Shoelaces

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Do you meditate? Wait! Come back! I’m not about to go all esoteric on you. Let me ask a different question: do you have a tendency to catastrophise? I do. Catastrophising, thinking that something terrible will happen, is perfectly understandable. It usually develops because something terrible has happened, or perhaps there’s been a run of terribleness. The fight or flight response starts working overtime and the parasympathetic nervous system, the bit that calms us down, seems to go on holiday.

Here’s an example. A friend and her little dog came to visit. We left the dog in the house while we went for a swim. Then we came back for a cuppa and a nice chat. Everyone, the dog included, had a lovely time. But when they left, I went into the kitchen and realised with horror that a blob of ant bait that had been on the benchtop was no longer there.

My first thought was: “I’ve killed the dog!” She’s a little dog but she can jump very high. While we’d been swimming she’d patrolled the kitchen and sniffed out the honey smell of the ant bait. Then she’d jumped up, stuck out her tongue at just the right moment and slurped up the honeyed poison, ants ‘n all.

I rang my friend. No answer. I sent a text. No answer. I waited for what seemed like ages, then I rang again. Still no answer. So here’s what I thought: “The dog’s had a seizure in the car on the way home and they’ve gone straight to the vet. That’s why she’s not answering the phone.” Are you laughing? I hope so.

My friend rang about an hour later. “I was cooking dinner,” she said. “I didn’t hear the phone.” She rang the vet and found out that the bait wasn’t poisonous to dogs but might cause a bit of an upset tummy. Ms Dog, meanwhile, happily scoffed her dinner then ate my friend’s daughter’s dental guard for dessert.

I think it might be time to chill, don’t you?!

I used to own a sweatshirt that said “overthink everything” and I wore it around the house all winter. I bought it because it made me laugh but also it was a reminder to stop overthinking. Meditation helped. It gave me a way to step back and consider what was happening, rather than reacting instantly. Unfortunately, after a while I forgot to keep doing it. I stopped meditating and the overthinking/catastrophising came back.

Everyone’s an expert on meditation and mindfulness these days. It can be annoying, when you’re really strung out and busy, to hear yet another person telling you to meditate or be mindful. “I haven’t got time. I can’t do it right. It’s boring. I can’t empty my mind.” These are the things we all tell ourselves, even when we’ve meditated before and know that it works.

Since I started meditating again, I’ve been wondering: what is this thing called meditation?  You don’t have to sit cross-legged on a cushion to do it; you can be walking or lying down or staring out of the window.  It’s not really about emptying your mind either, although that’s lovely when it happens.

Here’s what I think it boils down to, the essence of meditation:

  • Stillness
  • Concentration
  • Noticing
  • Contentment

In the mornings, as I’ve been tying my shoelaces, getting ready to go out for a walk, it’s dawned on me that I’ve been completely focused. I’ve noticed everything about the action of shoelace tying: the colour of my shoes, the texture of the laces, the feeling of tying them. I’ve been meditating while tying my shoelaces!

Of course, once you start telling yourself in your mind how great it is—Hey! Look! I’m meditating! Whoo-hoo!—then you’ve broken the spell. You’re thinking again. But even those few minutes of seeing and not thinking are precious. They set you up for the whole day. You go into a meditative state at other times when you aren’t even trying to meditate.

The parasympathetic nervous system comes back from its holiday, packs the fight or flight response into a suitcase and puts it on top of the wardrobe until it’s needed. The big stuff seems less exhausting and the little stuff seems even more significant. Best of all, at any moment, out of the blue, you can find yourself wrapped in a warm blanket of contentment. Even when you’re just tying your shoelaces.

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Dropping out

New Year

Well, tippety top o’ the mornin’ to you! Welcome to a brand-sparkling-new year!

What are your plans? What do you hope for? What will you let go of? What will you do differently? Me? I’m dropping out for a little while, and I’m very excited about it.

Ages ago, all the way back in 2018, a friend and I decided to have a chat on the phone. This is a bigger deal than you might think, because so often the connection drops out. She lives in the Blue Mountains and I live in Canberra, a distance of about four hours by road.

Canberra, I should point out, is the capital city of our splendid nation, so you would expect it to have good telecommunications. The Blue Mountains are two hours west of Sydney, Australia’s largest city. Ditto on the communications expectations. But there was a lot of fiddle-faddling before we could actually talk. I had to restart my phone a couple of times and walk upstairs. She had to drive her car to a certain spot. Then, if we stood perfectly still and the wind kept blowing from a particular direction, we could have a chat.

This is not a post about Australia’s questionable telecommunications infrastructure (although the argument that we just don’t have the demand/population to warrant the same level of service as other countries is wearing a bit thin). I mention it because of something profound that my friend said later in our conversation.

