A five-year project, finally finished and in hand. Local authors including parishioners, professionals and Saratogians.

It’s an elegant, hard-bound, better-than-coffee table project with beautiful photographs, great writing and a true sense of community spirit.

More information on the click-on above.

Thanks for your continued interest in Writing Quietly, Reading Aloud!

Now back to fiction and poetry.

Reading Poems to Children at a Farmer’s Market

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, outdoor


The farmer’s market at Brant Lake (Clark’s Country Mall) is an outdoor market that does a brisk business on Saturdays from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. on Route 8 in the Adirondacks. The big draw in August is the sweet corn, peaches and pies. I sit at a table at one end, “Meet the Author” banner behind me. People pull in with bikes, kayaks, cars and trucks and aim for the produce. It’s difficult to draw customers to fiction or poetry, away from the bounty of Buhrmaster Farms.

So I’ve taken to calling out to folks as they pass by with their pies and peaches “You want literature with that?” More often than not, the response is “No thanks, I’m good.”

With kids, especially younger ones, I ask if they would like me to read them a poem. I feel a little like the Old Dope Peddler or worse. “Hey kiddie. Want some of this?” You have to be careful luring young children in with small samples of poetry. What if they get hooked?

Often one or two get enticed. I read a short poem and if I’m lucky I get “I liked it!” (as if surprised). “Awesome!” one said. “Did you write that?” which indicates a level of curiosity beyond the words—a sort of incredulity that:

1) this is poetry and it doesn’t bite.

2) in their sketchy education they have previously been exposed to poetry that sucks  and they now hear angel harps.

3) they experience complete awe that this adult does this, like it’s an occupation or something, making money selling words at a farmer’s market way the hell up in the Adirondacks.

If successful, the Old-Dope-Peddler approach brings in the parent(s) as well. Sometimes they are so enchanted by their kid’s enchantment they will spend $10-15 on a book or two of poetry, and I make gas money and something to put in the Three Poets Old Age Fund.

One child, six or seven years of age, was very suspicious, as all children should be of an adult offering them poetry. She looked both wistful and mistrusting and sidled closer to the food where the parents were shopping. They seemed unconcerned or distracted. Fingers in her mouth, the little girl listened to the poem, eyes shining and only occasionally darting to the left to check in with Mom and Dad. It was as if she was worried they might think she was engaging in risky behavior, but they were oblivious to all but Mrs. Smith’s pies.

That particular poem, “Silver Bay Lullaby” by Elaine Handley, from a chapbook of ours called “Notes from the Fire Tower” has sold more poetry than fiction at this Farmer’s Market as well as at other book fairs depending on the crowd and number of young children whom I can entice into the sticky, drug-addled web of poetry dependency.

In this American idiom, the local Farmer’s Market, I have engaged with visitors from way out West, a woman wearing an “I Miss Obama” tee shirt, a man in a “Make America Great Again” red cap and four lovely and excited immigrant teenage girls wearing head scarves. Our conversations have covered more weather than the current political climate. But of all those who visit my market table burdened with fiction and poetry, I have most engaged with children. I have learned hope from them as they listen to simple lines. They hear a language richer and deeper and more colorful than what they hear in normal conversation. They are mystically blissful, and so am I.

“Silver Bay Lullaby” by Elaine Handley

The mountains cradle

the last morning mist between them

like parents who’ve brought the baby to bed.

White breath, white silence, expectation.

They are poets who spend the day singing

jade, amethyst, emerald, cobalt

and hush the lake to silver dusk,

and hush the lake to silver dusk.

from “Notes from the Fire Tower” Three Poets on the Adirondacks.




One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all readymade at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me…”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince


The chipmunk was Hoovering the site where the tent and buffet table had been just days before for my daughter’s wedding five years ago.  The chipmunk followed a random forage pattern that encompassed the tent site, the back garden with its bird feeders where cast-off seed and cracked corn could be found, then around the side of the house to where he/she/it was nesting in the rock garden under the Buddha head out front.  Wherever I sat in the ensuing days, I would watch he/she/it/they making the rounds and often passing quite close to me or my feet, pausing only to sit up on hinders, sniff at me, look around, then dash off again.  

