Friday, 24 December 2010

Happy Holidays

Warmest wishes

from our house to yours 

this holiday season.

with love
and thanks for your friendship,
Bee x

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Happy Birthday, Jane

Today was the anniversary of Jane Austen's birthday, maybe you've heard?

At Jane Austen's House, we honoured the day with an open house:
mince pies, cups of tea and free admission.

For the past 18 months, I've spent most of my Thursdays in Chawton, Hampshire -- talking about Jane, thinking about Jane, and of course, reading about all things Austen.  Having said that, I'm not one of the dedicated miniaturists in life.  I don't read the six books over and over, as some of her fans do.  I'm much more likely to read a novel that's been obviously influenced by the Austen style or plot-lines.  (The Three Weissmans of Westport  comes immediately to mind.) There is one novel that I do read almost every year, though, and that's Persuasion.

It is not unusual for Austen lovers to nominate a favourite novel, and by a long chalk the front-runners are Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion.  I like and admire P & P, but without hesitation I would choose Persuasion as one of my desert island books.  I recently read an interview with Nigella Lawson and she named the following as her all-time favourite books:  Persuasion (listed first), any Nancy Mitford, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  I didn't really need any other reason to adore Nigella Lawson, but discovering that we have the same short-list of favourite books did make me feel that extra bit of kinship to her.  (I would argue that being influenced and formed by the same body of books does create a sororal bond.)

Not everyone is similarly persuaded, though.  A friend recently asked for a recommendation for her Book Club and I encouraged her to choose Persuasion
Her feedback was not, to put it delicately, enthusiastic.
I can't remember the particulars of what she said . . . probably because I was too busy refuting them, both in mind and mouth . . . but I do recall that she didn't care for Anne Elliot, the heroine.  Something about "wimpy;" something about wanting to shake her and why didn't she take more control of her life.
I immediately went into my professor mode, trying to explain the aristocratic confines of life for an on-the-shelf and not-quite-rich-enough woman like Anne.   There is no denying, though, that Anne has a certain passive quality.  I'm quite susceptible to characters who are good and kind, but a little prone to being pushed around -- but not everyone shares that taste, I realise.

Some biographers believe that Anne Elliot was partly based on Jane's sister Cassandra, who had her own experience of "loving longest, when existence or hope is gone."  (Cassandra's fiance died, and apparently she long carried a torch for him.  At any rate, she never married -- nor even seemed to contemplate marriage.)  If so, the dénouement of Persuasian -- in which two lovers, long separated, are reunited -- was the ultimate in wish-fulfillment.  Although it is not the most obviously romantic of Austen's novels, with its slightly melancholy and autumnal tone, I think it is the most profoundly romantic.  It is the novel for every shy girl (or wallflower woman) who thinks someone will come along and see her for what she really is.  Don't we all want to be loved for our intrinsic qualities?  In a world that admires surface gloss more than ever, the idea of being seen and recognized and chosen is still heart-thrilling.

Why not seize the pleasure at once?
How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation.
(from Emma)

I long to be the sort of person who seizes the pleasure at once, but I have the feeling that I am too often caught planning and worrying and second-guessing myself . . . definitely more of an Anne Elliot.  Happily, Jane Austen -- who only wrote six completed novels -- provides more than one kind of heroine.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010


We live on the edge of a forest, and in the winter we sometimes get what I think of as frozen fog.
A thick mist seems to rise from the ground, and if it's cold enough, it encases every leaf and blade of grass and hedgerow twig in silvery ice.  The effect is magical.
This year, the big freeze came before the oak trees had shed their leaves and we've had a rare display of bronze mixed in with the more usual shades of pewter-gray. 

Last week I had spent the morning shopping for a party . . . (I utter the word "Costco" only so you may appreciate the contrast) . . . and on the drive back home I was arrested by the sight of these ghostly trees.  Although it was only mid-afternoon, the dusk was purplish-dark already.   It was as if Winter had cast a spell of enchantment and all of the world was frozen in its tracks. 

I'm not immune to winter's charms, but sometimes I have to be reminded that chief amongst them is that deep blanketing silence that is not experienced at any other time of the year.

I've had two solid weeks of almost unceasing activity, and way too many evenings which have ended in morning -- surely not a good thing at the darkest time of the year -- but funnily enough, I think that it is these few quiet moments that will stay with me:

my daughter's purely sung solo (in candlelit darkness) at the Christmas concert tonight,
and the world stilled and silenced by frozen fog.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Launching Christmas

So how's it going . . . all of you Santa's helpers out there?

Do you have lift-off on the Christmas preparations . . .
the cards
the presents
the concerts
the parties
the baking
the decorating
Or are you struggling to breathe in the de-oxygenated atmosphere?

My brain feels like it is in perpetual orbit
around Christmas Planet.
Only my lists keep me anchored
to the solid (but icy!) ground.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Cold season

There is a nasty Two Week Cold that is making the rounds in England.  And it's really cold here, too; unseasonably, record-breakingly cold.  The one thing is not supposed to have anything to do with the other, and yet why did ancient language-makers decide that the one word would suffice for both conditions?