We caught up on what we’d been doing. I blahhed on about something I needed to get out of my head. And when I said, “So I’m just going to work and paying the bills, but the question is: why?” my friend said this:

I guess sometimes the meaning drops out for a while.

I love that sentence. It gets to the heart of everything—not only that we need meaning in our lives but that life is cyclical and ever changing. What’s happening now is not going to be happening forever. Something that you thought was lost will come back. Or something else will take its place.

If you’re distracted by things that drive you crazy because they take up all your time and they’re not important to you, you can change that. You can move the important things into the centre of your life and make them your focus. You can even drop out for a while to concentrate on your dreams, on doing the things that make you happy and give your life meaning.

So I’m dropping out to do just that: no going into the office for a whole five weeks! I’ll be here at home, working on my dreams. I wish you a very happy new year, but you know, don’t you, that any day can be the start of a new year? Good. I thought you did.

Write the book, dance the dance, start the business, enrol in the course, buy the ticket and get on the plane. Move the unimportant things aside for a while. Drop out if you need to. Keep those dreams in sight!

Have a zip-a-dee-doo-dah year.

 

(P.S. Time travel happened with this post! I wrote it on 1 January 2019 in Australia and as soon as I hit “publish” it travelled back through time and got published on 31 December 2018 somewhere across the dateline. Weird, but also kind of cool…)

 

Small moments of quiet joy

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For obvious reasons, this year I’ve been thinking a lot about how you can be here one day and gone the next. All your stories go with you, all the words you thought and said. All the places you went to, the experiences you had. All your love, your hopes, your frustrations and disappointments. Your big life, which, hopefully, you’ve lived well and loved living. All that goes with you when you go.

Often at the end of the year we ask ourselves where the time went: “The year’s flown by! How can it be December already? I can’t believe it!” But some years are different; you feel every day of every month as it ticks by. Some years a big life event sweeps in and lays waste to everything in its path. Sometimes you see the cyclone coming. I remember thinking in January, “So this is what the year will be about,” and knowing that I could do nothing to stop it.

It’s been a year of strong emotion and change, and it’s not over yet. The changes keep coming. The strong emotion rides in when you least expect it. Even this week I’ve wanted to burn bridges, really torch them, and walk away to start again. But, despite all that, there have been moments, small, quiet moments, that have led to a feeling of pure joy. Here are some of them from the last little while.

The soft chorus of small brown birds, high and sweet, before the dawn breaks.

A bowl of cherries eaten slowly at dawn, while outside the night moves quietly away and the day sidles in wearing a dress of palest grey.

A walk in the cork oak forest, late season snow in the wind but warm slivers of sunlight filtering through the branches.

Watching a friend glide along the pavement on his bike in the rain, one hand on the handlebars, the other holding an umbrella aloft to keep his peach-coloured shirt dry, no helmet on his head, big grin on his face, because he’s on his way to dance class.

The rain bird, unseen, real name unknown, who sings a mournful one-note song just before it rains. And he’s always right.

Rain. Rain on the roof. Rain on your face. Rain in the soil, right down to the roots. Rain. May we have more of it.

Slow yoga at home; no pushing, no striving, no comparing, just a quiet inward focus on the tight spots that need attention.

Watching and learning from a much-loved dog who’s lost a leg but shows only resilience, stoicism and an unreserved lust for life because—look, humans!—there’s so much to sniff and chase and point at no matter how many legs you’ve got.

The monster tomato plant growing in the courtyard with such vigour that I’m expecting tomatoes for Christmas, in complete contrast to last year’s tomato adventure.

A long, relaxed, chatty lunch with good friends and funny teenagers at a country pub.

A fat, scruffy white pony being led down the street by a man of the same description.

Making something; transforming a skein of wool from a tangle of red spaghetti into a pretty scarf.

Rereading a favourite book after 30 years and realising that you understand it so much more deeply now because you’ve lived it.

Dancing with my fellow tangueros three nights a week. Strangers only six weeks ago, now we step apart at the end of each dance and smile in amazement at the heartfelt connection. I had no idea that it was possible to fall in love with a dance.

Witnessing waterlily bedtime on the pond, petals folding up as the sun slides down the sky.

Tracking the rain curtain on the hills. As it drifts closer, a rainbow appears, brilliant, blazing, ephemeral. I blink and it’s gone.

See you next year.

 

PS The giant kewpie doll in the photo above has lived an interesting life. She was featured in the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics. You can read about her here: https://collection.maas.museum/object/10743

She’s resided in the small town of Bungendore, outside the antique shop, for some years, but now she’s for sale! If you need a giant kewpie in your life, you can buy her here: https://villageantiquesbungendore.weebly.com/

I’d love to bring her home but my garden is very small and she’d block the light. Also, the residents association would vote me off the island.

