30 May 2009

Here at last

I woke this morning at 5:00 AM, to the to sound of cuckoo chatter and dazzling sunlight. It is an unseasonably gorgeous, English morning in Barford, I should be sleeping for a few hours more, at least. I will hate myself later for not doing so later.

I want to savour this day, relish this moment, breathe it in and consume it. The very practical part of me, however, has far too much to ponder and fret about: how on earth will we orchestrate the up and down (kneeling) of the Anglican service with the dress. Will the congregation hear a big SNAP! as my strappy-things pop from the DEB carefully hoisting me from the ground?

(Yes, I have very beautiful strappy things on the dress now, not in an attempt to hide or cover my arms, just an elegant alteration. The strappy things are detachable -- for the dance party later!! -- but as such are the source of my terror.)

So, I am gleeful, but panicked. Wish I could be more gleeful. :(
Just sent the DEB a message about the lifting maneuver, and I have worked out some physical resistance moves I can do to assist in keeping the dress in one piece.

I think, as much I am overwhelmed and over-awed by the significance of this moment, I am, at least for the time being most staggered by the theatrical nature of day. I feel my theatre director instinct kicking in, and find myself dwelling on mechanics. I do hope that this will subside and I will just relax and enjoy this day as it happens.

Suddenly, I feel the urge to sleep again. Perhaps I should try?...

25 May 2009

One for the good guys

“I defy you stars!” – Romeo and Juliet

At last month’s W.I. meeting, we were treated to a presentation from Deborah Brady, the first woman photographer to make it in Fleet Street. Deborah Brady is one formidable lady, and her talk, “A Female in Fleet Street,” gave us an insight into the trials and tribulations of being a photographer on a daily newspaper, one the funniest and most arduous being carrying around all that equipment.

Deborah told this amazing story of how she made her incredible debut in the 1980s, by being the one and only photographer in the nation to get a clear shot of Michael Jackson as he was arriving at Heathrow airport.

She was a rookie, and had been assigned the grunt work of photographing the MJ fans and look-a-likes that had gathered to greet their hero. A split second decision, a whim, a feeling in her gut made her turn left, instead of right, and she saw Jackson walking toward her on the tarmac. With that one photograph, her life changed.

I am in awe of moments such as this. How do they happen? Do we somehow engineer them? Is it a matter of just being open and available to whatever the universe has in store for you? Is it force of will? Desire?

Deborah’s own summation is the importance to trusting your instincts and taking risks. She also shared details of the rough treatment she has enduring by daring to be a member of the “boy’s club” that is photojournalism. She’s had to be plucky and a fighter to survive.

Last night, the D.E.B. were glued to our telly watching the semi-finals of “Britain’s Got Talent.” No surprises here, we are huge Susan Boyle fans. And I had the phone at the ready to cast our vote for her.

There has been a mountain of commentary on Boyle and her well-deserved rise to fame. Much of it rather weird and crude, I think, taking an “ugly duckling has her swansong” sort of angle.

For me, Susan Boyle’s story is so much more than that. Susan Boyle—like Deborah Brady—is another incredible example of defying the odds, and fighting for what you believe in.

The rarity of it all is the sheer force of blind faith in ones self and ones God given ability. In a pre-performance interview clip, Susan Boyle said: “I want to show that I’m not a worthless person.”

After hearing this, I turned to the D.E.B. and said: “I want to go and find all those people who told her she was worthless, and beat them up!” And I meant it. And I still do, in the bright light of morning.

I have no doubt that Susan Boyle was speaking the truth, that there were countless mean-spirited, petty, cruel people who did all they could to make her feel like an outsider, a reject, a “worthless person.”

I don’t find myself often wishing to quote Piers Morgan, but I must give him credit for his assessment of Boyle, suggesting that she gave people hope in a very dark time.

What inspires me the most Susan Boyle is her determined uniqueness. She is not striving to be like anyone else. And more than that, Susan Boyle is out there as “one for the good guys.” Someone who has achieved a level of success through sheer and unadulterated talent, and not, like so many “celebrities” today who have achieved their status through notoriety, with very little substance.

I shall probably offend when I say this, but for me Susan Boyle has been a welcome and health some antidote to the Jade Goody mania that swept through Britain a few months ago.

To be sure, Goody’s story was an extremely sad one: dreadful home life/upbringing, her battle with cancer, and the two little boys she left behind. However, during all the media hype, surrounding her impending demise, I found myself wondering where are the parades and daily press coverage for the countless other mothers, daughters, and sisters who have succumb to the horror that is cancer?

Goody mania reached such a fevered pitch here in Britain, that it seemed to me that anyone who dared to even raise such a question was fit for hanging! It was as if Goody had become the new “people’s princess”.

One writer in The Times dared to posit such a question, but even he did so from behind the safety of his daughter. He wrote: “My 8 year old recently asked, ‘Daddy, why is Jade Goody famous? What has she done?’”

Out of the mouth of babes.

Fame, it would seem, is quite a funny thing. In days of old, think Ancient Greece, fame was something a man could acquire through arduous and often perilous deeds, i.e., Hercules, Achilles and so forth. (Who can forget that scene at the start of the film Troy, when sexy Brad Pitt playing Achilles says to the cowardly messenger, who is afraid to fight: ‘That is why no one will ever remember your name.’)

