Monday, May 28, 2012

Under the Protection of Trees

Under the Protection of Trees
All day long they had stretched out their boughs to an azure sky, green and blue mingling to create an aquamarine sea in the air all around us.  Light from a golden sun dripped down like honey through leaves slowly waving in an afternoon breeze.  It was a day made for May, a near perfect creation with nary a hint of drama nor fear.
The darkening of the sky was imperceptible at first, a mere triviality this close to nightfall.  The wind remained in the wings until the very last moment, when it suddenly rushed on stage as in act three of Lear, coaxing ominous tunes from the wind chimes as it whipped round the garden, an invisible portent of the chaos to come.  The old trees took notice.  Before our eyes they seemed to grow taller, every sprig and spray of green burgeoning, billowing, to link arms with each other over our roof.  Like eagle’s wings they covered us as the hail began to fall.  
Blown in by the theatrical wind, it crashed into our garden with a deafening sound, an artillery of ice as unusual as it was destructive.  The floor of the garden turned white, a macabre snowfall on the doorstep of summer.  For at least twenty minutes it continued to fall as we stood at the window as helpless as kittens.  And then, like a dream, it was over.
As an otherworldly fog rose up from the icy ground, like Dorothy on arrival in Oz, we stepped out our door, expecting to see the garden in ruins. 
 But the hydrangea blossoms were smiling.
  The rose was untouched. 
 The yellow petunias, crystal-fragile and translucent, still cascaded over the stone planters, as fresh and unspoiled as morning.  We looked up at the trees - the magnolia, the poplar, the pine and the oak - our giant sentinels, our protectors - and not for the first time, we nodded our thanks. 
The hailstorm of last week was an unusual one.  It lasted much longer than any we’ve ever experienced and gave us a violent pounding that caused me to put my fingers in my ears.  We got out afterwards to look round the neighbourhood.  The streets were covered in pine needles and thick with a fog unlike any we’ve seen.  The ground was white.  Most gardens had a good deal of destruction, but our big trees broke the fall of the ice and we escaped any damage.  
One more reason to love them. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Exotic Marigolds

Exotic Marigolds

My love of Scotland, and Britain in general, is such that whenever I board a plane with my passport in my pocket, it is usually headed in that direction.  Delightfully, my general appearance - pale skin, blonde hair, light eyes - grants me passage as a local most of the time, at least until I open my mouth, thus allowing the escape of a faint hint of a southern accent, an accent that I myself am totally unaware of but which, apparently, others can detect at twenty paces.  Even then, when my accent reveals me as an outsider, Edinburgh cab drivers still ask me over for tea upon finding out my mother was a MacDonald.  I’ve been stopped on a London street by lost tourists inquiring the best route to the British Museum and was once, during the presidency of George Bush Jr., included in an amusing “can you believe these Americans” conversation with an elderly gentleman one rainy afternoon outside Holyrood Castle. 
Nothing is sweeter than disappearing into the everyday life of another country.  It’s truly the best way to experience travel, at least for me.  However, after spending two hours in India on Saturday, that may be about to change. I had such a wonderful trip.  Of course it would have been, for I had some charming traveling companions.  Bill Nighy, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith.  Yes, I went to see the new movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and now I want to go again.  I also think I want to go to India, even though I would most certainly not fit in as I seem to do in Britain.  Locals would pick me out in a nanosecond.  The heat might cause me to swoon and I would, no doubt, get woozy riding backwards in a tuk tuk.  
But, still.
  I want to go.
I want to see the colours of India.  Yellows and oranges unlike any on the colour wheels of my experience.
  I want to stroll down a dusty road alongside a grey elephant. 
 I want to see camels waiting curbside like taxis.
 I want to stand knee deep in marigolds the colour of fire.
 I want to hear unusual sounds, stare into smiling black eyes, drink strange tea.
  I want to wear a blue sari.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a wise little film.  In eloquent fashion, it tells us that life, though indeed short, never loses its capacity for adventure but that we can, by living a life of negativity and fear, lose our own.  And what a sad state that is.  If we turn away from beauty often enough, we soon cease to see it at all.  If we plod through our days with our ideas chiseled in stone - eyes shut, ears closed - our lives slowly evaporate down into something hard, something cold.  Life is, at least to my eyes, so full of beauty and serendipity my only worry is how to stretch my arms wide enough to contain it all.  
So yes, now I want to go to India. 
 And if Bill Nighy, or you, want to come along.... more’s the better for me.
Here’s the guidebook I’m buying!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Farewell to Wilf

