Respect Matters

There are a lot of ordinary people in the world who do extraordinary things. Most of them pass through life unnoticed by all except those whose lives they touch. A small number become immortalised when their contribution is recognised by the media, awards, or writers who become fascinated enough in their stories to commit them to paper, but most often the extent of a person’s contribution to society, only becomes apparent when we hear others tell stories about them.

Last week I went to a living wake for a woman called Katrina Leason, a long-term friend of my partner, and someone I have come to love and admire through that association.

Zelda’s Place Collective

In the mid-eighties when feminist activists began to challenge dominant discourses about violence against women, a group of young women in Melbourne got together and formed a collective to set up Zelda’s Place which provided support and accommodation to young women who were victims of incest. Katrina was one of the founding collective members.

The collective named Zelda’s Place after Zelda D’Aprano, a staunch feminist, labour unionist and pay justice advocate. Zelda was an unstoppable force in the women’s movement and the labour movement. She got sacked from factory jobs for speaking out about unfair condition for women, organised pub crawls with groups of women to drink in bars that banned women from entering, and chained herself to the doors of the Commonwealth bank in 1969 to protest the dismissal of an arbitration of an equal pay case with the meat industry union. On another occasion she chained herself to the doors of parliament house, only to have her chains cut and removed by a police officer. When the officer suggested she should be embarrassed by her behaviour, Zelda responded she was not because soon there would be more women joining her. Sure enough they did, and Zelda formed the Women’s Action Committee and the Women’s Liberation Centre with them, and the women’s liberation movement was born.

Outdoor glamour

Zelda’s spirit inspired the young women’s collective who formed Zelda’s Place, five of whom were at Katrina’s living wake. The five have taken varies trajectories in their careers, but Katrina, like Zelda, and the in the spirit of that first collective, dedicated her professional life to ending violence against women.

On sighting Katrina from a distance you would not immediately pick her as a staunch feminist, she doesn’t fit the stereotype. She is glamorous. Tall, blonde, immaculately dressed and always made up. It is not until you speak to her that you realise she is a woman not to be taken lightly.

I had known for some time that Katrina had done quite a lot of work with the Australian Football League (AFL) around reducing violence against women. What had not dawned on me was that she was one of the drivers behind the professionalisation of women’s football, which emerged as a national competition backed by the AFL in 2017.

Gathering

Katrina had realised some time ago that Australian’s love of sport could be a vehicle for change and bought her more than twenty-five years of working to create more inclusive environments to the male dominated world of football.  She believed that increasing the participation of women in football was key to the cultural change needed in community football clubs to prevent violence against women and girls, and pursued that belief with the same strength and determination that she pursued all her years of working to eliminate violence against women. I imagine that many of the blokes in the football world would have been surprised by Katrina.  As my partner pointed out; Katrina Leason never shies from a fight, but always turns up dressed for a ball.

Katrina has approached her illness with the same pragmatism she has applied to her life.  Meditation has given her inner strength to withstand many challenges and to stand tall with dignity and pride in the face of opposition and adversity, along with her connection with family and close friends.

We live in a society that is largely afraid of death, and where talking about it is often taboo. Katrina chose to take a different path and engaged a Buddhist death doula to provide non-medical support to her and her family through her end of life journey. Doula’s can help us to lean into death, to steer away from the socialised silence that most commonly surrounds dying and that brings disconnection rather than that which we most crave – connection.

A Splash of Gold

The theme for Katrina’s living wake was semi-formal with a splash of gold and she looked ever glamorous in a long dress with gold braid. The gathering took place over a sit-down dinner at the same place Katrina and her husband, Peter, had married, but the main event was the family and friends who spoke.

Katrina gave those who knew her the opportunity to tell her, and for her to hear their words that she would not have experienced had they been spoken at her funeral. It was a beautiful evening to be part of.

I sprayed my hair gold and shed quite a few tears at the beautiful speeches.  The final speaker presented Katrina with a well-deserved Zelda D’Aprano Lifetime Achievement Award in honour of her tireless work to contribute to the elimination of violence against women. Afterwards I felt I knew Katrina a little better and had a deep sense of gratitude for the woman in who’s honour I was there, for showing us what it means to strive not only for a good life, but for a good death as well.

Recycling Books

Guggenheim, New York

In 2015 on a trip to New York I had the good fortune to meet a gentleman who worked at the University Club in Manhattan. It’s an elite private club established in 1861. Its purpose now is to promote Literature and Art and it’s based in a Mediterranean-Revival-Italian Renaissance palazzo-style purpose built building constructed in 1899 on West 54th Street. The Club hosts one of New York’s greatest private art collections which includes works by American artists Gilbert Stuart and Childe Hassam. It also has an extraordinary reading room with ceiling murals by H. Siddons Mowbray that were modeled after the Vatican Apartments (unfortunately I couldn’t take photos).

