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Senora DeFarge

arpillera protest 2I went to Chile hoping to see textiles in action, to visit women who spun wool and practiced traditional weaving and carved their own crochet hooks. This I found, but also something more.

The world’s most famous knitter is probably Madame DeFarge, of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Via her stitch code recording wrongs perpetrated by the autocracy during the French Revolution, many an innocent (if irregular-looking) scarf doomed someone to the guillotine. Portrayed largely unsympathetically until the end of the novel, she is herself a victim of the crimes she records.

In the aftermath of Pinochet’s Military Coup in Chile, Senora DeFarge emerged. Several Latin American cultures have a tradition of arpilleras. These are a combination of applique and embroidery depicting a typical scene from everyday life. In order to understand how they became a central fixture of a protest movement, you need to know that in 1973 Pinochet took the country by military coup from Allende (who in 1970 became the world’s first socialist party president to be democratically elected—and you can imagine how scary that was during the Cold War).

I encourage you to look up the English translation of the speech Allende gave when he knew not only death, but also revocation of his reforms to date, was imminent. His moving final address applies to a wider situation than his immediate one.chile protest

Pinochet’s promises mutated into repression. People began disappearing. Many left voluntarily after seeing the handwriting on the wall. Some received “if you’re still here next week” messages and took the hint; more than 200,000 “voluntary” exiles left between 1973 and 1988. About 3,000 people disappeared into camps–as in no one ever found the bodies–with another 40,000 detained and released.

Freedom of the press ended; unions for miners and transport workers were emasculated; and food shortages grew. The Chilean exiles talked non-stop about their homeland being taken apart, but since they were from a “Communist country” (America in particular did not like Allende) not everyone listened—at first. Inside Chile, mostly poor men and students were disappearing, so who cared?donde estan

Enter the arpillera-makers. Sad as it is to admit, attracting international attention to injustice can be hard. There’s just so much of the stuff going around, who gets attention can literally depend on how well you sell the message. Women in prison smuggled out embroidered scenes, made from threads pulled from their own clothes and wood splinter needles, showing the horrors. Outside the camps, mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives began marching, but not about the political issues; instead they made famous the question “Donde Estan?” (Where are they?) shouted from arpillera banners as they silently walked.

chile arpillera protestFrom as small as 10×12 inches, to bigger than five feet square, the arpilleras also went up on walls, got smuggled out of (and into) the country, and caught the interest of television stations.

It’s amazing how loud a silent art form can be. Pinochet was peacefully voted from power in 1988 after international sanctions showed him that he’d run through his foreign friends. The “Mothers of the Disappeared” protests didn’t just help get Pinochet out with no shots fired in the change-over, they also helped locate and close the camps no one wanted to admit were out there. Never underestimate a woman’s love, plus needle and thread.

reconciliationBut the arpillera legacy continued. When the Chileans who’d left came home to a different country, when their children who’d matured elsewhere couldn’t identify as Chileans, when those who stayed scorned those who fled for abandoning a country that needed them, again the arpilleras came out, this time as an act of reconciliation. Scenes depicted returnees welcomed, Chile united, hands reaching across water.reconciliation 2

Stitching up wounds, women’s true colors show.

 

 

making them

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Too Many Books

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“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

-Robert Browning

 

I’m depressed.

OK, maybe depressed is the wrong word. I’m here in Big Stone Gap, knee deep in kittens, good food, and friendly people. I’m happy, I’m content. What’s better than living in a bookstore? It’s kind of a dream come true, right? So why am I…wistful?

I believe it’s the unavoidable realization that I will never be able to read as many books as I would like. This may not seem like a big deal. I mean, there are plenty of things I’ll never get to do in my lifetime, that’s what the Travel Channel is for. In the normal course of things, I can accept that my life will contain the pleasure of reading only a small, finite number of books. There are times, however, when I feel the weight of all those unread words. This feeling is strong when I visit libraries, and naturally, bookstores.

When I first arrived at Tales of the Lonesome Pine, the shelves bursting with books whispered possibility as only bookshelves can. The knowledge that I had all month to peruse left me giddy. Who knew? Maybe I’d take a gander at the romance section; I’m not proud. Or the Westerns. I’ve never read a Western! The craft section! The gardening section!!! THE MYSTERY ROOM!!!! It was all at my disposal. I imagined tiptoeing through the shelves at midnight, as The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy played softly in the background.

