The necessity of beauty

Image result for images of gardeniasImage result for gardenias

 

Pamela was my lodger. She was living in the third bedroom in my flat for the same reasons that Mr Micawber pronounced the immortal words:” Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”

I’d tried to fill the gap between my meagre salary (women were paid far less than men in the Hongkong I lived in ) and my expenditure, by doing TV quiz shows,  radio programmes, using the children as photographic models and even doing PR for the Anglican church until I could stand being hypocritical no longer. So Pamela was my next attempt at solvency. While she lived with me my life was filled with her dramas, love affairs, crises and disasters.

She arrived with one fiancée, dressed demurely in twinset and pearls, tweed skirt and silk head – scarf. Soon she found a more exciting prospect, and changed her style  to newly fashionable jeans, her hair swung up into dashing styles and lots of makeup. The new fiancée lent her his new VW while he went back to England to sort out his divorce, and hereby hangs the tale. Pamela rolled the car her first night in possession of it, and I was awakened in the middle of the night by a Chinese policeman who couldn’t speak English.

I pieced together that Pamela had had an accident, and was in a Chinese hospital since she had no insurance to cover her for a European one.  The next morning the children, four and five years old, and I, packed up a few things for Pamela and made an expedition to the enormous  building which housed some thousands of sick and penniless Chinese.

We found our way through a maze of corridors to Pamela’s ward, and by the time I reached her bed I was deeply shocked. The ward held eighty women. They were all dressed in faded brown cotton shifts including Pamela. The noise was horrendous. Cantonese is the noisiest language on earth. To hear our amah chatting to another outside the kitchen was deafening. To hear seventy- nine women chatting in a confined space was probably higher than the safe decibel level.

Pamela was bruised and shocked but not injured. After doing our duty, and promising to return that afternoon with more things she wanted, the children and I went home, leaving her with a little bunch of gardenias I’d picked. Only six blossoms because that was all that were flowering.

When we returned in the afternoon, something had changed. There was a hush in the ward and a sense of peace, and all eyes were on the gwailo (long- nose) and her children. Being watched was something one accepted as part of life then, but this felt different. And the hush was a sort of reverence. Pamela whispered to me what had happened after I left.

When we walked out of the ward, the women came crowding round her to see the flowers and smell the fragrance. They were ecstatic at this exquisite beauty in their harsh unfriendly environment. Deprived as the women were, of all colour and texture and smell and beauty, the flowers brought something like heaven into their lives.

They didn’t speak English, and Pamela didn’t speak Cantonese, but with the aid of the ward sister’s few words of English, they worked out a roster for the flowers. Each woman would have one gardenia by her bed-side in a glass for three hours in every twenty-four. Pamela had one all the time, and the sixth flower which had fallen off its stem, the ward sisters had in their office, floating in a saucer.

Back at the office the next day I rang the dean of the cathedral and several hotels and they agreed to send their flowers to the hospital whenever they changed them. I wonder if they still do.

The great Catholic thinker Monsignor Hildebrand wrote that: ‘the poor need not only bread. The poor also need beauty’. But it’s not just the poor. We all need beauty.

It’s strange to me that Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of vital needs didn’t include beauty. Sometimes beauty is the the only thing that keeps us going. As Resistance fighter Odette Churchill was being locked back in her cell after a bout of torture by the Gestapo, she snatched up the skeleton of a leaf being blown in the door with her. The beauty of that leaf sustained her and gave her hope and courage and a belief in goodness that carried her through her dreadful ordeal.

Quaker writer, Caroline Graveson wrote that: ‘There is a daily round for beauty as well as for goodness, a world of flowers and books and cinemas and clothes and manners as well as mountains and masterpieces.’ She talked of beauty: ‘not only in the natural beauty of the earth and sky, but in all fitness of language and rhythm, whether it describe a heavenly vision or a street fight, a Hamlet or a Falstaff, a philosophy or a joke: in all fitness of line and colour and shade, whether seen in the Sistine Madonna or a child’s knitted frock…’

The sad thing is that those deprived Chinese women in that joyless hospital ward, came from a culture, which before the blight of industrialisation and the tyranny of plastic, was incapable of producing anything that wasn’t beautiful – from their baskets to their bowls, to their porcelain and their poetry.  And there was something very beautiful about buying a kati of vegetables in the markets and watching them being skilfully wrapped in a beautifully folded sheet of re-cycled Chinese newspaper, or a large leaf, and tied with a knotted reed.

Perhaps their own sage should have the last word, Confucius said that everything is beautiful, to those who can see it….

I published this post nearly four years ago … it’s one of my favourites and many readers will have forgotten it, or never seen it….

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I needed a quick pudding for unexpected guests, so I took out of the deep freeze a couple of brioche I’d stored for such an occasion. Once thawed, I gently fried them in butter, then made a sauce with rum and brown sugar, and poured it over the brioche. I served  them hot with whipped cream, and though not rum babas, they  tasted almost as good.

Food for Thought

People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.       St Augustine  199 AD

 

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Do we have a choice between technology or love?

Am I a dinosaur – surely not … or a flat earther – perish the thought … or maybe a Luddite… perhaps!

