Christmas — in the details

The scent of pine, a shimmering ornament, a melody from a Christmas carol running through your mind — part of the magic of Christmastime is in the small details that pervade the season.

In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas…

The holly and the ivy…

I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their old familiar carols play…

Silver and gold, silver and gold…

The stars are brightly shining…

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…

How lovely are thy branches…

All is calm, all is bright…

May your days be merry and bright…

Cx snow globe

The Pyrenees and Pilgrimage, Part 1 — Lourdes

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The beautiful town of Lourdes, France is located in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Two structures dominate the town and its history — the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Lourdes, situated on the wide, flowing Gave de Pau, and the thousand-year-old fortress, the Chateau-Fort de Lourdes, built on a high rocky bluff.

Lourdes fort 2

Lourdes has a rich and varied history.  Artifacts dating from the prehistoric times to the Roman  have been found in the area, and “the town and its fortress formed a strategic stronghold in medieval times.” (www.Britannica.com)

However, the town is best known as a place of pilgrimage for Catholics the world over, visited by millions every year.

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The identity of Lourdes as a market town, mountains crossroads, and fortified stronghold forever changed in 1858 when a young girl, Bernadette Soubirous, experienced numerous visions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto near the river.

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“The visions were declared authentic by Pope Pius IX in 1862, and veneration of Mary as Our Lady of Lourdes was authorized. The underground spring in the grotto, revealed to Bernadette, was declared to have miraculous qualities, and Lourdes became a major pilgrimage site.” (www.britannica.com)

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Lourdes is an international destination, a place of hope for many who cannot walk or are battling sickness or a chronic condition. They line up to hear mass given in front of the grotto, and fill up bottles with the sacred grotto water from numerous taps. Behind the cathedral, alongside the river, are private bathing rooms where pilgrims line up to bathe in the waters, hoping for a cure or improvement.

Even in the offseason, the shops and crowds can make the place seems touristy, but the solemnity with which the pilgrims pray and believe, and the sheer beauty of the place, preserve the sense of the sacred.

cathedral way flowers

The Gothic-styled cathedral, with its soaring spires and long narrow windows, was built above the grotto in 1876. It is made of the same gray stone as the rock beneath it and seems to have risen directly from it.

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cathedral river

The chateau-fort, which was never conquered, sits high above the town and is today a museum. Like the cathedral, it is made from the gray granite of the Pyrenees and appears to be a continuation of the thrust of rock on which it was built.

Lourdes fort

From the fortress top, you can see that the village itself is nestled in the strong arms of the valley mountains. The vantage point offers spectacular views of the town and valley below.

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museum view fort

“The château fort de Lourdes is strategically placed at the entrance to the seven valleys of the Lavedan. The castle’s origins go back to Roman times….The oldest remains date from the 11th and 12th centuries” and was reinforced several times in later centuries. (www.wikipedia.com)

“Within its walls there is a botanical garden at the foot of the 14th-century keep, and the Pyrenean Museum.” (en.lourdes-infotourisme.com)

museum stone

The museum is filled with artifacts and offers a glimpse into local life of the past centuries. Several exhibits are dedicated to marriage customs, clothing, farming and husbandry, and day-to-day living.

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museum bedroom

As daytime draws to a close, the crowds disperse, the sounds of the day shift to the soft sounds of evening, and a tranquil beauty pervades Lourdes.

Cathedral eve

From one of the bridges over the river, you can look back and see the cathedral and, in the distance, the fort. These two main structures of Lourdes — perhaps representative of two opposing human impulses — today rest comfortably together in the valley town.

cathedral candles tree lit

With the church bells ringing, the grotto candles lit, and the lights coming on in the town, you realize that Lourdes is unique — a sacred site of hope and prayer, rich in layers of history — a town born of the awe-inspiring beauty of the Pyrenees.

The Romance of Travel: Carcassonne

Carcassonne distance

For many years I had longed to see the beautiful medieval city of Carcassonne and recently I was able to make that dream come true. Carcassonne did not disappoint.

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Located in the Languedoc region of southern France, Carcassonne is famous for its medieval citadel, La Cité, the largest walled city in Europe, with numerous watchtowers and double-walled fortifications. Languedoc is also famous for its wines and the hilltop city sits high above the surrounding vineyards.

