Sunday, May 27, 2012

True Elegance

My Fair Lady
     I was voted “Most Sophisticated” by my classmates in ninth grade. My handful of friends, the ones who really knew me, all laughed and began calling me Sophie. I was just pleased anyone had noticed me at all. I knew sophisticated was something good, but I had to look it up in the dictionary when I got home. None of the definitions even remotely fit me; apparently my classmates didn’t know what it meant either. We weren’t sophisticated enough. Still, I was flattered because I had formed my own idea of what it meant. In some inexplicable way I was cool, not popular—I was never that—but cool enough to garner a few votes from my peers for a meaningless title that made the rest of them look at me differently. To a shy, lower middle-class, skinny, flat-chested girl in her early teens that felt pretty good. In truth, I was just quiet, smart and tidy.

     What I wanted to be, what I still want to be is elegant. Refinement is lovely and something that can be learned—look at Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady—but what I am talking about has nothing to do with training, environment, beauty, fashion or the size of one’s pocketbook. It is innate and ageless. When I see a woman with that natural elegance I can’t help staring. It’s something in the way she holds her head, moves her hands, inhabits the space she is in—it is ethereal, poetic…rare.

    At an evening lawn concert in the park several summers ago I was watching a sixtyish woman sitting on a nearby picnic blanket. Her manner and movements mesmerized me. My friend, Pam, was sitting next to me. “Are you looking at that woman?” she asked.

     “I want to be like her when I get to that age…” I said wistfully.

     “I was thinking the same thing,” Pam replied.

My Fair Lady
     I smiled, discovering something kindred about my already dear friend. The woman we were watching was not particularly young looking or handsome, but she possessed that inherent grace I so admire. It was a pleasure just to watch her put her picnic things away in the hamper. “You're closer to that than I will ever be,” I said sincerely to my friend. I think I sighed. Pam is a humble woman, so she responded with skepticism.

     In my senior year of High School I was voted “Most Polite”.  Twelfth graders are more informed than ninth graders; by then, no one made the mistake of thinking I was sophisticated. I am glad people think I’m courteous though, that one I can live up to. That one comes from a deeply held conviction to be kind to others, especially in the face of churlishness, and while I readily admit it needs refining in me, kindness is true elegance.

Monday, May 21, 2012


     I went to Brazil with my husband for a couple of weeks last fall and stayed three days in an historic town on the coast of Rio. Old Paraty is full of cobblestone streets, antique churches, and colonial buildings repurposed as shops, small hotels and restaurants. We had planned to take a boat out to see the surrounding islands, but the weather was poor so we explored the town instead. We took a lot of pictures—hundreds of pictures—and it turns out that most of them were of doors.

     My husband and I both enjoy architecture, but there is something about doorways in particular that intrigues us. For me, it is the magic of thresholds, the unanswered question of what lies on the other side that captures me in its spell. A secret garden? Another world? A journey through time? A quest that leads into darkness and adventure? If I can find the hidden key or guess the riddle that opens the door, will my dreams come true? I am not the first one to be taken in by my imagination—it is the stuff of stories.

     I watched the movie Shadowlands several years ago. It is the story of C. S. Lewis and his relationship with Joy Davidman, an American writer whom he eventually married. On a visit to Lewis’ home, Joy’s young son, Douglas, finds a wardrobe in the attic. As an admirer of Lewis' Narnia books, the draw is irresistible; he opens the door of the wardrobe, his hope palpable as he reaches through the coats hanging inside, feeling for the scratch of green pine boughs and cold, feathery snow. Instead, he bumps up against the cold, hard truth. I had to choke back tears of empathy for the boy's disappointment because it is my disappointment too: there is no Narnia, at least not one we can find behind the door of a wardrobe.

     I’ve seen that wardrobe, not the one used in the movie, but the very one that stood in the Lewis family home. When he was a boy, Lewis would climb inside it with his cousins and tell them tales of adventure. Maybe some of those tales held the shadows of Narnia in them. Unlike Douglas, as I stood gazing at the original in the Wade Center of Wheaton College, I resisted the urge to reach inside and grope toward the magic–but I took a peek. Wouldn't you?