I brought out a handful of shelled raw peanuts from the bird store and put them in a dish in the approximate pathway the chipmunk tended to take. He/she/it/they caught the scent and gradually tracked down the peanuts, stuffed cheeks full and ran off in the direction of the rock garden, unloaded and returned. In the meantime, I had moved the dish slightly closer to my foot, then closer, then closer with a peanut on my shoe, then one on my knee, then in my hand. Over  a couple of days, the chipmunk, now recognizable as a single entity with a significantly torn left ear and a scraggly tale, emboldened by the smell of peanuts, became a regular visitor in my lap and in my hand. As long as I held still, he/she/it was content to graze until the pouchy cheeks were full.

A routine began, usually around tea time, I sat on the deck with peanuts, book, tea, and soon the chipmunk would appear. The cats would watch intently from the windows, as the chipmunk rambled over the Adirondack chair, table, books or magazines and me in search of the peanuts. In the cats’ horrified opinion, I had gone to over to the Dark Side.

This went on for about a week or two.  My new son-in-law also became a part of the event one day.  My stolid husband witnessed this, and said he was moved. The only warning from people I knew was that chipmunks are really pests and will eat your cherry tomatoes and burrow in your garden. I’m not much of a gardener, and I’m not fond of tomatoes, at least not raw. Perhaps, fed enough peanuts, the chipmunks would not attack the cherry tomatoes. As far as I was concerned, I could share my garden. I was the interloper in their territory after all. I was a refugee from the city to the woods. I was beholden to their acceptance.

The Mayflower movie theater in downtown Troy, Ohio was the beginning of my affliction about animals. I often refer to myself as a “Disney Cripple.” Snow White, Bambi or Cinderella were all part of my early passions. There were animals—bluebirds singing, rabbits lisping and thumping, motherless deer, smiling raccoons and squirrels—the whole panoply of woodland creatures not to mention house cats, dogs and mice capable of bursting into song at 78 rpm. (They even sewed things!) In a somewhat confusing childhood, Disney cartoons with their very cute but unrealistic looking animals were like a promise of happy endings when all looked dark. That was the beginning of the downfall of my critical thinking, and my immersion in fantasy. It has led to me talking to bugs, birds, cats and now chipmunks.

This has been going on for five years now. The chipmunks have changed or rotated in dominance, but usually there is only one. The one who has engaged me this summer and some of last summer, too, has a distinctive mark on his right flank. One of our granddaughters got in on the act this year and named this particular one “Myrtle” because he lives in the myrtle bed off the back deck. I suggested that, since being a male, “Myrt” might be more appropriate. Sometimes there is a female who comes from the same area of the myrtle bed, likely Myrt’s mate. Actually, I would rather not name them. It is enough that over the years they have been driven by harsh instinct, overriding their fear of humans enough to fill their underground larders with peanuts; enough to let an interloper who is kind enough to offer a bottomless supply of raw peanuts and keep the cats inside. They enthrall me in a everlasting childhood delusion of fantastic connection to the real denizens of these woods, as if they are in fact, my friends.  




yellow cast

The car accident was almost six weeks ago–tri-malleolar fracture (ankle). I had surgery the same day. I now officially have as much hardware in me as Ace has in a store. I try telling myself it makes me more valuable.

That doesn’t really help at all. Neither did the zen approach of appreciating the remarkably long, foreseeable future with nothing but time on my hands and me off my restless feet. The yellow cast was a nod to an iffy  springtime in the foothills of the Adirondacks. As is always with life in the North Country, one never knows, do one?

Here’s what did help: Good friends who made soups, Irish stews, chili; who came to visit and talk, sent gorgeous flowers, who threw the St. Patrick’s Day party here, so I could attend,  and cleaned up afterwards. A husband who brought me meals in bed for the first week or two, cleaned the cat litter, shopped for groceries, learned how to poach an egg, and spotted me while I scooted upstairs on my rear end to get to my office. My daughter who did our laundry, also cooked and cheered me up. But for most of the first three to four weeks I was stuck in bed or in the living room with this brilliant yellow cast elevated on one or two blue bolster pillows. Not really painful, but no damn fun.

