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

Pilgrim and Pioneer Mothers: Courage to Weather the Winds of Change


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

- Anne Morrow Lindbergh

pioneersm.jpg


In November 1929, just one month after the famous stock market crash which set in motion the Great Depression, an editorial in The Household Magazine encouraged their readers to take heart and have courage as they faced the unknown.  

“Thanksgiving Day was meant to be something more than
a mere period of time between Wednesday and Friday of the last week in November.  It may be something more than a holiday, or it may have none of the characteristics of one.  What it is depends on the state of mind.

The number of things for which we may be thankful has nothing to do with the observance of the day…ThanksGIVING or thankFULNESS.  There may be a world of difference between the two…”

By the third Thanksgiving of the Great Depression in Novemer 1932, American homemakers and the women’s magazines they read had passed through the same desperate psychological stages a person experiencing profound loss endures—shock, denial, anger, bargaining and great grief –before settling in for what is often the longest stage of any traumatic change—depression.  A new Democratic president-elect, Franklin Delano Rooseevelt, was getting ready to take over the White House, but it would be another few month before FDR’s rousing Inaugural Address which reminded Americans that "all they had to fear is fear itself.”

There would be seven more lean Thanksgivings of economic uncertainty followed by five years of world war.  How did our grandmothers and great-grandmothers drag themselves out of bed to make biscuits for breakfast?  An image of my Kentucky grandmother rolling out dough in her salmon-pink chenille bathrobe has come to represent grace under pressure in the archives of my heart.

My Grandmother, Lucy Lyttle Donnelly White

My Grandmother, Lucy Lyttle Donnelly White

You might be approaching this Thanksgiving with dread for the future and sorrow for what is happening now.   When deep discouragement comes, I comfort myself by thinking of the long line of heroic women who came before me—not only those in my family, but every woman settler, explorer, adventurer and homemaker who tamed wild lands and wild times around the world.  I particularly love to meditate on the first band of Pilgrim women.  There were 18 women on the Mayflower, and although none of them died during the crossing from England to Massachusetts, by the time of the first “Thanks Giving” meal, a year later in 1621, there were only 4 women who had survived the brutal winter, spring sowing and autumn harvest.  Four very tired women who needed to take care of 50 men and children daily.

With the men almost entirely focused on building houses and the village, the women had so many chores, they performed in shifts.  For aside from cleaning and cooking, there was plowing and planting, preserving and putting away, caring for livestock making soap and candles from tallow (animal fat), tending the sick and creating herb medicinals.  There was so much work that they lived on one portion’s grace and if they didn’t drop down dead with their hand to the plow or wither away in a nighttime sweat from a succession of diseases contracted on the voyage, they took it as a sign that God meant for them to go on.  And you know, they were right.

I love the bare bones simplicity of this truth.  Sometimes in life, all we can do is put one foot out of the bed and then in front of the other, literally.  I figure if you wake up in the morning, you’re meant to go on—continue at what you’re doing, and ask Heaven to show you what you’re doing wrong, if you are.  Since God knows we’re not meant to manage alone, Providence will be there to help if we ask for it. 

Or instead of our Pilgrim Mothers, I’ll meditate upon the legacy of our Pioneer Mother Mentors, such as Margaret Reed.  Here was a woman who enjoyed a charmed life of comfort and culture with a lovely, large home in Springfield, Illinois.  But one afternoon in July 1846, her husband James, who was a wealthy furniture manufacturer, came home for tea and told her to get ready they were headed West along with their 4 young children and her ailing mother.  There was gold in those California hills and he was going to get this share!  You can imagine the conversation they had before the weeping and wailing, slammed bedroom doors and walls of silence.

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Much of James Reed’s success in persuading Margaret lay in his promise that she would travel in unsurpassed luxury and style, with all her prized possessions.  He kept his word.  Never before had a covered wagon been built like the Reeds’ and never would one be built like it again.  Two stories high, with a sleeping loft, it was outfitted with spring seats just like the best stagecoaches with an iron stove, velvet curtains and her cherished organ.  Her children dubbed it “The Picture Palace Car.”  It was stocked with six months’ supply of the best food and wine money could buy.  As the wagon pulled into formation with the rest of the Donner Party to head West, it was difficult not to stare, gasp and feel envious.

The tragic saga of the Donner Party is the most indelible tale of triumph and despair ever written in the history of the American West.  Twenty-five hundred miles away and only two days from safety, 31 men, women and children were stranded for an entire winter in the Sierra Nevada mountains by a succession of the worst blizzards on record.  Out of provisions and starving, some members resorted to cannibalism in order to survive.  

But Margaret and her children were not among them.  She kept them all alive on snow, bark, and leather broth until James, who had left the group to ride on ahead to California seeking a rescue party, returned.  The fact that her family did not perish—physically or spiritually—had absolutely nothing to do with the worldly goods she had counted on, for the wagon and all it carried had to be abandoned along the way because it was too heavy and cumbersome to travel through the mountains.  The possessions that saved Margaret and those she loved were of Spirit—her wits, her faith and her courage.

These are the same gifts all women are endowed with.  We are born with a blessed DNA—the genetic code of resilience,  strength, ingenuity, creativity, perseverance and determination.  Our Destiny, Nature and Aspirations are Heaven endowed, so why wouldn’t we be given the wherewithal to fulfill them?

So this Thanksgiving week as you go about cooking and laying the table, as you make preparations for gathering together with friends and loved ones, whenever anything happens that triggers the feeling of angst or distress, take a deep breath and silently ask yourself a few questions as I do when I’m experiencing a panic attack.

    Is my family safe today?
    Is there a roof over our heads, today?
    Do I have to chop wood to keep warm, today?
    Today, do I have to carry water in a bucket from a creek 2 miles away?    
Did I have to shoot the turkey for our meal, today?

