Friday, October 28, 2016

In Which I Sit and Stare at the Trees and Contemplate Keys to a Creative Life

Postcard photo of the Balsam Mountain Inn
(George & Roberta Gardner Assoc.)

The Balsam Mountain Inn is in Balsam, North Carolina just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Smoky Mountains. I spent this past Monday night there for a mini autumn retreat on my way back from visiting my brother in Charlotte. The inn opened in 1908 and sits at an elevation of 3500 feet. There are no televisions or phones in the rooms. Its wooden floors creak (which I found to be strangely comforting) and the huge lobby is filled with wicker furniture and woolen rugs. Two fireplaces ward off the early morning mountain chill. Having coffee in its library, which holds quite an eclectic assortment of books, was like being in a used book store.

There are tables and shelves full of art, pottery, jewelry, and quilts crafted by local artists displayed (and for sale) in the wide hallways. The hallways are so roomy, I learned, in order to accommodate the huge steamer trunks brought by the guests from days gone by.

I arrived at 1 o'clock and for the rest of the afternoon I sat in a forest green rocker on the long veranda reading, sketching, and staring at the trees. I chose a chair away from the inn's gravel parking lot so as not to be disturbed by people coming and going. I sat there until 6 when it was time to get dressed for dinner. 

I was back on the veranda after breakfast the next day until 11 when I had to check out. 

Image result for 99 keys to a creative life

My reading choice was a small paperback titled 99 Keys to a Creative Life by Melissa Harris. The keys are awareness, spiritual, and intuitive practices that are meant to encourage and inspire. I found it the perfect companion to my rocking chair reading as each 'key' is explained in only a page or two. Therefore,  I could read and ponder, read and ponder. 

Her creative awareness keys include setting intentions, making time for play, taking responsibility, and monitoring your energy. Under the spiritual keys she suggests meditation, celebrating your creations, and sharing your knowledge with others. The intuitive keys (I would like to delve deeper into these) look at honoring hunches, contemplation, and chaos as a creative force. 

One of the intuitive keys suggested communicating with one's pet by sending a message telepathically and seeing if it is received. Ms. Harris writes that she will 'call' one of her cats to come upstairs and the next thing she knows, it will join her on her bed. At one point I looked up to see a black cat stalking about in the bushes and silently called to it a few times but to no avail. Apparently I need more practice with that key.  

This is the type of book that is handy to pick up and choose a suggestion at random to think about or act upon when stuck or in a rut. It is one that I borrowed from the library but will most likely buy for my own collection.

Below are photos I took of the inn. I had a great leaf-peeping and restful experience.

A view of the inn from the drive going up the hill.

The view from my rocking chair. 
I was surprised at the number of bare trees.

From the end of the veranda.

Rocking chairs lined up on the veranda.
You can see my books
and other paraphernalia on the table
in the foreground where I staked
out my territory.

The dining room with its
windows overlooking the mountains.
I love the green and purple tiled floor.

I think this must be a balsam tree? It is the same huge tree
pictured in the middle of the photo
 at the top of the page.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Griffin and Sabine, Sabine's Notebook, and The Golden Mean by Nick Bantock

The Griffin and Sabine books are my latest reading project. I call it a project because I plan to read one book right after the other. And then read them again.

These books hold much more than a story though. They are a feast for my senses. They have everything I love: handwritten letters, postcards, stamps, colorful, albeit sometimes strange, illustrations. There is so much creativity on these pages written and embellished by Nick Bantock that I am dazzled. 

I have read through the first book of correspondence between Griffin, a London postcard artist, and Sabine, a woman living on a South Pacific island with her own artful style. What fun it is to actually open an envelope and read a letter written by one or the other.

How these two came into each other's worlds you will just have to find out for yourself. I wouldn't dare spoil the surprise. 

I was working in an independent bookstore in 1991 when the first of these books came out. It was terribly popular and caught my eye but for some reason, although I loved the look of its gorgeous pages, I just never took the time to give it more than a cursory glance.

Now is my chance. 

After these three, there is also The Morning Star Trilogy that continues the story of these artistic correspondents. And just this year, a seventh book, The Pharos Gate, has been published. You can see what I mean about this being a project!

Here are a few close-ups of the delights contained in this world of Griffin and Sabine:

A stamp in bloom

A handwritten letter - in fountain pen, no less - from Sabine

A closeup of one of the fanciful postcard drawings

Even the end papers are intriguing

And a Postscript:

Oddly, this envelope (not part of the book)
 with its handwritten message
was tucked into the pages of Griffin and Sabine
This on the heels of my post about finding
strange things in books!

Have you already been enchanted by Griffin and Sabine or will you be adding these works of art to your reading list?

Friday, October 14, 2016

In Which I Take Stock of My Reading Pile

As so often happens when I can't quite settle on one book to read, I find that I end up reading way too many at the same time and still check titles out from the library.

Here is a sampling of a few that are crowding my tabletops right now.

Beside my reading chair:

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith - This is the book I pick up at two in the morning when I wander down my hallway to the living room knowing sleep has deserted me for a while. It is the modern retelling of the Jane Austen classic. I am sort of familiar with the basic premise. (I saw the movie.) Anyway, I love AMS and being in his company in the middle of the night is soothing.

(If you haven't read my account of meeting Mr. McCall Smith, you can do so here.)

Plum Pie by P.G. Wodehouse - This is a collection of short stories or it may be selections from a few of his books, but in any case, I am always happy to be in Mr. W's world. This is also a good one to pick up in the case of insomnia. In between the stories, he writes short (undated) commentaries on what is going on in the news of the day under the title Our Man in America. One is an item from a small town in North Carolina about the theft of 25 church pews and the pulpit. He wonders how the thieves plan to fence these hot pews. In another, he bemoans the discontinuation of the autumn Woolly Bear Hunt in which specimens of the caterpillar of that name were collected and examined in an effort to predict the mildness or severity of the coming winter. 