Farewell to Wilf

At three twenty-two this morning I was awakened by a slow rocking motion not unlike the swaying of a boat tied up to the dock in a placid river.  A pleasant dream and one I was in no hurry to vacate.  However, as the motion continued, growing increasingly more emphatic, I opened my eyes to find  myself staring, not at sun-dappled ripples of water, but straight into a pair of almond shaped eyes the colour of chestnuts, eyes that stared deeply into my own from barely three inches away.  It was Edward, his big furry paw placed on the side the bed just at my chin, pushing insistently, over and over, for my attention.  Most unusual for a dog known to be a sound and serious sleeper.  Raising myself up on one elbow, I reached over to scratch his head.  His fluffy tail, which had begun its jubilant rotations the moment I’d opened my eyes, now reached its full and usual speed.
“What is it?”, I asked.
No reply.

Slipping out of bed, I crept over to the windowseat and pulled back the lace curtain to gaze out at the garden.  Edward jumped up to sit beside me.  The mammoth moon of May was waning now, layers of honeyed light dripping down through the trees to settle on the white hydrangeas and white roses, making them glow.  White petunias spilled out over the old stone pots like milk and silver shadows were unfurled beneath the pines.  

I didn’t ask myself if Edward knew about Wilf.  Did he perhaps sense my heavy heart as I thought about that dear family deep in the heart of France, so many miles from our door?  Or does his knowledge of the unseen and unknowable far exceed my own?  These being questions I’ll never answer this side of the veil, I was content just to sit gazing out at the exquisite night with my big wise dog by my side.
In the morning when I learned of Wilf’s passing, I could not stop myself wondering.  In the bits of gleaming white that adorned my back garden this morning at three, could some of them have been, just perhaps, the shadow of a little polish sheepdog, his fur the colour of moonlight itself, on his way past the stars? 
 Did Edward wake me to say farewell?

For those of you unfamiliar with my favourite blog, do pay a visit to dear Angus today.  Wilf laughed at his dire diagnosis and lived, fully and delightfully, for an entire year and eight months longer than he was supposed to.  His long, happy journey now ended, I know his devoted Angus would appreciate a kind word or two from my sweet, generous readers.  You may find him HERE.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Summer Books and Where to Read Them

Summer Books and Where to Read Them
The date of June 3rd is filed away in my head, brightly circled in red.  No, I am not attending a fancy dress dinner that night.  I do not have a dentist’s appointment, and no house guests are expected that weekend, at least none that I know of at present.  So what is the significance of June 3rd, you may ask?  Well, that’s the day the New York Times publishes their deliciously fat, irresistibly tempting, Summer Reading issue of the Book Review.  And I cannot wait. 
For a satisfying summer reading program, it is vital to match the book with the setting.  No one wants to read Ethan Frome at the beach, for instance. With its harsh landscape, buried in snow, that book is best savoured in the grey days of winter.  And as for The Snow Child, the charming book I mentioned a few months ago, it’s a much better fit for a January day.    But summer.  Ah, summer is different.   The books of summer must be carefully chosen, must fit perfectly in the setting in which they are read.  We take them along on our summer holidays, those few lazy, languid weeks just meant for floating along on a breeze.  They go with us the the beach, carried along in bright cotton totes.  They lie open across our chests as we doze, swaying slowly back and forth in a hammock. 
 Just the phrase, Summer Reading, calls up images of....
 Long, sand-scuffed porches with tall rocking chairs facing out towards a crashing blue sea... 
Plump cotton cushions piled high on a sunny windowseat....  
A row of weathered suitcases lined up by the car, holding scores of new books  tucked around white linen trousers and sun hats.... 
 An extravagant four-poster dressed all in white in a room with bay windows where just outside a July thunderstorm is raging.  Mysteries are stacked high on the night table, their colourful spines lit every now and then by a flash of summer lightning.
Oh yes, one must choose carefully for settings such as these.  So, to do my bit in aiding this process, I’m jumping a couple of weeks ahead of the Times and sharing some of the books I highly recommend for this summer.  Some of these I’ve read and some I cannot wait to read, and all are paired with the most sublime settings in which to read them.  I hope this may entice you to perhaps begin your own summer reading list soon!  June will be here before we can blink.
Oh and do tell me one I’ve forgotten.   
I do love your reading suggestions, too!

