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Saving Graeme

homeless man

The first time I saw Graeme was in mid-December in the centre of Twickenham in front of KFC. He was shouting at someone in the street and waving his hands around, making a big scene. He had black-rimmed glasses and a short grey beard, and I could tell by the crumpled plastic bags and the rucksack leaning against the wall behind him, that he was most probably homeless, and more than likely mentally ill. I walked on as quickly as I could. I don’t recall what he was ranting about.

On the Tuesday before Christmas Ella started limping. This had happened many times in the past so I knew the drill: short walks around the street and plenty of rest. Instead of a long walk to Marble Hill and back I started taking her to the tiny park at the end of my road.

And this is where I met Graeme again. He had taken shelter on the porch of the local bowling green. As I walked around the park I could see him pacing back and forth. I made a point of not walking past his shelter.

After Christmas we returned from Dave’s Dad’s house in Barnet full of cookies and gingerbread trifle, with our dog still lame, fed up with her short walks. We took her to our little park where we found Graeme, still pacing in his shelter, still bundled in his big black coat. I don’t know where I expected him to go but I hadn’t thought about him over Christmas. Now that Boxing Day had passed and he was still there I became uncomfortably aware that he was sleeping in this place, a fact which should have been obvious.

On the way home to our flat I suggested we bring him a flask of tea and some leftover Christmas cookies. Dave agreed it was a good idea. We took Ella home and then set out with our contributions. I remember feeling a mix of excitement and fear. What if this man was truly crazy? I pictured him taking the flask and smashing it to the ground, mumbling to himself as he paced back and forth, ignoring us. I thought about leaving the tea and then backing away as if I was feeding some fierce animal in the zoo.

That day I met and befriended my first homeless man. He introduced himself, thanked us for the tea, pointed to a plastic shopping bag in the corner of his shelter that was apparently full to the brim with mince pies that other concerned neighbours had donated. He said he was grateful but that you could only eat so many mince pies. I had to agree.

I was not at ease when we were talking to Graeme. I could smell the alcohol on him and he had a can of beer in his hand as he spoke with us. He was a short man with cloudy blue eyes and seemed to be in a constant state of agitation. The pacing, however, was just a method of keeping warm. After a bit of chat and some tea he told us that he was feeling shaken up after an incident the previous evening, at around 12ish. He had been woken from a sound sleep, no doubt alcohol induced, by a giant German Shepherd biting his left arm. It turned out it was a police dog. Graeme pointed to the scratch marks in his shelter and gently squeezed the part of his arm where the dog had clamped down. Apparently the police had had to pull the dog off of him, and it had scrabbled like mad, leaving claw marks in the painted wood. The police told Graeme that they had been in pursuit of a criminal that they believed to be in the park. Not surprisingly they couldn’t stop apologising. They offered Graeme £5 and some beers if he would keep it quiet. They checked his arm with a flashlight and said there wasn’t any blood and he was likely to be fine.

Dave and I said goodbye to Graeme and promised we’d be back in the evening with something for dinner but all I could think about was calling the Independent Police Complaints Commission and reporting this incident. Graeme had been understandably shaken, and so was I. I was furious at the police, not just for their negligence with the dog but for their crude cover up. When I mentioned complaining to Graeme, however, he said he’d been in scraps with the police before and didn’t want any trouble and was pleased that they’d offered him an apology because it was a rarity. Dave said I needed to get Graeme’s consent before I complained to anyone, and in the end I never took it any further. This was my first exposure to what it means to be homeless, not just putting up with the cold or a lack of a bed or an empty belly, but being treated as an utterly worthless human being.

For the next couple of days we brought Graeme flasks of tea and bundles of hot food. We arranged times when we could meet, as sometimes he went into town to play his harmonica and beg or to sit outside a pub and drink and listen to the music. For a few days my life took on a different routine. Before Ella and I left on her walk, I made a flask of tea for Graeme.
On New Year’s day, Dave and I brought Graeme a dinner fit for a king, with leftover curries and homemade bhajis from the night before. I bundled it lovingly into my special tiffin, a stacking contraption with plastic pots that Dave’s sister Natalie had bought me several Christmases ago and which had only been used a few times.