More than two weeks ago, when I first got sick, I was reading a charming book called Period Piece -- written by Gwen Raverat, who was Charles Darwin's granddaughter.  One of my favourite chapters is called Aunt Etty, and it covers, among other topics, the Darwinian tendency to the "cult of bad health."  Raverat describes how a young Aunt Etty, who was suffering from a "low fever," is advised to take her breakfast in bed.  As a precautionary measure, perhaps, she never got up to breakfast again in all her life.  Aunt Etty's attention to health, both her own and that of everyone in her orbit, is scientifically precise.   Raverat remembers how her aunt's personal maid would put a silk handkerchief over one foot if it felt slightly colder than the other. 

Truly, it made me feel that hypochondria (not to mention persistent ill health) was a luxury of a bygone age and class -- one that enjoyed the ministrations of lots of servants.  Certainly we have the Internet now, which contributes greatly to the pleasures of self-diagnosis, but for sheer wallowing in illness there is nothing like the Victorian Age in which Aunt Etty lived.  Whether slightly sick, or well and truly sick, most of us just have to soldier through these days.  But if you have the chance, and are feeling slightly off-colour, do read Period Piece and see how illness used to be done.

As my Two Week Cold persists into a third week, I sorrowfully acknowledge that I could have been a bit more Aunt Etty-like in my dedication to my own health.   There should have been more cups of warm broth, more shawls, and definitely more mornings in bed -- and far fewer shopping trips, houseguests, long sweaty walks, transatlantic flights, temperature extremes and opportunities for sleep deprivation.  I'm sure it doesn't do the sinuses (not to mention one's ears) any good to be assaulted by 87 degrees in Texas on one day -- and freezing temperatures in England on the next.  And as I can't seem to stop coughing, I'm sure the person next to me on the plane would have appreciated if I had been wearing the Aunt Etty patented anti-cold mask.

And when there colds about she often wore a kind of gas-mask of her own invention. 
It was an ordinary wire kitchen-strainer, stuffed with antiseptic cotton-wool,
and tied on like a snout, with elastic over her ears. 
 In this she would receive her visitors and discuss politics in a hollow voice
 out of her eucalyptus-scented seclusion,
oblivious of the fact that they might be struggling with fits of laughter.
(from Period Piece, by Gwen Raverat)

Friday, 12 November 2010


Several afternoons a week, I tutor struggling readers.

I’ve worked with one little boy for three years now – and in a progress that has been halting, and at times excruciatingly frustrating, he has slowly, slowly learned the alphabet and basic phonics and a small memory store of “sight” words. Just in the last month or so, he has come close to being able to string enough words together that it is almost reading. (Lots of qualifiers here, still.) Every week, his painful efforts force me to really notice and think about what a mysterious and huge undertaking it is to learn the English written language.

I can’t really remember that lightbulb moment when letters became sounds and sounds became words . . . because for such a very long time, reading has been as natural as breathing to me. And yet, when I am in the act of explaining reading strategies – and okay, that’s another word which doesn’t follow the rule or the pattern – I have to acknowledge that reading is nothing if not laboured.

For instance:

Ow sounds like mouse, but not like flow – which has the same spelling pattern.
Through sounds the same as threw and thru – but not a word like trough, which has the same spelling pattern, and hardly looks any different . . . especially for a little guy who likes to look at the first letter and then guess all of the rest (because the letters are dancing around).

For goodness sake, even the word READ has two different pronunciations. You’ve got to know the context first, but you can't rely on it entirely. (Isn’t that true of everything?)

Some of us learn to read quite easily, while others – more than you might think – have to overlearn every little thing to reach that magical mastery called automaticity. Automaticity: where there is no gap between the seeing/recognizing/processing/understanding/doing.

I’ve been thinking about overlearning a lot this week.

What have I had to learn, over and over again, and yet I still don’t have that absolute understanding – that mastery?  I keep coming up short, and making the same mistakes, time after time.

Here’s a few life lessons that come to mind:

Impatience never helps the process.

It is pointless to speculate too much about the future.

Procrastination rarely (if ever) makes the task easier.

It is fruitless to force a conversation with someone when you know he (mostly he) is not in the right frame-of-mind for the conversation.

Emails and phone calls that aren’t answered promptly will probably never be answered at all.

If you go to bed late you are going to be tired and grumpy the next day.

Too much sugar, especially in the form of raw cookie dough, is never a good idea.

It is not necessary to voice every thought that comes into your head.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Is it a sign?

Almost every day, no matter the weather
I walk the same walk
down the busy farm road we live on.
Me -- the trucks, the cars, the horses, and the odd bicycle.
I've had to jump in the hedgerow
more than once.

I can be amazingly, embarrassingly unobservant
but in five years
I've never noticed so much variety
in the hedgerows.
Doesn't lots of berries mean
a harsh winter to come?
Or is that
just another old wive's tale?

Monday, 8 November 2010

A page from the book of autumn

Like discarded pages
from the book
of autumn, the leaves
come trembling down.

