Archive for 2007

Elizabeth Goudge on the profession of bookseller

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

“It is the most friendly vocation in the world,” he announced…“A bookseller is the link between mind and mind, the feeder of the hungry, very often the binder up of wounds. There he sits, your bookseller, surrounded by a thousand minds all done up neatly in cardboard cases; beautiful minds, courageous minds, strong minds, wise minds, all sorts of conditions. And there come into him other minds, hungry for beauty, for knowledge, for truth, for love, and to the best of his ability he satisfies them all…Yes…it’s a great vocation.”

“Great than a writer’s?” asked Felicity.

“Immeasurably,” said Grandfather. “A writer has to spin his work out of himself and the effect upon the character is often disastrous. It inflates the ego. Now, your bookseller sinks his ego in the thousand different egos that he introduces one to the other…Yes…Moreover, his life is one of wide horizons. He deals in the stuff of eternity and there’s no death in a bookseller’s shop. Plato and Jane Austen and Keats sit side by side behind his back, Shakespeare is on his right hand and Shelley on his left.” He paused for a moment while Felicity took Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights gently away from him. “Yes. Writers, from what I’ve seen of them, are a very queer lot, but booksellers are the salt of the earth.”  

 Elizabeth Goudge, A City of Bells

The above could easily have been written of Katherine Downs, my beloved mentor and patron saint of the bookshop. For those who’ve never read it, here is my little tribute to the woman who helped turn my love of books into an absolute consuming passion. Blessed be her memory…

So, you’ve always wanted to be landed gentry?

Tuesday, February 20th, 2007


Or, at least, to have a title that suggests as much? πŸ˜‰ Here is a very fun site where you can receive one handed to you on a silver platter, completely free of charge, without the undo hassle of either an advantageous match to a good fortune or a bunch of unseemly social scrambling.

Hoping you all fare as well with the capricous fates of Internetshire as I have,

Grand Duchess Lanier the Expensive of Lower Wombleshire,
bride of
Marquis Philip the Ingenious of Under Yockenthwaite

Winter’s Charms

Friday, February 16th, 2007

I love winter. I love the sense of repose its cold, grey days impart; the delightful pause between the flurry of Christmas and the flurry of spring gardening. January has habitually been my ‘quiet month’, a season of enforced calm that, I find, affects all the rest of my year. There was such a wonderful lack of urgency about this particular January that I’ve conscientously allowed its influence to seep over into February. πŸ˜‰ All the hearthside pleasures have been mine: good books, good food, good friends. We’ve taken to dining more often than not at a wooden folding table by the sitting room fire. I’ve heeded the example of my feline children and indulged in a few afternoon cat naps. To be sure, there’ve been a few bustling Saturdays around here: cleaning out the ‘potting shed’ and sterilizing flats, sowing a garden’s worth of flowers in the basement, pruning the fruit trees and grape vines and roses. But those have been the execption in my winter’s hibernation. Here are some of the things that have made my long January beautiful:    

~Playing the Pride & Prejudice soundtrack on the piano. And this, too…and a loved Haydn sonata that my fingers can still keep pace with after fourteen years (on a good day! ;)).

~A gorgeous new CD that fills my home with the melodies of Oxford.

~Reading Jane Eyre by the fire with the one I love best in the world–and discovering its majesty all over again, as if for the very first time.

~An impromptu dinner party after an equally impromptu jaunt to the farmer’s market with my brother and sister-in-law. We ladies chattered gaily over sliced vegetables and olive oil while the menfolk drew their chairs around the dining room fire like so many English baronets. We talked and told stories and laughed till the candles began sputtering out–always a good sign. πŸ˜‰

~Orange rooibus tea in a blue and white pot with a chipped spout.

~Breakfast in a sunny window at a cafe uptown with a friend that’s really a little sister.

~The paper lace and glitter and ribbon and chocolate and roses that is Valentine’s Day. πŸ™‚

~Another fabulous lecture of Peter Kreeft’s: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful, a discussion of C.S. Lewis’ take on the three transcendentals.

~The much-anticipated performance of one of my favorite symphonies and one of Philip’s favorite violin concertos at Symphony Hall. (If I could select a theme song for my life, I think it would be the Andante movement of this concerto…)

~Singing Ralph Vaughn Williams with girlfriends on a cold Sunday afternoon.

