The Gift of Christmas Present

While we are all so wrapped up in the presents we are giving to gladden hearts at Christmastime, we might pause to think of that other side of giving that means much more in every home—the giving of ourselves.  The Christmas Present, after all, is only a token of our feelings, and more important are the daily contributions we can make to the happiness of those near us.

                                                      --House and Garden (December 1938)

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Recently I went back to read the Simple Abundance meditations I wrote for the Christmas season. I was surprised by how little had changed in my emotional response on the annual miracles women of all faiths perform during the holiday season.  But December is the month of miracles.  The oil that burnt for eight days.  The royal son born in a stable.  The inexplicable return of Light on the longest, darkest night of the year.  As Willa Cather reassures us, “Where there is great love, there are always miracles.”  Let’s believe her. If there’s ever been a year we all need to believe in a benevolent Giver of all Good, it’s this holiday season. 

Glancing back in a Dickensian kind of way, hovering over the scene with the Ghost of Christmas Past, I can see a mother of a young daughter. She’s writing in tiny room, the size of a closet and working at an old word processor, so ancient that quills and parchment would have been an upgrade; the monthly check-ups at the local computer shop came out of her grocery money, To make things worse, I’d been working on “The Book” for so long it had virtually became the fourth member of our family.  I’m surprised I didn’t keep a place setting for her at the dining room table.

I had been struggling over two years. I was supposed to be a paid working mother and it had been a long time between paychecks. Constant discouragement and I got to know each other very well during that time.  There’s a certain turn of the screw that only 30 rejections from every major publisher in the US can trigger. People in your life begin to ask, not unreasonably mind you,  if it’s not time to get a “real job."  I had published two previous books and had been a nationally syndicated writer; I had been paid to write before.  So the reasons?  Simplicity wasn’t commercial, and a lifestyle book based on Gratitude?  Forget it.”

Some of the letters were so harsh, they still makes me wince.

There were some days when I didn’t want to get out of bed, but I had to make breakfast, lunch and do carpool.  There were also many long, dark nights of the soul when I cried in the shower or into my pillow, trying to keep the self doubt and despair to myself.  Then one day Katie asked me if would mail a letter for her, written not to Santa Claus but to Heaven. Of course, I read it and then promptly posted it in my heart. Babes-- you’re only kidding yourself if you think children don’t hear or know when Mom’s unhappy  The letter read:

 Dear Guardian Angel,

 This prayer is not for me, it is for my Mom.  Please Angel, let my Mom get a book contract.  Please talk to the Guardian Angels of the People who decide about publishing ….

There’s nothing much you can do after reading something like this except start crying again, pull yourself together and get back to work. Start writing another meditation (like December 10th’ Gifts of the Magi).  Eventually the thoughts, words, sentences, paragraphs and pages begin to accumulate and accelerate; propelled by your time, creative energy and emotion until the “Work” achieves the momentum it needs and breaks through your personal velocity to become strong enough to exist on her own. 

By now, I had empirical proof of the power of Gratitude to change one’s disposition from pessimist to optimist, because back then I wasn’t just writing about Simple Abundance, I was living it. I was my own Research and Development Laboratory.  I knew they were wrong.  Still, two years into any project that the world’s not buying, and you either become a cynic and give up or get really stubborn.  Guess which one was my choice?  I made up a mockup of a New York Times Best Seller list and dated it for June 1996, three years in the future.  I taped it to the word processor screen and spoke the words “Just watch me” before I started each day’s assignment. Later I discovered to my delight that Sir Isaac Newton also experimented on himself, as did Madame Marie Curie, the only person to win the Nobel Prize twice and Dr. Jonas Salk with his polio vaccine.  I was in good company.

And so I wrote Simple Abundance (and beat my own best seller deadline by two months) but the creative truth I want to share with you is that Simple Abundance really wrote me. As I learned how to use the wondrous power of Gratitude, Simplicity and Order to ground me in my daily round, I discovered that I could be open to the spontaneous occasions that revealed Harmony, Beauty and Joy surrounding me.  The results seemed miraculous.

They still do.  When I use the saving graces of Simple Abundance actively, especially when I’m worn to a raveling trying to balance work deadlines with the advancing holiday merrymaking, limited budget and finding a new home, I’m amazed at how I can cope with rising to an occasion I hadn’t expected.  I’m thrilled that I can take another look around at my circumstances and figure it out.  Or wait it out.  Accept things for now. All I have is all I need today, except the realization of how much I have.  Thank You.

Now when I think of all the blessings that have arrived in my life wrapped in brown paper and string—as necessities instead of indulgences—it really makes me feel both humbled and incredulous.  Believe me, I never wanted any of those blessings disguised as disappointment and despair. I would have refused to accept them and returned them to Sender, if I’d only known how to do it.  But what I’ve finally learned is that if there is a gift in disguise, then there must be a Giver.  What makes this all the more poignant is that when we stop to consider this, the truth is, it’s always been so.  Christmas and great need are inseparable, as intertwined as hope and faith or the holly and the ivy.  Remember we’re told “Now faith is the substance of things sought for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1)

Some of you, my dearest ones, have been Simple Abundance kindred spirits for many years now.  Other readers are new, finding me by happy coincidence or on the recommendation of a family member or friend.  What we’re all seeking (me included!)  is a respite from all the crises, and a succession of contented moments.   

So shall we try a little holiday ritual together?  Invite the Simple Abundance Graces to intervene in our daily round and show us just how “real” Divine assistance is, here and now. Asking for help is a woman’s toughest personal challenge, at least it still is for me.  But here is a spiritual law (and gift) for the ages, especially this Christmas Present.  We have to ask before we receive.  Ask, Ask, Ask. (June 3).  Trust me, if there’s a meditation in Simple Abundance, I lived it and took really good notes.

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Good cheer is not limited to Christmas carols but can be made one of our gifts to the family all year round.  I don’t mean that we should all be Pollyannas, but “a merry heart doth good like a medicine.”  We give of ourselves by example and by our presence as well as by our presents.  If we are jittery and irritable it is communicated through the whole household whether we will it or not,” the editors of House and Garden reminded their readers in 1938.  “But we can give courage and encouragement, sympathy and advice.  We can contribute so much to the sense of well-being and of security by our own attitude and actions if we give a little thought to them, a little more thought perhaps than we give to the choice of our Christmas gifts, that we can create that atmosphere in our home. The things we do and say mean so much more than all the dolls and hobby horses and streamlined electric trains.”

So today, let us be grateful that through grace, we can live Christmas Present and gift it to others.

Sending you tidings of comfort and joy, dearest love and always blessings on your courage.

XO SBB

 

Getting to Know You

"I am not at all the sort of person you and I took me for."

- Jane Welsh Carlyle (1822).

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I don’t suppose anyone has called you self-centered recently?

Why would they?  Can you even remember the last time you considered your preferences before anyone else’s?  Didn’t think so.  Hey, Babe, you’re not alone. 

Most women recoil from the thought of personal descriptions that begin with the word “Self”, which is too bad because this self-defeating modesty eliminates a lot of flattering ones: self-poise, self-assured, self-confident.  So why do we self-consciously shrink from self-admiration?  Enquiring minds want to know.  Well, probably ever since your hand was slapped reaching for the last cookie on the plate all those years ago, you’ve viewed satisfying your healthy wants and lusty needs as selfish and shameful. 

But now that you’re all grown up, how about rediscovering how glorious you really are?  It’s time to realize that the cheeks that once burned with embarrassment can now radiate with the vibrant glow of a self-possessed woman.

I believe that there are three secret wounds to the feminine soul which I explored in my book Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self:  self-avoidance, betrayal, and marital indifference.  At first you might think that this is not a book for you.  Guess what?  So did I, and I was the one writing it.  

We have none of these problems. We have a beautiful home, a family we adore and work that we enjoy and fulfills us.  So why then,  do we secretly sense that there's got to be Something More to why we're here, something other than discovering what money, love and sex have to do with the Meaning of Life.  We grow our own organic vegetables, take our Omega 3, meditate, start book clubs. We work out five days a week, treat ourselves to low-fat soy sorbet the other two, and then wonder why we're perpetually cranky.  So what is the rest of it? we want to know (and preferably by the end of the afternoon).  This perpetual question distracts and disturbs us and keeps us worn to a raveling.

I thought we’d gently explore the first, self-dislike, or self-avoidance which might be why we never try to catch our reflection in the mirror or ever take photographs that we actually like. However, I love how the English novelist Virginia Woolf called this “her looking-glass shame,” the malady that breaks every woman’s heart because it is the bedrock that allows the other two to occur.  I once made the observation that there is really no wound from which the soul rarely recovers except regret and you know what? I was right.  It's taken me a heck of a long time to forgive myself and make self-nurturing amends, so if I can help at all, let me know.  That's why I'm here. 

So just between you and me how about a little chat? To begin with, there seems to be no vein of misery than runs deeper in all our lives than self-avoidance or personal dislike. But this is a fault line that guarantees our failure ever to be truly happy, no matter how much we accomplish or accumulate, or in whose arms we lie.

So why do we disapprove of ourselves?  Let me count the ways.  Some of the world’s most famous beauties can’t stand the physical sight of themselves.  Self-dislike is an equal opportunity oppressor.  In short, we may recoil from our human frailties, flaws and foibles in a world that approves only perfection;  our personal oddities, eccentricities and bad habits give us ammunition every day, especially since we discount every positive virtue through insidious comparisons to other women.

We self-sabotage ourselves by constantly capitulating to the needs of others by disavowing our own; for ignoring the careless cruelties of loved ones in order to keep the peace; for struggling to live up to the expectations of those we don’t even care about; for denying the validity of our own unrequited desires.

We mercilessly rage against ourselves because we don’t look quite like the multi-orgasmic sex goddesses we once thought we’d become; or because we’re not quite the natural, full bonded mothers we assumed we’d be when we held that baby in our arms for the first time; or because we haven’t quite fulfilled the promise of our astonishing authentic gifts with a star on Hollywood Blvd or an Editor-in-Chief nameplate on our door by 40 and Heaven have mercy, we won't let ourselves ever forget what a disappointment we are.  I didn't even start to write Simple Abundance until I was 44.  It took me half a lifetime to even discover how much I didn't know.  

When was the last time you started off a conversation with “I’m sorry” and you weren’t?  I did yesterday.  “Elvira always lied first to herself before she lied to anybody else, since this gave her a conviction of moral honesty,“ Phyllis Bottome wrote in 1934 about a woman we all know too well. 

One way we learn how to hide our self-dislike is by putting on our public masks and making sure that everyone else on the planet is happy.  That’s why you’ve learned how to please, cajole, comfort and delight your parents, partners, lovers, friends, boss or children but haven’t a clue how to give Guess Who a moment of pleasure, as in an hour or two to call your own and rediscover what it is that brings a smile to your face or that amazing sense of contentment.   

Which is how we die from self-pity, and that isn’t pretty. 

It’s time to declare a détente with our imperfections, to lay down the artillery of self-abuse we aim at ourselves, the potions, prayers and punitive diets, cosmetic artifice and extreme customized corrections.  I’m not suggesting that there’s isn’t a place for hair color, makeup and cosmetic nipping and tucking if it’s going to help you awaken to our own inner beauty.  But I am telling you that nothing will help you get over looking-glass shame if the transformation doesn’t begin from within.  First you have to be willing to seek ways of renewal that honor your body and restore it to its rightful place, as the sacred garment of your soul.

More often than not, we discover who we are and what makes us genuinely happy through the revelations found in the small the simple, and the common.  In your tiny choices, in what seem like infinitesimal changes.  In the unconsidered.  The overlooked.  The discarded.  The reclaimed. In moments I call “everyday epiphanies.”  When those “ah, ha” transmissions allow the static of the world to clear suddenly and the soul’s Morse code—the dots and dashes of our daily round, so often dismissed as meaningless—not only connect, but resonate on the deepest level.

So how do you learn to develop a finely honed sense of self-worth?  Give thanks for the Swell Dame within, even if the world calls it self-worship.  Pay attention from now on to what excites you, or moves you to tears.  What makes the blood rush to your head,  your heart skip a beat, your knees shaky and your soul sigh? And just remember, when someone else calls what you’re doing self-indulgent, you’ll know it’s self-preservation.  

Sending dearest love and always, blessings on your courage. XO

SBB

A Sunday Kind Of Love

Holy rest is an art form.  It’s not simply the absence of work.  It is the presence of all the sacred pleasures you can partake in: a festive meal, family and friends, a good book, a little romance, a walk in nature, a prayer to God.

                                                                           --Rabbi Naomi Levy

Photo by Melissa Gidney Daly / Oprah.com

Photo by Melissa Gidney Daly / Oprah.com

What did your last Sunday look like? Was it a day devoted to the art form of Holy Rest? Like many women, Sunday has become a day not to slow down but to catch up: on chores, cleaning, errands, the work I didn’t finish last week or a futile attempt to get a head start on next week’s “To-Do” list. 

However, recently I enjoyed a Sunday to remember with my daughter:  attending a Gospel Brunch in a beautiful California garden on a gorgeous day, basking in an abundance of inspirational music, delicious food, charm, laughter and conviviality. We were guests at Oprah Winfrey’s “Promised Land” ranch to celebrate her new book The Wisdom of Sundays: Life-Changing Insights from Super Soul Conversations.

“The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is read something inspiring. I like jump-starting my day with a reminder that I am a spiritual being having a human experience. My favorite teachings are always within reach, right on my nightstand. Many of them are by thought leaders and visionaries who’ve joined me on my show Super Soul Sunday.  If there is anything that represents the heartbeat of who I am and the work I strive to put out in the world, it’s the conversations I’ve been blessed to experience on this show. For me, they represent a new way of thinking about life’s big questions, lighting a path forward and reminding us that we are all connected, explains Oprah in the November issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. “I’ve always believed the knowledge and ideas shared each week on the show would make a powerfully transcendent book. I believed it even more strongly after going through more than 200 hours of Super Soul tapes in search of the most impactful sparks of brilliance from the men and women who’ve sat in my backyard in Santa Barbara and shared their wisdom.” 

I’ve been blessed to be a part of the Super Soul experience, discussing with Oprah both the transformative power of gratitude and the always challenging conversation about women and money in Peace and Plenty.  The wondrous aspect of having a conversation with Oprah is that she creates a “safe” place in which you can express your deepest feelings and insights knowing you are heard and protected.  Now Oprah’s captured the essence of these soulful conversations in between the elegant covers of this beautiful book.  As for the selections, Oprah used her personal sense of wonder as a compass for those heart-to-heart revelations – the “Ah, ha” moments that triggered a pause, inspiring and inviting the response: “I never thought of it that way.”