I’ve just been reading about the latest ideas in schooling… apparently instead of teaching children to spit out facts like a computer, we should be teaching them the six C’s.  They are defined as collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence – listed in order of importance.

And this is why I sometimes feel as though I was born into the Stone Age or something similar… I’m not even sure the people who taught me had even heard of the now unfashionable 3R’s. And my grandmother, a Victorian, was firmly of the belief that if I could read, there was nothing  I couldn’t learn… but she had probably never heard of calculus, Einstein’s theory, or even Pythagoras, though she was a mathematical whizz unlike her grand-daughter.

I look back to my school days, when I was so shy and retiring that it actually never occurred to me to tell the infant teacher I could read, so I spent the first year in total boredom chanting letters of the alphabet with everyone else, and following rudimentary stories on an illustrated frieze around the classroom wall. I remember feeling indignant too, when a girl called Manon Tipper started, and the teacher told the rest of my awed classmates that Manon’s parents were teachers and had taught her to read. So can I, I remember thinking to myself.

Things looked up the next year with a wonderful history teacher who galloped through the Ice Age, the Beaker people, Romans, right up Henry V in enthralling lessons that I soaked up, getting ten out of ten on the narrow strip of torn off paper (no exercise books because of the war) on which we wrote short answers to his questions at the beginning of every lesson.

The art lessons were a disappointment to my way of thinking. Lesson one was learning to draw a straight line using short feather strokes. This skill acquired by the class of restless six- year olds, we went on to mastering the perspective of drawing a rectangular box in succeeding lessons. Then the joy of bursting out into colour arrived (no finger painting for us) we had to bring a mottled, spotty, yellowy -green laurel leaf to school, to paint it, red berries and all. But our uncooperative front garden hedge had no berries, so no red for me. I think we were learning to observe as well as train the hand and eye…

Besides the boring, daily chanting of the times tables, (which has stood me in good stead!) we had a bout of mental arithmetic which I hated, but I quite enjoyed learning to write the copper-plate handwriting demanded of us. We spent hours copying a letter of the alphabet in our printed copybooks, using a dip pen and ink – often crossing the nib during our efforts (does anyone know what a crossed nib is anymore?) Using ‘joining up’ writing, nowadays called cursive, instead of printing was a sign of maturity for us.

A waste of time? Perhaps not – again – it taught both concentration and hand and eye coordination. And talking of such things, the boring throwing of bean bags and balancing on an upturned bench as well as bunny hops over them in our regular physical training sessions may not have been as interesting as today’s adventure playgrounds, but they did the job.

We had singing lessons when we learned the folk songs that had been handed down for generations, as well as some of the great classics like ‘Jerusalem’, which meant that everyone could sing together like they still do at the Last Night of the Proms in London every year; and we learned poetry which trained our memories and fed our souls.

For lack of a cell phone so we could ring each other from one end of the playground to the other as my granddaughter explained to me, we played games. We would swing a long rope and run in and out to skip until we missed a beat and tripped, or join a line of others skipping at the same time. At the same time, we chanted: ‘Wall flowers, wall flowers, growing up so high, we’re all the old ones, and we shall surely die, excepting:’ – and here we chanted the names of all the girls who were still skipping, until they tripped and fell out. We practised ball games, and at home alone, bounced it against a convenient bit of wall, swinging it under our legs or swiftly turning around, and learning to juggle two balls or more.

We couldn’t exercise our thumb muscles the way today’s children do on their phones and game boys (which I’m told are a thousand years old now) but we learned the dozens of variations of cats cradles, and played five stones, catching them up in the air on the back of our hand, holding them between our fingers, and tossing, and catching… there were many more and more difficult variations  – it took extreme skill and hours of practise and concentration – much more, it seems to me, than pressing a button on a computerised toy.

Then there were the hopscotch crazes, chalking the squares and numbers on the playground or a pavement when we were home, hopping, jumping – more muscle skill –  the marble crazes, the tatting sessions, French knitting – pushing coloured wools in and out of four tacks nailed into the top of a wooden cotton reel and making a long woollen tube (plastic reels nowadays, and useless for this ) and learning to knit properly. My grandmother taught me dozens of sewing stitches (yes, there are dozens) including hemming stitch, running stitch, herring bone, blanket, daisy chain and more.

When we went to birthday parties we played games like musical chairs and memory games like Kim’s game (a tray of small objects displayed for a minute, then whisked away while we quickly wrote down what we’d seen. I usually won this one). And when we left after dancing Sir Roger de Coverley, the only person who had had a present was the birthday girl herself – no party bags back then..

The difference between that rich but simple life with no TV, computer games or pop concerts, and the life of an eight-year -old today can best be illustrated by one of my first memories – watching a great tired dray horse pulling an overloaded hay wain along the narrow country lane where we lived, leaving horizontal drifts of hay draped along the high hawthorn and hazel hedges. Today I look on fields where huge green plastic rolls lie around waiting to be gathered up in the prongs of a tractor and delivered to a pile of more giant things, while farmers haven’t discovered a way of disposing or re-using the efficient, beastly plastic.

The latest theory on education, the six C’s – collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence sounds wonderfully vague, and idealistic too. I’m sure creative arguments can be raised for these C- words. But I rather fancy a way of assessing children’s abilities that I read a few years ago.

