Stories from When Wanderers Cease to Roam

Fireworks, trumpets, a few baton twirlers, and a special guest appearance from the Philly Phanatic *: We have a winner! Top Cat has spoken and last week’s Giverny Triscuit goes to…

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Number 42! Wait…nobody guessed number 42.

Number 16! What? Nobody guessed number 16 either??

Number 33! I think you’re doing this on purpose…another zilch guesses on that one. One more, TC, and get it right this time OK?

Number 12! And we have a winner! Congratulations, Deborah Hatt!  You hung in there and you got Top Cat’s 4th guess! Your Monet Garden Gate Triscuit will be signed, sealed, and delivered asap! (Email me your address at vivianswift at yahoo dot com, please.)

Thank you to everyone who entered — you’re all eligible for next week’s Pub Date Celebration Triscuit!

* The Philly Phanatic is the mascot of the professional baseball team from Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA), the Philadelphia Phillies, and is only the best team mascot ever. And he’s green, so, like, gardening.

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As for this past weekend here on the Isle of Long, the magic number was 58 — degrees! (14 C!) So as of 9:42 in the morning of February 20, Taffy declared that the grounds of Taffy Manor were officially 100% snow free. which is a cause for celebration considering that last year we didn’t get rid of the snow until April 4.

And being as he has appointed himself our neighbor’s watch-cat in charge of keeping Steve (our friendly neighborhood stray) off their patio, Taffy then gave the neighbor’s yard a good look-see:

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Having discerned that the premises was 100% Steve-free, Taffy aided me in inspecting our old tomato patch…

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…which in a mere 98 days will be planted with various heirloom and hybrid varieties. Top Cat, the Tomato Patch Kid, can’t wait.

These dregs of Winter, these hints of almost on-the-cusp-of-Spring days of February, these daggy days of counting down until the vernal equinox are the hardest days in the year for gardeners. Good thing that I, not being an actual gardening gardener, have a long history of “gardening” all year round. All I needed was a comfy chair, a needle and some thread, and I was off, gardening the four seasons:

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I embroidered these four season long before I met Top Cat. Please note the black and white cat sniffing the flowers…that’s Woody Robinson, the original Top Cat, my one and onliest heart-to-heart kitty who I still miss every day. (Keep an eye out for him in almost all my sewing. It was my way of paying tribute to The Best Cat in the World.)

I’ve been embroidering since I was 10 years old but my output peaked in the 1990s, when I was in my late 30s/early 40s. Those were the  years when I had a vague but urgent compulsion to keep busy making stuff, the same drive that evolved over the years into an actual mission (which I now try to fulfill as a writer/illustrator/blogger) to make stuff that mattered. That’s why, in 1994, I entered this (below) in a contest hosted by a local historical society:

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The goal was to portray this very old (17th century) house in Rye, New York; I embroidered the house with a four season motif of (from top to bottom) Winter, Fall, Summer (Hi there, Woody Robinson!), Spring. I won Best in Show. The historical society told me that they would love to keep this piece for their home office and I gladly gave it to them. I was happy that I’d made something that mattered to them.

I also sewed fantasy pieces, like this picture of me, Woody Robinson, and an itinerant cat-pet who I called Louie (he wandered into my life one day, and on another day he wandered back out of it) having tea in a garden of my dreams:

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For those of you who are stitchers, in this detail (below) you can see how I “garden” with satin, buttonhole, running, and feather stitches. Basic stuff! Easy! You can teach yourself these stitches in about an hour!

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I had to put this garden in my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam (on page 126) in honor of that time in my life when embroidery, and Woody, and Louie, meant so very much to me:

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I was also riffing on the idea that me and the cats were citizens of our own isolated micro-nation, which I reductively called Pawsylvania:

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But I’m perfectly capable of portraying actual, real gardens in thread, too. This is a portrait of the herb garden at the museum of medieval art in upper Manhattan called the Cloisters:

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I also included this garden in Wanderers because it tickled me no end to put my sewing in print:

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I am a huge fan of herb gardens:

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These mini-gardens are the fore-runners of my watercolor Triscuits:

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Vegetables:

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And I even got a commission, to do a piece about the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York:

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Besides gardens, I quite liked doing maps:

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This is a map of a trip to France I took in 1985, through the Loire Valley, Brittany, and Normandy:

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And this is a map of a trip I took in 1990 (which includes an experiment in the use of paint):

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You might have noticed that in this map I stitched in some flowers up in northern France, to stand for my first visit to Giverny. Or was it my second? I’ve lost count.

