Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Winter 2015 Storytellers: A Season of Books

"Who knew that in a world of digital entertainment, people still actually need the comfort of books when faced with the possibility of being homebound?" NorthJersey.com considered in an article on a rush on print books at the library before a blizzard that did not materialize.

I was at the library the day the storm was supposed to start too, for books and DVDs. Even though it was a small bill, we cancelled our Netflix account a while back, preferring the frugality of the library. While Steve was binge watching the library's House of Cards, call me an old soul, but I was binge watching their copies of As Time Goes By, an older British comedy series I've only seen bits of. I adored the witty writing and wonderful acting (oh that Mrs. Bale with her shipping forecasts and lunches that will be served in 8 and a half minutes). I loved just as much the scenes of the British countryside, the blue and white dishes in the pretty kitchen, all those cups of tea, and also the reading.  Lionel and Jean would read in bed at night and Lionel came back from the library once with everything from Moby Dick to Winnie the Pooh, the latter which puzzled Jean. Lionel said, "I've got more time for reading now so I thought I'd catch up on all the books I think I've read but actually haven't." After he read a few lines from it, Jean was so charmed and asked if she could borrow it next.

I read Winnie the Pooh too last year from the library to Grace. I love the coziness of the evening hours. We have the classical music channel playing softly in the bedroom, painted a soothing lavender color, with inviting lighting. What better way to end the day than a cup of herbal tea and a book?

Like Lionel, I'm also catching up with some writers I haven't read enough of, like John Steinbeck, and discovering new favorite authors, some alive and writing presently, others from over a century ago. I saw the film Wild this winter, based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed of her adventure hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. She, like Chris McCandless in Into to the Wild, carried cherished books and words with her, and she left quotes along the way for others to find, including Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I carry words within my spirit too. I'm sharing favorite passages and reflections for other readers and for my own memory too.

These were my storytellers for winter 2015. So many had a common thread: home.

This storyteller had me thinking about loving my home: At Home With Madame Chic: Becoming a Connoisseur of Daily Life by Jennifer L. Scott, the blogger of the Daily Connoisseur. I read her book, "Lessons from Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris" from the library and bought a copy for my sister last year, and she returned the favor giving me her latest for Christmas. Jennifer's life was forever changed when she stayed with a hostess she refers to as "Madame Chic" in Paris for a semester while at university, and is a testament to how travel can alter your life's path. She writes on many topics, like decluttering, using all of your quality items, and savoring life to the fullest. Her latest book is on home life, and here are some favorite passages.

"Driving to see my childhood home was very significant for me. It taught me the importance of home, especially to children. Your home is more than just a shelter. It is more than just a place to showcase your design skills. It is more than just a means to an end (especially if you would rather live somewhere else). It is the most important place of your life. It provides you solace and refuge from the harsh world. It provides tangible comforts, like your cozy sofa and warm bed. But it also provides other comforts in the energy it gives off. You will have so many memories in this home. There will be many firsts here, and if you have children, they will remember even the smallest details about your home - especially all of its off-beat character."

We are celebrating three years in our home this April, and we have had so many happy memories here: our garden wedding party, the arrival of our daughter Grace and puppies into the world, fondues for Christmas, and large family gatherings like Grace's Christening last Easter.

When Scott visited her old childhood home, which once boasted a beautiful garden that was tended by her mother that had become wildly overgrown, she found ripped screens and various states of disrepair. She took solace though, reflecting,

"But even though our old home had physically seen better days, I knew in that moment that we had taken the soul of that house with us to our new home. And as I branched out and left our small town, I'd taken all the best bits of home life - the essence of its soul - with me wherever I went. It's the soul that matters most, after all. And even though over the years I've lived in everything from a cramped dorm room at school to a grand apartment in Paris and finally to our family town home in Santa Monica, I have taken the soul of home with me, wherever I am.”  

Jennifer talks about falling in love with your home again, remembering all the things you loved about it when you first moved in, and to not wish away the life you are leading now. I love our home and quiet street but not our congested area, pricey property taxes, cost of living and air quality when a nearby quarry is active. I sometimes wonder what life would be like elsewhere, but we're settled here for at least the next few years. In the film version of Lonesome Dove, Diane Lane's character is always dreaming of a better life in San Francisco to which she is advised, "Life in San Francisco is still just life. If you want only one thing too much it's likely to turn out a disappointment. The only healthy way to living as I see it is to learn to like all the little every day things."

Jennifer reminded me about the excitement I felt when we drove past the house before we moved in. I love the little things about home, which make up the soul of it. What does the soul of home mean to you? Home to me is where my family and dogs are, where I can savor a cup of tea and a book, and other little things, liking hang drying laundry. There's nothing like the sun beating down on freshly cleaned laundry in the summer. I rented for years and had no outdoor space to do this, and how I love it.

Home is also tending a garden. Our herb container garden, and my beloved geraniums.

Home is savoring life. This is our own little paradise out here.

Jennifer encourages us to keep our homes and our tables clutter free. Clutter is my constant enemy. When my parents came to visit one weekend, I  put a pretty lace table cloth on, lit a candle, and baked a cranberry apple crisp, with pineapple and coffee on inviting blue and white dishes. Why don't I dress up my table like this all the time?