One of my favorite quotations is from the Ladies Home Journal in October 1932.  “When money is plenty this is a man’s world.  When money is scarce it is a woman’s world. When all else fails the woman’s instinct comes in.  She gets the job.  That is the reason why in spite of all that happens, we continue to have a world.”

Thank Heavens, somethings never change, Babe.  This Thanksgiving week, just remember we are the Homefront.
 
Sending you dearest love, a prayer for your peace and plenty and blessings on our courage.

XO SBB

O Pioneer! Willa Cather’s Kitchens

These coppers, big and little, these brooms…and brushes,
were tools; and with them one made not shoes or cabinet work,
but life itself.  One made a climate within a climate; 
one made the days--the complexion, the special flavor, the special
happiness of each day as it passed; one made life.

                                               -- Willa Cather ( Shadows on the Rock, 1931)

Many writers have been in exile when they wrote of a certain time, a certain place. Nothing soothes the broken heart holding the pen more than ritual, reverence and remembrance. Edith Wharton archly channeled the frantic yearnings of a poor girl dying to be rich on the fringes of New York society while Wharton was in residence on the French Riviera in 1905. James Joyce captured the dank, dreary despair of turn of the century Dublin from Paris in 1914.  Ernest Hemingway portrayed the tempestuous bravado of the Spanish Civil War and bull-fighting matadors in a Mojito fueled decade writing five novels, a play and two collections of short stories while in Key West, Florida between 1929 and 1938.  

But, arguably, few writers have ever come as close so brilliantly in conjuring up the soul’s sacred sense of place as Willa Cather, writing about America’s amber waved prairies from the last place you’d ever expect to find her:  New York’s Greenwich Village. Twenty years before Gertrude Stein was lamenting “the Lost Generation” meaning the self-exiled expatiates on the left bank of Paris, Willa Cather went where no woman and no writer had gone before, becoming a pioneer of American fiction writing about holy hunger—food and love, home and away, the sacred in the ordinary, the secret altars where women pray in their kitchens.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather

Here is what is so astonishing to me:  Reading between the lines of Cather’s prairie fiction, the in-between is so deftly disguised; cleverly concealed, flour finger stains still on the apron.  

Now imagine with me. In the very early morning Willa goes marketing; she loved to treat herself to fresh raspberries, brioche, French Camembert cheese and chickens sold by a particular Italian vendor.  Then after returning home to a second floor apartment at 5 Bank Street, Greenwich Village, with the superb groceries for her cook, she’d seize her solitude and in the space of two to three hours every day, while also working as the managing editor at the muckraking tabloid McClure’s Magazine (think National Enquirer), she wrote three novels in five years—O Pioneer! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Antonia (1918) which captured forever the true grit and gumption of the Nebraska Territory frontier immigrants—largely Scandinavian, Czech and Polish homesteaders.  The harsh and acerbic critic H.L. Mencken declared, “No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Antonia.”

And while Cather’s pioneer novels could teach how prairie dogs build their underground society or how to kill rattlesnakes in the back garden with a club, what touched readers was Cather’s uncanny ability to blend the siren song of wanderlust and courage in the face of unimaginable hardships with the salvation of food, home and family, with such grace and in prose as sparse as the treeless desert of dust, sky and sun she left behind.  Willa Cather believed that homemaking and homesteading “are activities which build a space where souls can thrive and dream—secure, protected, related, nourished and whole” and she made believers out of even the most jaded sophisticate.

Willa Cather as a young girl

Willa Cather as a young girl

Born into a prosperous Virginia family on December 7, 1873 and the oldest of seven children, when she was just nine Willa was plucked from a genteel upbringing by her father’s decision to join his father and brother in Red Cloud, Nebraska.  It was as if she’d been dropped into an ocean of rough, shaggy red grass from a space capsule, and quite frankly, she never got over the shock of it.  As far as her eyes could see, there wasn’t a tree, bough, leaf or a blade of green grass.  She would later describe her prairie surroundings as an event that erased her personality, while it forged her character, as she came to see the relinquishment of Old West country ways by the second generation of immigrants as spiritually threatening.  “The generation now in the driver’s seat hates to make anything, wants to live and die in an automobile, scudding past those acres where the old men used to follow the long cornrows up and down,” she wrote in 1923.  “They want to buy everything ready-made: clothes, food, education, music, pleasure.”  

What makes this tart opinion so fascinating, bewildering really, is that Willa Cather had been in Greenwich Village since 1906 and she would live in New York City until her death in 1947.  Her prairie years were few, between the ages of 9 and 15, including a stint as a mail pony girl, delivering the post to her few and far between neighbors.  But these years informed her art all her life, particularly because she found spiritual refuge—her sense of belonging—by spending her mornings with neighbor immigrant women baking or butter-making.  “My mind and my stomach are one,” she told an audience in 1925:  “I think and work whatever it is that digests.  I think the preparation of foods the most important thing in life.  And America is too young a nation to realize it.  It makes musical discords in the cooking.”

Is it any wonder that Antonia in My Antonia doesn’t want “to die and stop cooking.”

This is a lovely thought for those of us who will be doing a lot of cooking in the next couple of weeks.  “I have never had any intellectual excitement more intense than spending a morning with a pioneer woman at butter-making and hearing her talk,” Willa Cather confessed, unless perhaps it was when she was pouring over a recipe, for while she wrote of food, she was more often writing than she was cooking.  Although she would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for her novel One of Ours set during the first World War, many believed it was because she did not win one for My Antonia.  

As you create the rich autumn hues of gracious plenty on your Thanksgiving table this year, may you know much contentment and a sense of peace.  “The farmer’s wife who raises a large family and cooks for them” expresses “the real creative joy…which marks the great artist.”  Always remember, never forget sweetheart, women are Artists of the Everyday.  You are an Artist of the Everyday.

