life between the pages

“I spent my life folded between the pages of books.
In the absence of human relationships I formed bonds with paper characters. I lived love and loss through stories threaded in history; I experienced adolescence by association. My world is one interwoven web of words, stringing limb to limb, bone to sinew, thoughts and images all together. I am a being comprised of letters, a character created by sentences, a figment of imagination formed through fiction.”
Tahereh Mafi, Shatter Me

Thursday, November 17, 2005

backyard view

"Summer is over, autumn beckons. How wonderful to have that forced upon me when waking. How wealthy am I, not to be insulated from my world, to be aware of the activity of my neighbors who are different from me." --blog post from Sept. 06, 2005

Since that post I have wanted to share a photo of the view from my backyard. Here it is, and of course it does not do justice to the reality. It was taken during this past weeks' fine weather, when the sky told why in glorious terms it is called, "carolina blue," and the air laid soft upon my skin as I hung the morning's laundry. The light is always particularly golden, as it is so many places in the less populated areas of the south. The place is quite lively all on its own, it has no need of man's intervention to make it a "happening place." This morning, for instance, the particolored leaves are a veritable orchestra of sound as they continue to shower the earth with tickets to the show in gold, copper, and russet. The light glitters pure and shining upon them, ensuring none is slighted, each is picked out with its own special limelight, silhouetted against the shadows of the dark treetrunks. The stubble field, sown in rye, is as green as the course at Augusta, and the cloudless sky is a deep periwinkle blue.

None of which would translate to film, I imagine. I have neither the skill nor the patience of our dear friend Fred. And I am not sure even he could capture the sense of all the movement, which is what makes it so alive. So you will have to be content with words, or come for a visit.

Friday, October 28, 2005

about blogs

interesting! the politicos have found out about us:

it appears that those who make the rules by which society operates have discovered (again) the power of the truthfully-shared word --mountains are climbed, bibles translated, kingdoms will fall --and of course, it follows that they will attempt to assimilate our methods into their whole. well, good luck. i hope it's like trying to pick up spaghetti with their toes. they will be like a pack of penguins, swooping down upon a fish. in trying to suck out all the goodness --read "power" --from this big fish called the internet, a multitude of keening voices, flopping with life and abundance, they will struggle with it and attempt render it down to nothing more than the slimy residue of what it was. and then they will pronounce it "harmless," and move away, back to easier prey, from which they can again suck out goodness and power. the education system in america, for instance. your gas tank. non-corporate agriculture. hopefully that slimy residue will be more indicative of what was left in their pockets after we escaped back into the sea, and they are none the wiser.

a very old and dear friend of mine, whose youthful creativity was long ago assimilated first by the US Marines, and then by Corporate America, upon learning i had a blog, commented as to how he wouldn't attempt it. "too much potential downside from airing my non-work-related opinions!" and i quote. darb, 'twould serve thee right if i aired those lovely poems from 11th grade --paeons to coming of age in the 1970s all, they are the picture of the severe hormonal angst that will be recognized by any 16-year-old --right here for the world to see. i still have them, and did not throw them away as you directed so long ago. the reason, of course, is because i saw that youthful exuberance going away as you grew up; i would no sooner destroy a field of diamonds. one day you will thank me, but probably not before you are very old and very grey.

don't worry. they are safe in my writing chest. i'll give them back to you when i visit you at happy acres rest home for former corporate shmucks. until then, live happy, and do more of that bmw racing stuff --get out & see the world, breathe the fine air in a state south of the mason-dixon line once in awhile. it's good for you. and it will be good for the world, should you decide to share more of that fine, acerbic but perceptive wit with us again in the form of the printed word.

here is why we blog:

it's a fine and frightening thing, blogging is. you wear your essence on your sleeve, so to speak, for the entire world to possibly see. thing is, most peeps don't see it. there really aren't that many of us in the scheme of things. plus, you have to read in order to get anything out of a blog. given the state of education today, that could certainly mean that over time, blogs will mean even less. so what? it's a powerful thing, that blank screen of light --much more so, even, than the printed page. i hope we are headed for some sort of shake-up, where we as a world will discover the value in communication, in honesty, in truth, in caring for what we are given. perhaps it is so that as one comment to the blog above-referenced mentions, you have to leave something alone for awhile in order to be able to see what it means to you. i've not blogged in over a month, my friends' erstwhile comment above giving me a bit of pause. is he right, after all? i'm not certain. i know for him it could be quite risky, corporate america being much more comfortable with the mind they give you than the mind you bring in the doors. but he's a smart guy, i think he'll figure it out. after all, it was one of those things he fought for, too: freedom of speech. freedom to share what you're thinking with someone else. ideas are born, they spread, they sometimes take on a life of their own. scary, scary stuff.

maybe we are getting ready to see "a new birth of freedom," again. how exciting! after the dregs of political disaster are dumped out on the ground for all to see, we get up, we move on. i cannot imagine that we could sink much lower than we are right now and still be called a civilized society. maybe that is the point --nature herself is quite uncivilized. the balance of civilization vs. rampant chaos. how can we assimilate all that? we can't, we mustn't. we learn to live, and let live, to learn, to teach, to sow. over and over again. the world is only in balance when there is a liberal amount of chaos interspersed with all attempts to control it. the boat, after all, works as a transportation device because it floats upon the ocean, not because it beats it into submission, or ignores the current.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

where angels fear to tread

it has been difficult to look southward in the past few weeks, so i have been turning my head this way and that, averting my eyes, much as one would when the sun sinks below the top edge of the car window and starts to slant inwards, spearing the retinas. constantly adjusting my visor against the glare doesn't seem to be working. while i do have ears for, and have gotten to the point where my raw and somewhat tenderhearted nerves actually want to listen to the radio stories of the refugees: which is exactly what we should be doing, opening our ears to listen, sharing our hearts and doorways and pockets, lending our hands in whatever way we can... when the interviewer turns to those who would opine answers that involve eager rebuilding of the "new, new orleans," my blood runs absolutely cold.

we have no business thinking that way at this point. how can we speak of rushing in like absolute fools to speculate in still-watery real estate when there is so much need to be addressed? i am presently listening to parents in baton rouge, who are trying to handle the influx of 10,000 new school children in their parish parochial schools. why can these members of my own profession, along with the architects, landscape designers, financiers, politicians, and builders not find this challenge as attractive as 'building the new, new orleans'? i ask you. it is a waste of precious resources, that we simply can not afford and would be wrong to spend, and would much better be directed toward figuring out how houston will feed, house, and school the myriad needy for whom they now have responsibility.

Friday, September 16, 2005

school pix

these were taken recently for the school directory. so proud of these kids.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

past precedents

Today through Saturday I have the unique opportunity to assist as a docent and guide at the re-enactment of the raids of Gen. Edward Potter at Spring Hill, near Stateburg (Sumter), South Carolina. Dr. David Decker, professor of history at USC-Sumter (SC), has over the past two years done a remarkable amount of work in preparation for the first re-enactment of the late April 1865 skirmishes between confederate and yankee around the Stateburg area.
Overview of Events this week for schools and the public:
Official Potter's Raid Site:
In my own preparation for this event I have been brushing up my rusty knowledge of the roles that southern women played both before and during the War. Some recommended resources:
Books containing a significant amount of primary resources reprinted from journals, diaries, letters and period articles:
The War the Women Lived: Female Voices from the Confederate South, by Walter Sullivan
Motherhood in the Old South, by Sally G. McMillen
Within the Plantation Household, by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
The Plantation Mistress, by Catherine Clinton
Mary's World, (studies of the journals and letters of Mary Motte Alston Pringle), by Richard N. Cote
Your Affectionate Daughter, Isabella (studies of the journals and letters of Isabella Torrance Reid), by Ann Williams
Journal of a Residence on a Southern Plantation (journal & letters with post-war commentary and memoirs), Fanny Kemble Butler
When I can Read my Title Clear, by Janet Duitsman Cornelius
Reprinted period journals, diaries, letters, with or without editor commentary:
Growing up in the 1850s: the Journal of Agnes Lee, Mary Custis Lee deButts, ed.
Diary from Dixie, by Mary Chesnut
A Blockaded Family, by Parthenia Hague
The Diary of Clarissa Adger Bowen
Sarah Morgan: the Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman, Charles East, ed.
Journal of a Secesh Lady: the Diary of Catherine Devereux Edmondston 1860-1866
Before Freedom, When I Can Just Remember: 27 Oral Histories of former South Carolina Slaves, Belinda Hurmence, ed.
Long Ago at Liberty Hill, by Mary Ellen Cunningham
Studying the ruminations and outpourings of heart in these pages paints an overwhelming picture of a society's reluctance to say goodbye, of holding on to the past, of carrying bits of remembered happiness forward into the future, and a reticence toward accepting blatantly necessary change, whether out of respect and love for what was good, or out of a lack of understanding of how to separate and preserve the good from the bad. Something we've been hearing alot of in the past week. Mayhap there is something to be learned here.... I'll be listening for it, this weekend.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

when cities become villages

Two articles this week showcase examples of rapid changes both in thinking and in on-the-ground dynamics of suburban development. I cannot but hope that we are learning the lessons described by Jane Jacobs --the hard way, of course, for what other way is there for humans to learn?
The 'Smart Sprawl' Strategy