Big sky days

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“To the south of Canberra runs a highway that goes down through a country as haunting as it is colourful. The Monaro road to Cooma and the Alps exemplifies many characteristics of outback Australia and points to the past as much as to the future. Therein, perhaps, lies its greatest charm.”

So said the Sydney Mail in 1935. While I agree with that description, what I like most about travelling the road to Cooma is the sky. It’s so BIG. Yes, the landscape is haunting and subtly beautiful, but the sky is magnificent. Looking at that sky is like taking a deep breath and realising that you’ve been shallow breathing for too long. So you spread your arms wide and fill your lungs all the way up.

To the south of Canberra runs a highway that goes down through a country as haunting as it is colourful. The Monaro road to Cooma and the Alps exemplifies many characteristics of outback Australia and points to the past as much as to the future. Therein, perhaps, lies its greatest charm. A painter’s road it is, tocooma-etc-031

The town of Cooma sits in a very interesting spot geographically. You can turn left just before it,  head off across the starkness of the Monaro plain and then down the wooded mountain to the Bega Valley and the sea. That’s one of my favourite road trips. If you feel like skiing in winter or alpine walking in summer, you can go straight through town and be in the Snowy Mountains in an hour. Or you can turn right and find yourself in apple-growing country, with hot springs and caves thrown in for good measure. I’m starting to sound like someone who works in the tourist bureau. 

I went to Cooma recently with a friend who used to live there, and we didn’t go left or right or straight through to somewhere else. We had a nice day in the town instead. I enjoyed seeing it through a local’s eyes, saying hello to people in the street and chatting in the shops. We started with coffee at the pretty Courtyard Cafe and Flower Pantry, which is very Country Style magazine. I often wish my life was a bit more Country Style. A more fitting magazine title, unfortunately, would probably be Suburban Bewilderment. Do you think there’s a market for that?

We went to my three favourite shops in town: the camping shop (I rarely go camping but I like to think that I will go again one day and I like looking at the stuff I might need), the hardware/kitchen/garden shop (paint, pans and plants in one place—what more can you ask for?) and birdsnest. Birdsnest is a brilliant idea and it sells very nice frocks. It started life as a little clothes shop on the main street but is now also an online business employing more than a hundred people. If you’re looking for ways to build a business in a country town, it’s a great example to follow. And did I mention the nice frocks?

 

From the architecture on the main street, it’s clear that Cooma’s been a service town for the region for a long time. It doesn’t have the moneyed feel of some country towns but nor does it have that slightly desperate, closing-down sale feeling of others. It feels like a place that’s comfortable in its own skin. There’s an interesting mix of people: farmers, business owners, and engineers from all over the world who’ve come to work for Snowy Hydro. Also, the ducks in the park are very friendly.

If you need a crocheted echidna or emu tea cosy, the tourist information centre can help you:

It also had all the information I need for the next visit to the Snowy Mountains, the one where I’m planning to turn right and eat apples and swim in the hot springs:

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A new discovery that will have to be added to my list of three (now four) must-visit shops was the little antique shop on the main street. It had a delightfully quirky mix of china and glassware and clothes and books. I was very restrained, but I did buy two beautiful books, both of which appear to have been written in the 1930s and, strangely, both of which are about a boys’ school set on a hill. I had to buy them because of the covers and because of the language: “Unspeakable bounder! I say, there’s going to be a ruction! Do buck up!”

Then I found this:

“Jezebel!” exclaimed the man at the counter when I went to pay.
“How could I not buy it?!” I said.
“I’ll put her between the boys,” said the man as he handed me the books.
“I’m sure that’s where she prefers to be,” I said.

After all that excitement, my friend and I were hungry, so we went for lunch at Rose’s restaurant, which serves up Lebanese home cooking. I highly recommend it. It’s not in an obvious spot, so you need to be a local to find it or you need to read about it in a blog post. There’s even a bellydancer (but not at lunchtime).

“Down along the highway we swung.  Sheep dotted the pastures and some cattle and many moundy hills there were, with gaunt ranges enclosing us — light and colour everywhere.”

That’s the Sydney Mail again, perfectly describing our drive home: light and colour everywhere and, over it all, that beautiful big sky. Thank goodness for country towns and big sky days.

 

The language of tango

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It takes two to tango. Everyone knows that. So what do you do when you’re one, solo, and you want to go to tango classes? My friends, you go anyway. If it so happens that the day you find yourself dreaming about tango is the day that a new course of lessons starts, if it so happens that the lessons are five minutes drive from your house and if it so happens that work finishes early enough for you to go then this is a sign that the gods are smiling down on you and you are meant to learn to tango.

