HelenHayward

life writing

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the perfect dog

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I was going to have the perfect dog. The same kind of dog that my grandmother used to walk in the park every morning, rain or shine. We got that dog last October. On the background of my phone, a two-month-old still Digger stares out at me, mud on his head, as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

 

I never said it out loud, but Digger was to be my defence against loneliness. Whatever else life threw at me, in years to come, he would be at the centre of a life that I was as yet unable to imagine.

 

Every morning, since last October, I have let Digger out of his crate, pulled up the blind and unlocked the back door. Then down five steps and out into the garden we go. Digger doesn’t need me to go out with him any more. He isn’t a tiny puppy in need of toilet training. But I’ve always gone out with him, and now he expects it, waiting on the bottom step until he’s sure I’m coming. I love these early minutes, before the garden wakes up. It gives me a chance to see the morning as it really is – dew on the grass, blossoms budding – so different to the stream of things in need of doing that greets me as soon as I step back into the kitchen.

 

I wanted the perfect dog, even knowing it didn’t exist. Having had to end the life of an anxious dog just a year ago, I felt that we deserved a break. Instead of a neurotic dog from the pound we would get a reliable dog, a trainable, child-friendly dog from a breeder. Personally I’d have gone for a non-shedding breed, if I hadn’t known that other traits were more important. As did our vet. A dog that didn’t bark would have been nice. (I know, I know, not really a dog at all.) In the end, after much deliberation, we went for a yellow Labrador. My daughter was still at home to train him and was, she kept telling me, tauntingly, a better trainer than me.

 

I’m sure I’m not the only one who only reads the dog books after they bring their puppy home. Yet even the most detailed dog book couldn’t have described how total the impact that Digger has had on my life, especially once I made the decision that I would get my life back quicker if I put him in the middle of it while he needed me most. That is when it hit me. Just as my kids were making moves to leave home, I’d saddled myself with a cross between a toddler and a small pony. If there was such a thing as post-puppy depression, I had it. How could I placate a boisterous, bitey, demanding puppy and keep my writing life afloat? Digger wasn’t going to defend me against future loneliness, I chided myself, he was going to be the cause of it.

 

Then a friend told me about the local dog park. Unlike visiting the dog beach, where my heart leapt into my mouth when Digger careered up the beach and embraced every which dog, right from the start the dog park felt more tame. Digger still careered about, jumping vertically and being rounded up, ears flapping like Dumbo, by faster dogs. But I didn’t feel panicked at the dog park. The metre-high fence around the long rectangular park worked to contain Digger and to relax me.

 

At first we went to the park once a week, then three times and, when my daughter was away, sometimes more. I could do some work, or go to yoga, and leave Digger in the car until we got to the dog park where he ran off his buzzy energy and I chatted to other dog owners who told me all about what I was in for. On cold mornings it was sunny and, even in the rain, dry inside my husband’s oilskin jacket, the hillside park had charm.

 

Initially I chatted to other dog owners to pass the time of day. But as the months passed, I realised that I was doing more than this. It was small talk, yes. But it wasn’t trivial talk. I was getting to know a range of people via their relationship to their dog. The woman who kicked a tennis ball across the kitchen to amuse her collie puppy as she ate her breakfast. And the surprisingly large number of people who slept with their dog on or in their bed.

 

Soon Digger hit adolescence and became possessed with extra buzz. The best way to channel this newfound energy, he decided with the wisdom of his puppy brain, was to go for the collar of other dogs. Not all dogs, and not on every trip to the park. But on those occasions when he did, he’d bite at the other dog’s collar until the play was broken up. Another dog owner took me aside and instructed me in how to lure Digger away before his play became too heated. Did I listen to her? No. I listened. I was polite. But privately I thought that she was interfering and that Digger was just having fun.

 

A month passed during which Digger started going for dogs’ collars at the park more regularly. Thinking that he needed something in his mouth, I bought a long red plastic stick for him to play tug-of-war with other dogs. Problem solved.

 

Three weeks ago, Digger played and played with a Golden Retriever to the point that I asked Peggy’s owner, who I knew to chat to, to give Peggy some time out on lead, which she did. Five minutes later she let Peggy off again and Peggy went straight back to nipping at Digger’s ear. The two dogs ran a little way away, locked in furious play. Then it happened. Digger got his jaw wrapped in a loop round Peggy’s loosened collar which meant that as I tried to pull Digger off Peggy, Peggy’s collar tightened to the point of choking her. Now Peggy’s owner was at my ear, swearing and hissing as I struggled for the thirty long seconds it took me to get Digger’s jaw out of the tightened collar. Peggy vomited over her owner’s shoes and I stood back in a sweat, Digger on his leash.

