Monthly Archives: July 2013

The nuts and bolts of writing

100_0100The man who tried to teach me to write was a very patrician academic, who wrote book reviews for The Times and was also an army officer. He was my charismatic headmaster at boarding school in Malaya, tall, elegant, witty and charming. School was in the cool of the Cameron Highlands, surrounded by jungle which hid both the aborigine Sakai people, and also the communist bandits.

 We travelled to school in what were known as coffins, and they felt like it. They were metal boxes on wheels with tiny slits to let in the stifling tropical air. This convoy of coffins was escorted by armoured cars between each one. It usually took me two days to get to school, flying out by a light Auster plane from Kota Bahru to Bangkok, via a change at a lonely air-strip at Alor Star. In Bangkok I changed planes for Kuala Lumpur. Here I spent the night and joined everyone else for the train journey up to the rendezvous with the coffins. We then had another six hours of tough travel before reaching the Highlands in the evening.

 We never knew the date of the beginning or end of term until the day before, so the bandits couldn’t ambush us. We children didn’t worry terribly. We might have felt differently had we realised that our school food was so awful because the cooks were giving our rations to the bandits surrounding us in the jungle. I learned this from the headmaster some years after I’d left school, by which time they’d uncovered the problem. Every night the school was patrolled by armed guards, but somehow I never really believed the bandits could be so close. In hindsight, the fact that they were depending on our food was our best protection! I lost half a stone every term.

 Robin, my headmaster, decided that the new A level exams which had been introduced a couple of years before, were a challenge that he and I could rise to, and that he would coach me to pass them in one year instead of two. This was a stretch, but I had a one- on-one lesson with him most days.

 I would sit side by side with him at a table in the school library while he neurotically smoked his way through a round tin of fifty cigarettes, lighting each one, taking a few puffs and then stubbing out three quarters of the cigarette before lighting up the next. He, like so many army officers I knew then, was still suffering from the effects of the war, only in those days there was no counselling or understanding of their trauma.

 I quickly discovered that I was a sloppy thinker, with very little idea of how to write. This uncomfortable realisation hit me after my first essay, when I referred to ‘the naked truth’. Robin ( I learned to call him this later) made me look up the meaning of the word ‘naked’ in the dictionary, and it was a lesson I never needed to learn again – to make sure I actually knew the meaning of a word before I used it, and forget about clichés !

 He taught me to write short simple sentences, to use short Anglo –Saxon words, and not pompous, pretentious Latin words. He’d say chuck instead of throw, and taught me to write direct simple prose… though you may not believe this now. He also tried to teach me to think for myself, and once when I had written an obsequious essay on Anthony and Cleopatra, he teasingly wrote at the bottom: “Beware too slavish an adulation of the Bard!”

 The best training he gave me was to do a précis nearly every day, of a piece of weighty Elizabethan or Restoration prose, reducing each piece to a third of its length. It was a rigorous exercise, which trained me to express meaning in the most efficient and simplest way. It taught me to understand the meaning of words so I could translate them into a simpler briefer version, and sharpened up my whole writing style. Years later, when I was worried about my children’s exam results, and they in their turn were worried about theirs, I found the passages still marked in my battered Oxford Book of English Prose, and gave them all the same exercises, and they worked the same magic for them too.

 And that was it – the nuts and bolts. When I hear or read of people’s experiences with gifted teachers today, I marvel at the creative opportunities they have; but on the other hand, these simple rules he gave me have been a useful scaffolding on which to build a writing life. Yes, I missed out on the metaphors and similes, and creative flights of fancy. I just had simple guide-lines for communicating clearly, with no tiresome tics of speech or writing, no frills or clichés, no worn-out phrases, un-necessary words, purple passages or exhibitionist long words.

 And though we revelled in Shakespeare’s exuberant inventions and plays on words, Robin reminded me that the vocabulary of the exquisite King James Bible is only about eight thousand words.  I learned to write truthfully, and to avoid sentimentality – I think! And this for me, is still the challenge of writing, over half a century later; truth means finding the exact word, no compromises, which means knowing how I truly feel.

 A month before the exams, my best friend and I went for a walk and ended up having afternoon tea of tomato sandwiches – nothing else was ever on offer – at the Cameron Highlands Hotel, a privilege for prefects if, and when, their pocket money would stretch.

 At the hotel my friend saw a young officer she’d met during the holidays, and he and his fellow officer joined us. We had great fun, and then they took us up to inspect their gun emplacements from where they had just started blasting into the jungle. Whether they actually hit any bandit camps I never knew, but the noise was hateful: the sound of crashing broken trees and the thunder of guns echoing around the mountains and blue sky, followed by a moment of horrified silence – the shock of a peaceful world rended by this vandalism – and then the screams and cries of terrified birds.  Then a pause, and then the whole dreadful sequence began over and over again.

 The chaps took us back to school in their land-rover, so we were back in time. As we reported in, and the land-rover drove off, the young duty mistress gave us stick for hobnobbing with the young men… but we thought she was just jealous. It turned out  she was – she had assumed they were her property. She reported us to Robin, and said we had lied about where we were going. We were both stripped of our prefect’s badges and gated for six months by a very angry righteous headmaster who refused to believe that we had not lied.

 The next day, feeling sore and angry, I had my usual lesson with him and was shocked to realise that in our study of Francis Bacon that day, we were about to discuss his essay: ‘ What is truth, saith jesting Pilate?’  As I took in the implications of this horrid coincidence, and waited for the head to arrive in the library, I wanted the floor to swallow me up, cliché or no cliche. His courtesy got us through this embarrassing session…though I was in a state of agonising hyper-sensitivity for the whole hour.

 A few weeks later the exams arrived, and as I sat alone in the classroom with an invigilator, battling through three and a half hours of rigorous examining, the chaps began their artillery barrage into the jungle again (we hadn’t seen or heard of them since). As they fired over our heads, it was like sitting in the trenches of World War One, or enduring the barrage before the Battle of the Somme,

 As I tried to maintain my concentration and keep scribbling, Robin came in silently, took my exam paper, and wrote the time on it, with a note and his signature saying the barrage had begun. When it ended two hours later, he came back in and did the same again. I always hoped that it had influenced the examiners to have pity on me and excuse me any blunders I had made during what felt like the fog of war!