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I arrived Carcassonne in the evening under a near-full moon. The hotel I stayed at was located at the foot of the hill, and I had a magnificent view of the fairytale city from my balcony.

Every day, I crossed the footbridge over the river Aude, climbed the steep cobblestone streets to the top of the hill, and entered the citadel through the lowered drawbridge. I spent hours wandering around the labyrinthine village, climbed the ramparts and spiral stairs of the towers, walked the walls which provided magnificent views of the valley below, and then rested and recharged at its many outdoor cafes.

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Carcassonne was occupied by the Romans and later the Visigoths. Its strategic hilltop location was fortified over the centuries with walls, towers, drawbridge and moat, a fortress, and a cathedral — the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire. Layers and layers of history pervade the stones and gargoyles, the slate roofs and worn steps.

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Today Carcassonne relies heavily on tourism and has several hotels, restaurants, and shops — even a small museum on the history of the French school system.

school museum crop (1)

The heraldic Occitan cross, which dates back to the 12th century, and the fleur-de-lis hearken back to its medieval history and can be seen throughout the city.

In the fall, Carcassonne has a particular beauty — pensive, tranquil, a bit wistful — and despite the tourists, a few quiet areas can always be found.

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It is at night when the magic of Carcassonne can most be felt — when the years of history fall away and you step into the past. The crenelated ramparts and rounded towers take on an architectural sharpness, accentuated by light and shadow.

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Crossing the drawbridge you can imagine the creak and clang of its chains, and you notice that the sounds inside the walled village are different — quieter, sometimes hushed. The interior of La Cité is softly lit by lampposts. Gold light pours onto the stone walls and archways and illuminates the curves of the cobblestone streets. It becomes a place of shadows and textures, mystery and beauty, drawing you further up into its heart.

Even in the off-season of late October, the hilltop is surprisingly alive at night and the sound of conversation and laughter fill the outdoor cafes that ring the small square at the center. Wandering through the narrow streets, you come across several restaurants and hotels that bid a warm welcome.

Carcassonne sets one to dreaming. Its deep history and beauty inspire, shift your perceptions, and bring about a silent exchange with the past. For many, it is representative of the unattainable — something actual, yet ever elusive. In 1887 Gustave Nadaud wrote a poem called “Carcassonne,” in which an old man dreams of seeing “fair Carcassonne” before he dies. To him, the city embodies the longing for an ideal, a place of profound meaning, an experience that could be his — yet it remains beyond his reach. The final line is “each man has his Carcassonne” — a beautiful distant dream.

Carcassonne dream (1)

Carcassonne — medieval city, hilltop fortress, fairytale village, a step back in time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Making of a Book Cover — Christmastime 1939: Prequel to the Christmastime Series

I was lucky to find a great book cover designer, Laura Duffy, for all my books. The Christmastime series, in particular, required several drafts.

Laura patiently added snow, made streetlights glow, erased modern buildings, and cropped and colored and added details until I had the image I wanted.

The cover for Christmastime 1939: Prequel to the Christmastime Series posed the most challenges. Early on, we decided that it would have a few subtle differences. As a prequel, it would not be part of the color sequence of the other books — green, red, blue. And Laura suggested that the “photograph” be vertical rather than horizontal.

I wanted the cover to evoke a sense of happiness and hope, with just a hint of the shadow cast by the war in Europe. After searching and searching for a photograph that would capture the main character’s (Lillian Hapsey) longing to move to Manhattan and start life anew, I found an image that might possibly work — with a little magic from Laura Duffy.

The photo had certain elements I was looking for: snow, a source of light (a lamppost), and it was immediately recognizable as Manhattan, with the Empire State Building in the center of the photo.

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But it needed some work.

First, the lamplights needed to be “turned on.” It took a few attempts to get the right shade of soft gold. Then we looked at several Christmas wreaths, pine boughs, and red ribbons to attach to the lamppost. We decided on the one below. I purchased the photo and Laura added and aged it.

Next, the Empire State Building needed to be more pronounced. The original photo depicted a foggy day (I wanted snow), and the outline of the building was obscured.  So Laura found and superimposed a clearer photo of the Empire State Building and added a light snowfall.

