Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Forced Hibernation: A List That Makes Me Smile

Forced Hibernation.... A List That Makes Me Smile

At the risk of sounding like a tiresome Pollyanna, my recent week of forced hibernation was really not so bad.  Not only did I have one of the sweetest, furriest, most devoted nurses imaginable,  but the weather seemed to have heard of my plight and decided to send the rainiest, the dreariest, the coldest of its creations to my side.   For days, a white wooly fog wrapped itself tightly around the cottage; the gas lamp in the front garden flickering like a beacon and casting shadows into the rooms that swirled and twirled like grey-gowned Russian dancers.  A fire crackled in the old stone fireplace and the tea kettle whistled happily.  While it was true that the medication I was on made me feel like another, slightly inconscient, version of myself, all in all, it could have been much worse.  

During this week, I found many things to make me smile. 
 And what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t share some of them with you?  
So here’s a list - highly subjective and a bit disorganized -  of smiles.
Which one do you like best?

1. George
I recently discovered this photograph, released around Christmas.
I mean, really.
This adorable child has so much personality, so much confidence.
It’s as if he knows he’ll be King.

2.  Vanessa Bell
Given my reverence for Virginia Woolf, I have generally regarded her sister, Vanessa, as a supporting player in her story.  While I wandered through Vanessa’s exquisite Charleston House in 2013, my opinion changed and I began to see Vanessa’s place in history as much more important than I’d previously realized.  I usually steer clear of fictionalized history, but this book caught my attention and I couldn’t resist.  It’s marvelous.
Find it HERE

3.  New Old Pillows
I’ve just restocked the shoppe with several exquisite old pillows.
Trust me, they add something delightful to any room.
Find them HERE

4.  Meryl
Meryl Streep at the London premiere of Into The Woods.
This is what I want to look like when I grow up.

5.  The Great British Bakeoff
Whilst in the UK last autumn, I overheard so many people talking about this program.  The finale was about to happen and the air was practically buzzing with speculation on who was poised to win.  Having never considered the enjoyable activity of cooking to be a competitive sport, I never watch these shows.  But one night during my medicated hibernation I happened to switch on PBS and came across the first episode of The Great British Bakeoff and was instantly hooked.  A group of very pleasant people baking British goodies underneath an Alice in Wonderland tent on the beautiful grounds of a country house in Britain.  I mean, what’s not to like?  Puddings and treacle, Victoria Sponge.  Tartlets and chocolates and scones.  The contestants are all so nice, so interesting, I want everyone one of them to win.  Nobody yells, nobody acts like a brat.  It’s wonderful.
The result of this, of course, is that I get so inspired the next day becomes baking day at The House of Edward.  I’ve baked two loaves of Cinnamon Bread that made the house smell utterly divine and gave us days of delicious breakfasts. (You can find the recipe on page 126 of THIS BOOK.)  And I made the most delectable sugar cookies.  (Find them HERE.  Note:  I didn’t ice these, and I baked them a wee bit longer than suggested.  The icing would make the cookies very, very sweet, and I wanted a crisp cookie for tea time.  It worked perfectly.)
You can read more about The Great British Bake Off, HERE.

6.  I Know Where I’m Going
One particularly stormy night, Edward and I curled up with The Songwriter in front of the fire (Apple underneath the piano) to re-watch one of our favourite movies, I Know Where I’m Going.  Like a dream, each shot is achingly lovely and incredibly atmospheric.  It stars Dame Wendy Hiller, she of the magnificent face, and was filmed entirely on Scotland’s Isle of Mull, one of the most wonderful places I know.  So many of the scenes were filmed in spots I’ve sat, all alone, looking out to sea.  It makes me swoon to remember.  If you love Scotland, you’ll be intoxicated by this movie.  And if you’ve never traveled to Scotland, you’ll be purchasing a ticket before the closing credits roll.
Find it HERE

7.  Nail Polish
In summertime, when my toes are on display in sandals of various shapes, I paint them discreet and quietly pretty colours bearing names like Sweetheart, Bubble Bath and Mimosa.  But come wintertime, when they are forever enclosed in woolen socks and riding boots, I get a bit more adventurous. 
 This week they’re wearing a new colour from Nars.
 A deep, earthy, verdant green that reminds me of
 forests, moss, and skeins of Shetland wool.  Love it!
Find it HERE

8.  Knitting 
See.  This is why I knit!
A friend’s new baby wearing the cardigan I knitted for her.
Yes, this makes me smile.

