In the early morning this fall, I often read Michael McCarthy’s “The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy,” and knew I wanted to write about it at the winter solstice.
McCarthy’s book acknowledges the dire environmental straits we find ourselves in – and issues a plea to our emotions – feelings we have had toward nature for all of our history. For McCarthy “We may have left the natural world, but the natural world has not left us.” It seems a slim hope in this political climate, but he hopes by reconnecting with this part of ourselves, we might be more invested in repairing the damage.
In the first part of the book, McCarthy blends his personal story of loss with the earth’s man-made damage, and it’s painful. But then, in rich chapters, he points out the love and joy we can feel for the natural world, describing human interactions with creatures from butterflies and moths to megafauna.
He tells how he’s found “Joy in the Beauty of the Earth” and “Joy in the Calendar,” the latter through experiencing seasons, migrations, and blossomings – including importantly – the miracle of winter solstice. “The moment when the days stop shortening and start getting longer again, celebrated for millennia.” The words he uses – joy, wonder, love, beauty – are the words we associate with all this season’s celebrations.
In a short, early December trip to Downtown Abbey in climate-changed Anchorage (48° with rain-slicked ice underfoot), Baby Brother charmed me anew. He moves lickety-split on all fours around the house, stops to burst out his big smile, or to pull himself upright to explore more. He has many words, and learned to say “Kay-tee” in the most endearing way.
We got a full-size tree for the living room, and a tiny one for Lady Baby’s bedroom. We cut out and decorated cookies shaped like stars, gingerbread people, and hearts, and read “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree.” Lady Baby demonstrated her new skating skills, flying with speed and strength across the ice at the school’s hockey rink. She was making a menorah with her class, and told me about celebrating all the holidays: “the Jesus one, the Santa one, and Winter Solstice.”
Winter solstice is a calculable moment. It occurs this year on Thursday the 21st of December at 2:23 p.m. – a perfect time to pay attention and rejoice, as we turn toward the light!
Sweet Baby’s parents recently sent a little video of Sweet Baby sitting on the floor next to her dad, surrounded by toys. She has a plastic flip phone with a realistic (old-fashioned) ring, even a fax tone, and she answers and initiates calls:
“Hello, I’m playing with daddy until Christmas! Bye!” Her dad asks who she’s talking to, “Poppa Jim!” When offered the phone to call back, she says, “No, I call Granny Kaytee.” “Hi. Playing with daddy. Christmas lights in the dark.”
When her parents ask for clarification, she (with a little sigh of exasperation), grabs the phone to “redial,” “Hi, Granny Kaytee. I’m just playing with daddy and Christmas lights in the dark. OK? Bye.” She snaps the phone closed with authority.
Well, OK, she’s right! For those of us who live where darkness comes early in the evening and stays long in the morning, dark defines December. And on a morning dim from clouds and rain, when Sweet Baby was here for Thanksgiving week, we lit candles at breakfast. To my delight, each day thereafter Sweet Baby requested that glow.
All the celebrations and realities of the season call for light – warm lamplight, twinkly outdoor sparkles, firelight – and trees! This year will be magic for a nearly three-year old, reading books, decorating the tree, cutting out cookies – and yes, Christmas lights in the dark!
Courtesy of the party in power, this weekend was brutal – from criminal behavior verified to the Senate majority’s appalling approval of the cruelest, most unfair tax bill imaginable (to date, I don’t suppose they are finished yet). The news is bury-your-head worthy.
I’ve done a fair bit of that in the past few months, not talking about it here, trying to not give in to feeling completely defeated, trying to remember the title of the blog.
And now the season I like best is nigh! In spite of snow falling on WordPress and changing the header to one of holiday comforts, the spirit eludes me. But, for the little people who don’t know what a muck some adults are making of it, I want to try, even if by avoidance, to make the magic of the season of lights happen – and to enjoy.
I felt better this morning when I turned to my notes about Penelope Lively’s 2016 book, “The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories.” I love Lively – all her books – and her presence in this troubled world, her wisdom, her staying power. Lively is in her 80s, has endured the arrows of age, but what imagination and facility in one little volume!
In these stories, Lively plays with narration and narrators, with what people say and what they think: the story “A Biography” is written in a series of interviews as though for a biography, “Point of View” retells the theme of the split pea soup story, and in “License To Kill,” where a 20-something accompanies an 80-something (who used to be a spy) to shop for groceries, the alternating thoughts of each reveal kindnesses and surprises. Using a purple swamp hen as narrator (in a time leading up to the eruption, the hen lives in the garden of a villa in Pompeii) allows Lively to call out comparisons between that “benighted age” and our own.
Oh treat yourself to Lively’s book in these uneasy times – or wrap a copy of this beautiful volume, with its purple bookcloth and cover picture of a purple swamp hen, for a favorite person!
