Synchronicity at the V & A

We’ll allow the fates to decide what we see, to allow our experiences to be a series of synchronous events.

On our last day in London, we decide that what we want more than anything is a dose of city life. We realize with a shock that we haven’t been to the Victoria & Albert Museum since our first trip to London in 1976. We’ve changed a lot since then, and so has the V & A.

The Victoria and Albert Museum (photo from website)

The V & A is a learning museum, originally dedicated to improving British industry by educating designers, manufacturers and consumers in art and science. That’s an ethos that still runs through the museum’s collection of over 2 million artifacts. One of the 10 largest museums in the world, the V & A is a constant source of inspiration. It’s a museum that you can spend a lifetime revisiting. This is the first of what I hope will be many revisits.

We don’t have a lot of time, so we decide not to plan. We’ll allow the fates to decide what we see, to allow our experiences to be a series of synchronous events. (I’ve just looked up the word synchronous and found that one of its meanings has to do with Astronomy: “making or denoting an orbit around the earth or another celestial body in which one revolution is completed in the period taken for the body to rotate about its axis.” This is a perfect metaphor. It takes time for an experience to turn and manifest itself within my thoughts. In the orbit, I can see the experience from all sides. But I digress…)

In the vast and somewhat overwhelming V & A, it seemed that with each corner I turned, with each new room I entered, I saw an object or a piece of art that felt like it was put there just for me. Something that reminded me of what I care about, about what matters to me. Something that showed me facets of myself and helped me remember and recognize the “person I take myself to be.”

Original Music and the Mirror score

We started our V & A ramble at the show “Re:Imagining Musicals.” Among the trove of records, playbills, sets, costumes, and curios, I saw an original handwritten score for “The Music and the Mirror,” from A Chorus Line, a musical that I saw in its first Broadway production. As with all aspiring actors, that song, in particular, was the anthem I sang as I headed off to theatre school. The manuscript was complete with changes made by both the composer and lyricist (Yes, the changed line “Let me wake up…” is better than “Let me awake…”) I was off on my journey.

Musicals segued into the museum’s theatre and performance collection. Sir Laurence Olivier’s iconic costume for Henry V is here, beside Vivien Leigh’s Cleopatra. Fred Astaire’s tails for Top Hat keep company with Charlie Chaplin’s tramp hat and cane.

Costumes worn by Sir Laurence Olivier in Henry V and Vivien Leigh in Cleopatra
Costume worn by Fred Astaire in Top Hat

Full of emotion, with songs in my heart, I do a soft shoe out of the exhibit into the next room ––a collection of paintings donated by Constantine Alexander Ionides –– and come face to face with “The Day Dream,” a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. When I was in my twenties, I went through a huge Pre-Raphaelite phase, and this was a favourite.

The Day Dream, by Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, at the V & A

Rossetti was also a poet and often calligraphed a verse on the frame of his paintings. The poem on The Day Dream ends with:

She dreams; till now on her forgotten book

Drops the forgotten blossom from her hand.

Dante Gabrielle Rossetti

A young woman is quietly sketching the painting. My heart aches with love for her youth, and for her devotion to art. I am that dreamer again.

I meander. There is so much to see but I don’t want to choose. On this, our last day in London, I want to be surprised. And so I am. When I stumble upon the Cast Court, I almost collapse. There is a full-size plaster cast of the Trajan column, commissioned by Napoleon. I’m knocked sideways by memory.

Cast reproduction of the Trajan Column (in two parts)

In 1990, I travelled to Rome to study Roman lettering. The lettering on the Trajan column is the pinnacle for anyone’s study of the form. Completed in 114 CE, these letters are considered the perfection of letter design and creation. When I was in Rome, we climbed scaffolding to get up close. The column was being restored, and we washed the inscription lovingly before making rubbings to take home. It was an act of devotion.

Lettering on the Trajan Column, originally carved 114 CE (reproduction)

Seeing it again brought back all of the passion I felt at the time. It was as though the person who I used to be walked into the room to hold me, remind me. My heart aches with love for that young woman, and her devotion to art, too.

