Monday, July 28, 2008

The Architecture of Happiness

What a welcome occurence when one finds a book in which, page after page, one’s own long held, though infrequently well-articulated, beliefs and feelings are validated. I have recently been immersed in such a book, head nodding affirmitively with each paragraph I read. The book is The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton. In it, Mr de Botton expertly articulates his belief that architecture, including design and decoration, can greatly influence the thoughts and feelings of people dwelling within. As someone whose moods are sensitive to my surroundings, I can now point to a wonderful reference on the subject. In one chapter, Mr. de Botton provides an illuminating example for his reader by sharing a personal experience of his own. Escaping a London shower one afternoon, he ducks into a McDonalds in which, surrounded by harsh lighting and plasticine interiors, he observes the behavior of the customers within. Later, he eloquently constrasts their behavior with that of those inside the cavernous, votive-lit Westminster Cathedral across the road, concluding that “the stonework threw into relief all that was compromised and dull, and kindled a yearning for one to live up to its perfections.”

I once stood inside the childhood bedroom of John Lennon at Mendips, his Liverpool home. Not grand, by any stretch of the definition, in fact it was tiny. But with its high ceilings and a gracious leaded glass bay window, it was a most magical room. I could easily picture the young Lennon as he lay on his twin sized bed looking out those beautiful casement windows at the stars, lost in his own imagination. Some thought had gone into the creation of this room. Some thought beyond mere function.

The British writer John Ruskin once said, “A good building must do two things. Firstly it must shelter us and secondly it must speak to us. And it must speak to us of all the things that are most important and that we need reminding of day to day.” Empirically speaking, our surroundings have great influence on our spirits. All this calls up weighty questions with conclusions that are likely far from objective. Questions such as “what is beauty?” and “how does the quality of our environment influence our happiness, our ennui, or our misery?” But I don’t believe these questions to be frivolous. I find them fascinating.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Sea Fever

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

John Masefield

English Poet Laureate 1930-1967

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Story Of Apple

I have been getting requests for photos and information about Edward’s best friend and housemate, the illustrious Apple. Fellow dog-lover, Susan, over at 29blackstreet was especially enthusiastic in her desire to make Apple's acquaintance and wondered if we were keeping her under wraps for a reason! Actually, truth be told, Apple is more my husband’s furry shadow plus, being black as night and always on the go, she is more than a bit difficult to photograph. But rest assured, she is a sweet and beautiful girl, and we are fiercely proud of her.

When Edward came to live with us, he was just under one year old. We enrolled him in a training class, mainly for socialization purposes, and noticed immediately how much he loved the off-leash playtime with all the other dogs. He would run around this big indoor arena, batting dogs with his front paws, jumping and rolling with utter glee. We had always been a one dog household, but seeing this we knew what we would have to do. Get Edward a friend. So, the search began. We found Apple at the same rescue shelter as Edward. She had been born at animal control and the shelter had rescued her mother and siblings from there, fostering the puppies until they were old enough to be adopted out. We arrived at the shelter just before closing on a cold adoption day in March. Apple was the last of the puppies left from her family, and I was allowed to hold her. Cashmere soft fur, extravagant ears, and jumbo sized paws, with a snow white bit of fur on her chest and chin. I ask, what would you have done? We brought Edward in to meet her and Apple was totally enthralled by him. She bonded immediately with Edward, who rode home with her as if he’d known her all his young life. While cooking dinner that night, I turned around to see both dogs asleep on the kitchen floor, Apple’s little ebony head on Edward’s big white paw. They have been the best of friends ever since.

The photo above was taken when she was four months old and enjoying sitting in my lap at my rather messy desk. Now that she is grown, Apple appears to be some sort of amalgamation of sheepdog materials with a soupcon of terrier added to the mix. She has a copious, glorious coat and has conveniently grown to be the same size as Edward. She is a dog that is always curious, always cheerful. She never goes anywhere at a stroll, she is always moving at a trot, or running full out, with something definite on her mind. She sleeps on her back and loves green beans. We adore her. It is such a treat to watch Edward and Apple play together, nap together, eat together, go on trips with us together, and challenge the garden squirrels together.
We will never be a one dog household again.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Arts and Entertainment