Today is the first truly Novemberish day:  wet and wild.
The leaves are surrendering, not just the odd individual flutter
but whole regiments of them, felled by the great gusts of wind.
All of that October gold transmogrified
into sodden piles of brown muck.
I drive gingerly through the forest
that leads to my daughter's school.
Tires slip; windshield wipers scrape.
I take out porridge, still warm, for the chickens
because I feel ridiculously guilty about the discomforts
of their outdoor living space.
There is a great temptation to just go back to bed.
Cheers for hissing radiators, thick duvets
and the cappuccino that my husband
(still in his thick bathrobe)
is making for me right now.

Open your arms
to the dying colors,
to the fragile

of November.
Deep in the heart
of buried acorns,
nothing is lost.

(italicized words belong to Linda Pastan,
from Queen of a Rainy Country;
recommended reading for November.)

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Family Roundabout

Autumn.  Around it comes, round again.
I took a long walk this morning -- because the sun was shining, because the children were otherwise occupied -- and I remember thinking this is the tipping point.
This is the day when everything is at its burnished, glowing peak.
In a week, maybe two if we don't get too much tearing wind, it will all fall down.
The darkness will close in on both sides:  another Bonfire Night, another Thanksgiving, another Christmas, another New Year's.  Feasts and festivities for compensation.

I've been reading a novel called Family Roundabout -- and I keep thinking about the aptness of the title.
Not just because I am the family chauffeur; and round and round I go.  Although there is that aspect of it, especially during half-term week -- when I have driven to Malvern, London, Cambridge, Oxford and Reading in so many days.
But also because I am the fulcrum of family life, and I feel like everyone else is a lever.  I am the circular and circumscribed, and everyone else is an exit -- leading to a separate road.
For this week, at least, I have embraced the busy roundabout of family life.  When it is going full-tilt, I feel necessary . . . (although there are a thousand conflicted thoughts behind that admission).

Will tomorrow (already today) be the last Halloween party of my daughter's childhood?
Will we still be in this house next year, when autumn rolls round again?
I am craving change -- and lots of it is coming (jobs, schools, home) whether I want it or not.

And yet; there is something so comforting about the roundaboutness of things.   

Wednesday, 6 October 2010


Remnants of the Berlin Wall
currently being overtaken by graffiti and greenery
(creative and natural freedom run amok)
I was 21 when the Berlin Wall came down – was aggressively pulled down, really. All through my childhood and adolescence it had been the symbol of the Cold War and a physical embodiment of the lack of freedom for all of those on the wrong side. Those poor, trapped victims of Communism; we felt so sorry for them, we were so ecstatic about liberating them. (Even if we participated in spirit, only.)

Last November, during the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, the BBC interviewed many former East Berliners and I was (perhaps naively) surprised to hear that some of them regretted the scope of their new “freedoms.” Many of them talked about the loss of job security, others lamented the proliferation of crime. Freedom definitely had, and does have, its downside. If nothing else, it comes with its own costs and compromises. Freedom seemed such a black and white concept when I was 21; is it so very middle-aged of me to think of it as greyer territory now? On one hand, we tie ourselves into absurd knots to protect civil liberties; on the other, we surrender all kinds of privacy and autonomy in the hope that it will somehow keep us safe.

Ah, the innocence of being 21. It is an age perfectly poised between adult freedoms (lots of them) and adult responsibilities (not so many, particularly if you are a senior in college). There is really only big question when you are 21 and that is what kind of person am I going to be? (All other questions, like what am I going to do to make a living?, can be collapsed into that one.)

Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel – Freedom -- never explicitly deals with the question of freedom, and yet the idea of it permeates every aspect of the novel. Instead of the Berlin Wall, this novel has the Twin Towers falling down – one destruction so positive, the other so negative. It is a novel that feels more personal than political, but the political circumstances of the past decade are always there in the background – and to this reader, at least, it felt like there was a comprehensive intelligence and understanding at work. I was in awe of the detail and the scope, (no wonder Franzen keeps getting compared to the great 19th century novelists), but the narrative never gets diverted from the relationships which are its core.

There are four main characters: an environmental lawyer/activist, a stay-at-home mother, a musician and a college student. Each of them has to deal with the question what kind of person am I going to be? over and over again. (That old expression “in between a rock and a hard place” comes to mind.) Two of the characters are primarily concerned with being “good,” and two of them are primarily concerned with being autonomous, but in the in-between there is a world of emotional and moral possibility. Surely there is no freer person than a white, well-educated, wealthy, Western man, but in the person of Walter Berglund (arguably the heart of the novel) there could be no one more weighed down by expectations, obligations and compromises.

Before I read this novel, I knew little more about Jonathan Franzen than that he wrote a novel called The Corrections (which sounded rather ominous), and that he declined the “opportunity” to be an Oprah novel. His media reputation is of someone who takes himself rather seriously, and I suppose I expected a novel that was weighty – but in a portentous way. Despite the hype – Time magazine cover, cultural zeitgeist, President Obama’s choice of vacation book – it really was that most satisfying of experiences: just a darn good read.

A Franzenian footnote: On Monday I was in London, and the Tube was mostly shut down due to striking. During my train journey home, I read that Jonathan Franzen had accidentally wandered into the Tube shut-down when his chauffeured car hadn’t shown up. There was something about the congruence of me and Jonathan Franzen – both affected by the strike; both out walking the London streets – that just amused me. Without a doubt, the freedom of workers to strike adversely affects the freedom of commuters to get around the crowded city. And yet, compared to the sardine tin of the Tube, it really did feel liberating to stride down Oxford Street!

