Friday, February 26, 2010

Are There Dahlias in the Garden?

Writing seems to take up more and more of my time these days, and happily so. Funny though, it feels more like coming around full circle than veering off in a different direction, for I realize that I have used the writer part of my brain throughout my career as an interior decorator.

Several years ago, at the close of a large renovation project for a couple of delightful clients, the wife pulled me aside and told me that one of the reasons I was hired was because of something their architect had told them about me. “She never does the same thing twice”, he had said. I had to laugh. He is right, I know. Although I love creating rooms for my clients, I have come to realize that I show up to the process as much like a writer as a designer, for I tend to create a narrative for each person with whom I work, a story written down in my mind from the myriad of clues I am given, an invisible book to refer to as I design a home for them and them alone. It is a method of working that has always been fairly unconscious with me, but one that has never yet failed. So many times, during the second meeting with a client when I show them my ideas, they have looked up and asked, “how did you know?”
There was the lovely emigre from Norway, she of the ice blonde colouring and love of the sea. The older couple who, despite their current ultra-conservatism, had obviously been hippies long ago in their youth. The affable lawyer with the octagonal library that was stocked floor to ceiling with science fiction and mysteries.
To follow a set formula for all of these wonderfully different individuals would have been a deeply misguided plan from which to work. They might have been presented with rooms that looked magazine ready, but they might never have felt at home inside them, and that is forever my ultimate goal.
Upon meeting a client for the first time, I always study them much more than I study the measurements of their rooms. Those can come later, I am busy observing other things. What shoes are they wearing, where were they born, where do they holiday? I notice their refrigerator magnets, their hairstyles, the books in their bookcases. I pay close attention to the names of their pets, the size of their earrings, the snacks on their counter.
Are there dahlias in the garden?
Is that jazz playing in the background?
Is there a bicycle on the porch?
When the time comes to renovate or redo our dwellings, we should all aspire to create beauty in our surroundings, for beauty is a quality that elevates the soul and enriches the spirit. Place some fresh flowers in a vase by your bedside and see what I mean. But that beauty should speak to us of our truest selves, envelop us with the things we hold dear. For no matter the decorating trends of the day, every home should be as individual as the people who live there. Then, and only then, can we be truly happy at home.

"To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition"
Samuel Johnson

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Song of Spring

I have lost my place in the book I am reading. My knitting lies lonely on the floor by my chair. I stare out my window at nothing but grey. Grey ground, grey sky, grey mood.

The remnants of the recent snowfall are dotted here and there - vestiges of a once noble army of cheerful snowmen, now half melted, missing heads and arms - a forlorn tribe of lumpy mutants, rather pitiful to see. The extravagant cabbages that adorned the autumn garden have dwindled in the freezing air to fist sized globules of purple, more suitable for the compost heap than the flower show,.

Even the stalwart rosemary bush has perished under the stabbing ice.

It has happened. I am tired of being cold.

I want to see my toes again. Ten, happy pink digits released from their boots and slippers, set free from their woolen socks, strolling barefoot through new green grass and clover.

I am tired of soup. I want to eat honeydew melon and fresh peaches.

I am tired of hot chocolate. I want lemonade and fruit punch.

I want to open my windows.

I want to feel the breeze in my hair and not worry that my ears will get cold.

I want to wear white linen and big straw hats.

I want to put a gardenia in my lapel and go on a picnic.

I want, no I need, to sit on a beach with a glass full of fizzy water, lulled to sleep by the crash of the waves.

I can only think it is time for such feelings. Growing up in a part of the world that experiences four distinct seasons, my body clock must by now be perfectly timed to the schedule of the earth, for I feel a shy, infinitesimal change just beginning to stir. It is there in the way that the light lingers a moment longer each day, dancing through the windowpanes, painting vernal shadows on the Morris wallpaper. It is present in the flock of robins that I saw in a neighbor’s front garden only yesterday, carefully tip-toeing along midst the patches of melting snow. And most telling of all, at times when they think no one listens, the tall trees are now humming a curious tune - deep and low, almost inaudible. I catch a bit of it just before sleep.