 After I’d left school, and he and I were back in England, I used to visit him and his wife who I loved. He would write me zany poems about kipper trees, and do witty parodies of Shakespeare over the lunch-table. He invited me to meet minor Royalty on a ceremonial occasion and came to my commissioning ceremony. And when I became engaged and brought my first husband to meet him, I felt a faint disappointment from him that I wasn’t going to be putting his lessons to better use.

 

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Such beautiful cauliflowers at the moment, so after running the gamut of my cauliflower recipes, I decided to make soup. This recipe is called Crème du Barry after Louis XV’s mistress, and it’s delicious. You need a cauliflower that weighs about a pound or half a kilo. In some butter I sauted the white part of a chopped leek, half a chopped celery stick and a good sized knob of finely chopped ginger. When this is soft, but not coloured, add small florets of cauliflower. Add a litre of stock, salt, cover and boil until the cauliflower is soft, ten to fifteen minutes.

Puree and return to the pan. Stir about three quarters of a cup of cream or crème fraiche, and season with nutmeg, and a little lemon juice if you wish.

 Food for Thought

Minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open.

Sir James Dewar, eminent Scottish physicist. 1842 -1923

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under army, birds, british soldiers, food, great days, humour, life/style, literature, shakespeare, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

Ancient Rituals and a Modern Valkyrie

100_0117As I write I can hear soft rain falling, punctuated by the larger sounds of drips from overloaded leaves, and the swishing of the sea on the rocks below. The pink-breasted doves are cooing contentedly, bringing a sense of peace– all eleven of them,  who now enjoy two free meals a day. It feels as though the village is in rest and recovery.

 A few days ago a man died just beyond our village boundaries. He was the Maori chief and landowner for this area, and had great mana. He was a noble, handsome man respected by everyone, and had a striking, beautiful Pakeha (European) wife, whose dignity and courage matched his. Their marriage was a triumph; she accepted and lived by the local Maori customs, as well as keeping her own integrity, and creating a life of art and culture, warmth, and hospitality. She introduced visitors to the long, empty, pale gold beaches on their land, edged by the rolling blue Pacific; and she kept a herd of nearly a hundred horses, for tourists and locals to ride. She worked hard the way only those whose lives are committed to the wellbeing of horses will know.

 The chief was buried at the Maori marae, which lies across the harbour from where we live. The marae is the spiritual centre of Maori life, and the tangihanga – the funeral – is the most important ceremonial that takes place there, taking precedence over every other activity. The body lies on the marae for at least two days before the day of the funeral, and is rarely left alone. Friends, family and members of the tribe come from near and far, dressed in black, and the women often wearing green leaves in mourning wreathes around their heads. They look wonderful. They will talk and sing to the person lying there, recalling both good and bad things about them, laughing, joking – all expressions of grief are encouraged and accepted.

 The person who has passéd is commanded to return to the ancestral homelands, Hawaiki,  by way of ‘the spirit’s journey’ –  te rerenga wairua . Close kin do not speak. On the last night, the ‘night of ending’, the pō whakamutunga, the mourners hold a vigil and the coffin is closed. Then either at night or dawn on the third day, the funeral service is conducted, and when the burial rites are complete, a hakati – feast – is served. Everyone who attends brings their share, or gifts called koha.

 And when it’s over, the home of the dead one is ritually cleansed with songs, chants and prayers called a karakia and desanctified with food and drink, in a ceremony called takahi whare – ‘trampling the house’. That night, the pō whakangahau  – ‘night of entertainment’ – is a night of relaxation and rest. And after these powerful and therapeutic rituals  the widow or widower is not left alone for several nights following.

 So when our chiefly neighbour died, mourners travelled from all over the country, including the famous and powerful, to participate in the tangi. The ceremonies on the last day took from ten in the morning to four in the afternoon. At the same time, another villager died. He too was a distinguished man, a Pakeha, but he had no children and no family. He wanted no ceremony or funeral. ‘So we can’t say goodbye,’ sorrowed an old, old friend…

 While this has been going on, I’ve joined for the first time, the annual village winter ritual of having the flu, and as the second week dragged on found myself irritated that I couldn’t even have flu to myself, but had to start nursing my husband as well. Late last night after a second bad fall, I couldn’t move him, so called out the Volunteer Fire Brigade, the local version of guardian angels. It took three of them to get him off the floor, and I then began a chase after the ambulance to hospital an hour’s drive away. Leaving him to be diagnosed and pumped full of drugs, I drove home to bed at three thirty in the morning.

As I made the most of this drama to the statuesque and very beautiful young woman who comes to clean, I asked how her week had gone. Not as exciting as yours, she disclaimed modestly, before regaling me with the story of her horses. She has two. This particular night she had joined friends at a farewell fancy dress party, and worn, she told me, a glittering sequinned body stocking for the first time in her life, accessorised with a net skirt covered in sequins. As the party raged, she received a text saying her horses were loose, and had last been seen galloping in the sea at a nearby village.

After several nerve-racking hours, with reports of them all over the place, she finally ran them to earth in another bay. Abandoning her car, she rode bare – back on one, leading the other by a halter, body stocking glowing in the moonlight, sequins glinting, and net skirt billowing in the wind. ‘I was just glad no police ever clapped eyes on me,’ she said, ‘they’d have thought I was high on something!’

I wish I’d seen her, a magnificent, glowing Valkyrie beneath the shifting clouds and silver moon. As we laughed there was a knock on the door, and there was one of the firemen from last night come to see how I was, one of many others , family, friends, neighbours who’d rung or enquired how we all were.

Life and death, laughter and rain… the village is breathing, the rhythm of the sea encircles us, the in-breath and the out-breath of the universe continues, the heart-beat of life and death still pulses. The ancient rituals ease the transitions, the soft rain cleanses and refreshes; we are in rest and recovery, and the unknown road still stretches mistily ahead for us all. ‘We may not be taken up and transported to our journey’s end, but must travel thither on foot, traversing the whole distance…’ And in this small world we live in, we know we are in good company.