I always loved Willa Cather’s wisdom in pointing out that “One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world’s end somewhere, and holds fast to the days, as to fortune or fame."

Hold fast to that moment, Babe, hold fast to the benediction, bend your knees and acknowledge that blessed are you among women to know that moment and give thanks.  Cherish it.  “Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again,” Willa Cather confessed to console. For the writing that breaks the heart holding the pen only soothes the soul of she who turns the page, when writers find the strength to write not about what they love, but what they have lost.

Sending dearest love that you and yours may know peace and plenty and always, blessings on our courage.  

XO SBB

November’s Abundant Gifts: Grace, Gratitude, Reverence and Remembrance

 How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one [month] loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

(With gratitude and love to)
W.B.Yeats

November is the month of grace, gratitude, reverence and remembrance.  Four precious weeks to recall how blessed we truly are, even if we don’t particularly feel it at this moment. But November loves the pilgrim soul in you Babe, and longs to erase the fretting from your frazzled face and world-weary heart. 

 To begin with, personally it’s the month my most precious blessing, my darling daughter was born, and she became my greatest Life’s teacher. Formed beneath the depths of my heart, she is the only one on earth to truly know me from the inside out.   Her eyes were the first to reflect back my beauty. She gave me glimpses of a woman I’d never known before. In truth, we gave birth to each other.  But to make her proud, I had to push way out of my comfort zone to become myself and I’m still becoming. I believe it was our karmic pack; a sacred contract.  Ancient wisdom believes that children not yet born choose their parents for the lessons that they need for their souls to grow in this lifetime.  But I think it’s the parents who need the lessons.  I also believe that the oldest and wisest soul in the world belongs to the baby who was just born even as I as I write this. Yes, here’s the Heavenly conversation:  “That one, your Woman down there, she needs to be broken open so that she can fulfill her destiny. She’s got a lot to learn.  Will you help me?”  And the next thing you know, he or she is on the way, straight to your heart and changing everybody’s world.

Life changed in profound ways when I became a Mother, especially after knowing the grief of losing another child before birth, which had happened two years before.  So the best night’s sleep I ever had was the night after Katie Éireann was safely born. I was an older first time mother and my pregnancy had been difficult; I was on bedrest the last eight weeks.  During that time, I kept company with one of the great loves of my life, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.  We didn’t know whether she was a boy or girl, but if she was a girl I wanted to name the baby “Yeatsie.”  Personally, I don’t believe dead poets should matter to live husbands. But her father would only let me go so far and we agreed on Katherine and then he let me add Éireann as a middle name (even the Gaelic spelling, not realizing that I was naming her after mna na hEireann which means the “Women of Ireland.”) 

When I invoked my first prayer of thanksgiving, I asked for the blessings of the women of Ireland who had gone before, including my cherished Irish Nana.  I prayed for her to be everything I believed I was not:   Brave, beautiful, courageous, compassionate, candid, eloquent, generous, full of Grace, healthy, honorable, passionate, protective, strong, soulful, a storyteller, a woman of wit, wisdom and wry. A wordsmith.  Poet and artist.  But most of all, I prayed for her to be Herself.  There is nothing like holding your baby for the first time, unless it is watching them become a person you so admire that you shake your head in wonder, amazement and gratitude that somehow you were blessed to share their lives. 

Katie Éireann was safely delivered two days before Thanksgiving and I was deeply grateful that she’d been born into a generation of girls who would not be torn apart by the fraught and very raucous feminist movement of the sixties and seventies when the pointed finger wanted to know if you were feminine or a feminist? It was an angry, uncertain and frightening time to be a woman in this country.  But girls born in the eighties had a right to choose the life they wanted to lead—to work, to stay home, to do both, to have control over their own bodies, to love who they loved and to become the woman they were born to be.  What a legacy of love from generations of women who had gone before as true pioneers.

November brings unexpected gifts, too: an extra hour of sleep as we turn the clocks back, even if it’s dark at both ends of bedtime.  Learning to comfort ourselves through Life’s dark moments is the essence of November.  Learning to trust that night must end is a lesson from which none of us get a free pass.  Learning that it is truly darkest before the dawn is not just a scientific fact it is an essential spiritual law.  I wish I could change the curriculum.  I would. There must be a reason I can’t.

Maybe you feel drained, depleted and discouraged today.  Anxious and frightened, too. Maybe you’re frightened for the future to reveal itself and scared for our children’s and grandchildren’s future.  Alarmed for our country and for our earth. But the priceless blessing is that our country is already great and our most precious gift is the right to vote. The Mothers and Fathers who have lost children, the sons and the daughters who have lost parents so that we might vote deserve to be honored and remembered for their courage by our act of reverence, remembrance and bravery at the ballot box.  Don’t throw that gift away, discounting or discarding this freedom because of its superficial packaging.  Choosing not to choose is the ultimate betrayal of yourself and all that you hold dear.  

                                        "Miss Liberty" from Hearst's Magazine, November 1917

                                        "Miss Liberty" from Hearst's Magazine, November 1917

Let’s be real for a moment:  it’s easy to be grateful when life hums—when there’s money in the bank, you’ve got a marvelous job, the romance is divine or your marriage is in one of its sweet phases and you’re healthy and so is your family.  But when you don’t know how the bills will get paid, or he doesn’t love you any longer; when you are reeling from a devastating diagnosis or the dream house which you just finished paying off, has been swept away a once in a century flood deemed “an Act of God” by the insurance company, “thank you” usually isn’t the phrase that immediately comes to mind.

