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

 

The Great Romance

 

 

 

Falling in love consists merely in uncorking the imagination and bottling the common-sense.

--Helen Rowland  (1906)

 

 

 

 

Falling in love with love, always wanted to.  What’s a Babe to do? Can’t help it.  So this week why don’t we just riff on romance?  You see, I’m an incurable but hopeful romantic and personally I believe that in order to be happy, romance should be in between the lines of our daily round, whether we are attached and especially if we are not.

Did you know that making love is only endeavor to simultaneously engage and excite all seven of a woman’s senses:  sight, sound, scent, taste, touch, knowing and wonder?  That’s because love makes all things new.

When we are in the throes of a great romance, our sensory perceptions soar.  “The flesh of a peach, the luminosity of early morning, the sound of distant church bells—the pleasure the lovers take in all the small experiences is heightened by love, suffused with special meaning,” Ethel S. Person tells us in her fascinating exploration of romantic passion, Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters.  “We become magnets drawn ineluctably into the meaning of Life because love initiates us “into the divine mysteries.”

Like many women, I was raised to believe that the good things in life—the peach, the sunrise, the church bells—are meant to be shared.  However, into the span of every woman’s life comes solitary seasons through choice, change, or circumstance.  But in July the peach grows heady in its sweetness and hypnotic in its fragrance whether or not we walk through the orchard with a partner, lover, or husband.  If a long-standing relationship or marriage has ended, we often discover ourselves “too busy” to continue the tradition of visiting a local farm to collect peaches.  If there isn’t someone to share this pleasure with, why bother?  If no one is going to praise your pie, why bake it?  Without realizing it, we transform the arbor into another ark, to be entered into two by two, or not at all.  And when we do this, we wound ourselves terribly, much more than any former paramour could.

 Women often confuse love and romance.  God knows I did.  While both are frequently in each other’s company, they’re not the same.  Think of love as emotion.  Romance is its evocative expression.

Romance reveals the depth and breadth of a lover’s feelings in a particular way.  Love can be conveyed in an e-mail, but when a woman receives a handwritten letter, she being romanced.  The time it took, the glimpse of her name in his handwriting—these are the things that makes her heart beat faster.  

Dudovich, vintage postcard

Dudovich, vintage postcard

If love is a dessert, romance is a pear tart with raspberry sauce and Muscat-raisin ice cream.  If love is a dance, romance is a tango.  If love is a trip, romance is a journey on the Orient Express, a ride through the park on a bicycle built for two, or a long distance call from your lover who is half way around the world on a business trip in an exotic setting saying that he misses you and won’t you come join him; he’ll use his travel miles to buy you a ticket.  How does he love thee?  140,000 air miles manage to convey much more romance than Christian Grey’s private plane ever could.

A woman can be loved truly, madly, deeply, but if the only way your suitor can express it is to mumble “Ditto” after you reveal your feelings, you might have love doll, but you definitely don’t have romance.  

Now here is something I want to share with you because once upon a time, a wise woman who loved me shared it and it was revelatory but of course to my regret, I didn’t listen to her then and now I do. Better late, ma Cherie. There is someone precious out there who needs to read this.  A man does not have to be a drug king, gangster, pimp, slumlord, philanderer, rapist or murderer to earn the adjective bad.  A bad man is any man who repeatedly (as in more than twice) behaves badly toward you or makes you feel bad, either while you’re in his company or without him.  Especially without him.  You’ll recognize the scoundrel because the odor of something sweetly rotten lingers in his wake.

A bad man can be a sage or a saint.  A bad man can be a priest, poet, philanthropist, or a politician.  A bad man can win the Nobel prize for economics or the Oscar for best director.  A bad man can feed the hungry or save the whales. A bad man can be someone else’s perfect husband; he just shouldn't be yours.  Of course, learning to recognize a bad man is a compulsory course in becoming a woman who eventually learns how to take care of herself and those she loves.  Or as the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings so succinctly put it: “A woman has got to love a bad man once or twice in her life, to be thankful for a good one.” 

Women want and need love but our constant craving is for romance.  So what are we supposed to do?  Take care of it ourselves.  We stop wishing that one of these days he’ll do it better. He won’t.  And if we’re alone, stop waiting for him to come along.  He might, but then again, he might not.  The most delicious midlife secret for a woman is that while the tango requires two, living a deeply rewarding romantic life requires only one.  You.  Surround yourself with the things that you love. Indulge in beautiful lingerie. Escape into armchair adventures—unusual sleuths, film noir.  Reconsider red—lips, nails, shoes, walls.  Slip on bangles and treat yourself to brioche.  Curl your hair, cinch your waist.  Remember that chocolate becomes you, so show off your curves.  Find your perfect scent, don’t start or end the day without it. Or find one for the daylight hours and one for your nights.  Above all, become your own courtesan.

The history of courtesans reveal that the most successful in history were highly accomplished women of not only great beauty, but wit and intelligence.  Highly sought companions of royalty, prime ministers, and wealthy gentlemen, they were expertly skilled in the elegant arts, which included conversing (debate, tête-à-tête, riposte), flirtation, entertaining, music, poetry, art, sports, politics and intrigue. 

As with other specialty trades—Spanish bullfighting or Venetian gondoliering—learning the subtle nuances of courtesanship was mostly a family affair.  In the delightful 1958 film Gigi, based on a short story by the French writer Colette, a young girl is being groomed as a courtesan by her grandmother, and her training includes everything from table manners (“Bad table manners, my dear Gigi, have broken up more households than infidelity”) to the art of entering a room.  Allure is attainable, my darlings. There’s much to be said for the revival of courtesan grooming for women of all ages.  Not to woo the world, mind you, but to seduce yourself with the Great Romance.

 Here’s how to start.  Say aloud, I am the most fascinating woman in the world because I can…Now fill in the blanks.  I can prepare perfect lobster risotto.  I can speak Italian fluently.  I can play billiards or bridge or chess.  What have you always wanted to do or understand?  How to remember that The Iliad is about war and The Odyssey about love?  Make a list.

What social situations do you avoid because you feel awkward?  From learning how to hold a fish fork or hold up your end of a conversation at a Downton Abbey dinner party (speak to the person on your right during the first course, then to the person on your left the next) ,make up your mind that you’re going to dismantle your fear with information.  We can all use a little finishing school polish—whether it’s through lessons, lectures, books, exhibitions or the internet.  So if you want more romance in your life become a secret know it all.  Do you have any idea how thrilling it is to actually enjoy your own company?  It’s like having a numbered account in Switzerland. Something you can always bank on.  Begin to think of this year as a cosmic charm course.  Become your own courtesan and watch the world begin to court you.  “What if,” the novelist Willa Cather wondered, surely for all of us, “what if Life’s the sweetheart?”.

Now there’s a thought worth holding while choosing the perfect chocolate truffle.

Be well this week, darling Babes in arms. Love yourself and lavish affection on each other and try to flirt with a complete stranger this week.

Dearest love and always blessings on our courage.  

XOXO SBB

Rx for Frazzled Minds and Harried Hearts: Contentment Chests and Comfort Drawers

Gradually, as you become curator of your
own contentment you will learn to embrace
the gentle yearnings of your heart.

