Entries in personal (34)


handmade home

top photo: Swedish Elle Interiors 2010: home of Maria Astrom and Sam Stigsson. bottom photos: British Elle Decoration June 2011: home of Kristin Peters

I was relieved to see the cover of last month's British Elle Decoration celebrating the handmade home. As I gazed around our own little house, I could see fewer than a handful of items that we'd brought brand new, and fewer still that haven't been adapted, or painted or otherwise tinkered with. We've always preferred to find furniture and objects to re-home and had quite a collection. But when we moved here we found that most of our furniture didn't fit. Needing new furniture throughout we had to be inventive to keep costs down. Older items are frequently more petite, so a 1950s Danish teak sideboard (bought for £10 and revived with patient applications of teak oil) sits neatly in the sitting room concealing any number of toys behind its sturdy doors; a sternly plain Victorian bookcase fits perfectly into the study alongside a pair of vintage desks and a rosewood linen press contains clothes and linens in the alcove no modern wardrobe would fit into.

The one problem with the handmade home is that it can take longer to source furniture and it usually involves a bit of work. Whitening old wood that can never be restored to its full glory is utter simplicity but while slippery modern laminate needs a little more effort, it yields equally satisfying results. A friend's unwanted IKEA chest of drawers has been transformed with some chalky white paint into a piece that is often mistaken for vintage scandinavian. I'd much rather expend a bit of energy than a lot of cash, but sometimes I admit to putting the task off. Which is why a prettily-shaped modern dining table (another cast off from a friend) has been waiting patiently in the shed for me to get sanding and painting. But it will be done and every time we use it I'll think of her.

The interiors I love most are those where you have a strong sense of the people who live there. They may not be the most styled, or even entirely my taste, but to me there's nothing better than stepping into a characterful and individual home rather than one expensively but blandly furnished. What I like about the photos above, and this eclectic bedroom, are that they're examples of relatively simple but still individual and homely rooms.

For our own home I prefer a simple palette of white and wood offset by splashes of colour. I like pictures and photos (both snaps and John's own fine art photographic prints) books, fresh flowers, candles in jars and glasses and a mix of textures. I like looking at our collections of natural objects and discovered treasures but dislike clutter, so tend to only display a selection of our things at a time. And I'm bordering on obsessed with keeping all the necessary clutter of life (art supplies, paperwork and inevitable mountain of toys) firmly behind solid doors. I also make quite a few things for the house - cushions, coverings, throws, table linen - and like to display a few pieces of Joel's work properly amongst our other things. All in all, it's a home handmade by us all and we like living in it.

As I'm writing the guilt of that languishing table is gathering. It seems there's nothing else for it but to get out the sandpaper and the paints and get down to work. 


make do and mend

Susan Collis 'Made by work' 2001 Royal College of Art, MA Sculpture show

Seeing Karen Barbé's glorious fantasy darning of a favourite dress unexpectedly ripped, I was reminded of this degree show piece, consisting of a pair of dungarees with repair work and bleach marks. I remember coming around the corner, in a bit of a hurry and full of the itchy irritation I sometimes get at the shows, and looking around to see where the exhibit was. Then I realised those old dungarees were it and I smiled. They reminded me of the tenderly mended clothing I've sometimes unearthed during my years of trawling flea markets and vintage shops: aprons, work shirts, nightwear, jackets. I love the old and frayed and patched. I like an object to be a little imperfect. And there is something about the utility of darning that moves me, perhaps because it reminds me of my grandmother. She wasn't a keen sewer but she could darn beautifully; a skill she learned during those years of necessity in the second world war when everything was in short supply.

As I rue the lack of wearable autumn clothes in my wardrobe (moths have holed both jersey and wool) I'm thinking of re-purposing instead of replacing. I love the descriptions in E F Benson's Mapp and Lucia books of competitive dress alterations: roses cut from a curtain and sewn onto an old dress to revamp and evoke jealousy or a judicious re-dye and re-collar. 