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@Barrie Summy

Friday, 24 September 2010

And we laughed and laughed

The other night at school pick-up, a knot of mothers were idly chatting when I threw the conversational grenade of Eat Pray Love in the mix. Strangely enough, (at least to me), I was the only woman in the group who had read this culture-dominating memoir. But as I explained the concept – a kind of self-seeking journey, not to mention sabbatical from one’s established life – all of the women started chatting excitedly. One woman, in particular, recounted a solo trip from the previous year when she was “no one’s mother, wife, daughter or employee.” She then reeled off a list of qualities that seemed to surface when she was liberated from her usual roles and responsibilities. “I was WITTY,” she emphasized – all dramatic big eyes and self-deprecating laugh.

It stuck in my mind, maybe because the one overriding memory from my Blog-camping weekend in Berlin is the laughter, the constant laughter. It was the kind of bodily laughter that inhibits speech and makes your sides ache. I don’t know if a lot of wit was involved, at least on my part, but certainly I was silly, irreverent and raunchy – qualities that don’t get a lot of play in my “normal” life.

Is laughter what happens when you take six intelligent women and liberate them from the responsibility of feeding people three times a day? Was it glorious alchemy, or just the heady oxygen of having more space to breathe freely? I’d like to think it was more than the shot of ouzo that Julochka coerced me into imbibing after I had already, ahem, had enough. “What are you going to remember?” is her motto.

As autumn descends like one great gray wet blanket, I’ve been musing on why there is too little laughter in my daily routine. What is there about normal life that smothers it?

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

September apples

There must be an explanation
scientific, or otherwise,
for why the apple tree
gnarled and bent and elderly
brings forth an edible harvest
every other year only,
and sometimes one in three.

Do some living things
keep their own schedule
for resting and renewal?
Or does the fruit depend
on some other equation:
like January frost
plus April showers
when June is hot and dry.

Last year's apples weren't worth picking
but this fall there's a bumper crop.
Every branch is weighed down so
even when the birds claim their share
there is more than enough fruit
to fill every jar I own
with sweet September applesauce.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Normal Time

At the beginning of the summer, I read Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs -- or rather, I gulped it down.  Chabon's meditations on parenthood elicited many moments of delighted recognition, but none more so than his description of Normal Time.  Normal Time, as Chabon defines it, is the yearning for "time to spare, of time in plenty." 

 Time not just for work and reflection and unhurried lovemaking but for all kinds of fine and tiny things.

One of the things that Chabon is going to do in the coming of Normal Time is "print out the digital photos and reorganize the albums."  (I couldn't help wonder how many people have that resolution.)  Certainly I have been resolving and planning to organize my photographs since 1999 -- which is the last time I recall making a big push in that area.  Okay, yes, I've done the occasional album -- but still, there are stacks of photographs everywhere, and I need to do a serious cull of the digital files.

All summer long, when solitary moments have been as scarce as hen's teeth, I've thought longingly of that time when the children would return to school and routine would be re-established and there would Normal Time aplenty.  In August, I even got the photo albums out and started making ambitious plans for various collages:  of favorite holidays, of all the Christmas cards, of the girls when they were babies.  Oh yes, I had big, grand, retrospective plans.

On Sunday, we took our oldest daughter to boarding school; early Monday morning, my youngest daughter left for a week-long field trip and my husband went away on a business trip.  All of a sudden, after frantic weeks of preparing for these events, I was completely my own -- with loads of free, uncommitted time.  And here's the rub:  I've realized that there is a problem with Normal Time.  Time, with no children in it, just isn't normal to me.  For 16 years, my life has been dominated by mothering and that's the groove that I'm used to.  In fact, it's been approximately 16 years since I last remember feeling so uncomfortable with my own company.  Then, I was in a brand-new country (England) with a brand-new baby, and after two weeks of a full house, my family left and my husband went on a business trip . . . and rather suddenly, I was alone with a newborn.  I felt lonely and bewildered and distinctly uncomfortable with the new-mother routine.  No week was as bad as that first week, but it still took a while to reset the clock of my days.

I can only trust that I will get used to this new version of Normal Time -- and figure out something constructive to do with it.  This week I've been rather spendthrift:  I finally cleaned the utility room, but I also watched the entire third season of Mad Men.  I ironed a stack of shirts and sheets, I read The Group, I sent off some overdue packages and letters . . . but I definitely fell short on reflective activities, and I didn't even crack open those photo albums.  Maybe next week.

 Steering a new course
The last day of summer:  punting in Oxford

Monday, 23 August 2010


Curves ahead

For years now, my husband has been saying "We need to take Mum back to Wales."
My mother-in-law's family came from a small village in western Wales and during the war years she and her sister lived there.

I've always imagined a dramatic evacuation from London:  waving good-bye to her parents at the train station, along with the other millions of city children who were sent to the countryside in 1939.
As it turned out, the "real" story was a bit different.  Apparently, the family was already in Wales when war broke out.  My mother-in-law was thrilled at the turn of events, as it meant she would be able to go to the fair.
"Yes, we had a marvellous war," giggled my mother-in-law's childhood friend as we discussed those years.

