Week 1

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Mount Banks, Blue Mountains, New South Wales

Whoosh. That’s the sound of 2020 starting. Did you ever in your life see such a start to a year? Is it just me or are you feeling a kind of impulsion, a driven energy to the year already?

I dreamed of an old village at night, where suddenly the lamps were lit and there was pandemonium and people running in the streets. “The horse!” shouted a man. “The horse is loose.” The horse was me. But the year feels like that as well: an immense gathering of energy as the horse begins to gallop.

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Bitter cryptandra

Many people choose a word for the year. I’ve never done that before. I’ve always thought it a little silly. But in the past few days I’ve been thinking about how often we say, “I’m going to do X or Y” and then we don’t. So this year the “gonna dos” are dismissed. Thank you and goodbye to all the gonna dos, because this is the year of ACTION!

I talked about clearing space in the garden in December. Now I’ve started clearing space in the house and in life. I realised that I needed to junk a writing project I’ve been tinkering with for years. I had a love-hate relationship with it and could never finish it. Somehow I believed that I had to finish it before I could start creating anything else. It was holding me back, keeping me in the past, reinforcing old ways of thinking.

Well, the hard copy was torn up and put in the bin. And last night was bin night. Sayonara! I’ll keep a soft copy on USB just in case I can re-purpose it one day, but here’s to new thinking and new writing!

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Smooth zieria

Another word I’m choosing for this year is WATER. Brisbane at new year seemed to be all about water. The grass was green. Shrubs and trees flowered red and yellow in the humidity. Mangrove roots poked up from the mud by the river. The river was reflected everywhere in the windows of the tall, shiny office towers.

I swam in the hotel pool and saw the Story Bridge spanning the river as I came up to breathe. We went to an art exhibition about water. In the hotel I took baths and tried not to feel guilty. On New Year’s Eve it rained. The outdoor dance floor was slick with raindrops but we kept dancing. It felt wonderful to dance in the rain.

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Hakea nodosa

Back at home, we had 10 drops of rain and I ran out into the thick smoke to feel the pinpricks of water on my skin. I need to work out how to get more water into my poor garden. Here’s one idea: ollas made from terracotta pots.

“We live in sepia now,” my sister said at Christmas, and that was before the New Year’s Eve fire tragedies. We thought it was smoky then, but now the air is a yellow blanket. The scale of the fires takes your breath away.

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Sydney boronia

My friend F told me about a book she’s reading on language and landscape and about the importance of naming things in the landscape. Especially now, when so much of our landscape is burning, I see the value in naming what is there. Or what was there.

Last year F and I walked the Mount Banks track in the Blue Mountains. Even in winter, the heathland was full of flowers. Every metre or so, we stopped to exclaim over and photograph a new flower. That landscape is burnt now. The pictures in this post are all from that time. I wanted to publish them here to say: “You existed. We saw you. You were beautiful.

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Mountain devil

I don’t really know how to wind up this post except to say: if you’re in an area that’s affected by fires and/or smoke, stay safe, chin up and keep going. Don’t lose heart. People are doing extraordinarily brave things for each other and showing great kindness.

I saw a documentary recently about possible futures, many of which seemed scary, but one message over-rode everything. Someone said that we tend to think of the future as something we have to adapt to, when really the future is the consequence of the decisions we make today.

I can’t stop thinking about that. There’s the potential this year for great change—personal, professional, environmental, whatever we choose. We just have to take action.

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Sunshine wattle

Christmas wrap-up

Christmas 2019

It’s amazing, isn’t it, how quickly humans can adapt? When the first whiff of bushfire smoke arrived, we all anxiously tried to find out where the fire was. Now we’re blanketed in smoke most of the time, often thicker smoke than in the 2003 bushfires, and we just go about our days as usual because we know the fires aren’t on the doorstep.