The next day, Dave went off to work for the first time in a week and Ella and I headed to our little park with a flask of tea and a Tupperware of hot porridge, and a bag for dirty dishes. As we approached Graeme’s shelter I could see him rearranging his bags. He walked out to meet me, shaking his head and telling me from a few metres away that he was sorry.
It turned out that the previous evening had not been a good one. He’d had a lot to drink and had been visited by four policemen after some local people complained about him being there. Graeme started ranting and shouting and kicking the wood in the shelter. Where’s your dog? he said. What are you going to do about it? Somehow my tiffin had gotten in the way, and the plastic pots had been smashed to bits, the metal clamp bent and broken.

I reassured Graeme that everything was fine. It was only a bit of plastic, nothing to worry about. But Graeme just shook his head, told me he could have lied about it but wanted to tell me the truth, and that he often went a bit crazy in the evening from the drink and the cold and the sheer loneliness and not knowing what to do with himself. He said he was so sorry and that he’d buy me another one. Don’t worry I said. It’s fine.

And because he was so agitated, I stayed with him while he ate his porridge and drank his tea. I had spent the entire Christmas period cooking food for family, which is one of my joys, and yet nothing could have prepared me for how good I felt when Graeme made a fuss of my porridge. I’d brought him a separate Tupperware of walnuts and raisins and cinnamon and a spoon of brown sugar because I didn’t know if he liked it plain or with accompaniments. And he stirred it all up and told me he loved porridge and this was the best he’d ever tasted. We spent 40 minutes talking, in which he confessed to having been in prison for getting into a fight with the police when he was drunk, and told me how he’d worked in a restaurant that provided accommodation but functioned more like slavery than a job. He told me about the people that had helped him in the past and some of the ones that had betrayed him.

If you could have anything you wanted right now, I asked him, what would it be? He took a few seconds to think about that and then he said he’d settle for a bit of tranquillity because his head was always in knots. And I thought about all the things he could have said like a bed or a home or a wife and some kids. But Graeme didn’t talk about family. He talked a lot about God and about his belief that he could make things happen for other people by praying for them really, really hard when it was cold and he couldn’t sleep.

I walked home with Ella, feeling numb. Graeme had put the broken tiffin in one of his blue plastic bags. I went through the contents to see if any of the pots had survived. One of them had. As I washed it in the sink all I could feel was a terrible dread creeping over me. I had had plans for writing and drawing and taking a trip into the centre of town but all of that was put to one side so I could sit on the internet. I looked up every homeless charity I could find and started to make phone calls. I called our local council, our local homeless charity SPEAR, Shelter, a Christian hostel that took in homeless people without a referral, and the Crisis centre in the centre of London. I filled out online questionnaires, and looked into Graeme’s assertion that no one helps him because the first question on every application is whether or not you are ‘local.’ He said if you aren’t local there isn’t much money or help that they can give, and people don’t care about a 52-year-old drunk when there are homeless families and women and people under the age of 25 who need to be helped first. Some of what he said proved to be true.

By the end of that two-hour period I felt shattered. I was wound up in the bureaucracy of looking for help and I wasn’t even sure what I was hoping to achieve. Each time I picked up the phone I was praying that the person at the other end of the line would say: Hello, why of course we can help you. Tonight we will give Graeme a bed, and tomorrow he will have a bath and a shave and we’ll look at his arm. Over the next couple of weeks we will enrol him in a program for his alcohol at the end of which we will help him find a job and a permanent residence with his own bathroom and a small balcony overlooking a park. Excellent, I’d say. My work is done here.

But I only managed to speak to one human being in two hours, who said she couldn’t help me. What I felt as I prepared Graeme’s dinner that evening was the desire to be free of him. How long, I wondered, could I go on feeding him? Or more importantly, how long would I be able to stomach everything it was bringing up inside of me? The helplessness. The discomfort. The guilt.

