Friday, April 20, 2018

Quote du jour from Call the Midwife

This was Vanessa Redgrave's voiceover at the end of Season 7, episode 5 of Call the Midwife.

Fear can keep us tethered.
Terror can clip our wings.
But trust eases pain.
Hope can lighten the sky.
Love makes us courageous.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Stillmeadow - April

"And a song sparrow woke me at dawn with a cool, liquid note. It sounded like spring itself." So Gladys Taber writes in her April entry in The Book of Stillmeadow, and just this morning I heard the song sparrow for the first time this year! I've written about the song sparrow before in my letters here and here and really a few other places, too. It is one of my favorites. I love thinking about hearing the same bird at Windy Poplars Farm that Gladys heard all those years ago at Stillmeadow.

She writes of seeing a "whole flock of robins". I've not seen a flock, but the robins have definitely come. This year they showed up earlier than ever before. We heard them on February 21, and saw them two days later. That month was very warm, but even when the snow came again and the temperature dropped, we would occasionally hear them. Now they are singing and bobbing all day long.

I wonder if any of you live in an old house with old-fashioned storm windows. We had them for many years after we moved here, but have now replaced them with double-paned, insulated windows. We don't have to do anything except take the screens off in winter, an incredibly easy process compared to what we used to do. Gladys writes about those old windows.
At last the storm windows are off. I usually begin thinking about taking them off the first nice warm day in February. But the more sane members of the family point out that in New England there are blizzards even in March, and the old glass in the little-paned windows may be beautiful, but doesn't keep out the wind very well.
Last fall when the windows went on, they had been freshly painted and all the identifying numbers painted over. Every window in the house is a different size, but not different enough for the naked eye to measure. So, on a day when it was below zero, one of those sudden drops to remind us of winter, Jill and George and I ran round and round the house with windows, none of which ever fitted anywhere. It was like one of those maddening puzzles enlarged to life size. I dare say most families don't have difficulties like this. Further, the windows hook inside as well as out, and all the inner hooks are at differing levels. This involves someone's running in and out of the house and rabbiting around and back, hooking and unhooking again.
But now it's spring again, and the storm windows are a problem of the past. I must remember this year to have them all numbered.
We have a shed kind of room that still has one of these storms so I can show you, if you've never heard of such a thing!

 It made me a little sentimental for the old windows as I read Gladys' words, but honestly they were a lot of work, and didn't keep the winds out particularly well.

Gladys writes about a subject I thought was new thinking.
And then, one clear morning, George comes in with a smile to say, "I'll plow the garden today; I'm doing the upper meadow anyhow. Ground's all right."
We stop whatever we are doing and rush outside to watch the great plow ride along, turning the rich soil. It is a tie between us and our forefathers; it is something we inherit from the land itself. It is always new and always old. The blades of the plow are silver in the sun as the earth breaks from the sterile grasp of winter and folds back. ...
 We have been all over Mr. Faulkner's book about not plowing, and Mr. Bromfield's and Mr. Ed Robinson's too. Jill is a fiend for Keeping Up with Modern Trends. And I fear it is really due to my romantic feelings that we go on in the old-fashioned way, plowing the garden. But I point out to the family that we have crops out of this world, anyway; carrots a foot long and tender as butter, elegant crisp celery, rich tight lettuce. So why not go on plowing?
There has been a lot written in the past few years about not tilling, not plowing gardens. That it isn't good for the soil to tear it all up like that. That's one of the reasons for so many raised beds everywhere. You don't have to till them. Well, we did go to raised beds for a few years, and I had many pictures of them on the blog, and now we've gone back to a regular garden. For two years we've tried cultivating it with various tools, but when we had a rainy spring last year the weeds took over. We couldn't keep up with them, and I was very discouraged. Years ago we had a heavy tiller. It was a big thing that I couldn't use, but it did a terrific job of cleaning up the garden and tilling in the manure in the fall.

1982. Tom tilling first garden at Windy Poplars Farm.

After a lot of thought, this year we bought a Mantis. It is much smaller and easier to use. 

It should be just right for our little patio vegetable garden. I'll keep you informed as the season goes on.

When we first bought this old house, there was a storage area in the cellar. It hadn't been used in 25 years, since the mother and daughter who lived here began moving to an apartment in town for the winter. It was, to use Gladys' word "romantic". Just being there made me think of growing a year's supply of food and having a cellar full of potatoes and carrots. It was, however, decrepit and not worth trying to fix up. Also, all that food would draw mice, or worse. But I still feel a yearning when I read of root cellars. 

