Category Archives: poetry

Life and loss, love and death

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Deepwater Bay

Another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to writing my normal blogs

Ensconced in Deepwater Bay, life now took on the tone and routines that shaped our lives until the final disintegration of our marriage. My husband would go off to University every day and return home in time for dinner. After dinner he would take off back to Victoria – to the officers mess, he would say, to see Henry or Richard or whoever… I assumed for some time that he was bonding with the other people on his course, in spite of having spent all day with them.

Later he would say there was a party or a get together. And later still, when the whole saga had ended, friends would tell me that I had no idea of how many girl- friends there had been – “You didn’t know the half of it”….

I tried everything, and one night I remember in despair taking the car before he did and driving round to beautiful South Bay, an empty semi- circle of still water, ringed with flame trees, and where I watched the flaming sunset. The beauty was so moving, I felt I must share it with him, and drove back home, and persuaded him to come back to South Bay with me. He did, and then took the car and drove off- somewhat delayed – to whatever rendezvous he had in town.

Two things helped me through this time. I had found a wonderful amah, Ah Ping, a shy eighteen- year- old girl with very little English, and a lovely nature. She adored the children, and we had a little competition at bath-time over which of us was going to enjoy bathing the youngest, still very much a baby. She learned to speak English with my accent and tone, so that people thought it was me when she answered the phone. She helped to maintain the happy atmosphere for the children and they  loved her.

The other thing that sustained me, was my first foray into writing. I studied the woman’s pages of the South China Morning Post, the main English speaking newspaper in Hong Kong, and realised that the one element missing was cookery.

Cheekily I offered my services to the woman’s editor, a childless and fashionable young woman, Jane, the same age as me. Feeling plain and boring by now, I somehow managed to keep my end up with her at my interview and got the go ahead to write a cookery column on Fridays. I had no qualifications for this of course, apart from an abiding love of food, but I managed to make it sound as though I knew what I was talking about.

After six weeks, I was offered another bite of the cherry, when Jane suggested I write a story to fill Thursday’s page – she wanted something about bringing up children, and now she had as it were, a captive mother, I filled the bill. This was meat and drink to me and writing about children and parenting became one of my areas of expertise and was something I only stopped doing fifty years later at seventy- seven.

My husband’s social life was costing us, and debts had begun to pile up, so the money I now earned was important to me, as I knew I could always feed the children with it. I could also afford to visit the famous alleys, and find cheap lengths of gorgeous fabric, which I sewed by hand, making glamorous new summer dresses. I had new friends, and was making a life, but I still felt miserable and longed to be loved. I tried to fill the emptiness by playing Bob Dylan and the Beatles and they left me feeling even more alone and bereft. I also started having blinding migraines which took five days out of life every time they struck.

One evening my husband came home and said we’d been invited to a party at the naval base on the commander’s ship. I put on a red dress from my pre-marriage party days and set off, feeling like I always did these days, in-adequate and plain.

At the gangplank we were warmly greeted by a man with piercing blue eyes and golden hair. His wife was a ravishing blonde ex-ballet dancer with huge brown eyes, beautiful features, and a pile of hair pinned up,   so long that when it fell to her ankles when we were dancing, she looked like Rapunzel. Her chic little black dress showed off her ballet dancer’s figure to perfection. I was in awe of both these glamorous people.

Later we went back to their house where we all sat down at the dining table for an impromptu dinner. Our host sat me at his right hand and talked to me as though I was actually interesting. I felt such gratitude for his kindness. We continued to meet at parties as our friends were old childhood friends of them both. At each occasion he sought me out, raising his glass to me across many crowded rooms before making his way through the throng to us.

And then one night as he handed me out of his car after a party, he squeezed my hand. The next party we went to was at a French officer’s house. He and his wife were a gentle couple, and we played silly childish games, since we were a mixture of French and English couples with few of us speaking each other’s language, so conversation was difficult.

During one game if a player won some sort of forfeit, they placed a cushion in front of the person of their choice and knelt and gave them a kiss. My naval friend placed his cushion in front of me when it was his turn, and I said to myself if he does it again, I will know that he meant it. And he did. The next two months were a dizzy time of love and longing set against the back drop of riots and curfews and water rationing and our move into army quarters in Repulse Bay, where we became neighbours. Neither of us ever said a word but were drawn to each other at every meeting.

At the same time, I was fascinated by his ravishing wife, and couldn’t believe that he could care for me, when he had such a spell-binding partner, who I knew he’d loved since they were children. I could see that she was scatter-brained and sometimes strangely childish, but still found her beauty entrancing.

The night before they left to return to England we all met for one last time. As we danced he told me he loved me. I said I thought it might have been a sailor’s girl in every port, and he reproached me. He told me that his fey, feckless wife was a millstone round his neck, and that we both had “to make a go of it”.

They flew out the next day, and I went into a sort of collapse. I literally couldn’t get out of bed for a few weeks, and somehow struggled on into the grey winter like a zombie. The migraines ambushed me more and more often. I felt too fragile and depressed to write to my father.

