Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Dream of Home

A Dream of Home

Perhaps it was all due to the rain.  Incessantly pounding the roof since midnight, sluicing through the gutters, splashing the windowpanes, rolling waves in the birdbath.  Or maybe it was just because of the big bowl of strawberries I’d consumed right before bed.  Whatever the reason, the nightmare felt real and though not typically scary in the traditional sense, it woke me with a start and left me, at least for a few horrifying seconds, in that eerie limbo of uncertainty.   Slowly,  familiar shapes began to come into focus.   There to the left was the window seat, with Apple sound asleep in the pillows.  There was the star-shaped ottoman.  There was the leather porter’s chair and best of all, I could feel the soft weight of Edward’s head resting on top of my feet.  I fell back on my pillow feeling reprieved.

I had dreamed we sold our home.  In exchange for our beloved quirky cottage, we had moved into a huge house with large, lavish rooms.  All four of us knew at once it was a mistake, but the situation was, apparently, immutable.  I wandered these alien rooms in my dream with a rising feeling of panic and grief in my heart.  What had we done?! 
 Oh, it was such a relief to awaken.

It is no secret that I am a nester.  Even in hotel rooms, I have been known to place fresh flowers at my bedside and drape silk shawls over lampshades.  I detest it when hotel windows will not open and I abhor overhead lighting.  My surroundings play a monumental role in my mood, a fact perhaps due to my years as a designer, though it is far more likely I became a designer because of that fact.   In my years helping others create the homes of their dreams, I saw my role as that of an interpreter - one who could accurately translate the personality of a client into the ambiance of their home.  It is such a harsh world; don’t we all need a sanctuary that is uniquely our own? 

 I have been known to turn down projects from clients whose stated motivation in hiring me was that they wanted to “wow” their friends.  I have no interest in that goal.  Life is short and I’ve found I'd rather write.  But at my recent book signing, a former client showed up with a request for my help with a few new projects, and I immediately accepted.   This is a woman who, like myself, feels a kinship with the place she calls home.  Like me, her home is a more than a shelter; it is a refuge.  It is a place where memories have seeped into the very brick and mortar - where echoes of long ago laughter can still be heard down the hallways and family portraits smile down from the walls.  It is a joy to be there.

A few years back, a friend visited our home for the first time.  Wandering around, he suddenly turned to me and said, “You know, it’s the strangest thing.  But this house feels like a lot of love has been here.”  How I adored that comment, for in those few words he managed to succinctly express exactly how I feel about my home.  The love we four share (and yes I’m including Edward and Apple.  Did you think I wouldn’t?) seems to find it’s way into the very fabrics that hang round the four-poster bed.  It is there in that creak in the floor just outside the library, in that living room window pane that requires constant washing because it’s the one Apple pushes her nose against when the squirrels are about.  This place is as much a part of us as our names and much like those of the Bloomsbury set who expressed themselves through the decoration of their adored Charleston, we are imprinted on its every nook and cranny.

Over the past few months, it has been a joy to read along as one of my friends, Brooke Giannetti, has been sharing the building of her new home through her wonderful blog, Velvet and Linen.  Through her words one can easily see that she and her husband, Steve, are not constructing a house to “wow” the neighbours, but a home to shelter their much-cherished family.  The thrill she feels over every doorway and fireplace brick is contagious and beautifully illustrative of the importance, and individuality, of home.
I encourage you to follow along HERE.

And tell me ... much like the creak in the floor outside my library,
 is there some beloved idiosyncrasy of your own home you’d like to share?  
The painting above is by Carl Larsson, 
someone else who recognized and celebrated the wonderful joys of home. 
This is one of my favourite compilations of his work.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What to Read.... Winter Places, Winter Books

Winter Places, Winter Books

On the day of my December book signing here in town, it rained.  It was cold, it was grey, the type of weather that rules the day and places demands on sartorial choices.  High heels were passed over for wellies.  Lovely manicures were hidden inside woolen gloves.  One friend who knows a few of my peccadillos greeted me that day by saying, “I saw the weather this morning and thought... ah, a perfect Pamela day”.  
She was right, of course.  I do love grey and rainy days, and if the temperature drops as well, all the better.  Days like that are fun for me to ramble around it, as they cast a romantic spell on every ordinary street.  They drape each house with a nimbus of mystery, convert every glowing window to an augury.  Days like that work wonders on interiors as well, as everyone discovered at that rainy day book signing.  Ordinary nooks become cozy, everyday chairs take on the comfort of nests.  It’s the perfect weather for knitting, for baking, for napping.  It’s the perfect weather for reading!
So far this week, each morning has delivered grey skies - cold rain unceasing.
I have been doing a lot of reading in my cozy rooms.
(Edward has been doing a lot of napping up his his favourite chair.)