When I went to Giverny that time in 1990 I was on a mission, to take notes and get a feel for the lay of the land there. Because when I got back I drew a condensed version of Monet’s famous flower and water garden and I sewed for 98 hours, and gave the garden as a wedding gift for my sister Buffy:

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I did a two-season view of Giverny here, with Spring on the left and Fall on the right. I took many, many liberties in this portrayal of the world’s most famous garden, liberties that I would not take today, now that I have been putting the Clos Normand under scrutiny for my watercolors. Speaking of which…didn’t I promise you that we’d paint Monet’s allee today?

This is the famous allee:

 

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So let’s pick it up from here:

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The trick is to work in very small doses of color. Let each little smattering of color dry before patting in another color except for the times when you want the colors to bleed . . .

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. . . like here, where I made several small pools of greenish colors, which I then swiped with quick strokes of my size-00 brush, in order to imitate stalks and leaves:

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I am playing here, dashing in a little blue to the green paint, and stroking through it (wet-in-wet):

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I think it is the years that I spent as an embroiderer, sewing pictures one little stitch at a time, that gives me the patience and the control to work in such tiny, small, careful increments. Embroidery is good training for miniature painting.

Back to flowers: Oooooh, I like it when blue bleeds into purple…but I always keep red seperate because blue/purple + red = mud:

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Ooooooo, some more blue/purple bleeds for effect:

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And now, fun fun fun, I’m just dabbing in as many different shades of green as I can:

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Add a few foreground leaves (I looked it up: these are called “strap-shaped” leaves, the ones that stand tall like this, as in tulips for example):

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Now for the little pom-pom shaped saplings. . .

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. . . and the arbors (or are they trellises?). . .

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. . . paint in the green gate at the foot of the allee and voila:

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Done.

Hmmmmmm… wait a sec. Compared to the original photo…

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…isn’t there something missing? Like, a certain amount of truthfulness? Since I don’t like red-leafed trees I edited out the one on the left hand side, but I now feel bad about  that … and I wimped out on the dark areas in the back ground… and I totally gave up the foreground; I didn’t even try to “get” that lovely effect of the lilac-colored tulips dotting a cloud of small light-blue flowers.

Believe me, I really wanted to leave well enough alone. It had taken me six hours to paint this picture and I did not want to risk ruining it all by doing the kind of painting that I am not very good at (red trees, dark backgrounds, actual flower painting).

So I let this picture sit around for about three days until it became evident that I had to have a go at making it real. I decided to add all those bits that I’d left out, no matter if it ruined the picture. My Giverny garden painting has to be a true as possible. Damn it.

I meant to take pictures of the transformation, but I got very caught up with the process so all I have is this end result:

Giverny, Monet's garden, Clos Normand

I’m so happy that I didn’t have to rip out stitches to fix this pic. So, yeah, I still pick watercolor over embroidery when it comes to gardening.

Well, I hope all you Dear Readers had some extra spare time this morning — this was a long post, again; at least a 2-tea-cupper. Next week I promise to bend your ear for only as long as it takes to paint a Pub Date Celebration Triscuit … along with several medium-sized digressions, of course. Because the world needs my opinions on almost everything.

And once again, Congratulations to Deborah Hatt for winning the Monet Garden Gate Triscuit!

See you all next Friday!

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Yes, that’s me, trying to paint New Orleans. It was not a happy experience.
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But first — Cat News!! There has been a  recent appearance of a possible new member of our herd of backyard cats:

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This handsome fella has  shown up on the back patio for breakfast a few days this past week in spite of the fact that Bibs and Taffy get all North Korean on his ass every time they see him. I call him Newton. Hey Newton, if you’re reading this, I got some cat nip just for you (at the end of a Have-A-Heart trap).

Now, what is this I hear  (from Rachel and Sarahsbooks in Comments to last week’s post) about The Bed-book of Travel???