Fame could also be earned through the might of mind or skill: Socrates, Brutus, Galileo, &etc.

My friend Christopher reckons that all of this changed in the early 19th c. with the likes of Lord Byron, who was “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.  Byron was a gifted artist, whose life was as scandalous and salacious, as his writing was remarkable.

So now, we live in a world of  “celebrities” who are famous for “being famous” and notorious: e.g., Paris Hilton, & etc. Hopefully, we are becoming more aware collectively, that notoriety is not talent. That beyond “appeal,” a talented individual should be able to bring the goods as it were.

And that is what makes Susan Boyle such a wonderful tonic.

20 May 2009

Ten days...

"Journeys end in lovers meeting.” - Twelfth Night

“I can’t wait to put that ring on your finger,” the D.E.B. said, waking me with a kiss in the soft light of morning. After days and days of rain, the sun has finally deemed to shine in these parts, and the birds outside our bedroom window twittered joyously in their dawn chorus.

Ten days from today I will be Mrs. D.E.B., and what an amazing journey it has been. I have surprised myself with the level of calm I seem to have found in these past few days. I have no doubt that all of that will change drastically next week, but at least for now, there is peace of mind.

Things are coming together beautifully. I had a very successful meeting with the Vicar (He is lovely.) about the flowergirls, and he has even taken on board the possibility of me entering last during the bridal procession.

Monday of last week, I turned up at the rectory with flower girl baskets in hand, to show the Vicar what we intended. Just the Vicar and I made our way across the churchyard for our trial run with the flower petals – PLOP! I got splattered by a low flying pigeon. “Well, that’s good luck!” the Vicar laughed. He has a great sense of humo(u)r.

Good omen it was indeed. Our meeting went very well. The Vicar himself sprinkled bits of lavender and rosebuds from the baskets during the test run. Most importantly, he tested how easily the bits could be swept up.  Looking up at me, as he knelt down with broom and dustpan in hand, he declared: “Yes, I think we can manage this.” Without restraint, I threw my arms about him in a shower of thanks.

I left that meeting with a very strong sense that all would indeed be well, that everything would be fine. And so it seems. The “Jam Making Maven of Barford” stepped in and saved my sanity and the wedding favour project (Blueberry and Lavender Jam); and all in less time that it would take me to make a cup of tea.

The quilt saga has yet to be fully addressed, but will receive my full attention this weekend. (I’m learning to focus on what I can control, and on one thing at a time.)

There is a turn of phrase I hear a great deal around here: “Well, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you?” This bit of British truism is advice to which I am trying to adhere. I had a true test of this last Friday.

Last Friday was my “Day of  Reckoning” – my final fitting at Eternal Bride in Warwick. This was the moment for which I have been running, swimming and sweating for nearly five months.

Of course, I arrived late. I wanted to achieve the “full effect,” so I booked a last-minute appointment beforehand at my wonderful, newly discovered hairdressers (Pardeep at Toni & Guy in Leamington Spa) and got a haircut. Dashing back to the car, I grabbed some flowers from a street vendor on The Parade, a spur of the moment “thank you” gesture for Morag, the alterations/seamstress at Eternal Bride.

Little did I know, these flowers would be so well deserved. I zipped carefully from Leamington to Warwick (becoming ever so confident driving the Tank these days!), and sprinted into the shop.

Poor Karima had been sat waiting for me for twenty minutes (I should have got flowers for her, too!). Morag’s next client had already arrived so I took Karima for a coffee until Morag was free again.

I envied the lemon cheesecake Karima had ordered with her coffee, but I was good and resisted. “Think of the dress,” I thought to myself. Finally, we went back to Eternal Bride and climbed the stairs to Morag’s loft. I was ready for my Cinderella moment.

I skipped behind the curtain, and slipped into the bottom half of the dress with ease. Then leapt out of the changing area, giddy with expectation, holding my ivory, silk bodice in front me. All smiles, I stood before the mirror awaiting further assistance.

Morag moved swiftly and came to stand behind me, taking the ends of the bodice in her hands. I watched in the mirror as Morag and Karima’s smiling faces slowly turned from gleeful delight to shock and dismay.

“What have you done?” Morag said softly to my perplexed reflection in the mirror. I looked to Karima. “It won’t close,” Karima said with tears in her voice. “That’s impossible,” I squealed. “There is no way I have put on weight,” I said, trying not to cry.

“No, my dear. You haven’t put on weight. You’re not fatter. You’re bigger. Broader.” Morag said, completely confounded. She grabbed her measuring tape to confirm the fact. “Well,” she sighed, “You’ve taken two inches off your hips, one off your waist, and you’ve added inch to your torso. In short, my dear, you have reshaped your body type.”

I was stunned. “I told you you were working too hard!” Karima insisted. “What have you been doing?” Morag demanded.

“Running, lifting weights and swimming. Two and a half hours a day. Five days a week, plus Pilates on Tuesday afternoons...” I said meekly.

Morag needed to sit down.

With the wedding roughly two weeks away, I stood before her, a bride in an altered dress that did not fit. A dress, once several sizes too big, now a size too small. A bride who had come to her as a pudgy, but shapely petite, who had rebuilt herself unwittingly in a blind fitness frenzy. 

I stood before her now, looking like Michael Phelps in a dress.

 “What are we going to do!!?” Karima panicked. 

