Material world

MaterialA

I had a great idea the other day: to make all my own clothes for the rest of the year. How fun would that be?! When I had this (cough) genius idea I happened to be in a town with a great little fabric shop, so I ran down there and oohed and aahed over the range of materials. I was rich in ideas but poor in cash, so I ended up buying only a couple of metres of a really pretty blue fabric to make a dress out of. The shop also sold sashiko fabric by the metre, not just in little kits, so I got hugely excited and bought a couple of panels of that too. Then I left the material in the back of the car for two days.

My track record in sewing is not great (you can read about the terry-towelling bikini here: Stash) but I did manage to make a wearable dress over summer. Now that I’ve calmed down—and remembered to get the material out of the car—I’ve realised that I don’t have the time or skill to make all my own clothes. I was even going to try to make underwear. I still might have a go at that, but s-l-o-w-l-y does it!

I’ve been inspired by people’s participation in the 100 Day Project, which is encouraging folk everywhere to make art every day, even if they think they’re no good at it. So many people are actually very good at it, as it turns out. I don’t want to make art at the moment; I want to make things I can use and wear. I’m weary of traipsing around the shops, looking for clothes that fit, that are the right colour and that aren’t too expensive but aren’t made in sweatshops either. To be honest, it’s a struggle. I’m tall. I have middle age spread. I like wearing natural fibres. It’s hard to find clothes in breathable fabrics and styles that enhance the good bits and hide the not so good bits.

A colleague at work is always beautifully dressed. She’s middle-aged and rounded. She wears simple dresses and skirt/top combos but she always looks good because they fit her properly and the materials are gorgeous. I asked her where she gets her clothes. She told me she goes to a well-known material and craft store chain, buys quality fabric in bulk and takes it to a dressmaker. “What a good idea,” I thought, “but why not be your own dressmaker?”

As usual, my aspirations have exceeded my abilities and the time I have available, but getting things out of cupboards and out of the car is a start. I’ve cut out a shirt with sleeves (Impressed? I am! Also scared!) and I’ve found two half-knitted socks from last winter that will be finished this winter. I’ve also decided which patterns to use. I’m making this shirt: Aster, by Colette Patterns. And this one: Sorbetto. Then I’m making a dress, a long coat and some trousers from Everyday Style, which I know I’ve raved about before, but it’s a lovely book. If I’m not curled up in a ball on the floor at the end of all that, I’ll have a go at a dressing gown.

Pictures of successes will be posted here…eventually. Failures may also be displayed to make you laugh. If you can recommend any fab patterns and materials, do let me know! If you’re not already making art or sewing or baking marvellous creations but you’d like to be, go and get started! Or at least start getting things out of the cupboard.

MaterialB

 

 

 

 

Something beginning with P

poppies

This is a post about food, not poppies, but my pictures of the cookbooks I’m about to tell you about were sooooo bad that I had to use a picture of poppies instead. Poppies grow in the region we’re going to visit in this post, so I’m only cheating a little bit. Do you know this cookbook: Persepolis: Vegetarian recipes from Peckham, Persia and beyond? Oh boy, I adore this book! I would so love to sit down and have a cuppa with its author, Sally Butcher. I suspect she’d make me laugh so hard that I’d snort tea out of my nose. It’s a collection of vegetarian recipes spanning North Africa and Central Asia, written in a chatty, funny style. It’s also hugely informative about the places the recipes come from. Did you know, for example, that meze comes from the Persian word meaning taste? No, neither did I.

For a couple of years I had an on/off (mostly off) Persian boyfriend. He’d lived in Australia for most of his life but his love for Persian food had not diminished. Before I met him I knew precisely nothing about Persian food, but hearing him talk about it made me go and research it and I became a little obsessed. I was lucky enough to stumble upon this book: Persiana, by Sabrina Ghayour. Mr On/Off had been talking about fesenjan, which is a kind of chicken, walnut and pomegranate stew. That was the first dish I cooked from the book and oh!my!goodness! it was a revelation.

