Overwintering

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Overwintering: to bring plants and animals indoors to wait out the winter; to hibernate or migrate to warmer climates until the winter passes.

Hello. Yes, it’s me, that voice coming from somewhere deep underneath blankets, jumpers, coats and scarves. I’ll just take my gloves off so that I can type better.

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I’ve had to bring George indoors. He’s a Sydney rock orchid and this is not his preferred climate. At the moment I’m not sure it’s mine either.

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Stacey and Consuela seem to be doing okay by the kitchen window, although I think Consuela was considerably brighter when I first got her. Probably we’re all looking a bit pale. I’m not in the habit of naming my houseplants, but that’s what happens when you spend a lot of time indoors trying to keep warm.

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The cockatoos that roost in the gum trees on the golf course usually migrate during winter, but this year they’ve stayed around. I wonder if that’s because it’s even drier inland or wherever they usually go. No-one’s saying the D word out loud, but it looks to me as if we’re in drought. The ground’s as dry as a Sao biscuit.

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The kangaroos are everywhere, even in the daytime, and even in people’s gardens. They’re looking for something to eat. I took this photo yesterday at a friend’s place, about three seconds before the dogs went bananas and launched themselves at the window. Luckily the glass was thick.

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I’ve had a bad cold, the kind where you absolutely have to go to bed for a few days and just stare out of the window. Actually, it was a blessing in disguise because lordy I needed the rest. This year has been like a runaway train and I’ve been hanging on for dear life. So I quite enjoyed giving in to being sick, not soldiering on. Emotions live in the body—of course they do—and Chinese medicine says that grief affects the lungs, so I wasn’t at all surprised to develop a delightful hacking cough as well.

Lying under blankets, watching the light change on the hills, there’s been a lot of time for contemplation. For a while now I’ve been thinking about big changes but trying to work out how to implement them gradually, rather than all at once. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, I want to keep the baby and change the bath water, so to speak. Mentally, I’ve been pushing at doors, seeing if they will open. In my head I’ve been trying on ideas: “Is this the right fit? What about this?”

I won’t tell you just yet what I’ve come up with, but I’m pretty excited about it. And a bit scared. It will take a while, and no doubt there’ll be some tweaking, but it feels right and that’s the most important thing.

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As well as thinking up some big ideas, I came up with some smaller, creative ones too. Then I made a jar of ideas. A while ago a friend lent me a DVD of a very sweet film called The Missing Postman. In it, one of the characters writes down all the odd jobs that need to be done around the house and puts them in a jar. When she has spare time and/or someone to help her, she picks a job out of the jar and gets it done.

Having a jar full of need-to-be-done jobs doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest, but a jar full of creative ideas certainly does. I wrote down ideas that use things I already have or that don’t involve spending much money. Here are some of them:

  • Go to the Botanic Gardens and take photos. Write a poem in the rainforest gully.
  • Crochet some flowers. Then crochet some more.
  • Make a cake from a different country.
  • Try dying fabric with avocado stones.
  • Read a French magazine online.
  • Visit the Japanese gardens at Cowra.
  • Draw some Art Deco patterns.
  • Make a tote bag.
  • Imagine the desert. Now write about it.
  • Learn some more acupressure points.
  • Make a golden painting.
  • Make a gluten-free sourdough starter.
  • Learn hiragana, katakana and the other one. (I told you I had a cold! Hard to remember things when your head’s full of mucus.)

Fun, right?! I’m close to finishing a big project right now and don’t have time for any of the above, but those creative ideas are waiting patiently in their jar for a day when I have time or am feeling a bit flat creatively. There are no rules with the jar of creative ideas. If you pull out an idea and don’t feel like acting on it, you can put it back and pull out more until you find the right one. Have a go!

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This week I had to take a trip along the highway and down-up-down the mountain roads to go and see to some family biz. I decided to drive home the long way, to get a glimpse of the sea and perhaps even to take my coat off—a brief migration to warmer climes. Before I left home, I’d been enjoying some tulips a friend bought me. I think I photographed their impossible goldenness from every angle. So when I stopped for a coffee in a little town on the way home (where I DID get to sit outside without a coat on) I was delighted to find a shop selling shoes with tulips AND goldenness on them. You won’t be surprised to hear that the shoes came home with me.

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On the drive home I passed signs that set off all sorts of reverie: Lemon Tree Creek (sounds idyllic and yellow and sunshiny); Monkey Mountain Road (is there a cache of monkeys living on a mountain in southern New South Wales?); Mount Agony Road (you’d think only a masochist would take that road, but actually it goes to the beach); Outdoors and Beyond (what exactly is beyond the outdoors, and what does that shop sell that could kit you out for it?); and Drive Thru Bacon and Eggs (delicious but potentially very messy and hard to scrape off the windscreen). And an echnida crossed the road. Don’t ask me why.

So here we are, back at home, where it’s still wintry. But indoors the fire’s on and there’s soup and home-made bread for dinner. We had a bit of rain, which the garden (and the roos and cockatoos) will be grateful for. And I’m grateful for slower days, time to heal, and time to dream up plans for tomorrow.

Until next time, keep warm and stay well.

