That road less travelled

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The man who wrote ‘What is this life, if full of care, We have no time to stand and stare’ was a tramp for most of his.
And this was where the inspiration for his lyrical poetry about nature came from. He lived and moved and breathed nature, slept under the stars, lay in long grass, watched the seasons, observed the butterflies and flowers and birds.

And is it just coincidence that the man who wrote: ’Turn but a stone, and start a wing! ‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estranged faces that miss the many-splendoured thing’, was also a homeless street sleeper. One who lived beyond the fringes of the well-ordered world of habit and conformity.

Their words have been echoing round my mind in the last few days as I look at my life. Thoreau set me off with his magic words written during his time-out at Walden Pond:

‘There was a time when I could not sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hand. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flirted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.

‘I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works.’

I think we all know these days that we need time for ourselves, but it seems to me that there is something deeper than that in the words and thoughts of these people who would probably have been called drop-outs today. At the end of his book ‘A New Earth’, Eckhart Tolle talks of such people, and says that in other ages they would have been called contemplatives, and he calls them the frequency- holders … ‘here to generate consciousness through the activities of daily life…. they endow the seemingly insignificant with profound meaning.’

He says the task of such people is to be absolutely present in whatever they do. ‘There is consciousness and therefore quality in what they do, even the simplest task…’, and Tolle goes on to say that since we are all connected, ‘they affect the world much more deeply than is visible on the surface of their lives’…

Depending on where we are on the spectrum of consciousness ourselves, depends on whether we accept this concept and deem these people valuable. For me, part of the significance of the outsiders and their lives on the far side of accepted modes of being, is that they had the courage to live their lives the way they wanted.
Most people, including me, struggle along doing what we think is expected of us. We accept and fulfil roles, which may range from our occupations – nurse, teacher, lawyer, sales rep, or our place in family and society – wife, husband, mother, brother, sister, daughter – or a persona we project – dutiful daughter, conscientious employee, playful friend, and try to fulfil the expectations of those around us.

Everyone else around us – fulfilling their roles too – expects that like them, we should do our duty, stick to our place in the scheme of things, and above all – not step out of line, rock the boat etc etc…
But to some, there comes a time, when the soul, or higher self or whatever you like to call it – but it is an inward voice – demands to be heard. Ibsen put it so well in ‘The Dolls House’ when he wrote the revolutionary lines:

HELMER: But this is disgraceful. Is this the way you neglect your most sacred duties?
NORA: What do you consider is my most sacred duty?
HELMER: Do I have to tell you that? Isn’t it your duty to your husband and children?
NORA:I have another duty, just as sacred.
HELMER: You can’t have. What duty do you mean?
NORA: My duty to myself.

By recognising her duty to herself and breaking out of her expected roles, Nora cracked open her life and the lives around her. She had found she couldn’t go on playing the part assigned to her by society, custom or duty. Her whole being demanded a greater authenticity from her, whatever it cost.

And it always does cost, because when a person takes this sort of step, it rattles the bars of the cages of those all round him or her. When Jesus said the truth will set you free, he didn’t add the other half, which is that the truth may also make you angry, but even more likely, the truth will probably make others angry too.

“Take what you want and pay for it,” goes the Spanish proverb, and resistance or hostility from others is often the cost of taking that leap into the unknown when a person listens to their inner promptings, and which if denied, makes them unhappy, frustrated, depressed, and feeling that their life is pointless and wasted.

Making a grab for freedom from the concepts of society can trigger many unforeseen consequences, but even in the dark night of the soul which is so often the lot of the person trying to become free and self-actualising, the one thing they can say is that however lonely or isolated they are, they are not a victim, for this is what they have chosen, whatever it costs.

“What price loyalty?” demanded one angry person, and the reply they received was: “I had to be loyal to myself.” As we all know this is a hard choice when all our conditioning is about putting others first…

Maybe Oriah Mountain Dreamer put it best when she wrote those telling lines in The Invitation:
‘I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.‘

Tough words, and like love only ‘for the strong’… but those who choose the fork in the road less travelled can console themselves with the knowledge that they are part of a growing band of brothers, who are all at this time in the world’s turbulent present trying to listen to their inner voice and act on it, whatever it costs. It may mean losing everything but it also means gaining the things that matter – like self-respect and authenticity – and maybe too, discovering those broad margins with that time to stand and stare, and savour those many- splendoured things.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Raw food isn’t really my thing, but I found this recipe for mushroom pate rather delicious. Chop twelve to fifteen baby mushrooms or two really big portobello mushrooms, and marinate them in two tablespoons of olive oil and the same of tamari soya sauce, for half an hour. Put half a cup of walnuts in a food processor and pulse until slightly broken down, and add the mushrooms and a clove of garlic. Pulse until the mixture is slightly chunky and add salt and black pepper to taste. It’s good on crackers with a glass of wine, or sherry…

Food for thought

Evolution takes place inside. It isn’t a matter of pilgrimages, observances, and obeying religious rules. No code of conduct can alter the fact that every mind is on a soul journey. Dipak Chopra

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Could this experiment change the world?

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Andrea was a Dutch woman who had lived through the German occupation of Holland. Her brother hid in a wardrobe in her bedroom for the whole five years of the war to avoid being carted off as slave labour to Germany. When there were searches by Nazi soldiers she had to fend them off to save her brother.

When the war was over, after a stint as a glamorous air hostess with KLM, she emigrated to this country to put the miserable years of her adolescence and then a failed marriage behind her. Her degree in social science was a passport to nowhere in the early sixties in New Zealand. The only work she could find here was teaching; and the only teaching domestic science, which was called “manual”- which meant cookery and needlework.

