Sunday, September 25, 2016

There's a fiber festival? Alpaca my bags.

Autumn may have started last week, according to the calendar, but today was the first day that really felt like fall in the mid-Atlantic. So of course, I used it as an excuse to trek west for the annual Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival.

We've been attending this little sibling to Maryland Sheep and Wool for the past couple of years. When I say they're siblings, I don't mean to say they're run by the same people; what I mean is that they both cater to fiber arts enthusiasts -- knitters, spinners, and weavers. However, there are also a few exhibits for farmers who own sheep or other fleece-producing animals, like these alpaca, as well as contests for sheep farmers and sheepdog trials.

Maryland Sheep and Wool happens at the beginning of May. It's an easy drive from my house, but every year, we talk about making a weekend of it because the fair is so darned big. They have more than 250 vendors (and, according to their website, more than 600 sheep). By the time you've seen the whole thing, you have to think long and hard about whether you want to go back to get the perfect yarn you saw but didn't buy because it was at the first booth you visited -- a booth that's now about a mile away, on the other side of the fairgrounds. Well, maybe it's not quite a mile away, but it feels like it.

Dude, comb your hair...
The Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival is much smaller -- only about 125 vendors, and in a much smaller area. You can scope out all the booths before lunch, if you push it, and then have plenty of time to weigh your purchasing priorities before heading home. Plus it's fall, not the beginning of summer. And the part of the fairgrounds where the festival is held is mostly under trees. In all, it's a less overwhelming experience.

That's not to say the selection is lacking. I still saw a lot of yarn today. A lot of yarn. And I managed to find everything I was looking for (and a few things I wasn't, like a beautiful new wooden spindle with a Tree of Life design etched into the whorl).

I find myself buying most of my yarn at festivals these days, rather than at boutique yarn shops. The selection is wider and the prices are about the same, And at a festival I'm typically buying from small producers who not only spin and dye the yarn they sell, but are also behind the cash register (well, the iPad with a credit card reader attached). Which is not to say that local yarn shops are a bad deal; they're convenient, they have knowledgeable staff, and they're small business owners, too.

I used to be frugal -- okay, cheap -- when it came to buying knitting patterns and yarn. But after I became an indie author, I realized that knitting pattern designers and yarn spinners and dyers are in the same boat I am: we're all producing a quality product, and we deserve to be compensated for our time and effort.

These moments of fibrous blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Mabon's coming, or: posting in the Dark.

It's been several years, it turns out, since I've done a post about Mabon, a.k.a. the autumn equinox, which is coming up on Thursday. In 2011, I talked about its significance as the second harvest. Pagans recognize three harvest festivals in our Wheel of the Year: Lughnasadh, at the beginning of August, for grains mostly; Mabon, at the equinox, for the last of the summer fruits and veggies; and Samhain, at the end of October, for apples and pumpkins and things that go bump in the night.

Well, okay -- we don't often set out deliberately to harvest the things that go bump in the night. But maybe we should. And if you're going to begin, Mabon is the time to do it.

The equinox is all about balance, as you know; we have two each year, and each has an equal number of hours of daylight and darkness. The difference is in the trend. In the spring, we are heading into the lighter half of the year. In the fall, we are heading into the dark.

It's easy to chirp about balance in terms of our personal harvests -- the things we've done in the light. What's not so easy to talk about is the dark side of the equation. That's where the scary stuff is: the parts of our lives we'd rather not think about. Our dark nights of the soul. Time's toll on our lives. Death.

When I say "death," I don't simply mean shuffling off this mortal coil, although that's part of it. Many of my indie author colleagues and I have spent this week mourning a friend and fellow traveler, Rich Meyer, who died unexpectedly earlier this week. Rich was a trivia whiz who wrote and published a bunch of trivia quiz books -- but he was also a top-notch e-book formatter who was always willing to help authors with their problem children. He saved my bacon last year while I was in Denver and trying to get a book published. Plus he was hilarious. I miss him.

