Category Archives: human potential

The kannabis trail

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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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Rubbing shoulders with the rich, the famous, and the forgotten

I wish I could remember what Dr Seuss said when I was interviewing him back in the late sixties. (I’ve never kept clippings of my articles, which I sometimes regret)

All I can remember at this distance is his shining energy, his charm, good looks, good humour and integrity. I know we talked about his books – my children were young fans of four and five at the time – and how this childless man tried to give a subliminal positive message in many of his stories, like: “trust yourself”, or “be kind to everyone”.

Then there was the other doctor – Doctor Spock. At a moment’s notice, I was sent out to interview him, along with the newspaper’s star writer … the editor suddenly had a brainstorm and thought he’d like a different angle from a practising mother! No time to do any research. And now, how I wish, thanks to Google, that I had – he was so much more than his famous child-rearing book, a radical and protester at the time of the Vietnam War amongst other things.

When I had finished my probably rather pallid interview, Dr Spock’s gentle, lady-like wife took me aside, and asked me to interview her, to my amazement. I did, and listened to a hurt, angry woman, who said that her husband’s great reputation was based on her hard work bringing up their sons practically alone, while he picked her brains and dispensed her wisdom/experience from behind his desk. I couldn’t write this, and wasn’t surprised when they divorced a few years later.

Then there was the inimitable Barbara Cartland, who took me to her bosom when I told her that one of my best friends, John, was her son’s best friend, who she was devoted to. Her son and John had been at Harrow together, and when John married she lent him a cottage at the bottom of her garden. (with no plumbing)

As she roamed around her hotel bedroom talking animatedly, I decided that her crusade about honey and vitamins must work, she was so lithe and her movements so youthful at seventy-four. She was still writing prolifically her romantic novels, which she told me laughingly had their biggest sales in India.

When she died at ninety-nine, she had had over seven hundred bodice-rippers published, and left the manuscripts of a hundred and fifty more, which her sons are releasing as e-books every month. She wasn’t just a one trick pony though, one of her interests being gliding, and back in the early thirties she invented the idea of them being towed for long distances which led to troop carrying gliders. Later she was awarded a medal by the flying industry.

When her daughter, Lady Dartmouth – not yet married to Lord Spencer and so becoming Princess Diana’s stepmother – came to Hongkong, she was just as kind to me as her mother had been. She was a ravishing beauty with the kind of porcelain pink and white complexion and huge blue eyes that actress Valerie Hobson also had. (both utterly charming and beautifully mannered)

My interview with Raine, Lady Dartmouth, (known as ‘acid -rain’ by Diana and her siblings) was not as predictable as many others.  I had some juicy material to work with, like her famous scene at Heathrow airport over dirty tea-cups in the restaurant, her campaign to save Covent Garden, at twenty three being the youngest County Councillor for Westminster, and becoming a member of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. A life less ordinary than the traditional fashionable life with ladies who lunch.

Iris Murdoch, famous author, was another interesting person to interview. I did so where she was staying and met her donnish husband – played so beautifully in the film ‘Iris’, by Jim Broadbent –  after she had died of Altzheimers.  Being young and crass, I wondered how such a plain woman could have found such a devoted husband, and only later discovered that not only she did have lovers male and female, but that her fierce intelligence was as sexy as a pretty face!

It was with great trepidation that I approached Robert Helpmann, the famous ballet dancer, producer, and great talent. I had been terrified by him in the famous film: ‘Tales of Hoffman’ as a child, and could never get his Mephistophelian power out of my mind as he flicked his long, black velvet cloak with its long tassel out of the door… even the tassel seemed to convey malice.

With no Google in 1969, I had no idea that he had started his career in the legendary Anna Pavlova’s company, but at least I knew that in the ballet world he had an enormous reputation. He was a delight –  elegant, kind and charming –  and even gave me advice about my ballet-mad daughter… don’t let her start until she’s at least eight, and no en point until after fourteen.

So many fascinating people … from princesses to prime ministers … feminists and activists. Princess Alexandra, the Queen’s cousin, appalled that I was a single mother. “How do you manage? ” she asked… presumably because as well as no husband, I had no chauffeur, nanny, cook, housemaid, butler, or gardener!  She was exquisite and elegant in a pale lavender suede coat and matching lavender wide brimmed hat… the Maori Queen, a plain, ordinary woman who grew into a beautiful, wise one; a glamorous, blonde Italian round-the-world yachtswoman, a Polynesian prime minister’s wife; a glorious Indian woman with yard-long black hair that hung loose, vivacious and intelligent, her greatest claim to fame being lover of racing driver Stirling Moss – then a household name – now, like so many of these people – forgotten.

