Tales of Hearth & Home

novembertodecemberIMG_0103 2K and I headed north for Thanksgiving, back to the same place that has come to feel like home. Now that I’m on the West Coast again, I’m able to visit more often, and it’s been lovely to see the seasonal changes in redwood country.

Though the holiday weekend had its ups and downs (for example, our engine overheated and we ended up taking a long bus/train ride), so many details of the experience felt so valuable: gorgeous views from the train; the way that droplets of fresh rain brightened fall-colored leaves; and time spent before the fire, listening to rain fall outside, playing Scrabble, watching movies, and talking. Sartorially, I stuck to a traveling outfit that included a vintage L.L. Bean jacket which I never quite worked into my Maine wardrobe, but which has been perfect for California winter.

IndoorOutdoorInterspersed amidst time socializing and, of course, eating, were snippets spent reading a collection of Charles Dickens’ seasonal stories while sipping a mug of peppermint tea with spiced rum. I admit that these solitary moments were among those I most looked forward to. There’s nothing like Dickens for cultivating a cozy and contemplative feeling.chairblankieteaThe edition I read united A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, and The Cricket on the Hearth. The ordering of stories takes readers through Christmas time and the New Year, with a final tale of home and community.

Often sentimental, these stories helped to define a particular aspect of Dickens’ fame. His association with Christmas is no secret, nor is his commitment to social awareness. These stories may not be Dickens’ masterworks, but they are no less emblematic of his legacy than works that garner greater literary validation. As always, Dickens writes of tender scenes and appealing characters, evoking nooks and crannies of warmth within a cold and unfeeling social structure.

A Christmas Carol is the most iconic story in the collection for a reason — of the three, it is the most compelling.

It’s likely you already know the plot: With the help of several Christmas spirits, Scrooge is given the opportunity to see and, to some extent, make up for lost and overlooked opportunities for kindness. Though we’re all familiar with A Christmas Carol in one way or another, it is worth experiencing in its original form in order to soak up all those details of foggy Victorian London and its inhabitants.

A favorite moment of mine is the description of Scrooge’s house as “a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again.”

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Surroundings of moss and fog complement Dickens’ dreary but dynamic English setting.

The Chimes delves into the daily life of a street porter called Trotty, his daughter, Meg, and those, both rich and poor, with whom they interact. Like A Christmas Carol, it includes a supernatural element; it’s subtitled A Goblin Story of Some Bells That Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In. But my favorite quote from the story has to do with one of my favorite things — tea. Here, Dickens describes Trotty preparing a brew for a pair of guests even less fortunate than he:

… when he poured the boiling water in the tea-pot, [he] looked lovingly down into the depths of that snug caldron, and suffered the fragrant steam to curl about his nose, and wreathe his head and face in a thick cloud.

There is something so soothing about the steam from a pot or mug of tea — and it enhances the sense of a dear and cozy home that is so significant in the collection’s next story.

The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home is an unabashed celebration of family and domestic comforts. Its plot hovers between the dramatic and farcical, with twists and turns revealing welcome truths. As central character Caleb Plummer worries that his wife, Dot, may have engaged in adultery, a cricket in fairy form comes to the rescue, reminding Caleb that Dot’s domestic ministrations make the hearth into an “Altar of Home … so that the smoke from this poor chimney has gone upward with a better fragrance than the richest incense that is burnt before the richest shrines in all the gaudy temples of the world!” As you can see, the story contains an almost religious fervor for the happy-but-humble home.

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During a brief walk between rainfalls, a blustery view.

Sentimental though these stories may be, they inspired a more sympathetic outlook on my part, as I see people living in destitution daily in San Francisco. Dickens’ message is clear — holiday cheer includes not just merrymaking but generosity, and, as he says in his preface, such feelings are “never out of season.”

I won’t pretend that the holidays are an easy time — they seem to place familial harmonies and dissonances in sharp relief, while creating a flurry of activity that sometimes stresses rather than cheers. Nonetheless, it’s a time I look forward to, and at its best, a time to focus on simple things that might otherwise be overlooked.

What puts you in the holiday spirit?

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East Bay Days

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Standing serene on my peninsula. A little to the right (not pictured) is the Golden Gate Bridge.

All my life, I’ve wanted to live in San Francisco. I can remember being about four years old, walking through Chinatown, utterly enchanted.

Recently, my lifelong dream of living in this city came true. Sort of. I currently live right across the bay from San Francisco, with a foggy view of the Golden Gate just a short walk past my door.