My husband now asked me not to leave him alone with the husband of a woman I’d thought was my best friend because he feared being beaten up. The husband had discovered that my husband and his wife had been having an affair. I felt shocked and betrayed by my friend, but then, I found my husband was having another affair with another colleague’s wife, and I stopped caring.

After Christmas Jane, the woman’s editor offered me a fulltime job, and I began in January. A few weeks later, I woke up one morning, looked out at the sea, watched the fishing boats streaming back after their night’s fishing, and felt different. It was as though a huge grey cloud had lifted from me, and my first thought was – now I can write to my father. Because I was still trying to juggle my job and the children, and learning the ropes at work, I put it off until I had a moment to sit down and enjoy communicating again.

A few nights later I dreamt that one of my father’s good friends who was in Hong Kong, was sitting on my bed with its beautiful blue and green patterned Venetian bedspread, with his arms around me, comforting me. When I awoke in the morning I inwardly castigated myself that I was so desperate that I was dreaming about my father’s friends!

That night, as I slept, I heard the phone go, and my husband answer it. I heard him say: “Thank you, I’ll tell her.” When he walked into the bedroom I sat up in bed, and cried out, “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

“Your father’s dead.” he said. The War Office had rung.

I immediately rang my father’s friend Ian, and unwittingly destroyed a dinner party. Ian came straight round, and as he sat on the bed and put his arms around me, my dream came back to me.

It felt as though the bedrock of my life had been ripped from beneath me. It seemed like the worst thing that had ever happened to me, even though I knew it happened to everyone.  But he was only fifty- four. My siblings who were scattered around the globe on various rocks – Gibraltar, St Helena, Aden gathered, but I was too far away. No-one contacted me. I never heard from my stepmother again for nearly forty years when she was in her late eighties. My father-in-law wrote and told me about my father’s funeral, and now I was alone.

I had leant Pat Hangen my copy of Towers of Trebizond in which was a poem I felt I needed. As soon as day broke after the phone call, I rang and asked her to return it. The poem was like a lifeline back to sanity. Every time I was overwhelmed with grief, I read it again and it brought me back to a place where I could still stand being alive. It was John Davies of Hereford’s dirge for his friend Thomas Morley:

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend.

My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.

In grave he rests until the world shall end.

The world shall end as end all things must have.

All things must have an end that nature wrought.

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend.

The rhythm of these lines helped somehow, while the words of the gurus did not. “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of life.” Joseph Campbell once said, and: ‘we can choose to live in joy’. But had he ever  experienced the sorrows of life, in his long, happy,  childless relationship (with none of the agonies and ecstasies of parenthood) and his sheltered affluent university life-style? Words like his seemed to mock.

In my world, enduring the sorrows of life, it took weeks to move beyond the pain of grief and despair, and my husband lost patience with me. Then both children developed bad cases of measles. It took the spots ten days to come out for my son, and with his high temperature I feared he’d develop encephalitis. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. My daughter developed bronchitis and was very sick at the end of her bout of measles.

One night, as I lay by her side in bed anxiously watching her, my husband came to the bed room door. I’d been so pre-occupied with the children’s sickness, that I hadn’t really noticed that his party round had been even more frenetic that usual. He stood in the doorway, looking dreamy and dazed, and said to me, “I’ve just met the woman I’m going to marry.”

I replied coldly, “Well, you’re still married to me.” But inside, I felt a surge of relief. We must be on the home straight! We were. I even stopped having my debilitating migraines. I began saving my earnings for when I would need then.

Now too, my job became really interesting. I began interviewing all the interesting people who came to Hong King. They included charming, handsome Dr Seuss, a man of goodness and integrity. Writer Iris Murdoch was a challenge, and I wish I could do it again now that I know more about life. But then I was so naive that I wondered how such a plain woman could have found a husband! John Bailey, the husband who later betrayed her when she had Altzheimers, was vague and donnish when I met him. Robert Helpman, the great ballet dancer was a joy, gentle, charming, and kind.

Barbara Cartland, so exuberant and full of life at seventy- four (honey and vitamins she told me) took me to her bosom- literally – when I mentioned one of my closest friends who was her son’s best friend. When Raine, Lady Dartmouth, her daughter, came to Hong Kong a few months later, she was just as friendly and charming, seeking me out with all eyes on her as she walked across the dining room to greet me while I was lunching in the Eagles Nest of the Hilton. She was radiantly beautiful, tall and elegant, with big china blue eyes and peaches and cream complexion like the Queen’s. It was hard to see her as the wicked stepmother of Princess Diana in the years that followed.

I don’t think I was very good at writing interviews, but I did uncover a talent for writing columns which blossomed when I moved to another country. I also discovered that journalism could be a powerful force for good when a woman rang me one day and asked to see me at my home. She gave me what she said was a false name.

