Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Lovely Dream

There are nights when my dreams become crowded. A fairly extravagant dreamer in quiet times, when I am under too much stress, or a bit overworked, my dreams can resemble a painting by Breugel, one in which all his tiny characters not only have dramatic back stories but a multitude of voices with which to share them. Clamouring to be heard, they chatter away in a myriad of accents, each story as imperative as the next, a rowdy, chaotic cacophony. They scurry and scatter, up trees and down avenues, working, cleaning, cooking, running, walking - never sleeping.
I wake up exhausted.
On the other hand, when my days are placid and my mind is calm, my dreams are a serene reflection. They are airier, breezier, more like a Monet. I lazily float on a glassy pond with my fingers brushing past water lilies. I drift like a rose petal along a sweetly scented garden pathway. I wander Westminster in a soft London rain.
I wake up refreshed.
I used to have a recurring dream. It was during a period of time when I was extremely busy, working with several clients at once, all in addition to a variety of other extracurricular activities, time-eaters all. In this dream I was dozing in a bower bed draped with white flowers. Warm zephyrs gently blew the curtains and sounds of the sea could be heard through the open windows. In another part of the house I heard a knock on the door. The door was then answered by director, Steven Spielberg. Outside there was a line of people stretching down the drive and off into the distance; clients, friends, family, far as the eye could see, all wishing to speak with me. Mr. Spielberg (who for some reason was wearing a heather grey fisherman’s sweater) simply said to them all, “
I am very sorry, but Mrs. Terry is seeing no one at present.”. Then he closed the door.
Ah, now that was a lovely dream.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Following Lucy

I realize it would be understandable to accuse me of prejudice, but Edward is a most intelligent dog. When he is dozing by my chair, he never fails to snap to attention when an animal comes on the television. (Grizzly bears seem to be his favourites.) When we watch the Westminster Dog Show he sits right in front of the screen like a child from the fifties watching the Lone Ranger in his footy pajamas. I am convinced that he knows when the UPS man is coming to the house long before the man even knows himself. And if I point at something, he looks where I point. Now that one is a rare talent for a dog - try it, you’ll see what I mean. I do have to admit however, that as an only child who grew up with very close dog companions all my life, I tend to credit them most highly in pretty much every area...intelligence, kindness, wisdom.
But to be fair, this has only once caused me any problem.
Only once.....

Years ago, the Songwriter and I were staying at a lovely little inn in a particularly bucolic setting. Tucked away high in the mountains, far removed from the hoi polloi, this was a charming place with verdant mountain trails singing out for exploration. The inn had, as all good inns do, a resident dog. A large, elderly girl named Lucy, she was usually to be found lounging on the front porch, ears half-cocked, keeping a drowsy eye on things. Her one well publicized occupation was that of trail guide. Whenever anyone would start out on a hike, the innkeeper would encourage them to, “
Take Lucy along! You’ll have no need of a map, she knows the way perfectly, and she loves nothing better”. This sincere admonition was even included in the inn’s brochure and of course the idea naturally appealed to me. And sure enough, when we headed out, Lucy jumped up, eager to lead the way.

We hit a gorgeous trail, following her at a brisk pace until the inn was out of sight and we were beginning to wonder exactly which route she had selected for us. Having been told that each trail formed a long, wide loop that would eventually lead us back to the inn, we were a wee bit disconcerted to see that we seemed to be travelling, not in a loop exactly, but rather in sort of a hexagon. (At one point we found ourselves in the back garden of singer Perry Como’s holiday cabin. Yes, really. Seems this particular property featured a small, and fairly fetid, duck pond which was an irresistible feature for our exalted four-footed leader who wasted no time in diving in and retrieving a duck who was, sadly, in one of the latter stages of malodorous decomposition.) I kept faith with old Lucy, up hill and down valley, continuing on for another hour or so. But soon, it became painfully apparent that the skills of the dear girl had waned a bit over the years. Either that, or her sense of humour was more highly developed than her owners had ever realized. We were lost. Well, two of us were. I was still reluctant to give up on Lucy’s heralded abilities completely, so when she suddenly turned and headed straight up a densely wooded hill almost as if she was thinking...”
Oh yes, by Jove, I have it now!”.... I turned to follow.
The Songwriter, who to be honest, had voiced sincere misgivings about the head of our hiking party all along, could finally stand it no longer. “
You are not going to follow that dog into the wilderness! You are not! There is a road here somewhere and we are going to get on it and find our way back!”...
What about Lucy??”, I wailed.
Suffice it to say, I was informed, in so many colourful words, that Lucy was, well, on her own.

