Tag Archives: happiness

Saving the West

Image result for hastings uk images

Hastings

We’ve been re-watching a favourite TV series on Youtube from some years back… Foyle’s War. Unlike real life, it’s one of those satisfying forms of entertainment in which the baddies always get their come-uppance, and the goodies triumph – hurray !

Second time around I relish the masterly performances by actors at the top of their art…and notice many little quirks and anachronisms I’d missed first time around. But this time, I’m really aware of Foyle in a way I hadn’t been before. Much water has passed under the bridge since the years when this series – a favourite with watchers on both sides of the Atlantic – was created.

And since then the world has changed in so many ways, which include the upsurge of terrorism with the advent of Isis, the  unprecedented invasion of Europe by another culture – not just by refugees – but  by armies of young men from third world countries looking to improve their lot and enjoy the largesse of western society; and many other factors like the spread of sex changes even among young school children, drunkenness among women in the UK on a scale unheard of previously, homelessness on the streets of many  towns and cities, plus the religion of political correctness which means that on Twitter, another new arrival, people can be metaphorically crucified for using the wrong word…

I try not to equate the pictures of society men and women at various depraved looking parties where guests are encouraged to personify ’filth’, the photos of young people on the streets reduced to zombies by killer drugs, and stories about university students who feel it’s Ok to sue their  instructors for not helping them get better grades, with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire… Society collapsed then for many reasons, not least the gulf between rich and poor, and the bacchanalian  orgies of self- indulgence which we see today with the zillion dollar superyachts, and four or five day weddings of the rich and famous costing millions of pound/dollars, typical of the Roman over-indulgence and selfish hedonism in the last years of that Empire.

Christopher Foyle, the detective chief living in Hastings, the pretty coastal town where William the Conqueror landed, and defeated the defending Anglo-Saxon army in 1066, reminds me of some of the qualities of civilisation that I sometimes fear that Western culture is forgetting. While all around – to mis-quote Kipling – are losing their heads, failing to take responsibility, and blaming the war for profiteering, dishonesty of various degrees, for petty crime, spying, revenge and murder, Foyle remains incorruptible, refusing to cede one iota of the rule of law, built up over the centuries by generations of lawgivers and members of Parliament to create a fair and decent society.

He’s an ordinary person in every way, laconic, kind, and generous, but implacable when it comes to refusing to accept wrong in any form, never sparing family, friends and colleagues, as well as law breakers. He reminds me of Marcus Aurelius’s words: “Whatever anyone does or says, I must be emerald and keep my colour.” He keeps his colour no matter who around him is losing their integrity, and integrity is the word which most describes the quality that is Foyle.

Winston Churchill once said of Ernest Bevin, the great post-war Labour foreign secretary that: ‘he had many of the strongest characteristics of the English race. His manliness, his common sense, his … simplicity, sturdiness and kind heart, easy geniality and generosity, all are qualities which we who live in the southern part of this famous island regard with admiration.’

He called him a great man, and by that measure, so is Foyle. Why do I dwell on this fictional character in a long running detective series – the only one I’ve ever watched since murder, mayhem and mystery don’t tickle my fancy? I do so because this sort of person was not so rare as to be unusual many years ago. I can think back to many fine characters who people the English way of life – the only one I can write about with any knowledge.

People like the great statesman and gentle man, Edward Balfour, noble Sir Edward Grey, foreign secretary who tried to be peacemaker before World War One, to the thoroughly honest, decent, modest man who succeeded Churchill as prime minister – Clement Atlee. Honest politicians were not so unusual back then. They upheld the values of civilisation without even considering that by living lives of integrity this was what they were doing. And every person, however unknown, living such a life, is still today, of inestimable value to their society and civilisation.

Kenneth Clark at the end of his magisterial book ‘Civilisation’, wrote he believed: “that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta… I think that knowledge is better than ignorance and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology… I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters.”