Gladys writes:
The cellar at Stillmeadow is very romantic and pleasing, and entirely impractical. But I like to look at the heavy, hand-hewn beams and the great stones of the the fourteen-foot-square chimney, and the old rough wall stones as I work at clearing out and rearranging the fruit shelves, even if I sometimes wish I had enough shelves and cupboard space to keep the place neat and tidy.
One of the many blog posts I have had in my head is about the stones in our cellar. They must have been pulled out of the fields in the 1800s, by what? Oxen, probably, or very big draft horses. How I would love to time travel and see that happening. Because this may indeed be my stones posting, I'll show you what they look like.

You can see in the first picture one of the house supports, a vertical log with the bark still on it. We don't have many of these left, but there are still a few in the ceiling.

They used what was around - the trees in the woods and the stones in the fields.

Forty some years ago, there was a lot of press about old farmhouses, and country living in general. I loved being part of that lifestyle, and I still do love it, though you sure don't read much about it anymore. Once in a while, I see an article about a young couple going off to live in the country, and I hope the movement becomes popular again.

Gladys talks about the importance of nature in such a moving way. Her words are just as meaningful today, and I will close this month's report with her dream. "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."
I had a strange wish yesterday. I wish the men who are going to form the peace for the world would all have to come to this spot, and jump across the free-running brook where the sand lies golden under the amber water, and climb this little obscure country hill and just stand awhile on the violet-covered slope. I would ask them not to say any fine brave words about peace and the new world, nor to make those glittering promises I hear over the radio from them all, that have no real bones under the oratory.
None of them, for a little time, would be politicians or dictators, or world rulers. I would ask them to smell the quiet air and listen to the tranquil country sounds; the dog after a rabbit, the first birds pricking the stillness with sweet voices, the thunder of a horse in his stall at the next farm, the bark of a fox near Kettletown.
I would ask them to remember when they were children and believed in life. Power and expansion and new territories and national glory would mean nothing at all. They would be just a group of middle-aged men

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Jacob's Room is Full of Books - March

Though there is mention of many spring flowers, Susan Hill's Norfolk seems decidedly cold in March. She describes the wind thus:
I am not going out again probably until June. The wind is like a razor blade shaving off a layer of skin.
Can't you just feel that wind through her words?

In the end I decided it was far too dangerous to go out. Slates were flying.
At the time of writing the book she has lived in Norfolk for five years. She muses on the notion of one's place.
Funny old county. Norfolk, though as I have only lived here for five years, I suppose that I am not entitled to comment. And I will never feel 'Norfolk' any more than I felt 'Gloucestershire'. What does that mean? It is a sort of patriotism, of the right kind. It is an instinctive rooted-ness in the corner of the country where one first saw the light of day. It is attachment. Love. Yes. But an adopted county can never be the same. I have lived in other counties for far longer than I lived in Yorkshire, where I was born, but they haven't left much trace.
Do you feel this way about where you were born compared to other places you may have lived? I wonder if this is a common feeling throughout the world. Do my American readers feel differently about this subject than my English readers? I wonder if living in a small country makes a difference. Fascinating food for thought.

I live about 8 miles from the house I grew up in. I lived on a street in a town, and now live in the country in another town. I don't look upon the old house as more 'home' than here. But I do look at my childhood hometown as 'my' town. Now this may be because I don't live in town, now. I don't walk the streets, and I don't know that many people here. My house and land here make up my world, whereas when I was a kid and later a young adult, the whole town was mine. As I said, fascinating thoughts.

There is quite a sad bit that Susan Hill shares with the readers of Jacob's Room is Full of Books about the late Duchess of Devonshire. Susan had (has?) a publishing company and
Nearly twenty years ago, I enjoyed thinking up, editing (with Sophy Topley, her younger daughter) and publishing Debo's book, Counting My Chickens. We had massive amounts of fun. ... My small publishing company sold many thousands of that book, and it rode high on the best-seller lists for ages. Her dedication reads 'To the co-editors, with love'. So I must have done something right.
But one day, about a year after it was published, I received a tiny envelope in the post which contained a letter on a tiny sheet of paper. I am not exaggerating. She was given to using very small sheets of headed notepaper inside very small envelopes. In this letter, Debo told me that she had put together a second volume of her pieces - my heart leaped - and that it was to be called Home to Roost. John Murray was to publish it. It was a done deal. 
What I did wrong and why she did not think my small publishing house worthy of her any more, I will never know, because we never communicated again. I was deeply hurt and very upset.
Susan had even "put together and privately printed" a collection of tributes - To Debo, on Her 85th Birthday. From Her Friends. She says that Debo cried when she got her copy.