First of all, I thought I had written the bed-book of travel…

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…to be put bed-side for excellent late-night reading.

But it seems that somebody else, namely Richardson Wright, beat me to it in the 1930s:

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The Bed-book of Travel is a collection of short pieces to be read (preferably in bed or berth) by those who have been places, those who are going somewhere, and those who have wanted to go; Together with seven travelers’ tales. This book is now very rare and the one copy I found on-line last week for sale for $70 is already gone. I snoozed and loosed because I spent a few days mulling over this purchase, wondering if I really wanted to read this book seeing as how, if it turned out to be soooooo much better a bed-side travel book than mine, I will want to quit writing/illustrating bed-side books forever.

But the book that I really dread reading is this one:

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This is Richardson Wright’s 1929 Bed-book  about gardening (in paperback re-print from The Modern Library) which I  am awaiting delivery of, and if it’s half as good as its reviews say it is I AM TOAST. And not a nice slice of hot-buttered whole wheat served with a steaming cup of Assam tea kind of toast, nope. I mean a hunk of cardboard-like salt-free rancid Melba that’s been sitting in the cupboard leaning on the stack of Size D batteries waiting for cassette playing boom boxes to come back in style  kind of toast.

I wanted my Damn Garden Book to be THE go-to gardening book for reading in bed…but if it’s already been done I might as well retire my paintbrushes and take up something useful.

Useful, like dancing all day in the French Quarter with my own dear Top Cat.

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Ah, Love of my Life, nobody does a Grateful Dead-inspired free-form solo version of  Zydeco Swing  like you:

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Well, seeing as how I am not yet a reclusive former bed-side travel / gardening book writer  illustrator, I better get with the travel / gardening book illustrating. It’s time to do New Orleans!

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This is the pencil sketch for the full-page illustration that will start the NOLA chapter. It is designed so I can drop text into the middle of it. It is rare (never) that I use a ruler to draw a scene but in this case it was unavoidable with all those necessary straight lines of wrought iron railings and all those pesky perspective lines to get right. To answer Laura’s question from last week, I never attempt to erase pencil lines once I’ve put watercolor over them. It’s impossible to erase thru the pigment. Most times, tho, I don’t mind seeing a little bit of pencil in a painting because it is a ver authentic part of painting.

When it comes to erasing the watercolor, however, I have been known to use a nail file to clean up very small bits.

First, I painted in a quick bit of background architecture in pale blue, to represent a white building in bright sunlight (which will become more evident later in the painting):

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Dab in the background greenery:

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Working wet-in-wet I dab in the pale greens and add detail until I like the shape of the foliage:

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Commentor Judy Jennings asked about getting “natural” shades of green. To tell you the truth, all my greens are unnatural in that I edit nature all the time. My shades and hues are mostly close to the scene that I’ve observed, but if I need to lighten bits up and darken others for the sake of the picture, I do it. I also edit the shape of foliage all the time — see above. I make it a pleasing shape for my composition first, and true to nature second.

My biggest guess regarding Judy’s question about getting a “natural” paint color is that you must always keep your water CLEAN. I constantly dump out my water and get clean fresh stuff. Especially if I am going to mix yellows into green I always get a brand new glass of water. And if I have to work wet-in-wet with lots of yellows AND greens I have two glasses of water handy, one for rinsing the yellow brush-fulls and one for rinsing the green brush-fulls.

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For shadows I use blue with a bit of burnt umber mixed in it instead of black or grey:

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Now I use masking fluid to cover the table and chairs so I can cut loose with the stuff I want to paint behind them:

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While waiting for the masking fluid to become bone-dry, I do the middle-ground stuff:

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I pretend the table and chairs aren’t there and paint the railing-drapping greenery right over the masking fluid:

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I could never do this without masking fluid. Well, I could, but it would either look bad or would take me forever to paint:

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Fore ground:

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Peel off masking fluid, paint what is revealed underneath:

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Even down to the stems of the wine glasses, which I measured or you and are three millimeters high:

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Take a look, and add whatever else this picture needs:

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Not there yet::

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THERE:

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I Hate It. This will definitely require a re-do!!