My children and I had never been to Wales.  I don't know what we had expected, really -- something gray and wet, I suppose.  Something old-fashioned and fusty and dull.

The dramatic cliffs, the huge expanse of Irish Sea, the blue sky:  it was all such a surprise.

Setting out

The week in Wales was on the calendar for the middle of August.
As far as my oldest daughter was concerned, it was a black hole in her hectic social life.  She dreaded it and complained about it with the full force of adolescent hyperbole.
The thought of sentimental journeys, of a visit to the past, is anathema to her.  She wants only to live in the present.  The future is a bit frightening, and the past just seems irrelevant.

Over the stile

 My children's great-grandfather and great-great grandparents are buried in the village of Cilgerran.  We visited their graves.  My mother-in-law doesn't know how deeply rooted her family in Wales; like her granddaughter, she has never been that interested in the past.  It gave me a chill, though, to think that my children are part of this place.  It is there, somewhere, in their DNA.

To my fanciful eyes, Cilgerran was a bit of a Brigadoon.  For a hundred years, and maybe more, it's hardly changed.  There is Aunt Mary's house, but someone replaced the old door.  There's the Teifi River, where we used to fish.  There's the ruins of the old Norman castle, where we used to play. 

We climbed the steep path from the river to the castle, and I worried that it was a bit much for my mother-in-law.  I scolded my husband about it, but he defended himself by saying that she knew the climb was challenging.  I wonder, though, if it is difficult to remember that you are 80 when you visit one of your childhood places.  In any case, she declined to join us for our walks on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.

There is no escape route

My girls are good walkers.  Even when they were really young, I forced them to trek across Boston, Amsterdam and Den Haag -- because I like to see things by foot.  These experiences have become part of our family lore. 

We walked every day we were in Wales, but one day we hiked the 10 miles from our cottage in Moylegrove to the Newport Sands Beach.  It was a sunny day, but you could feel -- in the wind -- that a storm was approaching.  On the top of the cliffs, the wind was fierce.

The sign, above, reads:  This is a remote, rugged and challenging stretch of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.  Please keep to the path.  Avoid the cliff edge.

Stay on the path

Rather worryingly, it warns: On this stretch there are no escape routes or exit points.

Once you start down the path, you have no choice but to keep going. I couldn't help but think that, like much of life, it's better that you don't know how hard it's going to be.

Avoid the cliff edge

It's a trick of perspective, but in this picture the girls seem so far away.  I let them get a bit ahead of me -- and there they are, tiny figures on the edge of the cliff.

After what seems like a summer of too much togetherness, they will be off -- on their own -- in only two weeks.  The oldest daughter is off to boarding school, and the youngest daughter is going to Dartmoor for a geography field trip.

Rise and Fall

There's almost no cell phone coverage, or Internet access, in this part of Wales.  My husband complained that he got better coverage in Angola.  He and my oldest daughter walked around, cell phones held aloft, trying to find a signal.

Before cars, before trains, there were ships -- and then, this rugged coast was well-connected.  I read that Newport, where our walk ended, supplied the herring for Queen Elizabeth I's Navy.

These cliffs are actually part of the Preseli Mountains -- the source of the blue slate, or "bluestones" that make up Stonehenge.

This bit of coastline, near Cardigan Bay, is one of the only places in the UK where you can find dolphins and seals.  Sadly, we didn't spot any . . . although we kept looking for them.  Even without dolphins, there was more than enough to marvel over.  She might not admit to it, not now, but even my teenage daughter wasn't immune to the magic of this place.

Resting (and reflecting)

Thursday, 29 July 2010

barefoot in the park

Summer, in London, can be heavenly – or hellish.

Into my collection of memories goes one of each:

Heavenly: a day spent in Regent’s Park with one of my dearest friends. The roses – all 30,000 of them – at their peak. Al fresco lunch at the Garden Café.

Hellish: shopping for a black suit with a sullen teenager. Tense negotiations over hemlines, the backwash of the summer sales, the cattle-car Tube.

All of that density of humid humanity is just too much for city streets . . . better to spread it out over the 410 acres of Regent’s Park.

Summer is bare feet in the grass – but also standing in line to buy new school shoes.

Summer is a stroll through a rose garden – but also the dutiful trip to the dentist.

Summer is all about hanging out with your friends – but also that bored week at home when everyone else seems to be on vacation.

Give me the summer blues . . . but only if they are delphiniums.

Friday, 16 July 2010

simple things

Forget school, and scratchy woolen uniforms, and the alarm clock going off too early.
Here there is only the pleasure of simple things:

soft, slouchy clothes to wear
and bare feet,
sometimes rubbed down by sand

iced tea by the pool
and cold watermelon, a triangle held in the hand
with juice running down to your elbow

we eat with the appetite of birds, or babies,
little and often,
every meal an outdoor picnic

The sky is cloudless blue every day,
no threat of rain to chase us inside
and interrupt our sun-worship

We give thanks for dependable breezes
and other cooling things:
pool and sea and ice lollies

Not to mention chilled white wine
sangria, the local specialty
and cold beer, of course

And the very best thing?
(besides friends to share the fun
and a laughing, teasing father)

Lots of good books
and plenty of time to read them.

