Wednesday, April 25, 2012



In the serene stillness of Gallery 910 in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, just steps away from the frenetic animation of Fifth Avenue, hangs a painting that possesses the ability to transport an ordinary human being right inside the paradisiacal velvet of a flower.  Stare at it long enough and you begin to feel, rather than merely see, the very essence of the bloom as the luscious purple and fathomless black violet petals encircle your imagination, blotting out peripheral vision and ambient sound.  Stare at it long enough, and you begin to see the world from a flower’s point of view.  This is the magic of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Iris, a painting that provokes a deep recognition of the flower for which it is named, recognition both unexpected and profound.   Such was the talent of Miss O’Keeffe.   She reduced her subjects to their essential forms in order to allow us to see them anew, or perhaps really see them for the very first time.  
Strangely enough, I first became aware of this ability of Georgia O’Keeffe through her interpretation of a very different subject.  The charcoal drawing above is hers.  An early work, and one I think I could have recognized without ever reading her explanation of the piece.  As a sufferer of migraine headaches for most of my adult life, I knew, almost instinctively, that this was a painting of a headache.  Which indeed it is.  Cryptic, almost occult, the image is appropriately menacing.  A river of black fire?  A brain, sliced and laid bare, with its thoughts and ideas simmering?  It was easy to tell that the artist responsible for this drawing understood a migraine at its very core.  I have felt empathetic towards Georgia O’Keeffe ever since.
The capacity to enkindle and fan empathy is but one of the vital powers art has to make our lives more malleable and fine.  Through fiction and music, painting and performance, we are better able to walk inside the shoes of others, despite our own perhaps limited experiences.  Can an authentic empathy develop and be nurtured through art?  I think it can.  I have been fortunate in my time here on earth to never empirically know true desperation, but I have felt its heaviness resting on my shoulders as I journeyed to California with the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath.   I realized the heartbreak that can occur when one must choose honour over love when I read of Newland Archer’s fateful choices in The Age of Innocence.  If one is truly open and interested in the lives of others, if one really wants to know how other hearts beat and other eyes see, art is not a bad place to begin.  
The often callous words that have been spoken during the current nominating process for president here in this country have sometimes caused me to shake my head in disgust.   For myself, it is disturbing when anyone states that they are not concerned about the very poor”.  But when that statement is expressed by a man seeking the highest office in the land, I shudder.  Growing up wealthy, with all one’s needs more than mitt, I mean met, does not necessarily preclude empathy. It cannot be faked - the very attempt is cringe-worthy - but it may be cultivated if one has a willing heart.   And of course, there is always art to help out the candidate if he is interested.  For instance, there is currently an excellent revival of Death of a Salesman playing on Broadway.  Anna Deavere Smith has a new play that tackles the issue of health care in America called Let Me Down Easy.  For books, perhaps The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood or the wonderful new collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson called When I Was a Child I Read Books.  And of course, I would most heartily recommend Lad, A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune.
What about you?  
Has your mind ever be opened or changed by a work of art? 
 Has a painting or a piece of fiction ever gifted you with the type of recognition leading to empathy previously unfelt?
Do share.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Gardener