Empire State Bldg superimposed

We were getting closer, but it didn’t yet capture the charm and promise of new beginnings. I imagined a scene at dusk, people hurrying home after work, the Christmas season in the air — and Lillian pausing to look at the view of the Empire State Building and having a visceral feeling of connection — Manhattan embodied everything she wanted.

So Laura turned day into evening, showing lights in the office windows, and patiently adjusting my requests for “less blue, a little grayer, more dusk-like, a little darker, more snow?” — until finally, it clicked — and I entered the world of Christmastime.

The image captures a moment in the story when Lillian becomes a part of the city she so loves. I could see her dressed in 1930’s shoes and coat, her face raised in happiness, knowing that her two little boys would also love the magic of the city. I felt the image now had charm, a sense of excitement, and the feel of Christmas.

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Thank you, Laura!

Check out the variety of Laura’s covers here: https://www.lauraduffydesign.com/ 

Christmastime 1939 is now available (the softcover will be available any day now).

(The final book in the series, Christmastime 1945: A Love Story,  will be published in 2019.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Miranda’s garden — autumn days

“The sun shone on the garden, thick with late summer flowers and early autumn blooms.”

Though most of the story of The Garden House takes place over summer, the book ends with the beginning of fall, and a sense of change. I imagine the main character, Miranda, strolling through her garden at this time of year, gathering a few autumn leaves that have fallen to the ground and clipping blooms for displays around her home.

She would use certain flowers and berries and turn them into wreaths,

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or pair them with candles to create a cozy fall ambiance.

fall branches

Most of the cut flowers would become arrangements that Miranda would place on bookshelves, counters, and tables throughout the house, with one special bouquet for the dining table.

fall bouque Paula

I imagine her preparing one of her special meals for her children who would visit over the weekend, or perhaps her friends next door would stop by for dinner.

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Miranda would add leaves and moss, or branches of berries and a few apples to the dining table to give it an autumnal feel.

And if the weather was mild, she would choose to have dinner under the trees on her beloved deck.

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As the autumn days grew cooler, Miranda would take a moment in her garden to curl up on a bench with a shawl, or find just the right spot to enjoy a cup of hot cocoa and good book.

reading and cocoa

Beauty. Meaning. Books.
http://amzn.to/2x8QhNp

gardenhouse_kindle_hi

 

 

 

 

 

The Romance of Travel – Italy

 

Country road

A friend of mine recently returned from two weeks in Europe. She took writing and drawing classes in Italy, spending most of her time on the Amalfi coast.

Amalfi

Her pictures and stories filled my head with dreams — and plans. I’m long overdue for some traveling, and Italy has been beckoning for quite some time.

Verona fall

 

 

 

 

 

“Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life.” — Anna Akhmatova

Chianti

 

“You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” — Giuseppe Verdi.

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Travel opens the mind, fills the soul, and touches the heart. It allows you step out of your daily routine and see the world afresh.

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September Gold

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The early days of September are tinged with soft shades of yellow and gold, full of warmth and sunlight. Pale or saturated, these tawny colors are the harbingers of autumn’s richer colors and cooler temperatures.

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“I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.” ― Nathaniel Hawthorne

yellow trees

“Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.” ― Jim Bishop

“Autumn seemed to arrive suddenly that year. The morning of the first September was crisp and golden as an apple.” ― J.K. Rowling

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“September: it was the most beautiful of words, he’d always felt, evoking orange-flowers, swallows, and regret.” ― Alexander Theroux

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Bronze, blonde, amber, honey, flaxen — now’s the time to enjoy September’s gold.

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The Asking

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Following is the shortest story from my collection, Seven Tales of Love.

The Asking

It had been more than twenty years since she had danced. Dancing wasn’t a part of her husband’s character, along with many other things she used to delight in. In the early days, they had moved to music in her apartment. He had tried, for her sake. And yet, in him she had the security that she had never found with anyone else. Before him, there were always the betrayals, small or large, that spoiled her relationships and made her unsure of people. Her marriage was not what she had dreamed of in her youth – but then, neither were the betrayals. At least he was true, devoted, loyal. Rock solid. It had been easy to give up the superficial accessories of love.

