Friday, August 31, 2012

How Do We Find the Right One?

How Do We Find the Right One?

In their aubergine gowns the bridesmaids wafted down the aisle one by one, like individual blooms released from a bouquet of violets.  I watched them pass by with a serene smile on my face. They were followed by a tow-headed flower girl who couldn’t stop grinning as she scattered white rose petals along in her wake.  She made me giggle. Then the tiny ring bearer, so solemn and serious as he bore his two golden treasures upon a silk pillow, clearly giving his assignment the grave attention he felt it deserved.  I watched him slowing march past with completely dry eyes.  But then, despite biting my tongue and digging my newly manicured nails into the palms of my hands, when the doors at the back of the church flew open and the beautiful bride stepped out on the arm of her father, I cried.  I couldn’t help myself.  I am such a sucker for weddings.

American society seems increasingly disdainful of ceremony.   From music to attire, the modern Sunday morning church service more closely resembles a pep rally than the worshipful ritual of days gone by.  Even current ecclesiastical architecture seems to regard the holy spires of old as too parochial for modern life, choosing instead to be indistinguishable from the gymnasium, arena or concert hall.   It is rare that we dress to  reflect the holy joy of an occasion and join together to witness a sacrament as old as time but I am grateful a wedding still commands that respect.   We stand as one to honour the bride as she enters the church.  We silently watch the exchange of the rings.  We hear the age old vows newly spoken once again.  We see the first official kiss.  Is there a sweeter symbol of love in a cynical world?  I think society longs for this ceremony in ways that go far beyond curious fascination.  One need only look to the royal wedding of last year to see that this cherished ceremony is one that radiates joyful hope to a great many more that the ones sitting in the chosen church.
After the wedding, I stood outside the congregation of friends and watched as the newly married couple greeted their guests and posed for photographs.  Their happiness filled the air like a fragrance.  Not for the first time, it occurred to me that true love is such a miracle.  In the sea of souls on this over crowded planet, two people managed to find each other and be blessed with the sort of love that longs for forever, that begs to be sealed with an unending circle of gold?  Well, no word but “miracle” could possibly fit.  There are those who claim there is an infinite number of potential soul mates out there for each one of us, but the romantic in me chafes at that notion.  I cannot even imagine a life with someone other than The Songwriter.  But even given the possibility of multiple happy choices, how do we go about finding them?  I realize this is a question with a multitude of answers, any perusal of any bookshop will tell me that.  And though I have now been happily married for too long to allow me to convincingly lie about my age, I have no advice to give.  I certainly followed no plan.  I fell in love.  I got married.  And it worked out, beautifully.  Why?  I have no idea.  There’s that word, miracle, once again.
I thought about all this all the way home, remembering recent conversations with some of my single friends, often hilarious tales of first dates and last dates, tales that made me realize how dreadfully out of touch I am with the fundamentals of the courting process today.  We seem to have traveled so far from the day when the rules were as simple as “never call a boy, wait for him to call you”.  As an unabashed lover of weddings and happily ever after, I wonder... how did my readers meet their true loves?  Did you find your soul mate the first time out?  Or did you perhaps have more than one?  Did you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you found your prince, or princess?
 I love love stories.  
Tell me yours.
And while you’re thinking about it, take a look at how it used to be. 
Courtesy of my childhood idol, Hayley Mills.

Update:  All your stories are wonderful!
Keep them coming!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

On Holiday

To one who has been too long in city pent,
"Tis very sweet to look into the fair
And open face of heaven, - to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
John Keats
Sonnet XIV

