Monday, October 29, 2012

Holiday Inspiration

We have now entered the holiday season.  Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's are right around the corner.  Since I was a little girl, they have always been my favorite holidays.  I become a kid again and want to experience all the magic I remember from my childhood.  Now that I have discovered Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar, it is hard to imagine not going there every year to gather seasonal inspiration.  This is simply the best nursery I have ever been to.  Located in Orange County, about an hour south of Los Angeles, it is huge and has an incredible selection of plant material, garden furniture and ornaments.   It also has a large boutique filled with many things you would want for your house, including linens, dishes, candles, wrapping paper, interior design books, and beautiful accessories for the home  If you get on their mailing list, you can receive news about all their seasonal happenings -- they host fabulous classes on flower arranging.  When some friends told me that the fall and winter holiday displays had opened at Roger's Gardens, we decided to make the hour drive and take a look.  What an enchanting wonderland we discovered.  It is a great place to go to gather ideas and inspiration for the upcoming holidays.  And it will bring out the child in you as you wander through this magical fantasy land.

Naturally there are pumpkins galore

But there are so many other autumnal beauties, like these deep purple and green hydrangeas

Every kind of fall arrangement is wrapped up in ribbons and ready to give to someone as a gift

We all took a picture of this one because, as we all agreed, even we could do it

These berries are so pretty in fall arrangements

Everywhere we looked were the ingredients to make gorgeous floral arrangements

These succulents were in interesting containers

One room is devoted to bird houses

And then for the kid in all of us, there were so many fun displays to look at
Here is a wall covered in giant watches, clocks and gears

We were mesmerized by the electric train running through a forest of miniature Christmas trees

Roger's Gardens always carries vintage holiday toys and decorations

These collectibles were so great looking.  They are made by Primitive Twigs out of New York and are unique one-of-a-kind vintage metal dolls.

More vintage Halloween decorations

Of course we had to see the Christmas displays.  This room was dominated by a giant house of cards.

Here are some of the goodies on the shelves, providing lots of ideas for holiday parties

A close-up of one of their Christmas trees decorated with a card theme

It was a great day filled with inspiring sights and ideas.  Holiday season has truly arrived.  Are you ready?

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Quiet Pleasures

"Mrs. Bartle Grant" by Vanessa Bell, 1934, via here

What do you do when the days grow shorter, the weather gets cooler and and we are spending more time inside?  Do you have projects and hobbies that you like to do during fall and winter, soothing and peaceful activities such as needlepoint, knitting, or embroidery?  And have you noticed what a calming effect these crafts produce?   Just look at the expression on Mrs. Bartle Grant's face in the painting above.  She was the mother of the Bloomsbury artist Duncan Grant and stitched all of the tapestries that he designed.

I have recently taken up needlepoint and am working on a big canvas that I bought in England two years ago.  The finished pillow will be a large one (huge!) and of course I bought two of them, thinking they were smaller and would make a great matched set.  What was I thinking!  This project will take me a long time to finish and so I plan to put it away occasionally and work on a smaller projects that I am more likely to finish in a shorter amount of time.   But I love doing it because no matter how frayed my nerves are or how stressful my day is, nothing calms me down and brings me back down to earth more quickly than working on my needlepoint project.

Here is the needlepoint kit I bought in England.  It is called The Shell Cushion and is a reproduction of a canvas designed by Vanessa Bell.

As you can see, I have made a little progress and am now ready to get back to work on this

This is the original pillow in the garden room at Charleston Farmhouse

In the meantime, I am also looking for a smaller project and would love to take a knitting class
Photo via here

I dream of cozy evenings knitting or doing needlepoint by the fireplace
Photo via here

I love this needlepoint canvas from Elizabeth Bradley

Some of my inspiration for working on crafts comes from my daughter Heather who is a talented knitter.  This blanket is one of her projects.  She has loved doing crafts since she was a little girl.  When she was 10 years old she made jewelry and formed "The Jewelry Club" with her girlfriends.

