Friday, April 24, 2015

Two Ramblers on a Spring Afternoon

“Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We’d pass out every time we saw— actually saw— a flower. Imagine if we only got to see a cumulonimbus cloud or Cassiopeia or a snowfall once a century: there’d be pandemonium in the streets. People would lie by the thousands in the fields on their backs.” 
Anthony Doerr

*Congratulations to Mr. Doerr being awarded the Pulitizer Prize this week
 for his wonderful novel, All The Light We Cannot See.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Secret Garden, and A Few of the Books That Inspired It

A Secret Garden
and a Few of the Books That Inspired It

When the Songwriter and I became engaged to be married, the minister we chose to formalize the process requested we meet with him to answer a few questions and receive a few learned words of advice, something we were more than happy to do.  There were far too many stars in my eyes for me to have been expected to retain all he told us, but one nugget of wisdom took root and has flourished over the years, bearing fruit in all sorts of far flung areas.  To avoid the pitfall of financial disagreements, we were told, always consider any grand purchase to be “exchanging one form of wealth for another”. 

 The Songwriter remains wryly amused that this is all I can recall from that momentous meeting, but throughout our life together I have found it a useful bit of wisdom.   It has encouraged us to take leaps that have resulted in irreplaceable memories and has, on numerous occasions, made our lives better.  It also enabled me to back away from the trendy, thus saving my feet from the mile-high, toe-pinching Sex and the City shoes of the nineties and the humiliating peplum skirt phase of the eighties.

We employed this much relied upon wisdom once again last fall when we decided to add our birdhouse screened porch onto our bedroom.  One enters this porch via a very special door in our window seat and follows a screened breezeway down the side of the cottage to the round, pointed-roof porch.  Here no one can find me, here it’s all birdsong and wind chimes, here Edward and Apple curl up in their matching tartan beds and doze as I write, and knit, and read, and dream.   And here, I am surrounded by our back garden, a garden that, sadly, was utterly ruined during the building of this lovely screened hideaway.  
So, throughout the Christmas holidays, all during those long, cold days of January and February and the unreliable warmth of March, I planned.  With a stack of favorite gardening books at the ready, I made notes and grew pictures, went spelunking deep into Pinterest boards and wandered nursery aisles.  I’m happy to say, all this paid off wonderfully and our new garden is now a reality.    

Presided over by a serene stone Humpty Dumpty, it is filled with Mauve Lenten Roses, Pink Astilbe, Chartreuse Hostas, Japanese Forest Grass and and Foxglove.  There is a round flower bed in a circle of  English cottage stone with masses of white verbena spilling over and around, calling forth butterflies of every size and colour, and a flagstone terrace with Mazus Alba flowering between the stones. And best of all, old-fashioned Gardenias by the door and under the old stained glass casement windows.  I sit in my gothic willow chair, listening to the exuberant splash of robins in the birdbath  and the lugubrious hum of fat, lazy bumblebees as they hover around the blooms.  
Truly a fair exchange of one form of wealth to another, wouldn’t you say?

  I have recently returned from a visit to a very special, very happily haunted, garden and will share all with you soon, but till then I thought you might like to take a look at some of the books that inspired the creation of this secret garden of mine.  I found as much inspiration from narrative as from instruction.   Perhaps you will too, I’ve shared an irresistible quote from each, just click on the books to see more.  
If any of you love gardens, and gardening, as much as I do,
 please share your favorite flowers, and gardening books, with me! 

Onward and Upward in the Garden
by Katherine White
I have read somewhere that no Japanese child will instinctively pick a flower, 
not even a very young child attracted by its bright color, because the sacredness of flowers is so deeply imbued in the culture of Japan that its children understand the blossoms are there to look at, not to pluck.”

The Morville Year
by Katherine Swift
“I love the way wild foxgloves have their bells all on one side,
 as if straining to catch the last notes of some far-off tune…”

In Your Garden
by Vita Sackville-West
“The charm of annuals is their light gaiety, as though they must make the most of their brief lives to be frivolous and pleasure-giving.  They have no time to be austere or glum.  They must always be youthful, because they have no time to grow old.  And so their colours are bright, and their foliage airy, and their only morality is to be as cheerful as possible….”

Merry Hall
by Beverley Nichols
“But whatever else people may see, they cannot help seeing the lilies.  They are all over the house, like groups of dancers, poised and waiting; those that stand near mirrors seem to take on a silver sheen, and those that catch the glow of the candles are lit with gold; in the full light they sparkle like sunlit snow, in the shadows they are luminous…and always, upstairs, downstairs, in every nook and cranny, there is fragrance.”

