Ordinary Transformations: Ms. Hempel Chronicles

editedbooklegs

Living as they did, at the top of the house, Beatrice and her brother were surrounded by trees. In the summer, their rooms filled with a green light. In the winter, the fir boughs grew heavy with snow and brushed against their windowpanes. Because they lived in rooms meant only for servants, their windows were small and perfectly square, not long and grand like those in the rest of the house. But they preferred it this way; they liked living in their tiny rooms, aloft in the trees; they liked the green light falling in squares at their feet. Their rooms were almost the same, but not quite: Calvin had a fireplace in his, and Beatrice had a wall of bookshelves built into hers.

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Ms. Hempel Chronicles

I’m lucky enough to have the occasional Wednesday off. Sometimes it’s used for errands or appointments, but on a recent mid-week reprieve, I woke to a quiet apartment and crawled into my new reading chair, bathed in buttery sunlight, and revisited a book I’ve read and loved before. I was struck by the passage abovethe feeling of childhood comfort and make believe in a private world up in the trees. I felt like I was stepping into my own little lofty room away up in the eaves, even though I’m really in a first-floor apartment. On that recent quiet Wednesdaywhich I reminisce about now knowing I won’t have another one for a good little chunk of timemy space was as peaceful as any hideaway.

editedfullnookHaving recently left my twenties behind and just barely entered my thirties, there was no better moment to reread this book. Beatrice Hempel is a middle school English teacher in her late twenties when we meet her, and this period of her life unifies the book, providing points of entry into her past and future. Rather than a strict chronology, the book is structured as a series of narrative glimpses into various stages of Ms. Hempel’s development.

Yet we never really get past an indeterminate point in her thirties, and don’t go much further back than her teens. That’s one of the things I love about this bookit portrays a slice of life that seems, from my vantage point, heady with identity formation. Ms. Hempel occupies the awkward years seldom spoken of as such, when one is outwardly an adult, but not old enough to have fully left youth culture behind.

bookcover

In the book’s first chapter, Ms. Hempel sits in the middle school auditorium watching a talent show, wondering how to react to the risqué rap lyrics (I feel a poke coming through …) accompanying a dance routine. She is “caught, again, in an awkward position: still young enough to decipher the lyrics, yet old enough to feel that a certain degree of outrage was required of her.” The moment is typical of Ms. Hempel: She is capable of compelling insights while remaining fairly clueless about how to respond to them. She senses that her position is delicate, placed at an instrumental point not only in her life but in the lives of her students. And though she often wins over her students, just as often, she feels a sense of unease about her own legitimacy as a teacher.

The book is filled not only with her own dynamic memories, but with her affection for the quirky, innocent troublemakersfrom ebulliently confident Harriet Reznik to dark-and-stormy Jonathan Hamishwho color her days. Still, it’s Ms. Hempel’s personality that carries the book throughher ability to slip into a fantasy world while riding a school bus, or to view her fiancé’s sexual kink with a wryness tempered by a longing for romance. Bynum combines humorous realism with an almost Victorian whimsy, and it’s a pairing I find endlessly appealing.

When I first read this book, just a year or two ago, I wrote that “reading this book in my late twenties was like reading The Catcher in the Rye when I was 13. Perfect timing.” Which leads to my next question: Do certain books mark certain times in your own life? Which books do you find yourself rereading, and how have your tastes changed (or stayed the same) over the years?

signature

Sweet Sunday in Old Oakland

oldoak6

Timeworn beauty and a tangle of blossoms

Most Sundays, K and I walk to a nearby farmers’ market. The stretch of houses, shops, and sights between our apartment and Jack London Square has become familiar, yet I still notice new details each time.

Today, camera in tow, my eyes were opened to the fantastic murals along the way. I’ve always been enchanted by the mix of historic homes, industrial spaces, and bright splashes of color, but this time, looking for interesting backdrops for my maxi-dress ensemble, I became better acquainted with these public works of art.

oldoak2

Close-up of a mural by Youth Spirit Artworks and Community Rejuvenation Project, outside the local chapter of the Engineers and Scientists of California

You can feel the layers of urban history here as sprawling murals give way to quaint side streets. One of our favorite spots in the heart of Old Oakland is the used bookstore run by the Friends of the Oakland Public Library. It appears small, but it’s the kind of place stocked with books you’ve been meaning to read and had almost forgotten about until they magically appear before you (at least, that’s my experience here).
oldoak5

Today, there was a sign outside the store asking “Who is your favorite female protagonist?” A number of answers had been scrawled on the whiteboard, from Scout Finch to Morgan Le Fay. It’s a difficult question, but in that moment, I added Anne Shirley to the list.

oldoak4

Later, we wove back to Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and followed it through residential streets into the wider expanses of the warehouses and lofts between Old Oakland and the waterfront.

oldoak7

Wind, leaves, and motion in Roots Run Deep by Meggs

I got lost in another mural—a swirling force of reds, teals, and ferocity—before landing at our final destination: the square at the harbor, where heirloom tomatoes, strawberries, and okra awaited.

oldoak9

The nautical splendor of Jack London Square

Although I like the anonymity of the city, I love having a local list of places that I can go to while still feeling at home. Though Jack London Square has a touristy bent, I can’t help but feel that a gussied-up marina is a luxurious location to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables. The waterfront has really grown on me, which was probably inevitable, as I’m always drawn to the nearest body of water—being near the ocean or a rushing river gives such a feeling of release.