You brush your teeth, put on good clothes, make sure you smell nice (boys and girls, this advice is for all of us) and off you go. You ignore the fear of walking in alone. You decide that if you turn left when the rest of the class turns right you will not mind. You decide that if you are really, really bad at it you will not mind. You decide that if you look like a complete eejit you will not care because life is so damn short that you don’t have time to be embarrassed by such inconsequential trivia. You have wanted to learn to tango for years, and this is your opportunity.

The teacher greets you with friendly eyes, a handshake and a warm, welcoming smile. The room is lovely, high ceilinged with a pale wooden floor. One wall is glass, through which you see ducks waddling across the park, trees in blossom, fishermen sitting in companionable silence by the silvery lake, waiting for their lines to go taut.

Your fellow beginners step nervously into the room. You write your name on a sticky label and peer at each other’s as you introduce yourselves. Six women, five men and a teacher. “Oh good,” you think, “we’re even.” But then it turns out that two of the men are a couple and don’t want to dance with anyone else. You think back to a course of private lessons you took years ago where the teacher said, “You’re ready to join the social dance classes now. But you’ll have to dance with a broom handle if you don’t have a partner.”

You don’t want to dance with a broom handle. Nor do you want to have to learn the other person’s steps and switch between roles. You resign yourself to dancing backwards, alone but smiling, for nine weeks. “Perhaps this is the lesson life is teaching you right now,” you think. “You’re on your own. Life is backwards and you can’t see what you’re about to trip over but you just have to put up with it.”

But the teacher of this class is kinder and much smarter. We don’t start with partner work. We start by walking. Walking is hard. You thought you knew how to walk but it turns out you don’t. Moving across a room by yourself, with other people watching you, reminds you of ballet lessons when you were five years old. At five, moving across the room by yourself was so scary that you quit. You’re not five now. You don’t have to worry about what other people think. You’re not going to quit.

Then you learn where to put your weight, how to read your partner, how to sway together, how to be ready to move. You learn that there’s such a thing as the line of dance. And it’s a circle. You learn etiquette. The teacher talks with quiet intensity about the dance, about seeing beauty and power and grace in the people you dance with. His passion for tango lights him up, beams out over us and lights us up too.

By the time we’re ready to dance, our gentle, passionate teacher has called in extra dance partners and arranged it so that partners rotate after every piece of music. The segments of music are short. You don’t have to dance alone very often or for very long. That’s a better life lesson.

The hardest thing about dancing with a stranger is not the closeness—your hand in an unknown hand, an unfamiliar arm pressing the length of yours. No, the hardest thing is where to look. You can’t gaze into someone’s eyes when you don’t know them. No-one wants to do that. It’s either too revealing or too fake (an overly bright smile and comically raised eyebrows to signify that we’re both unsure and feeling a bit silly). But when you work out that the best place to look is, for him, over your shoulder, and for you at the shirt button in the centre of your partner’s chest then everything starts to feel right.

Behind that little shirt button on its clean white shirt lies a warmly beating heart. “Let’s dance from the heart,” says the wearer of the shirt, and there follows the best dance of the night. Staring at that shirt button, noticing the intention of the body, feeling which way the weight shifts, you find yourself in a magical place where two hearts feel the music and you move as if in a dream. No words, no thoughts, just movement, an innate understanding of where to go next. The room disappears. There’s only music and somehow you’re part of it.

Dancing with other shirt buttons is not as effortless. The owner of the dark blue shirt button is counting. He’s in his head, trying to remember which leg he just started on and which one he should move next. You have to resist the temptation to blurt out, “I think it’s the other leg.” The owner of the pale blue shirt button is worried about stepping on your toes, so he takes off his shoes. But socks are a bit slippery to dance in, and when he’s off balance you are too. There’s a lot of stopping and rebalancing and starting again. You find yourself anticipating, rather than feeling, the next move.

But all the shirt buttons have their own peculiar charm. It’s just as the teacher said: you see the beauty and power and grace in everyone. You feel it in yourself too, not all the time, but when you do, you want more of it. You don’t want to let go of that feeling of being lost in the music, of the complicated sensuality, the melancholy joy of the tango.

It’s as if you’ve just learned your first words in the most beautiful language you’ve ever heard. You can’t wait to learn more, to put together whole sentences, to immerse yourself in it completely. When you leave, the spring night is warm. You drive home with the windows down, the breeze in your hair. The music still plays in your head, in your heart. And you’re smiling, smiling, smiling, smiling.

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Why pretty things matter

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In a hidden valley just north of Canberra there’s a 10-acre garden that will take your breath away. It’s called Tulip Top. As you might have gathered, it has a lot of tulips, but that’s not all. Oh.my.goodness, the blossom! As you walk down the hill, the scent of crabapples almost knocks you over.