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Girls in Yellow Dresses

Girls in Yellow Dresses
Remaining in the city in which I grew up means the threads of my past continuously weave their way into the tapestry of my everyday life, adding colour and context and allowing my memory to flourish in seamless harmony with my present.   I frequently pass places scattered all over town that call up images of the little girl that was me.  I see her clearly and without much effort which makes it easy to recall her feelings, her fears, her hopes and her dreams as she shares herself daily with the adult she eventually became.  One version of her comes back to me every single time I take the short cut home.  Passing by a certain elementary school, there she is, dressed up like Easter morning in a long, empire-waisted, yellow dress.  Though I was never a student at this particular school, I did have a most uncomfortable evening there when I was about eight years old.  It was an evening I’ve never forgotten, and won’t, as long as I live.  It was the night of my one, and only, piano recital.
I don’t look particularly good in yellow.  In fact, I look rather embalmed in that colour.  So of all the colours that could have been chosen for me to wear on that fateful night, yellow was, by far, the most appropriate, for as I was destined to be more miserable than misery herself, it was only fitting that I would be dressed in a colour that made me look as dreadful as I felt.  Of all the gifts that have perhaps been bestowed upon me, musical aptitude is not amongst them.  I well remember Mrs. Sammons, my piano teacher - she of the jet black hair that belied her advanced years and the insufferable metronome that sat atop her upright piano mercilessly ticking off both my lack of timing and my misunderstanding of the work I was feebly attempting to execute under her watch.  I remember her handing me the piece I was expected to perform at her annual recital.  As I gazed down in abject horror at the spider’s web of black whole and half notes covering the page, I saw a future of desperate practice sessions, day after day, all leading up to my inevitable doom, the public performance.   I don’t remember much about that actual night, apart from the horrible yellow dress, but as I don’t recall any catcalls or heckles, I suppose I managed to negotiate my way through my pantomime of a pianist without an overload of embarrassment.  But the experience taught me a lesson about myself that I’ve never forgotten.  I am not a public person.  Oh, I can muddle through if need be.  But it is not, and never shall be, who I really am.  I quit taking piano lessons before the next recital.
Recently I came across a wonderful online lecture done earlier this year by writer, Susan Cain, entitled, The Power of Introverts.  Because I’m not a shy person, I’ve never really thought of myself as introverted.  But as I listened to Ms. Cain’s insightful words, I recognized myself as clearly as if she were holding my portrait up as a visual aid.  For like her, I was also the little girl who preferred to read rather than be rowdy, who craved solitude, who lived inside books.  Research says that one or two in three of us is introverted.  Yet here in the US, our society is set up to celebrate the extrovert to such an extent that most of us feel slightly guilty when we crave being alone or perhaps choose staying in over attending a party.  As the little girl in that yellow dress, I clearly remember feeling that I was supposed to like being on stage and performing.  Why on earth didn’t I?   Ms. Cain tells us that it’s perfectly alright to occasionally let the phone go to voice mail and to cross the street to avoid making small talk, both of which I’ve done.  And she also tells us that “staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters”.  I have certainly found that to be true.
This week I’m ensconced in a beach house with a couple of good friends, one of whom I’ve known since my teenage years, one of whom is a new addition to our circle of two.  Both are artists.  Both are introverts.  We split off each morning to our separate zones to work, meeting up for meals and bike rides when we choose.  We have deep conversations over champagne in the moonlight.  Life has been kind enough to teach all three of us to be true to our temperaments and we are grateful it did.  I’m so happy to have learned that lesson very early on, seated at a piano on a little elementary school stage in the South.  I’ll never wear yellow again.


I encourage you to visit Susan Cain’s website to take her quiz on introverts.
  You may find you are one yourself.  If so, I welcome you to the tribe. 
 I myself had a perfect score. 
Take the quiz HERE. 
 You can also listen to her TED lecture HERE
 as well as pick up a copy of her excellent book,
 Quiet- The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, HERE

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

House Hunters International

House Hunters International

Despite a certain fellow’s embarrassing pronouncement that he found their state of preparedness “disconcerting”, the people of Great Britain once again lived up to their country's name by giving the world a truly great Olympic games. They all should be extraordinarily, rightfully, proud of their accomplishment. Even the weather cooperated, which is no small thing to control, I would well imagine.  Night after night, I surprised myself by watching sports that I didn’t even know existed and found them all to be excellent companions to knit with.  And let’s face it, these British games provided a colourful oasis in that mind-numbing desert that is television programming in summertime, an interminable stretch when our choices for even vaguely intelligent viewing options are decidedly thin on the ground.   Let’s see, we have the house full of edgy, unusual people all locked up together for a lengthy period of time, the essential entertainment being, I can only assume, the ever increasing anticipation of the inevitable day when one of them will finally experience some sort of psychotic break and run screaming, and hopefully naked, from the premises.  Or let’s see, we can watch those folks appearing on “So You Think You Can Dance”, only to rapidly discover that none of them actually can.  We can keep up with the Kardashians, a program that has the unique ability to humiliate both  “performers” and viewers alike.  Or we can always watch reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond, a show that seems to be on somewhere every hour of every day which only serves to prove that everybody does indeed love the fellow, I guess. For myself, I am now waiting for Wallander, that morose and haunted Swedish detective played so wonderfully by Kenneth Branagh.  Adapted from the novels of Henning Mankell, these PBS productions are imminently watchable and a new season is due in the first weekend in September.  Till then, I shall have to content myself with House Hunters International, a program I simply cannot seem to resist, no matter the season.  

If you’ve never seen House Hunters International, the premise is simple.  Americans looking for holiday houses outside the US.  This gives us all exactly what we dream of - the chance to jump in the television alongside these intrepid souls and follow along, dragging our own dreams behind us.  For whom among us hasn’t fantasized about that golden stone villa in Tuscany?  The tall-windowed atelier in Paris?  The rose-covered Cumbrian cottage?  I know I have.  

