Sunday, September 28, 2008

An Audience With Whimsy

A friend visited our home for the first time a while back and wandered through every room before turning to me and saying, “You know what I like best about your house? I can tell that real people live here. Real eccentric people.” I had to laugh. Not only was his statement meant good-naturedly, it was rather refreshing in its honesty. And it was also quite true. Yes, that’s a life size wooden rocking horse in the bedroom.... yes, you do see a collection of witches’ hats in my office .... on that table by the window? yes, that is indeed a tiny, perfectly formed dress-wearing china pig sitting inside an architectural model of a Victorian gazebo holding a spyglass to her eye.... and those antique velvet shoes with the turned-up toes and feather trim resting on that stack of art books? Well, they could be part of an early theatrical children’s costume, or they just might have belonged to a forest
wood nymph....who knows for certain?

Through all the seriousness of life, one thing I have happily carried along with me from childhood is a love of, and charmed devotion to, whimsy. When one enters the star-strewn hallways of the imagination, that soft laughter one hears coming from one of the more colourful corridors to the left, is whimsy. Whimsy is the unseen velvet clad fellow who visited J0 Rowling on the Manchester train one evening to whisper in her ear about a certain school called Hogwarts.... his is the voice art decorators heard when they designed the sets for the movie Nanny McPhee. P.L Travers politely asked Mary Poppins to jump into a pavement
painting at his suggestion, and it was he who informed J.M. Barrie that the best way to Neverland was out the window. Oh, his influence has been, and continues to be, phenomenal. The lake-diving pig in the Michael Sowa painting, that sweet, timid lion trying to get through Oz, the muffler-clad faun leaning against the lamp post in a land called Narnia, a trespassing rabbit named Peter. All created by adults following a well-timed audience with whimsy.

While allowing him autonomy of one’s imagination is never recommended, I have heard that he behaves most poorly when kept locked up for too long. Indeed, if unfairly treated or worse, ignored, he has been known to vacate the premises entirely, which is just about the saddest thing conceivable. Let him loose occasionally. Seek his counsel every now and then. Let him choose a book he’d like to read, or a movie he might enjoy, perhaps even a scarf to wear on a blustery day. He’ll be full of ideas.

And lucky for me, one of his favorite holidays, Halloween, is almost upon us, and I do need to seek his advice on which of those good witches’ hats to don this year.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

On Beauty

I spent last weekend replanting all the window boxes around my home with fall flowers and had a marvelous time doing so. Now freshly finished, they provide me with so much pleasure when I gaze at them through my windows filled as they are with their dwarf fir trees, purple lantanas, sweet alyssum, and emerald green moss. Soon the mammoth stone frog which rests in the flower bed out front will share his floral home with pale green cinderella pumpkins and giant purple cabbages. I can’t wait to see him ensconced in his autumnal landscape. In the grand scheme of things, are these projects important? What do they add to the betterment of my existence, or for that matter, to the world around me? I suppose how one answers that question depends on the importance of beauty in one’s life.
So often, especially in the current climate of this early 21st century, the simple pursuit and love of beauty is dismissed as something quite trivial and unimportant. How dangerous that is for the soul. Like Keats, I have always found Truth in Beauty and felt it to be as life-affirming and essential as the very air that I breathe. It is also a gift which the natural world affords in great measure, but a gift too often ignored and, I believe, ignored at one’s peril. When we no longer look up to stare at the harvest moon hanging low in the night sky, when we are unable to marvel at the verdancy of an English hillside, or stand awestruck at the majesty of a snow white polar bear crossing an icy landscape - when we cannot hear the glory inside a Saint-Saens symphony nor gaze in wonderment at the depth of feeling within a Van Gogh painting, then what is left of goodness in our lives? When the value of this beauty is only measured in the amount of money it may represent, have we not all been diminished?
I ponder these questions often in face of the stridency of modern life. I recently came across this most sagacious quote by the Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and found it to be a validating balm for my wonderings.

"We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past - whether he admits it or not - can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love."

Hans Urs von Balthasar

Photograph Above: Hillside Near Lake Windermere, Cumbria, UK

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Birthday of a New Season

At forty-four minutes and eighteen seconds past eleven this very morning, Edward and I stood at the side of a pine forest, in front of a quiet lake, watching for its arrival. As the water lapped against the rocky shore we waited. Dappled turtles formed a hard shell queue on a lichen covered log beside us, while a heron stood serenely near, with one lanky leg poised above the water, all of us frozen still, listening, silently, together in the soft glow of the late morning sun. Watching, waiting. For Autumn. Sweet red orange golden autumn, with its cinnamon winds and dancing leaves all heralding a most welcome change. May this change of season bring with it a renewal, of spirit, of purpose and of hope. In my search for beauty in the finite world, may I discover more of the infinite, and may looking outward to the needs of others provide me with a shining bit of peace to call my very own.
May the birth of this fresh, clean, new season give us all a fresh, clean, new start.
It was strange to think that when we stopped our walk by this glassy lake it was summer, and when we continued on to catch up with Apple and her Songwriter, it was autumn. A brand new season had been born to the world and we were there to witness it.

