Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Thoughts on a Holiday

Thoughts on a Holiday

During the civil rights movement of the 1960’s I was too little, and way too sheltered, to be of much use.  Even though Martin Luther King Jr. and I grew up in the very same city, his noble activities were something I only saw occasionally flash across a black and white television screen as I ran through the living room on my way outside to play.  Ensconced in my leafy enclave where swing sets sat under tall trees and the ice cream truck sang its way down our street every afternoon round four, I was blissfully unaware of injustice, ignorant of racism, and oblivious to hate.  It was very different across town.  I know this now.

Whenever I watch the films of the civil rights marches I am always struck by the faces of the men holding the fire hoses.  I compare them to the expressions worn by the men and women being thrown up against buildings and face down on streets by the force of the water shot towards them.  Strangely, it is the perpetrators who wear the faces of hate.  Self-righteousness twisted into thin-lipped, steel-eyed grimaces that perfectly illustrate the monstrosity of their wearer’s actions even as they manage to reveal the fear lurking just beneath the skin.  For there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years since that time:  fear is generally the precursor to hate.  

There is much to fear today.  This past year has been a ceaseless parade of unparalleled atrocities, played out on screens for all the world to see.  It is cavalier not to be frightened of these brutal savages who slaughter the innocent before our very eyes.   But like all dark emotions, fear lives next to neighbours capable of great damage.  It can lead us to airless places where bitterness pulls the curtain down on hope and hatred slams the door to love.   It can - slowly, almost imperceptibly - fashion an unrecognizable world.

Today on this day when we pause to remember the achievements of Martin Luther King Jr., I am thinking it is easy, too easy, to hate those who commit these acts of barbarism across our world today.  It is easy to stay in our homes and arm ourselves;  easy to applaud the torture of our enemies, even as Christ called us to love them.  It is temptingly easy to categorize man as good or evil and easy to banish the evil to hell. But in doing so, in taking this easy way out of the confusion and fear that we all must feel when faced with our current realities, what do we do to our culture?  What do we do to our souls?

“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, 
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars... 
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
MLK, Jr. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

So Sure, and So Wrong

So Sure and So Wrong

They were the treacherous triumvirate that hid like trolls under fairy tale bridges waiting to snatch unsuspecting saddle-shoed children as they skipped merrily by at the close of an otherwise carefree day.  Mumps, Measles and Chicken Pox.  Though rather Seuss-ian in name, make no mistake, in the day before vaccines for these three, they barred the way to our adulthood like invulnerable dragons.  We simply had to let them do their worst before we could pass. How well I recall the heavy discomfort and freak show visage I had with the mumps.  When the measles struck I ran a fever so high I still remember all the furniture shimmering like liquid.  But I was always too fast for chicken pox.  Try as they might, they could never quite manage to catch me.  It is a part of my family lore and legend:  I never had chicken pox.  “Remarkable!”  “Amazing!”  These were the astonished comments uttered by the mothers of my playmates as they placed cold compresses on the foreheads of their itchy, irritable children and warned them not to scratch.  I myself vividly recall being quickly packed up and bundled away from any spotty child who happened to be anywhere in the vicinity. 

As an adult it was, I’m ashamed to admit, with a mixture of pity and unflattering smugness that I watched the television ads for the new shingles vaccine.  As the poor sufferers recounted their tales of woe, I stared blithely down from my safe, impregnable mountain secure in the knowledge that their affliction could never touch me.  It is a well known fact that one cannot get shingles if one has not had chicken pox and I, it was just as well known, had never, no never, had chicken pox.

So here I was, on the eve of epiphany, staring like a codfish at my doctor as she squinted knowingly at the small, oddly painful, spot on my forehead and stated emphatically, for the second time, “Shingles.  Yes. Absolutely."

“But, but”, I began again.  “I’ve never had chicken pox.”

“Yes.  As you’ve said.  But I’m telling you that’s impossible.  No doubt you had a mild case,
 or even an asymptomatic one.  It happens.  But there is no way you made it to adulthood in this country, before the vaccine, and didn’t have chicken pox.  No matter now.  You had them.  And you have shingles.  Now go home, take your medicine just as I’ve told you and go to bed.”

So I drove home with a couple of bottles of pills large enough to choke a horse sitting beside me and thought.  I was so certain.  My parents were so certain.  I called my very first friend to tell her and even she was so, so certain.  But we were all wrong.  About what else could I be so sure, and so wrong?  It was most disconcerting. I thought of oysters, pea soup and asparagus.  Long ago I decided I hated them.  Maybe I don’t now.  Perhaps I no longer look embalmed whenever I wear yellow.  Could it now be possible I might be good at math?  Ballet?  Could I sing harmony now? It gave me much to ponder on the road to recovery, I can tell you.