This photo was her inspiration for the blanket

She made this amazing scarf
via here

She has also taken up weaving

A close-up of one of her projects

 Some of her pieces are framed
All photos of Heather's crafts via L.A. in Bloom

I am beginning to think I need to start small; how cute is this knitted cover for a hot water bottle
Photo via here

And this tea cosy makes me smile, it might just be the perfect project to begin with 
Photo via here

Tell me, what crafts or projects do you like to work on now that the weather is getting cooler and we are all staying home more?  And do they bring a peaceful smile to your face?

I want to thank all of my blogging friends who expressed their support and condolences about my mother.  It meant the world to me.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Butterfly of the Moment

"It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily away.  How else, indeed, to clap the net over the  butterfly of the moment." --  Vita Sackville-West

I was thinking about the writing that many of us do on our blogs or in our diaries and journals.  Some days are busy, others are restful, but no matter what kind of day we are having there are often moments that we would like to "clap the net over" and remember.  They are the moments that put a smile on our face and give us a feeling of contentment.   They are sometimes moments of illumination and revelation, the ones that Virginia Woolf called "moments of being." They are incandescent flashes of beauty and poignancy that happen when we are just going about the business of living.  Maybe we've just walked out our front door and, as the sun warms our body and we glance at the trees and flowers around us, we smile at the goodness of it all.  Or maybe we've just left a lunch with a dear friend and as we drive home we remember the words of wisdom she imparted (which we desperately needed) or the funny story she just related that we can't wait to share with someone else.

In the days when people wrote letters and kept diaries, they would take time to describe an experience, conversation or thought they wanted to share with others and create a little narrative to give to their friends.  Some of these letters and diaries, especially those written by famous people, can be looked at today to help us understand what life was like then.  I think of the letters and diaries of Virginia Woolf. Today there are not many people who write letters, but many people still keep journals or diaries and  write blogs.

As writers, we notice these special moments and write about them.  We preserve them to keep for ourselves and also to share with others.  And the beauty of writing it all down and giving it a narrative shape is that we see patterns, unexpected beauty, and themes.  The process of giving our lives a narrative shape through language helps us derive meaning out of what we do.  Vita Sackville-West was right that the days can "slip emptily away" if we don't savor the beautiful, fleeting moments that make up a day.  These are the simple pleasures , the special moments that are often forgotten unless we take the time to notice, take a picture, and write about them.  It turns out that these are the things that often make us the happiest.  And when we go back to read about them, they remind us of where true happiness lies -- in the simple pleasures, in the magical moments of everyday life.

Here are just a few ideas for remembering "the butterfly of the moment:"

Take your camera with you wherever you go, tuck it into your purse and have it ready to snap a special shot.  You will go back to it for inspiration, I promise.  When I got back from my garden tour of the Cotswolds two years ago, this photo captured the pastoral beauty of the English countryside.  It lead me, in a sort of stream of conscious way, to the "Mapp and Lucia" books by E.F. Benson which were set in the Cotswolds.  I had always been curious about them and now was the time to make their acquaintance.   I devoured them, laughed out loud at their comic genius, and also watched the excellent television adaptation.  I know I will return to them again and again.  Laughter is medicine for the soul.

Write down meaningful lines you read in books, you will be so happy when you go back to them for inspiration.  Here is one of my recent discoveries from Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark.  This wonderful book is about a successful writer looking back at the beginning of her career.  The following line, my favorite in the book, captures the character's joy about being a writer and is an inspiration for those of us who are aspiring writers.  She describes the personal satisfaction that she has gotten from the creative process; she has no regrets about the life she has chosen:

"And so, having entered the fullness of my years, from there by the grace of God I go on my way rejoicing."

When you travel, take pictures of course, but also keep a journal of your observations and feelings.  You will go back to your travel journal and remember who you were then and it just may enhance your next trip.  I kept this journal when my husband and I took our young daughters to England and France many years ago.  One entry I love tells about a day that we chose to follow our children's preference for staying at our hotel and playing  in the garden rather than going to Blenheim Palace.  Although initially I was disappointed, the simple beauty of watching our girls play outside in nature in another country far from home outweighed visiting an historic site.  I wrote about that day in my journal.

