Abajem IV

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I just returned from spending a week on Florida’s St. George Island with eleven friends I met through an organization called Gay Spirit Visions.

GSV was established in 1990, and in 2002 a half-dozen GSVers decided to rent a house on SGI for a week. Chase Robinson has taken care of reserving a rental house each year, and the house-renting group (whose participants vary each year) eventually doubled its size.  The group has rented a half dozen different houses over the years; this was my fourth consecutive year vacationing with these guys on SGI, all four of them spent at the enormous and luxurious “Abajem.”

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As in previous years, the week consisted of hanging out with each other in various combos, either on the beach or within sight of it. Besides enjoying the camaraderie. the conversations, the shared meals, and the spectacular scenery, a large part of the wonderfulness of the week is enjoying an extended break from our respective routines – as well as, for some of us, a break from the relentless aggravations we normally import into our brains via our Internet connections, our phones, and our voluntary tethers to other mass media.

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Although three of us who went to SGI this year live in various towns in North Carolina, Atlanta is home for the rest of us. That means most of us get to extend our annual visits by carpooling down to and back from SGI, as well as spent time together in Atlanta between visits to the island. Although we share many of the values cherished by most GSV participants, there’s a range of ages among us, most of us are retired from our former full-time jobs, about to retire, or are semi-retired.

This year’s Abijem crew:

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Ralph (right) and Ted  (left, in sumo wrestler garb)




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Cal (with crocheted cap and flower courtesy Jim)

Our time together on the island is deliberately and gloriously unstructured, but our indoor and outdoor lolling about is punctuated not only by almost nonstop banter and hilarious commentary, but by our taking turns preparing evening meals, silently meditating together each morning, exchanging massages, playing card games (well, actually playing multiple rounds of a single card game: Wizards), intermittently working (alone or together) at various crafts, reading, taking naps, watching a DVD or two, eating in small groups at various restaurants, or driving across the bridge into the nearby town of Appalachicola to visit its shops and galleries. Some of us avail ourselves of Abijem’s swimming pool and/or its hot tub, and Chase provides kayaks, kites, and bicycles. Some of us get up every morning to watch the sun rise over the ocean, and this year our visit coincided with a full moon.

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“Mermaid Barbie” was a permanent feature this year in Bradford’s various tablescapes, which included (among other items, and on various days) painted shells, botanical specimens collected from the island, toy submarines, and a pair of lava lamp-like lighting fixtures.


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Mealtime appetizer.



For the second time, Jim (aka Mr. Patience) taught Calvin how to crochet!


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Cal losing yet another round of Wizards. Jim crocheted the Wizard’s Hat.


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This year, hot on the trail of the the strolling sumo wrestlers was…


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Tea time at Abijem, for the humans…

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...and snack time for the birds.


Randall’s photo of some of the seashells we painted with color markers 


Sunrise over the ocean.


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Lighthouse at St. George


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Souvenirs of this year’s visit: samples of our painted shells, a hibiscus flower, and a teddy bear.


As I had with with my three previous trips to SGI with these kindhearted, affectionate, intelligent, and creative guys, I looked forward for many months to our week together this year, and hope there’ll be many more annual rendezvouses there.

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A Botanical Decision

Atlanta-Botanical-Gardens Entrance

This past Sunday, I visited the Atlanta Botanical Garden for what I assumed would be my last visit for quite a while. My annual membership was expiring that day, and having not used my membership to make more than a couple of trips to the Garden over the past year, I’d decided not to renew it.

Somewhere in the middle of my Sunday morning stroll through the Garden, however, I changed my mind. I ended up plunking down $75 to extend my free admission to the Garden for another 365 days.

What changed my mind was not only the hope (resolve?) to visit the Garden more often in the coming twelve months, but how magical the Garden seemed to me during each of my most recent visits.

Ever since the Garden was established back in 1976, I have been impressed with its design. As the acreage of the place has steadily expanded over the past four decades, the design of the Garden’s new territories has continued to be imaginative and appealing. So much so that that I’ve come to believe that the ABG should rank among the best botanical gardens in the country.  (I’m not the only person with this opinion.)

In addition to marveling at the Garden’s overall excellent layout – including the design of its most recent expansion, the May 6th opening of its new “Skyline Garden” – I’ve also been impressed with the Garden’s continuing parade of special exhibitions, including two spectacular installations of Chihuly glass sculptures and its annual year-end holiday light show. (Not so impressive is the irritating fact that admission to the annual light show isn’t included in the annual membership fee. Ditto parking at the deck inside the Garden: that also costs extra.)

What makes every visit to the Atlanta Botanical Garden “magical” for me, however, isn’t the special installations, but the imaginatively-designed – and often wonderfully smelling! – permanent walkways through the garden’s creative mixtures of familiar and exotic plantings, often featuring fountains, pools, or tiny waterfalls. It is so pleasant to spend a few hours every so often ambling through this urban oasis. Wandering along the forested parts of the Garden, it’s easy to forget you’re walking in the middle of a major city. Biking to Piedmont Park, where the Garden is located, via the Atlanta Beltline, is a particularly refreshing way to make one’s visit a special occasion.) The Garden’s multiple, constantly-branching paths enable visitors to create a different route through the Garden on every visit.

Some of the Garden’s pathways meander through shady areas, others cross or border sunny courtyards or lawns,  and some of the most interesting  paths are located inside the Garden’s enormous conservatories.  Every outdoor path is punctuated with comfortable benches featuring a pleasant view (some of them as excellent for people-watching as for gazing at plantings. And for a while now, the Garden has featured an (affordable) glass-walled restaurant smack in the middle of the grounds.


In addition to the Garden’s obligatory and gorgeous (if disappointingly pricey) gift shop, there’s also a botanical library that I’ll want to explore during some weekday – the library is, alas, closed on weekends.

Another rationale for supporting the Garden by buying a membership is the fact that the Garden’s provides plenty of inspiration (and, because of the plant labels and sometimes unexpected plant combos, helpful information) for one’s home gardening activities (and ambitions). Whenever I visit the Garden, I invariably see some plant I’d like to find for my own modest garden.

If you haven’t ever been to the Atlanta Botanical Garden, or haven’t been recently, now would be a good time to do that. Its current installation, “The Curious Garden,” is yet another successful experiment in melding art and botany in a delightful, thought-provoking way. Who knew that dozens of dead trees painted pastel colors and plunked down amidst living plantings could be so stunning?




Power Outage Episode; Or, Another Unscheduled Gratitude Reminder

When a fallen limb knocked out the power to my house last week, it wasn’t the first time that I’d had to temporarily forego having electricity in my house. But it was certainly the longest I’ve ever been without electricity, and the most convoluted such episode.

The details of what ensued over the next several days seem comical now, but they were somewhat stressful (and certainly inconvenient) at the time. Here’s how things unfolded from the beginning:

Thursday, March 9th: Wind and rain throughout the night

Friday, March 10th: Around mid-morning while working in my study at the back of the house, I suddenly hear a loud muffled sound, which I assume to one of the many piles of Stuff in the Attic falling over. A little later when fetching myself a second cup of tea, I notice through the glass in my kitchen door that a rosebush I’ve trained to wind around the pole that connects the power wires from the street to my house is now blocking the door! I open the door to find the power mast has been ripped from the side of the house and is lying on the walkway to the side porch door.

