Flowers From The Garden – Snowdrops

Planting snowdrops requires catching the bulbs “in the green,” and dividing the parent clump. Now patches of them appear in many garden beds here, and maybe someday they will form drifts like you see in old English and Northwest gardens. Undaunted by winter’s freezing rain and temperatures, when I brought them inside to paint I realized they have a small, sweet fragrance.

blue-white-snowdrops

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Kind and Dear

It’s January and cold – in Washington these days the thermometer rarely tops 32° and sinks to 22° – making me long for our usual winter 42° and appreciate house and heat.

This month I try to turn my attention to the house, clearing Christmas, which stops looking jolly and becomes clutter (except the tree, those lights are still so welcome). And January also invites more organizing, seeking comfort and cheer from order.

But in numerous ways I avoid those tasks. Although this year, I happily reboxed Christmas on January 6, energized after reading about the Irish tradition of “Women’s Little Christmas,” the old, but still observed celebration of the women (and surely now men), who worked so hard to make the holidays for their families.

A more typical stalling maneuver is to look at books about houses, including a Christmas present, Ben Pentreath’s “English Houses,” a beautiful book full of photos of loved houses that creak with tilted floors and worn Turkey rugs. Pentreath introduced a room new to me, the “snug,” a tiny room with books and fireplace looking just like the word. (I discovered while writing this that Pentreath writes a blog about his life in Dorset:    http://www.pentreath-hall.com/inspiration/).

And this January I miss “Red House West” – may it return soon! I did see a Pin from the blog’s proprietors of an imaginative under-the-stairs bed, cozily curtained off. And I began thinking about how certain house elements, sunny French windows, odd but comfy chairs, deep window sills, long pine tables make me stare at a photo and want to be there.

Leanne Shapton, an illustrator I admire, said she processes life by employing series and repetition in her work. Maira Kalman does that too. And an artist, Debbie George, I discovered while painting teacups last November, paints antique teacups and flowers one lovely image after another.

January lets such thoughts string together into a project. So, I’m going to look for little moments in rooms that make a difference – quirks, rumples, using houses I know or photos from books or the Internet. Done up doesn’t always do it, but personal often does.

And I can start with this little poem that William Morris had embroidered around the top of his four-poster bed:

     The wind’s on the wold

     And the night is a-cold

     And Thames runs chill

     Twixt mead and hill,

     But kind and dear

     Is the old house here,

     And my heart is warm

     Midst winter’s harm…

That’s the idea!

wm-morris-bed

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Perfect

Early Christmas morning I managed (with some pride at my efficiency) to get the pumpkin pie for dinner in the oven – and then left it there for hours while we opened presents and ate breakfast. I sent my old friend on Bainbridge a photo of the result, but then she countered with an image from the night before – the charred remains of her Lucia rolls – “425° for four hours.”

Sweet Baby loved it all – from waking up to discover mysterious packages under the tree and a baby girl doll, to having Christmas dinner on Bainbridge with little boys who know how to enjoy the underneath of a festive dining table.

My old friend (who was hygge before hygge was a thing) sent a message at midnight: “The evening was perfect – with all the imperfections.”

Yes.

pears-comice-2-copy

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Just A Few Days To Go

Emotions fill the holiday season, I know that. But this one is different. I write while preparing for the arrival of our younger son, Sweet Bride, and Sweet Baby – and I recognize the privilege of time and space to make merry. Writing helps me wrestle my thoughts away from the anxiety that much cherished is threatened in the new year.

I had planned to write about Ann Patchett’s new book “Commonwealth,” to say that I read all six hours back and forth to Alaska, finishing as the plane landed in Seattle. In the beginning I was confused, chapters back and forth in time, characters I couldn’t quite keep straight, but by the end it seemed perfect to finish with Christmas and a family cobbled together by love.

I cried watching Patti Smith sing Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall” at the Nobel ceremony, and I thought of my blue-eyed sons and wanted to write about them, about how astounded I am by them and how grateful for them. They are accomplished and hardworking, and when I watch them care for their own “darling young ones” or hold their wives’ hands, I am undone.

