An encounter, some thoughts and two quotes

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A man stopped me outside the shop. “You look like a woman who’s been around,” he said. My brain whirred: “In what sense? Do I look like I’ve led a hard life? Is he calling me a woman of ill repute? Does he mean well travelled? What answer can I possibly give?”

Utterly unaware of the inner chaos he’d caused me, Mr Tactful clarified the situation. “I’m looking for cherries. I know they’ve started picking, but no-one’s selling ’em.” So we had a chat about fruit and how it’s a tad too early for cherries hereabouts, and all was well.

It’s been a funny old week: high drama at the beginning (and I really DO blame the full moon) but blessedly calmer at the end. It’s highlighted so very starkly the difference between being in your head and being in your body, and how important it is to keep trying every day to achieve the latter.

This week has also thrown up some questions about how to reconcile the inner and outer worlds. When you’re a person whose inner world is like a stained-glass window, how do you cope when so much of life requires you to be beige? I’m still trying to figure that one out. Anyway, here’s the week in pictures and thoughts, and bonus quotes at the end from E. M. Forster. I have a theory that books find you at the right time, and Howards End found me this week. Perfect.

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Not all shadows are dark.

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Catch that wave of creativity. Drop everything and ride it in.

The garden. The garden. The garden.

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When you can’t sleep, change the routine the next morning. I give you permission.

I blame the full moon.

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Breathe. Don’t take the bait.

Train wreck. But look at what it revealed. And you don’t ever have to do that again.

Swim, swim, swim it away and come up smiling.

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It takes more than closing the front door. Closing the inner door, just for a while, is how you create sanctuary.

Small pleasures. It’s always the small pleasures that will save you.

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“…life is sometimes life and sometimes only a drama, and one must learn to distinguish tother from which…”

“Only connect! Live in fragments no longer.”

E. M. Forster, Howards End

 

 

 

 

Waxing crescent to quarter moon

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“Your task this week is to follow the moon.”

I don’t know why I was given the task, but I accepted it. What I know about the moon could be written on a postage stamp. It comes up on one side of the sky and goes down on the other. Sometimes it’s made of cheese. Sometimes there’s a man in it. It’s white, it’s silver, it’s orange, it’s blue and occasionally it’s super.

The moon had already set when I went to look for it last Wednesday. That was a surprise. On Thursday I was dog-sitting for friends. “Which way’s east?” I said before they headed out for the evening. Hard to get your bearings on a battleaxe block in a different suburb. They pointed to a spot in the garden, so I waited till it was properly dark then headed out to look.

No moon. “Maybe it hasn’t risen yet,” I thought, peering round the tree as if there were a moon hiding behind it. As I turned around to go back indoors, there it was: a fat crescent in the western sky, with a bright star blazing above it. So then I had another task: to find out what the star was.

“Just use an app,” I hear you say. Can’t. My phone’s too old. I waited till my friends got home. “It’s a planet,” said one. “How do you know?” I asked. “Because it’s so bright and it doesn’t twinkle.” It was only day two and I was learning a lot. I should have paid more attention in kindergarten. No-one ever sang “twinkle, twinkle little planet”. “It’s Jupiter,” said my friend (who had an app). The shining planet was a nail in the sky and the moon hung on a string below it.

I was at the coast for the next two nights. When the barbecuing was over and the wine had been drunk, I slipped out in a break in conversation to look for the moon. The crescent was growing fatter. Jupiter was hiding. The wind in the trees and the sigh of the waves swirled around, blurring into each other.

On Monday night I looked up out of habit. Half a slice of moon sat high in the sky. But a half slice is a quarter moon. I know that now. I’ve learned more about the moon in the past week than in the past half century, a lot of which I’m still trying to get my head around. When I looked at pictures of a waxing crescent moon online I couldn’t work out why it was the opposite of what I was seeing in the sky. “D’oh!” say any scientists reading this. “Of course it is.” I was looking at pictures from the Northern Hemisphere.

When I accepted the moon challenge I thought I’d be documenting feelings, emotions, and I imagined they’d reflect what was happening in the sky. Perhaps that only happens at full moon. What I’ve learned instead about following the moon is that it anchors you in the here and now. It focuses you. It’s some kind of aide-mémoire. As I’ve recalled each night’s moon I’ve also vividly remembered what happened during the day. It’s like punctuation, the full stop at the end of the day’s page. 

Now I’m a bit addicted. A week isn’t enough. I’m going to keep doing it. Join me! Have a go! Your task this week is to follow the moon.

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The how-tos

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It occurs to me that every question has already been asked. Just recently I’ve asked the internet a range of questions on very different topics and found that someone has already asked all of them. People might not have used the same wording but they were seeking the same answers. Does this mean there’s no such thing as original thought? There’s a research project for you. Please let me know your findings.