My friend, Bev, brought me Ruth Reichl‘s book My Kitchen Year–part memoir, part recipe collection. Reichl mentions breaking her foot very badly on a book tour and being laid up for an unconscionable amount of time (more than me), and discovering a knee scooter could get her back on her one good foot and into the kitchen again. The next week I rented such a gizmo and found my mobility and the ability to use two hands improved my life.


(Photo by Elaine Handley)

So instead of a poem this time, here’s a recipe that I was able, gratis a Ruth Reichl and the knee scooter or knee walker, to prepare for Easter Day. It’s my recipe, not Ruth’s. Since my son-in-law prefers protein over straight vegetarian meals, it’s a combination of primavera recipes I’ve made in the past and the addition of carbonara ingredients. Ruth Reichl DOES have, by the way, a wonderful spaghetti carbonara recipe in her book Garlic and Sapphires, which is one of my favorites of hers (both the book and the recipe).

Fettucine Primavera Shartelli

1-2 pkgs. fettucine (1 pkg for 4 people with leftovers, 2 pkgs for more than 6 with leftovers)

2 pkgs. chopped pancetta

2 T extra virgin olive oil and 1 T butter

1 carrot peeled and chopped

1 – 2 leeks (smallish) cleaned and chopped

1 bunch asparagus, woody ends trimmed or snapped off or peeled, remainder chopped (can be blanched as well, but not necessary)

A handful of sun-dried tomatoes sliced into thin strips

1/2 c. frozen peas (fresh peas are good, too)

4 whole eggs at room temp., blended with 1 cup heavy cream or half and half. (This is good with two packages of fettucine but will make a really creamy 1 pkg.)

Lots (at least a 1/2 c. or more) of good parmigiano-reggiano with some for additional topping as well

Fresh ground black pepper

A double handful of fresh basil chopped.

Start the salted water boiling for the pasta. In a large Dutch oven or iron skillet, fry up the pancetta until crispy. Remove the bits to a paper towel to drain, and keep warm. In the same pot/skillet, add oil and butter and the carrots and saute for 3 minutes. Then add the leeks and the asparagus. Saute veggies together but leave them a bit crispy to the bite.  The pasta water should come to a full boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain but reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water to add to the sauteed veggies. Add the peas and sun-dried tomatoes. Bring to a boil and shut off the heat. Quickly add the beaten eggs and cream and stir into the veggies. Add the hot drained fettucine and the parmigiano-reggiano and a grind or two of black pepper.  Mix all together. Top with the crispy pancetta and basil and serve with a good bottle of wine – white or red. On Easter we had 19 Crimes and also Cristallino Brut, and it was lovely. My daughter made a spinach salad with sliced fresh strawberries and goat cheese with a slightly sweet sesame seed and oil dressing.

HAPPY SPRING! (and it will be when this damn cast comes off.)

The Writing Life, and other madness…

I don’t write for this website much.  I plead several knee surgeries in the last few years. Recuperation from surgery is taxing. Mentally it’s just exhausting. I’m about fourteen weeks out of the last knee replacement and have just begun to turn a corner in the last few weeks. I discovered Reiki helps. Who knew?

Enough of the organ recital. Thankfully, my surgeon informs me I’ve run out of knees to operate on. And thank you, I’m feeling and walking much better now.

Also, just to keep the idly curious informed, I’ve been working on a massive project with about fifteen other writers to create a history book on Bethesda Episcopal Church in Saratoga Springs, NY, a significantly lush Gilded Age building designed by Richard Upjohn, the architect for Trinity Church in Wall Street. With so many authors, it’s been a massive undertaking, but the end is in sight. For a home-spun effort representing both professionals, academics and a doughty bunch of parishioners, it has been a hugely rewarding effort and fascinating research. But perhaps I should wait ‘til I can actually hold a copy in my hand. At least now, after three years, that seems possible.

People who know me, and especially fans of The Truth and Legend of Lily Martindale, keep asking me when the next book is coming out. Aside from the vast church history and two older fiction manuscripts of mine which need to find a publisher or agent, I have two other projects underway. One is about an elephant, a stuffed one, in the Adirondacks (obviously fiction). The other (also fiction) is about a woman in a witness protection program in Saratoga Springs who becomes interested in the history of the house where she’s kept under guard. I’m flying blind on both.

