Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Legacy II: I Dare You

I am thrilled that my friend Angela Negro is contributing the first guest Legacy post.  Her blog, Signed by Ange, is one of my favorite places to visit for wisdom, a really good, deep laugh, and a great story. Ange lives in France with her husband and her "messmonsters," where she creates gorgeous art, engages in some serious renovation projects, homeschools said messmonsters, and oh so much more.  She is a an athlete, a traveler, an artist, a mother, a teacher, and, as she says on her website, a wordsmith, whose commitment to the literacy of women and girls, to beauty, and to the encouragement of those around her inspires me more than I can say.  Read on and you'll see just what I mean. 

Hello there everyone,

I must say I feel very honored to participate in Gigi's 'Legacy' series. While I feel a little daunted about writing a guest post for the blog of someone as immensely talented as Gigi, I admit that it's come at an ideal time.  The arrival of the cooler temperatures has coincided with the recent celebration of my 40th birthday and my latest adventure at homeshooling my messmonsters, both of which have conveniently given me extra cause to pause and consider the people and ideals that have shaped my life till now. Merci mille fois Gigi, for giving me the opportunity to put my fingers to the keyboard once again, after such a long absence over the summer months, and set my story down. 

"You can be bigger than you are." were the very first words I read, in the very first book I ever actually remember my father giving me. We had just moved from New Zealand to the sunny Sunshine Coast of Australia where Dad chose to shed his skin and go from tradesman to salesman. This was the 'positive mental attitude' era of the 1980s and consequently brimming with promise, at least as far as my parents were concerned.

"I dare you," he said, as I cried for my old friends and lamented my plight in a new school where the prospect of making new friends seemed overtly daunting to my 11 year old mind, "to be the very best you can be." Dad was ever the tower of strength, a shining example of will power, positive attitude and determination. Life, to Dad, was entirely what one made of it, no Ifs, Buts or Maybes. Certainly no excuses. No feeling sorry for oneself. No feeling sorry for myself. Success in life, and however I chose to measure success, was all up to me. "I Dare You," and many of the other books Dad subsequently passed on to me to read as he pursued his sales career from iced drink machines into real estate, told me that it all boiled down to a question of personal choice, motivation and giving myself the means to reach my own goals... Word after word, as I read that wee book through my pre-teen tears, I slowly became inspired.

Over the years, during one or another of my multiple moves to exciting new horizons, that tiny hard cover book disappeared. The tricks and tips, and various lessons on life I avidly learnt from within its pages, thankfully, didn't. They have helped me navigate my way through all of the hairy situations, major challenges and embarrassing disasters that life, in its ultimate wisdom, has a tendency to throw to all of us. While the book has dropped out of existence, 29 years later the title remains firmly stuck in my mind. It's the first thing that pops up when times get tough, even now. 

So strong was its effect on me that I've recently started making a career out of wanting to inspire the rest of the world the same way. Often a well chosen phrase is all it takes to shine a new light on a tricky situation and guide the way forward.

More than anything, it's the most precious legacy I could ever leave my 3 messmonsters.  At the risk of sounding evangelical, being ultimately responsible for my own inner happiness has come to represent the epitome of freedom to me, and this in turn has engendered as much an infallible faith in life as an inherent, indestructable, unquenchable joy. I want that for the whole world. But if I can't give that to the world at large then I can at least offer it to my kids. 

"I dare you, to think creatively,"  I heard myself whispering tonight as I softly kissed my 11 year old Chickpea, who was all sullen and digging her heels in about having to read a real book (ie: not about horses) for her homeschool French programme. "It's all right for you," she said, "You like reading and I DON'T! So you were good at school and it was easy for you." 

"You decide what your attitude is to reading and learning Chickpea. I can't do that for you. I can only say that the day you decide to accept each challenge with an open attitude, is the day that learning will happen naturally and without effort for you too. Go on! I dare you to adventure!" 