                                    --Simple Abundance (January 1st)

Remember how glorious life feels on a “good” day?  “It is as I imagine waltzing on ice might be. A great delicious sweep in one direction, taking you your full strength, and then with no trouble at all, an equally delicious sweep in the opposite direction,” the sublime Anglo-American playwright and Jungian psychologist Florida Scott-Maxwell reminisced in her marvelous memoir The Measure of My Days which she wrote when she was a mere slip of a girl of 84.  Here was a woman who knew how to wrestle a good day from a week and good years from decades, an art we can all aspire to accomplish and are our musings for this week.

Good days—ah, yes—the delicious sweep in full strength across the ice pond of time and space. How do we number them? Hmmm…Has it been that long for you, too, ma Chérie?  Well, on a good day you wake up refreshed, your hair behaves beautifully, your clothes are comfortably looser, all the lights are green, you’re early for every appointment, there are no lines, always a parking space, deadlines are met with ease. Checks arrive in the mail. Children, lovers and pets, all adorable.  Compliments abound. Dinner, from leftovers, is scrumptious, inexpensive and served forth with gusto; the discount wine sips like a grand cru, there’s a new riveting English mystery or period drama to watch. Everyone nestles snug in their bed. A quiet hour. The Gratitude Journal overflows and so do sweet dreams.

A bad day needs no poetic recall because we can’t seem to wake up or escape them.  Bad days begin, in the biblical sense of Job, Jonah or Jacob, after we’ve been tossing and turning to little avail, wrestling with worry and darkness instead of angels.  At least angels leave you with a blessing.  Still, lying awake and fretting about something that you cannot solve by yourself in the middle of the night produces nothing but frustration, bewilderment, despair and exhaustion and drains your three most precious natural resources: time, creative energy and emotion. You don’t have to wait until spring to join the Night’s Watch or the return of the Walking Dead.  You’re miles ahead of them.

So this is what I do to perk up or snap out of it, usually while I’m waiting for the tea to brew. Our minds cannot hold two opposing thoughts at the same time. And one picture of something delightful is better than turning on any 24/7 news feed which is toxic and teetering, no matter who is screaming at whom. We both know this immediately catapults us into upset while we’re still in our pajamas derailing the day quicker than the devil could wish. 

 So I go to a special fabric covered box and I open it. I take a deep breath. Then, I slowly finger its contents.  Inside are all kinds of things that make me happy—clippings from different magazines, cards and letters I’ve saved, matches from wonderful bistros, paint and fabric swatches, photographs, brochures, a rapturous curl of salmon colored silk ribbon.  What’s this? Here’s a travel promotion on heavy stock paper cardboard about great train journeys I hope to go on someday:  The elegantly restored glamorous South African Rovos Rail between Cape Town and Pretoria; the Art Deco Orient Express from London to Venice with stops in Paris, Innsbruck and Verona.  The seven night journey on the shocking pink Golden Chariot from Bangalore to Mysore and the Nagarhole National Park where I shall disembark … oh the kettle’s boiled…

But look, here’s a clipping that reminds me how much I love the idea of slipcovers for dining room chairs, with buttons down the back, like the spine of a Grace Kelly sheath; that vintage 1920s exuberantly colored hankies make fetching fabric bracelets and how a toddler’s blue and white smocked gingham dress from Best & Co (circa 1950) pulled together with a swathe of white silk ribbon makes the most adorable lampshade I’ve ever seen.  I feel better already.  Yes, I feel…dare I say it? Happily Distracted.   Once more reminded there is beauty in the world that personally lights a small candle of hope which makes facing dark moments so much easier.  Not easy, but easier.  Now it’s time to Keep Calm and Pray and have a cup of tea.  

The Contentment Chest grew out of one of Simple Abundance’s basic tools called the Comfort Drawer (March 7th) which was created with the intention to entice us to give Life another chance when we were having “criss-cross” days.   You see every suggestion in SA was originally gleaned as a personal science project—homegrown remedies for frazzled minds and harried hearts to comfort and cheer in my own Research & Development lab. Sweetheart, that’s how I know these remedies work.

The Comfort Drawer ritual is intended to break the cycle of bad days and restless, worrisome nights--that endless stretch somewhere between riding out Life’s unexpected squalls or getting us through “the getting through” stages which take longer than we ever expect. Eventually we begin to view ourselves as little more than work horses, carrying our loved ones safely through their rough patches with soothing words and small treats—then collapsing ourselves for another fitful night.  It’s so easy during tumultuous times to slowly but surely fall under the radar of self-care and then off our To-Do List altogether.  If you’re like me, when women go through challenges and crises, constantly rising to the occasion for others, even the thought of providing comfort for ourselves seems somehow frivolous and indulgent.  Babes in arms, we’ve got to get a grip for ourselves to keep going.

Why is self-nurturing so hard for women?  I’ve been asking myself that question for 25 years, privately and in print—and it’s still the most difficult challenge I’ve ever come up against.  I think if we start calling it “self-preservation”, we’d take self-care more seriously, because once you do start caring for yourself, the levees break, and a whole lot of shaking starts going on for a whole lot of other people.  However, if we want to begin writing our memoirs  at 84 like Florida Scott-Maxwell’s “one woman’s vivid, enduring celebration of life and aging” or be closing a Parisian runway show as the incomparable, 85-years-fabulous supermodel Carmen Dell’Orefice did for the Chinese couturier Guo Pei last week, then let the self-preservation commence. Let’s all to aspire to this Grand Swell Dame advice: “I’m going for 105, then I’ll see if I want to change professions.”  

Model Carmen Dell’Orefice at the January 2017 Guo Pei fashion show

Model Carmen Dell’Orefice at the January 2017 Guo Pei fashion show

For those readers, both cherished and/or new to the magic of Simple Abundance secrets, how about a little refresher?  Find one dresser drawer or pretty fabric covered storage boxes in which you can stockpile small indulgences.  Usually, these small treats are what people give you for your birthday or the holidays but instead of opening them, you keep them for moments when you can really enjoy them. THINK OF THIS AS YOUR SECRET STASH OF SERENITY. Shelves don’t really work because our little treats just spill over and we end-up bestowing them as gifts upon other lucky people to enjoy; and unlidded baskets, well we can’t even go there, my sweet, because that’s how that divinely decadent L’Occitane en Provence indulgent hand crème set ended up hidden under mismatched hand towels until you moved.

Like the time honored no fail-tradition of filling a Christmas stocking with “Something to eat, something to read, something to play with, and something they need,” here’s a simple Comfort Drawer recipe and evening.  Start with a fabulous bath and afterwards include something scrumptious to nibble, some sentimental to conjure up happy memories, something soothing to listen to (or watch), something lovely to sip, something soft to cuddle up in, something fragrant to smell and something delightful to peruse.  

In other words we reach and heal the soul through the senses.  To get you started, think small boxes of chocolate truffles (or diabetic hard candies), miniature (one-serving) fruit cordials or after dinner drinks; a vial of Bach’s Rescue Remedy (a homeopathic flower essence); a velvet herbal sleeping pillow, or aromatherapy pillow spray; a satin eye mask to shut out distractions; different bath oils or gels; a tin of fancy biscuits and a sampler of unusual teas.  Add magazines that you don’t read regularly, new-to-you detective novel, black and white movie DVDs, whatever you fancy but can’t stream and your own Desert Island discs.  Now with a pair of cashmere or angora socks, you’re pretty well set, if not for the next decade then at least the next month.

