Sunday, December 28, 2008

Merry Christmas to all!

No time for blogging in all the bustle of Christmas so this is going up very late! We had a lovely but very busy time so here's a quick montage of the festivities.

On Christmas Eve we had a huge meal with my step-siblings: turkey and stuffing; parsnip, mushroom and cashew roast; candied carrots; roast potatoes; brussel sprouts and walnuts; coleslaw; homemade gravies of various types and cranberry sauce. Plus lots of traditional English mulled wine. Unfortunately, we were so busy cooking that we forgot to take any pictures of the completed feast!

We do, however, have pictures of Hugh, created by my husband and siblings:

We read The Night Before Christmas and my youngest sister insisted that we put out milk and cookies for Santa - although they didn't last long:

We all woke up early on Christmas morning and drank lots of spiced holiday tea while opening our presents.

After hashbrowns and eggs (my favourite Christmas breakfast as it reminds me of my dad) we went out to get some fresh air playing disc golf in the snow - my stepdad's favourite activity:

Finally, we had a late dinner of leek and potato soup, paella, white beans with chard, and hazelnut chocolate roulade:

Merry (belated) Christmas everyone!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

In the deep midwinter

In Michigan and have been without internet for the past few days. Still getting over the jet lag and the shock of being snowed in without public transportation. Not quite up to writing a full entry at the moment, so here are a few pictures.

The lake, frozen and snowed over. My husband and my youngest sister spent the afternoon yesterday making an ice rink - with limited success.

My birthday on Sunday which was a lovely day. These are glasses of champagne with a drop of Mom's homemade raspberry cordial - delicious! My sister cooked a great gluten-free pasta bake with tomato sauce, basil, lentils and lots of cheese. I got lots of children's books this birthday, some of which were favourites from my childhood, others new YA fantasy from a couple of my favourite authors. Also two classic DVDs to add to my collection, earrings, gloves, and an original painting from my sister. A perfect birthday, and my first in America for three years.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

O come all ye faithful

Back to work - still not feeling 100% well and lots of things to get sorted before I go on holiday at the end of the week.

I had a lovely break in the middle of the day today, however, getting the bus into town to go to a lunchtime carol service in the cathedral with some colleagues. I have a real reverance for cathedrals, partly because I still haven't gotten over my American astonishment that things can be so old, partly because they epitomise the mystical, dramatic side of Christianity that I find intriguing. Cathedrals are so impressive and intimate at the same time. I'm rarely disappointed by them.

On our honeymoon in Paris, we very nearly didn't visit Notre Dame on our last day which was pouring with rain. In the end, though, we were short on money and cold and Notre Dame was both free and dry so we thought we'd pop in for a look. A boys' choir was singing, and all around the church were little candles burning, each lit by a different visitor, all those prayers and rememberances floating up with the boys' voices into the rafters. I put a coin in the box and lit a candle for my dad. I always wonder what my dad would think of things like that, having been very unreligious himself, but I feel he would have appreciated the gesture. He had a soft spot in his heart for things like this - he always teared up, for instance, at the end of To Kill a Mockingbird when Boo Radley finally appeared. It's the sensory side of lighting a candle that does it I think - the flicker of the flame, the slight crackle and the faint scent of the burning wick, makes the act of rememberance feel physically real.

Anyway, the carol service today was lovely - only Once in Royal David's City really caused me any difficulty. I'm sure that I must have heard this one a million of times before in both England and America, but the tune never seems familiar. The version of O Come All Ye Faithful (one of my favourites) had the dreadful lyrics along the lines of 'does not abhor the Virgin's womb.' Go read it, really that's a terrible verse. The service was quite thoughtful and the presiding priest serious - I'm told that in past years it has been a little more joyful, but I don't mind my carols a little mournful. It feels more holy.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Life of a blanket

If you're not a fan of craftsy talk, look away now. Go read a literary entry or look at some pretty pictures of the sea or tiny Christmas trees. Consider yourself warned.

For those of you who are still here, you may know that I have been knitting a green blanket... for 3 1/2 years! It is the simplest pattern in the world and I'm a fairly competent knitter - although the lace mohair shawl I tried to make for my sister last year defeated me. But this is big! Double bed size! It is good to knit in front of the television - but it's so boring. You don't ever get anywhere. It all looks the same. This is why there have been year-long gaps in between just a few rows. I don't knit that slowly, I promise.

First it was this:

But now it is this!:

and this:

Okay, slight confession, that first picture was taken today, and this excitement is because I have finished the second panel - of five. But I am resolved to finish the rest by Easter (which will be the four year anniversary of starting this project, oh dear.) Watch this space.

Backdating my entry is very naughty - it is lying really, I know that. But I finished the panel on Sunday and meant to post this on Monday so it is correct in spirit.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

It's always ourselves we find at the sea

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

- e.e. cummings

I'm finally recovering from being ill and Simon and I went for a short walk by the sea this afternoon. Our shoes and socks ended up soaked through, but I always find the sea inspirational, awesome in the correct sense of the word. The rhythm of the waves is always calming, and eventually it feels as though you are breathing and your heart is beating in time.

