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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Taking stock

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Hello from the house of fluff. The fluff is everywhere. It’s all over the carpet, minutes after I’ve vacuumed. It collects in heaps on the stairs. It sticks to my mascara and I spend the drive to work batting my eyelashes like a starlet, trying to remove almost invisible fibres whenever the traffic lights turn red.

There are three possible causes: it’s October, when poplar seeds float all over the city in fluffy drifts (no); I have a phantom golden retriever living in the house and she’s moulting everywhere (also no, although I would like a golden retriever); or it’s winter and we’re back to faux sheepskin slippers, Aran jumpers and fluffy blankies and they’re generating indoor snowdrifts.

You guessed correctly, of course. It’s winter. The fire is on. George-the-Sydney-rock-orchid is back indoors. Consuela the succulent is the worse for wear because I left her outside too long. I’m a terrible potted plant mother, but I’m hoping a spot on the kitchen bench near the window will revive her.

We’re halfway through the year, m’dears. I think it’s time to take stock. Here’s my list.

Rebounding: This week will be the last of seven busy work weeks, so I’m flagging a bit. But for instant after-work revival I truly recommend dancing on a mini trampoline! Put on a shuffle playlist and dance your socks off. (Actually, take your socks off first. Safety tip.) Restores the spirits, revives flagging energy and plants a big grin on your face. Sooooo good at the end of a tiring day.

Reading: Oh boy, I’ve been having trouble with books. I bought a stack and I borrowed a stack and none of them were any good. Sometimes reading has fallow periods. Do you find that? However hard you try, you can’t find a book you like. So I re-read this one, which I love: Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. Arthur Less is an endearing character, so sweetly unaware of his own qualities. I wish I could have him over for dinner regularly.

Watching: This lovely film, Maudie, on SBS on demand. Sally Hawkins, you squeeze the heart. Also watching El Embarcadero: lurv, mystery, drama and plot twists aplenty, set in the Albufera in Spain. And what a cliffhanger! Argh!

Spending time: In the writing nook, my eyrie, whenever I can. Ideas arrive. Words tumble out. Sentences get a good polish. You need fire in your belly to see a big creative project through, and that fire has definitely been lit.

Noticing: So many bulbs pushing their way up through the soil already. The garden will be a green and white marvel in spring.

Coveting: Gus Leunig’s art. And his dog.

Learning: About art therapy. Doing a little online course. Nothing too taxing.

Creating: Doodles. Watercolours. Little drawings. It’s fun and absorbing.

Loving: Friendship. Comforting, supportive, surprising, and I’m always grateful.

Drinking: Tea, lots of it—especially enjoying a mug of Yorkshire Tea on those golden mornings when you wake up early enough to steal back a bit of the day by taking a cuppa back to bed.

Also drinking: A delicious espresso martini (just the one) on the verandah of a heritage cottage that was once the harbour master’s house in Tathra. Now it’s a restaurant called Fat Tony’s. Tony is actually very fit and very charming, and the food is wonderful too.

Discovering: Places on the Sapphire Coast and inland that I’m now in love with. Tathra, Wolumla, Candelo, I’m looking at you. But one place in particular affected me profoundly. I leapt out of the car and ran to the water’s edge. In Pambula, at that beautiful spot where the river meets the sea, I was moved to tears. I can’t remember a place ever having that effect before.

Dreaming about: One day having a little house on a block of land in the Bega shire, and a creative life in a connected community. It’s always the same dream, really.

Thinking: That back in January I talked about moving the important things into the centre of your life. What I’ve realised over the past six months is that you have to keep doing that. The mundane stuff has a habit of pushing the important things aside. Making time for creativity, connection and learning (which are my important things) takes sustained effort.

Baking: These biscuits. They’re very forgiving. You can make them gluten free. You can play around with the flour to almond meal ratio. You can use icing sugar instead of caster sugar. You don’t have to cream the butter and sugar. Melting the butter and chucking in the rest of the ingredients all at once works just fine. If you’ve forgotten to buy almond essence and it’s getting late (and you’re already in your pyjamas, so there’s no way you’re going out to the shops) you can just double the amount of vanilla. They’re so quick to make, your colleagues will be happy when you take them in to work, and everyone will get covered in icing sugar. (Makes a change from fluff.)