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Then the garden rolls itself out before you and suddenly life is a bit better than it was five minutes ago. Worries disappear. Relationship cracks are smoothed over. You feel lighter. It’s as if everything hard or anxiety-provoking was left outside the gate. All you have to do is walk around and feel happy.

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There’s dazzling golden forsythia lining the path to the lookout.

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There are black tulips. And frilly purple tulips. And blackberries-and-cream coloured tulips.

There are undulating hedges by a pretty watercourse.

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There’s a waterfall and a pond where pobblebonks call to each other: “Bonk! Bonk!” I really love the name pobblebonk. It’s like something out of a fairytale.

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There are tulips so scarlet that they’re hard to photograph.

And my favourite: sunny yellow.

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The family who own the gardens started the project in 1997. This year they planted half a million bulbs. I love that they had the idea, the vision, and that they continue to work so hard, year on year, to create this beautiful place.

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While a lot of people visit, sometimes busloads, it doesn’t feel crowded. Everyone seems to be wandering around with a smile on their face, in a happy daze. You pay a small entrance fee, but you can stay there all day if you want to, drinking free tea or coffee under the trees as classical music plays softly from speakers hidden in the blossom.

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You can find out more about the garden here. It’s open from mid September to mid October every year. You can take a picnic. You can even take your dog. Don’t tell anyone I said so, but it’s miles better than Floriade, Canberra’s annual tulip extravaganza.

There’s a short but uplifting TED talk by Ingrid Fetell Lee on the importance of colour and shape in creating joy. Colour and abundance, she says, signify life and energy. This garden, Tulip Top, with its mass plantings, swathes of colour, undulating shapes and gently swaying blossom everywhere is surely proof of that. Her talk is titled Where joy hides and how to find it. I think we already know the answer.

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A very good cake

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There’s been a dearth of cake in small, quiet, pretty land: a lack, a paucity, an absence. Sometimes, especially when you’re known for your baking, you just get sick of it. All the fun goes out of it when you’re expected to bake. I think that’s what happened. Also, I went on a very low-carb eating plan for about a month. I don’t recommend it. Low carb, it turns out, equals low energy. I yawned and dragged myself around like an old sack the whole time.

But my love of baking came back, albeit in modified form. I’ve resolved to bake only when the muse calls, when I see a recipe that just has to be made. This is one of those recipes. The original recipe came from an old issue of The Simple Things magazine, and you can find it here. I changed it by using raw sugar, almond meal and gluten free flour and losing the vanilla, and I think mine’s better (pretends to blush modestly).

My friend P said it was the best cake she’s had all year. Given that it’s October, I choose to take that as a huge compliment. My friend D had two pieces in a row (so did I) and asked for the recipe. Here, then, is a very good cake.

For the cake:
200g butter
175g raw sugar (coconut sugar would also be good)
3 eggs
½ a lemon
150g almond meal
100g gluten free self-raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon pomegranate molassses

For the syrup:
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
75g raw sugar
½ a lemon

For the icing:
250g cream cheese
2 tablespoons thick (double) cream
75g icing sugar

Heat the oven to 160°C. Grease a 23cm springform cake tin and line the bottom with greaseproof paper.

Chop up the butter and zap it in the microwave for 30 seconds to soften it (or, if you’re organised, take it out of the fridge a few hours before you start baking and leave it somewhere warm). Beat the butter and sugar together until well combined, then beat in the eggs one by one. Mix the flour, almond meal and baking powder together in a separate bowl. Tip half the flour mixture into the sugar/butter/egg mixture and beat it in well. Then beat in the tablespoonful of pomegranate molasses before you add in the last lot of flour. Add the zest of a lemon and half a lemon’s worth of juice. Beat everything until it’s lump free. (Shouldn’t take long if you’re using electric beaters.) Spoon the mixture into the cake tin, smooth it over and bake for about 40 minutes. When it’s done, it will be quite brown on the top and a knife blade or cake tester inserted in the middle should come out clean.

While the cake’s in the oven, heat the syrup ingredients slowly, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Once the cake is cooked, drizzle about two-thirds of the syrup over the cake. Leave the cake to cool in the tin.

Beat together the icing ingredients. Lick the beaters when you’ve finished, or give them to children if you are a kind, generous person. Once the cake’s cool, take it out of the tin and spread the icing over the top. Reheat the remaining syrup (because it will probably have gone a bit gloopy) then drizzle it over the icing.

This cake is really good with sliced mango and a pot of strong tea. It’s also very good the next day with coffee, even after a three-hour journey in the car. I’m no food photographer, so the photos don’t do it justice. Take my word for it: it’s a very good cake.

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Taking stock

 

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Hello there. (I’m waving.) How are things with you? There’s been a lot going on, very little of it blog-worthy, but here are a few bits and bobs that fit into the small, quiet, pretty category.