Not the presidential couple, George and Martha, but James Marshall’s expressive hippos from his 1970s book about friendship, “Five Stories About Two Great Friends.” The stories are about privacy, disappointment, vanity, and “what friends are for.” George says, friends “always look on the bright side, and they always know how to cheer you up.” Martha responds with a smile, “But they also tell you the truth.”
“Story Number One: Split Pea Soup,” has always been my favorite. It’s about how to tell a really good friend (or relative) that you don’t like something they cook and continually offer to you.
Martha loves to make split pea soup; George can’t stand it. One day, grown desperate but not wanting to hurt Martha’s feelings, George pours a bowlful of soup into his loafers under the table. From the kitchen Martha spies his maneuver, and says, “Why didn’t you tell me that you hate my split pea soup?” Turns out she doesn’t really like it either, just likes to make it. Now that she knows the truth, she’ll make chocolate chip cookies instead.
Such a situation has always been a “George and Martha” moment at our house. And when our younger son recently admitted he didn’t really like pie, as he was eating a piece of pumpkin pie I had made, I thought of George and Martha – and also of split pea soup, which I love. (I don’t know about our son, I think he’d like chocolate chip cookies to replace all the above.)
In this wintry weather Deborah Madison’s split pea soup is easy and so welcome. Deborah covers one and a half cups of split peas with water and sets aside. She sautés a large diced onion and two diced carrots in two tablespoons of olive oil, until the onion gets some color. Then she adds two cloves of chopped garlic and a quarter cup of chopped parsley, along with herbs (a teaspoon of dried marjoram, a teaspoon of chopped fresh or dried rosemary, a teaspoon of paprika) and fresh pepper.
Next she adds the aromatics: two bay leaves, eight parsley branches, six thyme sprigs together with a teaspoon and a half of salt, the drained peas, and two quarts of stock or water (water works just fine). Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for a long time, until the peas are a comforting, mushy, flavorful, warming bowlful. Remove the aromatics, and add more water if needed.
I’ve made this soup a lot lately, not “pots and pots” “all day long” like Martha, but I sent the book to Sweet Baby so she’ll know about a George and Martha moment. Lady Baby already knows.
Last spring the vet diagnosed our 15-year old kitty, Frances, with kidney disease. Unsure whether it would progress quickly or gradually, the vet taught us how to give her subcutaneous water to fight dehydration and increase her appetite. Frances tolerated our treatments a few times, and then made it clear that further needle and tube interventions would not happen.
Nine months later she thrives, at least for now. We figured ways to have water containers everywhere she wants and to surround her canned food with a moat of water, refreshed all day. She eats well, had a grand summer in her courtyard garden in all weather, and we are thankful.
But she weighs only seven pounds at most, and is cold all the time. She’s a creature of habit, is Frances, with definite sleeping spot preferences. She watches “shows” each evening from a blanket spread on my husband’s lap, likes to sleep on his chest when he naps on the floor, and sleeps next to me – under the covers mostly. She misses our beloved housesitter, who accepted a good job in the big city, and can no longer visit to provide generous lap-sitting time. During the day, when Frances first comes indoors, she hunkers on a heat vent, then sleeps on a folded comforter at the foot of our bed or a wicker chair full of old sweaters.
Thanksgiving particularly vexes Frances – when everyone gathers here. We shift bedrooms, so the comforter and the chair are both out of bounds, and this compounds her general stress from the pitter-patter of little feet and jolly shouts of laughter. Frances is not a party animal.
I’ve wished she’d be more flexible in her sleeping places (and her general attitude), and that I could make her more comfortable. So I sent off for a thick, boiled wool cat bed from Lithuania – an ovoid cocoon with small entrance hole. The bed garnered plenty of five-star reviews on Etsy, and a couple of “my cat won’t go near” warnings. At first I feared the same from Frances – for days it sat, she barely sniffed. I put an old sweater of mine in the bottom, trying to overcome foreign smells, but no luck.
Then, on a cold and windy October day, the kind of day when I usually curl another blanket around her on the bed, I put the new possibility near her sleeping spot. Glancing that way in a little while, I could see only one ear, a black triangle against the wool, and then the triangle disappeared within the cocoon, which wriggled slightly, like when an emerging chick rattles an eggshell.
Hooray! I’m ridiculously glad she accepted a change, found warmth, and a happier Thanksgiving (her nest can come downstairs with us).
And a Happy Thanksgiving to you as well – I wish you time with family, friends, food, and cheerful pets!
I have heard tell that certain little people will be transformed today – in Alaska we’d find one duckling, and one cowboy riding a horse (that part is important, the horse is handsome) – and in California, a kitty cat with all the feline moves!
I hope you find some cheerful orange this autumn day – Pumpkin pie remains my favorite orange on a dark and spooky night!
