Surprised by Joy

Few authors have the ability to travel with us from childhood to adulthood, but C.S. Lewis has traveled with me. From his Chronicles of Narnia to Mere Christianity (an adaptation of BBC radio talks), it was not so much his ideals as his eloquent and thoughtful writing that captivated me. The work that has perhaps held greatest significance for me is Surprised by Joy, an autobiography of sorts that also tells of his discovery of “joy” in life, which he describes as fulfillment of deep longing. For him, it was a path from atheism to Christianity and for me that path has been rather the opposite. But the idea of being surprised by joy, of discovering something wonderous and life-changing when not expected… that I understand. So I borrow Mr. Lewis’ words now to describe what has happened to me (and explains where I’ve been) during the past few months.

One night in February as I lay in the dark next to TBM, I was overcome with an emotion so viceral (and I now know, so erroneous it’s confusing) that I told TBM, “I am deeply, deeply unhappy.” I knew from whence the emotion came; my monthly cycle was due any day. So this was PMS; and also another months’ grappling with the reality that motherhood- a role I had longed for since my earliest girlhood days- was not to be mine. The closest I would come to motherhood would be nurturing and loving the Large Breed (and love him I do… with such intensity that sometimes I bite his fur. I know that’s a strange thing, but it’s what I do sometimes when I’m hugging him and feel a great surge of love for that ridiculous dog).

About a week and a half later, after a perfect vacation with TBM that buoyed my spirits in all the ways I’d been needing, I took a pregnancy test. I didn’t need to, except to confirm that I’d entered peri-menopause, but instead the test confirmed I was pregnant. Surprised by joy. Oh joy, oh joy, oh joy.

Joy of Spring

The next several weeks were nerve-wracked, as I feared and anticipated miscarriage, which had always come before. But the surprises and joy continued: a strong heartbeat was heard pattering inside my belly; tiny nubs of arms and legs were forming, and jabbing out from the screen of an ultrasound machine. Blood levels were measured and found good; genetic tests were pronounced “clean;” clothes became tight; scents and foods took on revulsion. Oh joy, oh joy, oh joy.

Now, just into the second trimester of pregnancy (my pregnancy!), it’s starting to sink in for both TBM and me that there will likely be a live baby at the end of this whole process. The amount of change that will take place, the details we have to sort out, the budget crunching yet to do… all is so overwhelming so as to make us a laughing stock. Because our standard answer to every question from family and friends is: “We haven’t thought about that/ talked about that yet.” The only decision we have made is that we want to be surprised by the old-fashioned joy of learning if the baby is a boy or a girl when the baby is born, not before.

I’ve been derailed from normalcy during the early stages of pregnancy, but am now easing back in. Spring has finally, gratefully arrived; seedlings I’ve planted are coming along nicely but there’s a lot of work to do in the back yard before they’ll become part of a proper garden. Gratefully, morning sickness is subsiding and I’m able to work outside on sunny days; and do some serious spring cleaning and organizing inside on rainy days. I suppose soon we should start thinking about where a baby might sleep, how we’ll tote it around, not to mention what kind of name it should have. We’ll get there. There’s time.

What I want most to do, in the months to come during which this wee one is growing inside of me, is to do as C.S. Lewis advised (albeit in a different context): “Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears.” There is so much wonder to take in, being part of this surprising, joyous miracle, and I don’t want to miss a thing.




Reclaiming Home

I’m one of those people easily sidetracked. So it’s no surprise I’ve not posted in a while, sidetracked as I was by the Holidays, completing our floor restoration, and starting to put the house back together. It’s going to take longer than when we moved in because we have a lot more stuff now, and much of it looks terrible on top of the now-beautiful floors.


We have a lot of amazing resale/vintage/street find items, but they need TLC and time I’ve not yet given them. Until then I need to be creative in reassembling the house to the cultured bohemian vibe (is there such a thing?) I hope to create.

