Sunday, June 26, 2011

spinning spinsters (another grimm's fairytale)

The Three Spinners was one of my favourite Grimms stories as a child. I loved the upside-down logic where laziness and sneakiness were rewarded. And I love the illustrations. The three spinners are ugly, but in an endearing sort of way. Here's one:

Beaked nose. Enormous thumb. Top teeth missing. But she's got a frill on her bonnet and she's sort of smiling.
Of course, these spinners have nothing to do with spandex and indoor cycling. This is old-fashioned spinning as in twisting animal or plant fiber to make yarn.
In this story a girl was so lazy that, no matter how much her mother scolded and threatened her, she wouldn't even touch a spinning wheel. Her obstinacy filled her mother with such rage--one of my favourite German words, Zorn--that she beat the girl until she screamed.
The queen, who happened to be riding by, heard the girl's cries and entered the house to ask the mother why she was hitting her daughter. The woman was ashamed--not to have been caught hitting the girl, but to have to explain that the girl was so lazy. (Yet another Grimm's fairy tale mother. Are there any nice moms in these stories?)
The mother thought quickly and said, "My daughter won't stop spinning and I'm so poor that I can't afford flax."
Flax is the plant fiber that's spun to make linen. Nowadays we mostly know flax for its seeds which apparently reduce cholesterol.
The queen said, "I love nothing better than the sound of a spinning wheel. Give me your daughter and I will bring her to my castle and give her flax galore."
The mother was delighted. (To be rid of her daughter? To think of how her daughter would be punished if she didn't spin?)
The queen brought the girl to her castle where she had three rooms filled from the floor to the ceiling with flax. "Spin all this," she said, "and I will give you my eldest son for a husband. It doesn't matter if you are poor if you can show me your cheerful labour."
The girl was terrified since she couldn't spin. Once the queen left, she cried and sat for three days by the spinning wheel without moving. On the third day the queen returned and was surprised to see that the girl hadn't touched the flax. The girl said she was too homesick for her mother. The queen said she understood. "But tomorrow you have to begin to work." (No pushover, this queen.)
Alone again, the girl stood at the window despairing. There she saw three women walking along. One had a broad flat foot; the second an underlip so thick and heavy that it hung down her chin; the third an enormous thumb.

The three women asked the girl what was wrong. "Hm," they said. "If you'll invite us to your wedding, call us your cousins without shame, and invite us to sit at the table with you, we can spin that flax for you in no time."
"Oh please," the girl begged.
The three women set to work. One drew the fiber and rocked her foot on the treadle of the spinning wheel. The next slid the yarn along her lip. The third wound the bobbin and slapped her thumb on the table. Each time she slapped her thumb another bobbin of gleaming yarn dropped to the floor.
The queen came every day to check on the girl's progress. The girl hid the three women (where?) and showed her the bobbins of finely spun linen. The queen praised her no end.

The three women finished in the first room, the second, and the third. When they left, they reminded the girl of her promise. "Do what you said and you will get your reward."
When the queen saw the rooms empty of flax and the great heap of bobbins, she began to plan the wedding. Her son was pleased to be getting such a clever and busy wife.
The girl said, "I have three cousins who have always been good to me. I don't want to forget them now. Please let me invite them to sit with us at the wedding."
"Why not?" the queen and her son answered.
When the wedding festivities were well underway, the three "spinsters" arrived in magnificent finery.
Note that only now, at this point in the story, are they called spinsters--Jungfern. Earlier in the story they're referred to as spinners--Spinnerinnen. It was so time-consuming to spin yarn that only unmarried women could devote themselves to it. So the concept evolved in general, and as a specific word in English. In the mid 1400s a spinster was a woman who spun thread. By the 1600s a spinster was a woman who had never married.
The bride said, "Welcome, dear cousins."
The groom said, "Goodness, they look nasty."
He approached the first one and asked, "How did you get such a broad flat foot?"
"From treadling the spinning wheel," she said. "From treadling."
He asked the second, "What happened to your lip that it hangs like that?"
"From licking the thread," she said. "From licking."
"And you?" he asked the third. "Why do you have such a huge thumb?"
"From winding the thread on the bobbin. From winding the thread."
The queen's son drew back, alarmed. "That settles it. Never again will my beautiful bride touch a spinning wheel."
Thus was the lazy girl rid of the hateful task of spinning.