There’s a great poem from Jay Rogoff’s poetry collection How We Came to Stand on This Shore (River City Publishing, 2003) called “Driving in Fog” which aptly describes so much of what I feel when I write. He says “The road emerges out of nowhere/all ten yards of it—and runs straight nowhere,/the white lines stuttering. . .”

Like many of us, I write, or try to write, every day on whatever project comes to hand whether it’s my journal or a serious project like the church history or my own fiction. Poetry has not risen to the surface since The Three Poets did a reading last fall at the Saratoga Springs Public Library. Here’s a poem I read that night that is an apt sense of how I’ve been feeling about poetry and the writing life:


The Poet is found dead, road

kill it appears, her stockings

laddered out to here, up to there.


A great violence done, not all

by vehicle. She had not shaved

in some time.


Her bra, of cheap manufacture,

was so worn in places

the wires and padding poked through.


Her underwear—likely bought in bulk—

stained and over worn

in the posterior.


She carried to the last

an old leather briefcase, heavy

with books and papers.


The impact had split the seams,

sent pages and pages

out upon the wind.


No one could say if she’d been

known, published.

Those men and women


who attended the body

cannot be said to be interested

in the flying papers.


No one seemed inclined to

gather to her the pages that strayed

into the neighboring corn field


which, had she lived, she would note

the way the stubble, broken, bent and tattered

still gave sustenance to the crows.


How the crows were set off against

the darkening sky

the dusting of snow.

Continue reading


The raccoons ravaged the corn and stomped the tomatoes. Purslane and wood sorrel have taken over the gravel walkways. I don’t believe in grassy yards (at least not in the woods, and not many other places either). I live in the woods so we have banks of New York ferns, rhododendrons, mountain laurel, winter berry, witch hazel and a tiny little vegetable and cutting garden which we share with the local rodents.

It’s the last day of August. The light is dimming, the days are shorter, the evenings are cooler, and sometimes I have to close the windows. That ticks me off. I’m not ready for this. I never am. And as if to add insult to injury, the geese are starting to complain.

So I got out my collapsible weed bag on Friday and Saturday and started around the perimeter of the house pulling up weeds, clearing the paths, pulling up the ruined corn and tomatoes. (Tomatoes in pots next year – we’ll see how that works. It’s worked before.) The phlox seems cheery enough. The marigolds are indefatigable. The geraniums are lush and valiant. I am, however, Augusted.

Things will continue to deteriorate until November when, finally so tired of it all, the leaves give up and let go. However, then light returns a bit, at least in the kitchen, and we start holiday planning. But until then there is this lingering despair, this Augusted – ness, which haunts the soul. It’s the end of the growing season, such as it was. The return of the yellow school buses. The flight of geese. The chill. The closing of the windows. The sense of decline.

Lent (and Poets and Writers Magazine)

Two things arrived this week: Lent and Poets and Writers. Both are a challenge. Both involve faith (mine is pretty shaky, both as a writer and a person who goes to church). Both are disciplines which make me flinch, twitch and obsess about my life.


A woman representing Lent with her sparse Lenten fare. “The Joust Between Carnival and Lent” Bruegel (from Wikipedia)

Lent: The annual “what do I give up?” “Why? What good does it do?” “What is faith anyway?” I’ve always thought I’d make a better Buddhist instead of being a mediocre Christian. Let’s face it, going to church because the music and ritual is pretty is not exactly what Jesus had in mind. As a priest friend of Anne Lammott’s said, that “would drive Jesus to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.” If you practice Buddhism, it’s a given you should renounce bad habits forever, or at least on a progressive scale. In Lent, you only have forty days and forty nights to agonize about how you’re so bad at all this stuff. I guess I’ll stick with Jesus.

If it’s tough enough to assimilate Jesus’s forty days and forty nights fasting in the wild and attended by angels, it’s harder still to assimilate the rest of his life, and owning all of that as a “Christian.” Then, there’s St. Paul to further confuse things. I wrote this little doggerel in a notebook years ago: I have mixed feelings about St. Paul./ I don’t care for the man at all.