And the Contentment Chest?  I know that somewhere you have clippings, because most women are inveterate clippers from catalogs, magazines and savers of every piece of paper that’s ever crossed our palms.  We clip because we want to remember something lovely or beautiful or pleasant or intriguing or dream about another way of living, especially if it isn’t practical.  Who knows maybe it will be in the future?  But who cares?  Just looking at it makes us happy right now.  And that’s all that counts right at this moment.  

Women also tear and clip because we want to be organized.  This would be fine if we already had neatly marked filing folders waiting to receive these insights, but women are not organized when we’re worried, especially about money and our futures.  Sadly worries about both have a scurrying, furtive nature.  Our sacred passions and our genuine needs and wants—for security and serenity—become secretive and shameful because we believe if we can’t afford our dreams now, we must snuff them out or hide them.

This week I want you to take fifteen minute snatches (if you have a timer, even better) and just go around the house and find your stash.  If the clippings still don’t register a zing from your heart, toss and start fresh.  Be on the lookout for a pleasing covered, lidded box—Goldilocks size medium—and transform your yearnings into something tangible to soothe your ravished heart and worried mind.  As you collect what makes you happy, one clipping at a time, your capacity to dream begins anew.  As you become thankful for each moment of contentment and write it down to remember, our capacity for comfort grows, as does our capacity to share comfort with others.  The wonderful Melody Beattie reminds us, “Every moment in time we have it all, even when we think we don’t.”  Just shift your focus a few minutes at a time with bookends of Grace and goodness—at the beginning of each day and at the end.  It works wonders.

You’ll amazed when you discover the spiritual reason behind self-preservation.  If it seems like I'm writing about hand crème, Babe, read between the lines and feel how cherished every one of you are to me; it's only because I know for Whom I write, that my passion and purpose becomes a personal prompt to remind you to take care of yourselves (and in reminding you, I'm given a much needed nudge).  For when Heaven whispers to each of us, there are no hands or no feet on earth but yours to be instruments of peace, sowing love where there is hate, faith where there is doubt, hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness and joy to replace sadness, then you'll know you need to take better care of yourself for all of us. (Thank you St. Francis and St. Teresa of Avila for the reminder).

Sending you dearest love, and always from my heart to yours, blessings on our courage.

XO SBB

Caring for the Homefront

Woman must be the pioneer in this turning inward
for strength. In a sense she has always been the pioneer.

                                                                     --Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The Chrisman sisters, 1886. Lizzie Chrisman filed the first of the sisters' homestead claims in 1887. Lutie Chrisman filed the following year. The other two sisters, Jennie Ruth and Hattie, had to wait until they came of age to file. They both filed in 1892.

The Chrisman sisters, 1886. Lizzie Chrisman filed the first of the sisters' homestead claims in 1887. Lutie Chrisman filed the following year. The other two sisters, Jennie Ruth and Hattie, had to wait until they came of age to file. They both filed in 1892.

“These are challenging times in which to live.  But we are not the only generation of women to have known difficult days.  It is comforting to realize that others before us have persevered and prospered.  During the dark days of the Depression an editorial in the October 1932 issue of "Ladies’ Home Journal" encouraged readers to remember that “The return of good times is not wholly a matter of money.  There is a prosperity of living which is quite as important as prosperity of the pocketbook.”  But the magazine stressed that “It is not enough to be willing to make the best of things as they are.  Resignation will get us nowhere.  We must build what amounts to a new country.  We must revive the ideals of the founders.  We must learn the new values of money.  It is a time for pioneering—to create a new security for the home and the family….”

I wrote the above paragraph (which is today’s Simple Abundance meditation for January 22nd entitled The Prosperity of Living) over twenty-five years ago, at a time in my life when I was completely in the dark and struggling to know what my Divine calling and purpose was. I realize now, with the wry wisdom of the backwards glance, that I really wrote those words in an effort to console myself because I didn’t know if my words would ever be read by another pair of eyes. I was very discouraged; I felt such a complete failure at 44 and as if I’d achieved nothing. By then, I’d been writing for over two years a book that no publisher in America wanted to publish.  I needed a lot of comfort, consoling and encouragement and with no one to talk to except Heaven, which didn’t seem to be holding up their end of the conversation, I returned daily to my treasure chest of women’s periodicals from the late Victorian era through the 1950s, which I called “The Motherlode”, a personal vein of gold which I worked every day. The way I wrote was to find a quote to start and then see where the crumbs led me.  That day, I was back on the pioneer trail.  

I was always deeply moved by how “The Woman’s View” in periodicals changed every decade, especially from the Great Depression with its emphasis on home-making to abruptly taking the apron off for the factory floor during the years of World War II. But always, the goal was to spoon feed readers doses of optimism, hope, comfort or ways to find contentment, so they could continue on meeting the challenges of their daily rounds with courage and good cheer.  I particularly loved the home-centered rituals they inspired; drawing the curtains, turning on the soft golden lights, turning down the bed and slipping in a flannel covered hot water bottle to warm the sheets. If I could create and keep a safe place on the page like my illustrious, often anonymous mentors did for me, then perhaps I could create a refuge from all the hullabaloo of the outside world for other women.  

We read for pleasure or we read to quiet the pain from a deafening roar to a dull throb.  We read to forget who we are or discover it; we read to understand or be understood.  That is why I write as well.

What seems to have and continues to fall through the cracks of social and domestic history during the last 70 years is the very sacred need to keep up women’s morale on the Homefront through whatever social, political, economic turmoil or upheaval we are going through.  I have been blessed to have readers from around the world of all faiths, creeds, nationalities, political parties.  I’ve been astonished that the heart of Simple Abundance, a life style book based on the power of Gratitude has been loved and used in many ways: for a women’s Bible study, a women's executive retreat, stay at home mothers groups and by a United Nations economist when she wanted to explain globalization on a human scale.  From Colorado to Connecticut to Chile to Croatia to China, the pages between the pink book have brought comfort to women just like you and me.  If Simple Abundance often reads like a 500 page permission slip nudging you towards self-nurturance, that’s because it is.  Women have always cared for the world, one way or another, but we still don’t know how to take care of ourselves and if we can’t do one, then we can't do the other. I just love to share what I have sought:  Divine connection and the courage to go on, wherever the pioneer trails leads us.  We will not, cannot forget the legacy of love passed down to us, our daughters and granddaughters from generations of beautiful, brave and heroic women over the last century, who reach through the portcullis of the past watching over us and encouraging us to go on, further than they could even imagine.  But when I look at how far this week's homesteading pin-ups, the Chrisman Sisters went to achieve their dreams, well, just let me say, I don't want to be the one who lets these gals down.  

So I will celebrate and consecrate that indomitable spirit with every word in my cherished volumes of the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus.  It seems as if I have been shown my purpose and job, at least for today.  If I’m going to be called to be a Caretaker, it is the most beautiful compliment and description of my work in the world that I can imagine.    

So let me leave you with a really provocative self-care morsel to mull over for the next week.

Babe, you’re worn to a raveling.  Courage takes a lot out of a girl.  You need replenishing and restoration. “Sleep is your first defense,” the editors of House Beautiful advised its readers in 1942.   “Your value as an American citizen [or civilized woman] depends on how you slept last night.  If you slept badly, it is very likely that you are discouraged and pessimistic about the future.  If you woke this morning unrefreshed, chances are you didn’t do very good work today, that you weren’t as efficient as you should have been.”

"House Beautiful," 1942

"House Beautiful," 1942

“You know all of this is so.  You know it the sure way—from the practical experience of observing that your good days are preceded by good nights.  So it is no stretch of the imagination to claim that sound sleep is our first defense.  For in the months, and maybe years, that lie ahead of us we cannot fall prey to fatigue.  The life that stretches ahead of each of us offers no place for pessimism, irritability or inefficiency.”