*A personal note:  I know without a doubt I have the most thoughtful readers in the land.  The notes, the cards, the little movies!  You all were so sweet and your correspondences made my dreadful week much less so.  Thank you!  Now all of you go out and get the shingles vaccine.  Trust me.  You don’t want this.  I was most fortunate to catch it very early, when just a teensy spot on my forehead, and start strong anti-viral medications that, although they made me feel pretty crummy themselves, did the trick beautifully and stopped the process cold.  I cannot imagine the alternative, though I know many people have experienced it.  Now, go get the vaccine!  

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Edward On Duty

Edward On Duty
The big white dog waited by the door in spite of the temperatures tumbling outside in the late afternoon air.  Normally in these few waning moments of daylight he would be found romping round the back garden in a last burst of daytime energy before settling down in front of the fire for a restful, dozy evening.  But The Lady wasn’t home yet, and he was worried.  She hadn’t been herself when she left and though she’d said nothing, he'd known it.  And so he waited, head on paws, ears pricked.

Hearing her car pull into the drive, he sat up and stared at the doorknob.  Seeing it turn, he stood.  One look at her and he knew he’d been right.  She didn’t feel well.  She gave him a slight pat on the head and headed immediately out through the kitchen and down the long hallway to the bedroom, letting her coats, shawls and gloves fall behind in her wake.  She fell into bed.  The big dog stood at the door and watched.

Right.  He knew what he had to do.  Wheeling around, he went to find Apple, his furry black housemate, and told her there was to be no unnecessary barking at squirrels or chipmunks for the foreseeable future.  He then trotted into the den and under the piano where lay his new Christmas toy.  “You never know”, he thought to himself.  “She might like to play if she feels better.”  He made his way back down the hallway to the bedroom door and stopped, stock still.
  The door was closed.
In shock, he dropped his toy.
Lifting one large white paw, he demanded entrance.
Bang, Bang, Bang!
The door shook.  And opened.
“Sorry, Edward.”  The Man stepped aside to let him in.
Refusing to allow his annoyance to dent his dignity, the big white dog trotted into the room with his head held high and jumped as lightly as a bird atop the fluffy bed.
The Lady placed her hand on his head and he lay close beside her.
And there he stayed.

Cold itself drove down through the clouds that night, led by thundering steeds of wind that raked the bare trees and screamed past the cottage eaves.  Still the big dog stayed close by The Lady, refusing to move.  As the temperatures dropped past fifteen, past ten, The Lady slept and the big dog kept watch.  In the afternoon he would reluctantly leave his post to tear figure eights through the garden, kangaroo-boxing with Apple, playing tag round the hemlocks, in a pent-up burst of unexploded energy.  Then he would calmly return, quiet and somber, to take up his post once again.  

On the third day he overheard The Man talking in the other room.  
“Yes, it’s fortunate.  We caught it early.”
“Must have been a mild case”.
“Very thankful.  The medicine did the trick. She’s on the mend.”

The big dog chuckled to himself.
Medicine, nothing.
Whatever would they do without him?

They are curled up together tonight.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Laid Low

Laid Low
I am sorry to report that I have been laid low.
By shingles, of all things.
Believe everything you’ve ever heard.
This is the worst.
But never fear, I have three excellent nurses,
one of whom chooses to stay as close by my side as possible.
I bet you can guess who that is.
Bless him.
I shall return soon, all better I hope.
Till then, I can hardly read, much less write.
So, leave a comment to make me laugh!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Christmas All Year Round

Christmas All Year Round

If we push back the lighted limbs in the forest of fir trees and quieten the carolers gathered outside;  if we hold up a hand to delay Father Christmas or freeze Santa Claus stock still on the roof, we can easily remember that Christmas is a religious holiday.  There are those who lose themselves in lamentation every festive season in their belief that this fact has been forgotten.  They tell us that Santa is nothing more than an anagram for Satan, that the holiness of the occasion has dimmed to nonexistence in the neon glare of commercialism and mall traffic.  They even grumble that Christ was actually born in April, thus rendering all this festivity and joy quite ill-placed.  

