Monday, July 18, 2016

Hula Hoops

Hula Hoops and Pokemon

After being in the air-conditioned gym for over an hour I’d conveniently forgotten how hot it was outside but when I opened the door to my little Fiat it felt like nothing less than climbing inside a pre-heated oven.  The air hung heavy as maple syrup.  It was a chore to breathe.  I was thinking of nothing but a cool bath and an iced drink as I turned into the roundabout that encircles the fountain in front of the library, and that was when I saw them.  A cluster of people standing in the blazing sun, looking down.  My eyes scanned the scene, expecting to find someone who’d fainted in the heat, but nothing was there.  Then it dawned on me.  Oh.  This is the Pokemon thing.  Sure enough, these people were all looking down at their phones, absolutely captivated.  Further on, in front of city hall, there were more.  Groups of adults, here and there, all totally engrossed in the business of finding little cartoon monsters on their phones.  

There’s nothing quite like personally witnessing the current zeitgeist on the hottest day in July to make one think and I am sorry to admit that my first reaction was incredulity.  Really?  On a day like this?  Could there not be a more enjoyable activity to engage these folks?  But like I said, I started to think and was once again reminded that there is nothing new under the sun.  Literally.  No, all through modern history, when times are particularly difficult, we humans seem to find a collective diversion to afford ourselves occasional escape.  This is not, I suppose, a bad thing.  In fact, it is probably quite healthy.  And Lord knows, this summer has seen some of the most difficult times in recent memory.  Bad news seems as unstoppable as a polluted river.  Is it any wonder that we dive into an activity with the power to make us forget, just a little. 

In 1958, the Arkansas legislature voted 94 to 1 to close their schools if forced to integrate.  In Texas, a desegregated school was bombed in the early morning, leveling it to the ground.  The country was roiling with the holy change being wrought by civil rights.  Into this turbulent atmosphere came the Hula Hoop.  Millions of people threw these plastic rings round their waists and wiggled, wiggled, wiggled.  

There was a laughable epidemic of streaking the year President Nixon resigned.  People lost their trust in government that year as, day after day, in the hearings broadcast on television, they listened to the crimes committed.  So all over the country, young people responded by taking off their clothes and running across campuses, through baseball games, and even across the stage of the Academy Awards. That last one prompted one of the wittiest comebacks in that show’s history courtesy of David Niven.

We threw Frisbees during the Vietnam War and focused our gaze on the Rubik’s Cube the year Thatcher’s Britain was torn apart by the miner’s strikes, the year John Lennon was murdered on a street in New York.   Distractions?  Diversions?  Yes.  Totally silly wastes of time?  I’m not so sure.

When the news is quite simply too bleak for a compassionate, reasonable mind to bear, it can only be healthy to take a break, and while I don’t think I’ll be looking for Pokemon monsters in the near future, I do have my own ways of unplugging as I’m sure you have yours.  I buy new lipsticks.  (Charlotte Tilbury, anyone?)  I read British Country Life and ponder buying pet pigs.  Unashamedly, I get a thrill of excitement every time new photos of Prince George are released.  (Is there a cuter kid anywhere?)  I watch old movies.  (Again, I Know Where I’m Going is always pulled out in tough times.)  I reread favorite books.  I redecorate.  (As I write, the colour going up on the walls of the snug is a completely delicious Sussex Green.)  I go for long drives with the windows down and the music up.  Or, perhaps best of all, I sit on the floor between a dozing Edward and Apple, my arms around both, and just close my eyes.  
And come to think of it… I do know a store that still sells Hula Hoops. 
Is it just me? 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Think of It ...... Always

"When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it -- always." 
Mahatma Gandhi.

Painting:  1953 Window at Nice 
by Raoul Dufy 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

In a Small World

In a Small World

Atop a windy cliffside in Shetland, a camera hides.  So unobtrusive as to be unnoticed by passersby, it constantly records the scenery in real time, affording views that are  sometimes sunny, sometimes stormy, always wild and windy.  For someone like myself, who has climbed the hills of Shetland, this is a grand gift and one that I open every single day just by switching on my laptop.  This webcam affords me entry into my memory, complete with light and sound.  I close my eyes and listen to the seabirds, hear the waves crashing below, and I am instantly transported back to this wonderful island.  

