Category Archives: philosophy

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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Kintsugi, art and life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

Food for Thought

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

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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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Living takes up all my time

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As I drove home this morning I wondered how often I had driven along that same country road with all its winds and curves and hills and one way bridges… ruminating about this, I went back randomly to my diary six years ago to see what has changed… this is what I found:

“ I had the house to myself today – the solitude I’ve always wanted. In his early diaries, Thomas Merton moaned on about not having solitude and silence. I know how he feels, but how could these things be missing in a Trappist monastery? And it’s a lot easier to be alone in a crowd surely, than one in a one-on-one relationship! Silence is easier than solitude. I never have the radio on, rarely the TV, and sometimes go for weeks without playing any music.

‘The days have seemed calm and beautiful. Ken Wilber’s understanding of how to ground the insights of the spiritual life, reminded me of Brother Laurence’s practise of the Presence of God.
It was reported of him that, ‘in the greatest hurry of business in the kitchen he still preserved his recollections and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even uninterrupted composure and tranquillity of spirit…’  mindfulness then…

‘I had made a cake from a recipe on the last page of Nigella Lawson’s book ‘Feasts’. This was a funeral cake, but the beautiful loaf in its tin with a long sprig of rosemary for remembrance on top inspired me. It was absolutely delicious, and has entered my repertoire with a fanfare. So yesterday, I got up in good time to make another rosemary cake for morning tea with Kate and Jocelyn. This time I used twice the amount of cooked apple and lemon, more sugar and added vanilla.

‘It was a triumph. The big, tender, golden loaf with a sugary top, infused with the taste of lemon and rosemary, and with the rosemary sprig down the centre, was a culinary poem just to look at. It had a pure, classic feeling, qualities which can be applied to things other than music or sculpture! We all felt it was a work of art, which didn’t stop us devouring it in large moist chunks, and Jocelyn took the recipe.

‘ Both girls very pure, so we had apple tea instead of coffee, (I didn’t realise it was solid sugar) and we talked for hours, until nearly one o’ clock. Jocelyn brought a jar of her fig and ginger jam, Kate, a fragrant bouquet of herbs and pink and violet flowers. I had laid a table with a linen cloth with a heavy crochet lace border, and with the curving regency-style silver tea-pot, the bone china rosebud sprigged cups and saucers edged with gold, silver king’s pattern cake-knives, white lace and linen napkins, it looked like one of those romantic magazine photographs. I left it, cake, crumbs, rosemary sprigs and all, untouched all day long to savour.

Today, I fell off the wagon. Went shopping and doing errands in town, and I never seemed to get into my stride. Going into the spare bedroom to work out where I would start doing paint touch-ups, I found a book left there by the last occupant, Alexander McCall Smith’s, ‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’, which I read till I had finished. Charming, erudite and civilised – art, music, ethics – all merging seamlessly. But apart from meditating, I hadn’t been present all day, just for the sake of blobbing out with a book, going absent without leave as it were. So no mindfulness then…

Thank heavens for Rumi, who I turned to this morning and his wonderful:
Come, come, come, whoever you are! Wanderer,
Worshipper, lover of learning
This is not a caravan of despair.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve
Broken your vow a thousand times
Still and yet again
Come!’

Driving home through the bay, I saw a mother duck shepherding her family of tiny brown fluffy babies along the footpath, while she calmly brought up the rear. There must have been at least a dozen, and one hadn’t managed to make it up onto the low step-up of the pavement, and was now trying to keep up, anxiously scurrying along in the gutter!

Cara (the cat) is still asleep on the unmade bed, a flat, black semi-circle. She slept all night stretched up against me, seeming to be purring every time I awoke. Maybe she was making amends for a dreadful incident last night in the cemetery. As I strolled towards the look-out where I habitually inspect the flat rock far below with waves splashing over it at high tide, a cock pheasant ran across and into the undergrowth on the edge of the cliff.

Cara was a long way behind, and hadn’t seen it, so I thought all was well. But when she reached me, she stood and sensed the area. She could have been a pointer, the way she sussed out the presence of the bird. Ignoring my peremptory calls, she purposefully plunged down the cliff. I attempted to grab her, but it was too dangerous. Occasionally, as I peered into the undergrowth, I would catch sight of her blackness skulking through the bushes. I went home with my arms full of pohutukawa twigs as usual, to use as firewood, and then came back in the hope of tracking her.