In that spirit, I'll try adding lace to the neck of a sweater that's starting to fray, and perhaps I can transform those moth holes into something more agreeable. I've discovered this cunning new moth-patching product and it looks fun as well as being practical. For those worn out elbows (I just can't shake the elbow on the table lean -I'm doing it now!) I like this lovely take on the patched elbow: a pretty solution and the chance to learn to crochet while I'm at it.  And, of course, there is Karen's superb tutorial on making lovely patches that adorn rather than simply disguise. Thriftiness can be fun!    


ah, grasshopper

detail of a journal entry

We plan our lives according to a dream that came to us in our childhood, and we find that life alters our plans. And yet, at the end, from a rare height, we also see that our dream was our fate. It's just that providence had other ideas as to how we would get there. Destiny plans a different route, or turns the dream around, as if it were a riddle, and fulfills the dream in ways we couldn't have expected. Ben Okri 

A couple of weeks ago during heavy rains, the little stream that runs down through our garden to join the wider stream at the bottom started to forge an alternative tributary to accommodate the greater volume of water. I have a little perch next to the point where the streams meet and, sitting there one afternoon in the stillness of the after rain, I noticed how beautifully the stream had dealt with its problem. Instead of overspilling wastefully over the garden it had quietly forged a neat path past various obstacles, to join the river at a very sensible point close to its twin. I saw there might be a lesson in that for me.

My life so far hasn't been entirely predictable. I've stopped and started and moved and changed. I went to Nepal seven years ago to teach and to explore, with a deep need to change my life. I anticipated the change would come slowly, through travel and encounters and the gradual unfolding of a new path. John joined me after a time and we planned to change our lives slowly in tandem. Instead, in Nepal, I found myself pregnant. So life did change - and it's been a wonderful change - just not at all as either of us had anticipated.

The route of my life has taken hasn't been straight and undoubtedly I'll continue to encounter detours and change. The lesson I take from the stream is that if I move purposefully and consistently back in the direction of my childhood dream - moving steadily and calmly past the obstacles - I'll get there. The journey and the destination may not be exactly how I planned, but perhaps that unknowing is part of the joy?


my my..

Should it ever be a life-saving necessity to sing the entire back catalogue of ABBA I'll be just fine. My family moved back to England from Canada a couple of summers after ABBA won the Eurovision song contest and their songs were pretty much the only cultural currency I had with new school friends. I knew all the words, came to learn all the dances, and came to understand that my friends only had eyes for Agnetha.

With her guileless eyes, gappy smile and princess hair, Agnetha was friendly and familiar. She striped her eyes with blue and her lips with pink as we did alone in our bedrooms. But it was Frieda who drew me in. Who daunted me. Unlike Agnetha, she belonged firmly to the world of adults - a world that both attracted and frightened me.

Frieda looked like the terrifyingly sophisticated friends of my mother; the ones who held martinis in one ringed hand and coloured-tipped cigarettes in the other and gazed coolly and silently at the shy child before them. No friendly blue daubs for them. They circled their eyes with kohl and wet their lashes thick with mascara and those eyes seemed to appraise me and find me wanting. I didn't want to be like my mother, or one of her friends, with their messy lives and children they considered a bore. In control, a little reserved but still able to smile and sing and - yes - be a little bit ridiculous, Frieda offered a better version of womanhood. 

So not only do the songs of ABBA occupy vital storage space in my brain, they're also involved in my early thoughts about what it means to be a woman. Who says pop is shallow? 



I'll always have Paris

I remember a dark room, with early light squaring up against the desk at the end of the bed. Too early and a scratchy start to a weekend in Paris, woken by the shouts, laughter and noise of the bakery opposite. Too early to speak I picked up my camera and snapped. Still lives of our lives on the desk. Keys, notes, glasses, a watch. Bed, unmade. An unsmiling portrait of him, hands crossed, in the chair. That light, that street, that bakery. The rest of the weekend passed by as they did between us then: a little light followed by dark and back again. But nothing is as clear to me as that first morning. A morning more than 20 years ago. And those photographs exist only in memory as the roll of film didn't catch.