The Writer in the Garden
edited by Jane Garmey
“That evening, for instance, as the light faded, and the tree branches grew black against the pink sky, I knew it was getting on toward dinnertime, and I felt so peaceful sitting like a child in the warm earth.  It was dark as I strained my eyes, searching out infinitesimal parsley seedlings among the weeds.”

Virginia Woolf’s Garden
by Caroline Zoob
“…a weekend of no talking, sinking at once into deep safe book reading; & then sleep:  clear, transparent, with the may tree like a breaking wave outside & all the garden green tunnels, mounds of green:  & then to wake into the hot still day, & never a person to be seen, never an interruption:  the place to ourselves:  the long hours.”

The Gardens of William Morris
by Jill Duchess of Hamilton, Penny Hart and John Simmons
“The garden, divided by old clipped yew hedges, is quite unaffected and very pleasant, and looks in fact as if it were a part of the house, yet at least the clothes of it:  which I think ought to be the aim of the layer-out of a garden.”

Beatrix Potter At Home in the Lake District
by Susan Denyer
“Beatrix was not preserving a cottage garden; what she was doing was creating a garden  - her own garden - in the cottage style.  It was in this way that she conformed with what was then being written about gardens:  the imagery of gardens, the way spaces within then should be divided up and above all how gardens would be seen as an extension of the building to which they belonged.”

Writing the Garden
A Literary Conversation Between Two Centuries
by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers
"No one gardens alone."

Friday, April 17, 2015

Behold The Face

Behold the face of a fellow who thinks
making up the bed is the most glorious fun.
Love this boy!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

What is Luxury?

What is Luxury?
For By Invitation Only

“Luxury:   free or habitual indulgence in or enjoyment of comforts and pleasures
 in addition to those necessary for a reasonable standard of well-being”

There is a country house in the Lake District of England, sitting high on a sheep-speckled hill overlooking the still, reflective waters of Lake Windermere.  In the tip-top tower of this house is a room with a window that opens out to welcome in the perfume of late summer roses and freshly mown hay, where the only sounds one hears is the wind swishing through emerald cedars and the tintinnabula of cow bells as their wearers make their way home at vespers.  I have slept in that room, in a bed so high, so deep, that I felt like a princess of Oz….

In the furthermost islands of Scotland, closer in distance to Norway than Britain, there is a yarn shop several streets from the sea where every colour in the palette lines the walls in a rainbow of wool.  The mind simply boggles at the possibilities of pattern and design within these walls.  I have gathered up armload of skeins here in much the same way a child gathers up candy in a candy shop and flown home to await the arrival of my choices … so many skeins they had to be shipped over….  

On a tiny side street in the heart of Chelsea there is a bookshop where the books are piled in stacks of unrelated subject and name, one up next to another as though gathering together for conversation the way strangers sometimes do whilst waiting for something to happen.  In this shop I have occasionally seen one special book, as one always does in bookshops such as this, shining as though singularly lit to catch my attention alone.  And I have stood on a stool and stretched out to retrieve it,  slightly dizzy at the good fortune of my find, and held it close like the treasure it is as I’ve made my way down the stairs to secure my purchase…..

Like Mrs. Dalloway on the morning of her famous party, I have entered dimly lit flower shops to the magical sound of a tinkling bells, waiting for my eyes to adjust in the close, humid air before being knocked off kilter by the unseen hand of beauty as the colours of a thousand flowers coalesced into one glorious tapestry right before my eyes.  I have wandered home in absolute bliss, carrying as many bouquets as I could hold…..

Without doubt, these experiences have represented luxury to me though I can think of no other word quite as subjective as that one.  Luxury.  What is truly luxurious to me might well be considered a trivial squander to you.  For instance, I have ridden in a limousine twice in my life and have felt like a complete, conspicuous nincompoop both times, though I can name people for whom that form of conveyance would seem the height of luxury.  When traveling, I can be, and often am, perfectly content with yogurt, fruit and biscuits for dinner, something that would horrify those gourmands of my acquaintance.  One man’s luxury is so often another’s trifle.

  One’s idea of luxury changes over time as well.  For instance, I am increasingly reluctant to spend my money on expensive frocks but, as illustrated in the paragraphs above, I am most liberal when it comes to books, yarn, flowers and travel.  No doubt I would spend my last dollar on flowers.  