Her resourcefulness raised these two domestic chores to an art form. The children didn’t actually learn the boring basics of scones, custard and rock buns like most other unlucky students back then. No, they learned to cook with garlic and herbs and spices, unheard of in the days when the only use for olive oil was for curing earache with a few drops on a dab of cotton wool, and garlic was a wild flower…

Her manual classroom became a mecca for school inspectors when Andrea transformed it with the glorious colours and designs the children created in sewing, and was a source of chagrin to the resident art teacher. Andrea taught both boys and girls, and I still have one of the vivid embroidered hangings they made.

To keep the whole class occupied while she taught them one by one to thread the sewing machine, she tossed a selection of brilliantly coloured wools on the floor, with some square pieces of hessian, and told them to make shapes with the colours and embroider them onto the squares. These wonderful squares still vibrate with colour and spontaneity. Andrea then sewed all the squares onto large sheets of hessian, and had these amazing techni-coloured wall-hangings draped across the drab manual classroom walls.

She taught the children how to thread a sewing machine by giving each step of the process a phrase about an animal – “Catch the fish, watch the bird……” Twenty years later, at the testing station for a warrant of fitness for her car, a tousled head popped up out of the inspection pit beneath the car, and said delightedly: “It’s Mrs Winter, isn’t it ? ” and then proceeded to recite his sewing lesson – “Catch the fish, watch the bird… !”.

These sewing classes were heaven on earth for one little Indian boy, who seemed to have been born as a master tailor. One day, he made a wonderful waistcoat, but there was only enough material for the edges to meet, and he and Andrea were puzzled as to how to fasten it. At the next lesson he told her he had had a dream and had solved the problem.

He then solemnly created frogging and bobbles to loop across and fasten it. When Andrea told this story in the staffroom, everyone was amazed. This child had long since been written off as so dumb that everyone else had given up on him. He sat in class, one of the silent, forgotten army of apparent no-hopers.

So, one by one, each teacher crept into the manual class to silently observe this child, and was blown away by his vivacity and calm confidence, and how all the other children deferred to the “master” of this skill. It changed his life.

I thought of Andrea and her little master tailor who moved from miserable anonymity to confident authority when I read the story of Japanese scientist Professor Masaru Emoto. He’s already famous for his discoveries about water and how it absorbs and reflects both good and negative energies. His latest experiment was with rice.

He put a handful of rice grains into three glass beakers and covered them with water. Placing them on a table, he visited them every day for a month. The first glass he thanked every day. The middle glass he ignored. The third glass he insulted every day.

At the end of the month the rice in the first glass was fermenting gently and emitting a sweet smell. The insulted rice had mouldy patches and didn’t look very good. The ignored rice in the middle glass had rotted and turned black.

What a metaphor for how we treat people, and how we can actually change the world by appreciating everyone. Could we turn around the brutality and pain that rages in places like the Middle East, in ghettoes all around the world, in zoos and in jails if we all stopped judging people and creatures in our minds, stopped writing them off, or ignoring them?

Andrea changed one little boy’s life by acknowledging and thereby encouraging him, and giving him self- respect, and this changed everyone else’s minds about him. What could we do for the sulky hurt person on welfare who feels judged, for the dunce at the bottom of the class who has no-one to encourage him and root for him, for the pining desolate animals in zoos far away from their natural habitat and their fellow creatures. What could we do to heal the ignored and insulted planet by acknowledging and thanking it every day?

If we all sent a different energy to thugs and terrorists of any creed or colour, suspending judgement, anger, condemnation or horror at their actions, could we change our world and help to spare their victims? If parents found new ways of talking to their children and encouraging them instead of criticising them; if they treated their children with the same respect and courtesy as their friends, so that children didn’t lapse into desperate negative attention seeking, could we have a world of happy loving children growing into loving adults?

Utopia has been a dream for centuries, but maybe this simple experiment, showing us that words can make a difference, that the right words can create miracles, and that the wrong words can destroy, could be the breakthrough. This simple experiment shows us that with our words and our feelings we can create the energy of life or death, of happiness or misery: that we can all be responsible for our own world, and we could each make a world in which only goodness and mercy exist and where only love prevails.

It’s like the prayer that Jesus taught – not something to publically parade and talk about, but something we can do privately for the world, and no-one need ever know… Could we change our world? I’m going to have a go… maybe you will too – in private…as I said to a friend – think ‘rice’.

The video on youtube is worth watching https://talesfromthelou.wordpress.com/2015/05/12/can-thoughts-affect-the-environment-masaru-emotos-rice-experiment-120/

Food for threadbare gourmets

Sticking with no sugar, and loving sweet things, I found this cake was delicious. Take two cups of chopped baking dates and gently boil them in half a cup of water… adding more water if they get too dry… they need to be moist and soft. Stir or mash to a mush.
Put them in a bowl and stir in half a cup of oil – I used light olive as I’m suspicious of some other manufactured oils ( the recipe said to use melted butter, but I wanted a dairy free zone too). Grate a courgette, a carrot and 200grams of sweet potato/orange kumara. Stir them all into the date mixture.
Then add four beaten eggs, grated zest of two lemons, three teaspoons of mixed spice, 200 grms of almond meal, a 100 grms of self rising flour, either gluten free or ordinaire, a teasp of baking powder and quarter of a teasp of salt.
Mix everything together with a slotted metal spoon and tip into a prepared greased and lined cake tin. Bake for an hour in 180 degree oven. If it starts to brown, cover the top with tin foil. Leave in the tin for ten minutes before turning out. (I used a loaf tin)
The recipe suggested icing of cream cheese, zest of 2 lemons, two tablsp of lemon juice and three or four tablesp of maple syrup.
Sounds delicious but I decided not to despoil the sugar free zone, contenting myself with a little sprinkling of sugar on top of the cake before it went in the oven just to make it shiny and sweet.
It’s good while still warm and keeps well wrapped in foil in the fridge for several days. I sometimes had a slice spread with butter too.