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Wanting something light and easy, I found an old recipe for ten minute cheese soufflés. Separate the eggs and yolks of two eggs, and mix the yolks with salt, pepper, a pinch of cayenne and a little mustard. Mix in two dessertsps of grated cheddar cheese, and then fold in gently the whipped egg whites. Fill two thirds of well greased individual soufflé or ovenproof dishes, and bake in a hot oven for six to eight minutes until well risen and golden brown. Serve at once. This amount makes three to four small soufflés. I’m thinking they’d be a nice easy first course for dinner with friends.

Food for Thought

I loved this foodie thought from writer Lawrence Durrell ( 1912 -1990): ‘The whole Mediterranean.. all of it seems to rise in the sour pungent smell of these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water.’             Just reading these words makes me feel the heat, smell the scent of thyme and rosemary, and long to savour some strong red local wine beside a lapis lazuli sea….

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Not Royal but Remarkable

100_0175The attention of the whole country was focussed on a charming country house set amid quiet leafy lanes. Everyone was waiting for the Royal baby to be born. The Royal mother had gone home to her mother to have her first baby, which would be the Queen’s great grandson. And it would be the first time in history that there had been three generations of heirs to the throne. When the baby was born, he and his mother stayed with their grandmother at White Lodge for another six weeks.

 So many people wanted to congratulate Princess May, who later became Queen Mary, that a marquee was set up on the lawn for hundreds of people to sign the visitors’ book. Queen Victoria came over from Windsor to see the baby, bringing her grand-daughter Alex, and her fiancée- soon to become last Tsar and Tsarina of Russia and eventually meet their fate at Ekaterinburg.

 History repeats itself. A hundred and nineteen years later, another mother- to- be and baby are keeping everyone waiting.  Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge is going home to her mother’s country home for six weeks, and her baby is also the third in line to the throne. But her baby is the lucky one, whatever lies ahead. And this baby’s great grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, is also awaiting news of the birth at Windsor.

 The baby born to Princess May was David, better known as Edward V111, the only king to have abdicated. His mother was not a natural mother, and left him to his nanny. She used to pinch the baby before he came into the room in the evening to see his parents, so he entered, crying, and was hastily sent back in disgrace to his nanny. When he was three this woman had a nervous breakdown, and it was discovered that she had not had a day off in three years.

 The next generation was this Queen, and her mother used her own old nanny – Alah, who gave the Queen and Princess Margaret a happy tranquil childhood. This was not the case for the Queens’ children, who had a fierce old dragon to look after them. Like all the Royal children before them, except for Queen Alexandra’s, Charles and his brothers and sisters too only saw their mother for an hour before bed-time, and for a short time in the morning. Someone who knew the Queen well has commented that if she had given her children the same time and attention she had given to her horses, things might have turned out differently.

 We all know that Charles’ wife Diana was a devoted mother. But she was back at work within two months carrying out Royal duties, leaving William in the care of his nanny Barbara Barnes. He adored her, and one day after Diana found him cuddled up in bed in the morning with his nanny, she couldn’t cope with this competition so Barbara Barnes left when he was four…  a huge emotional blow for him.

 So his decision and his wife’s to manage without a nanny is a huge breakthrough in the pattern of Royal maternal and emotional deprivation! Catherine – as she is known in her family rather than the media’s Kate – is the daughter of a devoted hands- on mother. Carol Middleton has endured many slights for her humble background as a working- class builder’s daughter, and as an upwardly mobile air hostess.

 But the slim, elegant figure in pale blue who arrived at Westminster Abbey for her daughter’s wedding is a remarkable woman. When her children went to Marlborough other parents said they just gave up – they couldn’t cope with the care that she gave her children right down the beautifully embroidered and hand sewn Cash’s name-tapes on their clothes. We all had these name tapes in my day, but most people use indelible marking pencils these days. She didn’t just give her own children hampers of tuck food, but also supplied a girl from a broken home with a hamper too.

 When her flamboyant younger brother who she had always mothered, was set up by the press for a drug sting, rather than belabour him for the bad publicity, she rang and apologised that because of their public profile with Kate, he had been targeted. She’s kind, sensible and conscientious.

 And as everyone knows she is the creator and driving force behind the thriving business which supports their now rich life-style. When Catherine was born, her mother devised a little business from her kitchen table so that she could stay at home with the children. From this grew their party-bags empire.

 William spends much time in her home with great enjoyment, savouring the tight-knit family and loving informality he never knew. Carole Middleton sounds as though she’ll be the perfect grandmother – always there, experienced, loving, and well-adjusted. So this baby, born in the green English country-side will have all the good fairies ranged on his/her side, and people watchers and royalty fans will have a new and intriguing family saga to watch.

 And the builder’s daughter born in a council house, brought up by working class parents with the values of hard work, thrift and good manners will be the the most important maker and shaper of a modern king or queen – if the monarchy lasts for another fifty years.

 Walter Bagehot, the Victorian authority on Royalty famously wrote that a ‘Princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact”, and the birth of a new prince or princess to a couple who we’ve followed with various degrees of interest for years is magnified also. To see Diana’s son emerge from all his childhood traumas to become a father in his own right is of immense interest to many of us, monarchists or not… there’s something irresistible about watching glamour and goodness combined with history, high fashion, drama and domesticity. And this is where Carole Middleton- grandmother- waiting, steps onto the stage to join the other players !

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 I get bored with bread ! So sometimes I make something else to go with bread and cheese – this is a courgette loaf, good with soft blue cheese, or even just good old Cheddar. Mix two cups of SR flour with one cup of grated courgette/zucchini, half a teasp salt, one teasp mild curry powder, and a cup of grated cheese like Cheddar.  Add a quarter of a cup of oil, one egg and one and three quarters of a cup of milk.

 Lightly mix and tip into a greased loaf tin. Sprinkle the top with grated cheese and bake in a hot oven for forty minutes or so until brown. Switch the oven down after ten to fifteen minutes if it starts to brown too quickly. Serve warm with butter and cheese for a tasty supper…

 Food for Thought

 The feminine principle is the eagerness to collaborate rather than compete, it is the eagerness to relate rather than stand out as an individual, it is the longing for harmony and community and caring and nurturing.

 Lynne Twist –  Global activist, fundraiser, speaker, consultant, coach and author. Dedicated to global initiatives that serve humanity.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Winding Path or the Dance of Life?