Usually women take to bed when the candle’s completely burned out or we’re dropping like a stone.  Changing the world takes a lot of physical, emotional, creative and metaphysical energy.  What we really should be doing is calling 9 p.m the “nighty-nighty” hour so that we can settle in bed with a little reading, our Gratitude Journal, some chamomile tea and cozy bedtime rituals.   Did you know that every hour you’re in bed before midnight provides more rejuvenation than 3 hours spent sleeping after midnight?

So please tuck yourself into bed two nights this week at 9 pm.  That means, lights out, no phone, no electric green beams of light coming from the iPad on to the ceiling.  And when you begin to fidget and fuss, just imagine Mother Slumber at the door, whispering, “Hush, there, sweetheart, you’re very weary and need a good night’s sleep.  Now close your eyes, brave, beautiful girl.  God bless you Baby...  See you when the darkness goes, darling.   No, I won’t close the door all the way…”

Sending dearest love, cherished pioneer girl.

Blessings on our courage,

XO SBB

On Keeping Winter

Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friend, and for a talk beside the fire. It is the time for home.
--Edith Sitwell (English poet, 1887-1964)

 

Photo © Rob McDougall

Photo © Rob McDougall

Last night it snowed all over the world. Not here in Los Angeles, where it’s raining, but pretty much all over the known world or as my Irish Nana used to say, “Anywhere you’d want to be going, child.”  The east, mid-west and the southern States are in a severe choke-hold of below freezing temperatures and wintry weather, snow and sleet.  Europe is virtually shut down, icicles on Roman fountains and forecasters in England are predicting historic blizzards this week. It’s about time the Shetland ponies Fivla of Finnister and Millhouse Vitamin were buttoned up in their beautiful and custom designed Fair Isle “jumpers” that Mrs. Doreen Brown of the Shetland Collection knitted for them using wool from Shetland sheep.  However, if they were my ponies, they’d not only be wearing beautiful winter sweaters but they’d be dozing by the fire, safe indoors from the “lashing cold wet” with the pregnant ewes, which probably goes a good long way towards explaining why my career as a rare breed sheep farmer has not been a roaring success.  But I have plans, Babe, I still have grand plans.  

Well, that’s it for the weather report.  For what holds our interest today is not only the external weather but our internal meteorological conditions.  Because even when it doesn’t snow, a woman’s emotional barometer needs to register “dormant” one way or another.  Of course, there’s the unpleasant association between illness and the holidays.  There isn’t a woman I know who doesn’t have at least one Christmas or New Year’s sick story in her arsenal because by the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one, Babe, we’re worn to a raveling. So winter will get you in the sweaty flannel pants, one way or another, especially if you try to ignore her.  But curiously enough, if we honor winter by “Keeping” her, the season brings gifts.

Photo by Caleb George 

Photo by Caleb George 

When I hear of the snow blanketing England, I recall with gratitude, wistfulness and a deep sigh of contentment the lessons I learned living for a decade in the deep English countryside. Particular among these lovely memories, is the 18th century English expression of “Keeping” a season or holiday, which refers to the traditional ways people in the countryside restored their bodies and nurtured their souls by honoring in their daily rounds, the rhythm of the natural world.  Sowing, reaping, sitting still, gathering in, honoring and when you could, which was not often, luxuriating in rest.  Actually the Commandments instruct us to do it every six days but I don’t know many women who actually do. But that as they say, is another musing for another day, probably a Sunday.

Back to Winter Idylls. How marvelous it was to wake up to a magical silence in the middle of the night, with the moon streaming dazzling light through the arched windows above my bed. When I looked outside, a hushed white world was bathed in iridescence, all opal and mother-of-pearl tinged hues.  Mother Nature had pulled a soft, muffling comforter up to the countryside’s chin and tucked us in for a wintry reverie.  I have always adored snow days—as a child, as a mother of a child and as a grown woman living without a child at home—for the recognition of an “official” snow day and the sanctioned slipping back under the covers in celebration of a much needed respite from crises, which triggers grateful glee in all her glory.

When it snows in the back of the beyond, there are no plows to dig you out or trucks to salt the narrow, icy, hilly lanes.  In the winter, in the country, you “keep” in one place, which for me was in front of the fireplace with several pots of tea, ginger shortbread biscuits and a large stack of books.  In a few days when the sun shines and the temperature climbs above freezing, the snow will melt—your hint that the hiatus is over.  Surprisingly, you’re refreshed and invigorated in a way that a planned vacation never seems to provide and you pick up with interest what was ever set down.  Once again, happy with your lot in life, you dispatch your obligations with good humor, efficiency and satisfaction.  What is this unusual state of grace? You have “kept” winter, and winter has “kept” you from losing your mind.

Now that I live where it doesn’t snow, winter brings the “rainy season” and I’m parched until it arrives and these last few years we’d had a dreadful drought. It’s the closest thing I can get to honoring my soul’s need for hibernation and becoming dormant.  It’s taken me a  l o n g time to learn, recognize, even appreciate that what seems like uncreative moments or episodes in my life are actually the opposite.  Yes, we want to plant seeds for the future, but the ground of our imagination is hard, frozen, dead, not only to the rest of the world but ourselves.  The biggest part of any creative project mirrors the natural world.  I know that sometimes I’m shocked when I’ll read that an author or film director worked for more than a decade on a project (the celebrated Martin Scorsese took 28 years to make his new movie Silence) but then with wonderment I’ll be astonished at the depth and breadth of its scope.  It makes such sublime common sense to me and is a comfort as an artist.  People ask me why I don’t write another Simple Abundance?  I respond, secretly gasping: “It took me five years to do it.”  Now there are so many creative projects I want to do, I don’t know how to begin any of them so they’re piling up in the Perhaps This basket while I keep my day job. For those of you dear hearts who have enquired, I actually have been writing a new book for over the last year, showing up for work every day and have more drafts that I can literally count, but it’s taken me this long just to truly understand Her and the story She Who Must Be Obeyed wants to tell and quite frankly, it bears no resemblance to the book I began writing last year.  But then when I started Simple Abundance I thought it was about clearing out clutter.   What I truly need is a seasonally sanctioned time out—so I can hear myself think, preferably to the rhythm of the raindrops.

I’m not one of those people who believes that God sends us disasters and heartaches to “test” us, but I do believe that Providence will use any situation we find ourselves in—especially those long, dark nights, months and seasons of the soul—to help us break through to the other side with unexpected blessings which is spiritual growth.  Think of how a GPS in your car will automatically adjust whenever you miss the right turn you were supposed to take. Seamlessly, it seems to me, the route is changed and altered and we hear a pleasant woman’s voice telling us that in 500 yards we’re to take a left to continue on our way.  I think that honoring the seasons of the year and in life, offers us the same rerouting option.  However, I know now that if we’re not living in accord with Mother Nature or the Great Creator, one way or another Spirit knows how to get our attention.  I’ve gone to bed with a cold and gotten up six weeks later after a bout with pleurisy and the first few pages of a new book—which, by the way, no doubt will not be in the published version.  It’s happened 14 times before, and finally I'm beginning to recognize a pattern here. 