I recently read an essay by a woman I admire, a writer and thinker who often speaks about faith and religion with coherence and a seeking mind.  In this article, I was dismayed to read her list of all the reasons she no longer, “does Christmas”.  She states,  “I don't like -- don't approve, refuse to throw myself into -- the spirit of obligatory gift-giving.”   She sites the usual soul-stealing culprits here:   the excess, the trivia, Black Friday, Cyber Monday.  And though she still recognizes “faint glimmers” of the incarnational heart of Christmas in our 21st century style, she sees it as nothing more than a “distortion of us as a culture…”, concluding that “… I for one am done”.

Well, with all due respect, not so fast.  Yes, capitalism co-opted Christmas, years ago.  Yes, I find the term “Black Friday” - so widely accepted here in the States as the new moniker for the national Sales-o-Rama occurring on the day after Thanksgiving - frankly repulsive.  The focus on expensive, debt-inducing gifts is disturbing and the break-neck pace of holiday activity is exhausting.  Which is why I choose not to let those more unsavory aspects of the current culture through my front door.  

But oh, I love Christmas.  It is with deep happiness and love that I pick up gifts throughout the year for those close to me in happy anticipation of wrapping them up during the festive season.  I choose to view the first lights that appear, even those hung a bit too early, as tiny affirmations of the joy that permeates this holy time of year.  For those of us who know this joy, to refuse to welcome the season of Christmas with celebration is to concede defeat to a culture that tries at every turn to steal away the beautiful, the unique, and the reverent.  I refuse to allow that.

I did not set foot in a mall this season.  I did not participate in one-day-sales or early bird specials. Most of the gifts I gave were hand-made, home-baked, or discovered on my travels in tiny shops with creaky floors and foggy windows.  The “fiscal health” report on our nation for the holiday season will not include any measurable amount from me.  In fact, the favorite gift I gave this year was for to a friend who adores the poet John Keats.  Whilst in Hampstead in October, I plucked several perfect leaves from a gnarled old tree in Keats' garden and pressed them into a notebook where they rested until I returned home.  I wrapped a embroidered cloth around a board, arranged the leaves in a lovely design, and framed them in an old black forest frame.  Leaves from a tree planted in the grounds where Keats once strolled.  She loved it.  

I don’t mean to be too hard on this lady who has decided to abandon gift-giving along with the other trappings of Christmas.  She has also decided, in lieu of more traditional celebration, to give clothing to homeless teens after all, and that is admirable.  For myself, however, Christmas is not just a season that resides on the December page of the calendar.  It is something that I feel every month of the year.  I have my eye on it in March and July; it wafts in the heat of a southern breeze in August and follows me up over a Scottish hillside in September.  When the rest of the world registers its presence with carols and lights, I am delighted to celebrate openly for as long as I reasonably can.  

A New Year is dawning, with as much uncertainty and mystery as all the others before it.  Will we win a prize in April, or break an ankle in May?  Will a golden sun shine on us in November?  Will the storms of March drive us to distraction?  It is the spirit of Christmas that keeps these prospects, these mysteries, from overwhelming my heart.  That wonderful seasonal delight and joy stays with me throughout the vagaries of an unknown year.  I hope you experience the joy of Christmas throughout this new year as well.  
Edward and I will be here, 
 turned towards the wind with grins on our faces, 
ready for anything that comes.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Happy Christmas to All!

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, 
keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, 
and the glory of the Lord shone round about them:
 and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for, behold,
 I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior,
 which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe 
wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel 
a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, 
and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, 
and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.
Luke 2: 8-14

A Most Happy Christmas to Every Single One of Us.
 and Edward, too

Monday, December 22, 2014

Waiting for the Magic

Waiting For The Magic

When were we taught to be afraid of the dark?  What bedtime story told us of monsters under the bed or warned us of wraiths at the window?  Which fairy tale twisted shadows into malevolent spirits and deemed moonbeams inadequate to chase away evil? 

On these cold December nights Edward likes to spend time outside by himself.  He lays on the back porch - white fur glowing in the moonlight - and ponders the unanswerable, conversing with guardians both real and unseen.  Sometimes I bundle up and tiptoe out to join him.  A brief spin of his tale tells me he doesn't mind my presence.  We sit in the stillness as I wait for the magic the dark always brings.
Redesigned in grisaille the too familiar world becomes new.  The poplar trees are taller somehow, with personalities both individual and wise and I feel myself observed by round yellow eyes peering down from their uppermost limbs.  The ice-grey floor of the garden wears multicoloured  jewels casually thrown through the bedroom window by the lights of the Christmas tree.  There are sounds only heard in the darkness. Nocturnes played on leaf and claw, the distant tinkling of a bell.  