Photo by Melissa Gidney Daly / Oprah.com

Photo by Melissa Gidney Daly / Oprah.com

The result of her gleanings is a devotional perfectly suited for the nightstand.  A lot of books audition for pride of place on my nightstand. But as well as comfort and inspiration, these few books are also chosen for their beauty.  Like a woman with repose of the soul, The Wisdom of Sundays gladdens both my artist’s desire for beauty and seeker’s poetic pilgrimage on the pages, which are illustrated with beautiful photographs taken at the home she calls the “Promised Land,” which could be a setting for the garden of Eden.

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However, as enchanting and as enriching as the entire afternoon was, the enormous personal lesson I took away, my own “Ah, ha” moment was a glimpse and glimmer of what, I believe, continues to allow Oprah to remain such a vibrant, bright light in a world that grows increasingly dark. It’s her spiritual electricity. Even with decades of fame, money, success, power and influence, she’s never lost track of her spiritual roots or the abiding source of her strength and wisdom.  There was a whole lot of praising the Lord going on at this Gospel Brunch and it thrilled me with tears of joy and goosebumps. The songs and the singers were mighty, powerful, and true, especially, the stirring gospel hymn “Stand” (which was said to be among Oprah’s mother/mentor Dr. Maya Angelou’s favorites) Well, I was standing and it moved through me like bolt of Holy Spirit lightening.   

After you’ve gone through the hurt
After you’ve done all you can
After you’ve gone through the pain
After you’ve done all you can
After you’ve gone through the storm
After you’ve done all you can
After you’ve gone through the rain
After you’ve done all you can, prayed and cried
After you’ve done all you can, you just stand…
God has a purpose, yes, God has a plan.

(Donnie McClurkin)

But here’s the crucial thing:  before we can stand still long enough to receive the blessing, we have to be willing to stop and pause.  Pause one day a week for sacred rest, renewal and reconnection. Pause first thing in the morning for loving advice from kindred spirits in The Wisdom of Sundays.  Pause long enough to write down why we’re grateful for just being able to stand.

Ah, yes, this is honoring the Sabbath. Remember? The seventh day when the Great Creator paused after bringing forth the cosmos and then, instructed us to do the same.  We have to be willing to open ourselves to the space between the pauses of rejoicing and reconciliation.  The Pause that ends the estrangement between your body and soul.  The Pause that gets results when we can’t.  The Pause that delights in delivering dreams to our doorstep or redirecting them towards our own passions instead of other people’s priorities.  

Most of the women I know are so overworked, overwrought and trapped in this frantic and exhausting 24/7 Breaking News culture, we don’t know how to help ourselves any longer and we’re worn to a raveling.  How about realizing that we can’t help ourselves or anyone else unless we stop, not dead in our tracks, but while we’re still alive.  Can you plan to give yourself time off for good behavior?  How about this coming Sunday?  And have I got a great recommendation for a bit of Sunday reading. 

“My prayer is that this book becomes a companion for you,” Oprah shares with us. “That at any point in your own lifelong adventure, you’ll be able to open The Wisdom of Sundays and find—as I do in the cherished books on my bedside table—just the right words of comfort and clarity. 

“What I know for sure: Your soul is as unique as your fingerprint. Finding its truest expression is a forever exploration. And sometimes it helps to have a wise and trusted friend along for the ride.”

Sending dearest love and blessings on our courage, XO SBB

Getting Through the Getting Over It

Part of getting over it is knowing that you will never get over it.  

 -    Anne Finger ("Past Due," 1990)

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“What were they thinking?” is a favorite magazine and tabloid newspaper heading often used as a commentary over funny or bizarre photographs.  But frequently when I think of the Swell Dames that I admire, I find myself wondering the same thing. What were they thinking? And what were they feeling as they faced the challenges, crossroads and choices that ultimately changed and shaped the trajectory of their lives?  

Were they preparing dinner when their lover walked into the kitchen and said, “We need to talk”?  Did their knees buckle when they realized that everything they’d worked for their entire lives was wiped out in a day because they trusted a con man, their own husband?  What were they feeling as they watched their dream house float down the street in a once in a thousand year flood?  After Noah’s Ark, God promised never to destroy the world again with water.  Just don’t try “comforting” a woman from Texas or Florida right now with that biblical reference. Better yet, say nothing other than a prayer for what they are enduring, offer gratitude that you’re not and make a donation to the Red Cross.

Because there are no words when sorrow slaps you senseless with a sucker punch.  There’s no self-help mantra, nor belief big enough to surmount the anguish at this moment.  When the day after tomorrow arrives at each of our doors, and it will, there’s no metaphysical “Secret” on earth to help you come to grips with the unfathomable.  All we know is that we are shocked, stunned, hurt, grieving, and groping with too many unknowns to consider and too many contingencies to handle.

“There was a time when my life seems so painful to me that reading about the lives of other women writers was one of the few things that could help.  I was unhappy, and ashamed of it; I was baffled by my life,” Kennedy Fraser admits in her luminous collection of essays on women’s lives, Ornament and Silence.  “Even now, I feel I should pretend that I was reading only these women’s fiction or their poetry—their lives as they chose to present them, alchemized as art.  But that would be a lie. It was the private messages I really liked—the journals and letters, and autobiographies and biographies whenever they seemed to be telling the truth.  I felt very lonely then, self-absorbed, shut off.  I needed all this murmured chorus, this continuum of true life stories, to pull me through.  They were like mothers or sisters to me, these literary women, many of them already dead; more than my own family, they seemed to stretch out a hand.”

This summer, in a season when I was supposed to be preparing to move by winnowing out my belongings and books to pack, I seem to have done the exact reverse:  accumulate new ones.  Or I’ll pull out books from packed boxes that I forgot I even had. “Oh, that never should have been packed,” I’ll admonish the cats dozing on the boxes. I don’t know when I was planning to have time to read them all because I will be moving.  Perhaps the real reason for this new cache is because I’m trying to reassure myself that there are plenty of women I admire who experienced the getting through the getting over stage of grief and change.   “See,” I brace myself as I add another memoir to my stack of resilience, “You will, too.”

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Unacknowledged grief demands that attention must be paid to its sorrow. However long it takes and at the most inconvenient times. But we will pay attention. It seems that writing my remembrance on Princess Diana’s death last week opened up an old wound, which I erroneously believed had been covered with scar tissue for the last decade.  You see, I’d not made the connection between being in England to cover Diana’s funeral and the finding and buying of Sir Isaac Newton’s private chapel only a few days later, or at least I hadn't thought of those threads in a very long time.   And this is how the dominoes fall:  if I’d never gone to London to cover the funeral, I never would have taken a few extra days to visit Sir Isaac Newton’s private Chapel, which was for sale.  If I’d never bought the Chapel, I never would have … there’s no happy ending at the end of this paragraph, so I won't go on.  But the cause and effect chain reaction doesn’t need to be great to wreak serious damage.  Did you know that just 29 dominoes could knock down the Empire State Building? (Thank you www.smithsonian.com)

And that is where my own Swell Dame found me to have a little chat. Setting the dominoes up.  It went something like this.  You will never get over losing Newton’s Chapel. Eve never got over losing Eden.  But the only way you can move to the future is by being grateful that you once lived in Paradise and you created a beautiful Home there. The dream of Newton’s Chapel is your dream of home.  You can create a new home for us.  I’ll help you. There are some things we are not meant to get over. Sometimes we hold on to the grief of the Past because it’s the only way we know how to hold on to the ashes of Love.  

That’s why I writing to you this week because I’m sure I’m not the only woman who’s shut herself down in order to shut her inconvenient emotions off from whatever we can’t face or accept just yet. I’d not even let myself cry really because I was afraid that once I started I wouldn’t be able to stop.  But the Compassionate One has already intervened on our behalf. The Talmud tells us “Even when the gates of Heaven are closed to prayers, they are open to tears.”  Far from being self-indulgent, crying is an ancient form of articulated prayer.  In Catholic and Eastern Orthodox religions, tears have always been a special gift of the Holy Spirit; in the Hebrew Old Testament, an entire book of the Bible is devoted to crying—the Book of Lamentations.

For centuries in the west of Gaelic-speaking Ireland, particularly in Connemara, certain women, wise in the ways of the supernatural or “other” realms were taught the proper way to grieve with sound, or keen, which is a long, high-pitched wail of abandonment and grief strong enough to shatter glass.  The language of keening is the passionate calling forth of exactly what it is that you dread and fear, to rise up and meet you face-to-face on the scorched battlefield of your devastated heart.  The sob is the soul’s sacred battle cry for the Beloved to intervene, to help, to have mercy, to deliver you. To carry you off the battlefield. To bring you Home.

Keening women in "The Aran Fisherman's Drowned Child" by Frederick William Burton

Keening women in "The Aran Fisherman's Drowned Child" by Frederick William Burton

To keen is to embrace those emotions too deep and too dark for words, struggling now for some, any form of expression.  To let the sound of sorrow and waves of grief pass through you, picking up tempo and timbre as you go, is like breath on the reed of a woodwind or strings of a violin.  To truly cry takes tremendous courage.  A fiery anger wrestles in the pit of your gut; the despair catches in your throat; the fierce loneliness of the iron band of sorrow tightens across your chest.

Many of us resist the sacred relief of crying because the truth is, the act of crying physically hurts. Heartache is real.  But we must trust that it hurts for a reason.  We feel so alone.  Bereft. We can’t go on we tell ourselves.  But we must go on, we must take the next step, any step. Fill an empty box with your cherished books. For the love of all that is holy, do you really believe that God would leave us alone at such a moment? I don’t.  I won’t and you can’t either. Because how else could we go on?  And go on, we must.  But I’ll never hush you, Sweetheart. I’d rather you howl at the moon.  Heaven knows that I have.

Women had a lot to cry about during the Depression and the Home Front years.  Keeping bodies and souls together with a continuous feed of courageous optimism and cheerful vivacity was considered vital to morale.  Women’s magazines of this era acknowledged and provided regular remedies to soothe red faces and swollen eyes after having “a good cry.”

Here’s my favorite homemade après-crisis restorative.  It calls for items you probably have in your refrigerator and cupboard—a cucumber-and-chamomile-tea rinse for the face that I call:

Sweet Mercy Medicinal

½ cucumber, peeled and seeded

¼ cup hot, prepared green tea

¼ cup hot, prepared chamomile tea

Puree the cucumber in a blender and strain the juice.  Mix the teas together and add the cucumber juice.  Stir well and refrigerate for at least half an hour.  This mixture will keep a day or two in the fridge.  If you’ve been crying on and off, dab your face with some, rinse with cool water, and then pat your face dry with your softest towel.

Also have on hand a pitcher of water with cucumber slices and drink from it frequently.  Often when we’re emotionally distressed and wrung-out, we forget to do things as simple as sipping water while we slosh back the wine and whiskey.  Reach for the water first, because dehydration can make you swoon.

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears,” Charles Dickens wrote in Great Expectations (1860), “for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.”

Sending my dearest love and blessings on your courage, more than words can ever say,

XO SBB

Total Eclipse of the Heart: Remembering Princess Diana

‘When [she] shall die, take her and cut her into tiny stars and she shall make the face of Heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”

                               Romeo and Juliet (Act 3, Scene 2) William Shakespeare

Photo by Mario Testino

Photo by Mario Testino

This week is the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s sudden, unexpected and tragic death. There have been seemingly endless documentaries attempting to finally “tell the truth” about her life and whether they have achieved that I'm not certain, but what is true, is that Diana’s story was and still is, the story of our lives.  

Every woman’s life.

While 20 years ago there may have been mystery about the sources of Diana’s deep depression and personal misery until she had the courage to stand up for herself and reveal the cracks behind the perfect Royal façade, the real enigma is how she was able to transform that pain with her grace, grit and gumption. Princess Diana showed us with her inimitable compassion, courage, charm, sense of duty, style, beauty and kindness how to go on and begin again when real life does not turn out the way we dreamed it would be, especially if you marry Prince Charming.  

However, after two decades, one’s past life shifts from the personal to the historical, if it is remembered at all; and the private struggles and challenges faced and overcome become footnotes in biographies, tell-all memoirs, documentaries, films and ancestral research instead of personal recollection.  With the generational gap, we forget that before someone becomes an icon, she was flesh and bone, tears and fears. The Google generation can gather facts and juicy bits about Princess Diana’s brief, glittering, flawed and dramatic life.  However, regrettably they will never know or understand why Diana was such a powerful, glimmering Star in the Divine feminine firmament, a woman who became a legend in her own time by revealing her personal vulnerability until it became her greatest strength.

“Twenty years after her death we miss her more than ever.  In a world torn by conflict and blame, there’s still a yawning gap, a public wound that continues to speak to her absence.  So deep was the bond of compassion she forged with her admirers that her death in August 1997 at the age of 36 was a universal bereavement—one that no one who experienced those days will ever forget.” Tina Brown observes in Remembering Diana. “With the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, the wrong perpetrated on the young Diana by the crown seems unconscionable. They gaslighted her, and they isolated her…Worse, they were jealous…[But] pain made her luminous. She sublimated her lovelessness into acts of humanitarian leadership boosting the efforts of the Red Cross, advocating for others with eating disorders, and ministering to the homeless, to orphans, to AIDS patients, and to the disabled.  Charles’s circle mocked her ‘saintly’ acts as self-promotion—but none who experience Diana’s natural wells of kindness ever forgot how it felt.  Her compassion was real, and the realization of how much her outreach could matter to those she touched gave her a purpose that now propelled her life.”

Until suddenly, without warning, it was over.  Just as she was reaching for another chance at happiness, she was snatched away.      

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Like other shocking events, such as the assignation of John F. Kennedy and 9/11 or news of personal tragedy, our minds instantly rewind back to the ordinary moment before our hearts froze with fear and we were sent reeling with the news. “Have you ever thought when something dreadful happens, a moment ago things were not like this; let it be then not now anything but now? The English novelist Mary Stewart asks.  “And you try and try to remake then, but you know you can’t.  So you try to hold the moment quiet still and not let it move on and show itself.’

My daughter and I were in Aspen, just finishing a group vacation over Labor Day, 1997. That Saturday night, the grown-ups went out to dinner and left the teenagers to babysit.  When we returned shortly after midnight, all the children and teens were crying. Back then, there were no smartphones, Facebook and Twitter so the children had been anxiously waiting for us to come home to share the terrible news together.  

“Oh, Mom, Princess Diana has died!”  