She turned out to be sitting behind a grave-stone, and when she attempted to escape me again I grabbed her by a foreleg, and carried her firmly home, where I made sure she stayed. I hope it’s not the breeding season. ‘

Reading this, I realised that much has changed in six years … though I still fall off the wagon regularly, but the beloved cat has gone to a soft cushion in the sky, I am now alone, and have also given up eating sugar… so fewer delicious cakes. But the rhythm of the seasons continues, the full moon still shines across the water as I stand at the cliff’s edge, the mother ducks are still moving majestically across the road shepherding their broods… some friends have moved on, new friends have changed my life in many ways, and life is often a baffling adventure.

But whatever hidden meaning there may be in it, I remember Montaigne’s words: “Alas, I have done nothing this day !”
“What? Have you not lived? It is not only the fundamental but the noblest of your occupations”. So be it. I live.

 

Food for Threadbare gourmets
Here’s that delicious cake by Nigella Lawson with my wild additions. (I belong to that abandoned school of thought that feels if one thing is delicious, twice as much must be twice as delicious ! I also subscribe to the Hebrew saying that we will be held accountable for all the permitted pleasures we failed to enjoy).

So, first you cook until soft a sliced eating apple with a teaspoon of caster sugar, zest and juice of half a lemon, a teaspoon of butter and a small sprig of fresh rosemary. Fish out the rosemary, leave the apple to cool, and then mash or blitz to a pulp. Line a one pound loaf tin with greased baking paper.

To the pulped apple add 225 grams melted butter, 150 grams of sugar, 3 large eggs and 300 grams of flour. I use self raising, and also double the apple mixture and add a scant teaspoon of vanilla. Mix it quickly to a smooth batter, and pour into the tin. Dredge the top generously with caster sugar, and then lay a long sprig of fresh rosemary down the middle of the cake top. The oil from the herb scents the cake deliciously as it cooks – oven 170C or 325 F, for approximately fifty minutes. Let it cool etc. before cutting and devouring with abandon!

 

Food for thought
The unexamined life is not worth living.     Socrates died 399 BC

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Saying yes to beauty

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Sitting on the sofa, sipping my afternoon cup of tea, I craned to watch a sooty blackbird. It was pecking with its orange beak at the apple nailed to the fence outside the window. Beyond the fence is a wild gully, where I’ve encouraged blue and white agapanthus and arum lilies, pink impatiens and orange nasturtiums to spread. I planted flax for the tuis to feed on their flowers, and encouraged thickets of swan plants or milkweed as they’re also known, to feed the monarch butterflies.

Dominating the gully is an oak tree, grown from an acorn by my grandsons and I. It’s flourished and become a large tree in the years we’ve been here, and I love it for all that it symbolizes about those happy years of my grand-children’s childhood.

As I watched the blackbird, two smoky black tuis arrived, the iridescent sheen of their dark turquoise tail feathers gleaming in the clear winter sun. They hovered to swoop on another apple further up the fence, the little curl of white feathers on the front of their neck quivering – the early settlers here called them the parson birds because of the likeness to the white neck frill and black clothes of a missionary.

Then I noticed movement the other side of the gully. It was a cock pheasant, flaunting his long, gorgeous tail and his bright blue and red and russet colouring stalking through the long grass. I was ridiculously thrilled… I haven’t seen him for several years… is it the same cock pheasant I’ve gloated over before, or one of his descendants? How long do they live?

Lonely Roman soldiers shivering in the icy Northern wastes, guarding Hadrian’s Wall back in around 200 AD brought pheasants from Georgia, near- Asia, to England as pets. They came from a place called Phasis, hence their name pheasants. When the Romans left after four centuries, pheasants were well established all over the British Isles and shooting them became a favourite pastime of the rich and heartless. They have spread all over the world in the centuries since the Romans. But here at least in this hidden gully, this one is safe from being hunted and shot.

And as I watched, a little flock of half a dozen tiny, green silver-eyes descended on the apple halves. They’re smaller than a baby sparrow, with soft grey breasts, and rosy pink markings either side. Their velvety green feathered wings make them look like little balls of soft green moss, and they have bright eyes ringed in white.
The ancestors of these tiny birds which flit rather than fly, did actually fly the thousand miles across the Tasman Sea from Australia to get to this Land of the Long White Cloud, back in 1856… why, I wonder, did a whole species set off across a huge waste of ocean, clinging exhaustedly to the masts of any ships they encountered, and finally making it ashore to these islands.

After the attentions of all these sharp little beaks, the two apple halves are simply a rosy translucent bowl, the core a skeleton in the middle. I watched the scene without feeling any guilt at spending so much time just gazing out of the window. Savouring the beauty and the wonder of the world seems more important these days than any apparently more productive activity.

