It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
Greenness entered the body. The grasses
shivered with presences, and sunlight
stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
the woman from the fish-shop. 'What a day it is!'
cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
And what did she have to say for it?
Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
'We'll pay for it, we'll pay for it, we'll pay for it!'
by Alastair Reid
The photograph and poem above might give you a clue where The Songwriter and I are.
Needless to say, I am in my favorite land at present.
For now…. here’s a few treats for an early fall.
1. Outlander Knitting
For those people who have always questioned my tendency to head to Scotland whenever I go on holiday... (“What about Italy??Wouldn’t you prefer a more tropical clime?”)... I have only to point to the new television production of the book, Outlander.An endless stream of scenes from the Scottish Highlands, romantic and achingly atmospheric, I dare anyone not to be seduced by their beauty.As I lover of Scotland, I haven’t missed an episode.But there is another reason I have become a devoted viewer.And yes, I am well aware of the remarkable handsomeness of the show’s male lead, but he is only a distraction to the real temptation of this eye-catching show.I am talking here about the knitting.Shawls and scarves, sweaters and capes - enough to make a knitter positively swoon.Just take a gander at the fabulous cowl worn by the show’s starin the photo above.Sigh.
The knitting community is nothing if not resourceful and new patterns for these Outlander creations flood the internet after the airing of each new episode.
And of course, here’s my favourite model in two of my latest finished projects.
I am wearing these in the Highlands right now!
(I tried to make him smile, but he took this modeling job very seriously.)
2. The Bartering System
As someone who loves to bake but is reluctant to partake of every concoction in its entirety lest I become rounder than tall, I have recently entered into the most satisfying deal ever.One of my favourite neighbours raises not only three adorable children, but a mini herd of mini goats, a rabbit, two cats, and a flock of designer chickens that seem hand-painted by angels; I see designs for rooms and sweaters in their feathers each time I visit.Well, here’s the thing.Even with a family of five, my friend was gathering far more eggs than she could use each and every week.So.We have joined together in an old-fashioned arrangement known through the ages as the bartering system.I bake something fabulous for her family, and in return receive a large basket full of fresh eggs.All colours, all sizes, as befitting a flock of feathered individuals rather than a bunch of poor systemized, programmed, industrialized fowl.These eggs have transformed my breakfast into a tasty treat I look forward to every morning.Plus, I get to wave my wooden spoons over desserts both delicious and ambitious.A win-win for everyone!Highly recommended if you have the right neighbours.That’s the adorable middle child, Dahlia, pictured above.
3. Kitchen Tiles
I think it started with the kitchen so prominently featured in the 2003 film, Something’s Gotta Give.A somewhat beachy kitchen, with white cabinets, white subway tiles, black countertops and dark wooden floors.Almost instantaneously it seemed, that kitchen was absolutely everywhere.It’s undeniably beautiful, but so sadly ubiquitous now.With each new copy it seems more and more unoriginal and bland; it could be anyone’s kitchen.I don’t know about you, but I am longing for colour and individuality in design these days.Even wild eccentricity, if it accurately represents the personality of the owner.To that end.... these tiles by Welbeck have me entranced.The whole line sends sparks through my mind.Can’t you just imagine the kitchen these could inspire?
Edward loves to hop up in our bedroom windowseat to view the back garden at his leisure, and to nap. Apple has a special spot in the family room just behind a painted monkey book stand and just over a floor vent for the air-conditioner.Both of them can also occasionally be found snoozing together underneath the piano, a hiding placewhere they are guaranteed privacy as well as an excellent view of the front door.Every dog loves a special spot to call his on.Which brings me to the photo above.
With fashion weeks in New York and London just past,
two books sound like so much fun.