But physical death isn't the only challenge. I'll be honest -- even though it's been more than a year, I'm still reeling a little from losing that job in Denver. I'm coping; I've been spending time with good friends, and I ticked the last big trip off the bucket list in April when I visited Ireland. But every now and then, I remember, and the memory still feels like a punch in the gut. I suppose it will for a while. Grief is like that.

Time's passage is another one of those Dark Side things, particularly for women. Pagans have this thing about threes, as I've mentioned before, and one way we express it is to split women's lives into thirds: the Maiden years are all about attracting a man; the Mother era is when we bear and raise our children (and sometimes raise our husbands, too, but I digress); and the Crone years are when our looks are fading, but our wisdom and life experiences make us valuable in a new way. Crones have been the victims of bad press for centuries, of course -- see that picture of Baba Yaga above -- so one of the aims of this triplicity is to remind the world at large that older women deserve not derision, but respect.

About five years ago, I suggested to some Pagan women friends that I was thinking about declaring myself a Crone. My 50th birthday had come and gone, my kids were in their 20s, and I felt ready to move on to the next stage of life. My friends were kind of horrified. We were pretty close in age, but none of them felt anywhere near ready -- partly, perhaps, because none of them had had children, but also I think partly because society has us programmed to want to be desirable Maidens forever. (Never mind that Mothers must have sex, too; they don't harvest those babies from a turnip patch. And never mind a chief benefit of Cronehood: birth control measures are unnecessary.)

Anyway, after that, I dropped the idea. Maybe it's time to revisit.

A blessed Mabon to each of you, and may your harvests be bountiful.

These moments of Dark blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Rounding the Great Circle.

When I was a little kid, studying Indiana history in school, there were a few lines in our textbook about some Indians called the Mound Builders. They lived in southern Indiana and they built mounds. Probably burial mounds. But they were gone now, and nobody knew who they were or where they went. Dead Indians in a burial mound didn't sound all that exciting to me, growing up amid giant sand dunes next to a Great Lake, so I pretty much forgot about it.

Then last weekend, enticed by a sign for something called the "Great Circle Earthworks," I made a detour off I-70 in the middle of Ohio. I figured it might be a hippie colony or something. What I found was a monumental remnant of those Mound Builder Indians, and it pretty much knocked my socks off.

The Great Circle Earthworks is part of a larger complex known as the Newark Earthworks. It's located in present-day Newark and Heath, Ohio (the Great Circle is in Heath). The Newark Earthworks were designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006, and it's been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status.

The builders are known to us as the Hopewell culture, and they constructed the site between 100 and 500 AD. Another monument on the site, the Octagon Earthworks, was designed to line up with the northernmost point of the moon's rise -- a cycle that takes 18.6 years. Some sites on the intarwebs have made a big deal of the fact that the Newark Earthworks are in line with the Pyramids in Egypt -- which sounds really cool and woo-woo-ish until you realize that moonrise would be on an 18.6-year cycle in Egypt, too. I mean, I don't know enough about the pyramids to know why their site was chosen and how their orientation was settled on. But I'm pretty sure the whole "chariots of the gods" theory has been debunked multiple times by now.

What it did put me in mind of, however, was Ireland's Newgrange -- a structure that's thousands of years older (it was built around 3200 BC) and that's oriented to catch the first rays of the rising sun on the winter solstice.

Anyway, I spent most of my time at Newark Earthworks at another of the site's major structures -- the Great Circle Earthworks, the one that lured me off the interstate. Behind the placard in the photo just above is the entrance to the Great Circle. The circle itself is 1,200 feet across, and that mound you see at the entrance is 14 feet high. The mounds taper in height toward the back of the site, where they drop to four feet high. And there's a five-foot-deep moat that begins just inside the entrance and circles the ring of mounds on the inside. At least it used to be a moat; centuries of tree roots have cracked the clay bottom of the trench so that it no longer holds water.

Keep in mind that the builders used rudimentary digging tools and baskets to move all that earth.

