In Memoriam, P.C.P.

Last night I lay awake late, charged with excess energy after sending out query letters for my book. When I awoke, I learned of the passing of one of its inspirations. Pamela Corpron Parker taught my very first college course, and though I have known and loved may wonderful faculty members as both mentors and colleagues, it is still her image that drops into the slot when I hear the word “professor.” I remember her entrances to class – a smidge late and all a-flutter. The way she had us dance to “The Monster Mash” when starting Frankenstein. The B++ (whatever that is) that she gave me on my first paper, deftly knocking me down a peg while giving me the message that with harder work, I would succeed. I remember her welcoming the members of Honors Reading Literature into her home in a rose-covered apron, redolent of baking. “You’re a feminist but you wear an apron?” a male classmate said. We were all a little clueless. I certainly was; I had just turned in a paper implying that God was male. It must have taken a lot of grace to deal with us. Actually I know it did, because now I’m a professor with an oft-bitten tongue. Years after I saw her last, Pam helped me get my position – guiding the job material revisions that took me from only a few nibbles to more options than I needed. Once in a while, to my disbelief, a student will say I changed his or her life. It seems unlikely, but I do know one thing: Dr. Parker changed mine. That she is gone? Unfathomable. I think she just walked into a new classroom, all a-flutter and much too early. “Ah, how you will delight the angels.”

– Katie Carlson, Whitworth University class of 2003

December Derby Day

Last week I celebrated 6 years with a bunny who could not be more loved. I also remedied a long oversight: the fact that while I have hundreds of photos of Derby, I have hardly any of us together. Often people don't really get the appeal of a house rabbit, save for the cuteness or novelty, until they see Derby interact with me. Then it is hard to deny. He is not only a worthy pet, but as dear a friend as any dog or cat could be. To celebrate him and to honor the beauty and vulnerability of all his kind, here is Derby in portraits. 

Derby is around 9 years old. He was found wandering on the side of the road as an adult. He may have been a meat or fur rabbit who escaped slaughter, he may have been an outdoor pet frightened out of his hutch, or he could have been a dumped Easter bunny -- all of these are very common plights for such misunderstood animals. The kind woman who found him took him in, but she chose not to feed him the hay he needed or to bring him inside, even though that's what Carolina Pet Rescue told her to do when she called. Somehow, he kept his life and spirits even in the brutal heat of two North Carolina summers. Eventually his finder surrendered him to the rescue, but by then he faced health problems stemming from limited care. 

Because of his ailments, Derby remained at the rescue for over a year. Everyone loved him but no one wanted to take on an animal that needed regular surgery. I didn't want to either. I wanted a little rabbit. A healthy rabbit. Heck, I wasn't sure I even wanted a rabbit; I'd never cared for one before, and until a few months before, I'd had all the usual prejudices about them being boring, messy, or mean. I had seen Derby's pictures and wasn't interested. He was huge, looked morose, and had issues. Fortunately, he was also wiser than I. 

"We'd like you to meet Derby," said Kay Bishop, the veterinarian who runs the rescue. I didn't want to seem calloused, so I said "okay." Then he climbed on my lap and wouldn't leave.

In the weeks that followed I couldn't stop thinking about Derby, even though I knew adopting him was impossible on my graduate school stipend. I don't base decisions on emotions. Not usually. Still, I asked Kay to run some more tests, and somehow he came out healthy. On December 6, 2009, Derby came home with me. 

Now Derby is my home. If I could trade everything I owned for the chance to have him with me always, I'd move into a shack and never waver.

So here's to Derby -- The Honourable Mr. Edmund Fitzwilliam Bunbury, M.P. for New Derbyshire. Here's to a pet who responds to at least 12 words, uses a litter box, jumps into my bed every morning to snuggle, travels like a champ, and can still jump three vertical feet at age 9. Hooray for six pounds of fluff that can open cupboards and climb in, an adorably strong will that slams his food bowl on the floor when he wants to be fed, and an impossibly cute little head that houses more brains than most of my family's dogs. Happy birthday, darling boy. Thank you for rescuing me. 

Frances Hodgson Burnett in Tennessee

Avid Tennessee readers have likely enjoyed children's classics like The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy, yet few are aware that the author of these distinctly English tales actually began her writing life in Knoxville. To honor and promote her connections to our state, seven students from my Fall 2015 Women Writers course at Lee University joined me in creating a guide to the Burnett sites and resources in East Tennessee. Please click here for a look!

Vermont Portraits III: Photographer and Gallerist Catherine Dianich Gruver

I arrived to a pitcher of water infused with nasturtiums and herbs. Flowers were tucked in the outdoor shower -- a hanging pot by the curtain, a single lily beside the soap. I currently live in the American South, which I will defend against some of the critique and all of the bigotry it faces from the rest of America, but subjectively my thickest roots run on a higher latitude. It is northern hospitality I most love and miss. There was something about those quiet, elegant details, offered without effusion or small talk, that made me feel like I'd stepped into a life lived with art. 

I had. I was staying with Catherine Dianich Gruver, a photographer who owns a gallery and lives in a picture. Dummerston, Vermont is one of those villages unique to New England -- there is hardly anything there, but everything there is perfect. Kitty-corner from Catherine's house is a historic grange, while a Greek Revival church looms across the intersection. Catherine's own antique home is surrounded by gardens, including some planned by her daughter Sarah, who interned with the British National Trust. As with most private properties in Vermont, lines of tubing ran between the maple trees, a promise of sugaring when the sap runs. A few miles down the road is the oldest covered bridge in Vermont, while a drive in the other direction will bring you to the picturesque and elite Putney School of Kennedy fame. Over all reigns Cooper the Golden Retriever, noble of mien and warm of heart.  