If, like me, you have a bottle of pomegranate molasses in the cupboard that you bought because it sounded exciting but now you don’t know what to do with it, go and make fesenjan. I’m impatient, so I didn’t cook it for as long as Sabrina says to, but it was still mouth-wateringly marvellous. It’s piquant and silky and satisfying. Another recipe from Persiana that I’ve made over and over again is joojeh kabab: saffron and lemon chicken. It’s super easy and completely delicious. You marinate chicken in a yoghurt/lemony/saffron mix then blast it in the oven until the edges char. People wolf it down.

A further recent find in the bookshop was this: Mountain Berries and Desert Spice, by Sumayya Usmani. It’s a collection of Pakistani desserts, which, I’ve discovered, basically contain everything I like in a dessert: cardamom, rice, nuts, dried fruit, rose syrup, berries, soft cheese and that magic ingredient that makes everything in the world seem all right…condensed milk.

So far I’ve made apple halva (like stewed apple but more buttery and fragrant), ground almond and saffron ladoos (a condensed milk treat), and carrot rice pudding (so delicious for breakfast AND it contains vegetables so it must be good for you). The book is laid out according to the regions of Pakistan and the author weaves her personal story into it. It’s beautifully photographed and a pleasure to read. That pleasure increases once you start making and eating the gorgeous sweetmeats.

But back to Persepolis, which I like so much that I could eat the book. Yesterday I cooked a thankyou lunch for a friend, with all courses from Persepolis. We started with pan-fried haloumi with honey and sesame seeds. (Have you tried haloumi with honey? No? Go and make it now. Salty and sweet. So good.) Then we had Somali curry (with peanut butter, chilli and coffee—who knew?!) with tomatoey rice, which had lovely crispy bits on the bottom. We finished with ice-cream made with saffron, coconut milk, coconut sugar and cream, topped with date syrup. The coconut sugar and date syrup were my additions, because that’s what I had, and they gave it a wonderful carameliciousness.

So if you’re wondering what to cook for dinner this week, may I suggest something beginning with P?

Not baking

cheesecake

People, we have a situation. My oven is broken. Actually, it’s more than a situation. It’s A MAJOR INCIDENT. I love baking. I find it relaxing. I’ve never been a science nerd, but baking is a science I can really appreciate. You mix wet and dry ingredients in carefully measured amounts, apply heat and…something wonderful emerges. Now that I’m home for good, I’ve been looking forward to doing some serious baking. It turns out that my friends have also been looking forward to it. Two weekends ago a friend said to me, “I’m so glad you’re back. I’ve missed the baking.” This weekend another friend came over for morning tea, and when I told her my oven was broken she expressed genuine angst. Then I fed her cheesecake instead and she felt better.

Cheesecake has turned out to be my rescue recipe in these days of no baking. I started a new job two weeks ago and I was under pressure to bring in a cake because I said I would when they interviewed me. The interview question was something like: “What would you do to break the ice with your colleagues?” and I said I’d bring in a cake. All three interviewers broke into smiles and started writing something down. I imagined it said, “Will bring cake. Employ immediately.”

So the pressure was on. I had in mind some kind of lemon drizzle cake to win friends and influence people. I thought perhaps I’d make a lemon cake with—gasp!—mashed potato in the mixture. I imagined something light and tangy with a satisfying sugary crunch to the icing. I bought the ingredients, came home and, uncharacteristically, turned the oven on before I started mixing things. I put my hand in to check the temperature and a cool breeze blew over it. The oven was blowing cold air. Disaster! But then, baking gods be thanked, I remembered cheesecake. I did much recipe surfing and tweaking to get exactly what I wanted. There’s a deluxe version, with lemon curd on top, or a plain (but still incredibly rich version). It contains the five most important food groups: biscuits, butter, white chocolate, cream cheese and lemon, so we will all get a calcium/protein/carb boost from eating it. Also, no-one will die of scurvy. Here’s the recipe, me hearties:

Lemon cheesecake

Base:

  • 150g biscuits/cookies (Choose whatever biscuits you like. I used gluten free choc chip cookies.)
  • 50g desiccated coconut
  • 80g melted butter

Cheesy part:

  • 100g white chocolate
  • 500g cream cheese
  • 1 can (395g) condensed milk
  • 2 lemons

Lemon curd topping (for deluxe version):

  • 60g butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 lemons

Crush biscuits in a blender until they’re fine crumbs (or put them in a sturdy plastic bag and bash them with a rolling pin if you need to get rid of some aggression). Mix them in a bowl with the coconut, then pour in the melted butter and mix to combine. Press the mixture firmly into a greased dish. I used a 21cm pyrex dish, which made kind of a cheesecake slice. You can also use a 21cm spring-form baking tin for a more traditional looking cheesecake. Put the base in the fridge while you make the cheesy bit.

Melt the white chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water. Try not to get any water in the bowl or the chocolate will seize. Once it’s melted, take the bowl off the pan and let it cool. You can sit it in a basin of cold water to hurry it up. In another bowl, beat the cream cheese and condensed milk. Add the juice and zest of the lemons. Mix it well so that no lumps remain. (But, really, little lumps are okay. See picture above. No-one minds.) Add the cooled white chocolate and mix it in well. Pour the mixture on top of the base and put it back in the fridge, covered. If you’re making the plain and simple version, your work is done. Leave it to set for at least four hours, unless you don’t mind slightly soft cheesecake.

For the deluxe version, make the lemon curd by whisking the eggs with the sugar, juice and zest of the lemons in a small saucepan (non-stick is best). Add the butter and heat the pan slowly, stirring all the time. Keep stirring until the mixture thickens. It takes about 10 minutes. Pour the thickened lemon curd through a sieve while it’s still warm, to get rid of any egg white lumps that may have formed. Let the lemon curd cool then spread as much as you like on top of the cheesecake. Put the cheesecake back in the fridge if you haven’t let it set yet. Otherwise, slice and eat as soon as you feel like it!

 

The week of last things

 

sydwindow

For the past two years, out of necessity, I worked in Sydney but I didn’t live there. Like several of my colleagues I commuted a long way and cobbled together various overnight arrangements that included sleeping in the office (seriously, we did that a lot), sleeping on a friend’s sofabed and, when I was desperate for a good night’s sleep, checking into a hotel. Sometimes the hotel option was a flop because I booked somewhere with thin walls, noisy aircon and road works outside, but just occasionally it paid off, like the time I booked into a grand hotel for a fraction of the normal price and they upgraded me to a room with this view. I could have stayed there for the rest of my life!

This week that all came to an end. It was my last week of intercity commuting. To say I was relieved is the understatement of the century. In fact, the minute I got home I threw down my bag and did a little dance like this one in Love Actually, when Sarah and Karl finally get together. But before that happened I said goodbye to a few experiences that have been pretty constant in my strange life of the past two years. Here, in no particular order, are the highlights from the week of last things:

The last time I said, “Good morning!” to Il Porcellino, the most excellent bronze sculpture who sits outside Sydney Hospital. He really is a fine fellow. People rub his snout for good luck. I once saw a Chinese businessman rub his wallet on Porcellino’s…er…pizzle, so I guess that brings extra good luck.

The last time I will get caught out by Sydney weather. Finally—finally—I’ve learned that when the forecast says cloudy it means torrential rain that will make your shoes fall apart and soak every piece of clothing, despite your valiant attempts to deploy an umbrella.

The last breakfast at Dymocks café, a genteel place on the balcony above the bookshop, where you can eat a superb omelette, watch people browse bookshelves and almost (but not quite) drown out the sound of jackhammers outside.

