blog description

Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Researching Dogs

While writing historical stories, I have researched a lot of topics, including dogs. Except for a brief mention of bloodhounds, my Civil War trilogy has no dogs. For a dog lover like me that's a tough topic to omit, but I'm also not the sort of writer who will place something into a story simply because I like it. I also aspire to be realistic in my animal portrayal. For instance, I'm a bird lover too, and it annoys me to no end to see parrots shown as nothing more than a talking machine that conveniently says the right thing to help solve a plot.

After finishing my trilogy, I turned to writing a Civil War ghost story Whispers from the Grave. For the first time, I wrote in present day with the past influencing the modern characters. A dog also fit into my plot. I have Belgian sheepdogs, and a Belgian ideally suited what I had in mind. That made writing the story much easier because I didn't need to research the breed. I called my literary Belgian "Saber" to fit the Civil War themed plot.

For some odd reason, the Belgian in my story took on the same characteristics as my own dog Magic. By the time I began writing the sequel, Magic had died of cancer, and I had my own Saber, named after the Belgian in the book. In Whispers Through Time, Saber's mannerisms shifted a little to be more like his counterpart in real life.

One of the characters in the past also had a dog that looked a lot like the modern dog in the story. I couldn't call him a Belgian because the breed didn't exist during the Civil War, but black shepherd looking dogs have been around for a long time. As a matter of fact, I saw the spitting image of a dog Belgian fanciers would call "old-style" in a Civil War photo.

In my most recent release, The Dreaming, I switched to the 17th century. In Virginia, the tribal tidewater Natives, commonly referred to as the Powhatan, had hunting dogs that appeared like a cross between a hound and a wolf. As a group of people, they didn't bury animals, nor keep dogs as pets. But in at least one instance, a dog was found buried with an elderly woman. It was placed in a sleeping position on top of the woman's feet. The dog's skeleton showed no sign of trauma, so it's doubtful it was buried as part of a ritual. Instead, the gesture most likely speaks volumes as to how that particular dog was regarded by that individual woman.

 The 17th-century English had mastiffs, greyhounds, and generic looking spaniels. The dreaming in my book is a cunning woman's (healers of the time period) shamanic journey, and the cunning folk had familiar spirits. Common familiar spirits of the time were hares, cats, toads, and of course, dogs. I discovered my cunning woman's familiar spirit after I had read about John Smith giving the paramount chief Powhatan a white greyhound as a gift.

Ironically, I have read on some greyhound sites that the breed didn't arrive in North America until a much later date. While John Smith wasn't always truthful in his writings, I doubt the subject of a greyhound making the journey to Virginia would be noteworthy enough to embellish.

My next work? Well, since it's a sequel to The Dreaming, the greyhound will definitely reappear. I'm also working on a crow spirit, and I've already discovered they are magnificent birds.

Kim Murphy

Saturday, April 21, 2012


A local Retreat Centre recently hosted a Spring Clean-up Day. In exchange for good food and good company we gathered from our scattered communities to rake, paint, and clean windows. Most of the volunteers were of Crone Vintage, both women and men, and I wondered whether our small contributions would make a visible difference.
When we gathered for lunch there was rich, good natured banter about ladders and missing rakes. The flavour of the conversation was respectful and nourishing. As others started returning to work a younger woman at our table began to share about a conflict she was having at home with her supervisor. It soon became apparent that a painful anger was simmering as her tone became bitter. As she started to apologize for her words a wise woman spoke up gently and assured her that anger was better out than swallowed, as it can turn toxic within.
There were other suggestions, all quite practical, on ways to use her anger to make some necessary changes. There was no doubt in my mind that the generous portions of advice came from personal experience painful in the past, but now a source of resilience having been filtered through the sieve of time.
Were the windows cleaner?
Were the flower beds neater?
More important? - the look of wonder on a young woman's face when she tasted the truth that anger can be a very tasty choice, when properly served.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Timing is Everything

I love meeting people. The differences are wonderful to me. Teaching has helped me remain appreciative of people younger than myself – they do not shock or dismay me easily. ( I try to remind myself that I appear to them like an aging parent or even a grandmother. I don’t think I will ever see myself as older than they are, but I try.) So, I am drawn to their energy and the freshness of their vision.
In the past few years I have been meeting quite a few young farmers. I had never known or even imagined young farmers when I was their age. Farmers were beautifully gnarly old men who weren’t very interested in me or my concerns. But these are young, vibrant, community-minded farmers. They believe that organic, sustainable farming is the key to the future – politically as well as culturally. And I happen to think they are right.
I am not a vegetable grower by nature, but gardening is important to me. Watching seeds sprout and grow is witnessing transformation. Nurturing life is a responsibility. Kneeling in the sun to plant or weed sometimes feels like a prayer. The earth is sacred – a connection with eternity. My love of gardening is an inheritance.
I learned to appreciate plants while weeding, mowing, planting, and weeding my Mother’s garden. That was a 90-foot bed that was terraced into the hill across the width of our back yard. There were probably 40 flower species minimum in that bed. The yard was also planted with at least 20 tree species – several of them hybrids, gifts of an amateur nursery-man and friend. My Mother painted with flowers. My Father sculpted with pruners.
My Mother’s father staked out a corner of our backyard for sweet-corn and tomatoes. We have pictures of him in a big straw hat and denim overalls. My paternal Grandmother cultivated flowers, vines, bushes, trees, and an unknown quantity of vegetables. I never noticed the vegetables. The wisteria, forsythia, camellias, peonies, and (my favorites) Johnny Jump-Ups filled my eyes with every visit. Her yard was a double-length city plot, maybe 15 yards wide, filled to bursting.
Grandma’s family moved to Lancaster from a farm in Eden Township around 1904. ( I know, they left a farm in Eden.) We have a picture of my Grandmother standing at the end of the farm lane when she was 3 or 4 years old. She is dressed in what appears to be a nightgown and her bare feet are covered with dust. I would like to know where that farm was. I just want to stand on that piece of family history and study an old tree or hedgerow. The physical connection would be nice. It isn’t necessary, but it really would be nice.
When I work in my garden or think of that old family farm, I feel a deep connection with the past. I think of the farmers who settled America. They had departed from a continent farmed by Anglo-Saxon, after Celtic, after Neolithic men and women of the old and ancient past. And before them there was Abel, the brother who wasn’t mentioned nearly as much as his brother – the murderer – in my Sunday Church School memories. Yet the rhythm of our lives is still the timing of planting, harvesting, and resting with the seasonal cultivation of our landscape. The rhythm of our souls follows the ancient mythologies of a sacred landscape – nature personified and worshipped as holy.
And now I am thinking of going back to school to study horticulture. I meant to slow down in the garden. I was going to plant fewer flowers and more bushes this year. Let the mint and bergamot spread to fill in more space, seed the bed by the shed with grass. But recently I heard “ever the Mother, birthing and tending,” while trying to stand in the waning quarter of life’s circle. The Mother‘s timing is unexpected – but that is her realm of influence. The timing is everything, after all.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

