Sunday, November 23, 2014

Never Too Soon.... A Holiday List

Never Too Soon…. a Holiday List
For the past week or so, I have noticed heralds of the festive season materializing all around me like shiny gifts from fairies unseen.  I don’t mean any sort of those commercial fripperies of red and green that went up months ago in the merchant’s effort to snare as many early shoppers as possible. No, I speak of the beribboned wreath on the ordinary door.  The bejeweled fir tree in the cottage window.  Overnight, it seems, Christmas has drifted down through the frosted air, more premature than punctual, but no less welcome to my soul.  These early adornments have only served to validate a personal theory;  one possessing neither scientific merit nor scholarly sanction, but one that I’ve fervently believed in for ages:  The harder the year, the earlier the Christmas decorations.

The news of 2014 has often been hard to bear.  So much violence, so much sickness, so much despair.  In years such as this, it seems an almost unconscious yearning for the hope and goodwill of Christmas permeates our hearts.  We long for the beauty of twinkling lights and crackling fires, gaily wrapped presents and happy faces.  We want to hear carols and taste chocolate.  We want to give gifts to those we love.  Whether the reds and greens of Christmas or the blues and silvers of Hanukkah, we want colour, lots of colour, to challenge the grey of the news.  

One of the most magnificent things about the holiday season is its consistency.  No matter what happens - no matter how we feel, or what we think - it always arrives this time of year with all the warmth and delight of our childhood.  It is up to us to welcome it in.  And this year, like so many of those around me it seems, I am throwing open my doors early.  Benjamin Britten is playing, fires are crackling in the old stone fireplace.  I’ve begun my Christmas cards and, in anticipation for a Thanksgiving night party, The Songwriter is on the tall ladder stringing lights on the giant fir tree that stands guard by the front porch.  Even the weather seems ready; it’s colder than ever this year.

So… to help get you started on the holidays… here’s a wee list of wonderful things.  Oh, there will be more lists as the season unfurls, but these are a few early ideas that I couldn’t resist.  Have fun!  and Happy Holidays!

1.  Owl
There are birds, collected over many years, 
that roost in the branches of my sitting room Christmas tree.
  Pheasants and Cardinals, Lovebirds and Owls.
Lots of Owls.
This one is amazing.
Find him HERE.

2.  Slippers
I've just ordered a pair of these for myself.
For fireside sitting.
Edward will, no doubt, use one for a pillow.
Find them HERE.

3.  Pajamas
These are my favorite winter pajamas.
Perfect for addressing cards, wrapping presents,
dashing outside for another log for the fire, 
stirring fudge, napping,
curling up to watch Miracle on 34th Street (the old black and white version, naturally),
  and yes, sleeping.
Love them!
Find them HERE

4.  Set of Boxes
For love letters, postcards, 
photos, feathers...
or that secret stash of chocolate.
Love these.
Find them HERE.

5.  Embossing Rolling Pin
Isn't this a fabulous idea?
Imagine your holiday cookies embossed with festive patterns.
There's even a houndstooth design.
Find them HERE.

6.  Polar Bear Puppet
He looks so much like Edward, 
it was all I could do not to order him for myself!
Find him, and many more,  HERE.

7.  Tartan Shawl
What can I say?
This makes me swoon.
Find it HERE

8.  Dog Tags
Lots of parties, lots of opening doors.
Lots of opportunities for gregarious dogs to run outside to places unknown.
These are a brilliant idea.
Find them HERE.

9. Santa Mugs
For the Party!!
Love these.
Find them HERE.

10.  Little Reading Mouse
I'm utterly besotted with these.
Cutest things ever.
Perhaps a collection?
Created by artist Johana Molina, you can
Find them HERE.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Three Little Words

Three Little Words

Here in the states the countdown to the festive season has begun in earnest.  In the NY Times yesterday, I read an article about a woman in Natchez Mississippi who is expecting one hundred and forty-five people for Thanksgiving dinner.   Needless to say, she has been preparing for this annually performed culinary feat since before Halloween.  Everywhere I looked today I saw women with lists - checking things off, getting ready - secure in the knowledge that the majority of holiday tasks will fall to them no matter what other responsibilities they may have. 

On my recent journey to the Shetland Islands, I took a Fair Isle knitting class in which I was introduced to an odd object called a “knitting belt”, a horsehair-filled leather pouch dotted with holes in which to stick one’s knitting needles.  Women used to employ these, and many still do, so that they could knit whilst keeping one hand free to perform other tasks such as cooking, laundry and gardening, a triumph of dexterity that boggles the mind. 

