Friday, October 1, 2010

Snapshot: Kylemore Abbey

For someone who was homeschooled most of her life (not entering formal school until the 8th grade), attending a Catholic convent school in Ireland was a shock. Even more given that it was housed in a castle. I remember the car rounding the corner of the drive up to Kylemore Abbey and my mouth falling open. "I'm going to school in a castle?" I gasped.

Nestled at the base of Druchruach Mountain on the northern shore of Lough Pollacappul, in the heart of the Connemara Mountains, Kylemore Abbey is one of Ireland’s most lovely castles. It's relatively new having been built in 1867 and yet already steeped in history - engineering initiatives, model farms, walled gardens, tragedy, a hideaway during Ireland’s troubled history, royal visits and education for the global elite and local girls.

The history of Kylemore fits into three distinct periods:

Mitchell and Margaret Henry (1867–1903)
The Castle was built by the Henrys. Connemara was a popular destination for hunting and fishing. The couple visited Connemara while on their honeymoon and dreamed of building a home there. Mitchell introduced many improvements for the locals who were recovering from the Great Irish Famine, providing work, shelter and later a school for the workers' children. He represented Galway in the House of Commons for 14 years. Sadly, Margaret did not get to enjoy Kylemore Castle for very long. She died suddenly in 1874. Mitchell later lost their daughter as well.

Duke and Duchess of Manchester (1903-1910)
In 1903, Mitchell sold Kylemore to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester. They lived a lavish lifestyle and spent only a few years at the castle. The property as heavily mortgaged and the Castle was eventually taken over by a London banker who installed a caretaker and land agent until a buyer was found 7 years later.

The Benedictine Community (1920–present)
In 1920, The Irish Benedictine Nuns purchased Kylemore Castle and converted it into an Abbey. Kylemore Abbey is the oldest of the Irish Benedictine Abbeys. The community was founded in Ypres, Belgium, in 1665, to provide an education and religious community for Irish women during times of persecution in Ireland. Through the centuries the daughters of the Irish nobility, lived there as both students and postulants. In 1688 the nuns moved to Dublin at the request of King James II only to return to Ypres two years later after James’ defeat at the Battle of the Boyne. It was only after their Abbey was destroyed in WWI that the nuns left Belgium eventually settling in Kylemore in December 1920. There the nuns opened an international boarding school and established a day school for local girls.

In 2010, I returned to Ireland. It was my first time back in 24 years. What a difference two decades and one Celtic Tiger phenomenon can make. However, Kylemore Abbey has remained relatively unchanged. My classroom looked exactly as it had in 1985 with the same scarred tables and chairs that I vividly remembered from long boring days in the chilly classroom overlooking the Lough. And yet it too was about to change. The Mother Superior told me that the 2009-2010 school year would be the school's last year of operation. Kylemore Abbey will continue as one of Ireland's most popular tourist destinations as well as home for the nuns.

I can't say that I felt any regret at this news. I never enjoyed the school - grumpy hierarchical nuns, unenthusiastic students and a permanently bone-chilling castle. What I loved were the ever-changing verdant grounds, the castle as history, a mysterious walled garden, Lough Pollacappul so expressive of the sky above it and those broad-shouldered mountains towering all around. That's what Kylemore is to me. I may never see it again, but I'm relieved and pleased that it will continue to house the nuns and receive visitors. I think Margaret and Mitchell would have liked that too.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Snapshot: The Burren

The Burren is situated south of Galway in County Clare. The name derives from "bhoireann" Irish for "stony place." This karst limestone region, composed of limestone pavements, is eroded in a distinctive pattern known as karren and crisscrossed by cracks known as grykes. Underneath it all you find caves and rivers. At first glance it appears a barren land, but upon closer inspection teeming life becomes apparent including rare wildflowers such as gentian, orchids and bloody cranesbill. It has also known death rife as it is with megalithic tombs and villages abandoned during An Gorta Mor (The Great Famine). Home to people for thousands of years this is a place of celtic crosses and a ruined Cistercian Abbey as well as where local farmers graze their animals come winter. Best of all it's bordered by the Atlantic ocean - a perfect combination of rock and water - making it one of my favorite places on earth.


And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

- Seamus Heaney

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Snapshot: Patricia Polacco

I first read a book by Patricia Polacco when I came across her unforgettable picturebook Pink and Say. Over the years I've enjoy her books - her stories as vivid and compelling as the illustrations - with one of my all-time favorites being Mrs. Katz and Tush. She has given eloquent voice to the experience of being learning disabled. Polacco is from Michigan just south of where my parents now live. After many years in Oakland, CA she has moved back to the farm where she lived as a little girl. Her love of her farm childhood, love for her elders and their stories, commitment to and celebration of diversity as well as her sheer pleasure in art, animals, books and storytelling all give me great joy. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Book review: Between Two Worlds by Zainab Salbi & Laurie Becklund

Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam by Zainab Salbi and Laurie Becklund

The question "why did they stay?" haunts Salbi's memoir. She asks how Saddam Hussein "managed to make decent people like my parents complicit in their own oppression."