"Enchanted April"

April 7th was my 50th birthday. I thought this was great - my name came up on the Crone calendar on the Friday before. So I was going to post something poetic or profound. Or blog about the significant crones in my life (except I'm still kicking and groaning about the term - "crone" and my mind kept going blank about the profound and wise revelations passed down to me by my mother and paternal grandmother. . . Has my mind already gone into decline? Or hadn't they ever really imparted the wisdom of the ages to me . . .?!)

Anyway, I did have a lovely, very low key kind of day. My sister took Juliet and my daughter and I out for lunch. (I was going to say out 'to' lunch and realized we were back to the mind in decline motif . . . Yes it's there, but let's just not make it an issue . . .).

The evening before, my big sis came to my house and we had another fun evening while she baked me a "weird but eatable" cake as I've been on a no wheat, gluten, or sugar diet for a few years now.

So the three of us sat around my kitchen table on Saturday afternoon and ate the weird but still edible chocolate cake and had a few good laughs. Nothing profound and no real revelations. But just right. Comforting, ordinary and hopeful. Exactly what I needed right now, as I face the next half of my life.

Later that evening, as I came back to the computer to try and pound something out to post here, my eye was caught by a pile of DVDs and videos stacked beside my night stand. "Enchanted April" is my feel-good movie. There it was, waiting for me.

When I was in college and up until my Katie was born, my feel-better movie was "Meet me in St. Louis." But now the challenges of loving and accepting your parents and siblings, as well as getting the boy next door to notice and marry you were not the issues that mattered. Post baby it was figuring out how to deal with your hum-drum, ordinary married life and how to feel loved and valuable in that role. Granted I got a divorce between the birth of my daughter and now. But "Enchanted April" has never failed to work its magic for me and I need to make time to watch it, again.

Imagine it's a cold, wet March. Oh, right. We had one of those. Anyway, two middle-aged women feel trapped in their lives in post World War I London. "Enchanted April" is about what happens when these ladies break out of their routine and escape to Italy for a holiday.

Lottie (on the right) is timid, well meaning and married to a stingy, pompous lawyer with social-climbing ambitions. Rose (left) spends her time on church charity work and pretends not to mind that her husband leads a life separate from hers, writing racy novels under a pseudonym.
They are bored, lonely and an ad in the Times that promises "Wisteria and sunshine" captures Lottie's attention and her imagination.

Lottie's husband is incensed that she's spending money and not only did she not consult him about her plans, but how dare she! she's not taking him with her! Sound familiar? Or maybe your significant other would react like Rose's husband? Have a nice time, dear, I'm going to be away that month, anyway . . . Complete indifference.

I've read my share of movie reviews that all agree that this movie is about the way that this corner of paradise transforms the lives of four unhappy women. (In order to afford this wild jaunt they find two other "lost" females to take along with them. I won't talk about them because I don't want to give too much away. I'm hoping you'll watch this and enjoy it as much as I do.
And yes, it's a wild jaunt if you've always done what you've been told to do. Not wild in a Thelma and Louise kind of way. Don't go there. We're talking Merchant-Ivory and Masterpiece Classic, Pre-Downton Abbey kind of jaunts. Got it?)

Well, yes, Italy transforms them in a way. Nature can be transforming. Sunshine, wisteria, blue skies, masses of colorful flowers and turquoise water after a boring, cold, grey winter will do that for you. Lots of swimming, picnics, napping and lazing around in hammocks kind of therapy.

But I have to argue that their lives aren't truly transformed. When their month is over, they will go back to being wives living in London. No one is getting a divorce and there are no wild revelations or scandals.

I think this movie is about the power of friendship. Getting in touch with yourself and finding the value in who and what you are right now. These women are changed from their month in paradise - but not because they are different or better but this experience allows them to see what special,worthwhile and valuable women they were all along.

And that's exactly the kind of spring soul cleansing I need right now. And the kind of just-right 50th birthday celebration I've been having.