Soup!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The joy of missing out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lake George

 

 

 

As much as

 

In a shop the other week I saw a card that said, “I love you more than books.” It stopped me in my tracks because…that’s a big call. Also, the card was for sale in a bookshop. I kept thinking about it and it made me a bit annoyed. A quick survey of my friends showed that their reactions pretty much matched mine. One of the people I asked, who loves books and who’s been married for decades and still sends lovey-dovey messages to her partner, didn’t hesitate before saying, “I’d NEVER say that to anyone!”

Another friend pointed out that some books are hateful, so to tell someone you love them more than books isn’t much of a compliment. I once read a book by a well-known Australian author whose work I really enjoy and admire, but this particular book was hateful. The writing was as skillful as ever, but the subject was gruesome and shocking. Worse, it was a true story. I read that book to the end, out of respect for the writer and out of disbelief that something so hideous could happen, but at the same time I hated it. I didn’t even want it in my house. The book seemed to glow radioactively in my hands until I gave it back to the person who lent it to me.

That innocuous little greetings card really got me thinking. I’ve loved some books so much that I actually kissed them when I finished the last sentence! Books have taught me languages. They’ve taught me to sew and knit and crochet and cook. They’ve helped me to understand myself and other people. They’ve shown me great art and architecture and ideas. So many times I’ve finished a book and missed the characters for ages afterwards because they were real to me. Of course, if the house were on fire I’d rescue people and animals first (because most books are replaceable) but I’d still mourn those books.

There are a handful of books on my bookshelves that I would go back into a burning building for. They’re not worth much in dollars, but to me they’re precious because of their history and the hands that have touched them. One of them belonged to my grandad.

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When I knew him, Grandad was a mild-mannered man who watched cricket on telly and used a piece of string to hold up his trousers (much to Grandma’s shame). He slurped tea from the saucer when Grandma wasn’t looking. If he spilled gravy on his tie at Sunday lunch he’d rub it into the pattern and wink and say, “Don’t tell Grandma.”

He made me a wicker doll’s pram and a little wooden stool with an inlaid chessboard pattern. Apparently, I was so excited when he gave it to me that I kissed it. (Obviously the kissing of loved objects has become a habit!) He made me a wooden moneybox with a Scotsman who tilts when you put a penny on his plate. And he made me an unnerving little Brownie figurine whose neck broke long ago, making her scary face swivel unexpectedly, and frightening me more than ever.

When he wasn’t in his shed making wooden tables or figurines, and when he wasn’t in his garden stroking bumblebees with his large and calloused fingers, he tried to teach himself French. Family lore said that all he ever learned was the phrase “I have a trunk and two suitcases” and there was a lot of laughter about that.

After he died, I was given his French books, including his groovy 1960s Bonjour magazines and their accompanying floppy 45 records that had to be played at LP speed to be understood (although playing them at 45 speed was pretty funny). And I learned that, actually, he knew a lot of French and had completed all the crosswords.

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Before he became a gardening, woodworking, cricket-watching bee stroker, Grandad was in the navy. In his photo album are pictures he took in Spain during the civil war, and in the Middle East and the West Indies. In World War II his ship was in the Battle of the River Plate. He kept a shell casing from that battle and used it as a doorstop for the rest of his life. My aunty has it still.

For all his travelling, he had never been to Paris. In the last years of his life, his daughters took him there for a weekend. He walked slowly, leaning on his stick and looking around in wonder at the buildings he’d read about. He sat on a bench in the Jardin des Tuileries and listened to people speak the language he’d been quietly learning for years. It must have been a dream come true. Possibly he was overwhelmed, because all he could say over and over, this man who’d travelled the world, was: “Different, innit?” As far as I know, he didn’t say anything in French for the whole weekend and, disappointingly, he didn’t use his famous line.

But he did browse the wares of the bouquinistes on the Left Bank, and he bought this book, published in 1927, to continue his éducation française:

I love it because it’s a beautiful, endlessly fascinating book, but I also love it because it belonged to Grandad and when I hold it in my hands the memories of him come rushing back. So I think I’d have to agree with my friend who said that the greatest compliment you can pay someone is: “I love you as much as books.”