100_0221I’m an unashamed veteran of every whacky new age activity that has ever been available. Some of them are reputable, and some have a reputation for what is known as new age mush – a description which is usually wholly accurate!

The first steps along this eccentric path were taken at a little village fete just outside Stratford- on -Avon. I was detailed, as they say in the army, to look after the guests of honour, actor Sir John Mills and his daughter Juliet – I can’t remember why at this distance, and when I had done my duty I wandered off in my dark green uniform to the fortune- telling tent. The gypsy had a crystal ball, and I didn’t think she needed one to tell that I was in the army. But what she said was that my hands were the hands of a writer and I would spend my whole life writing. As a twenty- one year old lieutenant this was a surprise and seemed unlikely to me – like reaching for the moon.

The next significant step along the road less-travelled was when a friend told me that her stepmother could read tea-leaves! This seemed so really off the planet, that I really wanted to experience it, and it so happened that her stepmother was going to be changing planes at Heathrow, on the way from Bonn where her father was stationed,  to Ireland where their family home had been burned down by the IRA.

We met the stepmother, and rushed off to get cups of tea. But at places like air-ports you don’t have tea-pots. You have huge urns with made-up tea. We explained to the waitress that we really needed tea-leaves and she obligingly scraped the bottom of the urn and tipped a handful of leaves plus some tea into three cups for us. We had a very successful tea-leaf session, and as time went by I saw the various events she’d foretold, unfold.

At the Derby a couple of years later, my first husband mischievously asked an ancient gypsy crone who was going to win the Derby? She went into a trance and kept muttering mysteriously:“Where d’you come from, where d’you come from?” which we dismissed as gibberish. We came from Larkhill actually, and twenty minutes later an outsider, Larkspur, won the Derby.

Marriage, babies, career, all these kept me distracted from esoteric pursuits until the children had left home. And then I became involved in helping to set up a group who ran self-transformation courses ranging from a week to six months. I did every one. It took about seven years of my life. And along the way I began dabbling and experimenting with every other form of New Age activity that offered itself – and have done ever since.

They ranged in alphabetical order from acupuncture, aromatherapy and aura- soma to breath-work, body talk, body harmony and Bowen work. There was chiropractise, channelling, chakra cleansing, cranial osteopathy, flotation tanks and Feldenkrais.  There was holotropic breathing, homeopathy and hypnotherapy, kinesiology, massage, minimum movement, sitting in a pyramid to ease the pain of a chronic illness, psycho-therapy and breath-work to cure it, re-birthing, Reiki, Shiatsu, Tai chi…. I know this isn’t all…. I’m sure there’s more!  There was The Journey, The Enneagram, NSA,( Neuro Spinal Adjustment ) Spiritual Geometry, various Indian groups teaching breath and meditation, and yoga of course.

Then there were the courses with people like Zondra Ray and Jean Houston and Denise Linn,  lectures from Dipak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Stuart Wilde, the Dalai Lama. The books – beginning with Sir George Trevelyan’s ‘A Vision of the Aquarian Age’ and the New Age bible, Marilyn Fergusson’s  ‘ The Aquarian Conspiracy ‘, going on with  Barbara Anne Brennan and Caroline Myss,  Marianne Williamson and Jean Shinoda Bolen’s ‘The Goddesses in Everywoman’. There was ‘The Feminine Face of God’ and Eckhart Tolle and ‘Conversations with God’ and our philosopher and guide to the consciousness evolution, Ken Wilbur, among a host of others we read.

There were years with Self-transformation, years learning about herbs and nutrition, and others. There were Shiatsu courses, Reiki courses, re-incarnation courses, counselling courses; the cleanses and the retreats; meditation, Tibetan chanting, circle dancing – the thing I loved best of all – then there were diets, the Pritikin, the Zone, the Blood Type diet, the Sandra Cabot Liver Cleanse… we were suckers for them all. And the fun fringe, the palmistry, the crystals, the tarot cards, the angel cards, the I Ching – hmm, not so much fun – very severe and serious.

You’ll be surprised to learn that I haven’t done colonic irrigation, Rolfing, sweat lodges or vision quests. I’ve listened to various gurus including the startlingly beautiful Gurumayi.  But I never wanted a guru. So I gave Rajneesh and Sai Baba and Da Free John in his various guises a wide berth.

None of this came cheaply… In the thirty years since I began this career of New Age dissipation I’ve sold old silver, precious rugs, loved china to finance my expensive hobby… I’m an object of ridicule to some members of my family, though not to those closest to me,  I’m glad to say. They also dabble sometimes. Not my husband, who calls me, with some justification, a New Age Nutter.

The others wonder why on earth I do all this… surely one course is enough to discover the secret of life, sort out old personality quirks, learn who and what you are? Why would you want to meditate when you can take Mogadon? And why on earth would I want to buy vitamins and herbs when I could have Prozac and statins, blood pressure pills and flu injections for free! The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I have none of the health problems the others have, and when I had to have a medical this morning for a new driving license the doctor said I was amazing.

So apart from good health, what else did I get out of all this seeking and experimenting? Lots of good friends, on the same path, for one. I have several friends who’ve been on nearly every course with me for the last thirty years. These friendships go deep. And as we’ve let go lots of old tensions, energy blocks and limiting beliefs, life has become easier, more fulfilling. Troubles come, as they do to everyone on earth, but we see them now as flags waving to show us something we haven’t mastered yet. Like many when I first began, it was like rowing across a river, and looking back to the other side, realising there was no way back, no way to go back to thinking the way I had. That from now on, life would be different.

I sometimes think all these activities, books, fads, are like tourist souvenir booths at places like NASA. They keep us amused and busy. The courses are like a conducted tour of the space programme, showing us how things work.  But none of these things take us into space. They can show us what it’s like, but to explore space, we have to do it ourselves. And all the crystals and courses and mushy wallpaper music make outsiders assume that this is all the New Age is about. When really, it’s a rocket taking off to explore and experience the furthest reaches of consciousness. Going, in that old cliché, where no man has gone before – except the mystics. But travellers in these realms feel that this is the next big step for all mankind.

