Thank you very much for all of the kind letters you sent in reply to my essay about the eels! I had some exciting stories about eel sightings and eel eating from you. My friend, Sandra, even stitched a childhood memory of the eels which her Nan kept in a bowl on top of her refrigerator. Yikes! And my friend Jem said that he’d been listening to my records out in his garden which made me remember that even if I can’t physically be where you are, playing for you live, my songs travel all over in your cars, gardens, and in your guitars and concertinas, too. Thank you all.
On Easter Sunday, I woke up early with a story about my childhood, Easter, and Jingle bell dresses in my head. I wrote it all down and then had a notion later that day to read my story aloud on Facebook Live. I’ve now uploaded this singing and storytelling performance to Youtube so that everyone can enjoy it, if you’d like. It’s nothing fancy. I also play four songs in the video – Tazewell Beauty Queen, Polishing Starts, Friendship, and A Miner’s Soul. If you’d simply like to read the story, you can find it below!
Last week, I also posted some photos of the printmaking I’ve been doing. One of my fans in Pasadena asked why I didn’t sell my prints on my website and said she’d always wanted to buy one. So, I added a bunch of prints and sewn items to my Shop. I’m afraid some of them sold out very quickly, but I am adding more each week. And there are plenty in the shop right now! Enjoy!
I send you kindness and strength as we all continue to navigate these unfamiliar seas. Please be well and safe.
Love, your friend,
Easter and Jingle Bell Dresses
This week, when the Englishman came back from the grocery store, he brought me a dark chocolate bunny wrapped in gold foil which reminded me of growing up, when Mom would make our Easter baskets. While we were asleep, she would ferret out our pink and purple plastic baskets with the day-glo plastic grass in a Ziplock baggie from the year before and fill them with the easter eggs we’d dyed, lots of chocolate, and a little stuffed animal or a pretty toy. The chocolate bunny was always the grand centerpiece of our baskets and sometimes I saved mine for so long, admiring the brightly decorated foil that when I finally unwrapped it months later, the chocolate had gone all white, chalky, and inedible.
It took me many years to make myself open the chocolate bunny before it went chalky or “cankerized” as we say up in Southwest Virginia. But the handy thing about the gold foil-wrapped chocolate bunny that the Englishman brought to me is that it has a little brown ribbon and a jingle bell around its neck. Now, this makes the opening and eating of the chocolate bunny a bit easier because, in a sense, I still have a souvenir, a sort of relic (if you want to be Catholic about it) of the bunny. And that is a great relief for a person who has spent many years of her life “saving things for good” – another Southwest Virginia expression which covers all of the gift boxes of perfume or lotions saved for good until they turn to alcohol; or the little soaps shaped like pigs or cupids which are never used for washing, but slowly desiccate until one day you open their gift box to see they’ve turned to dust like the Ten Commandments in the ark of the covenant.
This is an inherited neurosis with clear evidence in the shape of shoes and jewelry never worn, and embroidered pillow cases and tablecloths never used by my great grandmother because she was “saving them for good!” We’ve had a bit of a global discussion about this tendency among several generations of the women of my family and have decided in recent years to use all of the things that we have been saving for good. This has taken a great effort of will and I suspect we are all still keeping a certain number of handkerchiefs and fresh boxes of crayons in reserve just out of respect for our elders who saved things for good.
Now, my current chocolate bunny presents none of these emotional conundrums because he comes with this tiny tinkling bell on a ribbon to remind me of his cuteness when he’s gone and eaten. And this bell also reminds me of Jewell Ridge and the women of my family because every Easter my sister and I received a brand new dress. This was a source of great excitement and trepidation because it meant something new and pretty, but there was also the risk that the Easter dress and the attendant tights and cardigans would be so itchy that we would feel like a dozen biting ants were crawling over our skin while we patiently absorbed the Easter church service of the Scottish Presbyterian Church in Brookline. Easter always fell during the school year, so we weren’t up on the mountain in Virginia having church with Mawmaw, but in Boston with Mom and Dad where our Easter dresses would be sadly covered by our winter coats and where we’d sit with the tartan-clad Scottish Presbyterian ladies who brought a perfume of steaming mothballs into the sanctuary.
Since Mawmaw missed us especially at Easter and she was proud of Dad for being the assistant minister at the Presbyterian Church, she would always send Mom and Dad the money for our Easter dresses. There were many burning questions I held in my mind when the time came to get our Easter dresses. Would Mom let us choose the one we wanted? Would we have to wear a sweater with it? Would it be scratchy and, if so, would the scratchiness be worth it considering how pretty it was? But most of all, I wanted to know if it would have a jingle bell sewn into the crinoline?
Yes, that’s right – a jingle bell. Now, you may ask what a jingle bell sewn into your crinoline has to do with Easter. And all I can say is that I’m looking at a chocolate Easter bunny made in France bought in a small town in Lancashire, England, with a jingle bell around its neck. Jingle bells and Easter. My sister and I always looked for a jingle bell in our dresses because one of the earliest dresses I can remember Mawmaw buying for us when we were very little had several jingle bells sewn in the crinoline. I’m not sure that any future Easter dresses we found in Boston had jingle bells sewn into them. I know we asked Mom to put jingle bells in them with mixed success. After all, a jingle bell was not a great way to maintain silence in a child sitting on a pew in church in a potentially scratchy dress during a long Easter service.
