31 January 2014

Recipe for Contentment

 With a few flowers in my garden,
half a dozen pictures and some books,
I live without envy.
—Lope de Vega

30 January 2014

Small Pleasures

- Warming nightgowns and socks on the radiators in the winter

- Making the perfect cup of tea in the morning (cream just right, sugar just right)

- Robins singing in the trees overhead just before twilight

- Waking up and realizing I have the day off

- Letters from dear ones arriving in the mail

- Sitting down to write

- Seeing an antique bookcase up the road with a paper taped to it that says:  "F-R-E-E"  

- Curling up on the couch or out on the verandah and opening a new book

- Finding new blossoms on the miniature rosebush.. pale pink and heartbreaking

- Waking up to the brittle cold of autumn and a brillant sun flooding the front windows  
- Being followed around the garden by a small white butterfly who then lands on my arm.  (Hard to say which of us was the more surprised!) 

- Making the first fire of the season and then settling down in a chair with a shawl

- Filling the cottage with the aroma of baking bread on a winter afternoon

- Pulling chairs into a field at a friend's farm and watching a summer sunset.  (I learned two things: the moon is more beautiful in the countryside, and it IS possible to eat warm blueberry crisp and vanilla ice cream in the pitch dark.)

29 January 2014

Quilting attempts

I have never completed a quilt.  Ever.

I have a friend who quilts beautifully, entirely by hand. No machines. She has given me tea cozies, pot-holders, and table mats using the most beautiful materials and with the tiniest and most even stitches I have ever seen.  The mice in The Tailor of Gloucester couldn't produce smaller stitches if they tried.

My own foray into quilting involved starting a Cathedral Quilt.  It is easily one of the prettiest (and fussiest) of quilt patterns.

[Abby Holverson has very clear step by step instructions on her blog]

You begin by making folded squares of muslin and stitching them together in batches of two or four.  Then you lie small squares of patterned material over the seam where the muslin squares meet, and you turn back the muslin from the sides and stitch it down around the colored cloth.

The finished product should loook like lancets or panels in a stained glass window. Hence the pattern's name: Cathedral.

It's common for people to use scraps from previous sewing projects, and depending on the origins of the material, the quilt can become a memory quilt.  My mother made a crib quilt for my child using fabric left over from my maternity clothes, and one for my brothers using cloth from her own maternity clothes.

As you work, you keep adding sections of muslin squares in batches of two or four. As I said, pretty but fussy.

Sadly, my attempt didn't go very far.

I always imagine that one day I will finish it.
A full-sized quilt? Unlikely.
A table runner, or a small hanging for the kitchen wall? Perhaps.

Until then it hangs behind a small glass frame.
A reminder of my good intentions and inherently lazy ways.

28 January 2014

Found Objects No. 1b

I truly love Found Objects. Items that may have a particular function in everyday life but once they enter my home are transformed and used for something entirely different. Or they might be placed in the garden as artful whimsy.

Several years ago I came across what was left of a Fire Alarm box. The sort you see on school house walls.

At first I thought I might place it over my doorbell on the outside of the house.  But since my doorbell doesn't work, that didn't seem to make sense.

After roaming through the cottage with it, I finally decided to hang it in the kitchen. That was when I discovered a piece of metal in the hole at the top which I simply couldn't remove, try as I may.

I asked for help from a neighbor and when the Fire Alarm case was returned to me, it arrived with a lagniappe as they say in New Orleans.... a little something extra. 

Their cat is one of my favorite garden visitors,
and now she holds pride of place on the kitchen wall.

27 January 2014

What is true

"Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said.
'One can't believe impossible things.'
'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen.
'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day.
Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
• — •

Personally, I think it's unwise and perhaps even a little arrogant to think we can know everything, explain everything, figure out everything. I love the idea that there are things we don't yet understand or cannot fully explain. Those 'keep you guessing' and disquieting things we might openly deride but secretly wish might be true. There is so much mankind continues to discover every minute of every day: individually and collectively, personally and publicly, scientifically and spiritually. Galileo, Newton, Pythagoras, and all those renegades who turned what was thought to be true on end and pitched ideas that flew in the face of what everyone KNEW, are proof that at any given time we don't (and can't) know everything.  Not really. And to pretend we do is in bad taste. The pieces on the board keep shifting with each new fact that's proven, disproven or unearthed. It's said that 'science builds its understanding cumulatively — so that it always knows more today than it knew yesterday.' If this is true then perhaps believing in the impossible, improbable, and incredible might actually be the height of wisdom. Because it implies flexibility of mind and spirit, a willingness to reconsider what we thought was TRUE and to challenge what, until now, was convenient to accept. In other words, to be uncomfortably, dangerously, and deliciously ahead of the curve. 