 

Terry and I looked at each other. We were both crying. Digger was quiet. Neither Terry nor I were angry. Terry said that it had been 50/50, in terms of who was to blame, though I felt it wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Digger’s collar habit. Terry said that the next time they came to the dog park, and Peggy played with Digger, that she would take off Peggy’s collar. I smiled my thanks and silently wondered if Digger and I would ever return to the dog park again.

 

Back home I texted the dog trainer who has helped me in the past and she texted back some sensible advice. At her suggestion, I booked Digger into a second day a week at the country kennels that he was already booked into once a week, where he could get as boisterous and muddy as he liked with 28 other dogs. And for the next few weeks, instead of visiting the dog park, we went for long walks, which Digger didn’t like nearly as much but I liked more because the risk of collar biting on a bush track was nil.

 

A month passed. Last Sunday, I woke up with the thought that I could only return to the dog park if I gave up my happily-ever-after story of the perfect dog, and thought through our next visit before I even got to the park. I got a sardine from the freezer and wrapped it in a plastic bag which I put in my jacket pocket, thinking that I could use it to lure Digger away from another dog if I thought he was about to lose control. I made a mental pact with myself to leave the dog park after a shortish amount of time. And I decided to stay in his range, just in case.

 

It was a cold sunny morning, my favourite weather. Digger seemed happy to be back at the park. Did he know that I was watching out for him as he raced from one pack of dogs to the next? Thankfully he behaved well. Not impeccably, but well for a teenage Labrador. We left the park the moment that he started eyeing off the bright purple harness of a four-month Pug pup. He never found out about the frozen sardine in my pocket and he tagged along, tail wagging, as we walked up the hill, behind the park, to see the early spring lambs. ‘But’, said my daughter, that night at dinner, ‘didn’t you say you were never going to the dog park again?. ‘Yes’, I said. ‘Never say never!’

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you only have to know how to cook 12 dishes

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Hearing Yotam Ottolenghi speak, in our city concert hall, didn’t change the way I cook. I didn’t go home, his cookbook under one arm, and switch on my computer to buy his rose Harissa paste on-line. But I did go home thinking differently about my life in the kitchen.

 

Two middle-aged men, talking from low comfy chairs on a large stage, in front of a publicity screen of a yellow lemon, wasn’t jaw-dropping theatre. Yet, there we were, 1500 of us, mainly women, lapping up their words as the conversation meandered from the profit-and-loss-led restaurant world, to the pleasures of home cooking.

 

This was when, for me, the conversation got interesting. ‘When friends come to your place for a meal’, Yotam said, ‘they don’t want to be surprised by a new dish. They come to your place because they like you and enjoyed what they ate when they last came over. They don’t come to be impressed by some dish you’ve never cooked before. They came in the hope of talking in a relaxed way round your table.’

 

I sat up in my seat. This is what I’d left my own kitchen table, part way through supper, to hear. Not commercial restaurant gossip. I’d come to think through the perennial dilemma I feel in the kitchen, around wanting and not wanting to cook. I’d come to hear how I might make cooking into something that I looked forward to and liked doing, rather than a chore I had mixed feelings about it.

 

The people I know who love being in the kitchen are good cooks. Some of them are trained chefs. Others devoted themselves to cooking from a young age. All of them seem to thrive on cooking with an audience. They enjoy throwing a meal together, rarely consult recipes, and never appear to fuss. I also know quite a lot of people who, all thumbs in the kitchen, avoid cooking whenever possible. They delegate cooking to an able partner. They eat out. They warm up frozen meals or resort to a small stable of dishes with a minimum of pantry ingredients. They eat to live, rather than the other way round.

 

Yotam Ottolenghi was suggesting another approach to cooking that I hadn’t thought of. Something simpler and so glaringly obvious that I’d spent decades in the kitchen blind to.

 

Ottolenghi isn’t a trained chef. He learned to cook as a student at university on a tight budget. He learned to cook because he found himself starving. He missed his mother’s Middle Eastern cooking and his father’s Italian cooking. He worked out how to cook by experimenting, by trial and error. Possibly as a result of this, thirty years on, he still loves cooking.

 

Sitting in the audience, I felt a weight lift. I wasn’t being told to perfect my knife skills. I didn’t have to fork out for an expensive cooking course held at an inconvenient time and place. I didn’t have to start writing menu plans a week ahead or frequenting special shops to look out expensive ingredients (although, Yotam did keep returning to a rose Harissa paste only available on his on-line shop).

 

‘If you’re a home cook’, he said, ‘be a home a cook. Don’t expect to be a chef. And don’t be put off cooking by cooking shows on television. Home cooking is at an all-time low and the ratings of cooking shows are at an all-time high. Forget about expertise. Just cook the kind of dishes that you like yourself, and your family and friends will too.’