It is a song of Spring.

Painting above by George Frederick Watts

Friday, February 19, 2010

Picture Books in Winter

Summer fading, winter comes--

Frosty mornings, tingling thumbs,

Window robins, winter rooks,

And the picture story-books.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Make no mistake, being snowed in has its advantages. Schedules are disregarded, appointments cancelled. Routine existence is jettisoned for the cozy comforts of a snow day; hot drinks, warm shawls and books, books, books.

I have such affection for the richly illustrated books of my childhood. The magical worlds brought to life by all those exquisite drawings that sprang from the minds of artists such as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac - Jessie Wilcox and Howard Pyle, greatly nourished my fledgling imagination and taught me to see far beyond the words on the printed page. I have a large collection of these treasured books and I visit them often with fondness.

Nowadays however, most of my storybooks come without illustrations. But no matter; the pictures that are conjured within my head are more than sufficient. When Clarissa Dalloway pushes open the door to Mulberry’s flower shop, I can see it all quite clearly. Entering along with her, I stare, enchanted, at the jars and jars of sweet peas and lilacs, the purple delphiniums - the iris, the rose.

When Rebecca’s car winds through the wall of blood-red rhododendrons that line the drive up to Manderley, the old house is soon visible to us both, its mullioned windows reflecting our astonishment, its garden pathway leading us off to the sea.

I open The English Patient and I can see the nurse Hana drawing chalk rectangles in the hallway of the ruined villa in order to escape life’s cruelty through a simple game of hopscotch.

I peek inside the covers of Bleak House and find Miss Flite in her tiny room, surrounded by all her little birds, waiting for "the day of judgment" when she will release them from their cages.

No illustrations are needed to make these stories breathe.

Having spent my recent snow day sitting in a cushy chair by the window, gazing out on a ermine world totally bewitched by ice and snow, I found myself thinking of the most masterful pictures of cold ever drawn in words, glacial passages penned by some of my favourite authors. Their evocative descriptions unscroll a biting, frozen world right before my eyes, making me shiver, causing me to inch just a wee bit closer to the fire.

Here are seven books that, for me, describe winter in sublime fashion.

Do share some of your favourites!

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Each perfectly placed word of this classic conveys coldness - of landscape, of spirit, of past and and of future. Though a tragedy to be sure, one of the books I hold most dear.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

From the very first time I read this beloved book I could feel the cruel cold of Lowood School. I shivered as I saw poor Jane lying under her threadbare sheets, the water in her washing pitcher frozen solid. I felt the sharp needled wind sting my cheeks as I trudged alongside her through the white drifts to church, the wet snow melting inside her paper thin shoes. I thought my hands would freeze just turning the pages.

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers

This wonderfully atmospheric mystery opens with a delightful description of a snowy winter night. One of The Songwriter’s favourites; he re-reads it every December.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

When little Lucy climbs in the wardrobe to hide herself amongst the fur coats only to feel something soft and powdery and cold beneath her feet, I swear I can feel the temperature in my room drop a few degrees. As she pushes her way through the branches of snow covered trees, into a land where it is “always winter, never Christmas”, I find myself wishing for one of those old wardrobe coats to wrap round my shoulders as I read her adventure. A classic winter tale.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Who amongst us has not felt the chill of that cold night as Mole and Ratty make their way through the snow? And who has not felt the sweet thrill that Mole feels when he senses the nearby presence of his beloved home - the warmth of his own fire, the familiar comfort of his own rooms? I can still see the chorus of field mice at his door, stamping their little feet to stay warm as they sing their carols in the frozen air, still feel their delight when they are invited inside to get warm. Such a snug, cordial picture of home on a cold, cold night.