So now I’m off for two weeks in France: Paris and Giverny; then to Marrakech to see the Majorelle Garden. To give you a preview of the two posts that I have for you in the queue, next week we will see how I manage to paint four really, really, really, really hidious stoooopid pictures of my New Orleans Fragrance Garden…

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…before I happily get it right finally (no, that’s not it above — this picture above stinks!!!!) ; and then the week after that I give you a tour of the knicks and knacks of my workspace:

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I will have my iPad with me in France etc. and Carol of  the highly chic, fabulously popular  Paris Breakfast blog is going to show me how to post from any cafe … so I might be able to send you all a few pictures and a quick update while I’m on the road.

How much you want to bet that what I post will be photos of great French cats?

P.S. Comments on this post will close after five days (nothing personal; it’s the spam, and closing Comments after five days keeps the spam to a manageable level of about 3,000 messages per week).

 

Next time we meet, one of us will be in Paris!!

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Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall

ChrisHanKwanSolstice love for all.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

 

For this year’s holiday card I did a four-panel ode to the four seasons:

 

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue is a good recipe for art, too…I took two of my favorite paintings of the beautiful Long Island Sound in Winter  from my first book When Wanderers Cease to Roam and I added new paintings of my own backyard in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter again to give a panorama of the entire year that begins and ends with a celebration of this dreamy time of year when we give ourselves a new beginning, a fresh start, a whole new energy to create, to accomplish, and to share the best of ourselves. Right?

I do hope all you who put your names on my list enjoyed receiving your 2012 ChrisHanuKwanSolstice card — I had to make it special this year, for all your kind reviews of Le Road Trip on Amazon and Goodreads.  Merci Mucho to you all, and since we’ve have a lot of new readers joining us I thought I’d show my gallery of ChrisHanuKwanSolstice cards from the past:

2007  —  Wanderers in the Wonders

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2008  —  Comforts of the Season

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2009  —  Long Night’s Moon on the Long Island Sound

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2010  —  Praising the Light

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2011  —  All is Calm, All is Bright

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Have a wonderful holiday, everybody, and a fabulous Sostice, and a happy happy New Year —

and I’ll see you back here on January 4, 2013!

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Since the world revolves around me, let me say that there are two kinds of readers in the world: Those who read my first book first

Scenes from When Wanderers Cease to Roam

…and think that When Wanderers Cease to Roam is the kind of book I should always write…

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…and those who read my second book first

Scenes from Le Road Trip

…and think Le Road Trip isn’t as bad as the first kind of reader thinks it is.

More scenes from Le Road Trip

Either way,  you readers are committed to books in a way that I totally understand. You depend on books to help you furnish a richly appointed inner life.

My lovely reader Janet B. puts both my first and second books to good use.

 

Now, I have heard from readers who read my first book first that my second book suffers by comparison, in that Le Road Trip is not as free-ranging a narrative as the one they enjoyed in When Wanderers Cease to Roam.

First things first, you know, in this book my first priority was France.

The most delightful criticism I have read, so far, from a reader who read this second book first (and obviously did not know what she was in for) is that half-way though Le Road Trip she got tired of all the cats, already.

I rarely burst out laughing while reading a negative review, but this one made me almost choke on my tea.  That is funny! Too many cats! AS IF there could EVER be too many cats!

This isa sampler for Dear Reader Joan, who requested some pix of the Damn Garden Book.

But I thank all you readers who have suggested that I go back to my Wanderers roots and be more of a roamer in my next book, which will be somewhat easier to do than with the Damn France Book since the garden book is a travelog of the ten most unusual, interesting, dopey, intellectual, idiosyncratic, overwhelming, romantic, and inspiring gardens I’ve experienced in Africa, South America, Europe, and the USA.

But I do warn you that if you don’t like cats, you can not come with me to the special garden in Key West. Because (as I say in the Key West chapter), if you don’t like cats…





…you have no business hanging at in Key West. They are everywhere in the Conch Republic.

Thank you, Dear Commentors and Readers, for your get well wishes last week.  All the nuisance paperwork since the emergency room visit has been filed,  surgery is scheduled for next Friday, Top Cat has stocked the fridge with champagne and angel food cake for my recovery.