TBM and I decided to give gifts to our house this year for Christmas- she’s been such a good girl in all we’ve put her through. One of my gifts was shelves for the room we call the library, ironically, because in the past, what we had to hold our books was an old swayback Billy from Ikea and a bunch of wine crates standing on end. We threw Billy out when we started hoarding at the end of the summer, because he fell apart in our hands when we moved him, and when I started putting the library back together in late November, I despaired over stacks and stacks of books and no place to put them. I thought about boxing them and storing in the attic for a future when we’ve got funds to build a custom library, oh, perhaps something like this:

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That’s gonna take some time.

While reclaiming the house, TBM has moved his studio from the second floor to the first and he decided not to take along some track shelving he had hanging on a wall. It dawned on me if I reused it in the library, along with the wine crates, I probably wouldn’t have to store our books. But it seemed one slim set of shelves would look lonely in this room with twelve foot ceilings. So my gift was purchasing more tracks and shelves- a simple Rubbermaid system from Home Depot. I wouldn’t have chosen black, but that’s what I was reusing from upstairs and I wanted everything to match.

I used Rubbermaid single track shelving with brackets for our new library shelves. Fairly easy to install with a power drill, level, screwdriver, and major patience.

I used Rubbermaid single track shelving with brackets for our new library shelves. Fairly easy to install with a power drill, level, screwdriver, and major patience.

I sang praises when I placed shelves on the brackets and everything was LEVEL!

I sang praises when I placed shelves on the brackets and everything was LEVEL!

Loading one wall of shelves with books (this is not the same wall as the last two photos). Organizing our books made me want to re-read so many of them!

Loading one wall of shelves with books (this is not the same wall as the last two photos). Organizing our books made me want to re-read so many of them!

A word about hardware: Our walls in some places are plaster; in other places drywall. I used a stud finder to locate as many as I could, screwing the upright for the shelf directly into the stud. Where I couldn’t find studs, I used toggle bolts. It took three trips to the local hardware store to get bolts long enough to provide “clearance” behind the upright and into the wall, mostly due to concern that the bolts would protrude too far inside the wall and not allow our pocket doors to open and close. In the end, 4 inch-long bolts worked.

A word about drilling: I was worried about making big ugly holes in the wall, but relaxed knowing they would be covered by the uprights (when we build that custom library, we’ll deal with the holes). It’s important to drill the hole just big enough for the toggle to fit through, but not so big that it swims around too much inside the wall. I used a 3/8 inch drill bit, which was just right.

Here’s a finished wall of shelves, though now we need bookends to avoid the tilted look going on.


Another time I’ll post pictures of the completed room, with which I must say I am quite pleased. But the nicest result: the pocket doors (glimpsed on the left in this photo) open into TBM’s new studio. Time was, TBM would hole away in his studio upstairs, but since moving downstairs and throughout the Holidays and start of this winter, he’s been keeping one pocket door open. It’s wonderful to have him so central, to have his music flowing through the house, to let the Large Breed to go from room to room and plant himself where he pleases. Not surprisingly, that’s usually on the floor in TBM’s room, where the dog slumbers and snores as TBM creates wondrous sounds during the day and sips whiskey at night in a plump chair in the corner next to the mantle.


At Christmastime when I was about eleven years old, someone gave my mother a big pot of white narcissus, also known as Paperwhites. My mother was thrilled, as forced bulbs were an uncommon luxury in our small mountain town. She placed the pot in the room we call the Solarium with eight foot windows and filled every winter with ferns and tender geraniums she brought in from the cold. When the Paperwhites bloomed, their scent overpowered everything and to me they smelled just like urine. I could hardly abide being in the Solarium and wondered why on earth a flower like this was special.

Fast forward to the present time and perhaps it’s a case of a mature scent palate, just as a taste palate matures and an adult can enjoy a pungent bleu cheese that sends a child into convulsions. But Paperwhites no longer smell of urine, to me, and their loveliness at Christmas is something I’ve been coveting. A dear friend has a former boss who sends her a tubful of narcissus every year at the Holidays, a galvanized tub about two feet long and a foot and a half wide. She places them on an old wooden table in her kitchen and they bloom till Valentines Day, such a sight to behold.