9.  A Fabulous Christmas Present
I adored The Grand Budapest Hotel when I saw it last summer.  And I loved Tilda Swinton’s outrageous character, Madame D.  So, a good friend’s delightfully talented daughter made me this for Christmas.  I’ve put it next to the mirror where I get ready to face the day.  It guarantees I’m smiling when I do.
(By the way:  The fabulous frame this photograph is in?  I received TWO of these for Christmas.  From two different people who don’t know each other.  What does that say about me do you think?  *laughing*)

10.   The Porch
My Father always had a devil of a time raking leaves from our front garden.  Just as he’d get a pile raked up, I would be disassembling it to create the house plan I was fashioning under the sweet gum trees.  Rooms and windows, doors and porches… I laid them all out on the ground like a blueprint, making sure the room I chose for my own had the best view, naturally.  It’s never been a secret that I love houses.  As a child, there was nothing I liked better than riding in the back seat of my parent’s car at night, gazing into the windows of the houses passing by, each one different, individual, mysterious.  When I saw the movie Out of Africa, while all my friends were swooning over Robert Redford, I was in love with Karen Blixen’s house.  I have seen the ghosts of great men and great women drifting in the sunbeams of the houses in which they once lived.  Hammersmith Farm and Monk’s House.  Andalusia and Mendips.   Red House, Leighton House Charleston House.  Wandering through the rooms of these magical places  - each so different, each so evocative of their enigmatic owners - gave me such inspiration.  
Needless to say, my roots are deeply entwined round this cottage I call home.   Each and every corner is imbued with what I find most beautiful, most personal, and I love living here.  Any changes to the place are thought out and dreamed of with great seriousness.  So in October, when we finally decided to release a particular dream from my imagination and make it real, we were most excited. 

In our bedroom there has been, for years, a window seat underneath three large windows that looked over the back garden.  In my dreams I saw one of the three windows  becoming a door opening on a screened breezeway leading to a round screened porch, a birdhouse of sorts, just for us.  Seeing this long-held dream blossom into reality was a thrill involving many serendipitous components:  antique leading glass windows, handmade gothic chairs made of willow, a fir tree weathervane atop a large octagonal cupola that glows with a green light at night, paintings of Scotland on the new curved windowseat and, of course, two new large fat tartan dog beds.  It is finished now; a thoroughly magical place that transcends my dream. 

11.  And then there’s this:
“How far that little candle throws his beams.
  So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

Watch full screen if you can.
Find more of Matt's video's HERE

I hope you're smiling!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Thoughts on a Holiday

Thoughts on a Holiday

During the civil rights movement of the 1960’s I was too little, and way too sheltered, to be of much use.  Even though Martin Luther King Jr. and I grew up in the very same city, his noble activities were something I only saw occasionally flash across a black and white television screen as I ran through the living room on my way outside to play.  Ensconced in my leafy enclave where swing sets sat under tall trees and the ice cream truck sang its way down our street every afternoon round four, I was blissfully unaware of injustice, ignorant of racism, and oblivious to hate.  It was very different across town.  I know this now.

Whenever I watch the films of the civil rights marches I am always struck by the faces of the men holding the fire hoses.  I compare them to the expressions worn by the men and women being thrown up against buildings and face down on streets by the force of the water shot towards them.  Strangely, it is the perpetrators who wear the faces of hate.  Self-righteousness twisted into thin-lipped, steel-eyed grimaces that perfectly illustrate the monstrosity of their wearer’s actions even as they manage to reveal the fear lurking just beneath the skin.  For there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years since that time:  fear is generally the precursor to hate.  

There is much to fear today.  This past year has been a ceaseless parade of unparalleled atrocities, played out on screens for all the world to see.  It is cavalier not to be frightened of these brutal savages who slaughter the innocent before our very eyes.   But like all dark emotions, fear lives next to neighbours capable of great damage.  It can lead us to airless places where bitterness pulls the curtain down on hope and hatred slams the door to love.   It can - slowly, almost imperceptibly - fashion an unrecognizable world.

Today on this day when we pause to remember the achievements of Martin Luther King Jr., I am thinking it is easy, too easy, to hate those who commit these acts of barbarism across our world today.  It is easy to stay in our homes and arm ourselves;  easy to applaud the torture of our enemies, even as Christ called us to love them.  It is temptingly easy to categorize man as good or evil and easy to banish the evil to hell. But in doing so, in taking this easy way out of the confusion and fear that we all must feel when faced with our current realities, what do we do to our culture?  What do we do to our souls?

“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, 
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars... 
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
MLK, Jr. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

So Sure, and So Wrong

So Sure and So Wrong

They were the treacherous triumvirate that hid like trolls under fairy tale bridges waiting to snatch unsuspecting saddle-shoed children as they skipped merrily by at the close of an otherwise carefree day.  Mumps, Measles and Chicken Pox.  Though rather Seuss-ian in name, make no mistake, in the days before vaccines for these three, they barred the way to our adulthood like invulnerable dragons.  We simply had to let them do their worst before we could pass. How well I recall the heavy discomfort and freak show visage I had with the mumps.  When the measles struck I ran a fever so high I still remember all the furniture shimmering like liquid.  But I was always too fast for chicken pox.  Try as they might, they could never quite manage to catch me.  It is a part of my family lore and legend:  I never had chicken pox.  “Remarkable!”  “Amazing!”  These were the astonished comments uttered by the mothers of my playmates as they placed cold compresses on the foreheads of their itchy, irritable children and warned them not to scratch.  I myself vividly recall being quickly packed up and bundled away from any spotty child who happened to be anywhere in the vicinity. 