Thinking of my dad and another sulky 11 year old, all those years ago, I smiled as I turned out her light and left her room... 

Words and image copyright Angela Negro 2010

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Just Sit There and Look Pretty

Debi at Emma Tree has offered a challenge to respond to the phrase "Just sit there and look pretty."  As soon as I read her challenge I knew I had to participate, because pretty and I have a troubled past.  

I don't think I am unusual.  Pretty is something I have alternately rejected and longed to be.  I have allowed my self esteem to be bound up in pretty.  Smart and funny and creative and caring are in there, too, but they don't cause me nearly as many problems as pretty.

In a few weeks I'll turn 43, and what do I think of pretty as I introduce her to middle age?  Well, I don't think they'll get along very well either, but I'll tell you one thing, smart and funny and creative and caring just keep getting better and better all the time.

In response to Debi's challenge I decided to make a paper collage, and as I cut and pasted, this image of Rapunzel emerged from the clippings and flowery bits.  I have long studied and taught the history of fairy tales; they are part of who I am.  Like many girls, I was raised on them.  Of course, in the 70's there were far fewer Disney versions, so I actually read many, many fairy tales from books.  These days there are countless new versions of tales, including the retellings that are meant to empower girls rather than make them feel like damsels in distress. 
And yet, the old tales persist.  In some, the female protagonists were actually quite powerful, but in others, like poor Rapunzel here, they were passive characters around which everything revolved.  Rapunzel just sits in that tower day after day, letting her long golden braid down for the evil witch to climb.  Eventually the prince discovers her and shimmies on up to her tower, but Rapunzel's job throughout the story is to sit there in the tower (and then later in the wilderness) and look pretty.  She is rewarded for all the pretty sitting with a happily ever after of her very own.  

I recall many Rapunzel nights in my youth, sitting by the phone (which was, of course, attached to a wall by a cord, so I might as well have been in a tower) for some prince of a boyfriend to call.  In fact, I remember an awful lot of time in my youth wasted on wanting to be prettier.  And now that I'm heading into the age when I could be labeled a "cougar" or a "matron" or some other equally ugly tag depending on how I choose to dress, I still waste time and money on special creams and lotions and potions to make me appear youthful.  Maybe I no longer identify with the young heroines of fairy tales.  Maybe now I am the evil queen in Snow White, asking my mirror who is the fairest of them all, whipping up concoctions made of roots and leaves and spider's legs.  Which leads me to this question: notice how the older women in so many (but not all) fairy tales are depicted as evil while the young girls are good?  I think this has everything to do with power.  We are not evil; we are powerful, and that can be frightening, even threatening to others who would like us to sit there and look pretty.  

As women age, we become forces of nature, full of wisdom and strength.  No tower can contain us, no king can control us.  We are the makers our own ever afters.  

Go check out Debi's amazing blog for links to others who are participating in this challenge!  xo    


Tuesday, September 21, 2010


This post is the first in a series that I dreamed up gradually over the summer as I was preparing to move from one state to another, from one phase of my life to another.  I have moved many times in my adult life, but this move was different.  It came after a particularly difficult experience, which itself had followed on the heels of what for me were an exceptionally tough few years.  As I've written about before, this move--back to the state where I was born and raised, back to the city where I met my husband, back to the streets and shoreline of my soul--was the first move I've ever made that wasn't for school or a job or any other practical reason at all.  This move was made entirely for love.   

Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road that "everybody goes home in October."  While technically I went home in August, I feel in my bones exactly what he meant.  As we head into the holiday season and, here in the northern hemisphere, the coldest, darkest months of the year, my own sense of family and history deepens.  I draw my circle closer for warmth and comfort in the face of shortening days.  Home and hearth and what they represent lie at the center of this circle.  This year, my sense of being at home in this city and in my own skin  has been strengthened by the choices I have made over the past few months.  The move itself was the biggest choice, but within that were many smaller decisions that I cherish.  