More educationalists are now taking into account other aspects of life and learning apparently, and as I remember them, apart from assessing children’s reading, writing and general knowledge, other talents are now being recognised. They included musical ability, physical skills, ethical understanding, and empathy with animals and the environment. Spiritual aptitude, which has nothing to do with religion, theology or dogma, was the last quality listed, and is perhaps the crown of a civilised life – which surely should the point of education/civilisation ….

The qualities of genuine spiritual understanding would and could encompass many of the ideals of the six C’s, I feel.  In fact, sometimes I think most of the qualities of the six C’s could be reduced to one or two simple, spiritual four-letter words, which cover sensitivity to the needs of others, and therefore collaboration, communication, content, confidence and creativity. Those two four letter words are kind and love. Kindness is easier than loving – love being the highest gift or skill or quality of all, and the simplest and most important. We ask if children are clever or talented, but do we ever ask if they are loving?

Food for threadbare gourmets

Deciding to fall back on my store cupboard for supper, I un-earthed a tin of pink salmon and decided to make pancakes filled with salmon. First make the pancake mixture… six ounces more or less of flour, an egg, and milk. Gently beat the egg into the flour, adding the milk in several goes. Beat until there are no lumps and leave for half an hour in the fridge. Beat again before using.

While the pancake mixture is settling, drain off the liquid from the salmon and make a fairly thick white sauce, using the salmon juice as well as warm milk. Chop plenty of parsley and stir into the sauce, then add the salmon, salt and pepper.

Keeping this warm, begin making the pancakes. As each is cooked, spoon some salmon mixture down the centre, and fold over each side. Sprinkle with grated parmesan, and lay on a fire-proof dish. When you’ve used up the pancake and salmon mixtures, put them in a moderate oven for a few minutes to melt the parmesan cheese, and enjoy… salad or green vegetables make this a cheap and filling meal.

Two pancakes a person is usually more than enough… this makes five or six generously, or more if the mixture is stretched out.

Food for thought

Your pain is not prescribed by your creator, He is the healer thus not giver of misery.
…. lay the blame where it belongs.
Mankind is responsible for its environment and culture….                                                   The day we take responsibility for our actions, will be the day God walks through the door smiling.”

Zarina Bibi – Sufi

 

 

 

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Gossip is good for us

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I am an unashamed gossip. Gossip to me is the spice of life, a valuable tool of information, and the oil that greases human relations.

Years ago I was shocked when an acquaintance said to me in reply to my query, ‘what’s going on for her?’ – “I’ve given up gossip”.

I was so taken aback that I retreated, feeling in-adequate and really rather nasty, as though I had been caught out in some secret disreputable, or unmentionable sin.

I thought about it for some days, and then my common sense re-asserted itself. If someone didn’t pass on to me that a mutual acquaintance had a life threatening illness then I could miss out on the chance to support them. If someone didn’t tell me a couple were breaking up, I could tactlessly invite the couple for dinner, and rub salt in their wounds with my ignorance. If I didn’t know that a child had gone off the rails or was in hospital I could be blithely unconscious of their need for help, whether emotional support or a hot meal delivered to a family under stress.

Too often gossip is confused with back-biting, whereas to me, gossip is passing on information that is useful or even valuable in our inter-actions with each other.

And there’s another aspect to gossip – not just useful vital information that enables us to respond appropriately, but sometimes it also gives innocent pleasure !

Yes, I remember the fascination with which I listened to the story of a party where two guests had had a row, and one had tipped a glass over the other…and wished I had been there to see it… drama always happens when I’m in the next room, I felt. So is this voyeurism or schadenfreude I asked myself?

And I also remember reading years ago, that Lord Butler, an English stateman who knew the Queen, reported that like ‘all intelligent women’, she enjoyed gossip. First, I was delighted to think that an enjoyment of good gossip was almost a virtue, and meant that I was intelligent, but it also made me look at what gossip actually is.

It’s the tiny facets of personality or of life that can illuminate a whole character, or light up a situation by showing the human interest behind the dry bones of fact.

When reading history, it’s the delicious details of human conduct that rivet me – reading that Charles 11 loved his cavalier King Charles spaniels so much that he allowed them to whelp in his own sumptuous four posters beds… causing distaste and disgust among his courtiers – ‘God bless the King and damn his dogs,’ one quipped. This gossip made me love him.

I loved to read of George V fulminating about his son wearing ‘vulgar turn-ups’ on his trousers, and loud checks, and Queen Victoria complaining about her second son’s sartorial habits too. Even better is the unexpected and almost outrageous, like hearing of the love between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten, which gossip had informed me of long before the current spate of film and biography.

Just knowing that this beautiful high -minded man who ruled India, had fallen in love with the elegant witty aristocrat married to the semi- royal Viceroy, made them both so much more human, and therefore interesting. To read that she was found dead with all his letters opened on her bed, to be re-read before she went to sleep, and that the heart- broken statesman had sent a destroyer to her committal beneath the sea, to sprinkle showers of marigold petals on her coffin as it sank beneath the waves, was beautiful.

And to discover that the Queen Mother – who gossip tells us had a wicked tongue – quipped that: “dear Edwina always liked to make a splash,” gave me another frisson of pleasure.