I opened the front door to a tall, fair-haired sweet-faced woman with great poise and dignity. She wanted to talk to me about setting up Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon, the family support group in Hong Kong. I ended up attending meetings of both, and then writing several stories. Both groups took off, and today, the woman, who became one of my closest friends, tells me there are at least seventeen groups now flourishing in the territory, three of them for Europeans.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I’m still on my what to do with lettuce and greens jag and have adapted this recipe for lettuce soup from my old copy of the one and only Mrs Beaton. I use four spring onions if I have them and soften them with a couple of thinly sliced onions, a chopped garlic clove and a finely chopped carrot. When this is soft I pour in three cups of heated chicken stock. The lettuce then goes in, torn into small pieces, and a cup and a half of frozen peas, salt and pepper. Cook for eight to ten minutes and remove from heat while the soup is still bright green. Whizz in the blender until smooth. One of my oldest friends combs the hedgerows in the Forest of Dean for edible wild plants, and she would add leaves like nettles to this soup. I am not so brave…

Food for thought

You start dying slowly
If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love,
If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,
If you do not go after a dream,
If you do not allow yourself,
At least once in your lifetime,
To run away from sensible advice… by poet Pablo Neruda

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Flowers, beauty, architecture and antiquity

Image result for image of The Old Parsonage Hurworth Co durham
The Old Parsonage
A life –  Part  six

After a few weeks in London we packed up again and travelled north. I remember the cooing of wood pigeons and the enchantment of high summer in unspoiled country on the borders of Durham and Yorkshire, where my parents had found a house belonging to a friend of the family. It was in a village by the River Tees, described in the guide books as a ‘late medieval house, with studded front door with affixed carved oak female head, under ogee-shaped lintel (door said to have come from a demolished Saxon chapel).

‘The date on the lintel above the door is c1450, the reign of Henry VI. The house had been through many hands since then, had been extended in the 17th century, altered in the 18th and equipped with modern comforts in the 20th. Fashionable pantiles from the Low Countries were used to re-roof the house in the 17th century. Today it’s been altered again, and one wing converted into another dwelling.’

It was set in a high walled garden at the end of the village, and we spent most of our time in the sitting room, a wood panelled room with huge Tudor fireplace and inglenook. If I stood on the head of the tiger on the striped tiger-skin rug, I could just reach the chamfered 17th century beams as a nine- year- old. The casement windows looked onto the garden, and beyond the garden walls, hills and woods stretched to the sky-line.

We children were rarely allowed into the drawing room, and then, only if we knocked on the door beforehand. Mostly we stood at the door with whatever it was we wanted to say, but were allowed to sit there when guests came or when we had our lessons. I hankered to spend time in that room, a Georgian addition with French windows into the garden. It was simply furnished with soft flowered chintz, but it had a different atmosphere to the rest of the house – a refined, gentle energy compared with the robust Tudor architecture elsewhere.

I loved the slightly faded thirties linen prints on the loose covers on the sofas and chairs, and the black and white tiled hall with its antique chests and barometer. I developed a love of interior decoration and from then on felt uncomfortable in rooms that were ugly or tasteless, and was hungry for beauty when it was absent.

My new stepmother, who was lonely, and needed someone to talk to, unconsciously educated me too, looking through the pages of Vogue with me, and discussing the famous and controversial New Look by Dior. She wore clothes that I could appreciate, well-cut grey flannel trousers with a red jacket, elegant suits, nifty little hats with a bit of veil, perched at an angle, incredibly high navy suede court shoes, and severe beautifully cut evening dresses.

Everything was new and interesting, the stones in her jewellery, discussing menus, the intriguing friends who dropped in on their return from overseas, learning to distinguish crystal from glass, china from pottery. We didn’t always see eye-to eye. I was deeply upset when the revolving Victorian summer house with stained glass windows, a pointed pitched roof, and a circular table like a wheel which turned the house in the direction of the sun, was demolished, and the circle of soil now exposed, planted with grass. It seemed barbaric to smash this thing of beauty. My stepmother condemned it as Victorian. Anything Victorian was despised by both my parents.

This rambling house was a splendid place to curl up in and bury myself in a book. They were in short supply here. The owner had put hers away, and ours were all packed up. My stepmother gave me her textbooks on ancient history, so I learned about Pericles and Alexander, Carthage and Hannibal, there was Tanglewood Tales’, a book on Greek legends by Nathanial Hawthorne, and ‘ Black Beauty’, that animal classic which has influenced me more than any other for the rest of my life, I suspect.

Whatever the curse of the motor car, I am glad horses are no longer ill-used, neglected and exploited every day on the streets and in the country-side. “Little Women’, also among my stepmother’s books, had the same potent moral influence on me, as on so many other girls before and after. Interesting that the Quaker background of Anna Sewell, and the Transcendentalism of Louisa M. Alcott should have influenced so many generations of children.

I grazed through Palgrave’s ‘Golden Treasury’, which our stepmother used for our lessons. She was not strong on child psychology, but we learned a lot of poetry from the Golden Treasury, including: “Breathes there the man with soul so dead,” from Walter Scott, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ” What was he doing, the great God Pan, down in the reeds by the river?” I can still declaim them both in the overblown elocution class style required of us. Longfellow’s Hiawatha was another favourite of my stepmother, and we learned to recite long passages of this too.