Truth is, to me there is nothing as luxurious as a sparkling clean house, redolent of baking bread and gardenias, where soft music plays and furry dogs nap, where teetering stacks of books and a half-finished cashmere sweater await my attention as I sit at my table planning my next journey to Scotland.   After all, as I explained in my last post, my tastes do run along the same lines as the home-loving characters in Wind in the Willows. 

 I would so love to hear what you consider to be a luxury worthy of indulgence.
An Hermes bag?  Or a new pair of Wellies?
A gourmet kitchen?  Or a summer month in Greece?
Do tell!

Find more posts on this subject HERE.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Wind Is In The Willows

The Wind Is In The Willows

I have always been amazed at the sagacity of the little animals that forever reside within the pages of The Wind in the Willows.  Ratty, Mole, Otter, Toad.  Perhaps it is merely that I seem to share so  many of their sensibilities - about home, about travel, about friendship and, well, about life in general, but I find them utterly reliable and true.  How often I have sat, wrapped up snugly before the fire on a frosty winter’s night, watching jack-o-lantern orange flames paint wild dancing shadows on the ceiling above me, without one shred of remorse for my appalling lack of industry, when these highly apropos words come wafting through my mind, “No animal, according to the rules of animal-etiquette, is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter”.

Mr. Mole seemed to materialize alongside me the May morning I visited Sissinghurst garden in Kent.  So beautiful it was, I fairly skipped along the water’s edge at the end of the lemon-lime walk, nearly astonished to be present in a place I’d only imagined existed in books, when those old familiar words came back to me, words that described such a similar scene, though one experienced by a fictitious mole… “The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”

Oh, the times when, thinking myself clever, I’ve done something rash and have figuratively turned up in an ungraceful pile on the side of the road, so like Mr. Toad in my foolishness and and folly, and heard, faintly, like the whisper of pages turning, the pitiful “Poop-Poop” of that dear, infuriating amphibian. 
Or, how grateful I’ve been on countless occasions to have The Songwriter in my life, someone who has always promised, just as the stalwart friend, Mr. Otter, “It'll be all right, my fine fellow”…… "I'm coming along with you, and I know every path blindfold; and if there's a head that needs to be punched, you can confidently rely upon me to punch it.”
And then, whenever contemplating a far-flung journey or mysterious path, there comes the voice I’ve often heard, just as Ratty himself once heard before me,“Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes!’ ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company. 

So it was inevitable, of course.  If one is foolish enough to listen to Alan Bennett read The Wind in the Willows whilst one is attempting a bout of strenuous spring cleaning, one will naturally begin to strongly identify with Mr. Mole.  Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m one of those odd ones who actually enjoys spring cleaning.  The throwing open of windows, the polishing-shaking-gleaming-shining - the filling of vases with yellow flowers, the gathering up of pink china on which to place cakes with white icing and strawberries dusted with snowfalls of sugar….  it all makes me very happy.  But a few days ago, just as I was kneading a batch of Chocolate Babka for Easter and contemplating an appallingly high stack of linen shirts to be ironed, I heard , “The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.  First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms.  Spring was moving in the air above and the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.  It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor and said, ‘Bother’ and ‘Oh, blow!’ and also ‘Hang spring-cleaning’ and bolted out of the house without even bothering to put on his coat.”  

And I simply could not resist doing precisely the same thing.
Particularly as it's my birthday tomorrow and no one should spring-clean on their birthday.
I will relate my adventure next week.  
Till then, listen to this wise, utterly delightful, story for yourself.  
There is simply no telling what you’ll get up to this week.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Easter Light

Easter Light

There are those who still wait on the hillsides, 
their weary eyes fixed on the far eastern sky. 
 They stand with their hopes linked to all of mankind as they watch for signs of the dawn, each of them longing to see, once again, the promise, the holy confirmation, as the darkness disappears in the presence of the light.   Slowly, the aurora emerges along the horizon like the casual opening of a seraphic eye, casting prismatic rays out over the landscape, painting a languishing world with the colours of joy. 

Mingling mystery with memory, the light travels through gardens graced with cherry trees weeping in candescent blooms of pink.  It blazes through cathedral windows, their picturesque puzzle pieces trembling with the resounding hosannas of song.   It illuminates the stage sets of my memory with ephemeral beams that shine down on my father as he once again places an Easter gardenia into the palm of my hand. It warms with a radiance that remembers the best of our future whilst turning to ashes the worst of our past. 