Future books will offer a more historically nuanced view of this time, but this memoir will continue to be read, exploring it does how, by barely perceptible stages, decent people make accommodations in a horrific regime.

Salbi is the founder of Women for Women International, an organization that assists women victimized by war.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Poem: Stanley Kunitz

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each way.

- Stanley Kunitz

Monday, August 16, 2010

Snapshot: Nazar boncuğu

This is a "nazar" or evil eye charm from Turkey (in Turkish it's called a "nazar boncuğu"). I first saw nazars in the Khan el-Khalili market of Cairo. It's popular all over the Middle East and North Africa where you'll see them hanging from rear view windows in many cars, especially taxis.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Snapshot: Klee finds color

Garden in St. Germain, European Quarter of Tunis (1914)

Paul Klee went on a trip to Tunisia and his art was never the same. A piece from this watershed moment in his life.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Snapshot: The art of Heather A. Wallis Murphy

Heather A. Wallis Murphy - wildlife biologist and artist. 
For information about her click here or more of her work here.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Poem: Gregory Orr

Squander it all!

Hold nothing back.

The heart’s a deep well.

And when it’s empty,
It will fill again.

Gregory Orr 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Snapshot: Carl & Karin Larsson

The photo above is a detail of a watercolor included in Carl Larsson's book "At Home." I hope someday to visit Lilla Hyttnäs - the home of painter Carl, painter, and Karin, mult-media artist (painting, furniture design, weaving, ceramics). To see a photo of the room depicted in this image click here.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Book review: The Owl and the Pussycat

The Owl and the Pussycat, a nonsense poem by Edward Lear, is brought to brilliant new life by Canadian illustrator Stéphane Jorisch. Unlike the other books in this admirable series, Jorisch, gives you a fresh look at a well-known poem. He sets the poem in a segregated world where different species never mix and everyone hides behind a mask. Against this backdrop an aristocratic owl from Owl Heights and a bohemian pussycat from the other side of the tracks find each other. They escape society's disapproval by sailing in their pea green boat to "the land where the bong-tree grows" - a utopia of diverse creatures living together, their masks doffed for good. Jorisch's "playful and fantastic interpretation is a startlingly fresh approach that not only revives the poem...but also brings it new richness and depth." When you read this book be sure to pay attention to the last page.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Snapshot: The importance of play

"Friedrich Schiller wrote on the subject of play in On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795). Adults, Schiller insisted, must maintain their ability to play because 'man only plays when he is, in the fullest sense...a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.' Schiller advanced the notion that human beings must play with ideas, symbols, objects, and the universe to develop their art, as well as to integrate thoughts and emotions to maturity and 'dare to be wise.'"

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Snapshot: "You must find your own garden" - Nelson Mandela

In the early 1970s, Nelson Mandela began keeping a vegetable garden on the prison grounds (His first plot was a rocky patch measuring just on yard wide; lacking tools, he had to dig with his hands.) In so doing, he not only found a way to supplement his fellow inmates' scanty diet with fresh vegetables--he cultivated a space apart, a pocket of calm amid harsh realities.
- Oprah Magazine (March 2009)

Invictus is a poem that inspired Mandela during the 27 years he spent in jail, imprisoned by the white South African government for fighting against apartheid.


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

- William Ernest Henley

Friday, March 5, 2010

Snapshot: Leslie Marmon Silko & Lady Gregory

from Writer's Almanac
It's the birthday of novelist Leslie Marmon Silko, born in Albuquerque, New Mexico (1948). She grew up on a Pueblo reservation, where her community was made up of matrilineal families. Her first novel, Ceremony (1977), was one of the first novels ever published by a Native American woman. It's a masterpiece.

It's also the birthday of a playwright and folklorist who was also W.B. Yeats's early patron, long-term and most loyal friend, a woman G.B. Shaw called "the greatest Irishwoman." Lady Gregory was born Isabella Augusta Persse on this day in 1852 (some sources say March 15) in Roxborough, County Tipperary, Ireland. She helped lead the Irish Literary Revival in the early 20th century and she co-founded, along with Yeats, the Abbey Theatre.

Irish historian R.F. Foster has said that W.B. Yeats's friendship with Lady Gregory was "the great enabling relationship of his life." In his early years, she was his patron, and even after he'd become rich and famous, he continued to spend summers at her Coole estate in western Ireland. Her place provided inspiration for a number of his poems, including "The Wild Swans at Coole," "I walked among the seven woods of Coole," "In the Seven Woods," "Coole Park, 1929," and "Coole Park and Ballylee."