As it turned out, Graeme saved me the trouble of finding answers to these questions. That night as Dave and I set out to a dark park to give him his food, I felt truly afraid. All I could think about was the tiffin and the violence and I wondered if Graeme was capable of turning on us in a drunken moment. As we approached his shelter he called Ella to him and gave her a pat. He was very drunk. He began by apologising to Dave for the tiffin to which Dave gave the same response. It’s alright mate. These things happen. It isn’t a problem. Everything is OK.

And then he told us that this was going to be goodbye because he’d decided to move on to Watford, just outside London, where there was a church someone had told him about. After a night of thinking, he said, God had told him where to go next.
We squirmed through the next twenty minutes as he talked more about his life and the people he’d met in Twickenham, and his memories of Brighton where he’d been asked regularly for sexual favours in exchange for money, and had reacted with violence. His sorrows dropped from his mouth like boulders. We’re human too, he pleaded, as if Dave and I were judge and jury. It’s really hard out there, man. There’s none of that here, referring I suppose to Twickenham and the cushy life of Popes Grove.

Graeme thanked us again and again and seemed teary as we said goodbye. He kissed both of our hands and offered us one more gravelly God Bless You. I staggered back to the flat feeling so relieved I wanted to cry… no more dinners packed into tupperwares, no more flasks of tea… no more responsibility.

And it has taken me until this moment to write about my feelings. What stands out is my inability to cope with the magnitude of Graeme’s problems. That first day when I brought a flask of tea I was giving something small, something easily managed, a comfort to ease a difficult lifestyle. But my desire changed when I got to know Graeme, when I looked him in the eye and talked to him. Then, I thought about him at night when I got into a warm bed. I wanted a permanent place for him to sleep, and a reliable source of food. As time went by I wanted more. I wanted him not to feel so lonely and angry and sad. I wanted him to stop killing himself with drink.

What do you do when a flask of tea will not put out the fire inside you?

It has taken nearly a week for me to understand what I was doing that day I spent trawling the internet. It was an attempt to push away the hopelessness of Graeme’s situation. If I could find him a place to stay, if I could get someone else to step in and help, then he would be off my conscience. And what was it that weighed so heavily? It was Graeme’s sadness and his fear and his anxiety, that grandiose wish for tranquillity. It was all those things that connected him to me in a way that made me increasingly uncomfortable. Every time I looked at Graeme I was unable to throw up the ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ Hadn’t I felt lonely and afraid and helpless? Hadn’t I felt at times that I was up against the world? The only difference between this dirty man with greyish teeth and a big black can of K cider was the cards we had been dealt. That and the fact that my safety net for the moment is much more secure.

Beware of those walls that keep you safe, those walls that tell you not to make eye contact with beggars. Because there is something truly astonishing in allowing the discomfort, in connecting with our shared human vulnerability.

Feeling helpless in the face of something big and ugly like homelessness or alcoholism doesn’t feel good… Perhaps this is the reason we all hurry by the people who need the most help. Deep down we know that what we have to offer will never be enough to make the problem go away entirely and we don’t feel strong enough to endure someone else’s sorrow, let alone our own.

But we must practice giving again and again despite the discomfort, even if the only thing we are capable of is a cup of coffee and a smile. We must practice giving without the expectation that our gift will achieve some end. My friend Jess who works with the mentally ill told me Graeme will remember the fact that we didn’t yell at him when he made a mistake. He will remember how good it felt to be forgiven, instead of shamed. I am pleased that we could offer Graeme that gift, amongst others: our eye contact, and a listening ear while he shared his story.

We must learn to give despite the hopelessness and the helplessness because the discomfort is temporary but the connection is forever. That is what we gain when we let down our barriers and allow life to be messy – sometimes happy, sometimes painful – but blissfully real.

Wherever you are, Graeme, I’m wishing you a bit of tranquillity and a warm bowl of porridge with cinnamon and love.

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A Candle for Connecticut

candle melting
There are only 7 days left until Christmas. I had hoped to write a blog on holiday baking, or my childhood memories of Christmas Eve. While doing the dishes I was composing a poem about frost and the unpredictability of English weather.

So, let’s get this straight. This is NOT what I want to write about. Connecticut. 26 dead. 20 of them children. The newspaper headline was enough to send me running, hoping I might just out-sprint the lead ball forming in my belly. But I am writing today because words are how I try to understand.