‘One shares gossip as one should share good wine. It is an act of pleasure,’ wrote Sarah Sands, a journalist in an essay on gossip ‘There is an art to gossip, which is really a moment of memoir. Philosophers of the human heart… or heartless but comic diarists … tell us more about social history, politics and humanity than autobiographies of public record… I always learn more from a gossip than a prig. Life is a comedy…’

This is gossip as fun. But gossip is also the passing on of important information that we may need. Not the cruel behind their backs stuff, but the details that may help us all. We can be kinder and more tolerant or even forgiving, if we know the pain or difficulties behind some-one’s inconsiderate or strange behaviour.

Women have a well-deserved reputation for gossip, but it’s often this sort of passing on of useful information. On the other hand when I was the only girl in an all-male officers mess, I was shocked at the sometimes cruel and careless gossipy remarks of the men I overheard. Yet my experience of living in an all-female community had been that kindness was acceptable, but catty comments were not.

So yes, I am a defender of the art of gossip…I relish the flashes of insight which an apt morsel of gossip can bestow. This is not gossip as slander, back-biting, envy, jealousy or small mindedness that so many arbiters of human nature have condemned. This is gossip demonstrating the endless fascination of human nature, and as an aid to understanding ‘what’s going on’ for each other.

And if, as Socrates said, strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people, there speaks a man who doesn’t understand the value of emotional ties and the genuine connections between people which make the world go round.

The picture is Chatterboxes by Thomas Kennington

Food for threadbare gourmets

We were meeting friends off the ferry, half an hour’s drive away, and bringing them back home for lunch. Which meant being organised. So while a hot winter’s lunch was heating up in the oven, I needed a little something to keep them going. So spicy pumpkin soup which could be quickly re-heated, it was.

Steam chunks of pumpkin, and scrape it off the skin when soft. Fry some onions and garlic until soft, and add the pumpkin. In the whizzer put portions of this mixture, adding enough warm chicken stock to make a thick smooth mixture, and then return to the pan.

Add salt and pepper and either nutmeg or curry powder to taste, and heat it up. Just before serving, add cream to taste, and serve with fingers of crisp crunchy fried bread, fried in olive oil or hot fat.

 

Food for thought

The angels keep their ancient places–

Turn but a stone and start a wing!

‘Tis ye, ’tis your estrangèd faces,

That miss the many-splendored thing.

Francis Thompson

 

 

 

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“Old soldiers …”

Image result for 14/20th king's hussarsLeafing through an old notebook looking for a blank page to pull out to write a shopping list, I found these words I’d forgotten I’d written.

Timing isn’t always everything I decided, and though I’m late, these words still count…

Parade on Armistice Day

Behind that stern moustache

And row of clinking coloured medals

And Desert Rat insignia,

Service dress, and highly polished Sam Browne belt and sword holster

Stood a man.

 

A man who loved and laughed and grieved and swore and smoked and drank,

And played poker sitting on a petrol drum

Beside his tank in the desert.

He hated the beat of the Funeral March from ‘Saul’,

And he never forgot the ones who were ‘brewed up’.

This was the nightmare he fought most nights for the years of peace.

 

It had been a daily nightmare back then.

It had loomed while he shaved in half a mug of water,

And haunted his thoughts as he drank a mug of strong tea

To cut that terrible desert drought.

And he never forgot the spring flowers that bloomed in Tunisia.

 

Just like five weary years before,

He had never forgotten the women of Plymouth,

Who waited with steaming mugs of tea

For the cold, hungry men who landed at dawn

After escaping from Cherbourg,

Three long weeks after the miracle of Dunkirk.

 

In all the years between, he had been there,

And the names of his battles had

Reverberated through my childhood:

Bardia and Benghazi, Sidi Rezegh, and Sidi Barani,

Tobruk, Tunisia, Salerno and all the others…

He loved his friends and didn’t hate his foes.

Like Abou Ben Adhem, he loved his fellow men.

This was my father.

 

He was a cavalryman, and proud of the history of his historic regiment – an officer from his regiment was dispatched by the Duke of Wellington to take the news of Waterloo to London. It’s the regimental  cap badge at the top of this piece.

Though he survived the war, he didn’t live to old age, and like his other children I still miss him, and I regret not talking to him when I was old enough, or mature enough, to appreciate him the way his friends and his soldiers did. Both groups loved him.

One soldier in the British Army took leave from his posting in Gibraltar to come to London and find my father in his office at Whitehall to give him a watch. Ten years earlier, when we  were in Malaya, this man had been fighting the British. My father on patrol in the jungle, captured him, starving and nearly dead from scurvy.

My father helicoptered the ‘bandit’, as the insurgent communists were called, out of the jungle, and rushed him to the only grocery store for miles around, where we happened to be shopping at the time. He leapt out of the army vehicle, calling to my stepmother to buy a box of oranges. While she did this, he carried the soldier from the jeep into the back of our saloon car. Peeling an orange, he fed segments to the nearly unconscious ’bandit’, and then, as he began to revive, gestured to him to go on eating the oranges.

The man was taken to a rehabilitation centre, where he regained his health, renounced his communism, learned English, and finally joined the British Army. He never forgot my father and came to London ten years later to thank him for saving his life.