Walk in your garden or outside every morning with your coffee.  It's the quietest and freshest time of the day and you just may notice the first flowers to bloom on your favorite plant.  Write about it in your garden journal.  I will never forget the year our garden was on a small neighborhood garden tour, and the tree peony was the highlight of the garden that everyone talked about.  We had purchased it the day before the tour at our local nursery, and placed it in a pot near the front door.  I love to remember that moment.  This lovely plant blooms every year.

Clip articles from newspapers and magazines and save them.  You will use them later.  As I clean out my study I am finding so many treasures from the past.  This one is from the dearly missed "House and Garden" magazine and was written in December of 2001.  In it the writer tells the story of how after 9/11 he discovered the real meaning of the holiday rituals passed down from his parents.  I pull it out every year during the holiday season and I cry each time I read it.

And just yesterday I was delighted to read an interview with J.K. Rowling in the New York Times.  I loved all her answers and felt we were kindred spirits.  There is something akin to an old-fashioned girl about Rowling that I can relate to.  I saved the piece.  My favorite answer was when she was asked "If you could be any character from literature, who would it be?"  She answered, "Elizabeth Bennett, naturally."  I will be hanging on to this one.  Go here to read more.

We are the repositories of so many experiences and when we write about them we turn them into something precious. Someone once told me that the happiest people are the enthusiasts.  Chroniclers, diarists, essayists, and bloggers all share something in common.  What we all seem to want to do is share our pleasure in the movement of life.    By capturing our experiences in words we transform them into the ultimate memory book.  Perhaps we will turn it all into fiction one day or weave it into a memoir.  These experiences are the essence of who we are but if we don't capture them, they may be forgotten and go the way of the butterfly.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Autumn Afternoons

The Berkshires in western Massachusetts
Photo via here

"The afternoon was perfect.  A deeper stillness possessed the air, and the glitter of the American autumn was tempered by a haze which diffused the brightness without dulling it.
In the woody hollows of the park there was already a faint chill; but as the ground rose the air grew lighter, and ascending the long slopes beyond the high-road, Lily and her companion reached a zone of lingering summer.  The path wound across a meadow with scattered trees; then it dipped into a land plumed with asters and purpling sprays of bramble, whence, through the light quiver of ash-leaves, the country unrolled itself in pastoral distances.

Higher up, the lane showed thickening tufts of fern and of the creeping glossy verdure of shaded slopes; trees began to overhang it, and the shade deepened to the checkered dusk of a beech-grove.  The boles of the trees stood well apart, with only a light feathering of undergrowth; the path wound along the edge of the wood, now and then looking out on a sunlit pasture or on an orchard spangled with fruit.

Lily had no real intimacy with nature, but she had a passion for the appropriate and could be keenly sensitive to a scene which was the fitting background for her own sensations.  The landscape outspread below her seemed an enlargement of her present mood, and she found something of herself in its calmness, its breadth, its long free reaches.  On the nearer slopes the sugar-maples wavered like pyres of light; lower down was a massing of grey orchards, and here and there the lingering green of an oak-grove.  Two or three red farm-houses dozed under the apple-trees, and the white wooden spire of a village church showed beyond the shoulder of the hill; while far below, in a haze of dust, the high road ran between the fields." 

Lily dropped down on the rock, glowing with her long climb.  She sat quiet, her lips parted by the stress of the ascent, her eyes wandering peacefully over the broken ranges of the landscape.  Selden stretched himself on the grass at her feet, tilting his hat against the level sun-rays and clasping his hands behind his head, which rested against the side of the rock.  He had no wish to make her talk; her quick-breathing silence seemed a part of the general hush and harmony of things.  In his own mind there was only a lazy sense of pleasure, veiling the sharp edges of sensation as the September haze veiled the scene at their feet.  But Lily, though her attitude was as calm as his, was throbbing inwardly with a rush of thoughts.  There were in her at the moment two beings, one drawing deep breaths of freedom and exhilaration, the other gasping for air in a little black prison-house of fears.  But gradually the captive's gasps grew fainter, or the other paid less heed to them: the horizon expanded, the air grew stronger, and the free spirit quivered for flight."  --  Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

Wishing you a beautiful autumn weekend!