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

How I would have hated to hear that phone ring at Skeldale House in the middle of a blowing winter’s night. Reading as James, the Yorkshire veterinarian, crawls from his toasty bed and out into the freezing dark, heading off to a farm in the driving snow, not knowing what catastrophe might be waiting... I would snuggle down further in my own comfy bed each time it happened to him.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Oh, how uncomfortable winters were for poor Cassandra in her grand, crumbling castle with its moat awash in emerald green water weeds. I see her clearly, even today, in her iron bed, clad in her school coat, with a hot brick at her feet, worrying about money and trying to get warm. A wonderful book.

And I could certainly go on.... Dr. Zhivago, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Shipping News.... so many splendidly written paintings of cold.

But I have to leave you now and look for my fuzzy slippers!

NOTE: Of course, as I was writing this, I naturally began to think of my current favourite “picture” books - lavishly illustrated wonders that are almost better than any plane ticket for whisking one out of the usual and straight into dreams.

I’ll post some of those later in the week. Should be fun!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Flodigarry House, Isle of Skye, Scotland

Happy Birthday to the Songwriter!!

They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter's morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And every one cried, 'You'll all be drowned!'
They called aloud, 'Our Sieve ain't big,
But we don't care a button! we don't care a fig!
In a Sieve we'll go to sea!'
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

... from The Jumblies, by Edward Lear

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cupid’s Snow

Perhaps it was nothing more than an errant arrow, meant to deliver Cupid’s usual dose of intoxicating love to some unsuspecting soul just in time for St. Valentine’s Day; an arrow intended to scratch a cold heart and turn everything bubble gum pink.

It could have been just a momentary distraction that caused his chubby little arm to slightly slip against the limb of his ancient bow - just a brief, tiny lapse in concentration that sent a shudder through the heavens as one wayward arrow flew off through the stratosphere, dreadfully off course, and straight into the side of a pillow shaped cloud that was placidly floating above us, on its way to deliver more snow to the north.

A scarlet arrow, that pierced the cloud’s middle with heart-shaped hole, sending its fluffy white cargo of feather shaped snowflakes down over our rooftops and into our gardens, washing us whiter than Lapland.

Perhaps that is all that it was. A mistake. After all it was the poor fellow’s busiest weekend, and mistakes do happen when one is too busy.

Or maybe, just maybe, that was not what it was at all.

Could it be the sweet archer meant this rare sight as a Valentine gift for us grey-swaddled southerners who usually spend wintertime only dreaming of snow?

If so, how can we ever adequately thank him for the beautiful sight that he gave us? We who spent our childhood winters longing for snowfall, who yearned to bring fat snowmen to life with orange carrot noses and black button eyes - we who wished for sleds and skates and snow angels. If it is true that this mischievous son of Aphrodite takes his work to heart, if he delights in bringing romance to the world each fourteenth of February, well he could not have done better this year.

For indeed, pure romance is taking a walk through the snow with your true love at midnight, when the clouds hang down low, stretching across the sky like glowing grey theatre curtains, closed tightly now after the day’s stellar performance of winter. It is standing together, hand in hand, in the midst of a silver white night, breathing in the cold, cold silence of snow. It is sharing a kiss under shining fir trees, whilst the rest of the world is asleep.

Midnight snow.

More romantic than diamonds or chocolates.

More poetic than a rose.

Mistake or not, Cupid did his job very well.


And of course.... Edward enjoyed it too!

"People don't notice whether it's winter or summer when they're happy."

Anton Chekhov

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Love's Philosophy

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

The fountains mingle with the river,

And the rivers with the ocean;

The winds of heaven mix forever

With a sweet emotion;

Nothing in the world is single;

All things by a law divine

In another's being mingle--

Why not I with thine?

See, the mountains kiss high heaven,

And the waves clasp one another;

No sister flower could be forgiven

If it disdained its brother;

And the sunlight clasps the earth,

And the moonbeams kiss the sea;--

What are all these kissings worth,

If thou kiss not me?