And so somehow, the afternoon at the V & A has become a metaphor for everything I had hoped the trip would be. It’s been a time to be with friends and family, and a time to discover new places. But importantly, it’s been a time to reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going. It’s been a liminal space, a transitional moment, where I have been turning in my own revolution, while revolving around the themes in my life.

I don’t know what is coming next. But I am ready to find out.

We say goodbye to the city, head back to the Southbank and home.

Our footsteps disappear with the tide.

We’ve come here to stand at the edge of Lewis…

The impetus behind our trip to Scotland is Tim’s heritage. While I have some Scottish ancestry, it is several generations back and frankly, it is a not part of my family that I have a connection to. But Tim’s maternal grandmother was born in Scotland, on the Isle of Lewis. According to Tim’s sisters and multiple English cousins, Nanny Hodgson née Mackenzie was delightful, with a wicked sense of humour. Unfortunately, he left England when he was too young to have a memory of her.

While tracing ancestry doesn’t particularly interest either of us, we love having an excuse to travel. And I must admit there is something poetic about going to an island that has the same name as me.

Lewis is a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride across the Minch, the strait between Lewis and the mainland. It’s a journey into a different world, a world of crofts, peat, weaving and deep Presbyterian beliefs. Sheep and long-haired Hebridean cattle dot the fields. The Sabbath is observed and the “We Free,” The Free Church of Scotland, has a solid base. It’s a country within a country. The Hebrides are as different to Edinburgh as Nunavut is to Toronto.


We land in Stornoway, the capital and main town on the island where Tim’s great grandparents lived and where his grandmother was born in 1884. Although their actual house no longer exists, the streets of Stornoway look much as they would have in the nineteenth century. The signs are all in Gaelic. The people are friendly, if guarded. We get a sense of the peace of this small port town.

From Stornoway we head across Lewis, over miles of peat fields, to the other side of the island to see the standing stones of Calanais. High atop rocky hills overlooking Loch Ròg, this arrangement of stones is 5,000 years old, older than Stonehenge. Rows of stones radiate from a central burial mound (added about 500 years after the initial stones were set) and are arranged in a shape that has been likened to a Celtic Cross. Apparently, the site was used for worship and ceremony for over 1500 years. The stones’ placement seems to have astral significance –– there is a lunar phenomenon that occurs there every 18.6 years.

Standing Stones at Calanais

You can’t help but be impressed by the humanity behind this structure. The stones have a majesty to them. A permanence that speaks to a commitment to a place. People who built these standing stones did not leave these hills, let alone this island.

Tim walking along the “avenue”

Visiting in February, we get the full Hebridean experience. The rain and wind pick up as we weave in and out of these monoliths. Thankfully, there is a Visitor Centre with hot coffee and cream teas to round out the experience and give us a chance to dry off. A bit.

We head south into the rocky hills, climbing through clouds toward Harris, which is not a different island but a separate region, with a very different landscape. Remote roads become even smaller as we turn onto a single lane track that ends in a small car park beside dunes. Only slightly deterred by rain, we walk over the dunes and stop dead.

We cross the dunes to the beach at Luskentyre

Luskentyre Beach is listed as one of the largest beaches in the UK – surely it is one of the largest in the world. We have miles and miles and miles of sand to ourselves, dotted only with seaweed from the tide. Apparently in the summer, it is used as a stand-in for advertisements for the Caribbean. It’s that kind of vast, isolated, stunningly beautiful beach.

Tim and I on Luskentyre Beach

We’ve come here to stand at the edge of Lewis, to contemplate the distance to the next body of land –– North America. As settlers, our ancestors crossed this divide at some point, for better or for worse. In creating new lives for themselves, they changed the history of the world. And no matter what I think about tracing ancestry, I can’t deny this connection. Just as I can’t deny my historical role as a settler.

We perform a small family ceremony, letting the wind blow our thoughts offshore and the rain seep into our clothes. I dance my gratitude for this place, for our tenacious forebearers, and for our common humanity.

We head back to Stornoway to dry out with a wee dram.

Our footprints will vanish with the next tide.

A Desirable Residence

There’s nothing like a cold, damp, blustery day to make you long for a cozy, warm shelter.

At Sand, on the Applecross peninsula, there is a huge rock with large overhang on the lee side. On a blowy February morning, it offers protection from the winds that drive across the Inner Sound of this North Western shore.

