Archive for 2005

In My Humble Opinion

Tuesday, November 29th, 2005

Just in case anyone has been waiting with bated breath for my impressions on the new Pride and Prejudice:

 

We went last Wednesday night with two other couples, bearing high hopes for an enjoyable evening with friends, if nothing else. (And the fact that my mother tapped me on the shoulder from behind was a pleasant surprise! Unbeknownst to any of us my parents had chosen the same theatre and the same show!)

For any one of the half-a-dozen or so people who aren’t acquainted by this time with Jane Austen’s immortal story, spoilers may follow…

The movie opened on a mist-shrouded English landscape and I clutched Philip’s arm—the loveliness simply unfolded and took us in. From there issued one scene after another of such breathtaking beauty and careful detail that I told Philip later it was like watching a series of exquisite paintings succeed one another in lyric procession: portraits, still lifes, landscapes. The filmmakers were not afraid of moments of pure silence, of exacting studies of the play of emotion over the human face. The panoramic sweeps of the camera made you feel that you were a part of the film itself, a partaker instead of merely an observer.

I felt that the characters themselves were remarkably well-drawn in a relatively short period of time. Keira Knightly’s flashing-eyed repartees were delightful; one trickling tear was heart-rending. And Donald Sutherland was by far the best Mr. Bennett I have seen, as Daddy’s low commentary of chuckles behind me attested. Jane was gorgeous in every way and Bingley was disarmingly boyish. And Lydia’s shame was handled with such taste that I was quite honestly surprised.

When the film was over we congregated outside the theatre for nearly an hour, tossing omitted lines back and forth and rolling our eyes a bit at the last scene, ostensibly tacked on for American audiences who somehow need more than seamless subtlety to convince them that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy really are in love! But even then there was a wholesomeness rarely found in 21st century movies.

No, it wasn’t perfect. Keira Knightly’s hair often needed attention. There was a little too much barnyard screen time which could have been used for some of that dialogue we missed. And though Matthew MacFayden did an admirable job, he’ll never be Colin Firth. (And yet, his brooding Mr. Darcy leant a rather Bronte-esque air…) But for me the good points so far out-stepped the less-than-ideal that it didn’t matter. Even when I tried to take issue with the whole wrong-time-period thing, I couldn’t escape the fact that from start to finish it was a feast for the eyes. As Philip said when we came out of the theatre, “Who cares when it’s set—it’s beautiful!”

The verdict is that we loved it. We eagerly anticipate seeing it again in the theatre. Unspoiled movies are few and far between, but this is one that I cannot wait to own and add to my collection of films that inspire me to beautiful thoughts and gracious living.

And I can’t help feeling that Jane Austen would be amused at all the ranting over the adaptations of her book—perhaps only more fuel for witty observations on human foibles…

A Happy Thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2005

 

I love Thanksgiving.  Such a simple holiday, so unassuming and amazingly free of the mercantile trappings of other celebrations.  As much as I yearn towards the Christmas season each year, I am always sad that a day set aside for no other reason than to say ‘Thank You’ to God is often overshadowed, if not shoved impatiently aside by a culture obsessed with getting and spending. 

I love the day before Thanksgiving, too; there is something about the preparation and bustle that is dear to my womanly soul.  I love the scents in the air and the cheerful upheaval in the kitchen and the comfortable familiarity of Mama’s Autumn Leaf dishes.    

I often muse on the fact that God has given us the ability to anticipate as well as enjoy; this is blessing upon blessing to me.  It more than doubles our joy—it heightens and intensifies it, and makes each holiday’s sweetness part and parcel of all those that are someday coming.    

Every year on Thanksgiving Eve I make a big fragrant pot of cranberry conserve from a recipe that is well over a hundred years old.  The tangy aroma as it simmers away is positively heady with memory and meaning for me; I often lift the lid just to breathe in my own personal little essence of Thanksgiving.  And the glowing garnet-colored jars late in the afternoon are in themselves small mementoes of both days gone by and yet to come. 

Two years ago my precious friend Katie spent this day of anticipation with me in my kitchen.  She arrived early in the morning armed with casserole dishes and sweet potatoes and as we peeled oranges and chopped nuts we talked—over matters great and small, but mostly great, as hard and fast as we could.  It was all delight, the fire on the hearth, the ready pot of tea, the fragrances rising signifying good food for our loved ones, and the stimulation of a kindred spirit to share it all with. 