Feeling rather blobby, I typed “how to be your own personal trainer” into the interwebs. Many people have already asked this question and even more people are happy to answer it. (Note to self: probably would have been better to go for walk instead of sitting in front of computer.) In a nutshell, here’s what the online world recommends:

  • Put together a workout plan (Easy: paper, pen, ideas. Done.)
  • Find your motivation (Ummm…what does it look like again?)
  • Set a goal (Do I have to? Can’t I just waft around, doing something I like?)
  • Push yourself (Hey, stop it with the aggressive stuff!)
  • Mix it up (Love to. Variety is the spice etc etc.)

How long do you think my personal personal training lasted? Can I just tell you that day one was AWESOME! And since then I’ve very much enjoyed not doing any of the things I told myself I was going to do.

On another research expedition into the online jungle, I’d only got as far as typing the first letter of my “how to” question when I realised that a selection of suggestions was being offered, based on that first letter. So then I got completely sidetracked and went through the whole alphabet—”how to a… how to b…”—to see what came up.

Some letters produced answers on a theme. For example, if you type “how to d” into a well-known internet search engine it provides a lot of suggestions related to drawing:

  • how to draw
  • how to draw a rose
  • how to draw a dog
  • how to draw a unicorn
  • how to draw a dragon
  • how to do tax a return (Oops! Which one of these is not like the others?)

“G” gives you advice on how to get rid of things: illness, hiccups, pimples, dandruff.

“I” is all things investment related and ice-skating (need to work off the tension of all that investing).

“K” is about knitting and keeping cats away. (Harsh, although a cat playing with your wool while you’re knitting can be tiresome.)

“N” is how to not be things and is quite touching:

  • how to not be tired (Please let me know.)
  • how to not be awkward (You’ll grow out of it.)
  • how to not be jealous (Takes work but it’s worth it.)
  • how to not procrastinate (A little bit never hurt anyone.)
  • how to not cry (Oh, sweetheart, just cry!)

My two favourites, though, were “B”:

  • how to boil an egg (How is it that this is the top-ranked question???)
  • how to be happy (I asked this once and found helpful answers. No shame in that.)
  • how to be cool (Be uncool! Be yourself! Requires much less effort.)
  • how to be single (Tough one. Honestly? Just be glad to be alive.)
  • how to be popular (See answer to “how to be cool”.)
  • how to become a paramedic (Right, so we’ve sorted out what we’re eating, we’ve tackled our existential crises and now we’re seeking gainful employment. Sounds like a well-rounded human being to me.)

And “L”, which I think just nudges ahead of “B” because of the incongruity:

  • how to lose weight (Address your underlying emotions first.)
  • how to lodge a tax return (Clearly people worldwide find this hard.)
  • how to lock cells in Excel (I need to read this.)
  • how to lucid dream (You’re probably doing it already.)
  • how to lose belly fat (I’m going for a walk in a minute. Join me!)
  • how to love yourself (You’re unique! A valuable, precious person and we need you around!)
  • how to lower blood pressure (See walking, above.)
  • how to look pretty (You are pretty.)
  • how to lose face fat (Look at it from a different angle.)
  • how to lay pavers (Maybe get someone else to do it.)

About a decade ago I typed “how to change your life” into a search engine and came up with 39 million hits. Typing the same question today brings up 48 million variations on the answer. We’re all still looking for the how-tos.

The real answer, from my experience, is that life changes anyway, while you’re tying yourself in knots trying to figure it out. It changes in ways that you could never have imagined—good, bad, exhilarating and excruciating—layers of rubble and layers of gold all overlapping down the years. The person standing next to you who looks to have it all figured out is just as bewildered, flawed, disgruntled and delighted as you are. Just ask them.

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Sunshine and lemons

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Last week I went to the Governor-General’s house for drinks. This is not a normal occurrence. I expected it to be a stuffy occasion but it was surprisingly fun. Mrs G-G made us sing the chorus to You are my sunshine three times, including to each other, which was quite the ice-breaker. Everybody sang, although the esteemed person standing next to me grumbled that it was an American song and said,  “If you look at the rest of the lyrics they’re actually quite sad.”

The G-G told us we could wander around, so we did. The decor in Government House is understated and calm: cream and bluey-green. There were couches everywhere. “Do people come here and sit down?” I asked. (We didn’t.) A staff member pointed out the cosy spot where Mrs G-G likes to have tea with the partners of official visitors. I’d be happy to be invited over for scones and a chat any time.

The G-G and Mrs G-G get to choose artworks from the National Gallery. I’m sure they have a curator to help them, but I think they’ve chosen well. I’d have a George Lambert on my lounge room wall too, if I could. Just inside the front door is the newest piece of art. It’s a large painting of an Illawarra flame tree, I forget who by, but I’m pretty sure it was the G-G’s personal choice. Whatever your opinion of the office of governor-general, this is a country where the son of a Wollongong steelworker can rise to that position. That’s worth singing about.

