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?

 

 

 

Portraits and petals

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Of all the pictures on display in the National Portrait Gallery, there are two that I particularly love. You see one of them from a distance and your brain says, “That one,” and your feet begin to walk towards it. Then you spend a long time in front of it, staring, because it radiates character. If you move closer to it, you find yourself wondering how that black line here or that gold smudge there can end up representing light and shade so accurately. It’s Robert Hannaford’s portrait of Lowitja O’Donoghue and it glows off the wall. There’s a disappointingly flat photo of it here, but I urge you to go and see the real thing. It’s much more impressive.

Around the corner, tucked away on a side wall, is another of Robert Hannaford’s paintings. It’s of Robert Dessaix. “Robert,” you feel like saying, “how are you? What are you working on?” because he seems really to be there. You could almost walk into the painting, sit down and have a cup of tea with him.IMG_2587

The Portrait Gallery is my second favourite building in Canberra. I’ll tell you about my favourite another time. I love the concrete, the soaring geometric ceiling and the lighting. Hell, I even like the toilet doors, but I didn’t take a photo of them because that would be weird.

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I’m in love with the tactile orange blob that greets you as you arrive. I adore the shop, with its eclectic book selection and imaginative gifts. Yesterday I treated myself to a book and took it to the airy, light-filled cafe to read while drinking real leaf tea from a teapot the colour of the sky in winter. I once took a friend from Yorkshire to the Portrait Gallery, and now I hear his voice in my head every time I go there for tea: “Ooh, I loov a posh gallery caff.”

A possibly little known fact about the Portrait Gallery is that it contains Ned Kelly’s death mask. Two things strike you when you look at it: he seems to be smiling in death, and he had an extraordinarily small head. “Surely not?” you think. “Surely if that were true, someone somewhere would have mentioned that Australia’s most famous bushranger had a teeny-tiny head?” Then you realise that the guy who made it must have plonked the face on to a little blob of plaster and made some not-at-all-in-proportion shoulders. At least, I hope he did.

Not far from Ned Kelly’s puzzlingly small head is a carte de visite, a photographic calling card, of Madame Sibly, phrenologist and mesmerist. Apparently she travelled around with her daughter, Zel the Magnetic Lady, feeling the bumps on people’s heads or hypnotising them and making them do silly things. She also claimed to be able to cure gout. That’s quite a CV. If she’d ever had the chance to feel the bumps on Ned Kelly’s head, no doubt she could have warned his mother: “This one’s trouble.”

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A short walk from the Portrait Gallery are the Old Parliament House rose gardens. I wasn’t a big rose fan until I moved to Canberra. Even in my first garden here, I took a hard line: only vegetables and native plants. But the next two houses I lived in had roses climbing up the brickwork and they were so cheery and bright that they changed my mind. Also, they required very little effort from me and still looked bloomin’ marvellous every year. So now I’m a convert.

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There are two rose gardens, one each side of Old Parliament House. When you walk through the gates of the first one, a cloud of scent hits you. The roses are arranged by colour: a garden of white, a garden of pink, a garden of yellow and so on. There’s a loggia and a rotunda thingy and it’s all terribly picturesque. People like to get married there. In fact, there was a bride-to-be there on Sunday, planning where to stand for her wedding photos, while I wandered around sticking my nose into Fragrant Cloud and Golden Celebration and Taboo. She seemed tense and distracted. “Don’t expect it all to be perfect,” I wanted to say to her. “Just enjoy the flowers.”

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While the first rose garden is pretty and manicured because it’s looked after by hundreds of volunteers, the second rose garden is like the Secret Garden or something out of a fairytale by the brothers Grimm. It’s overgrown and much wilder. If you had your wedding there, your expensive dress would become snagged on trailing thorns and you’d end up with big spiders in your hair.

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This is the garden where the year 5/6 primary school classes that come to Canberra to visit all the important buildings stop to eat their lunch. On a weekday you’ll find kids running in the maze of rose bushes or doing cartwheels on the grass. It’s a wilder garden and you can run wild in it.

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Or you can sit on a bench in a secluded corner and take in its quiet charms. In its own way, this garden is as enchanting as the other one; you just have to look a bit harder for the pretty things.

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Portraits and petals: a good day out.

 

February

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I’ve never been a fan of February. In the Northern Hemisphere it’s cold and dark and gloomy and you wonder if spring will ever come. In the Southern Hemisphere it’s so hot and dry, day and night, that everything wilts, including the people. It’s a month to be endured rather than enjoyed.

This year, February has been particularly unkind. It’s been one of the busiest times at work. I’ve had a lurgy that just wouldn’t leave and insomnia that seems to have dug its heels in. But those things are nothing, really, because my Dad has cancer again, this time with complications, and has spent most of the month in hospital.

