Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Tragic and Hilarious Life of a Blogger !

 

100_0299Laughter and tears are not very far apart was the subject of an essay I once had to write at school. This is somewhat how I feel as I go once more into Spam, to clean out yet another of the daily two or three hundred messages which continue to accumulate ever since I wrote a blog with the headline ‘Ladies and Gentlemen: The Queen’. Sometimes I laugh. Sometimes I feel like crying with boredom as I work my way through hundreds of ‘delete permanently’!

When I first discovered over seven hundred in there, I was puzzled – why this sudden influx? Worse – they were all about Viagra, penis enlargement, electronic cigarettes and teenage sex, but overwhelmingly the first two. I looked to see what stories could have triggered this avalanche of information overload, and each one was hooked to the ‘Ladies and Gentleman…’ story.

Since there were no ads about gay sex, I assumed that it wasn’t the word ‘queen’ in the title which had provoked all the cyber-babble, so it had to be the words ‘ladies and gentlemen’ which  activated dormant computers all over the world and continue to do so.

What a sad reflection of where our language and our thoughts have gone… the original meaning of lady being a derivation of loaf-kneader – a definition I love; and where has Chaucer’s ‘verray parfit gentil knight gone?’ The goodness and nobility which was implied by the word gentleman seem to have dissolved along with evolution of a gentleman into someone only interested in his penis, in company with dissolute ‘ladies’ who will cavort alongside these enlarged penises.

The refinement implied by the words ‘ladies and gentlemen’, now seems a very old fashioned concept. If I had written: ‘Women and Men: the Queen’, would it have jerked into action all these persistent purveyors of Viagra, or is it only ladies and gentlemen who are interested in sex?

So thanks to spam, my view of life on earth has been expanded, and I now have an insight into a somewhat raunchy world which I didn’t even know existed, in which I was offered photos of surgery as well as enlargement pills which claim to do the same thing as the knife. I’ve pondered this problem of my bulging spam box, and have decided that the best way to stop the deluge, is to go back to the blog, and change the head-line to: “The Queen”. So if you get a post from me, so entitled, just delete it unread… it’ll be my attempt to restore some sort of normality to the spam box. If there was a competition for the most spam – I’d win easily.

That’s the low of blogging – whether it’s hilarious or tragic is hard to say… the high is The Conversation and connection. At the end of my tenth month of blogging, I’ve decided that that’s the indispensable ingredient of blogging. As time goes by, each blogger seems to attract like minds, so that we are lots of little shoals of fish swimming and connecting in the great internet ocean.

We know that there are some whales around with thousands and even millions of followers, but for the most part we are happy to swim around our own little back water, enjoying the company of all the other multi-coloured little fish around us. Sometimes one of the little fish becomes a big fish over-night when they receive the accolade of being Word-Pressed. Then there are lots of excited eddies around the favoured one, and then life goes back to normal and the ripples fade away.

As the months have gone by some treasured friends have disappeared, and one usually gets a sense of the unspoken why … ill health, family problems, finding blogging too onerous, feeling disappointed at not attracting a readership… there have been blogs that I’ve conscientiously liked and commented on, seeing that the writer may be feeling a bit lonely, but one person cannot make a blog popular… so I’ve seen some of these blogs quietly disappear, and I’ve felt sad.

At the same time, wonderful, new, brightly coloured bloggers swim into sight, and suddenly the pool feels livelier for their presence. And the fish we’ve been swimming with for a while… we come to know them. They may not say they’re going through divorce or grave illness or financial ruin – and sometimes they do – but they share their grief and broken-heartedness, and somehow we are richer for being in contact with each other as life swirls and swoops and takes a dive or hits a high. Sometimes they swim off and disappear while they rest or heal, but when they return, they get a great welcome. Cyber friendships make a golden spider’s web of light and connection around the globe.

When I see those amazing pictures of the planet from space, with all the lights on around the landmasses, I now also see that invisible web of golden threads linking hearts and minds across the world – the bloggers of the world – united by friendship, fun and common interests.

The common interest of most bloggers seems to be the well being of our world. Most bloggers care a lot about the planet. They are aware that unless we do something fast, our children and our grandchildren will not inherit the easy unthinking lives of abundance of water, food, forests, fish and all the other things we take for granted.

Thanks to another blogger Ana-Ela at www.spiritualanalog.com  I watched the wonderful video below. In it Edgar Mitchell says: “The root of the environmental and social crises facing humanity is the misperception that we are separate – from each other, the planet, and the cosmos as a whole”. And this is one of the blessings of blogging… it is showing us that we are not separate, but rather, how connected we all are. And that’s the real high.

http://www.planetarycollective.com/overview/

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I love leftovers. We had some turkey left over from our little dinner with friends, so the next day I did what some would call fricassee of turkey. (I learned the other day that fricassee of chicken was Abraham Lincoln’s favourite dish) I put on some long grain rice to cook, and in another saucepan some wild rice, so that the black grassy spikes would make the white rice look and taste more interesting. (It takes longer to cook than ordinary rice, so needs to be cooked separately)

I made a white sauce, and popped the chopped up turkey into it, plus the remains of the mushroom garlic and cream sauce, and the dregs of the gravy from the night before. Then while the rice was finishing, I fried some chopped onion and celery, added some frozen peas to melt, and when the rice was drained, forked in the fried mixture. It was truly tasty with the turkey on top, and some fresh green beans given to us by another neighbour.