We’ve got used to the catch in the throat, the slight cough. We’ve got used to staying indoors on really smoky days but venturing outside when the air quality improves marginally. I’m drying my clothes inside and am not walking or swimming as often as I’d like to, but this already feels like the new normal.

A few days before Christmas I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get to the family gathering because of road closures and a fire in the area, but on Christmas Eve I actually forgot to check the road and fire situation and just headed off. It was only after I’d been driving on the deserted highway for an hour that I thought, “Hmm. I wonder if the road is closed.”

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Picture from Bake for Syria

The Christmas cake this year was a triumph. I’ve had many Christmas cake failures and was starting to get a complex, but this one was a hit. It’s Persian fruitcake, from Bake for Syria. I made a half size one, which is just as well because it was so good that we might have gobbled up our body weight in Christmas cake otherwise. It contains none of the dreaded mixed fruit, just figs, apricots and prunes. There were meant to be dates in it as well but I ate them. There was also meant to be pistachio marzipan, but pistachios were as expensive as frankincense, so I made do with ready-to-roll almond marzipan and it was fine.

We did well on the presents, each of us choosing things that the others really liked. Unintentionally, we’d all done most of our shopping in independent shops in country towns, and this seemed to make the presents feel more special.

On Christmas Day I went for a longish, smoky walk while others were napping.  On the sports field there was a man in a santa hat playing a drum (a djembe?) and the rhythm was so hypnotic I was tempted to stand next to him and dance. If I’d had a dancey friend with me, I might have done. Instead I walked to the beat of the drum and clapped him as I left. He gave me a cheery wave and drummed on.

On Boxing Day my sister and I found ourselves at a breakfast where we were considered youngsters. I’m a shade over the half century and she’s a shade under it, but to the rest of the company we seemed almost embryonic. A cheeky octogenarian asked me where my better half was and I said, “There isn’t one. I’m the better half. In fact, I’m the better whole.” Everyone laughed, and I thought about how that question would have bothered me even a couple of years ago but now it doesn’t.

There was only one tough bit, when I took myself out of the house to get away from a situation. I went to a park and sat on a bench next to a tree under which some ashes are buried. The tree is about to bloom. It’s a deep pink crepe myrtle, which wouldn’t have been his choice but you don’t get a say when you’re dead. I said, “Help. Give me some tips on how to deal with this.” I didn’t sit there for long, but on the walk home I thought of a way to fix something and I realised that some people have a communication style which probably isn’t going to change and I need to find a different way to react to it. So that was a relief.

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Now we’re in the in-between days, post Christmas and pre New Year. I love this bit. It’s hard to say what I’ve been doing. There’s been napping and/or sleeping in. There’s been a lot of cobbling together of meals from whatever’s in the freezer/fridge/cupboard because I really don’t feel like going to the shops. I’ve looked at the pile of books I keep meaning to read and I don’t feel like reading any of them. They seem a bit worthy. I’ve borrowed a copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, so I might have a go at that. I watched the whole series of The Day on SBS and enjoyed it. It’s set in Belgium and the characters speak Dutch but say “ça va” and “sorry” a lot, which, as a language nerd, I find interesting.

My main task for today is to pack a suitcase for Brisbane. A friend and I are going to a New Year’s Eve extravaganza, but other than that there are no plans. The Water exhibition at the art gallery looks good. Mostly I’m hoping for a few smoke-free days and looking forward to air-conditioned nights and crisp hotel sheets. Perhaps while I’m away it’ll rain all over New South Wales and the smoke will be gone when I get back. Let’s hope for that. See you in the new decade!

2019

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January
Pushed for a big change and was unsuccessful. “Wait,” said the year. So I waited.

February
Tangoed and tangoed through the hot nights, and learned that you can love a dance but the world of that dance might not let you in. So I tangoed in the lounge room with friends, then put my shoes away and enrolled in a barefoot dance instead.