But it is hard to imagine this place as your “des rez,” as real estate people call it –– your desirable residence.

Yet habitation on the site has been dated to over 7500 years ago, when a collection of about 50 people lived here. The nomads would have had fish and shellfish in abundance, as well as birds and bird eggs, wild boar and deer. Archaeologists have found a dump of shells (a midden), tools made from antlers, and “pot boilers” –– large stones that were heated in a fired and dropped into a pot to cook food.

I’m relieved to know they had something warm to eat on days like today.

I walk down to the water’s edge. At low tide, rivulets of salt water stream back to the sea across a huge expanse of red sand. At the sea’s edge I can just make out something in the water. I watch and shapes form. There are heads bobbing off shore! More and more pop just above the waves and I realize it is a “bob” of seals, about 50 of them. Clearly they have found their own version of a “des rez,” filled with an ample supply of fish.

For my part, I’m relived to know that for us twenty-first century Homo Sapiens there is a cozy warm shelter further up the road. We tuck into the Applecross Inn for a local pint and some of the best Scottish Salmon I’ve ever had.

We’ve come a long way in 7500 years.

This moment

The Southbank is my heart’s connection to London

You might be heading to Royal Festival Hall, The National Theatre, The British Film Institute, Foyles Bookstore, the booksellers under the bridge, the Oxo Craft artisan studios, The Globe Theatre or the Tate Modern. Or perhaps all of them. You stroll with families, tourists, lovers, skateboarders, school children, people selling The Big Issue, savvy City workers, and people for whom the arts are essential. Below you ferries, barges and various boats navigate the tides.

The last time we were on the Southbank was December 2019. We walked in the frosty, winter night, picking up goodies in the Christmas Market, sipping hot mulled wine. It was festive, all twinkle and lights.

Little did we know how the world would change three months later.

I hadn’t realized how deeply I had missed this world and how a small part of me, the part that locked itself up for months and only navigated the world through a Zoom screen, thought it was gone forever. The world had shrunk to a tiny safe place, the island of our house, and my imagination had shrunk with it.

Now, in 2023, as we left Waterloo Station I started to cry. There were people. Everywhere. All of the same cast of characters I left here over three years ago. It is all still here. The world had stopped but started again.

I was overwhelmed with the joy of being there. Sitting over a bowl of spicy Ramen soup at Wagamamas seemed magical, impossible. Walking across Waterloo Bridge, twilight lights reflecting in the incoming tide, was like walking into one of humanity’s great stories. This is what humans are capable of. For all of the good and bad. This is inspiring.

Crossing Waterloo Bridge

We wound our way through Covent Garden and Soho toward the Garrick Theatre, built in 1899. This, too, seemed extraordinary. It’s something that used to be normal, commonplace even, yet now feels like a privilege and delight.

At the Garrick Theatre

At the Garrick, we saw the remarkable Orlando, a moving and important adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel. A play about London over four centuries, about gender, about society, about desire, hope, despair, and love.

At the end of the play, Orlando is asked what she loves. It is a hard question for her to answer, but she finally answers:

“This! … I love this place –– this … city… This beautiful, glittering moment, which falls out of the sky like a steel-blue feather! Oh, watch it as it falls –– watch it turning and twisting like a slow-falling arrow –– an arrow that cleaves the air –– so beautifully!”

from Orlando, adapted by Neil Bartlett

This. I love this moment.

Codebreaking and a sense of awe.

It’s said that the codebreakers of Bletchley shortened the war by two years.

Bletchley Park. It is the stuff of legends. The codebreaking headquarters that changed the course of the Second World War. A place so secret that husbands and wives didn’t know of each other’s involvement. A place of mystery and of tremendous excitement. A place where imagination and scientific minds met to solve life and death problems.

The Mansion

The British Government bought the Bletchley Park estate in Buckinghamshire in 1939 to house the Government Code and Cypher School (Actually, Admiral Hugh Sinclair, head of the Secret Intelligence Service, seems to have bought it privately to get the whole thing running –– or perhaps because he saw a good real estate deal. But that’s another story…) Initially, a small group of people, chosen for their skills with languages and numbers, were hired to work there. They were told to sign the Official Secrets Act before they were given any information. They had no idea what they were hired to do.