This is one of my very favourite poems, first read in a much-loved fat book of children's poems that my grandparents gave me (one of the best of its kind I think, I wish I could remember what it was called.) I've always wanted to write a story out of this poem, and recently I've begun little fragments of one on my train journey to work that runs right along the coast. It's the story of four adult sisters who move, for the autumn, to a house by the sea. Think The Ghost and Mrs Muir meets The Sea, The Sea - but not at all of course because I've drawn on a lot of different threads in my past to create these characters: trans-Atlantic experience, close families, both east and west coasts of England, and much of the material feels very real and familiar to me. As with all of my writing these days, I can't seem to keep short, and I think it's a roughly 80,000 word novel in the making rather than a short story, although I'm really using this as a de-stressing exercise rather than a serious project. It makes a nice break from the rewrites for Glass and Ice, my first novel which is a mammoth children's fantasy that needs major work (and that I do find very stressful.)

But I like the rhythms of the sea, and my 'maggie and millie and mollie and may' story (tentatively called 'Whatever We Lose') is as therapeutic for me. It's something I can work on when I walk along the beach and just feel the need to write that wind-sea-sky feeling down.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Have yourself a merry little Christmas...

Little is the operative word here. Our pretty little flat is minimally decorated this year because Christmas suddenly appeared without warning (it's these mild Devon Decembers - they trick you), Christmas presents have stolen the overdraft, and our few ornaments have been eaten by Simon's parents' attic. Next year I will plan ahead (I say this every year), but this year we've decorated just to get us in the Christmas spirit as we won't be here when the day actually arrives - a week today we fly to America for my first Christmas there in three years, and Simon's first away from his family.

This is me and my dad, many years ago now. I'm talking - as usual. He looks so young there, and healthy, this is long before he was ill and is the way I like to remember him. My instinct always places this photo as the same Christmas that my mom gave me my Gwinna doll - not Gwinna really, I don't think, but obviously reminiscent of that red-haired girl who grew wings in the beautiful, luminous Barbara Helen Berger book. I always think of that book as glowing, all of the illustrations pulse with a kind of inner light. My mom didn't make the Gwinna doll, but this was back when she did make dolls, even sold some through the nearby Waldorf school, soft cotton star-shaped babies and a brown-haired brown-eyed one that looked like me. It's been a long time since my mom has made dolls and it's hard to imagine her doing that now - like me, I think my mother goes through phases of these things, an intense interest that fades as life changes. It's strange to think of, we are all so different now than we were then, and there is an emptiness where my dad is, that only pictures like this and my hazy (possibly imagined, certainly embellished) memories can try to fill. I find that I do come back to some of my young phases, however, years later, so maybe Mom will make dolls again, in that distant future when we have children and there is some reason for it again.

I don't think this picture can be the same Christmas as the Gwinna doll, however. That Christmas, I'm sure (I think) is the one where I painstakingly copied out all the lyrics of the many verses to O Little Town of Bethlehem, my favourite Christmas carol, as a gift for my parents. I can't have been more than six then, but I must have been older than the me in the photographs. It's still my favourite, but it's one of the few things that jars in an English Christmas for me - in England it has a completely different melody, more joyful, upbeat almost. It is the sadness that I like most about the version that I know and love, the solemness, the stillness, the wonder. In the more melancholy version, I can feel the cold, the empty streets, the stars twinkling, each solitary in the sky, waiting, watching. It's that feeling that I like, and the reason I copied the song for my parents who were quite unreligious, and very rarely sang Christmas carols.

Here is our tiny Christmas card display, including (although you can't see it very well because I am a terrible photographer) our little Advent calendar from Simon's parents. Although I am decidedly agnostic in my religious views, there is something about the traditional Christian Christmas that deeply appeals to me and I love Advent. I'll always fall for a good story, and this is one of the best. When it comes to Advent calendars, I've always preferred the traditional ones with pictures each day, counting down to a final double door on Christmas Eve. We always looked forward to it (I'm sure my sister opened those doors early more than once - but I never did) as though it was a surprise, as though it wasn't always Mary and the baby in the manger. My cousin's blog reminded me of another Advent tradition in Waldorf teaching, the star walk, where figures of Mary and Joseph walk along a path of stars to the stable, getting one star nearer every day. The stars they've left behind are placed in a blue felt sky above them. Finally, Simon's parents have an Advent ring wreathed with holly and ivy, with four red candles for each Sunday of Advent and a final white candle for Christmas day. I like these ways of counting down to Christmas, making the getting there almost as important as the day itself.

I am not a fan, however, of what passes for an Advent calendar for most children in England these days, with chocolate behind the doors instead of a picture. The plastic and foil shell left behind does not make a nice display for the mantelpiece, there's no story to it - and it rots their teeth. When it comes to the holidays, I don't see how American obesity rates can be so much higher - in England, the term Easter eggs, for instance, usually refers to large chocolate eggs rather than coloured real eggs.