Monday, October 8, 2012

New Cookbook for Fall

"Nothing I like better than a baked apple."  
--  Jane Austen, "Emma"

Amy Traverso has written a new cookbook all about apples.  As she writes in her introduction, Traverso's love affair with apples hit an all time high when, on October 4, 2004, she married her husband in the apple orchard of Arrows Restaurant in Ogunquit, Maine.  As their guests arrived, they  served them cider made from the apples in the orchard. They set small wedding cakes on each table with tiny Lady Apples scattered around them.  Traverso's bridesmaids wore shades of red and rose, and the groom and his groomsmen wore apple-green ties.  The wedding favors were caramel apples.   As she writes, "Really it was a harvest festival disguised as a wedding."  Sounds beautiful to me!

If you've ever been to Ogunquit, Maine or to any apple orchard in the fall, you understand the poetry of the apple and what it must have meant to Amy Traverso.  Apples are the very essence of fall and apple orchards and farmers' markets at this time of year are nothing short of paradise for the enthusiastic cook.  Traverso's new cookbook takes us through the history of apples, lists the many varieties of apples, offers cooking tips on peeling, coring and preparing apples, and pantry notes about their storage. She gives us hundreds of recipes for both savory and sweet apple dishes.  The photographs are luscious and as I looked through the book yesterday I was overcome with the urge to jump in the car and go to the market immediately and load up on some of the apples that Amy Traverso was describing.

I bought Jonagold and Golden Delicious varieties and decided to make one of the recipes from the book.  I chose the Apple Brownies.  Traverso describes these as very moist and having great fruit and cinnamon flavor.  They are baked in a brownie pan, but the texture is much lighter than a brownie.  Most importantly, they are incredibly easy.  I threw the recipe together in about 20 minutes and it took  40 minutes for the brownies to bake.  They filled the house with the most delicious flavors of fall.

The recipe was a success, though the brownies are a little hard to cut neatly.  Because mine weren't exactly photogenic -- though delicious -- I am showing you how they look in the October issue of "Martha Stewart Living" which includes Traverso's recipe in the magazine's article about apples.

Photo and recipe via here

There are so many tempting recipes in this book.  I would love to make Apple Cranberry Scones; Sweet Potato, Apple, and Ginger Soup; Squash and Apple Gratin; and Apple Bread Pudding with Salted Caramel Sauce.  If you enjoy cooking with apples, you will love this cookbook.  In addition to the many delicious  recipes throughout, you will love Traverso's descriptions of visiting different apple orchards and farms all around the country.  These short essays are at the beginning of each chapter.  Amy Traverso has discovered the poetry of apples.  My favorite quote may be her description of the heirloom Ashmead's Kernel apple that "tastes like champagne with honey stirred in."

If you buy this book, be prepared to rush out to the closest farmers' market to buy some Braeburn, Calville Blanc D'Hiver, Honeycrisp, Golden Russet, or Pink Lady apples -- just to name a few of the heirloom apples that Traverso writes about in her inspiring new cookbook.  

Friday, October 5, 2012

Capturing Inner Beauty

 Elizabeth Bowen photographed by Cecil Beaton (1943) via here

The first season of the new Upstairs Downstairs on PBS takes place in 1936 with a new family moving into the house at 165 Eaton Place.  There was a touching episode recently which included a story line about the famous photographer Cecil Beaton coming to 165 Eaton Place to do some photography.  The cook wanders into the shoot accidentally before the family arrives and Cecil Beaton photographs her and captures her inner beauty.  She receives the photo in the mail and is thrilled with the results.  She has never looked more beautiful.  I thought about that episode when I spotted this beautiful photo of the Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen taken by Cecil Beaton.