He goes on to say that it is a lack of confidence more than anything else which kills a civilisation, and that we can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion. And this to me is what Foyle is all about. He never succumbs to cynicism and disillusion, but sticks to the great truths of kindness, justice, the rule of law, compassion and courtesy. These are the qualities which can preserve and save our civilisation, despite the depravity of the rich few, and the hopelessness of the homeless and deprived.

Western civilisation, with its ideals of freedom, kindness, fairness, justice for all, value for learning and for literature, for art, music and science, our recognition of the rights of all people and all races, and for all creatures; our care for the environment and for those who need protection, is a way of life worth preserving.

If we do believe this and do not succumb to the belief that we have to cede these freedoms and rights to other cultures and customs which deprive others of freedom, dignity and the right to happiness, cultures which dictate how people should think, what they should wear, and mutilate women in the belief that a Creator demands this, we can still save our own way of life – what one blogger calls ‘the True West” in Arthurian/Camelot terms.

We can still bequeath peace and harmony to our children and grandchildren, and we can try to share these blessings with all people. We can continue to believe in those great words from the American Declaration of Independence written in 1776, that: ‘all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’.

Tolkien defines the task for us in the Lord of the Rings, his epic about saving civilisation: ‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

Food for threadbare gourmets

Cakes- easy ones. This is one of my favourites – combining lemons with the easiest method ever. I adapted it from one of Elizabeth Luard’s recipes, and use 175 gms of SR flour, 175 gms of sugar and the same of mild olive oil, three eggs, pinch of salt and zest and juice of a lemon. I also add a teasp of vanilla into this mix in memory of my grandmother who always used vanilla in her cakes. Stir it all together and tip into a greased lined loaf tin, and sprinkle a generous helping of caster sugar on top. Cook in a moderate oven for about forty minutes or until ready.

Food for thought

Even as our few remaining wilderness areas are threatened, each day more of us venture into these beautiful landscapes to experience the energy for ourselves. And, immersed in the natural rhythms of the earth and the wind and the sky, our minds relax and we view our lives with quiet perspective. We can see our paths and can recognise the synchronicity that has guided our footsteps.
James Redfield from The Tenth Insight

 

 

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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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Simple pleasures- they may not be what you think !

Image result for pics of nasturtiums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

Food for thought

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

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The magic and mystery of cats

Cat, Black, Sun, Meadow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for threadbare gourmets

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

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

Elizabeth von Arnim. Author of Elizabeth and her German Garden

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Days of wine and roses

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It’s been the one of those glorious days when ‘cherubim and seraphim are casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.’  Silence… a small white yacht gliding over the still shining water, scarcely leaving a wake, using the engine because there’s no wind for the sails… the islands we never normally see, floating on the horizon, palest purple against a lavender blue sky… an enchanted stillness, the only sound the cooing of the doves in the trees.

When I awoke this morning the sky was just turning pink, so early though it was, I jumped out of bed, dressed, and headed out to watch the rising sun across the sea. The dawn chorus was just beginning, so I turned around and walked by houses with curtains drawn and solitary gardens, thrush and blackbird seeming to pass me on from one song to the next.

Theirs was the longest and sweetest serenade, while the soft incessant cheeping of the sparrows filled the spaces, and the slow crescendo of the doves cooing began. As I retraced my footsteps back along a grassy track, I saw with pleasure that mine were the only footprints in the dewy grass. I never met another soul as I meandered around the sleeping village.

Back home I crossed into the cemetery and disturbed a couple of speckled hens who scurried  fussily back into their own garden next door, clucking agitatedly. I walked across to the end of the peninsula to get my daily fix looking out to sea through the grey gnarled branches of the ancient pohutakawas.

Later, I sat on the veranda feasting my eyes on the glittering water, with breakfast of toast and a boiled egg from the errant chickens. When I had visited their owner Kate the day before, she had given me a handful of newly laid eggs, and the one I ate now was so beautiful I could hardly bear to break the shell. It came from her oldest hen, she said, a black Arakan, a breed which presumably comes from Arakan in Burma, and this little black hen lays eggs of the same pale blue as the sky today.

