Yes, she irons her napkins, says Alexandra Stoddard. But she doesn't expect the rest of us to.
Gracious living has nothing to do with ironed napkins or perfect souffles or handcrafted Christmas tree decorations that look like tiny birdcages. And that's why it's silly, really, says Stoddard, when people liken her to Martha Stewart.Sure, both women have made a career out of teaching people how to decorate their homes, both have been on Oprah, have written books, even have charming homes in Connecticut. But at a deeper level, say Stoddard's fans, her message is different.
"I always say Alexandra Stoddard is Martha Stewart with soul," says Sally Smith, owner of A Woman's Place. Stoddard appeared at the bookstore last weekend to publicize her 17th book, "Gracious Living in a New World."
Being gracious, Stoddard explains, is about "doing things in a manner that allows grace to appear . . . It's doing what gives you an awareness of your higher power and connection to divinity, eternity and timelessness. It's what puts you in a frame of appreciation."
So, yes, she irons her napkins. But she would never iron "in a begrudging way," she says. She irons because she loves to iron. She irons because she loves the way her pretty napkins look when they're pressed and folded.
She once was a perfectionist, she admits. It was hard not to be, growing up with a mother who expected so much of her, a mother whose radar could lead her through an otherwise clean house right to the teeny film of dirt lodged between the stove and the fridge.
And being a designer for years for wealthy people who expected perfection didn't help either.
But she's gotten past her perfectionism, she says, and the rest of us should, too. What we need to do instead, she says, is nurture ourselves. This is why our homes should be pleasant to look at, why we should pamper ourselves and our families with pretty things. This is why we might want, for example, to line our kitchen drawers with pretty placemats.
And this is why, for example, we might want to use a fountain pen when we pay our bills. Beautiful ink can elevate a chore into a sensory experience. "Little grace notes," Stoddard calls them.
Her ability to draw her readers' attention to the importance of life's little touches has made fans of women like Joanne Darke. "It's her ritualization of life that I like," Darke explained as she waited in line for an hour to have Stoddard sign her new book. "She takes the minutia of life and turns it into an event. She makes my very stressful life more serene."
Surrounding ourselves with beauty, learning to pay attention to beauty, slowing down and simplifying our lives - this is what can help us transcend a world that is too instantaneous, complex and frenzied, says Stoddard.
Her interest in interior design, she says, has really been her lifelong attempt "to re-create the life and vibrancy of my mother's flower garden."
Her interest in slowing down and simplifying her life has grown out of her experience living in a small seaside village in Connecticut, where she and her husband refurbished a rundown cottage.
"Be a poet in your life," she urged the women who came to meet her at A Woman's Place. "Live your life with that awesome sense of wonder."
And indeed, over chamomile tea - after signing books for nearly two hours, after getting up at 3:15 a.m. in New York 16 hours earlier - Stoddard was still able to marvel over the beauty of the lemon wedge in her teacup.