To finish, here is my little indoor rose bush. It is much prettier than it looks here. If I could take pictures properly, you would see how beautiful it is.

Happy ten days to Christmas - and eight days to my birthday, by the way!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Great Expectations - or my meandering ravings about Dickens

I always forget that I love Dickens. I almost convince myself that I don't really, that I like him but he's a bit old-fashioned, his prose is long-winded and hard to get through and his characters are caricatures. I go years without reading Dickens, convinced of this. And then I finally pick up a Dickens novel, thinking that I'm in for a hard slog but that there's something about Dickens that I've always liked...

Each time I realise that I'm wrong. I love Dickens, and once I get going I find his characters enthralling, his prose gripping, and I can't put the book down till the end. This is why I managed to read Oliver Twist cover to cover at the age of ten, curled up in a log cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (I also read Robinson Crusoe which I hated and which managed to put me off Defoe and the whole of eighteenth century literature - I strenuously avoided the entire century at university and have only just now realised that this is based entirely on my ten year old prejudice. Maybe I should give Defoe - and Richardson and Fielding - another try...)

When I was thirteen, I went through what I call my Dickens phase which involved reading The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist again and half of Bleak House (that one was a bit too much for me, precocious reader though I must have been looking at this list.) I did plan to read Great Expectations in my thirteen year old phase, but I made the mistake of reading the introduction first which went into exquisite detail about the ending. So I put it aside, confident that some day I would forget the ending and then I could read it properly.

My average reading time for a thousand page Dickens novel was two days. Looking back on it, I've often wondered how I managed it. Now, I remember.

It helps, maybe, that I've been down with some sort of flu-like illness for the last few days and I've had plenty of time lying on the futon staring at the ceiling, but after reading the first few chapters on the train to and from work, I finished the rest in a handful of eager reading sessions. The characters are eccentric, but beautifully drawn and beautifully human, and to me the writing feels surprisingly modern. Miss Havisham, in her old wedding clothes, with the clocks set at ten past nine, Wemmick with his tiny moated castle and his split personality, Mr Jaggers with his extraordinary mind, iron control, and compulsive hand-washing could all come straight out of a 21st century novel, but I'm not sure that they would be so honestly and sympathetically realised. The setting is also superb, with some gorgeously evocative, immediate description. Dickens nicely contrasts the eerie marshes surrounding a pleasant country village, fully imagined but never over-described, with the shabby London inns and the looming shadow of Newgate prison.

Great Expectations is one of the classic bildungsroman, tracing the life of one character from childhood through coming of age. Unlike most of Dickens' other novels, the point of view stays entirely with Pip, the protagonist, and although there are a number of other major and minor characters, the focus stays very closely on the central character and his story. One of the things I like about Dickens is that every incredibly minor character will reappear at some stage - with a family and a whole subplot - creating a real sense of the multi-layered, multi-classed Victorian British society. (Dombey and Son is a underrated example of this that I really enjoyed.) Great Expectations, with its first person point of view and short chapters, does much less of this than Dickens' other novels, but that means that the tension stays strong and potent throughout and rarely dissipates. Because as well as being a coming of age novel, Great Expectations is a first rate mystery, with an aura of danger from the very first chapter where Pip is set upon by convicts in a graveyard. The plot is exquisitely well-laid and surprisingly fair on the reader - the many twists in the story will come as a shock to many (who haven't read the introduction beforehand!) but can be easily traced through the novel, often to the very opening scenes.

Somehow, however, Great Expectations manages to be more than just the story of one man's life or a good suspenseful read. The intimately focused point of view does not make this novel less universal, although it does not investigate the minutiae of as many different characters as in other of Dickens' works. Instead, the self-reflective style (and Pip is positively self-condemning - and often rightly so) allows the reader to constantly reflect on humanity both as a whole and individually, on our dreams and ambitions, and the cause and effect of the smallest things that we do. This famous quote from somewhere in the middle sums it up best:

That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day. - Great Expectations

So... read it.
(I am backdating this post because I meant to write it yesterday...)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

New things

I feel that I need an emptier new blog for a more adult me. I started my LiveJournal when I was a 16 year old boarding school student, immersed in writing and teenage angst in the deep snows of Northern Michigan. Now, it is suddenly 7 years later. I have a different name and a different accent, and I live in a country where snow rarely falls, and never here so close to the sea.

At the moment, I'm stuck in a cycle of working, eating, sleeping, and more working, obsessing about writing but not doing it. I need something to remind me that there's still creativity left in the tired me that comes home from work every night. I have lovely life, really, but I do so little with it! This blog is to encourage me to do something - and make me appreciate the things I already do.

And there is a literal (but not metaphorical) ocean between myself and my family that I'd like to bridge. My sister said to me the other day that the hardest part of being so far away is thinking "What is Amelia doing today?" and not having any idea what to picture. So this is for that too. To give the people I miss somewhere to imagine me.

So here's to inspiration and adventures and optimism (this is not a blog for me to complain about my life.) Wish me luck!