25 April 2012

The Transit of Venus

At the moment, Venus is visible in the sky at dusk after sunset. 

As seen from the Earth, it is making its way 'round its orbit
and by June 5th it will pass in front of the Sun...
... a rare transit that will not occur again until the year 2117. 

This is the last time she will do so in my lifetime.
[File under: Things I should not take for granted.]

And so it is time to calibrate telescopes heavenward
and gaze into the early evening sky.

24 April 2012

Tissue...? But I hardly know you.

So I was staring at this particularly beautiful tissue box one day, thinking that it was a shame it was empty and had to be broken down and tossed into the recylcling bin.  (I have these moments, now and then.) But in my own defense, tissue boxes can be quite pretty and in those places throughout the cottage where a box will be seen, I try to choose a pattern that will look nice in that space.

In fact there have been several tissue box designs that I've loved but never seen again, and I still kick myself for throwing out the empty boxes rather than refilling them.  (One in particular featured a stone stairway leading up to an old cottage, with potted geraniums on every step.)

So there I was, studying this pretty tissue box, and suddenly it came to me:

Gift tags! 

I disassembled the box, used a paper cutter to slice away the bits that weren't usable, used my hole punch to make an opening for a ribbon or tie and (as a friend of mine used to say) "WALLAH!"

I use these thrifty gift tags ALL the time, not only on gift bags and wrapped presents but on gifts of food, bouquets of flowers, knitting projects, or just random things I want to pass along to friends and family. It's a sweet way to enclose a note on any occasion.

 Whatever the style, there's a gift tag waiting inside a tissue box, just crying to get out. 
And I'll be there—armed with scissors and hole punch—to set it free.

23 April 2012

For the beauty of the earth

Periodically the spirit will move me and I'll get out the paintbox
and play with watercolors. 

Because it was Earth Day, and because to me that means flowers...

...here are a few little pictures to celebrate our beautiful planet. 

Long may she live and prosper under our care.  

All-Day Singing and Lunch on the Ground

Young and old alike were singing lustily at the All-Day Singing I recently attended with a friend. It was raucous, moving, uplifting, and something I need to do more often. 

Shape-Note singing (which is non-demoninational) is nearly as old as our country, and was a method devised for those who could not read music. Four shapes (triangle, empty circle, diamond and square) and four tones (mi fa sol la) were all you needed to be able to follow along in four part harmony.  The four voices (altos, tenors, sopranos, basses) sit as individual sections around a hollow square while a leader stands in the center of the hollow, sawing his or her arm up and down to keep the rhythm. (And to get everyone 'on the same page' literally as well as figuratively, the tune is generally sung without words one time through.)

A tune book for Shape Note singing—the "Sacred Harp"—was compiled in 1844. There are many versions but the 1991 is the one most often used today...

...unless you're lucky enough to own an old family copy that was handed down,
like this one.

 If you saw "Cold Mountain" then you've heard Shape Note singing during the scene in Ada's church. It's a beautiful sound, nearly impossible to describe and which sadly does not always translate well on recordings.  (Or as my friend said to me afterwards, "You really had to be there.")  

And while Lunch on the Ground may sound like a paper plate mishap at a picnic, it refers to the traditional pot-luck suppers that Church communities or Sacred Harp societies would sponsor on the grounds of their Churches. Many of the time honored recipes served at these gatherings were compiled into "dinner on the grounds" cookbooks.  I was lucky enough to find this one at a book sale once.

[Images are from the documentary "Awake my soul", the Shape-Note Singing site at the University of Chicago, and the Special Collections at Appalachian State University]

20 April 2012

Just hanging out

White, laced-trimmed and ruffle-edged linens,
hanging in the sun next to my cottage.
They were cool and sweet smelling when I took them down
and are now waiting in the ironing basket.

My neighbor's Hangout was more colorful than mine
with lovely shades of blue, coral and red.
She was kind enough to take both photographs. (Thank you!)
We laughed and agreed that our laundry lines
were a true reflection of each of us!

Anyone else have pictures of their Hangout Day line?

17 April 2012

Metaphor in Topsoil

I was standing in the garden on Sunday morning, looking around as I drank my tea, thinking what a metaphor this little plot of land is for my life. 

