Tag Archives: Fernando Pessoa

So what is gumption?

100_0509“Use your elbow–grease,” my grandmother would chide me good humouredly… or ask: “where’s your gumption?” Where indeed? I searched my somewhat limited seven year old soul but could find no trace of these desirable qualities – whatever they were – for I had no idea. I was completely puzzled, and sad to disappoint her.

However the lack of these mystifying gifts ceased to matter when at a fortnight’s notice, I left my grandmother forever, to join my father just returned from Egypt with his new wife. After a month he disappeared to Germany, and my stepmother and I waited for his summons until a house had been found for us. During those months, instead of going to school, my stepmother gave me lessons in the afternoon. Looking back, though a fully trained physiotherapist, she may not have been quite so well qualified to teach small children, but those were more carefree times, when anything went, and often did.

In my case, we didn’t do much maths, thankfully, but I learnt lots of poetry, mainly, I think, the poets my stepmother had ‘done’ at school in the thirties. These included Sir Walter Scott, Elizabeth Browning, Wordsworth and chunks of Longfellow’s Hiawatha. She was hot on spelling – and as a nine year old, lists of words like phlegm, diaphragm, diphthong, delphinium, rhododendron, asthma, psychology, diarrhoea had to be memorised every day. If I’d ended up in the medical profession this vocabulary might have stood me in good stead, but since then I’ve often wished that I had instead mastered how to spell ‘receive’ and all the exceptions of’ ie’, as well as ‘commitment’, both my constant stumbling blocks.

When it came to composition – as it was called – I was a disappointment to her, the way I’d felt with my grandmother, when I lacked elbow grease and gumption. But what I was lacking now, was imagination. “Use your imagination,” she’d say, and once again, I had no idea what imagination was, though I thought it might have something to do with writing about fairies, which I felt was childish.

I felt mysteriously depressed, as at school I’d always been quite good at composition. But the problem of imagination didn’t seem so important once we got to war-torn Europe. We travelled through apocalyptic scenes – cities of mountains of bricks, with half buildings with crooked pictures still on the wall, a door open and chairs still at a table, and skeletons of ruined churches –  before finally reaching the infamous place called Belsen, where our new home was the Beast of Belsen’s old digs.

Those were bleak times in Europe and I often felt bleak too. Now my father, almost unknown after years away at war, expected me to have common sense. This seemed more important than gumption, elbow grease, or imagination all put together, and just as un-attainable. I think they thought I was sensible when my best friend was murdered. I had gone to fetch her for our early morning riding lesson, but she didn’t answer the door. When I got home after riding, Mary had been found shot in the kitchen, and her younger brother was shot at the door as he had tried to escape. Her father had then shot himself because his wife had left him.

I never spoke to my new parents about this, my chief worry being Mary’s brother’s  feelings as he dashed for the door, and also that Mary mightn’t have made it into heaven, which I knew my parents didn’t believe in. I cried every night in bed, and begged God to let her in. But though I was apparently phlegmatic, the magic of common sense still eluded me – as in: “do use your common sense, child,” or the unanswerable question: “haven’t you got any common sense?”  When I joined the army as a teenager at my father’s behest, I knew he hoped I might now discover some hidden well of this commodity which he seemed to think I really needed for a successful life.

But here was another pitfall. An officer was supposed to have initiative and to use it! This, as a very young officer, I quickly realised, was dangerous. Initiative was a two-edged sword, with unknown consequences, which not everyone appreciated. So it was with relief that I looked forward to marriage, when, I supposed with blind optimism, none of these things would be required of me.

But on the third day into married life, I discovered that things were not as I had thought they were, had to write a big cheque which cleaned me out, and then faced an unpredictable, precarious, and impoverished life on shifting sands. The upside was that I discovered I did have gumption after all! And I needed it.

Elbow grease, on the other hand, was something quite prosaic I came to realise, and was only needed for wax-polishing antique furniture, the idea being that the intense pressure of the elbow grease created friction, and the resultant heat melted the invisible wax crystals, causing them to meld together and create those shining surfaces. Frankly, it was easier just to put the dusters in the oven, and polish with hot dusters instead of elbow grease. The only other use for elbow grease seemed to be for scrubbing burnt saucepans, an activity I have always strenuously avoided.

Common sense? Well I’ve discovered that common sense is merely a matter of opinion, and that one man’s common sense is another man’s madness… so to take a somewhat extreme example, Hitler’s idea of common sense would not be mine – so I’ve flagged common sense. And initiative doesn’t bother me any more – I’m in sole command, and don’t have to answer to any superior officers!