We were stunned. When? How? Where? On the television ashen faced BBC broadcasters were trying their best to deliver the heartbreaking announcement as calmly as possible.  But no matter how it was articulated, it was impossible to process how the most famous woman in the world could die so needlessly and so tragically in a violent car crash in a Paris tunnel relentlessly pursued by the paparazzi.  There were simply no words to express or console.  No explanation, no reasoning, no belief big enough to surmount the unfathomable. Where was her protection detail? Oh, that’s right, it was taken away from her after the Royal Divorce.  Then where, for the love of all that’s holy, was Heaven? How could a universal Light so bright be snuffed out, “like a candle in the wind,” as Elton John would sing at her funeral a week later.   We now know her last words were: “My God, what’s happened…?” Yes, My God, what did happened? The shock was so staggering and unexpected and so wrong that the world was suddenly catapulted into the anguished realm of the unspeakable.

Photo by Mario Testino

Photo by Mario Testino

Like many women around the world, I loved and admired Diana. How could you not?  I remember dragging myself out of bed in the wee hours of the morning with a cup of tea and a comforter to the couch in July 1981 mesmerized by her romantic fairy tale nuptials.  Lady Diana Spencer was only 19 years and truly the blushing bride when she emerged from the gold and glass carriage, all incandescent innocence. Her beaming radiance beneath her sparking veil bespoke happily ever after. Her beautiful voluminous silk taffeta and lace dress complete with a 25 foot train took the world’s collective breath away,  as she walked down the red carpet of St. Paul’s Cathedral on her proud father’s arm to her Prince Charming.  As the Archbishop of Canterbury said as they made their vows, “Here is the stuff of which fairy tales are made.”

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Certainly, especially if the fairy tale was written by the Brothers Grimm.  Did you know that fairy tales were originally meant to scare and frightened little children?  They were cautionary tales on how to stay safe in this cruel and dangerous world.  And Princess Diana’s fairy tale was a perfect fit for a handmaiden’s tale. She was young, a virgin, and selected for her breeding, “a brood mare” to produce a royal heir and a spare. While she was desperately in love with Prince Charles, he was pressured to do his duty and get married. Later, in her own words and voice she would say, “I was the sacrificial lamb.”  But on that day, her heart was filled with love, hope and trust.  And so were ours for her.

Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their wedding day.

Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their wedding day.

I experienced Diana’s death in a very unexpected and surreal unfolding which ended up profoundly changing the trajectory of my life. I’ve never recounted the story before as it occurred but I’ve been mulling it over for years. 

On Thursday afternoon, September 4th at 3:45 pm, my agent telephoned me and asked if I had plans for the weekend.  Since I was on deadline for Something More, I had only planned to be writing. 

People Magazine just called and asked if you’d be a Special Correspondent covering the funeral.”  

I was flabbergasted. “Why?”

“They want you to finds ‘lessons from the princess’s vibrant life and wrenching death.”  Huh?

The next thing I remember, Kate was helping me pack. We threw everything black into a suitcase.  A car was waiting to take me to Dulles airport and four hours later I got the last seat on the last flight from the U.S. to London before the funeral.

When I arrived in the U.K. on Friday morning, after I checked into what I was told was the last hotel room in London, I immediately went to People’s London office and was given the assignment to mingle with the people on the street, not as a member of the media but as another mourner.  I was to walk between the three royal palaces—St. James, Kensington and Buckingham which were now linked by an ocean of flowers.

An aerial view of the flowers left before Diana's funeral.

An aerial view of the flowers left before Diana's funeral.

What I didn’t realize until later was there had been much public anger, first with the press who the public blamed for the Princess’s death, and now the Royal Family who had remained silent and out-of-sight at Balmoral in Scotland.

I remember vividly that London was very hot and the first thing you noticed was the scent of the flowers. An aroma that enveloped you like a hug from an rich aunt who was drenched in too much expensive scent. The fragrance was heavy, humid and mixed with the warmth from the bodies of thousands of people lining every available space. An ocean of saltwater tears were shed on those streets. I’d never seen so many people in my life milling about. There were thousands of people walking or huddled in small groups, families holding hands, pushing baby strollers or walking slowly, helping elderly members with walkers or canes. Later police would say there were over a million people there. Everyone was crying, hugging, saying prayers; there was no pushing or shoving as you might expect in such a large crowd. Everyone waited their turn to lay down their remembrance and everyone was carrying flowers.  

Floral tributes and balloons laid in the gardens of Kensington Palace.

Floral tributes and balloons laid in the gardens of Kensington Palace.

In England and the continent when you buy a bouquet, it’s always wrapped in cellophane, and so, the people’s memorial was a sea of cellophane, along with stuffed teddy bears, balloons, pictures and personal notes.  All the shop windows had been dressed in black crepe, or displayed portraits of Princess Diana and lovely bouquets of flowers.  Most shops were closed, except the chemists, food stores, newsstands and of course, florists. But the shop assistants, like their customers, cried openly and didn’t try to conceal their grief which was raw, powerful and came in waves.   The veneer of the stiff upper lip, stoic Brits was completely washed away by a tsunami of anguish that moved from one person to the next.  Complete strangers were consoling each other and waiting. Waiting for something, even if they didn’t know what exactly they were waiting for.  Perhaps it was, as one tabloid headline screamed next to a picture of the Queen:  SHOW US YOU CARE!

On Friday afternoon, finally the Queen and Prince Philip arrived back at Buckingham Palace. There had been so much anger at the Royal Family in both Diana’s life and now death, no one knew how the people would react.  But the Queen’s car stopped before the Palace gates and she tentatively walked up to the crowds accepting bouquets to place at the flower memorials.  Later that afternoon the Queen would give a live televised speech which was only the second time in fifty years she had done so. In it she would express her sorrow as a grandmother and explain the family's retreat— that she and her family were trying to take care of the children who had just lost their mother.  

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip survey the tributes to Diana.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip survey the tributes to Diana.

After her broadcast, I went back to my hotel and fell asleep.  I needed to be up at 4 am and go to Hyde Park and cover the funeral procession and ceremony in Westminster Abbey.  There were over 100,000 people camped inside the Park in tents and sleeping bags.  Giant screens, the kind used for rock concerts and sporting events had been erected, along with speakers along the funeral route, so that the ceremonies could be televised.

Saturday morning when I arrived at Hyde Park before dawn, there were thousands of little candles flickering in the morning mist.  A profound sense of quiet grief hovered in the air.  You know how you feel after you’ve had a long, hard cry, and it literally hurts to breathe?  That is what it felt like.  An exhausted public waiting to say goodbye to a woman they adored. At 9:08 AM, the first tolling of the bell rang and continued on, every minute during the entire, slow, two-hour procession from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey .  That bell, the horses hooves, the carriage wheels, and stillness. No birds, no planes, no traffic.  

And then when her coffin finally came into view the wailing began:  “Diana, we love you Darling.”

There were many heart-breaking, hushed moments, the memory of which twenty years later are still unbearable—  Diana’s young sons, William and Harry, their heads bowed, walking behind their mother’s coffin. The grim faces of their father, grandfather and uncle. The card on the coffin which read “Mummy.” The heavy load on the shoulders of the young Welsh Guards as they took the weight of the lead lined, oak coffin, and carried the Princess into the Abbey.

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And then, the surprising eulogy from Princess Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer which began “I stand before you today, the representative of a family in grief, in a country in mourning before a world in shock.”  He would go on to say, what all the people had been saying to each other, what everyone knew and why everyone grieved, not just for her loss, but because she did not know how much we loved her.  And when he finished the people stood up in Hyde Park as I did and began to clap in thunderous applause for at least ten minutes.  I had never heard clapping at a funeral before, but it was the most fitting gesture of love and it spread throughout London into Westminster Abbey on waves of sound. And after all this was done, I went back to my hotel room to write the most important assignment I’d ever been given. Twelve hours later I filed it.  It appeared in People on September 22, 1997.  Twenty years later, I still feel the same way.  I guess I did learn a heartfelt lesson afterall.

Swept along by the crowds—feeling less a member of the media than a mourner among her masses—there’s not a doubt in my mind that this glorious woman, so adored and admired for her beauty, style, devotion, sense of honor, conviction and compassion, was deeply, passionately and, in the end, unconditionally loved.  But the tears I shed for her come from a harrowing sense that Diana never realized the depth of love the world held for her.  We were too stingy with our praise and thanksgiving, too generous with our disdain and criticism.

And though many people surely tried to express their gratitude to her in kind and thoughtful ways, how could Diana have understood the impact that her cuddling a child dying of AIDS or her shaking a leper’s hand had on millions of people around the world? The hidden sorrow of Diana’s death is the mystery of how a woman who sought nothing more than the rest of us do—caring, communication, companionship, connection, commitment—spent nearly her entire adult life lonely, isolated, harassed, blinded by the harsh glare of flashbulbs, public opinion and our insatiable need to live vicariously. A note with a small bouquet of flowers picked from a garden read, “We didn’t deserve you.”  I agree.

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Many misguided individuals spend their lives seeking celebrity only to discover, when they achieve it, that the more public their persona, the more isolated they feel.  Inevitably their circle of intimates must shrink for their own sanity and protection.  Isolation is one of fame’s more uncomfortable footnotes.  Often in the rush to live Technicolor lives, we forget to read the fine print.  Stop wishing this instant to be living anybody else’s life.  As Diana taught us so tragically, life is too short not to start living it.

Now, I don’t believe Diana sought celebrity; she just made a bad choice before she was 20 and got trapped in the most unfortunate of webs.  By the time your celebrity lands you on the cover of PEOPLE—and Diana graced it more than any other person—you’re lucky if you have one or two confidantes in the world you can call at 2 a.m. when you can’t get out of your hotel without being chased by the paparazzi.  Is that how you’d like to live?  Me neither.  And while accolades, acclaim and awards are often agreeable fellows to have a drink with, they make lousy dinner partners. Their conversation rarely moves past small talk.  

Outside Westminster Abbey, a hairstylist in her 20s confessed to me that she and her friends felt a bit guilty about Princess Diana’s death, because “we all did want to read about her, didn’t we?”  And we did, myself included, which in the end is why she died at 36-years-old. Let’s face it:  Reading about someone larger than life is much easier than investing the time, creative energy and emotion it takes to make our own lives fulfilling.  

Passion is color; most of us live in black and white.  For me, Diana’s great gift was that she was willing to embrace her passion, to attempt to live authentically.  The lesson she taught us is how to live.  She lived at full throttle while most of us go about our lives as if we’re on life support.  Every choice Diana made, right or wrong, she made with a beating pulse; the rest of us play it so safe that we don’t even realize we risk everything by failing to take risks.  Sure, that’s a paradox; living is a paradox.

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Somewhere during her difficult journey, a princess in pain realized she could no longer deny her passion.  If Diana’s death imparts only one lesson, it is that passion is holy, to be embraced, even as we tremble in fear that love will hurt us.  As, of course, it will.  Her extraordinary, courageous and authentic life is a powerful reminder that we are conceived in passion, born in passion and often die in passion, whether it is in a hospital bed or in the backseat of a speeding car, trying to outrun destiny.

As beautiful as Diana’s send-off was, it was still a parting, and there is nothing good about saying goodbye to someone you love and nothing fair about saying farewell to one taken away too soon.  At the end of the day—or the end of a life—all that we have is ourselves and each other.  All that has ever mattered and all that will ever matter is one question:  Did we love ourselves and each other deeply, passionately, unconditionally?  Diana did.  I don’t know about you, but I think it would be miraculous if, when I die, someone writes, “The only pain she ever caused was when she left us.”  Now there’s a celebrity worth pursuing.

There is a story that says the gates of Heaven are guarded by a fierce angel brandishing a sword.  When we arrive at the gates, we are told that only those who life was pierced by the sword of love are allowed entry into paradise.  Was yours?  The gates were wide open for Diana, Princess of Wales.

Blessings on your courage, Diana.  

With dearest love and deepest gratitude,

SBB

How a Good Girl Goes Bad

August is a wicked month.
                                 --Edna O’Brien

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Reckless, wanton, sultry, too hot to handle. August is breathing down our necks and it’s not even noon.  Hold it right there.  When it’s 100 degrees in the shade and the heat shimmers off the blacktop, Babes turn bad, if they know what’s good for them.


“Bad girls make it happen.  A bad girl knows what she wants and how to get it.  She makes her own rules, makes her own way and makes no apologies.  She knows when to work a room, when to work the angles and when to work her curves or do all of the above,” Cameron Tuttle tells us in her cheeky Bad Girl Guide series.  “She’s attitude in overdrive, coast-to-coast confidence and fast-forward fun.  She’s your boldest dreams and your inner wild.  A bad girl is you at your best—whoever you are, whatever your style.”


And whatever your age.  That’s because “once you light your badness fuse, you’ll start to hear the muse—that sassy little voice inside your head reminding you to go for it [and] trust your instincts…”  Those of you who’ve read Simple Abundance know of my deep admiration for the bad girl in all of us (November 22).  “There are no good girls gone wrong,” Mae West confides.  “Just bad girls found out. “  Unfortunately, for too many of us, our Bad Girls stay in the closet in all their dazzling spandex splendor.  That’s because we often confuse bad girls with the archetypal feminine shadow—the brazen hussy.  The bitch.  The witch.  Strumpet, wench, trollop, tart, floozy, nympho, hooker, libertine.


Yes, historically that is what men have called women who rule, women they couldn’t control, and the women of rock and roll.  I call her our Swell Dame.  “Great women throughout history were bad girls.  They were passionate about what they wanted.  They were dreamers, risk-takers, and visionaries who defied the norm of their times,” Tuttle points out.  “They didn’t conform and they didn’t take no for an answer.  They weren’t afraid to break the rules or scare the hell out men to get what they wanted.  You don’t have to change the world to find your badness.  But you’ll definitely change yours.”

Maire Curie was long considered a "bad girl".

Maire Curie was long considered a "bad girl".

When I think of my inner bad girl I think of “The First of Her Name” and “The Princess That Was Promised,” my personal icon Khaleeshi, the Mother of Dragons:  Daenerys Stormborn, as she was called for she “had come howling into the world in the greatest storm in the memory of Westeros; a storm so fierce that it ripped gargoyles from the castle walls and smashed her father’s fleet to kindling.”  Not a bad beginning for any woman destined to change not just world, but worlds.

Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones

Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones

As a “good girl” who grew up to be a well-behaved woman, I’ve tried to bury my passion for most of my life.  But when a “good” woman snuffs out the spark of wildness she was born with, the very nature she’s been endowed with as a blessing to keep her not just alive, not just surviving, but thriving, she turns her passion inwards and ends up “dead” in some sense, whether it’s through chronic depression, cringe worthy choices, debilitating illness, addiction, or by desperate measures, such as driving off a cliff.  A woman shouldn’t need to be diagnosed with breast cancer to take up mountain climbing or landscape design.  Nor should she find it necessary to pretend she’s having a root canal in order to get a haircut.  However, speaking personally, I’ve known one too many women who have done just that.


Perhaps we need to reconsider our “concept” of exactly what makes a Bad Girl.  Cameron Tuttle suggests we consider “Cleopatra cruising the Nile…Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin…Rosa Parks in the front of the buss… Miss Piggy hitting the high notes… Aretha Franklin getting some respect… Tina Turner strutting her stuff…”


How about Katniss Everdeen?  Or Lucy from Peanuts?  The turn of the century rebel rouser from Nova Scotia, Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables who confesses hopefully for all of us: “It’s so easy to be wicked without knowing it, isn’t it.”  Gee, I wish I could at least try.
Personally my favorite Bad Girl is Tinker Bell.  This Babe was so bad, she’d just fall down, hold her breath and pretend to be dead until she got her way.  Jane Austen?  One of the most subversive women ever to lift a pen: “I always deserve the best treatment because I never put up with any other.”

Tinkerbell in Peter Pan

Tinkerbell in Peter Pan

What about Marilyn Monroe?  Granted she remains the greatest sex symbol there ever was, but regrettably she wasn’t a Bad Girl.  She just wanted to be.  Really Bad Girls might wear only Chanel No. 5 to bed, but their survival instincts are powerful and admirable.
Still, for women of any age, whose deepest, unarticulated fear is that someday we will end up alone, friendless, homeless and on the street, the dark shadow of the fallen woman is menacing.   “The word shadow itself suggests a dark, secretive, possibly malevolent countenance that looms in in the background of our nature, ready to do harm to others as well as to ourselves,” the brilliant writer and pioneer in spiritual energy medicine, Carolyn Myss, explains in her book Sacred Contracts:  Awaking Your Divine Potential.   However, “a much more appropriate understanding of the shadow aspects” of our personalities is “that represent the part of our being that is the least familiar part of ourselves.”


And for too many women the least familiar part of ourselves is the girl who just wants to have fun.  It’s quite illuminating when you make the discovery that often that women call the search for true love really turns out to be the suppressed hankering to do something that she loves.  It’s not another person.  It’s something that makes her feel alive and joyful.  I’ve rarely had as much joy in my life as the weekend I spent learning on the job how to midwife 200 rare breed pregnant ewes by doing it, rubber gloves up to my shoulders.  Four days and 80 newborn lambs later, I could barely move and spent two days sleeping.  But it was the best sleep I’d had since the night after I gave birth to my own beautiful lamb, my daughter.  There’s a soulful connection there and as Heaven is my witness I’m going to find and make it again.


“Do you have the idea that it’s unladylike to want.  Snap out of it!" Cameron Tuttle urges us. “Don’t be afraid to want things, to yearn, crave or lust for anything.  And don’t be afraid to go after what you want.  If you can’t satisfy yourself, then how can you expect anyone else to satisfy you?”

 
In a note from my dearly beloved and sorely missed friend, the late Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, he urged me to let loose the “natural wildness, wisdom and devilment of your soul” so that “the Great Spirit can grant you the deepest desires of your heart.”  That’s where my personal journey needs to begin and it’s about time I start over. What about you?  Sounds like just the nudge I need to go see the new movie “Wonder Woman.”


Sending you dearest love and encouragement to the girl who truly loves you, Babe.  Just look over your shoulder. She’s great fun to be around.  I do hope we can all become acquainted with her this wicked month.  Let’s give August something to talk about!
Blessings on your courage,

XO SBB

Secret Anniversaries of the Heart

The holiest of all holidays are those
kept by ourselves in silence and apart,
the secret anniversaries of the heart…

-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“There are days of oldness, and then one gets young again,” the writer Katharine Butler Hathaway observed in 1930.  “It goes backward and forward, not in one direction.”  She was musing I think, not about the circuitous passage of time, but of memory.

June is the month of secret anniversaries of the heart for me. (I wrote about them on June 15th in Simple Abundance.)  Many June memories involved summer pastimes I enjoyed as a little girl— summer theater performed on the patio while the grown-ups sipped their cocktails, the tinkling of the ice cubes along with the applause; pony rides, the splash of water at a pool or the gleeful dash through the sprinkler on the lawn.  Followed in rapid succession by the indelible memories of June with my own little girl. Midsummer’s Night Eve and preparing a tea party for the fairies; then the excitement of running into the backyard the next morning and finding presents suspended in colorful netting and ribbons.   

This week I was doing errands and passed a large middle school where all the families were having their own picnics in small clusters of happiness.  Suddenly, a big sigh of recognition emerged from my heart: “O look, it’s the end of year picnic. I always loved the end of school picnics.”  In a moment I was back in Takoma Park, picking up the best tuna sandwiches in the whole world, brownies and mini fruit tarts at “Everyday Gourmet” to take to the Washington Waldorf School for the last day of school and our collective summer picnic on the playing field.  
Secret anniversaries often reveal in mystical ways, our place in the world and our sacred connections. They can be joyful or sad or, surprisingly, both at the same time; major turning points or minor epiphanies.  You might remember the day you got your first position after years of study, received a special love letter or sent your child off for his first overnight camp, as suddenly a sentimental potpourri of fresh air, pine needles, calamine lotion, roasted marshmallows and ghost stories around a blazing campfire overtakes you as you fold his beloved but ratty T-shirts from the dryer. He’s 30 now and just came for a visit, so where did that swoosh of memory come from?

Or you might recall a painful loss you can’t share with others; the due date of a baby who was never born, a long-standing breech with a friend; or a precious pet’s passing.  The way the garden withered on the vine when your husband of thirty years told you casually one night, as you prepared his drink, that there was someone else taking over your position.  Sometimes it takes long years to recognize the importance of such secret anniversaries—or to even know that you have one to acknowledge or commemorate with a silent pause and prayer, so that the past can move on with dignity. The Past asks only to be remembered.  The Past wants us to move on more than the Present can ever imagine, because until it does, we can’t have the Future that’s waiting to unfold. The sacred contract and prime directive of the Past is to get you to your Future.

Our senses are the conduits of these soul memories.  The song does remember when, as do the lilacs that bloomed every spring on your mother’s dressing table among the crystal bottles of fragrance and the soft light behind billowing organza curtains; the old baseball glove; the sheer ecstasy of the outside shower at your best friend’s beach house in Rehoboth Beach; Nana’s potato salad and the sour cherry pie from the farmer’s market.  The cat collar, his favorite blanket, the fossilized Binky in the kitchen junk drawer along with the corn cob pigs, the random Christmas ornament found behind the couch.  These things matter—they are the soul’s touchstones of truth; memento mori (translated from the Latin “Remember that you will Die” but more importantly, “Remember to Live.”) Babe, it’s taken me my entire life to understand that we can’t receive the blessing or the bounty if we’re not willing to acknowledge the benediction hidden behind every letting go.  If I can cut you a little slack from the cosmic curriculum to speed your journey, please tag along.

Our senses are spiritual code breakers ready to reveal what’s been pushed down or hidden from view as we stumble through our days; exhausted by the frenetic pace and sheer expense of time,  exertion, creative energy and emotion required to just make it through our daily round. Technology has run roughshod over our lives.  Which do we pay attention to first; the text, the call we’re on or the one on call waiting?  Maybe it’s the email or the beep from our new smart watch.  Each encounter brings with it a sense of false urgency.  Yes, I realize that instant communication is a critical component in our world and change is life’s only constant. But secret anniversaries of the heart are ancient, primal pathways sent to lead us to make connections more powerful than we can even imagine.  There’s a TED talk waiting to happen.  

Sometimes we dismiss the tugs of recollection as sentimental, unpractical or unimportant.  Unruly.  You might be blindsided by the green bud that astonishingly sprouts on a dead rosebush you began watering “just to see” what might happen. We often confuse the dormant with the dead; we’d like to be rid of painful memories and “move on” before the memories are ready to bid us adieu and depart on their own.   But honoring the personal passages that altered the trajectory of our lives (especially if we are the only one who does remember) is how we grow, change and eventually heal.  We find the strength to continue on our journey to Wholeness with morsels of our soul’s manna: remembrance.

As Amy Tan suggests in her novel The Joy Luck Club, “I can never remember things I didn’t understand in the first place.”  Perhaps this is true for all of us and our secret anniversaries of the heart are meant to be our spiritual go-between, messengers of understanding sent to nudge us two steps back so that we’re at the right time and the right place for the next giant leap forward. 

Sending dearest love and always, blessings on your courage. XO SBB

PS - The photographs for this musing are from my collection of an English woman’s life from the turn of the century through 1950. Her name was Iseult and she always referred to herself as “Self”, which poignantly moves me because women never put themselves into the complete picture of their own lives, so it would seem. But her beautiful smile and joie de vivre express the “authentic self” perfectly for me and remains a source of continuing inspiration.  I hope you enjoy her happiness as a reminder to gently get yourself back into your own life!

Cultivating a Secret Garden

I am sure there is Magic in everything, 
only we have not sense enough to get hold of it
and make it do things for us.

 -- Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden, 1911)

Photo by Chloe LKB

Photo by Chloe LKB

When I lived outside of Washington, D.C. during the eighties, I had a secret garden, which I shared with the Episcopal Bishop at the Washington Cathedral.  Known as “The Bishop’s Garden,” it was a walled combination of an herb and rose garden, which you entered by pushing a heavy wooden door through a stone arch.  Although it was a “public” garden, I rarely encountered another soul there.  Throughout the spring and autumn I would frequently enjoy a writing picnic lunch before the afternoon car pool.

Twenty years later I would live in Newton’s Chapel, surrounded by a wall and a gate and a beautiful garden.  I don’t have to wonder if my visualizing The Bishop’s Garden, which was such a part of my daily meditation during the long writing of Simple Abundance, eventually led to my own secret garden.  I don’t have to wonder because I know.  

My Newton's Chapel garden

My Newton's Chapel garden

However, when we have endured unexpected but very real seasons of sorrow, worry and unanswered prayer, our state of belief becomes very fragile and our imagination is choked off. That’s why I wanted to revisit the Simple Abundance meditation for June 20th “Secret Gardens.”

I’ve always found the backstories of writers so fascinating, that’s why I call this blog “Between the Lines.” Every writer lives in between the lines of their lives, especially if their work has met with some success.  

The backstory of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s creation of The Secret Garden long after she had to abandon the English sanctuary she had so loved and rescued at Great Maytham Hall on the Kent seaside in the twilight of the Victorian era, is a powerful and poignant personal story for me. 

It was 1898 and finally, after years of magazine serial writing and children’s stories and a difficult, struggling decade which included poverty, the death of a child, a nervous breakdown, a long-standing marriage ending in divorce and a tumultuous second marriage to a scoundrel young enough to be her son, Frances had an unexpected hit on her hands with Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886).  Suddenly the money started rolling in and the Little Lord Fauntleroy “brand” became one of the first examples of a successful product extension based on a book.  There were toys, games, a clothing line, plays, sequels, and eventually when Hollywood could catch up, movies.  Imagine Harry Potter and the celebrity of J.K. Rowling without the internet.

Frances Hodgson Burnett

Frances Hodgson Burnett

But even back then, with an international best-seller came public fervor, professional demands, lack of privacy and increased scrutiny. Discouraged and shocked because of the public outcry over her divorce and remarriage to an actor, (which she knew was a mistake as soon as she said “I do,”) she needed a quiet place to beat a retreat, collect herself and rebuild her life.  She was a bundle of nerves, deeply depressed and unknowingly ill with the early stages of tuberculosis.  She had no strength and breathed with difficulty.  She wanted to sleep around the clock, just as her publisher was demanding more of her.  Since Frances was the sole support of an entire retinue of people, it seemed she had no choice but to go on.  And so she retreated to the mild Southern English seaside of Kent.

Although eight miles from the coast, you can practically hear the waves beating against the shore at Great Maytham Hall, a giant wreck of an imposing Georgian house, which was just about caving in on its knees when Frances rented it.  There were a series of walled gardens she was told, but the outdoor space had become so overgrown it resembled Sleeping Beauty’s castle which had been asleep for a hundred years.  Frances’s future and the world’s “Secret Garden” was so overgrown and covered in thick and thorny vines, it couldn’t even be seen.

Have you ever known the feeling of really being burned out?  When you’re so exhausted that just the thought of going downstairs to make yourself a cup of tea requires the effort and strength of mountain climber? That’s how spent Frances felt. But every morning outside her bedroom window a robin sang on a branch.  Frances soon found her curiosity aroused, and then slowly her physical energy increased until she found the strength to take walks outside, and then the strength to pull back and cut away the dead growth of what had once been a garden. Next, she discovered a heavy wooden door and pushed her way through it to what would become her private outdoor sacred sanctuary.  Step by step, day by day. Eventually she transformed the rose garden by planting over three hundred coral pink rose bushes and ramblers.

Here Frances spent contented days, alternating between gardening and writing, shadowed by a large floral Japanese parasol.  On chilly days she would wrap herself in a large lap rug and only retreat to the Hall when she was forced to.  Over the next nine happy years she would write three more books and a play.  But in 1907 her lease at Great Maytham Hall was not renewed and heartbroken, she returned to America.  Immediately she started planning and planting a replica rose garden on Long Island, but more importantly, she began work on what would become her most renowned accomplishment, The Secret Garden published in 1911.

Great Maytham Hall

Great Maytham Hall

The Secret Garden is the story of the redemption of two miserable, lonely children, a sick boy and an orphaned girl, who are encouraged and nurtured by Mother Nature to bring back to life an abandoned overgrown garden hidden behind stone walls.  Its miraculous revival becomes an inspiring metaphor for their own rescue and restoration, as well as the author’s.

Towards the end of her life, Frances recalled how working in the garden at Great Maytham Hall had restored her own will to live and sense of self.  The fond memories of “a softly rainy spring in Kent when I spent nearly three weeks kneeling on a small rubber mat on the grass edge of a heavenly old herbaceous border bed” remained vivid in her imagination as well as “the plants which were to bloom in loveliness for me in the summer.”