And then today I read “How Does It Feel” in The New Yorker, the wonderful piece Smith wrote about the Nobel event. The link includes the song, and she tells of how she came to sing it, from artful choices and rehearsals through breakfast the next morning. It all fits together to honor art and science, family and friendship. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/patti-smith-on-singing-at-bob-dylans-nobel-prize-ceremony.

Most of all, at the year’s darkest point in the season of lights, I write to wish you all kindness, beauty in art and nature, and love.

pears-bartlett-copy

 

 

December Red and Gold

It’s bleak this early December – Thanksgiving put away and Washington dark of evening and dark of morning. Winter is come.

But it’s the political landscape that chills. A good friend says when she wakes in the night and worries, she reminds herself that President Obama is still president, it’s OK to go back to sleep. And it is more important than ever to look for the cheer and light in this month, for us and for the children for whom we pictured a world with increasing compassion and decency.

On Instagram I’ve comforted myself by posting pictures of #goldreclaimed, because I loathe the recent associations of gold with intolerance, ugliness, and tastelessness. This political year did a number on red as well.

I began the Instagram posts after my eyes fell on a little tourist picture we bought – the reclining figure of Peace – a reproduction from “The Allegory of Good Government and Bad Government” (here) in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy. Painted in the 14th Century by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, this huge three-paneled fresco remains painfully relevant.

On the “Effects of Good Government” panel, depictions are pastoral and bountiful as you might imagine. The panel on bad government is faded, but you can make out the captive figure of Justice, deserted derelict streets, and two armies advancing toward each other in the countryside. The “Effects of Bad Government” depicts “a devious looking figure adorned with horns and fangs…identified as Tyrammides (Tyranny). He sits enthroned, resting his feet upon a goat (symbolic of luxury), and in his hand he sinisterly holds a dagger.”

Ugh. So here’s to holding on to hope ‘til time to act, and in the meantime to red and gold in art and life. This little bit of research lifted my spirits not at all, but the red and gold in Lorenzetti’s Peace does.

peace

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Slow Beginnings – A Little More December

Arriving the day before Christmas Eve and departing the weekend after New Years, Sweet Baby and her parents came north for the whole holiday. That gift of time made for the most luxurious of holidays.

Having nine-month old lively Sweet Baby changed everything. We celebrated around her wake time (early) and naps (one in the front pack on a walk and one in the crib). Sitting in a little chair that hooked onto our wooden spool coffee table, she ate meals with us by the fire.

Sweet Baby gets up and down from the floor with enviable ease and can stand alone, although a little shakily. For Christmas she revealed one bottom tooth and then another in the days after. Sometimes she wore a t-shirt with a glittery heart on front saying, “My heart is made of gold.”

If she’s on the floor, she extends her little arms for a pick-up or grabs hold of our jeans to pull herself up. Once up, she’s a cuddly, wiggling bundle delivering smiles, squeezes, and squeals. She pats us, then extends her arm as though to point, but turns her hand palm up in the most graceful, slightly questioning way. I’m not sure what it means, but it is pure Sweet Baby.

Santa and stockings? Secondary to the package she received from our niece on arrival day, wrapped with a huge curly-ribboned bow. Each time Sweet Baby encountered the bow, she would carefully pull one strand out, turn it this way and that, and eventually insert it in her mouth (the final exploration). An adult would remove it, and she’d pick another.

Sweet Baby looked with intensity at everything – pictures on walls and fridge, the sky and trees. When I carried her over my hip in one arm while I opened or closed the shades, put the kettle on, made the oatmeal – I explained my actions. She’d watch the shade go up and then turn her head toward my face and study me – looking for reaction, for more words.

Oh, and words – her mom speaks mostly Thai to her, so her tiny head is full of two languages. The sort of things you say to babies became familiar in Thai, even to us.

For Christmas dinner we went out to our favorite Thai restaurant – cheerful and colorful. The Sweet Bride and the restaurant’s owner chatted to one another while each held a baby girl. The Sweet Bride said it felt like being home – and to us the evening felt like a delicious new tradition.

On the day of departure I picked up the remains of the ribbon when we got back from the airport run. Good times never last quite long enough – and oh, Sweet Baby’s first Christmas was a very good time!

Olivia and Laura

 

Short and Dark

“Such a short time you were here,” said Lady Baby, the night before we flew home from our December visit. But we made merry!