There were 185 people working at Bletchley in 1939. By 1945, there were almost 9,000. Three quarters of those people were women. Yet the existence of Bletchley remained a secret until 1974. Even to this day, people who worked there won’t tell you what they did.

Now, it’s a heritage national museum. Exhibits lead you through the daily processes from message reception to codebreaking and translation. Messages weren’t intercepted here – it was far too dangerous to have a radio station at Bletchley. But a team of thousands of couriers arrived day and night at the gates, bringing morse code radio messages that had been intercepted by operators throughout the country. In fact, our tour guide’s father had been one of those bicycle couriers, delivering coded messages to Bletchley.

Tim at the main gate where couriers arrived.

After the Bletchley codebreakers and translators received the message and decoded it, they needed to re-package it to make it seem as though it came from British spies. This way, the Germans wouldn’t find out about Bletchley. In fact, few people in the British government knew. It was this level of secrecy that made it a success. Something almost impossible to imagine in the age of Twitter.


We were shown how the German Enigma machines worked to encode their messages, and how the people at Bletchley went about decoding them. By May 1945, they’d broken 21,971 Enigma messages! That was only possible because Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman designed the Bombe machine to speed things up. It ticks and whirs in Hut 11A. The Colossus, the world’s first large-scale electronic digital computer, was also invented and built at Bletchley.

The Bombe Machine

Tim and I have done our fair share of research into WW2, but our visit to Bletchley brought our reading into reality. It’s hard not to be moved and impressed by the scale and vision of this operation. It is a place filled with personal stories and with triumphs of dedication. People knew that they were saving lives, and they threw themselves into it, working night and day for five long years. It’s a story of human ingenuity that led us to a feeling of awe.

“The work here at Bletchley Park … was utterly fundamental to the survival of Britain. I’m not actually sure that I can think of very many other places where I could say something as unequivocal as that. This is sacred ground.”

Richard Holmes, Military Historian

Rambling Along

It’s a pace we’re perfectly happy to adopt.

We’re in Stony Stratford for a couple of days to visit family and ramble about. It’s a village outside of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire that used to be an important stopping off point for coaches travelling between London and northern England. Stony Stratford was, we’re told, primarily a high street of inns. It has some fabulous history to it, perhaps most excitingly as the place from which Richard III abducted one of the two young princes, the uncrowned Edward V, at the Rose and Crown Inn in 1483. Although the Rose and Crown is no longer an inn, several others remain ­–– The Cock, The Bull (from which we apparently get the phrase Cock and Bull) and The Old George.

Tim in front of the former Rose & Crown

Behind the high street lies the River Ouse, with lovely, twisting Riverwalks. It’s easy to imagine Ratty’s “bijou riverside residence” tucked here.

The pasture lands beyond the river led us on a path to the nearby hamlet of Passenham, which consists of a Rectory, Manor, former Mill and St. Guthlac’s Church, mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles of 921 AD. We’ve been assured by our B & B host Jim that the church is still haunted. “No, really, it IS!” Jim runs the best B & B we’ve ever stayed at. Fabulously comfortable, with lovely big full English breakfasts, Telford House on its own is worth the visit to Stony Stratford. Jim’s been running the B & B for over 40 years, and his enthusiasm is infections. “I love my job!” At 82, he’s an inspiration.

St. Guthlac’s Church and churchyard in Passenham

Time doesn’t exactly stand still here –– we ate a marvellous Indian meal in a converted 17th century chapel, with exquisite, tiled floors (the fabulous Calcutta Basserie.) But time doesn’t move quickly. Our three-hour ramble beside the slow-moving Ouse and across the pasture fields needed to be followed by a pub lunch and a pint of local ale (Razorback) at the 400-year-old Old George.

The dining area has sunk below ground. We sat in the front window and watched people’s ankles.

It’s a pace we’re perfectly happy to adopt.

Time or Tide

Travel is the domain of the imagination, and when you arrive it is as though your imagination has taken concrete shape around you.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
T.S. Eliot

The miracle of travel is something I don’t want to take as commonplace ever again. It is miraculous. In a relatively short amount of time I have journeyed to another world, a world both foreign and familiar.