Michael's photo of power outage

Using my front door to walk around the house to investigate, I am immediately confronted with a limb that had broken off from a neighbor’s tree and fallen across my power line.

All of this is a complete surprise, since, despite the now-seriously-drooping power line and the fallen mast, inside the house I’ve still got lights, heat, etc.

With some difficulty (and great stupidity), I manage to haul the limb off the still-working power line and into my front yard, thus unblocking the walkway.

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I phone the power company and they tell me (a) it was very dangerous for me to have hauled the limb off the fallen power line (“Don’t ever do that again, sir!”) and (b) it’s my responsibility to hire an electrician to get the ripped-off power mast back onto my house, and (c) to call back when my electrician arrives, so they can turn off the power before he repairs the mast.

There ensues a flurry of phone calls trying to coordinate an electrician’s soonest available arrival time with the power company’s. (Both are backlogged, coping with other people’s power outages that had resulted from the same storm.)

Saturday, March 11th: I leave my house for various appointments that will take all day, annoyed that I must thread my way through a thorny rosebush to get to my car, but grateful that when I return home I’ll still have power, hot water, Internet access, and – most importantly because it is very cold that day – heat! As I leave the house, I neglect to notify my neighbor (with whom I share a driveway) that All Is Well, Do Not Freak Out about the Downed Power Mast That Looks So Dangerous, Everything Is Under Control.

I blithely drive off to another part of town to attend a half-day calligraphy workshop and then drive directly from the workshop to another part of town to co-conduct an oral history interview at the interviewee’s home. Not once do I check my phone for messages.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, my neighbor has gotten up, noticed the dangerous-looking situation across the driveway, and begins phoning and texting me. Since I’m not checking my phone all day long, I miss every one of his ever-more-urgent messages.

The well-meaning neighbor, unable to reach me, decides the wisest thing to do is phone the power company and report what he’s seen. Power company comes to my house and cuts off the power, leaving me a notice of What Needs to Be Done Before Company Will Agree to Restore Power.

Cal arrives home early evening to find he’s got zero electricity, zero hot water, zero refrigeration in my refrigerator or freezer, zero Internet, and, most seriously, zero heat.

Cal phones friend Charles, who (unlike many of Cal’s other friends) lives a mere mile away, to ask if Cal can crash at Charles’s house for the evening. Charles generously agrees.

More phone calls to electrician and power company are made, each call involving fighting my way through those infuriating recorded phone menus. I also phone my internet service provider: the internet cable wire has also come unmoored from the side of the house, and the power company and electrician tell me they are not allowed to to re-connect it. I also phone my home insurance rep. (Eventually, Cal also makes yet another phone call, to reschedule from Monday to Wednesday a planned rendezvous 15 miles away to show his pickup truck to a prospective buyer. Best re-scheduling decision Cal makes all day!)

Sunday, March 12th: Another frigid day. Cal spends another night at Charles’s.

Monday, March 13th: Electrician arrives at 8:30am. Encountering various mechanical problems, he doesn’t complete his repairs until shortly before 5pm. Since power company can’t come out to restore power until the following day, Cal spends a third night at Charles’s. (We end up playing multiple games of Scrabble all these nights I’m staying at his house.)

Tuesday, March 14th: Power company arrives in early afternoon to restore power. Hurray! Lights and water heater and computer now functional again. Internet service rep arrives late afternoon to re-connect Internet wire to house. Ditto the house insurance company rep, who, much to my astonishment, writes me a check for over $700 to defray the costs of the wiring repair.

Wednesday, March 15th: Cal’s HVAC system stops working. What? I had heat before the power outage, but now there isn’t any. Cal frantically calls HVAC repair guy. He can’t send someone out for repairs until until the following day. The good news: temperatures have climbed high enough for Cal to spend the night at home instead of at Charles’s.

Thursday, March 16th: HVAC repairman arrives at, climbs into attic, repairs the 24-year-old furnace. (A rubber tube had gotten clogged.) Heat restored!

Cal then embarks on trying to catch up on a week-long backlog of emails and Facebook posts. I decide to reorganize the utility closet that I had to empty out so the electrician could work in there. I arrange another rendezvous (on March 20th at 7am) with the electrician, as he forgot to replace the cover to my fuse box when he was here. I do a boat-load o’ accumulated laundry. I do what I can to salvage the mangled rosebush.

The good news is that throughout this exasperating episode of having all my usually-taken-for-granted domestic comforts and routines disrupted, I didn’t, this time, lose sight of how lucky I was that things weren’t worse! I was merely viscerally – rather than theoretically – reminded of how dependent most of us are on our society’s electricity infrastructure to keep us comfortable.

A few of my gratitude-related realizations:

  • I own a house that, 99.9% of the time, is equipped with electricity and other easily-taken-for-granted mod cons, like hot water. Not everyone is so lucky – either to own a house or to take for granted mostly continuously-available electricity.
  • I live in a part of the country where a power outage in cold weather is an inconvenience, not a life-threatening situation.
  • Even after the limb first came down, I had continued to enjoy a full day of electricity service. I could take a hot shower, I could sleep in my own bed in my own heated bedroom, I could work on my computer, the lights in my house came on when I needed them to, I could heat up water for a cup of ice tea, I could warm up a frozen waffle in in my toaster.
  • I have friends willing to let me stay with them in an emergency. Several of those friends, like Charles, happen to be neighbors as well – an unusual fact in this sprawling city where friends can live many miles away.
  • Charles, like me, loves to play Scrabble. (What if he were a fanatic television-watcher, or had a dog resents strangers, or didn’t have a spare bedroom, or had been out of town when my power went kaput?)
  • I own a working vehicle that could transport me to and from Charles’s house. Actually, two working vehicles. Actually (until I sell my pickup truck – one of the chores I was working on when the power went out), three working vehicles.
  • With my retirement savings, from working at a job I mostly enjoyed for over thirty years (vs., say, a job I hated or was laid off from), I can afford to pay my electric bills, my internet service bills, and all my other bills, including the fuel and repair bills for my (three) working vehicles. I can afford to pay someone to repair a broken heating system. Not all Earth residents, not even all American citizens, not even everyone living in Atlanta, Georgia are so fortunate.
  • I was able to cope with getting things back to normal under the constraints of a retiree’s schedule, rather than trying to cope with power-outage-related difficulties while also holding down a day job. (Coincidentally, the fourth anniversary of my retirement was March 12th. Typing out the latest set of Annual Retirement Reflections is one of the post-power-outage tasks I haven’t yet gotten around to.)
  • Although sometimes I think my iPhone may be on its last legs, I still own one of the dang things (a gift from my brother, so I didn’t even have to find the money to buy one); I can afford to purchase monthly phone service; and I had access to my phone during this entire power-outage episode.
  • I am still young enough and agile enough to clamber around on ladders repairing rose bushes, to saw up fallen tree limbs, to sweep up my yard’s walkways, etc.