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, 50 cents from the C.A.T.S. Resale Shop in Westwood, New Jersey. I can never resist looking at the books at charity shops or library sales with prices like 50 cents for a paperback. You never know what storyteller awaits you, and even though I have so much to read, Steinbeck wanted to jump to the top of my list.

This passage reminds me of a different kind of home, the home of our planet and it recalls how much life something like a river we take for granted gives. So many of our rivers here in New Jersey and elsewhere are polluted, treated recklessly by mankind.

"The Carmel is a lovely little river. It isn't very long but in its course it has everything a river should have. It rises in the mountains, and tumbles down a while, runs through shallows, is damned to make a lake, spills over the dam, crackles among round boulders, wanders lazily under sycamores, spills into pools where trout live, drops in against banks where crayfish live. In the winter it becomes a torrent, a mean little fierce river, and in the summer it is a place for children to wade in and for fishermen to wander in. Frogs blink from its banks and the deep ferns grow beside it. Deer and foxes come to drink from it, secretly in the morning and evening, and now and then a mountain lion crouched flat laps its water. The farms of the rich little valley back up to the river and take its water for the orchards and the vegetables. The quail call beside it and the wild doves come whistling in at dusk. Raccoons pace its edges looking for frogs. It's everything a river should be."

Here a river in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.

I love the bookends of the day, the quiet hours of the evening and of the dawn too. Of the early morning, Steinbeck writes, "It is the hour of pearl—the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself."

The hour of the pearl in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the Cinnamon Mornings bed and breakfast.

Last year we did day trips with Grace instead of a full vacation to save money and to make life easier. I loved the comfort of home at day's end with baby, being with our dogs and the frugality, but I also really missed the road trips Steve and I took in Washington state, California and the Southwest. There's almost a religious experience of being out there with just you and the land. Everywhere around where I live in New Jersey is so congested there's no escaping it. Steinbeck's Doc sees America firsthand.

"He put on a little knapsack and he walked through Indiana and Kentucky and North Carolina and Georgia clear to Florida. He walked among farmers and mountain people, among swamp people and fishermen. And everywhere people asked him why he was walking through the country.
Because he loved true things he tried to explain. He said he was nervous and besides he wanted to see the country, smell the ground and look at grass and birds and trees, to savor the country, and there was no other way to do it save on foot."

Setting foot onto Rialto Beach in Washington state, and making imprints in sand, and on my soul too.

Becoming a mom has me thinking not just about enjoying the present, and hoping for the future, but reflecting on the past too. Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim was a Christmas gift from Shaw's Book Shop in Westwood, New Jersey. I looked this up after a mention of it on Downton Abbey, when Mosley loans Anna a copy of it. I now count it as one of my favorite books.

There's a heavily run Verizon commercial which may be my least favorite ad ever. It features a young girl and boy being dropped off at their grandmother's house, and the father tells them he knows her house isn't the most exciting, but when they get inside to their delight there's movies, video games, and face chatting, all high speed glory. They beg to stay. I have to beg the question, what values are being sold to us, especially by corporations seeking to profit from our behaviors and that of our children? I'm nearing 40 and everyone my age I've talked to says they are so glad they grew up before all this technology. My favorite memories of my grandparents involve making mashed potatoes, geraniums, eating summer fruit tarts, petting their rabbits and their overall warmth. We had a language barrier since I didn't speak the Swiss German dialect but it didn't matter. I reflect on how close I feel to them even though I didn't know them well, and what memories my soul picked up as a small child. Von Arnim reflected,

"Nobody told me about him [my grandfather], and he died when I was six, and yet within the last year or two, that strange Indian summer of remembrance that comes to us in the leisured times when the children have been born and we have time to think, has made me know him perfectly well. It is rather an uncomfortable thought for the grown-up, and especially for the parent, but of a salutary and restraining nature, that though children may not understand what is said and done before them, and have no interest in it at the time, and though they may forget it at once and for years, yet these things that they have seen and heard and not noticed have after all impressed themselves for ever on their minds, and when they are men and women come crowing back with surprising and often painful distinctness, and away frisk all the cherished little illusions in flocks."

Red currant berries one summer ready for pie, a culinary and time travel portal to summers in Switzerland in my youth.

Brookfield Days, Caroline #1, from the Little House Chapter Books series, from the library, tells the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder's mother, Caroline in her youth. Like all Little House books, simple pleasures transcend centuries. There's something so timeless like waking up to pancakes.

"Hotcakes were her favorite. She loved to drop a pat of butter on the steaming cakes. Then she'd pour sugar syrup over the stack and eat them before the syrup even had a chance to drizzle off the hotcakes onto her plate. Her stomach rumbled just thinking about it.

As soon as Martha was dressed, the three girls rushed downstairs. The kitchen was warm and cozy. Joseph and Henry had already brought the wood in from the woodpile. The fire in the heart hissed and popped. The sunshine made the room glow with light."

Blueberry pancakes at my favorite café of all: our patio.