 Be they twisted and coiled as the back of a serpent,
 or a continuous ribbon of white flowers and moss,
 this beacon still shines upon all of our pathways  -  no stone can eclipse this light.  
And we may follow it, singing, up over the hillsides, 
on up through the clouds, 
all the long, long way back,
 into Canaan.
For Easter, a reprint of a previous essay, 
found on page 45 in From The House of Edward, here.
Edward and I wish you a most happy holiday.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Singer

The Singer 

The rain fell in the night as predicted - straight-down, relentless, a carillon calling to sleep.  The big white dog slept with his head across my feet, occasionally letting loose a deep, contented sigh as the rain pounded the roof and lashed the leaded windows till, just as the hands of the clock drifted closer to three, we heard him.
  Out there in the dark, in the rain.  A bird, singing.

Not the soft lilt of the nightingale, nor the warm hoot of the owl, but a full-throated song more suitable to noon-time, more expected in the sun.   Hidden within the chartreuse leaves of a newly born Spring this feathered tenor lifted his voice to spite the dark, to ridicule the rain; neither would silence his obvious joy.  Though the lyrics were known only to him, he sang through the dark garden in notes of pure happiness, a celestial choir of one. 

The big dog stirred and met my gaze with understanding.
  “He has to sing”, he seemed to tell me. "He can't help himself.
“The rain is pushing away winter.  Spring is here.”

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come….”
Song of Solomon 2:11-12

Friday, March 20, 2015



When I was really little,  I developed a simmering, and rather unfortunate,  crush on Jonathan Miller.  This is odd in and of itself, even more so for someone as young as I was.  (If you wish to know how odd, google him.)  Apparently I had seen him on some interview program and found him slightly irresistible.  This was not, I hasten to say, any type of romantic crush for I had not reached that stage of things.  No, it was, I’m quite certain, a crush on wit, that rare talent bestowed on fewer people than one might think and one that can still make me slightly weak in the knees.  I would still rather have lunch with Stephen Fry than Brad Pitt.  

For those of us who find this quality irresistible, our objects of attraction are sadly few and far between these days.  Those in the media capable of delivering the perfectly worded paragraph, or even quip, are … well… few.  The golden-edged bon mot seems to have been replaced by a ham-fisted humour awash in juvenile sensibility and designed to appeal to the greatest majority of twelve year old boys.  Not being a twelve year old boy myself, it leaves me cold, and worse, bored.

The world of books is hardly immune to this ever-increasing waste of language.  What passes for the modern day beach book takes six chapters to say what Edith Wharton managed between two perfectly crafted sentences.  So it was that I found myself surprised and utterly delighted last week when I picked up a book that had been working its way to the top of my ever-growing stack for quite a while.  “Love, Nina” is a collection of letters written by a London nanny to her sister in Leicestershire during the early 80’s when she served as the nanny to the two precocious, and charmingly witty, sons of Mary Kay Wilmers, the long-time editor of The London Review of Books.  The family lives on a street in London peppered with literary types who make frequent appearances on these pages, their comments and observances sprinkled with appropriate amounts of deliciously wicked wit.   Alan Bennett drops by for dinner most nights. (And yes, sadly,  I have a long-standing crush on him as well.)  And Jonathan Miller lives a few houses down.  

To be allowed into the private conversations of this cadre of wits brought to life by Nina Stibbe is a sheer joy.  I have laughed out loud frequently.  ( Sidenote:  Always, every time I laugh, Edward wags his tail.  This is particularly funny when it’s late at night and he’s sound asleep.  Sleep-wagging.  He did a lot of that while I was reading this book. )  
Check out “Love, Nina”.

And as for the utterly charming Alan Bennett,
 a new movie is being filmed of his play, “The Lady in the Van”. 
 Starring Dame Maggie Smith, it’s certain to be a winner.  
Be sure and read the book first!  
 Find it HERE.
and here’s the trailer for the upcoming film:

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Good Patient

The Good Patient

At a neighbourhood gathering last night The Songwriter was asked if I was a “good patient”.  I, of course, answered for him and in the affirmative, though he could be heard faintly muttering in the background, something that sounded suspiciously like the word “stubborn”.  But I couldn’t be sure.   Truth is, I’m rather ursine when I am recuperating.  I crawl into my four-poster and sleep till I’m better.  I prefer to be alone, the constant presence of Edward notwithstanding.   I don’t want visitors, food, or entertainment.  Flowers are appreciated, of course.  Flowers are always appreciated.  And the occasional kiss on the forehead, as long as I’m not contagious.