So. After a winding, and fairly arduous, trek up a mountain highway, we eventually made it back to our inn. Tired, filthy, and seriously bramble scratched, with muddy boots and cloudy moods, we climbed the steps to find our dear Lucy sound asleep in her comfortable spot on the porch.
I swear I heard a chuckle as we passed.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Older Sister

Spring is a girl clad in pink flounces. She skips, she flirts - shares secrets, tells lies. Her thoughts are like air and with barefoot steps she treads on the wildflowers. She misplaces her warm hours and never wonders where they’ve gone. She sings herself to sleep.

Autumn is her older sister, wearing heathered tweed. Her colours, like her dreams, are richer, more intense, and although she knows they will fade to ice and silver in the season yet to come, she serenely paints her masterpiece in furbelows of orange, burnt by the September sun, with an arabesque of scarlet, and a bagatelle of forest green.
She gathers her joys round her like the handsome woolen shawls her own two hands have made. With memory in the warp and hope in the weft, they feel soft against her skin, they gift her with a secret smile. She pulls her chair up hearthside and reads tall tales by the flickering flame - tales of legend and of myth, of ancient pathways through the mountains, of castles floating on the sea.
She drinks in delicious perfumes that are hers, and hers alone - the scent of apples, of cinnamon, of rain. Her hours are set aglow with a celebratory fire made from all the many sunny days now past; it is a fire stoked with gratitude and tended with anticipation, for she knows it provides all the warmth she will need for the colder days to come.

How sad a year would be without her visit - how colourless, how pale.
In a gust of wind, amid swirling leaves, she will arrive at my gate this afternoon.
My door is open to welcome her.

"No Spring nor Summer beauty hath such grace
As I have seen in one Autumnal face."
John Donne

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Ignominious Coach

Here in the States it has been a rather cringe-worthy couple of weeks. Stunning outbursts of petulance and ego have spewed from several different corners; vitriol hurled forth from individuals in the public eye who apparently possess neither the spirit nor the capacity for civility and respect. In one arena after the other, like a bumper crop of fruit from a poisonous plant, rudeness has abounded, and shockingly so. From the music awards stage to the tennis court, and sadly, even to the floor of the United States Senate, where a congressman had the unprecedented audacity to yell out a boorish rebuke to his own President during a joint session of congress. Yes, there were apologies, and I will not doubt the sincerity of those here. But I will say, although I do not hold with the spanking of children, tanning the backside of a few adults seems like an excellent notion to me.

When I was younger, it was a belief widely held that this type of conduct was contemptible. It certainly lent no weight to a person’s opinions, nor to his arguments, indeed it rendered them dubious at best. However, in our current talk radio era, it seems that some feel entitled to express themselves whenever, and in whatever form, they choose. Forget about dignity or consideration; those were jettisoned a while ago. We are now on to abuse and denigration as the favoured methods of debate.

Years ago, upon landing in London for the very first time, I was soon on an early morning train into the city from Gatwick airport. Wide-eyed, and clutching my train ticket tightly, I was astonished to witness an argument between a rather wildly bohemian young woman who happened to be sharing my compartment and the gentlemen who was taking tickets enroute. Seems the lady was, quite knowingly, in the wrong train car. What followed was the most delightful example of a witty debate that I had ever heard. Although the lady had no leg whatsoever on which to stand, both people made their points with respect, civility and a good bit of humour. After she trundled off to the appropriate seating and I was left alone gazing out the window at the unfamiliar countryside, I could not help but think that this was the best first impression of a new country I could possibly have had.
My heart goes out to the tourists who landed here in the States for the first time last week, and I am ashamed of the introduction they received.