Some of the plants and flowers I've planted on my own. Sometimes I make careful choices, other times I'm completely whimsical and eccentric about what I buy and where I plant it. But no matter what's there, I love watching everything grow, charting its progress, mourning the loss if something doesn't make it through the winter, scowling with amusement if I discover that the squirrels or birds have devoured something.

A few of the plants are expensive, a true investment that I had to wait and count my pennies before buying. Others are end-of-season sale items, bedraggled orphans that have one last gasp of life in them and barely survive the journey home. I nurture both equally and am just as happy (maybe happier) when the cheap little plant survives and blooms alongside the hothouse beauty.

Not all the plants are of my own choosing.  There are quite a few growing here and there that were given to me by friends, family and loved ones, and even a few from acquaintances I may never see again.  (Gardeners are notorious for sharing seeds and plantlings with complete strangers if they show any interest whatsoever in their gardens. That is what being a gardener truly means, I think.) So on any given day I can look out and see the flowers and plants I've inherited from generous people: a stripling from a tree my father gave to my mother nearly 40 years ago, the hydrangea from my mother's garden and the one my daughter gave to me on Mother's day, some hollyhocks a friend brought to me several years ago, some ground cover from another friend who was thinning out her own garden, hostas and asters from an old family acquaintance. I watch all of these as carefully as I watch the plants I put there myself, perhaps moreso because they are gifts that were entrusted to me, to cherish, nourish and enjoy, a reminder of my relationship with these people, however deep or transient. 

 But regardless of where the plants came from, whether they were gifts, purchases, or accidental sprouts that mother nature decided to magically deposit in the soil, I continuously benefit from all the beauty they provide and all the lessons I learn as I try to keep everything happy and alive. (Mainly the lessons of patience, how to overcome disappointment, and remaining hopeful!) I look out at the garden each spring, wondering if everything will come back, surprised when some flowers seem stronger than others and push their way into corners and crevices I didn't expect.  I try to give some direction to the garden, have some amorphous master plan, but really it's a testament to "managed neglect", letting things happen and being surprised and delighted at the results. Although this isn't to say that I don't spend hours puttering, fussing, weeding, and making sure it's watered and fed.  There's a difference I think between apathy and knowing when to sit back and let nature take its course. 

If there's a plan to my life it's an equally reckless and haphazard one, with really only one chief goal: to be happy, to enjoy my life, and to allow myself to be touched and transformed by beauty and love. Like my garden, my life is the result of all the experiences and joys I've brought to it myself, enriched deeply by the blessings that those I love have showered over me, and altered now and then by the unexpected lessons I've been taught by strangers, even if they didn't realize it.  

My garden, and my life, aren't finished yet.  They'll never be finished.  There will always be things I want to change, or add, or take away, or experiment with.  But I really wouldn't have it any other way. I hope my life, like my garden, will always make room for the unexpected bounty of new flowers and new experiences, and will never stop being transformed by the intrusion of generosity.  


15 April 2012

Gardening Rule No. 19

Do not, under any circumstances, rub absurd quantities of Baylis & Harding Vintage Rose on your body prior to working in the garden in early spring, just as the bumbles are waking. 

"Do I smell a ROSE that needs pollinating...?"