I’ll Drink to That
by Betty Halbreich
If you happened to see the delightful little bonbon of a film, Scatter My Ashes at Berdorf’s, you’ll easily remember Betty Halbreich. She stole the movie away from everyone else, including personalities as gilded as Lagerfeld and Armani. A personal shopper at Berdorf-Goodman department store for years, Betty has stories to tell, all with a snooty, imperious tone than somehow manages to charm rather than repel. She’s now written a book that’s sure to be an entertaining romp of a read.
I’m not particularly sure how I came to be so fortunate, but I’m convinced I have the best readers in the entire world.Whenever I hear about the horrors of the internet, I don’t say much, for my experience through this blog has been nothing short of lovely.Case in point:the charming Tish Jett of the blog Femme d'Un Certain Age … posted a photograph of Edward and me a few weeks ago along with the words, “somebody should paint this!”.A few days later, I received a letter from the gorgeous artist, Helen Tilston, who informed me she had done precisely that.Whilst on holiday in Ireland, she placed her easel beside the sea and painted the image of Edward and me.It arrived this week, along with two special pebbles from the very same Irish shore on which the painting was created.What can I say to such generosity?A mere Thank You seems quite anemic to me.Needless to say, I shall treasure this forever.
A buttery golden pound cake always sat under a cut glass dome on the kitchen counter of my Great-Aunt Susie. No visitor was too insignificant to be offered a slice of this delectable concoction and no visitor would ever dream of refusing such an offer, for Aunt Susie’s culinary skills were legend. Her pièce de résistance was her Burnt Caramel Cake, a towering wonderment that was known to make grown men swoon as easily as it turned their wives positively green with the sort of domestic envy reserved for those shirt-waisted, pearl-draped housewives of a bygone era. It was the icing. Deep, rich, and tawny as the king’s honey, it was impossible for any woman in town to recreate, no matter how diligently they tried.
Now, Aunt Susie was a formidable woman, something even I, the little golden-haired grand-niece on whom she showered unabashed affection, could easily see. She was not a woman to be crossed, pushed, or pressed. Deservedly proud of her cooking, she preferred to be thought of as unique in those abilities and kept her recipes as secret as the spells of a sorceress. The few women who had been so foolish as to request her recipe for that Burnt Caramel Cake only did so once.
So, frustrated by years of unsuccessful attempts to recreate that caramel cake, the women of Aunt Susie’s church hatched a plan. They decided to publish a cookbook. My Aunt could not possibly resist the lure of publication, in hardback no less. Her name placed forever in print as the creator of such a magnificent cake would surely appeal to her pride, her altruism (for the cookbook would raise needed funds for the church, after all), as well as her sense of legacy and veneration as it would be handed down in her family, generation after admiring generation. To their surprise and immense delight, my Aunt agreed to include her much coveted Burnt Caramel Cake recipe in the book and the ladies of the church could hardly wait for the date of publication.
I have that cookbook in my kitchen now. And yes, there on page 40 is my Aunt’s famed Burnt Caramel Cake. She has provided a detailed recipe for the cake, which is a basic yellow cake the sort of which most amateur bakers would have easily mastered in grade school. But at the close of the recipe, she has simply written : Frost with Burnt Caramel Icing. No instructions, no ingredient list, no special secrets revealed.
I would like to say that this tradition of culinary secrecy ended with my Aunt, but I laugh to myself now as I remember my Mother sneaking out of church down the back stairs one Sunday morning, determined to avoid a lady who’d requested the recipe for her Christmas Fudge. I use that fudge recipe still, every festive season, a family privilege reserved for those of MacDonald blood, but I feel the ice cold stares of the matriarchal wing of my family whenever anyone asks for the recipe. “I’ll just make you some”, I usually reply, unwilling to disturb those formidable women gone on before. I have toyed with the idea of finally sharing these recipes by engraving them on my tombstone, thereby ending the secretiveness once and for all even as I ensure that my grave will be visited for years to come.
Above painting by P. J. Crook
I am once again honored to have been included in By Invitation Only,
the brainchild of Marsha Harris, creator of the beautiful blog, Splenderosa.