 

Food for Thought

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

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Waving not drowning

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I’m slowly sinking beneath the tide – not drowning but waving – to bowdlerise Stevie Smith’s poem.
And not a watery tide either. My whole garden seems to be subsiding beneath a sea of flaming leaves. Years ago I planted a row of liquid ambers, and sought out the brightest, most vivid species of autumn leaves, and it has proved true to its promise.

The colours, orange and purple, deep red and gold never fail to thrill me.
But now with the end of the golden weather, and autumn sliding into winter, these trees are revealing the bone structure hidden all summer under their luxuriant foliage.

Today, with pouring rain and cold blasts of wind I look out of the window at these grey skeletons and savour the fag end of autumn and the idea of winter settling in – and I love it… the fire’s lit, a pile of logs sitting smugly on the hearth, soup on the menu for lunch, and the pleasure of wearing a bright red wool jumper.

In my other life, the other side of the world, May and June in the northern hemisphere meant the opposite. I loved them then for may blossom and blackbird song, honey- suckle beginning to bloom in the hedgerows along with pale pink dog roses, and the pale translucent green leaves of beech trees with the sun shining through them… and a full moon shining over a loved wych elm on the sky-line. As the days grew warmer, the cooing of wood pigeons in the woods and the murmuring of innumerable bees in lime trees announced those hazy lazy days of summer.

In this country these months mean returning to those well loved clothes which never wear out, the wools and coats of winter, with the rich colouring and textures that summer clothes rarely possess… the sybaritic pleasure of a piping hot electric blanket on a cold wet night, and the glowing starlit sky of a frosty one.

So now I love these months for different things. I savour the bare hard look of ploughed fields, and stripped trees for silver trunks and shades of bark never noticed when the leaves were green. Mole said it best in ‘The Wind in the Willows’: “It was a cold still afternoon with a hard steely sky overhead…

“The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him and he thought he had never seen so far and intimately into the insides of things …Copses , dells, quarries and all hidden places which had been mysterious mines for exploration in leafy summer, now exposed themselves… He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple…”

And in his diary for December 12, 1874, The Rev Frances Kilvert described: “… a beauty in the trees peculiar to winter, when their fair delicate slender tracery unveiled by leaves and showing clearly against the skies rises bending with a lofty arc or weeps gracefully drooping.

“The crossing and interlacing of the limbs, the smaller boughs and tender twigs make an exquisitely fine network which has something of the severe beauty of sculpture while the tree in summer in its full pride and splendour and colour of foliage represents the loveliness of painting.

“The deciduous trees which seem to me most graceful and elegant in winter are the birches, limes, beeches”.

The rhythm of the seasons is felt less in the gentle micro- climate where I live, than in the colder regions of the country, but I still revel in them. When I lived in the tropics for years, I ached for the regular changing of the seasons, for cold and bleak or warm and balmy. The lack of variety of perpetual warmth, perpetual sun, perpetual foliage, flowers and fruit, unchanging as the months went by, were in the end, utterly boring to a westerner born and bred to the rhythm of the seasons.

Subtle Screwtape, the senior Devil, writing to his nephew Wormwood puts it better in CS Lewis’s ‘The Screwtape Letters’: “He (God )has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm.

“He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is felt as a novelty yet always as an immemorial theme… men will be transported by the mixed novelty and familiarity of snowdrops this January, sunrise this morning, plum pudding this Christmas…”

Yes. The devil is right, it’s the constantly changing seasons, the beauty we cannot grasp and keep, and at the same time the pleasure of doing what we did last year and the year before which gives life a richness and satisfaction. Children feel it as keenly as adults – who is as insistent as a child that we do the same as we did last year, especially at Christmas?

What the elderly devil Screwtape didn’t mention to his nephew Wormwood, who he was teaching to capture souls, was an even more regular pattern of rhythm – the poetry of the waxing and waning of the moon, and also the moods and feelings which are so often influenced by those rhythms. So often in the swings between euphoria and despair it’s easy to lose the way, and forget that these highs and lows are also part of the rhythm of life and of the human soul.

Yet ataraxia, which is an arcane word for: “ a state of freedom from emotional disturbance and anxiety “, coming from a Greek word meaning impassive, really sounds rather boring I commented to my dearest friend as we laughed over this definition. Who would want to be in a permanent state of valium-like tranquillity and never experience all the excitement of living, never to enjoy anticipation, exhilaration, or spontaneous joy. Without the rhythm of our emotional ups and downs, the waxing and waning of feelings and fun, life would lose its zest.

That isn’t to say I actually enjoy the downers… and usually I realise I’m using the left side of my brain when I’m depressed so I can do something to rise again. The left brain is the one that presses logical solutions and sensible brakes on hope and enthusiasm and joy. The voice that says you may not be able to do this – it’s too difficult – you’re not up to it…

Maybe that’s where Screwtape and his ilk gain their footholds on the human soul. The antidote to all this is the shift across to the right brain, the seat of intuition and inner knowing and the accepting and optimistic view of oneself and the world. And so back up into the rhythm of light and dark, warmth and cold, summer and winter, and savouring the joy of them all. The sun and the moon, the movement of the stars, the tides and the winds, the leaves budding and opening and falling, all swing us along through the seasons, and somehow, for me, as each season comes round again, it seems as safe an anchorage as home itself.