Sending out happiest high-summer birthday greetings to Christina . . .
who has made an art of simple things.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

One fine day

Another sunny day.

For weeks now, I've opened the heavy bedroom curtains to brilliant sun.  This is our fourth summer in England, but the first time we've enjoyed such a long streak of fine, cloudless days.  My flimsy cotton dresses have been dragged out of the back of the closet; usually, they only get an airing when we holiday in warm places.

I love the heat of a proper good summer, but the gardener in me acknowledges that the ground could use a good soaking.  Nearly every night, I'm outside watering the borders until the light begins to ebb and I can feel the damp chill rising from the earth.

Three summers ago, when we planted the new border and the rose/herb beds, it rained and rained.  High summer is not, typically, the best time to put in new plants, but the weather conspired with my impatience.  Only the lavender, which hates being water-logged, really suffered.

This year the lavender is thriving . . . it must think it got transplanted to Provence.

For the first time, we aren't plagued by the black spot on the rose leaves.  But the trade-off is that the roses bloom and quickly brown and shrivel.  They come apart like an explosion of confetti when you touch them.  Last Thursday, when I was at Jane Austen's House, every gust of wind blew a shower of rose petals through the front door.  I kept looking for the phantom June wedding.

I suppose we are all influenced by seasonal rhythm and ritual more than we realize.  I still expect SUMMER to begin on that last weekend of May.  It feels strange to fret, in July, with early morning alarm bells, piano exams and school bags.  The high point of the summer has passed, and yet here we are -- still limping along, trying to adhere to a routine that has lost its relevance.  I'm sure that by the end of August I will long for routine again, but just now I'd like to lay in the grass and listen to the hum of insects.

The raspberry canes are bursting with fruit that no one has time to pick.

We need to spend a day in our pajamas . . . or bathing suits.  It seems a shame to run the sprinklers without some tow-headed child running through them.

Only one more day 'till summer vacation.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Diary of a Provincial Lady

Recommended reading: The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield. Although it was written in 1930, any woman who feels harried, ineffectual and even occasionally ridiculous, will find much to identify with – and laugh at – here. So in the spirit and style of the inimitable Delafield, I offer up a few highlights from the past week of my life. An affectionate homage . . . from a 21st century provincial lady.

June 12. – Sports Day once again. We arrive late and miss youngest daughter’s first and best event: hurdles. Daughter’s face is as thunderous and chilly as the weather. Discover that daughter has no other events until after lunch, so we meander around the fields, dodging dogs and engaging in conversation about the weather with various acquaintances. Universal consensus that weather is not as bad as last year, but not as nice as the year before that. Congratulate myself on getting clothes right: am wearing pastel linen, as a nod to June, with a trench coat for warmth. (End up not taking off trench coat for the entire day; might as well have worn jeans and a fleece.)

Feel intensely jealous of better-organized sorts who have brought flasks of coffee. Speak at length to woman with five children who has attended fifteen Sports Days in a row. Feel profoundly glad to have only two children. Feel intensely jealous of better-equipped sorts who have brought attractive deck chairs. Eat my hog roast sandwich and strawberries and cream standing up. Experience intense back ache by 4 pm – and more than six hours of continuous standing.

Commisserate with daughter, after humiliations at the high jump. Of course she feels herself to be the cynosure of every eye. Attempt to convince daughter that no one really notices or remembers these things. Cannot help but feel that sporty parents with equally sporty offspring derive more enjoyment from this sort of event. Decline to participate in Mother’s Race. Help clear up empty bottles (beer, wine and champagne) from the Leavers’ Tent and marvel at the English constitution. A couple of weak Pimm’s are enough to do me in.

Take two ibuprofen the minute I arrive home and fall asleep, fully clothed, at 6 pm. Later rouse myself to make some popcorn and watch South Pacific with youngest daughter. Am impressed, chiefly, by the smallness of Mitzi Gaynor’s waist. (Query: What happened to the small waist? Not just mine, but everyone’s?) Cannot help but think that the film was not nearly as good as I remembered. 1950s production values and acting style have aged badly.

Later in the week I learn, from walking partner, that many of the parents at the Sports Day attended a 50th birthday party in a Moroccan-style marquee later that evening. Listen, raptly, to descriptions of costumes – particularly the unsuccessful ones. (Agree that the post-40 bosom requires support.) Marvel again at the superior English constitution.

June 14. – Visit senior school in Oxford with youngest daughter. (After Sports Day, youngest daughter gets a three-day break from school.) Ponder the conundrum of private education. Realize that neither child has attended a full week of school since mid-March. Consider that oldest daughter, who is on study leave for her GCSE exams, sports the tan of a person who lives in the Caribbean.

Accompanied by two impossibly gorgeous and self-confident 13 year olds, we view the playing fields, science classrooms, art studios and theatre of the school in Oxford. Admire the large Wind in the Willows themed mural in the dining hall. (Remember that Kenneth Grahame is alum of the school.) Wonder aloud if youngest child will go in for rowing. Youngest child expresses doubts as to the likelihood of this event. (Query: Why is that all school tours consist of the same constituent parts, and yet leave such different impressions?)