You can find all the other essays on this month's topic of Sharing, HERE.
As punctual as daybreak, as constant as the tides, it is a memory that returns to me every single time I walk along a lonely beach at twilight. The wonderfully reliable recollection floods my senses and I find that, once again, it takes no effort to see myself as I once was - a little girl, holding the hand of my father, trying without success to match his stride in the sand as we strolled along in the light of a setting seaside sun. We would stand with our eyes on the dark stripe of horizon as the sea stole the sand away beneath our bare feet, grain by grain, as though in an hourglass, causing us to sidestep to firmer footing every minute or so. The wind would whip and whisper. And my Father would tell me stories.
“Look”, he’d say. “Way out there. As far as you can see, and then a bit more. Can you see it?”
“See what?”, I’d ask, my little eyes squinting as they stared at that mysterious place where sea becomes sky.
“Oh, there’s so much to see”, he’d reply. “There are creatures, way down in the water, creatures taller than buildings, creatures that can fill up the sky. Monsters and heroes, angels and witches, good things and bad things.”
“Dogs?”, I would ask, hopefully.
“Maybe, “ came the reply.
And I would stare and stare, my eyes stinging, with my little heart throbbing halfway in hope and halfway in fear. And just the night took over the day, I would squeal....”I think I can see it, Daddy! I see someone walking out over the sea! Someone really big! Can you see him??”
“Of course I can, Squirt. You bet I can.”
Sometimes at night when Edward lays quietly beside me as I read before bed, I catch him looking up at me, his big brown eyes a mirror of his devoted soul, and I’m almost certain he’s getting ready to speak. There is a part of me that would not be at all surprised. I watch the crowds in airports, wondering which of these people might be in disguise. Which ones are angels? Who is here from a different time? I think the owls speak in a lyrical language I have yet to learn. I think there just might be those around me I cannot see, busying themselves in work of which I know nothing. I don’t have to talk myself into this way of seeing the world; it is as much as part of me as breathing. And of course, I credit my Father.
My imagination was awakened on those seaside walks when I was little. My Father told me stories that erased a flat and monochrome world forever, stories that sparked and crackled as they opened door after door in the halls of my mind, doors that, once opened, can never be closed. When I weary of a world too often as insipid as it is cruel, it is to these rooms that I flee, finding comfort in the colour inside them - the light, the knowledge, the joy.
A couple of weeks ago, I stood again by the sea in the blue black light of approaching darkness. My Father has been gone from this world seven years now, but just as he taught me all those years ago, I watched the horizon - staring hard, eyes stinging - in anticipation, hope, and a little bit of fear. And just as the stars began to prick through the blue velvet sky, I could see him. Walking along the ribbon of night - as tall as a giant, as solid as a rainbow.
In May the letters sat there, enervated and mute, awaiting our attention. We scooped them, gathered them up one by one, like bouquets of perfect dahlias, arranging them carefully into the seasonal words we’ve loved for so long, words all the more evocative for the brevity they conveyed. Honeysuckle. Jasmine. Watermelon. Seaside.
They are the words reserved for summer, and we anticipate the delight they bring us each year.
This summer, however, other hands were rummaging in the mountains of letters, seizing them in angry fistfuls, creating dark words that threatened to blot out the ones that we love. Hateful words such as Ebola and ISIS. Ferguson. War. These rang in our ears with a leaden tone, bringing sorrow and fear with each reverberation.
In the past several weeks, I have stood at the edge of my country with my toes in the sand, looking far out to the Atlantic from the shores of both our northernmost east coast state and our southernmost. On a white-washed afternoon in Maine, I stood on a shoreline dotted with lilac-coloured oyster shells and azure sea glass staring out past the ivory sails of tall schooners to the horizon beyond, knowing that, if only my eyes were magically stronger, I could watch as these same waters lapped up on the coastlines of France. The same feeling came to me on the evening I walked along an empty Florida island beach as a setting sun turned the sky into a prismatic spectacle that was an utter privilege to behold. As a salty wind whipped round me, I stopped to consider the darkening line betwixt sea and sky and wondered about the African eyes possibly staring back at me from across those very same seas.