I believe we all have a “Secret Garden” in the depths of our soul and the state of the garden depends upon the health and vitality of our inner life, not our outer one.  When we are abruptly pulled away from the life we expected to be living, planned for and dreamed about through death, debt, divorce or illness and suddenly find ourselves wakening in an alien landscape, it is staggering to all our senses; the five physical senses and the two spiritual senses—intuition and wonder.  What is so shocking is that this “new” reality has no timetable.  There is a staggering and lengthy state of amnesia accompanying grief and dismay.  We may appear to others to be back to normal, but the reality is we might as well be living in a hologram—suspended neither in the past, present or future. 

So how do we move from shadow to sunlight?  Through asking for one day’s grace and expressing gratitude.  Through choosing one morning, not to keep our head turned to the wall, but to get out of bed.  Step by step, we enter into a daily round and then our faded dreams move from pastel hues to vibrancy, the same way that we work with an overgrown and abandoned garden.  By cutting away one hurtful vine at a time and refusing to replay one more miserable memory for an entire day.  This week revisit the secret garden in your soul; push open the heavy wooden door.  Put on your spiritual gardening gloves and get your sharpest clippers.  Clear one vine, cutaway one thought of the past that holding you back.  Have you ever had a woman to weed wrestling match?  That’s what it’s like and that’s what it takes.

Every day we determine our destiny by what we think about.  Nobody knows how inconvenient I find this truth to be today, but I can’t do anything about it, nor can you, except change our thoughts.  Weed out our disappointments, frustrations, diminished ambitions, unfulfilled expectations, sorrow and frustration about what has gone before or what has not yet come.  This emotional underbrush and weeds only choke our days, and our days become our destiny.  Bless your imagination, pray that a new idea will be planted by the Sower of dreams.  Then let passion tend the garden with patience and perseverance.  For, as Frances Hodgson Burnett discovered, and we can, too:  “When you have a Garden, you have a Future and when you have a Future, you are Alive.”

Sending dearest love, Babe, and always blessings on your courage.


XO SBB

Seeking the House of Spirit

There is an Indian proverb or axiom that says that everyone is a house of four rooms, a physical, a mental, an emotional and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time, but unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person.

— Rumer Godden (“A House With Four Rooms,” 1989)

House Beautiful, September, 1924

House Beautiful, September, 1924

There’s a fair chance that by the time a woman is 40 she will have moved at least seven times during her life.   Some moves will be considered “happy” ones, such as your first home, setting up house with your “intended,” or getting married.  Some moves may be forced upon you by catastrophic change, such as a divorce, debilitating illness or financial reversals.  Some moves will be circumstantial— a new job, the rent goes up, or you’re downsizing. A lot of moves are considered “temporary,” or so you think, until 7 years later, you’re bursting from the seams and really have to make a plausible decision about how you’re going to live your daily round at least for the next year. That’s the situation I find myself in right now.

Still, there’s a reason that moving ranks as the number one stressful rite of passage ahead of death, divorce, or debt.  Maybe it’s because no matter what the reason, moving is all of these things simultaneously. 

And then there’s the Dream House, which is never about moving and all about romantic obsession.  The finding thereof, the obtaining, the bliss of fixing it up to perfection, the months of paint chips and fabric swatches and then, the happily ever after however short-lived that might be and the inevitable wrenching therefrom.  I remember when I was looking at houses in England, I was shown an absolutely gorgeous Georgian manse that had been completely restored to perfection. You didn’t have to do anything, except turn the key and unpack your suitcases.

However, this beautiful house was so unsettling from the moment I crossed the threshold, it made me shiver during the visit because the vibrations were so intense. It felt as if the walls were crying. Had someone died?  Did a tragedy occur?  As I was led from one exquisite room into another, I started to get heart palpitations. The physical distress I felt in my chest became so severe I had to stop.  This wasn’t a haunting, I’ve been in haunted houses before and these vibrations weren’t old or menacing. This was fresh sorrow.  Raw.  Inconsolable.  I felt as if I wanted to scoop something up intangible but very real and whisper, “There, there…”

Finally, I had to ask the estate agent what was the real story.  “This is some woman’s cherished home and she and the house have been torn away from each other.  What’s the truth here?”  And the estate agent explained rather embarrassedly that indeed, a middle aged couple had restored the house from 17th century ruins over several years but then, suddenly a few weeks previously the family had to leave abruptly in the middle of the night to escape the Tax Men. Left in the dark, hurriedly abandoning their Dream House.  All I could do was bless the house and the woman who loved it so.

I digress.  I usually do when I’m telling stories about houses and women because I find them romantic, riveting and enthralling. A love affair with house is the most spellbinding and hypnotic tale that can be told. Some soulmates are flesh and bone, but the enduring love stories as far as I’m concerned are all made of wood and stone. That’s because whether a woman is single, divorced, or married, eighteen or eighty, there’s no passion as perfect as the dream house she will someday inhabit; no enchanting obsession as enjoyable as her home’s beautiful décor; and no illusion as seductive as the fanciful notion that once she crosses the threshold, she’ll stay there forever.  “I am as susceptible to houses as some people are to susceptible to other human beings.  Twice in my life, I have fallen in love with one,” the early 20th century English writer Katharine Butler Hathaway confessed. “Each time it was as violent and fatal as falling in love with a human being.”

From the scented linen-closet to the built-in kitchen pantry, from the window seat, plump with needlepoint pillows, to the rose-covered arbor leading to the backyard, each nook and cranny of this fantasy has been lovingly imagined since we were little girls “playing house”.  No doubt the magic spell was cast when Mother draped a blanket over the dining room chairs and we crawled underneath to put our dollies to bed.

Some dream houses are only in the movies-- Mrs. Miniver's House from 1942, (built on the MGM lot)

Some dream houses are only in the movies-- Mrs. Miniver's House from 1942, (built on the MGM lot)

“Even though your dream house is at the end of a long, long road, your head may be buzzing with plans for that home you will have someday.  Already you probably have a stack of clippings, sketches and what not—ideas you want remember for your own house,” Elinor Hillyer reassures the young woman who purchased the Mademoiselle’s Home Planning Scrapbook in 1946.  “You can’t keep all those house plans in your head—keep them in here.”

The scrapbook is 12 x 15 inches, silver-gray cardboard, spiral bound with big envelopes—one for every room—to stash paper dreams.  I’m amazed by the synchronicity between it and my own Simple Abundance Illustrated Discovery Journal published 50 years later, which is also a spiral bound journal with envelopes. 

However, I’m stumped by Elinor Hillyer’s first rule for successful dream house planning.  “Have a fair picture in mind of the kind of house you want and the kind of life you and your young man want to build for yourself.  To be perfectly honest, I created the first Illustrated Discovery Journal as my own insight tool because I couldn’t visualize the life or house I wanted to live in.  During the phases of my life, my dream house has run the gamut from a Victorian gingerbread to a Frank Lloyd Wright prairie manse to a French chateau surrounded by a moat.  My eventual dream house purchase was an English stone cottage and yet I had to leave it.  We think forever is endless, Babe, but it is only allocated to us in moments.  Forever can vanish but the moments are yours to savor now. 

So I’ve come to the conclusion that really what makes any home you can make for yourself worthy of a dream, are the dreams you’re able to create and commit to while you’re living, temporarily, in this dwelling.  As I scour the rental listings, I’m trying to remember that what my soul truly needs to nurture it at this moment is the Anglo-Indian author Rumer Godden’s suggestion of a four room dwelling for the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual selves who dwell within us. Although I may dream of a ranch in Big Sky country, I have been “gifted” with a new dream to bring into the world and all my precious natural resources of time, creative energy and emotion must be allocated to this assignment, which means a small rented home.

Sometimes when we begin our lives over again, we still need to do it in baby steps.

I think I’ll leave us both with a psalm for a safe haven to begin this week.

Dearest Master Builder,

We thank and praise you for the gifts of Simple Abundance, the blessings of domestic bliss and my kindred friend who reads these words.  Mother of the Hearth and Father of Homecoming, hear our prayer. 

Generous Provider of Sacred Space, bless this woman, my dearly beloved Reader, and the home in which she lives and loves or is seeking.  Thank you for the haven of hospitality she has discovered in her home this day; we bless you for the shelter that protects her soul this night.  Thank you that the solace of a home which embraces, nurtures, sustains and comforts is part of your Divine Blueprint for our happiness.  Bless the foundation upon which she walks, the walls that surround, the roof that covers, the windows that allow light and the threshold that welcome her and hers.  With the gift of each day may her love and gratefulness increase.  May the peace and plenty she so richly shares with others always be her daily portion.  Lead her, Divine Architect, with thanksgiving to the sanctuary you have set apart for her heart—her blessed, beloved House of Belonging.  Bring her safely home, we pray. 

Be it done, with all praise and honor according to Thee and accepted with thanksgiving by we. 

Amen.

 Sending dearest love Babe, and always blessings on your courage.

XO

 

 

The Threads That Bind

Clothes and courage have so much to do with each other.

--Sara Jeannette Duncan (1900)

4ac7482a5236428d3160ff149652dd45.jpg

Personally, I would add closets to that observation.   Clothes, closets and courage have so much to do with each other and each of us.  In fact, clothes, closets and courage are the holy trinity of a woman; expressing precisely her current state of being—body, mind and spirit—while dramatically demonstrating all her unmet wants and unfulfilled desires. 

As the fabulous Hollywood costume designer Edith Head so succinctly put it in 1963:  “Marlene Dietrich and Roy Rogers are the only two living humans who should be allowed to wear black leather pants.” Sadly, those two legends are no longer with us, but there seems to be whole lot of leather (faux though it may be) walking around in search of a closet.

Marlene Dietrich in her leather pants.

Marlene Dietrich in her leather pants.

After seven years of "temporarily" living in the small apartment next to my sister, it's time for me to create a real home in California. So it's moving time at Chez Moi and the bulging closets have become feral.  I’m currently in the thick of it, so it’s been necessary to begin each day’s task with a chair, a whip and “Back, Simba, Back.”  I thought I’d take a break and just riff on the fabric of our lives and the sifting, sorting, selecting, giving away or selling on eBay thereof.  Or not. How about keeping? How about “Are you crazy, you’ll never see another one like it for the rest of your life” or “Absolutely not, Babe, we’re going to the mat for this one.” Of course, I know it’s close to heresy to even mention “holding on to” when the square footage facing you is the size of a hamster’s cage.  Still, I’ll try.

Is there a woman alive with as much storage space as she really needs, or as many closets as she truly wants? “There is nothing like fixing up closets to give you a feeling of complete satisfaction,” Mrs. Henrietta Ripperger wrote in A Home of Your Own and How to Run It, published in 1940. Likewise, few things are as frustrating as searching for something you know is in there but can’t find because it shares a hanger with something else.  “The real waste in clothing comes not in the buying, but not in the using,” Mrs. Ripperger reminds us, and we know she speaks the truth.

We think that it’s dresses, skirts, and pants hanging in our closets,  but really it’s our past, for most items of clothing are associated, for good or ill, with people, places, and periods in our lives.  I can’t open a Laura Ashley email without “seeing” the wife and daughter of a small-town mayor identically dressed in white sailor dresses, red-ribbon straw boaters and parasols for the Independence Day parade. It doesn’t matter how removed the Laura Ashley brand or I have become from cottage-sprig— it’s our emotional memories which turn out to be the threads that truly bind.  But I love those memories and want to hold them close. It surprises my daughter that I keep asking her if she’s found “our outfits” when she’s visiting her father’s house, considering we’ve been divorced for twenty years.  

The throwback days of matching Laura Ashely ensembles. 

The throwback days of matching Laura Ashely ensembles. 

And while it’s true that the past asks only to be remembered (no doubt so that we’ll not continue making mistakes), this doesn’t mean you have to entomb your regrets or savage remembrances.  I once fell in love with a black lace cocktail dress that cost me more than I’d ever thought I’d earn, but I envisioned wearing it for a special, hopefully romantic occasion of great importance.  It was my “once in a lifetime” dress and I was willing to pay the price for both fantasies.  I looked gorgeous in it. I felt exquisite and beautiful. I felt like the woman I had always aspired to become. Long after I parted from the man, the dress remained on its hanger.  For a few years every time I cleaned the closet I convinced myself that it had cost too much to give away.  But what was really so hard to abandon was all the pent up and unexpressed emotion, frustration, disappointment, and anger that hadn’t been voiced all those many years ago. Finally, I reluctantly gave the dress away but you know what?  I still miss that dress because I still mourn that dream.  

It’s easy for us to get rid of clothes we’ve physically outgrown, but severing the emotional threads that bind us, whether the fibers are silk, linen, wool, gossamer, haute couture or prêt-à-porter requires an unconditional commitment to our future happiness and sometimes that desire and determination takes longer than we can imagine to make its way down to our souls and up again through the soil of our lives.  In other words, I wish I’d kept that black lace dress.  I outgrew the painful memories and grew wise enough to know that romances will come and romances will go, but dreams and vintage Elsa Schiaparelli lasts forever.  I’m probably the only one on earth who’s going to tell you to hold on to what you really love, especially if you feel emotional about it, but there you have it. But no, if you’ve divorced her father, your daughter is probably not going to want your wedding dress. 

So this week seems as good time to start making the connection between what we stow away and what we stew over.  They’re probably in the same box or stuffed in the back of one of those closets.  Although I can’t prove this beyond the shadow of a doubt, I believe that there is a direct correlation between the amount of discontent and discomfort we may be experiencing right now and the unacknowledged emotional attachments with clothing or possessions we’re holding onto and storing.

“She knew someday she would find the exact right outfit that would make her life work. Maybe not her whole life, she thought, as she got back in bed but at least the parts she had to dress for,” the sorely missed Swell Dame Carrie Fisher wrote in Postcards from the Edge.  And one of those outfits and days will come again, Babe.  I’ve lived to tell the tale.  How thrilling it will be for you to reach into your closet and pull out something just perfect for your splendid tomorrow.

So much love to you as you sift, sort and save.  And always, always blessings on your courage.

XO SBB
 

Inspired by True Events

We don’t get offered crises, they arrive.

-- Elizabeth Janeway

“The great crises of life are not, I think, necessarily those which are in themselves the hardest to bear, but those for which we are least prepared,” Mary Adams wrote in her 1902 self-help manual Confessions of a Wife.  It seems astonishing to think that over a century later her very true observation about being unprepared for crises probably resonates in many women’s hearts.  At least it does in mine. 

Why?

Well, as the coffee brews we anxiously eavesdrop on the news, weather and traffic reports, recalibrating our way to work while checking email and the “squawk on the street” for what happened overnight.  Like a mother prairie dog instinctively poking her head out of the burrow to measure the vibrations of miles to minutes before the buffalo stampede, we simultaneously attempt to both ignore and answer this vague but increasing urge to be “prepared.”  But our dogged determination to shrug it off wins again and combined with the world’s deafening static we can’t decipher the spiritual dots and dashes of our soul’s desperate Morse code:  Get Ready.  So we begin to “feel” this confusing unease as the “fight or flight” response even while we’re standing alone in our own kitchens.