Here’s some winter places, some winter books.
With little stories included to influence your mood.
I hope you’re enjoying winter as much as I.
Just click on each book to see more.

You’ve just seen the last guest off, closed the door on the cab and waved goodbye as it disappeared into the miasma of mist that is the only remnant of a rain that pelted the windows all during dinner.  More for atmosphere than necessity, you’d lit a fire in every room downstairs before they all arrived, but it turned out to be a balm to the evening.  Who knew it was going to turn so cold?  Dinner had been a success, though.  The drama of the weather served as a atmospheric soundtrack that seemed to coax the best stories, the most convivial conversations, out of everyone.  Even old Mrs. Lancer had a good time, though she’d never admit it tomorrow.  Leaving the dishes till morning, you pour yourself a small brandy and walk through the house switching off lights till you come to the sitting room.  The fire still flickers.   You glance at the stack of books beside the piano.  Oh why not stay up a little longer?  You’ll sleep in tomorrow.  As the fog thickens outside the window, you pick up the first book.

The All of It
 by Jeannette Haien
One of the wonderful things about Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee is the gentle enthusiasm of its employees.   Readers all, they possess both impeccable taste and an uncanny ability to recommend the perfect book for each customer they speak with.  So it was that on my last visit, I left with The All of It in my shopping bag.  
The All of It was written by Jeannette Haien who spent most of her life as a concert pianist.  This was her first book, published when she was in her sixties, a time when wisdom and ability coincide in extraordinary ways.  Deceptively short (you can read it in one sitting if you choose, though so pleasurable a read, you might prefer to stretch it out longer. I did.), it carries a weight of beauty untapped by most books of longer length.  Chapter One starts with a fly-fishing priest, standing in the rain, casting his line over and over as he considers the knowledge that came to him the day before at the deathbed of a parishioner. You won’t soon forget this one.

The Liar’s Club
by Mary Karr
There are great writers all over the place, really.  But some of them possess not only the ability to tell a great story, but to do so in a language oddly unique.  Mary Karr is such a writer.  The Liar’s Club is the first book in her autobiographical trilogy and it is incredibly entertaining even, or especially, when it is covering material jaw-droppingly raw.  Written with the love and acceptance only earned through forgiveness, The Liar’s Club pulls back the curtain on a Texas childhood and leaves us with much to think about and admire.  I highly recommend it.

The French Dog
 by Rachael Hale
Just look at that cover.
All I need to say is that there are many, many more photographs
 every bit as charming as this inside.  Plus the stories behind each.
Nope, I don’t need to say more.


Though you left the city in plenty of time to arrive before darkness, you hadn’t counted on lingering in that little pub outside Fort William as long as you had.  But the ceilidh, unexpected and delightful, had torn a two hour hole in your schedule causing you to arrive much later than you’d wanted, under a black sky that permitted no stars.  Tired after the drive, you’d pulled the large key from your bag, unlocked the green painted door and without much investigation of your new surroundings, fallen straight into bed.  Now, upon waking, you wander through the cottage, pleased as punch at the comfortable rooms that are yours for a month.  There are ample stores of shortbread and tea in the kitchen, a towering stack of firewood beside the door.  Yes, this is just what you need. Four weeks here will do you a world of good.  
You open the back door for a look around.  Standing frozen in the doorway, you swallow hard.   It was true you’d told the estate agent you’d needed solitude.  True also you’d whined for a month about needing to get away by yourself for a while.
  But this is far outside your expectations.  You begin to laugh. 
  Later, after a hot breakfast, you wander the rooms of the cottage
 till you come to a tiny library of sorts, all tartan rugs and deep-silled windows. 
 There are old copies of Punch arranged on the ottoman. 
 Shelves of books by Benchley, Wodehouse, Parker and Wilde.  
Even a few copies of Efron, Sedaris and Fey.
  Clearly, the owner of this place understands that, for some, stark solitude can occasionally be an invitation to Churchill’s black dog.  He also understands that laughter banishes that creature like nothing else.  As you pull on your coat for a brisk walk in the hills, you can clearly see yourself back in this room at teatime, chuckling over a classic book. Yes, this is just what you need for a month.