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Possibly the best soup in the world

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I know. That’s quite a claim. And I haven’t tasted all the soups in the world, so there could be a better one out there…but I doubt it.  Perhaps I should add the qualification that it’s the best soup in the world if you like caraway seeds. If you don’t, please look away now and come back next week.

This is a soup that my friend the Soup Ninja made for me when I was too sad to cook. It’s called Tunisian soup. I had a quick rummage around on the internet to see if the recipe belonged to anyone but I couldn’t find anything exactly like it, so I can’t credit the original cook. Also, I’ve changed it by adding potatoes and more lemon juice and a different type of onion. If you’re reading this and you created the original soup: thank you and I salute you.

The instructions aren’t precise because I made it the minute I got home from work and I was too hungry to write anything down. I also didn’t take my coat off. So the exact cooking time is however long it takes you to hang up your coat, get changed, send an email, take various pieces of paper out of your bag then do some yoga in front of the fire. This soup would serve six, I’d say. It’s gluten free and vegan. And it’s so addictive I’ll probably run all the way home from the bus stop tomorrow night in anticipation of eating another bowlful.

2 cans chickpeas
2 large potatoes, scrubbed (no need to peel them if the skin’s quite thin, but peel them if you prefer)
4 sticks of celery
half a red onion
juice of a lemon
two tablespoons of caraway seeds (yes, I did mean tablespoons)
1 generous tablespoon of tahini
vegetable stock (I used two dessert spoonfuls of GF powdered stock + enough water to cover everything)
couple of glugs of oil
2 pinches of salt

Chop the potatoes into smallish chunks. The size is up to you. The smaller they are, the faster they’ll cook. Slice the celery and onion finely. Heat the oil in a deep pan and swirl the vegetables around in it for a couple of minutes. Drain the chickpeas and rinse them well. Add the chickpeas and the caraway seeds to the veggies. Pour in enough stock so that everything is well covered. Put the lid on and bring to the boil.

Once the soup is boiling, turn it right down and simmer it until the veggies are tender. Then add the salt, lemon juice and tahini and stir in well. Ladle it into bowls and serve.
I topped mine with dill because a life without dill is a life half lived, but labneh and dukkah would also be nice—or nothing at all, because this soup doesn’t need anything else. Try to eat it slowly and politely, or give up all pretence of refinement, put your elbows on the table and slurp it like the ravenous, slavering beast that you are.

 

 

 

The Lone Tomato Plant

 

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At the time of year when every gardener in Canberra plants tomatoes, I was given a tray of many tomato seedlings. The generous seedling donor said that these plants were so prolific her garden was overrun with tomatoes every year. I took the seedlings home with high expectations.

In the backyard I made a new veggie patch, with compost and mulch and a posh wooden frame to go around it. I planted all but one seedling there and watered them and fussed over them. Within two weeks the whole lot got eaten, stalks and all, before they had a chance to grow. I never caught the culprits, but possums were my prime suspects.

One seedling went into a pot in the front courtyard, with some struggling basil for company. I watered it when I remembered. It looked sick and straggly for ages. There were no flowers, so of course there was no fruit. Everyone else who’d been given seedlings kept saying that they had so many tomatoes they didn’t know what to do with them. “Give them to tomato-less people like me,” I thought, grumpily.

Then suddenly, months after it should have started fruiting, the tomato plant began to grow. And grow. And grow. I was so encouraged that I started watering it more. A little yellow flower appeared. “It’s too late for tomatoes now,” said the know-it-all people who’d been dealing with a tomato glut for months. But still it kept growing. Another yellow flower appeared, and then another.

One day, a flower turned into a tiny green tomato. For a week or so it was the only fruit. Then two more tiny green tomatoes appeared. The weather was unseasonably hot and the sun shone fully on the flourishing tomato plant. “Can you believe how warm it is?” people said. At the time of year when we usually think about turning the heating on, the sun kept shining.

I looked at the weather forecast for the week ahead: a whole week of 29 degrees was predicted. Inside I danced a little jig at the unusual heatwave, the extra time for the tomatoes to ripen. “Those green tomatoes will never ripen at this time of year,” someone said. I kept watering and watching and hoping, but I decided I wouldn’t mind if they didn’t ripen. Either way, I was planning to eat them.

In an ideal world, the end of this story would be that those late tomatoes ripened and that, even though there were only a handful, they were perfect and sun-warmed and juicy. And I might have talked about quality over quantity and everything in its own time.

But what actually happened was that one tomato made it to an orange-ish stage and the other four stayed resolutely green. I left them on the plant a bit longer, in case a miraculous colour change took place just before the frost hit, but of course it didn’t.
So I picked them. The whole crop fitted into the palm of my hand and they would have been considered rejects by any vegetable-growing standard.

Still, those five little tomatoes made me happy. They grew! Against the odds! So I guess the lesson was: let go of your expectations, don’t compare yourself to other people, be happy with what you have…and roasted green tomatoes taste delicious.

 

 

 

For Gordon, and for Anthony and far, far too many others

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This subject is not small, quiet or pretty. It’s become alarmingly apparent that the middle years of life are, for too many people, so tough to navigate that they look for a quick way out. I’m no counsellor, but if you’re struggling right now I urge you to ask for help. Talk to someone. Connect. Connect. Connect. Be kind to yourself. And please hold on. Wait for the storm to pass.