Food for threadbare gourmets

When I want a quick sustaining lunch, this is one of my favourites. I grate a medium sized potato, mix it with an egg, season generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and tip the whole lot into a frying pan with hot olive oil. I turn it like a pancake when the under- side is done. While it’s cooking I grill a couple of rashers of free range bacon, and… quick, tasty and satisfying.

Food for thought

Even as our few remaining wilderness areas are threatened, each day more of us venture into these beautiful landscapes to experience the energy for ourselves. And, immersed in the natural rhythms of the earth and the wind and the sky, our minds relax and we view our lives with quiet perspective. We can see our paths and can recognise the synchronicity that has guided our footsteps.
James Redfield from The Tenth Insight

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Searching for me

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My horoscope today told me: ‘it may feel strange to feel sad or melancholic since you’re so light hearted by nature …’ Really ?
Know thyself the Greek oracle said… but that’s easier said than done…. they also said – or maybe it was just Socrates, who said that the inner and the outer man should be one. Again, easier said than done… and maybe not for the faint-hearted.

I always found that the enjoyment of palmistry, astrology, even tarot cards, had less to do with curiosity about the future and more to do with curiosity about that unknown quantity – me. I pursued astrology for years driven by hope for better things – the Gemini sign which was mine infuriated me.

Yes, I hoped I really was adaptable, versatile, intellectual, witty and logical, busy, lively, talkative and amusing, having a flair for writing and language, youthful and up to date in outlook an appearance.
But no, I was not prepared to accept that I was changeable, restless, cunning, inquisitive, inconsistent and two-faced, as some perceptive people in the past, perceiving that I am Gemini, have charged. Nor am I prepared to admit that I’m unable to control my nervous energy – and I refuse to answer to being called superficial and a gossip.

Yes, I am delighted to agree that I’m a wonderful parent whose own wide interests will foster the waking interests of my children ( and grandchildren now ) but no, I am not prepared to concede that I’m a flirt and emotionally superficial.

My old copy of Webster’s Dictionary gave me this information, believe it or not, so I felt considerably mollified when I went to a ‘real’ astrologer, whatever that may mean, and he informed me I also had a streak of Pisces, hence my ready tears – Aquarius and Sagittarius. So when I’m accused of all the negative Gemini traits I now claim dispensation by latching onto the positive aspects of Pisces, Aquarius and Sagittarius.

So I thought I’d got myself neatly labelled and was getting to know myself, until I stumbled on a book called ‘Colour in your world’ and found a whole new world of code signs with which to read the personality.
Colour is one of my passions so I was sure to discover a bit more psychological know- how I thought. We began with red… yes, I liked to flatter myself that I was ‘vital and outward’, a person with an appetite to live life fully… yes, I hoped, I was integrated and oriented which the book told me meant I am impulsive and quick to release my feelings and emotions. I ignored the bit about manic depressives liking red… and anyway only my dressing gown, a coat and a handful of jumpers, and underwear is red… and my kitchen was painted red only once.

So I moved on to orange. I had one house where just the hall and the bathroom and bedroom were orange – or pumpkin as I liked to call it… the bedroom toned down with blue. This revealed that we oranges were generally good-natured, likeable, sociable, have an easy smile and – no I don’t have a remarkable talent for small talk, it’s one of my fiercest hates.

Yes, I can accept if I am an orange, that I care profoundly for people and that they will care for me in return … if only the world was peopled with oranges… but hell no, I don’t ‘lack grand passion and may never marry’ – so far I’ve married twice … no – orange is out… definitely not an orange. So I moved on to the next colour…

Yellow goes with high-mindedness… ah yes, that must be me – I’ve always had yellow rooms… yes, I’m sure I have a superior mind and enjoy using it… Oh blow Van Gogh, who loved yellow and was morbid and deeply disturbed. Yellow cannot possibly be me.

The one colour I could say definitely was not me was green, I hate parties, my social standing and financial position aren’t important, and I am rarely prudent. No, there is not even a soupcon of green in this house.
By the time I’d worked through blue-green, blue, purple, brown, white , grey, black and pink I was more muddled than ever, and farther off knowing myself that I was in the beginning.

But then, back in the day, I had a break-through. It was an innocent enough sounding book called ‘Sleep positions’, the night language of the body. I read it at one sitting – or lying, I should say, as I waited for my significant other to come home later that night.

By the time he had arrived I had worked out what my present sleep position revealed, what my recent sleep position revealed, and what my childhood sleep position was saying. I learned what my other half was trying to tell me by the way he slept, and I had reviewed our relationship and assessed the chances of working our way through to old age on the strength of a chapter called: ‘ sleep love and sleep hate’.

I expounded the early warning signs and sleep-position analysis, and when asked how I had slept the next morning, replied with an analysis of our sleep positions that night and how upset I now felt by his sleep position. As the nights went by and I continued to review our sleep positions every morning the poor man began to fear for the stability of the relationship too.

“It’s all that expletive- deleted book,” he exploded one morning. It’s a funny thing – he had endured dissertations on the Coburg and Hohenzollern family trees spread across the bed, explanations of the Arian heresy and the origin of the Gospel of St Mark, even put up with me reading TS Eliot aloud, but he just couldn’t seem to handle sleep analysis.

Ah well, as TS Eliot once wrote, ‘humankind cannot take too much reality.’ I have long since given up worrying about other people’s sleep positions and begun puzzling over mine. My most recent change of position seems to be telling me that I am trying to retain control over my life.

That would be right… and since those long-ago days of astrology and palmistry, colour and sleep positions, the Enneagram, a product of Sufi and Gurdjieff thinking, as well as other forms of character analysis, has given me many happy hours of cogitation– am I a tragic romantic or a perfectionist or a boss or a devil’s advocate, and why those near and dear to me respond the way they do, and whether I cope with aggression or depression… or tears! The riddles of character sometimes seem unsolvable – to me anyway.