The Gardener

It is an annual frustration for my mother that I can never manage to wear gardening gloves.  Over the years, she has given me a bevy of beautiful ones - floral cotton, pink leather, long, short and medium length - but every spring, she is once again disappointed upon catching sight of a bit of mushroom compost still clinging to my hastily manicured nails.  Most other months of the year, my hands are well tended but April is planting time and I simply love the feel of rich black dirt as I tuck another blue salvia or pink lantana into a well-dug flower bed.  So it was that as I was driving to collect Mother for lunch the other day I found myself stealing quick, guilty glances at my hands at every stoplight, buffing my nails on my trouser legs in an ultimately futile attempt to render them pristine.  I had been knee deep in my flower beds all week, and it showed.  
Rounding the corner on a familiar stretch of road near her house, I slowed my little Fiat down to a crawl.  I was soon to be passing a garden that never fails to treat the eye and I wanted to enjoy the sight at my leisure.  Sitting off the road to the right, this little bit of arcadia has been tended for years by an elderly man.  I couldn’t tell you his name but I see him every single time I pass by, sitting on the back of his equally elderly pick-up truck in the shadow of his handmade and flamboyantly frocked scarecrow, watching his garden grow.  Morning, noon, dusk, or evening - he is always there, without a book or a radio, no dog, no cat.  He sits there completely alone, painting a portrait of contentment and peace no artist could accurately duplicate.  It is a sight that never fails to loosen my shoulders and restore a sense of calm to a stressful day.  His garden is beautiful  and I look forward, almost unconsciously, to passing by and seeing it.  On this particular day however, I noticed something unusual and as I pulled up closer my heart sank when I saw the funeral wreath placed, most appropriately, right in the center of the recently planted garden.  So.  The gardener has left us.
As I sat there with my own gardener’s hands on the wheel, thinking how much I would miss the sight of the old man in his beloved patch of earth, I wondered who might have placed the wreath here in this spot.  Perhaps someone just like me, for whom this garden was a little gift each time they drove past.  I wondered if the old fellow knew all the strangers he had spoken to over these many years, not in words perhaps, but with all the eloquence found in the beauty and peace of nature herself.  When I drove back past later that afternoon, the funeral wreath had been joined by bouquets of every size and shape and I smiled through damp eyes as I considered how our lives can communicate wonderful things to others, even without our knowledge.  I wished the old gardener Godspeed.  
That same evening I passed by my sitting room window and spied a lady walking past our cottage, holding the hand of her small son.  I saw them stop in front of a little part of my garden that sits behind the stone mailbox, visible only to those walkers who take the sidewalk round.  She was showing him the tiny sheep that stand in the ground cover in front of the fairy house.  He laughed and nodded, pointing at the minuscule shepherd’s crook that leans by the door.  They stood there for the longest time, smiling and talking, before continuing on with their walk.
No, we never know what we give to others through those things we love to do.
 A well-cooked meal, a happy blog post. 
 A hand-written letter, a smile.
A flower garden.
Worth a short month of bad manicures, I’d say.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What to Wear in Books, Part II

What to Wear in Books, Part II
Yes, we did this once before.  Last autumn, in fact, when I was poring over the fall fashion collections and wandering through books specially made for a cold October night. ( You can revisit that posting here.)  Well, we’re are on the other side of the calendar now, and I’m thinking of warm summer mornings, extravagant straw hats, silky dresses worn during lunches under the arbor when rose petals drift slowly down to land in the iced tea glasses.
These are some of the books that I reach for at this carefree time of the year.
 See if you think my sartorial choices are correct......

Visiting a Friend in Cornwall
I must confess, I was a bit concerned when my friend up and married this man.  Handsome, yes, but so different than she, in so many ways.  He’s a good many years older, for a start, and lives a lifestyle totally outside of her sphere.  And to think she is now mistress of this grand house!  No wonder she wanted me to come for a visit.  A familiar face, someone who knows her well, might just provide that extra bit of confidence she is in need of at the moment.  Especially since this housekeeper - oh I can never remember that woman’s name -  seems peculiarly disobliging.  Seems I’m up before anyone else this morning.  Let’s see now, I’ve seen the drawing room - very formal.  Ah, I hear the dogs.  This must be the door to the morning room....
“This was a woman’s room, graceful, fragile, the room of someone who had chosen every particle of furniture with great care, so that each chair, each vase, each small infinitesimal thing should be in harmony with one another, and with her own personality.  It was as though she who had arranged this room had said, ‘This I will have, and this, and this,’ taking piece by piece from the treasures in Manderley each object that pleased her best, ignoring the second-rate, the mediocre, laying her hand with sure and certain instinct only upon the best.  There was no intermingling of style, no confusing of period, and the result was perfection in a strange and startling way, not coldly formal like the drawing-room shown to the public, but vividly alive, having something of the same glow and brilliance that the rhododendrons had, massed there, beneath the window.”
From Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
and Ralph Lauren, Spring RTW 2012

Renting a Summer House in Italy
I’ve joined my friend Molly on an expedition to find a house for the summer.  Of course we’ve come to Italy, the most sublime place for an escape.  But so many houses, and not one just right yet.  My feet are beginning to ache.  Perhaps this will be the one.  It certainly looks promising to me.  Oh darn, I’ve got a grass stain on my knee.  Serves me right I guess, I shouldn’t have knelt down to pet that Borzoi we saw at the gates.  Oh, I hear Molly down the hall, I’d better catch up.