Based on books by Ann Cleeves, the British television series “Vera” has seven seasons so far (a discovery that helped a lot with pneumonia evenings). It features Vera Stanhope as a Detective Chief Inspector working in the far northeast of England. Probably everything written about “Vera” mentions the detective’s unlikely appearance and demeanor. Paddington Bear comes to mind.
She’s a sturdy and not young woman who wears a squashed hat like the bear’s, Wellies or sensible shoes, and a “mac” as much a trademark as Colombo’s was in the day. She drives a beat-up jeep, and addresses people as “pet” or “luv” with empathy or sarcasm, depending on the exchange. British slang words like “skint” and “scarper” sprinkle the show’s dialogue – complicated by thick northern accents.
You rarely see the murder, but each episode’s opening scene finds a corpse discovered in the landscape – beaches, moors, river canyons – or in a lonely farmhouse, stately home or Newcastle street. Under investigation the new case (and they are remarkably varied) can lead to a tangled web of family secrets and lies, and sometimes require the reopening of a closed case.
The actress Brenda Blethyn plays Vera. Her mobile face conveys both barely concealed fury and impatience with lying, or a smile of sympathy or satisfaction at a solution. She’s smart, intuitive, often sharp with associates, and in the middle of the case pulls her crumpled hat off and on in frustration. She is really, really good at her job.
It helps that she knows a lot – because of her odd childhood with a poacher father, she has experience and understanding of animals and plants inhabiting seacoast and moor. Some episodes reveal tiny bits of Vera’s past, and we get to know her staff.
Through the seasons the actors change, but her closest associate is always a Detective Sergeant, young, male, handsome, and sweet – a family guy who cares about Vera in spite of her quirks. Pathologists play a prominent role, there have been three so far, and a longtime Detective Constable who knows the criminal characters of countryside and city.
Vera cares about children and their often difficult lives, but part of her appeal is the satisfaction of watching her bark orders to her staff – and seeing them jump to.
I’m fond of the scenes back at the headquarters: the victim’s photo slapped on a magnetic board along with other bits of information, and Vera, wearing her “under the mac” almost housedress outfit with ubiquitous stringy scarf circling her neck, paces in front of the board and demands of her gathered staff “Well, what do we know?”
Maybe not much at that moment – but a lot by the end of the evening.
January, oh January – in need of a jolt of color, a list of possibilities, a gathering of beauty, an inspiration of visuals – and so I offer Lisa Borgnes-Giaramonti’s “Novel Interiors: Living in Enchanted Rooms Inspired by Literature.” It’s so good!!
On the afternoons of Christmas and Boxing Day I devoured Lisa’s book in the best possible setting, propped on the daybed in our living room, covered by a little plaid blanket, surrounded by pillows while the fire blazed for hours, fed by the younger son who sat reading gardening books in an armchair nearby.
And then I reread “Novel Interiors” in the harsher light of January – and loved it even more. I’m a fan of Lisa’s blog and wrote about her here, so I knew about the book as she worked so hard on it. I recognized her very clever idea – to meld her love of literature with her equally intense passion for stylish living. She’s done a terrific job of noting those moments of scene setting in favorite books that linger long in our minds.
She’s organized her book into chapters illustrated with fabulous photos by Ivan Terestchenko of real houses, lived in, imaginative, comfortable houses. Chapter titles hint both at books and the “distinct design aesthetic” each chapter focuses on – “Shall I Put the Kettle On?,” “Anything Goes,” “Remembrance of Things Past.”
Lisa seeks both style and comfort and writes with charm and wit, “Patina is what gives our possessions – and ourselves – character and meaning.” I’m often suspicious of books heavy with quotes, but Lisa knows these 60-some novels, and she lets her chosen authors speak: Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, Willa Cather and Isak Dinesen. “I Capture the Castle” is here, which in my mind has always been about green velvet, and I like it that “Buddenbrooks” and “Cold Comfort Farm” both provide inspiration.
My favorite chapters are the ones with a bohemian anything-goes-in-an-orderly way vibe – comfort and color being primary. But I also respect the “rooms designed with order and purpose in mind” that fill chapters on elegance and glamour.
Lisa adds “lessons” learned from the novels in each chapter. And here is her voice, a modern woman with a family who must throw a great dinner party, and loves to curl up with her cat and read and read (“literary wandering” she’d call it). The lessons suggest in doable ways how to create cozy corners, memorialize mementos, or add “drama with portieres.”
Nowhere in my house could a portiere hang, but oh I love the idea of it, a curtain or heavy drape to add mystery. I could, however, right away make her velvet pillow 12 by 18 inches, filled with dried lavender and buckwheat hulls, and settle down to dip yet again into this treasure of a book.
Treat yourself to a January break in the fascinating world of “Novel Interiors!”
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!