I also had at the great pleasure this winter of meeting Melissa Gilbert who played Laura Ingalls Wilder in the Little House on the Prairie series when she did a book signing at Bookends in Ridgewood, New Jersey for My Prairie Cookbook, which is part cookbook and part scrapbook and filled with memories of the show. I got her to sign it for myself and for Grace, and for Grace's library I got her children's book, Daisy and Josephine, a story of a young girl and her French bulldog, which has a few French words which I'm excited to share with Grace.

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown from Better World Books, is a page turner true story of Sarah Graves, a young woman traveling with her new husband and family alongside the ill-fated Donner Party who were trapped by a snowstorm after taking an ill-advised short cut in the Sierra Nevadas. This tale will never leave me. It is a miracle anyone walked out of those mountains at all. I was reading this book the same time I saw the film adaption of Wild, and I kept thinking of modern day adventurers seeking thrill, a challenge or escape versus these almost mythic pioneers making their way into the unknown world. Imagine packing your possessions and leaving cherished friends and family goodbye to travel thousands of miles into the unknown. I recall David McCullough looking at the Brooklyn Bridge in awe thinking of the people who built it in the 1800s, who were those people? I think the same when traveling out West. Brown notes,

"For Sarah, everything on the far shore, everything unseen beyond that line of trees, was outside the United States and outside the normal scope of her life. It  was a vast unknown, a blank slate on which her entire future and much of her country's future, both real and mythical, were about to be written. Everything she hopes for, and everything she feared, lay beyond those trees, and she could not yet know in what proportions they would me mixed. Whether she and Jay would prosper, what kind of lives they would live, what sort of children they might raise, what nation's flag they would live under, what hardships they might be forced to endure, what friends they might make, what  deaths they would eventually suffer - all that and more waited, unrevealed, beyond those trees."

Rock climbers in Utah.

Beatrix Potter: The Complete Tales was a Christmas gift for Grace. While I knew classics like Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny, I loved other stories just as much, one favorite being The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse. In it a country mouse Timmy Willie ends up by accident in the city, finding that life there much disagrees with him. Johnny Town-Mouse tells Timmy Willie his garden sounds quite dull, but to the contrary Timmy Willie tells him,

"When it rains, I sit in my little sandy burrow and shell corn and seed from my Autumn store. I peep out at the throstles and blackbirds on the lawn, and my friend Cock Robin. And when the sun comes out again, you should see my garden and the flowers - roses and pinks and pansies - no noise except the birds and bees, and the lambs in the meadow."

Pink petunias in my summer garden.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, from the library. This book may reflect on life in Paris in the 1920's, but nearly a century later, I found so much of its beauty timeless.

"With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life. This was the only truly sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen."

At the New York Botanical Garden this spring. New life, in all its glory, budding again.

When We Were Very Young, A.A. Milne, a birthday gift for Grace, a charming poetry collection. Here, a passage from Spring Morning.

""Where am I going? The high rooks call:
"It's awful fun to be born at all."
Where am I going? The ring-doves:
"We do have beautiful things to do."

If you were a bird, and lived on high,
You'd lean on the wind when the wind came by,
You'd say to the wind when it took you away:
"That's where I wanted to go today!"

Where am I going? I don't quite know.
What does it matter where people go?
Down to the wood where the blue-bells grow--
Anywhere, anywhere. I don't know." -

Tulips and bleeding hearts in our garden from the spring of 2014. Happy Spring and Happy Reading.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

No Regrets: Our Thrifty Wedding Proudly Done Our Way

Debt is where dreams go to die, author Elizabeth Gilbert rightly said at a book reading I went to for her sweeping novel, The Signature of All Things. I cannot think of a worse way to start out married life than by getting yourself into debt for what is essentially a party for a few hours after your wedding ceremony. The average cost of a wedding in the United States was nearly $30,000 in 2013, according to the Knot.com, as reported by CNN/Money, with almost 15% of couples spending more than $40,000 on their wedding and related events, not including the honeymoon.

In an article in The Washington Post entitled, "A marriage license isn’t license to take on wedding debt" a reader wrote in...

"Maybe someday you should ask all of us who had nice but inexpensive weddings how it went. Take my case. I have been married for more than 30 years. We were married in the garden of my mother’s home. Our plain gold rings came from W. Bell, a now defunct catalogue store. I think we paid $50 total. Our wedding cake came from Woodward & Lothrop. It was on sale and cost about $100. We had champagne from the corner liquor store and a few little “finger” sandwiches. That was it! Oh, and my dress was an antique, found in my grandmother’s attic. I think it was from a distant relative’s confirmation. Flowers were from my mother’s garden. We had about 75 people. It was really nice, and everyone had a great time."

I'm sharing the story of our thrifty wedding here, a follow-up to my post Our Thrifty Wedding: We're Doing it Our Way. Since our wedding in September of 2012, we've added two dogs to our household less than two months after our big day, our daughter Grace was born in February of 2014 and I resigned from my full-time position in New York City to be a stay-at-home mom, cutting our income in half. We have a huge sigh of relief that we did not dig ourselves into debt for a huge, lavish wedding. We think it's one of the best financial decisions we made, and encourage others to be proud of their thrifty weddings, and urge couples to consider a similar path. That money will seem so important later, money you may want for a house, children, college funds, travel, and retirement.