And yet, of all the people I met and interviewed, the one I treasure most is another forgotten name now, even by the organisation he helped to found. On a cold, wet Sunday afternoon in June 1972, I went down to Westhaven marina in Auckland, at the request of Quaker friends.

Leaving the children in the car with snacks and books, I threaded my way along the gang-planks to the 38 foot yacht, Vega. On it, I met David McTaggart, one of the founders of Greenpeace, just setting off on his historic journey to Mururoa to protest against the French atomic tests. He was in a great hurry, loading last minute supplies before setting sail, but we did it, and I gloat that that was one of the first stories about Greenpeace to get into print.

McTaggart was a hero… in spite of their unwanted presence and refusal to be bullied away, the French set off the deadly bomb anyway. The following year when he returned, they beat him so savagely that he lost the sight in one eye for several months. That story went around the world. And yet these days when I am approached outside the supermarkets by eager young enthusiasts to get me to sign up for Greenpeace, they’ve never even heard of David McTaggart.

Meeting such people was one of the special privileges of being a journalist, but so often, as a single mother I didn’t make the most of such opportunities, being too pre-occupied with how to make ends meet, or if the amah would remember to meet my tiny daughter from the school bus. These were not celebrities in today’s use of the word, but people of character and substance who had carved a niche for themselves, and by their talent or originality become well known.

I look back to my young, ignorant self and cringe. If only I had known then what I know now. And I also look back and see these people so differently… I understand more about them as I understand more about myself. If only I had had the ability then to really do them justice. This feels familiar – of course – it’s what most parents say about their parenting – if only I had known then what I know now!

Greater understanding, insight, knowledge – even wisdom – are  gifts we acquire if we’re lucky, as we grow older. Yet it’s when we’re young that we have to step up, and so often blunder blindly into the unknown, sometimes realising fearfully that we don’t know, or often, thinking we know better.

So now, new generations and bright young people are setting off on their own journeys to follow their own dreams, and they will find their own heroes – talented innovators, creators and explorers in their brave new world. Some of their heroes will become rich, some will become famous, and many of them will inevitably be forgotten … and like the heroes of my day – in the words of Ecclesiasticus – they too will have no memorial.

Food for threadbare gourmets

An unexpected gathering of the neighbours for drinks the next day, and no time to do a dash into town, half an hour away, to find something to take with me. Remembering an intriguing recipe for sardines I’d used years ago, I rummaged in my store cupboard and found two tins of sardines in olive oil, and then rummaging on the internet for a recipe for sardine pate spread, I found a blog by someone called Manami. I’m grateful to her for digging me out of my hole.

Picking out the little silver bits and bones, I drained the sardines and mashed them up with two tablespoons of mayonnaise, two teaspoons of finely chopped onion, quarter of a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a teaspoon of lemon juice and a teaspoon of black pepper.

Apart from sprinkling it with chopped parsley, that was all there was to it. Served with small cracker biscuits – I used rice crackers, they filled a need.

Food for thought

The Highest Thought is always that thought which contains joy. The Clearest Words are those words which contain truth. The Grandest Feeling is that feeling you call love.

Joy, truth, love.

These three are interchangeable, and one always leads to the other. It matters not in which order they are placed.

Neale Donald Walsche. Conversations with God Book I

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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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War and Peace

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I stumbled on a quote from Winston Churchill at the beginning of the chapter of a book I was reading. He was talking to the boys of Harrow, his old school, just after the Battle of Britain… the leader of the free world with his back against the wall, found time to talk to schoolboys in the middle of a World War when his capital city was being pounded in the Blitz…

He said: “Do not let us speak of darker days, let us rather speak of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are the greatest days our country has ever lived.” (I can just hear him growling through his speech impediment and his false teeth)
Those words made me think of those sterner days, and what stern days we have all lived through since the end of the long peace from Waterloo to the First World War.
My ancestors lived peaceful lives between the downfall of one warlord – Napoleon in 1815, and the attack of another warlord – the Kaiser in 1914.

But things changed for them then, as for everyone, and my family would be a microcosm of that change. My grandfather fought at Gallipoli of tragic memories, my great- uncle was one of eight hundred men who ‘went down, “as my grandmother would say – in the Vanguard, when it exploded and sank in 1917.