Morag stayed silent and thought. I could see the designing wheels turning in her head. This woman has designed her way around the world, costume dramas for the BBC and countless other stage and screen productions. This was surely, hopefully, just a minor blip on her landscape.

“It’s going to be a long weekend.” Morag said finally.

She then shared her strategy for rescuing and essentially re-designing the dress. She’s a genius. I am so sorry that she will need to go to so much trouble, but I think her interventions will not only save the dress, but will even improve upon it.

This was an utterly harrowing experience, but I think even this, too, will be one of those “It worked out even better than I expected” moments, when all is said and done. 

Well, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you?


15 May 2009

Facing the Fear

What, frightened with false fire?” - Hamlet

A wave of panic washed over me as we rounded the corner.

The D.E.B. and I were heading to Birmingham to collect our wedding rings from a little shop in the old Jewelry Quarter. En route, we had to stop by his former father-in-law’s to drop off a bit of shopping the D.E.B. had done for him. (He is such a darling, Darling English Boy.)

As we approached the house, we noticed another car in the drive. “Thommie’s here,” the D.E.B said flatly. We both fell silent, and the D.E.B. drove on.


The she-devil of my nightmares, the physical embodiment of all my insecurities, my phantom nemisis: Thomasina. The D.E.B.’s Ex.

I was petrified.  The D.E.B. sensed my anxiety and drove around the block -- twice. “We’ll just come back later,” he said.

It’s such a funny thing isn’t it, the way we women can sometimes respond and react in these situations. I don’t know why I am so unnerved by the very thought of her. Thomasina and I harbour no strife or conflict between us, directly.

I hate the pain she has caused the D.E.B., though I don’t hate her, per se. I have no idea what she thinks of me. To be clear and frank, I was not ‘the Other Woman’. Her relationship with the D.E.B. had ended long before I entered the frame.

In fact, there was never an “Other Woman” in their story. Thomasina’s own folly and dalliance brought their marriage to an end.  Why then did I find myself quaking in my boots at the thought of encountering her?

I recalled a phone conversation I’d had about Thomasina, with a friend when I first moved to England: “You don’t understand,” I tried to explain to my trusted, psychic friend, whom I call ‘The Soothsayer,’ “The D.E.B. loved her. He didn’t want it to end, even though she’d hurt him repeatedly. How can I face that? How can I live up to that?”

The Soothsayer paused, trying to measure the best way of imparting advice she knew I did not want to hear: “You need to face this woman,” she said in a firm voice, adding, “There is something you need to learn from her.” I resisted my natural inclination for sarcasm, and said nothing.

“There is a lesson you need to learn, and you have to learn it from her. I’m not saying you have to become big pals with this gal, but meet her you must.” The Soothsayer said definitively.

And now, the moment had arrived. I felt unkempt and unprepared, not ready for this testy encounter. “We’ll just come back later,” the D.E.B. said again, rounding the corner, again.

“No,” I heard myself say aloud. "Let’s do this.”

I’m not sure what came over me, but I knew unequivocally that scurrying away like a rabbit was not the answer. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, I knew that if I ran from Thomasina today, I would be running from her for the rest of my life.

Besides, I knew that if I didn’t find the courage to face her, and subsequently admitted as much, several friends of mine would have flown here from wherever they were, and totally kicked my butt for chickening out!

I recalled another conversation with my dear friend, Mikala, who now lives in Dubai, another wise woman in my life: “Thomasina has no power over you. The power she holds, the space she occupies in your life and in your mind is power that you have given her.”

I shared with Mikala the advice The Soothsayer had given, to which she responded: “I think she’s right. You need to burst this bubble. You have made Thomasina this gigantic, phantom nemesis in your mind. You actively compete with her, though there is no competition. You fret and worry about her, when there is no need. She lost. You won. If anybody in this situation should be anxious of facing someone else, it should be her being nervous about meeting you!”

Mikala’s words rung round my head as the D.E.B. and I parked ‘the Tank’ near the drive. Thomasina and I knew each other vaguely in the ‘90s, when I was a student in Stratford-upon-Avon. We’d encountered one another occasionally in the same Stratford theatre/pub scene. So I had an idea of what I would be facing.

I’m not sure whether this bit of foreknowledge made the situation better, or worse. Probably worse. Back in those days, our differences were very pronounced: she was more ‘Stevie Nicks,’ while I was more ‘Siouxie Sioux.’

Our paths would sometimes cross at RSC post-production theatre parties where my uber-intellectual friends and I—dressed in black, huddled in corners, sipping red wine, convinced we were the Shakespeare illuminati—would spy her flitting, flirting and flouncing about the room with ease.

There she was, sitting on this ones lap, pinching that ones cheek, or belting out a quick tune as a ready party trick. “She’s got a nice pair of lungs,” an RSC extra snickered, and nudged his chum, on one occasion, as they watched Thommie perform a short ditty for the crowd.

I wondered how pronounced our differences would seem to me now. And, I will confess, after entering her father’s house, my own feminine shallowness rose to the surface: she’s still got bigger boobs (“lungs”) than me, but I’m thinner.

And, I will confess that I was relieved. (Sad, sad, but true.)

However, the greatest sense of relief for me was in the fact that now this meeting had taken place, Thomasina was no longer a bugbear with which my friend (?) Corrina could taunt, frighten or flog me.