My Lenten challenge this year is to figure out why St. Paul bothers me so much. Is he the reason that Catholic priests are all guys and even some Anglicans don’t appreciate women bishops and priests (because it’s not apostolic succession. Don’t get me started!)? And Paul is one of the reasons that simple folk pound on the Bible to condemn homosexuality. But that’s a huge question of context and translation. Depending on which version you read (even between the Oxford Revised Standard and the Oxford New Revised Standard), Paul was actually bashing pedophiles. I disapprove of homophobia as heartily as I do approve of same-sex marriage, but I’d bash a pedophile in a heartbeat.

C’mon. Who was this guy who traveled so far to convert people he used to persecute, and now wants to convince them (and me) that God’s designated representative has appeared on earth, because he, St. Paul, had a vision after the Crucifixion, which, had he been there, he would have likely cheered like a Red Sox fan?

I have problems with his veracity and sanity.

So my Lenten practice is to read all the epistles of St. Paul. I’m going to figger this guy out if I have to drink copious amounts of strong, black lapsang souchong  to get through it all. How bad can Paul be if he can write: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” (Corinthians I, King James version). That’s some good writing.

At least there’s an end to Lent and I can go back to joining Jesus at the cat bowl.

But now Poets and Writers is still another thing. It comes relentlessly every two months and stares at me in the face like a dog with a ball. I dutifully look at the articles, especially reading the ones about publishers and agents. I spend quite a bit of time in the classifieds to see if there are places to which I could possibly send my poetry, non-fiction or fiction. THEN there’s the part where I sit down and check out all the websites and submissions guidelines and cross out everything I’ve circled. In two complete afternoons of searching some thirty sites, I sent out two submissions.

This is not the best use of my time.

But it is part of the practice of being a writer. It is discipline. And I am an unruly, unwilling, even hostile participant. I know it’s good for me. If the three big questions are “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” and “What ought I to do?” I get that I’m a writer, and I’m supposed to show up – this means at the page and in the pew and at the lectern, where, as often as not, my assignment is to read the Epistle on a given Sunday. I do my homework. I practice. Maybe someday it will all do me some good. The ashes smeared on my forehead on Ash Wednesday are a pretty effective reminder why.

Here’s an old poem:

WINE – A Lamentation

 He takes a sip, prize

glass rests beside him, red

 wine glows lovelier than opal gin,

than russet whiskey,

lovelier by far than

cold tea in my old chipped cup.

 I bought the glasses, three boxes,

anticipating much celebration—but

 the birthdays come

one after another.  And

deaths.  I forgot how loss

demands an odd celebration.

Now Lent comes again. 

We make sacrifices.  His is

half-hearted—no hard liquor.  Religion

goes only so far towards redemption.

His Jesus, too close for perspective,

mine too far for faith.

Drink is habit more than sacrament.

 I watch the glow reach his cheeks.

 He talks a bit, not much, of craving golf

With nothing to loosen my tongue, I nod.

Mary Sanders Shartle (from Winterberry, Pine by Elaine Handley, Marilyn McCabe and MSS)


What do you do up there in winter?



Some years ago there were three, large, inoperable picture windows on the northwest side of our house, which was odd. Living in the North Country (upstate New York), it is a known fact that most of our weather comes from the west. To have that side of a house shut off from those accessible breezes is unthinkable. As soon as we amassed a little renovation money, we replaced the three fixed windows with casements, a slider and a deck to encourage walking out.

The annual spring celebration happens when the temperature hits a balmy sixty-five degrees and all those windows are opened for the first time to allow the spring breezes and bird song to stream through after the long winter. The saddest day of the year is when we shut the windows and slider against the cold and now forbidding winds and occlude the less than musical clamor of the jays and crows.

So it was at this time I returned from extensive knee surgery in early November and assumed the pose of recovery on the blue couch with the view to the woods and the foothills of the Adirondacks in the distance, the bird feeder in the foreground.


The two cats joined me in practiced positions, testing the new bionic joint until it ached and all of us had to move.