Looking forward to: Serious downtime in July! Nearly there!

How’s your year going?

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Meditation walk

Walk

I’m early. It’s pathological.
No, really, I was going this way anyway. Happy to give you a lift.
He’s one of those people who discover something then explain it to everyone else…because surely he’s the first to have discovered it?
Yes, I have heard of permaculture.
We’ll never make it up that track. The car will get bogged.
How would X tackle this? I’ll pretend to be him.
It’s overcast. There won’t be a view.
Where are the birds?
Did any of us expect to be lying on the forest floor, breathing loudly?
Do I like these people?
He’s got a monkey mind. She’s not sure this is her cup of tea.
She knows about Fibonacci patterns but she doesn’t know the meaning of the word “equilibrium”. That’s funny.
Here they are!
Does meditation attract ravens or do they think we’ve got food?
My brain feels lighter.
There’s always a queue for the toilets.
Slow walking. What a relief.
That log looks like a whale. That one’s a swordfish. There’s a narwhal.
So many toadstools.
Ochre, umber, chocolate, fawn. All in the bark of one tree.
I’m taking pictures with my eyes, not my camera.
Go off the path?? What?!!
If I bush bash my way in, will I find my way out again?
What if I fall?
Breathe in for five, out for five.
People are so noisy.
The land is so quiet.
Those ravens are following us.
In for five, out for five.
I could sit here forever.
It’s not scary after all.
Ah, that’s why we say “grounded”.
In for five, out for five.
Tiny white insect fluttering.
Filament of grass waving in a breeze I can’t feel.
In for five, out for five.
Don’t want to leave.
Wasn’t that far from the path after all.
She thinks she’s walking too slowly but I like following in her footsteps. Nice to pause on every step.
Steep.
Thought I hated hills but I’m enjoying this one.
The lichen is luminous.
How is that rock balancing?
If you walk from your core it’s easier. Perhaps I never used to have a core.
Need to touch that tree.
Snap that leaf. Smell the eucalyptus oil.
Big rocks. Strong wind.
Glad I went back for my coat.
Take small steps and you won’t fall.
Look properly. See. Concentrate.
The view!
Watercolour landscape.
Hills fading, fading into sky.
Raven soaring with feathered fingers.
Show-off!
Wish I could catch the current like that.
In for five, out for five.
Cold rocks, warm hands.
Warm voice guiding us, holding us.
Something else knitting us all together.
How can it be time to go already?
How do we get down?
I’m scared about the drive out.
In for five, out for five.
Look. See. Concentrate.
Take small steps. You won’t fall.
It all looks different on the way down.
I like these people.
Of course I’ll give you a lift back.
(No, I thought I’d leave you in the forest.)
This drive is easy. Where was the scary part??
I love this valley. Imagine living down there.
Old shearing shed. Beautiful. Iconic.
Slow down for the roos.
Oh.
How did we get home so fast?
Lovely to meet you too. Good luck with your compost.

 

Slow day at the start of winter

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My hairdresser put me in a trance. It was a bitterly cold morning but the sky was blue and the sun was shining, so I mistakenly didn’t put gloves on. By the time I got to the (oh, so warm!) hair salon my hands were frozen into claws and I had to wrap them around a cup of tea to get them to work again. The hairdresser gave me a neck/shoulder massage and my poor tense muscles couldn’t believe their luck. Then she led me into the quiet room where they wash your hair with nice smelling products and you just lie back in the chair with your eyes closed and try not to fall asleep.

With the warmth of the salon, the scented shampoo and the heat from the hairdryer, by the time I was ready to leave I could barely stand up. I could have just melted into a gooey mess on the stylish floor, which is regularly swept by an equally stylish apprentice. The hairdressing salon is posh. It’s pretty much my only vice. I don’t smoke, I drink cheap wine (which is surprisingly nice) and I don’t have a drug habit, but I do spend money on my hair. It’s an investment in self-esteem.

