Friday, November 29, 2013

The Pillow Book

I'm known for frequent obsessions that often lead me down rabbit holes for weeks and weeks at a time.  Whereupon, I must then find books, photos, links, papers, etc. to feed a compulsive need to know and understand something.  In recent years, I've been drawn to Charles Lindbergh, Martha Washington, homefront films, little girls' 18th century samplers, among just a few.  Lately, my thoughts fly to Sei Shōnagon, authoress of The Pillow Book and the astonishing things she wrote during her 11th century life in Japan.

Sei Shōnagon can easily be described as a Rosalind Russell type, tell it like it is, tough little cookie.  You would want Shōnagon on your side.  Provided you were not doing one of the annoying things she describes in her book, such as sneezing.

The Pillow Book is a collection of lists, observations, complaints, and joys of a young aristocratic woman of the emperor's court.  The lists are simple, such as, "Things that make me nervous", "Things worth seeing", and "Things I particularly like".  Other prose is full of moonlit verandas and wistful lovers.  As I read through the book, I am never sure what Shōnagon will say next.  At once she expounds on the beauty of  a day that occurs after a "fierce wind" and her love of a "scented robe", and then disagreeably describes letters that arrive without gifts, or people who must cough. More often than not, however, she is distracted by lovely inconsequences, and I find her writing so poetic that I want to have my tea with her, listen with empathy to her pathos, perhaps nod in agreement, hush her...delight in her. 
Even though Sei Shōnagon is removed from me by many centuries, I can relate to her.  She is so clear and honest and yet so touching and endearing.

The Pillow Book has been translated and can be found easily online.  Below are some of my favorite musings.  See if they don't beguile you too:

Things that make one's heart beat faster:

Sparrows feeding their young
To pass a place where babies are playing
When one is suddenly startled by the sound of rain-drops against the shutters
To find a piece of deep violet material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook and forgotten

On boredom:

It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored.  To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers.  And then one comes across the letters of a man one use to love...

Things most elegant:

Duck eggs
Wisteria blossoms
A pretty child eating strawberries
A rosary of rock crystal
(Credit:  Catrin Welz-Stein)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Jewel Box

My first jewelry cache was a cream box with handpainted flowers that opened up to a pirouetting ballerina in front of a tiny oval mirror.  I didn't have much jewelry - just some bits and bobs - a small locket from my grandparents, a traditional gift for a young miss.  They also gave me a turquoise ring and a silver charm bracelet which they added to every birthday.  I still have that bracelet and it is heavy with charms:  a mailbox which opens to reveal two hearts, a Christmas tree, a small caged box with the words "Mad Money" etched on it.  That charm came with a dollar bill crushed inside but a needy brother swiped it and the cage was never filled again.

Also in that jewelry box were gum wrapper chains, buttons, bobby pins, a lone earring or two, and an unusual rectangular black mosaic brooch with a red rose.  That pin was given to me by my mother who had no use for it and I often wore it in my ponytail when I was playing dress up.  A few times in the 80's, I used it as a bar pin on the collar of a tailored shirt and it started a few conversations.  But then it was relegated to the depths of whatever jewelry box I was using at the time...something always there, but unworn and unheeded.

A while ago, I found a large wooden jewelry box with a garish multi-colored crystal butterfly with waving antennae glued to the top.  I didn't like the butterfly but I liked the roominess of the box and the helpful dividers it came with.  Since I had acquired a cacophony of tangled earrings over the years, I decided I would tolerate the butterfly to have the box's space and it worked out well at first.  The dividers kept earring mates safely together and the "first floor" was large enough for bracelets, necklaces, and pins. Then last summer, I inherited a small cherry jewelry box that was diminutive and just too darling. There was certainly less room, but its pretty petite ways charmed me into thinking I could downsize.  Plus the woman who had owned the box was a unique and kind peripheral relative who was moving to assisted living and whom I admired and liked very much for her love of life.  I associated the box with her and her graceful ways so I found myself purging, moving things around, and generally tidying up.  I bought a small dress form to hold my necklaces so I could fill the little box with only my favorite and smallest precious pieces.  I tried to be organized, neatly putting away my baubles every night.  But after a few weeks, I noticed I couldn't close the lid of the gifted box unless my bracelets were stacked a certain way and one of the narrow drawers always seemed to have a dangling whatsit when I tried to shut it.  I had to buy a small crystal bowl to hold my rings outside the box.  I never had this problem with the large but rather vulgar butterfly box and in frustration one day, I pulled it back down from the shelf, put away the ring holder and dress form, and filled the box to the brim again.  The lid shut tightly. The butterfly smirked.

Then my relative died. And in the month or two since, I often found myself thinking of her kindness and infectious joie de vivre.  Like her jewelry box, she too was dainty and elegant - not showy but pretty with an eye for lovely things. It was true, I thought, the little box was better made than the gargantuan butterfly box.  And its cherrywood had a rich patina that was unmatched by anything else in the house.  I also missed its curved style and unusual drawers with nooks and crannies.  Fortunately, I had not made it to Goodwill yet and the donation bag was still in the trunk of the car.  I raced outside like nobody's business and rifled through that bag until my hand touched upon the smooth rounded box.  I carried it back into the house like a crown on a pillow, placed it on the bed next to my scattered jewelry and began the task of organizing again.  But when I pulled open the bottom drawer to fill it, my eye caught something tucked in the corner.  It was the rectangular black mosaic brooch with the rose pattern; left behind, almost donated and lost to me forever.  Suddenly, I realized that some things are just meant to be lovely however impractical.  They are perfect nonetheless.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Fairy Tales

One Christmas, I received a sweet little teddy bear.  Baby blue and soft, it had a wee golden turnkey on its back and when wound, elicited a charming tinkling version of Lara's Theme from the film Dr. Zhivago.  That bear sat with me while I wiled away that snowy and housebound Christmas vacation, devouring my other favorite present, The Golden Book of Fairy Tales.