My sister got very ratty if she didn’t do the same things as me, so she tried to learn them as well. But she never mastered the esoteric spelling my stepmother required of a nine- year- old and an eight- year -old. The words included phlegm and haemorrhage, diaphragm, delphinium and rhododendron. By now, my father had long since departed for his next army posting and we were alone with our new stepmother, who was struggling with early pregnancy as well as the malaria she’d picked up in Egypt, though we were unaware of either. Sixty years later, she confided over an affectionate dinner together that:” You never played me up – you could have, but you never did.”

We didn’t go to the village school, and never knew anyone from the village except the gardener, Mr Appleby. He took a fancy to me and taught me the names of his flowers in the garden. He certainly behaved as though they were his. His deep red, rich pink, and white peonies were his greatest joy, and had a beauty all their own, as I picked them for my stepmother’s crystal vases. They were as lovely as roses, dripping with dew on their bright green leaves, and droplets nestled in the big flower heads layered with petals like an old-fashioned rose.

Since we had our lessons in the afternoon, it was my job in the morning to re-fill and refresh all the flower vases in every room in the house. This was perfect. It got me away from the parents who I was very nervous with – never sure of what was required of me and possible disgrace – and I could spend as much time in the garden as I wanted. Mr Appleby let me pick the best pink and red peonies, there were fat, pink, peppermint-scented pinks, sweet- scented roses, multi-coloured wallflowers and  purple penstemons, fragrant white stocks, spiky blue delphiniums and stocky lupins. Snow- in- summer and blue campanula sprawled in crevices on the terrace by the house.

He started bringing me treats from his own garden, huge, juicy, golden Williams pears, the fattest, hairiest, rosiest gooseberries I’d ever seen, juicy purple plums with golden flesh. My sister was furious that he never brought her any treats. Then he offered to take me for walks around the surrounding country-side.

The first walks were magic. Mr Appleby was probably in his sixties, a wiry little man with red apple cheeks and black stubble, who wore a grubby shirt with no collar and shabby black jackets and worn trousers that would be described as ‘rusty’. He had lived here all his life and knew every path and stream and hill and dale for miles around. He showed me mice nests slung between corn stalks, rubbed the ears off barley for me to taste, showed me the flowers that grew in bean fields and corn fields, where bird’s nests were, and where fish jumped in the pools which gathered between great slabs of flat rock in the river.

He explained who owned this field and that great house, he took me by shallow streams he called becks, and up steep cliffs he called scars. The walks extended from five miles at the beginning, to over eight miles one afternoon, up hills and along narrow paths, when I was so tired I thought I’d never take another step. I was always exhausted at the end of these marathons.

And then one day he said something I didn’t believe I’d heard. So he said it louder. ” Give us a kiss, then.” How could I be ungrateful after all the things he’d done to give me pleasure. I dabbed a quick peck on his horrid unshaven cheek. He did the same on the next walk. I avoided him in the garden as much as I could. I felt so sick the following week when he came for the Tuesday afternoon expedition that I hid in the top of the pear tree.

My stepmother called and called, until my sister revealed my hiding place, and I was sent on my way with admonitions not to be so rude. I dragged behind him for most of the way for the rest of those walks, but there was always a point when at some place he asked for the unwilling kiss. Once, I tried to tell my stepmother about it, but she stared at me disbelievingly, which effectively closed the conversation, and now I look back sadly, and see an achingly lonely and love-starved old man.

I loved that country-side.  I remember walking by myself to the next village on an errand for my stepmother, dawdling past the long, grey stone wall of an estate, with dark, shiny rhododendron bushes reaching over the top, and hearing the cooing of wood pigeons. There was a clear blue sky, the empty, cobbled village street, no sounds of traffic, nothing but bird song, sunshine, the church clock chiming, shady trees and the perfect happiness of being on my own with nothing to do but walk in this perfect place.

A Shell guidebook in the 70’s described our village as consisting of one street 3/4 mile long. ” One side of the road is a wide green behind which extremely attractive 18th and early 19th century houses face equally good houses behind a narrow green on the other side of the road. The village is sited on a ridge immediately above the bank of the Tees, and the river and rich farmland beyond can be glimpsed between the trees and houses. It is remarkably unspoilt… New houses are discreetly sited, so that they do not detract from the atmosphere of a more gracious age than our own. It is a village of many greens, sundials, river views, trees, and attractive door-casings, and its centre has changed very little since Jane Austen’s day.”

In 1947, it had changed even less, and there were no new houses, rather, it resembled the very village scenes observed by Emma… “her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from the shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread…”

The only difference between 1815, when Jane Austen wrote these words at the end of one European war, and 1947 at the end of another European war, was the lack of horses and ginger bread. Food rationing was still as stringent as ever, with Europe on the verge of starvation, while lack of petrol meant no cars spoiled the peace of this north country village.