 

Food for Thought

The Two Bridges

I came to the void that encircles heaven, and found two bridges there.

And while I worried over which to attempt, a voice leapt the dark:

One is for open minds and one for open hearts. Either will get you across.

From Journeys on the Razor-edged Path by Simons Roof

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under bloggers, cookery/recipes, humour, life/style, philosophy, spiritual, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

The good enough life

 

 

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Back in the last century, a psychologist called Dr Winnicott coined the comforting phrase ‘A good – enough mother’ …. I looked back at yesterday, and thought, yes, I suppose it was a good enough day …

I woke to the sound of the sea smashing onto the rocks. Good, I thought. I love it when there’s a thundering sea running. Up early to take my husband for minor surgery, I went to the cliff edge to see the white foam breaking over the rocks, and looked out to the horizon. The sun was just rising, a flaming red band above the sea, fading to amber, and then to palest turquoise, the few clouds black in the pearly lightening sky. Still. Not a breath of wind in spite of the pounding waves.

I fed the birds and then drove into our nearest country town, and it was chill enough for rags of white mist to drape the hollows, and drift across the dips in the road. By the time we had reached the surgical centre, the sun was up and the burnt gold and brown fields were lying defenceless in the baking heat again. Animals lying heaped in scraps of precious shade …

Leaving the old chap to the anaesthetic and the knife, I searched for a cafe open at 7.30 to have some breakfast, and decided that Eggs Benedict would help to while away the two hours  until I fetched him. But by the time I’d picked up the invalid and driven back home with my wonky liver making its grumpy presence known, I realised that Eggs Benedict that early in the day was not a good idea.

Later the morning soared into joy with a long phone call from eldest grandson, completing a double degree in arts and science at Uni. By the time we’d debated GM experimentation and the environment, knocked off Schopenhauer and his will to live, breezed through Nietzsche, explored  his theory of the nature of pain, tried to define happiness a propos Nietzsche and his fulfilment of will,  covered the architecture of Paris, categorised various behaviours as schizoid, narcissistic etc,  explored Maslow’s concept of peak experiences, agreed on beauty, argued about the number of different species of birds, butterflies and animals, discussed his fitness regime and the nuances of rock climbing, I felt as though my brain had had its own peak experience and a mental workout as well.

I put down the phone smiling like a Cheshire cat. Nothing – not even a peak experience – beats talking to my grandchildren.  Lunch was a breeze, as a neighbour had dropped in some hot savoury scones and cheese turnovers, so I didn’t have to cook. I replenished the bird’s various feeding bowls with wheat, and then tooled back into town to the surgeon for the invalid’s dressing to be changed, and various instructions for his care. At the chemist, picking up the prescriptions to administer, I was greeted warmly by another customer, a youngish woman in a huge multi-coloured caftan to disguise her weight, and only one arm. As her joyful goodness enveloped me, I felt ashamed of my livery grumpiness.

So I’m now not only cook, bottle-washer, car-washer, gardener, log- carrier, accountant, chauffeur but also nurse. Not, my friends tell me, the sort of cheeky flirty sort that they were in their young days, “ All the men in my ward fell in love with me,” giggled one still beautiful seventy- year- old on the phone…

Stopping at the village shop for milk on the way home I found a parcel waiting for me. It was ‘Carolina Cavalier’, the biography of James Johnston Pettigrew, the other General who led Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. One of his descendants, a dear friend, had sent it, knowing my fascination for the Civil War.

Early to bed, too tired to start my new book – I just needed some mental knitting – so skipped happily through a Georgette Heyer. Before putting out the light, and opening the window wide so that the sound of the sea would fill the room and all the spaces of the night, I thought about that phrase, a good enough day… and remembered that old legend about the poor man who had a horse he treasured.

One day it disappeared, and all the villagers commiserated with him about his bad luck. But he brushed aside their sympathy saying it wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad. A few days later the horse re-appeared bringing with him a herd of wild horses. Everyone congratulated the old man on his good fortune, but he again brushed it off, saying it was neither good nor bad. His son began breaking in the horses, so that they could sell them, but one day he was thrown, and broke his leg.

More commiserating moans from the villagers, and once more the old man shrugged and refused to judge what had happened. While the son was laid up, the king levied a call on all young men to join the army to fight for their country. How lucky you are that your son can’t go, exclaimed the villagers. And the old man made no comment again. He never judged anything that happened, recognising that he actually never knew whether what happened was fortunate or unfortunate. Life just is.

So I looked back on another daily round filled with common tasks, which furnished all we ought to ask, in the words of the hymn, and there were unexpected gifts as well as the expected challenges. I don’t know what the hidden significance of any of it is… maybe one day I will. Maybe I will never know. Maybe I will know when I reach the other side. It was simply another good enough day. Neither good nor bad. The stuff of life.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I have people coming for dinner on Sunday. It started out as four of us, but visiting overseas mutual friends, means that we’re now eight. So I’ve decided to haul a small turkey out of the deep freeze. I’m also going to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in Auckland on Saturday night with my daughter, and a party afterwards, and know I won’t be as on the ball on Sunday as I’d like to be. So I cooked the pudding today and it will reheat perfectly. Because it’s a sort of Christmas turkey, I thought I’d do one Christmassy- type pudding, and one refresher – a lemon cream. The Christmassy option is apple crumble, the stewed apple mixed with Christmas mincemeat. It lifts apple crumble into another realm, especially with a little brandy added to the apple- mincemeat mixture, and the crumble a really rich one.