 

‘You don’t have to know how to cook everything. When friends come to your place, they come wanting more of the kind of food they enjoyed last time they came over. They don’t want a stressed out host who can’t relax until after the main course is served. There’s absolutely no rule about having different courses. A home kitchen isn’t a restaurant kitchen, with a sous chef to make sure courses go out on time. Don’t add to the pressure by trying to keep a dish hot in the oven without drying it out. Just get everything on to the middle of the table, and sit back and enjoy the feast.’

 

The two men on the stage nodded in agreement. ‘Besides, home cooking is often code for cooking for kids. And kids don’t like fancy food. But they do like good food. And they never fib about liking a dish. They either do, and say so, or don’t and make a face and push it away’. Laughing between themselves, as they soaked up the murmurs of the audience, Yotam went on to say something that completely changed my attitude to cooking.

 

‘If you’re a home cook’, he said, ‘and nearly all of us are home cooks, you really only need to know how to cook 12 dishes. Good cooking is about practice. Enjoying cooking is about confidence. So it makes sense to focus on a finite number of dishes, a repertoire of dishes, which you can expand on and adapt but always have in your mind to fall back on. You know what I mean. One great soup. One terrific cake. One risotto or rice dish. A vegetable dish that doesn’t have vegetarian stamped all over it and that anyone can tuck into. One amazing dessert. One meal-in-itself salad. One roast that can be barbecued in summer and will warm your kitchen in winter.’

 

‘This’, he said, ‘is all you have to do. If you get these core dishes right, that’s enough. Of course you can change them, but the main thing is to get up enough confidence that you feel able to express yourself in the kitchen. Because unless you get the timing right – cooking is all about timing – you will never feel truly competent. Timing comes down to practice, to doing the same thing over and over, until your brain knows what to do without you telling it.’

 

There was a hush in the auditorium as mobile phones dropped into laps. Did that mean, I wondered, that I didn’t have to buy Ottolenghi’s cookbook? Would I be better off slipping out of the concert hall, at the end of the talk, and scribbling down the 12 dishes I would like to be confident cooking, and stop intimidating myself with a level of expertise that will never be mine?

 

In the end I felt so grateful to Yotam Ottolenghi for saying what I needed him to say – yet till that second hadn’t known I needed him to say – that I bought his yellow cookbook.

 

The next morning at breakfast I sat down with my notebook and wrote down my list of 12 dishes. It felt ridiculously simple to do. There was barely any dithering. I wasn’t beset by the kind of indecision that usually preys on me when I sit down to plan meals. Instead I identified 12 dishes that I knew worked in my kitchen and worked back from that. When I was done I looked over my list. I knew I’d cheated a little, by extending each category. Still, it was a basic list.

 

I also felt pleased to admit that I didn’t want to be a great cook. That I love good food, but don’t always love cooking. The idea of being able to frame my relationship to cooking by identifying a set number of dishes that, like old friends, I can rely on, makes the world of difference to me. I can feel confident in the kitchen without having to master a huge number of recipes. I can be a minimalist cook and feel no shame in that.

I’ll never be a great cook, just as I’ll never be a great artist. But I can be a perfectly good home cook, and I can start right now.

Here is my list:

  1. Soup – chicken, stock, vegetable
  2. Salad – Greek, Tabbouleh, vinaigrette
  3. Roast – chicken/salmon
  4. Rice – risotto/fried
  5. Ragu/Bolognese
  6. Bread – sourdough, pizza
  7. Vegetarian – roasted veggies, soaked beans
  8. Sauces – humus, mayonnaise, guacamole
  9. Eggs – baked, scrambled etc
  10. Cake – carrot
  11. Tart – fruit
  12. Pie – shortcrust

 

 

 

 

 

handyman

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His hands were rough, the pads on his fingers worn smooth. He finished off putty with his index finger, as if a tool from the hardware store. His clothes were lightly smeared with paint and putty from previous jobs. Softly spoken and willing to turn his hand to anything, Dave thought nothing of his skills – plumbing, roofing, gardening, electrics, carpentry, decorating. The only skill he lacked was self-promotion. A self-taught builder who left school at 14, over the months Dave taught me everything I came to know about renovating.

 

Around 9am for the nine months of our reno, he knocked at the front door. Rain or shine, sick or well, I could count on his knock. ‘G’day’, he said, before we discussed the morning’s work. After an hour or so I tracked him down for a chat, with a mug of milky tea and a few biscuits. Sometimes I minded having to stop and chat mid morning, and again in the afternoon. Weren’t we just passing the time of day, when there was so much to be getting on with? Until, realising my arrogance, I saw that everything ran more smoothly when he and I shared more of ourselves than was demanded by the pragmatics of renovating.