Rules we abide by (or ignore) in our own houses can be complex and mysterious in origin. Where do we get these notions that fill our home rulebook?
My mother is the source of some of my rules: no ketchup bottles or milk cartons on the dining table, and from her Irish roots, “if you kill a spider, it will rain the next day.” She believed houses should always have fireplaces but no overhead lights actually used. We lived in a 27-foot trailer for some time, so I’m not sure that rule worked out for her, but I’ve remembered and obeyed it.
An old neighbor of long ago, the one, who had four little towheaded boys when our towhead joined the neighborhood line-up, was the source of several tricks and truisms. (I was so new to both homeownership and motherhood at the time that I readily absorbed her rules.) She declared that if the toilets weren’t clean, the house wouldn’t seem clean, and recommended at the approach of unexpected visitors to pull out the vacuum. A vacuum in the middle of the floor signals a cleaning in progress!
My old friend who lives on Bainbridge Island taught me about counter wiping. We joke about it, but it’s true. A nurse, she knows germs. Also, she possesses Scandinavian blue-and-white clean genes, and her house can sparkle – with towels and sheets fresh from hanging on the line outside, cut flowers on the kitchen table, homemade preserves.
No shoes in the house is second nature to anyone who has lived in Alaska.
From my very good high school friend’s mother, I learned to always leave a house or a cabin clean when departing. Dirty windows block a huge amount of light. That’s longtime Anchorage garden writer Jeff Lowenfels’s rule to encourage light for houseplants – and lifted spirits for humans.
My painter friend taught me to shut the shades and close out the dark each evening, a ritual I love here where the winter nights are even darker (not now thankfully!).
The rules for how to hang paintings come courtesy of Don and Julie Decker, the owners of the Anchorage gallery where I used to show. The museum rule is the center of the painting at about five feet above the floor – the Deckers could masterfully eyeball that height. It’s so easy to hang things too high, and as our younger son said to me recently, it looks weird once you notice.
Cheryl Mendelson in “Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House” taught me her way to make beds – to add an extra flat sheet over the wool blanket, then fold the top sheet over that – protecting the blanket. Mendelson’s book contains 854 pages and many rules – great stuff really – how to “properly” wash dishes by hand, how to light a fire, how to clean most anything in a house.
And same with Ellen Sandbeck’s “Organic Housekeeping,” a gift from Mrs. Hughes, I read it from front to back, and the rule I remember is no sponges (“bacterial incubators”) for dishes. Ever. Maybe.
Rules. Are these rules about rigidity or about comfort? You must have them also. Probably some of yours contradict mine.
But we all know what rules are for, right?!
“Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” is the subtitle of Oliver Burkeman’s new book “The Antidote.” In part it’s a critique of various (there are so many) self-help books and programs requiring that one’s outlook be relentlessly upbeat. Burkeman questions if such methods work, exploring the dark side, as it were. The surprising short answer is no.
While some bits might help temporarily, the constant maintenance required to reassure that everything will be OK exhausts. In the long run the fairy dust wears off, and research indicates that desperately seeking to suppress, rather than acknowledge, negative thoughts defeats the exercise. Alternatives are provided!
Burkeman discovers that “Happiness reached via positive thinking can be fleeting and brittle,” but surprisingly, “negative visualization generates a vastly more dependable calm.” He attends a motivational seminar, a meditation retreat, and engages in an exercise to invite embarrassment (as part of exploring how our fears are often worse than what we fear).
Along his journey (which is much fun to read), he interviews modern researchers and philosophers, and reads the Stoics. They argue wisely that the only thing we can truly control is what “we believe about our circumstances,” and that’s all we need to control because “tranquility results from replacing our irrational judgments with rational ones.” Sounds so simple.
I loved Burkeman’s encounter with the work of Saras Sarasvathy, and what Sarasvathy calls “causally minded” people. These people are “effectualists,” they take action based on what is readily available: “what you are, what you know and who you know.” Then they “see what happens.” This means not waiting till all the heavens align on some perfect day, but do now, with what you have.
He also talks about the important distinction made by working authors and artists who know it’s not about “getting motivated” or “feeling inspired,” but rather about the power of employing specific routines and “rituals which provide a structure to work in.” Close to home: get out the paints, open a drawer or box of stamps and “see what happens.”
Burkeman, a features writer for The Guardian newspaper, describes himself as a “skinny, pale Englishman” in the midst of his search for Santa Muerte in the Mexico City suburb of Tepito. In the chapter titled “Momento Mori,” he details a culture more comfortable with death than ours.
The chapter ends with Burkeman inviting the reader to do a specific exercise, which aims to help us achieve “mortality awareness.” It’s not complicated. Simply imagine yourself as 80 (or older if you are 80) and complete these sentences: “I wish I’d spent more time on…” and “I wish I’d spent less time on….