Armies and soldiers are sometimes reviled, often by people who do not know soldiers. But like most of his fellows, my father was a good and courageous man, a kind and tolerant man  – like most of the men of all ranks, that I grew up knowing on army camps around the world. Honor virtutis praemium.

Food for threadbare gourmets

For a celebratory birthday lunch the other day that wouldn’t take hours to cook, even though I felt roast chicken would be appropriate, I compromised. I had a couple of chicken breasts in the deep freeze, so after de-frosting slowly in the fridge, I trimmed them open a bit more, and spread a stuffing of whole grain breadcrumbs, onions and mushrooms chopped and cooked in butter, and lots of chopped sage and parsley, salt and pepper on one breast.

Placing the other breast on top, I wrapped them in rashers of bacon, making a parcel, and holding the rashers in place with toothpicks. Scrubbing a couple of Agria potatoes, I pricked them all over, rolled them in olive oil, and cooked them in their skins at the same time as the chicken. (Hot oven for about 45 minutes, or until ready). When cooked, the potatoes were mashed with lots of butter, salt and pepper.

Spinach and carrots completed the meal, along with good gravy made from chicken juices in the pan, while the chicken was ‘resting’ in a warm place. It was as good as if I’d cooked a whole chicken, and took half the time to cook

Food for thought

I am not interested to know whether Vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn’t. … The pains which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.

Mark Twain. American writer, publisher, river boat pilot and many other things. One of his claims to fame was that he was born when Halley’s Comet showed up in 1835 and died, as he predicted, the day after it came back in 1910.

 

 

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Little happinesses and big happiness

 

Image result for rowland hilder paintings

 

I love Autumn… I loved it in England, those early morning mists burnt off by the morning sun… the scents of bonfires and blackberries, picking hazel-nuts from the hedgerows, finding silky, shining conkers and kicking up the rustling leaves, crackling them under my shoes… freshly ploughed fields, and that sense of gentle melancholy, a poetic nostalgia for the last pale days of sunshine before winter crept in…

Later in Hongkong, the end of summer came quite suddenly overnight, when the light changed, and for a month or six weeks a light pervaded the harsh hectic city, and turned the island into a place of surpassing beauty.  I waited for those weeks every year. The gleaming days and shining waters of the harbour seemed rapturous for no particular reason, and those who noticed this magical transformation said the light was like the light of the Greek isles.

And now in the antipodes, autumn is the best season of the year – soft, golden days and crisp, starry nights.
We live in a covenanted podocarp forest of evergreen trees which stretches across high peaks and shadowed gorges. Some days we wake to find the sun shining on our mountain, and then see the gold light move down the slopes until the whole forest shines. Other mornings mist shrouds the peaks, and hovers in the valleys… last night the high wind blasted the last leaves of autumn from the trees along the roads, leaving just the fretted gold leaves of the gingko trees.

So today it feels as though autumn has passed, and winter is setting in. With deep pleasure, I get out the warm winter clothes, and start to think about winter food, hot and comforting, snug evenings with the curtains pulled, and warm sheets on the bed. These are ‘small happinesses’, a phrase my daughter introduced me to a few months ago.

This morning when I put the kettle on for my early morning cup of tea, the sun was on the mountain, a small happiness. Taking the tray back to bed, I checked my e-mails, gloating over the beauty of the latest photos sent from France by my daughter… yesterday Chartres, today Monet’s garden at Givernay, tomorrow Mont St Michel… Then I found a poem by Mark Nepo, sent by a dear friend, with phrases that gave me more small happinesses…

Each person is born with an unencumbered spot…

… an umbilical spot of grace… the last lines were: the incorruptible spot of grace resting at our core.

Holding these words in my mind, my love and I went shopping to a small town an hour and a quarter away. Every mile we travelled past weathered crags, misty mountains and green fields was beautiful. Finally, we reached the narrow coast road, where pohutakawa trees arched overhead, their roots clinging to the side of the cliff.

The wide silver stretch of still water, shimmering with light, lay alongside, and I watched birds dive for food in a small feeding frenzy, marvelled at the shag colony, where up in the pohutakawa trees, the big white breasted birds sat erect on their great nests concocted from twigs, while a gull flew overhead at 35 miles an hour. We passed the curving sandy bay black with hosts of black oyster catchers standing patiently on the shores of the estuary, white breasts and sharp, orange beaks facing the high tide, waiting for the water to recede and their food to return.

We did our shopping – small, kind, cheery encounters that are the building blocks of the goodness of life. A visit to the re-cycle centre yielded a satisfying bargain and a small happiness … two pretty pressed glass Victorian dishes for a dollar each, and then the building re-cycling yard had more treasures, including the perfect windows for our building project.

Feeling contented we relaxed in our favourite café, with hot chocolate and a blueberry muffin. We sat in the courtyard under the pollarded plane trees and watched a small flock of sparrows fall on each table as it emptied, diving into cake crumbs and pulling at a rasher of left-over bacon. A speckle- breasted thrush sat in an olive tree growing in a large pot, and pecked at the clusters of pale green olives. The sage green leaves were silhouetted against a rosy brick wall and the sinuous curves of branches and leaves looked like William Morris’s famous willow pattern.