A rollicking conversation took place in my family room few nights ago. My favorite cousin and his wife were in town for a visit and we were all discussing recent movies we’d seen, each person offering up their own critiques. It seemed that one after another, my favorite movies of the past year were on the “most hated” list of my cousin’s wife, a fact which we all found completely funny. I thought Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in There Will Be Blood was one of the most fascinating portraits of narcissistic greed ever captured in any art form. And, to me there could not be a better illustration of the truth, “the love of money is the root of all evil”, than that contained in No Country For Old Men. But to her, these were movies to be endured, not enjoyed. She wanted happy endings, and I had to concede, these had none. Laughingly we talked about the differences in what we seek from movies. She wanted entertainment, and I wanted illumination. She looked for happily ever after, I looked for truth. Now, before I portray myself as a brooding old bluestocking, dark and devoid of humor or fun, let me be the first to admit that I love a light, happy story as much as anyone. Babe is on my top ten list, Harvey the white pooka, pictured above with his friend Elwood P. Dowd, is quite real to me, and The Wizard of Oz changed my life as a child. However, while I will buy my ticket to see beautiful Meryl in Mamma Mia , I am waiting with bated breath to see her in the upcoming film version of the play, Doubt. I will enjoy both, I am sure, but the latter will more likely be the one I carry with me and ponder for days to come.

It’s amazing how many movies are released every month, every year. Incredible really, when you think of the money and time involved in each. But how many actually leave us with something to take home? Ideas, truths, revelations of ourselves and the world around us, controversies to argue over. Film is a powerful art form, and truly great acting is such a transcendent thing. Compare the performance of Dame Judi Dench in Ladies in Lavender with the one in Notes on a Scandal, for example. How does she do that? To create such complete portraits of two such diametrically opposed characters and to do it so believably. One doesn’t see her acting, she has become the women in the stories so completely. The first heartbreaking, the other diabolical, but both amazingly real. How is it that the aftorementioned Meryl Streep could have followed up Sophie’s Choice with Silkwood? Or, gorgeously sexy Helen Mirren could actually morph seamlessly into Queen Elizabeth II? It just fascinates me. The true art found in these performances is, to me, that they allow us to see into the lives of other people and, in turn, see better into ourselves and how we fit into the sphere of humanity. Little Miss Sunshine was so funny to me because it was so painfully true. Each character was someone I knew in one way or another.

Ah well, it seems my sweet cousin-in-law is in for more of these art versus entertainment conversations, as her eldest son is currently studying for a career in film-making. However, I can’t think about that now, I’m off to an afternoon showing of Batman!
Oh, but do share some of your favorite recent films, won’t you?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Good Luck Charms and Memories

There is an antique copy of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy that resides on a table in my bedroom. It is green cloth with gold lettering and it is filled, three or four to a page, with four-leaf clovers. Inexplicably, and through no fault of my own, I have always been able to easily find four-leaf clovers. Without trying. I just look down, or over, or yon, and there is one looking back at me. This happens when I’m lolling about my back garden, it happens when I’m visiting someone else’s back garden, when I’m just strolling along or when I’m running with Edward. I just seem to glance to the side and, voila, a four-leaf clover. I stop, pluck it, put it in my pocket, and later place it with the others in my green book. I have done this for many years, and now the book is stuffed with these little symbols of green good luck. Growing up, I never considered this to be an unusual thing but later others began to tell me that it was, indeed, not exactly the norm.

Once, whilst visiting my husband’s uncle, this little peculiarity of mine became a bit of a problem. Uncle Rob was well into his nineties and had always lived on the same piece of daffodil covered land in a quirky little rock house that he had built himself. Most of the world’s so-called progress had eluded him and he quite preferred it that way. His ideas were old ones and he remained a contented part of an earlier mindset and a simpler time. On this particular sunny afternoon, my husband and I were up in Uncle Rob’s back garden having a visit. While the gentlemen conversed I was sort of daydreaming and gazing around. Sure enough, I looked down and spied, per usual, a four-leaf clover. I picked it and handed it over to Uncle Rob. He was delighted. “Would you look at that! That’s a lucky girl!” Well, they continued to talk and, once again, I looked to the side and... you guessed it. When I handed this one to the old man, his reaction was a bit more muted, still excited but... I thought he might have looked at me, well, a little funny, but figured it was just the light or my imagination. Well, by the time I handed over the fifth one, my husband was vigorously shaking his head at me from behind his uncle, and Uncle Rob was most certainly looking at me differently than anyone had ever looked at me before. A sidelong narrow-eyed stare, as if he’d heard about people like me in his time, but had never before seen one in the flesh.
I think from that day on, he was never exactly certain whether or not I was capable of turning him into a badger, and he wasn’t about to find out.