At least it wasn’t for me (or isn’t always—the currents of awareness ebb and flow around here).  But after seeing and knowing the everyday grace of gratitude and the great peace that does “pass all understanding,” I know what I need to do, especially when fortune’s tumultuous cycles of change throw me for a loop.  I must stop focusing on what’s lacking in my life and bring my complete attention to all that I have—the “simple abundance” that surrounds us all.  Small acts of kindness heal even the deepest wounds; savoring fleeting moments of comfort restores serenity; keeping quiet when you want to shout and silently “blessing” what bedevils you is grace under pressure.  

Ironically, I’ve discovered through my own disappointments, that even as I’m falling apart, if I stop for a moment, I notice that it’s gratitude holding me together.  It baffles me, but gratitude’s most powerful mysteries are often revealed when we are struggling in the midst of deep, personal turmoil.  When we stumble in the darkness, rage in anger, hurl faith across the room, abandon all hope.  I've long believed that when we cry ourselves to sleep, gratitude waits patiently at the end of the bed, ready to console and reassure us; there is a landscape larger than the one we can see right now.

We are not the first people to hold our breaths on the edge of an unknown abyss, knowing that something dark has been unleashed upon the world and neither knowing what it is, how to fight it, survive it or overcome it.  In 1919 as the smoke cleared and the catastrophic reality of the first World War was apparent, Yeats wrote one of his most prophetic poems entitled The Second Coming:

 

             "Windswept" by Margaret Chodos Irvine

             "Windswept" by Margaret Chodos Irvine

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. 

 

So being human, we turn away from not just the thought, but the poem and the prayer.  Babe, this is not the day we stop praying.  This is the day we increase them.  So put your head under the pillow or bake a pumpkin pie, but for the love of all that is holy, please vote this Tuesday, November 8th and give thanks for the honor and great privilege of this blessing. 

One month loves the Pilgrim soul in all of us and her name is November.  Over the next few weeks I’ll be reflecting on the courage of our Pilgrim and Pioneer mothers, women who pushed through hell and high water with grace, grit and gumption, the trinity of gratitude, in order to find their place in the world or create a new home on the range. Their legacy of love empowers us to reach deep within to cherish and protect all we hold dear.  May November be a month of grace, gratitude, reverence and remembrance for you. 

Sending you dearest love and a prayer for your peace and plenty.
Blessings on our courage.  

XO SBB

The Long Good-Bye: On Women and Ghosts

 

Does one ever see any ghost that is not oneself?
-- Marjorie Bowen

 

                   Twilight at Newton's Chapel, England. 

                   Twilight at Newton's Chapel, England. 

As All Hallow’s Eve approaches, this is the weekend I indulge in the spooky and strange, especially with much loved books and black and white supernatural thrillers, especially English ghost stories.  From The Ghost and Mrs. Muir to Rebecca, I cuddle on the bed with hot apple cider, popcorn and cats, as reel life is revealed one frame at a time. Pleasure perfected, especially if the ghost story includes houses which hold secrets, although every house tries to shelter the secrets of the women who lived there once and loved it, in the same way the home loved the woman.

The Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen is a favorite for ghost stories, especially her goose bump short story Hand in Glove (1952). Bowen believed that the truly scary supernatural story “lies in their being just, just out of the true.”  One of my perennial Hallowe’en books is Alison Lurie’s collection of 9 eerie tales in Women and Ghosts.  I especially love the visitation to a woman who thinks she’s marrying Mr. Right by the ghost of his first wife.  If only the First Wives Club held séances! 
        
Perhaps women adore ghost stories because we have such a difficult time letting go.  Bring up the topic of ghosts at any dinner party and most of the female guests will be able to contribute an anecdote of a sighting or a haunting, usually set in old houses.

But “objects have ghostly emanations, too that attach themselves to their solidity,” the writer Dominique Browning tells us in her marvelous book, Around the House and In the Garden:  A Memoir of Heartbreak, Healing, and Home Improvement.  “Things with drawers—chests, armoires, night tables, trunks—seem to be the most populated pieces of furniture.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been as haunted by other people’s ghosts as much as I have been by my own, especially when I open my unconscious catchalls.  What stuff do you have squirreled away in the scary space euphemistically known as “storage”? It could be under the stairs, in the attic, basement, utility room, garage, or Heaven forbid in a storage container.  If you’re really adept at camouflaging the depth of your despair, especially to yourself, Babe, perhaps your storage containers are half way around the world.   

“Penetrate deeply into the secret existence of anyone about you, even the man or woman whom you count happiest, and you will come upon things they spend all their efforts to hide,” the Victorian novelist Myrtle Reed confessed just before she died in 1911.  “Fair as the exterior may be, if you go in, you will find bare places, heaps of rubbish that can never been taken away, cold hearths, desolate altars and windows veiled with cobwebs.”

If you’re like me, what’s stuffed inside are symbols of all sorts, from the sublime to the ridiculous—touchstones that provoke every emotion known to woman:  letters, photographs, bank statements, lone earrings, locks of hair, one baby shoe, assorted baby teeth, menus, ticket stubs, orphaned keys, a fossilized rubber pacifier, forgotten rings, collars of long-dead cats.  In your bedroom more clothes and shoes that you don’t wear, than ones you do;  crowding each other and your psyche are the misbegotten “buys” that make you feel uncomfortable, fat, silly, or miserable, probably still in dry-cleaning bags or with sale tags.  And if your lingerie bureau has turned into a sock drawer, sweetie, it’s time to call the Ghostbusters.

A vibrational energy surrounds and attaches itself to every object in our homes, transforming them into palpable memories, both good and bad.  Often when we feel depressed but can’t identify the source of our distress, it’s because we’re sensing something we’ve hidden too well.  “A person speaks not only with the voice but with those objects she chooses to surround herself,” the superb writer Jacqueline Winspear reminds us in her detective novel Birds of a Feather.  “That photographs tell a story is well accepted, but the way furniture is positioned in a room tells something about its occupant; the contents of a larder reveal desire and restraint, as most surely does the level of liquid in the decanter.”  They all become ghostly receptacles for our “every thought, feeling, inspiration, reflection and wish.”