This was really painful for me to read. But I don't think it is an uncommon experience to have someone suddenly "drop" another person, with no explanation.

She writes about two formerly well-known writers who are not well read today: C.P. Snow and J.B. Priestly. Have you read their books? Susan Hill knew both the men, and says of Priestly:
But I think he would have minded very much that no one much under the age of fifty has read or even heard of him - at least not beyond the brilliant revival of An Inspector Calls which is also a standard GCSE text these days. At least he would have been pleased about that.
It is a melancholy thing to consider once famous writers being forgotten, and how they would feel about it. On the other hand, they might be re-discovered. The British Library Crime Classics publications are bringing back writer after writer that many of us find delightful. And the whole e-books industry has introduced me to many authors I had never heard of. So, perhaps there is hope for Mr. Snow and Mr. Priestly.

Susan Hill tells a very funny story.
Took some books to the charity shop. Included a couple of my own, spare paperbacks.
Nice lady serving. 'Oh, thank you so much. Oh, and a Susan Hill book! She is very popular.'
SH: I'm pleased to hear it.
NLS: Actually - here are two on the shelf that are signed copies. 
SH: Wow!
NLS: Oh yes. (Leans over confidentially.) We can get 10p more for them if they are signed.
A little like being at one's own wake, isn't it?! 

She notes that:
I am certain that writers are formed in part by the books they have read and absorbed and it troubles me that not all writers or aspiring writers are Reading Writers. Increasingly, I meet creative writing students who do not read. They are ignorant of the best. They are often even ignorant of the worst. So how on earth can they want to write themselves? How do they know what it is all about? Read, read, read is the only advice I give, if asked. Read those writers who are better than you or I will ever be. In the end, that is the only way you will learn.
 Susan Hill's March chapter was quite pensive, with many thoughts about writers and reading from the Ladybird books to Robert Lewis Stevenson. I learned a lot and greatly enjoyed her literary month.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Stillmeadow - March

I began writing this two weeks ago when it was indeed March, but life has been busy and I'm just getting around to working on the post again. I love Blogger's draft facet. I've had to delete a couple things I wrote because the time has passed, but it is nice to find my words intact and waiting for me to finish.

March isn't my favorite month, and I can't quite put my finger on why. I love February, probably mostly because it is my birthday month, but also because the sunshine in that month is so dramatic, so bright on the white, white snow. It feels like the best of winter. In my memory most February days are sunny, while I'm certain that isn't the real truth. Even though spring began on the 20th at 12.15 pm my time, March doesn't feel like spring. Maybe if I lived where my heart lies in England, the daffodils and snowdrops would make me feel differently about the month, but there is no such flower here. The daylilies may be an inch out of the ground if it has been warmish, but that's the only green you will see.

But we do have the browns! You may remember Gladys writing about the autumn browns in the November entry. It is here, if you'd like to compare with how she describes the browns of March.
The wind, the wild brave wind, has carried off the last of the ice and snow. How wonderful the ground looks! The sharp sunlight falls like a blade on the meadow grasses, on the brown lawn, on the huckleberry bushes in the swamp. All the browns are distinct and beautiful, and why are they different from the browns of autumn? Perhaps the new life under the bark, under the root, makes them more glowing. Perhaps it is the quality of March light, keen as an etching tool.
If you burn wood, you may be tempted to put the ashes/coals down on winter sidewalks. We tried it one year, and what a mess! It took ages for those ashes to go away and we tracked them in for months. Gladys also gave this idea a try.
The floors look grimy and the rugs give back a cindery crunch when you walk on them. All those ashes spread on the icy walk come right back in and lay a heavy, gritty film on everything. 
Gladys writes about the craziness of featuring summer clothes in the store windows while winter is still going on. This is something we shoppers still face today, even while shopping online rather than in stores. I've often found that if I don't buy that shirt at LL Bean's the minute I see it, they will be sold out before the proper season to wear it even arrives!
In the midst of snow and sleet and rain, the shops are showing summer clothes! It's getting so you can hardly buy anything to wear at the time you need it. In summer the nice warm woolens come out for next winter, and in mid-winter pastel sheers blossoms all over town! ... When I was a child, the shops faced the facts. In February the windows were still full of fleece-lined underwear and arctics. Then when the Wisconsin spring finally loosened the river ice and the logs boomed down again, out came the flowered prints.
She naturally writes of spring cleaning. Do you do this? I don't believe I ever did. My mother was a demon cleaner. Her diaries are full of what she cleaned during the day. That would make a very minuscule entry in any diary of mine! Gladys seems to have been like my mother, but even more so.
House cleaning involves washing all the furniture with mild soap and water, and re-waxing with two thin coats of paste wax, well rubbed down. We like all our furniture finished with linseed oil and waxed.
Roz Chast has the best cartoon about this subject. I cut it out and put it on the fridge.