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March
Decided to love without expectation and in doing so banished—for the most part—longing, envy, self-loathing, obsession and all the other sneakies. Love without shackles is better. Agape.

April
Got out of my head and into the outdoors. Walked. Walked up hills, beside lakes, through valleys. The mountains curved around, dependable. The ground felt solid underfoot.

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May
Reminded someone, gently, with love, that they had two feet of their own and could stand on them admirably. No-one was hurt by this conversation. Lives were improved.

June
Went exploring. Saw the sun dance at the river mouth and set tangerine over the ocean. Learned where the backroads go, to the little-known places in the hills. Ate oysters at a cold mountain lookout and was delighted, as so many times this year, by friendship.

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July
Met sadness on a road and let it in. Felt it saturate every cell. When there was nothing left for it to do, it moved on.

August
Laid low by a cold and the cold, I thought about how far I’d wandered from my centre. How did I get so off track? What would it take to get back there?

September
Pushed for a big change and was still unsuccessful. “No,” said the year. So I surrendered and tried to be content with the here and now.

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October
Life seemed rocky. Sleep was elusive. Plod, plod went the days. But there was still dancing.

November
“Oh, by the way,” said life, “I thought you should have this,” and gave me something I’d asked for five years ago and long given up any hope of getting. So change came when I wasn’t looking or pushing or wishing.

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December
Began to clear the ground, physically and metaphorically. Struggling plants, straggling beliefs were chopped up and pulled out. “This is someone else’s garden,” I thought, “someone else’s idea.” A magpie came to keep me company and we looked each other in the eye. A neighbour walked past. “What are you going to plant?” she asked.

I know exactly what I’m going to plant. I’m going to make it mine. But first I’ll give the soil a rest.

Merry Christmas.

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Thank you, Marcus

 

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Always make a definition or sketch of what presents itself to your mind, so you can see it stripped bare to its essential nature…

Blogging didn’t exist in Roman times, but Marcus Aurelius is spot on. For many of us, that’s what blogging is: a page from the sketchbook of our lives that helps us, and perhaps others, to make sense of our escapades.

In the past fortnight I have:

  1. Bashed my head hard and suffered mild concussion.
  2.  Stayed for six nights on the edge of a bushfire, worrying.
  3. Damaged my hip and lower back.
  4. Been in a minor car accident.

The car accident happened this morning. It’s an odd feeling, when you’re stuck in a queue of cars, to realise that someone is about to reverse straight into you from the side and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t go forwards or backwards; you just watch with horror and feel  your metal car crumple like paper.

Two impressions remain. The driver who bashed into me admitted that he was at fault but COULD NOT SAY SORRY. He gave me his card and I saw that he was a JP. The last time I looked, those two words stood for “justice” and “peace”. This man represented neither.  But the driver of the car behind me, who witnessed what happened, was the nicest person you could hope to meet. He put his hand on my shaking shoulder and commiserated as we stood and wondered why it was so hard for someone to apologise.

I bawled all the way home then contacted the insurance company, made a pot of tea and sat down to read the book I’d just bought.

When circumstances force you to some sort of distress, quickly return to yourself.

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Items 1 to 3 on my list came about because of people-pleasing. I’ve been learning the art of saying no this year, but people-pleasing is ingrained and it’s hard to shift. I said yes to things that I really didn’t want to do, and there were physical and mental consequences.

Nothing is more miserable than one who is always out and about, running round everything in circles.

I should have said no, not just because I found myself in situations that caused me discomfort but because people-pleasing is dishonest. It is. There’s no doubt that the people I was trying to please would be horrified to know that I said yes to them out of a sense of duty or indebtedness or because I couldn’t think of a way to get out of it.

There’s an element of neediness to it as well, as if it brings validation of the self: “If I do this thing for you then I exist as a helpful person, necessary to others.” Recently I signed up for a series of meditations on spending time alone and I haven’t had time to listen to any of them. I’ve been too busy being out and about, trying to be necessary, instead of sitting and checking in on how I really feel.