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Learning: How to dye material using eucalypt and wattle. My friend the Soup Ninja invited me to join her at a natural dye workshop run by the super-talented Sally Blake, who’s done amazing work for a PhD on the subject. It was a few golden hours of chatting and listening and making something beautiful.

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Photo by C. Hart

Discovering: This glorious mutant, a pink wattle at the Australian National Botanic Gardens. A bonus of the workshop was a fun tour of the gardens with Ranger Bruce while our fabrics were being dyed. I wish I could hire Bruce every time I visit the gardens. If you asked me to choose between a tour of an ancient European city and a tour of the botanic gardens, I’d honestly have a hard time deciding.

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Did you know that a wattle was the first plant to bloom after the bomb fell on Hiroshima? And now every September a group of people in Hiroshima send yellow ribbons to the botanic gardens in commemoration. I got a bit choked up over that.

Wishing: That I could spend days researching, collecting, designing, dyeing and sewing. Maybe in the Christmas holidays. (Looks wistfully at calendar and starts counting days.)

Listening to: Brazilian Lounge. It’s very smooth and charming and delightful, a bit like my friend J’s Brazilian boyfriend.

Eating: A lot of brussels sprouts and celery. I know; it’s weird. I hated both those vegetables as a kid and now I seem to be making up for it. Celery sticks with almond butter spread down the middle are very satisfying in a crunchy yet claggy way.

Watching: The Split on ABC TV. I found it so moving. Nicola Walker really is an outstanding actress.

Also watching: Crazy Rich Asians at the movies. Isn’t everybody? Two hours of visually stunning escapism/fluff was exactly what was needed. I came out of the cinema thinking, “I have to paint everything gold and red. And I need orchids EVERYWHERE!”

Reading: Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend, for the same effect. And I’ve researched every cookie/dessert/snack mentioned in the book. Come Christmas I’ll certainly be baking pineapple tarts and kuih bangkit and coconut love letters.

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Grieving: Every day, quietly and constantly. It’s like being stuck in roadworks. There’s no alternative route. There’s no way out of it. You just have to keep inching forward until one day, hopefully, you get to a clear bit of road. And there endeth the pop psychology lesson for today.

Looking forward to: The Gallery of Small Things, which I haven’t been to yet but am itching to see. It’s six metres by six metres, in what used to be someone’s laundry, and it exhibits exquisite, small objects and paintings by local artists. What a lovely idea!

Fuming over: What someone’s done to the beautiful pink fairytale church that I wrote about here: Year of the/Day of. They’ve stripped the inside. They’ve painted the outside white and put on a roof that doesn’t suit it. They’ve cut down too many trees. They’ve constructed an overblown stone and iron front gate and, WORST of all, they’ve put in an enormous water tank that dwarfs the building and really should have been buried in the ground. But that would have cost money and they’re out to make a quick buck by reselling it fast. Now I have to avert my eyes when I drive past.

Feeling amazed that: Even though the temperature’s still below zero most mornings and there’s been NO rain, the jonquils and snowdrops flowered. And now there are new spring green leaves on trees and shrubs that were just sad sticks last week. Resilience in action; that’s what it is.

Wondering: Whether I’ll make it to the Japanese Gardens at Cowra before all the blossom blows away. Perhaps the weekend after next. Fingers crossed.

Hoping for: A quieter life very soon. I would happily sleep for a hundred years. But for now it’s plod, plod, plod on through the neverendingness of things.

What’s happening in your life?

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This week, a long time ago

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Do you keep a diary? This slightly battered velvety green one was my first. I got it for Christmas 1977 and faithfully wrote five lines a day from 1 January 1978 to 31 December 1982. Some of the entries are pretty funny, like this one:

Had a shower.

(This was England in the seventies. Showers were new!) Or this one:

Had a long think.

It’s funny because I was 12. I wish I’d written down what I was thinking about. But most entries are factual:

2-all draw in netball against Edwinstree. Did homework. Listened to a tape. Watched Starsky and Hutch. Ate a Creme Egg.

The diary entries act as reminders now. Those short sentences trigger richer, fuller memories of what happened back then. Sometimes they’re surprising: apparently we were short of money in 1979, which is when we applied to emigrate to Australia. The story I’ve remembered is that Margaret Thatcher came to power and my parents didn’t like the way the country was going, we lived in a cottage with low ceilings that depressed Mum, and Dad wanted to further his career; that’s why we moved. Now I see that there was more to it.

After a lot of form filling and trips to London for interviews and medicals, we got the big tick from the Australian government. Dad went first, flying off around the world to set himself up in a job and find us somewhere to live. Mum stayed behind with the kids to sell the house. It took six months. I found out years later that her best friend’s husband had gone to New Zealand at the same time, decided to start a new life for himself, dumped his wife and kids back in England and found another wife. It must have been a long, unnerving six months for Mum.