Suburbanites Under House Arrest Without Wheels
Cities must be able to provide for their own needs and not be totally dependent upon outside commerce to fill the basic primary and secondary requirements for living: food, shelter, clothing; goods and services, education, medical facilities, transportation. An extremely effective and economically viable way to do that is by allowing people to develop businesses in conjunction with their living spaces, within neighborhoods, and eschew the kind of thinking that these very unfortunately typical homeowners embrace; radical, separatist believers all:
Affluent Neighborhood Doesn't Want Bus Service
I used to see and hear this all the time. At my planners' desk, it was not uncommon for people to phone me and complain about "cutting through" neighborhoods. Roadway connections to adjacent neighborhoods was seen as equivalent to speeding and crime, not a way to save gas and cut traffic buildups on local roads. People would also speak loudly against greenways and bike paths going through their neighborhoods, and call sidewalks "a waste of money." They would complain about the dust, noise, and smells when they moved to a new housing development that had been unintellegently planted in the middle of working farms, and the farmers would counter with stories of how these folks' kids would trample crops with their off-road vehicles, scare and even kill the livestock, steal produce and supplies from barns and outbuildings. These people had bought into a lifestyle that could only be supported by dependence upon foreign oil, and was obtainable by only the very upper reaches of society. It showed an extreme separation from people who didn't drive everywhere, but walked, used public transportation, or bicycled. These people didn't want to belong to the world, they wanted to escape from it. Such a self-centered, unrealistic viewpoint is not only extravagant in the extreme (these are public roads, after all) but contribute to the insular dependency we face now: insular in that we shut ourselves off in our houses, hooked up to our individual television sets, and turn our backs on the world outside, yet in order to do so, we are totally dependent upon resources that we have sold our ability to provide.
If cities do in truth become a series of interconnected, interdependent boroughs and villages, as they were before the advent of the automobile that contributed to the insular dependent mindset of the typical suburbanite, I do predict that this will be the natural outcome of our dependency on foreign oil. But the mighty will fall with a bang, and they usually make very loud noises when that happens. Rich and powerful people do not take failure in stride. Those who have benefitted the most by this inequity of resources will do all they can to see that it doesn't happen. Better that they pray for faith, and grace to see it through, to hold out their hands to join their neighborhoods together and see them develop into wholly functional, healthy societies that cross racial, economic, and social barriers, than to continue to fight to hold on to their ultimately destructive living standards.
i am looking for a bike i can use to visit one of my two neighborhood grocery & shopping areas, both of which are within a mile or two of my home. i want a sturdy bicycle with a big basket on the front or rear, one of those old-fashioned ones from the days when Detroit made big cars that looked more like tanks than passenger vehicles. i can smell the sweet timothy-scented breezes on my face, feel those buff calves getting a workout already...
Last night the corn field behind my home bustled with reapers and mowers late into the evening. I am sure the neighborhood cats will be dining on displaced rodents and I'll have to wipe the dust from the windows. But the morning sunrise was lovely over the golden-green stubble, and hearkened to crisper days and frost-rimmed mornings to come, all too soon. Summer is over, autumn beckons. How wonderful to have that forced upon me when waking. How wealthy am I, not to be insulated from my world, to be aware of the activity of my neighbors who are different from me.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

stop gaps

well, he's finally made the effort to at least visit... and sorrily, was typically unprepared to rise to the occasion. even republicans are pretty disgusted. oh, waitaminit, i AM a registered republican. i tend to forget that, since i voted my conscience --that is, for the democrat-- in every presidential election since i was old enough to do so. i used to vote republican in local elections, but haven't been able to bring myself to do so for several years now. this used to be the party of lincoln. now it's the party of fascist trolls.
on tuesday this week i called my local red cross office, and asked: what can i do? i have hands and time to help. i can pack boxes, collect supplies, answer the phone, fold blankets, what? the lady who answered the phone asked me to hold a moment, and then another lady came on the line. 'thank you,' she said. 'we do not need any assistance at this time. there will be a meeting on saturday. perhaps you could come then.' (i'm thinking: saturday? that's 4 days from now. people are homelesss and dying --what do they do until then? i suppose this is what w. meant by 'be patient.') she took my name & phone number and said i would be called. well, it's saturday morning just after 9 a.m... haven't heard a thing. (4:00 p.m. update: still nothing. guess i'd better do something else. am checking the local options at church and salvation army. any suggestions you've found will be heartily welcomed.)
since we are not allowed to travel to the disaster areas directly, so many of us are wringing our hands and crying: what? what can i do? expending energies that are so much needed elsewhere. i don't use much a/c, but raised the thermostat from 79 to 83. the weather has been cooperative & breezy, i don't need it anyway so it doesn't feel like a sacrifice. all week i've only gone out for necessities such as school and work, coasting the car as much as possible to save gas. fortunately this morning i did see this well-meaning post on harry shearer's blog, containing two addresses to which we can send things most needed by the victims. the kids are eager to help. we've packed boxes of my nice clothing, shoes, things the children have outgrown or don't need, books, toys. Fortunately, I did find on this page two addresses for folks who are coordinating in-kind donations:
i am still nearly speechless with disgust and disbelieve in our administration's hubris and ineptitude. i read what i am certain is a true prophecy in van jones excellent post here:

one commenter on jones' blog says (paraphrased): 'of course tons of money will pour in to N.O., the city will be re-built into a resort of million dollar homes and billion dollar hotels. economic prosperity will once more flower the land. the only people who won't be happy will be the displaced poor.' and i have to echo, yes, yes. i know this, in my career i have seen it, and look, guitar georgie just admitted it!! (please note where the White House Press Office released this --to the Financial News section. this is not unintentional).
isn't this how it goes in our 'free' country? i have to put 'free' in quotes because we all know freedom isn't free. someone always pays. and look who's paying now:
yeah, and the home of the brave.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

one helluva mess

'Notes on the Flood
Elba, Alabama March 1991

There was a handmade sign at the bridge as you cross over into downtown after the flood that poured 16 feet of water into the historic area, inundating the courthouse and shoving trucks & conversion vans from a car lot adjacent to the levee into buildings like so many wadded up pieces of paper. In boldly painted letters, it read:


But overheard at the grocery store in nearby Enterprise:

"These Elba people don't seem to understand that the river is God and that God is the River, and that erosion and wind and rain are all part of nature; as such are things to be applauded, even worshipped. It is wonderful that we cannot control them, that they do not respect our petty political boundaries and that they remind us of what tiny specks we are in the eye of the Creator. It is a wonder that He allows us to go on at all, insipid and disrespectful and illusory as we are. As if we had any right to our own opinions about things."