 

Working alongside Dave taught me practical skills: how to lay tiles, decorate, mix cement and plug large holes. Even more than these skills, I learned from his example that the most important thing, when it comes to renovating, is getting on with jobs as they come up. He taught me not to wait until I had everything on hand that a job required, but to start straight away and to pick up the necessary bits as I went along.

 

One morning, towards the end of our renovation, I mentioned that I wanted to fix the jasmine vine which was growing drunkenly along the fence from the front door to the front gate. I’d put off this gardening job for months, thinking it would mean pulling the vine off the fence and attaching a wooden trellis underneath. In the middle of our chat, Dave said, ‘Hang on a minute’, and headed out to his van. Two minutes later he returned with a roll of garden wire, his drill and a pocket full of screws. I held one end of the wire, which we strung along the fence in rows, like a washing line, fixing the wire with long screws drilled into the wooden fence every metre or so. Then we picked up hunks of the vine and hooked them on to the protruding screws, tucking tendrils of vine under the wire. That was it, twenty minutes at most.

 

It’s hard to describe how satisfying I found the effect of this job. Until Dave helped me to lift this vine, I’d noted its heavy drooping, like a line of unmilked cows, each time I’d left or entered the house. Countless times I’d wished that it would miraculously lift itself up. Yet I’d also turned a blind eye to it; there seemed so many more urgent things do. Until this particular morning when, after chatting to Dave over his cuppa, the vine became young again, no longer a heaving rebuke as I brushed past it.

 

It wasn’t just Dave’s flexibility that impressed me, from laying floorboards in the basement to showing me how to use an electric drill. It was his willingness, his absence of unwillingness, that struck me. Working alongside him made me realise that it was as much my dilly-dallying before a job, as the skills required for it, that had been holding me back.

 

Even after I finished renovating, and Dave became an occasional and not a daily presence, he was still with me. He was with me when I put off a straightforward job, like putting putty around loose panes in an old window. He was with me when I moved a bush in the garden, shovelled compost on to a hungry flower bed or divided a thicket of agapanthus. He wasn’t around to chat anymore, but he was there – he still is – as a guide and prompt.

 

Having Dave keep me company in my head helps with the hardest part of every job, starting. He shows me that, even in a big old house, the so-called little jobs make the biggest difference, and that these take less time than I imagine they will when I’m feeling put upon or stressed. Most practically, he helps me to break down messy jobs into steps – even if it’s only to write a note in my diary, or to take a photo of an offending gutter – and to eat the elephant that way.

 

later

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During my early 30s I read the same story, in various magazines, about a woman with small children and a busy working life. These stories weren’t airbrushed; although, the photography was always beautiful. I felt drawn to these stories about women, only a few tantalising years older than myself, who seemed to be getting it together, life, work and family. They gave me hope. Reading them made me feel that if I ever had children, I too could expect my life to be messy but basically good. My mornings would be rushed, I’d have less time to myself, but my life would be richer for having a family in the middle of it. However I overlooked one thing. These stories were written from the outside looking in, by a journalist with her thumb on a record button and an afternoon deadline. They weren’t written from inside the mind of the woman profiled, who may well have forgotten what she told the journalist by the time the story was published. Just as the editor of the magazine hoped, I was seduced by the stylish mayhem of this particular family, captured by a photographer with a deadline of his own. A dog walking out the back door, open lunchboxes on an otherwise clear bench top, a half drunk cup of tea, and morning sun filtering through a tree by the window. There were no regrets in these photos, no toddler meltdowns, work deadlines or mortgage stress. There was no mental to-do list of what the woman needed to do before school pick-up. Instead everything was captured in that moment of domestic insouciance, that freeze frame of a day about to happen. It didn’t looked staged to me, it looked just like a life I might want for myself.

 

In many ways I have lived that life. For years I made breakfast before school in a lovely kitchen for two kids, filled lunchboxes and drank cold tea on the fly. And yet, in all that time, despite yoga classes and walks in nature and holidays by the sea, I’ve struggled to get a handle on the process by which my desire for a certain way of life has a way of turning into a set of demands, of expectations, that I’m then compelled to respond to. Daydreaming about having a family, in my early thirties, was easy; looking after what I went on to have, as days, weeks and years rolled by, has been far more challenging and time consuming. Overcoming my resistance to looking after my home, whether it’s thinking ahead about what to cook for supper, or arranging for a roof leak repair, demands a certain sort of courage. Courage may not be a quality normally associated with housekeeping, but in my experience it requires energy and discipline to care about, and to keep on caring about, domesticity; to push aside my noisy ego when I don’t feel like cooking supper, and to think ahead to the pleasure and relief that a good meal brings; and, yes, gratitude at having a family to cook for. The energy and discipline that domesticity requires from me is ongoing. These days housekeeping feels like a practice, akin to yoga or drawing; and how I think about it hugely informs how I feel as I go about doing it.