14 April 2012

The Eccentric's Guide to Spring Cleaning

Not to be confused with the sort of Spring Cleaning that involves rags, polish, soapy water and sponges, the Eccentric's Spring Cleaning has more to do with the sorting, moving, arranging and organization of various items that make the house (and garden) seem prettier, in season, and at the ready for whatever whimsical events might occur. While this annual reckoning might seem unimportant to some it is absolutely crucial to the Eccentric's lifestyle.
  • Yarn Stash: having been pulled out, fussed with, half-used and generally cannibalized during the frenzy of Christmas knitting, this must now be sorted properly by the Eccentric and returned to its rightful location(s) throughout the house
  • Magazines: they piled up during the holidays, a small dent was made throughout winter, but now the Eccentric must plow through them in earnest to rid the house of any issues that say "Winter" or "January/February"
  • Important articles or recipes ripped from abovementioned mags: the Eccentric must collect these from the various and sundry places they were squirreled away and then must read them with a cooler head and either file them away or discard them ("Oh! individual Beef Wellingtons for Christmas dinner! What a great idea!")
  • Gift bags, wrapping paper and ribbon: time for the Eccentric to look through the non-Christmas stash of gift-giving accoutrements to make sure there are enough for Spring and Summer events coming up, taking care that they are sorted by size and color and easy to grab as needed
  • Stationery: the Eccentric is a serial stationery purchaser, and it's time to sort through what she has, either to make sure there is enough or (more likely) to pass along to friends and family members pretty ribbon-tied stacks of anything extra she really won't use in this particular lifetime
  • Greeting cards: [see Stationery above] once the sorting out is completed, the Eccentric must ready the ones to send out for impending Springtime birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, etc.
  • Stamps, address labels, stickers: the Eccentric must organize this stash so it better reflects the coming seasons (i.e., anything with a snowman, Christmas tree, or holly must go to the bottom of the pile)
  • Tablecloths and napkins: the Eccentric will rotate the stacks of table linens so the seasonal ones for Spring and Summer are on top and the dark green, cranberry red, and brown plaid are banished until Autumn
  • Curtains and Valances: time for the Eccentric to wash and/or change out curtains and valances and, in some cases, remove curtains entirely despite the obvious danger of exposing windows that will need to be washed. (For the Eccentric, this is living on the edge.)
  • Bed linens: now that the nights are warmer, the Eccentric will remove the rose-strewn puff comforter, the floral quilt, the tartan wool blanket and the white matelasse cover from her bed and change over to something pretty, light, and less like a radiation shield
  • Sunhats, garden gloves, pithe helmet, garden smock, flashlight, clogs: all must be available on hooks by the backdoor for the Eccentric's forays into the garden, night or day
  • Vases, pots, pitchers, urns and flower buckets:  these must be organized by the Eccentric and placed in a handy location so they can be pressed into service at a moment's notice for small nosegays or overflowing bouquets throughout the growing season
  • Gardening equipment: this is perhaps the Eccentric's biggest but most pleasurable task as she checks all twine, seed starters, clippers, hand rakes, cultivators, trowels, peatpots, bamboo stakes, potting soil, seed packets, fencing and seed heads for the coming season
  • Garden furniture, trellises, plant stands and "peculiars": again, a rite of passage dear to the Eccentric's heart, as she dusts, washes (yes, she makes an exception here, and happily), paints, repairs and/or replaces items that are lovingly placed around the outside of her cottage [NOTE: peculiars are those odd little things the Eccentric likes to put in the garden.... row-boat oars, broken chairs, spines from old umbrellas, cast off vanity tables, old screen doors, cast off house shutters]
Once these VITs [Very Imporant Tasks] are taken care of then, and only then, will the Eccentric turn her attention to the traditional cleaning of the interior of her house. But not until she has prepared a large vat of Sun Tea, brought a plate of scones or biscuits out to the pergola, grabbed the latest "APRIL" issue of her favorite magazine, and sat contentedly amongst the flowers, shrubberies, birds, cats, squirrels and bumbles.   Until then....
If you must write your name in the dust,
do not put the date.

13 April 2012

The Fable of the Cracked Pot

A water bearer in China had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole which he carried across the back of his neck.  One pot had a crack in it, while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water.

At the end of the long walk from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.  For two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots of water to his house.  Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, but the cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.

After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, the cracked pot spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. "I am ashamed of myself because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house."

The bearer said to the pot. "Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, but not on the other pot's side?  That's because I have always known about your flaw, and I planted flower seeds on your side of the path.  Every day while we walk back, you've watered them.  For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table. Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace the house."

We are all cracked pots.  But the cracks and flaws are what make life so very interesting and rewarding.  We must simply take people for what they are, and look for the good in them. Because there is always some good.

11 April 2012

Get busy living

Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Sleep:  Death without dying - living, but not life.
Edwin Arnold

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Choruses from 'The Rock'   George Eliot

My soul, do not seek immortal life,
but exhaust the realm of the possible.

I think Springtime is a much better time of year for resolutions.
The earth is waking up, the trees are blossoming,
there is promise in the air all around us
as the sleepiness and silence of winter falls away
and is replaced by birdsong and new life.
I feel more inspired in these first weeks of spring,
and more confident that whatever resolutions I set for myself can be met
than I ever do in mid-winter!


04 April 2012

An Atlas of Remote Islands

To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.
—Robert Louis Stevenson

Judith Schalansky (Penguin 2010)  
"There are still places on earth that are unknown.
The Atlas of Remote Isands is perfect for the traveler or romantic in all of us."