The CNN/Money article reported "beyond the wedding venue and catering, which cost an average of $13,385 in 2013, other big-ticket items included engagement rings (at an average of $5,598), reception bands ($3,469), flowers and other decor ($2,069) and wedding photos ($2,440)...

Last year, 30% of couples provided additional guest entertainment, such as a photo booth, compared to only 11% in 2009. Couples also spent more on rehearsal dinners, after parties and morning-after brunches, which can easily add thousands of dollars to the total wedding bill."

The weekend before our wedding, Steve and I attended the wedding of his former co-worker's daughter at a farm in upstate New York. Apart from our own, it was the best wedding I have ever been to. Women wore flowery cotton dresses, some in cowboy boots. Instead of an over-the-top happy hour where people overfill themselves even before the meal, we ate some local cheeses and pumpkin soup. There was a homey buffet and cupcakes after. Guests could lounge on haystacks. I love farms and I kept asking Steve, "Are you sorry we didn't have a wedding like this?" To which he answered no, and I do too, simply because I know that wedding cost was in excess of $25,000.

There's a show with David Tutera where he redoes couple's modest plans and gives them a "Platinum Wedding." I think most of the time there's nothing wrong with the original plans. That's what people can afford. Why should we be expected to live the life of a celebrity or the ultra rich?

No deprivation feeling at all two and a half years after our wedding. Happily remembering these fond memories.

Our rehearsal dinner. I did not wear the dress I talked about in my original thrifty wedding post. I donated it back to the Goodwill, and wore instead a yellow vintage blouse and green skirt from an estate sale with a white silk flower from Housing Works thrift shop.  We celebrated with under 20 people at one of our favorite restaurants, The Kitchen in Englewood, New Jersey. My parents paid for this and the champagne at the wedding. We love BYOB restaurants. We brought wonderful French wine won at an annual chef picnic we attend. The day after the wedding there was an informal brunch at Steve's brother's home.

Baked Alaska at The Kitchen.

We did our own invitations. I found these beautiful note cards at a favorite charity thrift shop, C.A.T.S. Resale in Westwood, New Jersey. We used the rose ones for the invitations and the others for reply cards, and printed the details out on our computer. These fit in perfectly with our garden party theme.

We used my paternal grandmother's engagement ring from the 1920's. It is a simple ring with a small diamond. One of my least favorite words in the English language: "Bling." Flashy rings seem to be more for showing off. Wearing a family ring feels far more personal. Steve actually proposed at the Grand Canyon with an IOU note for a ring. I told him before we ever got engaged I did not want an expensive, showy ring and preferred something vintage. He feared I would resent that he did not buy me a ring, but I've never once regretted our choice.

We found a simple rose gold wedding band for under $300, and Steve's titanium wedding band was just $120.

My dress: a Hartley dress I found at the Goodwill for $15! I actually would have paid more, but there's no arguing with the price tag. I was there around Valentine's Day and found it on a display of wedding dresses on mannequins. When I tell people I got my dress at the Goodwill, I've gotten some looks followed by, "Well,  that's okay." Yes, well, that's fabulous. I remember a Trader Joe's cashier proudly saying her wedding dress was $15 too and from H&M. I was not going to spend hundreds, never mind thousands, of dollars on a dress I wore for about eight hours. I wore a handmade silk red orchid in my hair, a thrifted butterfly pin and pair of red earrings, and small blue heels I got an estate sale. Steve wore a tuxedo he already owns.

We didn't have a wedding party. My sister was the maid of honor and Steve's brother was the best man. I told my sister Michele to wear whatever she pleased and she donned a beautiful raspberry colored dress from Kohl's. Michele treated me to a manicure and pedicure at an organic nail salon, and I did my own hair and makeup which I kept very simple. I am not a big makeup person in my everyday life and I did not feel the pressure to differ from that on my wedding day. We also did not have bachelor/bachelorette parties. I do not believe that drunken, wild "right of passages" are needed.  Steve's brother, not a drinker who is also a chef like my husband, splurged for a high end dinner for the two of them in New York City, and Michele treated us to aromatherapy massages at a day spa which always reminds me of one of my favorite states I've visited: New Mexico.

The church cost was $500 total for the ceremony and organist. We had a nominal fee too for the marriage license.

We kept our guest list to around 30 close friends and family, and had the party after the church in our backyard patio and garden  This is a hard but truthful question to be asked: Do 200 people really want to go to anyone's wedding, or will many of them view it as an obligation? Steve had some of his relatives fly in from Iowa and his mother came from Arizona, but with my parents' relatives all in Switzerland it was too far away to even invite them.

We said on our invitation, and meant every word of it, that we hoped our guests would warm our home with their love, which they did! We set up tables outside on our patio and on our elevated grassy area had formal tables for dinner. We loved that guests mingled and sat wherever they pleased, instead of being forced to a table. Steve bought two outdoors tents: one at Campmore, the other at the Goodwill, which we ended up not needing since it was cloudy. No loss at all: we use one all the time on our sunny patio, and gave the other to my parents. Anything else we purchased - tables, dishes, and such - we now own.