The last breakfast at Metro St James. (This is starting to sound as if all I did for the past two years was go out for breakfast, but that’s because we worked long hours without a break, so pretty much the only time I saw the outside world was at breakfast time.) I liked that place so much, not least because of its hanging plants, astroturf and view of an enormous fig tree. I also liked its mysterious jars of ferns and primordial slime.

Are they anaerobic terrariums? Beats me. Anyway, I enjoyed sitting in a corner next to them, reading my book and listening to great music (sometimes ’60s lounge music, sometimes reggae, sometimes funk, and often songs I’d never heard but instantly liked), while I ate a very good breakfast. AND they have Pepe Saya butter. Really, all my needs were met.

The last week of working in a building with wallpaper. I loved this wallpaper:

wallpaper

In fact, I’m pretty sure the wallpaper was one of the reasons I took the job. It certainly made working there more bearable. There were other architectural and decorative features that I liked, but this wallpaper was my favourite. One of the perks of working in a heritage building is that you get to experience history while you work: sandstone steps worn down by two centuries of shoes, quirky staircases that no-one in this health-and-safety conscious world would ever dream of putting in a workplace, a tin roof that leaks no matter how often it’s mended, and leadlight windows that so many people have looked at and admired. And then there are the ghosts. I never saw the ghosts. In all the nights I stayed at work I saw only cockroaches, but there was a lot of unexplained creaking of floorboards, and two of my colleagues who slept in the oldest part of the building swore they’d seen the ghosts. I don’t doubt it. I kind of wish I’d got to see them too.

And finally, when the ridiculous work hours, the long-distance commute, the odd sleeping arrangements and the exhaustion were over for good, I went to the Tea Room in the Queen Victoria Building and had the most splendiferous high tea with a friend. Sydney, for all its noise and brashness and crazy busy-ness, does have some jaw-droppingly beautiful buildings and the QVB is one of them. It was a grand, lovely, civilised end to two very unusual years and the week of last things.

qvbtea

 

 

 

 

 

Golden brown

goldengrass

When you live inland, summer in Australia is many shades of brown. People from the coast come to visit and the first thing they say is, “It’s so brown!” I like to think of it as golden brown, like the grass in the photo above, which was surely spun into gold overnight by Rumpelstiltskin. This week I went even further inland on a work trip, to an area where so much food is grown in soil that from the air looks dry, brown and unproductive.

img_2665

They add water, brown water, and end up with rice, citrus fruit and pretty much every crop you can think of. It’s hard work. I heard farmers talk with equal amounts of passion and exhaustion about how they look after their brown land, about how frustrated they are at the rules that people in government departments in green cities make up to apply to them, out beyond the Great Divide, where life is completely different. For a mad moment, sitting in my brown motel room, I channelled Chairman Mao and thought up a plan to make everyone from the well-watered cities come out to visit the country to experience life on the brown land. Then they would have an idea of how much work it takes to feed us.

It’s not all hard work, though. There’s fun to be had in the golden brown paddocks. And there’s quirky brown metal art to prove it.

denisign

There are crazy motel carpets celebrating the history of farming and stock work, in tones of golden brown, of course.

griffithcarpet

And all I can really say, now that I’m back in my little house made of brown seventies brick, in an inland city that’s well stocked with everything it needs, is thank you. Thank you to everyone who lives on the land and spins straw into gold to feed us and to keep the economy afloat. It’s official: farmers are really doing that. So, thank you. We really appreciate it and we don’t say that often enough.

Musings of a mosquito magnet

foggy-dam

Psst! Wanna join a club? It’s pretty exclusive. Apparently only 20 per cent of people belong to it, although the science on that is a bit iffy, if you ask me. It’s the Mozzie Magnet Club. You’ve seen us. We’re the people scratching our ankles at the evening barbecue, especially if we’re anywhere near a pond or a dam. You might have noticed us doing a special dance when we water the garden at dusk, kicking our legs out and slapping our arms in some crazed version of a Bavarian folk dance.