Because the reality is we are not prepared.  We know this. Babe, we're not prepared for anything. To put it in the nicest possible way, we're about as ready for the unexpected as we were in the third grade, crouching under our desks during the air raid drills.

Truth or Dare:  If there was an urgent pounding on your door at 10 pm and someone in a yellow emergency vest told you to evacuate your entire household in five minutes because there was a gas leak at the power station six blocks away, how do you think you’d do? I didn’t do very well; or rather, as I remember there was a woman in her nightgown standing in the middle of the street rolling a screeching cat in a carrier while crying because she couldn't get the other two out in time. She didn't do very well. It was hard to tell who was more relieved when the all clear was signaled a few minutes later, the gas man or my family who didn’t have to admit that I belonged with them.

It was a very humbling experience.  I'd always thought of myself as a woman of calm composure.  Clearly when these particular chips were down, I did not pass the Emergency Broadcast test.  God knows I wish this wasn't true.  Which is why I've been pondering this in my heart for months.

I’m speaking for myself, of course, but I wondered afterwards if a lack in my emergency preparedness skills could explain why I became unglued so easily.  Perhaps the fact that we know we're not ready to handle the unexpected is the reason so many women instinctively anticipate the worst outcome from any situation. 

Yes, the world is frightening and seems to become more so each day.  But how much more do we frighten ourselves with our imagination rather than the outside circumstances personally affecting us at any given moment?  Perhaps this is because our inner equilibrium is in freefall.

Here’s what I’ve learned and share with the seeker in you: Being scared is a “sacred” warning signal sent to keep you and yours out of harm’s way.  Being scared is a primordial instinct meant to keep you alive in dangerous situations until you can get out of them. Being "scared" is Heaven's "heads up." Think of it as a spiritual shortwave radio frequently processed through a woman’s sixth sense—your intuition or sense of “Knowing.”  I’ve come to realize that the more scared I am about any situation, challenge or circumstance, the more imperative it is for me to acknowledge and face it and learn to overcome it, one way or another.

I believe deep in my soul that being “prepared”—Emergency Preparedness 101—has become a sacred imperative for the most important rite of passage every woman might have to ultimately face, and face alone.  Babe, we have to learn the skills and training to become our own first responder. We may find ourselves in situations where no one's able to come immediately. And others may depend upon us.

 My prime directive now (and you are more than welcome to join me) is to become the calmest, most capable woman in the midst of any challenge or crisis in which we could find ourselves.  The more mayhem that surrounds us, the calmer we’ll become, anyplace, anytime, anywhere and then, we’ll be able to spring into action.  Because when we are prepared, when we trust in Spirit and our ability to rise to any occasion and when we know what needs to be done “just in case,” we will be exactly the women that Heaven will call upon in an emergency.

I’m going to take a first aid course this summer.  The American Red Cross, which responds to a human disaster every 8 minutes, offers online and community classes.  (www.redcross.org/take-a-class/first-aid) Will you do the same?  If you are a skilled EMT, registered or practical nurse or physician, can you invite friends and neighbors over to your house for a first aid demonstration, followed by a pot-luck barbeque?  What a way to put the “home” back into the Homefront.

This Memorial Day we remember with deep gratitude the valor, bravery, and heroism of the men and women of our military who put their lives on the line every day to defend us. We remember those who gave their lives to protect us and our families. And we remember and give thanks for the families of our military who share their loved ones so generously with our nation to safeguard us and preserve our freedoms.

When I pray for courage and protection, my band of angels are the Navy Seals and U.S. Military special forces.  God bless you and God bless America.  I gave up praying to cherubs a long time ago.

Now I guess it’s time to make the potato salad.

Sending dearest love and blessings on our courage.

XO SBB

Pearls of Wisdom

All art is autobiographical, the pearl
is the oyster’s autobiography.

—Federico Fellini

 

Sophia Loren at Cartier in Paris

Sophia Loren at Cartier in Paris

It takes longer than we can imagine for a woman to grow and bloom into herself.  And pearls of wisdom, well, they can take an entire lifetime to accumulate.  As the great and aptly named Pearl Bailey wryly observed in her memoir, The Raw Pearl: “There’s a period of life when we swallow knowledge of ourselves, and it becomes either good or sour inside.”

There’s also a period in each woman’s life, when we can wear the jewelry of that inner wisdom. Diamonds may very well be a girl’s best friend, but pearls are a woman’s sacred and secret confidant.  In many families a girl receives her first pearl on a simple chain or as a ring for her 16th birthday, symbolizing that she’s become a young lady, with the first string of pearls the gift of coming of age at 21.  But I believe it is only decades later before a woman can actually wear pearls properly and only women of a certain age can carry off pearls with panache.

How marvelous that there’s something enchanted that all women can look forward to as we grow gracefully into ourselves.   Imagine that you’re having a conversation with a young girl and you’ve just asked her what she wants to be or do when she grows up and she responds, “I want to be a woman who wears pearls!!  I agree.

 I don’t know about you, but I’m only beginning to appreciate parts of my body that I’ve been oblivious to until now, and considering how many times I ‘ve stuck my neck out, one way or another, I’d like to adorn it with something befitting.

All the world’s great legends, as well as those who aspired to have greatness thrust upon them have worn pearls.  Coco Chanel believed that a woman needed ropes and ropes of pearls in her jewelry wardrobe and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis said that no matter what the occasion, pearls were always appropriate.  Grace Kelly insisted on wearing pearls in all her movie roles, as did Audrey Hepburn and the Queens of England down through history were and are rarely seen out of pearls.

Jewelry Queen, Elizabeth Taylor

Jewelry Queen, Elizabeth Taylor

Whether with casual clothes or when we need to feel “dressed up” pearls, worn lovingly, are my definition of perfect jewelry.  Pearls announce that we have taste, sophistication and a sense of style.  There are pearls to fit your mood, the occasion, the season or to showcase your physical attributes to their best advantage.

The best part of pearls as adornments is that they don’t have to be “real” especially if the woman wearing them is, and Babe, you are. While pearls were once affordable only by the wealthy, technology and popularity conspired in the last century to make them a gem for all reasons.  This may surprise you, as it did me, but the most famous pearl wearers, Coco Chanel and Jackie Kennedy, always wore Czechoslovakian glass pearls because Coco would control the size of the pearls as well as their sheen.  And it is said that Queen Elizabeth II routinely swaps her glorious strands for exquisite “paste” pearls.  No one would ever dream that royalty would wear anything other than the real thing, what with maharajas, princes and potentates proffering jewels during the long Victorian British Empire years.

I love the thrill of fashionable thrift when it comes to a collecting a pearl wardrobe.  Here’s a fun way to think about creating a pearl wardrobe of your own, using the flea market route. Different pearls, different lengths, different moods.  This is how I categorize them:

The Little Black Dress:  This is the 14 to 16 inch simple strand.  The starting place for most women’s pearl wardrobes, it hangs to mid-clavicle or collarbone.  I think a woman’s collarbone is one of the most beautiful parts of the feminine form.  Show it off!

Jean Simmons

Jean Simmons

Collar.  Or a choker a la your pet poodle.  This sits higher on your neck. Just make sure that yours lies close to the skin.  A neck might droop, but no woman’s pearl collar should. Every night Napoleon’s wife, Empress Josephine wore hers to bed, especially when alone.  As I said, there’s a pearl necklace for every occasion.

Grace Kelly in the "Collar"

Grace Kelly in the "Collar"

The Princess.  This single strand of pearls is 16 to 19 inches long.  It hangs to about the top of your lovely décolleté and does wonders with a plunging neckline.

Bette Davis wears a "Princess" length pearl necklace

Bette Davis wears a "Princess" length pearl necklace

The Bib.  Jackie Kennedy, Barbara Bush and the choice of many fashionable women who actually can meet friends for lunch is the three-strand-graduated mainstay.  The top strand is collar length; the bottom, the length of a princess strand.  This fills in your neckline beautifully.  The three strand necklace says you can and you will—whatever the occasion.  A great confidence booster.

Jackie Kennedy and her famous three strands of pearls

Jackie Kennedy and her famous three strands of pearls

The Matinee.  This strand is cleavage gracing with its 20 inch length. Best over a higher neckline so the only thing you’re revealing is mystery.

Aretha Franklin and a beautiful strand of pearls

Aretha Franklin and a beautiful strand of pearls

The Opera.  At 30 inches, this long strand can be doubled or tripled and worn in overlapping rows around the neck.  Dowager queens went for these, but so did flappers.  These are definitely for those times when more is better and you want pearls coming and going.  Follow the example of Mademoiselle Coco.

Coco Chanel and her legendary pearls

Coco Chanel and her legendary pearls

My favorite pearl find is a faux five-strand from the 1950s that I found in England.  It cost me more to get them restrung than to purchase them in the first place, but they are a knockout and look glorious with everything from an old tweed jacket to my best black cocktail dress.  These really are the family jewels as far as I’m concerned.

The fascinating paradox about pearls is that their beautiful destiny is conceived through irritation and grows slowly in layers, just as our lives do.  Something foreign gets beneath the shell of an oyster, embeds itself and years later emerges in an exquisite new form, as effortless it would seem, as a butterfly from its chrysalis.  But to be born—a butterfly, a pearl or a woman-- is a strenuous journey.  Still it seems, at least for the butterfly and pearl, that the journey knows exactly where it’s headed.  If only we could learn that lesson. If only we could learn to trust that faith, even as small as a piece of grit, could lead us to an iridescent future.

 As I finger my favorite pearls— shimmering balls strung together—I marvel at their creation—wholly wondrous after decades of being in the dark and lost.  The sacred surrounds all of us hidden in plain sight among the familiar.  So this week, if you have any pearl jewelry, don’t leave it unworn in a jewelry box.  I’m guessing that there are many strings of pearls waiting for a special occasion to be appreciated.

How about today?  Like life and love, pearls thrive on skin contact and will lose their luster if not worn.  Although pearls grow in darkness and distress, the luminosity of their beauty, born of imperfection, irritation, and, even sometimes, neglect—like the woman who wears them, can only be revealed in the Light.

Sending you dearest love and always, blessings on our courage.


XO SBB    

Landscape of the Heart: The Comfort and Serenity of Period Films

Only connect!  That was the whole of her sermon.

Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will

Be exalted…Live in fragments no longer…

  —E.M. Forster (Howards End, 1910)

Brenda Blethyn, Rosamund Pike, Carey Mulligan, Talulah Riley, Keira Knightly and Jena Malone in “Pride and Prejudice”

Brenda Blethyn, Rosamund Pike, Carey Mulligan, Talulah Riley, Keira Knightly and Jena Malone in “Pride and Prejudice”

I close my eyes and hear the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves upon the road in the opening of “Sherlock Holmes,” the click-clack of Miss Marple’s knitting needles or the 17th century rousing trumpet fanfare of Jean-Joseph Mouret’s “Rondeau” that is the theme from Masterpiece Theatre.  In a few beats of my heart, I’m gratefully carried aloft with a Divine swoosh—transported in a finely tuned personal time machine—and probably as close to the Rapture as I’ll get to experience.

Today let us praise the simply abundant bliss of the period film.  Let us rejoice and riff upon the parallel reality of historical fiction instead of the raucous, rowdy, rude here and now.  Let’s celebrate another time, another place:  a costumed life at the pace of Grace.

Julian Sands and Helena Bonham Carter in "A Room With A View"

Julian Sands and Helena Bonham Carter in "A Room With A View"

Lavish sets, hushed hallways, fringed drapes, secret passageways. French doors that open on to the terrace.  Forbidden love.  Perfect manners.  Veiled hats, flushed cheeks, silk corsets, voluminous petticoats.   Vintage parasols, kid gloves, pearl buttons, hat pins and haberdashery worth a queen’s ransom.  Ruffled necklines, cascading curls, sinister plots, paisley shawls, burgundy tufted leather fire fenders.  Sherry and chintz, a roaring fire and a decanted 1924 port--excellent year--so glad we made it.

Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in "Howard's End"

Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in "Howard's End"

Drawing room, morning room, conservatory, mud room, butler pantries; no servants at breakfast, help yourself from the sideboard and aren’t you glad you know this coded behavior and won’t be embarrassed at your next Saturday to Monday invitation at the Great House.  Hold my hand and we’re halfway there, somewhere there’s the twilight elegance of Paradise Lost and we’ll find it.

Matthew Macfadyen and Keira Knightly in "Pride and Prejudice"

Matthew Macfadyen and Keira Knightly in "Pride and Prejudice"

Shooting parties, riding to hounds, hunt balls, galloping glorious women in black riding habits on sidesaddle, men in white flannels swinging bats and bowlers, billiards and badminton.  

Mia Wasikowska and Logan Marshall-Green in "Madame Bovary"

Mia Wasikowska and Logan Marshall-Green in "Madame Bovary"

Pimm’s and punts, tennis anyone, we need a fourth?  Meet you on the lawn.  Strawberries, clotted cream, cucumber sandwiches and champagne.  Sophisticated conversations in cut glass accents,  clipped phrases, lengthened vowels and crisp consonants, punctuated by wicked irony, endearing eccentricity, subtle nuance, the arched eyebrow and tea, not at three, but at four—twenty in the afternoon to be as precise as Her Majesty, the Queen.  No matter what today’s conundrum or shock, sweet tea in paper thin porcelain cups is the rescue remedy.

A scene from "A Room with a View"

A scene from "A Room with a View"

But for the deep, intense and medicinal immersion necessary after pulling the plug on “Breaking News 24/7, I need a powerful antidote and I’ve found it, cherished readers.  One of my new discoveries is the website Willow and Thatch (www.willowandthatch.com) which delights in gathering historical, costumed period movies and TV and lets you know where to find them.  I swooned at the gathering of their film archive of period cinema available on Netflix, Amazon and cable television.

There is also something wonderful new to our shores, the Britbox (www.britbox.com) which is the largest British streaming collection from the BBC and ITV.   You’ll just have to go there for yourself, I get light-headed when I see so many choices to transport me for a few hours back to  historical periods that I know better than the one I’m living through today, even if I can’t quite nail down the era.