This year I was determined to have Paperwhites of my own, though my own planting is much more humble than my friend’s tub. I have clear glass bowl I bought at a yard sale, thinking in would be useful in the kitchen. But I’ve discovered the glass is too thin- about the thickness of a wine glass- and I’m always afraid it will break disastrously while filled with food. The bowl has been telling me for a while now, “I’m a florist’s container, silly,” and I’ve known it needed to host Paperwhite narcissus this Holiday season.

I bought two pots of narcissus from a Bodega in Brooklyn the other day. They came filled to the brim with bulbs and potting soil, and wrapped in festive but ugly cellophane. The set up had to go:


I separated the bulbs from the soil (which of course I saved to reuse) and gave them a good rinsing in a colander:


Then I got some gravel from a pathway in a corner of our garden, gave it a good rinse too, and made sure the clear glass bowl was sparkly clean:


I first placed a shallow base of gravel in the bowl, then arranged the bulbs as best I could for variation of height, their roots splayed across the gravel. I gently topped the roots with more gravel and filled in spaces so the bulbs were not touching each other. Then I added a little water to the bottom of the bowl.


Some of the fronds were growing a little sideways in search of light, but I figured they would straighten on their own, and indeed they have. Two days after planting the bulbs are stock-straight and reaching for the sky. They are not yet in bloom but the tops are really starting to bulge and I can’t wait for the moment.

One thing I wasn’t careful enough about (but also wasn’t willing to re-do to solve) was ensure the roots were completely hidden by the gravel. But I figure if I keep the water level low in the bowl, the roots will seek it and grow downward. Of course, this wouldn’t matter if the bulbs were planted in something other than a clear glass bowl, but I’m happy my bowl has found a better purpose than a food container.

Here’s another glass container filled with beautiful Paperwhites, and a very lovely blog: katy elliott home, art, food.

Winter’s Arrival

The first snow fell Friday night. Rain that followed us on the drive from the City turned to wet slushy flakes in the colder Upstate temperatures, but still we were surprised. The Large Breed seemed nonplussed until his walk around midnight, when about an inch of snow blanketed his world, and a switch went off inside his head: how good it is to roll around in the stuff; how to make doggie snow angels; how to plow his nose through and enjoy the frosty splendor on doggie lips and tongue. But his paws must have been cold, because he chose a round-a-single-block route for his walk, then nestled onto his blanket on the porch for a long winter’s nap.

Though the official arrival of Winter isn’t due until mid-afternoon on December 21, it arrived for us with the snow, and with a traditional celebration in our little town, held each year on the first Saturday of December. From five until eight in the evening, the main street is closed and people from communities all around gather for Winter Walk. The celebration began in 1997 to help lurch along a nascent renaissance of a community that for decades had seen a dwindling of manufacturing and increase of plywood on storefronts and homes. Now, over twenty-thousand participants come each year to see Santa and Mrs. Claus, live reindeer and miniature horses, roving carolers and Victorian characters, street performances by musicians and dancers, stilt walkers and even fire throwers, and to shop and dine at around one hundred shops and restaurants in the downtown area. I think back to the first Winter Walk, how good it must have felt for organizers to be doing something to make change happen in a place once tainted, with a lovelier side than it had willed to show for a long time.

Because TBM was on his hands and knees in our bedroom wearing a respirator (still finishing floors, we are, our Thanksgiving deadline having clucked on by) I attended Winter Walk alone last night. That’s not true: the Large Breed came along, and I think he was a bigger hit than most of the official attractions. How could he not be, at 125 pounds of long, thick fur and a doggie face that melts hearts young and old? I’ll bet we were stopped fifty times so he could be loved on; double that for the number of people who asked, “What kind of dog is he?” Alaskan Malamute, I would say and be greeted by surprise either because the asker hadn’t heard of the breed, or had never seen one so big. But a cute boy of about ten knew exactly what the Large Breed was, telling me he’d taken a quiz to know what kind of dog he was most like, and Malamute was his match (curious, I just took the quiz myself: I’m like an Australian Shepherd. HUGE compliment!!!)