So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

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How I feel is that there’s a big difference—vast—between people-pleasing and giving people pleasure, and giving people pleasure is much more valuable. Being happy to see someone, sharing experiences, cooking for people, hugging, smiling, listening, saying thank you, saying sorry: these small but beautiful gestures give so much more pleasure to everyone, including me.

More than ever, I see the value of saying no when you need to, especially when you really, REALLY need time to do the things that sustain you and give your life meaning and joy. I think, too, that it gives other people pleasure to see us happy. Most people would much rather we said no to them than deny ourselves the things we need to do to shine, to be the whole, fulfilled person we’d like to be. Saying no is scary. Spending time alone, feeling deeply, answering the secret call of your own heart is scary. But it needs to be done and we need to keep reminding ourselves of that before we run out of time.

…there is a limit circumscribed to your time—if you do not use it to clear away your clouds, it will be gone, and you will be gone, and the opportunity will not return.
Marcus Aurelius

Thank you, Marcus. Well and truly noted.

 

 

Dust and mountains

 

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I’ve been burning the candle at both ends. Don’t feel sorry for me. It’s entirely self‑inflicted. I’ve been saying yes to everything because I want to, but as usual this end of the year seems to be on fast-forward and all the things are happening at once.

A friend and I went to the Afghan film festival and saw three incredible films. I can’t stop thinking about them. If we’d known about it earlier, we would have gone to ALL the films. We saw a documentary from the Pamir region and were so lucky to be able to talk to the director about it: people hanging on to their culture, no longer allowed to roam across three countries, living 4,000 metres above sea level with no trees, no fruit and vegetables, and poor access to medical care. It took the director a week to get there from Kabul, through dust and mountains and snow. “How did you manage to trek in there in winter?” someone asked. “That was summer,” he said.

We saw The Patience Stone, and I couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen. Every detail was fascinating. Kabul surprised me: houses built into the hillside, like Italy’s Cinque Terre except with snow-topped mountains rearing up behind them. The third film, Jirga,  was Australian, and my expectations were low. “It’ll be clumsy,” I thought, “overacted,” but it turned out to be my favourite. Subtle, moving and beautiful, the scenes keep playing over and over in my mind.

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The dust and smoke haze that’s been smothering most of eastern Australia finally hit Canberra on Friday. I was driving south that day, across the Monaro plains and down the mountain to the Bega Valley. Usually that’s my favourite drive in the universe but on Friday it seemed hot and never ending. A dust storm hit when I was crossing the Monaro, making it seem not unlike Mars. Or Afghanistan.

I stopped for a coffee in Nimmitabel, which you might know from an earlier post is a quirky little place with a concrete elephant. In the café the nattily dressed owner was making savoury muffins while Perry Como crooned In your Easter bonnet with all the frills upon it in the background. Somehow the dust storm had swirled me into another era. As I went to leave, I realised that there was writing on my chair:

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Sam Neill! Swoon! My rump and his have shared a chair! I’ve been wondering ever since how many degrees of separation that is.

On the other side of Nimmitabel the temperature dropped ten degrees and I was finally able to open the windows without getting char-grilled.  Even in the cool of the valley everything looked dry. I wish it would rain. I mean rain and rain for days, then a little each night for several months. That’s what we need.

But at the end of the dusty drive was a surprisingly cool and ever so slightly green place: a farm in Tilba Tilba, at the foot of Gulaga. I spent the weekend mostly drinking tea on the verandah and watching clouds drape themselves over that mountain, and I realised that somewhere in the past few years I’d made a choice. Like the mountains in the Afghan movies, like the mountains I see from my windows at home, like the mountains I passed on the drive down to Tilba, Gulaga held my attention,  settled me. For years I wavered, shuttling between mountains and sea, unsure about where I really wanted to live. But now I know. There have to be mountains.

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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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