Psychic Postcard Predictions

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This came in the mail yesterday, with an uncancelled Forever stamp in its upper right-hand corner. The text on the back reads:

XVI. THE TOWER. Stability. You may have lost someone or something but you will gain from it. Feeling stable in body and mind. Closure. Good stance. Solid. 

The message (not written longhand, printed on a sticker):

Psychic Postcard Predictions. Dust devils, brown belts, clotheslines, bland vanilla cookies, red cars, marble pillar. 

Along the margin was info on the maker, an Etsy seller named Madame Woo Woo. Sadly, looks like she’s no longer selling on Etsy, or making these postcards.

Oddly enough, this was not the only Tarot object that landed in my mailbox this week. I finally broke down and bought myself the only good-looking Tarot t-shirt I have ever found—it was handmade in Modena, Italy:

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You can’t see it in the photo, but it’s got those cut-n-rolled 1980s sleeves and collar—sort of Flashdance, mashing up dancer’s improvisatonal workout clothes and rock ‘n’ roll street style. The Tarot shirts I’ve found in the States are awful—Zazzle Beefy-Ts with a square card image slapped awkwardly in the middle. So I was over the moon to find this one. (The shop is drawflowers, and they have a lot of other great stuff, if you want to check it out. Looks like this was the last of their Tarot shirts, though.) I’ll probably only wear it on special occasions, so I don’t wear it out, and never on airplanes—I’m sure TSA would get wired about boobs on a shirt, even though they’re just circles on a woodcut.

So that is my tarot-by-mail reading this week. Very intense! Standing between the destruction of the Tower of Babel and the heart of the universe. The Tower I can’t help but relate to the Clemens Mansion Fire. The World, well, as a famous philosopher once said, the world is all that is the case. On Sunday, it was looking like this would be a trainwreck of a week, but somehow everything just worked out. And it worked out neatly enough that I was able to hit all my deadlines at work, churn out a freelance piece, finish my artist’s fellowship application for RAC, and get through final proofs today in time to take my Summer Friday and leave at 12:30. Of course I also got lost in the parking lot near Wal-Mart in Richmond Heights when I stopped on an errand. And in my desperate marching back and forth, vainly searching for my Subaru, I was forced to make multiple passes near a guy in a beat-up muscle car smoking the strongest-smelling pot I’ve ever whiffed. The car was red. And I’d bet money that this red-eyed guy in a red car was most certainly, most definitely, wearing a brown belt.

 

Tiny Mixtape for a Raincloud, and a Drop in Temperature

At 4 p.m. today, an AmerenUE bill slipped into my mailbox. I opened it, and what happened? I frowned. I might’ve cried a little. It’s been hot. My determination to get a grant from St. Louis City for solar panels just ratcheted up to 10. My motivation to apply the lessons of Sim Van der Ryn’s Integral Urban House just ratcheted up to 10, too. Maybe 11. At the very least, we need a new damn A/C unit.

It’s going to rain tonight and tomorrow night. The highs will hover in the mid-80s. Soon. Sky, my armpits thank you. Sky, my tomatoes thank you. Thank you for deciding not to be so hot. In gratitude, I offer you a definitely exuberant, slightly sloppy mixtape:

The Ugliest Possum on Helen Street

This photo will horrify a lot of people. C’est La Vie. Photo by Thom Fletcher, taken through the back kitchen door window at Casa Russell-Fletcher.

That’s the back of my head. And yes, that is a possum. I can imagine all the shrieking that is happening as people look at this picture—all the possum haters! You are the majority. This is what happened the other night when I went out to feed our feral cat, Devi. (I’ll save her backstory for another post.) Before Devi could get to the food, this very young opossum scrambled over the edge of the porch, trucked over and literally ate her lunch. Honestly, it happened so quickly it shocked me, and I was afraid to move. I feel charitable towards possums—I didn’t grow up with them, so they are exotic to me, and I’ve always found them to be gentle little beasts—but I know most people find them repugnant. This little guy has been hanging around our yard for a month or so. It’s pretty wild out there, with raspberry bushes and a bird feeder that drops a lot of sunflower seeds, so the possums show up uninvited. I actually find possums to be kind of cute (again, not a popular opinion) but I’ll say as a possum admirer, this poor little guy is definitely on the homely side of the possum spectrum. He is scrawny, has a patchy coat, weird-looking spots on his tail, and exceptionally beady eyes (and all possums have beady eyes, so that is really saying something). He is just magnificently ugly. Maybe that’s why I felt kind of protective of him and didn’t shoo him away. Next time, I will. At the moment, everyone on Helen is traumatized and feeling like they need to seize the day. You can’t blame a possum for wanting to seize the day, right? Even Devi agreed, sitting there frozen on the porch just like me, watching the ugliest possum on Helen Street devour what was rightfully hers.