Though my recent hospital stay only lasted a day and a half, I think the nurses who cared for me would say I’d been a good patient. I made no unreasonable demands; my only request being for crushed ice and cranberry juice. ( Of course I did spill the forthcoming cranberry juice down my front which made me look like I’d been attacked by a wild animal and which gave one nurse a bit of a fright, but I blame this little incident on my lack of coordination brought on by the after effects of anesthesia.)   I did what I was told which is, in my experience, the best way to get along in any sort of hospital setting and is highly advisable when one wants to be released as quickly as possible. Any tiny problems I may have had I blame entirely on the above mentioned anesthesia and subsequent pain medication.   For example…. 

At her first visit, my night nurse flipped over my chart and exclaimed,
 “Wow!  You do not look your age!”. 
 This of course comes in as a compliment and leaves as a worry because what she’s really saying is … “you’re a lot older that I thought you were”.  I mumbled some sort of thanks along the lines of … “no make-up… genetics… sunscreen” as she continued on in rapid fire patter saying..  “Yeah you know people always think I’m a lot younger than I actually am.  Gotta love that, right?”.   
Now, had I been in my right mind, i.e. not drugged, I would have politely chuckled and agreed with her.  Instead  , in my altered state, I heard myself say, “Well, let’s see now.  I’d say you were about forty-eight.”  
The room got quiet and she replied, “Yeah, well, my hair’s pulled back and I didn’t get much sleep last night.  I’m forty-five.”  
Damn.  Never insult your nurse first thing out. 

Then there was the issue with the bed.  It remains my contention that they shouldn’t put all those buttons on the side of the railings if they don’t intend for one to push them.  After considerable experimentation at about three in the morning, I can tell you that it is possible to get oneself into such a position that it will indeed require a nurse to straighten one out.  Fortunately, the nurse who took care of this particular problem seemed to find it endlessly entertaining, so I think she’d give me high marks on diversion alone, particularly as it was she who later found me sound sleep with my soup spoon held aloft in the air as though I were conducting The Boston Pops.  She proceeded to laughingly tell me this was a sure sign of someone who never takes pain medication:  give them some and they flop over like a fish.  

Then there was the owl.  I was fortunate to have a room with a huge triple window, unfortunate that said window did not open.  In my opinion, being of the belief that fresh air is in itself restorative, all hospital windows should open. (They could always be set someway so that they didn’t open wide enough for people to escape, if that’s the worry.)  Sometime in the middle of the night, I was watching the moon chase the clouds outside my closed window when I spied, through the trees, a huge owl on the window ledge across from me.  He was massive and still, and he appeared to be staring right into my room.  I would fall asleep for a few minutes, awake suddenly, and yes, he was still there.  Even I had enough sense not to call the nurse about this, but I was amazed, if also a bit unsettled.  
Next morning I saw him to be a gargantuan plastic owl, the sort farmers put in fields to ward off rabbits.  I couldn’t decide if this type of trick  was actually appropriate to play on people in hospitals, but decided it probably was.

Yesterday I negotiated Whole Foods in a shopping expedition for strawberries and flowers, so I would say I am well and truly recuperated.  There was a bit of a discussion between The Songwriter and myself when I attempted to take the stairs instead of the elevator. (It was just one floor, for pete’s sake.)  I assume this is where his use of the word stubborn would apply, but you’d have to ask him about that.  I’m just happy to be almost as good as new. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

In Praise of Boredom

In Praise of Boredom

As a little boy, whenever The Songwriter ran out of activities to occupy his time he would run to his father emitting the universal whine of the bored child… “Daddy, what can I dooooo?”.  This plaintive inquiry was always met with the same unique reply.  His father would raise his hands over his head and with his two index fingers pointing skyward he would say, “Do this!”, as he waggled those fingers and made vociferous beeping noises.  This response always garnered a laugh or two, even as it showed the young Songwriter that not only did no one ever die from boredom but it just might not be as bad a state to in be in as he first thought.  

These days, no one is ever bored.  I sat at a red light the other afternoon and looked around me.  Every single person I saw, be they driver or passenger, was looking down at their phone.  No longer do we stare into space in the check out line at the market, or daydream whilst waiting our turn at the bank.  We check our phones as we wait for the waiter to bring us our menus at a restaurant and again as we wait for our food.  From doctor’s offices to airplanes, from football games to the car pool line, no one seems to let their minds off the leash of their phones anymore.  

