Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Getting Off the Escalator

Getting Off the Escalator

We weren’t quite sure what to expect last September when we rolled our rental car onto the ferry at Uig, bound for the Isle of Harris.  Due to an incoming gale we were the “last ferry out”, something I seem to have a knack for experiencing.  (Don’t believe me?  See this post.) The skies were merely overcast and drizzly when we left but about thirty minutes into our journey the wind made an appearance, sweeping down from the mountains like a winged battalion and by the time we swayed and tossed into Tarbert we were in the center of a full-throated, theatrical storm.  Our car climbed the hill above the harbor and we rolled our way through the lunar landscape of Harris, waves crashing on our right, winds howling outside our tightly closed windows, till we came to the glorious sight of Scarista Beach with its Caribbean green waters roiling and churning in the gale.  Looking up to the hillside on our left, we could just make out the serene presence of Scarista House, our home for the next few days.  

The wind grabbed the car door, throwing it open with such force it nearly popped off its metal hinges and we were literally bent double against its power as we inched our way to the front door. The Songwriter tugged and pulled it open only to have it immediately slammed shut behind us the moment we entered.  Inside all was quiet, save for the sound of rattling windows, whistling wind and crackling fire.  Tea, shortbread and Victoria Sponge were laid out in the book-strewn study just to the left of the entry.  A handsome Scot appeared and offered to take our coats and carry our luggage up to our seaview room.  Honestly, if my heavenly welcome is half as wonderful, I shall be utterly thrilled.  

Scarista House is small and elegant, the sort of place one reads about in Agatha Christie novels but never quite believes exists in reality.  There are only a few perfectly appointed rooms, and whilst we were there it seemed as though the assembled guests had been curated for their intelligence, curiosity and wit.  Following highly individual adventures each day we would all meet before dinner for drinks, appetizers and conversation.  Strangely, and rather happily, I found myself the youngest woman there so I spent most of my time listening, observing, and filing away little tidbits of wisdom for later use.   The topics discussed before the fire were riveting, wildly varied, and I was entranced to see women leading in the discussions by an overwhelming degree.  Hands down, the most beautiful woman in the room had just turned eighty, an impeccable beauty with nary a trace of make-up and an ever-present smile.   I took note that she was the most curious person among us.  One particularly insightful note came from a women of seventy who said, of turning fifty, “My dears, that was the year I got off the escalator.”  We all laughed.  Her meaning was clear without all the details.  Her fiftieth year was the one in which she stopped competing, stopped comparing, stopped striving for perfection. 

To be perfectly candid, I’ve always preferred the stairs over the escalator.  I’ve never been tempted into any sort of competition with my fellow females.   But there have been times, sad to say, when I’ve fallen victim to the sin of comparison.  For instance, looking around in my teen years I noticed I was of a decidedly lighter complexion than any of my friends.  This prompted an ill-advised spate of sun bathing, an activity that proved not only ineffective but wholly unpleasant.  I quickly gave that up and fully embraced high SPFs and large hats. Then there was the time when, upon reading that a model I admired used this regimen for shiny hair, I slathered my long hair in mayonnaise.  Seriously.  This resulted in nothing more than an strong olfactory resemblance to egg salad that made me queasy, not shiny.   And I’m sorry to report that recently, after spying a photograph of Cate Blanchett in Vogue UK, I  thought my eyebrows should be darker.   This ill-advised comparison to the great Cate caused me to purchase a highly recommended eyebrow product, albeit in the very lightest colour.  The result?  Well, have you seen those internet photos of babies whose wee faces have had eyebrows penciled in by mothers obviously desperate for a laugh?  Well, that was me and The Songwriter did laugh, oh indeed he did.   So yes, I’m sticking with the light eyebrows God gave me. They go with my face.