I snapped photos the day after. It was overcast the day of our wedding, but I am not complaining since it was pouring the entire week leading up to the day.

Chairs we owed, a thrifted table cloth, a table from the Goodwill.

A small fortune saved having it at our home. We've been downsizing the past year and the chairs, table and table cloth on the right were donated to the Goodwill to pass on the good karma.

Even our scarecrow is thrifted! I picked him up at a garage sale for $2 during the summer. Fragrant basil next to it, making me long for summer.

This outdoor table was rescued from a woman who was going to throw it in the garbage the next day if we hadn't come along. Good thing we did! I wrote about that massive curbside rescue in "Wanted: A Thriving American Reuse Market."

A ladybug tablecloth, wine coasters and a butterfly candle, all from thrift shops, and the vase rescued from the garbage we spotted outside a vintage shop. I consider the amount of perfectly good items discarded into landfills an economic and environmental crisis. I'm so grateful for the people who take the time and love to donate their items to charity shops or even sell their goods to those in their communities at garage sales for bargain prices. The reuse market is a big part of my American dream, and I'm happy so much from our wedding was secondhand.

Our seating area for dinner. Some guests ate here, others on the patio, some inside. We just wanted our guests to be happy!

We had on music from a commercial-free radio station. Steve is not a dancer at all, so we broke from tradition and did not do dancing. We detest loud music where people cannot hold a conversation. We also did not do the bouquet toss.

My mother did the flowers, some from her garden, others from Trader Joe's. I inherited a love of flowers from my mom, which I hope to pass onto my daughter. These were on our sweetheart table with two Lenox doves from an estate sale and a rose candle from Housing Works. We never even got around to sitting here!

My bouquet came from one of my favorite local farms, Old Hook Farm in Emerson, New Jersey. When my mom picked it up and asked how much it was, the owner just said, "Congratulations!"

Steve's brother Jim, an avid hobby photographer, took the pictures, and he presented us with beautiful albums from Snapfish.com. For Christmas he gave us assorted framed photos from Costco. After the ceremony, we headed to a local park to take some pictures.

Many people thought we were nuts for doing our own food, but my husband is a chef and was proud to cook for his family and friends and wanted to control the quality. My cousin in Switzerland did her own wedding food too. The guests could take the leftovers, and since we were leaving on our honeymoon, we gave away all of their perishable items too. We copied the idea for pumpkin soup we had at the wedding the week before. Steve estimated our food cost at $700 but that was with the large bounty we gave to the guests. We did hire a woman to work as a dishwasher and to help with a few other tasks.

We had cupcakes, not a fancy cake, and kept our dessert offerings simple. People still mention how much they loved our vegan cupcakes from Sweet Avenue Bake Shop in Rutherford, New Jersey. We cut them in half so people could try a few. Steve also put out fresh strawberries in raspberry sauce with Grand Marnier and sugar, along with two large Crème Brulees. That was it.

Our favors: flower seed packets. I loved watching the orange marigolds I planted emerge from seeds. They feel like sunshine in my garden.

We did not register. If we need something for our household, we can get it for pennies on the dollar at a garage or estate sale. We asked on our invitation for contributions to our honeymoon. I still have the fondest memories of our trip to Northern California, visiting San Francisco (my favorite major U.S. city), Muir Woods and Lands End, Yosemite, the wine country, Columbia, a Gold Rush town, and Berkeley. With the monetary gifts from our families, friends and my colleagues, our entire wedding and honeymoon was paid for! I look so serene in the photos from the wedding day and the trip, with such a happy wedding day behind us, and an exciting future ahead.

Heaven on earth: Yosemite Valley.

We did get one big item, a large 55 inch flat screen television several of Steve's family members paid for. Some of my favorite gifts we received were a Basho poetry book and a copy of The Prophet, a white tea pot and tea cup set from Harney and Sons with rose tea and madeleines, and  my colleagues at work gave us a dogwood tree. I love these personal gifts. Gifts to me aren't about the value, but about the love and thoughtfulness of the giver.

I recall reading an article in our local paper about the business of brides and how the wedding industry was viewed as something that could thrive in spite of the Depression, and the emergence of bridal magazines and the industry itself. I  am not sure how we arrived at the point where $30,000 weddings are considered normal, but Steve and I are all for challenging American conventions and culture, particularly involving money and waste. I believe "thrifty" and "frugal" are badges of honor, nothing to be ashamed of. We are proud of our thrifty wedding. Debt is not part of our American dream.  Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments sections on the cost of modern weddings,and anything else on your mind wedding related. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Put the Kettle On: Downton Abbey is Back

Cheers! Downton Abbey is back, so why not celebrate over a cup of tea? Classic, fragrant Earl Grey for me, please, in a pretty china cup and saucer.

It's been far too long since I've been to a tea party, and what better occasion than to herald the return of one of my favorite shows. I have fond memories of Valentine's Day and winter solstice tea parties at Alice's Tea Cup with office mates after work and cozy lunches at Tea and Sympathy with two dear friends, both in New York City, but I forget I have a wonderful tea room in my own backyard: Harmony Tea Room in Westwood, New Jersey. I celebrated my birthday here when I was expecting Grace.

Their dining room is bright and cheery.