My hairdresser, though, no longer holds me in high esteem. When she gave me my coat I saw her peek at the label and her face fell. Perhaps she likes to look at people’s clothing labels and imagine their swanky lifestyles. I don’t have a swanky lifestyle and my coat is from a very ordinary shop but I love it because it was $20 in a sale and, what’s more, it’s red, which is a very cheery colour to wear in winter when 90 per cent of people seem to dress in black.

So my cheap coat and my expensive hair and I stepped out of the warmth in a complete daze. I had to drag my brain out of its trance and say, “Crossing road. Pay attention.” It was my day off, which is supposed to be a weekly occurrence but often isn’t. Work, at the moment, is taking up too much time—and too much brain space, which is worse. That’s really not okay and I’m trying to figure out ways to deal with it. Wish me luck.

I decided to try out a newish cafe that I liked the look of. Inside it was concrete and wood, washed with natural light. There were hanging plants and funky light bulbs. There was a painting in peacock blue with the world “yellow” written on it, which made me smile. French pop played in the background. The coffee came in a ceramic bowl, so lovely to wrap cold hands around.

The bowl reminded me of going to Paris with a friend when we were 18. In the hotel dining room for our first breakfast we were served hot chocolate in bowls. “Do we eat it with a spoon?” we wondered. We did the sideways eye slide and saw that other people were dipping their croissants in or lifting the bowl to their lips. Aha! I spoke schoolgirl French and my friend spoke none, but she could have won a medal for trying.

Friend: “How do I ask for orange juice?”
Me: “Une orange, s’il vous plait.”
Friend: “Un orage.”
Me: “You just asked for a thunderstorm.”

We did all the touristy things. La Saint-Chappelle was the exquisite jewellery box that my French teacher had promised it would be. The extravagance of Versailles was too much, but I liked the Sacre Coeur better than dour Notre Dame. In the shadows of Montmartre a man flashed at us and we ran away giggling. In the Gare du Nord a spaniel-eyed drifter asked ever so nicely for money, twice.

We ate steak frites the like of which I’ve never tasted again. We lunched on simple salads with tangy vinaigrette. We gobbled pastries in a side street outside a patisserie: coffee religieuse and tarte au fraises. There was an advertisement for cheese on the wall of a metro station—Du pain, du vin, du Boursin—which I loved the rhythm of. As catchphrases go, you know it’s a good one when people can remember it 30 years later!

I drained my bowl of coffee, put on my red coat and went back out into the cold. The leaves were all down and so was the temperature. But the memories kept me warm. It was a good slow day at the start of winter.

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What we do here

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There probably aren’t many capital cities where cows graze in the suburbs. These beauties are walking distance from my house and do a great job of keeping the grass down. I often walk past them on my walks in the Urambi Hills, which I’ve taken to huffing and puffing up every weekend.

There’s a bench up the top with initials scratched into it. Apparently B loves J. But B also loves L, so I see trouble ahead. Perhaps there will be more scratchings next time. I’ll keep you posted on B’s love life. That’s not the reason I walk up there, of course. We’re having a glorious autumn and I’m feeling the need to get out and about in it every weekend. Besides, it’s hard not to feel joie de vivre when you’re looking at this view.

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Canberra is a city that’s changed a lot in the almost 20 years that I’ve lived here. When I first arrived, at weekends I would think: “Where is everyone? What do people do here at the weekend?” (Answer: they were at the coast.) Now, there are so many things to do at weekends that it’s hard to fit in time to visit the coast.

The other weekend there was a Connect and Participate Expo in the huge old bus depot. The idea was for people to go along and find groups to join or crafts to learn or volunteerish things to get involved in. I really wanted to go, but my dance card was full. There were so many fun and interesting things to do at the same time that I had to turn a few down.

In the past couple of weeks, I could have gone to umpteen wineries, galleries, talks, walks, movies, gardens, classes, bookshops, markets. I could have filled two weekends with Heritage Festival activities alone. A person has to go to work, which takes up a significant amount of time, but here’s what I did outside office hours.