It is well past time for us as Americans to grab the reins of the ignominious coach of rudeness in which some of us have been traveling - shaking our fists out the windows, heedless of those in our path. I fear it is dangerously close to a precipice of shuddering depth, from which our words, spoken with such graceless arrogance, shall not just go unheard, but shall become ridiculous.

"Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength"
Eric Hoffer

Friday, September 18, 2009

Here In My Cottage

The top of Edward’s head smells just like the sea. I have no idea why that is, but as there is often a tiny plum-coloured smudge of lipstick there, resulting from the kisses I cannot resist bestowing upon him, I speak empirically. I stoop to plant a kiss atop that furry head and suddenly...... sea winds, sand beneath my toes, the sun glowing pink behind my closed eyelids.
Apple’s head, on the other hand, smells like clover. A sunny meadow picnic, honeybees, butterflies, breezes. Again, don’t ask me why.

These are but two of the small pleasures that, for me, make life here in my cottage extraordinary. If one takes the time to notice, slows down but a fraction, these pleasures are everywhere and it seems they are especially abundant this time of year.....

The lavender scent of clean laundry - the feel of freshly starched sheets when I slip between them on a cool night.......

A house full of open windows that welcome in the caramel light of September, curtains blowing in and out with the winds that race through the summer weary rooms....

Tomato soup and cheese toast.......

Rolling out the dough for the first apple pie of the season, while Vivaldi tickles the kitchen walls with melody........

Donning that first snuggly sweater. The green one. Pulling on the first pair of newly polished boots. The brown ones.......

Drinking in the elixir of clean, crisp air on long afternoon walks with Edward when the sunlight sets the trees aglow.....

Fat orange pumpkins waiting to be carved into scary, spooky Jack o’Lanterns.....

The woodsy smell of firewood......

An old chintzware pitcher filled with newly sharpened pencils.....

That tiny, enticing crack of a new book when you open it for the very first time. And the delicious fragrance of the new, unread pages........

The painterly colours of cabbages ........

The morning crossword puzzle......

The warm feel of cool fur when the dogs come in from a early morning romp. And the way that fur smells faintly of wood smoke when they have been outside on a night when a fire blazes in the fireplace.......

Watching The Wizard of Oz on television on a dark windy night. This is especially pleasurable when I realize that Billie Burke, who played the Good Witch, was
fifty-three years old when she did so!!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sleeping Poets

My mother still talks of the time we saw John Wayne. Perched like royalty atop a block-long convertible rolling slowly down the street under a hot July sky. He was the Grand Marshall of our city’s Independence Day parade. And he was shockingly three-dimensional. Having him close enough to touch was a bit unnerving for a little girl who had only seen the man on the movie screen. So, these people are real, I thought. Hmmm. Another mystery to decipher.

They are the names as familiar as those of our own family. Names like Elizabeth and Mary - Shakespeare, Bronte, Keats. We know them only through their writings and their deeds, and rarely do we see them as corporeal beings. And honestly, how could we, ensnared as they are in the two-dimensional world of the painting and the page?

But recently, a good friend sent me a remarkable image. By using digital techniques, Edinburgh photographer, Joanna Kane, has created a series of enigmatic portraits from a famous collection of phrenological heads. She has published a book of this work entitled The Somnambulists. Through her artistry, Kane has managed to bring to “life” the faces behind the famous words of Blake, Wordsworth, and Keats in a work that is both beautiful and revelatory. We seem to see sleeping poets.

I read a good bit of the poetry of John Keats on my recent trip to the beach. Here is one of my favourites. It seems even more lyrical now as I gaze upon the face of the man himself.

On Leaving Some Friends at an Early Hour

Give me a golden pen, and let me lean
On heap’d up flowers, in regions clear, and far;
Bring me a tablet whiter than a star,
Or hand of hymning angel, when ’tis seen
The silver strings of heavenly harp atween:
And let there glide by many a pearly car,
Pink robes, and wavy hair, and diamond jar,
And half discovered wings, and glances keen.
The while let music wander round my ears,
And as it reaches each delicious ending,
Let me write down a line of glorious tone,
And full of many wonders of the spheres:
For what a height my spirit is contending!
’Tis not content so soon to be alone.