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I was feeling rather hermit-like last week and had to push myself to go to a conference. I didn’t think I’d know anyone, so it was a lovely surprise when a friend from Sydney walked in. At the end of the day, before the formal dinner, I went with my friend to check out his hotel, the Little National. “It’s a car park!” said a woman from Queensland who was also staying there. The hotel’s perched like a glass box on top of multistorey parking, but it’s stylish and very welcoming. I wouldn’t mind checking in there for a staycation one rainy weekend. While my friend went to get changed, I took my shoes off and had a cuppa and a kip in the lounge and no-one minded.

On the last day of the conference, when I was feeling a bit schmoozed out and was quietly chomping on a sandwich, a man came up and introduced himself. What followed was an unexpectedly frank conversation. In my experience it’s rare for senior managers, especially men, to talk openly about gaps in their knowledge or the challenges they’re facing. It was so refreshing to be able to ask this very experienced person all sorts of questions and to get honest answers. He even helped me out with some career conundrums I’ve been grappling with. At work I tend to fly under the radar and at home I write about the small things in life, but I came away from that conversation with one thought in my head: BE BIGGER.

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This week has been a bit hilly. Some goalposts were about to be moved, which would have meant big changes in my life. I don’t mind change but I do mind injustice, so there have been several nights when I’ve stayed awake feeling enraged about the situation. It now looks as though common sense has won, but the whole thing has been very tiring. I woke up this morning thinking, “When are the cavalry coming?”

They’re not, of course. You have to be your own cavalry, so I went out to post a present to a friend and buy myself some flowers. Outside the shops I noticed that the gum trees were flowering a deep pink. There was a sign on the supermarket window telling customers that there’s now a designated quiet hour for shopping. I like that idea. On the way home I saw four magpies on one side of the street having a bit of a chat with two on the other. All of these small things made the morning sunnier and I remembered the wise words of that famous philosopher Doris Day: que será será.

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There was a point this week when I was in danger of becoming bitter and twisted but chose not to be. Bitter and twisted is a great combination in a cake, though, so I’ll sign off here with a recipe for a very lemony lemon cake…with a twist. When people bite into this cake and their eyes roll back in their head because it’s so delicious, ask them to guess what the secret ingredient is. They probably won’t be able to. It’s the humble spud! Lemons, almond meal, eggs, butter, potatoes: this cake covers ALL the food groups. Bon appétit!

The cake:
150g butter, softened
200g caster sugar
4 eggs
225g ground almonds
2 teaspoons baking powder
250g cold mashed potato
2 lemons

The syrup:
1 lemon+one of the leftover lemons from above
5 tablespoons caster sugar

Heat the oven to 180°C (or a bit lower if it’s fan-forced). Grease a 23-cm springform tin and line the bottom with baking paper.

Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add one egg at a time, beating in well, and add a spoonful of almond meal after each egg. Then add the rest of the almond meal, the baking powder, the mash, the zest of two lemons and the juice of one.  Mix lightly so that everything is well blended but the mixture keeps its airiness. Tip the mixture into the prepared tin and level the top. Bake for 35-45 minutes, until a cake skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cover the tin with foil or baking paper if the top is browning too quickly.

For the syrup, put the sugar in a small saucepan with the juice of two lemons and the zest of one. Bring it to a simmer then stir it and remove it from the heat. When the cake comes out of the oven, leave it in the tin and prick the top with a fork. Drizzle the syrup all over the top of the cake and leave it in the tin to cool.

Serve the cake with whatever accompaniment you like, or just eat it as is and feel your taste buds dance.

 

 

 

Springtime weekends

 

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The bees are buzzing in the rosemary.

At the end of my street I saw two people sitting in their driveway in camping chairs, having a quiet cuppa. Were they facing the road, where they could look at the view, enjoy everyone’s gardens and say hello to anyone passing? No. They were facing their open garage, seemingly in deep contemplation of the ladders and tools and bikes and other paraphernalia inside.

That image still makes me smile. I’m feeling a bit the same way myself. Now that spring’s here, strong sunlight is flooding corners of the house and garden. Suddenly all the places that need a bit of a clean or a sort out are being illuminated. How long have those cobwebs been up there? A person really ought to clean the windows. (That would be me. There’s no House Elf in the small, quiet, pretty house.)

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Someone’s taken a fine-tipped pen and drawn an outline of the mountains against the pale sky.

Out in the garden, it’s clear that one of the young silver birches has died. I feared as much in the 42-degree summer but waited to see if it would revive itself in spring. Now I’ll have to chop it down, surreptitiously, and hide the pieces in the green bins like a body. Why the secrecy, you ask? Because some of the older blokes who set up this place in the ’70s love to tell relative newbies what we’re doing wrong. Luckily, I’m the one who puts the green bins out. I might just get away with it!

The helpful handyman’s been round, and I’ve sorted out the shed.