There are writers that we carry around with us for some reason.  Maybe we read their books at an impressionable time in our lives, or maybe something about the way they lived their lives resonated with us.  Whatever it is, we find ourselves picking up biographies and memoirs about them as well as copies of their works.  Without realizing it, we have been collecting their entire body of work.  This is what has happened to me with Elizabeth Bowen.  When I saw this beautiful photo,  I realized that I have always been fond of her and actually have most of her books, even though I have only read a couple of  them and do not know very much about her life.  She was an elegant and intelligent woman who wrote many acclaimed novels and short stories.  She was born in 1899 and died in 1973.  She is the author of The Death of the Heart,  a book I read many years ago and admired for its subtlety, psychological insight, and story of a young girl searching for her place in the world.  Some of her other books are The Last SeptemberThe Heat of the Day, and The House in Paris.   She spent the last decade of her life teaching at several different American universities, including Bryn Mahr.  She was highly regarded as one of the best living writers at the time.  Can you imagine being one of her students?  I love this picture of her at Bryn Mahr.

Photo via here

Elizabeth Bowen is one of those writers who are not well known but have a loyal following.  Random House/Anchor books reissued all of her novels in paperback in 2002 and I bought as many as I could find.  Elizabeth Bowen, unlike writers such as Virginia Woolf or Katherine Mansfield who were  literary superstars, was one of the quieter luminaries in the literary firmament, steadfastly writing her books and supporting her fellow writers.  I don't know much about her (I am now going to read her biography) but suspect she was a secure and confident woman who didn't need the limelight. Her condolence letter to Leonard Woolf after the death of Virginia Woolf is touching and generous.  She wrote:

"As far a I am concerned, a great deal of the meaning seems to have gone out of the world.  She illuminated everything, and one referred the most trivial things to her in one's thoughts.  To have been allowed to know her and love her is a great thing."

 Random House/Anchor Books edition of "The Death of the Heart" 

Cecil Beaton's photo of Elizabeth Bowen conveys her inner beauty and gives her a place in the sun.  Obviously her published writing has memorialized her talent, but how many of us knew about her beauty, the way it is captured in this photograph?

Here is the opening of "The Death of the Heart," a book many people consider her best:

"That morning's ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments.  These tapped together, or parting, left channels of dark water, down which swans in slow indignation swam.  The island stood in frozen woody brown dusk:  it was now between three and four in the afternoon.  A sort of breath from the clay, from the city outside the park, condensing, made the air unclear; through this, the trees round the lake soared frigidly up. Bronze cold of January bound the sky and the landscape; the sky was shut to the sun -- but the swans, the rims of the ice, the pallid withdrawn Regency terraces had an unnatural burnish, as though cold were light.  There is something momentous about the height of winter.  Steps rang on the bridges, and along the black walks.  This weather had set in; it would freeze harder tonight."

Monday, October 1, 2012

Hello October

Photo via here

"Delicious autumn!  My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth searching for successive autumns."
--  George Eliot

  Autumn is always filled with excellent new films, television and theater.  So much is coming up and there is an excitement in the air.  Here are a few to look forward to:

"Anna Karenina" directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law
Photo via here

British director Andrea Arnold's new film adaptation of Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights"
Starring Soloman Glave and Shannon Beer
Photo via here

Dan Stevens (from "Downton Abbey") and Jessica Chastain
Starring in a new production of "The Heiress" on Broadway this month
Photo via here

"Call The Midwife" is a popular British television series beginning in October.  Set in postwar London, it follows a group of midwives and nuns as they try to bring obstetric and health care to East End Londoners.  I watched the first one last night and loved it!
Photo via here

Season Two of ''The Hour," the stylish fifties news drama from Britain that premiered last year.  Dominic West, Ben Whishaw, and Romola Garai (she was "Emma" in a recent television adaptation) star
Photo via here

New DVD of "Downton Abbey" Seasons One and Two
Just in time to watch before Season Three begins in January, this is the original, uncut British broadcast version of the popular PBS series
Photo via here

Delicious autumn!