that passes by,
in fast retreat and bound.

There was a young maiden who lived in a tiny cottage in a kingdom by the sea.

She spent her days in nature rambles at the shore, digging holes to China, and listening for the siren songs of mermaids. Sometimes she would meet the old man selling abalone shells, and wonder what his story was?

Long lavender afternoons were spent gathering and pressing sea moss, which she carefully plucked from the tidal pools. Later, she would curl up and nap in the shade of the dunes.

When the sea swirled and foamed with anger, looking far out to the horizon, she wondered how she had come to this place.

One day she came upon a conch shell, and gently holding it to her ear she was given the answer. Can you guess what she heard?

Still riding the waves,

P.S. *Inspired by my first poem for Mr. Hauser's English class, and sourced from my collection of antique seaside ephemera.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Shanghai Lil

“I’ve been lookin high,
And I’ve been lookin low,
Lookin for My Shanghai Lil.”

(From Shanghai Lil, 1933. Lyrics by Al Dubin;
Music by Harry Warren)

“Thar” she was, high in the rafters of the old ship chandlery in Mornington (Australia). She was sleek and trim, and had just the right patina for her age. She was a vintage VJ (Vaucluse Junior) sailboat, built in the 1940s on the bayside of the Peninsula. In an instant, I knew that had I had found the perfect Christmas present for my sailor husband.

We brought the boat home to Flinders, and decided that she was just too old and special to sail the waters of Westernport Bay. Instead, she became the answer to the decorating dilemma in our Ming Dynasty beach house. The main room (lounge room in Aussie parlance) had 12-foot ceilings, and needed something to decorate and fill that space. That something was the VJ. We proudly hoisted her to her new berth, hanging from the ceiling, above us in the living room.

She was christened “Shanghai Lil” after the Busby Berkeley song and dance routine in the 1933 film, Footlight Parade. Ruby Keeler played an entertainer in a Shanghai speakeasy who charms James Cagney. Our “Lil” certainly charmed us, and for five years she was the star feature of our Flinders interior. When it came time to say “adieu” to “Lil”, we found her another safe port of call – this time, as a focal point in a Melbourne restaurant.

Happy sails to you,

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Rocky Shores

The rocky shoreline of Seneca Lake (in New York’s Finger Lakes region) has been the playground for generations of my family. Many happy childhood hours were spent collecting beach glass, shells, and driftwood. The glaciers which made the Lakes have left endless deposits of shale and stones. At the water’s edge, we would amuse ourselves by scribbling secret messages on miniature slates, searching the cliffs for fossils, holding stone skipping competitions, and digging snug harbours for our tiny boats. For a treat, Grandfather Parrott would take us for a ride in the old green wooden rowboat. “Row, row, row your boat” we would sing as we made our way up the Lake to view the “shower bath” waterfall at High Banks and the mysterious Cudjo’s Cave. We would sit in the boat shivering and looking at the Cave as Grandfather would whisper “Those that go in never come out!”

Lately, we have been bringing the shore to the cottage garden. Carrying pails of lake stones up the stairs from the beach to the cottage, we have been able to create a shale footpath. Shalestone Vineyards just down the Lake is a testament to the excellent stone terroir for grape growing and wine making.

The shores of Cayuga Lake, our neighbouring lake, are one of the few places where “Lucky Stones” can be found. These are rocks with fossil worm holes. Our friend, Florence, a plucky eighty-year old, makes a living combing the beach for these fossilized treasures. Legend has it that they bring good luck to anyone who finds one.

Sheldrake Point, on Cayuga Lake, seems to be epicenter for discovering these stone amulets. Several years ago we considered buying a charming shingle-style house there named “Lucky Stone Lodge”. You entered under a rustic arch with the name of the property worked in sticks. The owner of this unique house had been a prominent geologist, and the Lodge was packed with amazing collections from the natural world – strings of Lucky Stones hung by the fireplace, and other geological wonders were displayed everywhere. Trophies from the material world, included walls decorated with the lids of antique porcelain chamber pots. The editors of the World of Interiors would have loved it! This is a place that remains in my dreams. Sheldrake Point Vineyard is nearby, and they honor the local geology with a full-bodied wine named “Lucky Stone Red”.

Bonne Chance!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Thoreau Summer

These long hot summer days remind me of the old hammock at the family cottage in the Finger Lakes. A relic of WWI, the hammock was brought back by my maternal grandfather. It was made of heavy grey canvas with dark letter stenciling. We kids spent hours swinging in it, and designing ever-more daring acrobatic feats.

This summer I have vowed to take some time in a hammock: to rock, to read, to think, and to sip some of Aunt Betty’s mint tea. Thoreau said it best in the following excerpt from his Journal:

I go forth to make new demands on life. I wish to begin this summer well; to do something in it worthy of it and me, to transcend my daily routine and that of my townsmen; to have my immortality now, that it be in the quality of my daily life…. I pray that the life of this spring and summer may ever lie fair in my memory. May I dare as I have never done! May I persevere as I have never done! May I purify myself anew as with fire and water, soul and body! May my melody not be wanting to the season! May I find myself to be a hunter of the beautiful, that naught escape me! May I attain to a youth never attained! I am eager to report the glory of the universe. May I be worthy to do it; to have got through with regarding human values, so as not to be distracted from regarding divine values.

Savor your summer,