The Great Circle is no burial mound. This was a ceremonial site. There's another mound in the middle of the circle that archaeologists have named the Eagle Mound. When the circle was in use, a wooden structure sat there, with wings extending to either side. I could envision shamen conducting rituals at the site and using those screens to shield their secret activities from the attendees. In any case, the wooden structure was dismantled at some point and the mound that exists today was created on top of it.

Anthropologists say many Woodland Indian tribes view waterways as a way to reach the Beneath World -- the world of the spirits. Archaeologists speculate the moat was meant to bring the Beneath World into the sacred circle.

As I walked around the perimeter of the Great Circle, I was reminded of another site I visited in Ireland in April: Tara, the home of the ancient Irish kings. There, too, the visitor finds a series of concentric banks and ditches, and a sense of sacredness. But the Great Circle is more recent, and the experience I had there was more visceral than the one I had at Tara.

I'm told these types of mounds are all over Ohio. One of them is Serpent Mound, near Chillicothe, which I think I've heard of but have never been to. And there are those mounds in southern Indiana, too -- and Cahokia, the abandoned city in southern Illinois that's a thousand years newer than the Great Circle. I am seriously thinking about a trip to visit as many of these sites as I can. And you can bet one or more of them will turn up in a book at some point soon.

Have any of you ever visited any of these sites? Anybody got any travel tips?

These moments of sacred-mound blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A case study in conflicting motivations.

I may have mentioned before that I have something of a background in music. So it was with some trepidation that I saw the new Meryl Streep movie, "Florence Foster Jenkins," over the weekend. Streep plays the title role; her character is a socialite who cannot sing, but her husband, St. Clair Bayfield -- played by Hugh Grant -- builds a cocoon of sycophants around her. They praise her supposed ability while he's paying them handsomely for it. In the movie, the situation reaches the height of absurdity when Mrs. Jenkins takes it upon herself to rent Carnegie Hall for a recital, and gives away tickets to soldiers and sailors -- none of whom are part of the cocoon in any way.

The movie is based on a true story. Mrs. Jenkins -- who preferred to be called Lady Florence, according to Wikipedia -- was a fixture on the New York City music scene from the 1920s through the '40s. She began her musical career as a sort of child prodigy in piano, even performing at the White House, before an arm injury made it too painful for her to play. She eloped with a man who gave her syphilis, and ditched him immediately thereafter; it's unclear whether they ever divorced, and equally unclear whether she was actually married to Bayfield. He was a Shakespearean actor whose career was only so-so, so he mostly gave up acting to become her manager. With Bayfield behind her, Lady Florence took singing lessons and joined a number of social clubs centered around music, and even founded her own.

Streep turns in her usual wonderful performance; I had to keep reminding myself that she really can sing. But the surprise was the way the subterfuge was treated. Streep's Mrs. Jenkins had no idea she couldn't sing; Bayfield knew, and certainly Mrs. Jenkins' accompanist (played delightfully by Simon Helberg) knew. The easy out would be to say Bayfield was in it simply to line his own pockets. After all, Mrs. Jenkins set him up in his own flat (where he'd stashed a mistress) and gave him access to her sizable trust fund.

But Bayfield did truly care about Mrs. Jenkins. If money was his motivation at the start of their relationship, it had long since stopped being the only one; at some point, he had begun to love her. And his love for her -- his insistence that his Bunny must be surrounded by happy thoughts -- seems to encourage everyone else around her to love her, too.

Well, except those sailors. She really was a terrible singer.

As a writer, I found Bayfield's complex motivations fascinating. My hat was off to the script writers, and to Grant, who kept Bayfield from being nothing more than a grasping impresario. Mrs. Jenkins was the star of her own firmament, but I found Bayfield's role the more compelling one. All Streep had to do was show up and sing off-key; Grant had to make us believe he built the fragile production around her not for money, but for love.

Yes, I know, it's not Sunday, nor even is it Monday. I was out of town over the holiday weekend and am just now getting back into the swing of things. I'll be back on schedule next Sunday, I promise.

These moments of slightly off-key blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.