Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Tapestry

A Tapestry

“That’s where you get your cheekbones.”
This was the reply given to me by an elderly great-aunt as I gaped at her in disbelief.  You see, she’d just informed me that despite my sugar-white skin, light eyes and blonde hair, I had a full-blooded Cherokee Indian woman sitting comfortably in my family tree, waiting to be acknowledged.   A great-great-great grandmother I’d known nothing about.  To say I was a bit gobsmacked is putting it mildly.   My great-aunt turned me towards the mirror and ran her knobby index finger along the line of my cheek.  “See those?  She gave you those.”, she said with theatrical effect.  She proceeded to tell me the story of a distant patriarch who fell in love with a Cherokee woman and of the marriage that, eventually, led to me.  

Looking in the mirror later that night it was difficult to see past the light eyelashes and pale skin to a woman with a life I couldn’t even imagine.  My experience being limited to the schoolroom, I had always thought of Native Americans as exotic, almost storybook, individuals.   To think a measure of their blood ran through my veins was just astonishing.

As Americans, our eyes, be they blue or brown, hazel or green,  reflect the shadows and light from other lands.  We all have ancestors who made that one great wrenching choice:  to leave home and make a new life.  The tapestry of America is woven and knotted with uniquely colourful threads, each unlike the other, and the resultant creation is stronger and more beautiful than any woven with a single hue.  I have felt the primal pull of ancestral memory in the hills of Glencoe; my MacDonald lineage stirring in the marrow of my bones.  There are grains of my life in the soil of Yorkshire and Skye, beneath the bracken of Roslyn and on beaches and hilltops I know nothing about.  I am even, as I now know, native to this country I call home.

I once heard Stephen Fry expounding on his affection for Americans.  It was his belief that our optimism and fearlessness is an ancestral trait springing from all those distant relatives who took squared their shoulders and swallowed their fears to take the great risk of leaving their homelands for the journey to an unknown land.  He could see those strong strains of hopefulness and bravery still running through Americans.  I love that thought, just as I love the fact that America is made up of so many different nationalities.   I find it amusing when I hear Americans speak of “foreigners”, for we are all of us foreigners in this country.   
If one has been blessed with the gift of curiosity, it is impossible not to wonder about one’s own personal history.  I have journeyed to a few of my own ancestral lands and I know how unusually meaningful those explorations can be.  I wonder, have any of you made similar journeys?  What magical parts of the world joined together to make you who you are?  
Do share!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Promise of Snow

The Promise of Snow

In the days of my childhood when the skies dipped low, when the clouds turned grey-clustered and crowded as flocks, when the air lost its lightness and slid down the lungs like ice water, my Father would look up, eyes gleaming, and say, “It feels like snow”.  And it always seemed, just like that, it would happen - tumbling, falling, white over white, snow would fall in blankets and drifts - till all the world was changed. 
 Schools would close.  Fires would blaze.  Soups would simmer.  

These days we have meteorologists.  Learned men and women who stare pie-eyed from our television screens as they warn us of weather, employing adjectives normally reserved for war in their rabid desire to be heard.    Snow is no longer fun; it is “disaster”.  We no longer see the “promise” of snow, but the “threat.”

Being Southerners, we are ill-prepared for snow.  We rarely see it, and when we do, we are prone to slip and slide in our cars without chains on the tires;  we run into one another on our hilly roads, veer off into ditches, get stuck inside drifts.  So at the first fearsome warning we rush to clear supermarkets of anything edible and hunker down for the siege that usually never occurs.  We find ourselves in this situation today.  Warned of white peril and reminded of past failures, our schools have closed.  The mad rush to the market happened last night.  I doubt there remains a loaf of bread to be found in the county.  The fire is blazing.  The soup is simmering.  And here we sit, watching it drizzle.  Am I the only one disappointed?