This morning I was lying in bed, enjoying the fact that it was Saturday, when suddenly it began to rain and I had to run outside and rescue the washing. I spent less than five minutes outdoors and I was in constant motion, but when I got back into bed I had a mozzie bite on my thigh. Please note: I was not standing naked in the garden while I did the unpegging. I was wearing two layers of clothes. How the heck did the mozzie bite through all that fabric? Unless it went via a different route, but let’s not talk about that. This got me thinking: why are some of us the chosen ones? So I did some research and here’s what I found.

Mozzies mainly bite people with type O blood. WRONG! I don’t have type O.

Mozzies bite people who drink beer. WRONG! I don’t drink beer. Pass the bubbly, dahling.

Mozzies bite pregnant women. WRONG! A male friend of mine gets bitten as often as I do and he’s definitely not up the duff.

Mozzies bite larger people because they breathe out more carbon dioxide. Well, how rude! I’m a tall person and will admit to gaining a few kilos in the past few years (middle-age spread, anyone?) but mozzies have bitten me my whole life. When I was about 12 my parents took us to Amsterdam. We stayed in a hotel with tall windows that looked out over a canal. It was only the second hotel I’d ever stayed in and I thought it was beautiful. The breakfasts were a revelation because—shock, horror!—they had ham and cheese and crispbread instead of Weetbix. One night we went out looking for a hidden church that happened to be in the red light district. We walked past a lot of women in their underwear, sitting in windows and waiting for customers. My sister (aged 7): “Daddy, why doesn’t that lady have any clothes on?” Dad (fiddling with guidebook and looking embarrassed): “It’s supposed to be around here somewhere.” Anyway, the point of this story is that I was bitten to death and my parents remained untouched.

Mozzies are attracted to people with higher body temperatures. Guilty on that score. I’m hot. (Insert winking, tongue-in-cheek emoticon here.)

Mozzies see dark colours better, so if you wear black you’re more of a target. Sorry, but that seems terribly unscientific. Are you telling me that people who wear black suits to work get bitten but then when they change into their pink tutu for ballet class they don’t? Are there hordes of goths all over the world scratching their ankles right this minute? Do grieving nonnas get bitten more? That seems very unfair.

Mozzies like skin that has a few types of bacteria rather than many types. Eeuw. And yet, perhaps it’s better to be exclusive and have only a few types of bacteria on your skin instead of hosting any old bacteria that shows up. I really don’t know how many I’m hosting right now and I really don’t want to know, but I’d prefer not to be a bacteria slut.

Underlying genetic factors are probably the main reason some people get bitten more than others. Aha! There we have it. All of the above are the fun theories and the real answer is: we don’t know.

Many years ago I went on holiday to Venice with a friend. We had dinner one night in a restaurant by the lagoon, and it was memorable for two reasons. The first was the pizza. It was the best quattro stagioni I ever had. I still dream about that pizza. The second was the mosquitoes. It was a balmy night and the water lapped softly nearby. In the lamplight I watched mosquitoes line themselves up like planes coming into land, just over my friend’s shoulder. And one by one they flew straight past her black clothes, her beer, her O type blood, her slightly sweaty upper lip, and bit me. Like I said, it’s an exclusive club. I guess we should be flattered.

 

Slow train to Crazy Town

 

 

rainy-train

Lordy, this was a big week. There was a nerve-wracking job interview, there was an eye-watering tax bill, I spent 8.5 hours on a train to attend a 1.5-hour meeting in Sydney, where I was drenched twice by monsoonal rain, and now we’re experiencing the mother of all heatwaves. I’ve been moping around in a state of grumpy exhaustion today, not achieving much at all, so I decided to think about the small, quiet, pretty things from this week instead.