 When we did we begin to view boredom as such a dreadful thing to be avoided at all costs?  What would the shelves of our libraries look like if great minds had never been allowed to wander?  And how can great minds wander if they are never bored?  To let one’s thoughts lift up and leave through the window, with neither schedule or map to consider……to stare out to that sweet spot of middle distance where all that exists is breezy nothingness…. these are the times when the shy thoughts appear, those schemes and ideas too timid, too ephemeral to take shape in the glare of modern life.  

Last week, in those few remaining vestiges of winter before Spring arrives with her list of new chores, I had a spot of surgery I had been putting off for awhile.  It was my plan to get a lot of reading and writing and knitting done during the couple of weeks of my recuperation… my to-do list was long.  But when I came home the next night, though all went perfectly,  I found I was too tired to concentrate on much and found myself, frankly, bored.  After tapping my fingers on the arms of my chaise for an afternoon, I decided to just enjoy it.  Who said I had to accomplish anything over the next week or so?  Would the Earth slip from her axis if I didn’t?  

So I’ve let my thoughts drift and waft, hither and yon and before I knew it, boredom had opened the door to daydreams.   All in my head I’ve designed cottages beside riverbanks and castles on mountainsides.  I’ve braided Edward’s fur.  I’ve sailed out through green seas to small islands where I’ve spent the afternoon lying in the sunshine.  I’ve dodged fat raindrops on the streets of Istanbul.  I have not checked my email, nor the front page.  I have been lazily, deliciously bored and nothing bad has happened.  I just might try this more often. Who knows what it might lead to.
To read more about the benefits of boredom, check out the podcast at New Tech City.  They are currently championing boredom and all the many ways it can lead to brilliance! 
 Take a look and a listen, HERE!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Tapestry

A Tapestry

“That’s where you get your cheekbones.”
This was the reply given to me by an elderly great-aunt as I gaped at her in disbelief.  You see, she’d just informed me that despite my sugar-white skin, light eyes and blonde hair, I had a full-blooded Cherokee Indian woman sitting comfortably in my family tree, waiting to be acknowledged.   A great-great-great grandmother I’d known nothing about.  To say I was a bit gobsmacked is putting it mildly.   My great-aunt turned me towards the mirror and ran her knobby index finger along the line of my cheek.  “See those?  She gave you those.”, she said with theatrical effect.  She proceeded to tell me the story of a distant patriarch who fell in love with a Cherokee woman and of the marriage that, eventually, led to me.  

Looking in the mirror later that night it was difficult to see past the light eyelashes and pale skin to a woman with a life I couldn’t even imagine.  My experience being limited to the schoolroom, I had always thought of Native Americans as exotic, almost storybook, individuals.   To think a measure of their blood ran through my veins was just astonishing.

As Americans, our eyes, be they blue or brown, hazel or green,  reflect the shadows and light from other lands.  We all have ancestors who made that one great wrenching choice:  to leave home and make a new life.  The tapestry of America is woven and knotted with uniquely colourful threads, each unlike the other, and the resultant creation is stronger and more beautiful than any woven with a single hue.  I have felt the primal pull of ancestral memory in the hills of Glencoe; my MacDonald lineage stirring in the marrow of my bones.  There are grains of my life in the soil of Yorkshire and Skye, beneath the bracken of Roslyn and on beaches and hilltops I know nothing about.  I am even, as I now know, native to this country I call home.

I once heard Stephen Fry expounding on his affection for Americans.  It was his belief that our optimism and fearlessness is an ancestral trait springing from all those distant relatives who took squared their shoulders and swallowed their fears to take the great risk of leaving their homelands for the journey to an unknown land.  He could see those strong strains of hopefulness and bravery still running through Americans.  I love that thought, just as I love the fact that America is made up of so many different nationalities.   I find it amusing when I hear Americans speak of “foreigners”, for we are all of us foreigners in this country.   
If one has been blessed with the gift of curiosity, it is impossible not to wonder about one’s own personal history.  I have journeyed to a few of my own ancestral lands and I know how unusually meaningful those explorations can be.  I wonder, have any of you made similar journeys?  What magical parts of the world joined together to make you who you are?  
Do share!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Promise of Snow

The Promise of Snow

In the days of my childhood when the skies dipped low, when the clouds turned grey-clustered and crowded as flocks, when the air lost its lightness and slid down the lungs like ice water, my Father would look up, eyes gleaming, and say, “It feels like snow”.  And it always seemed, just like that, it would happen - tumbling, falling, white over white, snow would fall in blankets and drifts - till all the world was changed. 
 Schools would close.  Fires would blaze.  Soups would simmer.  