Edward and I send our sweetest wishes for a very romantic St. Valentine's Day!!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Winter Birds

I know he is there. I can feel his keen marble eye, staring, watching every move that I make. Just over my shoulder, on the other side of the windowglass, from his perch on the blue glass feeder. I wonder what he makes of me. Does he see me as his benefactress, for indeed, with my bags and bags of sunflower seeds at the ready, through every season of the year, that is certainly what I am. Or instead, am I just a poor featherless creature trapped inside a rather large cage, a curiosity to be pitied for my obvious lack of sufficient avian qualities.

Birds have always fascinated me. Each as delicate as an orchid, as wild as an ocelot. How I hate to see them in cages. When I was little I used to traipse off by myself quite a bit, a fact which doubtless caused my parents no small amount of consternation. Often, I would head down the lane to a neighbor who had what I considered to be the remarkable good fortune to have a pen full of chickens smack in their back garden. Slipping away after breakfast to squat down by their coop, I would hold one-sided conversations with those iridescent creatures for hours. My father followed me once on my rounds to the chicken coop and snapped photographic evidence of one of my many visits.

If you think about it for a moment, birds have been present every day of our lives. They are our soundtracks, our garden accessories. They follow us to the seashore, flit around us on the mountain pathway. The scarlet Cardinal who brings such colour to the naked trees on the greyest winter day. The Great Horned Owls who sit in the oak tree outside our bedroom and call to each other in deep, haunting voices at midnight. The Robins who line up in the rose bush each summer afternoon around two, politely taking turns to bathe in the stone bird bath. The cheerful Purple Finches who return every year to nest in the front porch ferns, singing arias of glee all the long day long. I open the windows to hear them.

The Canada Geese who fly in perfect formation over my head on a golden autumn morning, spreading wonder in their wake.

The Pileated Woodpecker who every now and then chooses our very own garden as a place to astonish those lucky enough to catch just one tiny glimpse of his glory.

I am appreciative of their presence every single day, but never more so than in winter.

The black and white world of February desperately needs the flash of their colour, the lilt of their song.

Winter Scene

by A. R. Ammons

There is now not a single

leaf on the cherry tree:

except when the jay

plummets in, lights, and,

in pure clarity, squalls:

then every branch

quivers and

breaks out in blue leaves.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Counting Sheep

It was the perfect night for sleep. The cold breath of winter was rushing down through the pine trees, playing soporific lullabies on the silver windchimes, whistling quiet melodies around the cottage eaves, providing a hypnotic background to the comforting sounds of the three sleeping souls close around me.

I lay there, listening.

Toasty warm, and wide awake.

Oh, I knew it would happen. I was wide awake all evening, wide awake when I went to bed, when I closed my book, when I turned off the light. No pain or worry to keep me from sleep, just a mind that refused to turn off.

Knowing that if I sneaked out of bed to roam the darkened house - perhaps to read, to write, to knit - Edward would consider it a severe dereliction of his duties not to follow me, up from his warm bed, fur mussed from sleep, eyes half closed. I could not do that to him, so I stayed where I was and decided, like Wordsworth on a night long ago, to count the ever reliable sheep. I selected my flock and lined them all up. But like the great poet, I too soon learned that this time tested remedy is not always fool proof.

At first, my sheep were performing nicely enough, leisurely jumping over my conjured stone stile with an easy grace often afforded by one’s imagination. But then I noticed a slight distraction, a lack of focus in their ovine eyes. Soon, sure enough, one abruptly refused to follow his kin, taking off on his own down a pathway of green. Another turned left and ran off to the sea. Soon they were all going in different directions, willy nilly, paying no heed to my orders and leaving me no choice but to try and round them up.

I followed the wooly Swaledale to town where I found him outside an ice cream shop with red and white striped awnings. We wandered the village streets, gazing in shop windows and lapping up ice cream before heading back, me holding tight to the scruff of his neck.

Next I headed off after the Greyfaced Dartmoor, down an overgrown country lane to a garden, planted all with white flowers - peonies, gardenias, freesia - oh it was heavenly. We strolled through the ivory rows, sipping lemonade and thinking of spring, me in a white dress, my fleecy companion with daisies woven round his head.