I will always remember our conversation from that day: the ‘hidden art’ of homemaking, as Edith Schaeffer so aptly put it; the joy of discovering new passions and creative outlets in our already full lives; the books we love.  Some of what we discussed was the misunderstandings we regularly face about our chosen profession as homemakers.  At one point I interrupted to direct her towards the quote I have hanging over my kitchen sink, copied carefully onto a porcelain plaque by another friend as a Christmas gift:

“…It was homemaking that mattered.  Every home was a brick in the great wall of decent living that men erected over and over again as a bulwark against the perpetual flooding in of evil.  But women made the bricks, and the durableness of each civilization depended on their quality, and it was no good weakening oneself for the brick-making by worrying too much about the flood…”

from ‘Pilgrim’s Inn’ by Elizabeth Goudge

We both wept at the inspiration of those words, and at the freedom God has given us to follow those ‘dreams dearest to our hearts’.  We have much to be grateful for.

A Happy Thanksgiving to all of you dear readers… 

A Holiday

Friday, November 18th, 2005

I am a big proponent of self-devised holidays.  My friend Rachel in Australia invented the charming notion of ‘Blossom Day’ for her daughter as a festivity of their down under spring-in-November.  Years ago ‘Joy Day’ was instituted by my sister and me as an excuse to celebrate one of our favorite friends; another of our fancies was ‘Domesticity Day’ wherein the home-arts were honored with girlish enthusiasm—I still have the apron I made that day to commemorate.  And shortly after Philip and I were married, I almost had him going on the notion that ‘Husband Day’ was a nationally recognized holiday for which he should take the day off of work.  (He did end up taking a personal day at my request and was amply rewarded with a day of delights…a bracing hike in the North Georgia mountains, a homemade picnic by the wayside, an afternoon of antiquing in out-of-the-way nooks…)

I informed Philip last night that I was taking my very own holiday today.  With several busy weeks behind me and the gorgeous prospect of The Holidays glittering ahead, I suddenly felt the need for a bit of quiet indulgence.  I was convicted a while back of the need to give myself the freedom of fallow days from time to time; ordinary dates whose projects and plans may not be quite so essential at a second look as they seemed when I first engaged them in my Franklin-Covey.  I remember one summer day that I spent almost entirely on my porch swing with Gone With the Wind.  I love ‘snow days’ for the same reason because by their very nature (in the South, at least!) they seem to authorize me to do little more than sit by the fire with my knitting and a constant supply of hot tea.  But such times of permissive pampering are rare, and every so often we just need to take ourselves in hand and unplug our planners lest they overheat and wreak havoc—not only upon ourselves, but on those we love.   Life goes by too fast not to stop and just look at it from time to time.

Psalm 46 contains one of my very favorite verses: Be still and know that I am God.  I could never recount how many times the Lord has used that passage as a gentle reproof to hush my fevered thoughts or check unnecessary haste.  It has always come upon me as soft, sweet music, like a loving whisper from the Beloved’s lips close to my ear.  But two days ago I saw it with new eyes: not as a pleasant suggestion but as a command.  Not only for my comfort but for His glory as well.  It carried an imperative, a voice of majestic authority, the same voice that speaks in Isaiah and insists upon silence in the presence of God.  The Hebrew word actually implies a forceful exclamation: Be still!  I picture a striving tumult being shocked into stillness by a mighty shout.  That shout reverberated with loving grace in the quiet of my den the other morning and I am still pondering its implications.  A precious friend and mentor of mine once wrote, “When we are still we hear God more clearly and when we arise from our stillness before Him our service for Him is more fruitful.”  What a good word for the approaching season!  Another friend told me last year that the one thing that made her Christmas the best yet was daily quiet time with the Lord, renewing her focus, re-centering herself upon the sure footing of His presence.      

And so, I am having my own little holiday with the Lord today.  I put on my very favorite skirt this morning, a long tweed that I made from a Victorian pattern.  I built a fire in the den first thing and I had cookies with my elevenses tea.  I have a stack of pleasant pastimes and quiet pursuits close at hand, and after a walk through crunching leaves with the dogs I think I’ll curl up with my very neglected journal.  And of course a nap is in order…Here’s Hail! To Quiet Day!

Lessons from a Bear of Very Little Brain

Thursday, November 17th, 2005

 

Philip and I absolutely love this article by Sam Torode on the wisdom of Winnie-the-Pooh!

 

One of My Heroines

Monday, November 14th, 2005

My mother read me a passage from the newest Jan Karon book the other day; it was actually a quote from an old and somewhat obscure volume of sketches that we both love very dearly: Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther.  It was like hearing good news of an old friend and a warm sense of pleasure filled me at the thought of a new generation of readers discovering this remarkable woman by way of a modern author’s hat tip.