Painting above: Keats' Grave in the Old Protestant Cemetery in Rome, 1873
by William Bell Scott

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Far Too Clear

There are pumpkins in the fields awaiting faces. Patient, sedentary, they sit in their orangeness neath a low hanging moon.....

The acorns have begun to fall. Tiny and green, in tophats, they patter the roof like buckshot, giggling as they hurtle down - rolling, rolling, to a final stop under the purple cabbage leaves.....

Equal in size to the paw prints of wolfhounds, the horrid spiders traipse across their webs of silver lace, while overnight, a neighborhood of downy white toadstools has appeared under the magnolia tree - ample seating for any future prince who ventures up from the stream at the bottom of the hill in search of a life-altering kiss....

Late in the cool afternoon we hear the geese approaching. A feathered boomerang offering up baroque chants, in its unknown tongue of the season....

And the mezzo-soprano of the old silver teakettle sings much more frequently now....

Man’s calendar wants to wait for one more week but we know better.
The signs are far too clear.
Summer has at last departed and Autumn is now here.

Watercolour by Charles Russell Loomis

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Arrangement of Words

In English class, when I was young, I learned to diagram sentences. A rudimentary activity, and not one known to coax magic out from the fibers of the page. More akin to the study of skeletons, for one sees how the bones connect all the while acutely aware that no breath of feeling is present. But just as the fibia gives us what we need to run through a meadow, and the humerus provides us the strength required to paint the Mona Lisa or to lift a giggling baby in the air, the arrangement of letters and words, sentence and verse, gives us the ability to see beneath the surface of our lives - to uncover, and communicate, truth.

How wondrous is language. And how wonderful to encounter those who use it well. Who among us has not read a passage in a book so beautifully written, so compelling, that we read it over and over, perhaps even copying it down to squirrel away for future reference? Who has not heard a speech from an orator so inspiring, so enlightening, that we have been moved to take a stand for something in which we truly believe, rather than remain encased in our timidity? Or conversely, who among us has not read a book, or heard a speech, so dreadfully written, with words galumphing along to such a calamitous finish that they invite groans of frustration.
Yes, the arrangement of words is a powerful thing.

The older I get, the more I love poetry. True poets communicate in feelings. Their well-arranged words allow me to actually
feel what is on the page; all my senses are in play. Their verse can brush my face with a warm sea breeze, or sting me with an icy needled blast. I can see the pathway through the forest, smell the damp blackness of the mysterious earth, hear the papered leaves crackle under my feet as I walk.
I touch the mane of a lion, I hear the call of a loon. I taste the bright red plum.
A poet’s words may enter through the brain, but they speak to the soul, invoking a recognition of one’s true self that is often impossible to articulate. “What does that poem mean?”, we are asked. How does one explain what the heart understands.

Today is the birthday of my favourite poet, Mary Oliver. Her poems speak to me like no others. The words she employs are simple ones, but in her hands, their arrangement is profound. I wish her a most happy day.

Painting above by Alan Banks

A Dream of Trees

There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,

A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories, schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company.
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
And then it came to me, that so was death,
A little way away from everywhere.

There is a thing in me still dreams of trees,
But let it go. Homesick for moderation,
Half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.
If any find solution, let him tell it.
Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation
Where, as the times implore our true involvement,
The blades of every crisis point the way.

I would it were not so, but so it is.
Who ever made music of a mild day?

by Mary Oliver
born September 10th, 1935

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Perfect Nap

We all know the benefits of a good night’s sleep. Sleep is necessary, not only for robust health and comely countenance, but for a pleasant mood as well. Most grouchy people don’t get enough sleep. But too few of us, I fear, just don’t appreciate the many salubrious effects of a nap. Too often considered a characteristic of sloth, the nap is unfairly burdened with comparisons to losers, bums, and those afflicted with a particularly unpleasant quality of apathetic inertia.
Au Contraire, I say! Done correctly, a nap is a beautiful thing - sort of a cosmic rebooting - that refreshes the outlook, invigorates the mind and uncorks a bit of extra energy to rejuvenate the remaining hours of the day. For those who perhaps look upon the nap as merely a symptom of laziness, let me offer some hopefully helpful guidelines, for I have been a champion of the nourishing effects of a nap for years.