My step-grandfather was one of the 60,000 men killed or wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in June 1916, when he was shot as he stepped out in the first line after the whistle blew to advance in the early morning sunshine. Unlike that heart-stopping last scene in ‘Blackadder goes forth’, they didn’t run, but stepped out to a measured pace, and were mown down by machine guns raking along the long lines of men moving across the grass as they walked into the ‘jaws of death’….

These were peaceful men, called up from their homes and villages to fight for their country and for peace – they thought – unlike the highly trained aggressive army of martial men which faced them. They had actually thought that the Battle of the Somme would end the carnage.

The next generation faced the sterner days of another warlord, Hitler. My father escaped from France a fortnight after Dunkirk, and then spent the rest of the war as a famed Desert Rat, escaping from the siege of Tobruk, fighting across North Africa and then up through Italy. After the war he was stationed at Belsen, the concentration camp where I joined him to live with him for the first time since he had left when I was ten months old.

His brother served with the Long Range Desert Group which fought behind the German lines in North Africa waging guerrilla war. Captured, and ending up in prisoner of war camp in Italy, he escaped and hid and starved in the mountains, until rejoining the Allied Armies as they fought their way up Italy. My only other uncle manned anti –invasion posts around England before becoming part of the liberation forces in Europe. He listened in horror as they drove away to the sound of gun-shots after handing over Russian PoW’s back to the Soviets, who shot them all, there and then. My former father- in- law, a padre, landed on the beaches of Normandy and was so badly wounded that he lived with the after- effects for the rest of his life.

My first memory was of watching the Battle of Britain – not that I knew it was – I just saw white crosses diving across the sky and puffs of white. I was looking for dogs, since I heard the adults saying there’s another dog-fight. That summer has remained in the memory of those who lived through it – even me at two – as being one of unforgettable beauty. Historian Sir Arthur Bryant wrote of England then: “The light that beat down on her meadows, shining with emerald loveliness, was scarcely of this world… the streets of her cities, soon to be torn and shattered, were bathed in a calm serene sunshine…”

Later, I cowered in bed hearing the dreadful wail of the air- raid sirens, trailed downstairs in my night clothes to crouch in the air-raid shelter, listened for the planes overheard, saw with terror the flames in the red sky, and the next morning gathered up shrapnel in the garden and once, stood on the edge of a huge bomb crater, marvelling. And finally traversed bombed- out Germany on the train to Belsen.

I spent much of the rest of my childhood living in army camps around the world, hearing the sound of reveille across the fields where the soldiers lived in barracks, and drifting off to sleep to the haunting strains of the Last Post.

Inevitably I joined the army, as did both my brothers, who saw service in Aden, Borneo, Germany, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar… and as my first child was born, my army husband was posted at twenty four hours notice to a sudden outbreak of warfare in Cyprus. I came out of the labour ward to find a telegram: “Gone to Cyprus”. So my daughter felt the effects of war as soon as she came into this world and didn’t meet her father until she was six months old. Later her father served in Hong Kong and Germany and Northern Ireland.

My grandchildren are the fifth generation and the first not to feel the effects of war. They‘re aware of violence – who could not be after the world-wide shock at the attacks on the World Trade Centre. But like other children of the West, they seem to see their future and their challenges differently. Unlike the children of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, my fortunate grandchildren have known only peace, and tucked away in the farthest corner of the globe, they have optimism. They do not see these days as stern ones, though the children in war-torn Middle East must do. They do not see the anxieties that older people agonise over, pollution, dwindling food supplies, over-population, melting ice-caps, ravaged oceans…

They see instead the solutions. One grandson, having gained a degree in philosophy, transferred his search for truth to science, and from first deciding to tackle world hunger by experimenting with growing food from the spores of mushrooms ( I’m sure I’ve hopelessly oversimplified that ) he’s now embarked on a project to discover new forms of anti-biotics, and combat disease.

The other youngsters all have a serene belief that science, and creative understanding will solve the problems that loom so large for older generations. They’re not worried! I find that’s magic. Is this because they live in this peaceful place in the Antipodes, or do all young people have this calm belief in the future?

A friend told us that she had always loudly proclaimed at home that it is selfish and self-indulgent to have a child and bring another soul into this troubled world. She told us with great joy, that her fifteen year old grandson said he didn’t agree. “Life is a gift” this wonderful boy told her. Hearing that wisdom was a gift to us oldies.