Wink and Clooney




When we first moved here from downstate in 1981, we had a radio but no TV. We referred to our new life in the woods as having only four channels: bird feeder, book, fireplace and kitchen stove. Of the four, the bird channel tends to be the most intermittently exciting. The population of wild turkeys has swollen disproportionately to the disappearance of the ruffed grouse. Here’s how it looked the other day as I lay here:


…and this just a week before Thanksgiving!  There were eighteen of the evolved dinosaurs going after cracked corn.

My temporary immobility in the face of all this nature outside the now operable but closed up windows, is as much an ache as the new, operable and yet unnatural and painful knee. Part of me is bone on bone in spite of the repaired joint. I doubt I will snowshoe this winter, let alone cross-country ski. This torments me as much as my excellent physical therapist who stretches, presses and bends the stupid joint to her will so that maybe one day I can return to those old activities. The squirrels torment the cat with the protective glass between them, a bit unfair. I only watch as the cat does. So near and yet so far, like the hills I used to hike and ski in the distance there.


Clooney and a persistent squirrel

Here’s a poem from those earlier days:


 We do describe the smell of snow—

like dust, like washed ashes.

 Four channels:

     Bird feeder



     What’s cooking?


The great north woods out of doors,

negotiable in primitive ways:

     planks of slicked wood

     bear paws



Limited conversation:


     who’s  pouring?

                 Mary Sanders Shartle, from Winterberry, Pine


A couple of Saturdays ago, my husband and I attended a weight-lifting competition at one of the local Y’s. Our son-in-law, a Y trainer, was one of the competitors. The room was packed with enthusiastic fans of local lifters, both men and women of varied abilities from good to really good. There were three events: squat lifts, bench presses and dead lifts. I won’t waste time here explaining procedure, rules, equipment, safety precautions. There were two things that really impressed me aside from the display of sheer brute strength, especially one chap who attempted to dead lift 700 pounds. (He succeeded in lifting, but not releasing the lift in proper form.) The ritual of lifting, like all rituals, involves gear, costume, art, symbols, preparation, approach, procedure. There is a prominent respect for the effort involved.

The first thing I loved were the tattoos. The tattoos at the competition were really extraordinary. There were a whole range of symbols and imagery–some of it arcane and some of it more modernistic in terms of graphics. Roughly half of the participants sported tattoos, some were massive, whimsical and colorful, others dark and odd or indecipherable–writing, webbing, geometric, religious or profane. The best was an intense young man with a carefully detailed spinal cord running down his own and the word “BROKEN” in Gothic lettering spanning the space between his scapula.

The second thing that impressed me was the support for each and every lifter provided by every other lifter along with the audience, trainers and judges. There were no favorites to speak of. There was one incidence of a squabble when one lifter did not feel he’d been fairly judged. (He was given another shot at it.) In a room full of such lethal power, there was nothing but joy, warmth and good will. Cheers from the crowd, cheers from the Y attendants, cheers from other lifters. “C’mon. You got this!” There was tension in every lift as every muscle in every attending body identified with the lifter’s challenge, every breath held and released with his or hers.

The next day was Sunday. Before the service starts in the Episcopal church there is a formal ritual of lighting the candles. Two acolytes in robes (and sneakers) process in unison carrying long staffs with an extendable lit taper on one curve and a snuffer on the other. They bow before the cross and step up to the altar. There are two large, heavy brass candlesticks there. (I know how heavy and fragile they are, because I’ve tried to lift them.) The candle lighting is a spectator sport for the congregation because it’s tricky. To get the lit taper to meet the wick of the candle is not easy.  Very often on Sunday there is one candle on the altar and one acolyte struggling with a taper that does not reach the wick. Finally, the head acolyte comes in, lifts the entire candle down so that the acolyte can reach it properly. There is a collective exhale from the congregation when the candle is finally illuminated.

I hesitate to wander any farther down the paths of metaphor. Weight lifting at the Y and candle lighting in church could not be more disparate except for the common rituals that attend both.  But  the head acolyte helping the younger with the candle, the congregation holding their breath in expectancy and releasing it at the successful lighting was so evocative of the audience of the weightlifting competition the day before, I started taking notes in wonder.  I would not be more greatly entertained if there were tattoos involved. Under those acolytes’ white cassocks and black robes in church, all I see and love are the sneakers. Because of that casual street gear in a formal and ancient ritual, I think of the Olympiad, the uniforms, the gear, the march, the lighting, the athletics and all their attendant forms. I hold my breath and release like the lifters.