1. Naps should be fairly short. Anything from twenty minutes to one hour is preferable. A shorter nap will make you disoriented, a longer one will make you sluggish.

2. Never take a nap in bed. One should only go to bed in the middle of the day when one has a bad cold, or the flu. Or a tummy ache. Taking a nap in bed is simply, “going back to bed” and that is only desirable on a stormy day when one feels rather blue, and only permissible before noon. Going back to bed in the afternoon is just not recommended, for even if you are not sick, you will feel as if you should be. It is, however, quite permissible to lie atop the bed, under a quilt or throw. Just do not get back in it. Look for a large chair that is capacious enough to curl up inside, or a chaise lounge with a perfectly placed neck pillow. These are better choices by far.

3. Pay close attention to the weather. This is very important. Do not even attempt a nap on a beautiful cloudless day in autumn. Your mother was right, you should be outside on a day like that. A stormy afternoon is ideal however, and a straight-down winter rain is sublime. If possible, nap with the windows open, and it goes without saying, if you have a ceiling fan, by all means turn it on. A soft breeze blowing, and you’re half way there. Also, listening to the faint outside sounds of nature only adds to the beauty of the nap. A chirp here, the sparkle of a wind-chime there, a blustery wind rustling the leaves in the trees? Perfect.
Of course, this will not work if you live in the city. Car horns and slamming doors do not a good nap make.

4. If you are fortunate enough to share your life with a large furry dog - or two - as I am, then you are incredibly well-suited for a successful nap experience. Large furry dogs love to nap. It is one of their favourite things and they are experts at it. They will study you closely to determine if you are comfortable then they will lie down next to you, sigh a heavy sigh of contentment and begin to doze. The ideal companionship. I am fairly certain smaller dogs and cats would behave the same way, so feel free to include them as well.

5. Some people like to listen to music when they nap, though personally I prefer the quiet natural sounds from outside. Music tends to keep me awake and effect my mood in various ways that are not condusive to the consummate nap. If this is not the case with you and you would prefer musical accompaniment, then I would suggest you chose your selections most carefully. Chopin over Springsteen, Debussy over Bjork.

6. Now this may be controversial, but I speak from experience. It is best to nap when your house is clean, there are fresh flowers in the vases and dinner is cooking. This is the ideal time. Otherwise, I fear one is prone to simply lie there and fret about what needs to be done and that is just no fun at all. It totally undermines the whole thing.

7. Do not worry that you might miss something. Nothing is so important that it cannot wait an hour. Trust me on this.

So fill your vases with flowers, find a big chair, and take a nap!!
You can thank me later.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Little Stranger

The mind can play dastardly tricks on the unsuspecting soul who lies wide awake in the middle of a dark night. Given just a few minutes deep within the silence that lurks after the clock strikes midnight, it can easily turn the most innocuous molehill into quite the unscaleable mountain, change a simple sore throat into a lethal case of lockjaw; a pin-sized mosquito bite into an exotic fever rarely seen outside the realm of voodoo. With a modicum of encouragement it can bewitch the coat rack into a knife-wielding fiend, the squirrel on the roof to Beelzebub, or the friendly shadow of the oak tree into the Wicked Witch of the West.
It can even make a woman firmly in the grasp of adulthood lean over the side of the bed and attempt to awaken her sleeping dog for company. And yes, I speak from experience, for last week, on the first dark night of September, I was scared silly. And I blame Sarah Waters.