These are humorous examples, notable for their triviality.  But comparison and competition are toxic indulgences and ones to which we women seem unduly susceptible. I have observed this it in young women (from the ubiquitous kissy face photo poses to the alteration of voices into the Kardashian squawk) and in elderly ones (in the dwindling down of personal style and the conformity to more “acceptable” forms of hairstyle and dress), and it is always a poison to the one quality that really makes us all so special: Individualty.  And of course, insidious in its subtleness is the danger that, slowly, almost unnoticed, we slide from the trivial to the vital, altering our beliefs and opinions to conform with others until we are nothing more than a shadow, an echo, of who we might have been.

Listening to those beautiful, interesting women on the Isle of Harris while the sea crashed outside and the fire blazed inside, I was encouraged about my future, strengthened in my own individuality and very grateful to have been granted an audience to listen to women much older than me.  I wish the same for all of you this year.  May we all “get off the escalator” and march into this new year confident in who we are, young, old or in-between.  

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Here We Go!

“Instructions for living a life. 
Pay attention. 
Be astonished. 
Tell about it.”

Mary Oliver 

Happy New Year to all my Kind Followers.
Here we go!
photo above: Haworth moors, April 2016

Monday, December 26, 2016

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Light of Hope

“I can't run no more 
with that lawless crowd 
while the killers in high places 
say their prayers out loud. 
But they've summoned, they've summoned up 
a thundercloud 
and they're going to hear from me. 

Ring the bells that still can ring 
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack in everything 
That's how the light gets in.” 
Leonard Cohen

The Light of Hope

During my life here on earth there have been few artists who have spoken to me as eloquently as Leonard Cohen.  His words wove themselves into a language only my soul could understand, often denying me the ability to adequately articulate their unique meaning for to do so would have been equal to translating words only recognized by the heart.  In a prescient move that seemed to underscore the title of his only just released collection of songs, You Want it Darker, Leonard Cohen shook off the bonds of this world the day after the US election.  (The wisest woman of my acquaintance beat him by one day.)  And darker seems to be what we are destined to experience.  For an artist whose observations had illuminated the vicissitudes of our culture for decades, perhaps what we currently prepare to face was simply more than God felt he should have to endure.  Leonard Cohen’s work was done.  Ours is just beginning.

With each new henchman nominated to the cabinet of our new president-elect it becomes clearer that the values I hold dear will be under ridicule and peril over the next four years.  A known darling of white supremacists is now the chief presidential strategist.  We have a prospective Secretary of Energy who has voiced his desire to abolish that department entirely.  A possible Secretary of Education who is famously no fan of public education and a choice for Attorney General whose racist views denied him a judgeship in the past.  Up for Secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency is a man who scoffs at the idea of climate change and our nominee for Secretary of State is the president of Exxon Mobile, a man impoverished in foreign policy experience but rich in oil negotiations, particularly with Russia.  It is now been proven by the CIA, FBI and the State Department that Russia influenced our election process to favor our new president-elect.  This fact is made even more frightening in the face of such nonchalant response from the same people who handled Mrs. Clinton’s innocuous emails as though each was still burning with hellfire itself.  It does not take much awareness to know that if the situation were reversed and Russia had successfully aided Mrs. Clinton the blowback from Congress and their talk radio pals would have been strong enough to sandblast the faces off Mt. Rushmore.  At what point does hypocrisy become evil?

By most anyone’s estimation this had been a dreadful year.  We have lost far too many bright lights to count.  Harper Lee, Prince, David Bowie, Zaha Hadid, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Sir George Martin,  John Glenn -  just a small mention of everyone who left us.   New words entered our vocabulary:  Zika, Brexit, Aleppo.  We gaped as dignity, intelligence and grace were kicked to the curb in our embarrassing presidential election.  We mourned with those in Nice and Paris.  And in the midst of it all we wrestled with a frustrating sense of impotence in the face of each new horror, each new pain.  For what can one person do, really, in the face of a chaos that threatens to obliterate every goodness it can find.  

This weekend we celebrate the birth of Christ, a birth that was illuminated by a star of great light.  A star of hope.  In an interview this week Michelle Obama said, “Hope is necessary.  What else do you have if you don’t have hope?  What do you give your children if you can’t give them hope?"  Indeed, Christmas has always been about hope.  Hope of a new world, a new birth - hope of forgiveness, love, and comfort.  It is that hope that puts my feet on the ground each morning with a continued determination to do what I can, however small and insignificant it may seem, to foster beauty and kindness in the world around me, to share a bit of the hope announced by that long ago star .  