Things at my house are now almost back to normal – obviously normal enough for me to sit down and write a blogpost about this recent ordeal! I still need to borrow a power saw to hack up the fallen limb that’s still lying in my front yard; there are some emails and notes I should’ve written and sent over a week ago. There’s a boat-load of laundry to do. But none of those still-pending power-outage-catch-up chores has prevented me from sleeping in my own bed for the past week, from postponing some of those pending chores to undertake a few early spring gardening tasks, or forced me to reschedule last night’s meeting at my place of a book club I belong to.

In fact, during one of the power-outage days when it warmed enough to do stuff in the house during the daytime hours, I managed to replace my dining room chairs with more comfortable chairs, and to buy (and have delivered), a glass-fronted oak china cabinet that I swapped out with an oak table in my dining room. And last Saturday I lucked onto a nearby yard sale and paid a mere $15 for what surely is at least $250 worth of large gardening pots, four trellises, and two cast-iron shepherd’s hooks! In some ways, I came out the other side of the Power Outage Episode enjoying more Domestic Bliss than the power outage found me in!

In any case, I figure it’s probably A Good Thing to be reminded periodically – as I certainly was a week ago – of how dependent I am on the mod cons that living as a retired and otherwise privileged White Guy in a First World county affords; reminded of the fact that I do have friends; and, most gratifying of all, reminded of how generous those friends can be in difficult-to-manage circumstances.

Postscript: The limb that fell back in late March remained lying in my front yard for several months. By the end of May, I still hadn’t gotten around to borrowing a saw to chop it up so I could get rid of it. On June 4th, a city government crew arrived in front of my house to take down another limb from the same tree that  (after another thunderstorm the previous evening) was threatening to fall into the middle of the street. I hauled the limb lying in my yard to the sidewalk, and the cutting crew very generously hauled it off along with the limbs they’d just cut down: a long-delayed end to the fallen limb saga!






Excursion to Gibbs Gardens

daffodilsentrance sign

Last Sunday I joined four friends for our virgin visit to Gibbs Gardens, located about an hour north of Atlanta near Ball Ground, Georgia.

I’d heard a lot about this place, and despite the fact that it’s located on my route to and from the cabin in Blue Ridge that I spend time in most months, I somehow had never gotten around to visiting.

Gibbs Gardens was established over thirty years ago but was opened to the public only in 2012. The place is huge – 220 acres of a 300-acre estate, with sixteen distinct garden areas, all connected with walking trails. Gibbs features a large variety of plantings and some magnificently designed landscaping. The gardens include:

  • possibly the largest plantings of daffodils in the United States (20 million bulbs spread over 50 acres of rolling hillsides)
  • a 40-acre Japanese garden, the country’s largest
  • the country’s largest collection of water lilies (140 varieties)
  • 32 ponds, fed by springs or running streams crossed by 24 bridges, one of them a replica of Monet’s bridge at Giverny


The miles of walking trails meander through all sorts of plantings, and the self-guided tour includes a walkabout of the exterior of the beautiful – and gorgeously landscaped – manor house where the Gibbs family lives. (Well, when anybody’s home: the 70-something-year-old Gibbs is an avid traveler. That he generously allows visitors to tramp around the patios and porches immediately adjacent to the house must be a bit unnerving when he’s there.)

yet another manor house photo

Here’s a video (from the Gardens’ Facebook page) of what we saw on Sunday:

I wish I could report that wandering through 20 million daffodils was a Wordworthianesque peak experience, but, alas, that aspect of our tour of the gardens Gibbs was, surprisingly, a bit underwhelming. (Will the planned extravaganza of tulips that Gibbs staff has planted be similarly disappointing?) I have no explanation for why the Daffodil ramble was not more exhilarating, but there are plenty of other reasons for putting this garden on your gardens-to-tour list.

If you decide to visit, I highly recommend you arrive as early in the day as you can. This is especially important if you visit on a weekend. Otherwise, you will find yourself forced to park in a remotely located parking lot (quite a few acres of Gibbs’ property are devoted to multiple car-parks) and, once you finally get to the welcome center, you could find yourself waiting in a very long line. Better to arrive early and conserve your energy for all the walking you’ll be doing once you get your ticket.

I also recommend eating lunch at the garden’s outdoor cafe. The sandwiches and drinks are pricey (I spent $12 for a sandwich and a bottle of water), but the food is fresh and the shaded outdoor eating area is a pleasant place to rest after a morning’s worth of walking.

There’s also a gorgeous (if also pricey) gift shop:


Whether or not you decide to visit Gibbs Gardens yourself, you might find this 24-minute North Carolina public television video worth watching. It includes an interview with Gibbs, who explains how the garden came to be. The video also highlights several of the different garden areas on view at Gibbs:


Watching this video after my visit – and reading the best of the articles about the garden that I found on the Internet – made me want to return to see the sections of the garden (such as the fern garden) that I somehow missed seeing last Sunday. I especially want to return in the fall to see the gardens’ 2,000 Japanese maples!

japanese gardens in the fall

japanese maples

Meanwhile, here’s a bunch of photos that garden visitors have posted to Instagram:


For even more photos, Google Images has hundreds of them.

Directions, ticket prices (as seniors we paid $18 plus tax for a single visit; annual passes cost $70), and a list of visiting hours is available at the Gardens’ web site, www.gibbsgardens.com

Note: All of the photos included in this blogpost I obtained from a variety of sources on ye Internet.

The Constant Reader: 2016


Reading in gloriously-written books about the people, places, or activities that interest me has always been among my chief pleasures, and knowing that I’ll not being able to read more than a few thousand books in my lifetime is one of my chief regrets.

One of the unexpected ironies of being a retiree for the past few years is that even though I now have more time to devote to reading, my being a relatively older reader has resulted in my spending considerably less time reading during any single sitting! In my younger days years I could read for hours at a stretch; these days I generally find myself nodding off after a single hour.

Be that as it may, my enthusiasm for reading has never waned.  And probably never will wane, judging from the length of the ever-growing list of books I hope to read.

Below are brief comments on the the 43 books I finished this past year. Not mentioned are a half-dozen other titles that I started but didn’t, for a variety of reasons, finish. Because I borrow most of the books I read from libraries, and because I’m usually reading several titles simultaneously, some books I never finish merely because I need to return them before I get around to finishing them.

Each title mentioned is listed in the order that roughly reflects how much I enjoyed it relative to the others listed within its category. Anyone who’s glanced at my earlier annual lists will note that there are no new categories: apparently I am obsessed with a very small number of intense interests, at least when it comes to book selecting!

Despite the relative narrowness of my reading (nonfiction) interests, and the decreased time I can spend reading at any single sitting, I regard myself as a very fortunate and contented reader. After decades of reading, I continue to stumble across a lot of really fascinating books (usually, via some footnote in a book I’ve previously read); I live only two miles from a nearby university library where (as an alumni) I have borrowing privileges; my local public libraries – often via Interlibrary Loan, one of the most amazing of the many services that U.S. public libraries provide – allows me to get hold of, free of charge, virtually any book I might want to read. 

My only significant frustration in the Book Reading Department is my wishing that I had time, or would make time, to read more novels. I am mortified to report that this past year I only read two of them!



Body, Memory and Architecture (1977)
by Kent Bloomer and Charles Moore

Excellent, clear, concise review of how and why our houses and buildings and public spaces would be more beautiful if architects and developers would acknowledge that pleasure and inhabitability result from more complex -mostly psychological – factors than from merely visual or efficiency considerations.