We women are remarkable creatures.  Whilst our male friends may occasionally speak of “multi-tasking” as a notable skill, we know it to be a way of life.  We are well acquainted with doing many things at once, and I might add, doing them pretty doggone well.  We have evolved to a point where we take pride in our independence and self-reliance, comfortably confident in our intelligence and our abilities.  And yet….

Last week during my knitting group, Whiskyknitters, I listened as several women debated a recent article that has been making the internet rounds.  The article, written by a man, took on the topic of the three sexiest words a man can say to a woman.  “I Love You”?  Nope.  “You look beautiful?”  Not even close.  No, after speaking with his women friends he had figured out that the three words that tend to make a woman swoon are, “I Got This.”

My fellow Whiskyknitters are all confident, competent women but I watched with interest as each got a faraway, wistful look in her eyes as she contemplated these three little words.  Said one, “Look, I’m perfectly capable of doing whatever needs to be done, but if someone could occasionally step up and take something off my plate, well gosh.. I’d love that.”
    I polled other woman this week on the same issue and watched as each took on that same wistful stare when contemplating a man who would sometimes say to them, 
“Don’t worry.  I got this.”

We woman can do it all.  We can cook and clean, we can write and paint.  We can run businesses and countries.  We can care for children and aging parents.  We sing.  We dance.  We think.  We create.  We discover. One of use may even be the next president.  Our worth is equal to men in every way and should of course be valued as such.  But, as this article points out, there is a difference in masculine and feminine and I wonder if we may have occasionally ignored this in our effort to rise to our rightful place of equality. 
I would love to hear what you think. 
 I Got This. 
Do those three little words make you swoon?

“After all, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did,
 except she did it backwards and in high heels.”
Ann Richards

(Read the article for yourself, HERE, and let's talk.  
I promise to answer every comment on this post.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Happiest Day

The Happiest Day

The London Underground is a marvel of construction, moving countless travelers hither and yon safely and in relative comfort. Mind you, I am well aware that my limited experience with this particular public transport may render my fairly positive review suspect to the many Londoners who use it every day, but on the occasions I’ve opted for tube over taxi I’ve found it to be an efficient, if not especially aesthetic, choice.  

On a warm morning last month, I hopped on the District Line at Sloane Square en route to South Kensington station where I began the long walk through the tunnel that leads directly into the V and A Museum.  The tunnel is not very attractive and no doubt would elicit feelings of claustrophobia in those with even the slightest leanings in that direction.  A few moments inside its tiled walls made me long for fresh air.  I had stepped up my pace as I made my way through the twists and turns, anxious to get my trek over with as quickly as possible, when I became aware of a heavenly sound.  Lilting, silvery notes, as harmonious to the ear as they were incongruous with the setting, were flowing through the tunnel, reflecting off every subway tile in overlapping echoes of beauty.  A violinist was playing Mozart.   And in a twinkling, the nondescript became celestial.

It is perhaps the gift of the grateful to be blessed with armloads of “happiest” days.  Ever since I received the email with this month’s BIO topic, I have been rifling through my memories in a concentrated effort to pull out the best one to share.   My wedding day, all red roses, winter cold and candlelight?  The night we brought a tired and hungry Edward home to stay and watched as he curled up contentedly beside the Christmas tree?  The recent afternoon I sat on a ledge in Glencoe, thrilled with the magnificence laid out before me?  But try as I might, I could not manage to silence the song that violin sang out deep beneath the grey of a London street.   

The happiest lives belong to those who own the happiest days.  There are the gilded days - weddings and births, Christmas and holidays - that take their rightful places on pedestals in our memories.  But if we can manage to find beauty and happiness in the midst of the everyday, then we are truly fortunate indeed. 

The sky today was storybook blue.  The trees were scarlet and golden.  It was warm enough to drive with my windows down and as I sat at a red light on a leafy street, a sunbeam fell into my car.  I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the light as it painted bright pictures on the inside of my eyelids.   I laughed a lot today.  I ran into an old friend at the market.   I walked Edward at dusk and was rewarded with many a furry smile as I did so.  I ate a Honeycrisp apple for dessert tonight.  It was crunchy, juicy, sweet.  I told people I loved them and was told the same by others.  
And I could swear I heard a violin playing all day long.  
It was the happiest day.

To read the other essays on The Happiest Day, 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Strangers in a Crowd

Strangers in a Crowd

Outside the heavy doors of Fortnum and Mason I paused to readjust my packages.  Despite every honest intention to travel as lightly as possible, I hadn’t been made of the sort of stuff strong enough to resist the charms of Persephone Books, or, I’m sorry to say, the enticements found tucked within the V and A gift shop, and was now significantly more heavy laden than I’d planned to be.  Looking for an open slot, I dove into the London crowd with what I hoped was all the confidence of a local and, shoulder to shoulder, we wove our  lava-like way to the corner.  