During the morning I went to the next village to buy a birthday card for a man. No flowers then, and since most men’s cards are covered with the inevitable cars or golf clubs, I did some lateral thinking and came away with a card with a message: “ If you resolve to give up drinking, smoking and loving, you don’t actually live longer: it just seems longer.” My son-in-law will be delighted with this encouragement to enjoy these permitted pleasures.

Stopping off at the garden cafe down a long avenue of poplars, the vivacious young Indonesian proprietor greeted me as usual with: ‘Ah Miss Valerie, are you ready for your coffee today?” Since she always jumps the queue for me, and makes piping hot coffee I can forgive her the spinsterly ‘Miss’. I sat in an ivy- covered alcove framed with late wisteria blossom and white jasmine, their scents wafting over the smell of coffee.

Before getting home, I called in on Friend, to collect various things from yesterday’s rollicking party for 45 oldies who came from far and wide. Others were there too to collect their vases, or napkins or fish slices. “The sun’s over the yard arm”, announced the man of the house, which though it was only lunch-time, gave us the excuse to finish off the champagne from the previous day.

Then, we had sat on the terrace in the sun, looking out over the turquoise sea, the lawn fringed with white iceberg roses in full bloom, and red roses lining the long white table cloths.

We’d enjoyed a four course lunch, starting with a terrine followed by freshly baked ham, salmon and asparagus, the cheese course – big rounds of fresh Brie, fresh strawberries and blueberry tarts – each course accompanied by different wines and champagne –French of course! And finally the birthday cake, a pyramid of moist chocolate brownies and truffles. In other words a feast! And all made by friends.

At the end of the afternoon someone brought out a guitar. We sang ‘Blowing in the wind,’ ‘Michael row the boat,’ ‘Kumbiya, ‘He‘s got the whole world in his hands’… all the old favourites. I sang my heart out, and had to restrain myself from dancing.

But as a somewhat acid -tongued acquaintance observed to me, all the men were glued to their seats – and they all look alike, she said. “They all have white hair, and are wearing the same sort of blue and white checked shirts, most of them have walking sticks and a lot of them have paunches!” The women on the other hand, were younger, sprightlier, beautifully dressed and immaculately groomed.

That evening several of the guests came to dinner, though we couldn’t eat much. We sat on the veranda in the dusk, by the loquat tree covered in golden fruit, with a fat green and white wood pigeon rustling around swallowing them whole. We had wine and laughter and fun, discussed everything irreverently, and enjoyed the party all over again.

Days of wine and roses and golden laughter  …when I returned flushed with champagne from Friend today, I found another generous neighbour had called while I was out, and left a bag full of freshly picked broad beans hanging on the door handle.

They were so delicious that for supper, I simply ate a dish of the tender little green jewels glistening with hot butter, though the old chap had steak with his. And I’ve just returned from the field above the harbour where the two little white goats live. They feasted on the broad bean pods, and seemed to feel the way I do about them.

‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may’, wrote the poet, ‘Old time is still a-flying’, and I’m dedicated to this advice…. my rosebuds may be different to other people’s ideas of rosebuds, but I’m picking them as fast as I may.

So I sit here on the veranda writing, watching the evening sky turn pink and lilac and pale turquoise over the still, silver water, the scent of sweet peas, a gift from a friend’s garden drifting through the house, and savour my blessings. I began with the words of a hymn, so I’ll end with some. These shining days are filled with rosebuds – moments of pleasure and goodness – friends and fun and flowers, chickens and birdsong and beans, ‘all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small’.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

The strawberry season means Eton Mess for me! The first time I tasted it was just outside Eton, at a place called Datchett, at a rather grand dinner to entertain some visiting Argentinian polo players who’d been playing on Smith’s Lawn at Windsor. My best friend and I knew we were only there simply because they needed some girls to balance out the chaps. But we gave the food a lot of attention too.