~…And no end of purring cats and pink noses and an eighty pound Australian Shepherd who thinks he’s a lap dog… 

Thank You, Lord…

Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies, for instance. ~Ruskin

~Oh, and the fact that we’re reconsidering the ‘uselessness’ of peacocks ;)…

I know precisely what she was talking about…

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007


To My Dear and Loving Husband 

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can in no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold I pray.
Then while we live, in love lets so persevere,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

Anne Bradstreet (1612-72)

 ~Happy Valentine’s Day~


Friday, February 9th, 2007

February 8, 2007 

That’s what I was doing yesterday afternoon. Playing nursery-maid to my biddies, on a blanket in the backyard with my tea on a tray. Fortunately my work was of a portable variety, and thus I sat, surrounded with pencils and notebooks and papers that kept rolling over the lawn on the light gusts of wind, while the girls wandered up with inquisitively cocked heads from time to time to see if I just might have something tasty for them to sample.

And why, you might ask, was I engaged in so singular an occupation?

It had very much to do with the fact that Fort Poulet has been in lockdown since last week, when an attack by a hawk took the life of my most beautiful hen. (And if you don’t think a hen is beautiful, then all I can say is that you’ve never taken the time to look at one. ;)) I truly grieved over her. It was a small tragedy in our domestic kingdom, and has caused us to re-think our policies of chicken-raising. For a week we kept them confined to their house and their covered run. And for as many days they were so traumatized by the incident that they barely made a peep of protest, only peeking their little heads out of the hen house from time to time in a timid, furtive manner.

But our hens are used to ranging free. And I have come to the conclusion that a chicken has an eight-day memory. For yesterday morning they were standing at the gate in a huddled mass, stepping over and slipping under one another, in a rather patient, ambling endeavor to be the first in line when I should come—as they doubtless expected I should—and let them out into the yard.

I couldn’t stand it. The day was a mad imitation of spring—so unlike this chill grey one in which my little sitting room fire is so welcome—and all the wild birds were winging and whirling overhead, dipping low over the lawn and trailing their flying notes behind them. The woods beyond were alive with the music of warblers and visiting blackbirds, and a few cocky brown thrashers strutted up and down outside the chicken run picking up bits of stray grain and corn. It’s no wonder that my girls yearned for freedom, with every other bird in the world—or, at least as far as they could see—reveling the liberty God had given them.

I scanned the sky with shaded eyes. I walked around the house and scrutinized the bare craggy limbs of the trees. I examined the fence posts in my range of vision. And then, with a very sincere prayer for divine protection, I went back and swung wide the gate. They all toppled out, halting tentatively at the threshold of grass for a moment or two as if it were the brink of destiny, then scuttling merrily from feeder to waterer to the fresh corn I had just thrown out for them. After a few moments they all repaired to a favorite spot underneath one of the hen houses, each settling into a luxury of dust-bathing with what could not be mistaken for anything but clucks of contentment.

I kept an eye on them through the windows as best I could yesterday, starting each time a robin’s flight cast an ominous shadow over the backyard. I put them up when I laid down to take a little nap after lunch. And when I let them out again they were more giddy than ever, and daring enough to wander far and wide over the backyard as they are wont to do.

I considered for a moment. It was a magnificent afternoon; there was a certain balminess even in the cool air that bespoke of spring. The sunlight warmed me through my wool sweater and everything around me implored me to come out and enjoy this gift of a day. So I hunted up a picnic blanket with a water-proof backing—which always minds me of Eleanor Lavish’s ‘mackintosh squares’—and made a pot of tea and gathered up my books and papers. I can work just as well on a blanket in the yard as I can at a desk, and, besides, the house seemed suddenly and unbearably stuffy after the bracing beauty of the outdoors.

A lovely (and productive, though that’s not as of much value) session ensued. I scribbled madly. I chewed on my pencil and sipped my tea. And I exchanged cordial greetings with my biddies as they chanced by. It was, after all, owing to them that I even considered such a treatment of a February afternoon. No great, swooping shadow portended danger; no bird of prey threatened their security. And when I put them up for the night they filed contentedly in to their run—a safe haven rather than a prison.

We’re not sure what we’re going to do long-term. (I just heard the hawk screaming overhead, and the girls, in their run today, all went hustling into their house!) As much as I’d like to sit in the yard every afternoon ;), I don’t think that’s a reasonable solution. We’ve had many suggestions, lots of advice, and a few ideas of our own…I’ll let you know what materializes…

But I take my hen-raising very seriously. It gives me infinite joy to care for God’s creatures (which is why we have so many animals and are only accumulating more! ;)), and chickens are no less amazing and wonderfully-made than any other. A little brainless, perhaps, but endearingly so. And always a delight. It calms me just to see them wandering happily over the backyard, enjoying their lot.