Too true. I sure hate to be the one to break it to us, but what’s ailing so many women, particularly myself at this moment, is the dis-ease of our daily round lurking just beneath the psychic surface of our lives.  The things stuffed in the back of your closet, the kitchen junk drawer, attic, and basement— is really the Past crying out to be buried, once and for all, or given another incarnation with someone new. Talk about the walking dead.  I think this is one of the most difficult lessons I’ve ever had to learn, but start thinking of storage as synonymous with sorrow, siphoning your precious natural resources—time, creative energy and emotion—and  you’ll find a new resolve to get rid of things.  Well, at least maybe you’ll be open to think about getting rid of things. Maybe. That’s progress.

For what’s really shoved in those unmarked brown boxes are scraps of shame, shreds of regret and shards of self-reproach.  Sins of omission and acts of self-sabotage.  Physical evidence of errors, lapses of judgment and cringe-worthy mistakes.  Emotional flotsam and jetsam from different periods of our lives, which haven’t even been acknowledged, never mind worked through, floating to the surface of our secret shoals of sorrow.  The only way I know this for sure is that I’ve washed up on the beach a few times.  But shipwrecked or spit out of the mouth of a whale, there is a point where the pain of the past becomes more to bear than the fear of the future.  As the Victorian poet Maria Mitchell consoles us, “People have to learn sometimes not only how much the heart, but how much the head, can bear.”
    
So Halloween seems as good a time of the year to start making the connection between what we stow away and what we stew over.  In fact, they’re probably in the same box.  One’s the issue, the other’s the artifacts.  Proof positive, for example, that once upon a time you were married to the completely wrong man for you.  But now you’re happily married to your high school sweetheart (thanks to attending your 40th reunion), so by all means keep the 1974 Wizards yearbook; but get rid of anything else that has to do with your previous marital incarnations, except legal papers.  And no, if you have divorced her father, your daughter is not likely to wear your wedding dress.  Sell it and buy a vintage bottle of Champagne to celebrate all the happiness you’re finally willing to receive and enjoy!

The sorry truth about women and ghosts is that the longer it takes us to acknowledge whatever fear, sorrow, slights, grief, anger, abuse, neglect, contempt, betrayal, deceit, projections, errors of judgment, lack of experience, bad timing, bitter failures, rejections, bungled efforts, whims of fate and just lousy luck we think we’ve packed away, all we manage to do, as Shakespeare tells us is “increase store with loss, increase loss with store.”

Spooky, isn’t it?  Still, you can’t resolve a problem or a situation that you won’t admit is happening, has happened once upon a time, or you expect to happen next week.  Our thoughts are like iron-mesh strapping tape.  When we secretly nurse a memory with highly charged emotion, whether it’s fear, grief, or anger, we open ourselves up psychically and start inviting in all manner of misery. In a word, ghosts.

                                   The bench around the apple tree, Newton's Chapel, England. 

                                   The bench around the apple tree, Newton's Chapel, England. 

This week I’m going through the inventory of containers that have been stored for seven years in England. I’ve have tried with every fiber of my being to hold on to the furnishings of my English dream, long after it became ashes, paying the equivalent of a mortgage to house boxes instead of myself.  The emotional pain is both sharp and dull. It’s like organizing an estate sale while you’re still alive; hovering like a spirit wanting to share the item's amazing history but prevented from the Other Side, mixed with distress that something you found priceless is now somebody else's bargain.

                      Interior, Newton's Chapel, England. 

                      Interior, Newton's Chapel, England. 

For these containers hold all the things I’ve loved, collected over a lifetime and created a beautiful home for myself and daughter with: the antique beds and their William Morris canopies; the grandfather clock, the 17th century carved mirror that hung in the nave of Newton’s Chapel, the stunning sculpture of Sir Isaac Newton by the great English sculptor Graeme Mitcheson; the Arts and Crafts chandelier designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and created by the Glasgow Art School from his drawings.  I was such a lucky woman to be able to work with so many artists. I was so blessed to create such a home that cherished the past.  No more than now, I suppose, when I have to let go.  

                  Sir Isaac Newton by Graeme Mitcheson.

                  Sir Isaac Newton by Graeme Mitcheson.

I never told you that gratitude had to be expressed with big smiles.  In fact, I suspect (hope) that the “thank you” offered in disappointment and despair are the most treasured because they are priceless tokens of trust, especially when trusting Spirit is the last thing in the world you want to do.  I know  (hope) that there is another home I will be led to and will love, but I also know that if I want to find it I can’t keep looking back anymore. Nor can you.  Babe, why do you think that poor Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt?  Because she turned back to look one more time at all she was leaving and losing.  The salt was from her tears. 

“Only in a house where one has learnt to be lonely does one have this solicitude for things,” Elizabeth Bowen confessed in her masterpiece The Death of the Heart (1938),”One’s relation to them, the daily seeing or touching, begins to become love, and to lay one open to pain.”  Bowen struggled her entire life to keep her family’s ancient Irish home Bowen’s Court; she had a nervous breakdown over unpaid bills in the 1950s. After she “recovered” she lectured and taught in the States to keep it going.  Finally she was forced to sell and then lived through it being razed to the ground.  She spent the rest of her life living in hotels or with friends.  I know I’m not at a new threshold, I just pray to move through this with as much grace and grit as the Swell Dames I so admire and Elizabeth Bowen did it in tweed suits, pearls and heels.  When I look up at the women who have gone before looking down at me I feel such a deep connection, “just out of being true.” 

So if you’re having to let go, move on and begin again, you’ve come to the right friend, who’s learned that loving and losing are both sides of our ghost stories—the here and the after.  I’m not going to tell you “they’re just things.”  I’m not going to tell you anything, Babe. I’m going to put the kettle on, get the box of tissues, and bring out the Irish whiskey reserved for wakes and root canals.