These days we have meteorologists.  Learned men and women who stare pie-eyed from our television screens as they warn us of weather, employing adjectives normally reserved for war in their rabid desire to be heard.    Snow is no longer fun; it is “disaster”.  We no longer see the “promise” of snow, but the “threat.”

Being Southerners, we are ill-prepared for snow.  We rarely see it, and when we do, we are prone to slip and slide in our cars without chains on the tires;  we run into one another on our hilly roads, veer off into ditches, get stuck inside drifts.  So at the first fearsome warning we rush to clear supermarkets of anything edible and hunker down for the siege that usually never occurs.  We find ourselves in this situation today.  Warned of white peril and reminded of past failures, our schools have closed.  The mad rush to the market happened last night.  I doubt there remains a loaf of bread to be found in the county.  The fire is blazing.  The soup is simmering.  And here we sit, watching it drizzle.  Am I the only one disappointed?

Does anyone still thrill at the hint of a snowfall?  Do children still sit at windows and wait for that old unique magic drifting down from the skies?   Do little girls still play inside frosted castles that were hours before only cedars and hemlocks?  From my friends in Boston, I know there is such a thing as too much snow.  But today as I pull on my boots and head out for a walk in the cold with Edward, I cannot help but look up and wish the skies were a wee bit lower, the air a tiny bit heavier. 
 I wish I look hear my Father say, “It looks like snow”.

A few years back.....

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Touches of Green

Touches of Green
for "By Invitation Only"

With my hands folded, I sat on a moss green chair and looked around.  The walls of the  room were painted moss green.  The sofa was covered in a moss green brocade.  There was moss green carpet on the floors and moss green curtains drooped at the windows.  No prints of any kind.  Even the throw pillows were green.  The effect, which I was trying valiantly to ignore, was both amphibious and unsettling in the extreme.  I looked over at the elderly woman sitting benignly across from me and smiled weakly.  As this was my very first assignment as a professional designer I was desirous of appearing both creatively confident and reassuring.   Clearing my throat, I asked her, 
Is there anything about this room that you particularly like?”.  
After a frightfully long pause she said, “Green.  I like green.”  
Believe it or not, this reply, though both unnecessary and discouraging, told me volumes about my first client.   It told me she hated change, wasn’t comfortable in her own choices, and, as she had called me in for design help, longed for something more. 

The legendary decorator, Sister Parish, used to roll a tea cart through the rooms of a new  client, loading it up with every offensive object she encountered and instructing her hapless employer to dispose of them all posthaste.  Though occasionally tempted I myself have never possessed the audacity for such an exercise, preferring instead to call upon a wellspring of tact cultivated from years of dealing with unusual requests.  For instance…..

There was the client who wanted an unobstructed view of a television from every chair in every room.  There was the client who wanted a ballroom-sized family room designed around an antique electric blue rug.  There was the client who had just, days earlier, ripped down everything another, more famous, designer had installed and filed a lawsuit against the fellow. ( And if that doesn’t make one swallow a bit hard, nothing will.  Fortunately, for me and my lawyer, he loved what I did.)  I once met with a woman who couldn’t understand why no one wanted to spend time in her living room.  “I’ve spent a fortune in that room, and no one ever goes in there.”  One look and I knew precisely why.  Pale Easter-pink walls and white plush carpet.  Formal chairs lining the walls.  And a lavish, lugubrious, lily-heavy, silk floral arrangement draped across the mantel.  It looked for all the world like a funeral parlor.  Defoliating it was a challenge, I can tell you.

More than education, more than travel, it was literature that taught me about design.  Loving houses from an early age, I learned from my beloved books that every one was different; every house reflected the personalities of the souls who resided there.  The invitingly snug abode of Mole in Wind and the Willows wasn’t anything like the eccentric splendor of Mr. Toad, but each suited its owner perfectly.  I could easily envision the black and white marble tiles in the entry hall of Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane; could easily see the shadow Mary Poppins would cast on those tiles as she rapped at the glass front door with her parrot-head umbrella.  I clearly saw, in detail,  the rooms of everyone I ever read about, from the reverse-painted lampshades Lady Slane would surely have had in her Hampstead cottage in All Passion Spent, to the microscopes and birdcages striped with the rays of a Grecian sun as it fell through the shutters of little Gerry Durrell’s room in My Family and Other Animals.  These were the kind of rooms I wanted to create for people:  rooms as unique as they.