So Babe, if you’re snowed in (or rained out for my West Coast beauties) or snowed under, accept or better yet, let the hibernation be a creative and spiritual time out.  What could your January 2017 Gratitude Journal note?  Well, here some much appreciated Joyful Simplicities and happy Well-Spent Moments from mine:  A fireplace; a cord of dry wood; fire-starters that really work; long matches; ice-skating without breaking any bones; Sonja Henie movies; period dramas set in winter; slowly simmering stews; a new soup recipe; the perfect snow-scraper; great winter boots; perfect rain boots; warm socks; having the walk shoveled by someone else; Welsh rarebit on toast; feeding the squirrels and birds; not losing one of my favorite gloves before the month is over, having two pairs of my favorite gloves in case I do; getting the electricity back on; knowing where to find the candles, matches and flashlights in the dark; hot running water; the reassuring sound, scent and warmth of heat coming through an old radiator; a winter hat I look good in; getting home before the snow or rain starts; a stocked pantry of staples; and a wealth of warm things to eat and drink—hot porridge with warm maple syrup; pancakes with orange flavored sugar; hot cinnamon buns from the oven; strong café au lait, spiced cocoa; pre-lunch consommé; lemon verbena tisane, glass tumblers of glogg; hot buttered rum or hot whiskey toddies resplendent with lemon and cloves…

“It is winter proper; the cold weather, such as it is has come to stay,” the incomparable Annie Dillard advises us.  “I bloom indoors in the winter like forced forsythia; I come in to come out…”  And my beloved Babe, so can we.

Sending dearest love and prayers that you and yours will stay safe, dry and warm and always sheltered from the storm and of course,  

Blessings on our courage,

XO SBB

PS - For those of you who will ask, Doreen Brown’s marvelous website is:                http://www.shetland-knitwear.co.uk

The Shape of a Woman's Year

A new year is a gift, a small piece of infinity, to do with as we will.  Things happen. We grow (we hope), and we learn willy nilly.  Life moves around us, life moves through us to others, and the year gradually accepts its pattern. We give, we take, we resist, we flow.       

--Jean Hersey, The Shape of a Year (1967)

“No two years are ever alike, no two Januarys,” Jean Hersey reassures me in her lyrical countryside book, The Shape of a Year written exactly fifty years ago from her Connecticut house “set in a meadow bounded by a rushing brook and hills covered with maples and hemlocks.”  She tells me about “her neighbors, her husband and their visiting children and grandchildren; about winter nights by the fire with books and handiwork, summer days in the garden or on the non-too-distant beach; music to make or listen to; seeds to plant and harvest, birds at the feeder in the woods; icicles freezing outside the window and orchids blooming inside.”

This my kind of escapist literature, although Mrs. Hersey wrote her personal narrative as a natural studies memoir.  Her publisher (Charles Scribner) describes her as an “obviously happy person and this is a happy book,” which in my personal experience usually means a book written for too little money and in too little time.  Too much cheerful makes me a tad suspicious.  Still, any book that begins in January always has my rapt attention because they possess a sassy style about them and high octane optimism.

Yes, the weather outside is frightful, but we can bundle up and make an entire snow family in the backyard and then, sip a mug of hot cocoa while Mother (or Nana) prepares tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch.  Then we’ll have a “lovely cozy” (much needed nap in grownup lingo).

You might not have caught on by now, but I am a seasonal gal.  Neil Sedaka once wrote a song describing me as his “Calendar Girl” (not really about me) but I bopped to his catchy tune in my wonder years and still do.  And here is a wonderful life lesson:  While you can take the woman out of the seasons, you cannot take the seasons out of the woman.  Love them all, don’t you?  Love each month’s syncopated rhythm.  Love the snowflakes, the valentines, the shamrocks, the Easter eggs, the Maypole, June’s strawberries, July’s fireworks, August’s hammocks, September’s yellow socks and plaid lunch boxes, Octobers pumpkins, November’s turkeys and December’s festive frenzy and convivial chaos.  And before we know it, another new year arrives.  If this is true for you, too, then blessed are we among women.

Have you ever given much thought to approaching the New Year as a natural template for re-jigging your personal perspective on the year ahead?  Jean Hersey suggests we try and it makes a lot of sense to me.

“The Season of Winter:  January brings us a new year, crisp and fresh and white…February is blue ice and deep snow…March is restless and wild and windswept…These are the months when our lives are lived largely within four walls, under a man-made roof, and snugly protected against wind and weather.  Intermittent forays into the world of nature are brief and when we venture forth we are bundled in heavy clothing against the elements.  How we welcome our warm homes again! Short days are followed by long evenings of glowing fires, of books and pleasant conversations into the night.  On the wildest of storm days we find ourselves dreaming of next summer’s vacations or perhaps planning special garden features and delving into the provocative seed catalogues.  This is a time for dreaming.  All through these weeks there is an undercurrent of anticipation, a waiting, an expectancy, a preparation.”

What are you anticipating?  Is it something that brings an immediate smile, just the thought of it?  Is it a dream?  Or have you abandoned dreaming in the past few years?  It takes so long to birth an authentic dream, but I know if this is the point you’re ready to give up, let me ask you to hold on just a little longer.  Your dream wants me to remind you that especially when we can’t see anything in the outer world, especially when we think that Heaven and our dreams have abandoned us, neither is true. Your dreams are now sending slender shoots up through the cold, hard dark earth, up towards the frozen surface and if they’re not discouraged, you can’t be either.

Babe, that’s why I’m here. I will never let you give up on yourself or your dreams.  And you know what?  I know that you’re never going to let me give up on mine.  That’s our sacred pact and I am so grateful for your good company.

So what are you waiting for in 2017?  Are you expecting the best or steeling yourself for the worst?   And if it’s the worst, or you have stopped believing, turn away and turn off the insidious 24/7 Breaking News cycle.  Go cold turkey.  Start reading only uplifting books or visiting websites that make you feel better.  You don’t need to know what is going on “out there” until you discover “what’s in here.”
 
We need reassurance and optimism.  I know this might sound crazy, but I’m beginning to read Simple Abundance once more.  Writers will tell you, if they are honest, that we are continually astonished by what once poured out of us on to the page. Who is this woman? is usually my response when I peruse the pink book.   I think she maybe on to something. Hey, putting blinders on worked for me once and shifted my focus towards only the good and brought a complete change to my life. Twenty years later, I’m so ready for that again.  How about you?

What are you preparing for in the next three months?  We all know that our repetitive patterns such as worry dig deep grooves in our imagination, draining us of our precious natural resources—time, creative energy and emotion. However, no month is more eager to help us break this destructive habit than January.  Traditionally this is the month we all swear to lose weight, cut back on drinking, start saving, increase our exercise for energy and get ourselves ready—but ready for what?  I want to do all of the above, but what’s more, I want to help myself prepare for a different kind of life—one where I’m not only reacting to difficulties and disappointments but actively creating new opportunities so I can choose to do what I love and surround myself with what makes me happy.  That’s our choice every day – re-act or cre-ate?

So I’m trying to shape my days as the year shapes nature.  “Nature also has drawn into herself.  The vitality of all that grows is no longer visible in leaf and flower, but lays hidden deep in the heart of seed and root.  Nature rests and restores herself, gathers her forces for the furious activity of spring and summer,” Jean Hersey explains.  “This is a creative hesitation like the pause in music between the notes that accents the tones and helps form the underlying melody—the basic shape of our year.”