The rest of the family has gone kayaking,
 their voices are slowly evaporating in the salt sprinkled air as they drift away.
 But you, quite wisely, have opted for a late morning on the bedroom windowseat, the window open wide to catch the breeze sailing in from the sea, just visible beyond the green marshes.  You sit with your chin resting on your palm, trying to decide between these books.
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
A wonderful book to get lost inside.  You’ll travel from Scotland to England, from Malaya to Australia and never be bored for one second.  A well-deserved classic.  
Binocular Vision, the stories of Edith Pearlman
Highly recommended, one of my own new purchases for summer.  Can’t wait to start these.
What There is to Say We Have Said:
 The Correspondence Between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell.
Entertaining and illuminating letters between two great American writers.  I’m in the middle of this one now and love it.
On my own list, to be released on July 24th.

The Ile Saint-Louis is just as wonderful as she told you it would be.
  Why haven’t you come here sooner? All morning you’ve wandered down the winding streets, stopping here for strawberries, there for a huge bouquet of white lilacs.  An extravagance, you know, but they do smell so delicious in this gorgeous room.  You are ever so grateful to your friend for lending you her apartment while she’s in Africa for the month.  One whole month here, alone.  Days and days that stretch out before you like a silk ribbon.  Leaning out of the window you smile as your hear the laughter rising up from the cafe down below.  You pour a glass of pink lemonade and walk to the bookcase.  So many to choose from!......  Will it be.....
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
I actually read this book last summer, but it was such a perfect book for a holiday read I had to mention it, particularly as it’s just out in paperback.  Patchett’s imagination is ambitious and far-reaching and this tale reflects that wonderfully.  A literate adventure story for grown-ups.
The Hare With the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal
Near the top of my own list, this book has been pushed into my hands several times. I finally picked up a copy of my own. 

Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton
What happens when a mother runs into a burning school to save her daughter trapped inside on the third floor?  A wonderful read, absorbing to the end, and a fitting follow-up to Ms. Lupton’s equally pleasing first novel, Sister, published just last year.  Both are great choices for summer reads.

The rain has been relentless all afternoon.
  Lunch was held in the formal dining room, each damask covered table adorned with clear glass vases of peonies cut only this morning.  You have wandered back up to your room, glad you decided to spend the few extra pounds that gave you this view.  Standing at the window you gaze out over the gardens, a dazzle of colour made even brighter by the rain.  You open the window to listen as it hits the slate roof just above you.  Turning, you spy the deep bed, its cool linen sheets stretched tight, its pillows fat and soft.  Kicking off your shoes, you crawl up inside it and reach for the books you’ve brought along just for an afternoon such as this.  Now let’s see.... which one to choose....
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Oh boy, have I been waiting for this one.  Having adored the captivating, Wolf Hall, Ms. Mantel’s first book set in Tudor England during the reign of Henry VIII, I have been counting the months till this sequel was released.  I’ll save it for the perfect summer setting.  
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
One of my all time favorite reads, Wharton’s beautiful words spin a web impossible to escape, for reader and characters alike.  Truly magnificent.  If you’ve missed it, give it a try.  I’m planning to reread this one this summer myself.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Another one I’ve heard great things about.  I should get to it by July.