 

 

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You might remember my friend Robert from pages 190 and 191 of my book When Wanderers Cease to Roam, where I talk about how Robert operates the drawbridge over the Eastchester Barge Canal off U.S.Route 1.

He spent 30 years there, planting trees and creating art from the debris that floated his way, hanging hundreds of his “collages” (they looked like wind chimes to me) from the branches of his trees because, as Robert said, ” God put me here to straighten out this part of Earth.”

Robert retired last year and yesterday I went to visit him at his home in Westchester County, on the shore of the Long Island Sound.

No, this isn’t Robert’s yard. This is Robert’s neighbor’s yard. I’m just showing you this for a sense of contrast because Robert’s been as busy in his own acre of Earth as he was at the drawbridge — Robert’s yard looks like this:

Robert’s made his yard into a wonderland garden, sculpted the landscape by installing a staircase, railings, statues, more “collages” set into the ground, etc.

These photos make the place look a little more chaotic than it is — I just love the way Robert adds all these different shapes (like the fans) into the scenery.

And the sinks.

You can get lost in the scale of the surrounding installations here —

—and I didn’t bring a tea bag so I’m pointing to this particularly lovely little vignette to show you that some of Robert’s work is quite diminutive.

This is one of the more elaborate “collages’/wind chimes hanging in Robert’s home garden.

Robert surprised me with a very special gift — a wind chime of my very own!

These keys used to hang at the Eastchester Barge Canal and when a county supervisor made Robert get rid of “all that trash in the trees” Robert saved this one and gave it to me!

Oh! I almost forgot to tell you about the most fantastic part of Robert’s garden! I saw something that I’ve never seen and never could have hoped or dared to see with my own eyes right there, in Robert’s garden. I saw this:

This is a mother blue jay sitting in her nest in Robert’s garden (giving me the hairy eyeball).

As for Le Road Trip, I must give thanks to the kind reviews that have appeared this past week in the Sunday Mail in Brisbane, Australia ;and the Oklahoman of Oklahoma City; and the Roanoke Times of Roanoke, VA.

Thanks also to all my dear readers, who are reading both Le Road Trip and When Wanderers Cease to Roam in original hard copy (since neither book can be Kindled), putting up with my old-fashioned idea that a reading experience must include a real book-shaped object.

P.S. I’m looking for good garden books — ones that have great illustrations and stories about gardens and their gardeners. I’ve already ordered , sight unseen but just because I like the title, an out-of-print book called Remembered Gardens…does anyone know of any other good books that get to the heart of the garden experience? Or will I have to write that one myself?

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It snowed during the night again. My Champagne-O-Meter had a new-fallen cap of powder on him.

The new snow made it hard for the cats to nip into the backyard shed. So Lickety decided to beat the path.

 

Little birdies can make quite a mess, too. Oh sure, they look sweet:

But they have terrible manners, spilling their bird seed all over the place:

So, with all this new snow and old habits on my mind, it was a good day to clean out the linen closet.

Imagine my surprise when I pulled out a small Saks Fifth Avenue shopping bag (Where did that come from? I never shop at Saks) and looked inside and found my long lost baby mitten collection!

Readers of When Wanderers Cease to Roam might know these mittens from page 11:

This is the picture I called Mindfulness and Mittens:

A Collecting mittens became my favorite Winter hobby, when I was living in that little village on the Long Island Sound during that decade that I write about in When Wanderers Cease to Roam. Keeping an eye out for lost mittens — only the smallest ones would do — like they were truffles; or strange, Winter-blooming roses: it kept me on the alert for possibilities, kept me in the game during these most sensory-deprived months of the year. It was part of what I call my Winter Mind.

When I got married and moved into Top Cat’s house, I lost track of those mittens. I’ve been wondering for years (all seven years that I’ve lived in his 100-year old house) what happened to them and today I found the collection, just waiting to re-enact page 11…

Tea bag for scale.

I still collect little lost mittens. The collection now totals 24.

Yes,  I am quite the connoisseur collector.

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August is my favorite month of the year: lush, steamy, poignant. It’s also my favorite chapter — because it’s the chapter where I let my Cat Lady self  have free range. In Pawsylvania, as it turns out.