After many holidays in London, I believe I have finally learned the city’s most vital lesson: Always Look to the Right Before Crossing the Street. This sounds easy enough, but for an American in London whose every instinct is screaming at them to do otherwise, looking right before crossing is a skill to be mastered.  It is, of course, much easier just to wait for the little green man, that pixelated fellow atop the metal pole at most crossings in the heart of the city.  The red man means stay where you are; the green man lets you go in relative safely.  

So here I stood, at the busy crossing just down from Fortnum’s, lost in deciding just where to have tea, while The Red Man glowed warningly above.  Then, instinctively, with my one free hand I reached for the arm of the gentleman in front of me, who had suddenly made a definitive move to cross the street.

“Whoa there!  That’s how people get squished!”, I said as, sure enough, a sleek sports car  took the turn in a blur of speed.

He was a slight, elderly fellow, clad in an impeccable suit complete with a tweed hat tilted slightly to one side atop his head. He turned to look at me and I instantly thought of an owl.  When he spoke, his accent called forth European winters, foggy chocolate shop windows and Strauss waltzes.  Grinning at me in that way Europeans have of grinning at over-gregarious Americans, Americans who possess the appropriate amount of audacity required to grab a stranger’s suit sleeve in the middle of a busy street, he said,  “I suppose you’re right.  But you see, I am an Austrian on holiday.  If it is two in the morning on an empty street, an Austrian will still stand there and wait for the little green man to tell him he can cross.  But, as I said, I am an Austrian on holiday, so I run across when I like today.”

  “Yes, I see”, I replied, “but as I said, that’s precisely how one gets squished in London.”

We both laughed and as we did, the little green man suddenly shone from above. The crowd flowed on, jostling and nudging, separating us.  Then just ahead,  I caught a glimpse of the elderly Austrian as his face popped up midst the sea of backs and shoulders.  He was waving at me.  In a loud voice he called across the moving crowd, smiling, “It was so good to talk with you!!”.
“Yes, you, too, “ I sang back.

There are plenty of times when I am embarrassed to be American.  Perhaps I’m overly critical but in my experience, if a flight is cancelled, it is usually the Americans who pitch a cringe-worthy fit.  Like large-footed hound dog puppies we are known, sometimes rightfully, for being a bit too boisterous, a bit too effusive, a bit too demanding, a bit too… too much.  All this, and other more egregious characteristics, can well be true.  But we are also known for never really meeting strangers, a quality that can disarm even the crustiest soul.  Stemming more from a love of observation rather than from any degree of shyness, I tend to be a version of the fairly quiet American. But like any card carrying member of the United States, I never hesitate to strike up conversations when I travel and have consequently been gifted with truly fascinating encounters. 

There was the taxi driver in Edinburgh who invited me to his family’s house for tea.  (No, I didn’t go, but still.)   There was the lady who invited me to spend the night at her house in Glasgow when The Songwriter landed in the hospital after a broken ankle.  (No, I didn’t go, but still.)  I have shared photos of Edward with couples in cafes, who've reciprocated with photos, and stories, of their own big furry dogs.  I have been given directions to far away yarn shops and book shops, places I’d never known of but for a chance encounter with a stranger.  An elderly lady in the gorgeous cafe at the Wallace Collection took off her oxfords and showed me the best socks to buy if I intended to walk a lot.  (Which I did.)  I’ve had lunch with an adorable honeymoon couple in Savannah and had a friendly argument with a waiter in Hollywood over which actor best played Dr. Watson in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series. (Edward Hardwicke, without question.)  Striking up a conversation with an unassuming lady in Oban, I learned she was a theater manager in New York and I was delighted to hear a wonderful story about Vanessa Redgrave.  (Yes, she’s just as amazing as I’d thought.)

These encounters have been the icing atop any glorious holiday I’ve taken.  They have made the world less forbidding, they have smoothed the chaos and tuned the cacophony of crowds to a more harmonious song.  They remind me that, really, we are all so very much alike as we try to make our way across this planet.