 

When I was at school, every morning at half past six, my mother would wake up, dress and go downstairs to prepare breakfast. At half past seven my family, six of us, sat down to eat. When I became a mother, rarely did I sit down to eat breakfast with my kids. There were too many other things to do: bread to toast, eggs to boil, sports uniform to unearth from the clothes basket, school notes to sign, musical instruments to find. During this period, I had yet to cotton on that there is no later. I kept a mental to-do list, and spent a lot of time negotiating with my kids and Paul for them to help around the house. I used my power over them to corral them, to emotionally complicate them, into sharing the domestic load. I might not be able to make them want to clear up after themselves, but I could glower and look fed up until they pulled their weight.

 

Until, that is, it dawned on me that there is no later. At no one point did I grasp this; it was rather a series of moments that, over time, joined up to become a clear line. When it finally sank in, I felt excited and a little scared. But also liberated. I stopped waiting for the right time to do things, and just on with them there and then. I opened mail at the front door, rather than leaving it on the hall table for fear of having to deal with its innards. I paired socks at the clothes line rather than tossing them loose in the basket. Small actions like these made me feel competent, expedient. No more was I clogging up my future with things I knew I wouldn’t want to do then either. The energy I saved on resisting household tasks had the unexpected effect of buoying me up. Feeling domestically competent gave me confidence. By dealing with things as they came up I sent myself the message that there was nothing to fear from what was to come because I was already dealing with it. By completing tasks as they came up – washing to hang, shopping to do – I crossed them off my list before they turned into chores that the mere passage of time had the effect of drawing negative feelings to them. By preparing dinner because it was 6.30pm, rather than waiting until I was in the mood to cook, I was less likely to turn cooking into a chore that my low blood sugar led me to avoid. And voila, dinner was cooked without the ragbag of emotions I otherwise overlaid it with when, in avoidance of cooking, I fell into looking at Internet news sites, or walked our dog late. There was another thing. I was emotionally dependent on my family, no question; yet in doing things as they came up, in not wasting energy resisting household tasks or nagging family to do them, I gained a degree of independence from them. Once I’d stopped expecting them to ease my load – they did their bit but that was it – it was as if I acquired my own sphere of action in which I could get on my life, domestic and otherwise, and so steer my ship in its own direction.

 

 

 

 

 

overwhelm

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Overwhelm creeps up slowly. It doesn’t happen from one minute to the next.

A few weeks ago I was in a rhythm. My puppy was in daycare twice a week for half a day. My daughter was working long hours. I had breathing space. I had a deadline for my work, but this only served to focus he time I had to myself.

 

Until twelve days ago I picked up my 7-month Lab puppy from daycare to be told, in no uncertain terms, that it was time for him to be desexed. He was humping other dogs and, from a daycare point of view, the operation that I had agreed with the vet to defer for as long as possible ‘couldn’t’, as they put it ‘happen soon enough’.

 

Just as I was hitting my stride, completing two manuscripts for my agent to send to a publisher, I was back at square one, fitting in my work around seemingly, annoyingly, more important things. It seemed fitting, somehow, that two projects which have at their heart the dilemma posed by looking after ourselves and others, should be compromised, in their final stages, by household demands.

 

My puppy knew no better. How was he supposed to understand why he had stitches in the most intimate part of his anatomy, requiring him to wear a red plastic cone whenever he was alone? How was he supposed to know that swimming and not playing with other dogs was off limits for ten days? And how was I supposed to deal with the frustration that led him to jump up and bite me when I took him on long walks to tire him out?

 

In the past, when I was under the hammer with work, I’d stay up late, drinking tea and eating dark chocolate, snoozing on my folded arms on my desk before waking up and working on. But nowadays, by the time the house falls quiet at 10pm, the last thing I feel like doing is opening up my laptop. I’ve already put in a good long day, I tell myself, why prolong it only to wake up tired?

 

Since late last October last thing at night and first thing in the morning I’ve taken our puppy outside for a wee. Looking after him in this way has top and tailed my every day. I don’t mind; I’m glad that he’s fairly well house-trained. But it’s still a thing that I do that I don’t look forward to it nor can choose not to do. And yet I’m proud that he has grown up secure enough inside to be able to rely on me for this.