On the first day we selected a tree – the tallest ever at Downtown Abbey – and Lady Baby, studying each ornament and determining careful placement, hung hearts, stars, and fluffy owls. We cut out cats, angels, and gingerbread folk to bake and frost and eat. At a lively high school production of a hip-hop “Nutcracker,” Lady Baby might have liked more plot and fewer dance numbers, but she eyed the Mouse King’s every move.

For two days I took her to preschool, and we’d arrive at the little schoolroom in morning darkness to find candle glow, fragrant greenery, and quiet children in a circle around their teacher. In a snow globe moment at pickup time, bundled-up children sledded, squealed, and chased snowflakes to catch on their tongues.

But I treasure most the glimpsed bits of Lady Baby’s thinking: I wouldn’t have known, or ever guessed, that Prudhoe Bay is the best place to get a vegan sandwich (you will remember that Nick, the father of Baby Boy, spends a lot of time in Prudhoe Bay – though he prefers a sausage sandwich).

At the nearby elementary school, Lady Baby climbed the frosty equipment, watched the school’s hardy chickens standing about on one leg (the other tucked into their feathers), and observed “they’d be warmer in their little hut, because they have a light to warm it up.”

Walking home she spotted a dog and its master starting out for a walk. She stopped and stared a minute, then told me “Somebody must really love that sweet puppy.”

We read an animal character version of “A Christmas Carol,” identifying all the animals placed in the familiar Dickens tale, and revisited old favorites like “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree.” Beginning “The Dog Who Found Christmas, a book new to us and discovering Buster abandoned by heartless owners, I said, “Uh oh, this might be sad.” Lady Baby quickly reassured me, “Don’t worry Granna Katy, he’ll find a home by the end.” And so he did.

While Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson had a night away, we spent an overnight with Lady Baby – and it seemed a privilege that everything was so normal. Dinner, bath, books, bed – sleeping tight all night – waking up to “Pretend you are the baby tiger and I am the mama, or no I am the baby and you are the mama.”

Her parents, on the other hand, did that thing I remember so well – looking forward to a break and a chance to ski and eat with grown ups – then spending the whole time talking about the almost four-year old at home.

This visit was short – and winter solstice dark – but rich with Christmas magic (“I think Santa might really be a mouse, so he can fit in all the chimneys”), candle light, tree lights, and music – days to savor.

Is everything ready at your house? I wish you such a happy Christmas, abrim with peace, joy, and love!

christmas cards

 

Season of Light

Starting now with the darkest season upon us, it’s time to shut shades and shutters against the dark and light candles for solidarity, candles for early morning yoga, candles at dinner always. Twinkle lights inside and out.

As times change and families grow, I miss my old friends and our holiday rituals. I’m thinking of my friend who lives on Bainbridge, her fondness for the cheer of lighted candles – even the glow of a candle on the breakfast table.

And though she’d try not to, she always used to cry during the “thankfuls” around the Thanksgiving table. And I might get teary this year with so much to be grateful for (including electricity – truly a miracle when recently unpredictable because of storms). I’m so eager to see everyone and the little cousins together again.

Thank you for being wonderful readers with thoughtful comments, I appreciate all of you. I wish you warm gatherings radiant in candlelight, festive with food and family and friends!

turkey candle holder

Scary Hot

For weeks here on the bluff we’ve had very warm days and glory sunsets. Some days (while we were away) the air didn’t move and the temperatures rose to unfamiliar heights – hard on our Pacific Northwest shade-craving house sitter.

And now wind from the north bears smoke from scores of forest fires raging on Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. Alaskans here recognize the yellow-tinged clouds, smoky air, and gray cloud cover – a common Alaska summer phenomena, but usually not this dire until August. A fire even burns in the Washington rain forest.

The drought in Western Washington is unprecedented. Record warm winter left scant snow pack, and reservoir levels are far lower than normal for early July. Winter rains are far away.

My niece, home briefly from the East Coast to a sweltering Seattle, wondered aloud if her generation would survive. They will enjoy recent joyful improvements to life – reluctantly provided by a divided Supreme Court – but suffer our degradation of the natural world. Although the respected Washington weather guru, Cliff Mass, writes that the heat wave is an anomaly and not explained by gradual climate change, it’s hard to think it isn’t a taste of what’s predicted later in the century.