My Life and Hard Times
by James Thurber
Whenever I feel myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp drizzly November in my soul;... whenever it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off - then.... well, unlike Ishmael... I don’t head for the sea. 
 Instead, I reach for James Thurber.
This little book, one of his best, is the book I grab.  
It’s the one I push on friends who are feeling sorry for themselves;
 the one I slip into every get-well basket.
Such charming, wonderful wit.

by Clyde Edgerton
A lot of people try to write about the South.  We are a land of drama, humour and contradictions many and varied, all of which are catnip to a novelist.  But writing about the South is a tricky business and few seem to possess the unique talent for painting an accurate portrait of this part of the country, no matter how moved they may be by our history, our beauty, our stubborn singularity, to do so.   As the great Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor once said, “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic”.
Few books get it right. One book that did was Raney. 
 The story of a Southern girl who marries a Northern boy,
 it’s sweet and funny, and spot on.

The Best of Wodehouse
by P.G. Wodehouse 
Introduction by John Mortimer
It’s not just Jeeves and Wooster that make the Wodehouse books so much fun. 
 These books contain a whole cast of characters that never fail to entertain.
  With names like Augustus “Gussie” Fink-Nottle,
 Marmaduke Chuffnell, and  Gwendolen Moon. 
 Honoria Glossop and her brother, Oswald. 
  There’s the antagonistic D’Arcy “Stilton” Cheesewright
 and Gwladys Pendlebury, the artist. 
 There’s Bertie’s formidable Aunt Agatha and her terrier, McIntosh. 
 There’s even a Marxist revolutionary named Comrade Butt.
The world of Wodehouse is pure escapism to a land so refreshingly silly
 you’ll never wish to leave.  
And if you’ve never seen the Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie versions...
 well, waste no time in doing so. 
 Find them HERE.

The snow fell all night long and now, bright as a celestial blanket, it covers everything.  A weak winter sun regains the prowess of June as it bounces off the snow and streams through the windows, every bit as white-dazzling as a summertime noon.  The lilies on the landing, newly purchased to soothe your wishes for Spring, become incandescent.  You stop to admire them as you make your way upstairs, a cup of tea and an apple balancing precariously atop the stack of books you’ve just retrieved from the library.
Reaching your room, you place the tea cup on the night table
 and let the books fall on the bed. 
 This is where you’ll be till dinnertime, reading and planning,
 dreaming, of the trip you will take in the Spring.

The Great White Owl of Sissinghurst
by Dawn Langley Simmons

From the Lighthouse to Monk’s House
by Katherine Hill-Miller

A Cezanne in the Hedge
and Other Memories of Charleston and Bloomsbury 
Edited by Hugh Lee


When your Aunt Kate was in her fifties, she developed a passion for skiing that became too strong to ignore, eventually enticing her to sell the family home in Mississippi and move to Vermont.  She settled in Stowe, in a century old farmhouse with racing green shutters and a wide screened-in porch.  You like to sleep on that porch when you come up every July for the balloon festival.  But today on this frigid February morning, the screened porch is covered and a winter storm is blowing in hard from the west.  Already the first flakes are falling fast, paw-sized and determined, white heralds of winter’s last blast that has cancelled your flight and closed all the slopes.  Emanating from the attic above, thumps and bumps can be heard as the children hunt for appropriate attire to clothe the legion of snowmen soon to populate the garden.  Your husband is chopping more firewood.  Downstairs in the kitchen, Aunt Kate is making soup.  Ensconced in your favourite room, with Aunt Kate’s elderly Mastiff, George, snoring softly in the corner, you peruse the books she’s left out by your bed.  Could there be a better way to spend a snowy afternoon?
by Jasper Conran
This is one of my favourite books, full of exquisite photography that celebrates
 a way of life few of us are intimately acquainted with.
  Now out in a smaller, much more accessibly priced, version,
 it’s a wonderful addition to any library.

Peter Beard
For me, one of the most intriguing figures of the last century has to be Peter Beard. 
Reading Isak Dinesen as a child, he became fascinated with Africa, eventually moving there,
 befriending the author and buying land near hers in Kenya.  
Thus began a life so entwined with art that the two became one.
  His life was his art, his art was his life.
 It is impossible to corral the work of Peter Beard into one category.
  He’s a photographer, a illustrative diarist, an author.
  He toured with the Rolling Stones, dated Lee Radziwill and discovered Iman.  
 His collages are legendary and extraordinary.
  This glorious two volume set of his life and work was given to me by a dear friend this past Christmas
 and I haven’t been able to get my nose out of its pages.  
   Published by Taschen, it is a wonder.