 

What, really, is overwhelm? How is it distinct from the cold bug that I picked up at the same time as my daughter fell ill; the kind of bug I so often get at changes of season, as we head into autumn? Is it feeling bossed around from within by a lengthening list of Things I Should Be Doing (admin, housekeeping, writing)? Is it wanting to throw my hands in the air to make the real and imaginary demands go away, like throwing off a  blanket during the night?

 

Overwhelm feels different from stress; although, prolonged stress does seem to lead to overwhelm. Perhaps overwhelm is stress that goes on so long that it becomes a permanent overlay on awareness; such that I cease to recall what not feeling stressed feels like.

 

But I do know what not feeling stressed feels like. I felt it just this morning when I dropped my puppy off at daycare, knowing that – like a mother dropping off her toddler at creche – for the next four hours that particular demand wouldn’t be mine.

 

‘Clutter’, writes Adam Phillips, ‘is other people’. And dogs, I would add. We think that it’s the stuff in our life that leads us to feel overwhelm; that if only we could order and limit the demands that life makes on us, all would be well. But what if it’s not just other people, or our stuff, that gets to us? That creeps under our skin and ‘nets’ us? ‘I have met the enemy’, a middle-aged man told Carl Jung, ‘and it was me’. What if we can’t escape the demands that other people (and dogs) make on us because the motor of the demandingness that we feel lies in us?

 

Sadly I can’t get rid of my current stress. It has a basis in real life. For the next few weeks I have to live with the fear that two of my manuscripts that have been sent to a publisher will receive a polite rejection.

 

I don’t meditate. And, whenever I feel overwhelmed, getting to yoga becomes too difficult. For me, overwhelm is the mental equivalent of a bad cold. When I’ve got it, I’ve got it; it colours everything. Until, thankfully, it passes, like a high pressure system, such that even days later I can’t remember being in it. I hope it passes soon.

photo essay on domesticity

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where there’s smoke

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Last week my daughter, worried about bushfires, downloaded the local fire department app on to her phone. Yesterday at breakfast, before we’d finished eating, the colour of the small diamond shapes across the map of our state had changed from white to yellow, and a few to red, reflecting the danger level of the bushfires currently burning.

 

Six months ago, waiting for the kettle to boil to fill my hot water bottle late at night, I read about the fires raging across the state of California. The journalist was such a good writer that I could almost smell smoke. Yet it was sympathy not empathy I felt for Californians faced with days on end of being unable to open their windows, there being no fresh air to let in, only ash and smog.

 

When we lived in Melbourne, nearly ten years ago, bad fires and relentless summer heat were part of what led us to move south. One memorable morning I woke to a red sky. By afternoon the temperature outside was so hot that when I went out to drape a sheet over the stakes supporting our tomato plants, I heard a thud and turned to see that a possum had fallen out of a tree behind me.

 

This morning I woke around dawn to the smell of smoke. Opening the bathroom window, which overlooks Mount Wellington, I saw a sleepy suburb, street lights still on, blanketed in smoke. Forcing myself not to look at my bedside clock, I shut the windows and went back to bed with a heavy heart.

 

At 6am, when my alarm went off for early yoga, I was staring at the ceiling. The second half of yoga class was given over to partner work, which I did with a young woman who, when I enquired whether she was worried about the fires, looked puzzled. ‘I don’t really know about them’, she said. ‘I don’t read the news and I meditate a lot. I only know there are fires because a friend, who lives near one of them, is worried about her animals’. ‘Really?’ I said, impressed by her quiet self-possession, clear blue eyes, and willingness not to know about fires with a combined front of 720 km.

 

Last night, on one of the only local bush tracks not closed to the public, I admitted to my daughter that I would be glad when the next day, today, was over. And, though I’m not religious, I said a little prayer in my head.

 

*     *     *

 

Now that day is over. Though the fires were bad, are still bad, they were not as bad as they could have been. Thankfully it is possible to go outside again, though only for short bursts. The windows of our house remain closed.

 

Perhaps, like the young woman in my yoga class, it would be better to meditate than to ruminate. But it strikes me that I come from a generation which isn’t doing a very good job of looking after this planet. Our capacity for denying our collective responsibility seems limitless. I don’t like to think about how much wildlife must have fallen from trees in the path of recent wildfires, still burning across this state.

 

 

digger and me

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Our puppy is no angel, though people insist he is cute. Digger, my daughter’s choice of name, doesn’t dig the garden. Instead, on average once a day, he’ll jump up in an agitated way and bite whatever he can – clothes, my wrist, my daughter’s thighs in shorts. He also enjoys chewing library books and electrical cords. This is not what having a new puppy has taught me. What I’m grateful to him for is this. Whenever he encounters a new sight – a swarm of sailing boats on our local beach, a bird he hasn’t seen before, a dog in the distance with whom he’d like to play – he’ll stop in his tracks, sit and look. For a moment which might last up to a minute, taking in this new scene is the most important thing, the only thing, Digger wants to do.