And there are now millions of people all over the world on this journey – ripe and ready – they only needed a nudge, unlike all our exploring. They are, in the words of Arjuna Ardagh, ‘No longer willing to separate spiritual experience from the fabric of our everyday existence. Our most mundane circumstances are the very context in which realisation lives and breathes. An unattended life segregates realisation into a small box called “spirituality.” A well- attended life can make a trip to the grocery store a sacred pilgrimage.’

So did we need to do all that stuff?  Maybe not, but we enjoyed it, learned to love the present, and love creation and all that is, had many moments of insight and bliss, discovered a lot about ourselves and others, and became happier, more relaxed parents, partners and people. If life is a dance, that was our dance. And the more I experience the cosmos, the more I realise it is all a dance, a dance of galaxies and grains of sand, a dance of asteroids and atoms, a dance of energy and ecstasy, a dance of light and love, a dance of you and me.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Family coming for lunch in this freezing weather, so a good hot pudding seems to be called for… blackberry and apple crumble. I’ll be using a tin of boysenberries or fresh frozen if I have any in the deep freeze, with stewed apple, gently mixed together. The crumble is rich – eight ounces of flour, two of ground almonds, six ounces of brown sugar and four of butter. Rub the butter into the flour, add the sugar and almonds, and at this stage I often add the grated rind of a lemon. This mixture keeps in the fridge for a couple of days until I want to use it. Put the fruit in an ovenproof dish, cover with the crumble and bake in a hot oven for forty minutes. Serve with cream or crème fraiche.

( Boysenberries are a cross between a raspberry, a blackberry and a loganberry. They were first bred in California by a man called Mr Boysen..)

Food for Thought

Will the old dinosaur minds draw us all into their conflicts, destroying life as we know it in the process, or will the emerging translucent view midwife us into another way of loving? In the translucent vision of the world there is no other, no enemy. It is a political view that encompasses the well-being of all sentient beings, not just of one group or another. Either we all win or we all lose.

Arjuna Ardagh  – teacher  and writer of ‘The Translucent Revolution,’ a book which has become the equivalent of Marilyn Fergusson’s ‘The Aquarian Conspiracy’ for the 21 century.

 

 

 

 

 

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The real Dalai Lama

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

100_0314That Christmas, when they were seven and eight, I had sent the children to the other side of the world to see their father and grand-parents. Instead of cancelling their daily treat of chocolate milk, I gave it to the children who lived around the corner with their single mother and cat called Mehitabel.

I lived in a big old white verandahed house next door to a park, and sometimes when I looked out of the window I would see them trailing dispiritedly past in single file, mother in front, and three small scruffy children aged seven downwards, straggling behind her, followed closely by the cat.

One warm summer night, the eldest, my son’s friend, with the unfortunate name of Ezekiel, came rushing into my flat, and said: “Mum says ring for the ambulance!” I did, and a few minutes later he was back, saying: “Mum says cancel the ambulance. The police might come too. She wants you to come. “

As we ran I tried to find out what had happened. His father was a drug addict, who had recently, according to my horrified son, “stomped” his mother in law when he was high. As we hurried towards the house, I worried that I might get stomped too. When I got there, Melanie was waiting. At the door-step I had to step over the cat Mehitabel who’d been speyed that day and was mewling in pain, while at the same time her kittens were clamouring for milk. Not a good start. My heart sank. The smells and the squalor turned my stomach.

Melanie whispered to me in terror that the ex-husband had taken an overdose, and because he was on a methadone recovery programme was furious when he realised she’d ordered an ambulance, as it could get him into trouble with the police and wreck his programme.“He’s just coming to now,” she agonised, “and I don’t know what to do.”Neither did I.

I could hear heavy dragging footsteps moving across the uncarpeted wooden floor overhead. All the family cowered, and I stood in the hall facing the stairway with them behind me, as a tall heavy man lurched round the bend in the wooden stairs. To my astonishment, as though I was at an English garden party, I smiled, stepped towards him, stuck out my hand to shake his, and heard myself say: “How d’you do, we haven’t met, I’m Valerie …”

His blank blue eyes focussed, he took my hand, returned the greetings, and a sigh seemed to emanate from the three small children and his wife holding their breath. We discussed the cats, let a few other polite nothings pass between us, and with everything seeming to be quiet and normal, I left.  And shortly after, he did. In the years that have passed I’ve often thought about this unconscious knee-jerk conditioning which was so banal and mundane that it lowered the temperature immediately. Would I do it differently now that I’m older and more conscious?

Ten years later when I was doing hard labour on a consciousness – raising  course in Australia – with nearly a hundred others – one of the charges laid against me by the course leader was that I was gracious! He said it stopped me being real, and was a defence mechanism that didn’t serve me. I didn’t get it then, and neither did some others who came up to me afterwards, and told me they liked me the way I was. But as time went by, I did get to see what he meant about avoidance and being real, and also to understand at a deep level, the truth of these well-known, lovely lines from Margery Williams’ classic, ‘The Velveteen Rabbit.’

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you ….
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Being real to me, is about having the courage to be honest, never hiding who we are, never being ashamed of anything we are, accepting who we are  – and most important of all – being vulnerable. When we’re vulnerable we don’t fear being hurt, but know that great gifts can come out of risking ourselves. And somehow when we are real and therefore honest about our feelings, others can respond at that level of vulnerability and truth.

Being vulnerable is about having an open heart, and being available to both spontaneous joy and un-regretted sorrow. There’s a freedom when we start being real, we dare to be adventurous in spirit, and calm and confident in adversity. We don’t have regrets, because we know that there are no wrong paths. “Paths are made by walking,” as the Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote.

One of the most real stories I’ve heard is about the Dalai Lama, who has never been anything but authentic, honest, wise, and now – I realise – vulnerable, spontaneous and real! A friend had spent the weekend with him (and a thousand others), studying Tibetan scriptures. The Dalai Lama read them aloud in Tibetan, and then someone else translated them into English, and he discussed them.

At the end of the second day, when they had reached the end of the programme, he held up the book, and said to his hearers something like: if you found this useful or enlightening, then you can read it every day.