“ Her inspection of the bedroom finished, she walked down the staircase into the coolness of the stone-flagged hallway.  A large collection of sun-hats hung on pegs in the entrance hall, bowls were filled with dried lavender and a huge pottery jar was crammed with walking-sticks, some of which had ornate silver handles.  By the time she reached the front door of the house, she knew, it had to be hers for the summer.  If it had a secret she would do her best to discover it and she was not going to miss the trail across the Mountains of the Moon to what was undoubtedly the greatest small picture in the world.”

From Summer’s Lease by John Mortimer
and Sonia Rykiel Spring RTW2012

Shopping on a Cloudy Day
I needed to get out of the house.  Such a dreary day.  There’s a chill in the air that seems to have nothing to do with the weather, so I’ve decided to do a bit of shopping.   Stock up on a few fresh herbs, maybe a new cloak or two.  And whilst I know Edward would most likely disapprove, I would dearly love an owl.  A great barn owl to sit on my windowsill when the moon turns full.  Couldn’t hurt to look around, now could it?  Lunch at the pub and maybe ice cream later.  Yes, marvelous idea!  But first, that owl.  Let’s see now, oh yes, here’s the place... The Magical Menagerie!  I opened the heavy glass door, I looked around.....
A pair of enormous purple toads sat gulping wetly and feasting on dead blowflies.  A gigantic tortoise with a jewel-encrusted shell was glittering near the window.  Poisonous orange snails were oozing slowly up the side of their glass tank, and a fat white rabbit kept changing into a silk top hat and back again with a loud popping noise.  Then there were cats of every colour, a noisy cage of ravens, a basket of funny custard-coloured furballs that were humming loudly, and on the counter, a vast cage of sleek black rats that were playing some sort of skipping game using their long, bald tails.”
From Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Askaban
and Ralph Lauren Fall RTW 2012

Joining the Durrell’s in Greece
Who knew it would be so warm here?  Such a welcome change from the rainy English weather we left behind.  I can’t believe the Durrell’s invited me along.  And I’m so thrilled I don’t have to share a room with Margo.  She can be so very tiresome when she’s not in love.  Of course, Gerry is right next door so I’m sure I’ll hear strange animal noises coming out of his room at all hours. But that’s alright, I quite like the little boy.  There, I’m done unpacking.  So happy I brought this dress, too. Perfect for the afternoon weather in Corfu.  The table is already set for luncheon, under the trees thankfully - this sun can be dreadful for the skin.  Looking out these double windows I must say, this is a divine setting.  I could tell from the first moment we saw this place, it’s going to be a wonderful summer...... 

“The villa was small and square, standing in its tiny garden with an air of pink-faced determination.  Its shutters had been faded by the sun to a delicate creamy green, cracked and bubbled in places.  The garden, surrounded by tall fuchsia hedges, had the flower beds worked in complicated geometrical patterns, marked with smooth white stones.  The white cobbled paths, scarcely as wide as a rake’s head, wound laboriously round beds hardly larger than a big straw hat, beds in the shapes of stars, half-moons, triangles, and circles, all overgrown with a shaggy tangle of flowers run wild.  Roses dropped petals that seemed as big and smooth as saucers, flame-red, moon-white, glossy, and unwrinkled;  marigolds like broods of shaggy suns stood watching their parent’s progress through the sky..... The warm air was thick with the scent of a hundred dying flowers, and full of the gentle, soothing whisper and murmur of insects.  As soon as we saw it, we wanted to live there - it was as though the villa had been standing there waiting for our arrival.  We felt we had come home.

From My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
and Etro Spring RTW 2012

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Under the Trees

Under the Trees
I spent my birthday under the trees, where I am always most at home.
  These poems came floating over my thoughts. 
I’ll share them with you in the hopes you too can live out a few wild stanzas under the unresting castles, under the trees.  

A Dream of Trees 
by Mary Oliver
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 that 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?

The Trees
by Philip Larkin

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old?  No they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh. 