I'm not a collector (unless you count buying books!), but Gladys helped me understand the minds of those who do collect things.
We have a dear friend who was suffering a great grief. She found herself in a desperate state, as we all do at times. So she sat down one day, after a sleepless night, and said, "Now look here, you have got to stop thinking only about this, and about yourself. It's time you did something." She had a short vacation from her job at the time, but family duties kept her confined to the city. "All right," she said, "I'll just collect something." So she spent her vacation wandering in little shops, and riding busses and street cars to remote second-hand stores, and going to the library to read about milk glass. Now she has a beautiful collection of glass; but more, she learned the value of a lively interest in some external things. "Whenever I got too low," she said, "I tried to match the blackberry creamer." 
We didn't need to have our minds taken from anything personal at that moment, but we saw the milk glass she had, and it conquered. And now our own modest collection keeps us in a constant fever of excitement. There is really something amazing to collecting. Going into a dusty, grimy junk shop and seeing two one-o-one plates, for instance, just waiting to come home and be loved. Finding a blackberry egg cup in Roxbury and another just like it in Brooklyn.
She might be writing the thoughts of everyone who has a garden when she says,
Jill and I order just a few more berry bushes, fruit trees, and roses; it isn't too late. Jill reads dreamily, "The fruit is sweet and juicy enough to eat when it is only half ripe. The catalogue says so. In the golden stage. Continue to eat and enjoy it until September, when the skin is rich maroon red and the flesh is tempting gold. ... remove one third to one half the fruit every year to keep trees from breaking down under the load of fruit." ... Just once I should like to see one tree on our land that had enough fruit to break down a branch. Or even to shatter a small twig. But I am always as hopeful as Jill. You never know when the seed catalogue's dream may come true. After all, we had three plums this year.
My particular fruit dream is a raspberry bed like Tom's grandmother used to have. You could walk down the long rows and pick and pick and pick. I can still remember the taste and the size of those berries. I think I could live on them, if I only had a plot full.

I shall end this month's entry with a little video Tom took on St. Patrick's Day. In addition to the "wild, brave wind", you can hear the big wind chimes in the oak tree down the road and Nebby, the donkey.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Quote du jour/Oscar Wilde

I wasn't wild, if you'll excuse the pun, with the quote by Oscar Wilde on the March entry of my Irish Writers Calendar,

so I shall share another quote from him in these last minutes of March.

The Soul is born old, but it grows young;   
that is the comedy of life.   
The Body is born young and grows old;   
that is life's tragedy.   

Oscar Wilde (1856-1900)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

At Seventy - month one

I began this book on my 70th birthday, February 25. May Sarton's journal begins on her 70th birthday, May 3, 1982. I thought it would be fun to read the thoughts of someone exactly my age as I go through this year. I was going to try to read the corresponding entry every day but decided instead I would read the month she was in while I am in it.

Her life as she begins her first year of her seventies is quite different from mine. She is unmarried, lives alone, has no children, and is a renowned author. Yet she is a woman, she loves to garden, she is a reader, and we are the same age.

She doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about the age she is, just as I don't, but sometimes it pops up in her writing.
What is it like to be seventy? If someone else had lived so long and could remember things sixty years ago with great clarity, she would seem very old to me. But I do not feel old at all, not as much a survivor as a person still on her way. I suppose real old age begins when one looks backward rather than forward, but I look forward with joy to the years ahead and especially to the surprises that any day may bring.
Isn't this just wonderful? If I'd read this at 20, I would think, "that's just how I want to feel when I'm old!" And I do. I think the "old" word still startles me a bit. I'll be reading along in a book when someone is referred to as "old" or "elderly" and I am amazed the person is my age or even younger. It is all so relative, isn't it? When I turned 50, my son Michael gave me a mug that said, "older than dirt." I'm hoping to give it back to him on his 50th in 2035!