January, February and March provide the perfect interlude to allow the Simple Abundance graces of Gratitude, Simplicity and Order work their magic in our lives again.  I know what they can do and I know I need to “do” them if I want my life to change.  There are big changes I’m yearning for in my personal life, professional life, creative life, family life, physical life. The whole shebang.  But I know that this means that I need to book-end my daily round with prayer, contemplation and learning something new every day and end it with the Gratitude Journal.  For today, this first day of this wondrous New Year I’m just grateful to start another January; to learn her secrets, how to be quiet enough to restore and renew myself, how to be receptive to receive her gifts.

So let’s peek into January together.  What do we see?

It’s dark past breakfast and dusk before supper.  Down flits the snow or the raining season has finally arrived.  Fragrant wood fires, fresh air, rosy cheeks, flickering candlelight.  Hunt and gather with me January’s joys—a playful snow walk, a seductive read, a luscious hot cup of chocolate cheer, a soothing soak.  Draw the curtains, turn down the bed, let golden light glow, then behind closed doors and frosted windowpanes, let’s gaze at the opalescent moon as bare branch beauties, wrapped in luxurious white cloaks and icy diamante, dazzle for our private pleasure.

So burrow in.  Snuggle deep.  Dream vividly.  A simply irresistible winter’s idyll awaits.  And you know what? There’s no time like the present.  This is the year of living passionately, Babe, because this is the year we finally learn, once again, how to live.

So Happy New Year, my darling friend!

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

XO SBB

The Spirit of Mother Christmas

 

A perfectly managed Christmas correct in every detail is,
like basted inside seams and letters answered by return, a
a sure sign of someone who hasn’t enough to do.

                                                                  --Katharine Whitehorn (1976)

I think women veer from two extremes during the holiday season—Auntie Mame and Blessed Hildegard of Bingen.  One minute we’re heaving our bodies out of bed as an act of will and through that formidable “To List” by the power of Grace and the next we’re trying to fit into that red sequined dress to deck the halls and we’ll be merry about it if it kills us.

I’m not quite sure how it happened but I’ve misplaced at least a week.  Somehow, I’ve run out of everything—time, creative energy, emotional bandwidth and budget.  However, isn’t this exactly how Christmas is meant to be approached—exhausted, empty and the only thing that can save you is a miracle?  A miracle so gigantic you can’t even conceive of it?  That’s what I’m believing in.  I hope you do, too.  Lord have mercy, woman.  This is not the day we can stop believing!

This is how I figure it.  When the chips are down, the only choice you have is to believe your way out of Dodge and on the way to Bethlehem.  

Ponder for a moment, my favorite holiday meditation.  The first Christmas unfolded the way it did because, one ancient night, an exhausted and harried innkeeper’s wife stopped long enough to be moved by the power of Love.  She improvised so that a frightened, unmarried teenage girl about to give birth to her first child could be comforted.  And in so doing she midwifed a miracle that would change the world forever. Forgive me, if you must, but may I gently point out that on the first Christmas Eve, God the Father was in Heaven.  God the Great Mother was on earth.  In my heart, I see the older woman leaving the crowded, rowdy dining room and rushing up the stairs to her bedroom, opening up a trunk, and bringing forth her best, making sure that all she had would be all the mother and baby would need.  She gathers in her arms linen and silk, the blankets from her own bed, her favorite shawl.

In my imagination, I can also see the young woman’s thankful smile, hear her sigh of relief, taste the salt in her tears.  I smell not only the barn, but the aroma of the broth the older woman helped the younger sip to keep up her strength.  As I hug my own daughter, I can feel the reassurance both women felt in each other’s presence.  I know that the older woman’s sacred gift of generosity and the younger woman’s gratitude are not insignificant footnotes to what has been called the Greatest Story Ever Told.  It’s how the Wonder unfolded.

Sometimes women need a gentle reminder when to take a break and a breather, so I thought I’d send a little prayer for both of us.

Blessed Mother Courage, Weaver of Dreams, Spirit of Christmas, hush the harried heart of your Beloved, and hear her sighs this eventide.  Please gift this sweet woman with a respite from all her crises—both the big challenges that overwhelm her and the little things that gnaw at her strength.  As the shadows lengthen, let her sorrows disappear and fears fade.  Gentle Shepherdess who watches over all her lambs, no matter where they may have wandered, let her not be restless, wakeful, in danger or despair. Soothe her frazzled mind and brush from her brow the cares she has courageously carried for others for so long.

Ransom, retrieve and return to her the strayed or shattered and scattered parts of her Soul. Restore in this night’s reveries her grace, repose and good humor.  Replenish her energy consumed by overwork and good intentions.  Stretch her purse even as you expand her Spirit with the true meaning and wealth of this blessed season.  Infuse her with good humor, endless patience and boundless enthusiasm for all the tasks she must complete to ensure that those in her care are well provided for this Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa 2016.

As she snuggles down in the Simple Abundance you have set apart for her, wrap her in comfort and tuck her in safety.  Bless, protect and preserve all she loves, especially those darlings whose safety she worries about and keep watch over her until the darkness dissipates.  And when the miracle of morning arrives, awaken her at first Light, with the deep knowledge that all will be well, even if it is different than she expected.

May this blessed woman know that all her efforts are not, nor ever have been in vain.  To this we offer Heaven the deepest gratitude our hearts can express.

Please gift this wonderful woman, my dearest Reader, with your sacred bounty of Peace and Plenty.

Thank you.
Amen.

Dearest love and blessings on our courage,

XO SBB

How to Cope When Holiday Money Woes Make You Mope

There is so much more to a gift than a price tag…
                               
                                  --Woman’s Institute Magazine (December 1927)

I don’t think there is a woman in the world who frets about not having money at Christmas because of her own wants and needs. Why a woman will cut off her long, beautiful hair to buy her new husband a watch-chain (O. Henry, The Gifts of the Magi) or her Mother a train ticket to see her ailing Father (Louisa May Alcott, Little Women).  She’ll go without, scrimp, save and even be grateful to pawn her grandmother’s finest gold and garnet necklace if it means a bicycle with a shiny red fender or the most beautiful doll will be under the tree on the morning of all mornings.

“Christmas happens in the heart, not the pocket book, so forget the fact that you think you have no money to spare for it,” House and Garden encouraged its readers in December 1942.  We just need to remember and give thanks that “the diminished bank account is the mother of ingenuity.  Luxurious trappings may not be yours, but you can have a glory of Christmas beauty for the cost of simple things, born of imagination and enthusiasm.  Put a dollar limit on your presents and have the fun for the perfect one—a casually mentioned little something, no matter how small, that tells the recipient you’re giving of your thoughtfulness.  Or put your hands as well as your heart to work and make your own.  Have people close to you, for who can put a price on the companionship of those we love?  Patch up an old quarrel.  Write to someone far away and lonely.  On Christmas day invite your friends to a covered-dish dinner….This, you’ll find, is happiness…this is Christmas….no one will ever be rich enough to buy either.”


Let the grace of Gratitude become your holiday assistant.  No matter what your circumstances, Gratitude can illuminate the lustrous mother-of-pearl lining hidden in your disappointing situation.  You say you’ll be alone on Christmas day because your daughter is traveling to her fiancé’s family holiday celebration?  But you still have a few days before Christmas to fuss over her and isn’t it true that not so long ago, distance kept you apart for years?  There’s a golden entry for the Gratitude Journal!


You can’t see your son over Christmas because he’s gotten a job in another state and will be working through the holidays?  Another for the Gratitude Journal!  Thank you God, he’s been looking for work in his field for over a year.