As an adult it was, I’m ashamed to admit, with a mixture of pity and unflattering smugness that I watched the television ads for the new shingles vaccine.  As the poor sufferers recounted their tales of woe, I stared blithely down from my safe, impregnable mountain secure in the knowledge that their affliction could never touch me.  It is a well known fact that one cannot get shingles if one has not had chicken pox and I, it was just as well known, had never, no never, had chicken pox.

So here I was, on the eve of epiphany, staring like a codfish at my doctor as she squinted knowingly at the small, oddly painful, spot on my forehead and stated emphatically, for the second time, “Shingles.  Yes. Absolutely."

“But, but”, I began again.  “I’ve never had chicken pox.”

“Yes.  As you’ve said.  But I’m telling you that’s impossible.  No doubt you had a mild case,
 or even an asymptomatic one.  It happens.  But there is no way you made it to adulthood in this country, before the vaccine, and didn’t have chicken pox.  No matter now.  You had them.  And you have shingles.  Now go home, take your medicine just as I’ve told you and go to bed.”

So I drove home with a couple of bottles of pills large enough to choke a horse sitting beside me and thought.  I was so certain.  My parents were so certain.  I called my very first friend to tell her and even she was so, so certain.  But we were all wrong.  About what else could I be so sure, and so wrong?  It was most disconcerting. I thought of oysters, pea soup and asparagus.  Long ago I decided I hated them.  Maybe I don’t now.  Perhaps I no longer look embalmed whenever I wear yellow.  Could it now be possible I might be good at math?  Ballet?  Could I sing harmony now? It gave me much to ponder on the road to recovery, I can tell you.

*A personal note:  I know without a doubt I have the most thoughtful readers in the land.  The notes, the cards, the little movies!  You all were so sweet and your correspondences made my dreadful week much less so.  Thank you!  Now all of you go out and get the shingles vaccine.  Trust me.  You don’t want this.  I was most fortunate to catch it very early, when just a teensy spot on my forehead, and start strong anti-viral medications that, although they made me feel pretty crummy themselves, did the trick beautifully and stopped the process cold.  I cannot imagine the alternative, though I know many people have experienced it.  Now, go get the vaccine!  

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Edward On Duty

Edward On Duty
The big white dog waited by the door in spite of the temperatures tumbling outside in the late afternoon air.  Normally in these few waning moments of daylight he would be found romping round the back garden in a last burst of daytime energy before settling down in front of the fire for a restful, dozy evening.  But The Lady wasn’t home yet, and he was worried.  She hadn’t been herself when she left and though she’d said nothing, he'd known it.  And so he waited, head on paws, ears pricked.

Hearing her car pull into the drive, he sat up and stared at the doorknob.  Seeing it turn, he stood.  One look at her and he knew he’d been right.  She didn’t feel well.  She gave him a slight pat on the head and headed immediately out through the kitchen and down the long hallway to the bedroom, letting her coats, shawls and gloves fall behind in her wake.  She fell into bed.  The big dog stood at the door and watched.

Right.  He knew what he had to do.  Wheeling around, he went to find Apple, his furry black housemate, and told her there was to be no unnecessary barking at squirrels or chipmunks for the foreseeable future.  He then trotted into the den and under the piano where lay his new Christmas toy.  “You never know”, he thought to himself.  “She might like to play if she feels better.”  He made his way back down the hallway to the bedroom door and stopped, stock still.
  The door was closed.
In shock, he dropped his toy.
Lifting one large white paw, he demanded entrance.
Bang, Bang, Bang!
The door shook.  And opened.
“Sorry, Edward.”  The Man stepped aside to let him in.
Refusing to allow his annoyance to dent his dignity, the big white dog trotted into the room with his head held high and jumped as lightly as a bird atop the fluffy bed.
The Lady placed her hand on his head and he lay close beside her.
And there he stayed.

Cold itself drove down through the clouds that night, led by thundering steeds of wind that raked the bare trees and screamed past the cottage eaves.  Still the big dog stayed close by The Lady, refusing to move.  As the temperatures dropped past fifteen, past ten, The Lady slept and the big dog kept watch.  In the afternoon he would reluctantly leave his post to tear figure eights through the garden, kangaroo-boxing with Apple, playing tag round the hemlocks, in a pent-up burst of unexploded energy.  Then he would calmly return, quiet and somber, to take up his post once again.  