Jan Struther created Mrs. Miniver, the indomitable English housewife, in 1937 for her Times column.  As the situation in Europe deteriorated, Mrs. Miniver’s courageous allegiance to the beauty of everyday life and steady assessment of new dangers and challenges made her a national symbol of Britain’s resolve, and in 1939, the columns were published in book form.  Her fame traveled to America, where book sales were higher than ever; she stirred the sympathies of the public to such an extent that Winston Churchill declared she had “done more for the Allied cause than a flotilla of battleships”.  The 1942 movie, starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, was perhaps one of the most famous propaganda pieces ever to reach American audiences, and though it bears little similarities to the book was a tremendous boost to the war effort in its own right.

More than fifty years after its release, Mrs. Minver’s reflections are as inspiring as ever.  Perhaps the 21st century woman is spared the problem of hiring a charwoman or the torment of an unpleasant county house visit, but Mrs. Miniver’s underlying observations in these and other matters are surprisingly relevant in our own uncertain world.  These beautiful little gems of ‘eternity framed in domesticity’ are worth perusing again and again.

Mrs. Miniver became a real person to me when I read her book.  She stands before me yet, upholding so many of the responsibilities and privileges I cherish as a woman.  She was a heroine for a whole generation; there are few role models so worthy today.  I most emphatically encourage anyone who has not had the pleasure of this lady’s acquaintance to find a copy and settle in with a good stout cup of tea and maybe even a notebook for favorite quotes.

Feeling Very Dancey…

Thursday, November 10th, 2005

…this morning over the ankle-deep piles of amber leaves at the foot of my oak trees and the delicious autumnal wind that drives down yet more in its friendly gusts…over acorns with funny little caps like tiny brownie men of the forest and prickly balls of chestnut pods already raided by the squirrels…over the perfume of eleagnus that floats down across the pasture early in the mornings and late in the afternoons…

And a cheerful little pecan wood fire on my kitchen hearth and a fragrant boil of fruits and spices on the back burner of the stove…rose hip tea and the lingering scent of cinnamon from breakfast…What a beautiful world to be alive in! 

We literally watched the leaves change this past weekend.  From a non-descript palette of dull greens and half-hearted blushes leapt an intoxicating painting of golden beeches, crimson berries and gaudy flashes of orange.  ‘Has it ever been this beautiful?’ we ask one another.  It’s the same question we pose every year.  And I really do believe that the answer is ‘no’, as it should be.  There is ever-increasing beauty in the now that is reality, that is pressing us onward each year towards the source of all True Joy.    

I often wonder why it is that in the winding down season of the year I usually feel most alive and inspired.  Of course, I may find myself saying much the same thing over the waking-up glories of spring, but I know that this keenness, this vivid delight of all my senses is truly unique to this golden time.  There is anticipation abroad—you can almost touch it in the light-filled air this morning.  Holidays and festivities to come, the most beloved traditions of the whole year all crowded together in one last flame of excitement before the calendar dies!  My mind is full of Thanksgiving in every sense of the word.  I feel so very grateful and blessed this morning, and just thought I’d send up a little rapture in praise of the Lord! 

Praise the Lord from the earth…you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds, kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth, young men and maidens, old men and children.  Let them praise the name of the Lord, for His name alone is exalted; His splendor is above the earth and heavens.            ~Psalm 148

 

And some lovely thoughts from Keats:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music, too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourne;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

And for one last thrilling autumnal experience, here is the second movement of my very favorite symphony, Mendelssohn’s "Scottish", Number 3.

Vivace non troppo

Cafe des Artistes

Wednesday, November 9th, 2005

As we turned off of Central Park West and drew near the green awning heralding Café des Artistes, Dave cast an uneasy glance towards Liz. 

“Ummm—am I dressed okay?” 

He peered in the window at the magnificent sprays of flowers and waiters in white coats bustling to and fro.

“Well—,” Liz endeavored to be diplomatic; “I’m not quite sure.”  She confided to me later that in the excitement of the golden day it was the first time she had even considered Dave’s impending dilemma.  

Standing on the curb outside the door, Philip, Liz and I looked Dave up and down and consulted among ourselves, like so many tailors upon a particularly challenging assignment.  It was Liz who at last received inspiration.

“Dave, you can put on Philip’s coat!”  She reached for said article as Philip surrendered it and transferred it to Dave, beaming with the pleasure of the satisfactory resolution.  “No one will suspect a thing!”

“Yeah, not even when they see that it’s about two sizes too big for me,” he muttered genially.  Dave is the epitome of a good sport.  He did look funny, though, the long coat hanging heavily on him and bulging out strangely in the middle with the notorious ski vest.  “Alright!” he said, plunging the boggan in one of the pockets and rubbing his hands together.  “Let’s eat!”