Here’s something I wrote a couple of years ago in memory of a friend.

Treasures

He liked to walk the beach just as the sun wiped the sleep from its eyes. The roar of the waves washed over him while he searched the sand for treasures. Iron, glass, wood, tile; he picked them up and brought them home. He displayed them in an open box, a cube with many compartments that sat on the table like a work of art, the simplicity of its pale wood as beautiful as the objects it held. He arranged his newfound knick-knacks then made coffee loudly, waking up the rest of us—we who had missed the sunrise and kept our feet warm in bed while his had felt the cool, wet sand.

He was filled with enthusiasm on those mornings, so keen to share what he had found: sun-bleached wood, salt-corroded metal and opaque glass all worn smooth by the tide. Hung over and grumbling we indulged him, examining each object without really seeing it. His certainty that they had come from the wreck of the Walter Hood was infectious. Yes, we nodded, they must have done. I always meant to look into that shipwreck, to find out what had happened.

We met at the beach house for long weekends. We were cheery in our drinking; we barbecued to excess. We swam and walked and talked. He was charming, clever, grumpy, funny. He was perceptive and interested. He had travelled far and lived many lives and had the wicked grin to prove it. He could speak Xhosa, his tongue clicking softly as his lips formed the words. He created an enchanted garden that he cherished, and he could name the plants in everyone else’s. In that small seaside community all the neighbours loved him.

But over the years the gaps between beach house weekends widened as life slowly and quietly changed us all. Children came, unemployment struck, relationships faltered. We were together less and less. He sold his beach house and left his garden to move back to the city. I was planning a visit. How I wish now that I had gone sooner.

When the phone call came, I heard the words but could not accept their meaning. The caller was crying. I made her say the words again then I too began to cry. “Taken his own life,” she said. Four words to convey the unfathomable. Four words that rippled around the world and capsized all of us who knew him.

At the wake his sisters came from half a world away to meet his friends for the first time. One sister was brittle, the other soft. Each was devastated in her own way. In the bright blue eyes of his youngest sister I saw tears sparkle like sunlight on wave tops.

“Are you staying long?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “My daughter’s getting married. I came right after the kitchen tea and before the rehearsal dinner.”

The inconvenience of death.

We who had loved him hugged and cried. We told stories and laughed in the recollecting. We asked why and found no answer.

“He was so happy at Christmas,” someone said.

“He was learning Spanish. He was planning a trip,” someone said.

“He was lonely,” someone said.

“He hated his job,” someone said.

“He was always melodramatic,” his oldest sister said sadly and looked away.

The sisters had made a memory room full of old bits and bobs for us to take home. I wanted a treasure from the Walter Hood, a piece of glass that the sea had worried smooth, something to hold in my hand and rub my thumb over, something to hold up to the light. But the familiar wooden box was not there.

“Where are the Walter Hood treasures?”

“He put them all back in the sea,” someone said.

We should have known then. Perhaps we should have known.

At the bottom of a cupboard was a large old leather-bound book with metal hinges.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s the family Bible,” said his oldest sister.

The weight of it—it took both hands to pick up. I opened it and read the names written in the front. The first was from the 1800s.

“Take it if you want it,” said his oldest sister.

“Don’t you want it?”

“No,” she said. “It means nothing to me. I don’t like old things. I don’t want it in my house.”

I went to check with the other sister.

“Oh,” she said, “please take it. I can’t take it home with me and it’s wrong to throw away a Bible.”

“I’ll send it to you.”

“No,” she said. “I’m so glad you want it. It means a lot to me that it’s going to one of his friends.”

He would have loved it for its history and its ancestral story. I wonder if he ever read it.

At home I hefted the great book onto the table. From its foxed and brittle pages I learned the history of the man who had compiled it, a Scottish preacher whose explanation of its mysteries was so popular that it stayed in print for more than a hundred years. This edition, I discovered, was from 1870.

Then, finally, I began to research the Walter Hood. It too originated in Scotland. It set a record for the fastest London to Sydney voyage and was known to almost everyone who lived in the colony. When it became caught in a storm near the beach house, it was carrying beer, wine, iron bars, tiles and theatrical costumes. He would have loved the incongruous flourish of that last item of cargo. As the storm began to destroy the ship, some sailors swam for shore. Those who could not swim clung on to the wreck. In their torment they killed the captain’s dog and ate it raw. Three days later they were rescued, desperate but alive. The year was 1870.

It both comforts and astounds me that the ship and the book originated in the same place and went out across the world to different countries yet ended up together. As the Walter Hood broke up off the beach, the family Bible sailed on another ship, on another ocean, to South Africa, to be bought by a family who would hand it down through the generations to a man who ended up on a beach in Australia collecting treasures from the wrecked ship.

Some time after the wake a friend compiled a photomontage, set to music, of happy times at the beach. At the end the music faded and a familiar voice said, “Like stars against the black sky, these are points in time and they are linked. They are infinite.” He knew that great truth, yet when the storm came he could not hold on, could not cling to the wreckage for one more day.