The first one was that slow train ride to Crazy Town (Sydney). I could have caught the bus and saved, oh, 45 minutes in the day, but I love the way the train sits in the landscape, travels through it rather than next to it. It was a blessedly cool, rainy day and I had two seats to myself. The train is only three carriages long: A, B and D. Why there’s never a carriage C is a mystery I haven’t cracked yet. The train often malfunctions (doors won’t shut, toilets block, aircon breaks down) but it’s staffed by a small crew of lovely people who are unfailingly nice.

As we trundled along, a common topic of conversation was why there isn’t a fast train yet, when the government’s been talking about it for decades. But, you know, if the train went faster we wouldn’t see the mob of kangaroos splashing through streams in a gully. We wouldn’t see the sunlight catch the bleached grass seeds on the top of the embankment. We wouldn’t notice that black cows run away from the train but brown cows don’t. (Not scientifically proven but definitely observed!) There’s something about the landscape of the southern tablelands that sings to me and makes me so glad that I live there.

Sydney was as busy and noisy as ever. Even the weather was ostentatious. The rain was coming from all directions and there was no way of keeping dry, so I sat dripping in a café and drank chai and ate the best masala dosa in the known universe and felt that I could be in actual India in the actual monsoon.

masala-dosa

Every time I’m in Sydney I try to meet my friend Ian at the Maya Vegetarian on Cleveland Street. We always say next time we’ll try something else from the menu but we never can. The dosa is too good. The slightly fermented taste of the crispy pancake, the chilli in the potato/lentil filling and the three sauces—bitter, hot and cool—are a winning combination. The desserts are lip-smacking as well. Besan burfi, loaded with cardamom and pistachios, is my favourite. I’d show you a picture but it didn’t stick around long enough to be photographed.

Another small thing that I’m grateful for this week is this book:

patti

I really think books find you at the right time. This is exactly the book I needed to read this week. It’s been wonderful accompanying Patti Smith while she sits in cafés and writes and thinks about life. She lets you into her brain and makes you laugh out loud at some of her thoughts.

A pretty thing appeared unexpectedly in the garden this week:

lily

This pale pink lily decided to bloom while everything else wilted and got sunburnt, which just goes to show there’s always an up side if you look for it.

And back to that slow train. On the long trip home I listened to random songs, tracks from old CDs I hadn’t heard for years. It was so good to have the time to sit and really listen. As Paul Weller sang “Broken Stones” I noticed what a beautiful soul voice he has, and I reminisced about when I was a teenager, when I was in love with The Jam. I listened to French pop and Indian dance music and imagined dancing down the aisle of the train and getting all the other passengers to join me. Then the Eagles sang “Take it easy” and I thought how right they were. When the week is overwhelming and you’re stuck on the slow train to Crazy Town you still have a choice:

Take it easy, take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
Don’t even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand, and take it easy.

Cheesy, but true. Have a good weekend. If you live in the heatwave zone, stay cool. In fact, stay cool anyway, wherever you live.

 

Inspiration

peacock

Five years ago I started writing a book. I had just come out of a brief but exquisite love affair and I needed to write about it. Over one weekend I wrote 12,000 words. They just poured out of me. Then there was a bit of a lull. The sadness of it ending overwhelmed me and I couldn’t write anymore. I went into that spiral of self-loathing and asking why, and it was too painful to write about. After that, life got “interesting” for quite a few years and all I could do was hang on for the ride. There wasn’t much time to write, but now and then I jotted down a few things. Gradually the word count grew, but I wasn’t happy with what I’d written. It wasn’t the book I wanted to write. It certainly wasn’t the book I wanted to read. It was a jumbled collection of writings that didn’t fit together. There were sparks in there, points of light that I could see shining through, but the rest of it kind of resembled the grey fluff that comes out of the vacuum cleaner.