For the crumble – a big one – I used ten ounces of flour, and two of ground almonds, six ounces of butter and eight ounces of sugar, plus grated lemon rind. Mix the butter into the flour, add the rest of the ingredients, tip over the fruit in an ovenproof dish, and bake for forty minutes or so in a medium to hot oven. It will wait in the fridge, and re-heat on the day. I’ll serve it with crème fraiche.

 

Food for Thought

Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.

Eckhart Tolle  born 1948  Influential teacher, philosopher, and best- selling author of spiritual books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The upsides and the downsides of being a woman

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Something made me re-read a book for girls which my Victorian grandmother had pressed on me when I was seven. It was about a girl who’d lost her mother, and whose military father was absent. It pressed a few buttons for me, though at seven I didn’t realise why. ‘The Wide Wide World’ by Miss Wetherell, was published in 1850, and became an instant best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s a vivid picture of rural America in the 1840’s, and the forerunner of all those other girls books. Jo March reads it in ‘Little Women’.

Ostensibly the story of an orphan who becomes a fervent Christian and whose faith sustains her throughout constant miseries and trials, re-reading it I saw something else. It was a perfect picture of the powerlessness of women, and of how ingrained this powerlessness was.  Ellen, the heroine, never has any choices, and even when she finds happiness with the upright Christian, John Humphreys, she is totally subservient to him, and finds her greatest happiness in pleasing him. So powerlessness was held up to generations of girls as being a virtue.

This theme of powerlessness was on my mind, after reading a wonderful list in another blog, of a person’s rights, which included having the right to say no, to remove oneself from an abusive situation, not have to explain oneself etc. And as I thought about these rights, and how I’d painfully allowed myself to claim them over a long life of invalidating myself, I realised that the reason most people – but especially women – have to be reminded of these rights is because they do feel powerless, and this is too often the result of the way we bring up our children.

We don’t allow them to be angry and say no, or choose what foods they eat, or what subjects they will take at school… too often from the day they are born, children are treated like brown paper parcels, and rarely given information about where they’re going or what they’re going to be doing; often their needs are secondary to the needs of parents or other pressures, and in so many tiny ways we unwittingly make children feel powerless and without a voice. They learn to please their parents by giving away their power and conforming. I’m not talking about permissive parenting here, but about the courtesy we give to adults, but not to children

In the book, Ellen is often in floods of tears, which reminded me of my childhood, and it’s only well into life I realised that I was always in tears as a child because I so often felt powerless and therefore angry. Saying how we feel, expressing anger, was not allowed, and it’s a skill that many of us haven’t mastered or taught our children.

So the only other way people can express their anger and powerlessness, is to be destructive, and we see this constantly in the courts, on the roads, and in relationships. But it was comparatively safe for a child to cry, so many children from Ellen onwards, learned to divert their anger into tears. As a mature adult whenever I was angry, to my annoyance I would cry…  until I realised that this was the way I’d dealt with anger as a child. They were tears of powerlessness.

It was gentle Anne Bronte in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, published two years before ‘The Wide Wide World’, who challenged this powerlessness of women in her book which was considered shocking when it was published, and instantly became a best seller! In the book, which is about a woman trapped and terrorised by a drunken and sadistic bully, the wife, driven to desperation, slams the bedroom door in his face and locks him out, before eventually escaping.

This one act of slamming the door in her husband’s face reverberated throughout Victorian society. She had violated her husband’s rights, and broken the law at the same time. Some have called this the first feminist novel. This heroine had defied the centuries old acceptance that a woman was a father’s property until she married, when she became her husband’s property.

When Mrs Caroline Norton, whose husband was also a drunken bully, famouslyleft her husband in 1836, she not only had no rights to her children and no rights to divorce him, but when she earned money to support herself it became her husband’s property. The Married Women’s Property Act in 1870, finally allowed women some independence in England. But women were still powerless in many other ways, as Mary Lincoln’s incarceration in a lunatic asylum for no reason other than eccentricity, unresolved grief, and falling out with her son over money, showed.

While slavery – owning a person, buying and selling them, breaking up their families and working them to death  – became illegal in the western world, it wasn’t for many more years that women achieved the vote and a measure of freedom. And still, in some places in the west women are struggling for equal pay and equal rights.

Religion has not been on the side of women – as President Jimmy Carter has said:  “The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.”

They have in fact chosen to play the power game. And it isn’t just Christianity which has made this choice. There’s hardly a religion in the world which doesn’t rate women as lesser beings. In Jerusalem these days, women are now segregated on buses, not allowed to pray at the Wailing Wall, and subject to increasing discrimination by extreme members of the Jewish faith. And we all know the fate of too many women in Muslim, Hindu and other religious societies.

Marve Seaton in her courageous blog about the abuse of women, continually draws attention to female circumcision, breast ironing, gang rape, acid attacks, stoning and “honour” killings, (a euphemism for male sadism, ego, and heartlessness) amongst other outrages inflicted on women. Most religions, including extreme Christian sects, still think that it’s okay, and a husband’s right to beat his wife.

The UN figures show that two thirds of illiterate people in the world are women, that women work harder and longer hours than men as well as being responsible for their households, and  that men own most of the land in the world, and most of the money.