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Strolled along the breathtaking Yankee Hat trail in Namadgi National Park, past kangaroos lolling on the grass, and saw rock art on huge granite boulders. It’s a traditional Aboriginal meeting place and there really is something special about it. “Where spirits dance,” says the sign, and, yes, they really do. It’s an exquisite, magical valley and I can’t wait to go back.

Listened to live Argentine tango music at Smith’s Alternative, featuring Actual Argentinians who now live in Canberra, at which I learned the Spanish word for “more” or “encore”: ¡otra! If you play the bandoneon and want to join them, you’re in luck; they’re looking for recruits.

Ate tea and cake at the National Museum of Australia. Said hello to the pink caravan, which I’m very fond of.

Tagged along on a friend’s birdwatching tour of the Botanic Gardens and was blown away by how much he knows about birds. Learned to use binoculars properly and spotted spotted pardalotes. (There’s a comedy skit in there somewhere.)

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Went to a climate change rally at the conclusion of the  Bob Brown Foundation’s anti-Adani convoy. Thousands of people showed up, Paul Kelly sang and two Indigenous elders spoke passionately about their land, yet the whole thing rated only a short voiceover segment on the news. Hmm.

Walked in the cork oaks and the Himalayan cedars at the Arboretum. Went to look at the bonsai and, as always, felt a bit sorry for them. Beautiful but stunted! All that repressed potential! Browsed the excellent Curatoreum shop and bought books. (I’ll tell you about them next time.)

Attended a dance workshop at which a lecturer from Germany confirmed what we already knew about the benefits of dance. He also talked about polar bears and penguins, goulash and beer (it was a wide-ranging speech) and chaos, except for a while we thought he was saying “cars” or “cows”. Basically, his point was that experiential learning is as valuable, if not more so, than theory. I agree.

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Listened to a smiley, bearded young cellist play Bach at breakfast at the National Library of Australia, followed by a discussion with Helen Garner, whose book The Children’s Bach is one of my faves. I wish she still wrote novels.

Helen said she carries a notebook everywhere to capture conversations that she overhears. I do that too, although some sentences stick in your mind without being written down. When I was about 11 and lived in Yorkshire, my mum and I were out walking the dogs when two men rode by on horseback. One man said to the other, “I had that new piazza for tea last night.” Mum and I looked at each other and laughed. We hadn’t yet tasted pizza ourselves but we were pretty sure it wasn’t pronounced piazza.

Danced Biodanza on Mondays. Danced tango on Thursdays. Could have danced a different dance every night, if so inclined.

Had friends over for wine, cheese and shootin’ the breeze, at which it was revealed that someone had just sold a painting and been propositioned in a car park and someone else had once eaten enough corn flakes to get free travel on British Rail.

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When the national media talk about Canberra, they usually mean the federal parliament. When politicians talk about the Canberra bubble, they also mean the federal parliament. While I’m not for one minute downplaying the importance of the federal parliament, I’d like to point out that outside its walls there are 450,000ish people going about their lives in Actual Canberra and having a pretty good time.

I don’t always love living here. It’s ridiculously hot in summer and perishingly cold in winter. But when 46 per cent of the territory is stunningly beautiful national park, and there’s good food, good coffee, stimulating conversation and more cultural activities than you can poke a stick at, some days, as Salvador Dali said, I could just die from an overdose of satisfaction.

(If you’re interested in hearing about Canberra from the perspective of its traditional owners, listen to this excellent ABC podcast by Jonathan Green: Ancient places—Canberra. I had no idea that the parliamentary triangle was built on the bogong moth songline. I love that the ancient story of the landscape influenced the design of the modern city.)

 

 

 

 

Doing all right

 

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Do you take the lid off when you fill the kettle or do you use the spout?I used to be the former kind of person, but somewhere in the past decade I became a spout-filler. It probably happened because of being so busy. Corners needed to be cut, and spout-filling is marginally quicker than taking the lid off.

This is the type of question that my friend F and I ask each other whenever we get together. When we both lived in Sydney we would sit on the cliffs at Coogee and ask, “Why does this rock have a different pattern from that rock?”This was in the pre-Google days, and we didn’t have a geologist’s guide to Sydney handy. It was also pre mobile phones, so there was no way to phone a friend to get the answer.