The little town of Elba, Alabama built in the crook of a bend in the Choctawhatchee River behind enormous levees, was voluntarily moved to higher ground later that decade, after another devastating flood. They got the message. There are some places on this earth that just weren't meant to be inhabited by humans. They are where you can become part of the food chain. Why in God's name we insist on filling in wetlands and building houses & roads on them is a mystery to me. It isn't like the wetlands will go away. It's like trying to hold back a sneeze --you might be able to do it for a little while, but eventually it's going to come out, and it seems what we try to suppress comes out more violently than if we'd just let it happen in the first place. '
--from the 1991 journal of someone living & working there at the time

Overheard below is something overheard recently, and I'm going to try to pass it along to you as it was given to me, and you'll have to pardon the language but to try to write it without the patois takes something away from it. It isn't funny, but weeping and wailing and ignoring the root of this problem isn't going to help. We need to LEARN from this, people:

first speaker:
"well. i be tryin' to keep up wif de hurricane victims, but it's all most distressin'. 2 states is unda watta and de rest o' de country's bein' affected, too. kin you 'magine havin' to walk aroun' grubby and hot and wet fer days at de time? and all dose po babbies what needs medical 'tention. shoo. seem to me dey ort to be able to figger out some way o'd dispersin' these damn things 'for dey reach shore."

the response:
"now u be thinkin' lak an engineer. an' dat whut got 'em in dis mess.

de fax is dis: iffn dey dind develop 1500 SQUARE MILES OF WETLANDS along de gulf coast in de last 20 years de water woulda BEEN DISPERSED. DAT WHAT WETLANDS IS FO'. donchano. God KNOW WHAT HE BE DOIN' WHEN HE MADE LOUISIAN' & MISSISSIPPI!! They wuz de nation's kidneys at one pernt. Dat what I go to school fer & learn all about how de coastal ecosystems works. How de soil take up so much water & cleans it. How de plants works to hold de water & slow down de tides. How de lettle animals functions as part o' all dat, including little oysters & mussels & clams, what won't grow nowhere else but in dem tidal wetlands.

but NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! Dam greedy bastards come down & piss all over ever'boddy. Dey see wetlands fer miles & miles & not a house in sight & dey say, "DAM! Lookit all dat bare land! We kin make a passel o' money!!!" So dey commences to fill in de wetlands & build roads & houses & make all kinds o' mess. An' when de storm surge come, it got no place to go but de low places. An' like somebody flush de toilet, Louisiana & Mississippi at de bottom o' de tank when de storm surge go up & den it gotta flow back downriver to de sea. An' de dam moneymakers o' course dey gits de hell outa dere & go back to New Jersey & sits in de bars an' watches de storm on TV an' dey say, "Oh, hoo! Dat wuz one helluva storm! Pour me anudder gin & tonic, Mo! I hadda a helluva time gettin' to de airport!" And who is lef' down dere but de po' people what ain't made all kindsa money and dey ain' got no way out.

God DAMN them Yankees!!"

OK. Before I get rained all over, I need to perhaps explain one local's definition of Yankees. They would be those assholes who bring their money and their eager ideals to the South and just like colonials, think to capitalize on any investment they make without thought or prayer for any effect on the locals. Yankees can exist in just about any state or any country, actually. And they don't even have to be from "up Nawth," altho' a preponderance of them are. And thanks to them, we have high water, high taxes, and increasing poverty in the South. OK, I'll stop now. After all, it wouldn't be ladylike to say any more on the subject, like speaking of someone's bad manners beyond the mention of them. And I do feel the need to put my Lady mask back on for the moment. I'll need it when I go out in a little while to do my part. I know you good people have already driven deep into your pockets and given lots of money to the Red Cross or other missions for good. At least I hope so. Especially if you are a carpetbagging piece of the problem who ever made a dime off of any land transaction in the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Land is not a commodity. It is our skin.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

travelling mercies

in the past two weeks, i have moved my abode, from a two-story historic dwelling in the heart of downtown to a modest, recycled 1950s ranch house just outside of town in an older 1-acre lot subdivision that backs up to a thousand acres of corn. i suppose i should mention that this is the 9th move for us in 8 years. don't ask, that is a subject not even worth a blog entry. i do feel inclined to mention that 3 of those 8 years were spent in one house, and we spent as few as 8 weeks in another of those temporary dwellings. But all in all, we've had to pack up and move on the average about once a year, not by design, it was just what happened. i do mainly attibute the cause to my chosen career --we went where my job took us. now that i am no longer working for the government, i expect we will be able to settle down again. i look forward to finding myself again here in this little white house on the edge of town, that my children call "the hidden house." it has long been their practice to give our houses a name. there was "the old cold house," "the tiny yellow house," "the farmhouse," "the Summerfield House;" this last "the Christmas House." This one they have named after the fact that it is tucked away down what appears to be a country road, a serendipitous discovery we made after nearly a month of searching. needless to say, we like it here.

so now that we are settled (again), i do ask for travelling mercies nonetheless. because the journey i will take here is on the inside, and will hopefully produce fruits of the spirit. let's see, there is the embroidery guild, school volunteer work, and the liturgical dance project. there is The Work, which is the Novel. there is the Great Pattern Project. and perhaps a grantswriting contract or two. all in the name of mental and emotional health, i have enough to keep me busy and my thoughts occupied for the foreseeable future. if any of this produces income to put bread on the table, so much the better. but i have let go of that monetary pursuit for now --it was what kept me stapled to the desk in my past life. since i've left that, i really now must focus on the everyday, which is the true journey.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

historic lands

A key historic farm in Delaware is under imminent threat of suburban strip commercial & high density residential development. Oh, and the School Board wants to tear down the historic manor home and build a school. What kind of history lesson is that?

Please read, sign, and pass along to your neighbors. Visit the links on the right-hand side of the petition page to learn all about the issues surrounding this disturbing situation. The Friends of Historic Glasgow have done an excellent job monitoring and fighting the case up to this point, but they need your help. The owner, who has Alzheimer's, expressed her intent "never to sell to developers" her entire life long. Shame on her wayward children:

Another reason why if any of you out there have significant environmental or historic property you would like to protect, please consider deeded conservation easements. Historic overlay zoning can be overturned and watered down. National Register status is only helpful if you *want* to protect your property, it is absolutely meaningless if a property owner (or future owners) wants to develop it in spite of your past wishes.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

changes in the works

it is time for a re-focusing (did i spell that correctly?). i have always worked well when my day is divided up into little segments. mornings are for discovery, mid-day for work (meaning movement), afternoons for analysis and reflection, evenings for rest and rejuvenation. following that basic framework helps me to be productive and to get the most from each day's precious allotment of time. part of my frustration stemmed from the fact that i couldn't manage to get the last job's workflow to follow my natural inclination. mornings were full of activity, constant input that overcharged my batteries. by afternoon i was a wreck and just wanted a nap. so beyond the real life problems my rhythms were all screwed up. it made me that much less able to handle the stresses of that life.

it is amazing how much my attitude has improved over the last week of just being able to follow my own life rhythms. these may be unlike anyone else's, but for me, rising slowly and spending several hours gathering input has been helpful. then going out into the world, walking as much as possible, helped me to be able to think clearly. i came home & washed the car & cleaned up the flower beds (yes, in the heat! i have a very shady yard). and then wrote pages and pages in the afternoon. i haven't been that productive in ages. today i feel will be very similar.

how are your days structured? are you able to work within your natural inclinations? i'd like to know.

Monday, July 25, 2005

A Testament for Simple Garments

Re-printed on request from my old website... Original Title: "A Testament for Simple, Historically-Based Modern Garments". And yes, it is too long, and I'll edit it mercilessly sooner or later.

“I hope some of you may be able to help me out here. First of all, I believe in dressing conservatively, and I am shall we say of a husky build. As you can imagine, I have a hard time finding conservative non-pants outfits that fit. Most commercial dresses don't fit me because I am about 6 sizes larger on top than on bottom. So needless to say I am resorting to making my own clothing. Can anyone suggest dress and shirt/skirt styles that are flattering to full figures? I have kind of an apple figure. I'm only 4 months postpartum and tend to still look pregnant in dresses. But I would like to find at least one alternative to the shirt and skirt look. Also, it would have to be nursing accessible. What fabric would wear well and not cling to every little flaw? Also, I had the pleasure of a conversation with an old order Mennonite woman. I asked her how they could stand to wear a dress and head covering in the summer, I get so hot in my dresses that I get sick and have to go inside. She told me that the key was in the fabric they use to make the dresses out of, which she did tell me, but I can't for the life of me remember what it was. Does anybody have any idea? Thanks for your help. Staci”

This plea was recently sent to a list to which I belong that is populated by people who wish to live simply and have a more tactile, self-reliant experience with daily life. The questions she asked are so deeply rooted in the everyday experience that a simple answer to the list could not possibly cover all that I have discovered in my 22 years in making garments, both historic and modern, for everyone from newborn premature infants weighing less than four pounds, to adults weighing in excess of 400 pounds. Your body is your business, its shape and features are entirely your business, and how you dress and move about is expressly your business. Still, sharing a little of my experience in dealing with nearly every body type could shorten a person’s search for what is right for him or her. To that end, I offer some of what I have learned here.
My background is this: I practice living history at several historic sites, and have done so for over 15 years. It still amuses me to hear folks come to sites and express instant outpourings of sympathy --entirely unnecessarily --for my having to wear such "hot and uncomfortable" attire. I instantly express the same outpouring of sympathy for them: saying such impertinent, but entirely truthful things like: "I am so much more comfortable in my skirts and petticoats than you in your tee-shirts and shorts or jeans! Indeed, I have built-in air conditioning, while you must bear with such clingy, uncomfortable and non-breathable clothing." Then people are astonished to discover I am corseted. "How awful!" they exclaim. "You must be positively stifling; how can you work in that thing?"