And all this was about to change as we sailed from Harwich to the Hook of Holland on our journey to join my father at Belsen, the notorious concentration camp in the heart of hungry, war-ravaged Germany.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 My tomato plants are flourishing, so I have a glorious glut of tomatoes. This was my solution the other day. Fry the chopped tomatoes gently in olive oil… the skins come off easily as they cook. When soft, pour in lots of cream, and as it boils to thicken, stir in a small lump of Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and let them all meld together.

Two- minute noodles were a quick answer to some padding for the tomatoes which were poured over them. With fresh parmesan grated over the tomatoes it was a fragrant, delicious light lunch. A small glass of red or white wine is a great enhancement!

Food for Thought

 The people who are compelled to write down what they feel are the ones who feel it hardest… Briana Wiest

I discovered this quote and much more on a beautiful wordpress blog at: Deborah J. Brasket Living on the Edge of the Wild

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The meaning of the world?

Image result for van gogh

I’ve been having some time out with leisure to read and re-read some of my old favourites. A sentence from one of my favourite thinkers, Ken Wilbur, jumped out at me on a day when I was trying to avoid knowing what news of disaster, human misery and insensitive ineptitude were filling the airwaves and media.  Ken Wilbur wrote that: “Every single thing you perceive is the radiance of Spirit itself, so much so that Spirit is not seen apart from that thing: the robin sings, and just that is it, nothing else…”

And yet when I wrestle with the harsh prospect around the world, terrorism in the name of ‘God/Allah’, threats of war, lack of love, and try to accept that this is Spirit, that everything is perfect, I also see that man has created so many seeming imperfections that these beautiful words are hard to swallow. Violence has spread from strife between people and nations to the destruction of our planet and robins singing are harder and harder to find.

This violence and lack of reverence for all forms of life has meant tampering with our world’s ecology; from re-shaping the climate by destroying forests and draining lakes and rivers; spraying with chemicals which interfere with wild-life as well as food, to over-stocking, whether it’s Mongolian tribesmen whose herds die from starvation in a terrible winter there, or New Zealand farmers cramming fields and hills with livestock- all these actions and many others in order to make as much profit from the land as possible.

All this is not the radiance of Spirit, is it? And yet all is perfect the mystics tell us… that paradox that sometimes seems resolvable, and sometimes isn’t. In fact, to resolve it, one has to rise above it, and accept that there is a bigger picture. If one could understand the Mind of God, all the human circuits of the mind would probably blow.

As I mulled over these negative ideas an unlikely gentleman cheered me up and led me into another train of thought on how to live in, and on our tiny world… I’ve been reading an interpretation of Crito’s and Phaedo’s Dialogues about the death of Socrates.

After Socrates’ trial when he was found guilty and sentenced to death for corrupting the young, and the impiety of inventing new gods  – neither of which charges he was guilty of –  Crito, a friend, urges Socrates to escape and go into exile. But Socrates refuses, and discusses his philosophy.

He says that the important thing is not just to live, but to live well, which means doing no wrong. He explains that by evading the sentence of the court, he would be breaking the laws of Athens, which he has agreed to live his life by. To run away would break the contract that he has with the state, and would be dishonourable.

Phaedo then describes Socrates’ last hours in prison before taking hemlock. (It’s always seemed to me the most humane form of death sentence I’ve heard of. Just a herbal drink, and slow coldness and paralysis until it reaches the head, and death. I hope they invent a hemlock pill quite soon for those us who have no ambition to dwindle into helpless old age)

Socrates, while he waited for the hemlock to be delivered, had a bath, said goodbye to his wife and children, and then discussed with his friends, his acceptance of death. He felt that our souls are immortal, and that a good man had no need to fear death.

The prison guard came in apologising for what he had to do, but Socrates told him not to delay. As the poison worked, Socrates’ last words were to Crito, telling him to sacrifice a cock to Aesculapius. Aesculapius was the god of healing, and sacrifices of gratitude were made to him by those who had been healed.

What a way to go, with gratitude! After a life of integrity, a death with serenity. What a man! I’ve read this account many times, but it has never struck into my heart before. Socrates joins the short list of heroes I love, which includes the Venerable Bede, William Penn, William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, and Nelson Mandela. Gandhi, I admire, but do not find lovable.

I look at this list, and wonder if there’s a common denominator… Bede I love for his trust in God, goodness and erudition, Penn for his trust in God, idealism, determination and courage, Wilberforce for his trust in God, goodness, courage, and compassion for animals and all people, as well as slaves. Lincoln, I loved for his goodness and courage, and compassion, and Sam Grant for his integrity and simplicity, love of animals and commitment to civil rights for black Americans and American Indians. Mandela also, for his courage, and for living his beliefs. They all had integrity. What is interesting is how many of them were involved in the struggle to make a better world for black people, from Wilberforce through to Mandela.

When I look for women who inspire me, the list of specific women is shorter, for historical reasons, since we know less about women, and their achievements. Also, because women’s heroism is often the hidden sort, caring for the young, the handicapped, the old, the sick, quietly at home for no reward or recognition … nurturing the talents and gifts of husbands, and sons, who so often had better opportunities for public deeds, heroism or philanthropy.