Love and loss, hope and despair, joy and pain—these are the threads that bind us together, invisible yet enduring. We think we are alone, apart. We are wrong. No matter how shipwrecked our lives, we are all treasures, precious to someone.

Australia
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Beyondblue

New Zealand
Lifeline: 0800 543 354

US
The Lifeline: 1 800 273 8255

UK
Samaritans: 116 123

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Spiegeltent of the mind, and other life rafts

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A few weeks ago, a whimsical structure appeared in the square next to the building where I work. Its curved walls were made of wood, painted a dark green. At the top of each wall panel was leadlight glass in red and green. Its roof was a dome of stretched canvas. At the front of this makeshift structure, spanning the entrance, were painted Art Nouveau panels, drawing you in. A glimpse inside showed booths, a bar, columns and a stage in warm polished wood. It was a Spiegeltent.

Inside, every night, cabaret artists performed or acrobats tumbled in spangled costumes or soulful singers sang their hearts out. I think there’s a little part in all of us that loves sequins and spectacle and fancy lighting. One of my great-grandmas was a Romani, so a desire to run away and join the circus or to trundle about in a painted caravan is in my DNA. I’ve loved walking past the Spiegeltent every day because of what it represents: creativity, freedom, self-expression.

That Spiegeltent has been a life raft for me in recent weeks, because bereavement is hard and you need life rafts to cling to while you’re swimming through the sea of grief.  I think the way grief was dealt with in Victorian times was much better than the way we deal with it now. The Victorians had set mourning periods, signified by the colour of their clothes. They started off by wearing black then moved to purple and grey as time went on. It was obvious to everyone when a person was in mourning. The bereaved weren’t expected to fully participate in society for a year or more.

In our shiny, clever, modern world, you get a week off work when a family member dies, two if you push it. So you go back to work and try to act like a fully functioning human being while inside you’re all colours of mourning: black, purple and grey, like a bruise. Because there’s no obvious outward sign, people forget. You can ask for help or extra time but in the working world patience extends only so far and then you’re expected to be all right again.

This is not meant to be a whinge. I’m just documenting my observations. Every damn day I’m creating new coping mechanisms and giving silent thanks for small things, little life rafts of distraction, inspiration and hope. In case you’re going through something similar, I’ll share those life rafts with you. The first one is, of course, the Spiegeltent and all it represents. The next one is this: Detectorists. It’s three series of gentle story lines and subtle comedy set in beautiful countryside, and for half an hour at a time it makes your poor heart happy.

Soup is another life raft. A friend who now goes by the nickname of Soup Ninja keeps making me soup and just bringing it over, no questions asked. She knows that if she did ask I’d probably say she shouldn’t bother, so she just brings it. And it’s always delicious and enormously comforting.

Poetry can be a life raft. Another friend sent me this book: Evidenceby Mary Oliver. The poems in it are exquisite reflections on the natural world and our inner worlds, and some are about the way we try to grasp at the things we know we can’t keep. It’s the kind of book you hug to your chest after you’ve read it.

Here’s another life raft: Hyperbole and a half. It’s a blog, it’s a book and it makes me Laugh.So.Much. Even when I don’t want to. The dog sections of the book especially crack me up. It’s Allie Brosh’s cartoon account of her life and I love it.

Alexandra Kennedy’s articles on grief are very helpful. I’m finding this one in particular to be a life raft: Ten Steps to Grieving the Loss of a Parent.

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Friends are a life raft, especially when they can give you space and a bit of time and aren’t offended when you don’t feel like talking or when you can’t really be there for them. A dog walk or a quick chat over a cuppa or the occasional trip to the movies is all I’m able to do right now. And I just don’t remember anything anyone tells me. But thank you, my friends, for still being there.

Sophie Hansen’s newsletter, which you can sign up to on her Local is Lovely blog, is a life raft. Most Mondays she sends out reasons to be cheerful: links to lovely recipes or interesting podcasts or groovy architecture and interiors. It’s such a cheery thing to find in your inbox on the least cheery day of the working week.

Home maintenance can be a life raft. I’m ridiculously pleased with the curtains I put up the other week, even though I haven’t yet re-hung the bedroom ones. I think it’s to do with being completely focused on the task and having to figure out little puzzles to get something right. And then you end up with a new colour or texture or arrangement of furniture to look at, which can change your outlook too.

Trees are a life raft. We’ve kind of skipped autumn this year. April was unseasonably hot. Now we’re into fog and frost. The trees are confused and so am I. They’re changing colour one day and dropping all their leaves the next. Michael Leunig’s cartoon “Interview with an autumn leaf” made me gasp when I found it on the wall of Dad’s study. Now I see all the leaves letting go and I think of that cartoon.

Booking a holiday can be a life raft. I ummed and aahed about this one. I didn’t want to go too far. I didn’t want to go anywhere unfamiliar, not just yet. So I booked a week in a posh hotel in the Big Smoke. And I booked a seat on a plane to take me there, rather than the squashy bus or the slow train. That’s what credit cards are for. Now I’m glad I did. It’s not till July but it’s a treat to look forward to.