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, 
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
Hebrews 13:2

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Little Tale for Halloween.... A Murder of Crows

A Little Tale For Halloween

A Murder of Crows
The afternoon of Halloween found Albert Dalrymple back in the waiting room, watching the clock and carelessly drawing a caricature of the woman across from him on the back of the grocery list he held in his lap.  She was a large woman, all creases and folds, and she was at this moment rifling through her incongruously tiny handbag in search of … what?  Her face gathered itself up in corrugations of concentration while Albert stared.  Then like a falling cake, she softened with the satisfaction of discovery and pulled out a fan.  Pleated and black as a crow’s wing, she flipped it open with all the flourish of a magician’s assistant, and began waving it in front of her face,  revealing the words, See Rock City, printed along the side in the color of blood. Swooshswooshswoosh. The mental image of Tidy, his brother's oxymoronically named terrier, flashed in front of Albert’s eyes.  Tidy’s tail wagged at that precise speed.

“Hot, ain’t it?”, the large woman asked to the room in general.  No one looked up to meet her gaze as it fell on each of them in turn.  Albert had the misfortune of being the only one slow enough, or curious enough, to be caught.  He coughed quietly, uttering an almost inaudible, “I suppose it is”, before dropping his eyes back down to his drawing.  He pulled his coat a little tighter around him.  He’d been freezing for the past fifteen minutes.  

This was his third time here and Albert had already decided it was to be his last.  He was eighty-nine on Thursday and had decided he’d lived quite long enough. Not that he didn’t enjoy his life. He did.  He’d just had enough of it. He was ready for something else.  The young doctor (A specialist. This moniker always made Albert laugh to himself.) had been trying, God help him.  But no matter what new-fangled treatments or trials came down the pike, nothing could stop the inevitable.  Eighty-nine.  People don’t live forever, young man.

“What’cha here for?”  Albert looked up to see the corpulent woman staring at him, fan flying in front of her fat face.  See Rock City.  See Rock City.  See Rock City.

“I’m…. Well… “  Albert looked at the woman for a long moment.  “You know, I really don’t know.”  He folded his grocery list on which was now drawn a most unflattering portrait of the woman he’d just addressed, placed it in the pocket of his black overcoat, got up and left the room.

“Well.  I never.”, said the woman.  The black fan stopped in mid-air.  No one else looked up.

Albert stepped out into the orange light of a setting October sun.  Brilliantly coloured maple leaves carpeted the pavement in front of him.  Follow the yellow brick road.  Albert hummed to himself as his walked.  He had just enough time to make it to the market and home again before the children started showing up.  He had no intention of being caught having to hand out soda crackers like he’d done last year.  Totally forgot it was Halloween.  Well, Lydia had always kept track of those kind of things.  But this year he planned to be the best house on the street.  Candy bars galore.  And not those little ones either.  The full size bars.

Turning the corner onto River Street, Albert found himself walking alongside the iron fencing of Meredith House, the oldest house in town. His steps slowed a bit as he stopped to gaze at the house from between the vertical posts of the black iron fence. The many trees that crowded the garden had already dropped their leaves; the ground was dark with them.  Long believed to be haunted, Meredith House had, through the years, endured the midnight visitations of little boys who, on a dare, ran up to touch its massive wooden door or peer into its dusty leaded windows.  Albert had been one of those boys, once. He wasn't sure who lived here now.  Old man Meredith was long gone.  But there on the front porch sat two large, carved pumpkins.  Their faces smiled back at him, toothless and macabre.  

A rustling sound began to fill the air and Albert was amazed to see the ground around the house begin to move.  A roiling, rolling mass of black, lifting and falling like waves on the sea.  It’s not leavesWhy, it’s crows!, thought Albert, as thousands, millions, of black wings caught the light, transforming into prismatic ebony jewels, so bright, so splendid, they made Albert’s eyes water.  Then as if answering an authority known only to them, they rose as one in a swirl of black, in a dance of celestial choreography both thrilling and apparitional.

Albert watched in fascination as they ascended upwards through the trees, up over the house and out into the autumnal coloured sky, all the while moving in patterns as intricate and fluid as music itself.  After a moment or two it seemed to Albert that the crows began to drift downwards a bit, the sound of their wings filling the air all around him like the indecipherable voices of a crowd.  Never stopping, never slowing, they came closer and closer to the spot where Albert stood with his hands at his sides, transfixed into silence.  The flutter and beat became deafening as the birds encircled him.  Feathers tickled his nose.  Then Albert Dalrymple’s feet began to feel too light to secure him properly to the pavement and he felt himself lifting up.  Up with the birds; up high in the air.  

There weren’t many trick or treaters at Albert Dalrymple’s house that night.  He hadn’t left a light on in the window as an invitation and most of the kids didn’t fancy the soda crackers of the previous year anyway.  But if they’d chanced to come up the walk they might have seen a large black crow watching them from the naked branch of a poplar tree.  They might have found a bowl of candy bars on the front porch.  Not the small ones, either.  The full size bars.