We scarcely glanced at the sumptuous lobby of the Hotel des Artistes, which is actually an apartment building, but swept as unobtrusively as possible into the restaurant.  I immediately felt my face flush with the warmth of the room.  No matter how powerless New Yorkers may be over the weather, they certainly know how to keep their indoors cozy!  We were met at the door by a maitre d who promptly acknowledged our reservation—but it was what I saw behind him that gave me cause for alarm.  A coat check girl, extending eager arms for the trappings we were equally eager to shed in the toasty environment.  All of us but Dave, that is.  I wondered how he would pass the gauntlet.

With grace, as usual.  When asked to give up his coat he flashed his winning smile and pulled the drooping lapels a bit higher around his neck.  “Nah—I think I’ll just keep it.” 

We followed the maitre d through two small, darkly paneled rooms painted splendidly with the original murals of Howard Chandler Christy for which the place has always been famous.  They were, in fact, the deciding factor in our choice for the evening, thinking that our own someday-famous-artists would enjoy the museum-like quality of the dining room.  Particularly Liz, who owns at least as many Edwardian-era novels illustrated by Christy as I do.  But even in my enchantment, I was not dull to the mild-eyed astonishment which greeted Dave’s completely un-self conscious procession.   Granted, the rest of the clientele was, on average, a good thirty years older than any of us.  But the look with which the woman at the table next to us sized him up was one of undisguised horror.  The only thing that I can liken it to is the curled-lip scorn of ‘Miss Grey’ in Sense and Sensibility upon Elinor and Marianne’s inadequate ball gowns.  I almost laughed out loud!  And I don’t think that Dave even noticed.

We were delighted with our table…tucked in the farthest nook of the small dais that ran across the back of the restaurant, with a friendly portrait of Christy himself smiling benevolently upon us.  He made us feel quite welcome, and once the ordeal of the entrance was over we were all able to sit back and soak in the most perfect atmosphere that I ever could have hoped for.  The air was fragrant with lilies and old wood and coffee and meaty aromas, and the conversation was a soft hum in the background.  I reached across the table and squeezed Philip’s hand.  “This is it—this is the New York I wanted to see.”  I felt positively suffused with history and old-world refinement.  As far as I’m concerned, the modern world can keep its hip new places and up-and-coming ‘dining experiences’.  Give me the spots where the writers and artists and dancers of another day have lingered over pot au feu and Madeira!          

It was an amazing evening.  For almost two hours we savored an absolutely beautiful French meal.  Before we began, however, I seized the opportunity to propose a toast.  Glasses were lifted expectantly, and with a dramatic little breath I proclaimed, “To the greatest City in the world!”  Philip cleared his throat and added, “And to our host and hostess for the weekend, whose birthdays we happen to be celebrating tonight,” with a significant look in my direction.

“Oh, yes, of course—them, too!”

The Masts of Manhattan

Monday, November 7th, 2005

It was decided that my first real experience of the city should be a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge—I don’t know which I enjoyed more, the soaring views or the delight of talking ninety-to-nothing with my sister!  On the other side, we stood on the pier and gazed across the water at the edifices of Manhattan touched with gleams of light breaking through the clouds.  Around the railing ran a poem of Whitman’s:

Flow on, river! Flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!
Frolic on, crested and scallop-edged waves!
Gorgeous clouds of the sunset! Drench with your splendor me, or the men and
       women generations after me!
Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!
Stand up, tall masts of Manhattan! Stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!

‘Stand up tall…’—the words gave me chills.  I thought of all that gleaming city had borne on September 11th, and how the masts must be standing up taller than ever!

On Sunday we went to the Met.  I couldn’t wait to see it remembering hints of its humble beginnings and rise to splendor in The Age of Innocence.  We marched after Liz, blending as much as we could—I kept admiring how distinguished Philip looked in his long, black cashmere overcoat—but I am quite sure that my gaping astonishment gave me away.  Such lovely buildings all crowded together as if they might topple on you at any minute!  Such richness in the doorman-guarded lobbies of the apartments we passed! 

“Park Avenue,” Liz announced with a subtle jerk of the head.  But there was nothing subtle in my response.  I stopped right in the median and stared down the row of decorous trees and lavish facades until the view dimmed away into an oblivion of greys and greens and wavering movements of faraway cars.         

As we turned onto Fifth Avenue and even greater splendor, all I could think of was Fred Astaire and Judy Garland wending their way among the pageantry of the Easter Parade.

“You’ll be here for Easter,” Liz informed me.  “And we’ll go to one of these old dowager churches and we’ll walk in the Easter Parade.  So you’d better be trimming your bonnet!” 