I was reminded suddenly of those lost images of the early days of a long-complicated affair when I read Brooke's post. And it made me think about why - and how - I take photographs. Sometimes my eyes see something that creates such a jolt of pleasure, or memory, that I feel a need to record it. Brooke describes beautifully how carefully she composes with film but, film or not, my method is to work quickly, without much regard for technique. Of course, it's a further joy when a moment captured looks as beautiful as it did in my mind but ultimately, the end result is less important than the process. And key to the process is being attentive, engaging, being present. 

Perhaps that answers why taking photographs is so important to me. It's a form of mindfulness - anchoring me back in the now - but also a reminder of what I repeat to myself so many times it must qualify as a mantra: there really is so much that is beautiful. Snapping a moment whose recall will later make me happy is my way of acknowledging, and being grateful for, those frequently incidental moments of pleasure that, together, make for happiness. My snaps are the scraps of happiness I throw in the path of a future I sometimes fear: a store of memories to remind me that sometimes it's better not to look ahead but simply to look around. Be here, right now - remember this.  

Those lost photos sound sad but, in my head, they aren't. Instead, they're a symbol of hope. Every time the shutter closed it said "the morning may not be what we wished but we're here, this is us, these are ours, this is you. That is a good thing."

Joel at 2. I love it despite its imperfections, for what it makes me remember.


of stars and silence

1. Untitled, 2. Dye Party, 3. nine., 4. rainy day pears, 5. stars + deer embroidery, 6. perfect night, 7. House., 8. 'arlo's space' embroidery, 9. Pojagi - Korean Style Patchwork, 10. oops., 11. paper, 12. Untitled, 13. Day 2/Dream Journal, 14. Untitled, 15. Untitled, 16. the eucalyptus is always greener

The longer a silence goes on, the harder it is to break. It becomes more important to say the right thing. But all too often lately, my ability to choose the right words has deserted me. I'm undermined by a series of griefs, hastening one after the other. By profound misunderstandings only heightened by candour. Some things, it seems, really are best unsaid. And I'm left feeling oddly mute. But the time has come to reach back out into the world and start trusting my voice again.  

Looking out at the ochring leaves it seems impossible to recapture the heat and languor of the South of France, or the gentle playfulness of our summer days at home. So I've chosen instead to introduce some of my favourite photos on flickr, inspired by Kristy's gloriously autumnal mosaic. It's only now that I'm looking at my choices afresh, right here, that I see how they reflect my recent mood and pre-occupations. Domesticity; silence; stars.

Looking up at the stars re-orients me: life is unknown and living it can be hard but there is so much that is beautiful. And when I look at these photos, their quiet beauty reassures me. Makes me look forward - to breaking the silence, reaching out, a new season. A new telescope.



When I woke up I was in a forest. The dark

seemed natural, the sky through the pine trees

thick with many lights.


I knew nothing; I could do nothing but see.

And as I watched, all the lights of heaven

faded to make a single thing, a fire

burning through the cool firs.

Then it wasn't possible any longer

to stare at heaven and not be destroyed.


Are there souls that need

death's presence, as I require protection?

I think if I speak long enough

I will answer that question, I will see

whatever they see, a ladder

reaching through the firs, whatever

calls them to exchange their lives -


Think what I understand already.

I woke up ignorant in a forest;

only a moment ago, I didn't know my voice

if one were given me

would be so full of grief, my sentences

like cries strung together.

I didn't even know I felt grief

Until that word came, until I felt

rain streaming from me.

from The Wild Iris - Louise Glück 


perfect moments


Do you sometimes find that, in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day, there are little moments of near perfection? Today's little moment came about through lassitude. Idly clicking through my inbox to avoid doing any of the many things on my list I'd prefer not to do, I opened a link to the Toast blog. Did you know they had a blog? News to me. But it's surprisingly interesting, and rather lovely. On it, I discovered a little video of Maria Bosch working in her studio. It's silent, which was what made the whole perfect moment.. perfect. At the time I was listening to one of my favourite pieces, Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel. The rain was falling heavily and audibly through the trees and tapping gently on the windows. It synched gently with the sublime melancholy of Pärt's music and provided the perfect soundtrack to the engrossing dexterity of Bosch's hands working the clay.