It is clearer that ever to me that the world, once thought of as so vast and unknowable, is now so small and vitally interconnected. Living in the city to which the two American Ebola victims were brought, and successfully treated, only served to illustrate how intertwined we all are. Years ago, news of the horrors occurring in countries oceans away came to us weeks after the fact, if at all. These days we know of them as they are happening. The modern globe is a tiny one; we must accept.
September First has always seemed much more like New Year’s Day to me than the January one that bears the title. So today I am waving goodbye to this summer that was with the hope that, as I gather up fresh new letters to fashion the words for the season I love most - words such as Mittens and Firesides, Jack-o-Lanterns and Snow - I will find letters enough to spell out words for a new year's fresh start; words more eternal, more redemptive; words that remain unquestionable and true.
If the afternoon had not been so hot, with a sun so relentless, then perhaps I would not have chosen the hat with the widest brim. I might even have gone hatless, preferring instead to let the wind blow my hair as I took in the expansive green vistas of an early August day. Maybe I would have been looking up.
Up through the trees to the blue sky beyond.
Up where the mockingbirds chase the red-shouldered hawks away from their nests.
Up where the clouds draw grand pictures at the gates of heaven.
I would have been studying those pictures perhaps, trying to decide what they were -
A castle? A dragon?
But I wore the wide-brimmed hat to hide from the sun and my view winnowed down to the earth at my feet. Focused, sharpened, my eyes wrapped around the smaller things:
the acorns, the pebbles - blue violets, green moss.
And then, there it was,
pinned to the ground by a shaft of sunlight falling hard through the trees,
white as bone, light as the air.
I bent to pick it up.
Stronger than it looked at first sight, each tiny white strand clasped together along the quill, like hands. So sadly grounded, still ready for flight.
Too small for a wren, a robin, or thrush.
Had it dropped from the wing of a gull, or an owl?
Or perhaps from my guardian angel, in an effort to prove that she’s there.
Now it sits in a vase on my desk.
I run my fingers down the ruffled edge at least once a day.
When it comes to my writing, discipline is a garment I’ve rarely worn, preferring instead to rely on the less weightier components of creativity: inspiration and caprice. But I’ve been trying discipline on this summer and have found it to be, to my surprise, much less scratchy and uncomfortable than I’d originally thought. My muse, forever flighty and untamed, has proven jealous of my new flirtation with discipline and has chosen to land on my shoulders whenever I give myself over to this sturdy friend, which has been both productive and delightful. So I’ve spent a lot of this summer inside my own head which, as they share my reluctance to enthusiastically embrace the weather in July, has been just fine with Edward and Apple. They have been happy to doze at my feet for hour on end, taking breaks occasionally to cut figure eights through the garden lest the chipmunks and squirrels take advantage in their absence.
One cannot ignore a summer afternoon every day, however. So we have ventured out on occasion and have found magical sights in every corner. I thought I’d share a few of these with you. So here’s a bit of our summer afternoons so far.
We hope you are enjoying your days as much as we are.
Taking a Break to Sit in the Clover...
Surprise in a Garden....
A Blessedly Cool Day at the Beach...
A Huge Topiary Apple.....
and the Real Girl at the Seaside.
A New Addition to the Sidewalk Garden...
Giuseppe Arcimboldo Jumps Off the Canvas and Lands in a Garden...
Those of us fortunate to be children in the sixties saw a lot of changes happen on our watch. I still remember the first day girls were allowed to wear trousers to school. I, of course, remained clad in a dress but eagerly watched out of the school bus window as we pulled up that inaugural morning to see which of us was to be the first one to boldly step across the sartorial threshold. There stood Kathryn, the only girl in a pair of trousers, looking both proudly rebellious and extraordinary comfortable as she maintained her status as class iconoclast with enormous dignity and flair. Times had changed.