As I gazed at this view yesterday - listening to the roar of the sea, watching the wind push white clouds across a summer blue sky - I heard voices.  Heavy footfalls of climbers, getting louder as they approached the hidden camera. A couple of masculine exasperated sighs and indistinct muttering, and then, quite clearly, a woman’s voice…. “Ach man, quit yer complainin’!”. 

The sounds of these two dwindled as they walked on away from the site, leaving me amused and amazed.  Just think, from my spot in my sitting room in the Southern US, I was listening to two climbers make their way up a sunny hillside in the Shetland Isles, in the middle of the North Sea, closer to Norway than to Scotland.   What an astonishing time in which to live.

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, the word went out across the world via steamships and mail.  The process took weeks and months.  Our world is smaller now.  These days we are instantaneously connected.  If a flower is dropped from a window in Rome, it could be caught in London before it ever hits the ground.  Or so it seems.  Perhaps this is one reason last week’s vote in the United Kingdom hit me so hard.  I sat up late as the results came in, increasingly saddened and stunned at the apparent ending of a half century union created at the close of one devastating war as insurance against another.  As a young friend in London put it, “In my lifetime I have watched as walls came down.  Who would have thought I would have to watch them go back up again?”

Fear is a cancerous thing.  It rears its horned head in troubled times and is always seized by those willing to exploit it for ugly reasons.  There are those on the national stages at present who shout their desire to make our countries “great again", the implication being that we used to be great but are, sadly, great no longer.   I seriously doubt these pronouncements have anything to do with nostalgia for vinyl records and milk at the door.  No, follow this thought process and one cannot help but wonder at what time in history did these people consider us “great”?    Before women could vote?  Before our black brothers and sisters could drink from the same water fountains as whites?  Perhaps when gay men were imprisoned or people were persecuted because of their religion?  Or maybe when books were banned and the press was censored?

These are complicated times in which we live.  There are real problems that need to be solved, one cannot deny.  But to retreat behind our borders in suspicion and fear will only make us smaller, not greater.  Change has happened, is happening, will happen.  To fear change, whether in one’s personal life or as a country, is detrimental to the healthy future of both.  In the eight years I have written this blog I have come into contact with people from all over the world.  This has only enhanced my belief that we are all essentially the same.  We share the same capacity for love and wonder, the same hopes and dreams, the same curiosity of each other and our world, even as we all love our home countries with dedication and pride.   

On the forefront of politics at the moment there are loud voices carrying the echoes of evil times, times we thought were forever buried by the unassailable lessons of history.   Now more than ever, we need intelligent voices of empathy and reason.  We need people willing to work together, not hide behind walls with fists clenched and eyes closed, proud of their ignorance of others.   Though often tempted to shut my doors and retreat into the peace of my own home, ignoring the cacophony and chaos, I know that I cannot.  My sphere of influence may be small, but I will continue to spread as much love and light as I can, even as the world gets darker.

In a delightful example of the friendships than can be created in this small world, last week Edward and I were tickled to meet Sharon Santoni, of the widely read and much loved blog, My French Country Home.  Sharon was in town to sign copies of her new book, My Stylish French Girlfriends, a lovely collection of French women - women with real lives, real faces, women of widely varied careers and interests.  It’s a marvelous, beautiful book and perfect for a summer’s day.

Find it HERE.

And visit the Shetland webcam for yourself, HERE

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A First Day of Summer List

"Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass 
on a summer day listening to the murmur of water,
 or watching the clouds float across the sky,
 is hardly a waste of time." 
John Lubbock

The tiny beads of condensation on the silver dish of ice cream.
The crosshatch etched on bare thighs by outdoor wicker chairs.
The sleepy whirling metronome of the ceiling fan.
The just-caught firefly that makes your fist glow orange in the one brief second before you release it to the night.
The lazy dog dozing with his head in your lap.
The porch ferns.
The blue hydrangeas.
The smell of fresh corn on the grill.
The sound of splashes in the birdbath.
The feel of crisp cool sheets on a hot still night.
The sibilation of sprinklers.
The slap of the old screened door.


It is such irony that the very hour we celebrate the arrival of summer is the very hour we begin the journey into winter.  The days only shorten from here.   Bit by bit, these summer afternoons so beloved by Henry James have their sun-kissed seconds shaved by time, each growing shorter, infinitesimally, hardly noticed, until we lift our faces to a change in the wind and a spell is cast that turns maple greens to russet and daisy yellows to gold.  Of all the seasons, summer seems ephemeral.  Like the sweet beach memories we make at this time, the edges of each summer day feels softly blurred, like the old photographs so many of them are destined to become.  
So close your eyes.  Breathe deeply.
And love each summer day.