My short list of heroines includes Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker who revolutionised the treatment of people, especially women, in prison, worked to abolish the death penalty, and among numerous other philanthropic deeds, opened a school for training nurses. She is said to have inspired Florence Nightingale, who I admire for her fierce intelligence, compassion, and persistence, but don’t find lovable. Then there’s Edith Cavell, the English nurse shot by the Germans for helping British soldiers to escape from Belgium into neutral Holland in the First World War.

Knowing how dangerous this was, she persisted, saying: “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.” Before she was executed, having also helped wounded German soldiers, she spoke the famous words: “Patriotism is not enough”, words of insight and spiritual understanding which were probably not appreciated or understood in those days of jingoism and chauvinism, and maybe, not even today. Another woman I love and admire is Helen Suzman for her courage, persistence and compassion in a life-time of resisting Apartheid, and then there is the utterly lovable Kwan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Compassion. So the thread which binds these women is courage and compassion, not so different from the men I admire.

The courage and compassion of my heroes and heroines are the inspiration for me to try to live Christopher Fry’s words: ‘We must each find our separate meaning in the persuasion of our days until we meet in the meaning of the world’. To understand those words and the meaning of the world is also the path to understanding that radiance of Spirit which Ken Wilbur describes. Like all great truths, it’s very simple and yet very puzzling, until it’s felt and seen. So I’m still working on it…

PS So many pictures by Van Gogh are shining with radiance of Spirit, and it’s so hard to choose just one….

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

One of our winter favourites is macaroni cheese – a nice cheesy thick sauce stirred into macaroni, and the top grilled to a golden brown. I try to make it more interesting as the weeks go by… adding chopped hard boiled eggs, or stirring through onion and tomato fried until soft. Or I sprinkle the top with grated parmesan which makes a lovely crisp topping. And then there’s the trick with leftover bolognaise sauce. The macaroni and the cheese sauce transform it into a sort of poor man’s lasagne – just three layers, meat, macaroni and the cheese sauce poured over and stirred through the pasta. Quick and easy and comforting! I’ve also tried this with a tin of salmon as the bottom layer, and the macaroni cheese on top…

 

Food for thought

Thank God our time is now when wrong

Comes up to face us everywhere.

Never to leave us till we take

The longest stride of soul men ever took.

Affairs are now soul size…

It takes so many thousand years to wake,

But will you wake for pity’s sake?    Christopher Fry

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Little happinesses and big happiness

 

Image result for rowland hilder paintings

 

I love Autumn… I loved it in England, those early morning mists burnt off by the morning sun… the scents of bonfires and blackberries, picking hazel-nuts from the hedgerows, finding silky, shining conkers and kicking up the rustling leaves, crackling them under my shoes… freshly ploughed fields, and that sense of gentle melancholy, a poetic nostalgia for the last pale days of sunshine before winter crept in…

Later in Hongkong, the end of summer came quite suddenly overnight, when the light changed, and for a month or six weeks a light pervaded the harsh hectic city, and turned the island into a place of surpassing beauty.  I waited for those weeks every year. The gleaming days and shining waters of the harbour seemed rapturous for no particular reason, and those who noticed this magical transformation said the light was like the light of the Greek isles.

And now in the antipodes, autumn is the best season of the year – soft, golden days and crisp, starry nights.
We live in a covenanted podocarp forest of evergreen trees which stretches across high peaks and shadowed gorges. Some days we wake to find the sun shining on our mountain, and then see the gold light move down the slopes until the whole forest shines. Other mornings mist shrouds the peaks, and hovers in the valleys… last night the high wind blasted the last leaves of autumn from the trees along the roads, leaving just the fretted gold leaves of the gingko trees.

So today it feels as though autumn has passed, and winter is setting in. With deep pleasure, I get out the warm winter clothes, and start to think about winter food, hot and comforting, snug evenings with the curtains pulled, and warm sheets on the bed. These are ‘small happinesses’, a phrase my daughter introduced me to a few months ago.

This morning when I put the kettle on for my early morning cup of tea, the sun was on the mountain, a small happiness. Taking the tray back to bed, I checked my e-mails, gloating over the beauty of the latest photos sent from France by my daughter… yesterday Chartres, today Monet’s garden at Givernay, tomorrow Mont St Michel… Then I found a poem by Mark Nepo, sent by a dear friend, with phrases that gave me more small happinesses…

Each person is born with an unencumbered spot…

… an umbilical spot of grace… the last lines were: the incorruptible spot of grace resting at our core.

Holding these words in my mind, my love and I went shopping to a small town an hour and a quarter away. Every mile we travelled past weathered crags, misty mountains and green fields was beautiful. Finally, we reached the narrow coast road, where pohutakawa trees arched overhead, their roots clinging to the side of the cliff.

The wide silver stretch of still water, shimmering with light, lay alongside, and I watched birds dive for food in a small feeding frenzy, marvelled at the shag colony, where up in the pohutakawa trees, the big white breasted birds sat erect on their great nests concocted from twigs, while a gull flew overhead at 35 miles an hour. We passed the curving sandy bay black with hosts of black oyster catchers standing patiently on the shores of the estuary, white breasts and sharp, orange beaks facing the high tide, waiting for the water to recede and their food to return.