A brief, awkward silence passed between us after we said, “Hello.” But it was less like the nasty pause that occurs between two competitors sizing each other up, and more like one that would occur between two people reaching for the same magazine or book off a shelf.

Under normal circumstances, in a situation such as this, a third party would have intervened to facilitate an introduction, to move the conversation on. But, in this case an introduction was wholly unnecessary.

Feeling a psychic nudge, I swiftly and unwittingly seized the power in the dead-lock: “Thommie, it’s a been a while, hasn’t it?” I said with a smile. And then, I hugged her. (I know.) And I don’t really know quite why I did.

A gesture of peace? A gesture of victory? A need to re-assure myself that she was in fact a corporeal entity and not just a figment of my feverish imaginings? Or a moment of grace?

I would like to think it was that latter, a moment of grace, or maybe even a moment of Grace, i.e., ‘What would Grace Kelly Do?’  Whatever it was, it was above all a moment for me.

The moment I released Thomasina from our embrace, I released myself from fear of her. What a valuable lesson to learn.

The other lesson I learned from this encounter was, for lack of a better word, ‘ownership.’ I don’t mean that in the sense of ‘owning the D.E.B.’ or anything like that, I mean it more metaphorically, in the sense of owning ones place, or ones voice.

When Thomasina made polite conversation by quizzing me on wedding details: e.g., “Are you wearing a dress?” I curbed/kerbed my sarcasm, and kept me answers brief. In other words, instead of giving in to the urge to say: “No, I’m wearing a clown suit. Of course, I’m wearing a dress!”

I said simply: “Yes.” “And is it nice?” she inquired. “Oh, yes, very nice.” I replied. What I appreciated most from my new found sense of strength was that I was unapologetic in my discourse with her.

That is what I mean by ownership. I’m in love and I’m happy, I’m over the moon in fact, and I am not going to apologise to Thomasina or anyone else for it. 

It may seem I am over-labo(u)ring a point here, but I think not so. Being apologetic and/or self-deprecating seems to me to be a prime feature of British social discourse. This is this sort of exchange one often hears: “Didn’t you do well? Bravo!” “Oh, well, I could have done better…”  

If I’m honest, this sort of thing drives me more than a little crazy. When I was growing up, there was a cute little song we used to sing in Sunday School that goes like this:

“If you’re happy and you know it, clap you’re hands!/If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!/If you’re happy and you know it, then your face should surely show it, if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!”

A wacky example, granted, but an apt one, with a very simple message: Own your happiness. 

Even before my English influences, I was routinely self-deprecating. I didn’t want to seem too happy, to somehow take more than my fair share of the ‘happiness pie,’ or potentially hurt someone else’s feelings by relishing my possession of something they lacked or didn’t have, whether that be a higher score on a test, an awesome new outfit, fab job offer, or boyfriend.

But, no more! Instead of being mealy-mouthed around Thomasina when she asked me if I was excited about the forthcoming nuptials, I did not rattled off a laundry list of patheticisms like: “Oh, well, it’ll probably rain, and the dress probably won’t fit right, and my mum’ll be late getting to the church…” and all the other nonsense things we say, and hide behind, I told her the truth plainly: “Yes, I'm thrilled. It’s going to be a super day.”

And I walked away from that encounter feeling stronger, and maybe even a bit taller, than ever before.

13 May 2009

Morning has broken

To,” Eva began, using the Polish word for this. Pointing to my tired and Monday-ish reflection in the mirror, she continued, “This, is one thing you can control.” Eva was not taking any rubbish off me today, so without protest I mounted the treadmill.

Eva kept a watchful eye as I huffed and puffed, she wandered by periodically to check the treadmill controls, moving the “Difficulty Level” up ever so slightly.  

Cursing her, and all the carbs I’d allowed myself over the weekend, I trotted to the completely non-motivational sounds of Celine Dion, who is still being played in heavy rotation during Eva’s shifts. 

Towards the end of my treadmill gallop, an elderly couple came into the gym. I recognized the man immediately as he walked through the door. There is a photograph of him on the gym wall near the treadmills.

The photograph is a picture of him and his wife, at one of the gym’s wine and cheese evenings. In the picture, they are sitting close together, laughing, and beaming matching cheeky grins. The photo was taken two years ago.

Although the man appeared much the same as he did in the photograph, the woman had changed dramatically. Her bubbly image in the photo contrasted starkly with the vacant and tentative figure I saw before me. 

The moment the couple crossed the threshold, Eva leapt from her seat behind the desk, and rushed round to greet them gleefully.  There was something incredibly adorable about them, and I could tell Eva loved them dearly.

After my medieval torture session in the gym, I always treat myself to a swim. The Elderly Man greeted me as he stepped into the pool. “Good morning. How are you?” I said. “I’ll be better once Joanie’s in the pool,” he said, watching his wife anxiously through the glass wall that stands between the pool and the gym.

He had left Joanie in the gym briefly, to work on the rowing machine, the piece of equipment closest to the glass wall, and the pool effectively. Finding her absence unbearable, he lifted his torso out of the pool, and tapped lightly on the glass wall, “Come on, love. That’s enough. Come on in.” he said with a smile.

Joanie made her way to the pool area slowly, and sat down in one of the poolside chairs. “That’s a girl,” the man said to her softly as he got out of the pool near her. He then knelt down in front of her, and began to untie her shoes.