A Birthday Poem
by Ted Kooser

Just past dawn, the sun stands
with its heavy red head
in a black stanchion of trees,
waiting for someone to come
with his bucket
for the foamy white light,
and then a long day in the pasture.
I too spend my days grazing,
feasting on every green moment
till darkness calls,
and with the others
I walk away into the night,
swinging the little tin bell
of my name.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Biannual Task

I love living in an old house, but I have to admit that there are a few inconveniences, one of which is the decided lack of closet space. This necessitates a twice yearly ritual that I both look forward to and dread in equal measures. The switching of the closets. You see, I keep the current season’s wardrobe in my main closet and the other season in another. So twice a year, sometime during the first real week during which I can feel the change in the weather, I switch them around. Inevitably this results in the unearthing of garments I’d forgotten, so I spend the day trying everything on, discarding some things and rediscovering others. It’s best to do this on a free day, nothing pending and no distractions, which is why I chose the task for this week when the Songwriter was out of town. The chosen day dawned cool and crisp and, after breakfast, I began. I turned Billie Holliday up to a pleasing level, poured myself some really good coffee, opened the windows so the early autumn breezes could blow through and soon, as happens every time, I found myself clad in the most outrageous combinations of various and sundry ensembles .
“Oh, there’s that vintage dress that I love! .... Ooh, those velvet trousers are so very Emma Peel!..... I wonder if those ancient riding boots still fit?...... Look Edward, a Muff! ..... Well gee, I didn’t realize I owned a tam o’shanter!
Soon I am wearing all of these at once, which is a sartorial risk best left to the professionals. But really, it’s so much fun. Music up loud, dogs running in and out, and me in my own private changing room of my own private store where everything is free. It's a bit of a chore, sure, but a wonderful way to see one's seasonal wardrobe in a new light. And the best part is, at the end of the day, I have a perfectly clean, bright, folded and sorted closet and I’m all set for the brand new weather!
Now, could anyone out there use a Tam o'shanter?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Wee Bit Of Happiness

All throughout my life I have occasionally experienced a feeling I could only describe as a rush of unexpected happiness. Driving down the road, walking Edward, or just drifting along a crowded street, devoid of thought, it comes over me like a sea breeze, and I suddenly feel ...happy. I used to analyze it. What specifically am I happy about? Why did this feeling show itself at this particular moment? Did I do, or think, something to conjure it? No more. Now I just close my eyes, take a breath, and drink it in. I have learned to accept it as a gift. A blessing. Perhaps a brush of an angel’s wing. Or God’s own gaze turned my way.

The colors of September always entice me into my poetry books and I recognized a bit of this happy feeling I have attempted to describe here within the verses of this picturesque poem by Raymond Carver.


So early it's still almost dark out.
I'm near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.

When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren't saying anything, these boys.

I think if they could, they would take
each other's arm.
It's early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.

They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn't enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


There are times, and oh, this is one of them, when my schedule has become just a little later with each passing day, minute by minute, more and more nocturnal, until eventually I find myself keeping the hours of a raccoon. Never really being a morning person, I have often found I get a real boost of creativity when the sun goes to bed. If that second inspirational wind chances to blow in my door around ten in the evening, then I can stay up till all hours of the night, happy as a clam, working away at whatever project currently has my attention. To be certain, there are less distractions to be found inside the darkness, no jangling telephones, no harsh raps on my door, but it’s something more than that. I just love the nighttime. The soft curiosity of the moon’s light as he peeks in my window, traversing my table, offering his gentle help with my task. His sunny sister is often so assertive as to require a pulled curtain or two during the day, but the moonlight is always a welcome helpmate. Taking a break, I glance outside at the darkened magnolia tree knowing that it shelters scores of mauve grey doves as they sleep with their peaceful, perfect heads tucked safely in the stillness of their wings. I listen to the old ebony clock by the fireplace, like the steady, sweet heartbeat of the quiet house, and I feel blessed in my work. This would not be a problem if the rest of the world saw fit to follow my lead on these revised hours of operation. However, I have found that this is simply not the case. I am supposed to be up and at it each morning with the rest of the early risers. This of course pleases Edward immensely as it usually means I will need some sort of a naptime in the afternoon, which is his idea of pure sybaritic bliss.
I will gradually wean myself off of this schedule to better fit in with the rest of the workaday world, but for now... I am pleased to say,
it’s just me and the hoot owls.

