Monday, January 31, 2011

Another Etsy Treasure

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JK Rowling Harvard Commencement Speech, 2008

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates.

The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that have expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

These may seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension. I know that the irony strikes with the force of a cartoon anvil, now.

So they hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working at the African research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to speak against their governments. Visitors to our offices included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had left behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him back to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just had to give him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard, and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, people who have been kind enough not to sue me when I took their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

I wish you all very good lives. Thank you very much.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cookie Party

There are a few foods that are way more fun to make than they are to eat... but sugar cookies fall into that category.  On Christmas day, My brother, Mary, Matt and I had ourselves a little cookie party. It was the first time any of us had decorated cookies in ages, and it brought back all kinds of fun childhood memories (at least it did for me!). After we decorated our stars, trees, angels, snowmen and bells, we assigned each new masterpiece a title: Big Dot Bell, Swirl Angel, Beardman, Stars n' Stripes, Clyde & co. 

A while my post is quite tardy, and I am trying to avoid indulging in parties of the sugar-cookie type these days, it was a happy night and deserves a spot on my happy blog. (Although I hear the night might be immortalized in another way... as Fancy Snowman may still be on display!)


Future Scarf

This is so lovely. And it looks so complicated, but I think I can actually do this one.  As soon as I finish a few of the projects that I have in the works, I will attempt this one. Maybe it will be for me- I haven't made anything for me yet :)

The Fellowship of the Ring

Matthew and I are reading another book together- one we have both been putting off for too long.  We are delving into Tolkein's classic,  Lord of the Rings.  Matthew had started it before, years ago, but didn't get into it enough to read it all the ay through.  I had never, until quite recently, expressed any interest in the fantasy genre.  My desire to read these books comes from my love of Harry Potter. For years I have listened to fans of both epics compare one to the other--or detail the points of obvious inspiration that JK Rowling got from Tolkien, and I guess I just got tired of having to sit out of the conversation. 

Oddly, I really spent a lot of time considering if I should read this "trilogy".  I thought it would be best to watch the movies first-- as in sit down and pay attention and watch them all the way through-- and see if I enjoyed them.  Up until recently, I had seen the first hour and a half of the first movie, none of the second, and the last 45 minutes of the third movie. My brother claims that I had a knack for ruining some of the best films by "watching" them "half-assed".

So I watched. And I liked.  My favorite part of all three movies is the Shire seen at the beginning of the first film- after Bilbo's birthday celebration, I was sold.  

But even then I didn't pick up the books, I needed to be sure that it was not just the story (or fantasy world) that I enjoyed, but the actual writing. I decided that before I read Lord of the Rings, I ought to read The Hobbit. (If only I put so much thoughtful consideration into the big decisions on my life! I think I thought about applying to law school for a total of 15 minutes). Matt and I read The Hobbit to each other (alright, Matt mostly read it to me...he's so much better at reading out loud!).  It was a perfect bedtime read.  The story was entertaining and the style was simple and fun. I read that Tolkein wrote it as a bedtime story for his own children. Once we finished it, and watched the animated film, there was nothing left to do, but tackle the story we had been putting off...

So far, it is a surprisingly easy read! For some reason I was expecting it to be dry and full of biblical-style histories, but it moves along and is truly a fantastic adventure.  Of course, we are only about half way through the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, so I guess it is possible for the story to change pace. It is clearly a bit more sophisticated than The Hobbit, but this doesn't detract from the story. Rather, the opposite is true. The characters, the friendships, the setting, the danger--all seem much more developed in Fellowship.

And it is full of songs- just like The Hobbit! One of the best things in the world is to see your hubby have to make up a tune on the spot and belt out a song about 3 hobbits taking a bath together!

Sing hey! for the bath at close of day
that washes the weary mud away!
A loon is he that will not sing:
O! Water Hot is a noble thing!

O! Sweet is the sound of falling rain,
and the brook that leaps from hill to plain;
but better than rain or rippling streams
is Water Hot that smokes and steams.

O! Water cold we may pour at need
down a thirsty throat and be glad indeed;
but better is Beer if drink we lack,
and Water Hot poured down the back.
O! Water is fair that leaps on high
in a fountain white beneath the sky;
but never did fountain sound so sweet
as splashing Hot Water with my feet!

He delievered a top-notch performance that was one of a kind (since he can't remember the tune:). A few nights later, I rocked the Tom Bombadil song, if I do say so myself. And then had it stuck in m head for nearly a week! He is one of my favorite characters so far!
Tom Bombadil and his wife Goldberry invitng the four traveling hobbits to their home

Now we are reading the scenes at The Prancing Pony in Bree.  We have been introduced to Strider and the hobbits are deciding whether they will allow the ranger to accompany them to Rivendale... we wait until tonight to see what they choose; to face the perilous road alone with the Black Riders in persuit, or trust the ragged stranger, who seems to know too much about their quest, to lead them through the unknown territory!

My man, Viggo!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Doggie Kisses (part 5 of a 365 part series)

Gretta Kisses

"Rock Cottage"

Learned about this place while fooling around online... I couldn't find anything more current as to what is happeneing with the cottage now, but I imagine it all cozy and lovely (yes, much like Bag End). Anyone know more than what I copied from a Worcestershire news paper?