“If not,” he twinkled, with his wide wise smile, “Fuck it,” and threw the book over his shoulder! There was a moment of disbelieving silence, and then everyone roared with delighted laughter.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I’ve been battling with the damage the dentist inadvertently did to two good teeth some weeks ago, and am now about to have two root canals, so I’m eating ‘soft’ food. Yesterday I remembered a dish we used to call: ‘convent eggs.’ It’s comfort food – creamy mashed potatoes, and hard- boiled eggs covered with cheese sauce – simple, cheap and easy. When mashing the potatoes I pour cream or milk into the pan with drained potatoes, and as soon as it bubbles I take it off the heat, and mash with lots of butter, salt and pepper. At the end I quickly beat the potatoes with a wooden spoon to make them fluffy. Put the potatoes on a warmed plate, cut the hard -boiled eggs in half and press into the potatoes, then pour the cheese sauce over. That’s the quickest way. But the same layers placed in an ovenproof dish, and grilled until brown adds a dimension of crunch and taste.

Food for Thought

Absurdity is a very powerful tool for waking up. A good situation comedy is a wonderful Buddhist teaching, because it’s a parody of suffering. The cause of suffering is attachment to outcome, attachment to income, attachment to the world being a certain way.

Steve Bhaerman – Swami Beyondanandal – the Cosmic Comic

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Places in the Heart

100_0223The printed word has a lot to answer for and has changed the course of many lives.

On this occasion when it changed mine, I was cursorily scanning the personal columns of the Daily Telegraph looking for somewhere to live. My husband was away with his regiment on manoeuvres or practise camp, and I was filling in the trying gap between the baby’s ten o’clock and two o’clock feed.

We had to find somewhere to live for a year, and this night I found a few lines offering a country house in the right area for nearly the right price – for a year. The next day I rang. The owner was delighted – he was off to Greenwich Naval College and wanted someone to keep his house warm. “Chudor, ya’ know,” he told me, listing the bedrooms… We arranged a time that weekend to inspect the place, and when my husband returned the next day he went off on what he called a recce. He came back looking rather panic-stricken. “It’s bigger than Hampton Court,” he said, “and looks like it too, all red brick.”  Undaunted, I persevered, rather fancying the idea of a stately home. We’d never be able to heat it, he argued, and then I saw the light – with an eighteen month old and a four month old, that mattered.

So I returned to the personal columns, and struck gold a week later. “This one sounds OK”, I said,” right area, right rent, and only five bedrooms” (my ideas had expanded considerably since my brush with Layer Marney Towers the previous week). I rang the owner – same story – wanted someone to live in it for a year, this time while he wound up his boat building business in East Anglia. “You’ll love it,” he said, “there’s the garden bedroom, the oak bedroom, the red bedroom, the four poster bedroom, and the end bedroom…” My husband panicked again.

But a few days later we set off on a light June evening driving through quiet Essex lanes, with honeysuckle and dog roses winding in among the high hazel, hawthorn and elderberry hedges. We found Newney Hall dreaming between fields and hedgerows, a small lake – which in the twilight was almost black, and edged with a tangle of lilacs and shrubs – lying between it and the road. The house, Tudor red brick, and Essex pantiles on the upper floor with casement windows, stretched beyond the lake, reaching into a circular lawn with a cedar in the middle. Beyond that, a walled orchard.

As we walked down the gravel drive I could hear the sounds of music coming from the house. A knock on the door revealed a rather vague looking woman with a viola tucked under one arm, and the bow held in her other, as though she could hardly bear to stop between bars to open the door. “George!” she called imperiously, and the seigneur hurried to welcome us. Within minutes the deal was done, and we moved in a week or so later.

The house had been built in the time of Edward the Sixth, Henry the Eighth’s son, and all the land around had been gifted to Wadham College, Oxford in the same reign, so nothing in the landscape had changed for over four hundred years. The fields and trees, lanes and barns were untouched by time, and since there was no sound of traffic, no jet planes practising, and only occasionally the sound of a distant tractor, the whole place lay wrapped in an almost primeval peace. There was no other house in sight.

Wood pigeons cooed incessantly somewhere in the trees, cocooning us in their summer sounds, the donkey in the next field brayed occasionally, the cows mooed as they shambled past to the milking shed at the farm beyond the house. The old red-tiled barns, grain sheds on staddle stones, and stables were laid out around a square, where the cows sheltered in winter. I walked across to the cow- shed every day with a baby on my hip, my eighteen month old trotting beside me, and carrying a big cream- ware jug to collect my fresh milk. We also went there to pick up new-laid eggs from the farmer.

The house was built from huge beams, and filled in between them with a mixture of mud and straw. They were plastered over, and the walls were about three feet thick, with deep window ledges where I put books and vases of flowers. Two old aunts had been living in the house before expiring and gifting it to George. In the mid-sixties they were over ninety, and the house was unchanged since the days when they had been born back in the 1870’s. So was the dust. When I moved an antique chest of drawers to dust behind it, a thrush disintegrated into fine powder.

I spring cleaned from top to bottom, washed curtains, scrubbed floors, polished Sheraton  tables and dusted Chippendale chairs. It was like living in a time warp. No heating, a gas stove so old I’d never seen one like it, and neither had the serviceman when he came. If it’s working, best leave it, he said, shaking his head. I had a big kitchen with a big square scrubbed table in the middle, red and white checked tile floor which needed scrubbing every week, and a real larder with marble slab. My only gadgets a pop-up toaster and a wooden spoon!

At weekends a stream of friends came through, a childhood friend getting used to having MS, school friends with their babies and husbands, army friends with theirs, a friend of my husband, shell- shocked after being court- martialled – a Polish/ French student who had nowhere to go, a girl who was pregnant and needed somewhere to stay – she moved on, didn’t like my food, I think – cousins, godparents, in-laws, family… and then back to primeval peace during the week.

Once I dumped his steak and kidney pudding and vegetables on my husband’s head. Mistake. Apart from reprisals, lots of cleaning up to do. And later, I lay in the long sweet smelling grass in the orchard, where I’d seen the red fox glide through, and cried my eyes out under the late evening summer sky. At twenty six I thought no-one would ever love me again.