“I have tried to give away some of the things in my house that have ghosts; I think they would be better off somewhere else, and I want to be rid of certain memories,” Dominique Browning confesses, surely for all of us.  “the armoire that was part of a marriage, the carpet that was part of a love affair, the photograph that was part of hope, the bedcovers that were part of too many sleepless nights.  Begone.”

Offering a shoulder and one last look together.  Please let us remember in our prayers all who have no home and those facing the heartbreak we know too well.  May you be safe and sheltered in the loving embrace of Mother Plenty and may you soon find your path to the hearth waiting in your heart.  You have no idea how much I love you and how grateful I am for your calling me back into the world.  I’ll keep the stories coming.  We’ve got this far by not turning back.  We’re not about to start today.

Blessings on our courage.  

XO SBB

National Cat Day

"When you fall on your head, do you land on your feet?
Are you tense when you sense there's a storm in the air?
Can you find your way blind when you're lost in the street?
Do you know how to go to the heaviside layer?
Because jellicles can and jellicles do..."

- Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats (from the musical "Cats") 

 

I’ve been reliably prompted to remember that this is National Cat Day. Really? Isn’t everyday National Cat Day?

Apparently not.


Obviously, my social media content manager lives with dogs, who are always good and charming, which is why Nana doesn’t mind being dragged up a tree by one of her adorable grandsons, Connor (the size of a small moose) in pursuit of  (dare not speak its name aloud) a “squirrel” or growled at by the other grandson, a little rat terrier named Finn the Fierce who's holding a grudge because Nana is no longer allowed to bring any food treats when she visits.  No treats? Then, no tricks. 


Clearly, a cat is not a dog.

Finn and Connor, the grand babies. 

Finn and Connor, the grand babies. 


I’m a cat woman, which is not to be confused with an old cat lady.  Not yet, anyway. Always have been feline fancier or at least since I was 16 and found a tiny newborn kitten who had been abandoned on the street in the New England town where we lived.  I wrapped her in my scarf and carried her home and successfully begged my Mother to let me keep her.  Mom said I could, as long as I took care of her and I did, creating a bassinet out of a basket by my bed and nursing her with a special formula from the Vet with a doll’s bottle every hour for weeks.  I named her Bébè and cats have continued to be my babies, with the exception of my own darling girl, who convinced her Mother into expanding our family at least twice.  Her last kitten, Mikey, ended up living with me years after she’d grown up and eventually traveled to England where we lived together in Eden.  I would write in Newton’s Chapel, he would wander and yes, nap under the boughs of an apple tree.

Mikey, age 17, in England. 

Mikey, age 17, in England. 


Until the day arrived when we couldn’t and all I cherished was suddenly lost and became forsaken. So two weary travelers unexpectedly landed on my beloved sister’s doorstep in California. That was 7 years ago.  A complete karmic cycle.  Last year when my first children’s book The Best Part of the Day was published, my creative collaborator, the artist Wendy Edelson (www.wendyedelson.com) so beautifully illustrated our English idyll, transforming sad memories into wistful remembrance.   A conjuring trick for sure.  Bless you, Wendy.


When I write about cats, I am writing about love and when I write about love, I must write about my sister Maureen O’Crean.  For as long as I’ve known the incredible woman she grew up to be, the plight of homeless women has been her personal and passionate cause, beginning early, probably with all the homeless bride dolls or headless Barbies tucked in safely after their travails (at the hands of the evil, only older sister.)


Sadly, at no time has her work been more needed than now.  Women find themselves and those they love in unspeakable terror unexpectedly and through no fault of their own.  Physical, emotional abuse and peril are only a paycheck at bay.  May you never know this nightmare personally.  But many women have, including me.  Being a best-selling self-help author didn’t insulate me from needing to find the courage to begin my life over again, but the love of my sister, daughter, friends and cats did.


For over a year, Mikey and I slept in her bed and shared her bathroom; I wrote Peace & Plenty in a corner of her living room; he dozed safe and warm on her sun porch; we feasted at her delicious table and the three of us snuggled safely on her couch watching good triumph over evil in reruns of crime dramas that I missed while living in England.  


But there’s even more love in this grateful celebrating of all creatures great and small and the heartstrings that bind us to each other.  Every Wednesday and Saturday for that year, Mo drove us to the Hermosa Beach Animal Hospital and the care of Dr. Steve Liebl and the compassion of everyone who works there, until the last sorrowful journey.  Mikey’s little soul managed to stay with me until the morning I finished Peace & Plenty.  Mikey was 18 when he passed and ascended “Up, up, up past the Russell Hotel, up, up, up to the Heaviside Layer” (Cats).


Of course, I swore I would never get another cat.  If I wanted another animal, someday I would have a golden Labrador, when I had the little farm … but a dog is not a cat. Then a few months later, we blissfully went out on errands and bumped into a kitten rescue adoption table, loitering with clear intent, waiting for me. It was a Heavenly setup. I’d been living alone in the apartment next door to my sister and it felt as empty as my heart and life.  There was such gleeful gratefulness as kittens and their new owners found each other. All of the kittens were quickly adopted except three from the same feral litter.  Suddenly I said I would take two to keep each other company.  Hmmm, that would leave the runt and they’ve never known any love except with each other.  So sad, to break up the little siblings….Perhaps you could help us find a good home for the baby….?


I promised to find them all a good home.  I did.


So this is a heartfelt thank you to Maureen, Kate (who begged me to let her have a “kitten of her own” named Mikey), the Hermosa Beach Animal Hospital (www.hah-vet.com) and to all those who care for the animals we love; to all those who rescue abandoned, mistreated and discarded animals; and especially to the shelters who keep the animals alive so they can someday fill empty hearts and lonely lives.