I must keep a diary again, I exclaimed, I want to remember these moments of beauty. But writing this blog is the closest I get to it at the moment. This day was like all our days living in this remote place where we are the guardians of the forest, where species of plants and creatures that are almost extinct elsewhere, still live their tranquil lives hidden deep beneath the green canopy. I once said to my love that I knew people who were living quiet, mystical lives of love and beauty, and we agreed that we would make it happen for us.

Occasionally a note of discord strikes when a person who has other agendas intrudes into our peace, but since I take Don Miguel Ruiz’s Third Agreement seriously, and try never to take anything personally, our peace of mind is rarely perturbed. I also remember a meme which says: ‘negativity can only affect you if you’re on the same frequency – vibrate higher.’ So we try.

We forget to play music because the silence is so full of sound, the wind in the trees, the birdsong, the stream rushing down below. Living in this place, it’s easy to believe in that “incorruptible spot of grace” resting at our core. It’s easy to believe too, that the mystery of love and truth and beauty do still exist, in spite of what often seems like suffering and chaos in the outer world, but which, hidden from our limited understanding, may have a larger purpose. We only have to believe in love and truth and beauty, to see them – in people, in nature, in the universe, and in the deep silent mystery of the life unfolding around us.

So the roots of the trees in this forest grow deep in the earth, sustained by creatures of the dark, the snails, slugs, earthworms, flatworms and nematodes that degrade organic matter. The rain and the sun sustain them. Tiny frogs and rare lizards hide deep in their secret habitats, bees push into the flowers of the manukau trees, butterflies hover above the flowers, birds sing, the kingfisher plunges down into the grass for a morsel, morepork owls hoot across our valley in the moonlight, and nature continues to sustain them all, and the planet, and us too… what a big happiness!!!

PS   The picture is by Rowland Hilder who specialised in  painting nostalgic autumn and winter scenes.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

I needed a pudding for a gluten- intolerant friend, so fell back on our tried and true chocolate mousse… just eggs, butter and good dark chocolate… though I can never resist tweaking the simple recipe.

So after separating the eggs, melt a knob of butter in a saucepan, and I add a table spoon of brandy or strong black coffee or even sherry, and break the chocolate in. For every egg, use six squares of plain chocolate, and a little bit more butter.

Stirring the mix until the chocolate melts, take it off the heat before it goes grainy. Whip the whites of eggs until peaks form, and at this stage I often add one or two tablespoons of icing sugar and whip again until stiff. Stir the yolks into the chocolate mixture, and then gently fold this into the egg whites. Pour the mix into small individual bowls, chill in the fridge for at least six hours, and serve with cream.

I gave this to my children often when we were vegetarian, as it was an easy way to make sure they had enough protein.

 

Food for thought

“The best and most beautiful things in this world cannot be seen or even heard, but must be felt with the heart.”

Helen Keller, who overcame the handicaps of being deaf, blind and dumb to gain a degree and live a life of service to others.

 

 

 

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Aliens, Narnia and our dog, Murphy

Image result for image of world from space

 

My latest devouring passion (perhaps passions keep you alive and hungry for the fascination and excitement of life!)  is for films about aliens… I especially love the ones with encounters between them and us… those with peace and a desire to communicate.

The film ‘Arrival’ sparked this unlikely interest, and I’ve watched it several times, and have been working backward from ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’, in which Keanu Reeves played the solemn and idealistic alien, ‘ET’ of course, and my favourite, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. At the end of any film I’ve watched, I then go into a frenzy Googling the cast, reviews, and interviews with directors and any other interesting facts, etc.

When watching ‘Close Encounters…’ again last night, I registered for the first time the dead decoy carcases of sheep and cattle. I noticed too, the tortured dog entrapped in a crude home-made gas mask by his owner, who was trying to sell animal gas masks at the crowded railway station crammed with evacuees. I put aside my disquiet at the killing of the sheep and cattle in order to immerse myself in the mystical, magical encounter with the space-ship and its aliens.

But in my researches afterwards, my misgivings returned. Reading Spielberg explaining that before disguising a group of local school children as the child aliens he had tried to use an orang-utan encased in a silver lycra suit and roller skates strapped to his feet upset me dreadfully. The poor creature undid the skates and crawled back to its owner, so Spielberg had to switch to using children.

As usual, my heart turned over at the idea of using an animal for the purposes of entertainment and causing it distress and discomfort. Not as bad as bull fighting obviously, or as bad as the experience of the tiger in ‘The Life of Pi’. This glorious creature became the victim of the very people who were supposed to be looking after him, and nearly drowned because his keepers were so pre-occupied with the affair they were enjoying.

I’m been suspicious of the use of animals in films ever since the makers of Narnia had wanted to use our magnificent bull mastiff. We had taken Murphy – a rescue dog – to the vet, who was impressed with his splendid mastiff good looks. The vet told us that the makers of the film Narnia were on the look- out for big, handsome bull mastiffs like this. They needed six apparently.

We thought about it, desultorily, and finally asked what it would involve. It would have meant gentle, devoted Murphy – who’d cried with relief all the way home from a ‘Club Med for Critters’ where we’d left him for a weekend once – going away for training for six weeks. And what would the training be, we asked. He would learn to snarl and growl and spring upon people on demand, we learned.