Differing from other tea parties I have been to, this one encouraged dress-up, something we do not do enough in our very casual society. How many fleece pajama pants have you seen people donning in shops and out and about?

With my sister and mother as dining companions, I donned my best vintage: a dress I picked up in San Francisco on my honeymoon, a hat and tweed coat from an estate sale, my grandmother's bag with a crocheted floral design and one of her pins, and a pink and green necklace from the C.A.T.S. Resale Shop. I even dabbled on some Chanel No. 5 which is thrifted too. The only item I forgot was the vintage gloves. I'm often impressed by the longevity and craftsmanship of a lot of vintage fashion compared to today's clothing. It felt so ladylike to dress up. Since I don't work in a nice New York City office anymore, it's far too easy to be casual all the time, especially in the cold, blustery winter.  It was a reminder that life is worth dressing up for and not just for tea parties but on a regular basis.

Fashion was one of the elements that attracted me to Downton Abbey, likewise for Mad Men, a series I liked so much at one time I wrote a Mad Men column on my blog. However, I tired of Mad Men and no longer watch it. Mostly, I was offput by all the self-destructive characters and their extramarital affair shenanigans.

I still adore Downton Abbey, now in its fifth season, for its English scenery, historical context, the acting and characters, even its riveting score. Most of all I love the smart writing, from Carson's wise observations, "The nature of life is not permanence, but flux" to the witty zingers from everyone from Mrs. Patmore to the Dowager Countess and Violet Crawley.

Back to our tea party, we were served on this beautiful cake tier. Doesn't food look so much more inviting when artfully presented? Everything was vegetarian-friendly except one item with beef I skipped
An apricot oatmeal scone with the trimmings: lemon curd, clotted cream and strawberry preserves, and bites: a deviled egg, a cucumber dill cream cheese sandwich, a roasted red pepper, spinach and artichoke sandwich, and brie cheese with fig jam.
Sweet endings: a raspberry white chocolate cheesecake bite, an almond cookie and a dried fruit cookie. There is such gluttony usually at restaurants, but this was enough.
We were encouraged to come up with our Downton names: Lady, Princess or Duchess, with your middle name, street name and county of birth. For the night I was Lady Elizabeth. Party games to be had: Downton Abbey bingo and trivia too. I wasn't lucky enough to leave with any of the Downton Abbey jewelry or totes sporting a crown. The tote would have been so cute to carry items for Grace. She does share a name with a very famous princess after all!
This quote by Henry Fielding seems so fitting for Downton Abbey. 

Last season, I made the mistake of googling Downton Abbey and came upon a major plot spoiler involving Anna. Lesson learned this time. I also spotted episodes up on Youtube, but I am not giving in to temptation to watch them. With all of this on-demand entertainment and instant gratification, there's something to be said for the anticipation of each week's show, like lingering over one chapter at a time of a really good book. For Downton Abbey fans, happy viewing this season!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

These Were My 2014 Storytellers: A Year of Books

"He said that if culture is a house, then language was the key to the front door; to all the rooms inside. Without it, he said, you ended up wayward, without a proper home or a legitimate identity." And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, not just a storyteller, but a master storyteller.

One of my life's passions is a love of books. I am not a fast reader, quite the opposite. I'll never be one of those people who boast, "I finished the book in a day." I love to linger over a passage that stirred my soul and imagination.

Aside from reading for pleasure, it is a part of continuing education for me. Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, talking about early childhood education said, "Anyone who thinks learning starts at 5 really doesn't understand child development and brain development." I'll add to that anyone who thinks education ends at 18 or in your twenties also doesn't understand development, or should I say betterment. I'm always inspired not by people's material conquests, but their pursuits to better themselves. I came into this life learning and I want to leave it learning, as well as growing and changing.

Singer John Mellencamp said at age 62, "my inspiration today is coming from authors like, I hate to sound pretentious, but Steinbeck, Hawthorne,  Faulkner so I'm trying to write about those type of things and not typical rock things." I found two things striking: the wisdom that comes with aging, and the apologetic tone for embracing these authors. I don't think Mellencamp sounds pretentious at all. We should be proud to be seekers of knowledge.

The year 2014 was a splendid year of reading. Even though I am now a stay-at-home mom, I found at times I was reading less than when I was working full time, realizing how much reading I got done waiting in line at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, on the bus, and occasionally on lunch breaks. I give up on books I don't like, even if I am more than half-way through. The author Elizabeth Gilbert talked at a book reading of how baffled she was when people write scathing reviews of one of her books and wonder why they carried on reading if they hated it so much. It's supposed to be for pleasure, not torture, was the gist of her sentiments.

I meant to write quarterly storyteller columns, but my blog has taken a backseat. I did want to recap my storytellers for 2014 and share a few favorite passages, along with some photographs of my past travels. Books are going to continue to serve as armchair and time traveling. I read several picture books from the library to Grace but am not including them here.

