Taking stock

 

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

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

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Photo by C. Hart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s happening in your life?

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This week, a long time ago

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

Had a shower.

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

Had a long think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not bad.

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

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

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

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

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

Good books and a dash of paprika

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eavesdropping

(Or things I overheard on my holiday)

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I don’t know where I am.
—That’s all right. Neither do I.

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Jim says we’re more in tune with the Scandinavians, but I don’t mind the French.
               — I don’t understand contemporary French, not in those movies. It’s lower class.

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Vy choose her? She looks like a vimp.

I’ve got problems with spinach in any case.

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Politicians, they do anything to win.
                —Look at the calibre of people we have in politics.

I never realised how stressful it would be, pushing papers around.
— It’s because you never really achieve anything.
I’m never gunna look back and remember what I did.
— Yeah.  You’ll never say, “Gee, I made a difference.”

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The rumour is that X is the father.

My goodness, all the girls have grey hair now.

What’s that?
                —“Keen-wah.”
You’ll have to explain to me what that is.
               — I don’t know. All I know is that it’s healthy.

You’re not a machine. You need to recharge your batteries.

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Did I tell you I’m a bit of a medium as well as a masseuse?
                —No.
Well, I can tell you there’s someone in the room wearing a green scarf.

Don’t tell anyone.
—Mate, I’m like a coffin.
What do you mean?
—The lid’s closed. Nothing gets out.

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How much do you love me? (pause)
That’s the wrong answer.
Why can’t you just play the game?

Are you ready to order?
—Um…can I make up my own breakfast?
Of course. What would you like?
—Um…(long pause)…um…I’ll have…um…(long pause)…the bacon and eggs.
Like on the menu?
— Um…yes.

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Now, who can tell me what the most famous building in Sydney is? Yes, Scott?
                —Miss, it’s Westfield.

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.