During the month leading up to the big move, as I sorted through our mountains of belongings, I questioned what items and memories mattered most to me, and I realized that I only wanted to keep things that told a story or that reminded me of a person or a time that I love.  Everything else--the impulse buys and the random vases and pots and bowls and unplayed board games and unloved sweaters and unused aperitif glasses--seemed extraneous and wasteful.      

I would never say that material things don't matter at all, for we live in the physical world.   But an edited home, a pared down existence is what I crave--one in which the pieces around me speak to the past and help me lead a better, more considered life in the present.  This is no easy task for a girl with a magpie's heart and eye, but as one of my design heroes, William Morris, once said, "have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."  Utility and beauty help to feed us, body and soul.  I feel this every time I glide my husband's babci's rolling pin over a pie crust or slide open the drawer of my father's roll-top desk.  These things are undeniably useful and they are beautiful in form as well as in what they mean to me.  They represent the legacy passed down to me by those who came before and helped me become who I am--and who I will be.

And so, I decided to start a series of posts about the objects and ideas, the people and memories that we treasure.  From now until mid-November, some of my blogging friends will be joining me on Wednesdays to talk about their own legacies.  I hope you'll join in the conversation.

I mentioned Babci's rolling pin and my father's desk, and there are a dozen or so other treasured objects I could write about in this series, but when I think of my own legacy--and a gift I would most want to pass on to my nieces and nephews and other family and friends--I think of my Memere's kitchen and of the foods she prepared for us there on the turquoise formica counters.  I think of her perfectly manicured fingers, their glittering rings flashing as she stirred a pot of fiddleheads or minced onions for liver pate.  I think of her laughter and of the stories she told as we gathered round her table.  And then there were her cookies and donuts and pies.  Whatever she put on the table on a Sunday was my favorite.  Memere died just a few months after my father in 1984, but we speak of her at most family gatherings still, and when I set a table for those I love, it is her table that I emulate, her skill, economy, grace, and care that I hope to achieve in each meal that I make.  After Memere passed away, my cousin Gary's wife, Pattie, typed up some of her best loved recipes for everyone in the family.  I treasure that little book, and so I thought I'd share one of my favorite recipes with you.  I think Memere would get a kick out of knowing that a favorite Old Town, Maine, recipe is going global!  

Blueberry Crumb Cake

During the summer, when local blueberries are in season, I make this every couple of weeks.    The rest of the year I keep some frozen berries on hand so I can whip this beauty up whenever a craving hits (which is often, especially in the fall).  It is probably the number one favorite cake in my family.  We all bake it, adding our own touches and twists, and everyone's is delicious.  I've tried making this with other kinds of berries as well.  Blueberries are still my favorite for this, but a half blueberry, half raspberry blend is lovely, too.  

~Preheat oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit.
~Grease a 9x12" pan

~In a large bowl mix together:
1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups sifted flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (my addition--and purely optional)

~Set aside 1/2-3/4 cup for crumb topping (I like extra crumbs!).

~In a measuring cup, measure out 1/2 cup milk.  
~Add 1 teaspoon of plain vinegar or lemon juice to the milk to sour it.
~Stir 1/2 teaspoon baking soda into the soured milk.

~In another bowl beat
2 large eggs

~To the eggs add the milk mixture, plus
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla

~Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and combine.

~Toss 2 cups of blueberries, fresh or frozen, with 1/2 cup flour.

~Fold the blueberries into the batter. 

~Pour the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle with the reserved topping.

~Bake for about 40 minutes.

Allow the cake to cool for a few minutes before cutting and serving.  While I think it is most delicious on the day it's baked, in our family, no one objects to eating leftover cake the next morning along with scrambled eggs and coffee.

Check back in next Wednesday, September 29th, for a Legacy post from a blogger whose life and art and writing are endless sources of inspiration.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


A few weeks ago I mentioned that our new place has a sunporch.  What a joy it is!  I step up into it from my study, and it is the perfect place to take photographs with its two walls of windows, two windowed doors, and one wall of white-painted bricks.  Plus, my herbs and houseplants love it there.