Women in the west who feel powerless, who are struggling with low wages, male chauvinism and hostility from the far right of some Christian churches, have it easy compared with their sisters in the third world and elsewhere…  and women everywhere are often too emotionally connected to the needs of their children to find any way out of their dilemmas of poverty and powerlessness.

But when I look back at the position both of slaves and of women and children a hundred and fifty years ago in the west, I can see how far we’ve come. And now it’s the time for our sisters in the rest of the world to start to edge towards their freedom too, which for many of them means feeling safe. Anne Bronte’s book also preached universal salvation, and it must have seemed an unattainable vision when she wrote ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’.

But western men did change their minds, and western women are well on their way now. So it IS possible that things can and will improve for our sisters in the rest of the world, that the climate of thought can change other men’s minds. Changing the way men think is the challenge for those women, and it’s our challenge to support them in doing it. We’ve come so far, that we can be optimistic that the time will come when we will all be free. Progress does happen. Change does happen. This is the blessing of modern times.

As Emily Dickinson said back then: “Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Deep disappointment today! Desperate for something sweet, I decided to make myself a banana split. I knew I had some ice-cream in the deep freeze, because I’d seen the plastic container. Alas. It wasn’t labelled, and turned out to be soup. Undeterred, I dashed up to the village shop and bought a packet of vanilla ice-cream. By the time I was home I’d changed my mind, and instead of banana I made a quick hot chocolate sauce to pour over the ice-cream. It’s heaven, and used to be the children’s favourite pudding outside chocolate mousse.

It comes from Mrs Beeton, the famous Victorian cookery writer. All you need is one rounded dessertsp of cornflour, two of cocoa and three of sugar, half a pint of water, half an ounce of butter and some drops of vanilla. Mix the cornflour, cocoa and sugar together with a little of the water. Boil the rest of the water, and pour over the chocolate mix. Pour into a saucepan and boil for two minutes, add the butter and vanilla, and pour over the ice-cream. Delectable and cheap.

 

Food for Thought

Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.
How does one look after others by looking after oneself?
By practicing mindfulness, developing it, and making it grow.
How does one look after oneself by looking after others?
By patience, non-harming, loving-kindness, and caring.   Samyutta Nikaya 47.19  Verse from the Buddhist scripture

 

 

 

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Hollywood, Ruined Reputations and Truth

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In the New Zealand Parliament this week the leader of one of the parties put up a motion congratulating the New Zealand  Ambassador and his second secretary for “their courageous and commendable” role in offering refuge and “significant help”  in 1979, at their Tehran embassy during the US hostage crisis in Iran.

He termed the film ‘Argo’ a “grave misrepresentation” of the part the NZ diplomats had played, which had placed both themselves, and their country’s policies and trade at risk.

The motion was passed unanimously. Ben Affleck has admitted in a press conference that he had been unjust both to the British and to the New Zealanders, who’d both risked themselves and their countries by helping the US hostages. But he said it was a better story if he falsified the facts.

I can’t imagine how it must feel to be held up as a coward to the whole world, when you’ve actually acted generously and courageously. But such thoughtless arrogance  is nothing new. Hollywood has been falsifying history and making heroic war films about Americans using the exploits of British servicemen for years.

And this is why I prefer facts to fiction. The story I tell now is true, and is such a perfectly rounded story with a neat plot and unexpected ending that if it was fiction it would be said to be too neat, and therefore improbable.

It’s about my father who belonged to a distinguished cavalry regiment, and had fought in tanks throughout the war. After the war, playing a leading role in a huge military exercise, the last of its kind ever held in England, he was concerned about the lack of proper treatment of the real accidentally wounded, as opposed to the dummy wounded, and he became a whistleblower.

We all know that whistleblowers are not popular, and like many another whistleblower, he had ruined his career. So he left his regiment in which he now had no future, and volunteered to go to Malaya as an infantryman, to serve where communist Chinese guerrillas were terrorising the local populations and killing British rubber planters and the like. The conflict in Malaya was called an Emergency at the request of the planters, as otherwise the insurance companies wouldn’t cover them for losses, if it was a war!

The Chinese guerillas called themselves a Liberation Army, and received their orders from Moscow. Their leader was a Chinese called Chin Peng, who had trained in guerrilla warfare against the invading Japanese during the war. These guerrilla “freedom” fighters were ruthless and brutal in their methods of intimidation.

Vulnerable and frightened Malays and Chinese labourers living on the edges of the jungle were re-settled in safe New Villages, where they had better conditions and pay than ever before – and after British pressure, were allowed to buy land and have the vote – so they didn’t need to support the ‘bandits’ as everyone else called them. Measures were put in place to stop the bandits getting food from the terrified local populations, and since the bandits also extorted food from the Sakai’s  – the aborigines – in the jungle, the Sakai’s hated them too.

This meant that in the end the bandits could be starved out of their hideouts. A lot of thought went into winkling them out of the dense jungle, while not antagonising the local populations. Troops, who consisted of some British and Ghurka regiments, and some Malay regiments, tracked them down in the jungle. My father was in a Malay regiment, and small detachments were dropped into the jungle at the end of a rope by helicopter, to spend six weeks tracking, hoping to find bandit camps, disband them and send the demoralised and hungry bandits to rehabilitation camps. Inevitably there was shooting. But while the British authorities offered surrender, no Britons who were captured by the bandits ever survived. The military operation was called ‘Winning Hearts and Minds”….