So what was this desperate stirring inside her now? This night as she danced to the rhythms of the music, with the man whose hand gently held hers, moving together as if in long familiar ease? Delight, excitement, the thrill of the dance, as in her youth. That dream was supposed to be long dead, long ago replaced with more reassuring, dependable matters. What was it doing so achingly awake in her now – in all of its glittering, hopeful youthfulness?

An alarm shot through her. This feeling did not belong to her, the fiercely loyal woman of unshakable convictions. It was because of the music, surely, the warm breeze, the Old World balconies, the tiny soft lights in the night.

It wasn’t the kindness in his eyes, the flashes of laughter, the protective arm around her shoulder, the earthy connection to the rhythms of life.

No, it was the soft crashing of the waves, the shimmering pink and melon sunset. It was the sly promise that night weaves into its beginning. It was all that – and he was just a part of it, surely.

Unexpectedly, life was offering her a choice. All she had to do was embrace it. The choice was there, offered to her with simple outstretched hands – no demands, nothing but the sweetness of human warmth. The choice to connect with life one more time before age and plodding routine took over for good.

Or, to stay true to her old self, to the woman she thought she was.

This sudden feeling was not part of her code of living. Such a breaking of that code would leave her unsure of anything ever again.

Or, would it open her up to a whole new way of being – once more connected, once more happy and hopeful, her old buried self awake again, bursting into blossom after long dormant years?

Would it be sadder to give in? Or sadder to deny?

Either way was crushing. The question kept rolling in the surf of her mind, along with the feeling that she had recaptured her beauty, her liveliness, the agility and freedom of movement that she thought she had lost.

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Then, slowly, there in her mind, was her husband’s face, there with his gaze – the eyes that always asked, that always expressed love and desire for her. Her heart was pierced with tenderness for him, for all their faults and failures over the years. They were bound, bound – no matter what dreams of beauty might cross her path.

Her excuse was sore feet and age when she declined to dance further, when she took her seat, and watched the other dancers dance under the tiny lights.

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***

Rather than a vacation to a tropical location, as the story would suggest, the inspiration behind this tale came from a song. One cold winter’s day, after a dull day at work and a frustrating commute home on the subway, I stopped by a Thai restaurant to order takeout. As I sat waiting, staring through the rain-streaked windows at the traffic on the boulevard and the hurrying figures under black umbrellas, a song began to play — Sea, Sand, and Sun (Arnica Montana). And it took me far away — stirring up feelings and images of younger days, beautiful beaches, and the romance of life.

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Seven Tales of Love
by Linda Mahkovec
Amazon Link: http://a.co/20rApfG

The Shore in August

 

beach hammocks

There’s nothing like a day at the beach to make you feel like you’re celebrating summer.

beach chairs

I recently spent a few days out on the North and South Forks of Long Island. We strolled along beautiful beaches and enjoyed several meals out on wharves and along the water.

There’s something about the lapping of waves and a gentle sea breeze that brings about a sense of well-being, tranquility, and timelessness.

beach tent

And yet, the last month of summer is passing by quickly. Now’s the time to spend a few days at the beach or along a lake shore,

with a picnic lunch or curled up with a good book.

To summer!

shell sunset

 

Summer Yellow

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Though there are many colors of summer, yellow — bright and cheerful — stands out as the emblematic color of the warmer months. Perhaps because it’s the color of the sun and sunflowers, dandelions and lemonade, and other associations with hot summer days.

lemon arbor

“Indicating sunshine during the Renaissance to being one of the primary colours of Cubist art, yellow finds an intrinsic place in literature, allegory and symbolism.

Representing light, hope, happiness, and wisdom, yellow is meant to evoke optimism or natural light with an airy, radiant atmosphere.   ” — http://www.architecturaldigest.com

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“How wonderful yellow is. It stands for the sun.” — Vincent Van Gogh

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“Few artists in history have been known for their use of yellow,  though J.M.W. Turner and Vincent Van Gogh are the most notable exceptions” — most famously, Van Gogh’s depictions of the sunflowers and fields of Arles, and Turner’s “sublime and sun-lit seascapes.” http://www.artsy.net

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“We find from experience that yellow excites a warm and agreeable impression….The eye is gladdened, the heart expanded and cheered, a glow seems at once to breathe toward us.” — Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

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“The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.” — Wallace Stevens

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“The road to the City of Emeralds is paved with yellow brick.” –L. Frank Baum

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