Hearing that made me feel too, we can all rest easy. Young people know where they’re going, and know what they can do. Though we hear of mayhem and misery every day, if we oldies step back from it, avoid reading the stuff that make us sad (young people don’t seem to read newspapers! ), we can remember to be as positive and imaginative as that young generation.

And maybe too, to bowdlerise Churchill’s words – these are the greatest days our world has ever lived, when consciousness takes the leap into other dimensions of unity and peace. Christopher Fry wrote that: “Affairs are now soul size,” and that we are ready to:” take the longest stride of soul men ever took.”

This is what we can feel in the hearts of this generation that does not want war and dissension –  the domain of the grey tired thinking of politicians of old. Young people want peace and hope and they deserve it as they face the new challenges that baffle older people. “Young people”, as a friend once wrote in Latin, in a card to me, “are the hope and salvation of the world”. And they need all our loving support and belief in them, as they take that long stride of soul into a future we oldies cannot even imagine.

Food for threadbare gourmets
I had some dainty ham sandwiches left over from a little gathering. Rather than waste them I had them for supper. I whipped up an egg with salt and pepper and a soupcon of milk, and poured it onto a plate. I dipped the sandwiches in on both sides, and the egg mixture glued them together. Fried in a little butter, they were delicious. And no waste!

Food for thought
Close your eyes and you will see the truth,
Be still and you will move forward on the tide of the spirit,
Be gentle and you will need no strength,
Be patient and you will achieve all things,
Be humble and you will remain entire.
Taoist meditation

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Following your bliss

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Follow your bliss, urged the great Joseph Campbell – this used to sound like heaven. Just doing everything you wanted!

Later – just slightly wiser- I supposed this heaven was probably self-actualization – which always sounded like one step below enlightenment, both impossible goals for the likes of me. But then I discovered that self-actualisation was not quite the Everest I had thought.

It was the need to be good, to be fully alive and to find meaning in life – according to Abraham Maslow, one of the grandfathers of personal growth. And yet according to him, all other needs like food, love etc had to be fulfilled before achieving the nirvana of being a free person – another ringing phrase of personal growth.

Research suggests that when people live lives which are different from their true nature and capabilities, they are less likely to be happy than those whose goals and lives match. So pursuing the elusive goal of this self-realisation means we feel more creative and happier, more ‘fully alive’, and ‘find meaning in life’.

And yet it seems to me that happiness isn’t the whole story, and fulfilling our needs isn’t either. Great souls like Nelson Mandela and Victor Frankl have been called self-actualising, and yet their needs can hardly be said to have been met in prison or concentration camp. But their capacity for living, love and forgiveness, wisdom and insight seem more saintly and more profound than the stories of many saints.

They both, like other so- called self-actualisers, had accepted who they were and where they were, and made the best of it, in giant, heroic terms. But self- actualising isn’t just for the heroic and the saintly, I discover, but can be for all of us. Maslow described the fulfilment of following such a path and as I understand it, his description of life as a fully- realised person would be something like this:
We would experience life like a child, with full absorption and concentration and joy and we’d try new things instead of sticking to safe paths; we’d listen to our feelings and inner voice instead being victim to habit and the voice of tradition, authority or the majority.

We’d dare to be ourselves – authentic, in Maslow’s word- and avoid pretence (‘game playing’). And we’d have the courage be unpopular if we didn’t agree with the views of the majority.

We’d take responsibility and work hard; and try to identify our ego defences and be brave enough to give them up, meaning to be honest with ourselves. This also means being vulnerable, which I don’t think Maslow mentions, but this to me, means having the courage to be tender and open hearted and to develop the capacity to feel deeply.

Apart from knowing that we are following our spiritual destiny in becoming the whole person we can be, the rewards seem to be a deeper enjoyment and engagement in life, a profound appreciation of the goodness of life, and therefore less stress and anxiety, and a genuine trust, in Mother Julian’s words, that all will be well.

It sounds like something we could all do, though when we have commitments to children, those duties have to be honoured first … otherwise becoming self – realised can seem more like self-centredness! Hindus recognise this stage of life as ‘householder’, before seeking their own ‘liberation’.