After the Fire

Bird on a wire, a few days after the Clemens fire, temperature 101. Photo by Thom Fletcher

I was born on a Monday, which apparently means I am full of grace. (So much for the wisdom of Mother Goose.) That nursery rhyme further elaborates that Wednesday’s child is full of woe; maybe that’s why I have always been suspicious of Wednesdays.

On July 12, our neighborhood had a very bad Wednesday:

That’s my neighbor, Mr. Bell, being interviewed in front of my house. Those are my bushes, and my shabby-looking irises. (Hey, it’s been a hot summer!) Somehow I managed to sleep through that insane fire, and firemen pouring water on the roof, and mulitple emergency vehicles going up and down the street, and Fox 2 shooting in front of my steps. I woke up at 6 a.m. as usual, and smelled smoke. I panicked, assuming I’d left the stove on. But it was off. Standing in the kitchen, I saw a firetruck through the back window, and guessed it was a nearby house—we have an uncanny number of house fires in North St. Louis. Thom went outside, came back in, and said, “It’s the Clemens Mansion.”

Not a warehouse, as the fire department first thought. But a building about that big, for sure.

The odd thing: St. Louis Magazine (my employer) ran an in-depth piece on the history of the house a few weeks before it burned. Somehow I’d missed the fact that James Clemens—Mark Twain’s uncle—built the house for his late wife, Eliza, who’d died of cholera. Her face is all over the house: in the lintels, in the paster ceiling medallions, everywhere. Here are Paul Poiret’s images for the Library of Congress’ Historical American Buildings Survey, circa 1960:

As you can see, it was looking a bit scratchy and worse for wear even back then. Though the driveway into the grounds was at the end of my street, and was totally open and unboarded, I never went in. Though I saw plenty of little goth kids strolling in and out of there to get their UrbEx photos. The first time I set foot in there was after the fire, when reporters showed up after several days of neighbors agitating at the Health Department and Paul McKee—both had been mum about cleanup. Though the boiler and such had been remediated for asbestos, the roof had not; that’s why there are huge chunks of black, unburnt asbesots debris all over the neighborhood. All over. The EPA made a dispersion map, and my street, Helen, was right in the middle of an angry red blob that indicated we were ground zero for most of the debris, but the stuff blew over Highway 70 and maybe as far as the Mississippi River.

The Clemens Mansion was always a ghost mansion, a gothic tribute to a dead woman, every architectural detail a momento mori. Its burning feels like a cremation, Eliza Clemens’ ashes everywhere.  This new age person says that asbestos is a “spiritual vacuum cleaner,” absorbing negative energy, though it never discharges or heals it. My poor neighborhood has seen plenty of negative energy, and it is easy for me to imagine all of that bad energy concentrated in that toxic roof. Maybe Thom was more right than he knew when he said that the debris reminded him of the final (yes, truly awkward) scene of Time Bandits:

“It’s evil! Don’t touch it!” That’s the first rule about asbestos. Also: DO NOT WEAR SHOES IN THE HOUSE. I bought myself a pair of ugly mint green polka dot boots from Rural King, two sizes two big so that I can slip them off and on without touching them.

I don’t have a grass yard; there’s a serviceberry tree, an elderberry bush, mulch and more mulch, purple coneflowers, lavender, hydrangeas … I don’t know how they are going to truly clean up our yard, because they can’t just use a vacuum like on the lawns and grass lots. The men in moon suits are expected to arrive soon, but who knows if they’ll really get us back to the point where we have a clean, safe space. So I continue to go outside in my ugly polka dotted boots. I wear them when I step out on to the back porch to throw stuff in the recycling bin and the compost bucket. I wear them when I go out in the yard to feed the feral cat that has adopted us. I wear them when I fill the birdfeeder, as I wonder whether I should even be filling the bird feeder, should I be attracting birds to a yard full of asbestos ash? I watch dozens and dozens of bees visiting my mint and chamomile plants. I watch hummingbirds feeding off the pineapple sage flowers. I can’t pull the plants out to discourage the wildlife because it’s contaminated, so I can’t touch it. I can’t make the bees go away, or the hummingbirds. They see flowers, and they are going to visit them. There is a baby opossum living under our hydrangeas—he stood three inches away from me the other night. I am terrified for my neighbors and my neighbors’ kids. I worry for everyone and everything, down to the tiny little sweat bees swirling around my flowers, down to the weeds and the ants.

