Of peonies and perception

Other people’s words about … memory

That was the beginning of that summer, which merged in many of their minds with other summers, but was remembered chiefly as the summer that young William was born, and there was that sad matter of the other baby; but remembered by Polly as the summer that [her cat] Pompey died and his splendid funeral; remembered by old William Cazalet as the summer he clinched the deal over buying the Mill Farm down the road; remembered by Edward as the summer when, offering to stand in for Hugh at the office, he met Diana for the first time; remembered by Louise as the summer she got the Curse; remembered by Teddy as the summer when he shot his first rabbit and his voice started going funny; remembered by Lydia as the summer she got locked in the fruit cage by the boys who forgot her, went off to play bicycle hockey and then to lunch and nobody found her until half-way through lunch (it was Nan’s day off) and she’d worked out that when the gooseberries were over, she’d die of nothing to eat; remembered by Sid as the summer when she finally understood that Rachel would never leave her parents, but that she, Sid, could never leave Rachel; remembered by Neville as the time his loose tooth came out when he was on his fairy cycle which he could only dismount by running into something so he swallowed the tooth and didn’t dare tell anyone, but waited in terror for it to bite him inside; remembered by Rupert as the summer when he realised that in marrying Zoe he had lost the chance of being a serious painter, would have to stick to school-mastering to provide her even with what she thought of as the bare necessities; remembered by [Edwards’s wife] Villy as the summer when she got so bored that she started to teach herself to play the violin and made a scale model of the Cutty Sark which was too large to put into a bottle, something she had done with a smaller ship the previous summer; remembered by Simon as the holidays Dad taught him to drive, up and down the drive in the Buick; remembered by Zoe as the frightful summer when she was three weeks late and thought that she was pregnant; remembered by the Duchy as the summer that the tree paeony first flowered; remembered by Clary as the summer she broke her arm falling off [her horse] Joey when Louise was giving her a riding lesson and when she sleepwalked into the dining room when they were all having dinner and she thought it was a dream and Dad picked her up and carried her to bed; remembered by Rachel as the summer she actually saw a baby being born, but also the summer when her back really started to go wrong, was only intermittently right for the rest of her life. And remembered by Will, whose first summer it was, not at all.

From ‘The Light Years
by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Today’s quote is a long one, so I’ll keep my own words short. Howard in this passage describes, poignantly, two things — first (and most obviously), the way our experiences are filtered by our own perceptions and then, further, by our own memories, so that the way one person remembers something can be entirely different from the way another remembers it; and second, she describes the summer of 1938, which was the year before World War II began, though Howard — deliberately, I think — does not say so in this passage, and does not have her characters remember it that way.

Every time I read this passage I find myself sympathising with a different character, or nodding in recognition at a different character’s thoughts or feelings. And then, in turn, I find myself thinking about my own memories, and re-examining them, and wondering how someone else, going through the same things, would perceive and remember them …

Snatched phrases about … sleep

‘His sleep is so light it’s some smallness of sleep,
some rumour of sleep.’

From ‘Fourth of July Creek’
by Smith Henderson

You know the kind of night Henderson describes above? We all do, right? Nights like that can leave you feeling very fragile.

I don’t have any solutions, except to remember that sometimes the only thing you can do when you’re feeling fragile yourself is to seek solace in the fragile things all about you:

What, then, is this?

Other people’s words about … therapy

Sometimes I wonder why I come here [to see my psychoanalyst] when the coming is so iterative, so forced. Having to come here sometimes feels like the biggest problem I have. I feel like a lonely man visiting a brothel, the money changing hands, paying for understanding as some people pay for love. And just as that is not love, so this cannot be understanding. What, then, is it?

from ‘Aftermath
by Rachel Cusk

As I’ve mentioned here before, I spent several years in and out of therapy, being treated for anorexia and its aftermath. I will be forever grateful to the therapists I saw during those years. They treated me with respect, patience, warmth and compassion. And they listened. Oh, they listened.

