Sunday, October 27, 2013

Monk's House

Monk’s House

The elm trees are gone now.  I stand where they once stood, imagining the two graceful giants, their limbs once intertwined, their leaves once freely dancing in the winds blowing up from the South Downs.  They were named for their owners and valiantly kept the charge of guarding their ashes for as long as they could, till the cruelty of time and disease felled them, first one, then the other.  But those careless thieves could not vanquish the two great minds whose ashes seem to have carried their essences deep into the very ground of this garden through which I wander.  Her spirit is everywhere here.  A healthy spirit, too, one gifted for recognizing beauty and attempting to illuminate it for the rest of us, in spite of the pain, in spite of the fear.  It is a lovely garden. I feel she is happy here now.

It is a storybook day in May when I stroll the lane towards Monk’s House, the home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf in the bucolic village of Rodmell.  The lane seems shy, indeed it only bears the nondescript name, The Street, as if anything grander would be unseemly.  Candybox houses hide behind flowering fruit trees and the suede of spring-green moss softens the stone walls lining my way.  I lift the latch on the humble wooden gate and follow the path into the garden.  

It is blissful here.  Fat, lazy bumblebees dip and sway around me.  An alchemistic sun turns the white apple blossoms into celestial clusters of light.  A few break free and drift my way to land in my palm like a blessing.  Ever-vigilant, the sturdy square tower of St. Peter’s parish church casts a benevolent eye over all, morning prayers floating on the breeze, wafting through the pink roses that still clamber round her bedroom door.  Did she ever stand in their shadow to listen?  To stand where she stood, to step over her threshold.  To run my hands across the fabric of her favourite chair.  I know how fortunate I am.

People often tell me they find her books difficult.  It’s true, Virginia Woolf’s writing is dense; it cannot be read casually.  But if it seems impenetrable at first glance, one needs only to find a way in.   Perhaps in the middle of a brilliantly lucid rendering of emotion that is at once intimate and universal, there are two or three words to pull apart, just wide enough for the soul to sink inside the illuminating prose and float down, down, to the core of its meaning.  A light shines there, in the midst of her words, perhaps only flickering at first reading, but growing brighter and brighter with each subsequent one till it is possible to see the deepest workings of the heart, shimmering in the darkness.

Unable to bear another war, unable to quell her fear of sinking once again beneath the weight of another grave depression, Virginia Woolf opened her garden gate on a morning in March 1941, and walked down the lane to the river Ouse, picking up heavy stones as she went.  These she placed in the pockets of her cardigan, laid down her cane and hat on the banks of the river, and sank beneath its waters.  For years I have wondered about the solemn determination of that walk and as I lift the same latch as she and turn right to follow in her footsteps, I am struck by the beauty of the scenery around me.  The lane meanders past fields abuzz with the business of Spring; magpies swoop past me on the the currents of the wind.  Everything is green.  How deep her desperation must have been to deny her the tiniest, lifesaving measure of hope in this scene that met her eyes as she took that final walk, gathering sad stones along the way.  Suddenly, I find I cannot go any further.  Her last steps I no longer wish to retrace.  

The elm trees are gone, it’s true.  But there is a chestnut tree, resplendent in its big-leafed Springness, still standing watch over her writing studio in the bottom of her garden.  Before I leave, I gather up eight perfect leaves from that old tree, placing them in a copy of Mrs. Dalloway that I purchase at the shop.  They dry perfectly by the time I return home and I frame them to hang in my library.

 I gaze at these leaves often; emissaries from the same tree that she gazed upon as she wrote the books that mean so much to me.  Having visited her home, I no longer think of her on that walk to the river.  For me, she lives in that spring garden, peaceful now amidst its beauty.  I smile.