It’s hard to explain how awful it is to suddenly have your sanctuary turned into a SuperFund site. To have all the things that previously brought you delight—all the neighbors and birds and the butterflies and flowering plants—suddenly transformed into things that worry you and make you sick at heart. Not long after the fire, my purple coneflowers started turning brown and dropping petals. Is it because it’s 100+ degrees outside? Or are they being poisoned? What will happen to our outdoor cat? What are we breathing? Have we tracked this stuff into our house unwittingly? Is it all over our floors, our clothes, our bedsheets? We were told to wipe things down with paper towels, put those in a sealed plastic bag, and call the EPA to pick them up—paper towels with dust on them, suddenly toxic waste. I started the summer off by treating myself to tickets to Opera Theatre’s production of The Trial, based on Franz Kafka’s novel of the same name. Little did I know that it was not just going to be a trip to the opera—that this summer, Kafka would become my Virgil, my psychopomp.

 

Lead the Way, Mimosa (Unless You End Up as Rorshach Bats)

In a little less than an hour, I’ll make the (insanely short) drive over to Firecracker Press, or rather Central Print, their nonprofit educational arm. I signed up for a letterpress class, and yes, it’s going to be really rudimentary. I have my hair pulled back in a ponytail, so that it doesn’t get caught in the press, and I’m wearing my grubbiest jeans. Tonight, we bring a picture of our favorite leaf – I don’t really have a favorite leaf, but one of my favorite trees is Mimosa pudica. If I had to pick a part of the plant I was most fond of, I’d pick the flowers, which are fuzzy and weird and bright pink, and smell like perfume and ginger ale. But the leaves are interesting, too – mimosa’s also known as sleepy plant or sensitive plant because the leaves shutter together when you touch them (they do the same thing when it gets dark). They are also ferny and prehistoric-looking, really beautiful, as you can see:

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EPSON scanner image

Mimosa pudica

I’ve probably set myself up for failure by picking something complicated with lots of tiny fronds instead of, say, a catalpa leaf, which is just shaped like an upside-down heart. We’ll see if what I end up with looks less like a leaf and more like one big ink smudge, like a Rorschach card.

Postscript! 

So here is my very first attempt at a woodblock (well, it’s a linoleum print; easier to carve than wood, so I got off easy). Yeah, I tackled something too complicated for a beginner. I was really panicking as we were all carving, because I couldn’t make the tools do quite what I wanted them to do. I didn’t get the background clean enough, ask there is a lot of what printmakers refer to as “noise.” Matty, our wonderful teacher, called this “rustic,” which maybe is a nice way to say “primitive,” but I feel happy that this actually turned out looking like something because I wasn’t so sure it would. I was trying to work from a drawing I’d brought, and got really frustrated because it didn’t look exactly like my source image. Then I realized I just had to trust my hand, and things went a bit more smoothly. I didn’t really like my final drawing, and so ended up almost re-drawing the image with the tools. Not ideal. I kind of lost my way, and I also wasn’t sure how my marks would translate to the final print. I have to say, though, as a left-handed person who mostly writes and hasn’t done any printmaking at all, I am very happy that my final prints did not look like schmutzy Rorschach bats. This looks more like a thistle or an Armistice poppy than a mimosa branch, but it looks like something, and a botanical something, too! So, I’m happy. My homework now is to track down linoleum blocks, carving tools, and to think up a big project and a little project. Getting the stuff will be easy. Trying to figure out what I want to do with those tools will not be easy…

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Making Space

In October, we moved into a house. It’s the first time I’ve ever had my name on a mortgage. This house is modest by average American standards – 1800 square feet  – but it feels huge, because we’ve been living in a 625-sf apartment for the last two years. I guess I’m impressed that we managed, as two adult humans, to live in such a small space, but I’m relieved to have a bit more room to float around in. I wrote my last chapbook at the kitchen table; it doubled as my work desk. Though I got a running start on it in our apartment prior to that, which was in O’Fallon Park, and at 1,000 s.f., it was large enough to allow for two office spaces. This is me, figuring out where to hang stuff in that room:

408166_10150612530874929_1812925092_nAs you can see, the walls were very red. It was one of those half-rooms you see at the top of the stairs in St. Louis two-family flats, pretty much just space for my desk and a chair. There was also a very, very small closet, which I outfitted with shelves and put my books inside it. For the six or so months we were there, I was insanely productive. The neighborhood leaked into my poems, high, low, and sideways; and I think maybe the poems I wrote during that period sound like they were written in a small, red room.