We lived in a tiny military camp in the middle of the jungle in Pahang, central Malaya. I came home for school holidays with a large armoured car escort, in case of ambush. On this day, we had gone to the nearest village where the only grocery shop for hundreds of square miles was to be found. The shop was owned by a magnificent old Chinese trader, known as Mr Tek Seng, and when shopping there we all had to go into his back room and drink tea while our groceries were packed up.

As we left Tek Seng’s, my father, who we thought was still in the jungle, raced up to the entrance in an army jeep, and called out to my stepmother to get some oranges and hurry, hurry. When she returned with a box a few minutes later, he was half carrying an emaciated Chinese man in ragged clothes, and putting him into the back seat of our car. He sat the man down, and sat on the seat beside him, peeling an orange. He then gave the man segments to eat. When he’d finished one orange, my father indicated to the man to go on eating them, and help himself from the box. We then drove home with him.

Back at camp, the man was taken to the guardroom, and I heard later that as soon as he began eating the oranges, he began to recover. He was at death’s door with starvation and  scurvy when my father had found him in the jungle. (Early Renaissance explorers lost two thirds of their crews from scurvy, as did all the navies until the 18th century) But as soon as a person gets some vitamin C into them, they start to recover. And that was that with the bandit, I thought.

We returned to England after Merdeka – self government – was declared in Malaya in 1956, and got on with our lives. Chin Peng, meanwhile, the Communist leader, eventually retired to live in Beijing since there was nothing to fight for since Malaya achieved peaceful independence without him!

A few years later, my father retired too, and took a job in Whitehall, central London. Some seven years after the bandit had been captured and rescued from the jungle, a soldier from the Royal Signals Corps came to my father’s office, and asked to see him. It was the bandit.

He had emerged from rehabilitation camp a changed man, and had joined the British Army. He was now stationed with his unit in Gibraltar, and he came to London to seek out my father and to give him a watch. To thank him.

I love this story for its humanity and decency.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

The threadbare gourmets in this house feasted rather well today. Friends had brought us some fresh fillets of fish which they had caught this morning. We ate them with buttered new potatoes bought from a stall on the road home, and local tomatoes also bought from a road-side stall. And afterwards we had fragrant ripe figs, from another friend’s garden. They were beautiful to look at, stained with dark purple and green on the outside, and inside, pale pink and translucent green.

I cooked the fish quickly in butter and with chopped dill. I also cooked the soft little tomatoes with them so the juices would flavour the cream. When both were not quite cooked, I tipped a tblsp of brandy in the pan and let it bubble up, then added salt and pepper and thick cream and let it bubble and thicken a bit more. We ate it immediately with the new potatoes and parsley, and some green beans.

 

Food for Thought

If you lose touch with nature you lose touch with humanity. If there’s no relationship with nature then you become a killer; then you kill baby seals, whales, dolphins, and man either for gain, for sport, for food, or for knowledge. Then nature is frightened of you, withdrawing its beauty. You may take long walks in the woods or camp in lovely places but you are a killer and so lose their friendship. You probably are not related to anything but to your wife or your husband…

Jiddhu Krishnamurti  1895 – 1986 Teacher, philosopher

 

 

 

 

 

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Zen and the Art of House Maintenance

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I think house maintenance has a better ring to it than boring old housework… this way, instead of being a housewife I could even be called a house maintenance executive, or a house maintenance CEO.

But dressing it up in fancy names doesn’t get me away from the essential boringness of cleaning the bath, vacuuming the house, dusting picture frames and the rest. A recent survey in the UK reported that women spend a year and a half doing housework, men half that. This amounted to four and a half hours a week housework… pea-nuts… In my incarnation as a fifties- type housewife, I did at least two hours housework a day, not including the washing, ironing, cooking and baby care.

When I was first married in 1963, I did it all automatically, every day, and without thinking. Brought up by a dedicated exponent of house maintenance who when I was a child made me strip the bed to the mattress every day, and leave it to ‘air’ before being allowed to make it again, conditioned me to being a domestic automaton. It was a habit I found hard to break as an adult. But becoming a single mother and working full time put the brakes on vacuuming and dusting every day. And later the entry of duvets into our lives changed mine!

I once read that the late Jean Muir, an English fashion designer with a perfectionist ethic, had been taught to make her bed by the nuns at her school somewhere in the West Indies. She said it was then and there that she learned about perfectionism and attention to detail. I have this vision in my mind of a long, high-ceilinged, calm, white convent dormitory with a white robed nun, watching the creation of these little works of art – a perfectly made bed with a white counterpane – and making each child re-make their bed until it really was the best they could do.

I can imagine the atmosphere in a room like that, where everyone was putting their hundred per cent into what they were doing… when something like that happens in a room, it affects the atmosphere. When I did a series of personal growth courses for seven years, one of the things we had to learn to do on a gruelling two week residential course, was to ‘Zen’ our rooms. It was the same thing that the nuns were teaching the children.

We had to leave our room in the most perfect state of cleanliness and harmony possible. Few of us managed to achieve this state of indefinable perfection… and most of us were still mystified or defeated by the concept at the end of the course. But over the years it’s something I’ve come to understand and treasure, and it lifts mere housework or house maintenance into another sphere.