At the museum we enjoyed an exhibit of Van Gogh drawings, as well as an overwhelming panorama of Rembrandts, European sculptures, American paintings…baffles description. We could have spent days there.  Liz and I were reminiscing about From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and the children who hid in the bathroom each night and lived in the Met.  “We could do that,” she mused.  In the end, she bought a membership.  A little more respectable I imagine, but Philip and I were still jealous. 

My very favorites were the Sargents.  Liz knew right where they were and I could have looked at them for hours.  It’s so wonderful to go to a museum with an artist.  Her commentary was priceless, pointing out things to me that I never would have had the insight to appreciate.  She and Dave are learning a lot about the use of light, its traveling play over the features and garments of a portrait or the objects of a still life.  She pointed out the power of the softened edges, the mystery of things receding into shadow, and the drama of well-placed bits of light.  I felt quite informed.
 
We met Dave on the steps, sitting in the sunshine waiting to take us on his guided tour of Central Park.  The moment I saw what he had on I turned to Philip with an anxious look.  “Oh, dear—do you think there’s a dress code tonight?”  For somehow between leaving at 5:30 for work that morning and going back to the apartment to change, Dave had missed the memo that we were going to a really nice place for dinner.  I’d done a little research before we went up there, wanting to find a lovely little nook to take them out for their birthdays.  Philip is quite aware that atmosphere is above all in my choice of a restaurant. 🙂  He’d made reservations and Liz and I were dressed up for a day of posh sight-seeing and people watching.  Poor Dave didn’t know what was coming!  In his blue boggan and raglan tee with a ‘vintage’ ski vest embroidered with the name of a car parts shop, he had every reason to be refused admittance…but Philip reassured me—“If they have a dress code they’ll know what to do about it.”  I thought of the rows of bright green jackets I’d seen hanging menacingly in the coat closets of certain upper crust establishments and the tight little smile of certain maitre ds and shuddered for Dave…    

Home From New York

Saturday, November 5th, 2005

We’ve just returned from a trip to New York City visiting my sister and her husband who moved up there this fall to attend The Art Students League.  Though Philip’s been there numerous times for business and pleasure, I’d never set foot beyond the bounds of JFK Airport.  Not even when Liz lived there for a semester five years ago was I lured out of my little Southern realm for a weekend in the city.  But I knew that she was coming back, then, and I suppose that made all the difference.  She’s not coming back this time—at least, not in the foreseeable future.  And so, if the precious cord of communion between my sister’s heart and mine was to remain in good working order, I was going to have to get on a plane and trust myself to the unknown terrors of the City That Never Sleeps.  Remembering the adage we’ve always held in our family, “We don’t care how they do it in New York,” I was prepared to endure the subway and the crowds, have a marvelous time with my sister, and then hasten back to my quiet little nest.  I wasn’t prepared to fall in love—but that’s exactly what I did. 

New York is a city of such extremes and contradictions.  In my ignorance of what makes the Great Metropolis great I had refuted the idea that New York is an accurate representation of American culture, but I take it all back!  New York is America, for better or for worse.  I really believe that it does contain in one jam-packed mass of population all that is best and worst about us as a country.  It defies racial boundaries; and yet it has a class system in place that would rival feudal England.  Its beauties are dazzling; its ugly side is about as bad as it gets.  It’s probably the world’s capitol of greed and excess—and yet it’s unlikely there’s a spot on the globe with a higher population of genuinely kind and compassionate people.  It’s completely safe and it’s a little scary…and totally exhilarating!!

I’m still a bit bewildered by the thoughts and impressions parading through my mind and attempting to make sense of the frantic notes I scribbled sitting in cafes.  But for the benefit of those who might be interested, I thought I’d offer just a few vignettes over the next couple of days.

For a better acquaintance with our beloved tour guides, Liz and Dave, you can read about our summer vacation together here.  Dave is as great a guy as there is—no one makes us laugh like he does.  And Liz, well, I say that she’s another Holly Golightly—minus the shady occupation. 🙂  She’s a perfectly respectable nanny on the Upper West Side—and an adorable little live wire of joie de vivre. 

Stay tuned…

Love (III)

Thursday, November 3rd, 2005

Still trying to get my bearings again after traveling, I thought I’d just share one of my very favorite poems.  I cherish the beautiful mercy of Christ that these lines express, and can relate so well to the feelings of unworthiness before such amazing love…   

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

"A guest," answered I, "worthy to be here."
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, ungrateful?  Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marred them;
Let my shame go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "Who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste My meat."
And I did sit and eat.

George Herbert