"Nonsense," I reply. "I assure you I am much more comfortable than you.” I smile, and they go on, wondering if I am crazy or merely misguided, and how much of this is part of the tour, anyhow? Therefore I do not add, but instead I keep the knowledge inside: Dresses and petticoats are quite possibly the most comfortable and healthful garments ever invented. Even men in other times, other cultures, wore them happily. I do not attempt to speak for the male experience, however, only the one I am familiar with: that of being female in a world where that feminity is lost, subdued, hushed up. I am quite sorry dresses and skirts fell out of fashion in favor of masculine-inspired wardrobes, but that is a social matter unto itself having to do with industrialization and the death of traditional lifeways that followed the First World War. I share the opinion of many social historians: that we are poorer for the loss, and in fact instead of being liberated from the fetters of Victorian social constraints, western civilization as a whole was robbed of our very feminity at this point in history. We merely traded one set of rules for another, equally rigid and binding. Some have gone so far as to say that the women of the 1920s were masquerading as the boys who had gone off to war, had never returned, and so could not contribute to the betterment of society. There is myriad evidence for this. One day we will figure out a way to rectify this imbalance, and feminine culture will again be acceptable without the appearance of subversion it has now. Now to say one prefers feminity is to say one advocates the subjection of our sex to that of the masculine. There is nothing further from the truth. Our sex has had to become the masculine, in order to survive."
But I digress, indeed that is a subject for another essay. Back to our subject: that of clothing simply and attractively!
Having dressed both in modern and past ways and performed daily chores doing so, true living historians can attest to several facts. Bear in mind that the recent "pioneer" type TV-reality shows were sensationalized and perpetuated many myths merely to make the experiences seem typically awful. Misery sells ads, people flock to see things they expect to be negative; if these people were happy, the general public would soon be bored, and the advertisers would not support the program. Suffice it to say, the true-life experience of our ancestors bears little resemblance to what we saw on these shows. Their real-life pleasures, dangers, distresses, and natural outcomes were not even a minimal part of these programs, despite claims to the contrary. But we will limit our discussion here to clothing. Also, dressing from the skin out in authentic historic garments is an entirely different experience than putting on a zip-back poly-cotton blend calico dress over modern undergarments, which is the usual practice of many historic sites that employ volunteer docents. The first is a pleasant experience, the second godawful.

FACT: It is entirely a misconception that our forebears "bore" the wearing of their clothing, including corsets and the attendant undergarments. Having worn such items daily for years, I can attest not only to their comfort but their practicality. Below I will list a few bits of advice that translate well to "modern" wardrobes. They may seem a bit odd at first, but believe me; they will go far in lessening the need for such absurdities as modern air conditioning and the Atkins Diet. My own frame of reference is, I live and work in the southern United States, where our summers are humid and hot, and our winters can be just as cold as those in Connecticut. A not-so-short list of basic rules follows, which I hope will be of some help in assessing your wardrobe and re-evaluating the decisions you make in deciding what to wear.

1. Pure natural fiber fabrics, including those in your undergarments, and excellent fit made to your measurements that are flattering to your body type are the keys. These are things over which you can exercise complete control if you make your own garments and/or purchase from natural fiber sources. 100% cottons, silks, linens, lightweight wools, rayons, or blends using a combination of these natural fibers are your best bets. Avoid blends containing polyester, nylon, elastic spandex, and acetates. These hold moisture and body heat and do not allow the body to breathe in order to regulate its own temperature. Some sources: WinterSilks, Garnet Hill, and the Vermont Country Store for natural undergarments with a minimum of terrible things such as spandex, nylon, underwires, and elastic. These materials are unhealthy and uncomfortable. Shun them in favor of brassieres, slips, tap pants, and camisoles made of natural silk, cotton, batiste, and irish linen, which last longer and are entirely better for you. Better yet, explore corsetry. This is entirely too large a subject to address here, you will have to do your own research. Suffice it to say a properly fitted corset or stays of natural cotton, either unboned, or boned with light steel or reed splint will alleviate back problems, provide better bust support, and allow your body to breathe the way it needs to, in addition to improving digestion and posture. I know some will be appalled and believe I am crazy to even suggest corsetry. Please do your own research and know that most of the "common knowledge" is actually myth, propagated by the fashion industry of the early 20th century, which harkened to the extremes of corsetry in the late 1870s & 1880s, and claimed medical validation based on these extremes. These extremes were not the rule, they were the exceptions, and were related to society’s loss of feminity referenced above.

2. STAND AND SIT UP STRAIGHT. This is the biggest difference between the fit of our clothing and that of our forebears. We slump, slouch, hunch over, and laze about, inhibiting our lung's ability to take in fresh air and our back's ability to carry the weight of our bodies. This major difference is the reason we can be fooled into thinking our ancestors over-corseted. They are actually standing up straight, when we think they are being forced to do so. This is entirely a myth. Good posture was once practiced everywhere; today, we hardly know the meaning of the word. EXERCISE, of course, is a fashion asset, and certainly includes dancing, running after the children, gardening, walking the dog, as well as your daily work: making beaten biscuits, hoisting firewood or a heavy cooking pot, tending the sheep, &c., &c., as long as it is undertaken with joy and strength of mind. What need had our ancestors of Atkins, when there was the joy of Friday night dances and work in abundance?

3. How do you know when your clothing really fits? Some questions to ask yourself:
a. Does it feel good? Does it look good? Do you smile when wearing it? Then it probably fits.
b. Does it gap open, fall unevenly, or slip about on your shoulders or hips? Then it probably doesn’t. Does it pull, bind, or pinch? Ditto. If you are unsure about an item, look in the mirror. Did you catch yourself in an unconscious frown? This can be a surprise; many times a garment that is beautiful on the hanger becomes a terrible sack or constricted cell when donned. Take it off; if it cannot be altered, donate or toss it out.

c. Look at the hemline. This is a very subtle thing, but if the hem does not hit you correctly, the entire line is thrown off. I have had to sigh and put away otherwise perfectly acceptable garments simply because they were too short and hit me at the wrong place on my knee or calf, but had too little hem to let out. Better that than the garment speak ill of you. A general rule is, the narrowest points on the leg are best. For short styles, this will be the narrow part of the knee, for very short styles (which I realize most of us do not wear, but for open-mindedness' sake), that would be the narrowest part of the thigh, before it widens out. For long styles, the narrow part of the leg just above the ankle, and for mid-length styles, that would be the narrow part where the shin-muscle joins the shinbone.
d. Assess the color. Color, in my opinion, is part of good fit. If a color is not flattering to you, it matters not whether the proportions are right, you will never look well in it. Discover your best colors and stick by them. Doing so will simplify your life greatly, and minimize the time you spend in shopping and building your wardrobe. There are entire books written on this subject, I will not attempt to repeat their wisdom here.
e. Assess your body type or style. Then learn what shapes balance that style, and stick by them. Like color, there are many available reference articles and books that include information about body type, go check them out. Basically they will offer typical classes based on shape –“apple” or round, “pear” or triangular, &c., &c. –and ways to make these body shapes appear more balanced. Assess your silhouette in the mirror, wearing a simple garment that fits well. Define your good points; assess your less-flattering ones by taking stock of what flatters you and what does not. If you have an "apple" shape, you may be more comfortable and look best in garments without definition at the natural waist. The raised waist, or no-waist silhouette such as we see in the princess-style, may make you happiest.
4. Assess your entire current wardrobe, keeping the basic rules of good posture, natural fabrics, and good fit in mind. Donate or throw out items that do not comply with these rules, unless they do have some hope of being re-made into something useful (such as toss-pillows from a skirt that has lovely fabric, a child's garment from something you can’t wear, or take the cast-offs to your sewing room if they may be made to fit you or someone else with adjustment or alteration).