Navels, Braiding and Mother’s Day in the North Country

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I traveled to Parishville, New York to learn how to braid rugs. It was my daughter’s birthday and Mother’s Day weekend. Helen Condon, whom we’ve gotten to know from Great Camp Sagamore, has a thriving cottage industry in the old grange just by the dam over the St. Regis River there. Her second floor is a vast workshop with shelving all around and heaving piles of wool in chromatically arranged colors.

DSC00464The fields of wool

For a fee, she will feed and house two people at the grange over a weekend, provide a kit with the colors of your choice (and Helen’s theme) and teach you how to braid a rug or a basket or a chair seat. I chose a rug color scheme called “Blue Heron.” My daughter chose “October Forest.” During a weekend with Helen, you can form about eight rows of an oval rug and on Sunday, you bag up the remainder with all the accouterments, haul it home and finish it. It is now some weeks later and my daughter has finished her rug. I am now up to row fourteen of seventeen total rows for a 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 foot oval rug.

A braided rug begins with a “navel,” the center connector of the three original 2-inch strands of wool in different colors or patterns. The strands are folded, imbedded and stitched in a T-formation. We attached the navel in a clip on a piece of plywood bound to the worktable by a C-clamp, and the braiding began.

My mother used to braid my long hair when I was a child. It was a somewhat painful ordeal, especially for someone with my thick, easily tangled hair. But every day after breakfast until I was about eight or nine, I had my hair braided. If my mother was not around, one of my older sisters would do the duty. Straight part down the middle of my head, braids over either ear, barrettes to hold back the wisps on each side. Scrape, tug, pull, twist, pull, twist, pull, twist. There was a ferocity to the process which I endured and not quietly as I recall. However, I loved to braid and there was no one younger or willing to suffer my attentions. When I had measles (several times), I was forbidden to read (there was, and is, some medical evidence that measles could cause blindness in children, but as a result of a measles-concurrent Vitamin A deficiency, not, perhaps, from reading or eye strain, but this was the 1950s.) To entertain myself through the interminable days of illness, I would tear strips of tissue from a Kleenex and braid the strands, making little book marks for the books I would not be able to read until I was well.

Helen would strip long yardage of wool for her rugs and tear them into 2-inch wide lengths to be used for braiding. Every time we’d get to the end of a strip, we’d add the same (or at a given point another strip) with a diagonal run through the sewing machine, then back to braiding. After about three feet of braid lay about us and around the fattening rug, we would stitch the braid to the last row of rug with a special thick, waxed thread and a broad flat needle. We’d break for wonderful meals with Helen and then back to work in the fields of wool.  Helen had acquired a new kitten, named Della Reese, who sat either on my shoulder or on my daughter’s lap while we braided and stitched and turned. With the rushing sound of the St. Regis River outside the window, it was a lovely way to spend a weekend.

The fields of wool

Helen, myself and Della Reese

Genna braiding "October Forest"

Genna braiding “October Forest” with Della watching.

I’m not sure I will start my own cottage industry of Adirondack rug-braiding, but it has been interesting to learn a new skill set, one passed down from Helen’s grandmother to Helen and now to my daughter and me.  At home, my own cat, Wink, sits on the rug while I work. “Blue Heron,” Helen’s Adirondack canvas the colors of pond, stilted regal bird, moss and reed greens and blue sky, is growing row by row in my imagination – perhaps a poem. I look out at the waning Adirondack spring and imagine a canvas of my own with all the shades of green we see driving through the hills, the colors of lilac, honeysuckle and forsythia by the farm houses, the blue of sky. I wonder how much of those colors I could capture, as Helen has, in a 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 oval rug. I might call it “Adirondack Spring.” But Helen will probably beat me to it.

I made sure to keep my daughter’s hair short when she was much younger. She could grow it as long as she wanted when she could shampoo and care for it by herself. I spared her, at least, that childhood imposition of forceful braiding. She did have the vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella. I’m not sure if I or someone else taught her to braid, but how lovely to have the ability to take something so inherent in our shared lives to make an object as useful and enduring as a woolen rug.