Gardening & Gardeners



Farther Afield: A Gardener’s Excursions (1986) by Allen Lacy
In a Green Shade: Writings from ‘Homeground’ (2014) by Allen Lacy

These are the second and third collections of writings by Allen Lacy that I’ve read (the other is Home Ground: A Gardener’s Miscellany, which I read back in 2012). I had long thought that Henry Mitchell was my favorite garden writer, but I’ve decided Lacy now holds that title. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of one of his reviewers: “Lacy’s a thoughtful, clever man, no doubt a man it would be a pleasure to know….I, for one, would be delighted to buy anything entitled Another Book by Allen Lacy.” He writes with humor and humility; his engaging prose is the opposite of stuffy or scholarly, even though Lacy is a professor of philosophy (and translator of Unamuno – something that will definitely lead to my eventually reading his introduction to that philosopher’s work). As I love garden writing even more than I love gardening, I hope Lacy never stops publishing his commentaries on our shared hobby.  Ÿ

in-my-gardenIn My Garden: The Garden Diaries of Great Dixter
(1994) by Christopher Lloyd

This book contains the unedited versions of a very small selection of hundreds of essays first published in the British magazine Country Life. Lloyd is a well-known gardener whose books (including either of his two previously-published collections) I somehow had never gotten around to reading; from now on I won’t hesitate to pick one up should I spot it in a book sale. Lloyd’s exquisitely-phrased sentences, his obviously deep (but humbly presented) knowledge of gardening, and his unflagging humility and sense of humor combine to make for almost effortless and extremely enjoyable reading. Ronan’s introduction is one of the best in any book on any subject I have ever read.          Ÿ


French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France (1991) by Richard Goodman

A very short book with very short sentences and whose 27 chapter titles are one word – usually one syllable – long. Despite the fact that I kept wondering if the author was trying to imitate Hemingway’s writing style, his enthusiasm for growing vegetables during the one precious year he and his wife spent in Provence was obvious and, considering his lack of experience, admirable. His tale certainly fed my perennial fantasy of spending a year in Provence – or, say, Tuscany or Greece.      Ÿ



Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden (2016) by Vita Sackville-West & Sarah Raven

Everything you ever might have wanted to know about this famous garden – not only how Vita and Harold came to own Sissinghurst and make its garden, but also Vita’s published commentary (from the gardening column she wrote for many years) about individual plants. Includes lots of photos. I am hoping to visit this garden one day, and having read this book (although skimming through the descriptions of individual plants) will certainly enhance the enjoyment I expect to find there. Ÿ




Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older (2010) by Sydney Eddison

It was wonderful to find that someone had written an entire book devoted to the obstinately unacknowledged fact that gardeners must change their ways (and their gardens) as they grow older. Each chapter tackles its subject area in a very personal, informal style, and is then followed by a bullet-pointed summary of the main practical points made. This deliberate redundancy was surprisingly useful.       Ÿ



The Writer in the Garden (1999)
edited by Jane Garmey

As I’ve confessed more than once, I’d rather read about gardening than do any actual garden chores, but it was being distracted by other books rather than gardening that prolonged the length of time it took me to finish this anthology. The best thing about it (besides its wonderful cover and the fact that I found it on sale at a thrift store) is that its entries are very brief, which allowed the book’s editor to include snippets from 57 different writers from different eras and countries, all of them excellent, some of them my favorite garden commentators, many of them not best known primarily for their comments on gardens, and some of them poets. The editor also includes a wide variety of subjects: practical and even about particular plants, as well as the expected – and welcome – philosophical comments on the joys of gardening.

History, Sociology, & Politics


From Dawn to Decadence:
1500 to the Present: 500 Years of
Western Cultural Life
by Jacques Barzun

If there were a single book one was allowed to take to a desert island for reading material, this one would be my choice. It took me almost a year to read this 800+-page masterpiece, but it’s certainly one of the very best books I’ve ever read. Barzun is an excellent writer, and his survey and analysis of the highlights (and byways) of Western culture puts far less emphasis than expected on wars and political figures and more emphasis on art (all of them) and on popular movements, especially those that have tended to repeat themselves. Soon I will begin reading this remarkable book again, this time with yellow highlighter in hand, hunting down the dozens and dozens of obscure-to-me authors and books Barzun mentions. And I will defintely continue my project of reading more of Barzun’s almost four dozen (!) books.           Ÿ


Lafayette in The Somewhat United States (2015) by Sarah Vowell

Vowell has one of the most distinctive writing styles I’ve come across, and she sustains her quirky voice throughout this fascinating tale of Lafayette’s journey to the colonies to help with their glorious revolt. This book was so entertaining and informative that I finished it in two or three days. Vowell’s research was extensive, and she uncovered a lot of fascinating tidbits about the behind-the-scenes personality conflicts that were going on among the leaders of the American Revolutionary period. I also enjoyed the way Vowell relates the conflicts and tensions of that era to today’s  conflicts and tensions in the United States.  Ÿ



City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World (1995)
by Witold Rybczynski

Having read two previous books by W.R. (Home: A Short History of an Idea and The Most Beautiful House in the World), I reckoned this one would also be wonderful, and it was – just as chock-full of surprising historical and statistical facts as his other books, and just as down-to-earth, personal, and engaging too. The answers to the question this book addresses – why do U.S. cities and suburbs look and feel so different than the cities and suburbs of Europe? – are more complex – and more interesting, than you’d imagine. A great read, despite the fact that his analysis is now already twenty years old.


And Yet… Essays (2015)
by Christopher Hitchens

A collection of previously uncollected articles (mostly book reviews, mostly from Vanity Fair or The Atlantic), these writings reaffirmed my opinion of Hitchens as one of the most readable polemicists of our time – and one of the most erudite as well. His premature death in 2011 was a great loss for truth-loving literate people everywhere. Fortunately, Hitchens was prolific (there are five previous collections of his essays alone, and this one has forty-eight of them), so there are many reading pleasures ahead of me as I gradually work my way through all of Hitchens’ writings. Among the unexpected excellencies of this collection is an essay about Clive James (whose own essays I’ve recently read two collections of) and a masterful discussion of George Orwell and G.K. Chesterton, two other British-born essayists whose work I worship.


Junk: Digging Through America’s Love Affair with Stuff (2016)
by Alison Stewart

An unexpectedly lively book, especially since it covers so much ground: interrviews with people who capitalized on the U.S. craze for buying stuff and not knowing how (or being unwilling) to get rid of it. Stewart’s interviews reveal the fascinating experiences and reflections of junk haul-awayers, owners of storage facilities, thrift store operators, participants in “the 100-mile garage sale,” pawn brokers, container store establishers, etc. – all leavened with non-preachy but sobering statistics and the interesting commentary of psychologists.          Ÿ




Hidden Rhythms: Schedules and Calendars in Social Life (1981)
by Eviatar Zerubavel

The psychological aspects of time have long been a recurring topic in my reading choices, but this sociological analysis of the way time is used to regulate human activities and accessibility was very interesting. (Probably especially so from the viewpoint of a reader who has recently retired from The World of Rigid Schedules.) Especially informative: the author’s sections on the invention and ramifications (for Orthodox Jews and others) of the invention of the Sabbath, the role of Christian monasteries in spreading the advantages of clock time, the French Revolutionaries’ attempt to reform the Gregorian calendar, and the invention of the notion (in the West) of “private time.” Unfortunately – because perhaps the author’s native language may not be English? – the author’s writing style is maddeningly repetitive (wish I had a nickel for every “in other words” he uses, either explicity or otherwise), frequently marred by tautological logic, and full of cliches (more wished-for nickels for every annoying instance of the phrase “within this context”). Still, I will never think about time and the pros and cons of schedules the same way again after reading this book.