Not to sleep
A Poem by Robert Graves

Not to sleep all the night long, for pure joy,
Counting no sheep and careless of chimes
Welcoming the dawn confabulation
Of birds, her children, who discuss idly
Fanciful details of the promised coming -
Will she be wearing red, or russet, or blue,
Or pure white? - whatever she wears, glorious:
Not to sleep all the night long, for pure joy,
This is given to few but at last to me,
So that when I laugh and stretch and leap from bed
I shall glide downstairs, my feet brushing the carpet
In courtesy to civilized progression,
Though, did I wish, I could soar through the open window
And perch on a branch above, acceptable ally
Of the birds still alert, grumbling gently together.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


It doesn’t always work out this way but, for me, growing up as an only child was a lovely experience, and one which warmly nurtured my inchoate, but burgeoning, creativity. I never had one imaginary friend. I had lots of them. My imagination was populated with all sorts of characters, some from storybooks, some from movies, some legendary figures known to frequent childhood imaginations for centuries, but most totally original. Gleaming elves and glaring ogres, brave knights, wise wizards, recalcitrant fairies, exuberant dwarves, leafy tree people and sparkly water sprites, scores upon scores of talkative animals. Angels? Possibly. Some peeked in my window in the mornings, some accompanied me to school, a few of the less gregarious types resided in my clothes closet, but most waited for me outside under the trees. In all seasons of the year, my dog and I could be found roaming the woods around our house, me bundled up to the eyeballs in winter, often barefoot in summer, and that’s where the more fascinating individuals of my imagination usually made their appearances. These friends taught me to trust that imagination, helped me to see it as a priceless resource unique to me alone, a storeroom of ideas only I could unlatch, anytime I desired, and for the rest of my life. Perhaps if I had not had a treasured dog to confide in, I would have acquired one single, special imaginary friend instead of many. But I loved the ones I had.
And if I’m quick, I can still sometimes catch them grinning in at my window on an early morning, just as the curtain opens.

Aunt Leaf
by Mary Oliver

Needing one, I invented her - - -
the great-great-aunt dark as hickory
called Shining-Leaf, or Drifting-Cloud
or The-Beauty-of-the-Night.

Dear aunt, I'd call into the leaves,
and she'd rise up, like an old log in a pool,
and whisper in a language only the two of us knew
the word that meant follow,

and we'd travel
cheerful as birds
out of the dusty town and into the trees
where she would change us both into something quicker - - -
two foxes with black feet,
two snakes green as ribbons,
two shimmering fish - - - and all day we'd travel.

At day's end she'd leave me back at my own door
with the rest of my family,
who were kind, but solid as wood
and rarely wandered. While she,
old twist of feathers and birch bark,
would walk in circles wide as rain and then
float back

scattering the rags of twilight
on fluttering moth wings;

or she'd slouch from the barn like a gray opossum;

or she'd hang in the milky moonlight
burning like a medallion,

this bone dream, this friend I had to have,
this old woman made out of leaves.

Painting above by Edmond Aman-Jean

Monday, September 8, 2008

Ah, Etro

“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”
Coco Chanel

In the movie from last summer, The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep’s imperious character, Miranda Priestly, delivers a snarkily brilliant speech that serves to trace the flow of design from the well-spring of originality to the trickle down of commonality. To most interior designers, Ms. Priestly was preaching to the choir. We learned long ago to view runway models of each new fashion season as lithe and fluid fortune tellers, for surely the fabrics, colors and moods they unveil may very well show up as new choices for homes as well as haberdashery. Often, this is a very fortunate thing indeed.

Recently, in the clothing world, it seems I’ve often felt presented with one of two choices. Either dress like Britney, or dress like Barbara Bush. Neither has held much appeal for me. However, while cutting through Neiman Marcus on my way to get my hair trimmed and tamed last week, I was stopped cold by the new fall clothes of the Italian design house,
Etro. Such resplendent fabrics, such gorgeous lines, they were a pleasure to see. As the price tags were a tad prohibitive, I chose to view them as though I were on a museum prowl, instead of a shopping spree. It seemed to help quench desire just a bit and some of the Etro creations could certainly stand up to the recharacterization. Such a mood was created with these beautiful frocks, they all whispered autumn in such delicate, atmospheric tones. As usual, I could also see the glorious rooms they could well inspire, so that eventually I wasn’t sure whether I’d want to wear them or upholster a chair with them. Perhaps these clothes signal a renaissance of exquisite, creative sartorial choices for my future, as well as enticing new designs for our homes.
Something to look forward to.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
J. R. R. Tolkien