It was well past midnight and I was up way too late with my nose in a book, an occurrence which is hardly unusual. The book was The Little Stranger by the aforementioned Ms. Waters, and I was about halfway along. Having heard from several quarters that this was a delightfully ghostly story - comparisons to Henry James and Poe were being bandied about - I naturally saved it for a night just like this one....chilly enough for blankets, the black sky enshrouded with clouds, without the faintest twinkle of starlight able to pierce the inky gloom. “Ooh, perfect”, I thought as I snuggled down and began to read. Like the slow winding of a clock, the story kept tightening. I did not even notice it at first. A few strange happenings here, a bit of foreboding there. I kept turning the pages, faster and faster, until all of a sudden I found myself as spooked as the child who is certain something unspeakable dwells in his closet, something that whispers his name in the dark. I closed the book with a snap. I listened. No sound but the sleep of the innocent.

I tried to wake Edward, asleep down below me. I called to him softly and he lifted his head to stare at me - a little unfocused, the white fur on his head mussed and shaggy from sleep. I patted the bed - in what I hoped was a most inviting and nonchalant way - silently praying he would jump up and lie on my feet as he does on the cold nights of winter. But no such luck tonight for he simply nodded at me and fell back asleep as I watched. So I lay there, with the covers up under my chin, wide-eyed and listening and most determined in future to only open this book on the sunniest part of the cheeriest day.

I do highly recommend it however. For the old-fashioned chills one rarely gets from a book these days. Just be careful when and where you read it. And remember, you have been warned.

Painting by Gustave Dore

September 9th Update.... The Little Stranger as been shortlisted for the Booker Prize!!

Thursday, September 3, 2009


I said goodbye to an old friend this past week. He had fought illness for many years, always with great humour and unflagging bravery. But finally his strength simply dwindled and he left us. He was the jester who gifted The Songwriter and myself with an indelible wedding day memory as he hid inside our car when we left our reception, honeymoon bound. His intention was to accompany us on the journey, but his giggles gave him away and he found himself rather unceremoniously deposited in the middle of the road, not far from the church.
He is forever cemented in our wedding day memories, and happily so.

As human beings, I suppose we are hardwired for life. We fight on, even when retreat has been sounded. But I often wonder what our perspective is from the other side of the veil. Once we land upon those storied shores and survey our surroundings, do we shake our heads in bafflement at our previous struggle to remain stuck to the earth? Is the life to come so superior we shall marvel at our ignorance? I rather think that might be the case.
As we are now... gravity-glued humans, blinkered by our boundaries... we can really only suppose what awaits us. Our faith gives us clues for which there are many interpretations. Though we all hold tickets for our passage, none of us has yet taken that journey so none can say for certain what it holds. But I have always felt that the opposite of faith has never been doubt, but certainty.
And I am content with the mystery.
I think I shall see my friend again in a different land and I hope, from his new found dwelling place, he occasionally peers down and laughs at the limits of my knowledge of wonderment.
I wish him Godspeed.


Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labor you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.

by Christina Rossetti

Painting by
Sir John Everett Millais

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Whispers From the Tartan

I wear a lot of linen in the summertime. Yes, it wrinkles, but that is just part of its charm in my eyes. Linen seems to possess a personality of sorts, a certain devil may care quality, that feels perfectly in sync with summer days. A white linen shirt with a strand of pearls and my hair worn up is pure midsummer comfort for me. When I don that first pair of linen trousers on the first day of June....for here in the Old South it is practically a sin to do so earlier....they feel as though the essence of summer is woven into the very fabric itself. The walks on the beach - the picnics, the rose gardens - all are best experienced in linen.
But now things have changed, for no self-respecting linen wishes to be worn past the last day of August. For several days now I have noticed that my favourite linen shirt appears almost a bit embarrassed if I reach for it in the morning. The white linen blazer positively hides from my view in the closet, no doubt fervently hoping my hand will reach for a garment more in tune with the calendar. And it may just be my imagination of course, but lately I could swear I have heard strange sounds coming from the wardrobe where all the winter clothing is stored. Whispers from the tartan, laughter from the wool. Could it be that the gloves are flexing their long fingers at the thought of forming snowballs or gripping Edward’s lead? The shawls, the hats, the boots....they all seem to have awoken en masse, already anticipating their outings... the walks in brisk air, the dinners by the fireside.
It is now September and I have to admit...the crisp white linen does look a bit tired.
Strange how that happens.