So, this is my new office; the opposite, really. It’s not huge, but the ceilings are high and the walls are painted a very calm, meditative blue.

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It’s the same desk that lived in the red room. And some of the ephemera over the desk is from that era, too; it survived two years in storage in a friend’s rehab. There’s also a closet, but one I can put spare clothes and art supplies in, because there is room for an actual bookcase.

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This came with the house. It’s home to all of my poetry books now, including a bunch that I had not seen for two years, because they were taped inside plastic tubs and squirreled away in the back room of a third-story house (a room that had no windows, I might add…it’s a rehab, after all).

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This is the wall behind my desk; the poster is by artist and herbalist Michael Ford, in memory of herbalist Juliette de Baïracli Levy, who is one of my heroes. On the little glass shelf over Juliette, there are three terra cotta pots, which I seeded today with valerian, white evening primrose, and calendula.

My tiny red office was a bit like an oven. (And yes, it was even hot like an oven – we were there in 2012, the summer that temps hovered around 107 for more than a week, and didn’t get much cooler from there.) This new space feels like what my imagination wants a cloud chamber or star chamber to be, like a room where clouds or stars park themselves for a bit. (Those two things, in actuality, are not places one would want to spend any time in at all.) The first week this room became functional, I turned out three poems (not bad ones, either, though they need more revision for sure). But this space seems to be more conducive to stories. Since I’ve moved in, I’ve found a growing chorus of characters appearing in my head; they seem to have no intention of leaving me alone. Apparently this calm, blue workspace is meant to be the place where I sit and transcribe what they tell me.

On Tuesday, I’m starting a class at Firecracker Press, so my hope is that I can figure out how to design and print covers in order to put out those stories as a series of linked, individual chapbooks. Sort of like how Dickens used to do it, in serial form, or like the old Penny Dreadfuls. I’ve even been looking around for tabletop platen presses on Ebay, but I need to learn how to use one first. And in the spirit of Juliette Levy I guess, I’ve been researching how to make ink out of shaggy mane mushrooms, pokeberries, and black walnuts. Those messy ink-making operations will have to take place in another room entirely…or maybe even out on the back porch.

 

But the clothes, with their references to past civilizations, and heart motifs, also represented the fashion dowager’s determined stance against global warming

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The title of this post was stolen from a spammer in my comments. Which are the only kinds of comments I get. (Oh well.) I kind of like this phrase. It doesn’t mean much, but it does remind me, in a tangential way, of my latest dive down the rabbit warren: archivists who write about recipes and clothes. Speaking of: the photograph above is of my “peacock dress,” which just came back from the dry cleaners. (Eco-friendly dry cleaners. Proof of that on the paper slip on the hanger.)

I’ve had this dress since I was 14. My aunties gave it to me for Christmas, but I’d obsessed over it when it hung on an iron pipe rack in a low-lit, spartan vintage clothes store in downtown Salt Lake City. I saved for months to buy it, but then the guy who ran the shop realized that it had been designed by the couturier who made Elizabeth Taylor’s clothes, and hiked up the price accordingly. And that made it forever out of my price range as a 14-year-old. My aunties all had to pool their money to buy it for me – and these were auntie with day jobs. It’s too fragile to wear anymore, because I wore the hell out of it in high school and college, and a friend of mine with a bit more junk in the trunk borrowed it and blew out the lining in the derriere area. So now it’s an archival dress, but I keep it because it reminds me of being 14 and 15 and using it as my emotional flak jacket. When I wore this dress along with some red lipstick and black mascara, I could go into any social situation without my shyness eating me alive. Because if I happened to be in jeans and a frumpy sweater, sometimes that’s what happened. Anything that made me more self-conscious, made me embarrassed, just made my already pronounced introversion/shyness that much worse. So my peacock dress reminds me that as an adult, even though I have less time to think about clothes, that my psyche suffers when I have a lousy outer persona. When I’ve gotten lazy and defaulted to colorless-shapeless-dull-not-fitting-right, I sometimes find myself back to being that stuttering, embarrassed 15-year-old girl. Having your Joan of Arc suit is important, even if it’s a three-tiered peacock dress rather than damask steel armor.