Community is a life raft. Mum and Dad live in a small town. In the days after Dad died, I was driven a bit mad by the phone ringing, ringing, ringing and the doorbell chiming, chiming, chiming from all the people who were in shock and wanted to express their sorrow. But when half the town turned up at the funeral I was so moved. Dad knew he was lucky to live in a supportive community and now they’re a life raft for Mum.

Movies can be a life raft. I went to see the bittersweet film Aurore recently. Perhaps it appealed to me so much because I’m une femme d’un certain age. Also, the French have the best names, really they do. It was written by Blandine Lenoir and stars Agnès Jaoui. See what I mean? And it’s also got Thibault de Montalembert in it, which I think is my favourite name ever. I can’t stop saying it.

There’s a scene in the film where Aurore dances to a song that, if you’re grieving, will probably make you cry. But I’m going to share it here anyway because it’s sung by the incomparable Nina Simone. When someone dies, I think those of us who are left behind feel somehow guilty that we’re still here. It feels wrong to laugh or to sing or to be able to appreciate beauty at the same time as being incredibly sad. So this song might stir up all sorts of feelings, but listen to it anyway and let them all out. Here’s Nina, wearing a fabulous crocheted dress, in a spliced together film clip from 1968: I got life.

On Monday morning as I walked into work, the sun was shining down on the Spiegeltent, illuminating the beautiful Art Nouveau decoration at the entrance. I thought about taking a photo, and I wish I had because the next day they took it down and the weather changed. Now there are only office workers clutching their coats around them as they walk across the grey, empty square. And I can’t find a single good photo of that particular Spiegeltent on the internet. There’s just a grainy one taken by someone one evening before the show started. So it exists now only in my head, as the Spiegeltent of the mind, a fanciful distraction. Like the other life rafts, it’s a safe place to rest, briefly, on the unavoidable voyage through the sea of grief.

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DIY for the delusional

 

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Are you good at home improvements? Can you stand on a ladder with a pencil behind your ear and a drill in your hand and make something stay on the wall? If so, can I just bow down before you. (Imagine deep bow.) I’m pretty handy with a paintbrush, which led me to think I would be good at home maintenance generally. The small, quiet, pretty house is in need of some cosmetic assistance and I’m planning to do it myself. But after this weekend I might have to rethink that. Here’s the story of how I put up curtains…

Measure very large windows by stretching up on tiptoes and wrangling with bendy tape measure. Tape measure flips all over place like metal serpent, threatening to take out eye. Manage to save eye. Write down dodgy measurements on scrap of paper and shove into handbag.

One month later, discover scrap of crumpled paper in handbag. Resolve to go to IKEA to buy curtain rods and curtains all at same time.

Another month later, find time to go to IKEA. Walk into IKEA clutching scrap of paper with measurements on. Look up directions to curtain section. Become instantly distracted by discovery of shortcut to cafe. Follow shortcut to cafe. Buy coffee and gluten free cake and feel very pleased with self.

Set off again for curtain section. Pick up coffee pot and mason jars on way. Arrive at curtain section with hands full. Temporarily detour to find large bag. Return to curtain section. Discover have misplaced important scrap of paper. Backtrack to find paper. Return to curtain section.

Realise must also buy brackets and ends for curtain rods. Feel relieved at in-store realisation, resulting in no need for second visit to IKEA. Stare for long period at measurements on curtain rods. Sigh at own mathematical and spatial awareness inadequacies.

Decide on curtain rods. Clank over to curtains, carrying rods, mason jars and coffee pot. Discover that curtains in shop aren’t same as curtains online. Touch curtain in shop and recoil from nasty nylon material snagging fingernails.

Clank through remaining sections of IKEA without curtains. Become distracted by nice mirror. Attempt to look up number and price of nice mirror on warehouse computer. Wonder why touchscreen not working. Try another computer. Touchscreen also not working. Give up and go to checkout. En route, realise computers were mouse operated.

Steer self across windy car park with curtain rods acting as rudders. Attempt to fit rods in small car. Try from several angles. Fold down back seats and retry. Success!

Two weeks later, feel icy wind blow through sliding doors in bedroom and living room. Read in paper about snowfalls in national park. Decide today is thermal curtain day. Remove old, broken wooden blinds from windows by standing on chair and sliding knife into various metal parts until blinds give way. Discover big blinds very heavy. Call friend to come over and help.

Meanwhile, carry small blinds across golf course in freezing wind to dump in skip. Bump into neighbour. Go to neighbour’s house to look at double glazing. Marvel at warmth and quiet of neighbour’s house. Plan to save bazillion dollars and buy double glazing.

Friend arrives. Drive to nearby town to good curtain shop. Friend disappears in curtain section. Decide on curtains. Friend reappears carrying exact same curtains. Laugh. Both stand in front of curtains trying to do maths. Realise measurements on crumpled piece of paper are inaccurate. Use phone calculator to do more maths. Purchase curtains and hope for the best.

Back at home, friend helps carry large blinds across golf course, through sleeting rain, to skip. Both scurry back inside, put fire on, have tea and chat.

Several hours later, stand on chair to fix curtain rods to bedroom wall. Realise part of wall is hardwood beam. Peer at various drill bits and wonder which bits work on hardwood. Get lucky and choose right bit. Drill holes. Almost step back to admire handiwork then remember standing on chair with drill in hand.