Though the city sits just beyond the stretch of blue that separates it from me and the East Bay, my weekday commute gives the illusion of a much greater distance. {If only I could just take a ferry across the water!} So when it comes to the weekend, I like to explore the little patch of the Bay Area in which I actually reside. Continue reading

Leaf & Sip: Chocolates for Breakfast / Iced Coconut Green Tea

While traveling, often without internet access, I had some time to think about this blog. As I reflected on The Burnished Leaf and what I would like it to become, I decided I would like to combine the categories I write about (style, books, tea, life/travel) more often. Book reviews are easy enough to find online, and there are so many wonderful fashion blogs. It feels fresher and is perhaps a better use of my talents to try to write about overlaps between my interests.

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The novel Chocolates for Breakfast, iced Coconut Green Tea, and a reading companion

So, this is my first book & tea pairing, and the start of what I hope will become a series. In a nod to my blog’s title and the linguistic overlap between “leafing” through a book and the tea leaf itself, I’ve named the concept “Leaf & Sip.”

For each installment, I’ll select a book I’ve read or revisited recently, and pair it with a complementary cup of tea. The tea may be reminiscent of the book in flavor or association, or it may provide a refreshing contrast. Either way, it will be something I savored while reading.

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This time, I selected Pamela Moore’s  Chocolates for Breakfast and Trader Joe’s Coconut Green Tea with Lemongrass & Ginger. I was lucky enough to read the book and sip the iced tea in my mother’s sun-dappled backyard. {Confession: It’s been weeks now since these photos were taken, but I still want to share them with you.}

Continue reading

Refreshing Rooibos at Selah Tea Cafe

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Recently, K and I stopped at one of my favorite teatime spots—Selah Tea Cafe, in Waterville, Maine.

When presented with an assortment of scrumptious teas, I often choose rooibos, a red tea made from the leaves of a South African plant. I like its earthy, slightly sweet taste, and the way it complements other favorite flavors, like vanilla and cinnamon.

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This time, I chose a Belgian Chocolate rooibos. It was rich and fragrant, with a deep caramel color and a warming, reviving taste. The chocolatey-herbal flavor comes from the addition of calendula (a flower resembling marigold) leaves and cacao (cocoa bean) pieces. Consider it a tea translation of well-crafted chocolate. Continue reading

Omnivore’s Oeuvre: The Novels of Jeffrey Eugenides

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One of my mini-projects this summer has been reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ complete novels. The author’s Greek-American heritage and native Detroit inspire much of his subject matter, and romantic and familial relationships are central to his work. But Eugenides’ seemingly slim output belies the breadth of ambition displayed in his three novels. The first novel is poetic and poignant; the second, intricate, verging on epic; and the third, engaging and quick-paced. All are compelling reads.

1. The Virgin Suicides (1993) is my favorite. If you’ve seen Sofia Coppola’s film you will notice that the movie’s dreamlike quality matches the texture and tone of Eugenides’ novel. The first-person plural narration tells the story of the Lisbon sisters through the lens of a group of neighborhood boys infatuated with them. Seen from afar, the Lisbon girls—Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux, and Cecilia—take on a mysterious quality that starts as fleshly beauty and moves into something ethereal. As the sisters grapple with Cecilia’s suicide and grow increasingly isolated, a sense of longing from the the neighborhood boys amplifies the heartbreaking way the girls fade from view.

Despite the subject matter, I would not say this novel is dominated by stark tragedy. Eugenides weaves a lyrical and evocative narrative that luxuriates in the details of the boys’ imaginations and the material clues of the girls’ lives. Though I am one to react against the stereotypical “male gaze,” Eugenides’ gorgeous prose and the mix of innocence, curiousity, and adolescent wonder in the narrative voice creates a complicated and finely-woven tale.

The male gaze is not un-self-conscious. At one point, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon reluctantly allow Therese, Mary, Bonnie, and Lux to go to homecoming on a group date that includes some of the neighborhood boys. For one night the girls become real, and the narrator acknowledges the gap between who the Lisbon girls appear to be from afar, and who they prove to be on closer inspection. “Who had known they talked so much, held so many opinions, jabbed at the world’s sights with so many fingers?” the narrator asks. “Between our sporadic glimpses of the girls they had been continuously living, developing in ways we couldn’t imagine, reading every book on the bowdlerized family bookshelf.” With a wave of the wand, Eugenides acknowledges the multifaceted and unseen personalities of the Lisbon girls. Though they are developed characters within the novel, they are often imaginary, sifted and glimpsed through the observations and fantasies of their neighbors. Eugenides reveals beauty and flaws in the ways the boys romanticize the Lisbon sisters from afar. Continue reading

Make a Move: Relocation, Community, and Anne Shirley

 

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Goodbye, beautiful cupboards

Though it doesn’t look like much from the outside, the home I’m about to leave is gorgeous inside. Rich wood in the kitchen, a pretty retro sink. High ceilings. A counter with room for two wooden stools. Space for miles.