Are you spring cleaning at your place? I prefer to call it cocooning. At this time of year I really love being able to slowly tackle little projects around the house, interspersed with a lot of sleeping and reading and quiet enjoyment of the comforts of home. Don’t tell anyone, but this is the third weekend in a row when I haven’t had anything majorly social to do. Last weekend I met a friend at the farmers’ market and we sat in the sun with the dog and chatted and watched the world go by, but then I came back to my cocoon and slept.

There are times when a good night’s sleep evades me for weeks and I seriously consider changing my name to Macbeth (“Macbeth doth murder sleep”) so when a chance comes along to cocoon and sleeeeep, I grab it gladly.

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It rained, and the garden turned green before my eyes.

Spring is planning time isn’t it? I’ve been looking at the gaps in the garden and thinking about what to plant. This is a great season to pick up new interests, too, new activities. At this time last year I walked into a tango class, and the ripple effects of that are still being enjoyed. This spring I’ve found more dance classes to go to. I’ve booked a couple of weekends away, and a friend and I have started planning a trip to Spain and Portugal next year. Portuguese lessons start soon. Oba!

I planted some seeds and talked gardens with the neighbour.

The good books keep coming. Simon Reeve’s Step by Step has been an enjoyable lunchtime read, and I’m completely gripped by Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which somehow I’ve never managed to get around to reading before now. A slightly mad American Baptist preacher takes his wife and four daughters to live in the Congo in 1959, and the women each tell their version of the story. I’m quite worried about them because Something Bad is going to happen. If you’ve read it, don’t tell me what it is.

The jasmine is about to riot. There’s one lone blossom leading the charge.

Next door’s cat lolls on the warm pavers in the morning or sneaks on to my verandah in the afternoon to bask. I take my coffee and join her. We’re like flowers, our faces following the sun. The air seems lighter and there’s an expectation to it. Everything’s unfurling slowly, steadily around us. The sun sets a pale orange each night over purple mountains and I go to bed ridiculously early. They’re almost medicinal, these springtime weekends, each day a quiet meditation and rejuvenation.

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Progress

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I woke this morning to a fat orange moon melting into Mount Tidbinbilla like liquid metal, then I went for breakfast at a cafe in the ‘hood and watched new leaves on the plane trees flickering against the spring sky. I’ve been trying out a different caff one day a week, ordering breakfast and getting to work later. The decadence! Last week I found a place that serves fried arepas with your poached eggs. I was reading when the waiter brought my breakfast. “Darling,” he said, as he put down the plate, which was a lovely surprise. Fried arepas and endearments from South Americans: not a bad way to start the day.

The book drought has broken. I’ve read three good books in a row.  Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men is about horrible teenagers, deviant old ladies and a middle-aged poet who realises she’s spent far too much of her life being an accommodating enabler. How many men have read this book, I wonder? I really enjoyed it.

Nicholson Baker’s Travelling Sprinkler is sweet and whimsical. Nothing much happens, but the main character is very endearing. (He’s also a middle-aged poet. How did I manage to select, at random, two books from the library on the same day that feature middle-aged poets?)

A friend pressed Elissa Schappell’s Use Me into my hands and said, “Trigger warning,” because the main character’s father dies, but I’m so glad I read it. Yes, some of it made me cry, but the writing was exquisite and acerbic and horrifyingly funny. It’s basically about family, sex and death. Sometimes it felt like I was reading my own life, which really just points to the universality of these things, doesn’t it? This paragraph, in particular, I loved:

I was moving on. I didn’t want to. It was as though I was a refugee being chased from my true home, prodded into the future with the stick of forgetfulness. Turning my head, trying to catch a glimpse of something I could never see again, the lights of a place I’d never wanted to leave, a place I’d never return to, a place that in memory would become more beautiful, more irreplaceable the longer it was out of my sight.

Nailed it.

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Today I sat in the garden in the warm breeze for hours and got covered in confetti. The plum trees blossomed this week and I’ve been tracking petals through the house and shaking them out of the washing. Have you ever bathed in petals? I tried it once. In Bali, after having a massage from a farting masseuse, followed by ayurvedic oil being dripped on to my forehead (which I hated and asked them to stop after 10 minutes), I got into a bath of rose petals.

It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Except the thing is, rose petals stick to you. It feels quite unpleasant. Also, it’s boring. As I lay there, a gecko suckered his way across the window pane and made kissing noises. That bit I enjoyed, but mostly I thought about what a waste of time it was and wished I’d gone on a walk up the volcano instead. While I was having the icky oil-dripping procedure just before that, I lay waiting for the profound thoughts that it was supposed to inspire and here’s what came to me: “I really must buy a juicer.”

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Some friends came to dinner the other night and we remarked on how much has happened since we met, a year ago. For both of them it’s been a year of breakthroughs, significant progress, personally and professionally. I felt a little envious. “For me,” I said, “it’s been The Year of No.” I was thinking of a few big targets I’ve aimed for this year and missed. But one of my friends saw it differently. He pointed out that it’s also been the year when I’ve finally learned to say no to those things that don’t sit well with me. I’m so glad he reminded me of that. It’s real progress and incredibly empowering.