Drink your tea slowly

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The purpose of a vacation is to have the time to rest. But many of us, even when we go on vacation, don’t know how to rest. We may even come back more tired than before we left. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

Oh dear. Guilty as charged. I think I overdid it: three trips away in under three weeks. For those of us who live on the Southern Tablelands, a trip to the coast takes several hours, usually ending in a drive down a long and winding road. Whichever route you take, there’s always that last bit with the hairpin bends. I calculate that Little Black Car and I drove around 34 hairpin bends. Excuse me while I have a little nap now…for about a year.

But wait! No napping allowed because it’s back to work time and it’s busy and already two weekends are filled with obligations. Going back to work was a shock. “This is what I do?!” I thought incredulously. “This can’t be right. Who on earth thought it was a good idea for legions of us to sit all day in front of computers, shortening our hamstrings, our forearm tendons, our sight and our attention span?”

While I worked, I allowed my mind to escape into a Thomas Hardy‑esque fantasy of scything in the fields with my fellow villagers, stopping at morning tea time for a hunk of bread and a lump of cheese, washed down with a tankard of local cider. In this bucolic vision the sun (not the artificial lighting) was shining and the carthorses (not my co-workers) were snorting and sighing. Clearly I chose to focus only on pastoral loveliness and to ignore all the bad things that happen in Hardy novels, but it got me through the day.

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That rambling introduction is my way of saying: I’ve got nothing. I felt the urge to write something and had planned to take you on a day trip to a historic town not too far from here, but that will have to be postponed because there’s nothing left in the tank, mine or Little Black Car’s. This weekend I’m dog-sitting in the country with my furry friends Mr Drooly Scrumptious and Ms Leaps and Bounds, and all I can manage is a walk around the garden and a few photos of interesting native plants. Here’s a picture of some kind of flowering pea (looking very much like a fairy toothbrush):

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And here are some banksia pods, looking every bit as cunning as the Big Bad Banksia Men in May Gibbs’s stories:

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Now, while one of us chews sticks and one of us snoozes with his head on his paws, the plan is to switch off, and to sit and look at the big sky while drinking tea and following some sage advice. I declare this afternoon a holiday.

Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

Taking stock

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Hello, m’dears! It’s the holidays! Yippee! I hope you’re having a relaxing time, wherever you are. I went on a sneaky pre-Christmas break! How good is that? Unplanned beach trips are up there on my list of best things ever. A friend and I house-sat in beautiful Austinmer for a couple of days, two minutes walk from the beach.

Every day we flip-flopped down to the sea pool. The water was still cold, so we did the walking in slowly while clenching your teeth manoeuvre, followed by the ARGH! of the shoulders going under, followed by the “oh, it’s actually lovely” comment. Some days the tide was exhilaratingly high and the waves crashed across the pool, lifting and dumping us and almost dragging us out. I found I couldn’t stop grinning, which is not my usual expression when facing possible drowning, but it was unexpectedly blissful.

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Christmas Eve featured another beach, Seven Mile, in the pretty Shoalhaven. It was grey and cool and the wind was up, but we had a bracing family walk before the turkey/ham/puddin’ fest began.

And now here we are: New Year’s Eve. I’m going on another quick trip to the coast later this week, so I’m quite content to stay home tonight and take stock. You could call it a quiet night in, but the boys three doors down are already drunk, so it’s not going to be that quiet! Anyway, here’s my taking stock list.

Reading: Re-reading Tim Winton’s The Riders. It’s my absolute favourite of his books, only just beating That Eye, The Sky. But if I had to choose one of them to take to a desert island, I couldn’t; I’d have to take both. I started re-reading it with the intention of looking closely at how he does it, how he makes the prose sing, but in an instant I forgot all about that and got lost in the story all over again.

I’m also reading (well, gawping at the pictures mainly) this book:

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Isn’t it beautiful? My fuzzy photo doesn’t do it justice.

Getting to the end of: Yoga teacher training! Two years down the track, I’ve finally logged enough hours to get the qualification, once I finish…er…10 assignments. But the end is in sight. I’ve just started looking at chandra namaskar, otherwise known as salute to the moon. It’s been a turning point for me, as I find so many yoga classes focus on salute to the sun and (say it quietly) I don’t like it! It’s too fast and sweaty and makes me feel a bit panicky, whereas the salute to the moon sequences are so much slower and calmer and inward focused. Just what we middle-aged-prone-to-stress folk need. So that’s what my classes will be built around. Hurrah!

Joining: A gym!

