During my life here on earth there have been few artists who have spoken to me as eloquently as Leonard Cohen. His words wove themselves into a language only my soul could understand, often denying me the ability to adequately articulate their unique meaning for to do so would have been equal to translating words only recognized by the heart. In a prescient move that seemed to underscore the title of his only just released collection of songs, You Want it Darker, Leonard Cohen shook off the bonds of this world the day after the US election. (The wisest woman of my acquaintance beat him by one day.) And darker seems to be what we are destined to experience. For an artist whose observations had illuminated the vicissitudes of our culture for decades, perhaps what we currently prepare to face was simply more than God felt he should have to endure. Leonard Cohen’s work was done. Ours is just beginning.
With each new henchman nominated to the cabinet of our new president-elect it becomes clearer that the values I hold dear will be under ridicule and peril over the next four years. A known darling of white supremacists is now the chief presidential strategist. We have a prospective Secretary of Energy who has voiced his desire to abolish that department entirely. A possible Secretary of Education who is famously no fan of public education and a choice for Attorney General whose racist views denied him a judgeship in the past. Up for Secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency is a man who scoffs at the idea of climate change and our nominee for Secretary of State is the president of Exxon Mobile, a man impoverished in foreign policy experience but rich in oil negotiations, particularly with Russia. It is now been proven by the CIA, FBI and the State Department that Russia influenced our election process to favor our new president-elect. This fact is made even more frightening in the face of such nonchalant response from the same people who handled Mrs. Clinton’s innocuous emails as though each was still burning with hellfire itself. It does not take much awareness to know that if the situation were reversed and Russia had successfully aided Mrs. Clinton the blowback from Congress and their talk radio pals would have been strong enough to sandblast the faces off Mt. Rushmore. At what point does hypocrisy become evil?
By most anyone’s estimation this had been a dreadful year. We have lost far too many bright lights to count. Harper Lee, Prince, David Bowie, Zaha Hadid, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Sir George Martin, John Glenn - just a small mention of everyone who left us. New words entered our vocabulary: Zika, Brexit, Aleppo. We gaped as dignity, intelligence and grace were kicked to the curb in our embarrassing presidential election. We mourned with those in Nice and Paris. And in the midst of it all we wrestled with a frustrating sense of impotence in the face of each new horror, each new pain. For what can one person do, really, in the face of a chaos that threatens to obliterate every goodness it can find.
This weekend we celebrate the birth of Christ, a birth that was illuminated by a star of great light. A star of hope. In an interview this week Michelle Obama said, “Hope is necessary. What else do you have if you don’t have hope? What do you give your children if you can’t give them hope?" Indeed, Christmas has always been about hope. Hope of a new world, a new birth - hope of forgiveness, love, and comfort. It is that hope that puts my feet on the ground each morning with a continued determination to do what I can, however small and insignificant it may seem, to foster beauty and kindness in the world around me, to share a bit of the hope announced by that long ago star .
In my book of essays, From the House of Edward, there is a piece I wrote one cold night during a Christmas season several years ago when I couldn’t sleep. Sitting beside a twinkling Christmas tree as the last embers of a fire dwindled down in the grate I looked out my frost-rimmed window and felt as though my little fir-scented home was as removed from the ugliness of the world as those storybook cottages that sit, forever serene, inside a snow globe. This year I feel that way more than ever. It is from home that I take my strength to face the world around me. Inside these walls it is cheery, loving and warm. There is respect, kindness and laughter. A favorite light is always on in the window, a light that glows in the darkness when I pull in the drive in the evening and, like the great star before it, it gives me hope, for I know inside those doors I’ll find much needed nourishment for my soul.
May we all look to that star of hope this Christmas season. May it give us what we need to fight the good fight in the coming year; the fight for goodness, truth, love, and compassion. And may all my wonderful readers have a Merry, Merry Christmas as we march into a new year with the determination such hope provides.
The line of traffic stretched out in front of me as far as my eye could see, a long curving garland of red brake lights twinkling in the cold rain. A rather macabre Christmas decoration, but I see Christmas everywhere just now. I’m early this year. My gifts are wrapped and those that needed to be mailed have been mailed. The fudge is made and some of it has already been delivered. The cards have been addressed and are winging their way across the world as we speak. (You can peek into Christmas at The House of Edward on our Instagram page.) But don’t be cross with me; it’s a rare thing for me to be completely at my leisure with two whole weeks still to go before Christmas, and for those of you with a bit more shopping to do…. here are a dozen goodies you can still grab up before the deadline.
Just click on the picture and it’s all nearly done.