I’m making the Aideen wrap, by Annie Design Crochet, which is thrilling because I’ve never tried a moderately complicated lacy pattern before. For the first few rows I really wasn’t sure that I was doing it right, but I followed the instructions and kept going. Stitch by stitch, the pattern appeared. Row by row, the colour started to change. Trust, perseverance…and here’s progress and deep satisfaction. Crochet as a life lesson! (You knew I was going to throw one in here somewhere, didn’t you?)

Have a lovely weekend.

August can stay

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I took part in two extreme sports at the weekend, house painting and speed weeding, leading to the kind of muscle soreness that causes a person to grimace and make “Argh!” noises when trying to sit down or stand up again. You would think that dancing every week for a year would make someone very fit and supple, but I’ve been slothlike for the past month due to long work hours and illness. I’ve had The Mother of All Colds and her offspring, The Cough, and still have a touch of the Marge Simpson voice.

At clocking-off time today, when I told a colleague that my first priority was a hot bath, she was worried that I’d be too stiff to get out. I promised to keep the phone nearby and call the fire brigade to come over with a hoist if necessary. Her very helpful suggestion was to have a copy of the firemen’s calendar on hand as well, which made me laugh so much:

“Hello? Fire brigade? I’m stuck in the bath. Please send Mr July.”

Earlier today we both had a moan about August. If I could, I’d edit August, cut it out and splice the year back together without it. It’s a perfectly good month in other places, but in Canberra it’s the month that breaks you. Being sick doesn’t help, obviously. Sitting bolt upright through the long nights, coughing and feeling dreadful, brings on a great deal of soul-searching and yearning for change. In the wee small hours of this month I’ve mentally retrained, changed jobs, moved house and started a new life and new relationships elsewhere, where everything is perfect.

Then I read this:

To have a good and meaningful life, you need to overcome your insatiability. Most people, at best, spend their lives in a long pursuit of happiness. So today’s successful person writes out a list of desires, then starts chasing them down and satisfying the desires. The problem is that each desire, when satisfied, tends to be replaced by a new desire. So the person continues to chase. Yet after a lifetime of pursuit, the person ends up no more satisfied than he was at the beginning. Thus, he may end up wasting his life.

The solution, the Stoics realized, is to learn to want the things you already have, rather than wanting other things.

(From What is Stoicism and How Can it Turn your Life to Solid Gold?)

It’s true, isn’t it? There’s no need to quit the job, retrain, move somewhere else, not right now anyway. Little tweaks, a bit of spring cleaning of the brain and everything looks pretty good. Small changes can work wonders. Hence the house painting and speed weeding.

It doesn’t hurt to explore, of course. When I started looking into a slight career shift, I found out that a friend had done a similar job in the past. If I decide to go down that path at some stage, she can talk me through it. Take the help that’s offered. Another friend, on hearing about the cookbook that I want to write, said, “You’ll need a designer,” which she happens to be. And I had completely forgotten that.

Have you read Alexandra Franzen’s thoughts on slow change? Even when it feels as though nothing is happening, she says, the tiny victories keep accumulating and suddenly there’s a breakthrough. Good point. I’m reminded of this tango routine, by the lovely Pablo and Anne, which a friend sent to me a while back. “We’re going to learn this,” she said. My answer? “You’ve GOT to be kidding!” I watched it twice and couldn’t see how we could teach ourselves something so advanced. But we are. My tango buddies and I started breaking it down, step by step, and realised that we already had the building blocks. We’ve learned about a quarter of it so far. Small victories. Perfection is overrated. Practise, and you can do it.

Someone who seemed to me, from my sickbed, to have life sorted was Julia Crossland. “How perfect,” I thought, “to have a studio in the garden and make a living from art.” Then I started watching Julia’s vlog and learned that she’d had a creative crisis and ended up completely changing what and how she paints. She’s friendly, open and generous with her advice on creativity:

Pick a theme. (Fluidity.)
Pick a state of mind. (Observant.)
Don’t panic.
Step back and laugh.

Good advice for life, too, don’t you think? Perhaps it hasn’t been such a bad month after all. I think I see the point of August now.

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Mostly kitchen related, and squirrels

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Spring is on the way. The days are the tiniest bit longer and a couple of trees in my street are already decked out in pink blossom … and then it snowed. The mountains are well dusted with snow this morning. The same thing happened last year: sleet showers and cold toes to go with the early flowering jonquils. The timing is perfect, though, because this weekend I just happen to be dogsitting in a house with excellent heating and lots of light. The dog and I go out into the freezing wind to walk twice a day but not for long. She’s just as happy as I am to get back into the warmth.