The grandchildren are across country, but you’ve just recorded a favorite holiday story in a book to surprise them with your voice and you don’t know it yet, but there’s a new computer and Skype or Facetime is on its way to you, so that you all will be keeping a Christmas custom of connection fresh, even if it is different.


“It’s the Christmas in your heart that counts.  Money is only secondary at the self-giving time,” the Woman’s Institute Magazine reassured its readers in December 1927.  “Think of what a box of home-made cookies, all decorated and fancily shaped, would mean to the business girl who boards or the mother too busy with home cares to make dainties for her family.  Or imagine the joy of a basket of home-make jellies and sweets would give the woman who had been ill for many weeks.  I even know of one woman, living on a farm, who sends every year to a daughter in the city, a business girl hungry for a taste of home things, a chicken all stuffed and ready to slip right into the oven."


And while the writing is quaint, it’s the sentiments that bring tidings of comfort and joy because they sound heart-felt for both the giver and the receiver.  So here’s my Christmas gift, suggested to us by the Grace of Gratitude and a list that you may happily share.  Our gifts will not cost coin but will require generosity of Spirit and time to collect our thoughts in order to bestow these one-size-fits-all-souls offerings:


The Gift of Undivided Attention
The Gift of Enthusiasm
The Gift of Creative Energy
The Gift of Simple Seasonal Pleasures
The Gift of Good Cheer
The Gift of Beauty
The Gift of Surprise
The Gift of Wonder
The Gift of Peaceful Surroundings
The Gift of Cherished Customs and New Traditions

Today let everyone you speak to or meet have the gift of your undivided attention.  Let him tell his story uninterrupted until the end, even if you know it better than he does.  Let her talk it over and talk it out again and if you are together, look her lovingly in the eyes and reach for her hand.  Don’t rush away from a neighbor you meet in the parking lot of the supermarket; ask her how her children are doing, and how she’s feeling.


Once you start this Cosmic chain gift you’ll happily discover something absolutely amazing, something that you did not know this morning: that you have more time than you thought possible and there’s some Spiritual Undivided Attention speeding its way to you where you need it most.  And the lean purse?  It will stretch farther and wider than you thought possible because the gifts we all crave, can’t be bought.


Sending dearest love and always blessings on our courage,

XO SBB

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

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 our ourselves.  The Christmas Present, after all, is only a token
of our feelings, and more important are the daily contributions we each
make to the happiness of those near us.

  -- House and Garden, December 1938

This dark, cold and wet December morning the annual feminine tug-of-war between hope and experience begins in earnest.  Let’s get it right out there: this month is a hodgepodge of conflicting emotions, overwrought expectations, exhaustion, and an unarticulated despair that runs so deep we’re afraid to acknowledge it, never mind admit it.

Instead, we express the stress through tears, tantrums, bitching, moaning, screaming, sniping, migraine headaches, overspending, overdrinking, and overeating for the next four weeks. Are we making merry yet? Suddenly Ebenezer Scrooge becomes the most maligned and misunderstood figure in literature.  But even old Scrooge’s Christmas turned out miraculously in the end and so will ours if we keep believing.  

Recently I went back to peruse the meditations I originally wrote about the Christmas season in Simple Abundance which was published in November 1995.  (Thankfully, it still finds new readers each week; maybe you’re among them and how grateful I am for your company!)  Quite frankly, I was surprised by how nothing has changed since I was the mother of a young daughter and a freelance writer trying to carve out a life of contentment with work that could pay the bills. Then I was living Simple Abundance, experimenting with its fundamentals (as I’ve always been my own Research and Development Lab), not just writing about it.  As I was learning how to use the power of Gratitude, Simplicity and Order to ground me in my daily round, so that I could be open to the Harmony, Beauty and Joy surrounding me, the results seemed miraculous.

They still do.

I’ll never forget the Christmas memory of my 8 year old Katie rushing into the kitchen after her Dad had taken her to the lighting of our local town Christmas tree.  Her cheeks were flushed with excitement as found me in the kitchen taking out a pan of gingerbread and she was jumping for joy.  She had been asked to push the button to switch the lights on. “Can you believe it, can you believe it!!?”   Since her Dad was the mayor, I could believe it, but kept that explanation to myself with a wink and a smile.  Finally, the only way she could describe it to me was to throw her arms wide and say, “Mommy, Mommy, you just had to be there.  It was Simple Abundance!! It was Simple Abundance, I tell you, Simple Abundance!!!

What do I cherish most about this memory?  Let me count them all and may the grace of Gratitude bear witness:  My little girl was happy and healthy; she used the words “Simple Abundance” for the first time and truly knew what the expression meant for her and me.  Her Dad had taken her to the event; I had a delicious holiday dessert waiting for us all.  As we sat around the table and shared the adventure of the day we knew that all we had was all we needed at that moment.  We were grateful.  We were happy. We were blessed. At that moment, all we had was all we needed.
 

Now I think of the SA principles as my Divine Graces, always present in my life, but unable to intervene unless I ask for help.  I keep forgetting this truth in the day-to-day frantic rush, but just as you need to flip the switch on for the electricity to work, we need to ask for help. Specifically. Asking for help is a woman’s toughest personal challenge, at least it has always been and continues to be for me.  But we cannot circumvent the Laws of Heaven and earth, though Providence knows we try to every day. So I’m going to suggest that you join me in a little holiday season experiment.  Let’s invite the Simple Abundance “Graces” to get us in the holiday mood and show us just how “real” their Divine assistance is, here and now.  But we need to ask, specifically, for what it is we need.

Cole Phillips

Cole Phillips

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 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 at 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 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 Babe, let us be grateful that we don’t just know this truth, but through Grace and asking, we can both live it and gift it this holiday season and beyond.

Sending dearest love and blessings on our courage,

XO SBB

Joy to the Girl

Gloom we have always with us, a rank and sturdy weed, but joy requires tending.                                                                                             --Barbara Holland

And we’re off, as a sprinter to a starter pistol for the holiday season.  In anticipation, perhaps you try to jolly yourself by buying all your favorite magazines which display picture perfect Christmas spreads that simultaneously excite and then diminish your Spirit before you even turn the page.  No one used to love curling up with a fresh pile of monthly magazines and a glass of cheer better than I, but I have given them up, especially the “Best Christmas Ever” editions in an annual effort of self-nurturance.  Why?  Because I know from personal experience, that they are not true, Babe.  And that is why I feel I must bring a little full disclosure and “Joy to the Girl” this month and that Girl, is you.

“Christmas comes but once a year.  Don’t ever say that to a cookery journalist,” the renowned English food writer Elizabeth David (1913-1992) begins her classic holiday essay collection Elizabeth David’s Christmas.  “Cookery journalists know different.  For them, three times a year would be nearer the mark.  First, around mid-August, when they must work on the recipes, at any rate if they contribute to a glossy monthly.  They’ll probably be color photographs to cook for and supervise as well.  The next round comes about the end of September when the articles have to be written and something original—well, anyway, different from last year—dredged up in the way of advice about when it’s all cooked for real, although not without notes being made for next year’s stint.  In between the delivery of the monthly article there will almost certainly be another couple of Christmas pieces to write, for a weekly, a wine merchant’s newsletter, a Sunday, a daily.”