I wonder if there is a normal way to react to inexplicable tragedy? For myself, there is always a progression… Disbelief. Outrage. Sadness. Fear. Perhaps ‘progression’ is not the right word. It seems to imply that my feelings are linear, that they fall into place like the pieces of a jigsaw and guide me to a better place.

Usually I begin with a series of thoughts. America, I tell myself, is a dark place, a place of rampant gun laws and vigilante violence, a place where ignorance and fear breed rage and aggression. I try not to question these thoughts. I tell myself that acts of this nature are much less likely in Britain. If I can contain this atrocity within the borders of one country, a country where I no longer live, than I am that much safer.

But unfortunately America is also the country where I grew up, the place where my family lives, where my niece and nephew attend local schools, and my friends are having babies. It may be easier for British people to look at this tragedy from a distance, to soothe themselves with the wobbly belief that things like this only happen in places like America. But love, unfortunately, prevents me from finding solace in sweeping generalisations.

So, I move on to plan B. I look for someone or something to blame. If I can pinpoint the exact reason why 20 innocent children are dead, I will make sure this never happens again. The gunman seems a good place to start. Who can I blame for his psychosis? Perhaps he was a victim of a shoddy school system, or a product of horrific parenting. Maybe he endured some terrible abuse as a child. This could be the result of those terrible video games that simulate war and destruction, or a glut of action thrillers with gratuitous violence. Then again, I could just as easily lay the blame with the NRA and their ridiculous quest to protect our right to bear arms. Shouldn’t they be held accountable? Shouldn’t someone?

But on this occasion blame falls short. I try to raise my fist in the air at the injustice of it all, but the only thing I feel is a deep sadness that visits me when I least expect it. Two days ago, Dave and I were on a train heading to Telford to see his Nanny. On the platform I saw parents with shopping bags holding onto their children’s hands and I smiled at a little girl in a pink coat that looked remarkably like Cindy Lou Who from the Grinch who Stole Christmas. And suddenly it was there, a rushing vulnerability. The parents grieving in Connecticut crowded behind my eyes and wrung their hands.

It seems to me that to analyze this situation would be just one more attempt to push it away. Because as soon as I begin to point the finger or shake my head or raise my voice or climb up onto my soap box, Connecticut becomes a mythical tragedy, one that I can talk about with detachment and with an equally mythical sense of safety.

This time I let the sadness speak. I stop trying to figure out what went wrong, and I bring mindfulness to what is happening in my body. Each time I feel the despair I let it stay inside me and I resist the urge to ‘think.’ I breathe with the children who have survived this tragedy and whose sense of safety has evaporated overnight. I breathe with the parents in neighbouring schools who are hugging their sons and daughters harder, trying to confront on a much grander scale, what we are all feeling: a total lack of control.

And what is dawning on me slowly, growing cell by cell into a conviction, is that Connecticut is not someone else’s problem. Connecticut is not someone else’s pain and suffering, not someone else’s society running amok… This is our ailing humanity, our collective wound.

And If we want our society to be different we need to address in ourselves what has led to this abomination: anger, hopelessness, depression, isolation, loneliness, anxiety… and an utter lack of compassion and kindness.

We want to tell ourselves: This has nothing to do with me. After all, I’m not a killer. I would never show up at a school with a gun. And if we can reduce what happened to a series of knowable absolutes, we can push away the growing realisation that tragedy of this kind could happen anywhere, at any time, and it does.

So, here is Connecticut. Here is a soulless gunman, a random act of violence. And yet, when I ask myself, what has led this young troubled man to this action, there is not a simple answer. Human behaviour is too complex. A nurse commits suicide after taking a prank phone call and we want the caller to take on the burden of the death. We forget that each life has a history, a set of circumstances that build on one another, an intricate web of thoughts and feelings that lead to actions, which cannot make sense in isolation. The conditions of our lives change and grow more difficult. They lead us to the edge of our sanity and sometimes back again.