For anyone with an artistic bent and assiduous observational skills, inspiration can be found just about anywhere. For myself, if I have no pressing commitments, there is hardly a better place to spend an hour or two than in the farmer’s market. Approached with passion, cooking can be an art that affords its creator a quite tasty, tempting freedom of expression while at the same time catering to the epicurean delight of others. And if one has the luxury of time and can approach a meal, a dinner party, or even just a new, more adventurous recipe as one would approach a painting, a poem or some other sort of creative endeavor, then the farmer’s market is a living, breathing palette of color, texture and taste.
I am never happier than when in my kitchen, with breezy open windows, good music playing, and dogs dozing on the floor while I fashion tantalizing concoctions like a benevolent enchantress with a wooden spoon for a wand and a floral apron for a star-laden robe. I have always felt that culinary spells and potions are best brewed at this time of the year, which is just another of the myriad of reasons I am so delighted that autumn is here. Fresh apple pies cooling by the window, the entire house redolent with the fragrance of one of James Beard’s best breads, plump chickens roasting with vegetables and wine, the aromatic mingling of flavors in a long simmering soup, all these are joys of the fall season. And the farmer’s market is the autumnal cook’s equivalent to the artist’s most fantastical supply store.
Take my advice, on a perfectly clear, perfectly cool upcoming day, point yourself towards your nearest and best market. Take your time, don’t rush, meander through. Enjoy the infinite variety of pleasures available to the senses. The prismatic aubergine hues of an eggplant, the craggy touch of a fresh brown coconut, the warm perfume of exotic coffee beans - a synthesis of inspiration for delicious tastes to create, and to savor.
And don’t even get me started on the fat orange pumpkins and the sunflowers!

Painting above: The Vegetable Stall by Thomas Heaphy

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Edward In His Favorite Chair


When we brought Edward home, almost four years ago now, he sighed a big sigh, and fell fast asleep in front of the fire. As it was just a few days before Christmas, naturally there were lots of errands to run, lots of gifts to deliver, and we took him with us on each little outing. For a few days, every time we put him in the car, his spirits plummeted. I could see him, through the rear view mirror, head drooping, eyes lowered - he looked like he didn’t have a friend in the world. Pulling back into our drive after holiday rounds were done, a remarkable transformation took place in Edward. Smiling his big smile, dancing on his new leash, he could hardly contain his happiness. He would run up the front steps and bounce around at the door waiting to be let in with such happy anticipation. Finally, I understood. With each errand we ran, he thought it was another trip to another home. He’d been on the streets for a while, and shuttled around a good bit after being rescued by the shelter. He was overjoyed when he realized he wasn’t being taken away again, but was coming back to the same place, his place, the place he wanted so badly to call home. Well of course, it broke my heart right into when I realized what was going on.

Home. Just four letters, but such an abundant word that encompasses so much. A place, a feeling, a concept, an idea of belonging. Upon entering the home of a new client for the first time, I often ask them this question, “where do you put the Christmas tree?” An unexpected inquiry, and one that leads them to talk about their house in a different way. Not just as a series of functional rooms, but as a vital part of who they are, a tangible translation of their personalities, their dreams, what they value in life. Anyone can live in a pretty house, but the real joy comes from living in a home that is truly you. Your sanctuary, your haven, your home. A place where one is truly oneself, where the door can literally be closed to the outside world with its clamor and discord.

As Edward now chooses which of his favorite spots to nap when he’s sleepy, gets a drink of water from his own china bowl when he’s thirsty, or hops up in his favorite chair to while away an afternoon, he is at home, and he knows it. His home. His place of belonging. The street outside seems so far away from in here.
It’s a nice feeling, for both of us.

“There is a magic in that little world, home; it is a mystic circle that surrounds comforts and virtues never known beyond its hallowed limits”
Robert Southey

Monday, September 1, 2008

The First of September

A wisp of a warm wind slips through an open window, mischievously lifts a page of the calendar that rests on the uncluttered desk. The page rises, flutters for a moment then falls. And just like that, it’s the first of September. September, the glorious month given the honor of holding open the door for the entrance of autumn, when clear, cloudless skies bequeath infinite possibilities and crisp, chilly nights bestow storybook memories. I fell in love in the autumn, planned my winter wedding in the autumn. And each year, every year, when September dawns once again, those magic feelings of first and forever love return, crystalline and true.
I fall in love all over again.

"The true beloveds of this world are, in their lover's eyes,
lilacs opening, ship lights, school bells, a landscape, remembered conversations, friends, a child's Sunday, lost voices, one's favorite suit, autumn and all seasons, memory, yes, it being the earth and water of existence, memory."
Truman Capote