The Burgess Boys
by Elizabeth Strout
Life After Life 
by Kate Atkinson
I adored Elizabeth Strout’s last book, Olive Kitteridge, 
so I’m anxiously awaiting The Burgess Boys, 
which is her new one scheduled to be released in March.
And I’m an unabashed fan of writer Kate Atkinson, so Life After Life,
 which is coming out just a few days later, is destined for my shelves as well.  
They are sure to be excellent reads, both.

(By the way, one of the above scenarios happens to be true, 
even the lilies.... but minus the snow. 
Can you guess which one?)

Friday, February 15, 2013

I Wish I Could Remember

I Wish I Could Remember

When I was about thirteen, I attended a spend-the-night party at the home of a girlfriend.  Her older sister was having another party upstairs, so we “children” were relegated to the downstairs with stern warnings that we were not to invade the gilded festivities taking place up above.  Naturally, when all the “big” kids arrived that night, we “little” ones gathered together to peek out the door at the top of the staircase in order to observe this elusive world so vociferously denied to us, the world of those so much more sophisticated and grand than we.  So there I was, lying on my tummy with my long hair in pink curlers and my underwear in the ice box (why did we ever think that was funny?), peering out at the “big kids”with all my “little” friends.  This would be an unremarkable event in my life if it were not for the fact that upstairs that night, with all the cosmopolitan ones, was The Songwriter.  How utterly horrified he would have been if he’d known his future wife was spying on him from the middle of a pack of giggling girls just behind the staircase door.

We were best friends for seven years before we married.  And truth be told, we don’t really remember the first time we met.  It seems we were always there.  While the romantic in me would love a wildly dramatic story of our first meeting,
 I'll gladly take the friendship for the happy life it afforded us.
  But this poem by Christina Rossetti resonates with me on this Valentine’s Day. 
 I hope you love it as much as I and I hope you’ll share your first meeting stories with me!
Wishing everyone a Lovely Valentine's Day.

 I Wish I Could Remember

I wish I could remember that first day,
    First hour, first moment of your meeting me,
    If bright or dim the season, it might be
Summer or Winter for aught I can say;
So unrecorded did it slip away,
    So blind was I to see and to foresee,
    So dull to mark the budding of my tree
That would not blossom yet for many a May.
If only I could recollect it, such
    A day of days! I let it come and go
    As traceless as a thaw of bygone snow;
It seemed to mean so little, meant so much;
If only now I could recall that touch,
    First touch of hand in hand – Did one but know!
Christina Rossetti

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Before Spring

Before Spring

The name of my monthly knitting group is Whiskyknitters, although I myself never partake of anything more muscular than pear cider when in attendance.  I have a long drive to the pub and besides, despite my Scottish heritage, whisky tends to render my pale visage redder than a longshoreman’s and make my arms feel long.  Doesn’t matter though, the conversation around the table is stimulating enough even for a teetotaler. 
We are a collection of women with interests as varied and divergent as the colours in a crayola box.  Just this week, while working on the back of a sweater and sipping my cider, I listened as the English professor spoke of needing to be home grading essay papers, the title of the assignment being, “What Can You Do to Make the World a Better Place”.  Boy, I’d love to read those.  I saw another woman actually get tears in her eyes as she spoke of the duck confit she’d finally mastered the previous week.  “It was just so beautiful”, she said.  She’s on to pancetta now.  One lady is planning to welcome two Angora rabbits into her household as she’s recently taken up spinning her own wool.  I see lots of Angora sweaters, and probably lots and lots more rabbits, in her future.  In our number we have a ukulele player, a woodworker, teachers, writers, singers, gardeners.  One woman has a doctorate in erotic literature, another has a flock of chickens.  It’s impossible to leave our monthly gathering without at least entertaining the idea of learning something new.  And honestly, what better time to do so than February?

A friend once told me that I am the sort of person who “hears things in the silence” which at the time I thought, frankly, made me sound a bit dotty.  But just now, this month, I think he may be right.  For the grey blanket silence of February is deceptive and if one listens closely one can almost hear the stirring of the earth. Though they now appear still as winter stone, already, deep within the maple trees there is a faint quickening of green, a longing to stretch their cold limbs up and out towards a warm blue sky.  We still have a few more weeks, but the murmurings are out there.  
  As Keats once said, “ he is awake who thinks himself asleep.”
Spring will be here soon.