(For those of you reading along , turn to page 124 in When Wanderers Cease to Roam; but if you’re like me and can’t be bothered to put down your cup of tea to go dig up some book you forgot about a long time ago, don’t worry. There won’t be a quiz at the end of this post.)

When people say that my book has a lot of cats in it I have to laugh. Believe me, I held back on the cats big time; in my opinion, I show great restraint in the cat department: I went through every chapter and edited out pages of cat stuff. What’s left is the bare bones of my cat-centric pea brain…except for the August chapter. In August, I decided to fess up about the micro-nation that I inhabited, in the alley behind my apartment house, with my cats Woody and Louie.

Louie:

Woody:

Micro-nations  are actual political units, inventions (usually crack pot in nature) of sovereignty defined by the United Nations as:

small, self-declared state-like entities existing in real or imagined space which do not meet any international criteria for statehood.

I fell in love with the idea of micro-nations because I believe that we all, each of us, live in micro-nations of our own creating, whether it’s made from a family, a church group, a cause, a secret longing, an especially intense inner life, a sport, a hobby, a crush, a  joyous desire to carve a personal niche in the vast indifference of time. My particular micro-nation happens to have existed one memorable Summer, and then it was gone.

It was August 1995, and me and my 15-year old cat Woody had been joined the previous Fall and Winter by a stray cat I called Louie. Of course I’d had him neutered and vaccinated, but I could not turn Louie into a house cat: I had to let him out every night and dayor else he’d tear up my apartment and howl as if I were skinning him alive. That’s how I got into the habit of taking my first cup of tea of the day outside into the back alley — I was out there to check up on Louie. And then Woody started coming along to keep me company.

So we’d by out there, in the alley, every morning at dawn (my favorite time of the August day), in the dim light and shadows and bright freshness, before the village woke up and before the heat of the day. It was tranquil, noiseless, cool, private, and safe. I was reading MFK Fisher for the first  time, so as I’d sit in the alley sipping my tea (sweet, black, with a drop of vanilla extract) I’d also be lost in Ms. Fisher’s world (France, between the wars; tangerines and doomed love). No wonder I can never re-read her books with anything close to the same sensory thrill; I miss the scent of asphalt and dew, the landscape of silence and mystery from being in the alley at sunrise with my cats.

That was my Pawsylvania, that back alley. Or, more exactly, Pawsylvania was a time  (not a place) when there was no one else in my world except me and two doofus cats (each nosing around on their own adventures  — usually in the inexplicable patch of corn that someone grew at the end of the alley that one Summer — but never straying too far from my company) and my own thoughts (some borrowed from MFK Fisher, some made up of my own dread and hopes. Nothing I dreaded was as bad as I thought it would be, and everything I hoped for turned out much better than I’d imagined. The usual story, in other words.).

For fun, and page count, I elaborated (in my book) on my idea of Pawslyvania; made a passport, issued stamps and visas like any other self-respecting micro-nation. But I hope that didn’t obscure my point. That there’s a Pawsylvania in everyone’s back alley, a realm of time to which only you hold the citizenship, passport, and reality.

For comparison, here’s Pawsylvania in Winter (that’s Woody in the lower left corner):

August: it’s its own micro-nation. Catch it while you can.

(This post is dedicated to August. You know who you are.)

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Summer

You might recognize these elements from the June chapter of When Wanderers Cease to Roam. In my book, June is a month in flight — lots of birds and insects on my mind, floating in air as thick as the honey smells of Summer.

But June is also for remembering when you lived closer to the ground, many years ago, about four feet up from your sneakers —  when you were running the bases in a neighborhood game of kick ball, and about two inches from the dirt — when you rested your chin on the ground to watch ants forage for food in the grass.  That’s why I tried to paint June from a bug’s eye view — to remind me (and you) of a long-gone point of view, when we were small.

I have put these little paintings in a collage because, well, what else am I going to do with all those original illustrations from When Wanderers Cease to Roam?

I’m still working on a title for this one. So maybe I’ll resort to an old trick:

I just opened a book I had here at hand at random and this is what I got:

“Your observations are to be taken with great pains and accuracy”.

(from an excerpt from the diaries of Lewis and Clark)

I could do worse.

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