“The water’s lovely today,” he said looking up at her, and a slight smile crept across her face. He then helped her out of her track-suit, and moved her gingerly into the pool.

As a pseudo-serious swimmer, my worst nightmare is sharing my precious swim time in my tiny gym pool with canoodling couples (and kids on half-term break). But this couple was different, and I was happy to give them as much space as they needed in which to canoodle.

At one point the man gathered his wife in his arms and gave her a big kiss, to which she giggled and blushed. We all laughed. “Wonderful!” I exclaimed. “How long have you been married?” I asked. “Forty-six years.” The man beamed proudly. (That’s longer than I’ve been alive.) “I’d have only got 20 years for murder,” he said with a huge guffaw.

“What’s the secret?” I asked. “Simple,” he said. “Give and take. I give, she takes!” At this, we all laughed. But joking aside, there is no doubt that great love is their secret.

I left them in pool, and sat alone in the steam room. I found myself crying, moved ever so deeply by that couple, their tenderness with each other, and the realization that all my cares and obsessions about the wedding are just ridiculous.

I had another wake-up call on Sunday. One Sunday evening, the D.E.B. and I were invited over to his brother’s for dinner. The D.E.B’s brother, a.k.a. “The Guru,” is a fabulous cook, and even more fabulous host.

With my Shakespearean sensibilities, I imagine The Guru having been, in a former life, a benevolent, feudal lord of a great manor, hosting sumptuous feasts and riotous banquets with large flagons of overflowing wine, and madcap jesters and roving musicians entertaining his well-fed guests.

On this occasion, apart from eating far too much gorgeous venison, and drinking far too much red wine, I was overcome by the sense of family. Such an incredible feeling: warmth, love and welcome.  A privilege and a gift.  And ultimately, that is what it is all about.

At one point in the evening, The Guru said: “You’re alive, enjoy it.” How right he is.

10 May 2009

Angels and Demons

"I am a feather for each wind that blows." Leontes, The Winter’s Tale

Recently, the D.E.B. and I saw a wonderful production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale at the RSC. It is such an amazing play, and the production truly did it justice. At the heart of this rather complex story is the character of Leontes, a man driven to excess by monsters of his own invention, phantoms of his own mind.

When his suspicions are proven false publicly, his arrogant pride becomes his final stumbling block, as he is too proud to back down, even then. One can almost hear his subtext: “I’ve come this far in this, I’m just going to keep riding this horse, and see where it takes me.” Over the past few weeks, I have come to understand Leontes in my own small way.

May has already been a month of extreme highs and lows. And like Leontes, these days I am an emotional wreck, tossed like feather one way and then the next, between ultimate bliss and utter despair.

Sometimes, it feels as if my nerve-endings are tingling very close to the surface of my skin; like a porcupine with all its needles erect. (The associated prickliness is also painfully accurate.)

At this point, drained, frazzled and puffy-eyed, finding comfort only in carbs, if I had it all to do again, I would hire a wedding planner and I would turn a blind eye to cost and just buy everything! Period.

Here is my advice at this point to would-be-brides-to-be:

a.) Have your wedding in America. American traditions, however quaint or practical, do not translate, no matter how hard you try to explain/share the importance/significance of them. (See Item B.)

b.) Be prepared to be completely misunderstood and labeled lunatic/excessive/irrational.

c.) Give up, and go to Vegas.

d.) Plan everything on your own with military precision, without anyone else’s help or input, not even your fiance’s, not matter how Darling, sweet, loving, kind, or adorable he may be. And, I think, the more you love him, the more adoring and adorable he is, the less you should share. Just encourage him to take up a hobby to occupy his time, and just meet you at the church on the day.

e.) Give up on having the day as you imagine it. There are far, far too many variables.

f.) Just give up and go to Vegas.

This isn’t just merely a matter of Bridezilla overdrive: spoiled brat-bride, pissed off that she can’t have what she wants. While there may be an ounce or two of that, it is more a matter of feeling of being thrown into situations I am unable to control and navigating the cultural divide.

From the very beginning of our wedding planning, I have had what I thought were very lovely and simple ideas. I aimed at being elegant and economical. Perhaps this attempt at frugality has been my downfall?

At every step of the way it feels like I have had nothing but battles, obstacles, and grief. The music, the flowers, you name it! The only thing I seem to have got right is the man. (Thank God for him.)

Instead of lashing out tons of money for wedding favo(u)rs I planned to make my own. I envisioned a crafty and homespun approach to our “wedding guest book” as well. A quilt, for guests to sign (with paint pens). All lovely ideas that have each come very close to dying the death.

The quilt has been a disaster from the start. I did not allow myself adequate time to get it done. In panic-mode, I roped it help that came along with their own visions of how it should be done. (Isn’t there a quote about too many cooks?)

A friend who offered to do a centre piece of embroidery for the quilt, followed the design we agreed upon, and then improvised a bit of detailing expressing her own unique flair, right at the end. Then, we ran out of fabric. And have been unable to acquire it from ANYWHERE in the UK, even though it was initially purchased here.

Perhaps I should offer a one million dollar/pound reward fro anyone who can found more than one yard/metre of Classic Cottons “Reminiscence” toile de jouy in sage/olive green?

The only solution I have at this point is to cut pieces of the solid cotton we are using, and have guest sign swatches, and make the quilt later. 