After school tour, youngest daughter and I – weak with hunger – walk to Mamma Mia pizza place. Feel most keenly that pizza place in walking distance of school is huge asset. Youngest daughter wants to attend school in Oxford. Feel most keenly that entire family should move to Oxford.

June 15. – Oldest daughter finishes Greek exam by 10 am and needs to be picked up from school. Youngest daughter cannot rest easy until we visit the pet store and purchase some hamsters. Remainder of day occupied by visitations to various pet emporiums.

Mem: parental weakening on pet issue can quickly lead to full-scale capitulation. On Saturday, oldest daughter wins a goldfish from some carnival game at the Marlow Regatta. Permission to bring home goldfish is grudgingly granted. According to some complicated sibling equation, youngest daughter requires hamsters in order to square up the laws of fairness. Mother is final arbiter of fairness; justice must be served. Weak mother is worn down after 48 hours of dedicated pleading and nagging.

Visit to pet shop involves significant expenditure. Internet research has not accounted for items like toys and special snacks. Purchase of hamsters requires visit to aquarium. Single fish is lonely; more fish are required. Also, plants. Unexpected expenditure incurred. Husband not informed of expanding pet menagerie. Children remind mother that fish, hamsters, chickens and a cat don’t really count. Only dogs, which are still denied to children, are proper pets.

June 16. – Email from husband, which didn’t look important, turns out to be invitation to opera.

Apparently we are last-minute guests for corporate entertainment with company that husband does no business with. Would have been prudent to Google company and attempt to learn something about hosts. Instead, spend morning driving children (and camping paraphernalia) around Berkshire countryside. Husband arrives home at 3 pm to find undressed wife, who is shaving her legs and wondering why she is not a person who keeps an up-to-date pedicure. Cocktails begin at 4 pm in Hampshire. Feel dismay at lack of appropriate opera wardrobe; finally resort to silk blouse, old skirt and ubiquitous pashmina.

Marvel at Russian, Korean, French, Greek and Norwegian fellow guests – all of whom speak perfect English. Despite the lack of language barrier, though, conversation is predictably stilted. Having dispatched the topic of the weather, I attempt to engage a French woman in conversation about differences between English and French culture. Although French woman’s children have spent their entire lives in London, apparently they are inviolably French. Suspect that I have managed to inadvertently insult French woman. Resolve to stick to weather in future conversations with corporate wives. Also manage to disagree on opera – which has a preposterous plot, something to do with three oranges. Husband and I enjoy dissecting guests on long drive home; suspect that one man has rented partner for the night.

June 17. – Endure yet another school visit with youngest daughter. Although she assures me that “there is less than a one percent chance” that she will want to attend this school, we sacrifice the better part of a day in the pursuit of thoroughness. Arrive at school having not received the letter that prospective students should wear their own clothes. Name tag is misspelled. None of this bodes well. Return to school late, having been lost in the town’s one-way system. (Miss tea and cake; do not miss making polite conversation with other prospective parents.) Sat-nav proves bloody useless; only find school, in the end, by doing the opposite to what the sat-nav suggests. Feel sure that inability to find school is a sign.

Oldest daughter’s 16th birthday. Oldest daughter thrilled that no GCSE exams fall on her birthday. Oldest daughter thrilled to be left home alone with friend-who-is–a-boy.

The birthday girl has requested chicken pot pie and red velvet cake for her birthday meal. Reflect that it would have been better to start labour-intensive birthday meal before 6 pm. Unsurprisingly, we do not manage to eat before 9 pm. Husband opens bottle of champagne. Newly christened 16-year-old quaffs champagne like an old pro, which raises questions in the maternal mind.  Cannot help but remember the hot day in June when oldest daughter came into the world.  Reflect that sixteen years is a long time -- which has suddenly gone by very quickly.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

June blooms

Last weekend, I attended the high school graduation of someone very dear to me -- someone I have watched grow from a chubby little cherub to a poised and beautiful young woman.  She was the first baby in my circle of friends, and thus I am experiencing -- for the first time -- that particular generational changing-of-the-guard.

It is true that the graduate's mother and I dominated the dance floor all night long, but even though there is much life in us yet (it is to be hoped), that freshness -- what used to be described as "bloom" -- will not come again.  As pleased as I am for my young friend, I cannot help but feel a pang of envy for all of the choices and opportunities still open to her.

It's not that I regret the road I took, but I want the road-not-taken as well.  Is it possible to be satisfied and grateful . . . and yet a little bit greedy, too?

Monday, 31 May 2010

May: hymn of light, colour and leaf

May, in England, is extravagantly beautiful.

The garden is at its most demanding, but also its most rewarding.  A lesson in this?
Weeding, watering, feeding, and tweaking could take up every hour of the day, but on a sunny day those jobs are a pleasure.