I didn’t expect to feel much about this place. It was a wayside, a layover, and only for a moment did it seem like a long-term possibility. Mostly, I’m ready for the relief of being at home in a larger sense—the Pacific Ocean, the homeland, a better cultural fit.

Recently, K and I held a yard sale in an attempt to divest ourselves of some of the belongings we simply can’t take with us. We sifted through objects large and small and hauled them to the front yard.

At first, very few came. A pair of new friends from the university dropped by, picked up a few books, and kept us company for a while. Cars slowed and drivers surveyed our offerings with their eyes, but found nothing to merit stopping.

Then, in the late afternoon, something shifted. Two men with beards, wearing suspenders and work clothes, bought a bag of cassette tapes and a coffee maker, respectively. A young couple from across the street looked earnestly at the essentials on view, disappeared into their home, and came out with enough cash for a blender, coffee table, and shower caddy. An older woman from next door wandered over with her therapy dog, Gizmo, a short-haired Shih Tzu wearing a blue bandana. The woman bought a pink-elephant piggy bank and a container of miniature clothespins.

Out of the woodwork, slowly, a community emerged. Continue reading

New York State of Mind

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Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, July 2009

Lately, I’ve been haunted by nostalgia for New York.

I am a person who arrives in a new location with wonderment, then looks around and asks where to next. Home is an evasive concept.

During my fraught teen years, growing up in a small city where people surf the waves and (for lack of better words) hang loose, I wanted something crisper, something cooler, something that matched my temperament. Uneasy during my visits in the East, I left home for an obscure college in the Midwest. Four years swept by, filled with technicolor falls, skin-numbing winters, and miraculous springs. I fell for Virginia Woolf and unrequited love.

After a memorably disastrous year in the city Nelson Algren likens to a woman with a broken nose, followed by a boomerang half-year, I moved to NYC. During the heart of the recession.

I can’t remember ever being so excited or optimistic about a new place. I weathered the tough neighborhoods, knowing there was more to this place. I passed Yoko Ono on the Upper West Side. I commuted to Lincoln Center.

In some ways my life there remained a half-life, or I probably would have stayed. What remains: K, whom I met in July of 2009, when I was living in the neighborhood pictured above. And my one other true friend made in NYC, a quirky, stylish girl who let me be her roommate in a crumbling little brownstone overlooking a hipster/jazz café on one side and a coterie of stoop-sitters on the other.

I’ve been losing myself in a blog called The Wild and Wily Ways of a Brunette “Bombshell.” Please peruse the entries about home, as a place, feeling, etc. They are beautiful.

This post is obviously inspired by those words. But the heartache for New York is real and unexpected.

A Spot of Tea-spiration

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Tea Time - by rockylune

I can’t resist sharing this darling tea time Polyvore set by rockylune (who has a slew of sets worth perusing). I believe the flowers featured here could be called “tea roses”? I love the dash of pink amidst the sparkling white and leaf green. Whenever possible, I like to brighten up my apartment with a vase of flowers.

While I admire the updated Victorian aesthetic here, in terms of tea styling, I can’t say I’m much of an achiever. But I do like to use loose leaves, a tea pot, and a strainer, and pile it all on to a tea tray. I use an actual tea cup and saucer if I’m feeling fancy. During the warmer months, I’m much more inclined to drink iced tea, but I tend to be lazier about it, and have relied on tea sachets so far.

What are your tea time rituals?

A Favorite Recipe

upclosewithtitleI am always looking for ways to incorporate whole wheat flour into baked goods. I also like to add a dash of cinnamon whenever possible—into ground coffee, onto toast, and of course, into recipes like this one. And I like to lessen the sugar content of baked goods just a little bit—it helps to bring out the other flavors, makes me feel a touch better about indulging, and usually tastes better to me.

Enter these chocolate chip cookies. They are adapted from a Toll House cookie recipe in How to Cook, by Raymond Sokolov. I replaced half the white flour with whole wheat flour, adding a slightly denser flavor and nuttiness to the cookie. I used ¼ cup less white sugar, and added ½ teaspoon of cinnamon. This has been my go-to cookie recipe for a few years now.

I lined the cookie sheet with my Silpat mat, which eliminates the need to butter the pan and allows the cookies to bake up into nice little well-shaped circles. The mat was a gift from my brother and sister-in-law. The recipe book also happens to be a gift from them—part of a care package they sent me when I first moved to NYC and was nestled way up in Washington Heights in a tiny subletted room.

So, here are my instructions for a moist, flavorful cookie that tastes a bit like a chocolate-chip cinnamon roll. Continue reading