The truth is…. the emotions that were at work in that gunman are alive and well in us. We may not have led the same life or have faced the same circumstances, but anger and fear bubble up in us every day. The tragedy is that we act from this place.

Here is an example.

Your internet service has been off for the last three days. You make an initial inquiry and are told engineers have been sent to the area. Now, it’s been nearly five days and you haven’t checked your email and you’ve called two times and the phone is always busy. When you finally get through you shout at the woman who takes your query, and hang up the phone. That Virgin Media! you think, what an inefficient bunch of idiots! In your mind, justice has been done because you’ve been wronged by this company. What you don’t acknowledge is the effect that your words have had on the woman who answered the phone. Today your anger has made her feel small and helpless and out of control. She has a son at home, and she’s working long hours and still having trouble making ends meet. Tonight she will go home and pick a fight with her son when he doesn’t finish the food on his plate. In her state of anxiety she will throw his plate on the floor and tell him she wishes he’d never been born. Tomorrow that boy will go to school and the cycle will continue.

But what happens if you make a different choice, if you notice yourself feeling angry and frustrated about the internet, and you wait to call Virgin Media until you are calm enough to inquire without being flippant or sarcastic or just downright mean. And so the woman who takes your call returns home and she is only tired. She has more tolerance for her son because her heart hasn’t been trampled.

We are fooling ourselves if we think that our actions don’t make a difference. Our anger hurls itself into the universe, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant. Do we want to be one of the many bad experiences in a life that ends at a school in Connecticut or do we want to be the means by which someone is liberated? Every day we act on our emotions. We send little ripples into the pond. If we want to point a finger, we should be pointing it at ourselves.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t transform the parts of our society that foster violence… our gun laws, our television shows etc… But I think it is important to keep the ball in our court, to work with the suffering that resides in our own hearts and minds, to address our own anger and anxiety and fear.

For the past couple of days I have repeatedly thought of my seven year old niece. I went to her classroom on my last visit to America and met her new teacher. We spent an hour together making string bracelets in her bedroom. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do to keep her safe.

Every time I speak or interact with another person I have an opportunity to help my niece. Every effort I make to bring awareness to what I’m feeling inside reduces the chance that I will act out of anger and pass on pain.
And if saving my niece means bringing light to the dark places in this world, practicing compassion when I could just as easily do nothing at all, then this is a commitment I’m willing to make.

And so should you.

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Oh Pile of Sticks. Oh Pile of Sticks. Thy Lights are Overpowering.

close up tissue lights

It’s that time of year again… that time when you force your husband to go to the woods and hack away at a pile of dead branches with an axe … that time when you get out the saw and an old cutting board from the kitchen and a bundle of wire in the name of adding a bit of holiday cheer to your living room. Yes, you guessed it. I’m talking about that age old tradition of putting up a tree.

So, I’d like to introduce you to Kyoko, our tree. We’re pretty pleased with her despite some initial setbacks, the first being the doorway to our flat, a space, it seems, that was not intended for a tree of Kyoko’s elegance and height. Nothing a pair of secateurs couldn’t fix.

dave with axe

After Dave jammed bits of wood into the tree stand and Kyoko seemed stable and happy, I sent him off to get some lights since last year’s set went off to Christmas crap heaven last January. This year we’d decided to go for a set of LED lights… 4 watt bulbs that work and work and don’t use up that much energy.

Dave returned having braved the local garden centre/Christmas emporium on a Sunday and began to string Kyoko with her new set of lights. To call these lights bright doesn’t really do them justice. These bulbs have a cold blue light, a piercing glow that makes my eyes feel hung over and weary, like I’m 12 years old in the wee hours of an all night sleep over.

But alas, this was what we’d bought and we were both too lazy to go back to the store and search out some other string of lights that would fit all our demands for energy efficiency and aesthetic beauty.