Uncle Rob has been gone several years now and we all miss him. A few days ago, I stopped in front of what used to be his homeplace. There are luxury condos there now. No leafy trees, no daffodils, no four-leaf clovers. Yet, I can close my eyes and see them all clearly. I am grateful for that. Just as I am grateful for my Peter Pan book full of
good luck charms and memories.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Good Boy

I woke before the morning, I was happy all the day,
I never said an ugly word, but smiled and stuck to play.

And now at last the sun is going down behind the wood,
And I am very happy, for I know that I've been good.

My bed is waiting cool and fresh, with linen smooth and fair,
And I must be off to sleepsin-by, and not forget my prayer.

I know that, till to-morrow I shall see the sun arise,
No ugly dream shall fright my mind, no ugly sight my eyes.

But slumber hold me tightly till I waken in the dawn,
And hear the thrushes singing in the lilacs round the lawn.

Robert Louis Stevenson

“It’s almost like he knows me!”

Monday, July 14, 2008

If you are cast in a different mould to the majority,
it is no merit of yours:
Nature did it.
Charlotte Bronte

I was a Bronte girl. In the bookworm years of my youth, one was either a Bronte girl or an Austen girl, and I was enough of a dreamer to fall solidly into the first camp. The wild, romantic visions of Emily and Charlotte caught my fancy early on and held me firmly in their grasp. My more pragmatic friends continually extolled the virtues and sagacity of Jane, but I preferred to wander on the windswept moors of the Bronte’s gothic imagination. As I grew older, bit by bit, the quite remarkable wisdom of Miss Austen began to gradually reveal itself to me. The more people I encountered, the more experiences I garnered, the wiser she seemed to become. How did a two hundred year old spinster author know so much about humankind today? As I considered her characters I began to realize that they actually appeared to be prototypes of every sort of individual walking around. That person? “Oh, he’s certainly a Mr. Knightley”. And that one? “Exactly the same characteristics of a Colonel Brandon, don’t you agree?” And who among us hasn’t known an Elizabeth or a Marianne or, God help us, a Mrs. Bennet or Mr. Collins, maybe even a Willoughby? By contrast, while they certainly are enduring characters, it is perhaps less possible we have encountered a Heathcliff, a Cathy, a Grace Poole, or a Bertha Mason in our time, nor, I would guess, would we wish to. Indeed, upon a re-reading of Wuthering Heights this past Spring, the once achingly romantic Heathcliff now seemed just a trifle, dare I say, unhinged?

This past weekend, I was fortunate to attend the inaugural meeting of a brand new Jane Austen book club. As I listened to the thoughts of those present on the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the inhabitants of the land of Austen, I was impressed once again by the singular insight and prescient wisdom she possessed in her understanding of humankind. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. After all , we were told in Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun. The way we were is the way we are, and Jane makes this clear. The plan for this new club is to read the entire canon of Austen, and I look forward to revisiting these books at this time in my life. I know I will gain new insight, both on myself and on those around me. It should be a fascinating journey.

But still, no doubt, on some upcoming blustery autumn night, you may find me once more up on the moors above Thornfield Hall, with my hood up, my cape billowing behind me in the wind and Pilot by my side.
Once a Bronte girl, always a Bronte girl.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Nearly Forgotten Pleasures of Driving Alone

By myself, coming home from an out of state visit to a dear friend. Four hour sunset drive. Moonroof open wide. Technicolor sunset on view. Cool drink by my side. Ipod happily shuffling. Vivaldi and Petula Clark. Nat, Ella and and Bach. Cell phone volume down, music volume up. Way up. Feeling removed from responsibility, unreachable, free.

Arriving home to three smiling furry faces? Priceless.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Personal Style

I keep this photo on my desk. Apart from the fact that I find it utterly charming, it reminds me of something. It reminds me that some things cannot be taught. They just are. In this particular case, personal style is the concept I’m thinking of. This little girl had it, obviously, and at a very early age. It was something innate. One can see it in the supremely relaxed confidence of that stance, in the way she is wearing those clothes, in that serene stare, aimed like a rapier at the camera pointed her way. She is unique.