Does anyone still thrill at the hint of a snowfall?  Do children still sit at windows and wait for that old unique magic drifting down from the skies?   Do little girls still play inside frosted castles that were hours before only cedars and hemlocks?  From my friends in Boston, I know there is such a thing as too much snow.  But today as I pull on my boots and head out for a walk in the cold with Edward, I cannot help but look up and wish the skies were a wee bit lower, the air a tiny bit heavier. 
 I wish I look hear my Father say, “It looks like snow”.

A few years back.....

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Touches of Green

Touches of Green
for "By Invitation Only"

With my hands folded, I sat on a moss green chair and looked around.  The walls of the  room were painted moss green.  The sofa was covered in a moss green brocade.  There was moss green carpet on the floors and moss green curtains drooped at the windows.  No prints of any kind.  Even the throw pillows were green.  The effect, which I was trying valiantly to ignore, was both amphibious and unsettling in the extreme.  I looked over at the elderly woman sitting benignly across from me and smiled weakly.  As this was my very first assignment as a professional designer I was desirous of appearing both creatively confident and reassuring.   Clearing my throat, I asked her, 
Is there anything about this room that you particularly like?”.  
After a frightfully long pause she said, “Green.  I like green.”  
Believe it or not, this reply, though both unnecessary and discouraging, told me volumes about my first client.   It told me she hated change, wasn’t comfortable in her own choices, and, as she had called me in for design help, longed for something more. 

The legendary decorator, Sister Parish, used to roll a tea cart through the rooms of a new  client, loading it up with every offensive object she encountered and instructing her hapless employer to dispose of them all posthaste.  Though occasionally tempted I myself have never possessed the audacity for such an exercise, preferring instead to call upon a wellspring of tact cultivated from years of dealing with unusual requests.  For instance…..

There was the client who wanted an unobstructed view of a television from every chair in every room.  There was the client who wanted a ballroom-sized family room designed around an antique electric blue rug.  There was the client who had just, days earlier, ripped down everything another, more famous, designer had installed and filed a lawsuit against the fellow. ( And if that doesn’t make one swallow a bit hard, nothing will.  Fortunately, for me and my lawyer, he loved what I did.)  I once met with a woman who couldn’t understand why no one wanted to spend time in her living room.  “I’ve spent a fortune in that room, and no one ever goes in there.”  One look and I knew precisely why.  Pale Easter-pink walls and white plush carpet.  Formal chairs lining the walls.  And a lavish, lugubrious, lily-heavy, silk floral arrangement draped across the mantel.  It looked for all the world like a funeral parlor.  Defoliating it was a challenge, I can tell you.

More than education, more than travel, it was literature that taught me about design.  Loving houses from an early age, I learned from my beloved books that every one was different; every house reflected the personalities of the souls who resided there.  The invitingly snug abode of Mole in Wind and the Willows wasn’t anything like the eccentric splendor of Mr. Toad, but each suited its owner perfectly.  I could easily envision the black and white marble tiles in the entry hall of Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane; could easily see the shadow Mary Poppins would cast on those tiles as she rapped at the glass front door with her parrot-head umbrella.  I clearly saw, in detail,  the rooms of everyone I ever read about, from the reverse-painted lampshades Lady Slane would surely have had in her Hampstead cottage in All Passion Spent, to the microscopes and birdcages striped with the rays of a Grecian sun as it fell through the shutters of little Gerry Durrell’s room in My Family and Other Animals.  These were the kind of rooms I wanted to create for people:  rooms as unique as they.

Through all my years in design, despite the popular trends that march dictatorially across the pages of current shelter magazines, my goal has remained the same:  to create surroundings for my clients that reflect who they truly are while at the same time gently nudging them towards the beautiful, the meaningful, and the fine. Oh, and the lady with the green room?  The finished product featured Scalamandre chintz that echoed the flowers outside her window, polished wood floors, creamy sofas, pale green pillows, and lacy green ferns.  Yes, lots of touches of green.
(To read more on the topic of design today, 
check out all the participators in By Invitation OnlyHERE)

***** Note:   One of the most delightful design books I’ve encountered recently 
is "Novel Interiors" by my friend, Lisa Borgnes-Giramonti.  It’s as though she crawled inside my own head to capture the decorative influence of books.  Marvelous.

