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 …

In the middle of ordinary life

Other people’s words about … meditation

While I was [at Maharishi’s meditation course in the Alps] I managed to meditate for up to four hours a day, but back home it all seemed difficult again. And then, gradually, as I listened to the lectures it dawned on me that meditation was for recluses or people inclined that way. Prolonged practice could only result in a detachment from life that, although it might be better, I didn’t want. I didn’t want to become indifferent to anything, and as I watched those closest to Maharishi it seemed to me that they had this desire, gift, need — however you want to put it. I wanted to be in the middle of ordinary life trying to make the best of it even if — I could see more clearly now — it entailed my making the same mistakes many times. I didn’t want to give my life to anyone, I wanted to have it and use it and be an ordinary householder. So gradually I stopped. I think of Maharishi with great respect and affection, and I am sure that there is a spiritual hierarchy in which I am merely on the lower rungs. That was it.

from ‘Slipstream
by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I’ve written before about how I tried meditation recently (again), before deciding, finally, that it didn’t work for me. I don’t want to bore you by repeating myself endlessly on this blog; please feel free to read my older posts about the topic if you’re interested. (You can find them, for example, here and here). Most particularly, what has worked for me, post-meditation, has been learning to spend my days looking outward rather than inward (about which, more here and, in a funny way, here.)

I do particularly like Elizabeth Jane Howard’s spin on the theme, though. That’s why I’m revisiting it today. Perhaps, when she wrote the words above, meditation wasn’t considered to be the cure-all that it often is now; perhaps, for that reason, her words were less transgressive than they seem to me as I read them today. Still, I find her words wise and humble and filled with gratitude. Ironic, isn’t it? Those three things — wisdom, humility, gratitude — are all things we are often told we may develop through practising meditation.

Tea for one —
an ordinary pleasure,
all the more worth treasuring for its ordinariness

Like Howard, the older I get, the more I realise how attached I am to life — and how much I want to stay attached. My days are filled with petty, mucky angst, and I like them that way. Yes, I have bad days — days when my head aches, and my stomach churns, and my throat crawls with a hot kind of sickness and I can’t figure out why; days when my thoughts seem fevered and panicked and tumbling and disconnected; days when it takes all my effort to get dressed for work, and go in, and sit at my desk, and stay seated there, and stay still, oh, just stay still.

Still, even as I wait the bad days out, not knowing how else to get through them, I find myself wanting, in my strange, fierce way, to hold onto them. Because, like Howard, I want to be in the middle of ordinary life trying to make the best of it.

It’s about honouring life, really, isn’t it? That’s what I want to strive for. That’s all. That’s really all.

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.


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.



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.


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.

From one year to the next

Other people’s words about … loneliness

She had told herself more than once not to call it loneliness, since it wasn’t any different from one year to the next, it was just how her body felt, like hungry or tired, except it was always there, always the same. Now and again she had distracted herself from it for a while. And it always came back and felt worse.

from ‘Lila
by Marilynne Robinson

A couple of years ago, I began to experience recurrent bouts of unexplained nausea. The waves of sickness came every three or four weeks, and left me feeling depleted and frustrated. My symptoms of illness were made more difficult by the fear that accompanied them: a fear that I’ve touched on here and here, and will no doubt touch on again.

In her memoir Slipstream, Elizabeth Jane Howard mentions in passing a phase in her life, when she was a young woman, during which she experienced something like this.

In those days, I had bouts of being unable to eat that sometimes lasted for weeks. This seemed to be one of them. I was very tired from my illness, but encouragement to build up my strength by these kindly people was of no avail. I’d sit before an immense juicy steak and delicious salad, trying to swallow the first pieces of meat, my stomach heaving, and wanting to cry from embarrassment. ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t eat much,’ I had to say.

It was my mother who, just recently, introduced me to Slipstream. When I read the passage above, I wished that Howard was still alive, so that I could write to her and thank her for these words. It helps, when you are going through difficult times, or when you are experiencing something troubling and bewildering for which you yourself have no words, to read someone else’s words on the same thing. Here is Howard again:

I had no energy for writing, I didn’t like living alone, and I could hardly drag myself to the office every other week to earn the six pounds that barely kept the wolf from the door … I remember the misery of sitting in restaurants faced with enormous menus and finally asking for something like a piece of cold chicken only some of which I managed to force down.