We’ve got to come up with something fast—I mean, obviously, the hawk is one of God’s creatures, too, and is only doing what he was designed to do. But he’s just going to have to do it somewhere else. Perhaps I could send him an eviction notice? Any ideas? πŸ˜‰

From A Circle of Quiet

Tuesday, February 6th, 2007



Madeleine L’Engle, reminiscing over her school years and the development of her craft in A Circle of Quiet, wrote: 

Looking through some old journals, I came across several [poems]. There was one, notable for its arrogance, if nothing else:

We lived on 82nd Street, and the Metropolitan Museum was my short cut to Central Park. I wrote:

I go into the museum
and look at all the pictures on the walls.
Instead of feeling my own insignificance
I want to go straight home and paint.

A great painting, or symphony, or play, doesn’t diminish us, but enlarges us, and we, too, want to make our own cry of affirmation to the power of creation behind the universe. This surge of creativity has nothing to do with competition, or degree of talent. When I hear a superb pianist, I can’t wait to get to my own piano, and I play about as well now as I did when I was ten. A great novel, rather than discouraging me, simply makes me want to write. This response on the part of any artist is the need to make incarnate the new awareness we have been granted through the genius of someone else.

I used the word ‘arrogant’ about those verses. I take it back. I don’t think it’s arrogance at all. It’s beauty crying out for more beauty. 

 Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

After reading this, I called my artist sister and read it to her over the phone. And, of course, she knew exactly what L’Engle was talking about, as I do in my own way–as we all do in our personal and unique expressions of art. But she can go to the Met any time she pleases… πŸ˜‰

The Art of Propogation

Friday, February 2nd, 2007

While I’m certainly no expert on propogation, I thought I’d share my little successes in this most satisfying of garden practices, in the hopes that others might be inspired to take a few cuttings of their own–particularly when they see how simple and fun it can be.

My mother-in-law is the master of this art, and it was her fine example that led me to take a few tentative samples from the majestic hydrangeas in the garden of a house she had recently moved away from. My husband looked down at the handful of bare, brown twigs I held out to him and said, "Those are going to be bushes?" Truth be told, I had my doubts, as well, but I certainly wouldn’t be out anything if the project failed. So I took them home and looked up ‘Propogation of Cuttings’ in my cherished 1931 Gardening in the South by George R. Briggs. I’ve always been just a little bit afraid of George R. Briggs–he’s no nonsense, and has very strong opinions on things I’d never even thought of before–but I trust him. If he says that an all-over mulch spoils the effect of a rose bed, then I lay the bed to grass around the bushes. If he tells me to cut said roses almost to the ground, I swallow hard and then fall upon them with the shears. And if he states that, "Plants grown from cuttings are by far the most important from the home owner’s standpoint," then, by golly, I’d better get busy propogating! πŸ˜‰

I really was amazed at how simple it was. The size of the cutting itself will vary according to the plant or shrub, but you need to clip a twig that has at least two or three nodes along the stem. Cut as close to the nodes as possible at the top and bottom of the twig, and if there are leaves, strip all but the top node.   

Surprisingly, one of the best mediums for rooting cuttings is wet sand. It seems to hold just the right amount of moisture close to the stem and stays damp for a long time. Immerse the cutting in a jar of play sand that has been soaked with water and the excess poured off–only the top node should be above the surface. This will produce–or continue to produce–the leaves, while the nodes beneath will send down the roots. Miraculous! πŸ™‚ They need a good source of light, and, if it’s still cold, protection from the elements. (I started mine under a flourescent light in the basement.) And they need to be kept evenly moist, never flooded or dried out. That’s all!

That first attempt of mine was quite ambitious–as all of my first attempts at anything new seem to be when I have no idea what I’m getting into! In addition to the hydrangeas, I started some wild grapes from a vine Philip’s grandfather had planted, as well as several varieties of my mother-in-law’s roses, including a Chinquapin rose that she had propogated from a cutting of her great-grandmother’s bush!

As none of my samples had any leaves on them, it really was fascinating and exciting to watch each and every one leaf out and begin to grow over the weeks that followed. To be sure, it took a long time to see any progress, and many days I was tempted to toss the whole lot as a failed venture, but I’ll never forget that morning that I went down to check on them and saw that first little flush of green at the tip of a hydrangea cutting. I think I danced a jig for joy!

Once my roses leafed out, I planted them in a ‘holding bay’ corner of my flower garden and placed mason jars over them. As they continued to grow, the moisture given off by the leaves created a nice little hothouse effect. This can also be done after the initial bushes have gotten their leaves, skipping the wet sand stage and keeping several inches of foliage above the ground.