Here’s a list of fun things for this new season.

1.  Molton Brown Orange and Bergamot 
As those of you who follow me on Instagram already know, I spent some time in Yorkshire this past April.  A marvelous part of Great Britain, from the gothic moors of Bronte country to the bucolic dales of James Herriot.  Every single day of that journey was completely wonderful.  
For a couple of nights we stayed in a charming little B and B near Fountains Abbey where, on my dressing table, sat a ordinary bottle of hand lotion by Molton Brown.  Now, I’ve encountered this brand before and have always liked it.  But this particular fragrance was intoxicating.  It was as though they had managed to bottle summer.  Fresh grass, orange blossoms, salt water - I almost wanted to put it to my ear to listen for the sea.  Needless to say, I have filled my house with this fragrance since returning home. 
I’m not kidding.  It’s fabulously addictive.
Find it HERE

  2.  For Little Girls
 This would have been my favorite summer shirt when I was little.
Hands down.
Find it HERE

3.  Black Rabbit Hall
by Eve Chase 
The absolutely perfect summer book.
Atmospheric and irresistible.
Loved it.
Find it HERE

4.  Pillows
New Pillows Up Now!
Find them HERE

5.  Gardening Boots and Gloves
Love, love these!
Find them HERE
and HERE

6.  Lily and Lionel Scarves
It’s no secret that I lose my mind in the scarf department at Liberty of London, but it’s certainly a comfort to know I’m not alone.  It’s truly one of the most tempting places on the planet and I usually try and  bring something special back with me each time I’m there.  I’m particularly fond of Lily and Lionel scarves, like the one above.
Isn’t that the perfect scarf for summer?
Find it HERE


7.  Nelly Dean<
by Alison Case
Visiting Bronte country was  a dream come true for me and since returning, I’ve been immersed in everything Bronte, for a special reason. (More about that later)  While I usually steer clear of books that pilfer their plots from the classics, I dipped into this one out of rampant curiosity and could not put it down.  
The story of Nelly Dean, the housekeeper at Wuthering Heights.  
Give it a try and let me know what you think.
I loved it.
Find it HERE.

8.  Genius
If you are a writer.  
If you live with a writer.
If you love books.
Or if you just have a crush on Colin Firth.
Go see this movie.
See the Trailer HERE

9.  Sunny Afternoon
To be completely honest, I purchased these tickets primarily for The Songwriter.
But boy, oh boy, did I have a good time!
Trust me, if you’re in London over the summer….
Go see this!
See more HERE

10.  Julia Reed’s South
Just the most delicious bite of a southern summer
 you’re ever going to have.

Find it HERE

Happy Summer, 
from Edward!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

From the Children

From the Children

For the past several nights the weatherman on Channel 4 has been in near hysterics over the heat.  In the manner of an Old Testament prophet he points to the map, now recoloured a blazing orange for ultimate effect, flails his arms and predicts… “Tomorrow will be the hottest day so far this year!”.   As we are in the South, and it is only June, I find this forecast fairly unremarkable.  That said, it is hot, and getting hotter, which means Edward’s normally exuberant enthusiasm for his daily walk has evaporated to a trickle.  Until September he will prefer a game of fetch down the cool hallways of the house.  

So I find myself at the gym more often where my daily walks are done at a much faster pace, in air-conditioned comfort, on the treadmill. This is not as bad as it sounds.  With my music in my ears, I can close my eyes and be practically anywhere, and of course there are lots of opportunities for observation in a public place like this one.  For instance, there is the elderly gentleman who walks the track with sheet music in his hands, singing along all the way.  There is the white-haired old lady who strolls, in heels, with her handbag on her arm.  A statuesque woman who works the track like a catwalk. And then, sometimes, if I’m lucky, on the open floor below me will be a large group of children taking part in some sort of summer camp.  They do gymnastics, practice cheerleading routines, and consume great quanities of Kool-aid and Animal Crackers, a menu that, oddly,  hasn’t changed in half a century.  I find these kids endlessly entertaining and amazingly instructive.  For instance, I’ve noticed they run everywhere they go, and I mean everywhere.  Want to talk to someone over there?  Run!  Want to get something that you left in your backpack over there?  Run!  Want to visit the ladies room?  Run!… and for good measure add a couple of cartwheels as you go!   I watch them running from my sweaty place on the treadmill, feeling the irony most acutely, and marvel again at the easy wisdom of children.  