Many times I thought I should just give up on it, but I couldn’t. There were other stories I wanted to write, and I felt that they were being held up. There was a pipeline of stories and the others couldn’t move until I got the first one out of the way. I wrote myself notes about it: “Write linking passages! Develop the characters! Polish the dialogue! Make it sing!” But each time I worked on that story I couldn’t make it into what I wanted it to be. And still it sat there, mostly in my mind but also on scraps of paper and in a muddled Word document, refusing to go away until I cracked the code, discovered the secret or turned the right key.

Well, this week the key turned. It’s almost the end of my holidays and I’ve been feeling vaguely dissatisfied with my creative endeavours. There’s been baking and blogging and sewing but nothing BIG and EXCITING and INSPIRATIONAL! I got out my notes, the whole jumbled bag of them, and started sorting through everything I’d written, not just to do with the story but everything and anything. I found little snippets of things to use, to work into the story. I was resigned to it being a mediocre story, perhaps only a novella; the main thing was to get it done. I sorted the notes out and left them on the table. Then I went into town to do some mundane tasks.

While I was in town I decided to have a coffee. I always need something to read while I’m in a café, so I bought a copy of a magazine called womankind. I’d bought it once before and loved that it had longish articles that posed interesting questions. It also has really beautiful illustrations, photos and art. It’s worth buying for the art alone. I drank my coffee and read an article entitled “The Freedom to Fail”, which, in a nutshell, looks at life from a different angle and asks why we are driven to succeed all the time. It suggests that we should try things because they have worth, meaning for us, even if society judges us to have failed. When success doesn’t matter, the article says, you can truly do anything you like and find it valuable and rewarding.

The article also quoted Elizabeth Gilbert. I somehow missed the whole Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon and read the book only after I’d heard her give a TED talk on creativity. I remember her saying in that talk that she believed creativity/inspiration/ideas sit out there in the ether and kind of rush into you, and it’s up to you whether you act on them. Remembering that made me go and buy her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Then I went home and started reading it. Writers, artists, creatives, if you are stuck, read this book. It will tell you things you already know but have forgotten. It will remind you of the joys of creativity, the excitement of inspiration. Most importantly, it will make you get off the couch and do something just for the love of doing it.

I hadn’t got very far before I was inspired to open my computer, go through those notes on the table and just start writing something, anything. I looked at the 35,000 words I had already and decided the tense was wrong. So I went through the whole thing methodically and started to change the tense. It wasn’t terribly creative labour. It was grunt work, a process, but it put me back in touch with the original work and made me see again that there was something there. Buried deep under the rubble there was a jewel to polish. When I’d had enough of fixing the tenses, I shut the computer down. And that’s when the key turned.

The minute I switched off the computer, inspiration hit me in the head. It not only hit me in the head; it flooded my brain with light and colour and understanding and I started to laugh out loud, alone in my lounge room, like a mad woman. And even then I considered not acting on it, not bothering to restart my computer. I thought about going to make a cup of tea and then doing something else instead. But I forced myself to sit down again and begin to write. The inspiration was to totally change the framing of the story, to tell it using an entirely different format that allows the story to be as personal as it needs to be, allows conversations to flow in a way they hadn’t before, allows me to add in all sorts of mini stories and anecdotes that didn’t sit together previously.

So I started to write in the new way, rearranging, embellishing, polishing, and I felt ridiculously elated, as if I’d swallowed a bubble of pure happiness. I saw how it all could work.  I wrote for a couple of hours. This morning I woke up feeling nervous and excited. I tingled with anticipation. It was the same feeling, I realised, as being in love, starting a beautiful love affair, except this time the love was for a creative project. This was the book I wanted to write. This was the book I wanted to read. The emphasis on I is intentional because after years of waiting I’ve cracked the code, turned the key, discovered the secret: I’m doing it for me, because I love it, because it makes me happy. And because I can.

 

Calm

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When someone you love is suffering, you feel that you should be able to do something about it. You want to make them better, make it stop, make everything all right again. You do all the little things, whatever is in your power to do, but you can’t take away their pain or change what’s happening to them. The only thing you can really hope to change is how you feel.