The gentleman gave us a tour of the building, library and rare book collection and it was one of the greatest book highlights of my life so far. Some of the rare books we were shown included:

‎⁨Strahov Monastery and Library⁩, ⁨Prague⁩, ⁨Czech Republic⁩
  • Ptolemy Geographical (1511): an early publication of geographical maps pre-dating knowledge of Australia’s existence, which does not appear in any of the drawings.
  • Domenico Fontana Architecture (1590): which described and illustrated the removal of the Vatican Obelisk from its old location behind the sacristy of St. Peter’s, where it had been since the reign of Caligula, to its present location in the center of the Piazza of St. Peter.
  • The natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands 3rd edition, Mark Catesby (1771): which contained drawing of the figures of fish, snakes, turtles, etc.
  • Handwritten Patent of Nobility, King Ferdinand to Don Pedro Jacinta Elantra (1750): a royal manuscript printed on velum (goat/sheep skin).
  • Trattato del giuoco della palla (1555), Antonio Scanio: the first book ever written on the rules of tennis.
  • Book of Common prayer (1770’s): which had a fore edge painting, a painting on the edge of pages that can only be viewed from a certain angle.
Guggenheim, New York

I set about reviewing and rationalising my own book collection for the first time in about ten years last week, and while it may not contain any valuable or rare books it was an interesting trip through my own history, because a book collection can tell us a lot about ourselves. They put on display an intimate insight into our intellectual lives, inspirations, influences and escapes. I remember the last time we did this exercise and took a big load of books to our local second hand bookshop. It was after a youthful phase of reading loads of self-help and personal growth books.

The shop owner foraged through the boxes, turned to us and said, “I hope you feel better now.”

Guggenheim, New York

This time the throw out pile, about eight boxes, includes an eclectic mix of mainly literary and genre fiction. There are also a small number of management, cooking and personal development books.

What we chose to keep on our bookshelves is as interesting as what we discarded. The unread; favourite reference books (cooking and gardening); the books we loved and reread with the bent spines and creased pages (like Tracks by Robin Davidson; The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger; poetry books; and anything by Jeanette Winterson); the nostalgic volumes that hold some fond memory from childhood that we cart from house to house even though we may never read them again (James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl; The Black Stallion Walter Farley; Midnight by Rutherford Montgomery); and the ones we read as adults that hold some historical meaning and we might revisit one day (Equus by Peter Schaffer; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance and all those tomes on the art of classical dressage written by the greats like François Robichon de La Guérinière and my own teacher Master Nuno Oliviera – even though I no longer ride)

Book Art, Adelaide

Of course when I mentioned discarding books, I didn’t mean throwing them away, that would be sacrilegious, there are many options to consider, disposal being the last resort. I have seen some amazing creative uses of old books from art installations to turning them into a bed base. I will attempt to find homes for as many as possible with friends, at second hand bookshops or by donating them to the local library, or op-shop, or one of the places around Melbourne listed below. Then I’ll set about filling up those empty shelves again.

Aboriginal Literacy Foundation: accepts donations of new and used children’s books. Refer to the criteria on their website before sending or delivering books.

Australian Books for Children of Africa (ABCA): appreciate good quality kindergarten to year seven books, both fiction and non fiction, new and second hand, including story books, dictionaries and atlases.

Lifeline: raise over 80% of their operational costs through retail activities such as Lifeline Shops and has drop off points around the country that accept books

National Prison Book Program: is run by teh The Australian Prison Foundation and has collection points in Melbourne

Street Library, Berlin

Street Library: Community home’s for books in the street where people can simply reach in and take what interests them; when they are done, they can return them to the Street Library network, or pass them on to friends. The website shows drop off points

Brotherhood books: When you donate or purchase a book from Brotherhood Books, you are supporting the Brotherhood of St Laurence in working for an Australia free of poverty. All the proceeds of these book sales are reinvested back into the charitable operations

Vinnies: accept donations of quality books – fiction, non-fiction, childrens

Do you ever clear out your book shelves? What do you do with your second hand books?

Free Wheeling

It’s the end of the day, of the end of my second week back at work and as may become evident from this stream of consciousness blog, my brain is a little tired and addled. Yesterday it was Bohemian Rhapsody, but ten minutes ago I had the song The Wheels on the Bus going around in a loop in my head, when the wheels on the actual bus made an abrupt stop. As I write this I’m sitting on said bus, and it ain’t going nowhere, having broken down ten kilometres from home when the door jammed open. I’m reframing the experience as an opportunity for more writing time, very Buddhist of me considering what I want most, is to get home, eat dinner and put my feet up.

Buddha Walk, Crystal Castle, NSW

Speaking of Buddhism, as I understand it, the second noble truth is that suffering is due to attachments and expectations, to grasping and clinging. The idea of letting go makes me think about writing practice, when we need to hold on, and when we need to surrender.