The next day, however, I found the energy to go out and purchase three packets of tissue paper in red, green and white. I proceeded to crinkle up little squares of tissue and attach them to each and every bulb in an effort to shield our retinas and avoid blindness. As crazy as it sounds, I must admit I enjoyed doing this. It took me back to my elementary school days. There I sat, armed with a tape dispenser and a pair of scissors, cross legged on the floor with Barbara Streisand belting out Christmas tunes. (Yes I know she’s Jewish and I don’t care. No one else sings Jingle Bells with more pizzazz! And what do you mean listening to Barbara Streisand isn’t cool? A curse be upon you.)

bookcase tree

Well, at first I thought my tree was looking rather Italian. Being in my childhood mode I had fallen into a pattern of red white green / red white green. But interestingly the dark branches of the tree and the dramatic tissue paper flowers made the tree seem like something you’d find in a Japanese woodcut, and so I’ve called her Kyoko, a name which suits her and which she seems to like.

I know I’ve been away from this blog for a while… 11 months in fact. I don’t have any grand excuses. It seems keeping up with a blog is harder than I imagined, particularly when you’re a bit of a perfectionist and the whole endeavour starts to feel more like something to worry about and less about expressing how you feel. But I suppose Kyoko, in her way, is pushing me to have another go… to work with the glaring light and the branches that won’t fit through the door.

2012 has been a very interesting year for me, a wonderful year of surprises and difficulties, a year that has taught me about the freedom found in accepting my life as it is.

I hope this will be the first of many entries to come, an experiment in allowing myself to write in the presence of doubt and in the presence of judgement. Don’t be surprised to find a poem in the place of the prose or a few sentences instead of a series of paragraphs. If you are going to confront perfectionism you have to use all the tools in the box… tissue paper included!

Here’s to Kyoko, to imperfect freedom, and the prettiest damn tree in all of Twickenham.

tree at night

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Being Bready

Last night I had my first writing class at the City Lit, one of London’s largest centres for adult education.   I suspect there is a class here for everyone:  knitting, existentialism, urban photography, Bollywood dancing…   If you’ve got an interest, they are sure to have a room and an eager instructor. 

In the hour before I arrived, I sat alone at a table in the Mary Ward Cafe enjoying a delicious Spanish omelette and a salad while feeling slightly nervous and out of sorts.  I suppose it doesn’t matter how many classes you’ve taken over the course of your life, there are bound to be a few errant butterflies beating their wings against the walls of your belly on the first day of school.

The class itself was inspiring: a room of eager writers, a no-nonsense teacher with a wealth of experience, ample time to write and to share.  I left feeling like a woman in an advert who has just had her hair blow dried and styled by Vidal Sassoon.  I flounced out of the class with my scarf blowing backwards and smiled at everyone that I passed on the way back to the tube.  I suspect this is the same feeling one gets when arriving in a foreign country for a two week holiday.  It is as if you can feel your potential for happiness expanding.  You suspect that whatever you are about to do or see or experience, is going to push the boundaries of what, up until now, you have considered an ok life.

I confess I am addicted to this feeling.  I like beginnings.  I love clean slates.  I adore the prospect of a good adventure.  What I need more practice with, however, is letting new experiences be what they will be.  As a writer I am full of odd romantic notions, blessed with the ability to fashion the future with my own details.  Upon leaving this writing class, for example, I imagined a small group from the larger class meeting in a dark pub to discuss our latest manuscripts.  All of us had published at least one book at this point and we were toasting our good fortune and remembering that cloudy day in January 2012 when we’d met in the Advanced Critical Workshop at  City Lit. 

I’d like to say that these fantasies are a rarity in my life but sadly I do this all the time.  And it wouldn’t be that big of a deal if it weren’t for all the expectations that get churned up in the process.   Next week I will go to class and sit next to one of the writers who was present at my mythical pub and she will seem flatter than I imagined her, not nearly as friendly and forthcoming.  If I’m not careful I might leave the class with a sense of loss that I don’t completely understand.

Fortunately there is a remedy for this disease.  I discovered it last year in my quest to make bread.  Learning how to bake a good loaf is one of those new things that one sets out to scale like a mountain.  I came to the task strapped with all my usual expectations… my belief in the power of a good recipe, for example.  I looked at the list of ingredients: flour, salt, yeast, and water.  I looked at the method which prescribed a period of kneading, a period of rising, some shaping and more rising and then into the oven.  Voila.