The “too many cooks” phenomenon nearly struck a death-blow to the Lavender Jelly quest as well. The recipe that I decided upon early on, nearly killed three people on a test tasting, after a drawing board re-visit, blueberries entered the frame, but one of the support players decided blackcurrants would be better, despite the directive from me, and the fact that labels that have already be ordered.

I threw myself at the mercy of the reigning Barford W.I. Jam Making Maven, who has gracious offered her last minute assistance, if I am willing to tweak the recipe to her liking. She would prefer to work with Lavender Oil, instead of Lavender sprigs. Not a problem, I am just thankful her help. So, I am willing to overlook the fact that I have a life supply of culinary Lavender in bags all over our living room!

Through all of this, I have tried (fruitlessly) to stay calm. I have tried to be even-tempered, and I have failed, repeatedly. And, I have been baking lots of peace-offering Rhubarb Crumble for the D.E.B.

Sometimes, I feel like he and I are contestants on that American adventure game show, “The Amazing Race,” where the couple that actually make to the end, win! I am quite, quite dismayed that I am the “bad” one of the couple. (Am I the weakest link?)

Yesterday was yet another hurdle. A completely unexpected one. I think that is  what has unnerved me the most in this process. The unexpected challenges. The “matter of fact” issues that sneak up and blindside you. I don’t think I cope very well when I’m caught out blind, so to speak.

I have, on many occasions, waxed lyrical about our dear Vicar. I adore him. So I was very much looking forward to our meeting with him yesterday. We were meeting with him to discuss the Order of Service--I knew he would support my decision to have a very formal program(me)--go through our selected readings, hymns, etc. A fairly routine meeting, or so I expected.

All was going well, until the conversation turned to the logistics of the service. The D.E.B. really likes the idea of my bridal procession taking the American format, i.e., bridal procession entering the church in this order: Flowergirls, Bridesmaids, Bride. Instead of the English way, where the Bride comes in first followed by everyone else.

I mentioned to the Vicar that I wanted to consider doing it that way, thinking that it was a really minor decision. “Why would you want to do it that way?” the Vicar inquired. I was stunned. I didn’t really have a solid reason beyond “I want to.” And that response seemed quite lame in the moment.

To my surprise the Vicar was quite adamant that this was not a good idea. Was this one of those very English moments of: “That’s not done.” (Hmm?)

So I scrambled to come up with solid, Episcopalian reasons why: “Traditionally, in church processions the Celebrant, or the Bishop is always at the back of the procession.” (If it’s good enough for Rowan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, it’s good enough for me.)

This point did give the Vicar a bit of a pause, though I'm not sure whether was because of the cleverness of the argument, or because I had effectively equated myself with the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Either way, he was not overly convinced, and retorted quickly: “The focus of the procession is you. You should be at the front, you are what people want to see,” he said. I take his point, but where is the drama, the build up, in that?

Trying to compromise, I said meekly, “Could I at least have the flower girls in front of me?” My query was met with a blank look from the Vicar. Flower girls? The Vicar had never heard of them.

“What do they do?” he asked, cautiously. Trying to remain calm, I stammered, “They walk down the aisle in front of the bride, shattering petals in her path.” His eyebrows shot up: “Shattering petals? Inside the church?”

The air in the Vicar’s brightly sunlit living room suddenly grew thin, I felt myself starting to unravel, and as if I couldn’t breathe. This was more than my small frame could take. 

I spent weeks hunting down two identical, yes, perfectly identical, responsibly priced dresses (thank you, Oxfam), further time spent hunting down two identical, rustic wicker baskets for them to carry! (And more bags of lavender, rose buds and flower petals piled in the spare bedroom.) This is time that I can never regain or recapture. Doesn’t that count for something to anyone but me?

“Who are these girls?” the Vicar inquired. “They are the D.E.B.’s god-daughters, Rachel and Hannah, aged 7 and 9.” I said forthrightly. “Well, only one them is actually my god-daughter.” The D.E.B clarified. (Bless him, he is always utterly honest.)

I was mortified. I thought, what is my D.E.B doing? I am fighting for my life here! And for a split second, like Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, wondered if the D.E.B. too, was party in the grand, Barfordian conspiracy to drive me mad before the end of May.

Again, the Vicar posited: “Why?” 

Why, flowergirls? Perhaps, I should have just laughed. This is such an obvious and basic thing in America, I’m not sure anyone could give a solid argument as to why we have them, we just do.

The room began to spin slowly, and I doubted that the D.E.B. could help on this one. It’s my tradition, not his. The hamster in my brain was peddling as fast as she could, and the best she could come up with was this: 

“In Ancient Greece, brides processed behind young girls strewing flowers and herbs, such as lavender and rosemary, in her path to ward off evil spirits, and bless the marriage.” Not exactly the answer one would expect from a wanna-be uber-Anglo-Catholic matron.

My answer surprised and tickled the Vicar much. He guffawed in glee. I blushed and apologized for using a Pagan practice as a defense. Perhaps that just made it all the more amusing to him. “Let’s discuss this further. Bring me a sample, show me what you mean, and I’ll think about it,” he smiled.

In my more sane moments, I realize that none of this is “necessary,” but I think if one goes down that road, one could argument that marriage in and of itself is not particularly, “necessary”. Some people even go so far as to say, it’s “just a piece a paper, anyway.” But, it is much more than that. It is a ritual. An outward expression of faith, hope and commitment. And I am one of those people for whom the “trappings” really work and mean something.