And now, after the fire clouds cooled the air and land, familiar moisture from fog and mist drips from trees and buildings. Denial and hope descend again.

Sunset

 

 

 

 

 

Daffodils and More Birds

At the beginning of March, sunshine and daffodils in yellows warm and pale lit up the world. Cold mornings gave way to warm middays, and all day the sun shone into my workroom onto bird photos and paintings. Welcome rain returns this week, but I loved sitting and painting in warmth.

I discovered other amazing bird photographers to add to my acknowledgement list, most specially Alan and Elaine Vernon’s beautiful photos. They are generous and their site a fine resource: www.naturespicsonline.com.

With frets in the air about the early spring and low snowpack, I wait for the migrants to return. No sign yet of these two, the White-crowned sparrow and Violet-green swallow, but I hope to see and hear them soon!

White-crowned sparrow

White-crowned sparrow

Violet-green swallow

Violet-green swallow

Winter Wren

On a pouring rain day at the end of February, a lone bright-red anemone, scattered crocus, and many snowdrops bloom in the garden. Hellebore cluster together on straight stems and bow their blossom heads. An acid spring-green colors a proliferation of not-yet-blooming forget-me-nots, the sharp spears of new crocosmia, and thick moss on garden bed edging logs and pavers. That newborn green shines against the dark gray of winter forest, and amid a discouraging amount of standing water.

Indoors, I consider the bird project – begun with my very favorite and one of the smallest – the winter wren (maybe finding its shape, but not yet background.)

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What Does A Festive Season Need?

Last December, when we went to London with our younger son and his sweet bride, I thought about my favorite parts of the holiday, wondering if we’d find what I treasure – joy and laughter and love for sure, the cheerful ghosts of Christmas past, and some specifics in the present.

We brought family with us – a critical component, and made a bare bones flat in Notting Hill home base. It was the sweet bride’s first trip to London, Harry Potter and Harrods’ led her list, but by the 21st the fact of Christmas became more pressing.

Friends – a warming Christmas element – were in short supply. We did eat dinner one night with our English friends at their cheery house (ironically, they left the next day for the States to spend their holiday). They gave us a small, bright red poinsettia for the flat’s fireplace mantel.

London provided wintry weather aplenty – rain and wind or clear, cold days – appropriate for the woolen hats and scarves we bought as small gifts to stuff stockings from home, and hung by the fireplace with care.

Solstice night we joined a walking tour to view Christmas lights – Covent Garden and Oxford Street a-twinkle, and giant white snowflakes glittering between the buildings in the tiny lane leading to St. Martin’s Square. Shoppers gathered in front of store windows with Victorian Christmas scenes – the kind that only huge and old-fashioned department stores can offer.

My family later reported spotting that Christmas tradition, “Love Actually,” playing on a big screen in the outdoor part of a pub. I missed it while talking to a fellow walker or I would have returned!

We played Christmas music on a tiny speaker for the iPhones, and heard the live BBC broadcast of the Festival of Carols. (I associate that with early morning on Christmas Eve in Anchorage). And by Christmas Eve, awash with the memories that color the holidays, I wanted to gather food for a feast – even if small.

Dramatic Christmas trees decorate public London – each year the City of Oslo presents the people of London with a huge tree that dominates Trafalgar Square (given in gratitude since 1947, for assistance during World War II), a red velvet tree designed by artists for the Victoria and Albert Museum filled the foyer there, and in Covent Garden’s Piazza giant red balls and white lights covered an enormous tree that stood in a whiskey barrel of startling size.

The bay windows of London townhouses seem designed for Christmas trees, and in our neighborhood one stood out. I opened the gate, snuck inside the tiny front yard, and took a photo. A book tree! Books artfully piled and strung with white lights, broad at the bottom and tapering to a skinny top where an artist’s wooden figure stood with arm raised in good cheer.

We had noticed trees for sale in lots tucked into spaces beside churches and in the entrance areas of big stores. I longed for one in spite of impracticality.

Finally the sweet bride and I cobbled together a tiny tree – evergreen boughs fresh with fragrance from a florist shop tied together with red ribbon, decked with a miniature string of colored lights, and topped by a star cut from shiny paper.

The basics of Christmas magic in place – off to bed!

Workroom Book tree