We were absolutely horrified. While he would be pining, and wondering why he had been taken away from us, Murphy’s gentle, friendly nature would have been warped for the purposes of film makers who obviously would not have his best interests at heart. How would they teach a friendly courteous animal to snarl and growl and attack, I wondered, appalled.

Since learning about this, I’ve been very conscious of the way film-makers seem to lack a conscience about how animals are used on set. I no longer believe those PC disclaimers: ‘No animal has suffered any cruelty in the making of this film.’ Certainly, the carnage, when over a hundred horses were killed in the making of Ben Hur, would not be tolerated today, but what constitutes cruelty is entirely subjective…

I cried my heart out over Old Yeller, like most of my generation, my best friend and I mopping up our blotched mascara in the ladies cloakroom after the film… but I sometimes wonder now, after our experience with Narnia , how Old Yeller was trained when he had to snarl and growl before rabies set in…

Lassie is another story, with his waving tail and cheerful demeanour. The most fascinating thing about him is that his character is based on a true story, and on the heroism of a real Lassie.

Wikipedia tells us that writer Nigel Clarke in the “Shipwreck Guide to Dorset and South Devon”, gives the original Lassie story. Half collie, Lassie was owned by the landlord of the Pilot Boat, a pub in the little sea-side town of Lyme Regis. On New Year’s Day in 1915, the battleship “HMS Formidable” was torpedoed by a German submarine off Start Point in South Devon, with the loss of more than 500 men. In a storm that followed, a life raft containing bodies was blown along the coast to Lyme Regis. The owner of the Pilot Boat offered his cellar as a morgue.

When the bodies had been laid out on the stone floor, Lassie found her way down amongst them, and began to lick the face of one of the victims, Able Seaman John Cowan. She stayed beside him for more than half an hour, nuzzling him and keeping him warm with her fur. To everyone’s astonishment, Cowan eventually stirred. He was taken to hospital and went on to make a full recovery. He visited Lassie again when he returned to thank all those who had saved his life.

The sinking of the ship was a severe blow and when RN officers heard the story of Lassie, and what she did to rescue Cowan, they told the story again and again to anyone who would listen, as it was so inspirational and heart-warming. The story travelled to Hollywood and Lassie and the generations of Lassies who followed her, became one of the immortals.  Hers is a feel-good story, as also was the real- life filming of Babe.

In this film, there were six trainers acting as department heads, supervised by an American trainer, and assisted by over fifty-seven animal handlers from the United States, Australia and New Zealand. It took a year and a half of training, and six months of filming to make the film. Wherever there was any violence or an incident in which an animal might suffer discomfort, animatronic models were used; and the pigs were so clever that animatronic models were hardly used in their scenes.

The filming of Babe was a triumph for the humane treatment of other creatures. Interestingly, James Cromwell, who played Farmer Hogget, who was already a vegetarian, became a vegan after making it. Many children, including my granddaughter, stopped eating bacon after seeing this film… And when we remember how often the word ‘pig’ is used in such derogatory ways, it was beautiful and heart- warming that pigs were portrayed at last as the intelligent and loveable creatures that they are.

I’ve strayed a long way from aliens, but I like to think that the noble alien in ‘The Day The World Stood Still’, who came to save the planet, but not the undeserving people, would approve of this film, realising that humans are changing, that they can cherish all life, and not just our own species. (They can even give up eating bacon!)

Technology update. I discovered that my extraordinary overload of e-mails was a file I didn’t know existed, and it contained every blog I have ever received, plus every like, comment, follower, since May 2012. There were nearly ninety thousand, and I’m down to just under seventy- three thousand, deleting them in chunks of fifty which is the best ‘they’ will let me do.

Four fascinating bloggers used to send between five and twenty blogs a day each, which was one reason for the huge back-log… but now at least I know what I’m up against and try to clear between five hundred and a thousand every day … time consuming especially when a title leaps out at me, and I simply have to stop and read it. I’m back as far as December 2015, so you can imagine what a task I still face…this may explain my tardiness in sometimes getting back to you… but nil desperandum.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Not much in the fridge, except the makings of courgette and feta fritters, a favourite for us both. First, grate two large courgettes and put them to drain on kitchen paper. I’m using leeks at the moment instead of onions, so cut half a leek in four lengthways and chop it. Gently fry the leek in olive oil. In a large bowl mix the leeks, grated courgettes, two beaten eggs, a crumbled packet of feta (about 225 gr) two tablespoons of flour, lots of salt and pepper, and plenty of chopped parsley and fresh thyme. Drop tablespoonfuls into hot olive oil, and slightly flatten, turn when brown on one side, and then drain on kitchen paper while you cook the rest.

Sometimes I use coriander instead of parsley and thyme, sometimes nutmeg. We eat the fritters with chilli jelly or sweet chilli sauce, or beetroot relish, with salad – and hot buttered rolls for hungry people. This amount of fritters is enough for three greedy people or four reasonable people!

Food for thought

You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.        William Wilberforce who campaigned against slavery and cruelty to animals.

 

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Observing light and love

Image result for st francis

 

It must be over forty years since I rummaged in that wastepaper basket in the office. I salvaged a photo I’d seen the photographer toss into it disgustedly – saying it was double exposed, and there was no way his camera should have produced such a useless image.