In my beginning is my end, as TS Eliot also said, and Webster’s Dictionary has my interests at heart. It warns me that as a Gemini I am always doing more than one thing at a time, (isn’t it called multi-tasking these days?) and living on my nerves, and should be careful not to overstrain my sensitive and highly strung system which will break down under pressure. I think this must mean I should coddle myself – quite the nicest advice I’ve had for a long time…

So as I have long suspected, it is more helpful to read the dictionary than any other form of the printed word. None of this has given me any reliable clues to that Greek ideal of knowing myself, but maybe I won’t be able to stand too much reality either. Do I really want to know myself as well as everyone else does? ‘O would some power gie us the giftie to see ourselves as others see us’ … wrote Burns… but I think that’s taking a big risk, so perhaps not. Ignorance may be bliss after all.

Food for threadbare gourmets
I love dressings and marinades. This is a tasty little mixture that gives a bit of zing to a stir-fry, or a plain bowl of noodles, and is also a delicious marinade for chicken or fish, especially salmon. Just mix a quarter of a cup of sesame oil with an eighth of a cup of rice wine vinegar, one deseeded and chopped chilli, some garlic cloves to taste, and chopped ginger, a splash of fish sauce, a squeeze of lime, and some chopped coriander… (I often just use ground coriander and ground ginger) It’s a useful little standby.

Food for thought
I don’t want to get rid of poverty just to ensure that prosperity is maintained: I want to get rid of poverty because it is bad, it is wrong, it is immoral, it is un-ethical, it is un-Christian, it is unfair and it is unjust and it is everything that is bad. I mean involuntary poverty – where a man is told that his hands are not wanted, and his wife and his youngsters will be deprived of the necessary things for health.
Walter Nash, NZ Prime Minister, speaking in Philadelphia at the International Labour Conference in 1944

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Our life-lines

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I woke this morning to the cooing of doves and the sound of tuis warbling their bell-like song. There must be a storm somewhere out in the ocean, because the foaming white waves are pounding on the rocks with a dull roar, and all is well in this tiny corner of the world.

One night in the big smoke, light nights, no darkness, no stars, no silence, the sound of traffic and bustle filling every crevice of the day is enough to send me helter-skelter back here. To peace, birds, and the silence that is never silence, but which is filled with the sounds of the earth – the wind in the trees, the buzzing of bees, the clicking of cicadas, birds chirping, and the contented murmurs of the neighbour’s chickens who have escaped to the grassy cemetery across the road.

For the whole of my first year at secondary school, my class had to keep what was called a nature diary. No matter what experiments we had done in science classes with Bunsen burners, tripods and test tubes, we still had to write up our nature diaries every week for homework.

The girls who lived on farms and in the country had it made. They prattled away about lambing and crops and used to get top marks every week of the year for their diaries.

I used to catch a bus home from the little town through five miles of country and then walk up the road to home, where my parents were indifferent gardeners and too busy with their challenges and life in a smart cavalry regiment to have time for discussing the wonders of nature with their eldest child.

So I used to dread Tuesday evenings, the night before we handed in our diaries for marking. My ingenuity was stretched to its limits. I discussed the lichen on the trees, and how it changed colour in the rain. I snatched up unusual cloud formations, sunsets and rainbows, worked over old ground like spring and catkins, seized on the odd bird’s egg or fallen nest, poked open pods in the hope of a nature story and searched the hedgerows for different flowers, insects and chrysalises.

It was of course, marvellous training for a noticing eye, and to my surprise I quite missed it when I stopped doing our diaries the following year…no more stamens to marvel over, no more shiny conkers to draw or patterns of snail and butterfly.

That training though, has never really faded away, and a life-time later I still savour the same marvels of seasons and growing things. What they mean to the spirit has only slowly seeped into my consciousness.
The first time I had an inkling of it was when I read the story of Odette Churchill, the Resistance heroine. Though I read her story at the age of twelve, I have never forgotten the moment when the guard opened the door of her underground prison cell to stick her daily meal inside the door. As he did so the skeleton of a leaf blew in.

Odette seized it and hid it till the guard had gone. Then she gazed at it, savoured it, penetrated its existence, the miracle of the lacework of the veins and the glory of its being. It existed outside the world of horror, torture and degradation which had laid hold upon her. She said it was a turning point in her struggle to retain sanity, self respect and a belief in the real world of love, truth and beauty.

Years ago I visited a man who was in the prison wing of a mental home. From childhood he had been marked down by misfortune, and most of his life had been spent behind bars. He had no education, no training, and no hope of ever building a life outside prison walls. He had long ago stopped believing in love as an abandoned child, and we found no way of reaching his bruised hurt self beyond the wall of toughness, bravado and real mental disturbance.

The conditions in which he and the other prisoners lived were unspeakable. Even a sane man would have gone mad in that setting, and one with no stability would find it hard to resist despair (mercifully this institution has since been closed down).

But this tough, violent man told us that his one hobby and relaxation was to keep a biscuit back from his tea and crumble it up outside the bars of his window. Through the bars he watched the birds snatch up the crumbs. He said there was one little sparrow that had got to know him, and was tame enough to come near the window. A man who was unable to love any person, even himself, could not help loving a sparrow.

It’s now common knowledge that people who keep pets and love them are healthier than those who don’t. Lonely people who love a pet have lower blood pressure, and the giving and taking of love from their pet keeps them happy and relaxed and gives them a purpose for living.