I’m cooking warming foods, although the induction hotplates are a challenge. The last time I stayed here, I couldn’t get them working at all. I ate dips and salad instead. The cooktop has human safety in mind, but it’s a bit too cautious for my liking. Surface buttons must be pressed in the correct order, with just the right amount of finger force, and woe betide anyone who moves a pan while something’s cooking. That turns the whole thing off. Last night I did everything right (I thought) and still a red flashing “F” came up on the cooktop. “Why are you failing me??” I asked. (No-one likes an F.) Turned out I had the pan on the wrong hotplate.

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In an ideal world, I’d shop at the farmers market every week and buy the gorgeousness you can see in this picture. But in the Actual world what usually happens is that I buy less crunchy, less tasty things from the local supermarket because it’s easier. The supermarket knows what I buy. This slightly freaky fact was revealed yesterday when I received an email offering me secret deals, bonus loyalty points for buying things that I buy anyway. “They are so secret, even the store managers don’t know about them,” said the email. Well, good. I don’t think the store managers need to know that my latest addiction is Truckle Brothers smokey cheddar. It would be super weird to walk into the shop and find a manager offering you your preferred cheese with a smile. That’s taking customer service too far.

I’ve noticed lately that said supermarket has started putting jaunty little catchphrases on its own brand products to entice you to buy them. Brussels sprouts, it tells me, are “firm and crunchy”, while parsley is “fragrant and bold”. Would you like a fact with your pears? Here’s one: “Did you know the nickname for pears was ‘butter fruit’?” No, I did not. Sunflower seeds, I’m told, will “put a pep in your step” (still waiting). Medjool dates are “perfect for snacking” (a little too perfect, in my experience, leading to a little too much snacking).

It’s not just the own brand produce that comes with taglines. The peanut butter I buy is, apparently, “for the peanut butter connoisseur”. Well, thank you very much for the compliment. The frozen broad beans are “the farm in your freezer”, which disturbs me. I’m thinking hooves, bovine smells et cetera. The walnuts are “perfect in an irresistible walnut tart”. I searched the rest of the packet for the recipe but there wasn’t one. How can they tease us like that? Why have I never had walnut tart? If I make one, will I be able to resist it?

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The packet of Yorkshire Tea tells the blunt truth, as only a Yorkshireperson can: “proper black tea”. No argument from me there. It is the best. On the other hand, the packet of coffee (Melbourne roaster, strong blend) leans a little towards excess. It claims to be deep and rich (okay, yes) with a smooth, brown sugar after-taste (possibly). The aroma is supposed to be floral and chocolatey. Sorry, but I don’t think it can be both. But we’re not finished yet. This deep-and-rich-and-smooth-and-brown-sugary-and-floral chocolatey drink is also supposed to taste like dried raisins, cocoa and malt. Mostly it tastes like coffee.

The coffee hyperbole reminds me of a useful tactic that the Big Cheese at work shared with me. This is one situation where excessive description could come in handy. If you’re on a date and you find yourself lost for words, use the wine label to pay compliments to your dinner companion: “You’re lush textured, full bodied and elegant, and you’ll age gracefully.”

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I don’t know what the catchphrase is on this packet of seaweed because I don’t read Korean, but it should say: “For that extra umami kick your soup needs.” I made a quick and easy soup this week that was lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. Half a packet of seaweed later and it had the perfect sweet/salty taste I was looking for. Here’s how to make it:

Sauté one chopped red onion and half a butternut pumpkin (cut into chunks). Add a litre of stock and a tin of brown lentils (drained and rinsed) and simmer till the pumpkin is almost done. Throw in half a packet of seaweed, put the lid back on and turn the soup off until the seaweed has expanded (only takes a few minutes). Serve and slurp.

The tagline for this soup could be: “Warms your insides when it’s cold outside,” or something like that. But I think my favourite product tagline is one I saw in Hong Kong a few years ago: “Yak milk regains my vitality.” I can’t vouch for its veracity. You’ll have to find that out for yourself.

Okay, let’s get out of the kitchen. I read an article about the Central Park squirrel census and was tickled by the observations of squirrel behaviour, so I thought I’d share some here. This would be a fun project to be involved in:

1B “Would come up and fight pigeons.”

5C “Searching for something … but couldn’t find it.”

6B “Seemed very comfortable in his skin.”

7F “Staring into space.”

19A “Looked both ways before crossing sidewalk.”

21F “Seems to enjoy classical music.”

32A “Extremely scampery.”

33G “Sort of lunged at me with his torso.”

36G “Found because of how loud it was eating.”

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Somewhere NSW

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There are some places where the land sings and you hear it. There are some places where the curves of the hills embrace you and hold you, safe. There are some places where the light dances on the water and your spirit dances with it. And there are some places where you do not wish to be, where a sense of unease comes creeping, creeping until it envelops you. On a road in Somewhere New South Wales last week the cloak of unease wrapped itself tightly around me and did not let go.