I remember when I wrote my first draft, how chuffed I was to complete it, and how attached I was to those 60,000 odd words, little realising the lessons I was about to understand. Learning to edit was about coming to terms with letting go, to absorb feedback and use it to improve technique, to apply critical non-attachment.

It’s a funny thing that us writers can become so attached to those tiny squiggles on the page, invest so much of ourselves in them as if they were a living part of us and we will become less if we let them go.

A Public Practice, Vienna

I often think of writers as being most akin to musicians. When a musician wants to perfect their craft they will spend hours practicing. They study music theory, receive tutoring from a professional instructor, and develop a work ethic that gives them the grit to keep plugging away at it. They can’t afford to get attached to all those notes, to hoard them all and try to prevent them from floating away as they leave their instruments. They don’t think all their notes played in practice are wasted either. I wonder if writers would benefit from thinking of words more like musicians think of notes, embrace our practice as practice, know that not all our words are necessarily destined for the world, and that the cutting and pruning is about honing and perfecting our craft.

A Long Road Home, Nevada

My commute is a long journey, but hey, so is writing a book right? I’ve been editing for a long time now, and it occurred to me this week how my approach to the task has changed over time. It was a hard lesson, well learnt, when I did a structural edit of an early draft and realised I had to cut and rewrite all of the first five chapters. I think I put down my manuscript for a full week, fuming over the realisation, before I could bring myself to do it. Now after much application, I have become detached and carefree about editing, happy to cut and slash and relegate large chunks of text to the bin. I enjoy allowing fresh ideas to surface as I rewrite and rework, and apply what I have learnt to improve my manuscript.

…Oh, here comes another bus, and I must get on it.

Main image: London Bus, Esperanto Museum, Berlin

The writer’s brain

I’ve been listening to The First Time podcasts recently about the first time you publish a book. Fortuitously, one I listened to this week was an interview with counselor and coach Alison Manning who described part of her work as ‘helping writers with their minds’. She assist writers to understand themselves and their relationship to their writing in a way that aims to overcome roadblocks and self defeating thought patterns.

Objects of Desire

The interview included an interesting discussion about some of the myths, from both reader and writer perspectives (particularly first time novel writers), about how beautiful writing is produced. Manning said there is a common lack of understanding of the effort involved in completing a book – that it doesn’t just flow out as the finished product. Writers who are the most resilient operate from a growth mindset. That is that rather than focus on the outcome (getting published, being successful, etc) their emphasis is on valuing effort, development of effective strategies, hard work and learning from whatever happens – regardless of achieving outward success, or what might be perceived as failure. Their interest is primarily in exploring their potential.

Manning quoted research that says one of the five most powerful elements of well-being is achievement for its own sake, doing something that matters a lot to us and doing it because it’s interesting and enjoyable just to see how well we can do it.

Searching for Self

The interview also discussed the importance of focusing on the things we can control, rather than those we can’t. That to find out what’s possible we need to develop the flexibility to allow ourselves to work with what we’ve got, even if it’s not our ideal, and focus on doing what we can.

I thought her advice was useful in a whole range of contexts but the reason I found the discussion so interesting right now was that I had been grappling with feeling a bit disappointed at not completing more of my project during my year off, and wondering how/if I would find the time to finish it once I returned to my busy job. It’s the kind of thinking that can really erode motivation and become self defeating if you give into it. The interview gave me some ideas about managing my own expectations and changing circumstances to help keep up momentum on my project. It could also prove to be valuable advice in the workplace.

Just five more minutes

This week I’ve been adjusting to a new routine after returning to work, as has the hound. We’re up at 5am for the dog walk/run and I’m on the way to the office by 7.30am. My commute is loooong, about 1.5 hours one way, so that is now my writing time – on the bus on an iPad. I’m lucky to always get a seat because I get on at the first stop and off at the last. There will be some days, no doubt, that I will be too tired or full from my day to write and will just sit on the bus and read a book or listen to a podcast, activities related to developing my writing practice, even if not actually writing.

Manning has also done a podcast series called A Mind of One’s Own with novelist Charlotte Wood (The Natural Way of Things) in which they discuss many of the struggles that plague emerging writers, and how you might address them, so I shall also add those to my listening list also. I will add links to both podcasts to my resources page.

Main image: Brain like a Jellyfish

How time flies…

Joseph Campbell was an American mythologist, anthropologist and writer who studied myths and legends. He identified a common thread in story structure that he named the ‘hero’s journey,’ (also known as the monomyth) and noticed that all heroes and heroines took the same journey within stories.