Because of the impossibility of travel during the pandemic, it feels as though I have slipped into a place that only existed in my imagination for the past three years. Travel is the domain of the imagination, and when you arrive it is as though your imagination has taken concrete shape around you. I’ve read enough quantum theory this year to know that this is probably true, but this is the first time it feels true.

What I’ve found in this new world, whether it has sprung from my imagination or not, is that we have been on parallel paths for these past three years. We share commonalities of our experiences in a way that we’ve never done before. Different sides of the planet, with different political forces, yet we’ve been experiencing the same trauma. It’s made me feel closer than ever with family and friends as we share our experiences, our losses, our scars, our small victories. Our histories, which previously had been different, are now the same.

No doubt it is a unique moment. This will pass. But I don’t want to ever take for granted the good fortune that has allowed me to be here, experiencing the rawness of the pandemic experience. The shared humanity on the streets is the legacy of our survival.

And so we celebrate. We arrived in time for a double birthday party for Bryan and me, shared with Robbie Burns. A Burns night complete with Haggis, neeps and tatties, (turnips and potatoes), and Cranachan (an amazing dessert of toasted oats, whipping cream, raspberries and a glug of whisky). We don’t party as if there is no tomorrow, but because there was yesterday.

I feel as though the needle on the record skipped. I am birthday years older. But I’ve picked up the needle and placed it down again carefully, ready to start again.

Nae man can tether time or tide.
Robert Burns

Throwing ourselves to the fates

We did a lot of soul searching before deciding to go on an overseas trip.

Tim and I did a lot of soul searching before deciding to go on an overseas trip. We know that Covid still haunts us and are taking precautions. But the hardest decision about travel has to do with environmental concerns. It feels irresponsible to take to the skies these days.

We weighed our social responsibility against our need to reconnect with family in England. It’s been over three long years. Children have grown, elders have become elder. The joy of being hugged by friends and family is a powerful magnet.

As I write, we are sitting in the airport lounge. We have balanced some of our guilt by giving a donation to the Guatemala Stove Project, which reduces carbon by building efficient, non-toxic stoves for rural populations in Guatemala –– thus improving the lives of the people who cook over these stoves and reducing carbon in the atmosphere one stove at a time. It isn’t much, but it’s what we can do.

We also decided to spend a lot of time in the UK –– five and a half weeks –– to maximize our visit and reduce our guilt.  If the last three years has taught us anything, it is that we can’t predict what is around the corner. Who knows when we will next have a chance to make a trip like this.

Eleven years ago, we went for a year-long excursion. I was fleeing job burn out, Tim was pining with a deep nostalgia for England, and we both wanted to dig our hearts into European culture. It was a trip that changed us both profoundly as humans and artists. While this journey is much shorter it feels as monumental. Fighting the inertia of the last years has been hard. We’ve sheltered in place and been safe. But now we are stepping out into the wide world again, opening ourselves to the fates. It is exciting, thrilling, and somewhat terrifying.

I look forward to sharing the road with you. And I look forward to the changes in store.

A Grand Birthday Tour

I have a hard time with my birthday. It is in January, probably the worst month of the year. I am never sure how I should respond to everyone’s well wishes. I am usually pretty grumpy.

This year, I resolved to take things in hand and order up a perfect day. I made a request for a special meal to be shared with just a small few. I decided that the best birthday treat would be to spend a day reading by the fire and watching dinner being made.

Our son Lewis is living with us right now. He has worked as a cook in a number of restaurants. He loves to work with food, and spending a day cooking is his idea of heaven. So I asked him to make me a special birthday meal, with Tim as sommelier and assistant. I didn’t ask about what we were going to have. I just waited for it to unfold.

I stretched out in my oversized rocking chair by a cheery fire, reading Wuthering Heights – something to transport me out of 2013. As I read, Lewis prepped and I watched out of the corner of my eye as ingredients transmogrified.

A dinner requires good food and good company to make it work. I decided on a small guest list: My mother Laurie Lewis, a writer, who has a vested interest in my birthday and was just about to leave for Mexico; our friend Jack Hurd, a musician, who had just returned from hiking the Camino and was heading off for a month in Tuscany; and our friend Jan Irwin, a writer and director, who spent last March with us in Devon and is in the midst of contemplating her next trip. And of course Tim, my favourite writer, gourmand and travelling companion, who has shared the past 38 birthdays with me.