So what is the message of this story?
With help, you can disguise your laziness.
Ugly strangers can be more helpful than your mother.
Remember your promises.
Vary your activities or you'll end up deformed.

Monday, June 20, 2011

cycling in montreal

The popular bike path in Montreal is along the Lachine Canal. I find the prettiest stretch lies west of the Atwater Market, heading out to Lachine. My favourite time is during the week in the morning--or early evening when the sun slants through the trees and the water in the canal gleams tourmaline.
At other times you have to navigate the congestion at the Atwater Market; the in-line skaters hypnotized by the line down the center of the path; the moms and dads who've decided to teach their darling child how to stay upright (on the most busy cycling thoroughfare in the city); the clumps of friends who want to talk while they cycle and obstruct the path.
Uh-uh. On weekends and on sunny days the path by the canal is way too crazy for me.
I wait for cloudy days. I cycle weekday mornings.
I prefer the path that follows the St. Lawrence River. It curves past poplars with figure skater skirt leaves flipping in the breeze. Now, in mid-June, there's a luscious scent of sun-warmed cassis. I don't know where it comes from. There are no black currant bushes. The path swoops toward the river--a broad stretch of blue, grey, or brown water depending on the sky, the wind, the weather.
I pass the regulars who are out walking when I cycle.
A woman in a sleeveless, crimson dress to her ankles. I wonder if she washes the dress in the evening. (Because if it were me, wearing the same dress to walk every day, it would smell.)
A woman in baggy white shorts with her hair piled on her head like she's going to a ball. I've seen her since I started cycling on this path in 2003.
There used to be a man who walked tilted to one side. He's disappeared this year. I saw him in Verdun, in LaSalle, in Lachine--kilometers apart, always at that tilt. What can have happened that he doesn't walk anymore?
An exercise gang of new moms with prams follow a commandant who shouts orders. Twist to the right! Knees up! She barks so loudly that out in the river a heron flies off.
Today the man with the lizard strolls by the path. The lizard is grey with a ridged back. The man wears it draped down his chest with its head curled behind his neck. Clingy. Even the tail hugs his waist. Reptiles like body warmth.
I cycle, I cycle. Pump my legs, soak up some Vitamin D.
I always forget that when the ride is really smooth, there's probably a strong wind behind me. Ie cycling on the way back will be hard. The reverse is true too, but somehow that never consoles me when I'm panting into the wind.
Here's where I rest. The frill of water in the distance is the beginning of the Lachine Rapids. The trees aren't the other side of the river, but an island... Île aux Chèvres.
Some days I can hardly credit my good fortune to live in a city the size of Montreal (3 million people?) and have access to such a refreshing green space.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

how to clean amber

I wrote a previous post on how to clean amber. A LOT of people have looked at it. I'm clearly not the only one who didn't know that amber can't get wet or the surface gets cloudy.
The best solution I could find was to soak the amber for 10 days in almond oil which restored the shine 95%. A certain Wendy commented that she'd used natural toothpaste to buff her ruined amber. Then she applied another light coat of toothpaste, let it dry, buffed it again. She used Kingfisher brand which I think is only available in the UK. I used The Green Beaver Company (Canada).
My ring is now 100%. Very happy. Thank you, Wendy!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

on writing

Last week I had an appointment with my hairdresser. She has a chirpy personality. Most often I'm the one who sounds curt. This time she didn't even pretend to make small-talk. She couldn't find the clips she'd misplaced, kept dropping her comb. I finally asked if she was taking vacation this summer. She said yes. Nothing else. Then she spun around and yelled at the receptionist: If he ever walks in here again, you call the police!
Of course I asked what happened. A client has been leaving threatening messages on her answering machine. He knows where she lives, where she works, her schedule. A few guy friends have offered to rough him up, which would be fine with her, except that she's worried he might carry a knife or they'll go too far and she'll be implicated. She doesn't want to call the police because she doesn't trust them.
I think she has good reason to be frightened. I agreed that roughing him up could have consequences. I suggested she get one of her helpful guy friends to accompany her home when she finishes work.
Then, when I left the salon, she grabbed my arm and said, See! I'm the one who should be writing a book!
I'm not sure how we got from her anxiety about this asshole to writing a book. I understand she's frightened and that makes her feel she's at the center of a drama.
But let's face it: in itself the story isn't all that interesting. A young woman invites a man she hardly knows back to her place. She decides she doesn't want to see him again. He begins to stalk her. Of course, her fear is large and real and potent. I'm not referring to the hairdresser anymore, but a possible character. I'm talking about the potential for a story. Even if the worst were to happen, it would still be predictable. Almost moralistic. Look what happens when you invite a man you don't know home. And if the worst doesn't happen, why write this story? To explore the gradations of fear?
...Okay, there's stuff you could do to make this story interesting. For sure.
My point is that what makes a story interesting has virtually nothing to do with the original event that sparked the idea for a story (assuming you're the kind of writer who gets ideas from things that happen). Writing fiction is about character development, conflict, ideas, atmosphere, language, plot, images--not about things that happen. Lots of things happen. They can happen quickly and tear your life asunder. For example, someone close to you has a car accident and dies. It takes only an instant to happen. If you want to turn that emotionally volatile experience into a story, get ready to spend months, perhaps even years shaping it. And if, in the process of writing, you don't see new directions that will improve the story as a story, then you're probably missing the point. In my opinion.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