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No, that’s not it. But some wag obviously uses Austinmer headland as a gym. And why not? My gym isn’t big or particularly fancy, but it does have a pink, sparkly chandelier in the changing room, which is a welcome distraction from the pink, sweaty reflection in the mirror. I joined not as a New Year’s resolution but because I missed treadmills. I know! Seriously weird! But, try as I might, I just don’t enjoy outdoor running and I missed the happy trance that treadmills give, so back to the gym we go.

Listening to: Possums and parrots eat all the plums on the plum trees. I managed to pick one colanderful. That’s all they left me. All day I hear “Ting, chortle, THUD” as the parrots eat the plums and drop them on the shed roof. Then for a couple of hours each night I hear what sounds like an old man wheezing right outside my window but is actually the possum eating the plums that the parrots haven’t eaten yet. Yes, I should have netted the trees, but I couldn’t because I don’t have a ladder.

Buying: A ladder! Now I can do things like net fruit trees and change light bulbs and get into the roof space that I threw things into when I moved in and haven’t been into since. The only way is up, baby!

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Enrolling in: A creative writing bootcamp. I’ve got a stack of old scribblings which need to be whipped into shape, and I’m looking forward to learning a lot.

Saying goodbye to: A couple of relationships, one of which changed suddenly a few months ago, leaving a huge gap and making me very sad, but now I’m going to let go and wish them well.

Surprising myself: By thinking about overseas travel. If you’d asked me a year ago, when I was still living out of a suitcase and doing a mad intercity commute, whether I’d like to go overseas again I’d have said, “Not in a million years.” Now I’m thinking, “House swap. Berlin. How can I do that? When can I do that?” It probably won’t be this year, but the seed has been planted and I’m gonna keep watering it.

Baking: Olive oil cake. “Cake, so soon after Christmas?!” I hear you exclaim. Yes. So many cakes, so little time. It’s very light and plain and rather delicious. The recipe is from this book: Food Swings, by Jessica Seinfeld. It’s a lovely book and she’s super nice, so I urge you to borrow it from the library or buy it. I’m not going to put the recipe up. Everything in the book is simple and tasty and just what you feel like cooking. I’m really enjoying it.

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See that white blob next to the cakey? It’s skyr. Icelandic yoghurt, made in Australia, available at my local supermarket in Canberra. What an amazing world we live in! I went to Iceland for a too short visit a few years ago and one of the things I loved about it was the Icelandic sense of humour. On the Icelandair menu they have skyr and they tell you to eat it with a fork to use up some time. They also have porridge as a menu item.

Apart from cake, dolmades and salad are my food of choice at the moment. I’d like to say it’s home-grown salad, as I planted a lot of leafy greens, but see possum above. So now I’m eating store-boughten salad. And while we’re on the subject of dolmades…

Discovering: This record in a friend’s record collection:

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I apologise for yet another fuzzy photo, but aren’t those shiny trousers something?! I really wanted some like that when I was a pre-teen, which was about the time that bouzouki disco was popular. So here, for your summer listening pleasure, is the Bouzouki Disco Band. I guarantee this will stay in your head all summer. Thanks for reading this far. It’s been a long post. Happy New Year!

 

Deck the halls

 

 

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I’m a migrant. People speak the same language here as they do in the country we came from, so that made it easier to fit in. After 37 years I identify more with the country we moved to, but I still notice differences and my childhood cultural references fall flat. Most people don’t know that I came from somewhere else until I start telling them things about my childhood. For example: the Christmas before I turned five, I had my photo taken not with Santa but with a monkey that danced on the top of a barrel organ played by a man in a top hat. When I told a friend that story, she asked whether I knew Charles Dickens personally.

At the work Christmas party last week we all asked each other the usual “what are you doing for Christmas” question. Some people rolled their eyes and told sagas of driving from A’s house to B’s house to C’s house to try to please everyone. A colleague from Shanghai told us that in her city everyone stays out late on Christmas Eve, shopping and partying and looking at sparkly displays of lights and decorations. Then they go to work the next day. She’s a bit disappointed that everything’s shut here at Christmas.

I asked a Czech colleague what she’d be eating for Christmas dinner if she were still in the Czech Republic and her answer was: “Carp and potatoes,” which was not at all what I was expecting her to say, because “Good King Wenceslas looked out on the FEAST of Stephen” and carp and potatoes doesn’t sound very feast-like. It turns out that St Stephen’s Day is after Christmas, so I guess that explains the modest Christmas dinner; people have to leave some room.