(By the way, I have to stop for a moment to explain the several weeks of silence  here – between the events in Ferguson, buying a house and moving, and an increase in my workload, blogging was just not possible. So that’s that. Moving on…)

Okay. Onto archives, clothes, food. Robyn Schiff’s glorious book, Worth, is one of my favorite poetry collections, but also one of my favorite books about fashion. Here’s a blurb that describes it:

“These strong, multilayered poems test the transformative powers of dressmakers, jewelers, actors, and Darwin’s darkest finches as they adapt to a changing world where the same train hurtles past them toward marketplace and death camp both. Throughout, many of the poems use inherited forms to tell their stories, but the inheritance here comes down damaged and threadbare—yet full of power.

In Worth Robyn Schiff inquires about making, buying, selling, and stealing in the material world, the natural landscape, and the human soul. Opening with the renowned couture house of Charles Frederick Worth, the father of high fashion— “The dress was so big, / one’s hand is useless to take glass from table; / the skirt approaches while the hand is yet distanced” —and ending with the House of De Beers and a diamond thief named Adam Worth— “You’ll know me by my approach / I’m coming on foot with a diamond in my mouth” —Schiff moves from Cartier and Tiffany to the Shedd Aquarium, from Marie Antoinette to the Civil War, from Mary Pickford to Marilyn Monroe.”

The two blogs I’ve been reading and loving to pieces lately, Cooking in the Archives and Two Nerdy History Girls, have that same sort of sparkle and inventiveness when it come to writing about fashion (and food). I’m also a huge fan of Reay Tannahill’s Food in History, in part because she wasn’t a “foodie” – I’ve never been able to stand that word, for one thing, and another thing, fetishizing food is really boring to me; I’d rather know why people cooked what they cooked, how it reflects how they lived, what they believed, etc. Same goes for clothes. I find them interesting and useful, but I’ll never be on a handbag waiting list. It’s an interesting thing to note that all these women are (or in Tannahill’s case, were) academics who also write historical fiction. They see and write about their topics through the lens of the imagination, versus dry facts.

The women behind Cooking in the Archives, Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicosia, pull recipes (or “receipts,” as they used to be known) from the archives at UPenn. They work from codices, and I love the thought of updating a receipt from a codex into a modern-day recipe on a blog. Also, at least to my eye/ear, the texts they are working with read like poems. Here’s a recent example:

To make a tarte of green pease
Take green peas & seeth them tender

then poure them out into a cullender, season
them with safron, salt & sweet butter
& sugar, then close him then bake itt
almost an houre, then draw itt forth
& ice itt, putt in a litle wergice; & shake
itt well, then scrape on sugar & serve itt.

Apparently “wergice,” is “verjuice,” an acidic grape vinegar concoction; they substituted lemon. They’ve also made fish tarts (not great, from all reports),  and lemonade, prepared from another fairly lyrical receipt/recipe:

To Make Lemonade.

Hamers

ley

Boil One Quart of Spring Water, let it stand ’till it is
 Milk Warm. Pare five clear Lemons very thin and put the 
parings in the warm water. Let it stand all Night, the next 
Morning strain off the peel thro’ a fine Lawn Sieve, Squeeze 
the Juice of the five Lemons. Strain it and put it in the
 Water, put in Eleven Ounces of double Refin’d Sugar, One
Spoonfull of Orange flower water. Mix these well together,
it will be fit for use.

And apparently this one’s a winner on the taste front as well.

One of the things I love best about Two Nerdy History Girls is that they challenge what we think we know about historical dress. That corsets made women faint (wrong); that big hair in the 17th century was not hygienic (not anymore true than it is now!); and that there were only two dresses in the average 18th century woman’s closet. (I guess, because we’re in thrall to that myth of infinite progress, we have to view the generations before us as stupider, dirtier, grosser, and more miserable. Yes, their life expectancy was a bit shorter, though often the way most Americans last 5 to 10 years of their lives often isn’t much an improvement on being dead, so…)

My favorite posts are the offbeat ones, like this one about a dress sewn from seaweed-patterned calico at the RISD Museum, the multiple connotations of “The French Lady,” in 18th-century England, and “The Victorian Hair-Guard.” Bradford & Chase have even inspired me to pull out these patterns, which I bought online, gosh, only about six years ago from the Vintage Pattern Lending Library. I suspect I will have to get my sister’s help with the opera cape (Alison sewed her own wedding dress this summer – a reproduction of a 1920s drop-waist with lots of embellishment and detail) but I’ll try the fabric flowers myself. If they turn out to look like anything at all, I plan to tack them to my winter coat. Not sure I can expect them to function as full-fledged magic garment like my peacock dress, but perhaps they can be as a sort of protective talisman; or just a reminder that even if I can’t sew an opera cape, I am competent enough to sew flowers.

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