“Beauty, the world seemed to say. And as if to prove it (scientifically) wherever he looked at the houses, at the railings, at the antelopes stretching over the palings, beauty sprang instantly. To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks—all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.” 
from Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

One of the pathways through the garden of Virginia and Leonard Woolf.
Read more about the garden HERE.
More about Monk's House HERE

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A List for Hibernating in Fall

A List for Hibernating in Fall

No matter the weather, whether I’m tired or peppy, hurried or un, whenever I’m in London I always make time for a stroll in St. James Park.  Partly because it’s lovely in any season, and partly because I like to follow in the footsteps of Clarissa Dalloway.  In that setting, so unchanged throughout the years, (the footbridge notwithstanding) it takes very little imagination to see her walking beside me, her gloved hands moving in the sunshine as she tells me all about the party she is to have that very evening.

On a gorgeous fall afternoon last month, after all the drama of our holiday, I left The Songwriter recuperating in his suite at The Draycott and set out for my usual walk through the park.  I wandered through the Buckingham Palace gift shop where I picked up a baby Prince George tea towel and then entered the park under the gaze of the golden Queen Victoria monument.  I took my time, walking slowly, admiring every flower and tree, saying hello to every duck and pelican, until I reached the charming outdoor cafe beside the lake. A restorative cup of tea and a ginger biscuit were in order.  Usually an Earl Grey or Darjeeling girl, this afternoon the idea of Peppermint Tea totally tickled my fancy.  It sounded somewhat rejuvenating, yet soothing at the same time.  So I carried a steaming cup to a table from which I could easily observe all the hustle and bustle of a September Sunday and sat down to collect myself and munch my ginger cookie.  And right there, a new favourite tea was found.  I discovered I quite adored Peppermint Tea and have been having a cup, or three, every evening since returning home.  

 I have also been reading.  A lot.  And knitting.  A lot.  And cooking.  A lot. With The Songwriter’s activity somewhat curtailed for three more weeks, we’ve been quite the homebodies, which is actually rather nice when the nights get chilly and the days get shorter. I've discovered that forced hibernation is not so bad.  It’s given me time to share some of my recent finds with you.   Some books, some book related items, and a bit of whimsy.  All perfect for this most delightful time of year.  As usual, click on the photo and you’ll be transported to find out more.

1. The Bookcase 
 At antique shows, I’m always drawn to bookcases.
  Particularly round, revolving ones.
I have several, and adore them all.  
But this one is the ultimate. 
 It’s seven feet tall!   

2. The Candy Jar 
 This is just magnificent. 
 I can easily imagine it filled with all sorts of sweet things. 
From marshmallows to gumdrops.
 Can’t you?

3. The Witch 
 Recognise this witch? 
 I’m so looking forward to seeing her in the upcoming film adaptation
 of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods. 
 Oh, and it’s Meryl, just in case she fooled you.

4. The Settee
As I said, The Songwriter and I have been doing a lot of reading these past couple of weeks. 
 (He’s really enjoying this book.)
  I’m thinking what we need is a settee like this one.
  Don’t you agree? 
 I can just see it covered in this fabric.
5. And, The Books.....  Here’s a few I’m dying to get my hands on!

An English Room
 By Derry Moore
 With Sherlock on the cover... who can resist?

Dog Songs
 by Mary Oliver 
My favourite poet.  
My favourite subject. 
 Cannot wait.

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life
 by Marta McDowell 
 Having had the pleasure of wandering through this lady’s enchanted garden
 at Hilltop Farm in Cumbria,
 this is a book I’m so excited to read.

Memos - The Vogue Years
 by Diana Vreeland, Edited by Alexander Vreeland
During her revolutionary years at American Vogue, Diana Vreeland was famous for dictating memos to her staff each morning from her Park Avenue apartment.  When she  arrived at her office, which by the way was never before noon, she would type these up and dispatch them around.  Needless to say, they were over the top, just like the lady herself.  This, I am sure, will be one entertaining book!

6. My New Favourite Tea
Seriously, try some.

7. Scotland
And lastly... I’ve gotten some letters and comments from sweet readers concerned that perhaps our recent adventures in Scotland might dissuade us from making a return trip in the near future.  Just look at the photograph below, taken two days before The Songwriter broke his ankle.  Can you imagine, in your wildest dreams, that we wouldn’t be going back to Scotland? 
 It’s like going home to me.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

How Do You Feel?