Those making this pilgrimage towards wholeness and authenticity often find that the path to freedom is not an easy one. That road less travelled may be pitted with puddles and pain-filled treks. And the person who’s throwing off the shackles of duty and listening to their inner voice may often be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

The stars that kept me on track as I have tried to walk this way were actually words from the sages and poets – and I have clung to them. From Ibsen’s belief in our ‘sacred duty’ to ourselves, to T.S. Eliot’s dictum that it is not our business what other people think of us, the words of literature – the logbook of the human race as one writer put it – pointed the way.

Trying to become a free person, letting go old self-defeating patterns of doubt and distrust, old fears – those critical inner voices that don’t serve us – means changing many things in our lives and in ourselves … and it’s not always obvious where this is taking us. Werner Erhard once said confusion led to a higher state of consciousness, a belief I have clung to, hoping it to be true!

These transitions take trust and courage and a belief in the goodness of Life. And I am learning that we have to listen to the voice of life and not be tempted by the easy way out – and never settle for less. To reach the end of our days and to realise that we had settled for less, for the sake of pleasing others or making life easier for ourselves, would be the ultimate betrayal of the gift of life.

Loyal, loving friends support us – where would we be without our friends? But in those dark moments which we all have to endure alone when we try to walk this path, the words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer can sustain us.

She wrote: “I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.” (Warning : this hurts !) One friend said to me: “I feel stripped”, as she picked her painful way along the path. And it’s only by staying fully conscious and hanging on to all our reserves of courage that we can reach the end of this road victoriously.

When we strike out, off the beaten track, it can push the buttons of others, living safe conventional lives, sticking to conservative values, and maybe not wanting to tread any but the known way – and maybe feeling uncomfortable when confronted with uncertainty or risk.

But to be free is to stride fearlessly into and through a cloud of unknowing – as the beautiful, extraordinary and self – actualised Helen Keller amazingly said: ‘If life is not an adventure then it is nothing at all’. So like so many others, I have had to step out of my constricted and uncomfortable comfort zone in order to be free. And just as Eliot said it’s not our business what others think of us, so he might also have said that we cannot expect to be understood either.

The words of another poet, Montrose, encourage travellers to find the courage to take what seem like huge steps into the unknown with his words:
He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That puts it not unto the touch
To win or lose it all…

And so though while we are in process, we may think we have lost all to win all – or maybe in the words of the Spanish proverb – have taken what we wanted and paid for it – freedom is worth the price. It’s freedom from self-limiting beliefs and doubts and from compromising with our own truth and inner knowing. It’s daring to open our hearts, do the unthinkable, find new ways of being, connect with the beating heart of the world and know that when we take these terrible risks, somehow the universe supports us.

So yes, such a life is an adventure, and also laughter and love and truth and beauty, friends and fun. And now I think this is what Joseph Campbell may have meant when he said follow your bliss.

Food for threadbare gourmets

I’ve sometimes thought I could/should write a cookery book called a million ways with chicken – an exaggeration perhaps – but not far off!
I love chicken recipes, and this one I acquired over forty years ago from Clement Freud (yes, Sigmund’s grandson) when he was in his heyday.
It’s a cold mousse, and you need eight ounces of cooked, chopped chicken, two ounces of butter, three eggs, three ounces of fresh white breadcrumbs, three table spoons of dry sherry, quarter of a pint of single cream, salt and nutmeg.
Melt the butter in a large basin over a pan of boiling water. Pour in the cream and breadcrumbs, salt and a good pinch of nutmeg and stir for about five minutes until the mixture thickens. Beat the eggs and sherry together, and add to the basin, followed by the chopped chicken.
Pour this mixture into a buttered soufflé dish, cover with foil and bake in a moderate oven until firm – about half an hour. Let it cool before serving. Freud recommends serving it with a slightly garlicky mayonnaise with mashed avocado added, and for a really creamy texture stirring in a stiffly beaten egg-white.
It’s all rather delicate and delicious.

 

Food for thought

“Nobody can give you the meaning of your life.
It is your life, the meaning has also to be yours.
Nobody except you can come upon it.
It is your life and it is only accessible to you.
Only in living will the mystery be revealed to you.”
-Rajneesh

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The world – our village

100_0841 - CopyWhenever we hear the sound of a helicopter circling overhead, we know that someone is in trouble in our little village. The helicopter lands on the school playing field, and the one in need is whisked away to hospital.

Last year it rescued an elderly resident who’d slipped down a cliff, the year before, a village teenager with broken legs and arms after coming off his new motor cycle.