In my book of essays, From the House of Edward, there is a piece  I wrote one cold night during a Christmas season several years ago when I couldn’t sleep.  Sitting beside a twinkling Christmas tree as the last embers of a fire dwindled down in the grate I looked out my frost-rimmed window and felt as though my little fir-scented home was as removed from the ugliness of the world as those storybook cottages that sit, forever serene, inside a snow globe.  This year I feel that way more than ever.  It is from home that I take my strength to face the world around me.  Inside these walls it is cheery, loving and warm.  There is respect, kindness and laughter.  A favorite light is always on in the window, a light that glows in the darkness when I pull in the drive in the evening and, like the great star before it, it gives me hope, for I know inside those doors I’ll find much needed nourishment for my soul. 

 May we all look to that star of hope this Christmas season.  May it give us what we need to fight the good fight in the coming year; the fight for goodness, truth, love, and compassion.  And may all my wonderful readers have a Merry, Merry Christmas as we march into a new year with the determination such hope provides. 
 Bless you all.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Two Weeks to Go... A Last Minute Shopping List

Two Weeks to Go

The line of traffic stretched out in front of me as far as my eye could see, a long curving garland of red brake lights twinkling in the cold rain.  A rather macabre Christmas decoration, but I see Christmas everywhere just now.  I’m early this year.  My gifts are wrapped and those that needed to be mailed have been mailed.  The fudge is made and some of it has already been delivered.  The cards have been addressed and are winging their way across the world as we speak.  (You can peek into Christmas at The House of Edward on our Instagram page.)
But don’t be cross with me; it’s a rare thing for me to be completely at my leisure with two whole weeks still to go before Christmas, and for those of you with a bit more shopping to do…. here are a dozen goodies you can still grab up before the deadline.
Just click on the picture and it’s all nearly done. 
Fun, huh?

1. The Pajamas
She will love these.
AND, they’re on sale!

2.  The Teddy Bear
Perhaps for yourself.
We all need our own teddy these days, right?

3.  The Holiday Candle
Charles Dickens Library candle.
Combine this with THIS BOOK
 and you’ve got the perfect hostess gift.

4.  The Coat
Fake and fun.
The best kind.

5.  The Books
I know I’ve already done a book post but….
these sets are marvelous.
gardening set....
and a Narnia set.
And many, many more.
Too wonderful.

6.  The Sweater
One you can feel good in.
And feel good about.
Thanks, Emma.

7.  The Cookies
Bake these.
Include THIS.
 And you’re a genius.

8.  The Bike
and yes, a bit of a splurge.

9.  The Gloves
These keep your hands from freezing whilst walking the dog, 
and you can still text for help if you fall in a snowbank.
Plus, a wee bit of tartan!

10.  The Dog Toy
Fun, and immense satisfaction, for the whole family.

11.  The Scarf
Moon and Stars.
12.  The Yarn
100% Cashmere
and there’s still time to knit a cowl.
are flying across the world for Christmas.
Last shipping date, the 20th!
Don’t delay!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Books at Christmas - 2016

Books for Christmas - 2016

Ideally, there should be snow.  Not enough to make the way treacherous, for again, ideally, we’ll be walking, but enough to sugar dust the holly bushes and dance in the street light’s glow.  The windows of our destination should be atmospherically lit and, not unlike those of a sweet shop, designed and arranged with an artist’s eye to colour and shape.  We should linger there in the falling snow before we reach for the door.
There should be a bell on the door.  It should announce our arrival, not with the harsh clank of a cow’s pendant, but with a sound more akin to a fairy’s laugh.  There should be wooden floors, old and weathered wooden floors on which decades of shoppers have wandered through the aisles lost in contented concentration.  We should come up on a sleeping dog in a niche behind non-fiction and a large Persian cat should brush against our leg in cookery. 