Our kitchen is in the centre of the house, and the cook is at centre stage.

Lewis prepping centre stage
Lewis prepping centre stage

The guests assembled and, after preliminary drinks by the fire, Lewis called us to the table.


A tower of rounds of brown Kumato tomato and mozzarella, with finely sliced basil. Drizzled with blood orange olive oil and chocolate balsamic vinegar.

“A taste of summer,” said Lewis. And it was. The blood orange olive oil and chocolate balsamic elevated it to one of those very special summer days. It told us that this was not going to be an ordinary birthday dinner.


Sushi rice with grated carrot, topped with a slice of avocado, red pepper and spears of tempura aubergine. With dollops of Wasabi, Thai sweet chili garlic sauce, and Cucumber relish with lime, Uma plum vinegar and red jalapeno.

2nd Course. A riot of colour and taste. Sushi rice, carrot, avocado, red pepper, aubergine spears
2nd Course. A riot of colour and taste. Sushi rice, carrot, avocado, red pepper, aubergine spears

Presented on a bright blue and gold Japanese plate, the colours bounced energetically. There is a distinct lack of colour in our part of the world in January. The course gave us colour therapy and food therapy. The surprise hit was the cucumber relish, which was salty and tangy, with a zip of hot.


Baby Portobello stuffed with chevrè, cream cheese and roasted garlic. On a bed of arugula with reduced balsamic.

Lewis explained that if you cook chevrè, you need to add cream cheese to it to keep it smooth. Otherwise it goes grainy. This was like a creamy pillow, the sweet roast garlic keeping you alert for more surprises.


Homemade fettuccini with Oregon smoked salmon, with thin slices of Parma cheese and black truffle

4th Course, pasta, salmon, truffle, parma cheese
4th Course, pasta, salmon, truffle, parma cheese

There is really nothing like homemade pasta. I had seen Lewis pressing dough through the pasta machine earlier in the day. He hung it out on a horizontally inverted broomstick to dry. I couldn’t wait to see what he was going to do with it. Turns out it was a kind of collaborative offering. Tim had been given a huge piece of smoked salmon from Oregon. Our son Xan had given us a few truffles for Christmas – I’ve never had thinly shaved truffle. Its musty nuttiness perfectly paired with the soft smoke of the salmon. Topped with thinly shaved Parma cheese, and served in pasta bowls from Positano, it was amazing.


Seared filet of sirloin with Tamarillo on a bed of chicory with thinly sliced radish, drizzled with honey and horseradish vinaigrette.

I am a big fan of steak salad. This took it to a whole new level, playing the sweetness of the Tamarillo (like Passion fruit) with the bitter of the chicory and radish. The sweet honey danced with the horseradish, all supporting the succulence of the steak.


Roast pork tenderloin with grapefruit glaze on a bed of sweet potato puree with curry and chipotle. Served with spears of asparagus wrapped in prosciutto.

6th Course. Sweet potato mash, pork loin roast, asparagus spears with procuitto
6th Course. Sweet potato mash, pork loin roast, asparagus spears with procuitto

It’s amazing what a bit of smoky chipotle can do to a sweet potato mash. It lifts the tuber’s richness to a whole new place. The roast pork was incredibly tender and the combined tastes were buttery and dark. The asparagus counterbalanced with its bright colour, crisp snap, and salty zing of the prosciutto.


Scone with honey glaze served with dollops of pear comfit, peach comfit and Devon cream.

“I don’t bake,” said Lewis, as he put a warm scone in front of each of us. What he meant was that he doesn’t bake cake. The soft, honey-sweet scone was “dessert” – plain and simple after a meal of complexity. The perfect dessert course. The tiny dollop of Devon cream a reminder of the rich green fields of the emerald Isle.


Cheese plate. Featuring herbed Cheveè, St. Agur, Aged Gouda, Double Cream Rondoux, Shropshire Blue

Admittedly, this was probably overkill. But birthdays are about excess. I had asked for a cheese course which, when matched with port, is the best way to end a special meal.