This time it was a profound tragedy when a young mother was suddenly rushed to hospital with a killer illness that struck out of the blue, and who only lived for another two hours. Everyone wants to surround the family and the small children with love and care and food and anything that would assuage the grief that can never be assuaged.

That’s how a village works. When I had a car accident many years ago, the family were swamped with food and help both while I was in hospital and afterwards. My daughter- in- law has the beautiful knack of creating a village wherever she lives or works, whether it’s a block of flats and her work place in London, or her suburban street and her children’s school here in New Zealand.

I’ve often wondered how she does it… I think it’s a mixture of care, interest in everyone around her, a willingness to become involved with their lives, and a sense of responsibility to the world and to her neighbours, however you define neighbour. And tolerance.

I think of other villages where those were the things that not only defined the village but made them unique, and two spring to mind immediately.
At a time when France allowed over 80,000 Jewish men, women and children to be deported to concentration camps, the community of Le Chambon- sur- Lignon in France hid some thousands throughout the war. This tiny community of only several thousand themselves, took Jewish children and families into their homes, and though most were poor, and hard put to feed themselves, they fed and protected their charges throughout the years of Nazi occupation.

No-one was ever turned away. The Germans knew this was happening and several times tried to intimidate the villagers and their leader, Pastor Andre Trocme, arriving with buses to take the Jews away. Whenever the Germans came, the villagers hid their refugees in the forest, and when the Germans had left the villagers would go into the forest, and sing a song. The Jews would then emerge from their hiding place and go back to their homes in the village.

Later one of the villagers said: “We didn’t protect the Jews because it was moral or heroic, but because it was the human thing to do”.

One other village in Occupied Europe also did this human thing. In the tiny village of Nieuwlande in the Netherlands, every one of the one hundred and seventeen villagers took a Jewish person or family into their home and kept them safe throughout the Nazi occupation. The pastor’s son, Arnold Douwe was the moving force behind this act of compassion and unbelievable courage.

The people in both villages showed incredible moral and heroic fortitude, not just for a day or a week or a year, but for years, never knowing how long their ordeal would last. Philosophers may argue about whether altruism exists, but as far as this naive human being is concerned, this was altruism of the highest order.

These apparently ordinary people put themselves and their families in mortal danger, and coped with daily drudgery too – would you want the inconvenience of sharing your home with strangers indefinitely? They did this for no reward except for knowing they had done their best for other human beings, and in doing so were themselves truly human.

Such generosity and compassion in a community can still happen. We all saw on the news the loving welcome the people of Germany offered to the tragic human beings who arrived on their doorstep in the last few days, after their months of unfathomable misery and un-imaginable hardship.

The heart-rending picture of one small boy lying dead on a sunny beach has reached the hearts of most people in the world, and shown us once again that we really are a village. The actions of western governments and power plays of western nations have destroyed these decent, ordinary people’s lives and countries, their towns and their villages. So now perhaps it’s time for the world to remember that it is a global village, and to show with action the loving compassion of village life in societies all over the world.

Maybe every village in the western world could pledge to share their peace and plenty with a refugee family…

And maybe, like Cecil the Lion, whose cruel and untimely death raised the consciousness of the world about the value and nobility of animals, these terrible scenes of refugees struggling to find safety and peace for their children, will raise the consciousness of the world too. These lines of exhausted refugees, and frail boats filled with desperate families, sinking in the sea, are reminding us of our common humanity.

They are reminding us of all that we have in common – love for our families, a love of peace, a longing for freedom, enough food, and education for our children – blurring the lines of division, whether race, religion, nationality or gender.
These strange times could be a turning point in the history of the world if we could use this crisis as an opportunity to bury our differences, and work for a common cause… which is peace on earth and goodwill to all men, women and children.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

One of my favourite dishes is risotto, and I have lots of variations. This one is a very subtle version, using leeks instead of onions. Rinse and chop two medium leeks very finely and gently cook them in butter. Don’t let them brown, as they will turn bitter. When soft stir in a cup of risotto rice, I use arborio, and then a glass of white wine or Noilly Prat.
Let it boil up until the alcohol has evaporated, and then add the hot chicken stock in the usual way. When cooked, stir in a knob of butter and four tablespoons of grated parmesan.
Meanwhile grill six rashers of streaky bacon or pancetta if you have it, cut it into small pieces, and when the rice is cooked, stir them into the mix, and serve with more parmesan.

 

Food for thought

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. Dalai Lama

 

 

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