Hero’s cape

The hero’s journey begins with a departure, the call to adventure where the hero departs from the world they know to enter the unknown. Sometimes the hero seeks out the call and sometimes something unexpected happens and pushes them to it. On the journey they face a series of adventures, trials and tribulations that test them (the initiation), they meet allies, enemies and mentors that guide them on their journey and experience an internal transformation that matures them before they returns home changed.

An example of the classic hero’s journey in film is Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy was living an ordinary life in Kanzas and dreaming of excitement when a tornado hit (the call to adventure). Dorothy, our hero enters into the new world of Oz and goes on an adventure. She meets new people (the lion, tin man, and straw man), mentors (Glinda the Good Witch) and enemies (the Wicked Witch of the West). She overcomes challenges like learning Oz is a fraud (the trials) and develops new skills like discovering clicking her heels together will return her home. When our hero returns to her old world she has undergone an inner transformation that furnishes her with a new appreciation for her own life.

Forest for the trees

Examples of the hero’s journey can also be found in Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Ishmael in Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, Max in Where the Wild Things Are, and Scout in To Kill a Mocking Bird.

Many say that the adventures and misadventures of our own lives follow the same pattern – we are the heroes of our own journeys and Campbell’s advice was ‘to follow your bliss.’ What he meant by this was that if you do things you are passionate about, you’ll feel fully alive and doors will open up for you.

I am due to return to work on Monday after taking twelve months off to focus on my writing practice and have been reflecting on what I have done and learnt during this past year on my own little hero’s journey. It has been fantastic to have the time off to fully connect with my creative self and focus on my writing practice. I have learnt a lot about plot and character development, story structure, point of view and dialogue, show and tell, exposition, and editing – not to mention procrastination and perseverance.

Adventure awaits

I have learnt that a practice that returns you to the page again and again, even if you don’t feel like it is valuable, and that it’s ok to allow yourself to write crap because that’s where the gems are hidden. I discovered that sometimes writing feels like wading through mud, and at other times you find a state of flow and become so immersed in your work that real world time and space recede. At these times the depths of your subconscious is revealed in surprising and exciting ways and it’s those moments that make you return again and again to the page.

During the year I attended four writers festivals (Melbourne, Emerging, Clunes Booktown and Adelaide Writers Week), completed four creative writing workshops/short courses, a weeks writing retreat, and have almost completed a creative writing course which I commenced in 2016.

Happy Hound

I joined a writers group in my local community and met some fabulous writers via social media – some of whom I have also met in the flesh.

I have written over 200,000 words comprising 63 blog posts, eight short stories and what is now the almost completed fourth draft of my novel. I entered pieces in a number of competitions with mixed results, though for most I am still waiting to hear the outcome, and I took part in a spoken word event reading one of my flash fiction pieces to a crowd of about fifty. Alongside the writing activities I have completed some long awaited garden projects, grieved the loss of my old dog and wrangled a new puppy.

Wishing tree

I am spending my last few days of leave at the beach and as I walk along the foreshore I promise to myself that whilst the shape and speed of my hero’s journey may change, it will continue. I will write on the bus on the way to work and on weekends and continue to develop my craft and learn from the amazing people I have met along the way, and eventually I will finish this damn book so I can unleash some of the other ideas fermenting in my head.

Main image: Shoreham Beach

The Grand Read

Writers dog

Last week I mentioned that I was taking part in a local spoken word event, The Grand Read. After spending the week torturing the dog with my practice…she probably knows if off by heart now…the night finally arrived. My rehearsals paid off and I succeeded in reading without mishap. I have included the flash fiction piece below and attached an audio file of the reading if you want to hear the spoken version recorded at the event.

Feet of Clay

Lilith rolled and pounded and prodded and plotted. Clay dripped from slender fingers, flecks thrown by the spinning wheel spattered into golden locks, made her beauty more desirable. Twice winner of the pottery prize, prominent and popular, she knew she would be made if she could triumph again. A hat trick to cement her place in the town’s history.

The Grand Read

Rex, her lover, her muse, her confidant, her king; had taken up the craft with the same passion and zeal he had when he had taken up with her, on a summer night many moons ago, on the banks of the river beneath a willow, embraced by the arms of soft green grasses. Lilith admired his body, his coils, his glaze when they sat side by side in the sweltering heat of the kiln, matched only by the heat in his loins, the love she knew he held for her.

Late one night whilst they potted and spun, the soft sounds of love leaking from the stereo; his Swayze to her Moore; Rex leant in close, whispered in her ear so she felt his hot breath brush the down of her lobe.

“I think I’ll enter the prize, we could stand side by side.”

They were doing what they often did, he behind her, clay sliding through fingers, along arms, a sensuous ritual that gave life to art and art to love. The work; a French ceramic flower pot that Lilith would glaze, just so, in imperfect green.

Eden

But his words planted a seed. Its tiny tendrils entwined, wrapping themselves in ever tightening circles around Lilith’s heart, her freedom, herself. That Rex would want not only her, but her dreams, her talents, her prize, struck weeds in her Eden that took root and slowly spread, a demon force that left thorns in her flesh, eroded her love.

Lilith began to work when Rex was away, ignoring his calls, in the dead of the night, to the cries of the owls, the yowls of the cats left out in darkness to hunt like jackals, feast on possums and bats. Creatures that belonged to the night’s forest devoured by those who would slink in and steal their lives.

Prickly Pair

She experimented with silkscreens, with decals and lustres, turned plates, bowls and cups till her back ached and her hands were raw, pitted with cuts and scrapes and burns. Before dawn she squirrelled away her finest work, hoarded from his prying eyes to ensure her stall would be a surprise.

Expo day arrived along with the blues and the whites and the reds of the French. Tents were sprung and tables were set with the fruits of eighty potters for all the world to see, but the coveted potluck prize waited for only one.

Lilith laid her wares with care on white lace cloth, her red dress flared as she twisted and twirled; a flourish here, a tweak there. Embraced in the imperfect green flower pot, planted in soil and ash was foliage the shape of lopsided hearts, splashed, slashed and swirled with plum and purple and scarlet. The showboat and king of the begonia world, its lush and lovely leaves quivered in the summer breeze and set off her stand to perfection.

Woman of Substance

The judge, a dour woman with puckered lips and bulging hips paraded along the river trail inspecting pots, peering in, tut-tutting, enjoying her own importance, before disappearing into a tent to deliberate. Finally emerging, she sauntered a windy path to Lilith’s stall. It was not until she was right up close that she allowed herself to crack a tiny smile.

“Congratulations Lilith, you have won the prize yet again. I was particularly taken with your centrepiece, the imperfect green flower pot holding the begonia. You must tell me your secret to ensuring the good health of this fickle plant.”

Lilith smiled sweetly, gave nothing away, but if you had been listening closely when she bent over the plant after the judge had left you would have heard her whisper.

“We did it Rex.”

Main image: The Queen of the Shire, Deborah Halpren

Take a Leaf Out of My Book

This week I wrote a flash fiction piece for fun, inspired by my trip to WOMADelaide.

WOMADelaide is a four day open air festival of Music, Arts and Dance held in beautiful Botanic Park in Adelaide. Every year, around 500 artists from 30+ countries perform on 8 stages spread across the 34-hectare park and 18,000 – 20,000 people go each day.

The leaf people shown in the photos were artworks around the park which I found spooky and were the inspiration for this story…

Take a Leaf Out of My Book

I was amongst the thousands who made the pilgrimage to the music festival each year. We traipsed around the parkland gardens like the faithful seeking redemption, enveloped in sound waves that vibrated through the air around as we lay on the cool grass beneath river red gums, Moreton figs and pencil pines. Reality receded fast amongst the tie die, Indian cotton, beards and pigtails, and the thin trail of weed smoke that wended it’s way through the crowd to a melody so sweet it tasted like fairy floss, enfolding me in clouds of saintly bliss.

I wandered around the park to soak up the atmosphere and noticed creatures fashioned from chicken wire into the shape of people. They were stuffed with brown autumn leaves that looked like skin after too much time in the sun and scattered through the forest like aberrant seeds. Someone’s idea of art, frozen in ghoulish stances, sitting in chairs, leaning on walls and spilling from the hollows of trees. Faceless creatures in poses of waiting. They appeared at every turn and I started to feel like they were watching me.

On the second day I noticed that the leaf creatures moved around the park over night. One that had been playing a piano in a gully on the first day was no longer there and another riding a bicycle had materialised alongside a path. When I mentioned this to my girlfriend she said I had been drinking too much.

At dusk I was sprawled on the grass listening to the sounds of a throat singer and animal sounds emanate from a wind instrument. Their cries were answered by creatures deep in the park. At one point I was sure I heard a human scream, but when I struggled to my elbows all eyes around me were faced front to the stage, no sign anyone else had noticed, so I lay back down again. After an hour the throat singer melted into the forest and an aboriginal women’s choir dressed in colours of the desert emerged on stage and started to croon. Their haunted voices echoed through the night competing with the owls that dwelled in the high tree branches.

My bladder started to fill to bursting so I scrambled to my feet and headed into the dark toward the portaloos down the back, far enough away that the stink wouldn’t seep into the crowd. I passed through a stand of pines and couldn’t tell whether the rustling of leaves was coming from beneath my own feet or others walking in the shadows out of sight. The gouls in my head took shape in the night around me as I thought I caught glimpses of movement in the dark.

Fortunately the dunny queue was short. The bathroom experience was the worst part of festivals. No matter how often the tireless staff mopped out the stalls, at the end of a hot day the smell of urine was still nauseating, but the relief of emptying my bladder to the distant keening of the singers overrode any feelings of disgust I had for my stinky box cubicle with its invisible splashes sprayed around the walls.

When I stepped back out of the loo, I was alone with the sounds of the night. Already a bit spooked, I started to walk stealthily in the direction of the haunting melody that filtered through the trees, then tripped and landed sprawled on the ground. I heard a low painful moan nearby and scrambled to my feet. In the dim shadows I thought I saw a figure prone on the ground and in my mind it’s mouth was stuffed with flaking brown autumn leaves. I turned and ran through the night as adrenaline flooded my body.

I passed a large tree and something latched onto me from the shadows. When I swiped at it I felt my sleeve grabbed and tugged and started to swing around wildly. A shriek escaped from deep in my throat and I struggled with the dark figure feeling the scrape of chicken wire and the crunch of leaves as it wrestled me to the ground. My panicked mind realised that my daytime fantasy of the chicken wire and leaf people coming alive in the night was real. The person I had tripped over lying prone in the forest must have been a victim and now they had come for me.

Another scream echoed through the forest louder than the distant singing. I was fighting for my life, could feel the sting of wire cuts on my arms. In the distance I thought I heard my name being called and yelled for help while I struggled.

Flashes of torchlight leapt through the forest nearby and after what seemed like a lifetime found me. All the spots converged on my face and there was a deathly silence. I scrambled to my feet and wheeled around wildly in the torchlight ready to defend myself again. Peals of laughter started to fill the forest around me. My attacker, one of the chicken wire and leaf sculptures, was flattened to a pulp at my feet, no signs of life having ever been in it.

Festive finale

I was expecting a quiet new years eve with a couple of friends and made a delicious mushroom pie that went very nicely with a freekeh and pomegranate salad made by my partner (I’ve included the recipes below). Despite there being only four of us (and two hounds) to celebrate we did turn the evening into a party and danced till midnight. We had a small ritual as the year turned that involved writing on two pieces of paper – one for something we wanted to let go of and leave behind in 2018, and one for something we wanted in 2019. Said paper was burnt over a bowl of water (for fire safety) whilst drinking my friends home made limoncello over ice.

Mates

Needless to say, finishing my book was my wish for 2019. The madness of the festive season has subsided and today was the first day this year I have sat down to write. I’m hoping for a productive day, as at 42 degrees Celsius it’s going to be too hot to do anything else.

Last week was filled with helping my partner build a new kennel for the hound who has grown to big to fit in the house built for her predecessor. She seems to like the new abode and has been hanging out in it during the day.

New house fur thinkin’

When the hound came to live with us as a puppy one of the first things she did was walk out onto the reeds in the pond and pee. I was unable to curb this habit so ended up having to fence it off and get a dog pool for the water obsessed beast. The pond lilies and reeds have grown uncontrollably since the fence went up and I have avoided the inevitable task of cleaning it out for some months. Yesterday the weather was perfect for working outside and getting wet so the day to do the deed arrived. The hound was not happy with being prevented from ‘helping’ but once she understood I would not let her climb the fence and get into the pond with me she contented herself playing with the detritus I tossed over to her.

The pond

I did make the fatal mistake of not shutting the back door properly and when I threw one particularly large bundle of sludge from the bottom of the pond over the fence, the hound grabbed it with glee and bounded inside whilst I yelled a futile “NO!” after her.

When I went in it was evident the hound has shaken the offending bundle as she entered and plastered the walls and kitchen cabinets with muddy blobs, left a couple of large sludge puddles on the floor where she dropped it a few times, then landed content on her bed with what was left making another muddy pool. I spent half an hour cleaning up then locked the dog outside and returned to my task. The pond and the house now sparkle, there is a fresh water supply for any thirsty birds that visit today in the heat and I can get back to working on my novel and see if I can make that new year wish come to fruition.

Oh, and here are the recipes for the fabulous Ottolenghi’s mushroom and tarragon pithivier (published in his book Plenty More and the Guardian online) and the freekeh salad (from BBC food recipes). Both are fairly easy to make and look and taste sensational.

Mushroom and Tarragon Pithivier (serves 6)
Ingredients:

  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 50g butter
  • 400g shallots, peeled
  • 50g dried porcini mushrooms
  • 200g chestnut mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
  • 150g shiitake mushrooms, cleaned and halved
  • 150g oyster mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
  • 150g buna shimeji mushrooms, divided into clusters
  • 300ml vegetable stock
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 200g crème fraîche
  • 2 tbsp ouzo (or Pernod)
  • 1½ tbsp chopped tarragon
  • 1½ tbsp chopped parsley
  • 900g all-butter puff pastry
  • 1 egg, beaten

Notes on ingredient substitutes:
Mushrooms: I was not able to find all the different types of mushrooms, so just increased the amounts of those I could find to make up the quantity.
Ouzo: I couldn’t find ouzo in mini bottles and didn’t want to buy a large one, so I substituted two tablespoons of vodka with 1/4 teaspoon of ground star anise for the ouzo.

The pie

Method:
Bring the stock to a simmer and add the porcini mushrooms. Remove from the heat and set aside to soften.

Heat a large, heavy-based pan with a third of the oil and butter, add the shallots and cook on high heat for 10 minutes, stirring, until soft and brown. Transfer to a bowl. Add another third of the oil and butter to the pan, and cook the chestnut and shiitake mushrooms on medium-high heat for a minute without stirring. Stir, cook for a minute, then add to the bowl. Repeat with the oyster and buna shimeji mushrooms

Tip everything back in the pan, add the porcini mushrooms and stock and lots of salt and pepper, and simmer vigorously for eight minutes, until reduced by two-thirds. Reduce the heat to low, add the crème fraîche and cook for another eight minutes. Once a relatively small amount of thick sauce is left, add the ouzo and stir through the herbs, adjust the seasoning to taste then set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, cut the pastry in two and roll both blocks into 4mm-thick squares. Rest in the fridge for 20 minutes, then cut into circles, one 27cm in diameter, the other 29cm. Leave to rest in the fridge again for at least 10 minutes.

Heat the oven to 200C/390F/gas mark 6. Place the smaller circle on a baking sheet lined with grease-proof paper, spread the mushroom filling on top, leaving a 2cm border all around. Brush the edge with egg, lay the other circle on top and seal the edges. Use a fork to make decorative parallel lines around the edge. Brush with egg and use the blunt edge of a small knife to create circular lines running from the centre to the edge, just scoring the pastry but not cutting through it.

Bake for 35 minutes, until golden on top and cooked underneath. Allow to rest for ten minutes then serve.

Freekeh and pomegranate salad
Ingredients:

  • 200g/7oz freekeh, pearled spelt or pearled barley
  • 5 tbsp olive oil
  • 4 spring onions, finely chopped (leave these out if you don’t like them)
  • 1 pomegranate, seeds only
  • handful flatleaf parsley, roughly chopped
  • handful mint, roughly chopped
  • 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • 2 tbsp pistachios, roughly crushed
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freakout freekeh salad

Method:

Put the freekeh and 1 litre/1¾ pint water in a pan together with 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes until just tender. Drain and allow to cool

When cool, mix together the freekeh with the spring onions, pomegranate seeds and herbs. Season with salt and pepper.

Whisk together the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil and the pomegranate molasses with a pinch of salt, and dress the salad with it, mixing gently. Serve topped with pistachios.

What did you do for new year?

Main image: Hot hound

Merry Creepsmas

A friend of mine has a special Christmas tradition. Every year she posts a selection of photos for what she calls the Twelve days of Creepsmas on Facebook. This post about alarming Christmas traditions is inspired by those photos of creepy Santa’s with terrified children.

Get my goat

Krampus

A half-goat, half-demon and his band of ill tempered elves haunt the Tyrolean mountains in the Austrian Alps during the festive season on the hunt for children . Krampus, with his furry body, disfigured face inset with red eyes below big curled horns terrorizes the streets with wild jangling bells, animal like growls and fierce dancing as he beats people with birch branches.

Good children get presents from Santa, bad children (as well as drunks and laggards) got Krampus who whips or abducts them, stuffs them in a sack and drags them off through the snow to the underworld. His roots are in pre-Germanic paganism and he is believed the be the son of the Norse god of the underworld, Hel. His legend has such force that it survived attempts by the Catholic Church to banish his celebrations in the 12th century. Krampus is a perfect antidote to the overly commercial, cheer filled version of Christmas.

Mari Lwyn (Y Fari Lwyd)

Rustle

Dead horses are more in fashion than goats in Wales. Mari Lwyd (the Grey Mare) is a horses skull wrapped with a white sheet, empty eye sockets and ear holes decorated and the figure draped with colourful reins, ribbons and bells. Despite her macabre appearance Mari Lwyd is supposed to bring good luck.

She and her entourage go door knocking and sing rhyming insults in Welsh to occupants to try and gain access. In the ritual the occupants of the house must respond with their own verse to try to outwit Mari and prevent her and her gang from entry. Eventually she is let in. Apparently Mari’s entry scares off unwanted problems from the closing year and brings the household luck for the new. She also drinks all the liquor, eats all the food and generally causes mayhem (including chasing any young women she takes a fancy to around the house). You can view an example of the doorstep exchange here.

Meow, Istanbul

Yule Cat (Jólakötturin)

In Iceland if you don’t have some swanky new clothes to wear at Christmas you could be eaten up by a giant vicious cat. It’s unclear where the cat idea originated from but the clothing part of the myth is thought to have begun as a mechanism to urge farm workers to be more productive in the lead up to Christmas when hard workers were given new clothes to wear by their employers.