sea pie and the linda besner effect

Last weekend I saw a whale, a fox, and enormous moose prints in the neighbour's strawberry garden. She was so awed by the idea of a humongous moose slouching past our houses that she didn't mind the few squashed leaves.
We drove out to the Gaspé for a few days. It's 700 kilometers (450 miles) northeast from Montreal along the St. Lawrence River. I know this is childish, but it tickles me no end that this same river passes close by our place in Montreal. Most mornings in the summer in the city I cycle by the river. In the Gaspé our windows face the very same river--except that here it's so wide, you can't see the other side. It's no longer a river here but the Gulf: salt water with waves and whales and seals and who knows what else. I don't know near enough about marine life.
I know my way somewhat better around words. Or I thought I did. This weekend I discovered that the word river in English doesn't translate as rivière in French. When I told the neighbour that I like to cycle by la rivière in Montreal, she had no idea where I meant. Where in Montreal was there a rivière? I couldn't understand why she was so puzzled. The island of Montreal sits in the St. Lawrence River! Ah, she said, you mean le fleuve? Ah... right. In French the St. Lawrence River is called le Fleuve Saint-Laurent. I didn't know that the French word rivière refers to a only small waterway. Whereas in English a river can be quite big. The St. Lawrence. The Mississippi.
Here's a word you would only encounter in the maritime villages along the St. Lawrence, and specifically in the Gaspé: cipaille. It's a pie originally made with game and cooked for many hours at very slow heat. The dough becomes infused with the meat juices, the chunks of meat very tender. Nowadays cipaille is made with pork, beef, and veal. A layer of cubed meat, a layer of potato, a layer of dough. Some say there should be six layers. They believe that's the origin of the "ci" in  the name.
In fact, cipaille is a gallicization of the English sea pie--called that either because it once included seafood or because it's eaten by the sea. I don't know. Cipaille is pronounced like sea pie. In the Gaspé it's also called cipâte, referring to the layers of pâte or pastry. The human mind tries to make sense of a word that makes no sense.
For aficionados of Quebecois cuisine who think they recognize the deep-dish tourtières of Lac St-Jean in my description, note that these were originally called cipaille.
A little more about words by the sea...
I brought Linda Besner's amazing new book of poetry, the id kid, to the Gaspé. Her sense of whimsy  blows me away. I'm awed by her dexterity with language, her images, her wild sense of occasion, her grace. She blesses the most mundane of objects--broken chairs, a plastic bag of tomatoes, an eye exam. I sat outside in the sun, facing the sea, reading, feeling wowed by the swing of her words.
Finally I had to go inside to clean the fridge we'd brought with us. We acquired it when R's sister Sue moved into a group home.
But oh. The domestic service R paid to do Sue's cleaning for the past few years seems not to have understood that the refrigerator was included in cleaning. There were many and various stains and dried matter dribbled down the walls and squished between the door hinges. I began to scrub. And grimace. Soak and scratch and pick with a knife. Finally even got a bottle of paint thinner.
I hate cleaning and normally I would have cursed and done it as quickly as possible. But I was still under the spell of Linda's poetry. I tried to find words to describe the different colours and textures I was removing. One puddle looked like the melted yellow fat that gets poured on popcorn in the cinema. Another smudge was green as cucumber skin. I knew that Linda would be able to turn this cleaning-a-fridge experience into a poem. Knowing that made me feel almost better about spending two hours stooped inside a fridge.
p.s. re the photo, those are clouds on the horizon, not coastline.