• — •
 "All stories are true, every last one of them.
All myths, all legends, all fables.
If you believe them true, then they are true.
If you don't believe them, then all that can be said
is that they are true for someone else."
—Dave Sim, Cerebus

24 January 2014


This is what a Nor'Easter with minus 9 degree temperatures looks like.

Where's Aslan when you need him!

Sticks and String

When it comes to reading or knitting, I tend to get on a jag where I just can't stop. As fast as I read one book, another is in my hands, being devoured. And as quickly as I complete one knitted project, I'm searching my stash for just the right yarn to start another. I stay up late, I wake early, I read or knit on the bus or trolley, I read or knit on my lap whilst trying to work.

This past weekend found me caught up in a one-woman knitting marathon. Normally when this happens I concentrate on one article:  socks, scarves, muffetees, mittens.  This time I was obsessed with knitting COWLS.

And when I use the word obsessed I do so without resorting to exaggeration.
How else to explain why I've been indulging two practices I normally try to avoid:
reading charts and using circular needles? 

For whatever reason, the pattern I've been using has made both seem quite easy,
even enjoyable, and the result—six cowls and counting—borders on compulsive.

One is made with an exquisite NORO yarn...
my first experience with this wonderful fibre.

The others were made from balls of beautiful wool yarn in different colors...

...dark brown, charcoal, burgundy,
dusty blue (not shown) and a multi-blue/aqua/green (also not shown).

I think I may be finished with Cowls, at least for the time being. 
Perhaps I'll start knitting socks again this weekend....
or reading the seven books I received at Christmas.

Carry on.

22 January 2014

Being Your Best Self

"... an unperfect actor on the stage" — Wm. Shakespeare 

I was reading through a book of sonnets this past weekend and this one line spoke to me. 

It's the perfect epitaph really, for those who are self-aware.

I am indeed 'unperfect'.  No one knows this better than I. My shortcomings are legion—an inherent laziness, a secret selfishness, a time-waster and day-dreamer, a procrastinator, judgmental at times and impatient.  Indeed, the burden of my failings weighs heavily at times. 

I look around at those who are almost inhumanly good—cheerful, patient, trusting, hopeful, kind, accepting, productive, on time, organized—and I realize that I cannot possibly measure up to them.  The expectation of perfection is simply too high and too daunting. 

But then I stop and wonder if they, too, have a secret list of failings.  I'm sure they do.  That is the human condition after all.

And so, in the end, all you can do is try your best.  And be yourself.  Because being yourself, as they say, is a tough act to follow.

Carry on.

21 January 2014

Afternoon Delight

“I count it as a certainty that in Paradise, everyone naps.”  —T. Hodgkinson

I am a champion napper.  I can doze with the best of them, waking refreshed and ready to tackle the remaining hours of the day.

There are people I know who hate taking naps. They find them enervating rather than revivifying. But not me. When left to my own devices I waken at about 4:30 a.m.,  complete most of my chores by mid-day, doze for an hour—intentionally or not—and then continue on until 10:00 p.m. or so.

A friend of mine enjoys making her naps official: getting into bed under the covers.  Unless I'm feeling ill, I don't like to be in bed during the day. My napping method is more haphazard, prefering to nod off in chairs, on couches, or in a garden chaise, depending on the time of year.

I love the coziness of a nap in autumn and winter... tucking myself into a corner of the couch or into my reading chair, letting a book or knitting droop from my hands and nodding off for an indeterminate amount of time.  Or a more "intentional" nap, where I stack pillows into a nest at one end of the couch, grab a blanket, and snuggle down to "rest my eyes".

In the summer, I'm just as likely to doze off in a garden chair in the afternoon, staring up into the tree canopy and letting the bird song and soft breezes lull me into a warm stupor. If I purposely go outside to nap for awhile, I'll bring a shawl.

Napping in a warm car that's been sitting in the sun on a chilly day may sound silly but I've done this before when I've been waiting for someone at the doctor's office or some other errand. Although my mother recommends wearing dark glasses if you intend to do this, so passersby won't think you're dead.  (My mother is full of excellent advice about the oddest things.)

Sometimes my naps begin as day-dreaming or, as I prefer to call it, "problem solving".  These are the "unintentional" naps. 

According to studies, naps improve mood, creativity, memory function, and our hearts. What's not to love?