We did our shopping – small, kind, cheery encounters that are the building blocks of the goodness of life. A visit to the re-cycle centre yielded a satisfying bargain and a small happiness … two pretty pressed glass Victorian dishes for a dollar each, and then the building re-cycling yard had more treasures, including the perfect windows for our building project.

Feeling contented we relaxed in our favourite café, with hot chocolate and a blueberry muffin. We sat in the courtyard under the pollarded plane trees and watched a small flock of sparrows fall on each table as it emptied, diving into cake crumbs and pulling at a rasher of left-over bacon. A speckle- breasted thrush sat in an olive tree growing in a large pot, and pecked at the clusters of pale green olives. The sage green leaves were silhouetted against a rosy brick wall and the sinuous curves of branches and leaves looked like William Morris’s famous willow pattern.

I must keep a diary again, I exclaimed, I want to remember these moments of beauty. But writing this blog is the closest I get to it at the moment. This day was like all our days living in this remote place where we are the guardians of the forest, where species of plants and creatures that are almost extinct elsewhere, still live their tranquil lives hidden deep beneath the green canopy. I once said to my love that I knew people who were living quiet, mystical lives of love and beauty, and we agreed that we would make it happen for us.

Occasionally a note of discord strikes when a person who has other agendas intrudes into our peace, but since I take Don Miguel Ruiz’s Third Agreement seriously, and try never to take anything personally, our peace of mind is rarely perturbed. I also remember a meme which says: ‘negativity can only affect you if you’re on the same frequency – vibrate higher.’ So we try.

We forget to play music because the silence is so full of sound, the wind in the trees, the birdsong, the stream rushing down below. Living in this place, it’s easy to believe in that “incorruptible spot of grace” resting at our core. It’s easy to believe too, that the mystery of love and truth and beauty do still exist, in spite of what often seems like suffering and chaos in the outer world, but which, hidden from our limited understanding, may have a larger purpose. We only have to believe in love and truth and beauty, to see them – in people, in nature, in the universe, and in the deep silent mystery of the life unfolding around us.

So the roots of the trees in this forest grow deep in the earth, sustained by creatures of the dark, the snails, slugs, earthworms, flatworms and nematodes that degrade organic matter. The rain and the sun sustain them. Tiny frogs and rare lizards hide deep in their secret habitats, bees push into the flowers of the manukau trees, butterflies hover above the flowers, birds sing, the kingfisher plunges down into the grass for a morsel, morepork owls hoot across our valley in the moonlight, and nature continues to sustain them all, and the planet, and us too… what a big happiness!!!

PS   The picture is by Rowland Hilder who specialised in  painting nostalgic autumn and winter scenes.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

I needed a pudding for a gluten- intolerant friend, so fell back on our tried and true chocolate mousse… just eggs, butter and good dark chocolate… though I can never resist tweaking the simple recipe.

So after separating the eggs, melt a knob of butter in a saucepan, and I add a table spoon of brandy or strong black coffee or even sherry, and break the chocolate in. For every egg, use six squares of plain chocolate, and a little bit more butter.

Stirring the mix until the chocolate melts, take it off the heat before it goes grainy. Whip the whites of eggs until peaks form, and at this stage I often add one or two tablespoons of icing sugar and whip again until stiff. Stir the yolks into the chocolate mixture, and then gently fold this into the egg whites. Pour the mix into small individual bowls, chill in the fridge for at least six hours, and serve with cream.

I gave this to my children often when we were vegetarian, as it was an easy way to make sure they had enough protein.

 

Food for thought

“The best and most beautiful things in this world cannot be seen or even heard, but must be felt with the heart.”

Helen Keller, who overcame the handicaps of being deaf, blind and dumb to gain a degree and live a life of service to others.

 

 

 

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Words, words words…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend,

My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.

In grave he rests until the world shall end.

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

All things must have an end that Nature wrought…

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

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

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

Food for thought

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

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A hiatus

100_0584Dear friends and fellow bloggers, the writing gods have withdrawn their inspiration from me, and have made it clear that this is a moment for Hestia, the goddess of peace and replenishment, solitude and silence to make her entrance.

So for now, it is a hiatus – an interruption. I shall follow you all from afar, knowing that you too will come and go in the rhythms of life; and lacking all inspiration myself at the moment, I will share and sign off with words from an inspirational poet, Rabindranath Tagore. It is our golden autumn here in the southern hemisphere, and this is how it was in Bengal a hundred years ago when Tagore was writing:

Autumn
Today the peace of autumn pervades the world.
In the radiant noon, silent and motionless, the wide stillness rests like a tired bird spreading over the deserted fields to all horizons its wings of golden green.
Today the thin thread of the river flows without song, leaving no mark on its sandy banks.
The many distant villages bask in the sun with eyes closed in idle and languid slumber.
In the stillness I hear every blade of grass, in every speck of dust, in every part of my own body, in the visible and invisible worlds, in the planets, the sun, and the stars, the joyous dance of the atoms through endless time – the myriad murmuring waves of Rhythm surrounding Thy throne.