"The Wild Swans at Coole" begins:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Book review: YA dystopian fiction

Much has been written about The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Inspired by reality show competitions, war coverage and the Greek myth of the Minotaur of Crete who devours sacrifices of Athenian youth. As Collins explained, "Crete was sending a very clear message: 'Mess with us and we'll do something worse than kill you. We'll kill your children.'" 

The book deserves the accolades, but in spite of my admiration and reading pleasure I grew frustrated by a forced romantic triangle and the stretching out of a story that could be well told in one, maybe two, books but was stretched into a trilogy. I especially regretted that the initially strong and interesting protagonist lost her direction and inner self. Increasingly the focus zoned in on which boy she'd choose. Granted there were significant ramifications to her choice, but couldn't that have been attached to some other decision of hers? For example, what political allegiance she claimed.

Two recent books that explore similar moral and human dilemmas in richer and more satisfying ways while also sustaining well structured narratives are UNWIND by Neal Shusterman and THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX by Mary E. Pearson. Both of these novels have the thrill of action and mystery along with strong characters and story lines.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Film review: The Grocer's Son & Lives of Others

If you liked "The Visitor" and "Station Agent" be sure to see "The Grocer's Son". Although it may not be as complexly satisfying, it has rewards all its own, especially the depiction of and love for rural France and the elderly who have stayed behind in its small towns. Director Éric Guirado prepared by spending 18 months filming portraits of traveling tradesmen and their customers in Corsica, the Pyrenees and the Alps. (I, for one, would love to see that those film portraits.) The story of a prodigal son returning to help care for the family business is a familiar one, but lead Nicolas Cazalé gives a nuanced performance that escapes the mudlin complimented by a strong supporting cast most notably Jeanne Goupil as his mother and Liliane Rovère as the prickly and dry-humored customer with whom he must make peace.

"The Lives of Others" the 2006 debut film by writer director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck starring East German actor Ulrich Mühe is simply one of the best films I've ever seen. A strong storyline, impeccable pacing and cinematography, subtle accumulation of detail and superb acting deliver a suspenseful tale of life in a police/informer state - illustrating how in even the most oppressive societies individuals have free will which they can, and do, use - both for good and for ill. It's a demanding subject and the film ends by takes the easy way out by giving redemption when it would've been more in keeping with the overall tenor of the film (and the reality of East Germany) to show how hard any counter-government action would be even for Stasi employees - themselves closely watched and seldom if ever working alone. As Anna Funder, the author of a book about the Stasi, "...what is more likely to save us from going down the wrong path again is recognising how human beings can be trained and forced into faceless systems of oppression, in which conscience is extinguished." However this point of view is not entirely absent for, as LA Times move critic Kenneth Turan points out this film, "convincingly demonstrates that when done right, moral and political quandaries can be the most intensely dramatic dilemmas of all." The Lives of Others proves this beyond a shadow of a doubt and thus lays groundwork for more of such necessary and artistically sublime projects.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Snapshot: Health after a disaster is directly related to health before the disaster

Amanda Ripley points out in her informative blog that anti-social behavior almost never happens after a disaster. "In fact, the opposite is true. People, like all animals, tend to form groups and show each other great courtesy in times of extreme shock and duress. People do this because it is in their interest. There was looting and some sporadic violence after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, but the mayhem never rose to a level that justified the amount of coverage. More people likely suffered because of the fear of looting and violence--due to delayed relief and search-and-rescue efforts and unnecessarily hostile encounters with police and armed, frightened civilians--than because of actual looting and violence."

However there are rare cases in which looting and violence can become widespread. Ripley interviewed Enrico Quarantelli, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware about his Theory of Looting which posits that widespread looting only seems to happen when the four following conditions are all present:

  1. Dramatic disparity between rich and poor.
  2. High levels of petty crime and gang activity. ("Gangs are almost always the leaders in any case of mass looting”)
  3. An ineffective and corrupt police force. ("A corrupt and ineffective police force doesn’t scare anyone")
  4. A massive catastrophe.

Ripley observes, "Notice that three of the four conditions are all pre-requisites, present before the actual disaster strikes. Another reminder that the health of a city after a disaster is directly related to the health before the disaster."

