Category Archives: happiness

Observing light and love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

Food for thought

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

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

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Words, words words…

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William Shakespeare was ‘the onlie begetter’ of those words, which have been in my mind in this month of poetry.

I’ve discovered that in the United States, very few children learn poetry by heart any more, and I suspect that the same is true of education in most Anglo- Saxon cultures. I think it’s a shame… my mind still teams with the phrases and rhymes,  and the glorious words of poets and prayers learned throughout my distant childhood. They sustain me in good times and in bad… and though there’s so much beautiful poetry written today, does anyone recite them anymore?

I go back to my childhood, learning my first poem when I was four… Charles Kingsley’s, ‘I once had a dear little doll, dears’ – it came from a fat book of children’s poems – with no pictures. By eight I had decided to become a poet, by nine I was learning the poems of Water Scott and Elizabeth Barret Browning, at eleven we were learning ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh’, ‘doing’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, at school, and learning the exquisite poetry of Shakespeare …’ I know a bank whereon the wild thyme grows’… the next year it was ‘The Tempest’… ‘Come unto these yellow sands,’… ‘Julius Caesar’… ‘I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him’, and ‘Henry V’… ‘Now all the youth of England are on fire, and silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies,’… ‘Once more into the breach, dear friends,’… ‘we few, we happy few, we happy band of brothers,’… ‘Richard II’… ‘This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle,’… ‘The Merchant of Venice’… ‘The quality of mercy is not strained, it blesseth him that gives and him that takes,’… ‘Hamlet’, ‘words, words, words’, indeed, and not least that amazing speech, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’, and so many phrases we still use today…including: ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’… ‘to shuffle off our mortal coil’… ‘’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished’…

And finally, in the Upper Sixth, Anthony and Cleopatra… ‘Age shall not wither her, nor the years condemn’, words I have hugged to myself as a hope and example, as I near four score years. Our acquaintance with Shakespeare was cursory but better than the nothing that seems to rule in schools today.

It was a matter of pride among my friends to be able to recite poetry – in the third form we all learned Walter de la Mare’s long poem ‘The Listeners’…. ‘Is there anybody there? asked the Traveller, Knocking on the moonlit door,’… and some of us even tackled ‘The Ancient Mariner’, and though no-one got to the end, we never forgot phrases like ‘A painted ship upon a painted ocean’. No difficulty remembering the exquisite rhythms and quatrains of Omar Khayyam… ‘Awake ! for morning in the bowl of night has flung the stone which put the stars to flight’….

‘Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest’…

‘They say the lion and the lizard keep the courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep’…

But poetry was more than beautiful words and pictures and ideas. It opened up our hearts and minds to deeper meanings, ideas and symbols, and to the beauty of rhyme and rhythm. When my father died unexpectedly when I was in my twenties, and far from home, I turned to John Davies of Hereford’s dirge for his friend Thomas Morley:

‘Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend,

My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.

In grave he rests until the world shall end.

The world shall end, as end all things must have.

All things must have an end that Nature wrought…

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend…

I rocked to and fro to the rhythm of the words, and found a bleak comfort to tide me over into the next stage of grief. The insistent beat of that poem was a distant memory of the comfort of the rhythmic rocking which all babies receive, whether floating in the womb, rocked in their mother’s arms or pushed in a rocking cradle. Rhythm is one of the deepest and oldest memories for human beings. And rhyme is a joy that even toddlers discover as they chant simple verses, before stumbling onto the deliciousness of alliteration as words become their treasure.

For my generation the glory of words, poetry, rhyme and rhythm didn’t stop in the classroom. Every day in assembly we sang hymns with words that still linger in my memory, and swim to mind appropriately… like the glorious day looking from my cliff-top cottage and the lines, ‘cherubim and seraphim , casting down their golden crowns beside the glassy sea’ made land. We sang ‘Morning has broken’ long before Cat Stevens made it famous.

We listened to daily readings from the King James Bible and the poetry embedded itself in our consciousness… ‘to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven’…. ‘If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me’…’And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds’…

When we weren’t listening to our daily dose of the Bible, we were using the exquisite words of Archbishop Cranmer’s 1553 Prayerbook,… ‘now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word’… ‘come unto me all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’… ‘Oh God, give unto thy people that peace which the world cannot give…’Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee oh Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all the dangers and perils of the night’… words and phrases that lifted the spirit and gave comfort when needed, in times to come.

The vocabulary of roughly eight thousand words of the King James Version of the Bible, printed in 1611 had a ‘majesty of style’… and has had more influence on the English language that any other book, apart, perhaps, from Shakespeare’s works, with a vocabulary of sixty thousand or so words. In the past, the words, the rhythms and cadences of these two influences shaped the speech and the writing, and seeped into the consciousness of people all over the world, who grew up speaking English.

They thought and wrote and spoke without even thinking, in the beautiful, simple rhythmic prose they heard every week at church, and throughout their schooldays. Sullivan Ballou’s famous and profound letter written to his wife before his death at the First Battle of Bull Run in the American Civil War, is as much a product of that heritage as the wonderful last lines of John Masefield’s ‘The Everlasting Mercy’.

It saddens me that this common heritage of prose and poetry and prayer, those wonderful words of beauty and meaning, has dribbled away under neglect, lack of appreciation and understanding. Modern education seems to treasure instead new and shallower ideas.

Alan Bennett’s brilliant play and film, ‘The History Boys’ encapsulates my point of view perfectly! It made me feel I was not alone in my regrets at the passing of our rich poetic literature, and so much that has added to the sum of civilisation.  I love much that is new – too much to list –  and there’s so much to explore… but the learning by heart, the exploration of the genius of Shakespeare, the absorption of great prose and poetry often seems less important in today’s education system, than technological expertise and business knowhow, women’s studies and sporting prowess.

This is called progress I know, and I know too, I am old fashioned, but in these matters, I am a believer in not throwing out the baby with the bath-water. Hic transit gloria mundi… thus passes the glory of the world.

PS I completely forgot to answer the comments on my last blog while we were cleaning up after our massive storm/cyclone.. apologies, I loved them, and will be answering them shortly

Food for threadbare gourmets

Saturday supper with friends, and something we could eat on our laps round the fire. So, it was salmon risotto. Just the usual recipe – onions in butter, arborio rice added and fried until white, plus garlic, then a glass of good white wine poured in. I no longer bubble it away, but add the hot stock quite quickly, plus a teaspoonful of chicken bouillon.

For a fishy risotto, it should be fish stock but I had some good leek and potato stock saved, and I also used the liquid from poaching the salmon. All the recipes tell you to use lots of different types of fish, but I only had prawns, and salmon. I had thought I’d also use smoked salmon, but at the last minute changed my mind, and then wished I had more of the poached salmon … (which I’d eaten for lunch with freshly made mayonnaise!)

Anyway, I added cream and some fennel when the rice was almost soft and just before serving, threw in a grated courgette to get some green colour from the skin in, plus a handful of baby spinach leaves… and after stirring around, added the fish and more cream…. forgot parsley! And then the Parmesan of course….

Amounts? To one large onion, I used a cup of rice, several garlic cloves – medium sized – glass of dry white wine, hot stock as it needed it… a cup of prawns, and half a fillet of salmon – should have used more – plus the courgette and spinach as you fancy. Half a cup of cream, depending on how moist the risotto already is …  or I might use a big knob of butter and not so much cream…This doesn’t stick to any of the recipes… I just use what I have…this was enough for four.

Food for thought

“I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow.” Elizabeth von Arnim, author of ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ and other books

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Who cares?

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While other squires were out raping maidens and oppressing the poor, or so legend has it, John Scrimgeour, the lord of the manor who lived at Stedham Hall, occupied himself instead with spreading cheer and happiness in the village he owned.

At the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, he was busy putting in the village’s water supply and installed a bathhouse and a reading room for his tenants. He gave the villagers an eight-acre playing field, and he built three-bedroom houses for newlyweds.

And when he built the houses for his parlour maids, he realised they were sited alongside the road facing east, which is one of the coldest angles in a climate like England. So he ordered them to be built end-on to the road, so they faced south. Back-to-front houses, with day-long sunshine.

When I read the story of John Scrimgeour and his community, I felt a warm glow. But I didn’t feel a warm glow when I saw a picture of the latest super-yacht with its helipad, swimming pool, guest bed-rooms for twelve – and so on – you’ll be familiar with these sort of stories which go right back to Aristotle Onassis and his Impressionists and Old Masters dotted around the walls of his yacht… they weren’t called super-yachts back then… perhaps because they weren’t.

I happen to know a chef on one of these floating palaces, and his stories shock me … not just the lengths he has to go to satisfy the outlandish whims of his employers and their guests, but the outrageous demands made on him too – dragged out of bed at three a.m. to rustle up bacon and eggs for a guest who can’t sleep; having to put up with the rudeness and lack of courtesy of spoiled children who complain to their autocratic parents if the staff don’t comply with their childish tantrums and demands; meals with half a dozen starters, entrees, main course, pudding and bonne bouches…

My friend is continually head-hunted from yacht to yacht by owners who want to enjoy his expertise, so he has seen a number of these billionaire establishments, and they are all similar, with no expense spared for personal trivial self-indulgences by these newly rich billionaires.

When I saw the picture of the latest and biggest super-yacht, my thoughts went back to a young man I saw in photos at his father’s funeral. I had already been struck by the sensitivity and goodness as well as his good looks in photos of him as godfather to Princess Charlotte of Cambridge. On the death of his father a few months ago, this twenty-six year old young man became Duke of Westminster. Not only is he now one of the richest men in England, but he inherits a dukedom with an astonishing reputation for philanthropy over several generations.

In one impoverished area of Scotland bought by a previous Duke, he and his agent planted thousands of trees, bought a redundant fishing business, developed the harbour and established transport which created a new community, so the Duke also built a school, and gave it to the local council. There was little, if any gain to the Duke from this enterprise, which was, and still is, typical of the activities of this rich family.

In another example the Duke bought Annacis Island in Canada and developed it, providing employment for thousands. The Dukes have given land in London to the Westminster City Council so work people could be housed near their place of work, and in the Depression they gave back fifty per cent of their rents to their tenants. Over the last seventy years this family have developed many schemes with no thought of gain – one of the most touching examples of their noblesse oblige being their generosity  to Norman Tebbitt after the Brighton bombing by the IRA in 1984….

Five members of Margaret Thatcher’s government were killed, while Tebbitt has limped ever since from his injuries, and his wife was permanently paralysed and has lived in a wheelchair ever since. The 6th Duke gave the Tebbitts a beautiful house near Parliament at a peppercorn rent (an old English term meaning literally a peppercorn) so Tebbitt could continue his ministerial duties, as well as care for his wife, and this generosity has continued ever since.

This 6th Duke has always repudiated the word philanthropy for his activities and simply calls it ‘caring’. Now his young son has taken over this mantle of caring while his three sisters are all involved in careers which involve service to others and ’caring’. The family, whose surname is Grosvenor, has an unbroken pedigree stretching back to 1066, when Gilbert le Gros Veneur landed in England with William the Conqueror.

The present descendant is the inheritor of a thousand years of both riches and responsibility. How long will it take the billionaires floating around the world, to develop that same sense of caring? At this moment eight billionaires own fifty percent of the world’s riches. Some of them, like Bill and Melissa Gates, and Warren Buffet are indeed the inheritors of aristocratic generosity and responsibility, but many others seem more intent on safeguarding their gains and living as though there were no tomorrows.

Unlike so many of the rich men of previous eras, these are men whose very businesses have nothing to plough back into the world. In previous ages, rich English landowners cared for the land, for this was where their riches came from; rich men endowed schools and art galleries, universities and homes for the poor. They  supported artists, collected art, built architectural gems to live in, planted beautiful parks and gardens, and as early as seventeen hundred were opening them and sharing them with the public, just as they do now. Altruism was common when Christianity united communities.

Today, generosity seems to be a characteristic of the internet instead, when the generosity of people with little to give when compared to the rich, becomes a groundswell of many small contributions to help individual cases of need. But the grand gifts, those that last for generations or change whole communities, as in the case of the English benefactors I’ve mentioned, don’t seem to be so common among today’s Russian oligarchs, internet moguls or mega- rich pop stars.

There are of course, many film stars and other celebrities who do ‘care’ and who work for caring organisations and green causes,  and it’s up to the rest of us to ‘care’ too, in the words of the Duke of Westminster. We CAN take responsibility, and though we think our voice or our efforts can’t make the difference we long for, this is not true.

I do believe the inspiring words of writer, Dean Koontz, who has given over two and a half million dollars to charity: “Each smallest act of kindness reverberates across great distances and spans of time, affecting lives unknown to the one whose generous spirit was the source of this good echo, because kindness is passed on and grows each time it’s passed, until a simple courtesy becomes an act of selfless courage years later and far away … Likewise, each small meanness, each expression of hatred, each act of evil.”

Few of us are capable of acts of evil, but it is easy to fall into the trap of hating oppressors like Assad and others. But this doesn’t help the world, while these reminders do. They sound like the perfect blueprint for the good life, be we billionaire or happy blogger!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

After several episodes of global warming , or once- in-a – fifty-year storms, or Cyclone Debbie flooding, (however the weather forecasters explain it) in which we were cut off by landslips on one road, and flooding on the other, I’m planning a sort of mini-hoard for the next once -in- a -fifty year storm, whatever ‘they’ call it  – iron rations, emergency rations, whatever we choose to call them.

I searched my soul and found that there are several things I depend on… always plenty of cheese, some bacon and some Parmesan cheese in the fridge … plenty of olive oil, pasta, tins of tomatoes, and maybe minced beef in the deep freeze. With these staples, we can have spaghetti Bolognaise, lasagne, and when really up against it, pasta with butter and parmesan, or pasta with an egg, cream and Parmesan whisked together, and stirred immediately into the hot spaghetti. Simple, but one of my favourites … especially with crisp chopped bacon sprinkled on top. And there’s nothing like grilled cheese on toast when the cupboard is bare.

Food for thought

We can’t help everyone, but we can all help someone.    Ronald Reagan

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Simple pleasures- they may not be what you think !

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For some it’s a nice hot bath, for others it’s sitting in front of a roaring log fire – surely one of the most primeval pleasures – so what are your simple pleasures? One of mine is a hot croissant eaten with unsalted butter, good apricot jam, accompanied by a pot of freshly made coffee, and delivered to me in bed… perhaps not so simple, given the various components required to deliver this perfection!

Then there is the simple pleasure of sitting in the sun on the garden bench by the profusion of rambling nasturtiums, and gently feeling beneath the round flat leaves to find the clusters of green ribbed seeds left by the flowers that have bloomed… my harvest to sow for next year’s pleasure.

These thoughts were prompted by browsing through one of my favourite books which positively encourages hedonism, though hedonism of the sweetest, simplest kind… most of these simple pleasures cost nothing. It’s an anthology by sixty fine writers, and they’ve given their thoughts and services to the National Trust, the body which maintains and protects historic sites and buildings in England.

In the introduction, Dr James le Fanu, after discussing how our genomes are virtually inter-changeable with either a mouse or a primate, goes on to write: ‘It is remarkable the difference it makes to acknowledge that we no longer know… the nature of those genetic instructions. Suddenly the sheer extraordinariness of that rich diversity of shape and form jostling for attention on the fishmonger’s counter – and the florist’s and the greengrocer’s and the whole glorious panoply of nature – is infused with a deep sense of wonder of ‘how can these things be?’

So since one of the simple pleasures of reading an anthology is flicking back and forth, sampling the joys and wonders it holds, I dive into a page which reads: …’and as you take the long single track road snaking down the shady side of Inkpen Beacon, it’s as though you feel the centuries fall away behind you.

‘You pass the ramparts of an Iron Age fort, and then the gibbet  on the Beacon, a reminder of the eighteenth century. You twist  between hawthorne and wild brambles, and now you’re in Civil War Britain. Pass the old church, and you’re back in Norman times. Then in the village itself, there are flinty tracks and beech hedges, and what Orwell in exasperation called the deep, deep sleep of the English countryside … an unspoilt, timeless view of fields, safely grazing sheep and the sound of rooks chattering contentiously in the beech trees overhanging the lane …old Wessex, Alfred’s ancient kingdom…. Watership Down just over the hill…King Charles fought the battle of Newbury in nearby fields’ … this from Robert McCrum who has written a book on P.G.Wodehouse amongst others.

And then to a delicious essay by Sally Muir, knitting designer…’I was taught by Mother Mary Joseph… it was the sort of thing you did in a convent in the 1960’s. It wasn’t all Carnaby Street and The Beatles for most of us. I think the nuns were working on ‘the devil makes work for idle hands ‘principle, and in a way they were right. One great advantage of an evening spent knitting is that you can’t easily smoke, play video games, buy things from Amazon, or inject drugs at the same time. In fact there are all sorts of things you can’t do, as both hands are fully occupied….’

I dip into ‘Grooming the dog’, and ’In love with the clarinet’, savour ‘Collecting the eggs’, and ‘Picking up litter’, and the arcane discussion of the best litter-picking-up devices, and relish ‘In praise of zoos’, much as I hate them. Philosopher Alain de Botton writes: ‘A zoo unsettles in simultaneously making animals seem more human and humans more animal… in May 1842 Queen Victoria  visited Regents Park zoo, and in her diary, noted of the new orang-utan from Calcutta: ‘He is wonderful, preparing and drinking his tea, but he is painfully and disagreeably human.’ (reading this, I imagine being captured and placed in a cage like a room in a Holiday Inn, with three meals a day passed through a hatch, and nothing to do other than watch TV – while a crowd of giraffes look on at me, giggling and videoing, licking giant ice-creams, while saying what a short neck I have.)’

Alain de Botton, I learn, having enjoyed many of his books, is also the founder of two organisations, Living Architecture and The School of Life, the first dedicated to promoting beauty, and the second to wisdom – oh Yes !!!

As I flick the pages of this tiny book – five inches by three and a half – Christmas stocking size, which I bought six copies of to give to friends, I can’t resist ‘Gossip’, written by journalist Sarah Sands. She discovers by chance that historian Simon Schama is ’an A-grade gossip’. ‘How exciting that a man of such an elevated mind is happy to trade in gossip as well as ideas… Gossip is what makes a great historian a delightful dinner companion… the bond of intimacy. One shares gossip as one should share good wine. It is an act of pleasure.

‘There is an art to gossip, which is really a moment of memoir. Philosophers of the human heart… or heartless but comic diarists …, tell us more about social history, politics and humanity than autobiographies of public record… I always learn more from a gossip than a prig. Life is a comedy, it is not Hansard.’ (Hansard is the English Parliamentary record)

The two most thought-provoking of these simple pleasures come at the end of this delicious little book. Historian Anthony Seldon was the headmaster of Wellington College when he wrote his essay. Wellington College is one of the tougher English private schools. I wonder if he changed that reputation, for he writes of the joys of meditation and yoga.

He ends by saying: ‘Most exciting of all is the sense I have that the happiness and joy I experience are only the tip of the iceberg. They cost nothing, harm nobody and I feel connected to life in all its fullness. The future promise is that the joy will only get deeper year by year, and the fear of crossing that divide from dry land into the water, from life into death, fades into utter inconsequence.’

Sue Crewe has edited the splendid magazine English House and Garden with zest and skill since 1994 –  not the sort of person I would have expected to write the exquisite little gem that ends this book. Over the years I’ve followed from afar her career, and noted that she had had what she bravely describes as a ‘period of turbulence’, and which I knew had been full of heartbreak.

She describes how a friend gave her a little book in which she had to write five things she was grateful for, every day. A simple practice which over the years has grown into what she describes as ‘several feet of bookshelves’. She tells how for the first five years she kept to the five one-liners, and how at first she groped for entries, and fell back on being grateful for her warm bed, or being well fed. Then she felt brave enough to branch out into what she calls ‘free-range gratitude diary-keeping’ and expanded her thoughts.

Now she writes: ‘Almost imperceptibly, free-floating anxiety and feelings of discontent with myself and the world were replaced by contentment and a clearer understanding of what I found acceptable and unacceptable about my own and other people’s behaviour…. It did and does help me keep things in perspective…

‘But the most transformative revelation is the power of gratitude itself: it takes up so much room that everything corrosive and depressing is squeezed to the margins. It seems to push out resentment, fear, envy, self-pity and all the other ugly sentiments that bring you down, leaving room for serenity, contentment, and optimism to take up residence.’

On this glorious note, one of my favourite books ends… full of such simple pleasures, those which don’t just add joy to life, but also enlightenment. I feel nothing but gratitude to all these writers when I re-read this little book yet again… and gratitude too, for the reminder of the power of words. The right words can transform our own thoughts and lives, and this reminder of the power of words, reminds me too, of the power of our blogs – each one mostly written with pleasure, and with words from the heart, to reach other hearts in that extraordinary network of friends and souls around the world.

Simple Pleasures – Little things that make life worth living. Published by Random House.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Made a pile of ham sandwiches for lunch, and some were left over. My thrifty soul decided to wrap them tightly in silver foil and store them in the fridge to have for supper that night. But I forgot, and several days later found this anonymous packet of foil on a shelf with butter and yogurt. Cautiously opening it, I discovered the now somewhat stale ham sandwiches. Undeterred, I decided it was ham sandwiches for me that night. I dunked them in egg like French toast and fried them in a little olive oil and butter. They were absolutely delicious – the best way to have ham sandwiches!!!

Food for thought

‘The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.’    G.K.Chesterton

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The magic and mystery of cats

Cat, Black, Sun, Meadow

“I have lived with several Zen masters”, wrote master and mystic Eckhart Tolle, and went on to say they were all cats. Well, I have lived with one zen master, a small black witchy cat who entered my life with purpose. Black cats are notoriously hard to adopt from rescue centres because so many people associate them with the myths of witches, having absorbed the ancient male propaganda about women and healers (but that’s another story).

I’ve always thought I was a dog person, having nurtured seventeen rescued dogs (three at a time, but that’s also another story), yet when I look back on my chequered past, I see there are just as many cats as dogs who have entered my life – some  at a distance.

All those cats who did, had those mysterious feline qualities of dignity and free spiritedness. Two strays were the first, Black Kitty and Wild Kitty – a beautifully marked tabby – both unnamed, a subtle way of not alarming my parents into thinking I wanted to keep them, and also I couldn’t bear to give them names and then have to relinquish them. But after a few weeks my parents softened, and expertly using the thin end of the wedge, I managed a balancing act between the kittens and the puppy I had also acquired over my parents’ dead bodies.

I was eighteen and I wonder now how I could never have looked into the future and realised that I wouldn’t be around to care for these fragile little creatures. We moved house a couple of months after acquiring them, and I was immensely relieved  to find that my parents were including my animals among items to come with us.  The journey in the back seat of the car with an excitable puppy, two terrified kittens on the loose with long claws, and my loudly protesting eight-year-old brother was an ordeal never to be repeated.

At the new house, Black Kitty was run over, but Wild Kitty established a comfortable possie behind the warm boiler in the kitchen. I left to join the army a few months later.  When I returned months later for a weekend leave, the parents had moved to another house the other side of the town, and Wild Kitty was missing – apparently she had left home when I did. The family moved back to an army quarter a year later, half a mile away from the house I’d left, and miraculously Wild Kitty turned up when I came home for the weekend.

From then on Wild Kitty appeared when I came home on leave and then pushed off when I left. The last time she was seen was when she walked across the grass to show us her line of tiny kittens straggling behind her.

Decades later in this country, I received the usual Christmas presents from irresponsible townies who dumped two tiny tortoiseshell kittens at our gate. Tins of cat-food for a year until they were caught.  Another pair again another year, and then a cat and her kitten when we moved to a new house, a gentle stray in Norfolk Island who nestled on our bed, and waited for us every day while we were on holiday, more tins of cat food, followed by starving kittens in Fiji outside a restaurant…only scraps for them…

Some years later, back in town to be near new grand- children, we lived in a house on the side of Mt Eden, an extinct volcano. Our garden stretched steeply up the slope and ended in overgrown shrubs and trees and wilderness. One day I noticed a stray cat in the garden. Feeling sorry for it, I put out some food the next day. In a few days there were five cats, so carefully keeping the doors shut so no cat-chasing King Charles spaniels could do their worst, I put another dish or two out.

By the end of three weeks I had fifteen stray/ wild/dumped cats waiting neatly and patiently on the steps leading up the hillside. I put out five bowls night and morning, and they shared with perfect good manners, and then quietly left with dignity. They always knew the time I would put the food out, and would be lined up expectantly and hungrily for about twenty minutes before, and there was never any squabbling or pushing in when the food arrived .

When we downsized to a little town house, and I had to leave them, I used a possum trap to catch them one by one, and take them to the vet, as I couldn’t bear to think of them starving on the hillside. I caught them all except three tom cats who were too clever to get themselves trapped.

Then, not enjoying living in town, we moved back to the country. We’d only been there a week when we went out into the garden, and there on a log in the sun was a tiny black cat. She got up, stretched, and came over and nuzzled us endlessly, followed us inside the house, and all but said: ‘I’ve been waiting for you’.

She refused to go back home, which was on the next-door acre of land. For weeks I resisted, refraining from feeding her, and yet every time I opened the door, there she was on the front door mat. Eventually I put a deep linen basket with a soft cushion in the bottom for her by the front door, and finally, when I heard a fight  in the middle of the night, with the big marmalade tom cat who had come- it seemed- to fetch her back home, I opened the door to her. She ran straight in and settled down on the bed, and for the next ten years ran my life. She was a small oasis of calm and character, whose endless antics amused and entertained; while her wilfulness and intelligent curiosity and mysterious inner life fascinated me.

Whenever her previous owner saw us out walking the dogs with Cara, the cat, skipping along with us, he’d wind down his car window and shout “traitor! “at her. The end of Cara’s story is in the first blog I ever wrote, called ‘Goodbye Cat.’

My last encounter with a cat was more like sitting in that boat with a tiger in ‘The Life of Pi.’ A panther-like black cat had terrorised both cats and owners in our small village for many years, and my friend who had a small gentle cat who was being monstered, decided something had to be done to save her cat. I arrived at my friend’s house just as her Altzheimers husband was putting a blanket over the possum trap and cat, which they had arranged according to my instructions!!!

Feeling responsible, I volunteered to drive friend and captured cat to the vet. We carefully put the trap on the back seat, which was covered in a rug to protect the seat. Chatting happily, I suddenly felt sharp claws dig viciously into my back and shoulders, and a black body hurtled past my ear to land on the dash board. A panting black creature with blood literally dripping from its fangs from where it had forced the door of the cage up, using the crack from the seat rug to lever it, and with fierce yellow eyes glaring at me, crouched there – ready to spring.

It did, back into the back seat, shaving my ear the other side as it hurtled past. Driving was impossible … I pulled unsteadily into a farm drive, not having the faintest idea what to do, and my friend, who was bulky enough for the angry desperate creature not to tackle her side of the car, cringed in horror. The cat continued to leap back and forward past my ears in a frenzy, raking my shoulders and back with its claws each time. Luckily a car was coming down the drive… I flashed the hazard lights, tooted and did everything to show I needed help.

We dared not lower the windows to talk in case the frantic, mangy, bleeding animal escaped to terrorise a fresh territory. The farmer shouted through the glass, telling us to go to the vet – impossible – which he soon realised as the cat continued to launch itself to and fro past my head. The end of the dreadful story came when we quickly eased ourselves out of the car doors, and while we cowered in a farm shed, the helpful farmer opened the car, and shot the poor creature as it made a dash for freedom.

I took my expensive blood-stained cream cardigan straight to the dry cleaners, and had a stiff cup of coffee- I really needed a stiff glass of something stronger. Back home, I washed the blood off all the windows and the dashboard and rubbed antiseptic cream into all my weals and wounds. The next morning, I went out to go shopping, and found to my dismay that there was still blood everywhere. As I washed them off, I counted twenty-eight blood-stains on the inside roof of the car alone. Alas, the blood never came off my cardigan.

Cats – here? No, no danger of strays or bullies here. We live in a covenanted forest with an agreement that we have neither cats nor dogs in order to preserve the native birds, most of whom don’t fly. So no more temptation, no more catching or herding cats, or even black panthers. Sadly, all these encounters with cats have mostly been the result of man’s inhumanity, or irresponsibility.

Unlike the dogs we rescued, I was usually unable to do anything to better their lot, and also unlike the wonderful people all over our city who visit colonies of strays every night to feed them. Sometimes these cat-lovers manage to catch them and get them de-sexed or healed of their illnesses, but I still feel sad that they don’t have homes, which once-domesticated animals long for.

Robert Heinlein, science fiction writer who some feel was also a seer, once wrote that: “How we behave toward cats here below determines our status in heaven.” He may well be right – if there is a heaven – so maybe I’ll see you there! And maybe those dignified, elegant creatures we have encountered in this life will be there too in all their mysterious beauty to love us still, in their own idiosyncratic way.

Food for threadbare gourmets

I had some chicken nibbles in the fridge bought to use for a chicken risotto, but when it came to it, boiling them up for stock etc didn’t appeal, so instead I marinaded them in half a cup of honey, nearly the same of soy sauce, a good glug of sesame oil, lemon juice from a juicy lemon, a generous teaspoonful of minced ginger and the same of garlic. After a couple of hours resting in this mixture, thirty-five minutes in a hot oven, and eaten with sour dough bread, they made a quick tasty lunch.
Food for thought

I don’t believe there was ever anybody who loved being happy as much as I did. What I mean is that I was so acutely conscious of being happy, so appreciative of it; that I wasn’t ever bored, and was always and continuously grateful for the whole delicious loveliness of the world.”

Elizabeth von Arnim. Author of Elizabeth and her German Garden

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The kannabis trail

100_0087

I’m sitting on my cream sofa as I write on my little lap-top. It doesn’t need recovering, though I had these loose covers made twenty years ago … they are, you could say in that time-honoured phrase – as good as new – and have a lovely linen -like texture.

They are made from hemp, the brother, so to speak, of marijuana. I’ve never sampled marijuana, though now that I’m getting to the end of my appointed time (maybe not) I wish I had. But in my younger days, when all around me were urging me to have a go – young lawyers, an architect, teacher, professional men – even a doctor and several nurses who dared the system – I didn’t dare.

I feared too much that I would get caught by the punitive laws fifty years ago, and if found puffing the forbidden weed, would have my two small children taken away from me, and lose them. Though I was often subjected to constant pressure- what’s wrong with you… why are you so inhibited – the thought of my children made me adamant – no experimenting for me…

Several things have made me change my mind now I’m past three score and ten. One was watching the moving French film and true story, ‘The Intouchables,’ and seeing the relaxed enjoyment of life that the tetraplegic experienced when his outrageous carer introduced him to pot. I was reminded of the sadness I had felt some years ago, when a tetraplegic in this country was mercilessly sentenced to prison, even though he claimed that the ‘weed’ alleviated his pain. In the past six months that I’ve been taking powerful painkillers for nerve pain in my numb foot and shin, unwelcome leftovers from my broken leg, I’ve wished that I too could take some of this helpful weed.

The law has been changed in the last few weeks, and it is now legal for a local health board to okay the taking of medicinal marijuana in cases of need. And today I read on a Facebook this thread discussing legalising the drug:

(It’s not as though) ‘there is … an army of NZer’s waiting to smoke it, but don’t because it’s illegal. OK! People smoke it regardless of the law. Legalizing it would put Cannabis dealers out of business, free up resources to tackle P, reduce the amount of people in prison, increase tax revenue as Cannabis could then be sold commercially under the same restrictions of alcohol, and most importantly allow hemp to be grown on large scales across the country creating jobs, and allowing NZ to produce super eco-friendly hemp products for global export.’

Ah, this to me is the crux of the matter, because this plant has been grown and used for many purposes for over 10,000 years, according the anthropologists and others of their ilk. According to Wikipedia: ‘Cannabis is believed to be one of the oldest domesticated crops. Throughout history, humans have grown different varieties of cannabis for industrial and medical uses.

‘Tall, sturdy plants were grown by early civilizations to make a variety of foods, oils and textiles, such as rope and fabrics. These plants were bred with other plants with the same characteristics, leading to the type of cannabis we now know as hemp. Other plants were recognized for being psychoactive and were bred selectively for medical and religious purposes. This led to unique varieties of cannabis that we now know as marijuana.’

According to a Canadian company that specializes in cannabis cultivation technology, ‘the core agricultural differences between medical cannabis and hemp are largely in their genetic parentage and cultivation environment.’ Apparently it’s one of the fastest growing plants and was also one of the first plants to be spun into fibre in the dawn of mankind..

Nowadays, it can be turned into a variety of commercial items including paper, textiles like my beautiful sofa covers, clothing, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food, and animal feed. It’s been used for ropes for centuries, and animal bedding as well as feed. In France, one of the biggest producers of hemp, much of it is used to make cigarette papers.

France, Russia, China and Canada are the biggest growers of this wonderful plant with so many uses for mankind, and yet it’s still a crime to grow it in many countries, like my own, where the law has not yet distinguished between the different types of plants- medicinal and commercial.

Kannabis, the ancient Greeks called this ancient plant. Whenever I hear the police helicopter hovering around the sky near us, I know they are hoping to discover some illegal plots of bright green cannabis. Apparently, a local township has  lived on the proceeds of this plant for years, I learned in conversation with some of the older residents who live here.

A significant chunk of the economy of the township was based on it, and the local shops understood that the locals would run out of money until the next growing season, when the growers would pay off their accounts after the harvest. Because their livelihood was dependent on the growing of marijuana, the community fiercely resisted the highly addictive Methamphetamine- P for short – and there is apparently no P culture in the little town. It is a peaceful, unconventional community with many old- fashioned hippies!

All these thoughts ran through my head as I sat down on my old sofa… which is older than the hemp loose covers. I bought the sofa from a friend of a friend when it was yellow and I had wanted a yellow sofa for ages. This yellow sofa was already twenty- five years old when I brought it home in triumph, and that was twenty- four years ago. I took it to be re-sprung or whatever it needed a few years ago, and the upholsterer said all it needed was new modern feet. So back home it came with its unblemished cream hemp covers to seat us for another twenty years or so.

It had been a very expensive sofa when it was bought so many years ago, and the piped and fitted loose cream covers had cost a bomb too. They both remind me of those telling words of Benjamin Franklin who so truly said: ‘The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.’ But I enjoy the sweetness of high quality along with the pleasures of thrift and re-cycling, and the deep satisfaction of sitting on a fabric with an ancestry as old as mankind’s.

PS. The pic is from my old house, with a rose spattered quilt covering the cream hemp,

Food for threadbare gourmets

We have been enduring a horrific and un-ending storm in this country, and though we live at the top of the hill, we are trapped by a land slip one side of the road, and floods at the bottom of the other end. So I decided to cheer us up with a good lunch and try a recipe a la Annabel Langbein, a NZ Food writer.

I had some pork belly in the deep freeze, which was defrosted overnight. After patting the crackling dry, put a couple of bay leaves and some fresh sage leaves in a baking tin, and lay the pork on top. Blitz it in a very hot oven for half an hour, and then pour in milk two thirds of the way up the meat. Reduce the heat to medium or less, and cook for at least another hour and a half, longer if the meat is not falling off the bone by then.The crackling was divine.

We ate it with mashed potatoes beaten with lots of butter and some cream, and green beans… it went down a treat…

Food for Thought

Trapped in the forest by the storm, we are watching Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Here is that memorable quote, when Bilbo says: …  ” I wish none of this had happened. ”

And Gandalf replies:  ‘So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us….’

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A friend and The Golden Key

My friend Oi ( pronounced O-ee) had ideas so advanced that even Quaker Meeting – that most liberal and open- minded Christian group – threw her out.

She was born in 1900, the youngest of ten, to a father who was sixty years old, and she died when she was a hundred and four – so the two life-times covered a hundred and sixty four years, and went back to 1840. Her father was a cabin boy on a ship that was wrecked on the NZ coast in 1856. Local Maoris formed a human chain to rescue him, and he stayed with them for some time, becoming very close to the chief. After returning to England, he came back with a seventeen-year-old bride, and the Maori chief gave him land to start his life here.

Robin, Oi’s father, established a huge sheep farm, built a big beautiful house, cottages for his shepherds, barns, wool-sheds and an exquisite little chapel, where Oi and her nine brothers and sisters played the organ and helped hand out prayer books to the shepherds and their families as they entered.. As each child arrived, the generous chief had given them Maori land. He ceremonially adopted Oi, and gave her the Maori name Oiroa, which roughly translated, means: ‘compassion for those in need’. Though it was shortened to Oi, she lived up to her name always, and when I met her was beloved by many people for very good reasons.

She married a distinguished Auckland architect – sometimes known as NZ’s Frank Lloyd Wright – who created many of Auckland’s great buildings, like the Railway Station, and beautiful private homes including some famous ones in the Hawkes Bay. Oi herself was very musical, and played the piano, and was so deeply involved in the musical life of her adopted city, that in the early thirties she and another musical aficionado, started the first orchestra in the city, whose descendant is still thriving.

She was beautiful –  and open-hearted and sweet-natured. She was also unhappily married to a much older controlling, jealous and angry man. Other men loved her, and I picked up hints over the years of tempestuous scenes and dramatic confrontations, one in which her loyal cleaning lady divested a desperate suitor of his shotgun at the front door. Oi received and declined her last proposal in her eighties.

Her zest for life never diminished, in spite of a son’s suicide, a difficult life, and much loneliness. Neither did her kindness fail, or her energy, for that matter. I was sure her inner life kept her young. She was often busy driving “old ladies” shopping until well into her nineties. She obviously didn’t feel she qualified for that label – yet! Her spontaneity and authenticity, happiness and serenity, endeared her to all ages.

I met her at Quaker meeting, where we were both what is called attenders, as opposed to members. On occasion when the beautiful and mystical silence was gently broken by a deeply felt message, if it was Oi, as she was known for short, it would be a profoundly mystical and eminently practical thought.

Throughout her life she was drawn to mysticism, a branch of the spiritual life which has always been mistrusted by organised religion, as its devotees seek union with the Source, whatever it is called, thus bypassing the need for priests, mullahs, rabbis, gurus or whatever. Whether these mystics were Muslim, as in the case of Rumi and the Sufis, or Christians like Master Eckhart, or St John of the Cross, they often came to a sticky end at the hands of their respective religions.

Luckily in the twentieth century, this fate is not so common, and Oi escaped lightly by just being blackballed by Quakers! She explored most branches of both Western and Eastern mysticism, and in her thirties, became a lover of Ramakrishna’s teachings, keeping a photo of him by her bed-side always. He practised several religions, including Hindu, Islam and Christianity, and taught that in spite of the differences, all religions are valid and true, and they lead to the same ultimate goal- God.

After Oi introduced herself to me, and invited me to her beautiful house (I had not been long in NZ then), we became close, and she became my mentor. My two small children looked on her as a grandparent and we loved going to her serene and peaceful home.

Though it was in the city, it sat among mature trees and a rambling, flowery garden with a stream. Her architect son had designed it for her. Music, in her mid-seventies, was still her passion. Sometimes I would arrive at the garden entrance, and hear the glorious sounds of a trio or a quartet streaming out of the windows, and I’d stand silently outside under the persimmon tree, listening to Mozart or Mahler.

When the children and I were there, we‘d often end up singing round the piano with the student who boarded with her, and was a brilliant pianist and lovely tenor. We’d all sing favourites as diverse as Handel’s, ‘Where e’er you walk”, to: “Feed the birds,” from Mary Poppins. I had another musical friend, Phillipa, whose unbearable life (a romance I ‘ll tell another time) was slightly improved by taking clarinet lessons, and since her ambition was to play in an orchestra, she needed practice playing with others.

Hearing about her, typically, Oi offered to play with her, and through music-making, they learned to love each other too. I was spending the day with Oi when I learned that the ship Phillipa was sailing on had caught fire, and she and her two small children, one handicapped, plus her six-month-old baby, were adrift in a lifeboat in a violent storm. I never saw them again.

Oi’s unorthodox thinking, which of course, was not confined to spiritual practises, but spread into all areas of her life, alienated her family who were very religious and ultra- conservative. She rarely saw them, so she began spending Christmas with us until one son who disapproved of us too, was shamed into inviting her for Christmas after many years.

So it was that her funeral – which was attended by all those people from all walks of life, whose lives she had touched with love and compassion – was a very traditional one… which slightly puzzled me, as I was sure Oi would have wanted something different.

At the end her family left, and only five of us gathered round Oi’s coffin as it was lowered into the void – the student – now a judge, her cleaning lady for the last twenty years, my two now grownup children, and I.

The judge said to us, “That wasn’t the sort of funeral I expected Oi to have”.                    “No,” piped up the cleaning lady, “I still have a copy of what she wanted!”

I suddenly remembered how Oi, when she was too old to cope with driving in inner-city traffic, had asked her lawyer to call in and take possession of her will for her funeral. She had showed it to me – an exquisite collection of sayings on love, from mystics of all faiths. To my horror, the lawyer had charged this beautiful old lady in her mid-nineties, an exorbitant fee.

Standing by her coffin now, the judge wept over this betrayal of Oi’s wishes. “One more thing for her to forgive her sons for,” he sobbed. We all wept with him.

Before she died, Oi gave me the books which had sustained her, and influenced her thinking, and which had helped her  find her path to expanded consciousness and freedom. One of the joys of reading them was that she’d underlined or marked the passages which sang to her. Not only did I find this a wonderful aid to a deeper understanding, both of the texts and of Oi, but it also taught me the pleasure of marking and making my books my own, which I had never dared to do before.

I’d grown up learning that books should be treated as sacred, and never marked, turned down, or in any way treated as familiar friends. I do it all the time now, knowing that others who eventually find their way to them will – or might – enjoy the same pleasures of insight and intimacy as I have done.

Oi’s words still remain in my mind, and often come back to me. When there was a problem she would close her eyes, and focus for a minute, then open them and say firmly: “You cannot know the solution.  You can only pray that the situation evolves for the highest good of you, and everyone else involved. And know that this will happen, and let it go.”

She’d quote T.S. Eliot: “It is not our business what others may think of us,”… or: “God wastes nothing”. She’d say : “Let go and let God.”… and, “Happiness is like water in the palm of your hand. If you gently hold your palm open, it will stay. But if you clutch it and try to hang onto it, you lose it.” She died thirteen years ago, but her loving wisdom sustains me still.

The gift she gave me, which I treasure the most, and use constantly, is ‘The Golden Key’, a tiny spiritual masterpiece of only a few words. I give it now with love, as Oi did, to anyone who thinks it may be useful to them… https://morningstar.netfirms.com/goldenkey.html

Food for threadbare gourmets – those of us who qualify for this description will go hungry today, as I feel this post is so long, I can’t expect you all to go on reading, while Food for thought is contained in Oi’s sayings and in her life…


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