The hydrangeas and grape vines summered on the patio in pots and were put out the following spring. It is worth noting that I planted four ‘store bought’ hydrangeas across the yard the very same day that these still-tiny bushes went in the ground–and now, almost three years later, the plants from cuttings are three times the size of those nursery varieties! They’re not full grown yet–and I’m sure they’re looking forward to some fertilizer this spring!–but they’re sturdy and staunch and their blooms have been large and long-lasting. (Not to mention the fact that they survived both the roofing and the painting of the house, being planted along the western wall and subject to unbelievable debris and trampling and ladders and heavy boots!)

There are untold methods and means of this gentle art, but each, I’m sure, will yield the same rewarding results. I love it because it’s fun, and it makes me feel like I’m being a good steward of the beauty God surrounds us with. And I appreciate the sense of connection it can give with people and places–other gardeners, dear friends, loved spots.

When my mother and I drove away from my grandmother’s house for the very last time after the closing, I stopped in the driveway and snapped off a branch of the oak leaf hydrangea that grew outside the dining room windows. It was like a little bit of my grandmother, and all that she loved. I’m still nursing it along in a little pot on my porch a year and-a-half later. But I like to think that down the road I can point it out to my children in my yard and remind them where it came from. And maybe they’ll look forward to taking a cutting for their own someday gardens…   

When nature lies despoiled of every charm…

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

Sowing sweet pea seeds outdoors in January seems like an act of faith.

Especially when the sun hasn’t shown its face in days and the whole world is sodden and drear. I was almost laughing at the absurdity of it last week when, bundled in my winter coat and hurrying against the cold of a cheerless afternoon, I dug my hoe into the beds outside my vegetable garden and turned over the rich loam. Dropping the seeds into the little trenches I had made, I felt like I needed to apologize to them. I had to keep reminding myself that they like it…that hopefully we’ll have enough really cold weather over the next few weeks of this fitful winter to do them some good. That they’re alot tougher than they look–like a Southern belle? ;)–and that it’s our languishing summers that they fear more than anything.

I was leafing through a seed catalogue the other day–one of my guilty pleasures–and paused quite wistfully over the two-page spread of sweet pea varieties. There was only one of the whole lot that was actually stout-hearted enough to declare its resistance to all that zone 7 can dish out. Old Spice–it’s all I’ve ever had any luck with, but it’s of a lovely, old-fashioned stock of many colors and I adore it. I’ve never had enough blooms to sacrifice to a bouquet–shocking extravagance!–like my Northern and English fellow-gardeners, but every single blossom that’s ever lifted its little bonnet over my garden fence has been precious to me. A welcome and beloved friend.

The catalogue in question indicated a couple of new varieties that Englishwomen grow for show. If I lived in England, I would grow sweet peas by the bushel basket-full. And then some…

The Gift of Music

Friday, January 26th, 2007

I seriously cannot recall a time in which music was not an essential element of my life. In fact, I have a distinct memory of my own personal first encounter with classical music—Mozart to be exact. My parents had given me a little record player (how much children miss these days! There is something so specifically friendly about that whirling wheel and the voice that comes out of it, carrying the world to the room of a five year-old child!) and my Daddy would often bring me records of his for us to listen to together, never dreaming, I imagine, that I would be bored or disinterested. Quite the contrary—such were our own special times and I loved them dearly! One night he came in with a Mozart piano concerto, No. 21 in C, and the minute those first elegant trills met my ears I knew that I was hearing something very special indeed. I felt honored, awed, and, more distinctly than all, terribly, terribly happy.

The moment did not make a child prodigy of me. I went on with my Muppets and Disney albums, and The Little Blue House. But it did make a permanent mark. Perhaps it awakened my sense of the beautiful, or at least made me aware of it, for we all have it. It showed me what truly great music sounds like, and my child mind and heart responded to it. To this day I cannot hear that loved concerto without remembering that day of sweet discovery and blessing my father for giving it to me. Thank God he did not deem me ‘too young’ to enjoy it. If children, in all the freshness of their bright and trustful lives, unmarked as yet by cynicism and suspicion, cannot appreciate and enjoy real music, then who can? It is the language of heaven, from whence they so lately came.

One of my next-earliest musical memories is that of hovering round an upright piano as my neighbor friend showed off her newest pieces for me. She was three years my senior and I thought that she hung the moon. Consequently, her renditions of Just a Second and Lightly Row were things to be marveled at! The thought that one could, just by striking a few keys, actually make music was joy unspeakable. The only thing I wanted in the world (besides an Adoption Doll, of course) was piano lessons. My friend’s teacher was the most respected in town, and thus my parents took great stock in her two mandates for future students: They had to have an interview, so that she could assure herself that it was the child and not the parents that wanted piano lessons, for she saw no point in teaching someone who didn’t want to learn. And they had to be eight years old.