When I was a helper on another of these residential courses, and we were packing up to go after all the course participants had left, someone came in while we were having lunch, and said: “Have you seen Hut Number Ten’s woodshed? We all piled out, and one by one stood in the doorway, and experienced an indefinable sweetness… the wood was piled around the shed, and the shed was spotless… but no more spotless than anyone else’s wood shed. I decided that what made the difference was the love and commitment that had gone into stacking the wood and this left the woodshed in a perfect state of equilibrium. Nothing you could see or describe, but something you feel.

These days that’s how I feel about housework/ house maintenance. I want the place to feel ‘Zenned’, as we used to say. That’s difficult with my amount of clutter, but I know it has more to do with the way I feel about cleaning the house than what’s in it. Though there is also a sense of rightness about the things that are in the room… maybe a touch of William Morris’s dictum, “ have nothing in your house that is not beautiful or useful”.

Sometimes I move and do everything at half speed, which means that I have to stay totally present and conscious, and though I’m doing it slowly, somehow everything gets done in good time, and in far better shape than if I’d just done a quick tidy-up.

Sometimes I just do it with my whole heart, not cutting any corners, doing it as thoroughly as I can. And I find when I’m doing this, I don’t find it boring. Something about paying attention to the detail and doing it without resistance, changes the whole equation. If I do the vacuuming grudgingly, it’s a chore. But if I can make that leap of will and give up the resistance to it, it’s a different experience.

More than that, I find chaos or dusty rooms depressing. And sometimes I want my home to feel like sacred space. Needless to say I’m not consistent in my efforts. In fact sometimes I feel like Sisyphus forever pushing his stone uphill before it rolls down again… this is because though children, grandchildren, seventeen dogs and one cat can make a mess, none of them can compare with a husband.

Robert Pirsig in his  ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ wrote that: “Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the centre of it all.” But I wonder if you work backwards if the same applies… by doing the right actions, do we discover peace of mind and all the steps in between?

And the right action seems to have a lot to do with detail. I remember our teacher on one of these courses saying how he had travelled from the US to Japan to do an advanced  course with Zen monks, and he was thrown off it on the first day… he had failed for not paying attention to detail… as I’ve grown older and fractionally wiser I can understand this.

God is in the details, and it’s in the details that the satisfaction and the perfection resides. I was reading Celi at www.thekitchensgarden.com  and her blow by blow description of feeding lambs and the best milk mix and best timing for their well-being was a most moving testament to the beauty in the detail.

This every moment of the twenty- four- hour – seven- days- a- week commitment to keeping the lambs alive and thriving, warm in their coats, and cherished in their sheltered corner of the barn, was a demonstration of how attention to detail becomes a labour of love – and maybe not even a labour – but a journey of love.

Unless Celi did this marathon task with love, I wonder if she’d even be able to keep it up, with feeds every few hours day and night, trips to and fro through the snow and the dark between house and barn, heating the milk- not in the easy micro- wave but in hot water – giving the four lambs colostrum from her cow which she milks, and keeping them hydrated through the day with endless sips. But when we do a task with love in our hearts, the love gives us the energy to do it.

It feels as though by paying attention to the detail, we are actually being a channel for love. And this is what can carry me through the washing up and the bed-making. It certainly carries me through the three meals a day routine of feeding an always hungry husband. I do find it impossible to cut corners and give him an overcooked fried egg, or a soup bowl with a splash on it. And though I don’t manage to keep up a constant commitment to Zen and house maintenance, at least I know the recipe for making it less of a chore and more of a commitment to beauty…. which somehow must make a difference to the world, since we are all connected.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Chicken mince was on special at the grocer- cum- delicatessen in the nearest village so I took some home for supper. Mixed with chopped onion, garlic  and celery, grated carrot, mixed herbs, salt and pepper, and fried in little patties, they’re good either hot or cold. We ate them with new potatoes and smashed peas, one of our favourites. Fry a chopped onion and some garlic. When soft, add lots of thyme, frozen peas and enough chicken stock ( I used a chicken stock cube) just to cover the peas. Boil until the peas are soft, and the stock almost disappeared. I used to just mash them with a potato – masher, now I whizz them in my new stock blender. Any left over goes into a green soup.

 

Food for Thought

“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”
Sir Winston Churchill 1874 – 1965 Leader of the free world against Hitler until the US and USSR joined in two years later.

He also said:” I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Queen!

100_0205This post has been re-blogged for the reasons in my latest post The Tragic and Hilarious Life of a Blogger

I’ve just seen a photograph of this radiant elderly woman coming out of hospital, her immaculate white hair shining against the bright red, exquisitely tailored coat which she wore adorned with a simple diamond brooch( if any diamond brooch is simple). Her eyes were shining and her smile sparkling.

She’s eighty-six and the most photographed woman in the world, one of the busiest and most active, and these days, one of the best dressed women in the world too. Once Bobo, her Scottish nursery maid from childhood -who became her dresser – died at 89, Angela Kelly, the new dresser arrived. Suddenly instead of the frumpy clothes chosen by the un-imaginative Bobo who was the despair of all the couturiers who dressed the Queen, the vibrant and now beloved Angela, has transformed the Queen’s clothes and her image.

Angela, who has a broad Liverpool’ Scouse’ accent, and was the daughter of a crane driver, is a creative and vivacious woman with a wonderful sense of colour and design. She designs most of the Queen’s clothes now.

So the once dowdy but beautiful Queen has now blossomed into this stunning looking woman who wears clear jewel-like colours – purple,  primrose, turquoise and leaf green, bright red, and pure white with the matching hats that define her inimitable style. Her see-through umbrellas have a matching coloured handle and are edged with the matching colours.