     When I am daydreaming, which is often, I open all kinds of doors that beckon to me from inside my imagination, and I boldly explore their boundaries to see if I can find a story of my own to tell. But when I come across an intriguing doorway in this solid, feet-on-the-ground-no-floating-around world, usually, I must content myself with simply taking pictures. Ah, well. What do you imagine is on the other side of this Brazilian beauty?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Clearing Cupboards

     Spring cleaning. It sounds like a good idea but I’ve never done it. There isn’t much about housecleaning that excites me, but I do love a tidy cupboard or closet. And that bit about “a place for everything and everything in its place” suits me just fine. Clutter confuses me. Seriously. So while I may drag my feet when faced with washing windows or scrubbing bathrooms, I jump at the chance to straighten shelves or have a good clear out.

     William Morris, whose designs generated the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 1900's, said, “Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” It’s a good philosophy for someone like me, and I have tried to practice it in my own home. The trouble is, there are an awful lot of beautiful and affordable chachkies out there.

     I had a garage sale last summer. It was a major purge because I am attempting to simplify. There isn't room in the house to store all of the beauties I have collected when clutter not only confuses me, it feels oppressive. Making the decision to keep or toss item after item, however, was mentally, even emotionally exhausting. In the end it was worth it; the peace of proportion was greater than the pain of purging. That, and I had a wad of cash.

     Oddly, I have discovered that my fondness for clearing cupboards also comes in handy when I write.

     I began writing a novel over twenty-five years ago. For a long time it was just a hobby, but I finally finished it a few years back. In the process of soliciting an agent I was told the book was too long for a first-time novelist. Way too long. You can accumulate a lot of words in twenty-five years. So I began snipping paragraphs and pitching pages that had taken me days and days to write. Ouch. I tried not to think of it as waste, and once I pushed through the pain, I realized that editing felt much the same as having a good clear out–I enjoy it. There is still work to be done, but the words are stacking up neatly and my sentences are looking sleek all lined up on their shelves. It won't be long before I am ready to submit my book again. Oh yes, and I'm having another garage sale this summer.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Pen Pals

     I once had a pen pal. I’ll call her Penny for the sake of her privacy. The relationship wasn’t something we planned, it began naturally at a party as we discovered our mutual passion for good literature. Before that we were acquaintances who had only exchanged the smallest of small talk. Neither of us knew many people who loved to talk about reading or writing without an ego in tow.

     Penny wrote first to say how much she had enjoyed our conversation, to share the title of a book we had talked about, and to continue the discussion we had begun at the party. In her next letter she sent me a lovely poem I had never seen. It was wonderful. She used paper, envelopes, and stamps–the real thing. I looked forward with anticipation for each new letter to arrive. I began checking the mailbox myself instead of sending someone out for it, hoping for something beyond the usual bills and advertising. When a letter came I was so greedy I couldn’t wait for a letter opener and a cup of tea to begin reading; I immediately ripped into the envelope, leaving the edges all ragged, and read while the water boiled.

     So began an exchange of letters, literature and ideas that lasted five rewarding years. Penny and I became friends and gave one another beloved books for our birthdays. Once, she showed up on my doorstep with a bag of cardamom buns she had made for Easter and wanted to share with me. We encouraged and prayed for one another when troubles traipsed through our lives leaving muddy footprints that needed to be mopped. Alas, both of us eventually fell prey to the monster of “industrial-sized busyness” and our correspondence lapsed and fell silent.

     That was seven years ago. No one I know writes letters anymore–including me. Maybe it used to be a necessary form of communication but, somewhere along the line, it became an art form and then a vanishing one. Times change, I understand, but some things are hard to let go of. I've kept all my letters from my once-upon-a-pen-pal and get them out sometimes to read again. 

     In the witty and charming book 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, the New York writer shares with readers her 20-year correspondence with Frank Doel, the chief buyer for a London bookstore. Twenty years. Now that’s a pen pal. The letters are mostly about books, of course, and to a book-lover like me that is part of its charm, but it is the relationships that develop between Helene and the folks who work at the book shop that make the story so delightful.

     I hope books never go out of vogue, especially ones like this.