I was crushed. But somehow or other those years were got through and at last one day I sat in Mrs. Brown’s studio, nervously swinging my legs from my perch upon the piano bench and gazing with a hungry eye at her beautiful Yamaha baby grand. I still remember the pride with which I carried away my brand-new Alfred 1-A and Discovery books, and the way that my Daddy laid on the sofa nearby the piano and listened to me plunk out those first painful tunes and scales.

And thus things went on, in very much the same way, for eleven years. My legs got longer and ceased to require a stool beneath my feet, my scales grew more elaborate and my pieces more complex and challenging. But always, Mrs. Brown inspired me with gorgeous music she knew I would love, and always Daddy would stop whatever he was doing to lay on the sofa and listen to me play. Only a slight ruffle in junior high, when long fingernails and cheerleading seemed for a time more alluring than an hour and-a-half each afternoon at the piano. My father (I bless him, again!) put his foot down. It may have been my prerogative to start piano lessons, but such would not be the case with my ending them. He insisted that I give it another year, and then I could do as I liked. This was wisdom indeed—after that bump in the road I never even thought of quitting again.

I began to understand that music was not only joyful—even the sad pieces—it was transcendent. Almost without my realizing it I began sorting out my troubles at the keyboard. It brings a lump to my throat even now to consider how many awkward teenage hurts were soothed by Chopin and Bach, how many inexpressible joys were carried on the flying passages of a Haydn sonata!   

When I was nineteen, Mrs. Brown fired me. I had already given my senior recital the year before (a curious blend of nightmare and delight) and, though there was plenty more I had to learn, she didn’t feel that she was the one to teach it to me.

“I’ve become like your grandmother,” she told me, with a teary smile. “You need a new challenge.”

The look I gave her was just as watery, and I don’t think I could say much at the time. I felt lost, bereft.

And then I discovered the guitar. And after that it was voice lessons. And then it was providing the piano for the Scottish music my friends and I loved to make. And singing with my girlfriends. Music is still—always will be—a vital language for me. Now I love to play jazz ballads for my husband as he lays on our sofa nearby our piano, or nocturnes, or haunting Scottish folk songs. When I’m home alone I indulge my taste for sentiment with a few delicious bits of operetta, The Merry Widow and The New Moon and Sweethearts. I’ve realized that when I’m too busy to make music, I’m too busy to be living properly. It’s that important to me—I wonder that I can ever forget…

And whenever I go to my parents’ house, I inevitably repair to the piano, and Daddy stretches out on the sofa (after tousling with Philip for it) and he listens to me play. As if I were a great pianist. As if I were even worth listening to! πŸ™‚ And I praise God in my heart for a Daddy who gave his little girl the gift of music so many years ago. I cannot imagine my life without it.                      


Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007

January 20, 2007 

The bluebirds are house-hunting this morning. I had to call Philip and tell him, describe the way one female in particular kept poking about the hole of the house on the side of the water oak outside the kitchen window, nosing in and out as if unsure, tilting her head in examination, while her brightly-colored husband waited patiently on the roof for her to make up her mind.

“He’s probably thinking about all he’ll have to do to make it suit her tastes,” Philip laughed, in obvious sympathy.

She flew away, and in a flurry of indecision came back again. Then together they were off, no doubt spurred by the lengthy list of potential properties about this place, the crisp blue of the male’s feathers a flying spot of joy on the morning air. 

We do try to make the bluebirds as welcome as possible around here. There are at least half-a dozen houses for them perched on fence posts and nailed to trees. They had always been a longed-for sight for me before I came to live in our dear old farmhouse—I could count on three fingers how many times I had caught a glimpse of a bluebird up until that first summer when we were married. Then I felt positively giddy at the abundance of them—flocking in the yard or along the drive by the dozens, flitting back and forth from fence rails or lower branches of the walnut trees, always their lovely blue an absolute miracle of beauty.

It’s no wonder to me that from ages long past bluebirds have poetically represented happiness. My heart literally leaps up with it each time they flash by. And there’s a particular little pleasure of my own in the fact that we’re so liberally endowed with them. They are—always have been—a small emblem, a living image, of the happiness we’ve known here.  

We realized last night that it was eight years ago today that Philip asked me if I wanted to live here—he had proposed the night before. πŸ™‚ I didn’t have to think about my answer—despite the fact that this house had been a confirmed bachelor pad for the previous eight years, bearing all the marks of such. I wouldn’t answer any differently now. Truly, ‘my boundaries enclose a pleasant land’.

Philip said he’s going to stop on the way home and pick up some cedar for more bluebird houses. It looks like the housing market’s going to be booming this spring.