It’s guaranteed not to, he had exclaimed. So I looked at it, and recognised what I was seeing. The little old woman sitting in the chair with piercing brown eyes and a deeply wrinkled face was Mother Teresa, who had visited this country back in the early seventies.

I was working on a woman’s magazine. I had given up any belief in God, or the Supernatural a few years before, when my life seemed so awful that I blamed the Deity, and decided to get on without It. And I didn’t like Mother Teresa.

But the picture I was looking at was one of authentic holiness. The light around this woman ringed her body, and was not obliterated by the arms of the chair, but carried on around her form. I still have this photo, feeling that it is an historic one.

In the early pictures of saints, in western Renaissance pictures, Byzantine ikons, middle Eastern paintings, to Indian Jain and Hindu representations of holiness, artists have usually painted a halo around the head of a person. But this was a light which completely ringed Mother Teresa. Maybe it was her aura – which was filled with light.

I’ve never been very impressed by the efforts of the Catholic church to establish sainthood based on the person having performed at least two miracles of healing. Healing is not that rare, even among healers the Catholic church would not recognise as saints.

Healers to me are of rather a different order, and maybe some can see the light in their souls that is not obvious to us lesser mortals. Nelson Mandela, a great man, whose great work of healing is now being undone in South Africa, would be one of those healers… maybe Princess Diana, who brought comfort and hope and re-introduced the word ‘love’ into the vocabularies of some who never used it, was a healer. Albert Schweitzer, the great musician and theologian, turned doctor, who brought healing to the sick or dying Africans who came to him at Lambarene in Africa, was a great healer and a great man, but has never been called a saint.

The face of Major Keeble, who fought in the Falklands War is marked with that same spirituality which makes a difference in our world. He was second in command of his regiment, when Col H. Jones, a VC hero, was killed during the Battle of Goose Green. A devout Catholic, Keeble took command at a stage when one in six of his men were killed or wounded, they were largely out of ammunition, had been without sleep for 40 hours, surrounded by burning gorse bushes, and were vulnerable to a counter-attack. A hopeless situation in fact.

After kneeling alone in prayer amongst the burning gorse, he returned to his men, ordered them to ceasefire, and released several Argentine prisoners of war with a message to their commander to surrender or risk more casualties. The offer was accepted, no more killing and a peaceful surrender of the opposing Argentine forces was the result of his action/Guidance. Now retired and still making a difference, Keeble has  established a consultancy and lectures on the: “ethic of business transformation with the ethic of peoples’ flourishing”.

I have seen two halos. One was during a personal growth course when the forty-five of us there were being really challenged, and floundering. Then someone spoke up, joyful words of inspiration, courage and wisdom. I looked across at him with amazement, and saw a ring of light around his head, just as depicted in those ancient paintings.

The man with a halo was a gay who worked with Aids sufferers. He came to this course because two friends had persuaded him. His two friends were as ‘holy’ as he was – whole in the real sense of the word. I loved them both for their goodness and simplicity. Both were selfless teachers who loved their boys in the purest sense of the word. The last time I saw one of them, he was sitting on the pavement, his feet in the gutter in the pouring rain, with his arm around the shoulders of a desperate drunk.

The other time I saw a halo was when I looked across at a ten- year- old child, lost in playing an old church organ. Another photographer from the same magazine couldn’t resist taking a photo of her, and when it was developed, there was that ring of light emanating from the crown of her head. I can’t explain it. Neither could the photographer with his state of the art camera.

Years later, I was talking to a grandchild, the same age as the girl. He was surprised to discover from me, that not everyone saw the light that he saw, shining from people’s hands and sometimes all around them. Later that night, as I tucked him into bed, he sat up and said to me earnestly, “Grannie, everything that God creates comes from the light”.

Malcolm Muggeridge, the initially sceptical English journalist who went to India to see what Mother Teresa was up to, went to the tatty, ill-equipped hospital where the dying, lying destitute on the streets, were brought to her and her gentle loving nuns. He wrote that the hospital was filled with a light, which also felt like joy.

I can’t explain any of this. I’m just recording and revelling in the little that I have observed about light and love.

PS     Since leaving my other internet provider at the beginning of the year, I have struggled with my new one, discovering after some months, a second e-mail account where all the blogs I follow have been accumulating for months. So I have hundreds of e-mails to sort through, as well as thousands of others that this new email provider dug up from somewhere in the past, and generously deposited in my files. So I’m taking a break from writing my blog for a few weeks while I wade through this mystifying and mountainous back-log… be bak sun, as they say!!!

Food for threadbare gourmets

Deciding to sip our spicy pumpkin soup from cups made me re-think croutons, which I love. So instead of frying cubes of sour dough bread in olive oil, I fried squares and fingers of the bread instead, put them on a plate, and let people help themselves. They were so delicious and so successful that I will probably never bother with fiddly croutons ever again. Guests waxed nostalgic about fried bread from their childhood… don’t we do fried bread anymore?.

Food for thought

This made me laugh, another version of a famous prayer, but still – to some extent – true!

Lord, give me coffee to find the courage to do the things that I can change, and give me whisky to help me accept the things I cannot change…

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