Storyteller Passage on Reading
"After a lesson on photosynthesis, she drew diagrams in the small notebook Talmadge had given her, and regarded these drawings often, improving upon them, thinking: And this is how it works: the sun, soil, sugar, water...She could not wait to tell Talmadge about it.
The other chief love - and how similar it was to science, and how different - was reading. As soon as she realized the figures on the page meant something - could be strung together as words, and then sentences, and then paragraphs, she was covetous of the whole system. It seemed a new universe to her. And it was. Everything opened up. Some stories were meant to inform, and others were meant to entertain. And then other stories were separate from those - this young teacher did not tell her, it was something Angeline figured out on her own, the first year, when a man visited and read them a poem out of tome of poems - that seemed crafted to relay some secret, and even more than that, some secret about herself. Angelene was mesmerized. What was available for her to know? What secrets did the world hold? Which secrets would be revealed through the soil, and which through words?" - The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin, a sweeping novel set in Washington state of two mysterious pregnant girls who enter the lives of orchardist Talmadge.

A Little Free Library in Seattle. I love book exchanges. I read The Orchardist because some kind soul brought it to the book swap at my former workplace.

Storyteller Passage on Kindness

"J'aurais dû être plus gentille—I should have been more kind. That is something a person will never regret. You will never say to yourself when you are old, Ah, I wish I was not good to that person. You will never think that." And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini.

Kindness not just to people, but to animals too, are values I want to teach our daughter Grace about. At the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York.

Storyteller Passages on Dreams and Imagination

"But when dreaming, where was the dreamer? The landscapes a dreamer visits are unknowable to anyone else. He suspected the dreamer visited that undefined, mysterious place we all came from before we were born, and where we each return at the end of our conscious life, another world." The Doctor's Dreams by J.J. Brown, two novellas, one on a doctor who mysteriously disappears on New Year's Eve whose brother finds her dream diary, and the other on the uncertainty and fear following a layoff.

In Capri, Italy, a cat slumbers. Could it be visiting the land of dreams?

"The beauty of writing is imagining new endings to a time of darkness, like burning off a morning fog with the heat and clarity of the sun." - The Doctor's Dreams

The sun shines on a dog overlooking Mount Vesuvius in Italy, his thoughts like our dreams and the dreams of others, a world so mysterious.

Storyteller Passage on Gratitude
"And when you crush an apple with your teeth, say to it in your heart,
"Your seeds shall live in my body,
And the buds of your tomorrow shall blossom in my heart,
And your fragrance be my breath,
And together we shall rejoice through all the seasons."

Apple picking in High Falls, New York.

"And in the autumn, when you gather the grapes of your vineyards for the winepress, say in your heart,
"I too am a vineyard, and my fruit shall be gathered for the winepress,
And like new wine I shall be kept in eternal vessels."
And in winter, when you draw the wine, let there be in your heart a song for each cup;
And let there be the song of remembrance for the autumn days, and for the vineyard, and for the winepress." The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

A man waters a garden aside a vineyard in Capri, Italy. When the memory of this moment is recalled, I have a song for the bounty of gardens and for the seasons.

Storyteller Passages on Seasons, Simple Pleasures, and Storytelling

Sandra Dallas had me at the first line of Prayers for Sale,

"The old woman peered past the red geraniums in her deep front window at the figure lingering in the moon-white snow at the gate." I think of Laura Ingalls Wilder talking about geraniums, to the geraniums my maternal grandmother and my mother had, to the ones in my garden. It as if they are some thread that binds us all through lapses in time and space.

Raspberry jam for sale at Mr. Apples in High Falls, New York.

"Nit liked her sweetness, and God knew, raspberry jam on a winter's morning took away the blue devils. It was like tasting summer." Prayers for Sale is a story of friendship, quilting, and life on the mountain in a Colorado mining town in the 1930s, with flashbacks to 86-year-old Hennie Comfort's early life.  Hennie "remembered how Billy always picked the first apple blossoms and put them into a tin cup for her. They made the house smell like springtime. Billy said apple trees were a double blessing, first for the blossoms and then the apples." Aren't these pleasures so timeless, with even curative powers at times?

Prayers for Sale is about so many things. Most people wouldn't call Dallas an environmental author, but I would, as she writes about mankind taking from the mountain, and the revenge it takes on the people in the harshest ways, from miscarriages to death. The novel is also a love letter to storytelling. "Stories were a living thing. They changed to suit the teller or the times." With Hennie Comfort in her golden years, without her passing on these stories to her friend Nit, so much her personal history and the history of the town and its inhabitants would be lost. With aging parents, it is reminder how important it is to draw forth these stories.

A television series I've fallen in love with is When Calls the Heart on the Hallmark channel, which originated as a movie based on Janette Oak's books, which I have not read. Set in the fictitious Coal Valley in Canada in the 19th century, like Prayers for Sale it is wonderful storytelling about life in a mining town, and if you are a Little House on the Prairie fan (which I am) and looking for family friendly entertainment, look for this series which set for a second season this spring with the first out on DVD. Here is an old trailer:

Storyteller Passages on Time in Nature and Birding

"I think the most important quality in a birdwatcher is a willingness to stand quietly and see what comes. Our everyday lives obscure a truth about existence - that at the heart of everything there lies a stillness and a light." - Birding with Yeats: A Memoir by Lynn Thomson. The first-time author, a bookseller with her husband in Canada, gathers memories of birding with her son, Yeats.