5. KISS -- KEEP IT SIMPLE, SWEETIE. Simple does not mean boring, fake, or lazy. Simple means suitable for you in every way. Simple means if you discover something that suits you, then make or buy it in multiples. It is not the number of clothing items you have, but their suitability for you, that is important. Nothing unsuitable is ever simple, no matter what its claims for ease of care or good value. Simple does not mean baggy, boring or plain, it means the summation of suitability that includes good fit, good fabric, and good lines. While frills and silly details that detract from your natural confident beauty are obviously not what we are after, tasteful, interesting details such as collars, cuffs, or a great pin or set of earrings, certainly simplify your task in making the impression you want to make simply by limiting the length of time it takes to get dressed in the morning because you know it works. Along those lines: do you really need to wear makeup? Experiment with merely applying an excellent moisturizer on clean skin and drinking plenty of water, getting enough sleep, and eating the right foods. No makeup on earth has yet been invented that can adequately cover the lack of these, nor can add as much to your outlook and appearance as the right amount of each.
6. If you have decided to make or alter your own garments, start with a good assessment of your measurements vs. the ones on the commercial pattern you have chosen to make. Make sure you adjust the pattern wherever your measurements vary an inch or more from the pattern measurements. Choose your pattern size by the bust or hip measurement, whichever is larger, and wherever possible, combine sizes for the best fit. A class in fitting techniques is a wise investment: it is knowledge you will not outgrow, but build upon for the rest of your life.
7. Make your clothing well, with natural fiber linings, high-quality fastenings, an extra stitch or two for strength wherever you think of it. It will repay you many times over by lasting longer and fitting better than anything you can buy in a store. Good clothing can be re-made by changing the length of a hemline or sleeve, altering a neckline detail, &c., and thence give you twice or three times the wear. This technique is what allowed our ancestors to keep the same garments 10 to 20 years or more.
8. Higher waistlines --anywhere from 1 1/2" to 4" above the natural waist (which is 1" above the navel on all but the most long-waisted women), give several things: the illusion of height, a balance between bust & hip/stomach size, and the ability to move more freely. I recommend raising the waist on most modern dress patterns at least an inch to take advantage of these.
9. A light covering of sheer, natural material is cooler than bare skin, and also can insulate on cooler days. Try it, you'll see. Therefore, a head covering of Irish linen, sheer cotton lace, or silk will both keep you warmer on breezy days, and protect you from the sun's blazes on hot ones, as well as keeping your hair clean, out of your eyes, and protecting it from dulling ultraviolet light. A light shawl of fine wool or linen will also do the same for your neck & shoulders. And see? How graceful you suddenly feel, and appear!
10. Develop an appreciation for perspiration. It is the body's natural ability to regulate its own temperature. How did our forebears do it? They "sponged off," several times a day if need be, with clean water. They changed clothes two or three times a day, having garments for morning, afternoon, and evening, hanging up the old ones to air out and dry before putting them away, turning them inside out and hanging out in the sun or on the grass if they smelled. Sunshine and clorophyll kill bacteria. Spritz underarm areas with clear vodka to kill germs that cause odors. (OK, I know many of you will clamor "My great-grandmother had one dress for everyday and one for Sunday." That may be true, but it is an example of your great-grandmother's poverty, and was not the norm. I would wager that when Grannie was young she came into the house, took off that dress, and especially in summer did her hardest, messiest chores away from prying eyes because she was clad only in her linen shift and petticoat. Most folks had 3-4 well-made day outfits, 1-2 sets of work garments, and 1-2 for Sunday/visiting/special occasions, and changing & airing those garments as the heat of the day came and went was part of what made the garments last. But this, as other things I mentioned here, is an entire topic unto itself.)

Looking at the length of this message, I could write a book on the subject and probably should. It has been far too long that women have been stripped of both the comfort and feminity that is rightly theirs. No matter if you are short or tall, wide or narrow, it should be a simple matter to dress comfortably in garments that are flattering and tasteful. The ladies from whom we are descended had more natural experience, better choices, a more sharply defined sense of what was appropriate for their bodies, and hence a much better time of it in this regard than we do by far, with all of our so-called fashion “choices.”

Monday, July 18, 2005

signpost at the bend

in case any of you missed it, i am no longer working for local government.

there, now! don't we all feel much better?

now i am free to think, say, explore, and contribute in ways i feel are necessary, and not be tied to one narrow-minded group's ideal.

we'll see where that takes us, shall we?

Sunday, July 17, 2005

taking the blue pill

i have seen more than i want to,
and less than i deserve.
it is time to move on.
to be a martyr no longer to an unrecognized cause,
one that few believe actually exists.
would that it were so.
my venue lies in another sphere, and here i stay listening, listening
eyes shut, ears in fine tune
for the next call of duty
the next will o' the wisp
calming, quiet, hot and breathless it will come
and fall upon my would-be deaf ears
should i not be at attention
and ready to put the cause to action
i will pick up my pen
and march ahead to meet the dawn
while others sleep
and find myself among them,
somnolent sustenance in my throat.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

most excellent advice

This passage from the Living Bible, Phillipians 4:6-11, was found by by his wife, Nelle, on the dresser of my uncle, Daniel B. Bridges, AIA, NCARB the day after his death Sept. 12, 1977:

o o o

My uncle's accident came during a time when I had already experienced the death of several persons close to me. This news was devastating to our family; but hope arrived with the words that soon went buzzing through our ranks: "Did you hear of the note? Nelle found a note... it's as if he left it to comfort us, or to assure us, or something." I can't tell you how many times reading these words in my uncle's strong, bold, architect's hand has made me feel better. There have also been many times when I forgot this wisdom. It would do me good every day to read them, or something like Thoreau's similar wisdom, from his days at Walden: "Finish each day and be done with it, no doubt some absurdities crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day, you shall begin it well and serenely."

Without hope, man is a doomed creature. Feel the freshet of ebullience in your heart, and let it make you a glad spirit. Oh, and by-the-by, I hear it boosts your immunity, too. Let your science and your faith collide.... and a fifth element is born.

a lesson

If H5N1 really is the herald of doom for our late great planet, all I ask is that I remember to still live each day as my last, to honestly do the best I can, to enjoy the little things (good books, my children's smiles, sun and wind and rain), and to ensure the existence of my protoplasm was for good upon the earth. Good does not equal worry, or mourning the loss of utopia, or angry diatribes, no matter how well-meant. Good means loving my enemy, forgiving the clueless, being honest with myself, and sharing what I know.

friend mackenzie's daughter apphia hugging her favorite dorking hen, isadora, while their majorca roo stands guard behind them. we raised these from chicks & helped them to start their little flock of backyard birds.

here are a few pix of our own backyard birds. click on the thumbnails for full-size views.

their favorite place was the cedar tree in the summerfield backyard!
would that everyone could enjoy such simple pleasures as these...

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

saving the world one bit at a time

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perhaps the reason i've always found hanging out the laundry therapeutic is the fact that when i was a toddler, my mother and grandmother carried me out in the basket where i would lay on a quilt in the warm sunshine while they hung out the sheets. i also remember helping gramma running clothes thru the wringer washer. the work was clean and made her happy --she always hummed a tune as she worked. now, even on days when nothing else seems to get done (or done right), it is always a source of extreme satisfaction to me to be taking advantage of the wind and the sun, with the end result a fresh, healthy, and free pleasure, not to mention a great source of exercise.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

the open road

Image copyright 2005 by Susannah B. Smith

on the way to badger's house...
my husband tells me that there are no badgers east of the mississippi, and they are mean & nasty creatures to boot. so i feel the need to clarify: moley & ratty are just ahead and if we scurry, we can catch up to them and have a lovely tromp thru the wild wood...

Thursday, June 23, 2005

presto chango! coming to a farm near you...

did you see that
horse turn into a

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that local governments may seize people's homes and businesses — even against their will — for private economic development.