Treasures are unearthed in the darkness, flights of imagination that are grounded in the bold unyielding light of the day soar through a velvet midnight sky.  I find tranquility in the night -  there is time to sink into my true self and remember the sound of my own fanciful heart.  The peace we gather in the long winter night shall clothe us in gentleness when the sun shines again.

On this, the night of solstice, the longest of the year, do join Edward and me outside in the dark if you possibly can.  Let the quiet fold its wings all around you as you listen to the music the silence always brings.  What a gift this longest night can be.  For it is always in the darkness that the brightest stars are seen.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Books For Christmas, The Finale: Books for YOU!

Books at Christmas Finale
The Best for Last.
Books for YOU!
It is impossible, of course, to peruse a bookshop at Christmas and not discover irresistible treasures for oneself.  It is a sad fact with which I have become well-acquainted since I tend to wrap up so many books for my friends and family.  What can I say?  I’ve come to consider it a perk of the holiday season.  Much like fudge.  One for you, one - or two - for me.  Here are a few books I could not resist this year.

Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop
edited by Otto Penzler
from Amazon:  “Each year, for the past seventeen years, Otto Penzler, owner of the legendary Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, has commissioned an original story by a leading mystery writer. The requirements were that it be a mystery/ crime/suspense story, that it be set during the Christmas season, and that at least some of the action must take place in The Mysterious Bookshop. These stories were then produced as pamphlets, 1,000 copies, and given to customers of the bookstore as a Christmas present.Now, all of these stories have been collected in one volume—Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop. Some of the tales are humorous, others suspenseful, and still others mystifying. This charming one-of-a-kind collection is a perfect Christmas gift, appropriate for all ages and tastes.”
I mean who amongst us can resist this?

Anarchy and Beauty
William Morris and His Legacy
by Fiona MacCarthy
It was with much anticipation that I made my way out of London in October for a visit to William Morris’s fabled Red House and oh, it did not disappoint.  Being a devoted disciple of all things Morris, this book - which accompanies the new Morris exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery - is sure to delight me for years to come.  You might like it, too!

The Writer’s Garden
by Jackie Bennett
Oh, yes.

The Homemaker
by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
During a recent visit to Persephone Books in London, I chanced to overhear the owner on the telephone.  A slight, tweed-suited lady whose size belied her rather formidable telephone voice, she was saying, “I intend to make this a best-seller.  So many books climb up the charts that are far, far inferior to this one.  This one deserves to be read, and read widely.  I’m going all out on this one.  I’m making it a best-seller.”
Well, naturally, I simply had to know the book of which she was speaking, even if it meant owning up to a spot of eavesdropping. And as luck would have it, the very book mentioned was already in my hands.  I did pick up another for a friend.  It does deserve to be a bestseller. 
Note:  The Persephone website appears to be having a spot of trouble at present.
Till they're up and running again, you can find The Homemaker HERE.

The Disinherited
by Robert Sackville-West
Anyone fortunate enough to climb the tower at Sissinghurst Castle and peer into the writing room of Vita Sackville-West is sure to become intrigued with that family.  I know I did.  I’ve spent some time this year reading some of Vita’s writing, (All Passion Spent has risen to the top of my favorite’s list) as well as the wonderful new book on Sissinghurst garden.  Now Robert Sackville-West has written a new history of the family and I cannot wait to read it.

Novel Interiors
by Lisa Borgnes Giramonti
When we met for tea on the day of William and Kate’s wedding, I knew Lisa was headed for something special.  There were too many ideas flowing through her head not to flower into greatness.  And just last week, it all came to fruition when her exquisite new book, Novel Interiors, landed on my doorstep.  A delightful blending of literature and design, Lisa illustrates beautifully how the books we love influence the homes we create.  As someone who just had a birdhouse screened porch added to her bedroom, this is so right up my street and it’s one of the most gorgeous design books I’ve come across in years.  Bravo!

The Elements of Style, Illustrated
by Strunk, White and Kalman
Every writer reveres Strunk and White’s definitive book on writing.  And who can refuse this edition when it’s so delightfully illustrated by Maira Kalman?