Not long after, we left that beautiful house to go to Hongkong, where the hectic life and chaos of those times obliterated the memories of that year in the country. But for years I have dreamt of it. In my dreams it’s bigger, and there are many more rooms. The furniture is more elegant and the rooms more beautiful. There is one room which is filled with such treasures that I only go into it sometimes… it feels sacred. I have no idea why I dream so often of this house I lived in for a short year so long ago. I don’t know what it symbolizes. I’ve lived in other houses and places just as magical…  no doubt a psychologist would mine some profound Jungian theory from these dreams, delving into the unconscious and maybe coming up with an archetype!

Daphne du Maurier was obsessed with Menabilly the house she immortalised as Manderley in ‘Rebecca’,  and wrote about her dreams of it, while another writer, Elizabeth Bowen, clung to the memories of her ancestral home in Ireland, Bowen House. Evelyn Waugh immortalised Lygon Hall in his book ‘Brideshead Revisited’.  Like du Maurier writing about Manderley, Waugh’s writing about Brideshead breathes love, nostalgia and an ache, a longing to return.

It isn’t just writers who long for these enchanted places from the past. It’s as though the romance of their lost beauty, surrounded by dreaming country-side, grows tendrils into the heart which can never be untangled. …  and this is not just the experience of a few. For some, it’s the house by the sea, for others, the log – hut in the wood… a longing perhaps for memories of happiness and holidays past, innocent times of laughter and love, for the sweet days of years gone by. It rarely seems to be a house in town that arouses these emotions … mostly these lost demesnes are part of an idyllic landscape. As the years go by, these landscapes become almost mythical places of perfection…

And once we’ve left, we can only return in our dreams. Though we have left something of ourselves behind in these special places, it is a different self, a younger self seeing the world as it was then. To return in the physical is to invite dis-illusion or disappointment. Things change, new owners improve on the simplicity that we treasured, the light is harsher, the house smaller, the garden neglected or smartened, trees and shrubs overgrown or cut down, the lake stagnant, and nothing is the same. So memories and dreams are the best we can have. And they are precious, and time cannot warp them or fade them. These are our private, personal paradises – our places in the heart.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Friend popped in for a girl’s drink. I still had some delectable rose from lunch together a couple of days before, so she came to help me finish it. Too late to get to the shops, I found I had nothing to nibble… no thin brown bread for smoked salmon and lemon juice, so blinis  were fished out of the deep freeze, but then I had no cream cheese.

So I improvised by hard boiling a couple of eggs, slicing them thinly, and placing a slice on each buttered blini. Next layer was mayonnaise on the eggs, and lastly the salmon with a sprinkling of parsley. I cut the salmon in two pieces for each blini, so it was easy to bite them without wrecking the whole edifice!  They went down a treat, and we had a happy hour laughing at ourselves and the world, before returning to the inescapable task of feeding our always hungry husbands.

 

Food for Thought

“’One pure act of acceptance is worth more than a hundred thousand exercises of one’s will,’ since it is a state of interior silence and quietude from which at the right time, the right action emerges without any volition.”

From ‘Taoism – The Way of the Mystic’  by Jean C Cooper 1905 – 1999  Born in China to missionaries, she grew up learning about Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism from her amahs. After studying philosophy at St Andrews, Edinbrugh, and lecturing in comparative religions, she lived with her husband in a remote Cumberland home (the lake district) where she had to generate her own electricity from a stream.

 

 

 

 

 

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Their many-splendoured thing

0001138To get to the truth of this love story was a journey through two thousand years of male chauvinism and prejudice.

I’ve discovered that the story of Caesar and Cleopatra’s love has been distorted for centuries, belittled, and encrusted with calumnies of Cleopatra. Even Caesar’s twentieth century biographers seem to have had their judgement warped and their vision dulled by some unconscious hostility towards one of the great charmers of history – the last Queen of Egypt.

 I think I could have fallen in love with Caesar. He was a strikingly good looking man with sensitive features and piercing eyes according to contemporary sources; a brilliant orator -second only to Cicero – who kept his legions loyal both with his oratory and his generosity to them, getting land for them to settle on, and doubling their pay. He was a prodigious horseman with enormous stamina and a reputation for travelling a hundred miles a day in a light carriage in those days on those roads, while writing letters and reports to Rome – sounds like Napoleon…

 Caesar’s Gallic Wars may have been the torment of generations of school-children (‘ Gaul was divided into three parts,’ etc) but they are esteemed for their historic record, and admired for their taut elegant Latin prose style. He was intelligent, and tackled Rome’s chronic debt problems and began to find a solution for the huge under-class of unemployed people in Rome. And he was one of the greatest generals in history.

 When he met Cleopatra, she’d been queen since she was fourteen, but had just been deposed by her younger brother and his power brokers. Young Ptolomy’s men had seized Pompey, Caesar’s enemy, when he had fled to Egypt, and according to some accounts, beheaded him then and there in front of his wife and children. When Caesar arrived in Alexandria two days later to deal with Pompey, Ptolomy presented him with his enemy’s head, thinking to gain his favour. But Caesar was disgusted and so antagonised the Egyptians.

 Twenty-one year old Cleopatra had decided that she would get Caesar on her side to win back her crown. Barred from Alexandria by her brother, she sailed up to Caesar’s palace at dusk. A servant named Appollodorus, the Sicilian, carried her in a carpet past Ptolomy’s guards, and in this exotic way she met the great Roman general. What courage! What audacity!Who wouldn’t fall for such a high-spirited and ravishing young creature? Fifty-two year old Caesar was enchanted.

 And Cleopatra?  No contest! We all know why, thanks to Henry Kissinger’s helpful advice to his aide  – “ you’d have no way of knowing, Pederson, but power is the greatest aphrodisiac,”  – and so it was with Caesar. Cleopatra stayed there in the palace with him, and when a few months later, his legions arrived from Italy, he defeated the Egyptians at a battle on the Nile, where Ptolomy was drowned.

 Caesar was a descendant of the mythical Aneas, who had fled the sack of Troy, popped in on Dido in Africa, and then left her, thereby bequeathing to us another of opera’s greatest songs,  ‘Dido’s Lament’, and finally ended up in Italy. The fabulously rich and beautiful Cleopatra was a descendant of one of Alexander the Great’s generals, who was Satrap governing Egypt when Alexander died. He proclaimed himself  Pharoah, and the Ptolomies reigned in Egypt for nearly three hundred years.