During the worst phase of my own bouts of nausea, I felt my life began to fold in on itself. Although I wasn’t ill all the time — although there were days and weeks when I felt well: days, even, when I felt as though I’d never feel sick again — those bouts took a toll on me. I called in sick at work frequently, and worried about the consequences. (Would I be put on a performance plan? Would I get sacked? What if I couldn’t hold my job down anymore? How would I live with myself if I couldn’t make a living?) I worried about my social life. (What if I lost all my friends because I kept cancelling on them at the last moment? What if they didn’t believe me when I told them I was sick? What if they thought I was just neurotic, or antisocial?) And I fretted about people in my family, whom I wanted to see more frequently than I did. (Did they know I still loved them? Did my absence hurt them? Were they, too, judging me?) I began to feel disabled on all fronts — by my symptoms of illness, by my fear of those symptoms, and by my shame about my fear.

The sickness happens less often now, I am glad to say, though it still comes, accompanied by symptoms that feel worse than they sound: fatigue, headaches, nausea, heavy eyes, weak limbs. I am as yet to find a cause. In the meantime, when I do experience bouts of illness like this, I try not to let myself feel the way I felt during that worst phase. Isolated is one word that comes to mind to describe the way I felt. Lonely is another.

And here is where reading helps. Reading Howard’s words I feel a sense of kinship. The kinship makes me reflect, as I so often do, that writing is an act of sharing, and that sometimes — sometimes — reading can feel like a defence against loneliness.

It wasn’t until I read Toni Bernhard’s How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness that it finally became clear to me that illness — whether it’s serious or mild, whether it’s intermittent or constant, whether it’s accompanied by fear or not — is, inherently, lonely. Experienced long-term, it is all the more so. Bernhard, who lives with a fatigue-related chronic illness that keeps her largely bedridden, is illuminating on the theme. She writes:

In these moments when I accept that some of the people I know may never understand what life with chronic illness is like for me, I’m able to let go of the painful longing and fruitless desire for them to behave as I want them to. It’s like putting down a heavy load because I’m finally giving up a fight I cannot win. This gives rise to equanimity –- that calm sense of peace and well-being with my life as it is, whether others understand it or not.

Read those sentences again: Some of the people I know may never understand. Those words go to the heart of loneliness. So do these: painful longing. Fruitless desire. Illness should not entail any of these kinds of feelings, but it does. It is a very lonely experience. (If you are experiencing illness-related loneliness, I highly recommend Bernhard’s book. Her words are both wise and comforting. They may even impart a sense of kinship.)

The main character in Marilynne Robinson’s book, from which I quoted at the top of this post, is lonely in another way. Lila’s loneliness is the result of poverty and an extreme lack of love in her upbringing, and her experience of it is utterly embodied. I’ve never heard loneliness described this way before, but I find the interpretation as enlightening as Bernhard’s. Loneliness, Robinson is saying, is a physical — a visceral — thing. It is as much a part of living as hunger and fatigue; it is with us from our first breath to our last. Like illness, it is a part of the cycle of being alive in this world.


Perhaps the difficulty we have with loneliness, then, is not so much with its actual presence, nor with its cause — whatever that may be — as it is with the way we experience it and interpret it. I find this thought strangely consoling.

Is it possible to feel consolation and loneliness simultaneously? Probably — but it’s much harder.

There are a number of bloggers who write about their experience of living with serious or long-term illness. Here is where the blogging community comes into its own! Two bloggers whose frank, clear-sighted words on illness I particularly admire are Elana Amsterdam of Elana’s Pantry, who lives with Multiple Sclerosis and writes about managing her illness through a grain-free diet and a low-stress lifestyle, and Ali Feller from Ali on the Run, a passionate runner who blogs about living (and running) with Crohn’s Disease.

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.

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.