When I cast about in mind over these jingle bells, I’m reminded of the month I spent in Japan after college. When I went to the Shinto shrines in Tokyo, I was struck by the way that the Japanese people would clap their hands – twice with purpose – to get the god’s attention and show their gratitude and joy for the god’s help in their lives. They were literally saying to their wandering gods, the spirits, – the kami – we are here, we’ve come to speak with you.
And in the end this was the great gift of Luther and Calvin – the idea, the belief that we could speak directly to God without the go-between of priests and priestly hierarchies. In Southwest Virginia, at the Friendly Chapel Church up on Smith Ridge, people speak right out to God with their hands in the air saying “Sweet Jesus, we love you Jesus.” And when my Uncle Jerry was alive and the preacher there, he would often say, “God, we are calling on you today to hear our prayers.” “We are calling on you today.” I must have had Uncle Jerry in my mind when I wrote “The Hoot Owl” which begins, “Oh, Jesus this is Janey, a-calling to you now. I need for you to hear me, so I’m praying right out loud.”
The little jingle bell in my crinoline seemed to say, “Hello God, it’s Easter, and we are here, present and accounted for, to celebrate this day with you. We are here to make a joyful sound.” That little jingle bell is not so different than the carillon bells ringing across England on any normal Sunday or the bell the Hindu devotee rings on entering the temple sanctum to announce her presence. The jingle bell in my crinoline was like the Sanctus bell of the Catholic priest rung just before he lifted Christ’s body into the air in the form of a wafer. With my jingle bell, I was like Moses’ brother Aaron with his bells and pomegranates sewn round the hem of his priestly robe. Aaron was meant to wear this robe when he went about preaching. “The sound of the bells will be heard when he enters the holy place before the Lord and when he comes out.”
Most of all, my little jingle bell reminded me of my own child self, of my movement, and aliveness in the world on Easter day.
But this Easter, Mawmaw won’t be walking the thirty yards up and across the road to the Friendly Chapel Church. It will be the first time in her lifetime that she’s not been in church on Easter day. And this will be true for many people across the world. This past week, my Jewish friends celebrated passover alone or with a few loved ones with whom they live rather than gathering many around their tables as they’ve done every year.
This year, because of coronavirus, we must all look for small signs and listen for the ringing of small sounds. I watch as my neighbor across the street adds hand-felted hearts to her window and then, on another day, she adds decorations from her husband’s birthday cake. I look for her little signs. We exchange compliments on our windows across our street every Thursday when we stand in our doorways at eight o’clock to applaud our health workers. Yesterday, I put a new bear in my studio window because I know she is looking for a sign from me, too. We are not just decorating our windows. We are ringing a kind of bell to say we are here. We are still here.
Each day, the Englishman and I walk or cycle down to the River Keer near our home in Carnforth, North Lancashire, and we first stop to look for the two rabbits who live on a particular spot on the bank, then we feed fresh grass to the horses who live further along the road, and finally, we stand by the gate to watch the spring lambs leaping in the sunlight. We listen to the sound their mothers make as they tear at the grass with their teeth. We hear the lambs crying, we hear their mother’s answer, and we watch as they run toward her for another bit of milk. Where are you mother? I’m here.
Where are you Lord? I am here. This is the story of John, Chapter 20. We are always looking for signs whether plant or animal – to feel the sun in the soil to feel the presence of neighbor, mother, or God. When Mary Magdalene came upon Jesus after he’d left the tomb, she thought he was a gardener. He asked her who she was searching for and when she said she was looking for Jesus, the man from the tomb, he said her name. “Mary.” She knew then that he was no usual gardener.
Sometimes, we just need to hear our name – a sign that our presence, that our arrival is felt. I love when the big brown mare comes to the fence along the River Keer to eat grass from my hand. I can feel the heat of the sun on her neck. I like to think she looks for me, too. As if she knows not my name exactly, but my smell, my sound, the certain jingle, if you will, that I make.
It’s a terrible, terrible time right now. A world of people are dying, a world of people are grieving, a world of people are lonely and living in fear. We could all use a sign, a spark, a green shoot, a call from the wilderness, or the small jingle of the bell to remind us of the presence our own selves, of our movement, and aliveness – to remind us we are still here and we must do our most to stay alive and to help others stay alive.
I think I will sew my new jingle bell into one of my summer dresses so that, many months from now, when I put it on, I will remember this grey and overcast Easter where no stone was rolled away, where no grand gatherings occurred, where no bold gestures were made. But there was the small sound of a tinkling bell around the neck of my chocolate Easter bunny which took me back to plastic Easter baskets with Mom, Dad, and Sarah, the steamy mothball smell of Scottish Presbyterian church in Boston, and the voice of Mawmaw on the long-distance telephone asking me what kind of dress I got for Easter and did it have any jingle bells in the crinoline?