Through all my years in design, despite the popular trends that march dictatorially across the pages of current shelter magazines, my goal has remained the same:  to create surroundings for my clients that reflect who they truly are while at the same time gently nudging them towards the beautiful, the meaningful, and the fine. Oh, and the lady with the green room?  The finished product featured Scalamandre chintz that echoed the flowers outside her window, polished wood floors, creamy sofas, pale green pillows, and lacy green ferns.  Yes, lots of touches of green.
(To read more on the topic of design today, 
check out all the participators in By Invitation OnlyHERE)

***** Note:   One of the most delightful design books I’ve encountered recently 
is "Novel Interiors" by my friend, Lisa Borgnes-Giramonti.  It’s as though she crawled inside my own head to capture the decorative influence of books.  Marvelous.

Illustration of Wind and the Willows by Inga Moore

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Dame Judi Put Me To Shame

Dame Judi Put Me To Shame

She was all of seventy-eight when I saw her on stage.  Dame Judi Dench.  She is not a tall woman, yet when she strolled from the wings she seemed to fill the The Noel Coward Theatre with an unearthly light that soared through the silent air, coalescing somewhere near the opulent ceiling before gathering itself, turning, and focusing its glow entirely upon her diminutive frame.  One simply could not look anywhere else.  This was a new play, with long, emotional soliloquies delivered by Dame Judi in her role as the elderly Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  The play had some problems, but Dame Judi was magnificent.  The words she spoke could not have been buried in her memory like Shakespeare, ready to call up on a whim.  No, these were all new words and not only had she memorized them, she knew them so well as to imbue them with appropriate sensitivity and feeling.  She was Alice.  I was transfixed.

Angela Lansbury is currently on tour in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, never missing a beat, or a line, as she dances and prances across the stage as Madame Arcarti.   She is earning rave reviews wherever she goes.  She is eighty-nine.

Now, I do both the New York and Los Angeles Times crosswords every day.  I knit rather complicated patterns every night.  I read.  I write.  Yet when I witness the accomplishments of these two women, and others like them, I cringe at how little I challenge myself.  My soul, I doubt I could learn even one paragraph of the dense dialog Miss Dench preformed so effortlessly that Spring night I saw her in London.  Or could I?  Is there a challenge I could set for myself that might hone and sharpen the more indolent cells of my brain till they gleamed as brightly, well nearly, as hers?   And that’s when I thought about poetry.

How wonderful, how marvelous it would be to call up stanzas of great poetry whenever one wished.  Imagine if you will, a dull party, one where guests stand shoulder to shoulder with glasses of flat champagne in their hands, nodding politely at soporific conversation as they long to be home watching re-runs of Downton Abbey.  Imagine I slam down my drink, stride to the center of the room, hop gracefully atop a tufted ottoman and launch into a recitation of “Casey At The Bat”, in full-throated, confident voice…..

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, “Strike two!”

  All boredom now extinguished; the party crackles with fun till the wee hours.  

Or…. snowed in at an airport in Manchester, I spy a fidgety child on the verge of a meltdown.  I motion the tyke to my side, widen my eyes, lower my voice and begin…. 

“’Twas brillig, and the slithy roves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe,
 All mimsy were the borogoves, 
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

The Jabberwocky has been known to silence the most fractious of minds.  The child is awe-struck to the point of fright, but at least he’s quiet now. 

I could throw the words of Seamus Heaney in the face of the news of the day:
“History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme” 

Poetry has influenced my view of the world since childhood.  I sit by the window on stormy nights and Robert Louis Stevenson is at my side whispering, “Whenever the moon and stars are set, Whenever the wind is high, All night long in the dark and wet, A man goes riding by.  Late at night when the fires are out, Why does he gallop and gallop about?”.  Because of Dylan Thomas I see “wordy women and rows of star-gestured children in the park”.    Because of Mary Oliver I frequently ask myself “what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”. 

So, as a personal challenge, I have decided to memorize a favorite poem.  Choosing just one is a difficult task.  “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas is a favourite, as is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.  And of course, there’s always “Casey At The Bat”.  But these lines from Tennyson are calling my name.  What do you think?  Can I do it?
If Dame Judi can, well so can I. 
Read this out loud and think…. 
Care to join me?

“Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all:  but something ere the end, 
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes:  The slow moon climbs:  the deep
Moans round with many voices.  Come, my friends, 
“Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows;  for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, 
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made week by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

For more inspiration, try this book.