July, 2007

Rock Cottage, which is hewn out of a sandstone cliff near Wolverley, Worcestershire, was last occupied in the late 1940s. Bidding started at £25,000 and interested buyers came from around the world to view it, but it was eventually sold to a neighbor for 100,000.

The cottage made of 3 adjoining caves was built in the 1770s and has no electricity or water supply but boasts a front door, windows and fireplaces, as well as a pantry, sitting room and a bedroom.  It also includes nearly five acres of mixed woodland and garden land and is being auctioned on Wednesday following the death of the previous owner. 

Pear Pie

Grandma used to make pear pie- or cobbler rather. I remember making it with her, usually in a large rectangular pyrex. With pear orchards surrounding Ukiah, there was always some wonderful connection to box fulls of pears each season (My one year working at the pear sheds, I was the connection)

Pear pie is not something you can usually find on the menu at a restaurant or premade at any bakery. Its the sort of thing that if you want it, you gots to make it yourself. So that's what me and my brother did the day after Christmas. Sister-in-law made sure we had all the ingredients, including organic pears, and J supervised, ensuring I didn't forget anything. (Matt just helped with the eating ;)

It wasn't as good as Grandma's... I don't think that's possible. She made it a little different each time, and it always turned out perfect- in that way that only grandmas can. But it was tasty, and it brought back all kinds of sweet memories.

Future Sweater

Oooh! Add this to my "I want to make this one day" list!

Robert Burns Supper

Each year around January 25th, people gather round tables big and small and pay homage to the Bard of Scotland, Robert Burns.  The man lived only 37 years, but he left behind hundreds of poems and songs(and almost as many illigitimate children). The night is spent eating and drinking, laughing and toasting, reading and singing!

I had been wanting to attend a Buns Supper since I heard about them months ago, but they are not so common in my part of the world, so I decided to throw one.  Along with the help of my hubby and some good friends, our humble apartment was transformed- and we hosted a feast for 16!

A traditional Burns Supper has a simple menu, and I stuck to as best as I could- with some major alteraltions.  The star of the evening was the haggis... Haggis is an intense dish to make even for the biggest of meat eaters, but for someone who has spent the last 20+ years as a vegetarian it is damn near impossible.  Luckily, there are many vegetarian recipes available online, so that's what I made.  As I told my guests- what we lack in authenticity, we'll regain in good karma.

Here's the recipe I based my veggie haggis on, but I did alter this one a bit as well...

The haggis was accompanied by the traditional champit tatties and bashed neeps (mashed potatoes and rutabagas for us yankies). Followed by a desert of Tipsy Laird.  But the night was not really about the food.

The Scotch was a flowin'!Some might say too much, and some might say not enough. There was a whisky punch and whisky cocktails, and, of course, the straight whisky. Thanks to all of you who generously brought spirits to share. I developed a new appreciation for the good stuff ;) But the night was not really about the booze.

It was about the people! What a great group- I felt so lucky to have my home filled with such a group.  Most people did not know each other, but everyone got along.  Some of the guests I have know for years, and some I had met that night- but by the time we sang Auld Lang Syne (in the highest key possible...sorry) I felt that warm fuzzy feeling of friendship filling the room!

The photos below show some of our highlights. They may be blurry, fuzzy and slightly poorly lit, but they are filled with of fun and festivities!

The Guests

Parade of the *veggie* Haggis

Ben Reads "Address to a Haggis"

Great chieftain o' the puddin-race! 
Aboon them a' ye tak your place, 
Painch, tripe, or thairm: 
Weel are ye wordy of a grace 
As lang's my arm. 

Anish reads "My Love is Like a Red Red Rose"

Matty as bar keep- Guests had a choice between Scotch wisky or Scotch wisky cocktails

Atret reads "The Fornicator"

Couch boys- Alex, Anish and Ken

Jamil and Kerstin- after reading "To a Mouse" and "The Banks of Bonnie Doon"
 But Mousie,thou art no thy lane,
The best-laid schemes O mice and men
Gang aft agley.
An lea'e us nought but grief an pain,
For promis'd joy!

Danielle and co-host Lilly, After reading "The Immortal Memory" and a few poems each.

Matt's epic reading of "Tam O'Shanter"

To Rabbie Burns, and to a great night!

In proving foresight may be vain:

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bubble Bath

I have neglected my blog.

I have had so many happy things in my life these days, so much inspiration from things that have a rightful place in my virtual happy place. But I have also been so very busy!

So, before I get back to blogging, I think I will indulge in one more of these wonderfully happy things I have in my life- a nice warm bubble bath.

And while I am soaking, I'll plan my next few happy posts.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

This Will Be Our Year - The Zombies

Miss Julie sang this song during our wedding ceremony- so special, so sweet. Brings a happy tear to my eye!

PS- I realize those of you who may not have seen the video before might be hung up on the still the whole vodeo and you'll understand!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Decorated Dome

So far, my decision to wear hats more often has not been kicked into action.  I ordered a hat online and it looked awful on me, so I returned it, and I have yet to resume my search for the perfect chapeau.

What if, instead, I turned to head jewelry?? I love the golden wings worn by the girl in the pictures below- so Greek God-y! They seem to suit her style and scenery. I wonder if I would look as fantastic if I wore them with my sweat pants to law school... 

Best try for hats first. Head jewelry might be a little too advanced for me at this point.

"The Great Radish Famine"

Came across this song from Fraggle Rock and had to share it- all about knitting!