I have to confess that annually re-reading Elizabeth’s depiction of Christmas through the New Year makes this one of my favorite holiday rituals because her wry and truthful insights always triggers a smile and nod in agreement to this ultimate confession:

“If here and there in my account of a cookery journalist’s Christmas a note of desperation is clearly audible, I don’t make apologies.  Christmas, at any rate, the way we are supposed to celebrate it nowadays, does tend to unbalance people, particularly those people responsible for the catering, the cooking, the presents, the tree, the decorations….Commercial interests being what they are, however, we are unlikely, in any foreseeable future, to be spared the annual orgy of spending, the jammed streets, the frantic shoppers in the stores, the whole circus of…the season of the Great Too Much…[which has] also become the Great Too Long.  A ten-day shutdown, no less, is now normal at Christmas.”

There we have it in a gilded nut shell game:  the season of the Great Too Much for Great Too Long.  Not to worry. Doesn’t it feel good just to acknowledge the truth?

Back to those glossy magazines:  Is there a woman with soul so dead, that never to herself has said:  “I wish my life could look like it was out of a magazine once.” Well, it can, Babe, if you have a home décor stylist, a wardrobe and prop stylist, a hair and makeup artist, a photographer and a slew of assistants, for a two day shoot which will appear as a spontaneous Christmas article in a year.  I’ve been very flattered to have been featured in two glossy Christmas magazine spreads and while it is fun to gaze back in astonished amusement, I’ve always felt a bit guilty about keeping this secret; rather like the signs on rear view mirrors that read “objects may appear larger than they really are”, those glossy magazines should come with the warning, “No perfect lifestyle pictured in this month’s issue is real” and then we’d all be on the same page.

You see, our continuing problem which few magazine articles deal with honestly is that real life is a series of repetitive crises that arise every day sucking all the oxygen out of our emotional bandwidth. It’s been this way since the first Nativity.  Can you just imagine for a moment the irritation felt by Joseph and the exhaustion and trepidation of his young wife Mary, as they packed the donkey for the mandatory tax trip to Bethlehem? You can just make out the very human grumbles, if you put your ear down close to history:  “Of all the times to have to go and pay taxes, a pregnant wife and no money…the Romans, well, just let me say, this would not have been my plan had I been asked.”

Most days this is what I truly love about the human experience—that we all share it.  The rest of the time I’m trying to cope.  Still, nothing we’re doing or facing or fearing or worrying about is original.  Somewhere, at some time, some woman has pondered in her heart whatever troubles us.  When I can stop the centrifugal motion that has me swirling in anxiety long enough to put the kettle on, I can take a deep breath and ask Mother Plenty first for grace and second, joy for the girl.

Learning to live in the present moment is part of the path of joy.  When I was writing Simple Abundance, I was doing that every single day for five years in the compartmentalized space it took me to write every meditation.  I was so focused on the good I had to find in every day that there were no distress notes.  The miracle of SA is that because I was so committed to it being a happy book for both of us, even though that period of my life was difficult and fraught, there isn’t a sour note in it or between the lines.  Blessed be the Great Creator.  

Looking back, I understand now that the book knew so much more than I did (creative projects always do), I just had to get out of the way of Spirit and show up for work.  And because I had only so many hours in the day to write, I couldn’t allow myself the luxury of a bad thought during that time.  Let me write that sentence again, so we both understand what I’m trying to say:  I could not allow myself the luxury of a bad thought.  If I was feeling sick or depressed or frightened, I'd say:  “You can think about that tonight. Not now.”  And of course, after spending a day focused on Gratitude, Simplicity, Order, Harmony, Beauty and Joy, all I wanted to do at the end of the day was give thanks for my curated contentment.

So let’s forget the reality of the rest of the world for a moment which is always doom and gloom.  Many of us unconsciously create dramas in our minds—in part because we’re copying or reinforcing the constant dramas playing out in the 24/7 "Breaking News" culture we exist in.  I’ve gone cold turkey on the news.  

For when we create dramas in our minds—about our finances, our health, our children, our grandchildren, our relationships, our work; when we set ourselves up to expect the worst from every situation, our brilliant subconscious never lets us down.  Trust me, Babe, few of us have the ability to go from zero to 100 and the ecstasy calibration, but imagine a tragedy (or see someone else’s nightmare playing out before our eyes in real time on the television) and we’re already there, ready for personal close-up. And we know that when we expect the worst from a situation it becomes a self-fulling prophecy.  Inadvertently, we become authors of our misfortune.  

This holiday season I would love for us both to learn how to stop the cycles of drama and experiment in trusting the flow of life and the goodness of Spirit.  What if for the next 28 days, we were determined to experience a contented, drama-free holiday? Whether our children are going to be with us or not, whether the money seems tight right now, whether this is a “first” holiday after a death, divorce or displacement, let us ask for serenity and contentment.

This is how I’m starting:  each morning I’m praying for one day’s portion of Grace and a respite from crises.  I’m asking for “Joy for the Girl” and I’m giving thanks already for my holiday miracle—I’ve got several that give me tingles and there’s a holiday miracle with your name on it as well, Babe.  I’m writing my letter to Santa (we have been so good this year!) and my prayer list to the Great Giver.  Let’s suspend our disbelief and take that leap of faith.  Begin today recording in your Gratitude Journal, not just what you’re grateful for today, but all the wishes and prayers you yearn to come true tomorrow.  First the gesture, then the Grace.  After all, what we do we have to lose but misery and lack?  Sign me up, please.

What are your five happiest holiday memories?  I’d bet they are all sensory ones.  The fragrance of pine, oranges and cloves; hitting the high note in “O Holy Night”; lighting the menorah; the first bit of warm gingerbread; the twinkling lights; an ornament long forgotten hanging again on the Christmas tree; the appreciation of sending and receiving a beautiful card with a special message; a secret Santa gift from the one who loves you best, baby.  Weave together all those colorful threads and you have a warm, beautiful tapestry of contentment.

Once upon a time you believed that Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa was the most magical time of the year.  It can be again.  I believe the real holiday miracle is that it allows the mystical child slumbering in each of our souls the chance to be reborn every year, awakening a sense of wonder that even eleven months of grown-up doubt, derision, discouragement or disappointment can’t snuff out.  All that’s required of us is that we take tiny steps to believe.

Believe in what?  How about starting with the notion that whatever you can see, hear, taste, smell, touch and wonder at which brings you contentment this time of the year is a wink from the Universe that you are loved and cared for, and that everything is going to be alright, maybe different from what we hoped or prayed for, but alright.  Babe, I have no monopoly on faith, I just know that when I believe, even if I’m not sure just exactly what I’m believing for, I’m better.  I pass it on for what it’s worth. 

Christmas Wish Lady.jpeg

“Time was, with most of us, when Christmas Day encircling all our limited world was like a magic ring, left nothing out for us to miss or seek; bound together all our home enjoyments, affections and hopes; grouped everything and everyone around the Christmas fire: and made the little picture shining in our bright young eyes, complete,” Charles Dickens reminisced in a charming essay, “What Christmas Is, As We Grow Older” written in 1851.  

“Therefore, as we grow older, let us be more thankful that the circle of our Christmas associations and of the lessons that they bring, expands!...Welcome, old aspirations, glittering creatures of an ardent fancy, to your shelter underneath the holly!  We know you, and have not outlived you yet.  Welcome, old projects and old loves, however fleeting, to your nooks among the steadier lights that burn around us.  Welcome, all that was ever real to our hearts.”

Welcome, Joy to the Girl!

Sending dearest love and blessings on our contentment and courage,

XO SBB