The meal didn’t really end there, though. The food ended, but we sat for many more hours, talking, sharing secrets, hopes and dreams. With my mother and Jack just about to head off to other climes, we talked of travel past, and journeys to come.

Last year, our extraordinary year of travel, was one of the best of my life, and it’s been hard to come down. But with this birthday extravaganza, I realize that while I am not literally on the road any more, I can still go on a journey with travelling companions and cook Lewis as tour guide.

Happy fellow travellers Laurie Lewis, Jack Hurd, Amanda, Jan Irwin, Tim Wynne-Jones
Happy fellow travellers Laurie Lewis, Jack Hurd, Amanda, Jan Irwin, Tim Wynne-Jones

Keeping Christmas

I have often wondered if we moved to the country because of Christmas.

The first winter that we lived in Brooke Valley, we went out into the woods with our three small children and cut down a very scraggly, Charlie Brown-ish tree. The snow came down in lazy, fat flakes as we brought our treasure into the house. We hung soggy mittens by the fire and cupped our hands around steaming mugs of hot chocolate. We were living in the middle of a Christmas card.

Since then, we’ve had as many green Christmases as white, some treacherous with ice, some grey and sodden. Our Christmas trees have always been naturally wild and wispy (“Your tree has great negative space,” said our most optimistic friend). Over the years, Lewis grew to be our primary tree finder and cutter. He took to enhancing nature by drilling holes in the trunk and inserting extra branches to fill out the shape. But whatever the shortcomings of the tree, the house has been filled with Christmas spirit – the smell of good food, the warmth of a fire, and days of laughter.

Last year was our first non-Canadian Christmas. We discovered new foods and new traditions in La Spezia, Italy. Sitting on a sun-drenched patio, drinking Prosecco while munching on delicious Italian cheeses and breads made up for the lack of snow, tree and fireplace. Funny, we didn’t miss any of the usual trappings.

But back home in Canada for Christmas this year, Tim & I dug out ornaments and fell into familiar patterns. Everything seemed all the more special for having been tucked away for 2 years. I carefully unwrapped the special, gold-rimmed Christmas glasses, purchased by my parents in New York over 50 years ago. Tim unrolled the felt advent calendar to find a few additional mouse holes along the edge. (The story of our mouse-chewed advent calendar is one he wrote as “The Mouse in the Manger”, many years ago. Sentiment keeps me from repairing the felt.)

Mouse eaten Advent Calendar
Mouse eaten Advent Calendar

Lewis set off to find a tree. We have 76 acres, and there are a lot to chose from, but finding something that works, a tree that is full and thick, is always a challenge. Determined to bring in something impressive, he felled a 35-foot spruce using only a dull cross cut saw. He cut off the top 10 feet and hefted it home the day before our first big snowfall.

Lewis and this year's tree
Lewis and this year’s tree

When the plate-sized flakes began to fall, we were surprisingly excited.

Nighttime snowfall in Brooke Valley
Nighttime snowfall in Brooke Valley

The first snow of the year was heavy and wet – perfect packing snow. Perfect snow lady material.

Amanda, Maddy & the Snow Lady
Amanda, Maddy & the Snow Lady

Over the next few days, the temperature dropped. As it did, the snow quality changed. There were smaller, lighter flakes, not good for packing at all. But we were assured of a white Christmas.

A White Christmas
A White Christmas

The unpredictability of the weather at this time of year can easily destroy festive plans, but luck was with us. Timing was perfect as family and friends arrived in various stages. But the snow accumulation grew and grew until eventually it was impassable. The day after Boxing Day, we abandoned all thoughts of driving and hunkered down to await the eventual arrival of snowplows.

Snowed in
Snowed in

There is a blissful and deep quiet that comes with a large snowfall.

And so we have once again celebrated the season in a Christmas card world. We’ve walked the snowy roads under moonlight and sighted Jupiter, shining brightly. We’ve filled the house with lights and familiar ornaments, and flamed the plum pudding. We’ve watched deer and ravens enjoying bits of composted leftovers. We’ve reveled in memories of Christmases gone by, and toasted absent friends. And we’ve boosted and fortified ourselves to be able to face the long cold winter ahead. As Dickens instructs, we’ll “keep Christmas in our hearts throughout the year”.

A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol

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