Then we would stare out to sea and say things like, “Was that a penguin? Would penguins live here?”Or we would go for a stroll along the boardwalk and hear an unusual noise and one of us would ask, “Do birds sneeze?”4

When F came to visit at the weekend, we went for a lovely walk in the cork oaks and the Himalayan cedars at the Arboretum and somehow ended up singing songs from Grease. (Hey, I never said I was cool!) F said that as a kid she’d spend hours in her room singing along to her Grease album. “Did you sing into your hairbrush?” I asked. “No,” said F. “A Perkins Paste pot.”

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Genius! Then her street cred came crashing down as she confessed that she’d also owned the Xanadu album and sung along to that as well. “Wasn’t Gene Kelly in Xanadu?”she asked. “Gene Kelly???” I spluttered, wondering how on earth someone could think a dance legend like him would be in such a naff film. (Not that I’ve seen it. I do have some standards.) But that question we could answer straight away, thanks to the massive technological shift that’s taken place since we sat on those rocks at Coogee, not so very long ago. We just looked it up on our phones/cameras/televisions/encyclopaedias/street directories/music players/weather predictors/global networking devices.

When the internet was a baby, I read a book called Information Anxiety, by Richard Saul Wurman. It talked about people becoming overwhelmed by data, and I think it outlined strategies to understand and cope with all that information. But the way the book was written was really unsettling to me. It was so different from the books I normally read. You could jump in and out of it at any point. There were sidebars and little distractions all over the place. I found it hard going and felt a bit anxious as I  read it. There was too much to take in.

I had no idea of what was to come with the digital revolution: a life suddenly full of sidebars and distractions, a narrative that jumped all over the place, a sense of always being a bit behind and drowning in information. Everyone was busy and stressed and there seemed to be a global acknowledgement of anxiety and loss of self-esteem.

While stress and busy are definitely still around, and there will always be distractions, lately I’ve noticed a shift in the way we deal with the constantly increasing amount of information available to us. Have you noticed it too? Ever so slowly and quietly,  we seem to be finding a balance between real life and online life. We’re filtering.

I see people withdrawing from social media platforms that aren’t useful to them. I see people connecting online to share stories about real life. I see people posting pictures or writing articles or communicating just for the joy of it, not because they want to gain something or feel they should.

When I started this blog a couple of years ago, people were saying, “Blogging is dead,” and mourning the loss of earlier online communities. This puzzled me because I saw blogging as a way of having a chat, telling stories. Surely people still enjoy that? Well, yes, they do. This is a small, unpublicised blog on a quiet internet backwater, but all sorts of people have found it and I’m both delighted and amazed that you read it.

Community still exists in the real world and it still exists online too. New connections are formed every time we comment or email online, just as new connections are formed every time we smile at or talk to someone in the actual world. The internet is just a medium for connection. I think we’ve just started to remember that.

It’s also just a big old encyclopaedia, a way to find answers. I don’t mean answers to the burning questions like, “Am I on the right track? Does so and so love me? What should I do next?” That’s still up to us, and our network of friends and family in the real world, to figure out. The internet can’t really tell me why I now fill up the kettle via the spout, but it can tell me the answers to all those questions F and I have been asking over the years.

Am I feeling this shift because I’m filtering and switching off and only using social media and blogging for nice interactions, or are you noticing it too? I’d love to know your thoughts. But I think we’ve come out the other side of something and we’re regaining our equilibrium. I think we’re doing all right.

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People get very het up about this issue. Kettle manufacturers are no help: one says to avoid filling via the spout, while another encourages it.
Leisegang bands.
It could have been a penguin.
Yes, birds can sneeze.
Gene Kelly was in Xanadu. (But I’m still not going to watch it.)

 

Things I learned last week

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When you can’t change the situation, you can change your approach to it.