Psychology & Philosophy


Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life (2012)
by Daniel Klein

A writer in his late seventies returns to the Greek island of Hydra to clarify his ideas of how best to grow old. Written in an almost diary-like format, the writing style is Informal, humble, courageous, and personal writing style. The book is a short one (only 150 pages); and it is studded with some never-seen-before quotations from some of my favorite philosophers and psychologists (Kierkegaard, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Sartre, Camus, Bertrand Russell, William James, Eric Erikson). A real pleasure to read, and it touches on many of my own preoccupations, including how we experience time and what the wise men and women of the past have to say about the nature and pursuit of happiness.   Ÿ


The Meaning of Human Existence (2014) 
by Edward O. Wilson

I picked up this book because Wilson (winner of two Pulitzer Prizes) once wrote one of the most memorable sentences I’ve ever read. This book was interesting enough to finish, but I think I expected too much, given the title. I found Wilson’s chapter on religion the most interesting (although the least surprising), and his chapter on pheromones the next most interesting (and information totally new to me). Ÿ






On Poetic Imagination and Reverie: Selections from Gaston Bachelard  (1987) translated from the French (with a preface and introduction) by Colette Gaudin

Because I loved Bachelard’s Poetics of Space so much (enough to buy me and my friend Harvey copies to keep), I was really looking forward to this selection from his other writings. Alas, Monsieur Bachelard is rough going – too often so abstract (in that idiosyncratically French sort of way) – that I had to skip whole sections of this book. He was obviously a genius, but I found the translator’s introduction a lot easier to understand than Bachelard himself. But The Poetics of Space I will continue to treasure, and will re-read some day.    Ÿ


Practicing Death (2016) by Dennis Van Avery

Reflections on, among other things, the importance of finding community, of enjoying life’s minor ephiphanies and joys, and non-attachment. This 60-page book was self-published shortly before Dennis’s death this summer. Dennis was a recent acquaintance and his book reminds me of his gentle demeanor and wisdom.         Ÿ







How to Talk about Places You’ve Never Been (2016) by Pierre Bayard

I fought my way through this book, hoping that Bayard would eventually have something interesting to say, but that never happened – and I don’t think it was due to the book’s being translated from its original French version. I felt the same way about a previous book Bayard wrote about a similar theme (How to Talk About the Books You Haven’t Read). I won’t be reading any more of Bayard’s books.




A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts …Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts (3rd ed., 1910; 1997 ed. translated by Peter Sekirin) by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s final book, and the one he (in my opinion, mistakenly) considered his most important. I did glean a couple dozen quotations from the wrtitings of the sages of the past that Tolstoy includes in his collection, but Tolstoy’s commentary (and his own pearls of wisdom) are excessively Christianity-centered (so many Gospel verses!) and didactic. Disappointing.


Religion & Anti-Religion



How Jesus Became God:
The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee
by Bart D. Ehrman

Although the author’s tone is engaging instead of scholarly, this is not Ehrman’s most readable book – for one thing, his others are far less repetitious. Still, this one may be the most single most important/profound of the many books Ehrman’s published – and I’m pretty sure I’ve read them all. A necessary (if rather belabored) documentation of the (rocky) history of the basically incomprehensible Christian notion of the Trinity.




The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (2013) annotated by Steve Wells

I wish this book had been published – and that I had been allowed to read it – back in the early 1960s, when I was a teenager forced to listen to Bible-quoting (and Bible-censoring) preachers until I left for college in 1966. I didn’t actually read the 1,600+-page Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, as that project would require reading every verse of the King James Bible plus Wells’ sidebar annotations – a project that would take years to accomplish, and more stamina for Biblical nonsense than I possess. What I think is probably more valuable for anyone who can’t bear the thought of plowing through the KJV again (or even for the first time) is reading Wells’ short introductions to each Bible book plus skimming his two appendices: a 31-page list of 471 Biblical contradictions and a 135-item list of citations of verses describing “God’s Killings in the Bible.” For me, the biggest irony in my getting hold of Wells’ book is realizing how much those Baptist preachers in my past left out of their weekly Bible-quoting. The descriptions of favorably-presented cruelty, misogeny, homophobia, logical absurdities and scientific blunders that those preachers left out of their somber readings or shrill rantings of Holy Scripture are more numerous and more damning than I had imagined. I wish a copy of Wells’ book were deposited alongside all those Gideon Bibles one still finds in hotel rooms, and was given to each church-going teenager before she is brow-beaten into A.C.A.H.P.S. (Accepting Christ As Her Personal Savior). A lot of confusing nonsense and harm-producing Bibliolatry might be averted thereby. In the meantime, every thinking human of any age would benefit from even a highly selective reading of the “revelations” Wells’ annotations provide. Incidentally (and astonishingly), the entire text of the $36 printed version The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, is available for free on the Internet!

Literature, Literary Criticism & Other Bookish Delights



Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story (2015)
by Michael Rosen

Possibly the most all-around enjoyable book I’ve read this year. Definitely one of the most carefully researched – but buoyantly written – books I’ve read this year. This aside-filled romp through the history of the English alphabet is every calligrapher’s, Scrabble-player’s, and word-lover’s dream book. The fact that I discovered it while idly browsing the shelves of the newest bookstore in my city is a bit unnerving, but I am not complaining. I just wish Rosen had more than 26 symbols to write about in his diverting and informative way; I especially enjoyed the way he was able to tie so many stories about the history of letters to his personal reading experiences as a child. This book reinforces and to some extent explains how someone can actually come to love the alphabet and anything connected to it.


Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, & Living with Books (2015)
by Michael Dirda

Dirda’s collection of fifty columns originally published in The American Scholar is my favorite so far of Dirda’s many books. His enthusiasm for all things bookish is infectious, and his style is refreshingly non-scholarly and generous and hilariously self-deprecating. Dirda is also quite persuasive: I’ve garnered from Browsings seventeen (!) additional Dirda-recommended items for my list of Books Cal Wants to Read. Dirda’s musings on the life of a modern bibliophile were are a pure joy to read. (If Dirda wasn’t already married, I’d be tempted to propose that he marry me.)       Ÿ

the-year-of-reading-dangerouslyThe Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-so-Great Ones) Saved My Life (2014)
by Andy Miller

Better in its way than the equally wonderful Browsings by Michael Dirda, which I finished shortly before obtaining this book-about-books. Why better? Well, the Britishness of the author automatically makes his prose funnier. But the autobiographical content wedged into the descriptions of the books under discussion made the experience of reading Dangerously even more fund to read than Broswings more serious, less autobiographical treatment. If I could write like Miller, I would write books instead of (well, in addition to) reading them!