Other find their deepest satisfaction and greatest relaxation in their garden, planting flowers, trees, vegetables, savouring the feel of earth, and unconsciously finding serenity by their contact with flowers and all growing things.

It almost seems as though man can remain human only if he does retain contact with the natural world, the world of tiny creatures, flowers, trees, earth, sky, sunsets and moons.
Yet though we need them for our very existence, we tend both to take them for granted, to neglect them, even to destroy them. We have had warnings of an environmental crisis since the eighties. Perhaps now more than ever, we need to remember more often that: ‘the earth brought forth grass, the herb yielding seed and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind’ before the earth was filled with every form of life except man, and that we came last.

Even now, as I look out of the window at a plump blackbird drinking from the bird bath in the shade of the plum tree, I know that I need him for my sanity and sense of well-being. I need the plum tree too, for shade, its fruit, the scent of its blossom and the bliss of its very existence. But both could live without me.
So when we feel the joy which the sight of a hedgehog in the city, or in the country gives us, or a tree with budding leaves in spring, we should remember that we actually need them, and we should cherish them for what they are – our lifeline not just to existence, but to serenity and well-being, to sanity, to joy.

Food for threadbare gourmets

I love recipes that make life easy, so this one for scones which didn’t entail any rubbing of fat into flour was meat and drink to me. Combine four cups of self raising flour with a good handful of chopped dates. Pour in one and a half cups of lemonade and one cup of cream and lightly and quickly mix everything together.
Gently form into a shape two inches thick, and cut into small squares. Bake at 180 degrees for fifteen to twenty minutes. Eat hot with lots of butter and good strawberry jam!

Food for thought

Our oceans are endangered too. Eight million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year. This equals five plastic bags for every foot of coastline around the globe. And in the next decade the amount of plastic is expected to increase by tenfold unless we find a better way to dispose of it. The threat to our already endangered oceans is catastrophic.

And every plastic water bottle that ends up in the ocean? It’ll stay there for 450 years. So what are we all going to do to save our world from the plastic plague? These facts came from http://earthstonestation.com/2015/04/23/earth-day-project/

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Uncommon woman – uncommon heroism

 
Warning – this is a long but true detective story about an extraordinary woman.
Back then, cloudless skies were silent, roads empty, white beaches fringed with thick belts and filmy foliage of casuarina trees. Gay painted fishing sampans were lined up at the top of the sands, sailed by fishermen who looked like story book pirates. They wore brightly coloured turbans round their heads, and were lean and handsome.

The women, recipients of both a Thai and a Malayan heritage up there on the border, had the fine sculptured features of the Thais, and the soft voluptuousness of the Malays. They were famed for their beauty, and like their men folk wore richly coloured clothes – sarongs in bright batik patterns of red and turquoise, and orange and cobalt blue, unlike the drab browns of other Malayan batiks.
We lived not far from that long empty beach, one of many in this part of Kelantan, the most famous called: ’beach of passionate love’. (I know the Malayan name, but am not sure how it’s spelled) Our pink stucco house sat on the edge of the river, the river up which the Japanese had sailed in their motor boats early on the morning of 6 December, an hour before they attacked Pearl Harbour. Modern communications might have altered the events which took place on that fateful day, but in this remote corner of Malaya the invading Japanese were able then, unmolested, to rake the house with machine gun fire as they chugged inland.
The line of bullet holes was still there twelve years later when we lived there. We looked across to a small kampong, where a handful of wooden houses thatched with palm, were raised on stilts beneath the coconut palms, and where the grandfather sat motionless all day fishing, and his granddaughters bathed in the green river at sunset every night without taking off their bright sarongs.
Not far from this scene of primeval beauty, was the sleepy town of Kota Bharu, and it was here that the woman I called Mammy ran the newly built Palm Court Hotel. I wrote in a blog in April last year: ” Here too, lived Mammy, a giant White Russian, over six feet tall, wearing thick pebble specs for her short sighted grey eyes, and wearing the first caftans I ‘d seen over her enormous frame, all in brilliant colours and garish patterns . Mammy ran the local hotel where everyone gathered in Kota Bharu, and was a local joke too. As a seventeen year old I didn’t think she was such a joke. She and her husband had escaped the revolution in Russia … and so on …..
Eight months later, I had an e-mail from a man who wanted to know if I knew more about her. He told me she was Madame Luba Ruperti, and had been on not just one, but two ships crammed with women and children sunk by the Japanese as they escaped from Singapore and she was a very important link in the unrecorded story of what had actually happened on those hellish days just after the fall of Singapore.
He sent me all the information he had about her, and from his lists, and delving into the internet and other sources, I pieced together the remarkable story of this unusual woman. Luba Ruperti was a White Russian born in 1896. She fled with her parents from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918 via Shanghai to the safety of British Singapore, after her sister had been killed by a revolutionary mob.
In 1925, when she was nearly thirty, she married another White Russian, Alexander Ruperti, formerly a Lt Commander in the Imperial Russian Navy, but three years later, newspaper reports show him becoming bankrupt, and he disappeared. Luba, now alone, became a fixture of the social scene attending parties and dances, and opened a hat and dress shop to make her living.
In those years before the war, Luba would have felt safe in this seemingly impregnable British colony. But some weeks after their grim appearance in Kelantan, the Genghis Khan-like hordes of murdering Japanese ( no exaggeration – among their atrocities was tying British soldiers together with barbed wire and setting them alight) reached Singapore. Here they invaded from the unprotected landward side.