I love the D.E.B. 

I love him enough that if he said, let’s ditch all this, and go stand on the side of a hill and get married, I’d do it. But, at the same time, I know what he and I have been through, what we have individually and collectively survived to arrive at this moment. The trials, tides, tempests and tears who have endured to merit this great reward.

As such, I believe that this special moment needs to be marked in a completely extraordinary way. It should be a magical, once-in-a-lifetime event. The things that I am asking for, like the flowergirls, don’t require great cost, but do require cooperation and compromise.

I would feel a little less hemmed in and embattled if people treated me a little less like my requests are zany or absurd. A part of this has to be the great Anglo-American cultural divide.

“The Cultural Divide” - or the next person who tells me to “Calm down” is getting stabbed with a fork.

Secrets. No one in this country can keep a secret. I tried to get the D.E.B.’s wedding ring engraved with a special message, and I had planned to romantically reveal to him on the day. I spoke to the jeweler, arranged the engraving, and what? They failed at the last hurdle. The message they engraved was completely wrong, and so when we went to collect the rings, I had to reveal my plan to the D.E.B. in order to have the spelling mistakes, etc. corrected. 

My secret plan of arranging for the D.E.B. and I to spend our wedding night at a lovely local B-n-B was revealed to him by the proprietress: “I’ve nearly got your room ready,” she said. I could only hang my head.

My dear friend, and chief bridesmaid, Sarah, tried her best to arrange a surprise bridal shower for me here in Barford. The jig was up when several people in the village started asking me for details about it, such as “I received an email from your friend in America, what’s a Bridal Shower? What do we need to do?”

In the end, sweet Sarah dropped me a line saying: “Hey babes, listen. Tried to do ya a shower for the Thursday before your wedding, but no dice. Let’s just you and me go see something at the RSC instead. Okay?” 

To sweeten the blow, sent me a little care-package in the post to cheer me, it contained two items: a beautiful pair of pearl stud earrings, and a bottle of all-natural diet pills. (You gotta love Americans, they know what truly matters.)

Here is the most annoying thing about the cultural divide: here in England, one does not raise ones voice, one raises ones eyebrows to convey disagreement. This is a fine art at which I repeatedly fail, try as I may. My DNA just won’t allow it.

Sometimes, people think I am wigging out (throwing a wobbly) when I am actually just trying to be forthright, direct, clear, or just to make myself understood. Passion, volume and commitment (to an idea, point or cause) are often mistaken for rage and fury. 

Sometimes I feel very big and very loud. I do wish I could be a coolly, disaffected English Rose. If I were, I wouldn’t need to waste so much money on bottles and bottles of Vitamin B.

And yes, I do believe it is a cultural thing. For example, my D.E.B. is the most darling, caring, patient, precious man on earth, his only fault is his tenderness. When people say things that would otherwise make me want to karate chop them in two (with a running start at high speed), just washes over him like water off a duck’s back.

Case in point, this morning after church the Chief Musician’s wife inquired about our wedding plans, had the audacity to say she hoped that I had stopped “changing my mind” about things, and hoped that my plans were now settled.

“Perhaps we should get you to sign them in blood,” she laughed. I was blind with rage. I mean, how dare she! Especially as a part of why my music choices changed was because of her “input” into the process. I was beside myself. It was all I could do to walk away. Fortunately, there were no forks close to hand. Unfortunately, I turned my spleen on the poor, hard-done by D.E.B. later.

I am not a quitter, and I am not going to give up. But, I am going try and get more sleep, take more Vitamin B, and try, just try to stay calm. I will say though, at times my wee, little American spirit feels all but broken, and my battle-cry has taken on a weary and decidedly more quizzical tone: “Yes, we can?”

Royal Mail poster, circa 1939

03 May 2009

The Food of Love

A dark and stormy April evening found me and my DEB in the small Warwickshire village of Oversley Green, our official meeting with our harpist, Audrey Douglas. As the heavens raged around us, we sat warm and snug in Audrey’s harp studio. It was like a session in heaven with the angel Gabriel.

Audrey will be providing special music—in addition to that of the organist and the choir—for our wedding.  The idea of the harp had never really crossed my mind until we actually heard Audrey playing at the Wedding Fayre at The Glebe Hotel. Such a magic and ethereal sound.

I went to this meeting with what I thought was a clear sense of what I wanted. I had narrowed my “Bridal Procession” choices down to three: “O Mio Babbino Caro” (The Theme from Room With A View), “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” and “Sleeper’s Awake.”

Audrey went through these for me, each so lovely, I declared I would never decide. With smile, she said softly: “What do you think about this?” And then she played Pachelbel’s Canon. I thought my heart would break in two it was so beautiful. I had axed that tune from my list long ago, because it is so over-used, cliché almost. But, all of that went out of the window when I heard her play it. I could barely keep myself from crying.

“That’s the one.” We all agreed.

p.s. The other contending tunes will be played during the “Signing of the Registry,” so they will feature in the soundtrack of the day.

April showers

American-British writer T.S. Eliot once declared that April is “the cruelest month”.  For me, this month has not been cruel so much as it has been temperamental, and certainly at times a challenge.