But I stayed in therapy too long, I think. I believed at the time that I was seeking a cure for my constant sense of malaise. That cure seemed terribly elusive. Now I think it was elusive because, subconsciously, I knew there wasn’t one. What I was really reaching out for was understanding, and that is not something I found in therapy sessions.

Therapy is a strange process. It is, as Rachel Cusk says in the passage above, a transaction of sorts. When that transaction starts to make you feel worse rather than better, when you feel lonelier leaving the therapist’s office than you did on arriving, it’s time to stop. It really is as simple as that, though it took me some time to figure this out.

Post-therapy, am I still seeking understanding? Yes, of course — just like everyone else. Have I found it? Not really. Perhaps no-one ever does. What I have found, though, is solace. I find solace in pots of tea, and walks along the beach, and wanders in the Scrub. I find it in cakes I bake, and books I’m reading, and camping trips I plan to go on. I find it in birdsong, and in leisurely bike rides, and in the company of my partner and my dog.

And I find solace in other people’s stories.

Tell me, then, where do you find solace?

Of love and tomatoes

Other people’s words about … tomato sandwiches

I’d asked [my disabled friend] Jessie when a doctor had last looked at her. She couldn’t remember, so [while Jessie was staying with me] I went to my doctor, still Jock Ledingham’s wife, Una, at her practice, which was in their home in Ladbroke Square.

Una listened to me kindly, and then asked if anyone was nursing her. ‘Only me.’ There was an awkward pause, and then I added, hardly audible, ‘And I’m afraid I’m very bad at it.’ Lack of food and sleep made me start crying again.

‘I’m going to make you a tomato sandwich,’ she said. ‘All my family can manage a tomato sandwich whatever they are feeling like.’ She did, and I ate it, and felt much better.

from ‘Slipstream: A Memoir
by Elizabeth Jane Howard (p. 147)

When I was a child, my mother would sometimes make my sister and me tomato rolls for dinner instead of our usual cooked meal. This was a summertime-only ritual — she saved it for those evenings when the air was thick and heavy with heat. My sister and I would have spent the day dipping in and out of the swimming pool, so that our skin and hair reeked of chlorine. We’d come inside and stretch out on the carpet in the living-room at the front of our house, next to an electric fan. We’d read, or watch the cricket on television, or play Lego, or colour in, while the fan blew warm air over us and our hair dripped down our backs, forming great wet circles on our t-shirts. And then, at last, it was dinnertime.

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My mother made her tomato rolls with white bread — the kind that is crusty on the outside and fluffy on the inside. She cut the rolls lengthwise in thirds rather than in halves, and then spread each layer thickly with butter. Over the butter she laid slices of tomato. Then, as a last touch, she seasoned the tomato with salt. (Never pepper. Children hate pepper.)

These were the days before Australians of Anglosaxon heritage knew about things like basil or coriander, ricotta or feta. We had never eaten avocado or garlic or extra virgin olive oil. We didn’t know of the existence of focaccia bread or ciabatta or sourdough. Most people ate margarine in preference to butter, thinking it was a healthier option. And we ate salt with everything — we lived in a hot climate, after all; we needed to replace the salt we’d sweated out during the day. So a tomato roll was just what it sounded like: a tomato roll. Nothing more, nothing less.

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It’s almost forty years since I ate one of my mother’s tomato rolls, and yet when I read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s words above about the curative powers of a tomato sandwich, I was instantly transported back to those simple summer meals my mother made us.

Bread. Butter. Tomatoes. Salt. I still think of this particular combination of food as the ultimate luxury, the greatest treat.

And as a symbol of my mother’s love.

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Note:
All the photos in this post depict our vegetable plot,  a plot at the back of our garden which my partner zealously tends, and which, despite his cheerful disregard for the weeds choking the vines, produces the most delicious tomatoes each year. Gardening, too, can be an act of love.

Snatched phrases (on rain)

He put his hand out. One drop of water and then another.
Spitting, his [dad] called this kind of rain.
Not enough to fill the creeks, but enough to make the ferns droop and the ground smell like wet dog.