It was a decision fraught with huge implications for a country with many areas, particularly the rapidly growing urban and suburban areas, facing countervailing pressures of development and property ownership rights.
The 5-4 ruling represented a defeat for some Connecticut residents whose homes are slated for destruction to make room for an office complex. They argued that cities have no right to take their land except for projects with a clear public use, such as roads or schools, or to revitalize blighted areas.
Rest of article at

Read the complete Supreme Court opinion here:

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

another day in paradise

watch this space... development in process on this bit of earth. this pic taken tuesday afternoon, march 22, 2005.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

fallow fields

deep in thoughts of mother earth & her overall health this morning that were further reinforced as i drove in to work. the road takes me past more than a few farms, older housing stock, and spiffy new developments, shining like tacky-bright medallions in the crow's nest of our complicated rurality. several of these farms still pasture cattle --black baldies, angus, and mahogany-red simmentaler. there are cornfields, where the grain is now taller than i am. and nearer to town, the fallow fields where here and there still rise an errant cornstalk, leftovers from last year's harvest. these spear my heart like a picture of an orphan's bad haircut, as mute evidence of neglect. for it means that the land has been sold, and a shopping center, or mcmansions, are on the way.

can we say sprawl?

i will be silent on that subject for now, for truly there is nothing nice to say. my psyche needs relief, hope, or something, so i will go digging for that. plenty of good things are out there, plenty of nice folks. hope springs eternal. and so do the grass, the trees, nature itself seems always to win out. we don't always like it, sometimes it frightens us, but some of us do learn to live with that, and so far, humanity has survived some pretty awful things that we have done to ourselves and our world.

surely we can survive this, too.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

rain, rain, come again

we are floating away here in our little town. as in, the creeks are risin'!! saw several homes on the way in in the 600K+ price range sitting in the middle of ponds that used to be their yards. the water was churning over the dam --exciting, wonderful thing that nature is. i can imagine your dismay at my callow attitude --surely i wouldn't look at it that way if it were my house, but then, i didn't build three years ago in a flood zone. i live in a hundred year old house on main street, where if it flooded i would have known about it because of the clear evidence all around me. and ummm... how did anyone not notice there was a CLIFF under those houses there at Laguna Beach?

and what? it happened before? --counter to the discussion, the price of real estate went UP after the last landslide, not down... go figure. and people still came, and built, and were not conquered by losing it all, apparently.

but these folk do such silly things & then are surprised when nature actually takes its course --and your tax dollars help pay for the fixes thru FEMA --how do you like them apples? america! land of the free!

i guess this sortof thing gets me more upset than bird flu, apparently. each to his or her own soapbox! we'll learn from each other, i hope. meanwhile, i thoroughly enjoyed riding down to see the churning floodwaters and floating equipment all around in those brand-new subdivisions off of the local big, fat creek. One of the roads under construction was an entire river unto itself --of course!! the big development containing exclusively chewacla & colfax & tatum soils! why do they expect anything else?????? can no one listen to the planners? of course not. "that's what engineers are for --to get permits from the army corps of engineers & fill in wetlands." well, today i am laughing up my sleeve. tee-hee!!

what does it say when one is reduced to laughing at the troubles of others? sorry, those others are the ones who devil me personally at work, and i have to take it, day in & day out. the ones who are affronted & call the mayor to complain when i politely tell them i cannot issue them a building permit for that lot until their surveyor fills out a flood elevation certificate. sorry --it's the law, i just enforce it. so i take my joys where i may.

happy fishing to you all --enjoy the weather!

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

personal geography

i posted the bit yesterday and the poem the day before, dredged up from past notebooks where i jot down observations from my everyday life --some of which come out as poetry.... from time to time i may do that as opposed to actually typing something as it comes to me. sometimes i made more sense in the past than i seem to do these days. sometimes it seems i have no words beyond what i've already said.

i am looking for commonality, for validation that my original design fits the reality that i became. it is an exercise common to the planning process --evaluate, check your reference points, ensure they are still valid, go back and re-evaluate if necessary to ensure you read it right the first time. before i was a planner i was a cartographer; the same process is used in mapping. as i make a garment i am also constantly checking to ensure fit and that the pieces are going together smoothly (and that I didn't stitch the underarm to the back piece!) why not examine my own life in like manner? it occurs to me that perhaps i am in my own 'life-crisis' period --i refuse to admit to the 'mid-' prefix that usually accompanies that phrase --because more and more i feel a need to re-visit who i was before i became mom, planner, seamstress. wifey. perhaps it is because i feel in many ways i forgot who i was before i got here, and in so doing, did lose something. i was a pretty neat kid, actually. always confident in the face of adversity. up to the challenge. where in the world did i leave that? as i type, i realize i know the answer, and it is not for this semi-public venue. the challenge now is, to remind myself of her value, and encompass that within myself once more.

the choices made will hopefully continue to be useful. looking back at your life from the vantage point of middle age (there! i said it!) is like looking upstream, from whence you cometh, hopefully not at a wall of water that recklessly propelled you, but more simply, at a map where you could see the points of assimilation, where the creeks came together, where you took on more than yourself to become the river of your own being. this smacks of belly-button contemplation, something i abhor. i will look no longer than necessary, to plot the reference points, and move on.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005


We wanted --no, needed --this rain. It came up from the Gulf, swept thru Alabama, Atlanta, the Carolinas, and was over by nightfall. It left us cooled by calm breezes that followed on its heels, quietly hemming the darkness like fine lace on the silken shawl of night. The crickets and other small animals chirrup a sweet melody, marking time to my thoughts. The dishes are washed, laid in the rack by the sink, the towels folded and put away. Sitting opposite me in our library, my husband sketches a portrait of a highland soldier in time to the ancient melody brought forth by a celtic songstress, her dark voice husky as the night wind, and equally as haunting. Surcease --a mechanism by which we let down, relax, find ourselves and our thoughts. We are quiet, yet the world around us is humming with vibrant life. Surcease is when we fall into step, find ourselves picked up and carried, by rhythms or emotions. It is not a time of nothing. It is a time of everything.

The pinnacle of surcease is when we two are together ...we match ourselves to each other’s rhythm, we are the water that rolls up from the depths of the ocean, we become the tide itself. We are no longer ourselves, we emerge from our cocoons to become something completely different, more than human, no less than gods. There is undeniable power in love, it is the coupling of two energies, and so can never be denied as anything other than something more than the whole entirety of our separate beings. Surcease. Could it really mean --a joining? It can never happen without a catalyst: surcease never comes in and of itself. It is always the result of something. It is added: it satisfies a need, usually a deep longing, depletion, or hunger. Perhaps that is why we feel as if we are more than ourselves when we are together: because we are. We receive more than we can give to satisfy our own needs: our depletions are filled, we no longer lack.

And so, the truth is that the earth, no matter the richness of the soil or the lush canopy of protective forest, needs rain. Without the addition of the catalyst of water, seeds do not open, roots dry up, the ground cracks open and releases the remainder of the nutrients it has held onto since the last rain. Why do we listen when people say, “You don’t need anyone else. You have yourself.” We may as well say the earth needs no rain, the tree needs no water, for both hold their own, even for long periods of time when necessary. But eventually the earth dries up, the tree withers, the leaves fall from the stress of holding on and conserving against need. The truth is, nothing but the coupling of rain can preserve the earth. We are not so different. No one is an entirety unto him, or her, self.

We all need someone. For surcease.

Monday, May 30, 2005


This cool green wood that silent waits
guarded, watchful
catching the last clear rays of light
with upturned boughs of verdant trees
before the mist rises to veil the calm-laden valley
It softens the heat, lightens the gloom of evening, and
for brief silver seconds the world seems to shimmer, not really there,
but an intangible thing;
Solid wood and vast stretch of fern-blanketed earth
seems momentarily fragile,
on the verge of being swallowed up by night.
Here is where I played,
I stood in the shadows and watched--
my mind alive,
hearing finely tuned,
straining to catch the essence of the wooded green
in the treasure chest of my imagination.
I could not hold it for more than a moment,
the vibrant pitch of waiting, growing greenery
would filter through when all was silent,
and as quickly, was lost, when I turned away and
answered the call of the outside world.

I must return to the wood,
go back and walk those paths
along which I ran as a child
when I was too busy chasing dreams
to gather in the wonder that lay about me.
To examine bark, and leaf, and twig,
touching needle-strewn beds of moss,
gazing intently at the pattern of life within
each tiny sprout and curling lichen
Something rests here, which helped me
to make peace with my world,
and I need to find that, to once more make it a part of me
the young part, the growing, wondering, reflecting part,
the part of me which accepts,
and believes in the future,
and grows wiser, knowing.

Image copyright 2005 by Susannah B. Smith

As the wood, we grow tall, stretching forth our branches,
we answer the call of the whippoorwill,
our voices teasing, beckoning,
wanting deep within our hearts to mate,
but always holding something back, something vast,
precious, and green...
...answer, tell, pray, answer, look, tell, answer, answer, tell:
Believe, said the spirit, and isn't it a shame that the
legend is such that the magician had to die before he could
communicate to his wife that one small intelligence?
that love surpasses even Death?