In Venice, Italy, birds basking in water in the light. I'm not a "birder" per se, going out in the woods with binoculars, but I adore watching the birds at my backyard feeder and observing them too when I travel.

"Every bird at the marsh filled us with a little light. I wondered if I was just so simple that this was all it took. But then I thought, I'm lucky that this is all it takes, and knew that I was especially lucky that this was all it took for my teenaged son, too." - Birding With Yeats

In Lands End in San Francisco, California.

"The sharp thrill of seeing them [killdeer birds] reminded me of childhood happiness, gifts under the Christmas tree, perhaps, a kind of euphoria we adults manage to shut out most of the time. This is why I bird-watch, to recapture what it's like to live in this moment, right now." - Birding With Yeats

At Lands End.

Storyteller Passage on the Power of Place

"She drank in the golden sunlight, the fresh air, the delicious fragrance of the flowers, and desired nothing more than to remain there forever. A good while passed this way, and Heidi had gazed so often and so long at the lofty mountaintops that it seemed as if they all had faces and were gazing down quite familiarly at her, like good friends." Heidi by Johanna Spyri

In Switzerland, passing by mountainside quaint villages on a train journey. My parents were born and raised in Switzerland and our family is still there. I have such strong memories of my childhood summer visits there, and dream of taking Grace here when she is older. Heidi had me thinking a lot about the power of place, how much it shapes our destinies. I also wish for Grace, and for myself, far more time spent in nature than in front of a device.

Storyteller Passage on Food and the Good Life

"Parisians take their work quite seriously, but they take their enjoyment of the little moments just as seriously. Sometimes sitting in a café with close friends or family and enjoying a shared plate of macarons is just as important as sitting in an office working. You know, some Parisians start their morning with a mug of hot chocolate.
Really? Emilia asked, taking a fourth and fifth sip.
The chocolate is like medicine to take away your troubles and help you see that life is sweet."
Recipe for Adventure: Paris!, Giada De Laurentiis written with Taylor Morris. There are other destinations like Naples, New Orleans and Hawaii in this adventure travel series with an emphasis on food geared toward children. The Paris book, the only one I've read so far aloud to Grace, has recipes for hot chocolate and crepes.

We aren't all lucky enough to live in or visit Paris, but we can enjoy the Parisian state of mind. I used to love savoring the macarons (cassis and honey lavender above) at Macaron Café in New York City when I worked nearby. Just recently, enjoying a cup of a hazelnut hot chocolate and a gingerbread scone at The Rolling Pin Café in Westwood, New Jersey.

Storyteller Passage on Tea

“It is not a cold day, but she looks warmed by the tea. Tea has that effect on people. I love watching it bring comfort." The Color of Tea by Hannah Tunnicliffe, about a woman struggling with infertility issues who opens a tea and macaron shop in Macau.

No greater comfort than a cup of tea and my mom's homemade apple pie.

Storyteller Passage on Parenthood

"It was as if she had grown, changed, overnight; her hair was different, her eyes; the shade and texture of her flesh, her limbs; and, most disconcerting and delightful of all, she was beginning to speak. She increasingly talked back to him when he murmured to her, and he understood that she was becoming what she was destined to become, when he first held her in the open air of the world: her own person, her own independent and particular self. He marveled at it all. And what would she grow up to be like? What was inside her, already formed, that would draw forth with time, and what was it that she most needed him to teach her? Would she be amenable to his help, his advice in worldly matters? And what advice did he have to give her?" - The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

Grace changes so quickly and will be a year old in February. I wonder too what advice will I have to give her, and will she be amenable to it? I do so hope to plant a lifelong love of stories.

These were my 2014 storytellers:

From the Library:
Lessons from Madame Chic, Jennifer L. Scott
Wanderville, Wendy McClure
Charlotte's Web, E.B. White
The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
The Color of Tea, Hannah Tunnicliffe
The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne
Recipe for Adventure: Paris!, Giada De Laurentiis written with Taylor Morris

From book shops:
And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini, Shaw's Book Shop, Westwood, New Jersey
My Antonia, Willa Cather, Shaw's Book Shop
The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Shaw's Book Shop. Purchased years ago, this was a reread from my home library.
My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself, Kelly Kathleen Ferguson, The Well Read Book Shop, Hawthorne, New Jersey
Birding with Yeats: A Memoir, Lynn Thomson, The Well Read Book Shop
A Wilder in the West: The Story of Eliza Jane Wilder, William T. Anderson, from the gift shop of the Wilder Homestead in Malone, New York

Secondhand treasures:
The Talking Earth, Jean Craighead George, Better World Books.
On the Way Home, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Better World Books.
On the Far Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George, Better World Books
Prayers for Sale, Sandra Dallas, Better World Books
Heidi, Johanna Spyri, translated by Helen Dole, C.A.T.S. Resale Shop, Westwood, New Jersey
Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt, a book swap
Stuart Little, E.B. White (I think an estate sale or thrift shop)
The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin, a book swap

The Doctor's Dreams, J.J. Brown, a gift
On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho, a wedding gift
The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran, a wedding gift
A Child's Garden of Verses, Robert Louis Stevenson, a gift for Grace