What are your weekend routes and routines? What sights and experiences comfort and inspire you?

signature

Crown & Crumpet

teacupladycollage timeforteamecollageFor my birthday, K took me to Crown & Crumpet, a tea room I learned of from the Heroine Training blog. It was pretty much exactly as I imagined: a light-filled space embellished with whimsical touches, like a clock with teacups and saucers instead of numbers.

The service was as friendly and lighthearted as the tea room itself. We ordered a large pot of Crown & Crumpet Private Blend, a proper black tea. My three-tiered Tea for One included a satisfying sampling of finger sandwiches and treats, though K’s sandwich (I think it was mozzarella chicken) was the tastiest of the savory fare.

teatray

The warm blueberry scone with lemon curd was my favorite.

Going by the numbers, I’m very much a grown-up these days, but I can still enjoy an Alice-in-Wonderland-like teatime experience. Teatime seems to be associated with make-believe and fanciful old ladies, but I think it should be a part of everyday life—and more or less fancy according to the occasion.

BlogSig

Copywriting, Creative Writing

Confession: I am taking a copywriting class here in San Francisco. A class about writing ads. It’s not academia as I know it, though there is definitely a workshop component to the class.

The writing produced is different from fiction in many ways, and the experience only increases my respect for the depth of artistry demanded in writing fiction. Still, copywriting is a skill of its own.

What strikes me most about the class, so far, is the dynamic between students responding to one another’s work. Maybe it’s because advertising is a collaborative field that relies on professional networks (though this could be said of many fields), but there’s a feeling that one person’s well-wrought line of copy doesn’t just benefit that person, but all of us. That line contains an idea we can all work with and be inspired by.

I owe much to the fiction-writing workshops I’ve taken over the years. But too often there is a feeling that each person is on his or her own, or that there are little teams of two or three students who adhere to the same aesthetic and don’t much care for the work of those writing in different styles.

I’ve definitely contributed to this dynamic. I’ve been overly sensitive and taken things personally. But I’m happy to say that I’m learning something new in this class, not just about working with words, but about ways of being a writer and interacting with others who write. It’s a fresh experience, and far from dulling my mind with hackneyed lines, it’s sharpened my sense of words in a way that only heightens my appreciation for literary writing.

So … what about you? Have you participated in writing workshops? Do you have copywriting experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts about what being a writer among writers means to you. BlogSig

Leaf & Sip: Chocolat / Lavender Earl Grey

“Leaf & Sip” is a new series on The Burnished Leaf. For each installment, I pair a book and tea suitable for enjoyment side by side.

DSC04197

Chocolat was lovely beyond my expectations.

Chocolat hasn’t left my mind since I finished reading it. Other books have come and gone, but it’s still the one I most want to share with you.

It’s one of those rare titles (like The Virgin Suicides) with a film adaptation that I also love. I’m guessing you may have seen the movie, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. It’s been one of my favorites for years, and I’m surprised it took me so long to read the novel that inspired it.

The plot centers on strong-willed chocolatier Vianne Rocher, who opens a shop in a provincial French village. A single mother to six-year-old Anouk and unapologetic champion of chocolate, festivities, and the pleasures they cultivate, she is at odds with the strict churchgoing culture enforced by the town curé, Francis Reynaud. As she defiantly connects with the community, a collection of characters and one Gypsy drifter form a coterie that alters her life. She and Anouk find their footing, and Vianne begins to see her heretofore-rootless existence from a new perspective.

From the beginning, the Rochers imbue their environment with a new ambiance. “We came on the wind of the carnival,” Vianne narrates, and with their arrival the wind, which carries the scents of fried foods and confetti, seems to change. Upon moving into their new abode, she tells us, “We lit a candle for every room, gold and red and white and orange. I prefer to make my own incense, but in a crisis the bought sticks were good enough for our purposes, lavender and cedar and lemongrass.”

These kinds of scents and tastes, mixed into sorcerous concoctions, characterize much of Chocolat. Eithne Farry of The Daily Mail wrote that the novel “glittered with magic, mystery and the weather, and enticed with the indulgent flavours of truffles, bitter orange cracknell and lavender brittle.” Continue reading

Home, as a Location

DSC04361DSC04380 DSC04372 DSC04388It’s strange but lovely to say I spent the first 18 years of my life in a surf town with beautiful beaches and a seaside amusement park.

On January 2, I revisited it. The same pizza, coffee, cookies, views. Since I spent most of the past decade elsewhere, it was familiar and fresh at once. It’s so very much the same, but not quite. You know?

It seems that every entry I write lately relates to the idea of home, but in this case, it takes the form of a very specific location.

After spending so many years in other regions, no one place can encompass everything that has formed me — yet it’s nice to think that the place that comes closest to fitting this description is one small, scenic city on the Monterey Bay.

What reminds you of home?

BlogSig

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. Continue reading

East Bay Days

DSC04341

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.

DSC04118

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.

DSC04110

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