When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning - Although I don't belong to a book club, a friend's group is reading this and he thought I would be interested in it. I am, but I have barely read past the introduction. It has to do with the free books sent to American troops during World War II. There were 120 million small paperback books - known as Armed Services Editions - printed for the reading enjoyment of soldiers and sailors. I wrote about a similar book, As You Were that was edited by Alexander Woollcott. It was one of my best used book discoveries ever! (You can read about that here.) My friend has invited me to attend the club's meeting and bring my vintage find. A sort of Show and Tell.

Beside my bed:

Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart - I remember reading Mary Stewart's suspenseful books in high school. Her novels seem to be making a comeback. This was her first and has all the characteristics that I remember: a young woman in a perilous situation not of her making, terrific place descriptions, and excellent prose. I have to remind myself to slow down and enjoy her sensory details - the song of the cicadas of an evening, the aroma of a morning cup of coffee, the glint of light on the river - and not rush along to find out what happens next. 

Image result for three men in a boat kindle cover

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome - This is my second reading of this classic comic novel. It's difficult to describe the events and meanderings that go on here but basically three fellows take off on a holiday in a boat up the River Thames. There is also a dog. You will just have to read it to get the full effect of this wonderful adventure published in 1889. It is as fresh and lively as ever.

Anything interesting on your reading tables? Are you enjoying one book or, like me, many? 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Finding Harmony in New Harmony

A sketch of my cottage at New Harmony.

As fall arrives, I find I am wanting time alone to reflect and come into myself. Sometimes that means hunkering down at home and other times I long to be somewhere else. I have a friend who calls me The Queen of Retreats. One of my favorite places to go to 'get away' is New Harmony, Indiana.

I have been visiting New Harmony for many years and have often stayed at the inn there. In case you don't know it, New Harmony is located about two hours west of Louisville just off Interstate 64. It was founded in 1814 as a Utopian community and has quite a lively arts scene along with historic buildings, gardens, outdoor sculptures, and two labyrinths. It lies on the Wabash River, has a small smattering of shops and galleries along its main street, and sports a population of about 900.

In the spring of 2014 I had a chance to spend a week in a little cottage there. I shared a few photos (here) of my time then, but thought I would revisit that retreat in a little more depth. To prime the pump, so to speak.

What was I looking for during that week-long retreat?

First a bit of peace and quiet away from my daily routine without the distractions of deadlines, household chores and errands, and a never-ending To Do List. Second, I wanted to spend time with my sketchbook and watercolors and knew that there were plenty of artful spots in the small town to explore. Third, I wanted a place that held a bit of historic interest.

This is what I found:

Art is everywhere.

Peace and Quiet
There is plenty of this in New Harmony. Even the town's name offers up the idea of solitude and serenity. My cottage, the 1840's Guest House, was across from the town's Roofless Church at the corner of North Street and West Street. It consisted of a living room with a fireplace, a desk and bookshelves tucked into a hallway, an adequate kitchen, a bedroom with a comfortable four-poster bed and a fragrant lilac bush blooming outside its window, and the smallest bathroom I have ever seen. The best part was that it had a screened-in porch on the side that overlooked gardens and a small gazebo. There were no other houses in view. I spent every morning and evening sitting on the porch watching the wasps trying to get in to make my acquaintance. A few were successful, but I shooed them away. Here is where I did a bit sketching, reading, staring into space. Every morning I walked the two short, shady blocks to the New Harmony Inn for a breakfast of fruit, cereal, and muffin, but other than that, I ate my meals at the small table on the porch and thought I would be quite content to spend the rest of my days there.

The parabola dome of the Roofless Church.

Time with Sketchbook
New Harmony is home to visual artists of all stripes: potters, watercolorists, sculptors, weavers. There are two art galleries in the town and many impressive outdoor sculptures and gardens that just beg to be sketched, photographed, contemplated. My cottage was filled with a nice selection of art all painted or created by local artists. I carried my sketchbook with me and came away after a week with many renderings of places and people that I encountered.

A fountain garden for reflection.

Historic Interest
I admit to a curiosity about the past and how people lived. New Harmony has a great deal to satisfy that curiosity. There are restored nineteenth century buildings - a potter's shop, log cabins and barns, an opera house, the old granary which is now a museum and meeting space, and the Working Men's Institute, an imposing brick building built in the late 1800s that houses the town's library. I spent a few hours here one morning looking through flower and garden books trying to identify the plants and posies blooming in the cottage's garden. I was fortunate that during my stay the annual Heritage Artisan Days were held and the streets were filled with well-behaved school children visiting from all over the state. The fair featured booths with artisans demonstrating crafts such as tin punching, paper marbling, glazing of redware pottery, wood carving, and that wonderful paper-cutting craft done with tiny, tiny scissors, Scherenschnitte.

One day I rented a golf cart – the preferred mode of transportation – and toured the town at a stately speed of maybe five miles per hour enjoying the architecture, the scents of flower gardens, and the friendly waves from pedestrians. I found my way down to the banks of the Wabash River and spent more than a couple of reflective moments there.

Another piece of outdoor art.

I loved my time on this community-centered retreat. It was a wonderful week full of many quiet adventures.

I have already started thinking about when I can return. I did spend one night there last October but one night is not enough time to shake off the dust of big city life.

Next month I will be heading to the Abbey of Gethsemani for my annual Thanksgiving week retreat. You can read about last year's time away here.

What are you planning to do to quiet yourself and welcome in fall and winter? Any books on your list that you have been saving for the long nights to come?