I was verbally abused two days in a row by two dodgy characters that my neighbour had hired to do some kind of shonky repair work. My crime was to ask them to move their truck because it was blocking the driveway and I couldn’t get out. Apparently this crime was so heinous that they felt it necessary to shout all the things that were wrong with me. The next day they deliberately parked me in and shouted all over again. It upset me a lot. On day three I got up very early, while it was still dark, and moved my car before they arrived. Yes, they behaved appallingly and, no, I shouldn’t have had to change my behaviour when they were in the wrong, but I decided to go around the unnecessary confrontation rather than straight into it.

Delayed gratification is sweet. Chocolate is too sweet.

Just before Easter I realised that I have seriously gone off chocolate, which made me feel quite virtuous. See that halo shining? At the same time, a friend gave me a stack of cookbooks, mainly of the healthy, wholefood kind. Score! I’ve always pored over them whenever I’ve been at her house but could never justify buying them because I have a lot of cookbooks already. Now they live at my house and I’m very happy about that. Good things come to those who wait, apparently. (But also we’re supposed to seize the day. Isn’t life confusing?!)

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Running outdoors feels fantastic. It doesn’t matter what it looks like.

One afternoon last week I did seize the day and clocked off work early to go running/walking around the lake. (This is a big deal because I almost never run outdoors, probably from embarrassment, but really who’s watching?) The clocks have gone back and the evenings are dark, and I needed to carve out some time to be outside. And what happened? It generated cheer and red-cheeked radiance. Bless those little endorphins! I smiled at other walkers/runners/cyclists/dogs. I saw a lot of ducks and managed not to get duck poo on my trainers. The setting sun on the water was rather magical, and the trees were doing this:

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Then I went home and did slow yin yoga and felt halo-shiny all over again. I think that’s the way to get through winter without succumbing to the sads.

Never give up.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll know that I’ve been trying to walk to the Murrumbidgee from my house but keep coming up against obstacles: (1) a fence with no apparent opening, (2) thick fog and freezing temperatures, and (3) walking in the wrongish direction. Well, alert the papers because…ta-da…WE FOUND IT! “Women find lost river”. Wouldn’t that make a better headline than what’s usually on the front page of the newspaper?

Of course, the river was never really lost. We were just looking in the wrong place. Also, we gave up too soon. Life lessons one and two right there. A friend (who’s now as obsessed as I am with walking to the river from my place) suggested a walk this weekend, so off we went, up some nearby hills. I usually walk up the first little hill then take the track around the back of the bigger hills because walking uphill makes me grumpy. But this time we went straight up the unforgiving track. I was just thinking that a walk in the Netherlands would be my ideal hike when I noticed that my friend was even grumpier than I was.

Instantly I switched into camp leader mode and tried to jolly her along, delighted not to be the grumpiest hill climber for once. “We’re nearly there! The next hill isn’t as steep! The view from the top will be FANTASTIC!” She looked at me with contempt and a murderous glint in her eye: “There’s another hill?” So we did the turning-around-to- look-at-the-halfway-view thing, which allowed our breath and our sense of humour to catch up.

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Look at the big picture. Take the high road.

At the top of the hill(s) the view was stunning. “Do you see what I see?” said my friend. And there it was: the Murrumbidgee River. We saw how close we’d been to it the last time. We saw how our route had run parallel to the river but we’d been down in a valley and hadn’t seen it. We looked down from that hill with smiles as wide as the landscape. We took in the view from all directions, then we planned our next two walks…along the river.

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It’s never too late to make a game plan.

Some people make plans and apply strategies in life. Some people amble along and let life happen to them. I’ve been in the ambling along category for most of my life. If anyone had asked, I would have said I didn’t know how to strategise or compete and that most plans end up going in a different direction anyway. But this weekend, playing multiple games of Scrabble, I learnt something new: I do know how to compete and how to strategise.

I haven’t played Scrabble for decades, and I used to take pride in making the best/longest/most interesting words. I never looked at the board and thought, “If I put this word here, I might win praise for thinking up the word but I won’t get any double word scores and I won’t win the game.” This time, I looked at the whole board. I thought about how my moves might influence the other players. I looked for the opportunities. I put down short but high-scoring words and I kept winning. So it seems that, finally, I’ve learned the point of having a game plan and that it helps to have strategies in life.

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Small things make us happy.