It was in that mayhem of murder and bombings, killing of patients in hospital beds, raping of nurses etc. that somehow Luba got to the dock and managed to board SS Kuala, an overloaded ship with five hundred or so other women, children and babies, including a number of Australian and New Zealand nurses.
The next day the Japanese sank the ship, setting it on fire and mothers threw their children overboard trying to get them into the rafts below. As women and children struggled in the sea, wounded, drowning, trying to hold onto rafts and floating debris, they were machine-gunned in the water. Those who survived terrible thirst, hunger, horrendous wounds, madness and burning sun to make it to shore several days later, were machine gunned in the water and as they staggered over rocks and up the beach into the shelter of the trees. They had reached Pom Pong Island which had no food, and only a tiny source of water.
A few days later the SS Tandjong Pinang arrived from Rengat in Sumatra to rescue the small band of between a hundred and a hundred and fifty survivors from the original five hundred, but hardly had they embarked than the Japanese were back, and sank this ship too. Luba was one of only handful of survivors of this second disaster.
The few the Japanese captured on shore ended up suffering and usually dying in the terrible conditions of internment. Luba got away, and ended up somehow or other in India, via Ceylon. Here in February 1943, nearly a year later, she gave her great gift to all those who had died, suffered or survived. She had compiled a long list of the names of the people who had boarded the SS Kuala at Singapore and who had survived to board the SS Tandjong Pindang.
In the chaos and panic during the bombing of the docks in Singapore as frantic passengers tried to board the ship, no records had been taken. No-one knew who had boarded, who had escaped, or who had survived. Families would never have known if their loved ones were still alive in some corner of the world. Luba must have started compiling her lists during their terrible ordeal on Pom Pong island, as there was no way otherwise that she could have known so comprehensively who was there, the names and the children.
It was an act not just of heroism in those hellish days, but of responsibility and altruism in conditions when it could very well have been everyone for himself. Her act of witnessing and recording rescued both the dead and the living from oblivion, and told their story – a story that no one else was able to share with the world for another three years, when the war ended and a pitifully small handful of survivors could then bear witness to their sufferings.
Typically, the next we hear of the resourceful and penniless forty-seven year old Luba is as manageress of the Woodland Hotel, an army hostel in New Delhi, (the rundown hotel is still there) and it was here that she gave her vital and historic list to the military authorities. When the war ended, Luba gave up her secure and safe employment in India and returned to Singapore … where she had several unsuccessful business ventures. When I came across her, as an ignorant seventeen year old in 1955, she was running the newly- built smart Palm Hotel in Kota Bahru, where all the Europeans and rich Chinese went for their fun.
She was over six foot tall, frizzy-haired and be-spectacled and wearing caftans before they’d been invented. She was irrepressible, jolly and welcoming… she may have felt it came with the job. In an archival story I found a reference to her later being back in Singapore by 1958, and by the mid-1960’s nearing seventy, she was: “utterly dependent for her living by making and selling exquisite dolls dressed in the costumes of old Russia, complete with tiny earrings, bracelets and rings on the dolly fingers,” according to quotes from a story in the Singapore Straits Times. The same archival entry comments that: “she appears at this stage of her life to have been still the exuberant woman who had lived through so much fear, chaos and loss without losing her innate spirit”.
I found a mention absolutely characteristic of her when I came across an obscure story about the food Jews created for their festivals in various remote outposts of the world. The story included the celebration of the seder festival in New Delhi, and on the menu was a dish created for them by Madame Luba Ruperti – Boeuf Strogonoff of course – what else from a White Russian … Luba, still in the thick of things, still making a difference to her world with her generosity and commitment to life.
There are many families who may not even know their great debt to this feisty open-hearted woman… who never seemed to be defeated by the perils and tragedies of her extraordinary odyssey from Czarist Russia to post- Colonial Malaya, via Shanghai, Singapore, Indonesia, India and back to Singapore, surviving abandonment and poverty, loneliness, bombings, torpedoed ships and dangerous journeys. I like to think that more than half a century later, some of us will remember her and revel in the thought of her undaunted courage, resourcefulness, intelligence, and joie de vivre, and marvel at the human spirit.
Food for threadbare gourmets
Leafing through piles of old clippings I came across the infallible strawberry jam recipe I thought I’d lost. As I read it I decided to start making this delectable treat again. If one is going to sin with sugar, it might as well be in the most delicious way.
To four pounds of freshly picked strawberries, you need six pounds of sugar (horrendous I know), one and a half teaspoons of butter and an ounce of tartaric acid. Mash half the fruit in a buttered preserving pan and add all the sugar. Add the rest of the hulled strawberries, bring to the boil and boil hard for six minutes. Add the tartaric acid and boil for another six minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally. Bottle in sterilised jars and cover. This makes nine one pound jars, so you could halve the ingredients and just make a small amount. It stays a lovely bright red.
Food for thought

I don’t know who wrote this but I like it.
If a person is living out his destiny, he knows everything he needs to know. There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.

PS if anyone can tell me how to stop word press closing up my paragraphs, I’d be eternally grateful, Valerie

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The dangers of words

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When Boxer was driven from ‘Animal Farm’ in a knacker’s van, the whole family dissolved in tears. I’d been worried that the syllabus at the children’s schools didn’t seem to cover the riches of English literature, so we began a nightly practise of all gathering around the fire, including the two Cavalier King Charles spaniels and a lanky afghan, for nightly reading sessions. ‘Animal Farm’ was a favourite even to those of us who were unaware of its deeper political meaning.

‘David Copperfield’ was another favourite… though I could hardly get past David’s childhood sitting cold and alone in his freezing bedroom terrified of Mr and Miss Murdstone. It reminded me too uncomfortably of a period of my childhood. “Don’t go on reading,” my children begged as the tears streamed down my face. “We’ll get there”, I’d say, mopping my cheeks. Peggotty saved us.
How did she know, I used to wonder when I read ‘David Copperfield’ as a child, that ‘Barkis is willing’, meant he wanted to marry her… ‘Barkis is willing’ must be the most phlegmatic proposal in literature.

