Thursday, 29 December 2011

A pane of glass, and the dream of summer and winter.

   Coming back down the hills, over the river, and toward home after a walk in the thrashing wind, there is a sheltered stopping place where flowers bloom even in the darkest days of winter.  Outside, gales of wind, howling and roaring, shake the metal frame of the arboretum and scratch at the glass.  We walk from room to glowing room of the greenhouse, listening to the creaking and watching clouds roll darkly beyond the glass sky.

It is strange to walk in a hothouse at night.  Almost empty of people, there are shadowy corridors with only a little bit of coloured light at the end where a lamp's light shines off tightly growing bunches of flowers.  Walking through the dark, towards that brightness, one can stop and smell a flower that has the scent of early spring, and another that hints at midsummer.

 In the Arid Room, there is a sign that can be read in the daylight which says that on every day of the year there is a different type of bloom among the cacti.  And so we hunt the flowers in the gloom, finding a few odd-shaped blossoms of lemon-yellow and magenta.

 A blackbird and a wren live together in the high leaves of the tropics, where the humid air is thick and scented and drops of moisture fall from above.  Orchids and Spanish moss press in on us only a few feet from the wild northern night that falls in early afternoon, and the hothouse seems like some kind of biological enchantment growing on this landscape.

 In the centre of the glasshouses there are Christmas trees sparkling next to banana and palm trees, patches of poinsettias and cyclamens.  A river of tossed coins and goldfish flows under tiny, arched bridges, and somewhere in the backrooms of the greenhouse a man is jingling his keys and calling out that this strange, glowing place is about to shut for the night.  And so we slip back into the dark, churning sea of wind and whirling cloud to walk down the empty streets with their stained-glass entrances blazing, all the bay windows full of Christmas trees, and behind them families eating at long tables.  On the longest nights we make our own light.

Wishing you a season of the brightest, most beautiful light this winter!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The sky touches every last thing.

   Only some fat flakes of snow whirled down as two men in their winter hats erected scaffolding on the house across the street.  We took our old route down to the sea, looking for evidence of the snow all the while, but there were just some pockets of frost that the sun forgot to chase away from mossy grasses.

Little, glittering shards of the sky flew past and bit us. Small birds came running on their wings, back and forth to the tree at the window, and now the tree is bare of every last rowan berry.  Now there is only a thrush that comes and sits on the chimney pots looking down its nose at me through the foggy wet morning window panes.

Towards the sea with coat pockets full of holes and chocolate and the danger of losing things in the lining.  We saw another couple, as we slipped between some gravestones and up a hill to a tear in the wire fence.  They laid down new flowers, laughed and called to each other as they hurried back and forth to and from their car.

Beyond a rickety wooden weather shelter by the road, the sea floor was swelling up out of the waters, pushing sandy streams down and behind it as it crawled toward the line of cars and cafés.  Down toward the harbour, a pod of surfers rose and fell in silhouette. 

This month goes creaking on, little tasks get crossed off lists, and there is a lot of hurrying here and there.  One whole day baking, another on the phone.  Buried on my desk is the old tile I use as a palette, and I am sure that the paints on it must be dried all the way through by now.  I feel like, on some still December days, when the normal streets are empty and everyone is in the shops, if no one is looking it should be allowed to float slowly, deafly, up up up away into the cold, quiet blue.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Der Nikolaus

   Since today is the 6th of December, the feast of St. Nicholas for those who celebrate it, I thought I would send my own little Nikolaus out to you.  My father used to tell me that on this day every year, in the town where he was born in Germany, Der Nikolaus would visit in the evening.  As he passed through the streets, parents would run out of their houses to call him in for a meeting with their children.  All the children knew that the visit of this big, rough-looking man in his worn red coat wasn't a great cause for celebration.  The meeting between Der Nikolaus and a child involved an assessment of that child's behaviour since Der Nikolaus' visit the year before, and at the end of the discussion, either an orange or a beating was doled out. 

   When I asked my father if Der Nikolaus was all alone when he visited the houses, he said "yes. Well, unless maybe he had been out drinking with some friends before. He was a rough sort of man."

    In case you are wondering: the 6th of December aside, Christmas itself wasn't so frightening for my father.  He and his brothers would be called into the living room late on Christmas Eve to find that Der Christkind had visited and magically left behind a table set for a feast and a tree decorated with lit candles on every branch and presents beneath them.  I was always astonished by the idea of an incarnation of Jesus as a baby that left a trail of magic and riches behind him, and I would ask to be told about him again and again.  Sometimes I spent Christmas Eve with my father and his family and returned Christmas morning to celebrate again, in typical Canadian fashion, with my mother and her side of the family. 

   This year, I have tried to be more clever with my cards.  I made them a few weeks ago, so they will hopefully arrive on time this year!  And I tried to make the subject of the cards more obvious than last year, or the year before, since apparently not everyone wants to read the wee stories we tuck into their cards.  At least this year I don't foresee getting little notes into February asking why I made a card with a picture of cows on it.  St. Nicholas is so common there can be no confusion.

    It also happens that my husband's family has a tradition relating to St. Nicolas' feast day: my husband used to always find little treats left for him in his shoes on the morning of the 6th of December.  And up in Scotland this year, it looks as if tonight we might be receiving the wonderful gift of the first snow of the season.  So I'll be keeping my fingers crossed for snow and wishing you lots of foil-wrapped chocolates in your shoes and hot spiced drinks by the fire!

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Light at the End of the Year

   These long nights and short days are little poems of flickering candles and twirling notes.  Sometimes, it is the slow part of the day.  There are the sounds of dishes being washed and some northern-English Christmas carols from the archive my husband works on.  There is one carol about a new bride who plays a game of hide-and-seek with her groom on their wedding night, but she is never found... until many years later a heavy, old chest is opened and a wedding gown is found with a skeleton inside.  There is a pedal organ and many voices.  Other carols are less strange, full of "hark, hark" and angels.  In some villages there used to be bands that would wander about in the cold on Christmas Eve singing and playing music in the streets until the sun rose on Christmas morning.  Apparently many churches made sure to acquire big pipe organs to curb this behaviour, bringing the music into the church and the choir under their control.  I must admit I never suspected a beautiful church organ as being used as a force for control and loss of culture, among other things.


   The night before last, we heard the most beautiful music from Hungary and Romania.  I never have my camera when I need it, so there are no photos of upright basses, accordions and fiddles catching the light of candles stuck in old bourbon bottles, or women dancing past stacks of piled up chairs (only some glimpses from last weekend in Edinburgh for your eyes).  But at least I can direct you towards the source of all the beauty: the website of The Jani Lang Band, and that of Tcha Limberger, who was playing along with the band as a special guest.  The music was brilliant all night and all of the musicians were amazingly talented, but I was completely spellbound by Tcha Limberger's solo part of the evening.  He sang, sometimes in Magyar and sometimes in Romani, as he accompanied himself on fiddle or on guitar.  I didn't want it to ever end. 



And as December settles in and blackbirds sit in the bare branches just outside eating red berries, as the afternoons turn inky and dark and gales blow in off the North Sea, I have to fight with myself not to hibernate.  One more spot of brightness keeping me from a long winter's nap is Romica Puceanu, who I found out about by reading the lovely City of Reubens blog.  Romica Puceanu started singing in Bucharest cafés when she was just 14, and she had a gorgeous, velvety voice backed by beautiful cimbalom, accordion, and fiddle playing.  Little treasures like this are especially important in winter, I think.  These long evenings need to be filled so full that it doesn't seem to matter if the sun ever rises again.