As a child I was fascinated by maps and globes and would thumb through an old Goodes World Atlas to find the locations I was reading about, pinpointing the routes of the characters as they made their way through territories and countries I'd never seen.  Years later, my trusty Goodes is still my go-to atlas when reading the Raj Quartet, Kim, Out of Africa, or any book set in the late 19th or early 20th c. because instead of the newer independent country names, its maps are still a sea of British colonial pink.

Ah, but this book is about remote and tiny places—
the kind you may never read about and are highly unlikely ever to visit. 
Each Island has a two-page spread: on one side the beautifully rendered map,
on the other the island's grid reference, size, official name, territorial "owner", 
its distance from other islands and coasts, tidbits about it's discovery and history
and the author's own quirky perception of the place.  

Take Amsterdam Island, for example:

Amsterdam Island (France)
French Nouvelle Amsterdam ['New Amsterdam']
58 km | 25 residents
4,290 km to South Africa
3,370 km to Australia
90 km to St. Paul Island
18 March 1522: sighted by Juan Sebastian de Elcano
June 1633: named by Anthonie van Diemen after his ship, Nieuw-Amsterdam
1949: construction of meteorological station 
"No one is allowed to settle here, so the personnel at the research station changes constantly. Some of the men stay for only a few months, but most for a year and a half, on the island that they call simply Ams or La Base. None speak English and all greet each other every day with a handshake. There is no boat. Where would they take it? This place is a stray piece of France, a cross on a blue nowhere on the various maps of the world that are pinned to the walls...."

There are fifty islands in all, and each page is like a small journey over time and space.

Bear Island ~ Lonely Island ~ Rudolf Island
Annobon ~ Ascension Island ~ Bouvet Island ~ Brava
Saint Helena ~ Southern Thule ~ St. Kilda ~ Trindade ~ Tristan da Cunha
Amsterdam Island ~ Christmas Island ~  South Keeling Islands ~ Possession Island 
Diego Garcia ~ Saint Paul Island ~ Tromelin Island ~ Pacific Ocean ~ Antipodes Islands 
Atlasov Island ~ Banaba Island ~ Bokak Atoll ~ Campbell Island ~ Clipperton Atoll 
Cocos Island ~ Easter Island ~ Fangataufa ~ Floreana Island ~ Howland Island 
Iwo Jima ~ Macquarie Island ~ Napuka ~ Norfolk Island ~ Pagan ~ Pingelap 
Pitcairn Islands ~ Pukapuka ~ Raoul Island ~ Rapa Iti ~ Robinson Crusoe 
Semisopochnoi Island ~ Socorro Island ~ St George Island ~ Takuu Atoll ~ Tikopia 
Deception Island ~ Franklin Island ~ Laurie Island ~ Peter I Island

03 April 2012

National Hanging Out Day - April 19

Each year, on April 19th
Project Laundry List sponsors National Hanging Out Day

to demonstrate how easy it can be to save money and energy
simply by using a clothesline.

 I saw some adorable stripey clotheslines at the dollar store
and I think I'll be stringing one up across the garden that day
to air out some items from my linen closet.

02 April 2012

Menace to Society

For those who enjoy Wodehouse, I am reading a riotous book:
The Adventures of Sally

Here is an excerpt, describing a dark moment during a formal dinner party
during which three of the guests—the Murphy brothers and Sally's brother—
are behaving badly.

Sally debated in her mind for an instant the advisability of throwing an orange at her brother. There was one lying ready to her hand, and his glistening shirt-front offered an admirable mark; but she restrained herself. After all, if a hostess yields to her primitive impulses, what happens? Chaos. She had just frowned down the exuberance of the rebellious Murphys, and she felt that if, even with the highest motives, she began throwing fruit, her influence for good in that quarter would be weakened.

And this, following Sally's interference in someone's personal travails.

Daylight brought no comforting answer to the question. Breakfast failed to manufacture an easy mind. Sally got off the train at the Grand Central station in a state of remorseful concern. She declined the offer of Mr. Carmyle to drive her to the boarding-house, and started to walk there, hoping that the crisp morning air would effect a cure.  She wondered now how she could ever have looked with approval on her rash act. She wondered what demon of interference and meddling had possessed her, to make her blunder into people's lives, upsetting them. She wondered that she was allowed to go around loose. She was nothing more nor less than a menace to society.

Have you never wondered how or why you are allowed to go around loose? 
I know I have.  Regularly.