For more information on Catherine's Brattleboro, VT gallery, click here. Catherine could connect you with Richard Foye's pottery (mentioned in a previous post), with other fine art she tastefully curates, or with the best ways to take in southern Vermont. She told me that when the book I'm researching comes out, she'd be happy to host a signing. I'd be mad not to take her up on it. 

Vermont Portraits II: Christopher Darrow of Olallie Daylily Gardens

When I asked for sightseeing recommendations from the first Vermonter I met, the answer came back as a question: "Are you into daylilies?" 

Have you ever been asked if you are into daylilies? 

Yes, I am into daylilies. Chris Darrow, however, is really into daylilies. Three generations into them, actually. That's how long the Darrow family has been hybridizing these hardy flowers, and it turns out that there's a whole world of them beyond the Stella D'Oros that line nearly every freeway plot and corporate HQ from Cleveland to Coral Gables. 

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Located in South Newfane, just down from Richard Foye's kilns and the longest covered bridge in Vermont, Chris's remarkable farm welcomes both picnickers and mail orders. If you go, follow the driving directions on this link, and make sure you breathe in at least one delicate scent when you arrive. Besides the olfactory delight, you'll end up with a yellow streak of pollen on your face -- the difficult-to-remove, Ash Wednesday-style tell-tale of someone with a nose for beauty. 

Vermont Portraits I: the Raku Pottery of Richard Foye

Rural Vermont proudly proves that nature and civilization can meld in a harmony only dreamed of in most American suburbs, if it is considered at all. I speak as if from experience, but truthfully I was only there five days. One can see deeply, however, when one has the best of guides. My host, Catherine Dianich Gruver, owns an art gallery in Brattleboro. Effervescent, well-connected, and generous, Catherine whirled me from studio to farm to dinner party with such joyous welcome that my native reserve was no match for my delight. I'll tell you more about Catherine soon, but I'll commence with one of the first places she took me: the pottery studio of Richard Foye

Richard Foye's pots are an unforgettable example of that fusion of rural life and art that I mentioned. In fact, they're quite literally a fusion. Raku is a Japanese tradition in which a glazed pot is pulled from the kiln without cooling. The quick change in temperature creates surprising patterns in the glaze. After removing the hot ceramics, Richard encloses them in grass, pinecones, or other combustable elements from his land. Their terroir is thus smoked right into their surface. 

Richard lives in an old New England farmhouse, surrounded by flowers, a swimming hole, and his notable collection of vintage vehicles. The patina of the latter reflects that of the pots. When Catherine and I arrived, Richard handed me the best pickle I've ever tasted, and we sat awhile on the porch. He tripped me up on his dry wit at least once, though I'm normally hard to trip; Richard was a philosophy major. He is also remarkably photogenic, a fact which I saw immediately but would not have done anything about if Catherine hadn't encouraged me. It is hard to be shy with Catherine at the helm, so in an absolute departure from the norm, nearly all my Vermont photography is of people. I loved it. 

If you would like to read more about Richard Foye, click here. That link also provides contact information for Richard; I'd encourage anyone interested in his work to get in touch. His prices are quite manageable, which means I had a not-so-manageable carryon bag when I left Vermont.

Reynolds Creek Fire, Glacier National Park

I took these photos on 21 July 2015, from 7:31 to 8:24 pm, at four vantage points along U.S. Highway 89 near St. Mary, Montana. I'm posting them unedited (besides cropping and on-the-spot white balance correction) to reveal the dramatic natural color of sun and smoke, as well as the variations of shade that occurred within minutes.

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Orange Flower Water Whipped Cream

"All the same, two minutes later Jose and Laura were licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream." - Katherine Mansfield, "The Garden Party"

Disclaimer: those are Arabian Jasmine flowers, since I don't currently have a blooming orange tree. Can you imagine how this shoot smelled? Heaven.

Disclaimer: those are Arabian Jasmine flowers, since I don't currently have a blooming orange tree. Can you imagine how this shoot smelled? Heaven.

 When I was a little girl, my mother would give me permission to forgo the Thanksgiving pumpkin pie in favor of a bowl of Cool Whip. Cool Whip, margarine, and non-dairy creamer have since become anathema, yet I think my childhood concept was at least correct in spirit. "Whipped topping" is too dismissive a phrase for the flourish of fluff which, assuming it actually came from a cow, can be more satisfying than whatever complicated dessert it aids in sliding down. Doesn't the phrase "strawberries and cream" still evoke dreamy pastoral scenes, world-weary though we may be? To me, yes.

Recently I made a small innovation that proved one of my prouder moments in the kitchen, though a little research reveals that it is hardly original. Instead of vanilla, I whipped orange flower water in with the cream I was putting on top of an Easter pavlova. A friend gave me a bottle of the exotic and redolent stuff a few years ago, and it had been languishing -- a small luxury I cherished but did not know how to use. My experience with floral waters was limited but enthusiastic: rose gelato in Nice and a rose water-drenched coconut cake at Lantern in Chapel Hill, NC. The latter is the only time a bite of something has left me utterly speechless with delight.  If rose water works in gelato, I figured it couldn't hurt to blend orange flower water with my whipped cream.

Reader, it did not hurt. Oh no. It stood up to the strawberries and jam in the pavlova just fine, and indeed, it made me wonder if the rest of the dessert was even necessary. Now I eat it in a bowl like my little girl self, though some berries and a bit of coconut granola are always welcome.

If you'd like to try it, whip a half-pint of cream with about 1/4 cup confectioner's sugar and maybe 1 teaspoon orange flower water, which can be found in Middle Eastern groceries. Optional: dab a bit of the water on your wrists and pretend you're a Victorian bride or Italian grandmother, both of whom would do the same.  Then take a pillowy spoonful, lick it, and pause. Ah. There it is. The "absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream."