Monthly Archives: December 2016

Kintsugi, art and life

I wrote a column about my collection of cracked and chipped blue and white china thirty years ago. Some people received the idea of a collection of cracked china with derision and laughter… something cracked or chipped had lost its value, usefulness and good looks was the unspoken message, or I must be too poor to have such a pointless collection instead of perfect objects.

Undeterred, in the years since, I’ve saved shattered fragments of blue and white china when I’ve dropped or broken something, intending to stick them all together in a splendid mould and make a bird bath. I still have all the bits … but though the spirit has been willing, the body has been weak, alas.

So when a few weeks ago a possum knocked a precious piece of pottery off the bird table I was heart-broken. It was a large platter given to me by its maker, a potter of some renown, whose pieces now on sale in the national museum cost more than I could ever have dreamed.

But my platter came into my hands over thirty years ago when I used to take my daughter for piano lessons with a beautiful woman who played the cello in the city orchestra and taught the piano. While my daughter tackled the music of civilisation’s finest composers, I whiled away the time chatting to her teacher’s husband, the potter, admiring his work which was all around and even then, out of my reach to afford.

They lived in an enchanting house he had built himself, and where in the romantic rambling garden black and white speckly bantam hens roamed, kicking up the flower beds with their stubby tufted legs and fearsome claws. One day the potter gave me one of his platters and a few months later by chance, another came into my hands.

I’ve always treasured them, and since I love using beautiful things for mundane purposes have always used them as bird baths. Now in our forest, I use them as bird tables for bird seed, balanced on pedestals made from other treasured ceramics. A possum must have clambered up and knocked the platter off. It had broken into three pieces. I found it when I awoke and got up to fill it with bird seed and scatter seed on the ground for our visiting quails.

Going back to bed with my early morning tea I brooded over this unexpected event, and idly let my mind roam over the five hundred-year-old Japanese art of kintsugi, when cracks or breaks in a piece of pottery or porcelain are pieced together again with glue and gold… the name means golden repairs. They become so beautiful that some pieces have been broken deliberately in order to restore them with veins of gold.

Mentioning this to my love, he immediately Googled, and over the weeks he mastered the technique, and the platter was returned to me on Christmas Day with beautiful veins of gold now holding the broken pieces together… the platter is even more beautiful than before… which is the idea … this exquisite art form has developed to become part of the Japanese philosophy of life… where respecting the past with ‘awe and reverence’ adds to the beauty of the object. It is not seen as flawed or broken, but as re-stored… not to wholeness, but to a beauty reflecting life, its impermanence and poignancy.

Since discovering the concept of kintsugi I’ve thought how though it is an old instinct brought to perfection by Japanese craftsmen, it’s also been used by so many others for so many centuries … I thought of the ancient ruined monasteries scattered around England, dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1530’s in order to enrich himself and turfing out the monks, leaving them homeless and destitute.

Local people were the ones who ruined those abandoned monasteries, dismantling exquisite abbeys, priories and friaries, and using the stones to build or enrich their own homes. Even in this day and age, I have stopped the car in a muddy lane in Cumberland to exclaim over a carved Gothic window blocked up to make part of the wall in a rough stone barn – relic of a local monastery.

I used to walk in a Devon village where the red post box was set into the thick wall of a house rising straight out of the street, which would once have been a cart-track, and next to it in the wall was a small beautifully carved blocked up window from another medieval building. These small architectural gems ennobled the old stone walls they were set in – another Japanese concept – ‘wabi sabi ‘– finding beauty in old or broken things

Shakespeare found beauty in old things, and using the principles of kintsugi, rewrote the ancient legends he had learned in his classical education at Stratford Grammar School, re-creating and transforming the stories of Anthony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar or Troilus and Cressida – to name a few – into enduring works of art.

Not sublime works of art, but definitely kintsugi, are the pre-loved clothes – as they’re sometimes called – which a friend finds. By changing the buttons, adding a trimming, altering the neckline, edging hemlines or cuffs with contrasting fabric she turns each found item into an enviable work of art as well as a desirable item of clothing.

And there’s something touching and very sweet about the darns or patches in a piece of old linen, or a carefully repaired scrap of precious old lace. I love the chips and worn places on old painted furniture and the scratches on the polished wood of an antique table, or the kicked legs of a well-used chair.

These are the scars of a life well lived, and to iron them out, re-paint, sand them away and restore them to what is so often wrongly called ‘their former glory,’ chills my heart.  I know this means their honourable scars have been destroyed, and their character obliterated. In trying to make things look as good as new we are not honouring their past… the spirit of kintsugi.

When we were told on our personal growth courses to turn sour milk into yogurt, this was the same thing, re-creating and restoring the broken, cracked or scratched parts of our lives, and using them to teach us strength, compassion, insight. Acknowledging the hard places and tough times we had come through, and the buried pain, we were able then to see how they had shaped us.

We learned to face these times with ‘awe and reverence’, and with gratitude too, since without these scars, we would not be the people we had become. Our lives regained both magic and poignancy as we learned to see the mysterious patterns of events which we had endured and previously dismissed or de-valued.

Patterns of pain, loss, anger or despair, once recognised, became our golden repairs, our kintsugi, which enriched us and gave us a sense of the beauty of our lives. The cracks of character and kindness round our mouths, the lines of laughter softening our eyes, the deep furrows of thought and intellect above our brows became testimony to strength of character, to acceptance of the challenges faced, and rejection of bitterness or resistance.

Maybe this is why I find the faces of celebrities who have had a face lift or a botox injection rather sad… they are not honouring the medals earned by a well-lived life.

The most precious example of kintsugi in this place where we live is a diver’s rusty old tank, found while we scoured a demolition yard for re-cycled goodies. It was brought joyfully home, carefully cut in two, sanded, gently polished and re-painted, so it is a dull antique grey, with a few antique coins stuck to the circumference.

It’s mounted at the bottom of our drive with a striker made from an old fishing weight attached to a handle of weathered wood sitting by it. When visitors arrive, they ring the bell to tell us they’re here. Every day at dawn, and in the gloaming we ring our bell in gratitude. It reminds us that life is precious. And so we honour life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

We always used to have goose at Christmas when I was a child, but on the one occasion we had turkey I remember my father saying he wasn’t going to eat cold turkey or turkey sandwiches for the next week. So he devised a rechauffe of turkey eaten on rice.

Faced with lots of left-over turkey this year, I decided to follow his example. I had saved all the turkey juices, so after frying mushrooms and chopped bacon in butter, I stirred in a table spoon of flour to thicken the mixture and added the turkey juices. When this had thickened, I added chopped turkey and a little cream, salt and pepper, nutmeg to taste, and a small chicken bouillon cube.

Served on boiled rice, with peas, chopped parsley and butter stirred through, it was much better than cold turkey sandwiches!

Food for Thought

The self-actualising person is not a normal person with something added, but a normal person with nothing taken away.         Abraham Maslow

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Helicopters, hallucinations and hospital

.It only took two seconds. But since the consequences of those two seconds have dominated my life for the last six months, and promise to do so for some months yet, I feel faintly justified in sharing them.

Stepping blithely onto the back of the sofa to put a book back on the highest shelf, I lost my balance and fell backwards. Lying on the floor in a strange position, I knew without even looking that I had broken my leg and announced this to my love as he came to help me. Luckily the sofa is seven feet long, so he was able to get me onto it so I could lie there in unbelievable agony.

Even in that short time when I looked at my knee it was about ten inches across. I foolishly thought this was just swelling.

Abandoning the idea of driving to our nearest hospital an hour and a half away along a winding, precipitous road above the sea, we rang 111 instead. In half an hour the blessed ambulance arrived, with two angels who pumped me full of morphine, got me onto a special stretcher which didn’t entail lifting me, and decided I had to go by helicopter to the big area hospital.

After the interminable drive down the long winding gravel road during which time they stopped regularly to allow me to be sick, we reached the air strip and the waiting helicopter.

The last words I heard before I even had time to say goodbye to Himself, were: “I’m giving you ketamine for the pain. Some people get hallucinations.” I did.

Suddenly I was hurtling through outer space – tumbling into a vortex between intricate patterns of gold and black, and being sucked into the centre into the black hole. It seemed to go on endlessly. Eventually I said if I’m dying, I’m ready to die, but this didn’t stop the tumbling through space, the diving into the black hole again and again, and the patterns closing in around me. Then suddenly, I was back in the real world, unable to move a limb, totally paralysed, with the blazing sun beating down on my face through the glass about a foot away.

Unable to move or attract attention, I somehow survived this ordeal by sunburn, and arriving on terra firma was immediately surrounded by helpful, efficient people and wheeled away into a white tunnel which is what seems to pass for an X-ray these days apparently.

Then up to the operating theatre, and more blissful unconsciousness while they put on a plaster from thigh to toes, which had to last until the specialist could operate five days later. They told me the top bone was jammed down on the bottom bone, shattering it – a very nasty injury they assured me… not sure what happened to the knee in between, and I never got to ask…

Wheeled into a ward, addled with drugs and shock, I got used to the other drug-crazed, injured people around me! There were six of us and they included a secret smoker in one corner, and a young Maori woman who wore dark glasses all the time so she didn’t have to speak to any of us. The one time she was roused into vehement speech was on my behalf on the third day.

I had drawn what I called the Short Straw, a nurse who was looking after me that day who was so stout, it was a real effort I felt, to keep on her feet all those hours, and deaf too, so I wasn’t sure whether she was a bit dim or whether she just hadn’t heard me. Her ministrations were slow and reluctant, and when I told her I felt sick and she ignored me, I wasn’t sure whether she didn’t think it was worth taking any notice of me, or whether she just hadn’t heard. Seconds later, I called urgently for a receptacle and then filled three large ones with blood. “I wonder what caused that?” she kept saying in a helpless, puzzled way.

Apparently enraged, the Maori girl sat up in bed, took off her dark glasses, and using the odd four letter word, said words to the effect: “what do you expect when you fill her full of F… tramadol. Of course it’s tramadol doing it, you dimwit.” I trust the Short Straw only heard some of this.

The doctors decided it was the infamous drug tramadol too, combined with the rest of my cocktail, so I was downgraded to morphine and daily injections, instead of taking anti-coagulants. The result of this was that I had damaged my stomach, but didn’t know what to eat, so ate nothing but yogurt or mashed potato for some time, since otherwise I felt so ill that the pain of my leg paled into insignificance.

The operation duly took place and I wore a heavy black lycra and metal brace from thigh to foot for the next two months, unable to set foot to the ground. The operation also left me with a numb foot and shin, which I still have, accompanied by nerve pain which means I still enjoy/consume a full cocktail of painkilling drugs, and which makes it hard to walk.

The months were passed in a little cottage hospital where thirty-five of us were all coping with long-term injuries. In our little ward with four of us, we sympathised with each other, listened to each other’s life stories, gossiped about our favourite nurses, and moaned about the rigours of trips by ambulance back to base hospital to see the specialists at regular intervals.

I was humbled by the dedication and commitment of the staff, none of whom ever dawdled but who were on the run all day,   scurrying down long corridors of an old style building, walking between ten and twelve miles a day.

I set myself to be a low maintenance patient, but many of the patients needed help even in getting out of bed, (depending on the injury this was an art in itself), into a shower, dressing or eating, and no nurse ever be-grudged the time they spent with anyone. Two patients died unexpectedly while I was there, and red-eyed nurses showed me how much they cared.

The doctor who visited several times a week knew everyone’s names, joshed us all, and usually ended his visits in the big sitting room, where he sat at the piano and played old favourites for anyone who wanted to listen. One of my favourite nurses was a delicious and beautiful Indian who brought her children and nephews to do Indian dancing for us… exquisite…others brought their dogs, and one jumped straight up on my bed, and cuddled into me – bliss…

Most people were old, and alone at home so they couldn’t manage, and were sheltered safely here until they were ready to cope. I was a rarity with my leg stuck out in front of me in a wheel chair. But what I learned as I observed the others was that I was one of the only lucky ones there.

Though I was older than many, I was almost the only man or woman there with my own teeth, who didn’t have a hearing aid, who didn’t have dementia in some form, and who was strong and active, healthy and able to do yoga and all the other things that kept me young(ish) and flexible. In other words, I had been lucky enough to afford to go to the dentist, to be educated about a healthy diet and life-style, could afford them both, and had enjoyed a life fairly unencumbered and unstressed by money worries.

These frail people brought home to me as never before how life expectancy and/or the enjoyment of good health depends on income, which dictates education, health care, mental health, housing, and everything else we need for a good life.

I listened to the life stories of my companions in pain, and heard how one woman brought up her six children when her husband died when her youngest was five, working at sewing factory uniforms at home from dawn to dusk to make a living and look after the children, and helping in the local shop when she had any spare hours; the lady in the bed across from me who had had two children and adopted two more, shared the trials of coping with deeply disturbed children and then their adult problems; the beautiful, feisty woman in the next bed was going home to look after an alcoholic and bloody-minded, middle-aged son she’d brought up alone, and the severely mentally handicapped sister she also cared for.

And then there were the incidental friendships. A visiting son who had raised thousands of dollars to rescue, doctor and re-home over six thousand feral cats. When he ran out of money and still had thirty-six cats to re-home, he sold his house and he and his wife moved into the country into a smaller house with land where rescued dogs, ducks, ponies, goats, pigeons and every other needy creature came to live with him and be loved. All the cats came and were named and loved until they died. This lovely man worked at night driving a bull-dozer to make enough money, and he also did a lovely tango across the ward to amuse his mother! It was my enthusiastic applause which connected us !

A young woman came with her dog to visit an old neighbour, and she told me she and her sister and her mother, rescue and re-home more dogs than the local animal charity, who often turn to them for help. They used up every penny they earned caring for desperate creatures.

Listening to these stories, and the life-stories of my fellow patients, I felt humble and so grateful for the life I had been able to lead. Even having the time to write and to blog, and to own a computer is something only the fortunate can do.

Breaking my leg, and now hobbling around with my stick, waiting for everything to heal has been a blessing. It has opened my eyes to how so many good, kind women live their whole lives coping with inescapable burdens. That son reminded me of how much hidden goodness there is in the community, and I was shown how much beauty,  compassion and dedication so many women pour into their lives and their careers in the hospitals where they work. I was reminded that women are wonderful.

And I left this wonderful place with a full complement of much needed pain-killers, a walking frame, crutches,  stool for the bathroom and a high stool to sit on in the kitchen. I was offered care at home, plus someone to clean, and free physio for as long as I needed it. I will never grumble about paying taxes again! I give thanks for being fortunate enough to live in a western society where care and compassion for those who need it, is a way of life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

This is the first year of my adult life that I haven’t made my own Christmas mince pies – for obvious reasons (see above !!!). But I found some decent bought ones, prized off their lids and spooned oodles more good mince- meat into them, replacing the lids, and heating them up as required. Before serving I sprinkle them with caster sugar … this IS Christmas isn’t it??

I also like to serve them with a dollop of brandy butter – why keep anything so delicious just for Christmas pudding? I make it by ear as it were, using two ounces of softened butter – preferably unsalted, but not necessarily… and adding icing sugar and brandy… I go on beating with a fork, or a beater, and adding butter and icing sugar and brandy until it tastes the way I want it, and is the right soft consistency. I also add a few drops of vanilla. Once tasted, no mince pie is complete without it… though cream is also good…      A  Merry Christmas… to threadbare gourmets and to all those who are neither gourmets nor threadbare !

Food for thought

Lord, forgive us that we feast while others starve.           Grace before a banquet, said by John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester in the reign of Henry VIII.         Just as appropriate now as then…

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Our beautiful world

The wind is blowing in the trees. It sounds like the sea. The sun is on the mountain. And outside the house, a pair of nesting quails are foraging among the bird seed that has spilled from the bird table.

When I step outside, I hear the sound of many wings… I have disturbed the green finches feeding, and their flight is like the sound of many muffled hands clapping.

This place is my new home, forty acres of forest, where our little wood cabin looks down a valley and up to a forest covered mountain. Where we hear the sound of our two streams meeting down below long before they join others to make the river. It flows beside the long winding road of blind u-shaped bends and gravel and often mud, which is the only way to reach us. When intrepid travellers finally reach the top of the forested mountain range, on this road famous for its degree of difficulty, and which only the brave or the ignorant attempt, they come to our big iron gates, and the elusive gate code, only available to those who are welcome.

We live several miles further on inside the gate, down a well-tended paved road, over-hung at this moment by the manukau trees frosted with scented white blossom  providing food for bees who make the healing manukau honey. We pass the steep hidden drives of the other occupants of this magic place, a forest which is covenanted and preserved for whatever the future holds for the planet.

There are about twenty-five of us, like-minded people who, on settling here, have agreed not to have  dogs or cats or introduce plants or trees which are not native to this place. So because this podocarp forest is covenanted, and these agreements are in place, the silence is never disturbed by the sound of a barking dog, and the only man-made sound is the distant hum of a car snaking slowly along the road.

And yet it is never silent. Tuis flute their glorious song during the day, the shining cuckoo sings its melody, while green finches cheep, and sometimes flights of red, blue, green and yellow rosellas come chattering by. A kingfisher, making his sharp repetitive call, sits on a dead branch a few yards away from the cabin, and dives into the long grass to snatch up in his sharp beak a grasshopper or other insect which his beady eyes have detected.

At night, a morepork – the New Zealand owl, so named because his call sounds like those words – perches on the same branch and hoots softly across the valley from where answering calls return. When birds are silent in the heat of the day, the all- pervasive buzzing of bees and flies and other insects fill the space, and then there is the glory of cricket and cicada each in their appointed time sending out their nostalgic rasping, warning us that summer does not last forever.

I listen to try to hear the moment when cricket takes over from cicada, but am never mindful enough. We have now watched the sun move across the horizon opposite for one whole year, and know that when it reaches the point of the ridge on midsummer’s day, it will begin once again to move inexorably back to the dip in the ridge halfway across the other side, towards the shortest darkest day. And we have watched the moon now for a whole year, as it rises in the sky to the side of the cabin, and then shines over the mountain and the trees, shedding gold light and mystery over the silent forest.