She wore white decorated with sparkles like her predecessor Elizabeth 1, on her Jubilee cruise down the Thames, gold to echo the gold statue of Queen Victoria at the Buckingham Palace Jubilee concert, shamrock green to go to Ireland, and a smashing pale primrose for her grandson’s wedding, each outfit beautifullly cut and tailored. And of course black with diamonds to Diana’s funeral. (I’ve wanted some fabulous diamonds to wear with black ever since) Her eyes are still as blue as when she was young and her complexion still as clear, though she’s lost her tiny waist and elegant legs in old age – haven’t we all?

But nothing much else has changed. She still walks her corgis every day and feeds them herself, cutting up their meat and dishing it out. She still rides her favourite horse, though not as energetically as she did, and still refuses to wear a hard hat, preferring her trademark  head-scarf.  She still breeds her racehorses and gundogs (black Labradors to you and me) and goes to the races. She still  adores her ninety-two year old husband. She still performs investitures and receives ambassadors, foreign sovereigns, dignitaries, heads of state and travels on Royal tours.

She still carries out between four and five hundred engagements a year; she still spends hours every day reading and signing all the documents in her red boxes, and she still receives her prime ministers every week for an audience to bring her up to date. Actually it’s usually the other way around. She’s so well informed that both Churchill and Wilson left discomfited after their first audiences, having assumed it would be a walk in the park, not a penetrating inquisition.

She’s had twelve prime ministers, and they all loved her – even Maggie Thatcher – and valued her support, knowing she was the one person who really wanted them to succeed for the country’s sake. Rab Butler, often described as the best prime minister England never had ( like the late Adlai Stevenson in the US ) often had audiences when he was acting prime minster.

No mean intellect himself, he was impressed by her intelligence, and also said that she never tried to behave as anything but a woman. He was fascinated by her constant anxiety over inflation as prices began to rise, saying it struck him as “inconsistent in someone who did not do her own shopping.”  But this was the frugal mother who sent her small son Charles back to the garden at Sandringham to look for a lost dogs lead – saying “ Leads cost money.” This was also the little girl whose nursery maid Bobo taught her to unwrinkle and fold the wrapping papers on Christmas presents, and re-use the paper and ribbons – in the depths of the Depression.

When she came to NZ for her 25 year Jubilee tour in 1977, a hard-boiled cynical anti -royalist was assigned to cover her visit to Auckland, the thinking being that there would be no sickly sycophantic reports. He came back to the office a shaken man. “I’ve just stood in the crowd as they walked up Queen Street and felt wave after wave of happiness,” he marvelled. He was amazed and mystified by the joy and excitement of the people overflowing the pavements on both sides.

On board the Royal Yacht Britannia I stationed myself at the end of the line of guests being received and was fascinated to watch the Queen. The first impression was one of innate shyness being overcome with a huge effort of will. She began shaking hands with a long line of people she would probably never see again in her life. As each person bowed or curtseyed, she gazed penetratingly at them, and followed them with her eyes as they moved on, before giving the next in line the same full attention. It was a simple act each time, but she gave it her total concentration. It made it a special moment for each person she met.

Later, as she circulated, chatting, and joined the group I was standing with, she was asked how she had enjoyed drinking kava, the Fijian fermented drink in a huge wooden bowl. She and the Duke had just come from Fiji. She laughed, and started to say: “Oh it tasted like” – when she stopped, remembered she could be reported and it would hurt the feelings of the Fijians, and ended mischievously – “like a nice cup of tea”.

Those who know her say she has a wicked sense of humour and is a brilliant mimic. Angela Kelly, who has become one of the people closest to her, says she’s very good at mimicking her Scouse accent. Nobody knows what books she reads, or what music she likes, and she hides her boredom at what must be excruciatingly boring banquets, lunches, receptions, concerts, parades, factory and hospital visits, and she never tries to be charming or popular.

She sees herself as the servant of her people, so along with presidents and prime ministers, she’s also had to entertain crooks and clowns – including the late and unlamented Romanian dictators, the Ceauscescus, who were preceded by a phone call from Paris where they’d been staying, warning that they’d steal everything, including the gold taps – and Berlusconi at a conference, who she ticked off when he was loudly showing off, asking why he had to make so much noise.

The one thing we do know is that she loves things to go wrong… and then the routine is disturbed, the pomp and ceremony are disrupted,  people become real, they stop being formal and become spontaneous, and she really enjoys herself!  She’s a countrywoman, who is happiest living in her country houses enjoying picnics and field sports (stalking deer, fishing, shooting and generally killing for fun) in the Highlands like all her ancestors before her; and riding and presiding over shooting parties (perish the thought) in Norfolk. She dotes on her grandchildren and is a devout churchgoer..

She’ll be 87 this year, and it’s hard to imagine a world without her… which was how people felt about her great- great- grandmother Victoria. Informed sources comment that she’s fitter than her mother was at this age, yet her mother lived to a hundred and four. So it looks as though she’ll probably outlive me, and I never will experience the world without her. God Save the Queen!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I read an article about sandwiches in the paper yesterday, and it had all my taste buds twitching. But to my mind all the mixtures and combinations people said were their favourites just didn’t compare with a simple egg sandwich. So while my husband chomped through his chicken salad for supper, I made myself the perfect egg sandwich.