On the third day he overheard The Man talking in the other room.  
“Yes, it’s fortunate.  We caught it early.”
“Must have been a mild case”.
“Very thankful.  The medicine did the trick. She’s on the mend.”

The big dog chuckled to himself.
Medicine, nothing.
Whatever would they do without him?

They are curled up together tonight.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Laid Low

Laid Low
I am sorry to report that I have been laid low.
By shingles, of all things.
Believe everything you’ve ever heard.
This is the worst.
But never fear, I have three excellent nurses,
one of whom chooses to stay as close by my side as possible.
I bet you can guess who that is.
Bless him.
I shall return soon, all better I hope.
Till then, I can hardly read, much less write.
So, leave a comment to make me laugh!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Christmas All Year Round

Christmas All Year Round

If we push back the lighted limbs in the forest of fir trees and quieten the carolers gathered outside;  if we hold up a hand to delay Father Christmas or freeze Santa Claus stock still on the roof, we can easily remember that Christmas is a religious holiday.  There are those who lose themselves in lamentation every festive season in their belief that this fact has been forgotten.  They tell us that Santa is nothing more than an anagram for Satan, that the holiness of the occasion has dimmed to nonexistence in the neon glare of commercialism and mall traffic.  They even grumble that Christ was actually born in April, thus rendering all this festivity and joy quite ill-placed.  

I recently read an essay by a woman I admire, a writer and thinker who often speaks about faith and religion with coherence and a seeking mind.  In this article, I was dismayed to read her list of all the reasons she no longer, “does Christmas”.  She states,  “I don't like -- don't approve, refuse to throw myself into -- the spirit of obligatory gift-giving.”   She sites the usual soul-stealing culprits here:   the excess, the trivia, Black Friday, Cyber Monday.  And though she still recognizes “faint glimmers” of the incarnational heart of Christmas in our 21st century style, she sees it as nothing more than a “distortion of us as a culture…”, concluding that “… I for one am done”.

Well, with all due respect, not so fast.  Yes, capitalism co-opted Christmas, years ago.  Yes, I find the term “Black Friday” - so widely accepted here in the States as the new moniker for the national Sales-o-Rama occurring on the day after Thanksgiving - frankly repulsive.  The focus on expensive, debt-inducing gifts is disturbing and the break-neck pace of holiday activity is exhausting.  Which is why I choose not to let those more unsavory aspects of the current culture through my front door.  

But oh, I love Christmas.  It is with deep happiness and love that I pick up gifts throughout the year for those close to me in happy anticipation of wrapping them up during the festive season.  I choose to view the first lights that appear, even those hung a bit too early, as tiny affirmations of the joy that permeates this holy time of year.  For those of us who know this joy, to refuse to welcome the season of Christmas with celebration is to concede defeat to a culture that tries at every turn to steal away the beautiful, the unique, and the reverent.  I refuse to allow that.

I did not set foot in a mall this season.  I did not participate in one-day-sales or early bird specials. Most of the gifts I gave were hand-made, home-baked, or discovered on my travels in tiny shops with creaky floors and foggy windows.  The “fiscal health” report on our nation for the holiday season will not include any measurable amount from me.  In fact, the favorite gift I gave this year was for to a friend who adores the poet John Keats.  Whilst in Hampstead in October, I plucked several perfect leaves from a gnarled old tree in Keats' garden and pressed them into a notebook where they rested until I returned home.  I wrapped a embroidered cloth around a board, arranged the leaves in a lovely design, and framed them in an old black forest frame.  Leaves from a tree planted in the grounds where Keats once strolled.  She loved it.  

I don’t mean to be too hard on this lady who has decided to abandon gift-giving along with the other trappings of Christmas.  She has also decided, in lieu of more traditional celebration, to give clothing to homeless teens after all, and that is admirable.  For myself, however, Christmas is not just a season that resides on the December page of the calendar.  It is something that I feel every month of the year.  I have my eye on it in March and July; it wafts in the heat of a southern breeze in August and follows me up over a Scottish hillside in September.  When the rest of the world registers its presence with carols and lights, I am delighted to celebrate openly for as long as I reasonably can.  

A New Year is dawning, with as much uncertainty and mystery as all the others before it.  Will we win a prize in April, or break an ankle in May?  Will a golden sun shine on us in November?  Will the storms of March drive us to distraction?  It is the spirit of Christmas that keeps these prospects, these mysteries, from overwhelming my heart.  That wonderful seasonal delight and joy stays with me throughout the vagaries of an unknown year.  I hope you experience the joy of Christmas throughout this new year as well.  
Edward and I will be here, 
 turned towards the wind with grins on our faces, 
ready for anything that comes.