The version I ate then was a variation, because the crushed strawberries and broken meringue were pressed into a big dish of ice-cream, and then re-frozen. Whipped cream was piled on  when it was served, on a huge carving dish. I like doing it this way too, using freshly made local artisan ice-cream. Really, the amounts are up to you… you can’t go wrong. As an added touch I sometimes whizz up a punnet of the fresh strawberries with some sugar, and hand that round in a sauce bowl, to drench the already sumptuous mixture in it! Food for the gods….

 

Food for Thought

He had picked it up, he said, on a beach; it was a piece of sea-washed wood in the shape of a human head. It was made of hard wood, shaped by the waters of the sea, cleansed by many seasons. He had brought it home and put it on the mantelpiece; he looked at it from time to time and admired what he had done.

One day he put some flowers round it and then it happened every day; he felt uncomfortable if there were not fresh flowers every day and gradually that piece of shaped wood became very important to his life. He would allow no one to touch it except himself; they might desecrate it; he washed his hands before he touched it. It had become holy, sacred, and he alone was the high priest of it; he represented it; it told him of things he could never know by himself. His life was filled with it and he was, he said, unspeakably happy.

From Krishnamurti’s Journal

 

 

 

 

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We’re all born brainy !

100_0108When Catherine Windsor aka Kate Middleton drove away from hospital the other week with her day old baby she did an interesting thing. She waved to the ecstatic crowds with her left hand, but her right hand was resting gently on the baby’s stomach as he lay in his car seat for the first time in his short life. She was so tuned in to her baby that she knew instinctively not to let go physical contact with him, but to re-assure him with her touch. It was rather beautiful, and I wished that all babies could have had that gentle bonding with their parents, meaning I wished that all babies could be secure and happy!

I find it incredible that we all, from day one, possess nearly all the neurons in the brain that we will ever have – nerve cells to you and me – even though most are not yet connected in networks. And this connecting process is so rapid in the first year, that by twelve months, the baby’s brain is close to the adult brain. Sound, sight, touch, taste and smell are the senses through which from birth to one year we learn about the world, usually through playing.

From eighteen months to three years, when the brain is at its most active, children are like sponges, soaking up words, information and new skills. It’s amazing to me that between the ages of eighteen months and three, the toddler’s brain is twice as active as the adult brain.

And this is also when the structures of the brain that are sensitive to language and social-emotional responses develop, while motor development, or physical skills are developing at a rapid pace too.

When we actually look at what babies learn to do in those first few years of life, the range of skills, physical, mental and emotional is awe-inspiring. By the time children reach three to six years, they enter the fastest growth period for the frontal lobe networks, including emotional development, speed of processing, memory and problem solving. By six years, the brain is at ninety per cent of its adult weight.

And at the same time babies are learning how to be people! Modern research has shown that when babies are happy, talked to, sung to, cuddled, included, and have lots of eye contact, what are known in neuropsychology as the “ the hormones of loving connection” nourish the brain and stimulate the growth of connections in the regions of the brain to do with emotions. The simple things that loving parents do with their babies, help them to grow into considerate, loving and confident people from the very beginning.

This nourishment for the emotional centres of the growing brains makes babies feel secure and happy, and means they tend to be more independent, confident, more resilient, empathetic and caring. Babies who are comforted when they’re upset, grow up knowing that nothing is really a disaster, so they are the ones who don’t panic or go into despair when things go wrong.

Because they learned when they were little that everything passes, they can cope. Adults who didn’t get this sort of  supportive parenting tend to re-act to stress with behaviour like flying off the handle, losing their temper, blaming other people, or going into despair and depression -because they grew up with a lot of fear and no faith that life would support them.

Researchers now know that when a baby is left to cry, cortisol levels rise in the brain. If the baby is lovingly comforted after a stressful incident, the body absorbs the excess cortisol. But if the stress happens regularly the cortisol levels remain high and become toxic to the brain cells. Cortisol can cause damage to the emotional centres of the brain, and if this happens regularly children grow up prone to anxiety, anger and depression. The old advice to leave a baby to cry has meant many insecure and sad children, and sometimes, angry violent adults.