In my family, chemotherapy was someone’s Christmas present last year. We’re a small family unit anyway because everyone else still lives back in Europe, and the thought of becoming smaller weighed heavily on us. But this year we’ll be pulling Christmas crackers and clinking wine glasses because everyone’s still here. We’ll be groaning from eating too much of Mum’s excellent Christmas pudding with plum sauce. We’ll time travel by phoning relatives who are still stuck in Christmas Eve when we’ve already started Christmas Day. We’ll play Christmas carols about snow and holly and reindeer and then we’ll put on our cozzies and go down to the beach and thank our lucky stars that we moved here.

Merry Christmas.

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P.S. As you can see, I have a bit of an obsession with decorating office desks. They look so much nicer like this, don’t you think?!

Little slices of life

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See this picture? My phone thinks it’s me. It filed the photo under “selfies”. I’ll admit
I don’t often take selfies, so perhaps it doesn’t know what I look like, but this is going a bit far! If Oliver Sacks were alive he could write a book and call it The Phone that Mistook its Owner for a Lamp. I’ll let you know if it thinks I look like any other inanimate objects. This could be an ongoing thing. Perhaps it’s trying to tell me something: lightbulb moment/shady/let your light shine. Feel free to add any other lame puns.

Life in the small, quiet, pretty house is humming along quietly, which suits me fine. There was a new arrival a couple of weeks ago…a working oven. Cue the fanfare. It’s been a while, so as soon as it was plugged in I started baking like a woman possessed. There was date cake with caramel icing. There were monte carlos. There was Persian love cake. There were coconut sugar cookies. There was gluten free bread that was, though I say so myself, a triumph. It sliced beautifully, was the right combination of crusty and soft, and toasted well.

I was planning to share the bread recipe, but when I made it again it came out looking like a mountain in Norway:

Can you tell the difference? Neither can I. I’ll experiment a bit more and post the recipe once I know it’s reliable.

Baking again has reminded me just how much people appreciate home-made food.
I don’t have much of a sweet tooth anymore, but I love the ritual of baking and sharing and it makes me happy that such a small gesture makes other people happy. My colleagues at work devoured everything I brought in. A friend bought me the book Sweet, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh, purely out of self-interest, she said. My mission is to bake my way through the book. I think there’ll be quite a few willing taste testers.

On another creative front, a while ago I said I was going to try to make myself some clothes. In fact, I think I said all my clothes. Progress has been slow. There’s been a lot of cutting out and pinning and tacking but no actual completions yet. As I cut out the latest project on the floor it occurred to me that this could be how the phrase “to cut a rug” originated:

img_3637.jpgOne thing I’ve learned already is that making your own clothes is time-consuming and sometimes tricky but it’s definitely MUCH cheaper than buying them. And it’s fun!

There’s also been a bit of sashiko stitching happening:

There’s been nodding and guffawing while listening to Russell Brand and Ruby Wax discuss meditation on Under the Skin. It’s probably the best discussion I’ve heard on why meditation works, in whatever form it takes for you: mindfulness, prayer, guided meditation, mantras, walking or focusing on the breath. Or baking and sewing! It’s certainly been my experience that being able to step back from your own thoughts is
life-changing, and the more you practise it, the more able you are to do it.

So there you have it: a little bit of what’s been going on here. There’s been just enough time to bake, make, observe and listen in between the busy parts. All those little slices of life: small yet so satisfying and very much enjoyed.

 

 

Connected

 

IMG_3598This week’s pictures are brought to you by the colours yellow and pinky-orange. That’s what’s going on in the front garden at the moment: so many plants blooming in radically different shapes and sizes but fundamentally all connected. I didn’t really have to do anything to make them grow and blossom, other than a bit of pruning (inexpert random chopping) and weeding (futile but surprisingly soothing exercise). And up they all popped in their sunny colours.IMG_3608I’ve learned a lot from the garden just lately. Plants are blooming this year that didn’t produce a single petal last year. Perhaps we’ve had the right conditions. Perhaps they only bloom every other year. Perhaps I wasn’t really looking last year. There was a lot going on.IMG_3606Last year there was no fruit on the plum trees. I wasn’t even sure they were the fruiting kind. This year one of the trees is invading the verandah and it’s laden with fruit. I’m already getting the jam jars ready.IMG_3612The garden’s bursting with so much life that it’s hard to take it all in. It keeps on growing and producing and following the story of the seasons while we forget to look. Instead, we follow the stories in our head. We follow our thoughts and sometimes we get stuck in them, tangled in imaginary roots and pricked by pretend thorns. We don’t always see what’s real.IMG_3604So I think what I’m saying, mostly to myself but to anyone else who gets stuck in stories, is look at the story outside. Look at the garden that we’re all in together. IMG_3607A friend sent me this poem today. Perhaps you know it. I didn’t. I wanted to share it because it expresses so beautifully that extraordinary, limitless, exhilarating fact of existence: connection. We’re all in this together. Go well, my friends.

Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Pool!

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The pool’s open! I’ve been swimming! And it’s warm! Excuse the overuse of exclamation marks, but I’m very! excited! It’s been a loooong, cccccold winter here in Canbrrr. When I look back through this blog I see that the heating went on in May—or, rather, it would have done if it hadn’t been broken. And even when the heating wizard had fixed it the temperature indoors was never exactly balmy. It doesn’t seem many weeks ago that a friend from Sydney was here, sitting by the fire in his coat. He looked outside and said incredulously, “It’s snowing.” He couldn’t believe that it could be so cold here when his family were in t-shirts.

But all that’s forgotten now because the pool’s open! There was a slightly unnerving sign on the gate: “Lock is faulty! If locked in, try lifting gate. Good luck.” It’s a heavy metal gate with two-metre brush fencing attached, so I didn’t like my chances. I was on one of my marvellous days off and everyone else seemed to be at work, so I had the pool to myself. But the fact didn’t escape me that if the gate had slammed shut I would have been locked in the pool area until one of the neighbours got home. As I swam the first few laps I cased the perimeter for holes in the fence or places where I could possibly climb over if I piled all the outdoor chairs on top of each other. Luckily I didn’t have to do that, but I was in the Girl Guides so I know all about the importance of being prepared.

The water’s solar heated, so it was lovely and warm. The sun sparkled on the ripples as I swam, drawing beautiful turquoise patterns on the bottom of the pool. I wish I had an underwater camera so that I could show you those patterns. The jasmine and the westringia were flowering (another green and white garden!) and a noisy friarbird lived up to his name, chortling his leathery head off in the gum tree. I swam and swam and swam. It was blissful beyond words.

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Whenever I go to the doctor or the dentist and they say something like “Go to your happy place” because they’re about to do something ghastly, in my mind I always go to a pool. It used to be Coogee women’s pool because I swam there for many years. It was like swimming in champagne, except with fish in it. There was a resident octopus, and once there was a baby Port Jackson shark, looking vaguely embarrassed. He wasn’t there the following day so I guess the tide took him out again. The pool’s at the bottom of steep steps cut into the rock. The view down the beach is spectacular. Even the changing room has a view. It’s very basic, but the glass-less window lines up perfectly with Wedding Cake Island.

Dubai

A few years ago, on the way to Europe, a friend and I had a stopover in Dubai, where the hotel had a beautiful pool. It was indoors and warm as a bath and there was a garden planted around it. After a long flight with my knees pressed up against the seat in front, it was heavenly to swim and stretch out. Afterwards we had massages then drank tea in the hotel foyer, under an enormous chandelier in the shape of a pineapple. Then we went back to the pool. I’d be willing to spend 14 hours on a plane just to go back to that hotel. Whenever someone mentions Dubai now, my friend and I both sigh and say, “I love Dubai.” The truth is we’ve never really seen Dubai. We didn’t leave the hotel. Why would you?

Woonona

I spent a summer swimming in Wollongong, which has sea pools strung along the length of it. Woonona pool (above) was the closest and most scenic but it wasn’t my favourite because it’s not tidal. The water gets pumped out once a week. Bulli pool was also close and better than Woonona for swimming because it didn’t get a layer of sunscreen on it on hot days, but some days it filled with fine weed, like swimming through underarm hair. My absolute favourite was Towradgi pool, a short drive away. It was tidal and clean. There were schools of little fish coasting around in the clear water and cormorants sitting on the rails watching. Some days the waves crashed all around it, outside the pool walls, but inside the water was calm. A group of mostly old men, grumpy and leathery skinned, with huge bellies, sat on the concrete steps all day like walruses. After a swim I would stroll up the path to find an excellent coffee in the unpretentious caff at the caravan park. I’ve gone to my happy place right now, just writing about it.