Ideally, there should be snow. Not enough to make the way treacherous, for again, ideally, we’ll be walking, but enough to sugar dust the holly bushes and dance in the street light’s glow. The windows of our destination should be atmospherically lit and, not unlike those of a sweet shop, designed and arranged with an artist’s eye to colour and shape. We should linger there in the falling snow before we reach for the door.
There should be a bell on the door. It should announce our arrival, not with the harsh clank of a cow’s pendant, but with a sound more akin to a fairy’s laugh. There should be wooden floors, old and weathered wooden floors on which decades of shoppers have wandered through the aisles lost in contented concentration. We should come up on a sleeping dog in a niche behind non-fiction and a large Persian cat should brush against our leg in cookery.
The proprietor should be older, slightly mussed, with half-moon glasses perched on his nose and his knitted waistcoat haphazardly buttoned. He should greet us warmly, though a tad absentmindedly. He should also, like a soothsayer, know instinctively if we are in need of the perfect suggestion.
There should not be a cafe, nor should music be played over some tinny central speaker. There should be a small radio underneath the counter, softly playing Bach, so softly the music seems to come from our own heads, unheard by others, the soundtrack to our own serenity.
And the books we find should be perfect. So many that we start a small stack on the counter, the bespectacled owner nodding to himself each time we add another. There should be books to teach and remind. Books to lose oneself inside. Books to take us on journeys impossible without the written word, with power to spirit us back in time, witnesses to history. Their words should help us stand like a tree in the troubled present. Through them, we should dream, we should remember, we should escape.
Each book should be wrapped in brown paper, tied with a red and white string, and placed in two large paper sacks. The proprietor should give us a peppermint as we leave. We should wish each other the compliments of the season. The sound of fairy’s laughter should ring in our ears as we close the door behind us and head through the falling snow to the cafe on the corner where we would meet someone handsome and bearded for a hot chocolate and a bit of holiday cheer.
Ideally, this should be Christmas shopping.
Here’s a list of recommendations for 2016. Some of these I’ve read, some I’ve yet to read. Some are older, some just published. Some are perfect for gifts, some are to keep for yourself. And one I wrote myself. The first line of each is included and, as always, click on the book to find out more.
by Ann Patchett
“The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.”
2.Being a Dog:
Following the Dog Into a World of Smell
by Alexandra Horowitz
“Finnegan’s is ebony black, moist and dappled, two cavernous bass clefs at its front.”
3.Edward Speaks at Midnight
by Pamela Terry
“It was Christmas Eve and Edward, the big white dog, was underneath the piano, his head resting atop his furry paws.”
by Ben Pentreath
“Charlie and I live above the trees in an ancient, leafy London square.”
5.The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood
“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”
by Mary Oliver
“In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed.”
7. Cecil Beaton At Home
by Andrew Ginger
“Taste breaks out of all rules; as soon as it is pigeon-holed it is dead.”
8.The Moon Before Morning
by W. S. Merwin
“The sky said I am watching
to see what you
can make out of nothing.”
9.The Road to Character
by David Brooks
“On Sunday evenings my local NPR stations rebroadcasts old radio programs.”
by Ian McEwan
“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”
11.Hitler: Volume I: Ascent 1889-1939
by Volker Ullrich
“The fellow is a catastrophe, but that’s no reason not to find him interesting as a personality and destiny” wrote Thomas Mann in his essay, Brother Hitler, adding that no none should feel ‘above dealing with this murky figure.”
by Alice Hoffman
“In February, when the snow comes down hard, little globes of light are left along Route 110, on the side of the road that slopes off when a driver least expects it.”
13. The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead
“Jockey’s birthday only came once or twice a year.”
14. H is for Hawk
by Helen MacDonald
“Forty-five minutes northeast of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much.”
15. Mad Enchantment
Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies
by Ross King "Where is Clemenceau?"
by Michelle Nussbaumer and Hutton Wilkinson
“When my husband asked my father for my hand in marriage, my father said yes, but with a caveat, ‘as long as you don’t ever take my daughter away.”
by Amy Liptrot
“On my first day back I shelter beside an old freezer, down by some stinging nettles, and watch the weather approach over the sea.”
18. Literary Wonderlands:
A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created
by Laura Miller, Lev Grossman, John Sutherland and Tom Shippey
from Everyman's Pocket Classics
“There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest.”