Recently I was driving along and crying at the same time. (I know this doesn’t sound like a story about calm, but bear with me.) I wanted to cry hard, I wanted to sit in my car and scream, but I was on a busy highway and I didn’t want to have an accident on top of everything else. “Just wait,” I told myself. I knew I would soon be driving on a quiet country road with no-one else around. “Wait till then,” I said, “then you can scream as much as you need to.” In the meantime I concentrated on breathing. I said it out loud: “Breathe in. Breathe out.” And that’s what I did. Breath and the road, they were my focus.

By the time I turned off the highway I didn’t need to scream. The valley rolled itself out before me in exquisite detail. Lush green paddocks stretched either side of the road, so different from the blond, dry grass at home. Black and white cows with fat bellies stood around under trees or grazed quietly. An amphitheatre of rock reared up at the back of the valley and I drove up it, around tight bends, past giant tree ferns and tall, tall gums reaching up into the sky.

Near the top of the escarpment wisps of cloud hung low and aimless while the trees leaned towards each other across the road as if about to speak. I heard bellbirds and whipbirds and felt the cool air. Then the road cut through the eerily ancient national park. I looked for lyrebirds and wombats and wouldn’t have been surprised to see hobbits.

It was a gift, a beautiful drive that lifted the heart and soothed the spirit. Nothing had changed. No-one was better. No suffering was relieved. But calm had returned, and with it a kind of acceptance. Breathe in, breathe out, look around, keep going. That’s all, really, and it’s enough.

Stash

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This old glass-fronted cupboard in the living room used to be stuffed with books, but now it’s got a new job as a fabric display cabinet. In my old house I kept my stash of material hidden away in a spare bedroom, but the fabrics are so pretty that I decided to show them off when I moved here. There are brocades in shiny scarlet and jade that I bought in a dowdy but fascinating little department store in Hong Kong about five years ago. One day I’ll make them into padded jackets with a Nehru collar. There are lengths of cotton from the Northern Territory, block-printed by hand in powerful Indigenous designs, that I bought in Darwin on a work trip. One is going to become a dress, one a pair of fisherman’s pants and one a long skirt. There’s soft batik cloth from Indonesia, given to me by a friend, just begging to be made into a maxi-dress. It’s a warm reddish-purple, printed with flowers and leaves and bordered with paisley teardrops. And there’s fine, delicately patterned cotton brought back for me from India by my sister that’s going to be turned into shirts and tunics.

Less glamorous but of sentimental value are the remnants of old clothes, sheets and pillowcases that are too pretty to throw  away. There’s also my much-loved deep red mohair throw that I put in the washing machine on a hot wash by mistake. Sacré bleu! It’s now a third of its size and twice as thick, but I’m hanging onto it to make it into a boiled wool jacket with chunky hand stitching. All these fabrics, with their various lengths, colours and thicknesses, wait patiently for their destiny. This cupboard, I’ve realised, is about potential. It’s also about the fact that I’m a little bit scared of my sewing machine and my sewing history is littered with failure: the terry-towelling bikini I made at school (had no elastic in it), the wrap-around skirt (so big it made me look like I was wearing a bustle) and the “ever so simple to sew” cotton top (front was a totally different size from back).

But failure makes you a better seamstress, right?! That’s the philosophy I’m going with in this brand-new year and…drumroll!…I’ve started a sewing project, with the help of this inspirational book: Everyday Style. I’m making a tunic out of one of the lovely Indian cottons and so far it’s working. The book does assume some knowledge of sewing, plus you have to trace the pattern onto your own paper, but going slowly and tweaking things where necessary seems to be the key. So far I’ve just cut the pieces out and pinned them together to see if the tunic fits and, to my great surprise, it does! Next step: learn to work scary sewing machine properly. Wish me luck! What are you working on at the moment? I’d love to hear about it!

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