We should know this, and trust in it, and go on,
What is it that we do not acknowledge?
I think that deeper than Fear, it is our Want,
our need of soulful replenishment
our craving of a concrete essence to re-affirm our own choices,
our own decisions.
Laughing, we mate, we do not think that a lifetime will be so long
to share with another.
Laughing, we were wrong.
So misguided.
We are lost, after a time. Life itself eludes us, we look upon one another as at the door of death itself, and recoil –
aghast, shivering, disgusted.
Depleted, indifferent, yet still tightly nursing the flame of want within our own being.
And so we return to the wood, we look at every tree and branch,
and slowly, we understand.
We grow old, we wither, we die, but
though individually the trees of the wood do just that, the forest remains.
Whole. Vital. Alive.
With every death, a new seed sprouts forth,
to feed upon the old.
Either within the wood, or just outside of it.
Love doesn't die; the men and women do,
so says old Will in the midst of rising waters and thrashing wild palms;
and so right he was.
Love doesn’t die, it outlives us all.
We can hold nothing fast to us
when we are constantly changing, evolving, growing
into someone else ourselves.
The very limbs we use to clasp will wither away to dust,
and grow again, as flowers, new fronds of sun-kissed willow,
and the tiniest of earth-bound leaves.
So. Like the seeds of larch, oak and pine,
we too reach out to grow new roots,
and embrace the Death when we can do no more,
draw from it, extract its nourishment
adding strength to the stand from within ourselves,
expanding our very breadth,
breathing life into death
with new seeds to sow,
ideas and sustenance that we’ve brought in
on winds aloft, from far away.

Note: This is an old version of a poem. Posted in honor of National Poetry Month.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

a day well spent

yesterday we spent an incredible day attempting a plan to mend the heart of our little town. like doctors bent over the surgical table, we planners moved things about, hemmed & hawed, stroked our chins, and puttered. at day's end we had done quite a bit of work, had the beginnings of a downtown development plan containing most of the usual elements of vital and functioning places, including pedestrian paths, light retail, a library, post office, town hall, medical offices, the grocery store, the church, even some residential (yet to be defined) and yes, the farm all arranged methodically and interconnectedly along the slopes and drainages that make up the ground we are given. a redevelopment plan for the existing shopping center --turn it into a major component of the new downtown. cross-path connections around the low-lying areas so that things are not separated or squared off against one another, but hold hands across the street, or tie together with open pathways through a short stretch of wood. beautiful. vital. functioning. a happy place.

now, to polish up and verify the reality, and to give words to ideas in the form of published reports --back to the offices. all this in preparation for the seeds of change --to be sown in september, at the public presentations. promises to be a bit of a roller coaster ride, so stay tuned. i'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

four tenets from a wise woman

Meditations for today:

Economy, prudence, and a simple life are the sure masters of need, and will often accomplish that which their opposites, with a fortune at hand, will fail to do.

The surest test of discipline is its absence.

I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man's work for less than a man's pay.

I have an almost complete disregard of precedent and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things have always been done... I defy the tyranny of precedent. I cannot afford the luxury of a closed mind. I go for anything new that might improve the past. --Clara Barton

When I need reminding that we have come some distance from overwhelming public stupidity, I look at the war women waged in the nineteenth century to regain some of what they had lost in the late eighteenth: respect, purpose, and the ability to have some input, for good or aught, into the direction of society. In doing so they eventually went beyond what they had achieved before, and gained sufferage, some semblance of their own economic worth, and at least some recognition of their ability to contribute to the betterment of the world. So we do not give up, we do press on, and march in time to the need of our day.

Monday, May 16, 2005

it doesn't get any better than this what my colleagues tell me, over & over. today i had the edifying experience of a fellow planner --who has gone to the "dark side," meaning she now works for a developer (albeit a relatively good one) telling me after a meeting in which certain public officials for whom I work had shown their respective lack of good sense and cluelessness, "Man. You have the patience of Job. I would have been screaming & walking out of there! How do you stand it?"

I guess I don't, anymore. Just do the "head down & butt" thing. And keep analysing the problem. One thing I did identify, with the help of the aforementioned colleague, is part of what makes this current position so absolutely horrifying is that, there are absolutely no qualified persons on our planning board. Not a one of them knows anything at all about development, environmental issues, or economics; they are all just "citizens." So we get what they call common sense and we know is ultimately ignorance of the real issues. None of them can even read a plat so all they can do is point out typos. All they can do is hold up the ordinance and try to make it match up to what is said in print. They have no idea how to analyse layout and design of a proposed site plan or development, but boy, they do have opinions. Opinions based largely in subjective aesthetic dream-worlds.

OK, 'nuff said. I am working out of the bitchy mode. I always do. The Mayor likes me again, I guess I came thru her hail of fire with flying colors. I am just tired of having to prove I do actually know what I am doing, in spite of the fact I have a couple of college degrees in this stuff.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


where have i been in the past three weeks? i wonder. aside from the ruptured tendon, that thankfully did not turn out to be the achilles and will not require surgery, it's been busy, in a word. and three of us had a bout with whatever the local nasty virus is this month; we survived.

so. i get so fired up about work nowadays. is it hormones, old age, or just being fed up with the stupid career choice i made? i leave it for you to judge. a brief recounting of facts:

1. April 25 - Board of Adjustment Case, in which the Planning Board rendered a 6-0 unanimous decision in favor of the applicant, who having filed a Request for an Appeal from the Interpretation of the Zoning Administrator (for which I was asked by two council members to recommend that the applicant file such an Appeal, so we could not prosecute the applicant for putting up the structure without a permit, while we changed the ordinance to allow him to do what he probably could have done to begin with, except several members of the community and Planning Board felt that it wasn't allowed. Are you confused yet? Wait, it gets better). Intepretation indeed. Then they spent two and a half hours of the public's time roasting the ZA over the coals for "over-regulating." Apparently some of them didn't know the politics behind the case. And I learned --how could I not have known already? --how fickle and forgetful most politicians are when they get on a podium in public and the topic is "deride government regulation." Forpitysake, I told them to begin with the damn thing didn't need a permit but they insisted on finding some way to permit it, in order to "control it." What was this thing, you ask? An unlighted wooden scoreboard at the local public ballpark that IMHO didn't fall into the category of "needing zoning approval" because it wasn't a sign, and it did not require a building permit due to its size and construction. Still, some insisted that if we didn't require them to get some sort of permit, they might build something bigger and light it & then they would be out of compliance & it would be a PR nightmare for the Town. Better to figure out some way to permit them. So I pulled out the permit application, they filled it out, then when it came time to pay the fee they balked because they are a "non-profit." The ordinance doesn't give any breaks for "non-profits," they have to pay just like you and me. But the two aforementioned councilmen decided at this point they shouldn't have to pay and we should change the ordinance. And besides, what was wrong with the scoreboard anyway? This is what you get when you have government by committee, and none of them have any training in this sort of thing. The trained one (me) ends up looking like the chimp watching a tennis match. I can't keep up with where the ball is coming from half the time, and the other half it is bonking me on the head.

I ask you: why do I do this? No, I ask myself. There is surely something for which my brain and energies are better suited.

All I ask is, tell me what the rules are. I don't care what they are, I just want someone to explain them to me. And don't blame me because you don't like the damn rules that you made. Even if I do work for the government. I'm just here, I'm not a criminal.

OK, I'll stop whining in a minute. I just have to get thru this and try to make some sense of it.

2. I understand people are mad at me because I had to miss most of last week due to aforementioned injury and illness. There are dozens of phone calls to return, even though I left an out-of-office message regarding my situation. Howsomever, I think I did a damn good job keeping up with things in spite of those challenges. We had 5 subdivisions in various stages of approvals to be heard at the Town Council meeting on Monday --and I sailed thru those with my requisite professionalism and "can-do" attitude. The engineers and applicants for the most part deserve nothing less --they, like me, are just doing their job. The developers rarely attend these meetings & when they do, they don't understand a word of what is happening. I long ago learned to separate the technical staff from the greedy.