“Studying movies for their mystical message empowers us.  We gain insight and greater self-awareness,” Marsha Sinetar suggests in her fascinating book Reel Power:  Spiritual Grown Through Film.  “So much of today is centered on problems, recovery, and the painful struggles of trying to meet the unrelenting demands of twenty-first living.  Unfortunately, by dwelling only on problems, and thus failing to see ourselves and our dilemmas in a heroic, promising light, we limit ourselves.  Movies elevate our sights, enlarge imagination.  Film, like poetry, is one our heart’s most subtle agents.  It reminds us of what we know, helps us stretch and change, and provides us with a sensory catalyst for creative, cutting edge change.”  The art of “reel power” is the ability to dig out and use, whatever is spiritually valuable in a movie.”  

Personally I think we all need the uplift provided by films that inspire, encourage, affirm and celebrate the human spirit—and if we ever needed home-grown serenity and heaping portions of comfort it’s now.

“Movies mirror us and invite us to go beyond the obvious.  Their themes and images can powerfully equip us to see ourselves as we are at our worst, and our best, or help us invent new scripts about who we hope to be,” Marsha Senetar believes.  “Everything placed in our path can help us…Certain films—like certain lovely people, glorious works of art or music, and special instances of prayer—seem a grace expressly given for our edification.”

Here’s hoping you find a heaping dollop of comfort and contentment this week, Babe. Sending dearest love and always, blessings on our courage.  

XO SBB

Cherishing Every Birthday

Yours is the year that
Counts no season
I can never be sure
What age you are.

--Vita Sackville-West

Cole Phillips, "Time Of Her Life"

Cole Phillips, "Time Of Her Life"

Writers are always nervous when a potential new reader picks up your book for the first time, in front of you, especially at a book event.  When Simple Abundance was first published, I noticed this happening, quite often, at my signings.  Women flipping pages, reading and breaking into grins. Then a nod to another women, all very conspiratorial—using that code of facial gestures that girlfriends have used with each other since time began.  Since SA was new, it was all a great mystery to me. What passage could possibly spark the same reaction from each reader?   Finally, my curiosity got the better of me. I asked a few ladies what reflection they were discussing:  “Oh, my birthday. And you know what? It’s just perfect.  That’s where I am, or who I am…Or where I want to be…How did you know?"

Well, Babe, I guess I knew because I’m you and you’re me.  Feminine eternal twins, separated at birth, girlfriend.  And I’m so happy and grateful we found each other at last, even if it’s just on the page.

My birthday meditation

My birthday meditation

Most birthdays are fun, at least when you’re little or have littles of your own to plan for.  I mean, you wake up and everybody makes a fuss over you and give you presents and cake.  Then, abruptly your mother announces that you’re too old to have a birthday party (I think that was at 13)—until the marker ones start coming along: 16, 18, 21, 25, 30, 35, 40, 50, 60, 65, 70, 75, 80, 85, 90, 95 and 100.  After the century mark, birthday parties once again begin to become annual events.  Well, I’m aiming for that century milestone. It will probably take me that long to figure out what the blazes I’m supposed to be doing with my life.

My mother gave amazing birthday parties for her four children and my sister and I certainly tried to live up to her in that regard. When my daughter was little, the planning of the honoring of her nativity began months in advance.  This was during the 1980s and “theme” or destination birthday parties were all the rage:  dance studio, decorate your own pottery, tea at the Dollhouse Museum, pony rides, swimming, bowling, ice-skating and weekend long sleep-overs.

Are we having fun yet?  

Life Magazine

Life Magazine

We could tell when the party was over because the birthday girl would eventually dissolve into tears brought on by excitement, exhaustion, too much sugar and expectations exceeding what’s humanly possible.  And her mother would gratefully sigh, “Done, for another year!

Well, this year I have officially become la femme d’un certain age. For women of a certain age, birthdays need to become like sacraments and I mean this sincerely.  In the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox church, sacraments are “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”  What a beautiful description of a birthday observance. 

But here’s the catch.  You are the only person on earth capable of giving yourself the birthday ritual you deserve—one that is nurturing with genuine indulgences, well-spent moments, joyful simplicities, contemplation, closure, beauty and celebration.  Many people who love you will try, but no one can celebrate your birthday exactly the way you need for it to be observed.

That’s because no one else truly knows the year you’ve just completed; no one else has lived through every day of it. But you have. You know what you have endured in silence. You know the desperate prayers.  You know the inexpressible gratitude your soul feels after surviving a crisis.  What’s more, each year in our life is different.  Your 32nd, 48th, 59th, 64th and 69th birthdays won’t begin to even resemble the previous ones.

Your husband, partner, lover, children, friends and co-workers can be aware of recent events that have unfolded in your life, but only Heaven and your Soul knows how deeply these events reverberated in, around and through you.  Perhaps a love one has died, or a relationship has become estranged; perhaps a child has moved or a cherished job eliminated.  Perhaps you’re still reeling from a diagnosis for either yourself or a loved one and your days are filled with uncertainty and nights with dread; perhaps the financial crisis never ended for you and you don’t know how to replace the future you were planning on.  The shock of our own peculiar and particular losses, the navigation of the new terra nova you find yourself in must be acknowledged before it can be accepted, traversed and surmounted.

Maybe you need, not a boisterous family party, but a few private hours or days to remember and to honor the sacredness of change and transitions.  Birthdays are not only new beginnings, they are also moments of personal closure, which are crucial if we are to grow positively into our authenticity.

Every birthday, not just the public “markers” is a significant milestone.  Every age brings with it the hope of three hundred sixty-five Real Life lessons in, loving, risking, surviving, overcoming, hope and joy. “We turn, not older with years, but newer every day,” Emily Dickinson reassures the birthday girl in all of us.  And that is certainly something worth celebrating and giving thanks for.  So if your birthday is today, tomorrow or later this year, Happy Birthday!  Happy Birthday to you!

I’ve got a good feeling about this coming year—and I think it’s going to be our best yet. Heaven knows, Babes, we deserve a birthday for the books!

Sending you dearest love and heartfelt thanks for all the personal remembrances for my own candle moment.  It was just the birthday I needed, a winning combination of new make-up and convent prayers, and I don’t know how that can be topped!

Blessings on our courage and our tomorrows.

XO
Sarah

The Return of Hope

April is hope.
       --Gladys Taber, The Book of Stillmeadow (1948)

 

The poet T. S. Eliot  described April as the “cruelest month” but I disagree.  For me April is the kindest. Resurrection is her signature, as every blossom bears profound witness to the miracle of rebirth.  Deep within me, I sense once again the stirring of hope.


Is there any feeling more thrilling than the return of hope?  How does hope send up its slender shoots through the dense and rocky soil of despair and around the weeds of regret?  One minute, like a garden, you are dormant; life’s compromises and complexities have become so entangled, your own growth is stunted.  You go through the motions but it is all a near-life experience.  Then suddenly, hope springs alive, and you begin to reach and stretch for the Light.  A smile catches you unaware.  Perhaps you find yourself singing along to a tune on the radio as you drive or fold the laundry.  Nothing appears to have changed outwardly, but once again you begin to feel a pulse.  Your own.


This week-end we observe the celebration of Eastertide.  Of all the holidays, I have the cheeriest memories of Easter, which come flooding back.  As a child, the anticipation of pastel dresses, shiny black patent leather Mary Janes, ruffled socks and, of course, a new bonnet which never stayed on your head because it was nearly always blustery on Easter, so you had to wear your winter coat.  The early morning search for the Easter basket, candy eaten in secret, especially yellow marshmallow chicks because you’re not supposed to eat anything before Holy Communion. Later, there would be an egg hunt and games in the backyard with prizes; egg salad sandwiches for a week, sorting jelly beans by color and comparisons of chocolate bunnies—hollow versus solid.  My Irish Nana always gave us solid milk chocolate rabbits, which inevitably would be found half nibbled, earless and moldy underneath the dust ruffle during the spring clean in May!


But my favorite and most cherished Easter memories involve my darling daughter, Kate, because she was (and remains) absolutely adorable, so much fun to plan treats for and play with—she is still my best pal and every Easter she will forever be 18-months-old dressed in a pink rose bud pinafore and wandering with a tiny basket hunting for eggs for the first time, holding her first Easter egg up to me with glee, throwing her head back and roaring with laughter, as if we had discovered the meaning of life …. Together … at this perfect moment.  And we did.  And isn’t it all fabulous? And it was.

Kate at 18-months-old, on the hunt for Easter eggs.

Kate at 18-months-old, on the hunt for Easter eggs.


Easter egg trees, sowing the living Easter basket with fresh real, green grass, egg coloring, hat trimming, hot cross buns and an annual addition to her Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit books, stuffed animals and china collection (which, admittedly, really was for me).  Looking back I’m amazed she didn’t end up with a real bunny in the basket (How did that one slip past me?  Probably because we had cats galore).  But most of all, the Crabtree and Evelyn Peter Rabbit carrot cookies, so there was something vaguely nutritious before candy.  She remembers little of this.  Mothers discover to our astonishment and horror when their children are grown that there are huge voids where we’re concerned.  We never did a thing, Babe—Halloween costumes, birthday goody bags, fairy tea parties, playoff games, sports practice—gone, gone, gone into the firmament, gone—and I’m sure this is true, childhood being a parallel reality for all of us.  But the memories become more vivid on the other side of fifty.  And the happy ones, beyond precious.  We had a wonderful life and they were the center of our cosmos.  Someday they’ll remember they did, too.

An Easter visit at the White House. 

An Easter visit at the White House. 


As I said, the poet was wrong.  April is the kindest month, for it is the month of awakening again, the month we begin to take nothing for granted, savor the small, seek the sacred in the ordinary, create boundaries that protect all we cherish, lavish love unconditionally and make Easter baskets to fit the adored recipient as she or he is today, not necessarily the ones in our secret recollections of the heart.


A blessed Passover, joyous Easter and Spring to all of you this week Babes dearest.
Sending my love and a wish for a perfect chocolate bunny…

XO SBB                                        

 

Literary Seductions: Colette — The Consummate Courtesan

"What an interesting life I had.  And how I wish I had realized it sooner!"

-- Gabrielle-Sidonie Colette (1873-1954)

Portrait of Colette

Portrait of Colette


If there was only one truth to survive the extraordinary life of the French writer Colette, we would find a wealth of inspiration and encouragement in her astonishing response, after seeing a movie about herself: “What an interesting life I had.  And how I wish I had realized it sooner!”


Wouldn’t we all and don’t we all!


Write those two sentences down on Post-It notes where you can see them and repeat aloud for as long as it takes, until it feels like your own thought.  Colette lived for words, but she had many lives—like the old lady cat lover she became. When we wind her thread back we discover in the subtle nuances of her writing, a sly curvature of composition that made her the myth creator. Using her pen as a wand she performed magic for over fifty years. 

The writer, Colette at her desk

The writer, Colette at her desk


Words are one part of writing, but style is quite another.  Writers speak of finding their voice. Colette found hers by becoming the consummate courtesan of Life.  Her mythologized perfect lives of a happy schoolgirl, dance hall performer, and courtesan/seductress became so intertwined with her real life that she, herself, couldn’t unwind them.  And why should she even try? We are all our own creation.  We are all our finest work of art.  And if we are not, then perhaps it is time to remember that we are Artists of the Everyday. Time once again to pick up the brush, or the pen, or the pot, or the pan or the spade.


“Be happy,” she advised young women and writers.  “It’s one way of being wise.”  I am only starting to realize that this advice is not age specific.  So this week let us try to find small ways each day to be happy in honor of April’s enchantment.


But before we delve further with Colette’s sleight of hand, let me tell you about a book which has given me such pleasure and insight over the years that I want to press it into your hands and send you home to begin page turning.  It’s the British lecturer and writer, Frances Wilson’s enthralling Literary Seductions: Compulsive Writers and Diverted Readers, which you’ll need to source second hand but it’s so worth the search.  Wilson coined the term “literary seduction” giving expression to the magic between reader and writers that ends in courtship, such as Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett or W.B. Yeats and his young wife “Georgie” in the autumn of his years.


However, literary seduction also aptly describes the swooning way that we fall in love with certain books.  It should be an easy thing, really, the reading of a book.  You pick a book up, open it, fix your gaze, and begin.


Well, maybe so and maybe not.  As a reader, I’m very hard on books, but never publicly. I’m a Babe raised to remember “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” For a couple of years when I was starting out I was a free lance arts critic, but the barbaric and unnecessary cruelty that some reviewers spew out so that they sounded clever, breaks fragile hearts and that is so unnecessary.   Each day we all have enough slings and arrows to bear.  I didn’t last in that job for very long.  It reminds me of the time when I took private fencing lessons in New York with a very brilliant French coach but after a few lessons he told me I could never be a fencing champion because I lacked the killer instinct. If I couldn't be the best, why was he wasting his time teaching me? "You hesitate at the kill. This is instinctual. I can do nothing for you.  This is not your skill. This is not your sport. This is not your art."  Forbidding me to take lessons, it only made me love fencing more.  


But back to books.  It’s got to be love at first sight for me.  I need to be bowled over by an author’s insight, to wonder how I lived before this book explained it all to me, or how the author knew me so well.


In reality, while there is often a mystical bond between writer and reader, the truth is the author is just trying to figure out his or her own life, on the page, not mine as the reader.  But the alchemy that occurs when the reader recognizes her own life on the page—well, that’s what I mean when I describe a cherished writer as a literary seduction.


 My favorite way to trigger a literary seduction is to read biographies of the writer I’m interested in first, if there are any and then her books in order of their writing.  The older the bios, the better for me, as are old newspaper and magazine interviews and of course, the internet makes this research so much easier. Older articles provide unexpected color about the writer, because it’s the culture that the writer is living in and through that gives so much insight.  Here’s the New Yorker’s  Janet Flander describing Colette in the June 1, 1935 issue:


“Colette, the famous French writer, who is coming here on the Normandie, [a famous French ocean liner] is never called anything but Colette, but her full name is Madame Gabrielle-Sidonie Colette.  She is now in her early sixties, a plump, short, determined, witty lady with a friendly alto voice, fine gray eyes, moss-colored, curly, short hair, and a tendency not to care much what she wears so long as it’s comfortable and includes a gay scarf.  For forty years, she has been a notable figure about Paris, famous for her dinners and her mots justes…


Called Frances’s greatest woman writer since George Sand, Colette is also known as France's most famous literary cat-lover since Baudelaire.  She has had dozens of cats—Persians, Siamese, alley—and owned an ocelot, but it bit everyone but her and she had to rid of it…


She writes her books in long-hand and is eccentric about the paper she uses.  She has always bought it by the pound, once in any color but white, but now only blue or green because these shades are easier than any others on her eyes…Colette collects glass canes, ships in bottles, Chinese nuts, anything carved in small hard stones and Louise-Philippe floral paperweights, of which she has one of the finest collections there is.  She will tolerate only one kind of wallpaper, a glace chintz.  When she went to Claridge’s to live at one time, they had to put glace chintz paper on the walls for her."