Ah, Winter. I really enjoy the season. First of all, I love the change of seasons. I’ve lived before in places where a change isn’t very noticeable or doesn’t happen at all, but for me life is richer for the altering of ritual, routine, and wardrobe that come with the tilting of the earth and the waxing or waning of the sun’s rays on the planet. I love nesting in wintertime, cozying up in sweaters and scarves, making stews and soups, baking aromatic breads and sweets. And I love me a good snowfall, so Friday’s inch left me longing for the First Real Storm; the chance to sit in our bay window and watch flakes fall then get a good workout clearing steps, walks, and decks of their white burden. Maybe I’ll mind winter when I’m sixty, but for now, bring it on.

Higher Learning

Two days before Thanksgiving, at the peak of English Autumn, I spent the day with a dear friend at her home near the University of Oxford. Nothing inspires a need and desire to acquire knowledge like an afternoon touring a school established over nine-hundred years ago, a place filled with tradition and endowed with more riches than money could ever buy. I gained further appreciation for time-worn, beautiful things during my day there.

The architecture at Oxford spans centuries; the oldest building I saw was built in the 1300’s, the newest in the 1960’s. Classic details abound:

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Students at Oxford belong to “Colleges,” of which there are over forty. Colleges are like small campuses within the larger whole where students study, live, worship, and dine. This is the Hall (or dining room, or cafeteria at the humble institution where I attended university) at Balliol College, one of Oxford’s oldest, founded in 1263.

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It was just before lunchtime when we visited the Hall; tables were set with china, silver cutlery, and linen napkins, and featured brass double lamps every few feet of their length. Walls were adorned with portraits of College founders, benefactors, and notable members, many of whom went on to become Prime Ministers of England. Selections from the day’s menu posted at the door were tomato soup, curried lamb, and a vegan pasta option.

There were many grassy quads in the Colleges, though my understanding is students are not allowed to lounge there, hence the pristine beauty.

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Each College also has its own Chapel, most associated with the Church of England. They were smaller than the Halls, no less-rich in ornament or detail. Each Chapel has a choir, and I saw several postings for Traditional Carol Sings to be held on Advent Sunday, this December 1.

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My friend said students pride themselves on being able to keep hold of a bicycle for a whole term. Some bikes I saw were locked to fences, such as these; others were standing freely with a U-lock fastened between the wheels. I suppose a stolen bike would be obvious, if someone was walking along with one sporting a lock, but unfortunately theft abounds.

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This is the Hall at Jesus College, founded in 1571 by Queen Elizabeth I, pictured above the center table. Originally it was for theological studies, but now students pursue a range of subjects.

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The craftsmanship at Oxford is stunning, as shown in the details of these carved pillars and doors:

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This picture shows the entrance to a Hall, and the Hall is attached to a “dormitory.” I don’t remember which College this is, but as a sidenote, Harry Potter was filmed at Oxford’s Christ Church College, continuing their “long association with children’s literature- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland were inspired and written here by Lewis Carroll.”

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As impressive as was Oxford itself, the most jaw-dropping place we visited was just off campus: Blackwell’s Booksellers. Room after room, floor after floor of books, in which book lovers like me could become lost for days! Thankfully, there is a cafe on an upper floor for subsistence, in case it truly happened.

After a perfect afternoon touring Oxford, we returned to my friend’s perfect and sweet little brick row house, where a fire was laid ready to enjoy during a cup of tea and then a nap.

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I told my friend I believe William Morris had her in mind when he stated my favorite rule for home decor:

“Have nothing in your houses

that you do not know to be useful

or believe to be beautiful.”

Granted, she started with impressive acquisitions of furniture and art handed down through her family. But she also told me she spent years buying and selling at car boot sales and each time she sold goods of her own she brought nothing home. Whether this meant selling everything, donating to charity, or at times even leaving something on the side of the road, bringing nothing home fiercely edited her belongings to the things she loved most in the world.