We saw a man walk on the moon. Well, I fell asleep on the sofa before those first historic steps, but “collectively” we saw a man walk on the moon. We’ve watched as computers took over the world, ever shrinking in physical size even as their domination of the culture grew. There are no record stores anymore. No more waiting for our holiday photos to be developed. No more running from store to store: we can order everything, from underwear to Bartlett Pears, online.
All this technology makes our lives easier, right? A to do list can be knocked out in short order, right? So what do I do with this amazing gift of additional hours afforded me by electronic progress? I waste time on the internet. Great grey masses of minutes - enormous, air-filled hours. I fall down the rabbit hole atPinterest and get hopelessly lost in a world of dreamy pictures, knitting patterns, and recipes. Or I wander over to Twitter and find articles I’ve missed, following the links to read them all. There are the new photos of Prince George to see and new videos to watch. (I’m still in love with this one.) I check the weather in Lerwick; discover a funny picture of Prince Charles.
And then, Lord help me, I find the quizzes.
Now I’m not thrilled to admit this, but I’m a total sucker for quizzes and questionnaires. The Proust one is my favourite part of every Vanity Fair magazine. I answer each question and compare my answers with everyone from Maureen O’Hara to Tom Jones. I mean, how great is it that Catherine Denueve answered the question, “What do you dislike most about your appearance” by saying, “My left ear”?
Unfortunately for me, there is an alarming number of these little time thieves scuttling across my screen these days. Purely for fun and hardly scientific, they are hard to resist all the same. I blame Downton Abbey. “Which Downton Abbey character are you?” That was the first one I saw and of course, I just had to participate. Actually, there were several of these little tests on Downton Abbey and I took every one, finding out at the close of each that I was, indeed, the Dowager Countess. No lovely Lady Mary, no stalwart Mrs. Hughes. No, I was the Countess, always the Countess.
I spoke to several friends who all said, “Oh, yeah. I can see that”.
This was so revealing that I began to take more and more of these little personality tests. So far I’ve learned that my spirit animal is an Owl and the colour of my aura is blue. I will, apparently, be reincarnated as a dove and my mental age is twenty-five. (Really??)
Which Shakespearean character am I? Ariel.
Which Wizard of Oz character am I? Glinda.
And though, with her long legs and impeccable style, I was hoping to get the Duchess of Cambridge when I took the “Which Member of the Royal Family Are You” quiz, I was instead informed that I am, in fact, The Queen.
I am now seriously afraid a pattern is emerging.
At this moment, I should be making coconut cupcakes for book club. I should be scheduling a couple of train trips and finishing Chapter Eight. There are linen shirts that need ironing and a shawl I am determined to finish knitting before a big journey in the fall. Some birthday presents to wrap. Dinner to plan. And finishing Chapter Eight!
I need to find out which Dr. Seuss character I am before I do anything else!
When one reaches adulthood, it is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate the excitement, the sheer giddiness, once engendered by the last day of school. On that day, summer glittered before us, an uncharted land of unimagined delights just waiting to be explored and the fact that we were being released to do precisely that, from sunup to sundown, was known to flood us with the feeling best described as pure happiness. With our responsibilities winnowed down to the most rudimentary - making our beds, brushing our teeth - we were set loose upon a sunny world; a world devoid of schedules; a world in which our only concern was making sure we had the adequate amount of coinage when the lilting song of the ice cream truck drifted enticingly down our street. We played outside. We ate cold watermelon and fresh corn. We slept soundly. Summer made us happy.
Happiness is a word difficult to define. I have always found it interesting that the learned men who penned our constitution declared the pursuit of happiness to be our unalienable right but didn’t, funnily enough, give any hint as to whether or not they expected us to attain that which we could so rightfully pursue. If the standard for happiness is the feeling we felt on that long ago last day of school, then no doubt as adults we all fall a bit short.