In this “grand old poem called Winter”, as Thoreau so aptly phrased it, we are now in the final stanza.  Though still blustery and cold, in but a few weeks now, February will begin to loosen his grip on the land, one chapped finger after the other will start to give way, releasing the daffodil buds and waking the rose.  It’s the time of the year when I am the most anticipatory.  In the chilly air, I feel it.   Something is about to happen and I need to prepare.  These are the weeks to plan summer gardens, to rifle through untried recipes.  I want to learn something new, brand new, and now is the perfect time.
  Before the warm days steal all my hours and magic away my thoughts. 
 Before the arrival of Spring.

  I once knew a lady who took up tap dancing in her fifties.  No one but her husband was prouder than she when she took her place alongside the youngsters in her class for the graduation recital.  Though now well into her seventies, I’ve heard she still dances regularly.  What fun.
A dance class, a painting class.
  Yoga, or embroidery?  
In these few fleeting days that remain of Winter, what is percolating in your mind?  
What would you like to do this year that you’ve never done before?
Or, as the grand poet Mary Oliver once asked, 
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Doesn’t this look tempting?
How many classes would this require, do you suppose?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Essentials

The Essentials

It wasn’t as though I’d been caught by surprise.  The colours of the morning had pretended no cheerfulness, all sparrow shades of grey and brown.  Rather than invite me outdoors, they seemed to hold up an exhortatory palm, mossy damp and cold, silently, firmly, pushing me back inside the warm house.  But I had to brush past them, for I had a list of errands to complete.  So, raincoat thrown over shoulders, handbag on arm, I hit the pavement with the rest of the afternoon throng, most of whom I noticed wore the mopey faces that often populate a dreary Monday in early February.  

As I steered my little green Fiat somewhere between the cleaners and the grocers, a few lines of a poem I’d read the previous morning drifted under the lens of my mind, lines I found illuminating in their wise sadness.  Written by poet Brenda Shaughnessy the poem is meant to address one’s younger self -

“You’d pass me on the street
As well, a “normal,”

Someone who traded 
In her essentials for

A look of haunted 

Ouch.  If those words don’t stop you cold and plunge you into introspection, nothing will.
Sitting at a traffic light, I stared at the faces in the cars moving past my window,
 one by one by one, and I had to admit, “haunted responsibility” is a well-coined phrase. 

 For the rest of the day I indulged myself in a little game I like to play.  With each person I saw, I tried to imagine them at about seven or eight.  Was that child, that essential person, still in there somewhere, trapped perhaps, under responsibilities too heavy to shift - constricted by expectations or frozen by duty?  With some people, it takes no great stretch of imagination to see the essential person they’ve always been.  He is there in the smile, she glimmers in the eyes that meet yours as you pass each other on a crowded street.  With others, it’s harder.  I wonder, and hope, the distracted weariness they project is nothing more than the result of a grey Monday.  Nothing more. 

I have always thought the worst emotion one can possibly feel is great regret.  It must be sharper than loss, deeper than fear.  To wish to change something one cannot, to long for more time when the clock has run out, must be an incredible pain.  It’s difficult to conjure a more crushing regret that the loss of those essentials that make us unique, but I rather think in today’s rapacious times, it takes much care and attention to hold on to ourselves.  But hold on, we must.   Like beauty, like faith, if we hand over, or worse, ignore, those things essential to our uniqueness I fear their light will continue to dim till one dark night, perhaps when we need it the most, we see it no more.

Recently I unearthed the little pale pink diary I kept as a child.  Amidst the rather humdrum entries about sleepovers, crushes and spats I found one that caused me to laugh right out loud:
 “I can’t wait till I grow up!  Wearing lipstick... sigh.”

So, this was adulthood to me at seven.  Wearing lipstick.  No mention of the legion of responsibilities that attend adulthood like stern ladies-in-waiting, irritable and accusatory, tapping the shoulder, rapping the knuckle.  If only being “grown-up” were as simple as just “wearing lipstick”.  I smiled at my own younger self and realized anew how vital it is to retain a clear communication with that voice we had as a child, to indulge those childhood dreams and hopes - the carefree fun, the grand plans.  It’s important to protect those things that make us happy and connect us to the person we’ve always been, lest we lose something special, or tragically, something essential.  

 I happen to find my true self in books and fresh flowers,
 in a soul-enriching relationship with a big white dog. 
 I’m there on rainy London pavements, in the mists of Glencoe.  
In music, in forests, beside a wild sea.
In old houses with creaky floors, 
in gothic churches of golden light....
There are so many essentials that make me who I am, 
and I’m determined not to lose a one of them to “haunted responsibility”.

 What are the essentials that you refuse to lose? 
 What connects you to your unique self?