This is a great day to listen to the incredible, happy musical Cats with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics from the poet T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats originally published in 1939.  Cats the musical is now celebrating its 35th anniversary and a fabulous memory prompt. It’s helped me remember a time when I knew what happiness was.
May the memory live again.

Lucy, Maddie and Charlie in their "habitat" 

Lucy, Maddie and Charlie in their "habitat" 


Blessings on your fur ball cuddles. 


PS. So my official baby is named Lucy. Maud.Montgomery. She’s a Jellicle cat.  And soon it will be time for the Jellicle Ball, come one, come all.


XO SBB and (Lucy, Maddie Grace and Charlie)

Hands to Work, Hearts to Flight: Amelia Earhart on Needlework and Aviation

I have learned from pleasant experience
that at the most despairing crisis, when all
looked sour beyond words, some delightful
“break” was apt to lurk just around the corner.

                                                            -- Amelia Earhart

It’s been said that fortune favors the brave, but Providence also attends the well-prepared and some of the most prepared women I know—women I admire who possess repose of the soul—have taught me that a well-kitted out sewing box is excellent training for adventures both close to home as well as far-flung fantasies.

This was the message that pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart encouraged in an interview for the popular women’s home arts magazine Needlecraft in May 1930, at a time when America was still reeling from the Wall Street crash six months earlier which plunged Main Street as well as the money men into the Great Depression.  With everyone’s nerves shaken and overwrought, America’s first modern heroine spoke about the connection between needlework and flying.  She wanted American women to realize that their dreams might be curtailed or detoured by the economy but that some of the best dreams begin at the kitchen table while darning socks, or continued in chairs by the fire while hooking a hearth rug.  Just make sure you have a copy of Modern Aviation nearby the sewing basket. 

“An interest in needlework doesn’t exclude an interest in aviation,” Amelia reminded women readers who were thrilled to know that she always packed “her little housewife, a small black box filled with a wonderful, large collections of all kinds, of threads, a few needles and scissors” on all her flights.  One rarely knew the delights of down-time if you weren’t prepared or expecting them.

The creative artistry of handicrafts has always been a part of women’s domestic daily round for centuries. It’s only in the last fifty years that what was once esteemed has been made to appear as “cultish” as hand work were demoted from being every woman’s accomplishment to the personal pursuits of a lucky few: women who had “time on their hands” (clearly an expression coined by a man!)  One of the reasons the clever Martha Stewart built a home based empire is that she was savvy enough to be aware that vintage serenity which had fallen through the cracks of frazzled modern living could be revamped and beautifully packaged.  

Hand work in all its many varieties was high art for Victorian women who began sewing at an early age. For Amelia Mary Earhart, born in Kansas in 1897, part of the last generation of young Victorian women as well as the first generation of “modern girls”,  life’s rich tapestry meant learning to excel in many pursuits.  The intimate and intricate soul craft of creating gave outward expression to countless women who often felt strait-jacketed by the expectations of a rigid society.  But they soon discovered that their exasperations could be calmed by the “Home Arts.” 

So many different crafts were part of their daily round: weaving, basketry, bead craft, needlecraft (embroidery, tatting, cross-stitching, lace making, smocking) sewing, knitting, crocheting, quilting, rug hooking and leather craft) as women found harmony, confidence, self-determination and a sense of accomplishment.  When you peruse magazines during the thirties and forties you also discover that everyday handcrafts extended to pottery, stained glass, ribbon craft, paper craft (decoupage, collage, marbling, paper cutting, scrapbooking), bookbinding, framing and carpentry.  Whereas our great grandmothers blended meditative crafting into their everyday, can you imagine for a moment what they would say if they could time travel to an aisle at Michaels—it’s enough to bring on an attack of vertigo or “vapors” requiring regular doses of Lydia Pinkham’s “tonic” for frazzled nerves. 

 Still, our great grandmothers were wise enough to realize that meditative hand work enabled them to create and maintain boundaries and were enterprising enough to form Ladies Gift Guilds in which to sell their wares bringing in much needed income when times were very tough and money was tight.  

“The woman who can create her own job is the woman who will win fame and fortune,” Amelia Earhart reminded them as she went from aviation record setter to a savvy and successful author, speaker and business woman; admired, respected and loved for her entrepreneurial instincts as well as adventurous “brand” which included a dazzling array of products including shoes, clothing, luggage, airplanes and automobiles.  

I think the great secret that artists of the everyday know is that when other people see that our hands are busy, they often give us a few moments grace from their requests. The pause that refreshes and restores. What the rest of the world doesn’t realize (and we shall never tell) is that when our hands are busy, our minds can rest and our dreams can soar.

Amelia Earhart confessed that “Courage is the price that Life extracts for granting peace.  The soul that knows it not, knows no release from little things.”  And for “modern” women, myself included, who forget that courage is best nurtured in small snatches of contentment, we might be missing on some of the best adventure training possible, not to mention the wisdom of the ages.  The next time the fabric of real life seems to unravel before your eyes, turn away from the nightly news and get busy with your hands, so that you can serenely sort out where your heart wishes to pick up the next stitch. 

After Amelia Earhart was tragically “lost” to the world in an effort to do the impossible—circumnavigate the globe—on May 31, 1937—and transitioned from history into icon, Eleanor Roosevelt observed that “She helped the cause of women by giving them a feeling that there was nothing they could not do.”  Amelia Earhart’s courage and creativity was a catalyst for dreams in the hearts of millions of women around the world.  She was and continues to be one Swell Dame for us all.

Sending love and fond wishes for some much deserved  well-spent moments this week, and always, blessings on your courage.


XO SBB

 

The Thrill of Thrift

There is a satisfaction in seeing one’s household prosper,
in being both bountiful and provident.