I found the Spanish Merino perched on a hillside overlooking the sea, an estate agent’s brochure held tight in his mouth. It was chock full of photographs of Cumbrian cottages, Scottish crofts, and weathered seaside manors. We sat there for at least an hour in companionable fashion, trying to decide which one was the best choice for me.

A Dalesbred ram was trying on boots in Toulouse, an Icelandic ewe was having dinner with Robert Deniro. A Herdwick lamb was in Rome at the opera, a dozen Hebridean on a boat down the Nile.

As the light in the bedroom began to turn from silver to milky grey, the sheep began to wander off home. Exhausted, I let them go. Though they did not perform as expected, they made for an interesting night. No doubt my eyes will be scratchy at noontime, and my mood will be grumpy at five. But I shall fall into bed at an earlier hour, and hope for a restful night’s sleep.

To Sleep

A flock of sheep that leisurely pass by

One after one; the sound of rain, and bees

Murmuring; the fall of rivers, winds and seas,

Smooth fields, white sheets of water, and pure sky;

I've thought of all by turns, and still I lie

Sleepless; and soon the small birds' melodies

Must hear, first uttered from my orchard trees,

And the first cuckoo's melancholy cry.

Even thus last night, and two nights more I lay,

And could not win thee, Sleep! by any stealth:

So do not let me wear tonight away:

Without Thee what is all the morning's wealth?

Come, blessed barrier between day and day,

Dear mother of fresh thoughts and joyous health!

by William Wordsworth

Saturday, February 6, 2010

An Education

There were fairy godmothers when I was little. Plump little women dressed all in pink, who convened at my bedside when I was asleep, to discuss my future and plan my days, occasionally touching my forehead with their star-tipped wands. Inscrutable genies lounged within oddly shaped lamps, ready and waiting to grant any wish I might make. There were magic mirrors on the walls, good fairies in the garden, and rows upon rows of eager frogs requesting kisses.

These charming characters populated my world and gave me confidence that, as long as my heart was pure and my eyes were open, they could help me navigate the labyrinth of yellow brick roads that curled round me, all the way to a most happy life. I don’t remember exactly when I realized that their power, though kindly offered, was rather limited. I suppose it was a gradual awakening.

The mundane fact is, when it comes to making one's way on the journey to a life void of regret, it really boils down to nothing more than a series of decisions. Given this, I have always considered it a weighty thought that some of these decisions, and some of the most vital ones to be sure, demand to be made when one is least equipped to do so. That is to say, when one is young.

Waves of advice crash over you when you are young, index fingers are wagged in your face, each direction proffered seems as insistent as the next - and no fairy godmother is in sight. How do we snatch the young off the technicolour carousel of carefree youth and make them see how monumental these decisions are, how inescapable their consequences? That even choosing not to choose is a choice with certain results? Truth is, we cannot. Nor should we, I suppose. For each must choose for themselves.

I was fortunate to see a film over the weekend that illustrates, with intelligence and beauty, what it is to be young at that crucial, confusing moment when these cardinal decisions must be made. An Education, directed by Lone Scherfig, is set in a rather sleepy England at the dawn of the sixties, just when that country is about to be hit by the culture changing storm of The Beatles. It stars the amazing Carey Mulligan as a sixteen year old girl at the dawn of a culture change of her own, in the midst of the roundabout of choices that only circle past at that age. Every performance in the film is spot on, especially that of the extraordinarily talented Ms. Mulligan, who has been compared to Audrey Hepburn, something I personally find does a disservice to her own uniqueness. Even Emma Thompson is there, playing an implacable headmistress with terrifying efficiency.

And a bonus.... it also has a fabulous soundtrack!

I was thrilled when I read this week that An Education was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and Carey Mulligan also for Best Actress. If this film is any indication, Ms. Mulligan has not only made some very good decisions, but the fairy godmothers who once gathered round her bedside bequeathed more than the usual share of talent.

Go see An Education and tell me what you think.

Painting above: The Princess and the Frog by William Robert Symonds