Enlightened child experts now feel that this deprivation of loving attention, comfort and understanding of a baby is responsible for many problems in older children – problems ranging from ADHD, depression, panic attacks, phobias, eating disorders, anxiety and substance abuse. So children and young adults with these problems are not innately troublesome or born with a pre-disposition to these problems. They simply didn’t get enough emotional food for the brain – those hormones of loving connection.

I researched this stuff for an article in a parenting magazine I write for. It blew me away to realise what intelligence and potential are already contained within those tiny wizened little day-old babies. It’s so easy to think that just because they can’t talk or communicate with us yet, that they don’t have the thoughts and feelings that research shows us they do. Maybe it’s we who need to work on our communication skills, rather than the babies, who seem to be doing huge amounts of unseen work and learning while we change their nappies and feed them and put them to sleep.

They are so hard-wired to learn and absorb and connect with our world, that as long as we cuddle and talk and sing to them, they seem to do most of the work themselves. Babies are such miracles of complexity and potential, and each single one, wherever it is born in the world, has all this potential and complexity. And yet at this moment we all know too, that only some babies will have the chance to become who they were born to be.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

When I want to spoil my grandchildren – and that is all the time – I make them their favourite pudding. For one it’s chocolate mousse, for another a family favourite we call pink pudding, and for everyone – a lemon meringue tart.

I usually make the pastry case ahead, so all there is to do later is to squeeze two lemons and make up their juice to half a pint with water. Use some of the liquid to mix with an ounce of cornflour, and boil the rest before stirring it on the cornflour mixture. In a pan, boil it for three minutes, then stir in an ounce of butter, an ounce of sugar and the grated rind from the two lemons. Cool slightly, add three egg yolks and pour this mixture into the tart case. Bake in a moderate oven for about 25 minutes or until set.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff, gently fold in three ounces of castor sugar, and pile onto the lemon tart. Dredge with castor sugar and return to a cool oven until the meringue is set and slightly browned.

 Food for thought

If you have not often felt the joy of doing a kind act, you have neglected much, and most of all yourself.   Anonymous

 

 

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Abortion is Hundreds of Shades of Grey

Abortion is not a cut and dried, black and white issue, which is how it seems to be being debated in the US. It’s hundreds of shades of grey. It’s about more than religion and women’s rights. It’s about a baby’s right to happiness.

When does an unwanted child become a happy child? Does a woman already worn out with childbearing, want another baby when she already has a houseful, courtesy of a husband? Does a thirteen year old, raped and pregnant, really want that child? Does she know how to be a mother? Does she or her family want a child who is bearing half the genes of the rapist?

Does a solo mother who made a mistake, and trying to make ends meet, really want to carry another child and bring it up, when she can’t afford the ones she already has? Does the college student, pregnant after an encounter in which the boy has disappeared in panic, really want a child who is going to blight her chances in college, and who she can’t afford?

Unwanted babies rarely become happy children. In Sweden where they’ve had a liberal policy for years, they carried out a study on the children whose mothers were refused abortion. They started the study with the children who had actually survived to their fifth birthday! The findings were heart-breaking. Most of these children did badly at school, had a range of emotional and physical problems, found it hard to make friends, and when it came to military service, most of them were rejected because they weren’t physically fit enough.

Which tells us about the lot of unwanted children. Worse still, the latest research has shown that if a mother is depressed in pregnancy – and carrying an unwanted child would surely make you depressed – it damages the development of the baby’s emotional centres of the brain, which in follow-up  studies showed that these babies were depressed for most of their lives, and prone to depressive illnesses.

Brain research has also shown us that when a baby is loved, and his or her mother spends time cuddling, talking, singing, playing, making eye contact – feel-good hormones feed into the connections of the brain in which emotional development takes place. When a baby is deprived of these’ hormones of loving connection’, as they’re called, and left to cry, feeling unloved and alone, then cortisone builds up in the brain, damaging the emotional centres. Child psychologists are now sheeting back most childhood problems like AHD, depression, anti –social behaviour, anxiety, panic attacks, to the first months of the child’s life when she was deprived of the emotional food for the brain that makes a happy child.