Two weeks in, I’m feeling a little less giddy. Maybe it’s because I’ve only finished two books since I arrived. Maybe it’s because I can’t decide what to read next. Maybe it’s because, with only two weeks left in December, the dream of endless reading possibility has been effectively cut in half.

I can take books home. As many as I want. But that doesn’t alter the fact that I will never read all the books on my ever-shifting list. Maybe this is OK. The ultimate Zen lesson. A reading life can never be fully satisfied. But why would you want it to be? Imagine the tragedy of actually, literally, having nothing to read. When I die, I will not have read the vast majority of the books my fellow humans have produced. Dreary thought? Perhaps, but I will certainly have enjoyed the time I spent trying.

 

 

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The Monday Book: PEACE MEALS by Anna Badkhen

This book drifted into our shop and I read it on and off throughout our recent Chilean travels. It was a great choice for travel reading because it is easy to dip into, chapter by chapter. Badkhen writes in newspaper articles, each chapter complete in itself and pretty self-contained. People looking for a start-to-finish story may not enjoy that so much.

I liked that it was basically a series of short stories themed around food: how hard it can be to get it in war zones; how different getting it is depending on your nationality, ethnicity, and place of eating at the time; how differently mindful of food people are in different countries; how good or bad it tastes depending on why you’re eating it, with whom. Psychology meets food in her thoughtful writing, but she is rarely sentimental. There’s a chapter in which she fights with herself after lambasting her son for wasting food growing in their garden, trying to decide how much of the world she wants him to understand at a young age, trying to figure out whether other people’s food needs influencing her behavior really makes a difference, or is just a feel-good sop.

Recipes accompany each chapter, but I’m not a cook and skipped them. If you enjoy trying to make different types of food, the recipes include where in the US you can get hard-to-find ingredients, or good substitutes for them, which I imagine real cooks would appreciate. Me, I stick to devouring words and ideas, and this book is replete with both. It’s not just that she wrote about her pizza in Iraq, or the hospitality of those with nothing handing out half of it to guests (her favorite meal of all time was a handful of dusty green raisins shared with a man who poured half of his supper into her palm). It’s that between those descriptions she does some thoughtful investigation of her own mind and comparison to other experiences.

In other words, this is an insightful and often analytical book about the emotions and experiences that surround food, in places ranging from overstocked to seriously shortaged. If that sounds interesting to you, you’ll love this book.

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The Monday Book: TIME WAS SOFT THERE by Jeremy Mercer

“In a place like Paris, the air is so thick with dreams they clog the streets and take all the good tables at the cafés. Poets and writers, models and designers, painters and sculptors, actors and directors, lovers and escapists, they flock to the City of Lights. That night at Polly’s, the table spilled over with the rapture of pilgrims who have found their temple. That night, among new friends and safe at Shakespeare and Company, I felt it too. Hope is a most beautiful drug.”

mercerJack and I got the idea for using shopsitters at our place – people who receive free room and board in return for living there – from Shakespeare and Co. This is a famous bookstore across from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

On a listserv of bookshop owners, talk turned to books about bookstores. (I received ego strokes, and then we went on.) Mercer stayed at the shop for some time, watching the ebb and flow of people who ranged from down and outs to up and comings. He also spent significant time with George, the shop owner (although not its founder – Sylvia Beach did that) and some of the regulars.

Mercer’s book is in many ways journalistic, showing his roots as a true crime writer. Yet he portrays the under humanity so simply with his “this is what happened” prose. One of the blurbs on the back calls the book a romanticized version of the bum’s life, but I don’t agree. The book is far less romantic than wistful.

Among the things Mercer does is get George’s daughter to visit, and ultimately secure the shop’s future. It has a fascinating history: closed during the Nazi Era, considered a hothouse of sedition in the 1960s student riots, monitored by the CIA in the 1990s if George is to be believed.

There are a couple of startling moments: an ethnic hate crime results in murder and Mercer is less concerned about the murder than the police sniffing around a bookstore full of people with improper visas to be in France. He seems more concerned when the 84-year-old George gets engaged to 20-year-old shop worker Eva. That kind of thing. It all just sails past, along with the adorable moments of scorn for “30 minute tourists” who just want to stick their head in the door because the place is famous, having no understanding of or interest in its true ethos.

And there’s a very funny cynicism to the scheme three residents come up with, to sit and write in front of the tourists and sell the pages, story by short story. The description of this was, quite frankly, laugh out loud funny.