Which leaves me with that lack of imagination. Well, it’s something I’ve got used to, and have had to realise that I never could produce an interesting imaginative novel! I recognise imagination in great works of art, both literary and artistic, in fine blogs, in glorious architecture and opera, in gardening and interior decoration, even in solving problems… but I’m still digging for it in myself…

Jane Austen has sometimes been un-imaginatively accused of lacking imagination, and I used to cling to her definition of her art in a letter to her brother Edward, in which she refers to her: ‘little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush’, but to be brutally realistic, this is not really much comfort, since she painted masterpieces on her little bit of ivory with her fine brush. For me, lacking the flights of fancy that come with a soaring imagination, all I can do is to notice and to describe, and I did find some consolation in these words by the enigmatic writer Fernando Pessoa.

He wrote: “What moves lives. What is said endures. There’s nothing in life that’s less real for having been described. Small-minded critics point out that such and such a poem, with its protracted cadences, in the end says merely that it’s a nice day. But to say it’s a nice day is difficult, and the nice day itself passes on. It’s up to us to conserve the nice day in a wordy, florid memory, sprinkling new flowers and new stars over the fields and skies of the empty, fleeting outer world.”

These words hearten me for I too, can at least conserve the day in wordy, florid memories, try to sprinkle new flowers over the fields and skies of the fleeting outer world, and thoroughly enjoy myself while I’m sprinkling! So here’s to florid memories and new flowers!

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

This is the strawberry season, so it’s crazy to serve anything else for pudding besides these luscious fruits. Friends for dinner meant a quick foray to the nearest strawberry fields. The ones I wanted, where the strawberries are grown by a Vietnamese genius, whose berries are the biggest, sweetest and cheapest, hadn’t opened, so I had to fall back on the other strawberry fields. I usually find theirs a bit tough and tart, but solved the problem by hulling them, and putting them in a dish out in the sun. As the day went by, the delectable scent of soft, sweet, ripe strawberries warm from the sun tempted my taste-buds every time I passed them.

With them I usually do Chantilly cream. One of my grandsons will eat this neat, and has learned how to make it for himself, a useful skill when he goes flatting at University! Take one cup of thick cream, two table spoons of icing sugar and a few drops of vanilla and whip them together. I usually make three times this amount, just tripling all the ingredients.

 

Food for thought

So long as a bee is outside the petals of the lotus and has not tasted its honey, it hovers around the flower buzzing. But when it is inside the flower it drinks the nectar silently. So long as a man quarrels about doctrines and dogmas, he has not tasted the nectar of the true faith; once he has tasted it he becomes still.

Sri Ramakrishna  1883- 1886 Famous Hindu teacher and mystic, who believed that all religions led to the same God, and who practised  both Christianity and Islam

 

 

 

 

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Filed under army, cookery/recipes, food, great days, humour, jane austen, life and death, life/style, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, world war two

Seize the day!

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Today was not one of those days, but One of Those Days.  Yesterday, as I watched the tiny, greenery- yallery birds we call silver- eyes in the trees, hunting for insects and the like, I thought how I hadn’t seen the cock pheasant for months. He must have found another home, I thought.

When I awoke this morning I jumped out of bed and looked out of the open window to the sea as usual. There, right below my window, was the pheasant, in the garden bed with the bromeliads. He slowly pecked and ambled his way down through the vegetable beds to the petanque court, and then sauntereded off down the path into the wild patch. A moment earlier or later, and I would have missed him. Do I believe in coincidences, or did the pheasant pick up my wave-length?

It was one of those glorious late summer days. The colours bright, the air sparkling.  In the morning I rendezvoused with two old friends at an art gallery in the next village, to see an exhibition in a barn in the orchard. The gnarled branches of the old fruit trees were blanketed in fluffy celadon-green lichen, and hung with knobbly green quinces and pink and yellow apples. The barn was full of pottery, paintings, sculpture and furniture.

Robin knew one of the painters, who told us a dealer had wanted to see her work, so the painter had suggested that the dealer come to the exhibition. The artist led the dealer into the barn, and before she could show off her vividly coloured abstract flower paintings, the poor painter told us with some chagrin, that the dealer had instead pounced on a set of black and brown geometrical abstracts, and said she’d buy the lot. These black and brown works of art were composed of cow dung, clay and other mixtures, and smelt richly of a farm yard!

After a cup of coffee by the river, and a whip round the gallery there, we drove on to Tawharanui National Park, and the “Exhibition in a Woolshed”. Never has the sea looked so blue, the islands so green and purple, and the sands so white. The rolling hills were burnt gold in the flaming sun, and the gum trees which lined the last stretches of the dusty, winding gravel road gave us grateful dappled shade.