Here’s Dad, checking in at the start of his big adventure in February 1980. My grandma took the photo. She trimmed all her photos with pinking shears. No-one knows why:

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We waved him goodbye then went to McDonald’s in Piccadilly Circus for a burger and a thick shake, which was a HUGE treat because there was no McDonald’s anywhere near where we lived. Mum had just taken a bite of her quarter pounder when she said, “Dad’s got the keys.”

We’d left the car on the outskirts of London and caught the train in that morning. Getting home was a bit trickier. The keyless car stayed where it was. We caught two trains and a taxi home instead. Because the house keys were also on a plane on the way to Australia, getting into the house demanded ingenuity. Mum climbed onto the pebble-dash coal bunker in the back garden and took a fruit knife out of her handbag. (Coal bunker? Fruit knife? Does anyone have such things now?) She prised open the kitchen window, we boosted my sister in to unlock the door, and Mum phoned friends to come and look after us and drive her back to London to pick up the car. My diary entry says: “WOT A DAY!”

Six months later, off we went. Grandma cried. My aunty cried. Mum cried. “It’s not as if it’s the other side of the world,” my cousin said. We flew to Australia via Washington DC to see some friends, and then via Disneyland. America was an eye-opener for me, a shy, bookish teen from a little English village where everyone minded everyone else’s business. In DC the temperature was 100 degrees Fahrenheit. People wore shorts. Kids played street hockey and went to Dairy Queen for ice-cream. There were huge black insects in the trees that went “brrrreeek”. We touched moon rock in the Smithsonian.

Then we went to Disneyland, which my diary says was “absolutely FANTASTIC!” We rode on the thrilling Space Mountain roller coaster and took the funny jungle cruise. We saw Mickey! And Minnie! And Donald! We went on the looong ride through It’s a Small World. Let me tell you, that tune never leaves you. I often find myself humming it even now. We ate frozen chocolate-covered bananas and drank pineapple juice.

That night, in our motel in Anaheim, we dragged my sister out of bed to watch the Disneyland fireworks. In her sleepy excitement she pulled out one of the louvres from the window and dropped it on my toe. I was so busy being awed by the fireworks that I didn’t notice until the blood made my foot stick to the carpet. I still have the Disneyland fireworks scar.

The next day we checked in at LAX to fly to Sydney. Leif Garrett was checking in at the next desk, but I was too shy to ask for his autograph. The flight was “v long and boring” but “I made friends with 2 nuns”! When we landed in Sydney, people cheered. Men from Customs boarded and sprayed something throughout the plane while the nuns covered their mouths and noses.

On our first night in Australia we went to McDonald’s again, a neat circle back to that day six months earlier. We truly knew then that we were in a new country because McDonald’s was in our suburb! We could go there any time! A couple of days later we went to see the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. Teens can be hard to please. Here’s my assessment of the world-famous architectural icons of Australia’s biggest city:

Not bad.

That was this week, a long time ago. I don’t keep a diary now. I stopped in my late twenties. There was too much going on. It’s painful now to read back over the diaries from the teens and early twenties. All that angst! All that emotion about people and situations! I had strong opinions that make me wince, here in the future, where I know that there are two sides to every story and that so many hidden factors influence how people act, what they say.

I stopped diarising because I wanted to go out and live. As Thoreau said:

My life has been the poem I would have writ
But I could not both live and utter it.

To a certain extent, I still feel that way. Writing is a solitary exercise. You can get stuck in your own head if you spend too much time scribbling. At other times, when you want to write, life gets in the way. Over the past fortnight I considered giving up blogging. “Do I have anything left to say?” I thought. “There are so many other things I need to make time for. Why am I doing it?”

In a way, though, blogging is a form of diary-keeping, isn’t it? I’m not here to sell anything; I might post the occasional recipe or book review, but mostly I’m just writing about life. So while it suits me to keep documenting my days, I’ll keep popping in here every so often to do just that. I hope you’ll keep popping in too. Thanks, as always, for reading.

Good books and a dash of paprika

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I’m reading my way through the remains of winter. While intellectually I know that in eight weeks time I’ll probably be swimming in an outdoor pool, right now it feels as though winter will never end. Most evenings I change into an enormously baggy Aran jumper, a pair of equally baggy home-made flannelette pyjama pants and some faux sheepskin slippers that drop fluff everywhere (really, I can’t think why I’m not on the cover of Vogue) then I huddle in front of the fire with a book. It’s the only way to survive. Here’s what I’ve been reading.