Improvised Santa

Icelanders don’t just have to worry about giant cats at Christmas either. Thirteen trolls with names like Pot Scraper, Bowl Licker, Window Peeper and Doorway Sniffer; along with a many headed, child eating, husband murdering ogress called Grýla come down from the mountains in December. Naughty children are taken back to Grýla’s lair to be devoured.

Witches and broomsticks

In Eastern Europe the Christmas witch Frau Perchta, a shape-shifter, creeps into homes and leaves a piece of silver in the shoes of children and servants who have been good. The naughty ones have their stomachs split open and after being disembowelled their organs are replaced with pebbles and straw. She’s also a bit of a stickler for domestic neatness and lazy ladies get the same treatment as naughty children if their housekeeping standards don’t measure up.

Reluctance

The Norwegians worry about evil spirits and witches that appear on Christmas eve and steal their brooms to go joy riding. Households take preventative measures and hide all the household brooms so they have the equipment needed to clean up after the festivities are over. In some households the men go outside and fire shotguns for good measure to scare the bad spirits away.

I’m anticipating my own Christmas celebrations to be far less dramatic, with a focus on the company of friends and family and the devouring of good food under the watchful eye of the giant hound who will hopefully protect us against any evil visitations. May your season be peaceful and your traditions bring good will. See you on the other side.

How do (or don’t) you celebrate the festive season?

Main image: The decoration, Berlin

A good life

I started to watch The Sopranos last night. From the beginning again. Psychoanalysis anyone? It’s almost twenty years since Tony Soprano, violent mobster and family man, landed in Dr. Melfi’s therapy office after a panic attack and started his own personal search for meaning.

The show is at its heart a study in existentialism. We all look for and crave a sense of meaning in our lives. Some find it in god, love, money, or the pursuit of social justice. We expend a lot of energy seeking purpose.

Extraterrestrial Highway, Nevada

Existentialism tells us that life has no meaning except for that which we ascribe to it. In the words of Dr Melfi: “When some people first realize that they’re solely responsible for their decisions, actions, and beliefs, and that death lies at the end of every road they can be overcome by intense dread.”

Existentialism demands  we are responsible for what we do, who we are, the way we face and deal with the world, and collectively we are ultimately responsible for how the world is. We cannot abdicate that responsibility to a god that only exists because we choose to believe in them.

As Satre said we are condemned to be free and we suffer from an abundance of freedom. Each of us must design our own moral code to live by, even if it is the template offered to us by our parents or our church. It is a template we choose to inherit. To live authentically we must take responsibility for all our actions as they are freely chosen.

Sand art, Byron Bay

The Sopranos showcases the impossibility of attempts to compartmentalise evil acts, and separate them from the rest of our life. In Tony Soprano’s case maintaining a real family life and a Mafia life without the latter corrupting and threatening the former is impossible. He’s convinced he’s created a church and state separation between his two lives and somehow justifies his criminal activity by the fact that he provides for his family. His wife Carmella lives in her own orbit of self deceit and turns a blind eye to the reality of her husbands ‘business’ in order to enjoy the comfort of her Mafia funded princess lifestyle. Being his accomplice means she is constantly haunted by feelings of guilt and shame herself.

Museum of Modern Art, New York

This morning I woke up to news from the USA in an article on Facebook reporting George Pell’s conviction on historical sexual abuse charges. It had not been reported in the Australian press due to suppression orders as there is another trial yet to take place. The article made me think of The Sopranos. Like Tony Soprano, Pell’s life choices have come back to haunt him and his actions have been shown to be inconsistent with the view of himself he had promoted to the world.

The clerical hero of some of this countries most senior politicians has fallen, and it makes me wonder what it says about the judgement of our political leaders who have sworn by Pell’s counsel. What is their role, like Carmella, as accomplices in Pells deceit? Have they all chosen religion as a moral code to hide behind, rather than live by? Do they use it to justify themselves as inherently good?

Secrets and lies are at the heart of a good mystery but they do not make for a happy life. In the Sopranos there is a scene were Tony sees an abridged quote from The Scarlet Letter displayed on the wall at his daughters college: “No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.” To find happiness we must organise some kind of harmony between all the parts of ourselves. We need to create an internal attuned unity that is consistent with our actions to avoid the kind of existential crisis Tony Soprano faced. Public figures and prominent people cannot be exempt from the consequences of their failure to live authentically.

Franz Kafka, Prague

The Sopranos ends in ten seconds of black silence. An ending that bewildered viewers. Messy and contradictory. Did Tony die or not? Was he taken out without seeing it coming as he himself predicted? Does it matter? The ending is ambiguous, but we all know that eventually everything ends in death – the truth of human morality. A truth that must be faced to live authentically and grasp our full potential.

Main image: The Rocky Mountains, Colorado