At the National Park we enjoyed the pungent smell of a real woolshed, and savoured the integrity of the wooden slats and fences, smoothed and polished by the hands of generations of sheep shearers – hands – no doubt, impregnated with oil from the fleeces. Another collection of absorbing paintings, pottery and sculpture, and then a walk around the sculpture park edging the turquoise sea.

The day flowed from one treat to another. Late in the afternoon we arrived at another cafe for lunch, exhausted with art and walking in the midday sun. We sat outside in the shade of the trees, where we could see the waterfall. We go back through twenty nine years of gruelling growth courses, endless lunches, regular birthday parties, shared experiences and watching our children grow up, marry, have their children, break-up, divorce and struggle on, in sickness and in health…

Two of the paintings in the woolshed were accompanied by poems by Fernando Pessoa. They were numbered and called “The Keeper of the Sheep”…. my favourite lines from number 11 were:                                                                                                                                                      “The world wasn’t made for us to think about it…                                                                                                                                                                          But to look at it and to be in agreement”.

And then, number XXX1X:                                                                                                                                                                                                                        “… the only hidden meanings of things                                                                                                                                                                                                   Is that they have no hidden meaning.                                                                                                                                                                                                        … things are really what they seem to be                                                                                                                                                                                          And there’s nothing to understand.”

Words which were a wonderful antidote to artistic pretension and cow dung! As we left the woolshed, outside in the sheep pen there was a battered old farm noticeboard which read:

‘Cows: bulls, steers, heifers, calves.’

Sheep:  rams, wethers, ewes, hoggets lambs.’                                                                                                                                                                                 The names were as evocative as a poem, a hymn to a rural past that few people now remember or experience.

Sheep seem to be in my consciousness at the moment. Last night, I’d been reading an artist’s account of her decision to find a lamb to photograph while she was painting Jesus, so she’d get it right. She went to a local market, but saw only a sorry collection of scraggly mixed breeds – no lambs. She was about to turn away when a sparkling white ewe emerged from the flock and approached her. She was pregnant.

The artist decided to buy her, and the dealer told her the sheep’s breed was a ‘mouflon’. On the way home, she was suddenly struck by the fear that the sheep might be some sort of new hybrid which had not existed when Jesus had been on earth, since she had never seen a sheep like her, in spite of growing up on a ranch.

After establishing the sheep in her new home, the artist set off for the library, where she found that the mouflon was the oldest domesticated breed of sheep in Europe, and had  been herded in the Middle East two thousand years ago. Since they were living in the US, it was an amazing synchronicity to find the exact type of sheep she needed, especially since she hadn’t known that she did need it!

The perfection of the interlocking factors in this story reflect a little of how I feel today. It’s as though I know in my heart, and not just in my mind, that all is well, and that if we let go trying to make the right thing happen, the perfect thing happens. And it may not be what we planned or thought we wanted. This means a sense of peace, a calm, and a certainty. There is no need to keep striving, because when we surrender, life falls into place anyway.

And I’m learning to let go the distinction between the earthly and the spiritual. There is no distinction. Everything is sacred. So the laughter of today has the same value as this morning’s early meditation. As I hummed the pop song:  “Take my heart to higher ground’, a la Streisand, I felt it was as sacred as a Bach cantata. Feeling that every moment has a hidden significance, means the days are lived at a particular level of commitment

Making the most of each day, and knowing that the sum of these days add up to life well lived, is its own reward, and so in the words of that old Jewish saying, we can go on our way stringing pearls for heaven. And maybe try for heaven on earth… and carpe diem.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Browsing through Sally’s latest blog at mybeautifulthings@wordpress.com , I saw her picture of lunch at Falmouth – salmon fishcakes, spinach, poached egg and Hollandaise sauce. My taste buds sizzled, and I thought this is what we’re going to have for supper. I actually had some salmon, plenty of Agria potatoes – best for mashing, and all the trimmings – fresh eggs, spinach in the deep freeze, and a recipe for a quick hollandaise sauce.

Here’s my recipe for the quick hollandaise sauce. Blend the juice and zest of two lemons, four egg yolks and two teasps of mild mustard.  Melt the butter, and keeping the motor running, pour the butter into the eggs in a slow stream. Process until just thickened and no more. Season to taste, and keep at room temperature until using it. This makes two cups. Extravagant and delicious!

I used fresh smoked salmon and dill in the fish cakes and rolled them in flour before frying them in a mix of butter and oil. I think if I was feeling threadbare, a tin of red salmon, or even pink salmon jazzed up with plenty of herbs would work.

Food for Thought

I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets…

William James 1842 -1910   Sometimes called the father of American psychology, and also best known for his book ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience.’

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