3. To continue: What I did not need yesterday was the Mayor leaving a nasty voice mail --no, two nasty voice mails --stating that she had a complaint that I "cursed" a customer in my office and "this behavior will be cause for immediate termination if she hears about it again." This is absolutely ridiculous, I in no way "cursed" a customer or anyone or anything else, not even my foot, or the fact that for the past month my office has been upside down & I have been enduring construction of a new storage closet complete with new lighting and shelving, and have had nearly every piece of furniture re-arranged or replaced. Translation: can't find a thing, and can hardly think what to do with it when I do find it. Still, I kept my bitching to the blog and the Planner's list. Never once was I anything less than respectful to any person I encountered. Now, I may have had a few negative thoughts, especially toward the contractor who threatened my job when I declined to sign something he wanted signed that day without consulting as I had been required wtih the Planning Board Chairman first. She was unavailable, I left her a message. Not good enough. I was costing him hundreds of thousands of dollars. How did I like that on my conscience? I (again politely, but firmly) informed him I had nothing of the kind on my conscience, I had done what I could to get him an answer regarding the signature and was certain the Chairman would call back soon. I would get it taken care of as soon as was possible. He growled something absolutely insulting which I will not repeat. I lowered my voice as I do when I start to get angry, and stated that I did not allow attitude in my office, and he could leave this minute and send in the next person who was waiting out in the hall to see me. Explosion, consternation generale! I heard him stomp up the stairs and slam the door to the Administrator's office. I expect that is whence the accusation of cursing came. However, I am not guilty of cursing out loud. Perhaps silently. I am not as senseless as that would require. As I have said elsewhere today, I need this job, much as I hate it sometimes.

I would ask the Mayor tomorrow when we have our "meeting" about this and "other complaints she has received," for the respect she would give any normal person when investigating any complaint, and that is, the respect to ask, "Is there a problem? Can you tell me what happened?" For if that is not to be forthcoming, I think there will be a problem indeed. And I am not likely to hang around too much longer to discover the particulars. Life is much too short, and I am much too unhappy lately. A conversation with one of the local engineers who attended Monday night's meeting was enlightening and encouraging. He said, "I expect you'll land on your feet. Talk with the Mayor tomorrow. She's apparently forgotten how professional you always are --I suspect she must be buckling under some sort of pressure herself." Kind words, and helpful to hear.

Will try to put all this in its proper perspective, and march on toward whatever goal I am supposed to achieve. Surely that will manifest itself sooner than later.

Friday, April 15, 2005

continuing the rant

Dear Ones:

Thank you again for listening to my rant yesterday afternoon. It was so nice to come in this morning and read all the lovely posts, both on & off list. I am happy to report I am quite mollified by your empathy, and have decided that maybe I will stick it out awhile longer. At 5 p.m. yesterday I was missing the good old days of being chased out of an Alabama swamp (where we were doing housing counts for a CDBG low-mod water & sewer extension application) by concerned citizens in a pickup truck with four gun barrels hanging out the windows, pointed straight at us. No, really! Let me explain:

I remember how lovely the sky looked that day, how the wind was riffling through the soybean plants in the field alongside our rapidly retreating vehicle, and in spite of the momentary dismay & excitement, felt as if I had done something worthwhile & taxpayers' money was very well spent in those days. I could look at a new elevated water tank in an old downtown and say, "I helped to put that there." Things like that went a ways towards helping the infant mortality rate in one of our counties actually dip below that of Bangladesh. I made maps of county water systems, held public hearings on landfill sites, had eggs & tomatoes thrown at me at public hearings & was called a communist for writing one town's first zoning ordinance. I observed straight-pipe septic systems, saw people living in tarpaper shacks, and visited old people who had no floor in their houses with 7 half-naked children clustered around the TV set. (I was told "no one here goes without a television set. That would be uncivilised.") At times I felt as if all I could do was listen and commiserate. But then a year later I could go back & visit those same houses in their fresh blue paint & new front porch & roof and smile and feel like I had done something. Back then, need had a face that I could look into and learn from. As poor as the people were, they had dignity, and they were decent folk.

So when the question is posed, why don't we planners do something, or do more? I realize it is a challenge to be met. I also realize that I don't have the tools to deal with it. The questions have changed, the needs are different now. And maybe I don't care about these people I am supposed to be helping as much as the old ones. Now it is all about playing a game, pushing the pen, saying the right words, making people happy so they don't call the congressman. And the need is no longer dignified, it isn't even honest need. It's just want.

Remember the "two twin imps" of Dickens' Christmas story? They were "ignorance" and "want." You may feel the outraged, concerned citizens mentioned in the opening of this story typify both ignorance and want. However, I beg to differ. All in all, they were protecting what they saw as their dearest possession, to which every ounce of need, purpose, and passion was tied: their land. And, by the way, it must be noted, these guys didn't feel they were in need at all, and had purpose and passion in abundance. All they knew was someone was trespassing in the area, and their first instinct was to remove that outside invasion. Trespassers may bring change, and change may not always be good, and in any case it's a pain in the butt, I imagine they were thinking. Would that we had just left, and done nothing, instead of applying for the federal money that brought the public water & sewer to the area. Do any of you know how the story ends? I don't, but I can guess. The public utilities brought with them economic development, in the form of investment in commercial industry, which brought jobs. Jobs brought prosperity, which in the end just brought more want, in the form of fast cars, disposable diapers, fast food restaurants. It made the land more valuable, even desirable to outsiders, who moved in & put up brick houses and demanded better schools for their children. Building the schools caused the locality to have to raise taxes above what the old-timers could afford to pay, and brought services they hadn't known existed before, such as permitting procedures. So the people sold the land, made lots of money, and moved away, taking with them the community that had been there for decades. What was left were people who worked at the new industry, alongside some of the remnants of the former community (the ones who didn't have enough land to subdivide & become rich off of), and when the industry closed its doors and moved to Mexico, everybody was left sitting in a big pile of their own, self-created want. And the guys in the pickup truck, who previously had been hard-working farmers but became millionaires when they sold the land (aka their purpose, passion, & need); retired & moved to Myrtle Beach, partied for 18 months straight, and died sitting in a hot tub with their noses full of cocaine. Crazy? No, just an amalgamation of several stories I've collected over the years. Scope for my novel.

Because in the end, we just go around chasing after want. I maintain, it's the needs of people that we are too ignorant to recognize, and so need, the purpose, the passion... goes unfulfilled.

Thanks for being there. Maybe we'll figure it out if we work together & share what we know.

Best regards,

the yankees are comin'

This is forwarded from the NC Plan mailing list, where this week, the discussion focused on the Census Bureau's new findings.

David Stein wrote:
"North Carolina continues to have a highly ambivalent attitude toward planning - we do it with great reluctance in many cases, and avoid it entirely elsewhere. The continuing game in which taxes from new development is used as a tool in setting up bidding wars between communities or between incorporated and unincorporated areas has allowed development to maximize the externalities they create: long term costs borne by tax payers as a class rather than by the newer homes that cause the costs. This leads to sprawl, leap frog development, air and water pollution, and traffic congestion, not to mention pedestrian unfriendly environments. Note how many supposedly "new urbanist" subdivisions are miles from any real center of activity. North Carolina is also a beautiful place, with an attractive climate, many good jobs (at least for the well educated who can afford new homes), plenty of willing developers who are unwilling or unable to put the pieces together, and local governments unable to get past the anti-tax climate that would allow them to do better planning and development guidance. Yes, there are exceptions, but in observing the scene closely for several years as a transplanted Californian (and no, we win no prizes there, either), I am saddened by the inability of our profession to get ahead of the curve and make the case for not just "smart" growth, but for very much smarter policies on land use management, transportation, health, education and economic activity. We need to recognize that the population has grown dramatically, and to rethink the nature of our development process. To what extent does the "right" of the property owner to maximize individual profit exclude the right of the community at large to avoid economically untenable patterns of development. Why can't we use common sense a bit more often: we know the consequences of haphazard, poorly sited development, yet somehow we seem to be making exceptions for each case that comes along. Even when we go to great lengths to improve a project, we still seem to only be able to make it less objectionable rather than truly an improvement. Look at the "new" development on the site of the formerly proposed "Coker Towers" in Raleigh: months of negotiations still left us with a project that it vastly over-scale for the site, with little public access despite its density, and located where public transit will never be a meaningful option. Or the almost gleeful pattern of continued annexation at the outer edges (Raleigh now touches Rolesville!) which can only undermine the billion plus the city is causing to be invested in its downtown. Isn't there a point at which we can figure out how to do the right think rather than just please everyone or even worse, avoid displeasing anyone "important"?I know it is hard, and that one must listen carefully to the political pressures on local councils, but still, we have not done our job very well if the term smart growth is largely a term of ridicule, the NC Smart Growth Alliance has had to fold up its tent, and the state has yet to mandate appropriate planning legislation for all counties and municipalities."