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Heaven’s scent

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The first time I smelt it was at sea. One of my dearest friends had drowned there a few days before with her baby and two small children. Her husband’s ship, trading between New Zealand and the Islands, had caught fire in a heavy storm just off the coast not far from here, and they had had to take to the life-boats. Their mayday signal was never picked up, and the life-rafts, which are reputed to be safer near the coast, had broken away. So my friend and her children didn’t survive the mountainous waves.

Her heroic and tragic story before this happened, is too long to tell here, but her partner, a French sea captain, did survive. He came to stay with us for the next few days until the body of one child was washed ashore.

We all trekked up to Northland, and after the heart-wrenching funeral, Jean asked us to take all the flowers to a nearby bay. There, a police launch was waiting, and with a few close friends we loaded the flowers into the cabin – then thankfully shut the door on the overpowering scent of freesias, jasmine and other spring flowers, and took off for the bay where my beautiful friend had died.

When we reached the spot where she had slipped from his grasp, Jean stopped the launch, and then, in an old Breton custom, went to toss the flowers into the sea. As the launch stopped, the sun was shining, the blue sea was calm, and the line of golden sand on the shore, still guarded by a watching policeman, lay ahead. Only another mile from here, but a mile too far for my friend.  We sat silently and breathed in the heavenly fragrance wafting around us. Exquisite. Then the door to the cabin was opened and the scent of the flowers inside was entirely different.

When we talked about this to a friend, he told us about the writer Rosamund Lehman, whose daughter had died suddenly – of polio, I think – in Indonesia. A heavenly fragrance permeated the hall outside Rosamund’s flat. People didn’t believe it until they went to visit her, and then were overwhelmed by the perfume.

A few years later, we began to experience the same wafts of flowery perfume in our sitting room. I searched for the source, but it came from none of the flowers in the room. The scent cut through the smell of the coal fire, and every other momentary odour. In the end, we gave up, and just accepted, as a friend said, that we had angels there. After a week of this, one of our cavalier King Charles spaniels was diagnosed with an untreatable disease. We gave ourselves five agonising last days with him, and then took him to the vet for the last time.

When I got back home my nine year old daughter was waiting on the veranda, home with flu. She couldn’t wait to tell me. “The flowers came from that patch on the floor where Sheba used to lie to get cool,” she cried. (Sheba was an afghan who’d died the previous year) “She was warning us about Benedick.”

When we went inside, the fragrance had gone, but later, as I sat by the fire crocheting and wiping stray tears, I suddenly smelt a strong scent of lavender. Knowing well that I hadn’t got any, I still searched my knitting basket for a bottle of lavender. I called through to my daughter in bed – ‘have you spilt some lavender water?’

Then we realised that my son had picked a bunch of lavender and camellias to go with Benedick on his last journey… the scent was a last message from his little dog.

Since then we’ve heard of other instances of these heavenly perfumes. In her beautiful account of a year living in the Blue Mountains, Australian poet Kate Llewellyn, describes sitting next to two nuns on a train, and their gentle simple conversation with her. After they had left, she felt that she could smell violets… “the odour of sanctity,” she called it.

The Catholic Church calls it the ‘odor of sanctity’, but always associates it with the bodies of saints who have died. But these heavenly scents are like a gift sent from who knows where, and have nothing to do with sanctity. Rather, they are like gifts from a benevolent and loving source who for some reason allows these emanations of beauty to visit and to comfort. No-one has to be holy or to deserve them, they are simply a manifestation of another order of beauty and wholeness that we may be conscious of, but can never see or grasp.

They are the moments that we can hold onto in a world where man can create so much pain and misery. Beyond this world created by man is this other level of love. And how exquisite that it’s the fragrance of flowers that delivers this message of hope – that the world doesn’t have to be the way we make it – that there are other worlds of truth and beauty and peace that these fragrances remind us exist.

Rabindranath Tagore talked of the air filling with the perfume of promise… sometimes I wonder if that is what these flowery messages are – both a consolation and a promise.

Food for threadbare gourmets

With a family of gluten free addicts, I’m always looking for recipes without wheat. This is a lovely chocolatey treat. I melt 125 g of butter and 150 of dark cooking chocolate gently in a large saucepan. Stir in half a cup of sugar and a teasp of vanilla. Next, stir in three egg yolks and a cup of ground almonds. Beat the egg whites until peaks form and then beat in two tablsp of sugar.  Using a slotted spoon, gently fold the whites into the chocolate mixture. Line a 20 cm cake tin with a base of cooking paper, and bake at 180 degrees for 25 minutes. The cake will come out soft, and will sink and firm when cool. It’s very rich, so a sprinkling of icing sugar on top is all it needs.

Food for thought

In a rich moonlit garden, flowers open beneath the eyes of entire nations terrified to acknowledge the simplicity of the beauty of peace…

Aberjhani, American historian, novelist, poet and blogger

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