But on an afternoon last week, when the temperature soared and the air hung heavy as glue, I was in my car with a list of errands on the seat beside me. The news of the day had been bleak enough for me to turn off the radio and plug in the iPod. And that’s when I heard the new hit song, “Happy”. These days it’s rare that I am a fan of any song popular enough to reach the number one slot on the charts. I still miss The Beatles. But I had downloaded this one because I was curious and now here it was, taking its place in the rotation, ready to win me over. Without even being cognizant of the spell it cast, I soon found myself tapping my foot and nodding my head with a big goofy grin on my face.
One cannot expect to be “happy” as a usual state, can one? Happiness, elusive and momentary, is a goal perhaps best replaced by contentment. We can reside in contentment and even, diving deeper, find joy, a state unaffected by circumstance or time. Still, mercurial, even whimsical, happiness can surprise us when we least expect it and we ignore it at our peril. I myself sit ready to welcome it heartily whenever it chooses to visit me, in whatever form it chooses to take. So on this hot afternoon, I rolled down the window of my little green Fiat and let the wind tangle my hair as I sang along, happy as a lark.
I often think summers are so different now from the carefree ones of my childhood. But really, that’s not exactly true. If I’m honest, happiness (described so delightfully in that new hit song as “feeling like a room without a roof”) visits me frequently. I often dance alone in the kitchen, Edward and Apple bouncing at my ankles in a similar mood. Though I have infinitely more responsibilities than I did as a child, summer is still a wonderful time. I still manage to play outside. I still enjoy cold watermelon and fresh corn. I still sleep soundly. And Summer still makes me, more often than not, downright happy.
It was an ordinary night, even the most imaginative of souls could have only described it as such. There were no extremes of weather; no clattering of rain on the roof; no wild wind to disturb the nests of baby robins asleep in the holly bushes beneath the darkened windows. The crescent moon, thin as an eyelash, could only muster a watery light that struggled, and failed, to pierce the heavy air. It was quiet, save for the hooting of the owl in the bottom of the garden, who is such a regular visitor that his calls are hardly to be taken for omens of any portent. The minutes ticked by in quotidian fashion, as if even time itself expected nothing unusual to occur on this, a most ordinary of ordinary nights.
The Songwriter was out of town and, as usual, Edward had been more than happy to take his place next to me in bed. I had drifted off to the sound of the big dog’s steady breathing and was now tucked deep inside a dreamless sleep. Way past midnight, yet long before dawn, I sensed someone trying to wake me up. Though inaudible, someone was calling my name as loud as a bell. Opening my eyes, I found myself nose to nose with Edward. His big head nudged my side. Then he pawed at my shoulder. Then he turned round and round and flopped down on the bed with his head on my tummy. Then, jumping up, he began to paw at me again, insistent, persistent, and obviously worried.
Sitting up in bed, I tried to ascertain what was wrong but nothing I could say or do seemed to calm him. Then, suddenly, what only can be described as a strong gust of wind blew past me - a warm wind, forceful enough to ruffle my hair. The very second after this happened Edward turned, lay down at the foot of the bed, sighed a contented sigh and went right back to sleep, leaving me sitting up with my mind, quite naturally, awhirl. There was no window open; nothing that could have logically caused a gust of warm wind. What had just happened?
Relating this story to several people has been entertaining as I’ve watched their eyes grow wider and wider and heard wildly varying possibilities as to the nature of my experience. Suffice it to say, all who have heard my account have expressed more that a bit of fright. But I can honestly say that I felt no fear, indeed I went right back to sleep along with Edward.
But I do admit to wondering what it could have been,
and Edward’s not talking.
So, any ideas? Painting above by Konstantin Kalynovych
Writer, Interior Designer, Baker, Knitter, Gardener, devoted to Beauty.. on the journey through life along with her big white furry wonderful dog... living in the American South and dreaming of the Scottish Highlands