The night that silly sweet Dora died was the night my husband was working late, and it was a cold dark winters’ night, just as it was in the book. So we all piled into our big bed, children and me under the duvet, Cavalier King Charles’s and the afghan on top. As we read of Dora slipping away, we all wept, but the coup de grace was the death the same night, of Dora’s spoiled little spaniel, Jip, who lived in a pagoda which was too big and tripped everyone up. Jip had also walked all over the dining table and put his paws in the butter and barked at Traddles, their first dinner guest… So when the man of our house returned, there was just a sodden heap of dogs and people to greet him.

Traddles, of course, was the man whose hair was so irrepressibly unruly, standing upright on his head, that his fiance’s sisters made jokes about keeping a lock of his hair in a book with a heavy clasp to try to keep it flat. Yes, we laughed and cried all through David C.

We laughed through ‘The Wind in the Willows’ too, especially Toad’s adventures and his come-uppance at the hands of the washerwoman. Later, we cried when Hereward the Wake was escaping from William the Conqueror’s army. Fleeing through the fens in the dark, with his great faithful mare swimming behind the boat, he cut her throat and she sank silently into the black waters.

I don’t know whether the children were any the wiser about English literature after those years of reading aloud together, but what fun we had. Reading aloud was the way most people enjoyed their books in times past. One person with a candle could keep the whole room enthralled, and it was only in recent times that silent reading became the norm for every-one. The early saints read their missals and bibles aloud, and it was cause for remark when St Augustine came upon his mentor, Bishop Ambrose, silently reading the words without moving his lips. Augustine was so amazed that he described it in his ‘Confessions’.

Dickens, like Orwell and many another, was a subversive writer. Dickens was trying to change society and arouse compassion by telling stories of injustice and pain. Orwell, on the other hand, was trying to warn us of what was to come. And what he wrote has come to pass.

The cliche that the pen is mightier than the sword is true; words can change people’s minds, open their hearts, give them insight, knowledge and hope, and move them to tears or laughter, while the sword can only silence them.

I have a beautiful coffee table book called ‘Women Who Read are Dangerous’… this could also apply to men of course. But in this instance, the book makes the point that men in the past have resisted the idea of women reading – precisely because men unconsciously realised that reading was subversive, and allowed women to escape, to start thinking for themselves, to explore ideas and reach for larger worlds than the circumscribed one that so many women were forced to inhabit.

Alan Bennett wrote a witty little book called’ The Uncommon Reader’, in which he outlines just this scenario. The reader is the Queen. She stumbles on the travelling library van parked in Buckingham Palace kitchen courtyard when the corgis have run off. Driven by a life-time of in-escapable good manners and a desire to set the librarian at ease, she chooses a book – a very difficult book – but again, propelled by her sense of duty, forces herself to finish it. Returning it, she feels she should seem to have enjoyed it, so the librarian presses another book on her.

Gradually the Queen becomes a dedicated reader… begins to neglect her duties, reads a book in her lap when she should be waving to crowds from the car, doesn’t care what she’s wearing as she’s more interested in finishing her book… and finally decides she wants to find her own voice, and write too. The horrified prime minster points out that this is dangerous and unconstitutional, as the truth would make devastating reading. So she abdicates so that she can write her truth

Writing the truth is what makes a writer’s life so fraught with peril. Writer Stephen King says: “if you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered”. He could just as truthfully have said your days as a member of your family are numbered too, as what is truth to one person is seen as slander, untruth or simply bad taste to others.

Nancy Mitford’s parents, described in ‘The Pursuit of Love’ were upset about their portraits, though James Lees-Milne, a close friend, vouched for the truth of Uncle Mathew and Aunt Sadie – now two of the great comic characters of English literature. James Lees-Milne himself often rued the day he‘d published his fascinating diaries of living through World War Two, as he and his wife encountered cold shoulders and black looks from those who saw the truth differently.

So if reading is seen as dangerous, it is as nothing compared to the dangers of writing. Insipid romances or doctored memoirs may satisfy some writers, but true writers need to write the truth as they see it. It’s a responsibility and a necessity. Which may be why so many writers and journalists end up in prison or worse, both in the past, and sadly, in the present.

Today, many bloggers share that fate too, and risk their lives to write the truth on the internet. And their lives, like other writers, are in danger at this moment in history, because in closed totalitarian societies, words are recognised for what they are… the most powerful weapons in the world. Words are the weapons that can change lives and whole societies. And we bloggers get to play with them.
Food for threadbare gourmets

I love potatoes cooked every which way. This way is a favourite, and this recipe is a refined version of the way I’ve always made what some call crispy potato cakes, and others might call latkes.

To three large potatoes like agria or other type with a high starch content, you need 75grams of melted butter. Grate the potatoes coarsely, dropping them in cold water as you go. I often just scrub them instead of peeling. Drain them and squeeze them as dry as you can. I use several layers of kitchen paper on a clean kitchen towel.

Mix them in a bowl with the melted butter and salt and black pepper just before cooking. Drop spoonfuls into hot oil in a heated heavy frying pan, and keep them warm in the oven as you go. Don’t fry too quickly or the inside won’t be cooked. They taste good with anything, and especially with freshly picked mushrooms from the grass outside my gate, and bacon from happy pigs, for a quick meal. In New Zealand we call this Freedom food…freedom from cruelty etc. etc.
Food for thought

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lot of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently in your head, directly to you.
Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, bringing together people who never knew each other, citizens of different epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic. Carl Sagan

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