Attempt to screw in brackets. Realise have wrong screws. Notice that sun is setting and temperature dropping and have no curtains at windows. Hang bedroom curtains anyway, with brackets only half screwed in. Realise brackets are too high. Curtains look like boy with too short trousers. Briefly consider making embroidered bottoms for curtains. Acknowledge to self that winter will be over by time finish embroidery. Decide to re-do brackets and re-hang bedroom curtains another day when have right screws.

Go into living room and temporarily pin bits of material up at windows like in student days. Spill drawing pins all over floor. Glance at packaging of living room curtains and wonder why bought extra wide curtain for smaller window. Feel suddenly very tired. Resolve to deal with it tomorrow.

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Post script: Next day buy right screws, install brackets lower down and successfully hang curtains. But only in living room. Bedroom windows still have too short trousers.

Year of the/Day of

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It’s the National Geographic Year of the Bird. Just before I started writing this, a crimson rosella came and perched on the chair outside the back door. He chirruped and squeaked and whistled and I tried to imitate him. I don’t know what I said in bird language, but he cocked his head and listened before he flew off. Then he said something very loudly from the silver birch tree, so perhaps I offended him.

Recently it was Harmony Day. Then it was Neighbour Day. There’s a Walk to Work Day and a Talk Like a Pirate Day. Perhaps you’re allowed to combine the two. If you felt like whiling away a few hours, you could look up “National Day of” and “International Year of the” and you’d probably find that every day is the National Day of Something. When I mentioned this to someone, they said, “Why can’t it just be Wednesday?”

Interestingly (well, I think so) the United Nations is not having a year of anything this year. Usually it has a theme for the year, sometimes several. For example, 2016 was the UN International Year of Pulses. I assume they meant legumes, not heartbeats. 2008 was the International Year of Languages and the International Year of the Potato/Patate/Kartoffel/じゃがいも. That’s my kind of year. But this year the UN is going cold turkey. I wonder if it’s because next year is the International Year of Moderation and they want us to notice the difference between nothing and moderation?

To fill the gap left by the UN, I’ve decided to make up a few days of my own. Some of them celebrate small, daily things but some could be international and last all year. Here they are, in no particular order of importance.

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Tarragon Appreciation Day

Oh, beautiful licorice-y aniseed-y herb with tongue-numbing properties, where have you been all my life? You are superb in scrambled eggs. Thanks to my friend J for the gift of both the tarragon and the eggs.

National Three Things for Dinner Day

While we’re on the subject of herbs, can I just say that gnocchi with butter and sage is the quickest yet most extravagantly tasty dinner you can make in under 10 minutes. I know there are lots of books out there on making things for dinner using not many ingredients, but raiding the fridge and surprising yourself is much more fun.

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International Make New Friends Day

I was thinking a while ago that it can be quite hard to make new friends when you reach a certain age. Then two chance remarks in the tea room at work led to two new friendships, just like that. So let’s go big on this one. It should be international. Let’s be open to new friendships wherever and whenever they pop up.

International Appreciate Your Old Friends Day

I’ve moved house a lot, which means that many of my old friends live elsewhere, some of them very far away. But they’re still there. A letter, a phone call, an email, a visit when we can, these things keep the friendships going. And this year, which is a hard one for my family, I appreciate my old friends more than ever. It was a joy to spend time at Easter with old friends, to talk and laugh and loll about and be comfortable with each other. Thanks to H, M, M and Rufus the dog.

National Laugh Your Socks Off Day

Not all humour translates, so I’ve made this a national day rather than an international one. But now I’m going to contradict myself and tell you that I saw a very funny German film, Toni Erdmann, last weekend. It’s subtitled and it’s definitely not for children. It might not be your cup of tea, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that made me laugh so hard.  Don’t watch the trailer, just let yourself watch the film knowing nothing about it except that it’s funny and goes absolutely nowhere predictable. Or don’t listen to me: go and watch anything that makes you laugh and laugh.

National Take the Anger Somewhere Else Day

I have a very crochety co-worker who likes to dump anger on whoever’s nearest. Unfortunately, that’s usually me. On the up side, this person isn’t at work every week. But their anger was starting to affect me and I could feel myself mentally wincing at the thought of going to work on certain days. So now I have a plan: take it to the gym. I can’t do that every time the anger is dumped on me, but I can do it on Mondays and Fridays and that’s good enough. Running it out on the treadmill or dancing up and down on the huffy-puffy machine (I think it’s a cross-trainer) certainly works. The anger slides off and doesn’t get in. I know there’s a whole post to be written on how not to accept someone else’s anger, but this is a quick fix and I recommend it.

International Daydream Day

There’s nothing wrong with a little daydreaming. Sometimes it leads to actual real-life dreams coming true. Sometimes it’s just a nice escape, a pleasant distraction. I regularly type the words “old church for sale” into Google to see what comes up and to start a little daydreaming session. When I mentioned this to a friend, she took me for a short drive down the road from her place to see this:

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Now I’m in love. It doesn’t appear to have electricity or running water. The gutters are full of pine needles and it needs a new roof. Also, it’s not for sale. Even if it were, I probably wouldn’t have enough money to buy it. But that didn’t stop me from researching the price of septic tanks and electricity connection the next day. And who knows where the daydream could lead?