This is why, when an afternoon sleepiness overtakes me at home, I do not reach for caffeine or stimulants, but surrender completely to the need to close my eyes, rest awhile, and refresh my body and mind.

 "No day is so bad it can't be fixed with a nap." —Carrie Snow

Amen, sister.

17 January 2014

King Day

In my house, January 6th marks the official end of the Christmas season.
The Feast of the Epiphany.... The Feast of the Three Kings... Twelfth Night...

In New Orleans, it's called 'King Day' and marks the start of Mardi Gras.

Everywhere you look, year round, there are shops, market stalls and specialty shops with the most beautiful masks for sale. These will be worn to balls, masques, and parades throughout the eight weeks of Mardi Gras.

Adding to the frivolity, each street corner plays host to talented mimes,
defying interruption or distration...

... their only movements a slight bow of the head
or a subtle change of position if you put a donation in their basket.
Parades are apt to occur at a moment's notice, taking you by surprise.
If you have an umbrella handy you can join the second-liners,
following the band down the road and waving a handkerchief over your head. 

 Even statues might find themselves draped in beads.

But it's the masks I love.

Many are the traditional Green, Purple and Gold of Mardi Gras....

...some with sequins, brocade, tri-cornered hats or Jester's bells.

Although the less colorful masks are my favorite.
Elegant ivory with burnished Gold and bits of antiqued decoupage.

The more elaborate they are, the more dear in price.
(And the more difficult to transport home!)

My own mask is a combination of jewel tones,
feathers, and a tiny bit of decoupage on the cheeks.

"New Orleans has been celebrating Mardi Gras for hundreds of years, and is the largest masked party in North America. In the beginning, masks worn during Mardi Gras allowed wearers to escape society and class constraints. When wearing a mask, carnival goers were free to be whomever they wanted to be, and mingle with whatever class they desired to mingle with. However, they were also considered to be a diversion for poor people, and women who wore masks had their reputation questioned. Today, everyone wears masks during Mardi Gras. In fact, float riders are required to wear masks by law." 
— MardiGrasNewOrleans.com

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

16 January 2014

Resting between dances

"...the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'"  —Jack Kerouac

Frankly, I would find this exhausting. I have one or two mad friends—and can be a bit mad myself, on occasionbut to surround myself with people like this all the time would just put me over the edge.   

I love their spirit. It's inspiring and makes a you feel alive. But it's nice to have people in your life you can just talk to, without feeling like you're sitting on the edge of a volcano, dangling your legs over the chaos below.   

I really appreciate the friends I have who like to sit back in the garden with a glass of lemonade—or relax by the fire with some hot tea—and converse about simple and 'commonplace' things... or just listen to you do the same.  People who are funny and kind and have plenty of energy and spunk when the situation calls for it, but who also share the occasional need for just being calm.

I guess I just like happy mediums. Yes, it's important to stoke the flames of passion so they rise up and carry you to your dreams, but I think it's just as crucial to indulge in the comfort and warmth of a soft and steady candle glow... and the close, safe way it makes you feel.  

I think you have to sit and rest a little between dances. 

Carry on. 

15 January 2014

Damp Around the Edges

The past three days have been lovely for being so mild. Thick warm fog in the morning, spiraling around the garden like ghosts. A soft persistent mist in the air as I make my way along the quiet streets. Temperatures soaring to fifty degrees during the day. Relatively warm nights where the furnace never clicks on.

Even as yesterday dissolved into a drenching rain the weather was balmy, although the temperate climate didn't make the journey homeward any less daunting.

Warm or not, I was soaked by the time I walked through my cottage door, not only from the driving rain which found its way under my umbrella from every angle but also from the rushing water I had to cross at each street corner. 

(I'd love to report that I was as graceful as a doe, leaping daintily over a woodland freshet, but it was really more like the hippopotamus sequence in Fantasia as I launched myself unceremoniously over the two-foot waterways that blocked my progress.)

I fortified my waning spirits by murmuring, "At least it's not snow" over and over again, walking down the center hump of my road where it was less likely to pool with water. Within twenty minutes of being home I was swathed in flannel, shawls and bedsocks, sipping a cup of cinnamon-laced coffee and scouting out various posts, hooks, and doorknobs to hang my soaked hat, gloves, scarf, coat, socks, shoes and dress. (My penchant for wearing long clothing can be a real hindrance in inclement weather...)

This morning, another mild day dawned.  "The January Thaw" is what it's called in these parts and I couldn't be happier. But in our hearts we all know what waits for us around the corner.

They're predicting nightly temperatures in the teens for next week, and a few snow showers on Saturday. Not much, but enough to make one sigh a bit and long for the first primrose.