I bought a huge bouquet of cosmos at the farmers' market early in the morning yesterday and placed them in vases and bottles all over the house.  Out on the sunporch they fairly sing.

Next week I'll begin a new series here on The Magpie's Fancy called "Legacy."  The series will focus on the people, things, and ideals that we value.  In my little Blogger profile I state that I am a seeker of things that shine from within.  That's not just a pretty thing to say.  I truly mean it.  While a bit of surface flash does catch my magpie eye, what I really cherish is a deep, burnished inner glow in people and stories and places.  Several talented friends will be joining me in the coming weeks to share their thoughts.  Each one of them definitely shines from within.  I can't wait to read their thoughts and study their pictures. 

Meanwhile, the leaves have started to turn here in New England.  Time for cider and apple crisp.  I will be gathering up the last blossoms of the season and treasuring them until the first hard frost.  

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Every Day Is Like Sunday

Todd and I went adventuring this morning and wound up at Old Orchard Beach--the classic seaside town, complete with boardwalk, amusement park, arcade, and pizza that you have to dab with your napkin to soak up the grease.

It is always a joy to take photos at amusement parks and carnivals, but I find it especially so when the park has closed down for the season.  Instant ambiance, melancholy, nostalgia, and longing.
My family didn't really visit amusement parks when I was a kid.  I think I only went to Old Orchard once or twice, but even so, its images have remained etched in my brain all these years.  While it's more built up now, the essential things remain pretty much the same.  
As you know, I'm a girl who likes a bit of melancholy, so a beach resort town on a cloudy day in September is right up my alley.  To get a little of this same feeling for yourself, simply watch this Morrissey video of "Every Day Is Like Sunday."  Oh, and just for your knowledge and amusement, I should add that back around 1990, I basically thought I was the girl in the video.

Hope you're having a lovely Sunday, my friends.  xo

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


I've been at work in my new study all day, a room that has become the favorite hangout of the cats and that also has become, truth be told, my favorite hangout, too.  Our apartment now possesses that wonderful lived-in-one-month feeling: still clean and fairly organized, but homey, too.  Muscle memory  has begun to shift to new faucet handles and furniture placement, and the smells and sounds are becoming familiar--a blend of our own soaps and spices and candles along with the wood and paint scent of this old former rectory. 

Soon I'll share photos of this unique place.  For now, I'll tell you that my workshop has a special step that leads up to a French door.  That door in turn leads out to a glass porch which has become the home of plants and herbs and a little pottery fountain filled with favorite stones.  I let the fountain run all afternoon while I work and the cats nap.  There is a comfort in this even as I work on writing that is not always pleasant or easy.

And then there is life with which to contend.  I worry too much.  I fret about things I cannot control.  I long to protect the people I love.  We all do this, yes, and it's part of what makes us whole.  When I can't fix problems, when I can't make things right, when I can't help someone get well again or find them a new job or give them whatever it is they need for body and soul, I reach for what I know: a word or two of comfort, a wooden spoon, a mixing bowl.  I measure what I can give, and try to make each portion a little larger, a little fuller, a little richer than before.  What more can we offer in hard times than  our best selves?  

In terms of giving, I know of few things more comforting than a bowl of risotto after a long hard day.  I made this one, and Todd and I scooped spoonfuls into our mouths as fast as we could, dipping straight into the pot for seconds.  It's a variation of a wonderful recipe by Nigella Lawson (from Nigella Bites).  Mine takes many, many liberties, and is very playful.  You can vary risotto to suit your tastes and what you've got in your pantry.  I've made dozens and dozens of risottos, and I rarely make any two the same!