Whenever I gaze fondly at my oak tree, I think of savage and sensitive Xerxes, King of Kings, back in the fourth century BC, halting his great armies as they rolled across the empty Asiatic plains, so that he could revel in the sight of a single sycamore tree. He stayed there for several days in a state of ecstasy, while his puzzled warriors camped around the dusty desert, and he even commanded a goldsmith to strike a gold medallion to commemorate the moment and the tree.(goldsmiths were obviously essential to the well being of conquering heroes in ancient times!)

John Constable, the English landscape painter was another who loved trees. His friend and biographer described him admiring: ‘a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch up a beautiful child in his arms’. He particularly loved elms, the great trees which were such a distinctive feature of the English countryside for millenniums, and which all died of Dutch elm disease back in the seventies after a shipment of rock elm logs brought the elm bark beetle from the US.

In times past, elms were planted as sentinels to mark the old ways, the drovers ‘ roads, so that they could be followed in mist… the elms were way-finders, map-markers, so majestically tall that they towered above the bands of English mist… Elms are still trying to survive in hedgerows, but as soon as they grow beyond twelve feet, they become infected… perhaps in times to come they will recover and enhance the landscape again with their once well-loved silhouettes.

Here in New Zealand we are trying to discover why the great kauri trees – some a thousand years old or more – are mysteriously dying. At least with the elms they knew why… in New Zealand we are still puzzling over the slow death of the fabled kauris, whose trunks can grow to a diameter of forty feet or more.

These were my thoughts as I sipped my tea, and watched the beauty of the birds clustered around the red-skinned apples on the fence. And then I remembered an unforgettable vignette in Robert Byron’s book ‘The Road to Oxiana’. He wrote:
‘There was no furniture in the room. In the middle of the floor stood a tall brass lamp, casting a cold white blaze over the red carpets and bare white walls. It stood between two pewter bowls, one filled with branches of pink fruit blossom, the other with a posy of big yellow jonquils wrapped round a bunch of violets.’ By the jonquils sat the Governor… by the blossom sat his young son, whose oval face, black eyes and curving lashes were the ideal beauty of the Persian miniaturist. They had nothing to occupy them, neither book nor pen, nor food. Father and son were lost in the sight and smell of spring.’

Beauty on beauty on beauty, the scene, the meaning and the telling. It reminded me that no time is ever wasted when we are enjoying beauty. Caroline Graveson, a Quaker, wrote: ‘there is a daily round for beauty, as for goodness, a world of flowers and books and cinemas and clothes and manners as well as mountains and masterpieces’.

Yes, beauty is as necessary to the well-being of the spirit as bread is to the body.
Yet beauty doesn’t make us good or better people … even Hitler and Goering collected glorious art … it’s just that beauty is necessary to us all, and beauty just is. A world without beauty would be dead, so nourishing it and revelling in it is life… so – yes to beauty and to life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

I’m continuing my love affair with the crock pot, and made a very satisfying French onion soup the other day. Just tip plenty of finely chopped onions – a pound to two pounds – into the pot with two tablespoons of unsalted butter and two of olive oil, lots of freshly ground black pepper, and salt.
Leave it in the crock pot on low for twelve hours, or over-night which is what I did.

By then the onions will have caramelised into a thick jammy mixture, so I then added 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, lots of stock – depending how much you want to make, and a nice slurp of brandy… about three tablespoons.

Leave it on low for six hours to eight hours or more… the flavour intensifies the longer you leave it.
Then if you wish, you can do the toasted slice of sour dough thing with cheese on top and grilled, to place in the bowls of piping hot soup… I just served it with hot rolls and grated cheese on top.

Food for thought
A loving person lives in a loving world. A hostile person lives in a hostile world. Everyone you meet is your mirror. Ken Keyes

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The preciousness of people

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A knock on the door revealed a stranger holding a white enamel colander full of strawberries. We had moved into this house in town the day before, and he introduced himself as a neighbour.

That was a very meagre description of what he was, he was a glorious eccentric who I watched every day cycle slowly past on a very high old fashioned bike with a basket on the front, which gave the impression of being far too big for his small skinny frame, and liable to go out of control at any minute. He was on his way to the docks where he was a dock worker – a somewhat unconventional one I imagine.

Again a meagre description of this blue- eyed, wildly bearded, elderly Irishman, who revealed to us that he was a sort of remittance man, exiled from Ireland by his despairing family to make his somewhat erratic way in the antipodes.

He was a poet, he told us. I believed him though I never saw any of his work. His life was a poem. We went to his house, which was a poky little state house. Inside it gave the impression of being a miniature stately home, along the lines of an Irish demense… a few good but battered antiques, the odd oil painting and large old-fashioned sofa and chairs covered in old fashioned country house flowered linens.