Carry on.

12 January 2014

And a Partridge.... in a Mulberry Tree

The recent ice storms were brutal throughout Maine.
Along the coast, where a family member lives, people were without power for days.
But this plump Partridge and its mate greeted him one morning,
seated in an icebound Mulberry tree that resembled a glass birdcage. 

11 January 2014

Where Chairs Go When They Retire

Each spring I bring chairs out into the garden and along the patio, making conversation areas here and there.... under the gazebo, by the bittersweet trellis, in front of the potted herbs.  

Many of these chairs have been family hand-me-downs, or culled from neighbors who were discarding them.  There is always a bit of life left in chair.. even if it only lasts one season. This makes for an odd assortment, the only connecting tissue being my affection for them.

But with all the wear and tear of summer—rainy days and windy nights— there are invariable catastrophes and losses. A neighbor sat in a cast-off bentwood chair, nearly plummeting through to the ground! An adirondack chair lost part of a leg and had a permanent tilt, making it unseaworthy for sitting. And a rocking chair, too long in the rain, literally went off its rockers!

Given my penchant for garden follies, I am loathe to throw them away when they breakdown and prefer to "retire" them to the garden, tucking them into corners where they become perches for the birds and squirrels or a place for a summer vine to climb, or—in the case of the bentwood chair—placing it at the center of a garden bed so a Hydrangea can flourish through the missing cane seat.

But their role in the winter garden is no less important.
Like frosted snow sculptures, they maintain a certain elegance
beneath their gentle coat of white,
their broken spokes and torn seats softened by nature's hand.

I peer at them through the kitchen window, and wonder:
Do they harbor wistful memories of their glory days in the garden?
Or are they sleepily content to still be part of the landscape?

 No longer useful in the conventional way,
their curves, slants and turned spools serve as
a lovely counterpoint to a snowy wonderland.

10 January 2014

Winter knitting

Now that Christmas has passed, and winter is settling in around our shoulders, a more relaxed approach to my knitting projects has taken over.

Admittedly there is always the December crush for any knitter. Wanting to finish a sock so it can join its mate in a Christmas box destined for the Post Office. Making sure the fringe is on a scarf, or a hat has been properly blocked, before presenting it to someone as a gift.

But in January, once the faëry dust has settled, it's time to sink back into a comfortable chair—or the corner of the couch will do—and work on projects for fun. (Or simply "for your own amazement" as a friend used to say.)

A new pattern for a cowl. An untried lace chart. Socks with a type of yarn I've never used before.

This weekend I will sit, surrounded by an abundance of beautiful yarn... some my own, some a treasured gift from a generous loved one. I will get out my patterns and try to sort through the gorgeous pile, deciding which fibre is best for each project.

A lovely dilemma to have on a cold winter's day.

09 January 2014

Polar Vortex

 Supposedly this is the culprit responsible for our below-zero weather lately.

On Tuesday and Wednesday morning,
we had wind chill temperatures of 10 below zero.
This morning, it was 14 degrees.... a veritable heat wave.

According to meteorologist Brandon Miller, a Polar Vortex is "...circulation of strong, upper-level winds that normally surround the northern pole in a counterclockwise direction -- a polar low-pressure system.  These winds tend to keep the bitter cold air locked in the Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. On occasion, this vortex can become distorted and dip much farther south than you would normally find it, allowing cold air to spill southward.  The upper-level winds that make up the polar vortex change in intensity from time to time. When those winds decrease significantly, it can allow the vortex to become distorted, and the result is a jet stream that plunges deep into southern latitudes, bringing the cold, dense Arctic air spilling down with it. This oscillation is known as the Arctic Oscillation and it can switch from a positive phase to negative phase a few times per year. This oscillation -- namely the negative phase where the polar winds are weaker -- tends to lead to major cold air outbreaks in one or more regions of the planet."

Or, put more simply, it's an icy wind that blows up your skirt at the trolley stop
and makes you want to die.  A truly negative phase in your day.


The birds have been chittering away like magpies for days in the front garden. They must know my so-called "Scare Lady" is there for whimsy's sake and not to frighten them away. Or perhaps they simply think it's me? In any case, it never deters them from nesting, chirping, perching on seed heads or resting on the hemlock branches over her head. 

Their favorite spot is in amongst the rose hedge branches, where ample, plump rosehips await them. Throughout the summer I trim the hedge back now and then, to promote more blossoms and keep things under control... or as under control as my gardens tends to be, which is not very. But as Autumn approaches I leave the last hips for the birds, to nibble throughout the winter. 