I’d looked at the map before I set off and had an idea in my mind of the landmarks and turnings and tiny towns I would pass through. It was a simplified digital map and it withheld the truth. The contours, the twists and turns, the types of vegetation—these vital pieces of information were omitted.

The tiny towns, I learned as I drove, drove, drove, did not exist. In Somewhere NSW there is a lot of nothing. A house or two, down a long driveway and hidden by the landscape, may have existed at those dot points on the map, but towns there were not. There were no petrol stations. There were no pubs, cafes, churches, schools or rest stops where people might gather. There was just country.

At first it was pretty. High on the tableland there were soft hills in surprising green, indicating a microclimate where rain falls. The road swooped and curved and the light was bright.

Where the dry took over and the sheep and paddock grass became indistinguishable, my mood began to drop. Where the road plunged and brittle trees crowded the bitumen, deep discomfort took hold. “It is possible,” I thought, not for the first time this year, “to push yourself too far out of your comfort zone.”

Once again, I came face to face with the naivete of a “she’ll be right” attitude, the foolishness of blind optimism. Alone on a country road in the middle of nowhere, just past the middle of life, I started to cry. Partly it was the what-ifs: “If the car breaks down out here I’m stuffed.” Partly it was hormones: holding on to your sanity in perimenopause is hard work. Mostly it was the situation, allowing space and time for all the things that I thought were neatly packed away—grief, fear, frustration, disappointment—to come springing out.

It was not, I realised, the fault of the landscape. Out there, the insects, birds, animals, grasses and trees were living another day oblivious to my despair.

The road kept winding and the tears kept falling and then—WHAM!—around a blind corner on a steep hill I found myself nose to tail with a caravan. Rational brain, which was definitely taking a back seat on this trip, said, “Oh! Another person!” But irrational brain, who was driving, said, “AND NOW I’M STUCK BEHIND A CARAVAN AS WELL!” Stuck on a road too far from home to turn back. Stuck behind an obstacle I couldn’t see past. Stuck trundling along at a speed I didn’t want to travel at.

There was no phone reception out there, but a satellite somewhere was still valiantly giving directions while my phone charge dwindled. Eventually the caravan lumbered away as I took a right turn and found myself in new country again: pine plantations. There’s a silence to pine plantations that disturbs me. They seem to discourage birds. Sound is deadened and light is swallowed by the hectares and hectares of thickly planted sameness. I cried harder.

“Perhaps I just need to cry,” I thought. Rational brain tried some self-comforting tactics. “You have food and water,” it said. “You still have half a tank of petrol.” I tried to concentrate on breathing deeply but instead pictured myself abandoned forever in the pine forest, a woman gone feral, with matted hair and wary eyes, living off pine shoots and the occasional rabbit.

It is also possible to have too much imagination.

The last words uttered by my dying phone were: “In 10 kilometres, turn right onto the highway.” Those 10 kilometres were long and slow, carrying the weight of all my hope and expectation. A highway. With people. I still couldn’t see any sign of the mountains I was heading for, but I knew they were out there somewhere and I was inching towards them. I didn’t know how to get to where I was going without a map, but I knew that soon I’d see another person and ask for help. “I will have to stop crying eventually,” I thought.

Four hours after leaving home, I pulled into a petrol station, snivelling and dishevelled, where a kind and beautiful person showed me how close I was to my destination: “You’re nearly there! Keep going!” And I bought a phone charger for the car.

Very soon after that, revived by a hug and two huge mugs of tea, I sat in the warmth of my friend’s little cottage and listened as she talked about the concept of the second arrow. The first arrow, pain, is unavoidable. But the second arrow, suffering, is preventable. We overlay our pain with too much reaction and make it so much more painful with our suffering.

I wondered: had I done that? Had I layered suffering on top of the pain I felt on that long, lonely drive? No, I don’t think so. While I acknowledge the arrow concept and see how easy it is to shoot the second arrow, to make things worse, I don’t think that’s what was happening. There are just some times in life when you need to fully feel all that’s within you. You may not realise it. You may not be expecting it. You may think everything’s fine and you’re in control, and suddenly the chaos of being human shows up.

There was space out there in Somewhere New South Wales to let it all out—to be a messy, imperfect bundle of emotions. Perhaps there was something in the air, something in that landscape that triggered such intensity and set it spilling for hours, unstoppable. Perhaps that’s why no-one lives there. Perhaps everyone who drives that way has the same experience. I don’t know. I decided not to test that theory and took a different route home.

I’m fine. I’m sharing this story in case you’re experiencing something similar. If I meet it again, I’ll recognise it for what it is: something that probably needs to happen. And I’ll have a name for it. “Aha!” I’ll say. “Here we are again, in Somewhere New South Wales.”  Be kind to yourself. Let it unfold. Keep going.

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Holidays!