The Annotated Wuthering Heights
by Emily Bronte
edited by Janet Gezari
Take it from me, this is one beautiful book.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my book series this holiday season.  I know I have.
Did I go overboard?  Maybe.  But I had so much fun.
And books are the most delicious gifts.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Books For Christmas, Part VI - For Your Best Friend

Books for Your Best Friend
She is the one you call when you feel less than adequate.  She is the one you call when you’re on top of the world.  She is fond of black turtlenecks and vintage jewelry.  You have never seen her wear something trendy.  There are sunflowers in her garden every summer and jazz always plays in the rooms of her house. Though serious and whip smart, she does an impression of your third grade teacher that still reduces you to tears.  She is the person you want in your corner and you wish her all good things all year round.  Here are some books for her.

Backwards In High Heels
The Impossible Art of Being Female
by Tania Kindersley and Sarah Vine

The Gardener’s Garden
by Madison Cox

My Favorite Things
by Maira Kalman

Small Victories
by Anne Lamott

The Miniaturist
by Jessie Burton

Family Furnishings 
by Alice Munro

Advice to Little Girls
by Mark Twain

Living Newport
by Bettie Bearden Pardee

I've saved the best for last....
Next up... Books for YOU!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Books For Christmas, Part V - For That Man in Your Life

Books For Christmas, Part V… For That Man in Your Life
You love the way his mind works, even if multi-tasking is not an arrow in his quiver.  You are forever fascinated by his focus, his insouciant attitude towards his many talents, his kindness, his creativity.  His imagination spins intricate webs, never failing to delight.  His humour is unflagging.  Being a man of myriad interests, choosing books for him at Christmas is an enjoyable exploration.  These are a few of the many you think he will love.

What If?
by Randall Munroe

What About Never?  Is Never Good For You?
by Bob Mankoff

Deep Down Dark
by Hector Tobar

The Churchill Factor
by Boris Johnson

Still Moving
by Danny Clinch

A Reader’s Book of Days
by Tom Nissley

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy
The Beatles Lyrics
by Hunter Davies

The Book of Strange New Things
by Michel Faber

London:  A Literary Anthology
from The British Library

Next Up....
Books for Your Best Friend 
and then....
Books For You!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Books at Christmas Part IV... For the Children, Because We Remember

Books at Christmas Part IV… For Children
Because We Remember
Because we remember the sheer magic of learning to read, when great fistfuls of coloured lights began to soar round our heads like fireworks as we discovered all the fantastic worlds that flourished inside the pages of books.   Because we remember the anticipation of turning the next page, the delicious anxiety we felt standing before a rainbow of spines on a library shelf as we tried to choose just the right one.  How we loved the fragrance of an old book, and the feel of the crisp sharp pages of a new one.  Because we remember reading under the covers long after we were supposed to be fast asleep.  Because the characters that lived inside the books we loved became as real to us as neighbours.  Because, as we read, our imaginations awakened and grew, healthy and strong, to walk alongside us the length of our days, enriching our lives in ways inconceivable had not been for our books.  Because we remember all this, we give books to children at Christmas.  Here are a few wonderful ones for this year.

The Memory of an Elephant
by Sophie Strady

Fox’s Garden
by Princesse Camcam

Can It Be True?
by Susan Hill
Illustrated by Acornmoon’s Valerie Greeley

The Farmer and the Clown
by Marla Frazee

The Lion and the Bird 
by Marianne Dubuc

Little Elliot Big City
by Mike Curato

 The Lisbeth Zwerger Collection

The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales
Illustrated by Arthur Rackham

Aviary Wonders
By Kate Samworth

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Books At Christmas Part III: For the Anglophile

Books for Your Friend Who Dreams of England
She takes her tea in a Staffordshire cup every afternoon at half past four.  She set her alarm at two in the morning to watch Kate Middleton marry her prince.  The rooms of Pemberley and Thornfield Hall are as familiar to her as her own.  She thinks Branwell Bronte was misunderstood, Jane Austen was hilarious, and Virginia Woolf was a genius.  She has a rather unfortunate crush on Stephen Fry and never misses an episode of Doc Martin. Christmas at her house is a Dickensian delight and she’ll be enthralled with any one of these books.  Just click on the photo to see more.

Christmas at Thompson Hall
and Other Christmas Stories
by Anthony Trollope

At Home With Jane Austen
by Kim Wilson

A Literary Christmas
 An Anthology from The British Library

The Drawing Room
English Country House Decoration
by Jeremy Musson

Her Majesty 
by Christopher Warwick

English Puddings
Sweet and Savory
by Mary Norwak

The Stories of Jane Gardam
by Jane Gardam

Penelope Fitzgerald:   A Life
by Hermione Lee

The Queen's Houses
by Alan Titchmarch

Still to come:
Children's Books
Books for the Man in Your Life
Books for Your Best Friend
and Books for You!