From ‘Sing Fox to Me
by Sarah Kanake

One drop of rain and then another
One drop of rain
and then another

Note:
I’ve recently added a new page, entitled List of Tales, where you’ll find a list of all the works I’ve quoted on this blog over the years. I’ll keep this list updated from now on. I hope you find it useful.

The butterfly bush

Other people’s words about … English gardens

The garden was in a jungle state of desuetude: weeds were everywhere. The top lawn descended to a second, where was a tangled rose garden and sun-dial: thence further descent, past more noble trees to a third lawn in the middle of which was a pond, or miniature lake. It had an off-centre well-scaped island, containing one weeping willow and some iris out of flower. Pigeons flew heavily out of bushes like people leaving a play of which they disapproved. Rabbits cavorted and then escaped their attention just in time. A huge old buddleia was spattered with either tortoise-shell or Painted Lady butterflies. Arabella seemed delighted by the whole thing.

from ‘Odd Girl Out
by Elizabeth Jane Howard

When I was fourteen years old, my family spent a year away from Australia, living in England. My whole family, on both sides, comes from the UK; my sister and I were born there, too. We migrated to Australia when I was three.

So the year back in England was a homecoming of sorts, for my parents, at least. We lived in an old stone coach house, in Oxfordshire. As I remember it, the coach house stood on stilts in the gardens of a much grander house, also built of stone. There were brambles, and two black cats — one bold and prowling, the other timid and long-haired and neurotic — and several peacocks strutted the spreading lawns, letting out frightening, ghoulish shrieks beneath our windows. That year, the winter in England was unusually severe, and drifts of snow built up in the garden and in the country lanes leading to our house. My bedroom in that cold house was tiny, with room only for a single bed, a chest of drawers, and the hot-water boiler. Because of the presence of the boiler, though, I remember my room as being always cosy and warm. It had cheerful Laura Ashley wallpaper with sprigs of tiny green flowers dotted all over it.

Butterfly poster
Butterfly poster

My grandparents on my mother’s side had retired to live in Dorset, and we spent many weekends there. My grandfather loved to garden; he had a small allotment on the fringe of the village, where he grew runner beans and potatoes and lettuce and — that most English of vegetables — spring greens. Their own backyard was small, with a stone wall at the end, beyond which cows grazed in a field.

Near the house grew a bush with beautiful purple flowers. Memory is a strange thing — I remember this bush as a buddleia bush; I remember my grandfather telling me that’s what it was; and I remember the butterflies that visited it in the spring, drinking nectar from the flowers, their wings warmed by the sun as they clustered on the blossoms. Now, years later, my mother tells me the bush wasn’t a buddleia at all: it couldn’t have been, because my grandmother considered buddleias weeds. It was, in fact, a lilac tree.

Butterfly brooch (1)
Butterfly brooch

However faulty my memory is, I know that it was in my grandfather’s garden that I learned to distinguish between tortoiseshells and painted ladies and swallowtails and cabbage whites. Though we returned to Australia a year later, I retained my love for butterflies. The butterflies here are different, and I delight in them just as much, so much so that my house is cluttered with butterfly ornaments and trinkets and gifts from friends.

Assorted butterfly earrings
Assorted butterfly earrings

How do I remember England and our time there? That’s another memory for another time. Lest anyone wonder, this post isn’t intended to be a commentary, condemnatory or otherwise, about the recent Brexit. The timing of this post is purely coincidental. Still, what I love about the words from Elizabeth Jane Howard in the quote above is how, in just a few sentences, they capture an English summer in all its Englishness … at least as I remember it.

Note:
I finally got around to rewriting some of the pages on this blog that had become very out of date. Check out the updated About page and the newest page, The first two years, for more information.

Coming up roses

Since my last post on roses,
I’ve started glimpsing them wherever I go.

Outside the entrance to my office, there’s a bed of low-lying roses.
They catch my eye as I walk through the automatic glass doors on my way in to work.
So I sneak down to soak up their beauty again in my morning tea-break.

After rain, the petals and leaves hang heavy, glistening.
And it feels to me like a moment of stolen beauty.

Coming alive for the first time to the beauty of something
that has always been around you
is one of life’s greatest joys.