The Sound of the Trees
by Robert Frost

I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys, 
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing, 
As it grows wiser and older, 
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch the trees sway, 
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere, 
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say, 
But I shall be gone.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Spring Birthday

A Spring Birthday

Although at 5’6” I could hardly be considered short, I have still sometimes wondered what it just might be like to be taller.  Really tall, as it get-things-off-the-top-shelf-without-assistance kind of tall.  Might be fun.  I have also, on occasion, wondered if the world might look different if I could gaze at it through brown eyes instead of blue.  Would the colours be a bit deeper, do you suppose?  Would sunlight feel stronger shining down on brown hair instead of the blonde locks that have always been mine?  
However there is one line of my biography that I have never even entertained a quick thought about changing.  That is the date of my birthday.  I have always adored having a spring birthday, one that often falls so close to Easter, as is the case this year.  I simply love sharing my birthday with bunnies and lilies, chocolate eggs and new hats.   Today I received a card from an old friend that said,  "I am fairly certain that given a cape and a nice tiara, I could save the world."  Having a birthday that falls smack dab in the most beautiful weekend of springtime always makes me feel just like that.
Tomorrow is my birthday and Edward and I will be outdoors in all the beauty of Spring from morning till night.  And as a birthday gift to all of you, I’m sharing one of my favourite poems.  By Mary Oliver, of course.  
Happy Easter to you all.
Morning Poem
Every morning
the world
is created. 
Under the orange 
sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again 
and fasten themselves to the high branches ---
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands 
of summer lilies. 
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails 
for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere. 
And if your spirit
carries within it 
the thorn
that is heavier than lead ---
if it's all you can do
to keep on trudging --- 
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted --- 
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning, 
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy, 
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

Monday, April 2, 2012

I Always Feel Southern In Spring

I Always Feel Southern In Spring
The South is often portrayed in the media as backwards, blonde-dumb and poor.    But just as no one knows England like an Englishman, or France like the French, one has to be a Southerner to understand the South.  And it’s a hard nut to crack, even for a native.  Growing up in a part of the country that was on the losing side of a civil war uniquely qualifies one for the perplexities of life.  Though a life long southerner myself, I was never quite able to join in the reverence for the “old south” as famously illustrated by another native daughter, Margaret Mitchell.  The almost biblical devotion to her novel, Gone With The Wind, passed me by.  I couldn’t manage to muster up a nostalgia for plantation life; my eye always drifted past the hoop skirts and ladies fair to the slave shacks and auction blocks.  My heart failed to swell with pride when I saw the confederate flag and, even today, I’m afraid I stand outside the majority of my fellow Southerners on a great many issues. 
But I always feel Southern in spring.
In springtime, the south wears a beauty that near breaks the heart.  It’s a beauty that seeps into the very corpuscles of one’s being from earliest childhood, flooding the soul again year after year from the moment the first wisteria blossom leaps free from the vine.   It’s in the very air that hangs heavy in the late afternoon sunlight, trapping the fragrance of hyacinths and honeysuckle so near to the earth that it sails through the windows each time one is opened a crack.
  The lemon-scented blooms that polkadot the magnolia tree, flowers as big as dinner plates hanging over an emerald green carpet of moss that blankets the floor of the garden.
  The front porch swings that sway back and forth under ceilings painted blue to ward off evil spirits. 
 The tinkling bells of the ice cream truck as it weaves its way through the neighbourhood streets, a sound that elicits pavlovian responses from both young and old as we dig in our pockets for change.
  The cool damp grass on bare feet. 
 The glass of iced tea sweating in the sun atop a stack of books by a wicker chair.
The gardenias.  The jasmine.
The dogwood.
The rose.
This intoxicating beauty that covers the southland in springtime stands in razor sharp contrast to the ugliness of much of our history and in doing so illustrates better than any textbook the contradictory way of the world.  To those of us Southerners rebellious enough to think for ourselves, this ever present dichotomy teaches us that life is never merely black or white.  Neither is it fair.  We learn that the world, though quite often unbearable in its cruelty and ignorance, can also be unspeakably gorgeous  - full of hope and nigh on dancing with beauty.  
Life in the south is unique and that uniqueness has produced some of the our country’s most transcendent writing - from Faulkner to O’Connor, Welty to Lee - authors unafraid to look their homeland dead in the eye in order to fully illuminate both the pain and the grace.
For all of its frailties and faults, this is the time of year when the South shows us the sweeter side of its nature.  This is the time when its highest aspirations are fulfilled to bursting with wedding dresses of beauty everywhere that I look.
Yes, I always feel Southern in Spring.

Painting by Jessica Hayllar