May makes a person want to wax lyrical. 
Adam Nicolson, the heir to Sissinghurst -- one of the most famous gardens in the world -- wrote this:

This is a damp, lush country.  The late winters are grey and depressing. The spring is often a disappointment. But then in May, the condition of our life in these islands becomes heavenly.  "When I die," Monty Don wrote in The Ivington Diaries, published last year, "I shall go to May.  It will be green, actually the colour green in all its thousand shining faces.  Every moment will be like the arc of a diver breaking the waters of a green lake, a shifting, growing hymn of light, colour and leaf."

And yes, the world is so green . . . but full of other colours, too.
Lilac, wisteria, peony, allium, bluebell:  these are the May palette.

And horses kiss in a green, green field full of buttercups and white-blossomed May trees.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Shakespeare and Company

While the book doth live
and we have wits to read
and praise to give
Thou art alive still

Shakespeare and Company:  Is there a more storied bookstore in the world?

If you go to Notre Dame, and what tourist doesn't, it is just across the river on the Left Bank . . . so close to the Seine that a "well-thrown apple core will easily reach river water," says Jeremy Mercer, in Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs.

When I was 21, and visiting Paris for my first grown-up time, I read Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.  In that memoir to his Parisian salad days, Hemingway describes Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company -- the gathering place for the literati of the time.  Beach, an American expatriate, was hosting her version of the Parisian salon -- with a capitalistic twist, aptly.  She became known for her friendships, for her encouragement of writers and for the frequent readings sponsored by the bookstore.  Like her friend Gertrude Stein, she was a lesbian -- and Paris created a space for her to be truly herself.  As Stein said, America is my country and Paris is my hometown.

When mainstream publishers wouldn't touch James Joyce's Ulysses, Sylvia Beach bankrolled its publication.  Although the novel didn't make her any money, it did add luster to the legendary bookstore.  A biography of James Joyce graces one of  the window displays and is one of many reminders of the bookstore's rich history.

The second World War closed the bookstore's doors for a decade, but in 1951 another American, George Whitman, bought some of Beach's book collection and opened a bookstore -- same name, different location -- with her approval.   Whitman kept many of the traditions -- readings, a gathering place for expatriates, the promotion of starving writers -- and then he added to them, just as he kept adding to the bookstore.  Although Beach created a "home" at her bookstore, Whitman actually allowed the writers and wanna-be writers to sleep over.

Jeremy Mercer's memoir is an intriguing glimpse into the life of the bookstore, fifty years after Whitman opened the current location on 37 rue de la Bucherie.  Mercer describes a constant parade of book lovers, camping out amidst the stacks.  It must be one of the most unique youth hostels:  room, and occasional board, in exchange for a few hours of work in the bookstore.  One of the few things that Whitman asks of his residents is that they attempt to read a book a day.

I've often fantasized about living in a bookstore, but I will readily admit that for all its charms, Shakespeare and Company is probably too bohemian for my taste.  As of the year 2000, when Mercer was living in the bookstore, there was no heat and little in the way of facilities or privacy.  (Mercer describes, humorously and horrifyingly, how residents managed to wash themselves and scrounge up meals.)  Although an English poet managed to bunk in the antiquarian room for more than five years, most of the residents are just passing through. 

Whitman started a tradition of having his temporary residents submit their "biographies."   Mercer describes it as "an archive of sociological wonders . . . a vast survey of the great drifters of the past forty years."  I wonder if the best bits will be compiled into a book someday? Although Whitman's daughter now runs the store, a bit of his biography is still posted outside the store -- almost like a manifesto.

Of course, I had to buy some books while I was there.

I looked over the impressive selection of fiction, but in the end I settled for two books about the experience of living in Paris.  True Pleasures, by an Australian writer called Lucinda Holdforth, is a memoir of Parisian women -- not all of them French -- who have been inspired by and associated with the city.  Colette, Josephine and Madame de Staël are here, and so are Nancy Mitford, Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein.  Her themes are intriguing:  "On Grown-Up Women" and "But Women Are Politics . . .".  As Stein said, It's not what Paris gave you but what it didn't take away from you that was important.

I read this book weeks after I left Paris -- when I was sick in bed, in fact -- but it brought Paris flooding back to me.  The author stays in the same area of the Marais that I did, and she visits Shakespeare and Company . . . which brings the journey full-circle in a satisfying way.  But then I have no doubt that all English speaking book lovers eventually find themselves there.

The other book that I bought from Shakespeare and Company was The Secret Life of France by Lucy Wadham.  Wadham, a British woman just a bit older than me, marries a Parisian and attempts to immerse herself in French family and culture . . . which is a very different thing to just admiring and appreciating the abridged tourist version of things.  It's a strange measure of how long I've lived in England, now, but I felt a strong identification with Wadham's point-of-view. 

In Wadham's view, the French admire the English, while the English tend to despise the French.  On the other hand, the French despise the Americans, who -- in their innocence -- admire the French.  By the way, Wadham also attempts to explain why the French are so rude; although I didn't really find them so.  Indeed, I found it charming how all of the waiters described themselves as "désolée" when they couldn't provide me with a table . . . even though my French accent is atrocious.

There is no frigate like a book, said Emily Dickinson, but at Shakespeare and Company you are more likely to travel by train.  Or are those old cinema seats?

The young American man who rang up my book purchases asked me if I wanted the special stamp in my books . . . I guess it's the Shakespeare and Company passport.