Now, I ask you, doesn’t this tell you almost all you’d need to know about the woman who made both Marcel Proust and Andre Gide (the French novelist and Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1947) weep when they read her work and wrote to tell her so.

Leslie Caron as the young Gigi, in "Gigi"

Leslie Caron as the young Gigi, in "Gigi"


As you begin this month’s exploration of Colette, I recommend Judith Thurman’s extraordinary Secrets of the Flesh:  A Life of Colette which took her a decade to research and write. I love Judith Thurman: she brings such insight and romance to the lives of her subjects.  And then, of course, you move on to Colette’s novels Cheri, The Last of Cheri and Gigi.

Leslie Caron as Gigi

Leslie Caron as Gigi

You will also swoon over Michelle Pfeiffer as the exquisite older woman who teaches a young gentleman about love in the film Cheri, and Leslie Caron is adorable in the Lerner and Lowe musical Gigi (1958) from Colette’s 1944 novella about the grand-daughter of a famous courtesan who is being trained to follow in her Grand Mama’s profession, but ends us having a wealthy, cultured French playboy marrying her when he cannot win her love without respectability.

I would now conjure up for you a box of the French bakery Laduree’s beautiful pastel Parisian macaroons, tea, a glass of pink champagne and a Sunday afternoon in bed.


Oh, my goodness, it feels as if my dispatch is done.  So enjoy April Sundays, my Babe, and sending you blessings and my dearest love,

XO SBB

Marmalade for Beginners

Many of us, including me, are very fragile in the
morning, and I certainly don’t like any surprises at
breakfast.  Marmalade is really a personal thing.

                                  -- Darina Allen

 

Cole Phillips

Cole Phillips

In my mind’s eye, where I live most of the time, there is adjacent to the kitchen, a room size pantry painted in Farrow and Ball Glossy Cream #67 with groaning shelves of contentment humming hosannas.  

Here reside the crown jewels, sparkling amber, burgundy, and midnight blue in their cut glass jars, with their crocheted collars and crisp calico caps ready for a Queen’s review.  My hand alights upon of jar of dark orange with fruit slivers suspended in the thick amber of anticipation.  I’m preparing the breakfast tray for tomorrow.  It is the beginning of March, the longest month of the year. Only five days into it and everyone is waiting for it to be over: for winter to be gone, for spring to arrive, for the annual report, the royalties statement, the school and college acceptance letters, the taxes done, the retirement annuity to come.  March is the month we all spend stranded on an Agatha Christie mystery island waiting.  

Waiting.  Waiting. Waiting while knowing there’s no one coming to rescue us; waiting while the other random guests are dropping like flies in rooms locked from the inside.

 "No one’s coming for ye’ in this storm Madam,” (rhymes with ham) shouts Old Ben, waterlogged for the last century in his slick yellow Mackintosh and sou’wester hat. “Better you be in the Big House” until April like when your reg’lar man be back with the boat and the post.” 

The boat and the post?  Not until April?  Have we to wait an entire month to get to April and the @#$%^& Report? Don't you understand?  I need this information now!

Lord, have mercy. It’s freezing, rainy, and clammy, the kind of dampness that creeps into your very bones only to leave pleurisy as a personal memento of these four weeks of hell and high water. March, more than any other month in the year, has been known to drive sane women mad, behind bars or on the floor of one. Better we get back to the Big House and our reverie, Babe.  I'll put on the kettle.

You’ll recall when last we left the reverential quietude of the pantry, the slender female hand was alighting upon the jar of Seville orange marmalade, as should we all.

Did you know that after gifts of gold, silk, and fragrance had failed him, King Solomon seduced the Queen of Sheba with oranges?  Queen Isabella gave royal orange tree cuttings to Columbus as a bonus for discovering the new world.  The great 17th-century Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes found inspiration sampling them as he wrote his bittersweet romantic fantasy Don Quixote.  There’s a lot you can do with a box of Spanish oranges.  Now imagine bearing gifts—fruits—of the bitter Spanish Seville or Malaga oranges which come in season for just six weeks after Christmas.  Romantics and political rivals have known how to play these subtle but persuasive gifts in their pursuit of power.  A bribe?  Don't be ridiculous; it was merely a jar of jelly.  Did I mention that at the beginning (practically of Time) oranges blossomed only in the perfumed palace gardens of Far Eastern potentates and that Chinese empresses, Arabian princes and Indian maharajahs reserved this rare, prized fruit for special occasions:  love offerings.

“Marmalade fueled the breakfast tables of the British empire—the high sugar content meant it survived the journey from Dundee to Darjeeling with characteristic stoicism,” the award-winning British food journalist and author Felicity Cloake tells us, leaving “its sticky legacy in many former colonies, remaining popular in Australia and New Zealand in particular. [Captain Robert Falconer] Scott took some Frank Cooper’s Vintage Oxford Marmalade to the Antarctic (which I hope provided at least one small moment of cheer on that ill-fated endeavor), Sir Edmund Hillary carried a jar with him on his Everest expedition, and James Bond’s breakfast of choice is a boiled egg—followed by whole meal toast, Jersey butter, and more Cooper’s.  Even the Queen is partial to a spoonful or two of Frank’s finest.”

Now you might be able to make the best marmalade in the world yourself, but I can't, and if this is the first time you've even thought about it, probably you won't either.  However, for our information, the empirical scope of marmalade is so grand and far-reaching that there is now an international competition known as The Worlds' Original Marmalade Festival 2017 which is being held the weekend of March 18th-19th  at the English Lake District’s Dalemain Mansion and Historic Garden in Cumbria, England (dalemain.com).

The Marmalade Festival. Photo credit: dalemain.com

The Marmalade Festival. Photo credit: dalemain.com

 The categories are smile-inducing: 

Home Cooks (Seville Orange Marmalade; Romantic Marmalade; Citrus Marmalade; Military Marmalade)

Children’s Marmalade (under the age 16)

Man-Made Marmalade (testosterone fueled only)

Clergy Marmalade (ministers, rabbis, monks and anyone working with religious group)

Octogenarian’s Marmalade

Gardener’s Marmalade

The most enjoyable instructions and philosophy on marmalade I’ve found so far is Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The Time-Honored Ways are the Best—Over 700 Recipes Show You Why by the extraordinary Darina Allen, who has been called the Irish Julia Child" and who runs the world-renowned cookery school at Ballymaloe in County Cork, Ireland.

Photo Credit: by Peter Cassidy for "Forgotten Skills of Cooking" by Darina Allen

Photo Credit: by Peter Cassidy for "Forgotten Skills of Cooking" by Darina Allen

But I did title this musing “Marmalade for Beginners” and here’s my best recommendation— Amazon.  They have Tiptree, Dundee, even Frank’s Oxford marmalade.   I wish Dalemain, which now sells winners, shipped to the US, but you must enquire about shipping costs, and I've learned that always means more costly “waiting.” 

 I also wish I could tell you there’s an American made marmalade which I recommend, but I can’t.  In fact, I was “gobsmacked” to discover in my California supermarket a French version which I’m still puzzling over.  My sister found me in the supermarket aisle starring off into space, my disconnect puzzling. Baguettes, croissants, brioche, Brie, salted chocolate chip cookies?  Mais, oui bien sûr! French orange marmalade?  Absurde!

For true marmalade requires the bittersweet Seville Spanish oranges (and only a 6 week season—it’s an international offense to pick an orange in Spain) and they simply can’t be cultivated here, so I’ve been told. However, I’d also be wary of a bottle of Kansas City barbecue sauce if it was sold at Harrods’s because I’d be checking its sell by date.

So here's a parting thought as we wait until March goes all together. Did you know that Victorian homemakers called their preserves "good deeds?"  If you wanted to host a March Marmalade brunch with family or girlfriends, it could yield hours of laughter, well-spent moments, a new taste sensation and maybe even a new activity for the annual wish list.  Next year’s Marmalade Festival.  They’re taking international entries now.  I’ll be waiting for one of you clever Babes to let us all know where we can get our Seville Oranges!

Sending dearest love and blessings to you and yours, 

XO SBB

Fireside Dreams and Heirloom Seed Catalogs

From December to March, there are for many of us three gardens: the garden outdoors, the garden of pots and bowls in the house and the garden of the mind’s eye.                                             

--Katherine S. White

Kitchen Garden woodcut Fortune Aug 1937.jpeg

Deep into the shortest month of the year and I’m still holding in my imagination “China tea, the scent of hyacinths, wood fires and bowls of violets—that is my mental picture of an agreeable February afternoon,” as the marvelous English gardener, interior floral designer and author Constance Spry (1886-1960) summed up the season of cozy contentment that has now commenced.

In the spirit of full disclosure this would be the time to reveal that for several years now, I have only had one garden between January to December—the perennial garden in my mind’s eye, which is so much more satisfying than the other two, for it flourishes without weeding, water, warmth or light, needing only scissors, glue and graph paper to thrive.  Rainy, inclement Sunday nights when the sleet is lashing at the windows while sipping an Irish coffee, is a perfect setting for this reverie: cutting out lush borders, fragrant trellis trimming roses, pink parrot tulips, heavy boughs of while lilac and sweet peas, then arranging them around a scrapbook center fold is sheer delight.  This shall be my cutting garden.  However, is the year we shall have a Kitchen Garden enclosed with a white picket fence?  Why not?  Snip, snip, paste, paste, dream, dream.

The first summer after I moved to California, I did plant an English cottage garden with roses, hollyhocks, larkspur, peonies and delphiniums, much to my disappointment since it was the first summer of the drought and literally everything withered on the vine. So now I enjoy the world of succulents and cactus with primroses in pots.

 But one passionate pursuit which never disappoints is receiving seed catalogs in the post from hither and yon, appearing in all their glory like Regency era heroines, all fresh faced and dewy eyes, pink flushed décolleté trailing tendrils of lace, fulfilling every desire known to womankind, as well as providing a sophisticated sort of gardening trivia usually reserved for Jeopardy tournaments.

Did you know that Chinese cabbage has been a treatment for male baldness for 3,000 years?  Or that Thomas Jefferson cultivated 17 different kinds of lettuce in his garden at Monticello, (but then he had been the first U.S. Ambassador to France).  Can you guess the vegetable that goes by these names:  Black Prince, Crème Brulee and Chocolate Stripes?  Heirloom tomatoes.  I know, I can’t think of tomatoes as fruit either, although botanists tell us if a plant has seeds, she’s a fruit.   But if a tomato wants to be a fruit or a vegetable, she’s all delicious to me, come July afternoons with a salt shaker.  More to the point of this week’s musing, did you know there are over 700 varieties of heirloom tomatoes?  The mind boggles.

If you’ve not yet added seed catalogs to your personal repertoire of winter well-spent moments, to inspire you, may I recommend you begin this contentment triggering indulgence by reading Katharine S. White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden a collection of a dozen gardening essays?  It’s marvelous! Katharine Sergeant Angell White (1892-1977) was an editor at The New Yorker from its heady, early days in 1925 until her retirement in 1958.  She was also an avid gardener.  Her husband, the writer E.B. White of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little fame, recalls in the introduction to his wife’s book published after her death in 1977:

“She simply accepted the act of gardening as the natural thing to be occupied with in one’s spare time, no matter where one was or how deeply involved in other affairs…

“How she loved shopping in catalogues!  Hour after hour she studied, sifted, pondered, rejected, sorted—in the delirium of future blooming and fruiting.  Harris was her dream catalog; it was always within reach (www.harrisseeds.com). No longer able to sit at the desk or at a typewriter, she had abandoned her cozy study at the front of the house and taken up a place at one end of the living room sofa, propped with pillows.  This became the control center of the house.  The sofa served as desk as well as seat and it soon became buried under a mountain of catalogues, books, letters, files, memoranda, Kleenex, ash trays and miscellany.  The extraordinary accumulation, which would have driven me crazy, never seemed to annoy her or slow her up.  I built her a coffee table, to catch the overflow from the sofa.  The table was soon groaning under its own load.  Yet she usually knew where something was, however, deeply it was buried."

Eventually, this insatiable passion for gardening catalogs prompted her to take up writing after decades of editing.  Her first feature was a critical review of seed catalogs and nurserymen which launched her famous gardening series “Onwards and Upward” in 1958.  Her husband explains:  “In addition to surprising thousands of New Yorker readers and dozens of seedsmen, Katharine managed to startle a third party—me—her husband…the thing that started her off was her discovery that the catalogue makers were, in fact, writers…She stumbled on a whole new flock of creative people, handy substitutes for the [John] O’Haras, the [Vladamir] Nabokovs, the [Jean]Staffords of her profession.”

Author, Katherine White

Author, Katherine White

What I continue to love about Katharine White (there’s a meditation of her in SA June 19th) is that her enthusiasm is catching.  Here is a Swell Dame gardener after my own heart, in a tweed jacket, pearls and Ferragamo shoes. Now add a large straw hat tied with a Schiaparelli scarf and a pair of “Foxgloves” gardening gloves designed like a dress gloves from the 1950s (foxglovesinc.com) and that is my idea of gardening heaven.

 So if you’ve not read Mrs. White gather her book (Amazon, Goodreads) and visit Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com) where you can download their catalog.  You’ll also find out about spring planting festivals and The Heirloom Gardener magazine.  Baker Creek is also responsible for the restoration and preservation of Comstock, Ferre & Company in Westhersfield, Connecticut, which is the oldest continuously operating seed company in New England, selling seeds since 1811.  Another wonderful seed hobby is to collect them when you visit famous historic houses and gardens for tours which will begin again in May and June all over the world. There is always a way for us to begin enjoying once again those things that we love, especially in small ways.

Sometimes in our efforts to protect ourselves from being hurt, we block out entire years trying to isolate the painful memories by casting every memory asunder. I remember what joy and  contentment it gave me to learn about Rare Breeds sheep in England, as well as heirloom vegetables, mystical trees, heritage roses and then when I left England so abruptly, it’s as if a door was slammed shut on the mud room of my heart and imagination forever.

But I’m starting to remember once again, in small melodies of memory, hearing once again a reverie of contentment.  I think a wonderful way to start planting dreams again is with an heirloom kitchen potage on my California patio this summer.  So I think that I’ll send off for Mache Verte a Coeur Plein or Lamb’s Ear lettuce, which makes the most delicious salad. 

Wishing you lovely reveries this week wherever you may find them, dearest Babes—and blessings on our courage.

XO SBB