Film review: Amereeka

AMEREEKA follows Muna, a single mother who leaves the West Bank for small town Illinois to give her her teenage son Fadi better opportunities and safety from the Israeli occupation. However she soon finds that the USA presents its own challenges: racist school bullies, general anti-Arab sentiment and the only job longtime banker Muna can get being at White Castle. However Muna, like so many immigrant women and mothers before her, is determined to put together a new life and does it with a flair all her own. This debut film, told with a crisp eye for both humor and pathos by writer-director Cherien Dabis, features standout performances by Nisreen Faour (Muna) and Hiam Abbass (recently seen in "The Visitor") as Muna's sister.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Poem: Julie Cadwallader Staub

Who could need more proof than honey—

How the bees with such skill and purpose
enter flower after flower
sing their way home
to create and cap the new honey
just to get through the flowerless winter....

from "Joy" by Julie Cadwallader Staub
Read the rest of the poem at Writer's Almanac

Friday, January 15, 2010

Book review: When Wanderers Cease to Roam

After twenty years of travel Vivian Swift finds a village on Long Island Sound and decides to stay. She brings an attentive eye to, as she says, “Staying Put” as well as weaving her travel memories seamlessly into her new life. Swift's entertaining , thoughtful and always beautiful combination of words and images is to be savored – read a little and then come back to it later. This is a book as unhurried and flavorful as the cups of tea she enjoys. Being a Peace Corps volunteer threads through her later travel experiences in Ireland, France, Tunisia, etc. I like how the author holds her travels in the same time zone of her heart. In other words, the Sahara of her Peace Corps years lives right alongside a Paris cafe of a couple years ago, today's walk in her village, a book she read, a fact she learned, tomorrow's dreams, etc. It’s a rich and multilayered palimpsest of existence – of life.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Snapshot: Financial equity-5 point plan

Did you know? 

  • 2/3 mothers are breadwinners
  • Women make up 50% of the paid workforce?

Financial equity-5 point plan:

  1. Stop making unemployment, retirement and other benefits contingent on steady FT work
  2. Don't make flexible hours a barrier to health insurance, and do stop charging women more for health insurance
  3. Guarantee workers paid family & medical leave
  4. Provide high-quality healthcare
  5. Stop taxing women's income unfairly/disproportionately - get rid of: a) flat taxes=payroll taxes for SS & Medicare are flat taxes which means that people w/lower incomes pay higher percentage of income than those with higher incomes (over $106,800) and b) get rid of taxing combined income pushing the lower earner (usually a woman) into a higher tax bracket=second earner penalty

- "Paycheck Feminism" by Karen Kornbluh & Rachel Homer (MS Magazine, fall 2009)

Art notes: Lois Beardslee

Lois Beardslee is Ojibwa. Her art reflects a lifetime spent in northern Michigan, interaction with other tribal members, and the formal study of Native American art history. As a teenager, she was profoundly influenced by the work of Yvonne Walker-Keshick, with whom she worked at the Traverse City Indian Center. Her work incorporates traditional techniques, materials, and images drawn from her knowledge and experience. She gathers pigments for her paints from the earth in northern Michigan and finds design inspiration in ancient pictographs and Woodland Indian legends. She participates in the Great Lakes Indian Artists Association. Her involvement in the Native American Women Artists" project has prompted her to explore the themes of Native American culture, women, and water in her work. In addition to painting, the multi-talented Beardslee also specializes in beadwork and is a superb storyteller. Her presentations to audiences of all ages, tribal and nontribal, are filled with tales of Nanabush and other Woodland Indian figures, as well as personal reminiscences of her childhood. Her stories have recently been collected and recorded on audio cassettes as Leelanau Earth Stories.

Snapshot: Ways to invest in creativity

Investing in Creativity by the Urban Institute found that artists need:

  1. Validation and Recognition
  2. Markets for and Vehicles with which to share/sell art to audiences
  3. Material Support - healthcare, supplies, housing
  4. Training and Professional Development
  5. Communities and Networks
  6. Access to information (e.g., Artist Trust in Seattle, LINC in NYC, 4Culture, Trumain Foundation, etc.)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Snapshot: Ferran Adria & Grace Lin

"Decoding Ferran Adria" by chef Anthony Bourdain looks at Adria's work - a mix of high-tech and fundamental. A chef who loves the most basic of restaurants when he eats out and seeks to evoke memories of flavors and the essence of food while also playing with our senses and expectations of food. Examples of this play include serving a fish that seems raw, but is perfectly cooked; apple cavier; the filling of ravioli but without anything holding it together (looks like an unbroken raw egg yoke); an egg yolk w/the outside carmelized and a tiny topping; a fish dish that you eat while holding a sprig of rosemary (the herb is too strong if added to the dish, but the scent gives just the right amount of "flavor"). So, what would Adria do if his experiments had to be low-tech way. Could it work? If so, what would the results be?

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by illustrator and writer Grace Lin delivers a mix of luminous two- and full-color images and elegant text which updates and invigorates classic Chinese characters and themes through fairy tales created for the novel. The main story is of a Chinese girl Minli who sets out to find a way to improve the fortune of her poor parents and village. Her adventure is interwoven with the evolution of her parents as they mourn her absence and the many stories that are told by various characters along the way. The illustrations, while not integral to the narrative as they are in say, The Invention of Hugo Cabret or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, are a delight and serve as an effective to draw reluctant readers in and expand the reader's visual knowledge more about China and Chinese culture.