This isn’t a story about books, but about the bookstore itself, its inhabitants, and its purpose. Mercer’s final paragraph is a good summation: “In the end, yes, it is a famous bookstore and, yes, it is of no small literary importance. But more than anything, Shakespeare and Company is a refuge, like the church across the river. A place where the owner allows everyone to take what they need and give what they can.”  

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K.U.T.E (Kittens United Terrorizing Everyone)

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Scarlett, Ready to Address her Subjects

Shopsitter Jenny here. I may not have much time, so listen closely. I’ve been taken hostage by a group known only to me as K.U.T.E. I don’t know exactly what they want, but I seem to be completely in their thrall. I’ve been given the tasks of meal preparation, litter box clean up, and cuddling. The strange part is, I don’t mind at all. I’m HAPPY to do it. The hold they have over me is almost…supernatural. All one of them has to do is wave a tiny paw, or sneeze a mini achoo, and I’m ready to do their bidding. I would have written for help sooner, but the one they call Scarlett was sitting on the computer all morning looking at me with big dewy eyes. I was powerless to move her. Fortunately, they seem to nap en masse, so I am now able to send out my plea. Come. Get. A. Kitten. Save me from the overwhelming power of K.U.T.E. I fear that one (or more!) of them will convince me to bring them home to New York, and then, not only will K.U.T.E have the opportunity to spread its devastating culture of kitten kisses, but my mother will kill me!

A quick run down of the players…

Scarlett. Sister to Rhett. Cuteness exceeds tolerable levels with this one. Seems to be a bit of a ringleader.

Rhett. Scarlett’s brother. Rhett’s metaphorical tee-shirt reads, I’d Rather be Lounging.

Henry Dashwood. Dash for short. Exceptionally handsome chap. A little shy, but snuggly and playful when he warms up. Adorable kitten antics, or up to something? You decide.

Hadley. Little, but mighty, with a deceptively sweet face…Oh geez! Here she comes! She’s climbing up my pant leg! SHE’S GOING FOR MY NECK!

She’s…kissing my cheek.

What’s that you say Hadley? You want your prawns peeled and served with caviar? Why certainly. Let me take care of that for you.

 

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The Monday Book: WHERE’D YOU GO BERNADETTE? by Maria Semple

Jack guest blogs the Monday book this week

I loved this novel and read it right through in one day. Now that is unusual for me, because I tend towards non-fiction and the few novels I do read are usually whodunnits. An exception to that would be Alexander McCall Smith, author of the No. 1 Ladies Detective and the Scotland Street series. That may be a clue to why I enjoyed this so much. Semple has the same great way of capturing a sense of place. For McCall Smith it’s Botswana and middle-class Edinburgh and for Semple it’s Seattle and Antarctica!

The first half of the book seems like a disconnected series of e-mails, school reports and anonymous commentary and I was just beginning to question where it was all leading when – whoosh – it all converged and began making a different kind of sense.

I loved the way Semple nails her characters while also teasing the reader with a whole host of really bizarre settings – Microsoft, the crazy house in Seattle, Antarctica and high powered architecture.

I certainly don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, but I was completely hooked and couldn’t put this book down. Wendy suggested that it was a ‘young adult’ book, and I suppose it might be but that shouldn’t put anyone off reading it.

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Jack’s Travels

chileI count myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel widely during my life, and mostly at little cost for various reasons. When I was a part of the folk band ‘Heritage’ from the late ’70s through the early ’90s we toured in France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. Then just before and after my retirement from the college in Scotland where I worked for twenty years, I visited Romania and Vietnam on business. Of course I came over here to the US every year from the late ’80s until I moved here permanently, and visited Newfoundland when Wendy was studying there.
I really enjoyed all of that, made some good friends, and experienced wonderful cultures that I would never have known much about otherwise.
Every year, of course, I get to go back to Scotland at the end of June when I lead a small group tour of my homeland. So I get around. But next Wednesday I’ll be going to a part of the world I’ve never been to – South America!
Our good friends Cami and Bill are coming to the end of an extended stay in Chile, thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship, we will be joining them for their last few days and then staying on for a few more on our own. I know very little about this part of the world, other than something of the troubled politics of the 20th Century.
If I can I’ll blog about my impressions while we’re there. Who knows, perhaps the Chilean tourism industry will employ me to lead tours there! (A guy can dream….)

 

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