Sunny summer-like days, followed by sudden, chilly showers, it has indeed been a month of highs and lows. Just when I felt I was closer to solving the ”wedding cake dilemma” (latest samples for testing being delivered tonight), I now have an unimaginable problem with the wedding quilt!

Foolish Southern belle that I am, I decided to make (by hand) a wedding quilt, with less than four months to achieve the impossible. But the timing is not the worst of it.

On one of my transatlantic visits to see the D.E.B. in November 2007, we had a day out in the Cotwolds with the D.E.B’s wonderful aunt and uncle. We went for a walk near Sulgrave Manor – ancestral home of George Washington, the first president of the United States – and spent the afternoon in Banbury.

While in Banbury, I found a cute, little fabric shop and bought some beautiful fabric. Like so many quilters, I am nuts about fabric, and routinely buy small amounts just to hoard, and hopefully  (eventually) use. On the occasion, the fabric in question was a green and ivory toile, and solid green cotton. Lovely.

So, when the idea of making a wedding quilt struck me, I thought: Voila! And, viva le toile! I had the perfect pieces right to hand. Also, like most quilters, I had bitten off more than I could chew, and had engineered and begun a project that would normally take 12 months to complete, in less than 6.

I called in reinforcements, and all looked to be going well, until, we ran out of fabric last week. And, we are nowhere near the end. At last reckoning, it appeared that we possibly, only possibly, have a quarter of the quilt done.

To add insult to injury, the fabric I have selected has now been discontinued. (What else, ye gods?) I contacted the shop in Banbury, going so far as to send them a handwritten letter in the post (remember those?) with cuttings of the two fabrics and an urgent plea for help. The called me the next day to say, regrettably, they could not help. They remembered the fabric but not the manufacturer. “The only thing I do remember,” the shop assistant said, “is that I think it was called ‘Reminiscences,’ maybe you could look it up online?” Great. Just what I needed, another Google challenge. And this time, a Google fabric and colo(u)r matching challenge.   

Fearing failure in the virtual realm, I had a modicum of success at “The Quilters Den” in Warwick. It’s a great shop, with super, helpful staff. They could special order all the fabric I need, the toile and the solid green. Hurrah! But – it will take 3 weeks for the fabric to arrive. I’m not sure that my quilting army can survive a 3 week delay…worse still, when I phoned today to ask the Quilter’s Den staff what the name and make of my fabrics, they were unable to tell me.  No doubt fearing that if they armed me with that information, I might take my trade elsewhere. April is a cruel month, indeed.

But, April can also be kind.

All around the village, everyone has been so supportive and enthusiastic about the wedding, and us. A few examples: The man who will be ringing the church bells for us on our wedding day came and introduced himself to us following a Sunday service. “I shall be ringing your bells, let’s hope for a fine day,” he beamed. He is such a gentle and loving old soul, who clearly takes great pride and joy in what he does, the joyous service he renders to couples on their special day. (At some point, after the wedding and all, I would love to join his little group of church bell ringers.)

Last week, after the St. George’s Day church service, Julia (part of the Monday-Wednesday Swim Club) and her husband, Robert surprised us with a large bundle of Asparagus, fresh from a local farm. “Just a little something” to let us know we were being thought of, and to introduce us to local offerings.

I got directions to the farm from Julia, and as it turns out, it is the same sweet, little farm where the DEB and I bought our Christmas tree. Growing Christmas trees and asparagus, what an idyllic way to spend one’s life. 

I went along to the farm yesterday and bought more lovely asparagus, plus a bundle for Julia and Robert, as well as one for the Vicar and Mrs. Vicar. Seemed a nice thing to do.

Another example, of April kindness: A knock on our door in late afternoon, my friend Di, with urgent news. There’s a couple in the village planning to sale their house. Di asked them to wait, before placing their house on the open market, and give and the DEB first refusal. “I know how much you two want to stay in the village, and we want you here, too,” she said.

Such a sweet and thoughtful thing to do. So, last Sunday, after church, we went and had a look at house down Mill Lane. Very lovely couple, wonderful part of the village. I really, really, really wanted to like this place -- not least because Diane had gone to such trouble.

In theory, the house sounded ideal: 3 bedrooms, garage and parking space (gold dust here in Barford), nice garden. To be fair, it was lovely. The kitchen had been extended was huge, light and airy.  But, as I am finding with most places we seem to look at, the downstairs is super, but the upstairs always leaves much to be desired.

The 2 double bedrooms upstairs turned to out be the size of what one would roughly call a large single, and the single room was the size of a broom closet. Jackie 1 (from the Monday-Wednesday Swim Club) teased me mercilessly the following Monday, when I reported this viewing in the pool. She said: “Ooh, you two clearly spend a great deal of your time upstairs.”

Embarrassed and flustered, I tried quickly to explain that our seeming obsession with bedroom size was to do with the bulk and size of my American furniture (Thank you, Crate & Barrel), and the vast amount of “stuff” the DEB and I have acquired and accumulated over time.

Why is that so many English homes, particularly those of a certain age and character, can be so lovely in some aspect, and yet, simultaneously so dark and pokey? (SIGH)

I really hated to disappoint Di. But, neither the DEB nor I were 100% sold on the place. Funnily enough, the house we are living in and renting at the moment seems to fit us pretty well. It is a modern construction, though not entirely characterless. So the quest continues. Not that we don’t already have enough on our plates at the moment.