  Most prospective buyers on this program seem inordinately concerned with the size and a few very specific attributes in the houses they seek.  In fact, I’ve often thought it would make an excellent drinking game if one took a shot of whisky each time one of them said “it’s too small” or “granite countertops”.  One would be drunk out of one's mind before the first commercial break.  But I hasten to say, I would make a horrible participant in this program.  The questions I would ask these poor realtors would seriously make them question their chosen professions, I have no doubt.  Homes, to me, are so much more than mere investments.  I am not particularly concerned about reselling or entertaining.  I couldn’t care less about a barbecue. I have no interest in impressing my friends and family with either the size or the grandeur of my abode.  What I’d want to know....
Are there enough bookcases?
Where would the Christmas tree go?
Is there a window where Edward and Apple can keep watch over the garden?
How does the light change when it snows?
Do all of the windows open?  Wide?
Are there owls that hoot in the trees at night?
Are there fir trees in the garden large enough for Christmas lights?
Do the windows sing when the wind is high?
And could I perhaps stay here alone for an hour or two, 
just to listen to the personality of the house?

When The Songwriter and I found our cottage, he was immediately sold on the old stone fireplace - rough grey rocks that touched the ceiling and promised many cozy fireside nights to come.  I myself was seduced by the trees - towering hardwoods that encircled the house like a necklace of green.  We wanted to know how the rain sounded on the roof of our bedroom.  Which windowpanes best captured the light of a setting autumn sun.  Upon moving in, we soon set about making this old house our own, infusing every single inch with parts of ourselves so that now, many years later, this house is as much as part of us as our ticking hearts.  With kitchen cabinets painted with replicas of Maxfield Parrish doorknockers, ceilings papered in Sanderson flowers and stars shining over the guest room bed, our cottage might be difficult to recreate elsewhere.  Difficult, but not impossible.  That’s why I keep watching House Hunters.  I just know there’s a quirky Scottish croft with my name on it.


No matter their size or their countertops, my favourite houses are always those in which the owners, be they celebrated or unknown, have made their homes  extensions of themselves.  One of the best examples of this type of home has to be Charleston, the Sussex farmhouse of Vanessa and Clive Bell.  Along with artist, and sometime lover, Duncan Grant, Vanessa created a unique home that one can still visit today.  The photograph below shows a corner of the sitting room.  My favourite book about Charleston, one I find I go to over and over again, was written by Vanessa’s son, Quentin.
 It is simply delightful.
Find it HERE.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Owls in Cages

Owls in Cages

The Songwriter was asleep, exhausted from our explorations around the old city.  For hours we had wandered through the white castle on the hill and tiptoed around the ornate cathedral where the skeleton of ancient Abbott Konrad looked down upon us from his eternal cage high above the altar.  Dusk had found us, dressed like peacocks, perched on tiny gold chairs in a grand room at Mirabell Palace as we listened to a string quartet play enchanting notes composed centuries ago by the city’s favourite son, and now it was past time for bed.  Too tired to sleep, I had opted for a hot bath and was preparing to dry my hair as I reached for my little travel dryer.  I checked to see I had the correct plug and confidently put it into the slot in the wall.  There was a pop, a sizzle, and the whole world went dark.  The atmospheric old house in which we were staying only had a few rooms and I heard no screams or curses rise up from my error.  I did hear, however, the footsteps of our elderly innkeeper as she raced up the stairs and down the wooden floors to my door.  I threw it open just as she approached and we stared at one another in frustration, yards of unknown language like a rippling moat between us.  She looked at my wet hair, the pitiful little blue hair dryer hanging limp in my hand with its offending cord dangling past my knees.  
“Kaput!?”, she said.
“Kaput.”, I sadly replied.
We laughed.
Sometimes it is possible to breach great chasms with just one word.

  It’s my belief that every person should have the opportunity to travel outside of their own country, preferably while still young - before ideas are solidified, before patriotism veers into jingoism.  To stand on a foreign street, barred from any meaningful communication by lack of common language and custom, bequeaths a knowledge no textbook can manage.  There is a certain alienation inherent in each of us.  We are born alone and we die the same.  Alienation exists between countries, between religions, between members of the same family.   It’s therefore no surprise that we tend to group together with those most like us.  These mirror circles make us comfortable, and the desire for comfort grows alongside the harshness of our world.  But if we never pierce the boundaries of those circles, never reach across to touch unfamiliar hands or look into eyes of a different colour, then the alienation we feel only becomes more profound.   Comfort becomes ignorance, ignorance becomes fear.  Soon even curiousity is suspect as the tendency to demonize what we don’t understand manifests itself ever stronger.