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I could write about pain (his) and grief (ours). I could write about shouting in my car while driving home from work, pleading with God/the universe to give him more time and a quiet, peaceful death years from now. Perhaps I’ll get my wish. As things stand, it seems unlikely. A year ago we were talking about him beating cancer. Now we’re talking about him buying time. They were the specialist’s words: “Basically, we’re just buying time.”

If you’re seriously ill, it helps to have a specialist with gallows humour. A recent conversation went like this:

Dad: I think I was in the same bed last time I was here.

Specialist: Yes, we kept it for you. Your name’s up there in permanent marker.

One conversation he had last year with Mum still makes me smile:

Mum: Will he be well enough to go on our overseas holiday?

Specialist: Is he going over in a box?

Mum: No, and I don’t want to bring him back in one either.

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How do you keep doing the everyday things when uncertainty, pain and death are looming? For a couple of weeks, I didn’t know if I could stand the futility of so many aspects of my day. I wanted to spin myself a cocoon and hide inside it for as long as possible. I wanted to make caustic remarks in reply to the endless discussions about inconsequential things. I wanted everything and everyone to go away.

But everything doesn’t go away. Whatever personal hell you’re going through, you have to go through it while still doing the everyday things. The garbage still has to go out. The house still has to be cleaned. You have to keep feeding yourself nutritious food. You can’t walk out of work because, actually, it’s a good job and it pays for your lifestyle.

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Watching someone confront their mortality makes you face up to your own. And it turns out that there’s an up side to insomnia: it gives you extra time to think. It gives you time to question whether you’re where you want to be, doing what you really want to do. It gives you time to plan how to get from here to there. It gives you time to ask questions like: what do I need to do right now to start going down that path?

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Today, finally, the hot weather broke. I went to the garden centre and stood in the teeming rain choosing white flowers to plant in the back garden. By the time I got back to the car I was soaked through, but it felt exhilarating to be out in the rain. Back at home I tucked the plants into the wet soil and their bright little faces cheered me up.

The only way to keep going is to keep going. The Nike slogan works: just do it. I’ve fitted more into this weekend than I normally would. There’s no time for apathy and lethargy. There’s now, today, and maybe there’s tomorrow, but we really have no control over that. I don’t have any answers. I wish I did. I just wanted to tell you about my February.

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Soup!

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“If you please, I’ve brought some calf’s-foot jelly for Mr Pendleton,” smiled Pollyanna.

I hope I haven’t turned your stomach. Mr Pendleton had a broken leg, not a fever, but it didn’t stop Pollyanna bringing him one of the many unappealing concoctions that were traditionally fed to the unwell in ye olden days.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since I was poleaxed by one of those sneaky viruses with a sting in the tail. You think it will be over in 24 hours, so you have a bit of a rest then soldier on, only to be knocked flat again days later. I knew I was unwell when I stopped wanting a cup of tea. Apparently, Florence Nightingale was on to this as well:

“A great deal too much of tea is given to the sick by foolish people.”

Mrs Beeton, in her cookery book published in 1861, has a whole chapter on food for the sick. It’s charmingly titled “Recipes for Invalids” and includes thin gruel, calf’s foot broth and beef tea. There’s much talk of scum-skimming. Even she admits that her egg wine recipe (water, sherry, egg and sugar) makes a less than tasty beverage:

“When the egg is not warmed, the mixture will be found easier of digestion, but it is not so pleasant a drink.”

Of course, invalids in books only start to sip beef tea or bravely swallow lumps of calf’s foot jelly after they’ve been through the febrile stage of their illness. That’s the part where they toss and turn in bed, muttering deliriously, while someone applies a cold compress and the rest of the family wring their hands and wail until someone thinks to ride off into the night to fetch the doctor. I’m sure it helps enormously if that someone is Alan Rickman in a puffy shirt.

I guess Colonel Brandon was still out riding when I finally emerged from my sickbed. A tiny voice in my enfeebled brain bleated, “Soup! I n-e-e-d s-o-u-p!” I definitely couldn’t face beef tea. I couldn’t even face chicken soup, which I know is supposed to cure all ills. So I turned to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. (Or Hugh Frippery-Whoppingstick as a friend once called him, which still makes me laugh!) The man knows his onions. And his tatties and leeks. If you’re feeling poorly, his soup recipes will gently nurse you back to health.

I started with cabbage, carrot and caraway broth, which was simple and soothing. Caraway is an old-fashioned and under-appreciated flavour, but cabbage is its true friend. The next night I made cucumber and lettuce vichyssoise. “Lettuce in a soup? Will it be slimy?” I thought. It wasn’t. It was smooth and tasty. In fact, it was SO good that I had it cold for lunch for the next three days.

I cheated in the next soup recipe: cannellini bean and leek soup with zucchini. I used spring onions, broccoli and orange zest instead, which made a crunchy, filling and aromatic soup that I think was my favourite for the week. The next night’s recipe was pea and parsley soup. Celia K Irwell said in the American Journal of Nursing in 1912:

“Vegetables should never be given to any sick person without the physician’s consent.”