Lemon-Comfort Risotto
Serves 4 as a main dish or 6 as a side
  • Very finely mince one scallion or a couple of shallots and one stalk of celery.
  • In a large saucepan, saute the minced vegetables in one Tablespoon olive oil and two Tablespoons butter.
  • Add 1 1/3 cup arborio rice.  Saute for a minute or so.
  • At this point I begin ladling in warm vegetable stock.  I make my own stock, but you can use good store-bought stock.  It's important to keep it warm on the stove and ladle it in as needed.  The amount you'll need will vary depending on the weather and how humid a day it is.  As you add a ladleful of stock, stir the risotto.  Add another ladle when the mixture thickens.  Keep letting the rice absorb the stock before you add more liquid.  Some people like relatively soupy risotto while others like it thicker.  That's up to you.  The most important thing is that the rice be cooked all the way through.  It should be creamy when you taste it, but with just a little chew, like great al dente pasta.  It takes less than a half hour to reach that wonderful creamy consistency.
  • Once the rice is nearly finished, I stir in the zest of a lemon and some finely chopped fresh thyme and parsley.  Basil would be nice, too.  Nigella uses rosemary, but I like milder herbs for this.  
  • At this point, I take the risotto off the heat.
  • In a little bowl I whisk an egg yolk, a few Tablespoons of sour cream or heavy cream, the juice of half a lemon, and a few Tablespoons of grated parmesano reggiano, then I pour this whole mixture into the risotto.
  • Give it a stir, spoon it into bowls.
  • Top each bowl with a little more grated cheese, a sprinkling of the fresh herbs, salt and freshly grated pepper, and a little bit of butter.  Let the butter pool on top.  
  • Sigh at the sight of your beautiful creation, and then dig in.  Pure comfort in a bowl.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Once More to the Lake

One summer, along about 1904, my father rented a camp on a lake in Maine and took us all there for the month of August. We all got ringworm from some kittens and had to rub Pond's Extract on our arms and legs night and morning, and my father rolled over in a canoe with all his clothes on; but outside of that the vacation was a success and from then on none of us ever thought there was any place in the world like that lake in Maine. We returned summer after summer--always on August 1st for one month. I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods. 

~E.B. White, "Once More to the Lake," 1941

Much has changed in Maine since E.B. White wrote his beautiful essay about returning with his son to the lake of his own childhood.  The road to many weekend escapes is now lined by strip malls packed with Wendy's and Pizza Huts; most cottages come equipped with wi-fi access and cable TV; and the calm of the lake is disturbed by the incessant buzz of jet skis.  

However, if you rise early enough and glide out onto the lake in your canoe, you can be the first one on the water.  You can paddle in the cradle of the lake with the sun rising on one side and the moon sinking on the other.   

And in the afternoon, there are still porch rockers for lounging and porch beds for naps.

And, of course, there are docks for leaping.

I can think of no better place for a birthday . . .

or a campfire . . .

or a morning sleep-in.

This past week I took a series of portraits of my family on this very dock using this very pink bentwood chair as a prop.  Something about the chair all by itself spoke to me, too.  What a place to sit and listen for the loons at sunset or watch for the bald eagle who lives nearby.  Here a body can forget the rumble and rush of the world and settle into a quiet rhythm all its own.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


In the spirit of my friend Relyn's blog, I thought I'd make a list of a few things that are bringing me joy this week.  Relyn is the best list-maker I know.  Seriously, I can't compare, but here goes:

otto pizza
the portland farmers' market
fresh lavender growing on my porch
anticipating this year's common ground fair
the olive-green j. herbin ink i bought for todd
this post at mortal muses featuring one of my photos!
the photo above of my nephew cannon-balling into the lake
the baby gull who lives with his mum on the rooftop next door
anticipating the josh ritter concert at the newly reopening State Theatre 
this book (soon i'll have the cleanest house ever)
this post about delhi by my friend lily
the imminent arrival of autumn
did i mention otto pizza?
my new neighborhood 
my sweet, lazy cats
casco bay