--Phyllis McGinley

I don’t know a woman alive who doesn’t get a thrill out of thrifting—the finding of the perfect item at the perfect price.  But thrifting is so much more than a bargain bagged at a garage sale, flea market or on eBay.  For centuries, thrifting has been the heart of the homemaker’s honorable estate and a sacred trust that included the right apportionment of her personal and domestic resources:  time, creative energy, emotion, industry, strength, skill, craft, and labor; the management of property of all kinds, including money; the exercise of prudence and temperance; and the distribution of charity to those less fortunate.

In other words, all those homespun virtues necessary to keep a family healthy, prosperous and secure were contained in the Heavenly boon of this one expansive word.

But to truly understand the reassuring and redeeming spiritual qualities of thrift, let’s clear away all the old, hackneyed cliché cobwebs that surround this marvelous quality.

Let’s begin by what thrift isn’t:  parsimonious, frugal, mean, scrimping, paltry, shoddy, stingy or cheap.

What thrift is:  bountiful, generous, compassionate, vigorous, growing, abundant, blooming, copious, healthful, efficient.  Thrift is practicing the art of elegant economies, such as gratitude, simplicity, order, harmony, beauty and joy (interestingly, all the six graces of Simple Abundance).  Thrift is thriving, increasing, expanding and plentiful.

We can trace the role that thrift has played in the English household back to the 13th century bard Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as well as William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.  Probably the earliest meaning of the word thrift was “the condition of one who thrives” or being endowed with good luck, good fortune, wealth and health.  But what made thrift such an honorable aspiration was that its bounty was not conveyed by celestial benediction or favor of the Crown—but rather through the everyday choices made by prudent housewives who were neat, clean, industrious, imaginative, honest, clever, enterprising and generous.  Women who found the mystical in their mundane rituals of their daily round and cherished their bounty of the everyday.  

Illustration by Coles Phillips.

Illustration by Coles Phillips.

The invocation of thrift was considered as crucial to a bride’s happy marriage as tossing rice, releasing doves or wearing something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.  Beginning in the 16th century, English nuptials introduced the custom of the bride’s father or guardian slipping a silver sixpence coin into her left shoe as a harbinger of wealth and protection against want.  The symbol of the sixpence represented the “reward” due to those drawn to the honorable estate of matrimony.

Intriguingly, “thrift” is also the name of a charming English flower, a pink perennial that blooms from April through September which flourishes in rocky crevices, requiring little soil for sustenance while acting as a barrier protecting the marshes from the ebb-and-flow erosion of the sea.  As a metaphor for our own reconsidered economic lives, the metaphysical boundary of thrift protects us from the ebb and flow of the emergencies.  It enables us to create our own protective barrier to cushion us from want and distress through our savings, or, the “Margin of Happiness” as the Victorians called it.  Fabulous name that makes you want to have or start one immediately.  

Without thrift “there can be little solid domestic happiness,” the Pulitzer prizewinning poet and essayist Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978) tells us in her Sixpence in Her Shoe (1964) written as an answer to Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking The Feminine Mystique published the year before.  “For thrift is neither selfishness or cheese-paring, but a large, compassionate attribute, a just regard for God’s material gifts.  It has nothing in common with meanness and is different even from economy, which may assist thrift.”

Phyllis McGinley is a woman after my own heart.  She loved being a wife, a mother, a homemaker, an author and a poet.  She reveled in combining all the facets of her daily round in her writing, working on her poems, essays or books while a pot of stew or soup simmered on the stove.  And she saw no contradictions in combining all the aspects of her life into a tapestry of contentment—from meeting her husband’s train to being celebrated at a White House reception.

Phyllis McGinley on the cover of Time Magazine, June 18, 1965.

Phyllis McGinley on the cover of Time Magazine, June 18, 1965.

In her inspirational essay “The Pleasures of Thrift,” she describes how passionate thrift is the guardian of domestic bliss:  “Meanness inherits a set of silverware and keeps it in the bank.  Economy uses it only on important occasions for fear of loss.  Thrift sets the table with it every night for pure pleasure, but counts the butter spreaders before they are put away.”

Becoming a novice in Mother Plenty’s Order of the Hearth enables us to create a sustainable lifestyle protected from life’s storms, as best we can.  “Thrift saves for the future because the children must be educated and because one must not be a burden in old age,” McGinley tells us.  “Thrift keeps the house painted and the roof in repair, puts shoe trees in shoes, but bakes a jar of cookies for neighborhood children.  It is never stingy…”

Illustration by Coles Phillips.

Illustration by Coles Phillips.

What I adore about McGinley’s view of thrift is that “it has to be a personal joy which every housewife must work out for herself” by first examining what are her authentic extravagances.  Do you love to cook?  Then quality knives, organic chickens and virgin olive oil might be your affordable luxuries—but through your prudent meal planning, the chicken will stretch to three delicious suppers and the fresh baked sourdough bread accompanying your homemade chicken noodle soup doesn’t have to be made in your kitchen.  The thrill of thrift invites trade-offs not trade-downs.

“Everywoman has to learn to be thrifty in her own idiom.  Her economies must be like her luxuries cut to the shape of the family budget or the family dream and they must never descend to indignities.  Thrift implies dignity,” Phyllis McGinley reminds us.  “It might lie for one person as a thing so small as properly balancing her check book or for another in something so large as learning to make all the draperies for her windows…And, like laughter or sachets in bureau drawers, it is a pleasant thing to have around the house.”

I believe that once we approach thrift not as a straight-jacket of “can’t haves” but as a homegrown remedy for contentment and creativity, this ancient art can not only boost our morale, but increase our “Margin of Happiness” and that, after all, is why we seek the sacred in the ordinary.

Sending love to you and yours and always, blessings on your courage.

XO SBB