…As was exemplified by the decor in the lovely little guest room in which I stayed:

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The painting on the wall was an heirloom and was inspiration for the room’s color scheme: soft beige and gray and dusty blue. But instead of using obvious pink from the flowers, my friend turned it up a bit with red accents. She also used sumptuous combinations of textured textiles: crisp cotton sheets, a baby-soft fleece spread, and the runner at the foot of the bed is a silk sari from India. The beige and red striped linen on the small chair was repeated on a bed throw pillow and on a wide Roman shade for double casement windows. I love the surprising pop of green in the tiny lamps on the dresser in the third photo. And the decanter of water and glasses on a tiny tray, a perfect touch.

My favorite detail (glimpsed in the second photo) were flokati wool rugs layered on top of sisal at each side of the bed. So wonderful to sink my toes into when I woke in the morning.

I came away from Oxford with two strong reaffirmations: A desire to learn throughout my life, to not ever be content with my current store of knowledge. And a desire to edit my own belongings as strictly as has my friend, so my surroundings will be as lovely as hers; so friends visiting me will feel as comfortable and comforted as I felt in her home.

Paris, faire du shopping

You find yourself in Paris for a day. How do you make the most of the opportunity? You go to the Marais.

And in the Marais it occurs to you that some people are simply born French; the rest of us may pine and dream, but the privilege of being French belongs to only 65.7 million people in the world. Being one of 315 million crass Americans, you lament you are not French.

You see a tiny man with crutches and beret, shuffling his way along a cobblestone street. More than likely he has lived out his seven or eight or nine decades in this very neighborhood; his blessing and his curse. It can’t be easy to navigate in his condition but there he is making his way slowly, past three little girls in flapper haircuts and school uniforms, each vying for their Daddy’s ear to report their day. Does the old man have daughters, you wonder? Have they gone far away from him by now?

You turn down a quiet, non-commercial street, walk past a large building block with a gated inner courtyard. You see open casement windows, spilling warm light onto window boxes full of geraniums and perfectly symmetrical topiaries. You notice that other buildings on the street, those without the protection of a courtyard, have decorative iron grilles on windows, not bars like your neighborhood in Brooklyn. The grilles create an elegant fortress which simply wags its finger, “No, no…” at threats from the outside world.

Another turn, another commercial street, an entire shop selling only scarves. The French have elevated the humble scarf to such prominence in fashion. Earlier, you saw a man in a v-neck sweater looking quite sexy. Then he put a scarf around his neck and instantly looked effeminate. Too bad, but so French.

Then, a window display of artful underwear, panties made of perfectly smooth Lycra, scenes from assorted famous paintings across the crotch. Wearing them would make one feel beautiful from the skin out.

Here, a perfume shop advertising custom fragrances. You recall your last trip to Paris, meeting two girls on the Métro. One of them spritzed herself with a heady, autumnal perfume. You asked what it was and learned that the girls were second year students in a five-year course developing fragrance. You had never heard of such a school; but of course, they replied, “It exists only in France.”

You step inside a home accessory shop filled with objects made of glass and paper and wood. Their beauty is juxtaposed against the setting: a hodgepodge of storefronts joined together, their once elegant tile floors unapologetically veined with patches of cement. You almost buy an enamel tray, to fuel your addiction to trays, but decide against it. You’re trying to edit your style and none of the trays in this store call to your heart.

Moving on, you see a cheese shop and brace yourself for entry, knowing the aroma will overpower. You used not to like the strong smell of cheese but now you enjoy inhaling deeply, coating the insides of your lungs in the must. This shop is a sensory treat in more ways than one with careful displays of pickles and chutneys on the shelves, towers of cheese wheels and tubs of crème fraiche in the chilled cases. The walls of the shop are covered by art deco tile in light yellow and green. Reading the labels in the case, you vow to improve your knowledge of cheese, your ability to choose something nice. As you exit, you have a laugh at the “No Smoking” sign on the door. Probably the only place in France where smoking has forever been forbidden, le fromagerie.