as-of-this-writing-cover latest-readings-cover

As of This Writing: The Essential Essays, 1968-2002 (2003) by Clive James
Latest Readings(2015) by Clive James

These two collections of literary criticism and book and film reviews are some of the best, and best-written, I’ve ever read. James is an Australian who lives in Britain. His witty (but not over-clever) conversational writing style and his generosity toward authors or works he finds flawed or otherwise unappealing is unusual and refreshing. For the sheer enjoyment of his down-to-earth, often humorous commentary, I will seek out any further books by James, and intend to read his other previous collections.Meanwhile, I am learning a lot about about Australian poets – a subject that I have zero interest in, but love reading about when it’s James writing about them. Ÿ


This Thing We Call Literature (2016)
by Arthur Krystal

After a lifetime of wondering myself about some of the questions addressed by Krystal, it was a revelation to read Krystal’s collection of essays, most of which originally appeared in either the Chronicle of Higher Education or the New Yorker, and most of which discuss (from various angles), the differences between good writing and great – i.e., enduring – writing. Krystal is an excellent stylist; his arguments are very persuasive to this reader, who hadn’t realized what a “traditionalist” reader I apparently am! Krystal’s essays make me unashamed of that fact. I learned so much from this book that I re-read much of it (including his excellent essay on good vs. great poetry) before returning my copy to the library.


The Battle of the Books: History and Literature
in the Augustan Age
by Joseph M. Levine

The “battle” had to do with the question of whether or not the ancient Greek and Roman writers could be surpassed – in excellence of style and/or in wisdom – by any subsequent generations of poets, historians and dramatists. The various factions weighing in on this question felt at lot was at stake – for one thing, the answer would determine the curriculum of a college education, and could have a bearing on how statesmen and others in the aristocracy are trained; for another thing, the answer had ramifications for the writing and evaluation of all post-classical history, poetry, and drama -even determine beliefs about the limits of human nature and potential. I loved this book, although I can’t imagine who else might love it – its subject is just too arcane, the nuances of the obscure story are gone into in way too much detail,  and the level of meticulous scholarship is almost too much to endure – reading even half the authors’ hundreds of footnotes would take many, many, many hours of a reader’s precious time. But the writing is lively, and the pettiness and infighting among the uber-articulate, uber-privileged British scholarly elite that Levine recounts in his sprawling story – he takes in not only the British opinion on the main debate, but French and German opinion as well – is quite marvelous for a certain type of reader (like moi).


The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing (2013) by Ewan Clayton

Not a history for the faint of heart: there is so much detail, especially with regard to pre-modern eras, that I almost gave up on finishing it. Also, the author included far too few illustrations (only 64 of them throughout 358 pages of densely-written text and analysis of particular documents, and, too often, no illustrations when one would’ve really helped). But I’m glad I did finish this book, as the final fifth of it was so interesting and informative, and as the book’s last chapter (“The Material Artefact”) is – for this amateur calligrapher, anyway – so beautifully and so lyrically written. Clayton’s scholarship as reflected in his lengthy bibliography is astonishingly thorough, and the final section of his bibliography (“Current Practice in Handwriting, Calligraphy and Lettering”) would be very useful in an inventory of the library maintained by the local calligraphy I’m a member of.    Ÿ


Samuel Johnson and The Life of Reading (1997) by Robert DeMaria, Jr.

DeMaria calls his book an “extended essay,” but the level of detail given to expounding DeMaria’s underlying premise (that there are four kinds of reading, and that Johnson practiced all four of them) made reading the book feel like reading a dissertation. I had to force myself to finish it. This despite the author’s obvious insights, erudition, humility, and sense of humor. If the subject had been anyone’s reading other than Johnson’s, I wouldn’t have even started it. But DeMaria’s book has re-confirmed my awe at Johnson’s intelligence, and reignited my resolve to read more of what Johnson himself wrote.

Biography & Memoir


Meanwhile, There are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald (2015)
edited by Suzanne Marrs &Tom Nolan

I continue to be enthralled with reading letters exchanged between writers, and this collection, which spans only a decade but contains hundreds of fascinating letters, is the saga of one of the most heartwarming literary friendships I’ve come across, as Welty and Macdonald were such amazing supports for each other’s writing. Based on what Macdonald has to say about it, I definitely now need to find some of Welty’s fiction – possibly starting with a re-reading of her story “Why I Live at the P.O.” but maybe trying out one of her novels as well.



The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (2015) by Andrea Wulf

An incredibly interesting guy, this Alexander Humboldt. So I’m glad to have read about him and glad the author wrote this book about him. However, the last third of the book, devoted to Humboldt’s “successors” (like John Muir), I lost interest in reading about, so I did not finish this book. I understand that many individuals followed in Humboldt’s footsteps as ecology pioneers, but when Humboldt disappeared from the story, I instantly – and rather surprisingly – lost interest in it.



Bettyville: A Memoir  (2014) by George Hodgman

ŸForty-something gay man leaves his editing job in New York City to take care of his ailing (and communication-challenged) mom in the tiny town in Missouri where he grew up. A well-told tale of caregiving in the teeth of the mother’s progressive dementia and her lifetime of denial of her only child’s being gay. Heartbreaking, poignant, funny, sobering, and full of loving, moving descriptions of a way of life that has largely vanished, but that formed the perspectives of both mother and son.



Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country (1905) by Alexander Smith [1830-1867]

Seldom have I been more sorry to have finished a book – or been as glad that such a book exists! There are only twelve essays in this now-over-a-hundred-years-old book, but every one of the essays is as engagingly written as anything you’ll ever read. The titles of the essays are almost irrelevant; even the least interesting-sounding ones end up being glorious, as Smith – like his heroes Bacon and Montaigne – is likely to spend many pages meandering off his purported subject. The delight I found in this previously-unknown-to-me collection was great enough for me to resolve to buy myself a modern copy (my conscience won’t allow me to steal the library’s antique edition). And because it’s in the public domain, the text of Dreamthorp is available on the Internet, which made it much easier for me to copy-and-paste numerous passages into my Commonplace Book. Incidentally, Dreamthorp is Smith’s fictional name for the Scottish town of Linlithgow, which (along with Smith’s grave in a cemetery in nearby Edinburgh) is now on my list of Hoped-For Literary Pilgrimages.


Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder Ÿ(2014)

Most collections of letters I’ve read (and the letters of writers have long been one of my favorite types of books to read) are written by writers who’ve died (many of them British, rather than Americans). Not so with this collection, which spans a correspondence that began in 1973 and is doubtless still going on, with the latest letter reproduced here written in 2013. Each of these two articulate writers has lived an unusual and inspiring life; the topics they write to each other about (and sometimes disagree about) make me glad to be part of their generation. Now more than ever I am resolved to eventually track down and read every scrap of Berry’s nonfiction writing. It was a joy and privilege to read these letters: so much so that I started and finished this book in a matter of days. I hope there are many more letters between these two thoughtful, erudite, and humble homesteading writers, and that those letters will also one day be published. Snyder and Berry are national living treasures, each of them devoted to the very different regions of the planet they have cultivated through long and thoughtful lives.