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International Day of Fondness

I once sat on this bench with one of the most interesting people I’ve met, someone I hoped to know for a long time. The relationship didn’t last, which made me very sad at the time, but I recently went back to the bench and thought fondly of that person. So let’s make this an international day. It is possible for a broken heart to mend. Even if it’s cracked and bruised it can still be beautiful in a wabi-sabi way and you can think fondly of relationships that never were and of paths that were never taken.

International Legs Up the Wall Day

Here’s another one that needs to go global. Yes, it’s yoga, but don’t run away. It’s not hard. All you have to do is lie on the floor with your legs up the wall. Put socks on if you’re going to be there for a while, in case you get cold. You can do this in hotel rooms, in the office, in any tiny space where there’s a free patch of wall. Put your arms out like a cactus or have them resting gently by your sides, palms up, and relax. Just breathe. Cures jetlag. Soothes tired legs that have been standing all day. Helps you feel refreshed AND relaxed. Just lie there and do nothing for as long as you have.

That’s it! I’d love to hear about any national/international days that you’d like to create. And so that you have time to prepare, can I inform you that 2024 will be the United Nations International Year of Camelids. I know that governments around the world are pushing the idea of having driverless cars by then, but perhaps camels will be the alternative for those of us who like a slower pace (and don’t mind a bit of a smell and occasional spitting).

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Tennyson was wise

 

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Sometimes my world feels very small. Sometimes I’m focusing so intently on a minute problem, a tiny fixation, that I forget to look beyond it. Sometimes I close my mind without realising it. And then I’m stuck. I forget all that came before it. I can’t see any way around it and I can’t imagine what could come after it. Do you do that? I don’t suppose for one minute that I’m alone in sweating the small stuff.

When we watch TV or go to the movies or listen to the radio, mostly we see our little corner of the world reflected back at us. We learn to worry about the things that everyone else in our society is worrying about. Just in case that isn’t enough worrying, we also learn to worry about what world superpowers might be doing or not doing. And even if you don’t watch the TV news or read the paper anymore, it’s hard to escape the zeitgeist. Why do we let ourselves be swept along by the doomsayers?  Why do we lose our sense of wonder? Why do we get stuck in the mundane?

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At high school we studied the poem Ulysses, by Tennyson. Particular lines from that poem struck a chord with me then. I wanted to travel, “to sail beyond the sunset”, so when I was old enough that’s what I did. I wanted new experiences, to “drink life to the lees”, so I sought them out. By the time I was in my mid-thirties, my favourite section of the poem was this:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

There was always more to see, I thought, more to learn, and that was exciting and filled me with anticipation.

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Then midlife arrived and somehow the horizon got smaller. The brain filled up with administrivia. Money got tighter. Years got shorter and time got faster.  I got so focused on the everyday that I forgot about all the incredible things I’d seen and heard and learned and experienced in the decades before. I began to see only a version of myself. I put myself in a box and labelled it.

I thought wistfully of things I used to be good at. I thought often of things I’d still like to see and experience and learn, but I decided they’d have to wait. I started saying to myself, “When I’ve got money/time/energy I’ll do X. Maybe when I’m retired I’ll be able to do Y.” I found myself listening to the doomsayers. But I wasn’t very happy. I started to think, “Is this all there is?” and gradually, like so many people around me, I began to slide into midlife malaise.

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Luckily, a tiny part of my brain was still awake enough to see what was happening and take action. I had to remind myself to look after my health, to make the time to cook proper meals and to exercise. Before bed every night I made myself write down three things from the day that I was thankful for. I was so cynical about doing that at first, but I’m still doing it. Some days it’s hard to find three things because I’ve allowed myself to get stuck in the small stuff again. But on other days I could write pages.

I started saying yes to things I might previously have said no to (because no time, no money, no energy et cetera). And that’s how, last weekend, I ended up at the National Gallery of Australia watching a film that, in just 30 minutes, restored my sense of wonder and excitement and downright amazement at the world we live in and the lives people lead.

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Before last weekend, the words “video art” made me roll my eyes. I guess I’ve seen a lot of bad art. But Angelica Mesiti’s film The Calling, which shows different but connected images on three screens at once, was a feast for the eyes, the ears and the soul. In this beautiful film we watched people in the Canary Islands, Turkey and Greece talk to each other across mountainous countryside by whistling. Did you know there are places in the world that use whistling languages—actual languages, made up of syllables? I didn’t.

Sitting with my friend, both of us entranced as we watched this film, I realised I’d done it again: allowed my world to get too small. I’d got too caught up in the problems of the everyday. I’d allowed myself to be influenced by the doomsayers and I’d put limits on myself, on my life, that didn’t need to be there. I’d forgotten about all the wonder that’s out there.