Desperate, suddenly, to shape something myself and with my old block of clay lying neglected, poorly wrapped and hard as stone in the shed, I hurled myself at the only thing to hand; a block of white air-dry clay in the craft cupboard. With no aim in mind I formed a few tiny little bowls similar to some we've unearthed in our garden, simply by pressing out the shape with my fingers. They were too hastily made to be lovely and I think we'll gift them back to the garden, but I may try and make some with a little more care. Now to find myself a pottery course. I hope you've had a perfect little moment today.



Listening absent-mindedly to the online repeat of Desert Island Discs with Floyd's Roger Waters, I was startled to hear Neil Young's Helpless. I'm afraid I was lost then and heard little else as my mind wandered. Very little throws me so quickly to a particular time and place as music - or poetry.

Poetry is a private passion, known only to those who know me really very well. Robert Lowell is one of the first poets I read through choice and treasured more because I first discovered him in my father's own, annotated copies. I read everything I could of his, and all the books about him. I tracked down old vinyl recordings and painstakingly recorded them onto cassettes (remember those?). Hearing his voice for the first time shocked me utterly, it was so counter to the impression I'd formed.  But now, oh joyful interweb, people are putting poetry onto YouTube.

So, glass of wine in hand and vegetables roasting I can listen to Lowell, reading one of his later poems. And reminisce.



in praise of boys


I love being mother to a boy. In fact (deep breath) I don't feel a trace of envy for those of my friends who have a girl or two (or three). But what is it about society and boys? The consensus seems to be that boys are trouble and parents of boys are to be pitied. Disruptive, noisy, aggressive and doomed to fall behind at school. Too often that is the view of boys that I find in the press or, sadly, at the school gates. And it just doesn't fit with my experience. For instance, I could have chosen photos where Joel is drawing, reading or playing with his soft toys. Many of the boys I know love to do all these things; activities that are usually presumed to be the preserve of girls. 

But why should we denigrate, for example, the sheer force of nature that is a boy outside? Climbing, running, hunting for bugs, enjoying the world with all his senses. I love that the little boys I know have boundless energy and enthusiasm. Their default position seems to be 'hurray!' I love the physicality of the pillow fights and wrestles and chases and matches - and hugs hugs hugs. I love how slights and arguments are quickly forgotten. I love that no thought is given to mud on trousers or scuffs on shoes. I love the way my son wants kisses and affection and promises to do so even when he's old (by which he means 17).

Of course these are traits aren't solely attributable to boys (or even to all boys). And I acknowledge that some boys can be - ahem - difficult. But I do want to say that there is so much to celebrate about boys - and being the parent of boys - and I would love to see more focus on the wonderful. Roxanna is doing a sterling job on her all-things-boy website Frog & Snail Society, and I recently enjoyed Jules' post on the magical confidence of her baseball-playing son. This is my own small trumpet blast in praise of boys and I plan to give my own a special squeeze of appreciation after school tonight.



reasons to be cheerful (part 2)


 All human life has its seasons and cycles, and no-one's personal chaos can be permanent. Winter, after all, gives way to spring and summer, though sometimes, when branches stay dark and the earth cracks with ice, one thinks they will never come, that spring, and that summer, but they do, and always.       Truman Capote


While I wait for the silver lining to reveal itself, I thought I'd share some small things that generally make a not-so-great day a little better for me.