A Heaven of Words: Last Journals, 1956-1984 (2013) by Glenway Wescott

Another intriguing installment of the trove of biographical material produced by a circle of Manhattan-based American gay artists, writers, photographers, playwrights, etc. (and their Continental friends and lovers) that rivals the scope and interested of the biographical materials that the “Bloomsberries” generated from and about their nearly-contemporaneous lives in England. I will next need to track down Wescott’s earlier journals (Continual Lessons: 1937-1955) and Wescott’s novels. A “heaven of words” indeed.


Time Enough (1974)
by Emily Kimbrough

I re-read this hilarious account of a group of friends’ boat trip down Ireland’s Shannon River in preparation for an almost identical trip I’m planning with several of my own friends for later this year. What a treat, re-reading this book! Kimbrough is skillful at vividly capturing the telling detail that make each of her characters (i.e., her friends and their respective foibles, as well as her own), as well as their harmless but charming adventures, come alive. You feel like you’re right there with them on their rented (and fully – and interestingly – staffed) boat, and happy to be there. Anyone reading Kimbrough’s account will risk feeling compelled to book a boat in Ireland. It was my first reading of this book that triggered my own subsequent quest to successfully enlist some of my own friends to float down the waterways of three different countries (England, France, and – finally – Ireland).



The Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson (1987)
by Noble Cunningham, Jr.

ŸA competent, one-volume biography – and a perfect review of any other biographies one might have read before but (like I had) forgotten the details of. One of the most astonishing parts, especially during this rancorous election year, was rediscovering how early on the vicious factionalism in U.S. politics began.




Fifty Days of Solitude (1994) by Doris Grumbach

I wanted this to be better than it was. There are some lovely reflections (such as the one on the different varieties of silence), but this book seemed too often like a writing excercise or a set of miscellaneous remarks than a significant contribution to the literature of solitude.



a-year-by-the-sea-coverA Year by the Sea:
  Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman
by Joan Anderson

ŸHaving read Anderson’s second book several years ago without realizing she’d already written this one, I’m glad I ran across this copy in a thrift store yesterday. (Yes, dear reader, I read this book in a single day.) I think it’s better than her second book – another memoir mining the same period of her life on Cape Cod. Anderson compellingly sets down in non-self-congratulatory prose the emotional roller-coaster ride of her Year of Living Solo. Similar in its pur-pose to two books by Alice Koeller that I read years ago – An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery (1981) and The Stations of Solitude (1990), which Iiked better than either of Anderson’s books.




The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde

Despite all the books about Oscar Wilde I’ve read over the years, I’d never gotten around to reading his novel. Several years ago at OutWrite Bookstore’s closing sale, I bought Nicholas Frankel’s illustrated, annotated, uncensored (and coffee-table-size) edition, and this week I finally read it. Reading It took a while, as the numerous footnotes amount to an additional book themselves. Mostly, I am amazed at how absurdly repressed and class-conscious Wilde’s Victorian contemporaries were, which resulted in – among other things, including Wilde’s arrest, trial, and imprisonment – so much “coding” of sexual matters into the text of Dorian. I was also surprised at how many of Oscar’s famous maxims derive from (or were imported into) his novel. Frankel’s delineation through his footnotes of the underpinnings of the novel’s plot and characters to Wilde’s life and world (as well as his meticulous history of the novel’s career) was, for me, far more interesting than the novel’s rather florid story, characters, and writing style.


All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr

I became a fan of Doerr’s when, a few years ago, I read his memoir Four Seasons in Rome. Although I’ve not read his previous novels, All the Light is indisputably a memorable book, even a page turner. As I usually do with novels that jump back-and-forth between different time periods and alternate between different characters’ points of view, I found this structure to be somewhat annoying, but I can see why Doerr took this route to tell this particular story. The cruelties and violence and desolation of war (specifically, World War II) that Doerr describes were certainly vivid, and, as intended, very distressing. (This book could should earn a spot on anyone’s list of anti-war novels.) Doerr’s imagery is often arresting, which helped pull met through the author’s portrayals of his characters’ anxiety and deprivation and the backdrop of ubiquitous, arbitrary deaths that more than once tempted me to put aside this heartbreaking novel. I’m in a book club that’s discussing this novel soon, and look forward to how other readers responded to this absorbing book.

Magazine Subscriptions

I would be remiss if I were not to insert here an enthusiastic recommendation of the two magazines whose every issue I’ve  eagerly devoured for the zillionth consecutive year. They are the world’s two best – although very, very different – magazines, deserving of a subscription of your own if you happen to be in the market for guaranteed excellence:

  • The Sun
  • The New Yorker

If any of my reading-loving acquaintances out there have kept track of what you’ve read this past year, I would love to see your list! Feel free to email it to me at calgough@bellsouth.net 


Year-End Holiday Chores and Rituals


As we head into another round of year-end holidays, my daily routine is gradually becoming monopolized by the seasonal tasks and activities I undertake at this time of year with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Excitement because I’ve always loved celebrating these holidays, trepidation because I sometimes get a bit carried away and there are moments when I notice I’m feeling more exhausted than festive!

Back in 2001 when, finding myself again in the throes of trying to get a handle on how to minimize the stress of preparing for the holidays, I created two checklists to help me more efficiently navigate what amounts to the entire month of December. I tried to identify all my self-imposed annual holiday chores, plus a separate list of holiday rituals that I particularly enjoy. I had to use a really tiny font to get those two checklists onto a single page, but I managed! Recently I unearthed a copy of this document and thought it would be interesting to post them here as a sort of index to the way I typically  go about celebrating the holiday season.

Two things have changed in my life since I created those checklists fifteen years ago  – two things, I mean, in addition to the still-rather-recent but clearly relevant fact that as a retiree I have so much more time for everything, including the past four annual cycles of holiday-related chores and pleasures!

The two changes since I first compiled my checklists:

  • I’ve re-framed (for myself, anyway) what I’m celebrating. After gradually realizing I prefer to celebrate the annual change of seasons rather than the birthday of someone who many revere as the Savior of Mankind, I have tried to deliberately de-Christianize the objects I use to decorate my house for these holidays. I also have made progress on trying to de-commercialize my holiday festoonery, getting rid of most of the Santy Clausey ornaments, etc. (I have hung onto a few non-Americanized “Father Christmas” things.) These two decisions resulted in my jettisoning several bins worth of decorations I’d hauled down from my attic every year for decades to mark the season, while preserving (and seeking out additional) images and symbols that are more evocative of references to the Winter Solstice. For example, I still love the idea of bringing a tree into the house, and I like using lots of candlelight the final week of December.
  • I have tried to simplify my year-end house decorating, food preparing, and gift-giving activities. I like to think that one day I’ll be content with merely setting out a few bowls full of ornaments and serving my visitors only cheese and crackers along with their cups of tea every December – but as anyone who knows me well could tell you, I’m not quite there yet.

Aside from my determination to de-commercialize, de-Christianize, and de-complicate my celebration of the end of the year, there are many things I love about the way most of my friends and family celebrate the year-end holidays:

  • the more-festive-than-usual gatherings of families, friends, and neighbors – although, for me, the smaller those gatherings, the more I tend to enjoy them.
  • the seasonal decorations (especially the ones that aren’t religion-themed).
  • the exchanging of greeting cards and/or gifts and the bonds and the acknowledgement of fondness and gratitude that these rituals represent.
  • most of the traditional foods and beverages.
  • some of the traditional seasonal music. Not the inane stuff that relentlessly assault the ears of the hapless customers of most retail establishments, mind you, but a handful of the traditional carols (especially Celtic-inflected instrumental versions) and the classical pieces.