 

I thought I’d read all the puppy books. Until, a month ago, The Labrador Handbook arrived in the post, six weeks after I’d ordered it. Pippa Mattinson, a wonderfully clear dog writer, set my mind at ease on a number of matters. It’s normal for a Lab pup to have what she calls ‘zoomies’ – to momentarily lose his mind, not unlike a toddler having a tantrum. She explained that Digger running round like a lunatic, a bull in a china shop, making a mockery of my favourite plants, flattened in his wake, was a passing phase. Rather than being surprised when he bit me with crocodile teeth one minute, and lay down in a heap the next, free of remorse, I should just accept it.

 

95 percent of the time our puppy is not a lunatic. He is affectionate and curious and demanding, and mostly a pleasure to be around. If he had his way he’d put the whole world in his mouth, the better to know it: cardboard, Christmas cards, socks, the knob off the radio. He has an uncanny ability, in our relatively puppy-proof kitchen, to suss out and chew the few stray items I don’t want him to have: a magazine on the table, a tapestry cushion on a stool, the computer charger cord.

 

Apart from food, Digger doesn’t know what he wants. A dried leaf, a hose nozzle, my apron straps, cherry stones; everything in his path is of interest, and just as quickly not. On entering the kitchen, he’ll look at me with a ‘What now?’ expression. When I upend his toy box, and feign interest in a stuffed monkey from the second-hand shop, he’ll head for the pantry, as if only I could be so dim as to think a toy monkey could compete with the unknowns of the out-of-bound pantry. Or he’ll nibble at my leather shoe straps, mocking my attempts to read. ‘What’, he seems to say as he gnaws the leg of my stool, ‘do you want to be doing that for?’

 

Digger arrived four months after our previous dog had to be put down by the vet. My daughter was desperate for a new dog, and I felt confident that she’d be around long enough to train it. Two months later, just getting on top of toilet training and slowly increasing the seconds Digger could focus on any one thing, my daughter floated the idea of a gap year to see the world. ‘What?’ I thought, indignant, forcing myself to stay quiet and in role. ‘But how could she?’ Was this a parental joke? Or, I let myself think, did Digger have something to teach me?

 

On New Year’s Day, my daughter interstate and my husband working, Digger and I went on an adventure. Driving down the coast for an hour, we stopped at Trial Bay, where once I would take my kids. I decided against the coastal path, knowing how little Digger relishes walking in a straight line, and made for the end of a new jetty jutting into the bay. Sitting cross-legged on sturdy mesh, I stared at the horizon. Digger was taken by the seaweed in the water below and by an Atlantic gull bobbing nearby. I don’t know how long we sat there, but it was long enough to realise that Digger wasn’t nibbling my arm or my shoe laces. He wasn’t interested in me. We were together yet separate for one of the first times.

 

Determined to have a cup of tea and to read a magazine, Digger sat under my table at an outdoor café where people at surrounding tables commented on how well-behaved he was. A couple of people mentioned they’d had a Lab, recalling how ‘intense’ the early phase had been, and reassured me that I’d be rewarded, around the age of two, with a calm dog. ‘Two years!’ I could hear myself shout in my head. Why did nobody tell me?

 

Yesterday, sitting reading under a tree in the park, a man with three dogs dropped to the ground for a chat. Within seconds Digger’s beef tendon had been taken off him by the man’s spaniel. The man chatted for five minutes before moving on. Though I barely recall what we talked about, I do remember thinking that it was a conversation I never would have had were it not for Digger slowing me down enough to be sitting in a park around lunchtime, passing the time of day.

blue light

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Late at night, when I should be tucked up in bed, I’d read stories on-line about the potential for harm to the retina from the blue light thrown by computer screens – particularly the way it suppresses melatonin and makes it harder to sleep. Snapping my computer shut and going guiltily to bed, I’d forget all about the blue light thrown by screens the next day. Until, two months ago, I read a fellow blogger’s post about her improved eyesight – she’s a journalist – after installing a blue-light cancelling filter on her laptop.

 

Around the age I am now my father asked me to read to him the daily share index from the newspaper, as I sat by his hospital bed after a cataract operation – months later repeated on his other eye. Cocooned by youth, never for a moment did I link my father’s eye problems with my own future eyesight. Till one day, earlier this year, I sat with my chin on a plastic shelf, looking into a new diagnostic retina camera, during a routine eye check-up, and heard an opthamology student mumble something about early signs of glaucoma to the assistant by his side. After a worried return visit, a more senior optician, who I usually see, set my mind at rest about early signs of cataracts or, worse, glaucoma – which my mother and aunt both suffered. The early signs of eye disease, picked up by the opthamology student, were shared by most people over a certain age; and, he reassured, weren’t a predictor of disease.