Nothing here ever changes,
 yet somehow it always manages to appear fresh and new.  Your great-aunt has lived in this grey shingled house on Nantucket for years and years, as long as you can remember anyway.  There are always flowers on the table by the lamp, always a compote of fresh fruit on the little round table.  The room always smells like lemons.  You’ve wandered in from the library, your arms full of books to choose from.  There’s time for an hour, or two, to read before dinner.  Hmmmm, now these look intriguing.....
The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen
I loved this book.  A first novel, it is both highly imaginative and unexpectedly touching.  Narrated by a little girl, it explores many topics including fatherly love, childhood guilt, the ugliness of bullying and the often razor-thin line that occasionally divides religion and madness.  Plus, the UK edition has a cover that is absolutely gorgeous.  That’s the one I bought.
A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
A remarkable little book, more of a novella actually, that follows a middle-aged man as he revisits his past and asks the question, “Has my life increased, or merely added to itself?”. Beautiful writing and compelling story.
The Dark Rose by Erin Kelly
A contemporary mystery with an old-fashioned sensibility.  A well-told tale just made for summer.

Why can’t you sleep?
 It’s already way past midnight and still you’re mentally wandering the streets of Oxford, unable to get this story out of your mind.  Getting up, you tiptoe your way down the curving staircase, pausing briefly on the landing to stare out through the fog.  It’s so thick now the streetlamp has no more power than a firefly.  Entering the library, you switch on the reading lamps, pour yourself a small glass of sherry, and curl up on the velvet paisley sofa with your bare feet tucked underneath your nightgown.  You pick up your book once more.... now, where were we?

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
I admit it.  I was a total snob when this book was recommended to me.  Witches and vampires?  Again with the witches and vampires?  No, not for me, I thought.  But because this book was recommended by someone whose tastes I generally trust, I checked it out from the library to give it a try.  By page two I was interested.  By page six, I was hooked.  Picturesque and blessedly literate, A Discovery of Witches is a fabulous summer escape.  Particularly on a foggy night.  (I liked it so much I bought my own copy after returning the book I read to the library.)   And even better, you won’t have to wait long for the sequel.  Shadow of Night is being released on July 10th!

Also, I should mention, my out of town classics book club recently read Dracula by Bram Stocker.  Given my vampire prejudice, I was reluctant to participate, but as I’d never read it in school, I decided to give it a go.  Such a revelation.  Nothing like any movie you’ve ever seen.  (Why DO directors insist on so drastically altering the classics?  Francis Coppola, I’m talking to you!) 

Remember now, add a selection or two!

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Girl in the Green Fiat

The Girl in the Green Fiat

As a child, I used to pretend to be invisible, a game fairly easy to play when one is little.  Children are frequently looked over, or past, by grown-ups in the sea of strangers flowing through a department store or along a busy pavement and I could, in spite of my pint-sized stature, quite successfully become an international spy or runaway princess without ever attracting the sort of attention that would slam the fantasy shut.  If I couldn’t even be seen, well then, I could be anyone, now couldn’t I?  Another perk to being an only child, I suppose, as there wasn’t a sibling to call me out and spoil the fun.  My imagination ran unrestrained and I learned early on that observing was far more satisfying that being observed.
 Though I almost never play the invisibility game now, a bit of it still clings to my shoulders like fairy dust, requiring only a particularly evocative circumstance to swirl up and take shape once more.  On a nighttime train ride or sitting with Edward at a sidewalk cafe on a rainy afternoon, it remains, even now, difficult to resist pretending to be someone else, sure in the knowledge that I cannot be seen.  Ever the observer, I still stroll through my days feeling just a wee bit invisible and am always startled when someone stares my way or meets my gaze.
Therefore the circumstance in which I now find myself is unsettling to say the least, for ever since October when I fell in love with a pistachio green Fiat 500, my cloak of invisibility has evaporated like a poorly cast spell.  The Fiat is new to the states, and my particular colour is, apparently, a bit rare.  I have seen a red one, several white ones, and an especially attractive hunter green one, but it seems no one but me is currently behind the wheel of this certain shade of retro green.  I have become, quite accidentally and a bit disturbingly, The Girl in the Green Fiat. 