First published in 1958, this oversized book of 28 fairy tales had the most mesmerizing illustrations unlike any others in my book collection.  All were astonishingly intricate, stirring, and sometimes bewildering - perfect fodder for my imagination.  When Bear and I weren't reading, I was dressing up with my mother's strands of costume pearls and beads, or making crowns from tin foil and adorning them with any bauble I could find in my small jewelry box.  But the images could also be described as haunting, some more than others.  The small boned delicate faces had large limpid eyes that were often sad or ghostly.  You won't get any arguments from me that some fairy tales are frightening, even gruesome.  Still, I was enchanted with my book, the stories of romance and danger, the detailed costumes encrusted with gems and jewels.

The book eventually disappeared with other childhood ephemera, including my little blue bear, but I began to think about it again when my daughter was born.  Before the internet, books had to be searched for by mail, phone, or browsing and I was no stranger to my local used bookseller, who called one day to say he had my fairy tale book in his shop. It wasn't quite as large as I recalled but it was just as delightfully intricate and vivid.  I waited until my daughter was old enough and I enjoyed it all over again with her in my lap instead of my bear. 

I discovered recently that the book was illustrated by a French/Greek woman named Adrienne Ségur.  Not much is known about her but I was surprised to see that she strikingly resembled the breathtaking faces in her illustrations.  Now, I doubt I will ever find a sweet little baby blue bear that plays Lara's Theme, but I'm happy to have my spellbinding fairy tales on the shelf in the hall.

(Do let me know if you enjoyed this this book too!)


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Shop Girls

Not too long ago, I admitted to myself that I dislike shopping very much these days.  Being in a mall imparts the same blue feeling that use to wash over me while visiting our town's annual carnival.  All the bright lights and noise jarred my quiet sensibility and I found I could not stop reflecting on the lives of the carnival workers who seemed to lead sad transient lives.  That, on top of the rapid exchange of cheap goods and money, left me waiting alone in the parking lot for Dad to come collect me while my friends were still screaming from the Tilt-A-Whirl.  It isn't really surprising to me that being in a mall today would feel the same. The grasping carnival gamers remind me a lot of some mall sales associates and now I shop online mostly.  It wasn't always this way and as I have been lost in a nostalgic aura since I wrote about winter coat shopping...I give you this:

What 22 year old doesn't want to look her best?  I was entranced with finding beautiful creams and unguents to protect my skin from future wrinkles.  I loved the ads in my Glamour and Mademoiselle magazines showing Calvin Klein's China red cosmetic cases - so chic and unusual.  I took Clinique's Dramatically Different Moisturizer dramatically seriously in its frosted clinical bottle.  I wanted Princess Marcella Borghese's rich brown swirling lipstick cases filled with 1978's lush rosewood shades.  I vividly recall my sister and I going to the mall for Christian Dior lip gloss in Raisin. More than anything, I wanted White Linen, the fresh new Estee Lauder fragrance and I really wanted the pretty white dress Estee's model Karen Graham wore on the billboard outside my apartment.  It was a heady time to be female, and educating and supplying me with all these lovely things were a group of well-trained salesgirls at the department store near where I worked.

These shopgirls always looked lovely in fetching blouses and full wool skirts, some with fitted jackets worn with thin belts on the outside.  Hair, shiny and bouncy...nails, glossy in colors to match their lipsticks - they weren't afraid to look pretty.  And they generously handed out small samples (one never had to ask - even if not making a purchase that day) and there were plenty of pamphlets and literature that was slipped into my bag so that I could "read up" and perhaps be enticed to make another purchase later. Their aim was to make sure I was happy and whether they knew it or not, they inspired me to smell nice and look as pretty as they did.  It was never a grasping hard sell but more like a gentle persuasion, girlfriend to girlfriend.  Afterall, they were working girls too and they knew what someone my age wanted and what would be an aid to all young women's birthright of beauty.  There was no mention of who would ring up the sale to receive "credit".  They constantly crossed party lines and cared not a whit. 

In those days, I spent way more than I would ever dare admit.  Now, I know exactly what works for me and I do a pretty good job of making online selections.  But recently, I did visit a trendy makeup counter to look at a product for my style column.  The throbbing music wreaked havoc with my peace of mind and the salesgirl was miffed she had to leave another counter to look for the brow pencil I inquired about.  Her garish outfit bordered on vulgar and I wouldn't have dreamed of asking what lipstick she was wearing for it was deeper than the purplest purple. I sure do miss the shopgirls who conspiratorially leaned in and told me which line had what I wanted and then generously led me there. And how their gentle ways, helpfulness, and thoroughly feminine style inspired me. 

(Credit: The Shop Girl, James Tissot)