Firstly, good coffee in my favourite cup. After a lot of experimentation with fancy brands, I find myself returning to Lavazza ready-ground for a strong morning hit when I need to get moving quickly. With a little more time I like to grind my own beans. Their cool, slippery oiliness in the hand and the aroma as they turn to powder really gets my senses going. If you love coffee and find yourself in London, drop into the Monmouth Coffee House in Covent Garden, or fuel up at their shop in Borough before entering the gastronomic powerhouse that is Borough Market.

Another source of bliss and joy is a new magazine. I'm a magazine obsessive, reading everything from fashion glossies to interiors to travel and fine art and craft journals. If (disaster!) I'm at the end of the month mag-wise and there is nothing new to be found, I trawl through my admittedly substantial stack of back copies. I tear and file articles to keep, rip out images to make notecards, and just generally lose myself for a bit.

Then I get out my camera and prowl around, even if it's just in the house. It's the looking that's key and I always end up with something that lifts me. A shadow, colours, a shift of sky or a detail that makes me smile.

Ending the day with a glass of icy cold wine in the bath, something funny to watch and a bit of a back rub makes it easier to believe that tomorrow will bring with it sunshine - and silver.

What little things makes your day better?




At the end of a long phone call I realised my notepad was spilling over with spirals. Disturbingly so. I wouldn't want it to be seen by anyone with an interest in psychology, for instance. But the reason behind the obsessive drawing is completely pedestrian: I'm trying to gain control over my sewing-machine. And that means sewing spirals. 

Recently I took my first ever sewing course with the lovely Alice and Ginny, aimed at those of us who own a machine but, for whatever reason, have failed to use it. Simply being able to ask embarassingly basic questions, in a room full of women with similar problems, put behind me the horrors of school sewing from which - to my utter relief - I was banned for continuously mangling the bobbins. Instead I was to spend the hour in the library, all by myself.  The nearest thing to the perfect punishment for me, especially on summer days when I took my haul of books outside and lay beneath trees or drew warmth from the brick steps.

But back to spirals. With each turn I feel my grip on the fabric loosen and my certainty that the turn will be made smoothly increases. And so I find myself beginning to relax, and to enjoy. And feel compelled to reward myself with yet another book full of projects to sew. But this time, I'm confident that some of those projects will actually get made. 




There is a particular indignity that comes with having something go amiss with one's head. Today, whilst trying on a top, I entangled my hair so thoroughly in the fastenings that, head topped with top (and body exposed),  I was forced to ask the assistant for help. After a lot of pulling and tugging and leaving of hair behind I was freed. But with dignity shattered.  The assistant seemed appalled and conducted the procedure in silence. Which made it all so much worse.

And I went out with mascara only on one eye. I noticed it as I peered and plucked frantically at my hair - when I still believed there was hope of keeping my predicament to myself. I fear the stars are misaligned for me today and it's safer for everyone if I just stay indoors.


upstairs downstairs

I love to wander around an historic house but it isn't the grand reception rooms that principally draw me in. The kitchens and the servants' quarters are where I prefer to spend my time. Walking through these rooms on a recent trip to Uppark, it was the beauty of the everyday objects that compelled me. The cool smoothness of a worn chopping board; the subtle lustre of storage jugs and jars that bring to mind Vermeer's milkmaid; the weighty intricacy of a cake mould or a saucepan.

I wonder about the hands that scrubbed those boards and poured from those jugs, day after day after day. Did they sometimes appreciate the unexpected beauty of a shaft of light on a just polished pan or the satisfaction of a cake that slips, perfectly and smoothly, from its mould? Did small moments like this lift a day for them as they can for me?



Sometimes I'm caught out by a photo or a letter that slips out of a 'strictly in the past' album shelved out of reach amidst a tangle of gift bags that accumulate dustily. Today it was music. Two tracks that shuffled next to each other and sent me back to another lifetime. And the clouds gathered over my house and, for a while, the rain fell in bursts. Actually, not metaphorically. Weather and music combined synchronistically to induce a rush of nostalgia that took my breath away.

Now the sun's out again and I have a school cake sale to attend and swimming to cheer on, and risotto ingredients to buy and prepare. And life continues on.


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