When it rains we gaze across the misty view which echoes a Chinese painting, and the beauty catches our breath. A myriad of different species of trees inhabit this unspoiled place, the different greens and shapes sprawling like a huge tapestry over the hills. When I gaze at them in the sunshine they  shine, almost as though they were lit up with the lights that stopped Xerxes, King of Kings in his tracks, when his great army rolled across the dusty plains of Asia. Transfixed by a mystical, shining sycamore tree he remained there for two days to the puzzlement of his soldiers.

And here, as the sun moves across the sky, shadows deepen the colours of towering trees, and reveal deep folds of green hills and gorges, and one mountain crowding another. Hidden deep beneath the canopy are rare and cherished species of trees and ferns and also exquisitely camouflaged frogs and lizards, moths and insects, one lizard so rare that only twelve others have been sighted in the rest of the world.

We had the privilege of seeing such a lizard when a neighbour found her with her tail gone and a blood-shot eye. She was rushed to the zoo several hours drive away, and there nurtured back to health. When healed a few weeks later, she was returned to her home grounds, and a group of residents gathered to inspect the precious creature – about four inches long – to witness her return to the wild. This shared concern makes a warm community hard to find anywhere else, particularly when that concern is cemented with good wine and cheese to fortify us before returning to our own native habitats!

We achieved brief fame on the estate when we discovered an Archey’s frog, another endangered species, down our drive. These finds are logged and we have to provide the time of day, the weather, the habitat and many other tiny details to enlarge the knowledge of environmentalists. Since then others have been found, and we realise that this place has become a haven for endangered species.

Are we an endangered species? Sometimes it feels like it. Knowing as we do that the world is changing, that climate change is a fact, whatever climate-deniers, big business and flat-earthers think, that ice caps are melting, our oceans depleted and polluted, that bees are dying from strange viruses and pesticides, and trying to get our heads around the fact that people are still killing the great animals which ensure our survival on the planet – the future of mankind seems as misty as our cloud covered hills.

There is something deeply awe-full and dread-full about the words ‘the Sixth Great Extinction’ which we are now living through according to scientists. So grasping at small straws of comfort can help us to come to terms with this extraordinary time in the history of the world. Living here in this precious piece of preserved forest and rare species has made us much more aware of other safe places and of so many other people dedicated to nurturing the planet.

So wonderful Bill Gates and the other billionaire philanthropists who are devoting huge sums of their money to work on long term alternative green energy sources make me feel hopeful. And I read today that Catholic priests have been instructed by the Vatican to preach about the environment, climate change and preserving the world. It’s what used to be called ‘spreading the word’.

It’s about each of us doing what we can, where we are. I have a friend who never goes anywhere without a plastic bag folded in her pocket. Whether on a walk on the beach with her, or on an overseas trip, staying in a rubbish strewn camp ground, she fills her bag. Single handed she can’t clear all the rubbish, but she does her bit.

Yes, on our own we cannot save our world, but like my friend we can all find ways, however small, of mitigating the damage. I know everyone who reads this blog is already committed to preserving life on earth, so I’m merely sharing one aspect of my new life, which is all about the environment. Tell you more next time!!!!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Having broken my leg badly six months ago and due to side effects still having difficulty walking, I’m actually listening to my doctor for once. She gave me a leaflet full of calcium – rich recipes, and one of them has transformed my idea of breakfast. It’s delicious as well as nutritious.

Leave quarter of a cup of oats soaking in quarter of a cup of hot water overnight if possible, but for at least four hours. Peel and grate an apple and mix into the oats with a tablespoon of lemon juice. Stir in two tablespoons of cream, quarter of a cup of natural sweetened yogurt and a tablespoon of honey – I use the healing manukau honey.

Fruit if desired… it’s a filling and satisfying breakfast, especially when topped off with a freshly brewed cup of lapsang souchong, the favourite drop of the cup that cheers but doth not in-ebriate !

And a PS… many months ago my computer collapsed, taking blog, addresses, etc, etc. Before I had a chance to rehabilitate myself and come to terms with a new computer and the dreaded Windows 10, disaster struck, and I disappeared into hospital for two and a half months. Still rusty trying to climb back on the computer deck, and still clambering  clumsily around trying to master the new technology . So please excuse any infelicities you detect!

Food for Thought

I don’t know who wrote this, but I like it:

dawdling,
not doubting,
intrepid all the way,
walk toward clarity
with keen eye,
With sharpened sword
clear cut the path
to the lucent surprise
of enlightenment.
At every crossroad
be prepared to bump into wonder

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