How Do You Feel?
Like many others around the world, I was fascinated by the opening ceremonies of last year’s London Olympics.  The sheep, the supermodels, the Queen’s doppelganger parachuting in alongside the illustrious James Bond - all were memorable sights to be sure.  The only portion of the program which seemed perhaps a bit odd to an American’s eye was the proud tribute to the National Health Service, complete with hundreds of real nurses and doctors dancing amongst giant beds in a replica of a ward in London’s Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital.  As it is customary for a host nation to celebrate what they are most proud of in their opening ceremonies - to showcase their values, and honour what they hold dear - the message was clear, and as director Danny Boyle himself stated following the production, free universal healthcare is “an amazing thing to celebrate”.
When I left for my September trip to the UK, I certainly never dreamed I would return home with an empirical opinion about the National Health Service of Britain.  However, when your husband breaks his ankle in three places on the hills of the Isle of Mull, there is no time to consider the politics of universal health care.  You simply put your trust in the system and pray for the best.  And here’s the truth.  The care he received was superlative.  From the tiny hospital on Mull, through three ambulance rides and three emergency rooms, with nurses and doctors from hospital wards to operating theatres - at every turn in the road he was treated with the utmost competence, professionalism, and kindness.  No prima donna he, our surgeon was highly skilled, forthcoming, clear, and amazingly accessible.
  The first sign that we had entered a different system from the one we are accustomed to here in the States was the question I was asked at the first reception desk I encountered.  Instead of our usual, “how do you plan to pay for this?”, I heard, “how is your husband feeling?”.  This attitude was pervasive throughout his surgery and hospital stay.  I have been in emergency rooms in the US when my father was having a stroke and, even in that dire situation, before anything was done for him we were queried incessantly about his ability to pay for any treatment he might require.  Clearly, Great Britain ran on a different system.  
Our family has been fortunate in that we have been consistently able to pay for our health insurance, (which I assure you, is no small feat for the self-employed American) and we have enjoyed excellent medical care.  However, we have many friends who earn their living in the arts and who quite simply could never afford the astronomical cost of health insurance in this country.  They live in constant concern that an illness or injury may visit their door.  Their six year old may take a bad fall on the playground, a cold may turn out to be something worse.  Entire savings can easily be wiped out, bankruptcies can occur, houses can be lost, with even one serious illness.  One artist friend, recently hospitalised for two days with high blood pressure, was visited bedside by a lady on staff inquiring how she was planning to pay for her stay.  The entire bill for those two days was over ten thousand dollars and included a bill from that questioning lady herself. Clearly, our system doesn’t work for everybody. 
One would think, one could hope, that our elected officials might find it prudent to manage to work together in an effort to address this problem, but when our plane landed back here in the States we were met with a Congress willing to shut down the entire government in a petulantly political attempt to block revisions to the health care status quo.  The Affordable Health Care act is a law that has already been passed and still they hold the country at ransom in an effort to repeal or block it.  I am grateful for a President who had the guts to try and change what is clearly not working and while the new law may not be perfect, it is a recourse our friends without health insurance thankfully now possess. It is humiliatingly painful to see those who refuse to even try to help make it work, or make it better.  In my own state, our governor is simply ignoring it completely.  The health care of a nation is an issue that should transcend politics.  To hold it hostage is a slap in the face to those in need.
Perhaps I shall be assailed for these opinions.  It is true that my experience with the NHS in Britain, though serious, was brief, and there are no doubt plenty of British citizens with critical views on aspects of their system of which I am unaware.  It is also true that the so-called American Dream marches hand-in-hand with a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, “make your own way” philosophy and anything that hints of a variation in that creedo is, by some, suspect.  But I believe the prevailing question of, “how can you pay”, instead of “how do you feel” creates an atmosphere that moves insidiously throughout the soul of a nation, too easily turning the sick and the needy into “deadbeats” and “shirkers” and eventually stripping away our compassion, our humanity, our greatness.  I am embarrassed that my country, the richest nation in the world, is ranked thirty-eighth in health care.  Now, after my experience in Great Britain, I have seen another way and know that changes are possible.  If only we can find the courage to make them.