In the extraordinary new book, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, writer Suzanne Joinson explores the theme of alienation both as it exists today, as well as early in the last century.  In the story, one of the characters inherits an owl.  Sitting silent and still, it peers from the bars of its cage - the most exquisite portrait of an unknowable world, providing the backdrop for the characters' often maladroit efforts to connect.  The book shows us both the difficulty and the rewards of human connection as we realize anew that it is often not easy to do.  But connect we must, lest we find ourselves in a cage of our own, one no less restrictive for being fashioned by our own hand.

It was a lucky synchronicity that I read this particular book this particular week. Though I’m not necessarily a sports fan of any great measure, it has been impossible for the Olympics to remain outside the realm of my notice.  I have marveled at the dedication, the prowess, the sheer beauty of the many young people competing and have been grateful for this great biennial gathering of so many countries and cultures.  The games are such a positive connection for us all in this small yet polarized world and, although highly controlled and somewhat orchestrated, they provide a valuable window into other cultures, other lands.   
This can only be good.

Read more about it HERE.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Halloween Room

The Halloween Room
The drive is long. A tunnel of green in any season, it winds through magnolias and hemlocks so artfully arranged one must assume they were placed there by an artist of most high renown, which of course, they were.  The grey ribbon of road spirals deeper into the wood, circling round moss-dotted ponds and over half-moon stone bridges, leading you far enough away from the commonplace and familiar that there is no surprise when it suddenly straightens in front of a chateau appearing much more at home in the Loire Valley than in the mountains of North Carolina.  This is Biltmore House, the largest private home in the United States, designed in 1880 by George Vanderbilt who dubbed it his “little mountain escape” in the same facetious fashion that led his siblings to refer to their opulent mansions in Newport as their “summer cottages”.   Biltmore House certainly deserves a visit by anyone who loves art and beauty.  Around every stone corner  of this magnificent house one finds ever increasing levels of grandeur and delight.  The library alone is swoon-worthy.  I myself have spent many an hour roaming the corridors of this grand palace, soaking up inspiration like a sponge, for inspiration percolates in this place and no more so than in the belly of the grand house, in a room known as The Halloween Room.
 Follow me down staircases that dwindle in extravagance the further we descend, eventually depositing us in the catacombs of the castle where the dark narrow hallways are formed by blocks of stone, rough and cool to the touch.  At the very end, - there, just to the right - is the entrance to a huge rectangular room made glorious by the imaginations of revelers long forgotten, party goers whose artworks were painted by their own hand right upon the brick walls.  These paintings remain today, untouched and undisturbed, as testaments both to the individuality of their creators as well as to the value placed on art education in the early twentieth century, for these are fantastic paintings, full of whimsy and romance, with nary a stick figure amongst them.
  As the story goes, George Vanderbilt’s only child, Cornelia, (pictured above) threw a party in this room on a Halloween night in the middle of the decade forever known as The Roaring Twenties.  Providing colours and brushes, she invited her guests to take sections of the room and paint whatever they desired.  Blossoming from that request are young men sitting in elaborate windows serenading lovely veiled women on guitar, black cats navigating the tightropes of roof lines, bats and birds, palm trees and accordion players.  Closing your eyes, it is not difficult to almost hear faint traces of laughter still echoing in the brush strokes forever preserved on these old walls. 

I have always been struck by the drawings each of these guests chose to create for I think the images we choose so often reveal much more about who we are than our words can ever accomplish.  In my years as an interior designer, I was often astonished at the amount of discomfort and intimidation some clients seemed to experience whenever they were asked to illuminate their personal style.  They would stutter and stammer, eventually looking to their partner for assistance.  But when I asked them, as I often did, to choose which pictures appealed to them, they had no problem doing so.  By this exercise, and other sly tricks of observation, it was easy for me to pinpoint their preferences and predilections so I could create rooms in which they would find themselves comfortable and at home, which was always my goal.
Even though I freely admit to no small amount of snobbery with each new quirk of technology that pops up in my sight range, I also freely admit that I am frequently wrong.  Yes, I do love my iPhone, even though I was convinced I didn’t need one.  And yes, I enjoy Twitter, a lot.  But when I heard about Pinterest I was, naturally, convinced it wasn’t for me.  But then I started visiting... and now, of course, I adore it.  Far from another slim outlet for mere entertainment, I now see it as a wonderful portal for self-discovery, for as we choose the images that appeal to us, much like my clients, much like Cornelia’s Halloween guests, we reveal our innermost personalities.  I am a fairly severe editor on Pinterest.  While I see many, many images that I like there, I only “pin” the ones that seem to speak to my hidden self.  I know them when I see them.  By categorizing these images into files known as “boards”, a whole person begins to emerge, a mirror whose reflection is no less accurate for being composed of pictures rather than glass.  Through Pinterest, I see that I am drawn to pathways and windows, tartan and trees.  It’s rather fascinating.  I invite you to try it.
Like the creators of the Halloween Room,  
which images would you choose?

Visit Edward and me on Pinterest HERE.