Old friends now follow me home, pulling up behind me in the drive with a gaily called, “I saw you leaving the library and just had to come by to say hello!”.   
A couple of weeks ago I was traveling roughly thirty miles up to a favourite nursery on a quest for a hard to find shade of pink verbena.  Upon pulling into the pine-needled lot, I heard the lady who works there yell out, “We were expecting you!  My son just called and said he saw you driving through the square.  We hoped you were heading our way!”.  
And just last week, all the way cross town, I was zipping merrily down the road, singing along with The Kinks, when my cell phone rang.  I answered it and heard the voice of a friend I hadn’t spoken to in a month or more.  “You just passed by!!  We’re getting cake!  Turn around and come back to join us!”. 

My little car, which I hasten to say that I love with a automotive passion heretofore unknown to me, attracts the sort of attention only a film star should warrant.  People motion for me to roll down the window at stop lights only to ask if I do, indeed, love it as much as I should.  And for any single women who happen to be reading this, I can verify that a pistachio green Fiat 500 is a man magnet of the first order.  I leave the cleaners only to find a crowd of gentlemen clustered round it, their noses pressed against the glass.  Men of a certain age, whose memory of this particular car and colour is no doubt tangled up with fleeting glimpses of pasta, Capri sunsets, and Anita Ekberg splashing around that fountain in Rome.  
For someone with my propensity for camouflage and masquerade, all this unsought attention is bewildering.  So I am making an appeal to all my readers.  Go out and buy this car!  Now!  Not only will you adore it beyond all imagination but, slowly, surely, one by little green one, these wondrous machines shall become ubiquitous, the spotlight currently beaming in my direction shall begin to dim and I, mercifully, shall become invisible once more.
 I assure you, I shall be forever grateful.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Wonderful Things For Spring... A List and Giveaway!

Wonderful Things for Spring....
A List and Giveaway
1. Antique Tiles
As someone whose every day was once occupied with creating beautiful rooms for clients, I’ll let you in on a little professional secret.  Every room needs old things.  Rooms that are filled with sparkling new, just out of the crate items can seem sterile as a hospital nursery.  Take my word for it, for a room to beckon you in and make you reluctant to leave, it needs some patina of age - a faded cushion, an old painting, a lamp with a questionable past.   Antiques ground a room, they give it secrets to uncover, a bit of mystery, a bit of history.  (No doubt it would be interesting to hopscotch this line of thinking over to antique people and the value they bring to society, but we’ll save that for another day.) 
 Just take a look at the antique tile above..  Isn't it wonderful? 
 I have a fascination for antique tiles, they are like little works of art.
  Just imagine a collection of carefully chosen ones around a library fireplace, above a red Aga, or perhaps surrounding a picture frame in a high-ceilinged foyer with a Versailles patterned floor. 
 Love them too?
  See more HERE.

2. Little Creatures
Just off Carnaby Street in London is a tiny little shop for people with decidedly quirky tastes.  How do I know this?  It’s one of The Songwriter’s favourite stops each time we are there.  While I’m floating through the scarves at Liberty, which is just around the corner, he is off to visit this world of little creatures, usually selecting a new one to accompany us back home. 
 I think he’d love this little fellow, too.  I certainly do. 
 Just look at the details in his little outfit - the wee little buttons on his waistcoat, that perfectly turned collar.  
His name is Floyd, he lives in Staffordshire and, most delightfully,
 he likes to reread the collections of John Arbuthnot.
Meet him HERE.