This splendid impression of stateliness continued into the garden, which was quite big, being on a corner. He had transformed this rocky site into a miniature paradise, grass walks edged with pleached fruit trees, a vegetable patch, a strawberry bed, a tiny terrace and lawn, and best of all, a deep pond edged with large rocks, which he had created by levering the huge rocks day after day over a period of six months, until a deep hole had been carved out of the stony ground.

He was an eccentric, one of the many who, when I look back, have enriched our lives and given us fun and pleasure. There was Mr Macdonald, a direct descendant of Beatrix Potter’s Mr Mcgregor, who was our neighbour in the country, another Irishman. He only wore a pink woollen vest with long sleeves  and braces, all summer and winter, except on Sundays when he looked quite unnatural, shaved and spruced up in a short sleeved shirt in which he looked very ill at ease. Every spring he would arrive at my door in his pink vest, braces and hob-nailed boots, bearing a huge bunch of sweet-smelling narcissi which I had once told him reminded me of spring in England. He never missed a year thereafter.

There was Alf, an Englishman who served in the Malayan Police, and every three years when his leave was due, not having any family he wished to return to, he would sail to the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula. There he would buy a large flock of goats, and then proceed to drive them through the desert, using the goats as food and currency, until he reached Port Said. There he would get a boat to Liverpool, make a quick visit to his sister there, and then return to his tropical home in Kota Bahru.

Here too, lived Mammy, a giant White Russian, over six feet tall, wearing thick pebble specs for her short sighted grey eyes, and wearing the first caftans I ‘d seen over her enormous frame, all in brilliant colours and garish patterns . Mammy ran the local hotel where everyone gathered in Kota Bahru, and was a local joke too. As a seventeen year old I didn’t think she was such a joke. She and her husband had escaped the revolution in Russia, and made it safely to Shanghai like so many other White Russians.

They had survived the rigours of Japanese occupation and then fled Mao’s Communist takeover, ending up in Singapore. There, one afternoon, Mammy’s husband had walked down the road to buy an evening newspaper, and had never returned. No-one knew whether he had run away or was the victim of some crime. And Mammy was now surviving in this rather heartless superficial society in the remotest part of Malaya but creating laughter and fun all around her – actually rather more than a survivor.

Another neighbour was our Dutch friend Andrea, who had an antique shop full of the most exquisite items of a particular sensitivity, many of which I still posses. She was as nutty about animals as I, and far more lawless, striding into a bikie house to steal/rescue weeping puppies with no tails. I revelled in her poetic garden and laughed to see her huge magenta magnolia blossoms each wrapped in a plastic bag to protest them from the wind… not a good look actually!

Her house was beautiful in that glorious Dutch interior way of Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer, her pottery made you want to hold it and stroke it – and I have some – and her paintings were romantic and exquisite, and I have some of them too. I could actually write a book about her…

These memories were prompted by a conversation with a neighbour on my walk this morning. Since some of them read my blog, I cannot reveal what we talked of, or his glorious quirks of personality, but he reminded me of the joy of being with people who allow their personalities to flower, with no thought of what anyone else may think. Eccentricity is simply individuality, unself-consciousness, and the courage to be and do what feels right. When we are in the company of such people it feels as though ‘the waters of life’ are flowing, there are no limitations, and all things are possible.

Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher wrote that: ‘Everyone has in him something precious that is in no one else. But this precious something in a man is revealed to him only if he truly perceives his strongest feeling, his central wish, that in him which stirs his inmost being.’

P.S. The picture is of an antique English drinking jar given me by my friend Andrea.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

A faithful follower e-mailed me yesterday and asked if I had a recipe for Simnel cake. This is the light fruit cake that’s traditional at Easter, so I told her I’d blog it today. I use Nigella Lawson’s recipe with my own adaptations.

When I make it, I prepare the tin as usual, and then cream 175 g of soft unsalted butter with 175 g of caster sugar. Then mix 225 g of SR flour with half a teasp of cinnamon, a quarter of a teasp of ginger and 25 g of ground almonds. Add one egg with some of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, and mix two more eggs into the rest of the mix in the same way, before adding two tblsp of milk. Finally, fold in 500g of mixed dried fruit, plus some chopped glace cherries if you like them.

At this stage I put half the cake mix in the tin, roll out about 400g of marzipan, cut into a cake sized circle and place on the cake mix, then cover with the rest of the cake. Bake for an hour at 170 C, then turn it down to 150C and cook for another hour and a half. It’s cooked when it’s risen and firm. Let it cool completely on a rack before taking it from the tin.

When cool, paint the top with apricot jam, and roll out another 400g of marzipan and stick it on. With 200g of marzipan, make balls representing the eleven apostles – Judas surplus to requirements here – and stick them on using an egg white – beaten to just frothy. Some people quickly put it under the grill to make it look slightly toasted.

 

 

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