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Aren’t holidays blissful! That photo sums up exactly how I feel. Time off is such a break for the mind. Without the rushing and clock-watching and have-tos and shoulds, life is so much more enjoyable, isn’t it? Stress becomes a minor player instead of strutting about in its usual role of main character. I’ve been amazed at how many nice things it’s possible to fit in when you’re on holiday: writing, reading, knitting, cooking, sewing, catching up with people, listening, noticing, thinking, walking.

It hasn’t all been fabulous: my credit card was hacked, and that saga’s still not over. Then my computer died just as I was finishing an application for a writing mentorship. An aeroplane suddenly took off from within the hard drive and then…nothing, which led to much scrambling to find another writing implement. (Bring back the quill pen! They never crash!) Like Lazarus, the computer rose from the dead just in time to upload the application, but I was on the edge of my seat as it painfully sent packets of data into the ether in tiny increments. It was (almost) as dramatic as an episode of a Scandi noir thriller!

I went to the coast for a couple of days to hang out with a friend, two teenagers and a dog. One teenager was delightfully bossy and organised. She cooked breakfast, arranged cheese platters like a caterer and cleaned up brilliantly, all the while talking a mile a minute. I offered her money if she could stop talking for two minutes so that I could film the peaceful view from the back deck. She couldn’t do it. The money stayed in my wallet. But I did manage to capture ten seconds of serenity.

I was hoping to upload it for you, but I wasn’t able to. So imagine you’re lying in a hammock on a covered verandah, looking out at lush vegetation. The leaves of the palm trees are waving in the soft breeze. Rainbow lorikeets are flitting about. King parrots, jewelled green and scarlet, come and land on the end of the hammock. In the background the waves wash in and out: hush, hush, hush.

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All that beauty went unnoticed by the other teen because she was a sulker. If sulking were an Olympic sport, she would win gold for Australia. Sulking is so annoying. I had to keep reminding myself to be nice to her, saying over and over like a mantra: “It’s because she’s a teenager.” I hope she grows out of it. You miss a lot of life when you waste time sulking.

“Let’s go for a ‘splore,” said my friend, so we took the dog and left the teens at the holiday house (one tidying up and one moodily painting on fake eyebrows) to go and see what we could see. We found a sheltered little bay with a dog-friendly beach and perfect water in all shades of blue. From the headland above, we looked out to the deep ocean and saw whales blowing and breaching. They were a long way off, but it was very exciting.

One thing guaranteed to bring a moody teen out of a sulk is this truly excellent chocolate slice:

Chocolate slice

I’ll include the recipe at the end of this post. It’s from Our Village Table, a lovely book of recipes put together by the residents of Exeter, in the New South Wales Southern Highlands. I got a copy at the Exeter General Store last time I was travelling that way. The store is a cafe/post office that also sells books, gifts and basic groceries, so you can pick up your mail, have a coffee, read a book and buy a pumpkin all in one go. The world needs more places like that.

Back at home it’s chilly but not as cold as last winter. There are jonquils and white violets flowering in the garden already, which must be some kind of record. I’ve started painting the trim on the front of the house. “Am genius painter,” I thought, as I happily slapped paint on to wood. Then I looked down and realised I’d also slapped paint on to my clothes and the ladder.

So far I’ve knitted some socks and done a bit of sashiko embroidery and a bit of sewing. I’ve learned how to fix some sewing mistakes but I’ve also learned that one dress I’ve made is going to have to be repurposed because I will never wear it. It makes me look either like a clown or like a character from Little House on the Prairie. Honestly, when I put it on I couldn’t decide whether to honk my nose or go out to the barn to fetch a jug of molasses. Am definitely not a genius seamstress.

There’s one more week of holidays left—just enough time for a walk along the Murrumbidgee, a bit more house painting, then a quick trip to the Blue Mountains. Hopefully, a little of that holiday bliss will hang around once it’s time to go back to work. Fingers very tightly crossed!

Toodle pip! Bye for now. And here’s that slice recipe for you:

Chocolate coconut slice

Slice:
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 cup self-raising flour
1 cup soft brown sugar
½ cup coconut
125g melted butter, slightly cooled
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla

Icing:
1½ cups icing sugar (sieve it if there are lumps)
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons boiling water
extra coconut to sprinkle on top

Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease a slice tin and line the bottom with baking paper. (My tin was a 9-inch square.) Combine the dry ingredients then add the butter, vanilla and egg and mix well. Press into slice tin and bake for about 20 minutes. It will feel springy on top. Cool for five minutes.

Mix the boiling water and the butter then add the other icing ingredients and mix well. Add a bit more water if you think it’s not spreadable. Spread on top of the warm slice and sprinkle with coconut.

Wait until the slice is cold before you slice it! This is important because it might fall apart when it’s warm. (Also, patience is a virtue.) Put the kettle on and make a pot of tea, then cut the slice into small squares so that you can eat several pieces and not feel like a greedy guts.

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