3. Tea Towels
Ever since the release of the film Something’s Gotta Give, a certain type of kitchen has seemed to gain greater and greater prominence here in the states.  Copious amounts of white subway tiles, dark countertops, white cabinets - it quickly became the kitchen to have.  I loved that kitchen, too, though my own is quite different. 
 The cabinets are old, distressed and painted with trees. 
 The tiny little ones above the stove are painted with faces exactly like the door knockers Maxfield Parrish created.  Benevolent conspirators, they grin down at me as I cook.
  And I have rotating tea towels that hang on the arm of the oven. 
Each one special, each one provoking a smile first thing in the morning. 
Just like the one above, that just happens to be hanging in my kitchen this morning.
I found it on a marvelous site.
  They even have commemorative ones for the Queen’s Jubilee. 
 Such fun!
Pick up one for yourself HERE.

4. A Handmade Hat
Put this on your head and have your picture taken!
Incredibly, beautifully handmade.
Find it HERE

5. Strawberries
I am ravenous for this time of the year, for this is the season of the perfect strawberry. 
 Fat, juicy and red all the way through.  
Strawberries are my desert island food.  You know, “if you were stranded on a desert island, what food would you wish to have?”. 
 Forget chocolate. 
 Throw out ice cream. 
 For me, it would always be a divine strawberry, eaten very slowly to best taste that sweet essence of red.  
 Of course there are so many ways to enjoy them. 
 Strawberry cakes, strawberry pies..... strawberry jam! 
 I saw this fabulous recipe, more like a tutorial actually, on the blog of the glorious French Basketeer and I almost swooned! 
 Andrea walks us through all the steps of creating strawberry jam, very clearly and with pictures.
 You just know you want to make some!  
Follow along HERE.

6. A Summer Knitting Pattern
In a divine shade of blue cotton yarn.
With white trousers, white shirt, and white moccasins.
On a sailboat off Cape Cod.
In July.
Knit it for yourself, HERE.

7. A Summer Throw
The windows are open wide and there’s a view to the sea.
There are pillows on the white sofas in the palest colour of pink.
And this throw is tossed on the ottoman for naptime.
Love it!
Find it HERE.

8. Family Love
Though they did remove a tooth once, Edward still loves his veterinarian.  He trots in the office with a smile on his face every time we visit.
  Not so for the poor chap in the photo above. 
 Seems he’s quite frightened about the whole idea. 
 I absolutely adore this photograph. 
 Those hands tightly clasped around his back.  
That furry paw hanging over his friend’s arm. 
 True family love. 
 Which, of course, is what every dog deserves to know.
  Much more preferable than being strapped to the roof of a car, don’t you think?

9. Watering Can
With fifty-four hydrangea bushes and beds and beds of flowers, I do my share of watering this time of year.  
Love this fairy-tale watering can.
I imagine blue and yellow butterflies would drift lazily around me every time I picked it up.
Find it HERE.

10. Something To Look Forward To
Like every devoted reader of American Vogue, I am besotted with the divine Grace Coddington.  Yes, Anna Wintour may run the show, but as Vogue’s longtime creative director, Grace is the one with the eye.  I just read this week that she is finally publishing her memoirs in November and I simply cannot wait.  Not a salacious tell-all, but the tale of her life and art.
How long till November??
Pre-order it HERE.

11. Shakespeare
Have you ever referred to yourself as a “night owl”?
Have you ever been “up in arms” about something?
  Have you gone on a “wild goose chase” or perhaps had “too much of a good thing”?  
Then my friend, you have quoted William Shakespeare. 
 So much of our everyday speech originates with this Elizabethan writer, his words are woven into our language so seamlessly we hardly recognize it anymore. When we walk the “primrose path”. When we see something “vanish into thin air”. When I “have not slept one wink” or when I “wear my heart on my sleeve”. “Fair play.  Good riddance.  High Time”.  Even when we are “dead as a doornail”, we are still quoting Shakespeare.
April is his birthday month and in honour of dear ubiquitous Shakespeare, Edward and I are giving away a gorgeously illustrated copy of his sonnets.  
Perfect for a Springtime reverie.
Easy to enter, just leave a comment on this post.
We’ll draw the winner at the next full moon.
That’s Sunday the sixth, at midnight!
Good luck and Happy Spring!

Update:  May 6th - Congratulations to "Pondside"!
Winner of the book.