The month before her birthday, May Sarton did poetry readings, and a talk about old age, in which she said:
"This is the best time of my life. I love being old. ... Because I am more myself than I have ever been. There is less conflict. I am happier, more balanced, and (I heard myself say rather aggressively) more powerful." I felt it was rather an odd word, "powerful," but I think it is true. It might have been more accurate to say "I am better able to use my powers." I am surer of what my life is all about, have less self-doubt to conquer ...
I feel much the same way though that good feeling has come from the arrival of these grandchildren. I was never a woman who worked outside the house. Luckily we could get along on one salary, and I didn't have to. But I've never been ambitious or had other things I wanted to do. My whole mantra of living is that it isn't what you do, but who you are. It wasn't easy sometimes. I know that some people thought I wasn't quite enough because I didn't have a career. Though I knew that my "career" was taking care of my children. I wasn't bored or despairing of the time I spent with them. And now, there are these little ones who bring a very different kind of joy to my life. My kids didn't think I was a goddess, but I sure feel like it sometimes when their kids come running out of a house to greet me, calling, "Nana, Nana." Or when Hazel crawled into bed with me one early morning she came in the house and I had just woken up, and said, "I love you, Nana." I remember saying when I wrote about watching A Child's Christmas in Wales after two of the three kids had been born that "This might be the last great gift of a lifetime - the grandchild (or great-grandchild) who hangs on your every word." And I said that I now understand the tender look on the grandfather's face when he sees his grandson sleeping. "The love, the amazing, amazing love for a grandchild is in his eyes."

After a busy month, involving much gardening, May says,
This garden is really too demanding for me at this stage in my life, but I know I shall never be able to restrict myself there. It has to be accepted that gardening is a madness, a folly that does not go away with age. Quite the contrary.
Yes, that is me alright. I wrote a few years ago about cutting back on the vegetable garden, and one year growing no veg at all, and then going back to a new garden in a new place. I think about it all winter, what I want to grow and where I want to put all those daylilies that must be divided. And there again the grandchildren come into my thoughts. I want them to see that their grandparents are still growing things, just as their younger parents are. I want them to know that being older doesn't mean you stop, though you might slow some, and might sit down while they are playing. But you, my dear readers, might enjoy seeing Tom and I run, yes, run around the house playing various roles that Hazel assigns us, or playing games with Campbell and Indy. Yes, we are tired when they go home, but not ever are we those grandparents who say that the best thing about having grandchildren is that they go home. How we absolutely hate that saying. I could see them every day and still feel a little sad when they go out the door!

I'll close this first month of being seventy with some words May wrote at the end of her month.
I sometimes feel old these days when I am suddenly made aware of the little time ahead. It came to me with a sharp pang when I found myself saying, as I have done every spring for years, Houseman's
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room
About the woodland I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
But I have at most ten or fifteen springs! Is that possible? Almost a lifetime gone. On the other side though, what I do have is seventy springs in my head, and they flow back with all their riches now.
I'm really enjoying this book, and it is good for me to travel along with May during this year.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Blueberry and Orange Soda Bread

Finally, I'm putting up a Weekend Cooking post! Because my daughter Margaret and I share a love of The Great British Bake Off, I bought her a cookbook by one of the winners. I first heard about it on Jama's page here. Please go right over and read her wonderful blog entry.

The other day I was down at Margaret's house, and I read a few of the stories to Hazel, and decided I had to borrow the book so I could make some of the delicious sounding recipes. The first one comes from a story called

You may click on the four pictures to read the story, a delightful take on The Little Red Hen tale, which always seemed a bit mean-spirited and moralistic to me.

And here is the recipe.

You'll see the amounts are in English measures, so I found a website to translate for me. 

Preheat the oven to 350 f.

Almost 1 3/4 cup flour 
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
A little less than 1/4 cup sugar
I used 2 Tablespoons melted butter rather than olive oil
3/4 cup blueberries. Mine were frozen and worked just fine
grated zest of 2 oranges. I used organic Cara Cara
1 egg
3/4 cup buttermilk

Click on the photo that says 'method' above to see how to proceed. I followed her recipe exactly. And we were wowed! It was all we could do to eat 1/4 each and save the rest for breakfast tomorrow. Out of this world delicious!

I'm going to order my own copy from Book Depository because there are many recipes I want to make, and I like to write in my recipe books about when I first made a dish, what I thought, and any changes I made. I hope you give this recipe a try. I've never tasted such a delicious quick bread.