There is something wonderful about unique style. I’m not thinking of taste here. Taste can develop, be honed by study, by travel, by an appreciation of, and exposure to, beauty. But true uniqueness of style is often something simply inexplicable. It just is. Think of Diana Vreeland, or Georgia O’Keefe. One didn’t necessarily see their style emerging, transforming itself to the whims of the public or the trends of the day. Their style was their style, always, be it popular or not. Ah, it’s a rare thing, especially in our increasingly cookie-cutter world. Rare, and timeless, for someone in possession of a unique personal style retains that possession no matter their age. It was, it is , it remains. Yes, truly a wonderful thing.

Oh, and the little girl in the photograph? No doubt you recognize her, but just in case you don’t, she is Jacqueline Bouvier, who grew up to be Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Summer Cold

In the opening scene of the classic film, The Philadelphia Story, the divine Cary Grant cups his hand over the face of the equally divine Katharine Hepburn and unceremoniously pushes her to the ground. In a figurative sense, and minus the divinity of either Cary or Katharine, that is exactly what happened to me on Friday. I was pushed to the ground by that bane of the holiday months, the summer cold. Now to be sure, colds are nasty little fiends anytime, but it seems the summer ones are worst. The small comforts that are afforded one by the winter cold - the hot soups, the warm blankets, the fleecy robes - well, those just seem frightfully uncomfortable in the hot heat of a fourth of July weekend.
Unsuspecting, and with my guard down, I suppose, I quite suddenly noticed the tell-tale signs on Thursday night. The oh, so prophetic scratchy throat. Sure enough, by Friday, I had begun to feel as if there were little weights around my ankles and wrists along with invisible hands persistently pushing down on my shoulders, and there was no doubt as to what was in store for my next couple of days. Grateful that no serious
responsibilities lay whinging on my doorstep for the weekend, I decided to take the advice I would give to someone else, and rest. So, I donned my favorite pair of white cotton men’s pajamas, complete with my monogram on the pocket, I put my hair up, fluffed up my feather bed, and crawled between lavender scented sheets. With a vase full of gardenias on the bedside table, and Edward keeping solemn watch, and frequently dozing, by my side. For his part, the devoted Edward did not mind a couple of quiet days, it is too hot outside for his liking anyway.
I can report that there are certainly worse things than drifting hazily in and out of sleep for a day or so. And the prescription seems have worked like a charm, for I do feel so much better.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

"Let us at all times remember that all American citizens are brothers of a common country, and should dwell together in bonds of fraternal feeling."
Abraham Lincoln

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

When twilight drops her curtain down
And pins it with a star
Remember that you have a friend
Though she may wander far.
Lucy Maud Montgomery


I spent this clear summer day at a photo shoot, in a quaintly picturesque little Southern town. The shoot took place in a perfectly preserved circa 1895 grade school, and one of my oldest friends was the talented photographer in charge. As she worked, I wandered through the beautiful old building, poking my head in rooms where only time separated me from the little students once sitting there. I thought of my own time as a little girl in school, a school not dissimilar to this one. Wide polished wood floors, high, high ceilings, gracefully tall open windows just made for staring through, lost in daydream.. Being in that setting, and being with my old friend, caused me to contemplate just how important these sort of touchstones are in one’s life. Places you can return to, and friends that you can be with, that remind you who you are. Who you really are. Deep down. When you spend time with a friend such as this, it is restorative. There is an ease of conversation emanating from a shared history, a finishing of each other’s sentences, comfortable companionable silences, and the salubrious joy of being understood without effort. That type of friendship, I’ve found, is harder when one get’s older. Perhaps we tend to grow a little more guarded with age. But if you are blessed, as I am, with an old friend, I wish you a clear summer day like mine and a chance to appreciate that friendship anew.

(And, in the spirit of new friendships, Edward and I received a very sweet award from the lovely lady at South Africa’s
Thatchwick Cottage. She tapped us both for the Arte Y Pico award and we are both honored. She has requested that we pass this award on to some of our friends and I have allowed Edward to made these selections. It does appears his choices have a bit of a theme.
Edward encourages you to visit his friends, Talulla at
Cupcakes at Home, Sunny and Celeste at A Bag of Olives,Tanner at Wonders Never Cease, Trudy at Just a Plane Ride Away, and Cooper at KatieDid.)