A friend remembered what day it was and bought me a bunch of flowers. A dog was so pleased to see me that he yodelled. Another friend gave me a litre of home-made wine. (Yes, please. No, I won’t drink it on the way home.) On Easter Sunday we lit a bonfire and watched as golden sparks shot up to meet the stars, glittering without number above us. On the way home today, a shaft of sunlight through rainclouds made a rippled rainbow that flew like a flag over Lake George. Small gestures, small events, small moments that you just happen to be lucky enough to witness can add up to great happiness.

Now it’s your turn. Tell me, what have you learned in the past week?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Around here

 

We went to the sheepdog trials.

“Away up! Right over! Back off. Come be-oind! Stop. Geddup. Stop. Geddup. Get ‘ere. Come be-oind!”

We sat in the boot of the car, out of the wind, and watched lithe little dogs hurtle across the field. They never stopped working.

“That little dog tried her hardest. She could honestly do no more.”

It was a good day out, though. We met some characters. One bloke came trundling towards me on a motorised mobility scooter, his wife and his dog walking beside him. His wife chided him as she realised his intentions.

“Don’t stop and talk to the girls. Don’t stop and talk to the girls. Don’t stop and … oh, never mind.” 

He stopped dead in front of me. “Gidday,” he said. “She’s just jealous.” And gave me a gappy smile. “Got any dogs in the competition?” I asked. “Three in the top 20,” said his wife proudly, “and he’s 81 years old!”

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The next weekend we drove in the opposite direction, down the surprisingly quiet Hume Highway to Jugiong, which is really taking off. If you’re on the way to or from Melbourne and you need a break, pop in to the Long Track Pantry for lunch. Or stay the night at the recently refurbished Sir George Hotel. (They didn’t pay me to tell you that. I just think they’re both quality establishments and a great example of what you can do to attract people to a country town.)

We wandered around the corner to find a row of shops selling homewares, gifty things and interesting recycled/salvaged architectural stuff. The front wall of the building was made of a concrete-like material just begging to be touched. It was honey coloured and warm in the morning sun. “Rammed earth,” said the owner of the shop when I asked what it was, and I decided then and there to have a rammed earth wall in the house I’m going to build one day, hopefully not too far away.

We drove on, along deserted back roads, to another town that hasn’t read the manual on how to attract visitors. It was rich in interesting architectural features, but we felt as we stopped to photograph them that there was a bit of an air of menace. We weren’t welcome. We quickly got back in the car and drove non-stop to another place, almost on the outskirts of Canberra, where you can find handmade chocolates and a good cup of tea and sit and look out over paddocks and relax.

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The weekend after that there was more driving, a last quick swim in the sea while it’s still warmish, then a catch-up with a friend before seeing to some family biz.

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They were the fun bits. In between, I’ve felt like Wile E Coyote, cartoon legs whirring in midair. Or I’ve been like a sheepdog: running, running, running, herding, chasing, turning in circles, rounding things up. It’s not just me. A friend said she feels like a hamster on a wheel and the wheel keeps getting faster.

On top of all the busy, there have been other challenges to face. I fell in a bit of a hole, mentally, a little while ago and I was finding it hard to climb out. I pretended everything was fine but it wasn’t. I really wanted to feel better but I just couldn’t. Then one night a friend came over and said, “We’ve got to scratch that record.”

He was right. That was the answer: getting the needle out of the groove, changing the song that was playing over and over in my head. That led to an extraordinary visualisation exercise that was hard to do but I trusted him and it worked. I feel better. I feel reconnected to myself, to other people and certainly to the world around me.

Since that night, that difficult conversation, I’ve been able to tackle two other tough situations. They’re not completely dealt with or solved, but it’s been liberating to start to address them, to think carefully and speak compassionately to the people involved and feel things shifting for the better. It feels incredibly adult to do that.

This weekend, thank goodness, was a quieter one. Apart from a walk around the lake and dinner with friends, I mostly stayed in my kennel. What a relief! Autumn’s beginning to put in an appearance, calling for long sleeves and an extra blanket on the bed. It’s time to tune in to the season and slooooow down.

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And that’s what’s been going on around here.