The brittle air has turned the hips a beautiful cranberry red,
and the birds are loving this rosy feast.

08 January 2014


Since childhood I have always been the happy, happy recipient of BOOKS at Christmas.
This year was no different and I am eager to read each one.

HAVISHAM (Ronald Frame) - an intriguing prequel to Great Expectations, this novel tells us the early history of the tragic Miss Havisham.... the elderly, jilted spinster who roamed the corridors of her dark mansion wearing a threadbear wedding gown, surrounded by the remnants of a crumbling wedding feast that never took place. Who among Dicken's readers hasn't wondered what brought this frail bitter woman to this point? This book promises to answer her life's riddles and illuminate her sadness.

THE PRIVATE WORLD OF TASHA TUDOR (Tasha Tudor/Richard Brow) - I have been a huge fan of this remarkable woman for over 40 years. Her way of life, her artistry, and her craftsmanship are captured beautifully in this gorgeous book, full of inspiring text and endearing photographs.

THE MISSING INK: The Lost Art of Handwriting (Philip Hensher) - hand-writing can be a totem of personality, a glance into a person's moods and tastes, a way to capture who they are. When a letter or note is written, a little piece of one's spirit is left on the page. The acoutrements in writing by hand can be thrilling: fountain pens, pots of ink, sealing wax, luxe stationery or whimsical notecards. Writing to another person by hand is truly a gift of self, and sadly it is becoming a rarity in this printed electronic world. With email, Facebook, texting and faxes the preferred method for communication, there are people whose penmanship we have never glimpsed, and may never see. This book addresses this loss... the extinction of knowing how another person writes, and the beauty and art of penmanship and communicating by hand.

100 POEMS (Rudyard Kipling) - my aunt adored the works of Kipling and I inherited one of her volumes of his poems. During her lifetime she visited not only his American home in Vermont, but also his home in England. I had read Kim many years earlier before I ever read his poetry. But a recent PBS drama highlighting the terrible loss of his only son in The Great War urged me look at his work with a renewed interest. And now I have this beautiful new volume to join the other one. It includes many previously unpublished—in fact unknown!—poems by Kipling, gathered with a loving hand by editor Thomas Pinney.

TREME: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans (Lolis Eric Elie) - for anyone who loves NOLA, and who also has enjoyed TREME on HBO, this cookbook is a remarkable tribute to the post-Katrina city and a genuine souvenir of the series that honors it. It's filled with mouth-watering recipes, beautifully evocative photographs, quirky reflections on the city by it's fictional inhabitants, and a genuinely loving text by writer, journalist, and food historian Lolis Elie, who serves as story editor for TREME.

EMMA BROWN (Clare Boylan) - Miss Boylan has taken 20 pages of an unfinished manuscript by Charlotte Brontë and completed it more than a century later.  It concerns the travails of a mysterious child named Matilda, whose wealthy pedigree is not what it seems. In the words of the publisher:  When everything about the girl’s wealthy background turns out to be a fiction, it falls to a local gentleman and a childless widow to begin a quest for her past and identity... from the drawing rooms of country society to London’s seamiest alleys. With all the intelligence and pathos of the novel’s originator, Boylan develops Brontë’s sketch of a girl without a past into a stunning portrait of Victorian society with a shameful secret at its heart. 

SINGING SCHOOL: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters (Robert Pinsky) - rather than setting forth axioms and protocol, Mr. Pinsky lets the poetry lover find his or her way by sinking happily into works by the likes of Dickinson, Southwell, Keats, Herbert, and Nashe, to name but a few of the poets in this lovely book.  The flyleaf promises that "... this anthology respects poetry’s mysteries in two senses of the word: techniques of craft and strokes of the inexplicable."

Bless the hands that give books! Amen.

07 January 2014

A Winter's Tale

It began in the night...

...a gentle snow that draped each nook, flower and leaf
in an icy coating of white.

By morning, a soft blanket encased even the berries on the door.
A garden trough was frozen.
The birdbath was a transluscent sphere. 
 Snow shrouded each log on the woodpile.
 The garden gate was draped in frothy mounds.
Hoarfrost embraced the front garden.

The hemlock branches bowed low under their icy burden.

Andromeda leaves bore a pristine crystal mantle.
Yew branches stood at attention, frozen in time.
Feline guests came to the door on frosty paws.

The Scare Lady had a dusting of icing sugar on each sleeve.
Garden shed windows sported wind-swept drifts of frost flowers on each pane.

And behind closed doors, the tea kettle steamed.