Illustration of Wind and the Willows by Inga Moore

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Dame Judi Put Me To Shame

Dame Judi Put Me To Shame

She was all of seventy-eight when I saw her on stage.  Dame Judi Dench.  She is not a tall woman, yet when she strolled from the wings she seemed to fill the The Noel Coward Theatre with an unearthly light that soared through the silent air, coalescing somewhere near the opulent ceiling before gathering itself, turning, and focusing its glow entirely upon her diminutive frame.  One simply could not look anywhere else.  This was a new play, with long, emotional soliloquies delivered by Dame Judi in her role as the elderly Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  The play had some problems, but Dame Judi was magnificent.  The words she spoke could not have been buried in her memory like Shakespeare, ready to call up on a whim.  No, these were all new words and not only had she memorized them, she knew them so well as to imbue them with appropriate sensitivity and feeling.  She was Alice.  I was transfixed.

Angela Lansbury is currently on tour in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, never missing a beat, or a line, as she dances and prances across the stage as Madame Arcarti.   She is earning rave reviews wherever she goes.  She is eighty-nine.

Now, I do both the New York and Los Angeles Times crosswords every day.  I knit rather complicated patterns every night.  I read.  I write.  Yet when I witness the accomplishments of these two women, and others like them, I cringe at how little I challenge myself.  My soul, I doubt I could learn even one paragraph of the dense dialog Miss Dench preformed so effortlessly that Spring night I saw her in London.  Or could I?  Is there a challenge I could set for myself that might hone and sharpen the more indolent cells of my brain till they gleamed as brightly, well nearly, as hers?   And that’s when I thought about poetry.

How wonderful, how marvelous it would be to call up stanzas of great poetry whenever one wished.  Imagine if you will, a dull party, one where guests stand shoulder to shoulder with glasses of flat champagne in their hands, nodding politely at soporific conversation as they long to be home watching re-runs of Downton Abbey.  Imagine I slam down my drink, stride to the center of the room, hop gracefully atop a tufted ottoman and launch into a recitation of “Casey At The Bat”, in full-throated, confident voice…..

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, “Strike two!”

  All boredom now extinguished; the party crackles with fun till the wee hours.  

Or…. snowed in at an airport in Manchester, I spy a fidgety child on the verge of a meltdown.  I motion the tyke to my side, widen my eyes, lower my voice and begin…. 

“’Twas brillig, and the slithy roves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe,
 All mimsy were the borogoves, 
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

The Jabberwocky has been known to silence the most fractious of minds.  The child is awe-struck to the point of fright, but at least he’s quiet now. 

I could throw the words of Seamus Heaney in the face of the news of the day:
“History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme” 

Poetry has influenced my view of the world since childhood.  I sit by the window on stormy nights and Robert Louis Stevenson is at my side whispering, “Whenever the moon and stars are set, Whenever the wind is high, All night long in the dark and wet, A man goes riding by.  Late at night when the fires are out, Why does he gallop and gallop about?”.  Because of Dylan Thomas I see “wordy women and rows of star-gestured children in the park”.    Because of Mary Oliver I frequently ask myself “what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”. 

So, as a personal challenge, I have decided to memorize a favorite poem.  Choosing just one is a difficult task.  “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas is a favourite, as is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.  And of course, there’s always “Casey At The Bat”.  But these lines from Tennyson are calling my name.  What do you think?  Can I do it?
If Dame Judi can, well so can I. 
Read this out loud and think…. 
Care to join me?

“Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all:  but something ere the end, 
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes:  The slow moon climbs:  the deep
Moans round with many voices.  Come, my friends, 
“Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows;  for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, 
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made week by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

For more inspiration, try this book.