Despite my ongoing efforts to simplify the hoopla I put myself through to make December more visibly festive than other months of the year, I was surprised to notice that I continue to look forward to undertaking many of the tasks and activities appearing on my fifteen year old holiday checklists. I probably shouldn’t be surprised: even though I’ve morphed and tweaked my holiday routines to make them more consistent with my beliefs and less stressful to carry out, I’ve always liked the notion of seasonal festivals, and I am notoriously sentimental.

At any rate, I’m reproducing here updated versions of the aforementioned year-end seasonal checklists partly as an acknowledgement of how enthusiastically I immerse myself in the seasonal madness (or what I consider to be its most positive aspects), partly out of curiosity at how many of the items on these lists will disappear from the lists over the next fifteen years, and partly in case the checklists might be useful to someone else who finds checklists immensely useful in minimizing stressful undertakings!

The photos of some of my holiday house decorations that I’m including below were taken at various different Christmases/Solstices Past – some of them in houses or apartments where I lived before moving to McLendon Avenue in 1993.

Checklist #1: Cal’s Year-End Holiday Chores


 bring down from the attic the dozen bins of holiday festoonery

 sort through each bin to decide what to use this year (and what to discard)

 return the dozen empty bins to the attic until after the holidays


 buy    set up    decorate the tree





 arrange presents, extra ornaments, fruit, etc. under the tree



 obtain evergreens to use throughout the house

 buy a sufficient supply of votive and pillar candles to minimize the need for electric       lights when visitors come to call during the holidays

 buy poinsettias and/or amaryllis and/or Christmas cacti and/or rosemary topiaries

 decorate the mantel




 install outdoor decorations:
 front porch & railings    front door     front windows      mailbox


 wash and iron the dining room tablecloth




 make centerpieces for   the dining room table   coffee table


 decorate living room












 decorate the dining room









 decorate the kitchen



 decorate the alcove in the hallway


 decorate the study



 decorate the bathroom


 return to the attic all the now-empty bins

 buy     bring inside a sufficient supply of firewood

Greeting Cards

 pick out and purchase a sufficient supply of this year’s cards

 buy a sufficient number of commemorative stamps

 assemble holiday rubber stamps, stamp pads, seals, sealing wax, inks, etc.

 create    type    print annual holiday newsletter and reading list

 prepare a digital version of my newsletter and reading list to post to my blog

 update addresses on my holiday card list

 fold and insert the printed newsletter into each card

 address the cards

 take to the post office the finished cards with newsletter enclosure
and mail to  in-town friends & family    out-of-town friends & family


 locate and purchase this year’s supply of gift wrapping

 compile   create   duplicate   type & print playlist   wrap    deliver or mail multiple copies of holiday music recordings as gifts

 buy   wrap annual jigsaw puzzle & chocolate cherries for Mom’s stocking

 buy my copy of   wrap Flanders’s copy of the annual teapot calendar

 buy    wrap gifts or stocking presents  for in-town   friends   family

 buy   wrap    mail gifts for out-of-town   friends   family

 buy & wrap all stocking gifts for    friends    family


 prepare contributions to holiday potlucks

 buy ingredients for   prepare   package   deliver
whatever homemade treat I’m making for friends (cranberry compote? chocolate bark? rum balls?)

 buy sufficient quantities of    eggnog    tea    sparkling cider

 make a trip to Farmer’s Market to buy abundant supplies of fresh fruit (and, less abundantly, fresh flowers) to display on the mantel and in assorted baskets

Visitor Prep

 schedule holiday season visits  with   in-town friends     out-of-town friends

 email invitations to the three Solstice Teas I host in my living room

 clean the house for the scheduled (and any impromptu) tea parties

 change linens for any overnight guests visiting during the holidays

Checklist #2: Cal’s Annual Holiday Rituals

 Reflect on my ongoing ambivalence about what celebrating Christmas and/or the Winter Solstice currently means to me

 Transform the house with seasonal festoonery (ideally, a bit differently than in previous years and minimizing the purchasing of additional decorations)

 Decide what I’m going to mention in my annual holiday newsletter

 Consider fooling around with some old-fashioned (i.e., snailmail-related) materials like colored inks, sealing wax, and commemorative postage stamps)when sending out Solstice cards (and newsletter)

 Unearth the presents I’ve bought throughout the year for specific people, and wrapping them

 Formulate a series of shopping trips, preferably to non-chain stores, for purchasing as-yet-unpurchased gifts; time those trips to minimize exposure to traffic or parking nightmares and to blaring Xmas carols

 Take time while I’m wrapping each gift to think about the person whose gift I’m wrapping

 Schedule a visit with my friend Kris to the cabin in North Georgia to address our holiday cards and consider doing some holiday baking

 Eagerly anticipate the ritual of receiving, opening, reading, and displaying the holiday cards people mail to me

 Sift through and re-enjoying holiday cards (and annual newsletters) from Holidays Past

 Make time to sit down in front of the fireplace and enjoy a mindful cup of tea, hot cider, or hot chocolate

 Enjoy the annual round of visits with friends and family

 Temporarily abandon moderation in consuming artery-clogging, yummy holiday treats like eggnog, homemade baked goodies, chocolate fudge, etc.

 Listen to each of the holiday music recordings I’ve made over the past fifteen years as gifts for friends and family

 Participate in at least one year-end public festivity—a candlelit tour of homes, the Botanical Garden’s Xmas Stroll, the Historical Society candlelight tour, a holiday choral concert, etc.

 Create and enjoy holiday smells: evergreen boughs, bayberry candle wax, simmering cider, baking cookie dough, etc.

 Reflect on my gratitude for relationships past and present with friends and family alive and not alive

 Invite my friends to the house (individually or in groups) for a candlelit tea-drinking salute to the Winter Solstice

 Listen by candlelight to a recording of poet Dylan Thomas reading A Child’s Christmas in Wales or re-watching John Huston’s movie version of James Joyce’s short story The Dead (set at Christmas in Dublin in the early 1900s)

 Be startled by walking into a room with a tree in it

 Gaze at the indoor tree and enjoy the resulting trance state

 Set aside at least one evening in late December for driving through nearby neighborhoods looking at outdoor decorations

 Try to finishing all my holiday chores – including all giftwrapping – early enough to relax and enjoy a completely chore-free evening on December 24th

 Join the other Goughs (and assorted others) for the family’s Xmas Morning traditions: being together, munching down on mom’s sausage balls before opening the presents, emptying out our Xmas stockings, savoring the mincemeat pie, etc.

 Escape the city to spend an exquisitely calm New Year’s Eve in a cozy cabin in the middle of the woods in the mountains of North Georgia

If you happen to enjoy certain holiday rituals or seasonal pleasures that aren’t mentioned in Checklist #2, please consider mentioning them in a comment to this blogpost. I’m always hoping to incorporate additional ways to enjoy the holidays, and you might have found some I haven’t discovered yet!