In her view, invalids should be fed oysters and chicken, but she does allow peas to be introduced on day 3, so she would have found my pea soup acceptable. I found it slightly less than acceptable, probably because I didn’t cook it for long enough or blend it well enough. It was a bit, well, raw-ish and lumpy.

The final soup for the week was kipper chowder, with potatoes, almond milk and bucketfuls of dill. You can never have enough dill, in my opinion, so this was a fine soup. I won’t post a picture of it because, although it was delicious, it wasn’t pretty. But with each mouthful I found myself making the same “mm-mmm!” noises of greedy appreciation that my old labrador used to make.

I think buying the ingredients for all these lovely soups was the cheapest weekly shop I’ve done for a while. The soups were ridiculously easy and quick to make. They were nourishing and delicious and I looked forward to making a new one each night. So, even though I’m completely well again, I’ll be having home-made soup at least once a week from now on. Anne Barrows, also writing in the American Journal of Nursing, in 1905, would agree:

“If as great care were given to cookery for the well as we are willing to bestow upon cookery for the sick, the doctors and nurses would be less busy.”

 

The joy of missing out

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Cartoonist Michael Leunig, in his lyrical way, sums up here the way I feel about the strange, materialistic force that impels some people to own the next big shiny thing or to be the first to experience something. In those moments when I feel overwhelmed by the maelstrom of everyday life, I also feel suffocated by the stuff I already own, so I can’t imagine queuing overnight to be the first to get a new techy thing or elbowing other people out of the way to get a cut price something or other.

I’ve been thinking about this since I read the story of the so-called Nutella riots in France last week. My favourite headline was “Nutella riots spread” (chortle). While the footage I’ve seen looks more like a bit of argy-bargy than a full-scale riot, it is extraordinary that people would fight so hard to get a couple of jars of hazelnut spread at a reduced price. In that situation, I would rather go without or make my own. It’s pretty easy to make and there are many recipes out there in internet land.

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Why did those people do that? I know it’s a delicious spread, but I really can’t understand their actions. A colleague told me that she experienced something similar in a supermarket in Greece just after the Chernobyl accident. People were fighting each other for tins of milk because they were so worried that the nuclear fall-out would affect Europe’s cows. I can imagine the level of panic, and I understand it, but that certainly wasn’t the case in France last week.

When I was a child there was a lot of queuing. So many people wanted to be the first to see a movie or to buy the number one record. Perhaps that’s why I don’t do it now. We queued to see ET at the Odeon in Leicester Square and didn’t get in. I still haven’t seen it and I sometimes wonder whether ET ever got to phone home, but not knowing hasn’t impaired my life in any way.

Many years ago, I went to New York unintentionally when my plane was diverted. I had a few hours to spare and, in my jet-lagged state, thought it would be a good idea to go and see the Statue of Liberty. I joined the queue down there in Battery Park…and waited and waited and waited. At some point it dawned on me that if I stayed in line I would miss my connecting flight, so I gave up and went back to the airport. On that occasion I missed out. But what I didn’t know then was that I’d be back in under two years for a wonderful New York holiday. So missing out in one way resulted in an even better experience later.

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One of the many things I love about living in Canberra is that people here generally don’t feel the need to be first. Also, you almost never have to queue. If a new cafe opens and there’s a buzz about it then perhaps there will be a queue or it will be booked out, but after a couple of weeks it will be queue free. I find it very relaxing not to be bombarded with hype and buzz. An added bonus of not being first is that any kinks in a new restaurant/show/performance have generally been worked out by the time you experience it.

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Recently I heard someone on the radio say that he had stopped buying presents for people and instead invited them to join him in experiences, such as going for a walk somewhere scenic, followed by a nice afternoon tea. I thought about that comment yesterday when a colleague retired and was given a present that I hope I’m never given. It’s a tech object that you give orders to. You can tell it to turn on the lights or to play music or movies. You can ask it how long it will take you to get to work. (What if it’s wrong? Will that make people disappointed, frustrated, angry? Possibly.) You can even ask it to tell you about your day. If you own this gadget, there’s no need for you to get off the couch or to use your mental faculties. Harumph!

Perhaps we’ve reached a point now where we need to take a breath and think about what we really want, rather than what we’re told to want. Everything is overhyped now. Every sandwich is gourmet. Every coffee is expertly roasted. I like a gourmet sandwich as much as the next person, but I’m just as happy with bog standard cheese and tomato.

I really think it’s okay to be second or third…or to go without. It’s okay to perhaps be considered behind the times because you don’t have the latest thing. It takes the pressure off. It’s much less stressful. There’s a freedom to it. And, oh, the joy of missing out!

Lake George