But the best pool of all, the one which will probably never be bettered, is this:

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It’s at the Pita Maha in Ubud, Bali. I’d be surprised if there’s a happier happy place. I’d always wanted to swim in an infinity pool; I guess you could say it was on my pool bucket list. When I went to Ubud I’d had what the Queen would call an annus horribilis: a pretty crap year…or two. My relationship ended. My friend died. My dog died. My job ended and I was unemployed for six months. I got shingles. I had to sell my house. My car carked it. I got another job at half my previous salary, working for a terrible bully. So when I got an unexpectedly large tax return (unemployment has an up side after all) I went to Ubud, only for four days, but it was the best four days of my life.

I didn’t do much. I walked around a bit, looking at things. I ate amazing food. I sat in the garden of the hotel listening to the sounds of geckos and gamelan music and the wind in the trees every evening as the rain came in. And I swam in the infinity pool with swallows diving and frangipani blossoms falling around me and was absolutely enchanted.

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I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. One day I didn’t have the pool to myself; a very loud woman got in with a group of friends. She splashed around noisily in the water and threw blossoms in the air and shrieked in a voice that echoed across the ravine: “THIS IS THE BEST FREAKIN’ POOL I’VE EVER BEEN IN IN MY LIFE.” To which I replied, “I completely agree, but please could you use your indoor voice?”

No, I didn’t, but I thought it.

She was right, though. It was the best freakin’ pool. No doubt, like me, she still thinks of that pool as her happy place. What about you? Where’s your happy place? I hope you have several. I’ve got another day off tomorrow. Can you guess where I’m going?

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Perspective

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There was an outbreak of lack of perspective in Canberra this week. I heard a lot of people with public profiles talk about what’s wrong with this city. One person even went so far as to say that Canberra’s crime rate rivalled that of Detroit or Mogadishu. What’s extra funny about that is that this week Lonely Planet rated Canberra the third best city in the world to visit. And which city was in second place? Detroit!

I don’t know if it was because I spent the week listening to people moan about their actually very fortunate life, but I caught the bug and lost perspective too.
I was dealing with a few annoying things, such as long hours at work, unexpected and expensive car repairs, a dead possum on the roof, a difficult conversation with a family member that needs to be had, and I let them blow out of all proportion until I started to feel that life was hard. I was near to tears this afternoon when I went to meet my sister, who’s in town for a few days.

We met at a beautiful restaurant/bar in a building that’s won awards for its design and eco credentials. We ate delicious, unusual food. We were well fed and sheltered and looked after. I mention that because my sister’s just been in Cambodia, where every day for a week she helped out at a charity that provides food for school children. Kids who otherwise wouldn’t eat a proper meal now get a substantial lunch. On Saturdays the volunteers pack up rice, omelette, soup and stirfry and take the food out to the villages where the kids live. They started off by serving 100 people on Saturdays. Now they feed 700. An Aussie who volunteered at the food charity started a spin-off organisation that, among other things, pays for kids to go to school and stay in school.

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My sister brought me some gifts from her trip. One was an iron fish, developed as a way to combat anaemia in Cambodia. Putting it in the pot when you cook rice or broth is an easy way to add iron to your diet. As someone who suffered from anaemia for the first 35 years of my life I know how debilitating it can be, and I lived an easy, middle class, Western world lifestyle and had access to doctors who eventually worked out the cause of my deficiency. Holding this solid iron fish in my hands reminded me how lucky I am to have access to good, affordable medical care, how lucky I am to have the means to buy and grow food that sustains me.

img_3580.jpgThe second gift my sister gave me was a tin star made by a man whom the charity also supports. It’s rough and chunky and wouldn’t win any craft or design awards, but I’ve hung it on the lounge room wall as another reminder of just how good life is.

We finished our meal and walked to the car park. As we stood chatting, I glanced at a couple nearby and realised that I knew them. We’d met in Wollongong years ago, but now they live in Thailand, in a community that offers meditation, meals, creativity and friendship to anyone who shows up. They live on a shoestring and they’re devoting years of their life to people who need their help. As if talking to my sister about her experiences in Cambodia wasn’t enough, bumping into those two really rammed the point home. I got my perspective back in spades.

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