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I went home with a renewed sense of possibility, and I went back to Ulysses, to re-read it and see what it said to me at this age. Here’s what I found: “Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

That doesn’t have to mean changing everything and running off somewhere else, although for some people that might be the answer. To me, it’s a reminder to see everything with fresh eyes, especially the everyday stuff that can weigh you down. And the poem, like the beautiful, inspiring film at the art gallery, reminded me to maintain the wonder, to follow ideas and dreams, no matter the obstacles:

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

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Since we last met

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Since we last met, I’ve been on a lovely walk up Cooleman Ridge with friends, human and canine. The sun came up while we walked, treating us to a
sky-blue-pink view from the top of the ridge. Hot air balloons took off in the distance as we watched.

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At first glance, I thought this rock looked like a blond Darth Vader. Now, looking closely at the photo, I think it looks like a stone Womble. What can you see? The hills behind us were rose tinted, and low cloud hung over the elusive Murrumbidgee. My friends suggested that a person could possibly walk the length of the ridge, from their house to mine. Speaking from experience, I’d say that person would need a map. And even then they’d be likely to end up back at the place they started from.

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Since we last met, I’ve made a pair of trousers. I hand-sewed them. Yes, indeedy, I did. The material is light and drapes softly and they fit perfectly. I read about a type of seam called flat fell and wanted to try it. I was having a bout of sewing machine fear, so I hand-stitched the whole garment while listening to podcasts. The sparkle of satisfaction that I got from making them comes back every time I wear them.

I hope you’ll excuse the bandaid-wrapped toe in the photo. I cut my toe open twice by stubbing it two days in a row on the same step… living proof that human beings are slow learners and some people should really wear slippers more often.

Since we last met, I’ve been listening to The West Wing Weekly podcast a lot. I adored The West Wing. Every couple of years I re-watch the whole seven seasons and I still think it’s brilliant. The podcast dissects and discusses an episode each time. It’s very witty and engaging, and it makes TWW tragics like me glad to know that we’re part of a community.

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Since we last met, I’ve read some good books. Brigid Lowry’s Still Life With Teapot is a gem. I devoured it in an afternoon. Part memoir and collection of hilarious lists, it’s also a discussion on writing and creativity in general. In the first part of the book Brigid makes you like her so much that you can’t wait to read the rest of it. “I’ve written my way towards you,” she says, and she really has.

The second book I thought I’d bought was Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I laughed when I got home and realised I’d bought The Artist’s Way for Retirement. It’s aimed at people who suddenly have a lot of time on their hands, which, alas, is not me or any of my friends just yet. But it’s something we all long for.

The advice in the book—how to unlock creativity—is relevant for all of us, though. Just yesterday I was having a conversation with a friend’s teenage daughter who wanted to start painting but thought she needed to be taught how first. She said the local art teacher painted in a style she didn’t like. “So paint in your own style,” we said.

This morning I read a passage in the book about artistic U-turns, where people take up an artistic pursuit because they enjoy it but then give it up for years because of some unfavourable experience or negative feedback. They (we) associate the negativity with their artistic ability when really it comes down to the teacher having a different style or their work being judged by the wrong audience.

That applies not only to art. When I was a kid I thought I was rubbish at sport. I enjoyed riding my bike and going horseriding, but I hated school sports because I thought I was no good. At our school we wore fluorescent yellow sweatshirts for sport, probably because it was so foggy that the teachers needed a way of keeping an eye on us. On cross-country runs we of course took our sweatshirts off and ran away into the mist to do our own thing. My friends and I would wander around town or go to the sweet shop then duck home for a while. One day we decided to go to the graveyard and noisily stumbled into a funeral by mistake.

Because I was made to do sports that didn’t suit me, I thought I was no good at sport as a whole. I discovered running in my 40s and I love it, but if you’d told me that when I was 13 I’d have laughed because running then meant running away from school to go and buy sweets. So if you enjoy making art or writing or figure-skating or playing the spoons but you’ve convinced yourself that you’re no good at it, maybe it’s time for a rethink.

Which brings me to the next book. Susan Cain’s Quiet came out six years ago and that’s exactly how long I’ve been wanting to read it. There’s a nice review of it here. It’s a well-researched and at times very funny book about being an introvert in a world that values extroversion. I love the way that it debunks the current theories about group work being the way to solve a problem or open-plan being the best office design. To think deeply or be creative, I need a quiet space every time.

When I borrowed the book from work, the librarian, a colleague, was chatty and outgoing. She told me how much it had helped her to understand her son, when previously she and her similarly extroverted hubby had been scratching their heads and thinking, “What do we do with this left-handed introvert?!” I had to smile because she had no idea that she was telling her story to another left-handed introvert. Obviously we have to act extroverted a lot of the time just to get along in life, but for a third of the population our natural inclination is to do the opposite. And that’s perfectly okay.

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Since we last met, I’ve made peanut butter cookies and mushroom soup, and this afternoon I’ll be getting the plum puree out of the freezer and turning it into jam. A hint of autumn has crept into each day, which makes me want to bake. I discovered Luisa Weiss’s gorgeous book Classic German Baking yesterday at a friend’s house, and I can’t wait to bake from it. I enjoyed its photos of Berlin as much as I enjoyed reading the recipes and rolling their names around on my tongue. Who wouldn’t want to make Knerken or Versunkener Apfelkuchen?

And you? Where have you been walking and what have you seen? What are you listening to? What have you learned? What have you been making or baking… since we last met?