Obviously not all unwanted children end up as delinquent, but there are many more child suicides than we hear of – of children as young as eight or ten – there are many unhappy depressed children who grow into unhappy miserable adults, who make unhappy miserable parents, and there are also children who overcome the handicaps of their parenting and past, and grow into decent kind, even enlightened adults who have much to give the world.

It’s easy to recognise an unwanted child. They often have bad posture, they often look anxiously sideways, as though ready for the harsh word or even blow. They are always gauging the atmosphere – are the adults ok, or is it a bad day? They find it hard to look you in the eye, because they have no trust.  They have lots of accidents, sometimes caused by the adults, sometimes because accident-prone children have emotional problems… and this is just a short list of how to recognise unhappy children..

So before trying to make hard and fast rules which control women’s sexuality, perhaps we should be looking with real insight and compassion into the needs of children.

If the people – usually men- who advocate that all women should bear all babies, are they also offering support, both emotional, material, and financial to help women to bring up these unwanted babies? But how do you make a woman want a baby, if she doesn’t want the child of her rapist? I can’t imagine what it must be like to carry a child you don’t want, it was tough enough being pregnant with children I did want.

And of course a mother carrying an unwanted child is going to feel hostile and resentful, unless the miracle of bonding occurs at birth. But as any farmer will tell you, that vital connection, which ensures the life of his lambs or calves, can easily be broken.

The magic hormones that flow through the body of a woman during pregnancy and afterwards, that ensure the safe and happy birth of a baby, don’t operate automatically in all circumstances – women’s emotions are also part of the equation – they are not  child bearing machines any more than an animal is.

So to impose on all women, regardless of their age or circumstances or beliefs, a one size fits all rule is not only an infringement of women’s rights and their ability to conduct their own life, but also complete insensitivity to the needs of a baby, and complete ignorance about the miracle of birth, life and the growth of the human spirit .

If the no- abortion rule is applied to women, I feel that a compulsory sterilisation or vasectomy programme should also apply to any man who begets an unwanted child. This would probably solve the problem satisfactorily. Women would know that they were not being unfairly discriminated against if men were also subject to the same draconian principles being  promised to women, and men would know that they had to be responsible for their actions too.

If this meant a shortage of children with so many men unable to have children, then the unwanted children could be adopted into homes where a child was really, truly, wanted. Imagine a world where all children were happy – now that’s a vision to aim for – both in the US and all over the world.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I was desperate for some chocolate the other day, and only had dark chocolate in the house which doesn’t do it for me. So I decided to make a chocolate cake. By the time it was cooked and iced several hours later, the craving had left me, but we were also left with a lovely chocolate almond cake!

I melted four ounces of butter with four ounces of black chocolate and left it to cool. In a large bowl whisk four eggs with six ounces of castor sugar until thick and white – it does take a bit of time. When they’re ready, fold in the chocolate mixture in several batches, alternating with six ounces of ground almonds. Add a teasp of vanilla, and pour into a greased tin lined with greaseproof paper.

Bake for about three-quarters of an hour at 200 degrees or just under. The cake should be slightly undercooked, and should be left to cool and shrink a little in the pan.

When it’s ready to turn out, let it cool completely before icing it. I use three ounces of butter to about eight ounce of icing sugar, and a few teasp of water or freshly squeezed orange juice, and whisk them altogether, adding a bit more liquid if I need it. It’s an incredibly rich cake, and though it’s delicious the first day, I think it improves with keeping -if you can!

Food for Thought

It is harder for us today to feel near to God among the streets and houses of the city than it is for country folk. For them the harvested fields bathed in the autumn mists speak of God and his goodness far more vividly than any human lips.

Albert Schwietzer  1875 – 1965   Humanitarian, medical missionary,  Doctor of Theology, Doctor of Music, Nobel prize-winner and philosopher.

 

 

 

 

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