It has to be fresh soggy white bread! Thinly sliced. Buttered right up to the edges so that the butter acts as an impermeable layer between filling and bread. Hard boil the eggs, chop and mash them up with salt and pepper and enough good bought mayonnaise to moisten them. Spread this mix over the bread, cut off the crusts and cut into four. (soak the crusts in water to give to the birds) Some people would add lettuce, but that’s a different sandwich – this is my comfort food, what we always ate on childhood picnics.

Food for Thought

Close your eyes and you will see the truth,

Be still and you will move forward on the tide of the spirit,

Be gentle and you will need no strength,

Be patient and you will achieve all things,

Be humble and you will remain entire.              Taoist meditation

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Art and soul – do they matter?

100_0106

On Sunday I discovered that I am a member of a tiny minority. I belong to a group of around three million people world- wide who watch the live performances of opera filmed from the New York Metropolitan Opera House! And when I watched film of the Met audience, I decided that I must also belong to an even more select group, a blogger who watches opera.  I don’t know what a blogger actually looks like, but to my mind, this collection of elegant, groomed rich people didn’t look like bloggers- would they have the time to sit over a computer? Not did my home audience of mostly elderly people look like bloggers either!

It was a Mozart opera, ‘La Clemenza di Tito‘. Then on Tuesday I spent ages poring over Clanmother’s beautiful blog with Renoir’s pictures. On Wednesday I went back to see the opera again, unable to resist it, and on Friday I rushed in to see the film ‘Anna Karenina’  before it went off. A week you could say, of culture and art. The theme of the opera was goodness and mercy, though it took even worse liberties with history than Hollywood does. This didn’t matter.

The music was sublime, the costumes and scenery a feast for the eyes, and the voices were among the best in the world. Two of the parts were what are known in opera as trouser roles – that is they were written for women’s voices, but the characters were men. Anyone who saw singer Susan Graham all in white as the long legged elegant Rosenkavalier will know just how ravishing women dressed up as men are, and these two were delectable.

Opera singers are born, not made, but to achieve the mastery needed to sing opera well takes years of voice training, learning music theory and music history, if possible mastering an instrument, learning French, German and Italian since most operas are written in these languages, learning drama, acting skills, and sometimes ballet, and for men, sword fighting  skills. For the rest of their lives, opera singers have to continue to practise and train their voices to sing different sorts of opera. Mozart’s music is the most testing and the finest training according to singers. And many have to work at day jobs to make a living.

This opera was written in the last three months of Mozart’s life, when he was travelling around the music capitals of Europe looking for a post to support his family in 1791. It appeared in the first week in September; a week later he produced another great opera,’ The Magic Flute‘, and then some cantatas, a clarinet concerto, a piano concerto, and finally his great Requiem before dying on the 6 December. What inspired creativity in the last three months of his life, and typical of his lifelong astonishing output, having begun composing when he was five .

The pictures of Renoir throb with joie de vivre and utter beauty. Each exquisite picture, whether flowers, dancers, portraits or landscape are radiant with life and light. To see one is exciting, to see a collection of them is breath-taking … In spite of acute arthritis in his hands, Renoir went on painting into extreme old age, and the joyousness and celebration of beauty are always there.

‘Anna Karenina’ is considered to be one of the greatest novels in western literature… though some beg to differ, myself among them. At the end of this sumptuous production, with jewels and dresses to die for, I felt a distaste at having watched a collection of worldly people with no self awareness make a hash of their lives! This novel, along with ‘War and Peace’ are Tolstoy’s masterpieces, for he spent most of his later adult life trying unsuccessfully to reform his errant ways, and then trying to reform the world, gaining a controversial reputation as a reformer. He preached peace and inspired both Ghandi and Martin Luther King.

So in one week I had had a feast of some of the world’s great artists. Beverley Sills, the American soprano once said that: “arts are the signature of civilisation”, and it worries me sometimes that this signature is getting more and more illegible. In a film on Beethoven a couple of years ago, I heard a magnificent German bass agonising over what he called the dumbing down of our culture – referring amongst other things to cheap music, Facebook communication,  and the shallow snippets of sensational news on radio and TV – he was comparing them with the profundity of Beethoven .

I would also have added to his list new Bible translations which are no longer literature, but banal religious tracts, and the sort of art that wins prizes these days – someone’s unmade bed adorned with stubbed out fag-ends and grubby sheets, or a skull covered in diamonds. Both the perpetrators of these masterpieces are now rich and famous on the strength of them…

Taoist philosophy suggests that art awakens a response in the mind and soul and it is important that it should evoke the higher not the lower nature. And that is what the art that I revelled in this week did for me. It lifted me above the daily round and common task, the disappointments and frustrations of a rather difficult week, and reminded me of actress Stella Adler’s words: ‘Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.’ Yes, I think art matters…

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Frangipane is the delicious almond base in many fruit tarts. It’s easy as…you just need four oz of butter and four oz of sugar, two eggs, one oz flour, 5 oz ground almonds, one teasp vanilla essence, and half a teasp of almond essence. Just beat them all together, and spread on top of the pastry. Then press down in it the fruit of your choice. This is only one of many recipes, some use more eggs, others use more almonds. I keep my ground almonds in the deep freeze so that they are fresh and don’t go rancid.

 

Food for Thought

Oh great Creator, grant us one more hour to perform our art and perfect our lives.     Jim Morrison 194 – 1971  Poet and songwriter who died unexpectedly in Paris at 27

 

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