 They had continued to speak Greek throughout this time, though clever Cleopatra had actually taken the trouble to learn Egyptian. So it would have been no problem to converse with Caesar, since Greek would have been their common language, spoken by all educated people in those days.

 After Caesar had defeated her brother, he re-instated Cleopatra on the throne, and before rushing off to mop up the rest of Pompey’s supporters in Spain (he certainly got around) he spent several months cruising on the Nile with his beloved. They were accompanied by 400 craft, and the picture of them in my mind, reclining on cushioned couches under draped awnings, soft voices, perfumes, music and beauty all around them, makes me think of the words:

They live in such delight,

       Such pleasure and such play,

               As that to them a thousand years

                              Doth seem as yesterday.

 Then, while Caesar went rushing about his empire putting down riots and rebellions from the fall-out of his quarrel with Pompey – he spared his enemies, which meant trouble for him later – Cleopatra gave birth to his only son, called Caesarion. For the next two years, their love must have been sustained by relays of couriers delivering papyruses. It’s very hard to work out the chronology of their love affair as different commentators and historians dropped facts or fudged them; and they prefered to write that ‘Caesar aligned himself with her’, as though it was just political policy, rather than admit that he loved her.

 One of them says that when Caesar went back to Alexandria, he was putting down a remnant of Pompey’s force – really?  A handful of leaderless dissidents, hanging out in Egypt for two years, while the legions he had left behind to protect Cleopatra ignored them? Of course he had gone to see Cleopatra. This time she followed him to Rome with their baby and her young brother, technically her co-monarch. Taking him with her, meant that other factions couldn’t cause trouble back home on his behalf.

 Caesar installed his mistress in one of his villas. It caused a scandal of course. He was already married to Calpurnia, but clearly adored Cleopatra in spite of her detractors insinuating that she was not important to him. He had a gold statue of her made and placed in the temple of his ancestors. Cicero hated her, as did many others, who feared her influence over Caesar. But in spite of every historian’s attempts to write Cleopatra out of Caesar’s story, this one action shows the depths of his commitment to the fascinating Queen.

 As proof of this lack of commitment to her they say that he failed to make their son his heir. But why would he nominate a three- year- old illegitimate half- foreigner to run Rome, when he’d already named his adult great- nephew Octavian, who became Emperor Augustus? Historians also say that she “claimed” that Caesarion was Caesar’s – how insulting – at one stroke this implies she was promiscuous, and the child’s father unknown.

 A twentieth century biographer makes no mention of Cleopatra when he describes Caesar’s innovation of creating public libraries like the one attached to the Great Library of Alexandria. He also tells how Caesar used an Egyptian astronomer to re-organise the calendar, and institute the Julian Calendar, which was used throughout the western world for over fifteen hundred years. Gradually countries changed over to the slightly more accurate Gregorian calendar in the seventeenth century, but to do so caused riots in many countries. Russia didn’t change over until the Revolution in1918, and Berber Arabs and the monks of Mt Athos still use Caesar’s calendar.

 Despite the Egyptian astronomer, historians pretend this too had nothing to do with Cleopatra. The one thing they’re happy to sheet back to her, was that Caesar grew more dictatorial, which they claimed was due to her Ptolomy influence – not to the circumstances in Rome and his increasing age? At the end of two years, Caesar was assassinated, by enemies claiming that he was aiming for too much power. He died on the steps of the Senate on the Ides of March, 44BC.

Cleopatra fled back to Egypt. None of these heartless male historians ever credit her with a broken heart, but how could she not have been broken-hearted?  She and her lover had been together for four years. If Caesar had lived, where would the story have ended? Roman writers denigrated her and de-valued her place in Caesar’s heart, but admitted that her great beauty and her wit, charm and ‘sweetness in the tones of her voice,’ according to Plutarch, were legendary. “Brilliant to look upon and to listen to,” wrote another. Shakespeare had the famous last words: ‘Age shall not wither her, not custom stale her infinite variety’…

And when four years later, Mark Antony summoned her to meet him at Tarsus to answer for her loyalty to Caesar – at nearly thirty, and at the height of her radiant beauty – she famously pulled out all the stops for him; her life and her throne depended on it. Yet ten years on, the rather unreliable and vain-glorious Mark Anthony failed her, and she committed suicide rather than be dragged in chains through Rome as part of the Triumph of Mark Anthony’s enemy – Caesar’s great-nephew, Octavian.  Honesta mors turpi vita potior – an honourable death is better than a dishonourable  life – Roman historian Tacitus

 P. S. Seventeen- year old Caesarion was killed by Octavian – ‘too many Caesar’s’ –  thus proving, despite the sneers,  that he was Caesar’s son. Cleopatra’s twins and a son by Mark Anthony, were brought up by Octavia, Mark Anthony’s divorced wife – an act of generosity and goodness in the circumstances.

PPS   The poem comes from an old hymn called ‘Jerusalem, my happy home’. It was written circa 1580 by an anonymous Catholic priest and based on the writings of St Augustine in 400AD.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

 Shopping for vegetables this morning, I saw some fresh cos lettuce. I don’t really like salads in winter, but promised myself a nice Caesar salad. It was only when I reached home, I realised the hilarious workings of my unconscious!

Anyway, we had one – this is my down home version: a few rashers of organic bacon chopped and fried. Some crisp croutons fried to golden brown. I either poach the eggs or boil them very lightly. I don’t use anchovies, as my husband doesn’t like them and the original recipe used some drops of Worcestershire sauce, which is what gives the faint anchovy flavour. Toss it all together, except for the egg and sprinkle with a good vinaigrette dressing which has some crushed garlic in it. Then add grated parmesan, which amalgamates with the dressing, and then with the egg yolk when the egg is added and broken. Delicious – even in winter!

 Food for Thought

Something going on here – after using the words below in a conversation with a friend the other day, I decided to put them on the end of this rather long blog – nice and short Food for Thought!  When I Googled to check who had written these words, I was astonished to find that they date from the same times as Julius Caesar!

If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? …. And if not now, when?”

Rabbi Hillel – Great Jewish teacher who lived at the same time as Julius Caesar and later, King Herod, dying in 10 AD.

The modern version is “If not me –who? If not now – when? “

 

 

 

 

 

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