 

Nevertheless it was these memories that drew me to the journalist’s post about the benefits of blue-light cancelling software, and that led me to respond to the blogger’s urging to download free software. Looking at my laptop screen, after first installing this software – though I should admit that I asked my daughter to download it – made me feel as if I was wearing sunglasses inside the house. The screen had a yellowy hue. However I instantly forgave it because having it installed on my computer (and phone) lifted from my mind a weight I hadn’t known I’d been carrying. Installing blue-light cancelling software – which I adjusted to come on whenever my computer and phone is on, rather than as the sun goes down – had the immediate effect of stopping me worrying about eye disease in old age. I’m not so dim as to think a screen filter will shield me from eye problems, but I did feel that installing it was a form of insurance for my eye health into the future.

 

Three days later something unexpected, a bonus, happened. My eyes, which often felt irritated after working long hours on the screen, stopped feeling red and irritated, even after hours on the screen. Next I started leaving my glasses at home when I went out and worked on my computer. Having worn glasses on and off for years, I never imagined that I might come to need them less. Of course this software isn’t miraculous. I still read small print better with my glasses on. But I don’t need glasses the way I used to; mostly I can take them or leave them.

 

This leads me to wonder why opticians, and the media, aren’t more open about the potential benefits of blue-light cancelling software. Do we really want to raise a generation of squinty-eyed kids in need of eye surgery? Are we waiting for twenty-year controlled experiments to confirm word-of-mouth findings?

 

So here is my Christmas wish to you, dear reader. Install some free blue-light cancelling software, wait a few weeks, and see the difference!

pickles

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Watching my mother eating pickles on an open sandwich for lunch mystified me as a girl. How could she like eating something that was both salty and sweet? Yuk, I’d think to myself, as I tucked into my cheese and tomato sandwich.

 

Every year, around this time, in my part of Adelaide, home-made goodies would appear like mushrooms, tucked behind the wire screen and front door of our porch, out of direct sunlight. Pickled cucumbers with fennel, and onions stuck with cloves, were bottled and wrapped in an elaborate Christmas present exchange as complex as the bartering systems used by the Pacific islanders that I wrote essays about as an Arts undergraduate. Tiny rectangular cards with Christmas cheer would tell my mother who the gift was from, causing her to catch her breath when she hadn’t thought to wrap one for the giver. Shortbread biscuits, thinly disguised in cellophane, often didn’t make it through Christmas, pilfered by my sisters and me as they sat innocently under our decorated tree. White Christmas was another of my sisters’ and my favourites: golf-ball sized lumps of copha, glace cherries, icing sugar and rice bubbles. But the jars of pickled something always made it through Christmas untouched, before being stored, label out, in a cool cupboard.

 

The things you find exciting when you’re young often aren’t, the psychologist Daniel Goleman notes, the things that you end up liking as you get older. Yesterday, standing at the kitchen bench, eating slices of pickled cucumber, cheese and cabbage on bread for lunch, I caught my daughter out of the corner of my eye and imagined her having the exact same thought I’d had, all those years ago, watching my mother eat pickled guerkins: pickles, I sensed her thinking, yuk!

 

What we end up liking – be it pickles or botanical drawing or marzipan – generally isn’t what we found exciting when we were young. My liking for pickles – straight from the fridge with crisp vegetables and cheese – surprises even me.

 

Early this morning I caught the tail end of the ABC news on radio. As I stood in the kitchen making my breakfast, a four-boy choir, who’d just been interviewed in the radio station, sang ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. My husband was in bed in avoidance of an early dental appointment for a root canal. My daughter was also upstairs, waiting for me to leave the house with our puppy before coming down to have breakfast in peace. Rooted to the floor, I looked out the window as a 12-year-old soloist sang the first verse. By the time three other choristers had joined him I was in tears at the beauty, comfort and clarity of the impossibly high notes they were sounding, cutting through the news headlines, and my Scrooge-like attitude to Christmas, like so much shattering glass.

 

This, I thought to myself, is what Christmas is about. It isn’t about nuclear families cleaving smugly to themselves. It isn’t about fielding unwieldy emotional demands, making tasteful Scandinavian decorations, or buying guilt-induced presents. It always was and is still about transcending the ordinary. It is about living more deeply, tasting whatever is your equivalent of pickles, and giving back. Often, when Christmas carols are sung, I find myself wishing there were fewer verses. This morning, despite my hurry, I felt sad there were only four.