The proprietor should be older, slightly mussed, with half-moon glasses perched on his nose and his knitted waistcoat haphazardly buttoned.  He should greet us warmly, though a tad absentmindedly.  He should also, like a soothsayer, know instinctively if we are in need of the perfect suggestion.
There should not be a cafe, nor should music be played over some tinny central speaker.  There should be a small radio underneath the counter, softly playing Bach, so softly the music seems to come from our own heads, unheard by others, the soundtrack to our own serenity.

And the books we find should be perfect.  So many that we start a small stack on the counter, the bespectacled owner nodding to himself each time we add another.   There should be books to teach and remind.  Books to lose oneself inside.  Books to take us on journeys impossible without the written word, with power to spirit us back in time, witnesses to history.  Their words should help us stand like a tree in the troubled present.  Through them, we should dream, we should remember, we should escape.
Each book should be wrapped in brown paper, tied with a red and white string, and placed in two large paper sacks.  The proprietor should give us a peppermint as we leave.   We should wish each other the compliments of the season.  The sound of fairy’s laughter should ring in our ears as we close the door behind us and head through the falling snow to the cafe on the corner where we would meet someone handsome and bearded for a hot chocolate and a bit of holiday cheer. 

Ideally, this should be Christmas shopping.

Here’s a list of recommendations for 2016. 
Some of these I’ve read, some I’ve yet to read. 
Some are older, some just published. 
Some are perfect for gifts, some are to keep for yourself. 
 And one I wrote myself. 
 The first line of each is included and, as always, 
click on the book to find out more.
Happy shopping! 

1.  Commonwealth
by Ann Patchett
“The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.”

2.  Being a Dog:
Following the Dog Into a World of Smell
by Alexandra Horowitz
“Finnegan’s is ebony black, moist and dappled, two cavernous bass clefs at its front.”

3.  Edward Speaks at Midnight
by Pamela Terry
“It was Christmas Eve and Edward, the big white dog, was underneath the piano, his head resting atop his furry paws.”

4.  English Houses
by Ben Pentreath
“Charlie and I live above the trees in an ancient, leafy London square.”

5.  The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood
“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”

6.  Upstream
by Mary Oliver
“In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed.”

7.   Cecil Beaton At Home
by Andrew Ginger
“Taste breaks out of all rules; as soon as it is pigeon-holed it is dead.”

8.  The Moon Before Morning
by W. S. Merwin
“The sky said I am watching
to see what you 
can make out of nothing.”

9.  The Road to Character
by David Brooks
“On Sunday evenings my local NPR stations rebroadcasts old radio programs.”

10.  Nutshell
by Ian McEwan
“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

11.  Hitler: Volume I: Ascent 1889-1939
by Volker Ullrich
“The fellow is a catastrophe, but that’s no reason not to find him interesting as a personality and destiny” wrote Thomas Mann in his essay, Brother Hitler, adding that no none should feel ‘above dealing with this murky figure.”

12.  Faithful
by Alice Hoffman
“In February, when the snow comes down hard,  little globes of light are left along Route 110, on the side of the road that slopes off when a driver least expects it.”

13.  The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead
“Jockey’s birthday only came once or twice a year.”

14.  H is for Hawk
by Helen MacDonald
“Forty-five minutes northeast of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much.”

15.  Mad Enchantment
Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies
by Ross King
"Where is Clemenceau?"

16.  Wanderlust
by Michelle Nussbaumer and Hutton Wilkinson 
“When my husband asked my father for my hand in marriage, my father said yes, but with a caveat, ‘as long as you don’t ever take my daughter away.”

17.  The Outrun
by Amy Liptrot
“On my first day back I shelter beside an old freezer, down by some stinging nettles, and watch the weather approach over the sea.”

 18.  Literary Wonderlands: 
A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created
by Laura Miller, Lev Grossman,  John Sutherland and Tom Shippey

19.  Bedtime Stories
from Everyman's Pocket Classics
“There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest.”

20.  A Christmas Memory
by Truman Capote
“Imagine a morning in late November.”