Eoghain and Pamela, In the hills above Elgol, Isle of Skye, Scotland
A Handmade Life
The journey here (for journey is what one must call it) takes about an hour and a half, and though the scenery is stunning (stunning is the only word) I am questioned repeatedly about the veracity of my directions.Mountains rise before us, craggy and imposing, their steep sides plunging into lochs and sea.We drive through drizzle, rain, and sunshine all in the span of an hour.As we near the edge of the island I spot a small sign and we turn, pointing our car upwards where, looking down, we spot a tiny cluster of white houses clinging to a hillside overlooking the sea.We see a gate and I hop out to open it.The Songwriter drives through, I close the gate and climb back inside.There is a tiny car park underneath berry-laden bushes.We make our way down a vertical drive and turn the corner to spot three hobbit-sized cottages, one of which bears the sign we’ve been looking for:Skye Weavers.
In this remote place, far removed from everything commerce is expected to require, we find some of the most gorgeous woven goods one could imagine, all created by a man on a bicycle. Roger gets up each morning, leaves his lovely cottage and walks several feet into his loom shed where he climbs aboard the bicycle that powers his handmade loom and from this perch he creates some glorious things, pedaling all the day. Shawls and scarves, blankets and gentlemen’s ties - each one a temptation impossible to resist. Roger’s wife, Andrea, designs these treasures with a artist’s eye for colour and Roger weaves them, expertly. Another tiny shed serves as the shop, a textural candy store where stacks of beautifully coloured items are arranged and displayed.
“We inherited the cottage”, says Roger. “It was our dream to make a living doing what we loved, but we didn’t know if that was possible this far away from everything. But believe it or not, we’re doing alright. The internet helps, of course. It’s kind of amazing how many people find us out here.”
After making several needful purchases and being allowed to “drive” the loom for awhile - a thrill - we reluctantly left Roger and his wife on their idyllic hillside. But their story has stayed with me, underlined as it was by other couples we met in the Scottish Hebrides this past September.
Meet Clare and Iain, proprietors of our favorite tiny inn on Skye, Coruisk House. Both successful lawyers in London, they followed their dream to one of the most glorious spots on earth several years ago, rescued an old house and transformed it into a lovely destination. Here Iain indulges his guests with incredible meals each night and Clare bakes irresistible bread, watches the details and makes everyone welcome. Along with their black lab, Reggie, they are intoxicatingly happy, one can tell.
There are the weavers on the Isle of Harris, each one an artist of the highest order. From garden sheds and back rooms dotted all over the island they weave their intricately beautiful fabrics for internationally known Harris Tweed. There is the couple who own Skye Pies, a tiny whitewashed cottage on the north end of the Isle of Skye where the line for lunch stretches halfway through the garden before they even open and where you can eat, truly, the most delectable pie you could possibly imagine, sweet or savoury. All around the cafe are baskets of knitting and tools for embroidery for diners to pick up and continue. The place positively crackles with creativity. Then there are our good friends, Francis and Eoghain, living in paradise on a hillside on Skye, with no television or computer and no desire for either. Each night they climb the hill to look out over the Black Cullins towards Loch Coruisk where, as Eoghain whispered to me when he took me up there, “The mountains are ebony and the water is silver.” (See the photo above.)
Since retuning home from Scotland I have thought a lot about the life these people have fashioned for themselves. Hard work, really hard work, is no stranger to these people. But each of them radiates utter peace and contentment, qualities so often elusive to modern life. Their values run counter to the values most commonly prized; none of them would wish for a golden tower. But oh, what bliss they’ve created. What joy to be found in the handmade quality of their lives.
It is disconcerting that one of the most beautiful of words, Thanksgiving, is this week to be followed by that most mercenary of sobriquets, Black Friday. Let others fill the shopping malls and crowd the highway lanes. I may not live on a Scottish hillside, yet, but as best I can, I have molded my own handmade life right here at The House of Edward. My friends will receive bits of love woven into their presents this Christmas, baked or knitted, written or wrapped. It is possible even today, even here in a metropolis, to turn from the media’s definition of success, joke that it is, and embrace those activities that feed our souls. Mulled wine nights by the fireside, with dreaming dogs dozing at our feet and good books in our hands. Long walks in the crisp air. Happy conversations over delicious dinners. The wrapping of gifts that mean as much for us to give as they will for those who unwrap them. Music in place of news. Joy in place of worry. Contentment in place of stress. For some of us, this may be hard work, really hard work. But the rewards, I assure you, far exceed any amount of effort.
As Christmas approaches, the elves at Wild Bouquet Press are busy sending out orders for Edward Speaks at Midnight. A truly handmade effort and one that both Edward and I are immensely proud of. Beautifully illustrated, it is a window into our own Christmas here at The House of Edward and I hope it will find its way underneath many trees this year.
Writer, Interior Designer, Baker, Knitter, Gardener, devoted to Beauty.. on the journey through life along with her big white furry wonderful dog... living in the American South and dreaming of the Scottish Highlands