Outside, a motorcycle honks before rounding a tight corner, and you do a double-take at a woman in drag. A woman, you’re quite certain, so that means she’s not wearing drag, right? She’s the most carefully dressed specimen you’ve seen all day. You’ve noticed most French women look incredible, yet often their clothes do not match. This woman is a Pantone vision in purple and black. It must have taken her hours to prepare.

Other shops: a purveyor of fine tea; a tiny, tiny florist; a novelty store where you catch the clerk’s eye and share a laugh over a sweatshirt in the window, emblazoned with an Hermès style logo, only this one says:


Next you see two women at the trunk of a car, one pulling a dress from a large shopping bag. It is cream-colored lace, and obviously holds significance to the one who shows it to the other. In a few minutes, while you’re browsing a vintage store called Gilda, the woman will come in with the dress, present it to the male attendant, and make a strong sales pitch. You overhear the man say, “I find this part strange,” as he examines the bodice. Yet, a price will be proposed, a bargain will be made, and the woman will leave with cash in hand. The man will stuff the dress back into the bag and under the counter.

In front of a pharmacy is a group of university students, talking and laughing loudly. Their presence almost keeps you from going inside, but you’re on a mission. You’re looking for papier d’arménie, an ancient natural room deodorizer. You try always to buy this on trips to Paris. It’s a small booklet of paper strips, and when a match is set to a strip, like incense, the paper slowly burns and sends forth a rich, clean perfume. So you step around the students and look inside the pharmacy, and behold! papier d’arménie. You buy three booklets. When you complete the transaction in not-quite-fluent French, the clerk says the price: “sept euro,” then to account for your deficiency repeats in English: “seven Europe.” He immediately catches his mistake, as does the woman working at his side, and you all have a laugh. You tell him it’s okay, you understood.

Mais oui.

Tiny Fashionistas

I’ve been mildly obsessed with little girls’ fashion since I was a little girl, myself. The obsession gave birth (no pun intended) to my creative pursuit, Menina. To me, there’s nothing so charming as a sweetly dressed little girl, made all the more endearing if it seems she dressed herself. When I see a girl wearing a princess dress or fairy wings in public, I melt. Today I was treated to the sight of two girls on a street in Brooklyn, each expressing themselves through fashion, but with very different results.

The first was a girl of about three or four. I caught sight of tiny black ballet flats with ribbons, then my eyes rose to see black and white striped leggings, a pink floral skirt, and a pink hoodie emblazoned “Brooklyn” across the front. Nevermind the pinks did not match; the outfit was enough to render her cute as a button. But then, atop her head was an honest-to-gosh pioneer bonnet, à la Laura Ingalls. The bonnet was such juxtaposition to the hip little outfit- made of light blue cotton, with tiny pink flowers- and I am certain the little girl thought the bonnet was the pièce de résistance to her ensemble.

I looked to the woman whose hand the little girl was holding: a tall brunette, chic in heeled boots, jeans, and a mid-season leather jacket. My instant thought: “Now there is a confident woman, raising a confident daughter.” A woman less sure of herself would have insisted the little girl leave the bonnet at home. A girl less sure of herself wouldn’t have thought of the bonnet in the first place. They made a great pair and made me smile.

The very next people I saw were another mother-daughter combination, only this girl was slightly older. She was also wearing sweet ballet flats. and in the brief moment I passed her and her mother on the street, I heard the woman say, “See. Everyone else has their ankles covered.”

My heart broke a bit for this girl. I imagined the scene at home that morning: all she had wanted was not to wear socks, and battle ensued. Mom declared it was too cold to go sock-less; Daughter declared she didn’t care. Back and forth until Daughter won and was allowed to leave the house with bare ankles. But Mom was not going to miss the opportunity to point out Daughter was wrong in her choice, as all the world could prove, in their socks and boots and long pants.

The thing is, it wasn’t that cold. It wasn’t raining or slushy. The little girl was not going to catch pneumonia in her state of undress. But her life, I imagined, would be very different from that of the girl in the pioneer bonnet. This idea might be a major projection on my part, yet I wish both these little girls well in learning to express themselves through fashion, and in their relationships with the women who love them most in the world, and who may- or may not- guide them around pitfalls.