Imagine you’re in Russia. It’s 1922 and you’ve just been designated a Former Person. But you’re in luck. Instead of being shot or sent to Siberia, you’re placed under house arrest in a rather fine hotel. This is the situation facing Count Alexander Rostov, who is now without doubt one of my favourite characters in literature. I so enjoyed his intelligence, charm, good humour and resilience. Within pages of starting to read A Gentleman in Moscow, by the wonderfully named Amor Towles,  I found myself exclaiming, “Oh, this is so lovely!” The book is everything it says on the tin and more.

People say of good books “I couldn’t put it down.” Well, this one I literally couldn’t put down. I found myself carrying it all around the house. I even changed my routine and started driving to work, instead of catching the bus, to allow extra reading time in a cafe before the busy-ness of the day took over. This is a book to savour, like a good meal, enjoying every mouthful, every sensation. I started to feel sad two-thirds of the way in, because I knew it would have to end. It’s an utterly delightful story.

Towles’s other book, Rules of Civility, is another recommended read. Initially I thought, “Hmm, am I going to like these characters?” They seemed at first glance aspirational, vapid and annoying, until I realised I’d got them completely wrong. Then I was hooked. But throughout the book, which is set in New York in the 1930s, I held my breath as if watching a crystal martini glass balance on the stone parapet of an uptown roof terrace, waiting for it to topple and shatter.

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This might seem like an odd trio, but each book in its own way is a mirror of who we are. Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird is a re-read for me. It made a big impression when I first read it and just recently I decided I needed to own a copy. It’s a book on how to write in an engaging, truthful way—and I’d go so far as to say it’s the best guide to writing there is—but it’s also a very funny commentary on life:

We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out.

Lamott also talks about becoming quiet, observing, and getting out of your own way in order to let creativity flow, which ties in with the themes of Pema Chödrön’s Start Where You Are. Chödrön is a Buddhist nun and there are a lot of Buddhist terms in her book, which I skipped over because they’re unfamiliar words and if I started thinking about them then I missed the gist of the text. But basically what she says is very helpful: lighten up. Be gentle with yourself as well as with others. We all suffer. We all carry burdens. Don’t run away from them. Be open to any situation and learn from it. Get out from under your own ego.

Ego played a major role in the feudal society of France in the 12th century, when Eleanor of Aquitaine was more controversial than Madonna in the 1980s. According to Alison Weir’s book, Eleanor was headstrong and wilful, with a reputation for scandalous behaviour and unconventional conduct. I’ve been interested in Eleanor since I saw her tomb at Fontevraud Abbey when I was a child. I remember wishing I could slip through the veil of time and see society as it was back when she was alive.

Now, decades later, I’m plodding through this book and realising that even if I had been able to travel through time to meet her I wouldn’t have liked her very much. Human beings, for all our intelligence, wit and creativity, have always been…well, dunderheads, it seems. But once you get to the section of the book where she becomes queen of England it’s an interesting look at life in the late 1100s. For example, in London in 1180 there was a shop by the river selling ready-made meals to take away! And wine was produced in England but was of such poor quality that it “had to be drunk with closed eyes and clenched teeth”! I love finding out facts like that.

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I don’t know whether Eleanor of Aquitaine liked gardens, but if you do then you’ll love this book. It gives you good ideas about what to plant and where, all gloriously photographed, but it also features people who work with plants in different ways. There are articles on artists, scientists, horticulturalists and landscape architects. It’s lovely to look at and very inspiring. I have a tendency to plonk plants in the garden willy-nilly, but this book is helping me to think about the overall look.

Marit Hovland’s Bakeland brings the outdoors in, with cookies decorated to look like birch bark or autumn leaves and cakes that look like spruce trees or snow-covered mountains. If you want to make a cake to wow people, this book has some great ideas. I like baking but I’m not much of a cake decorator. This book makes me want to have a go, though. I think I’ll start with something easy, like pistachio marzipan pears. Anything with the word “marzipan” in it gets a tick from me!

Have I made you hungry? As well as devouring books, over the past couple of weeks I’ve also been making a delicious sauce/dressing and putting it on EVERYTHING. (Well, everything except cereal, but never say never.) It’s very good on fish, roast veggies and steamed veggies and it’s sublime drizzled over avocado and/or eggs. I got the recipe from The Simple Things magazine, which is also a great read. Here ’tis:

1 generous pinch each of saffron, cumin, powdered ginger and salt
1 teaspoon of paprika
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
3 tablespoons of olive oil

Whisk together and drizzle/pour over whatever you fancy. I’ve made it with tahitian lime instead of lemon. Divine! Orange juice would also be a good substitute. You can increase the amount of citrus if you like more tang. I don’t recommend upping the amount of paprika, though. I did it once and realised that you really can have too much of a good thing.

Bon appetit and happy reading! And do let me know what you’re reading. Winter isn’t over yet. I need some recommendations…