Thinking about these kids as I run, I recall a report I recently heard on the radio.  Jen and Adam Slipakoff have a transgender child named Allie.  Born a boy named Eli, Allie always knew she was a girl in her head and began transitioning when she was four.  When asked if they ever thought about what it meant to be transgender, or about having a transgender child, Allie’s father said, “Not even a little bit.” 
Concerned about hurtful remarks, one of the family’s neighbors related the instruction she gave her son about how to treat Allie.   She told him, “I just don't want you to point out that Eli is now wearing a dress”.   "And he said, 'What are you talking about?  Like what would you say?' And I said, 'I'm just saying don't, don't say anything that would hurt her feelings.' And he said, 'Why would I do that??’" 

From my spot on the treadmill I gaze down at these children running around below me and see a myriad of skin colours, hair styles, and personalities.  They are all laughing together, obviously enjoying each other’s company with a relish few adults can match.  For them, it’s too soon for prejudice and polarization.  Too soon for suspicion and fear.  Too soon for dogmatism.  Too soon for gun permits.  Too soon for hate.  

A couple of months ago I was invited to read some of my stories to a class of at-risk children, aged five to twelve.   Seems their teacher had read Edward Speaks at Midnight to them at Christmas and they wanted me to visit.  I did, and I had a ball.  At the close of the class I asked if anyone had questions.  An adorable second-grader raised his hand.  “Yes?”, I said.  With honest curiosity and a shimmering intelligence far beyond his years, he looked at me and asked, “What inspires you?”

I don’t remember everything I told him,
 but today as I pray for the world these children will inherit,
  I would say, “You do.”

Listen to the NPR report referenced HERE
and please pray for the people of Orlando.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Summer Books

Summer Books

In the world of quizzes and personality tests, there is one question that is purported to reveal volumes, or pages at least, about someone:  “Beatles or Rolling Stones?”  I suppose if one answers "Beatles" one is considered more sensitive and artistic and if the answer is “Stones” one is more likely to be recalcitrant and rebellious.  Total rubbish, I know, but fun to talk about. The Songwriter would be squarely in The Beatles camp, as he’s been a lifelong devotee, but he’s almost equally a fan of the Rolling Stones, so when we were in London last month he was delighted to see that a new Rolling Stones Retrospective had just opened at the Saatchi Gallery just around the corner from our beloved hotel, The Draycott.  Of course he was going. 
Now as for me, I can sing along to You Can’t Always Get What You Want with the best of them, but as it happens, my favorite bookshop in the entire world, John Sandoe Books, is also located just around the corner from our hotel.  There was no question which one I was going to choose.  So we kissed farewell on the corner and the Songwriter turned left while I turned right and we both headed off, grinning, to our respective destinations with a meet up time scheduled for two hours later.  
Two hours.  
Two fat hours to spend in John Sandoe Books. 
Bliss.  Heaven.  
And hardly enough time! 
  (You can see my sack full of treasures in the photo below.)

Since I’ve been home I’ve been very busy with writing projects.  I’m trying to finish a huge knitted shawl as a gift for a Scottish friend.  I’m putting together the neighborhood home tour.  But the weather is getting warm and let’s face it… there’s nothing much sweeter than sitting barefoot on the screened porch, underneath a softly twirling ceiling fan, with a glass of sparkling water at my elbow and a big juicy book in my lap.  Yes, it’s time for Summer Reading, which is, in my opinion, one of the primary reasons God invented summer in the first place.  

Here is a list of the books currently in my summer stack,
 or on my shopping list. Just click on the photos to see more.
As always, do share some of yours.
Happy Summer!
(Painting above by Charlie Mackesey)

The King Who Made Paper Flowers
by Terry Kay

The Course of Love
by Alain de Botton

Paradise Lodge
by Nina Stibbe

The Summer Before the War
by Helen Simonson

Everyone Brave is Forgiven
by Chris Cleave

Summer Evening 
by Walter de la Mare

by Annie Proulx

The Last Painting of Sara De Vos
by Dominic Smith

The Violet Hour
by Katie Roiphe

The Echoing Green
Poems of Fields, Meadows, and Grasses

The Old Ways
by Robert Macfarlane

In The Footsteps of Sheep
Tales of a Journey Through Scotland, 
Walking, Spinning and Knitting Socks

by Debbie Zawinski

East of Eden
by John Steinbeck