But my experience was not voila.  It was certainly not ta da.  It was more like a brown mass with bread like qualities.  It didn’t taste bad.  Dave and I gobbled every morsel of it.  It just didn’t look or feel like proper bread.

And what I found the most frustrating as I continued in my quest were the vague instructions.  Knead the dough until it is elastic, the book said … but no one seemed to agree on the correct way.  One chef on youtube suggested the heel of the hand.  Another man from France advocated slapping and folding the dough with the tips of the fingers.  If you actually managed to get past the kneading, assuming you had any idea what ‘elastic’ meant,  there was a mine field to be found in the ‘rising,’ a process which was dependent on the temperature of your house, the altitude, the sugar in the dough, and the power of your yeast. 

Here I was in the midst of my new endeavour – something that was meant to enrich my life – only I felt more like a sea-sick passenger on a kamikaze ferry.

Here is the terrible truth:  I wanted to make bread really well, and I wanted every second of the process to be fun.  There, I’ve said it, my terrible confession.

But what’s so bad about good intentions? Isn’t that how we all approach things?

The problem, in my case, was that all my wishing and wanting the bread to be perfect, ensured that I was frustrated when it didn’t measure up.  Focused on the perfect loaf emerging from my oven, I forgot to enjoy the process of weighing out the flour on the scale, tipping in the water, beating it vigorously with my wooden spoon.  I was so intent on kneading in the right way, that I failed to notice how the dough felt against my hands.  It was trying to let me know.  Hey Lady.  Take a minute to feel me and you’ll know the meaning of elastic. 

As an idea , I love process over product, the journey instead of the destination.  In practice, I am a tad impatient.  I have to leave the house when the bread comes out of the oven, otherwise I am bound to ruin the texture by ripping into it too soon. 

Luckily the power of yeast was stronger than my child like demand for instant gratification.  At some point in the bread making process, perhaps on my 14th or 15th loaf, with my shirt front covered in flour, and my head bent over a rising ball of dough, I realised what was so special about bread making.  Doing it. And Being There. 

Now I feel sad if I’ve gone too many days without baking bread.  I’ve taken to giving it away because I just don’t have the freezer space.  I even enjoy the queasy feeling I get when I am attempting a new loaf and I suspect it is on its way to being bread pudding before it’s even been baked.  I like the breaks when the dough is rising and I am doing something else.  I look over at the bowl from time to time and smile.  When I’m able to get past my expectations, life is truly a revelation.

So my New Year’s resolution this year is to teach all my friends and family how to make a good loaf of bread.  Who knows how many lessons this will involve or which breads we will explore?  It doesn’t really matter so long as we’ve had the opportunity to pick hardened bits of dough from underneath our nails while standing in the line at the bank.  The absurdity of life is worth a good chuckle.

And you think you’re safe just because you are reading this blog from the safety of your home or your office?  Well, you’re wrong!  The next post will be number one in a year-long series… I hope you ‘re up for the bread challenge!

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Have Yourself A Mindful Little Christmas…

The week between Christmas and New  Year has always been difficult for me.  Don’t ask me why.  Every year I tell myself I’m in for a treat… a week of unscheduled time when I can finally clean out my desk or hem my jeans, read a book all day in bed, or rise at 4:00pm to make a homemade apple pie. 

In reality I am never able to pull off that flexible spirit of ‘anything goes.’  The desk remains untouched.   I use up a whole day cooking something complicated but unsatisfying.  I make the apple pie but convince myself this is evidence of indulgence, and can’t be counted in the grand tally of my post Christmas accomplishments.  Inevitably, my week of unencumbered ‘me time’ morphs into a stream of red sand, piling up at the base of an imagined hourglass.

By the time New Year’s Eve rolls around I am determined that the rest of the year be better spent.  I restlessly sit at my desk pondering resolutions, wondering if this year I will be able to progress myself as a human being .  Is there a way of beating time before it dissolves like Alka-Seltzer in the bottom of a glass?  At the very least, what can I do to make this uncomfortable feeling go away?

I suspect most people deal with this sort of neurosis by downing a few glasses (or bottles) of wine or booking a holiday in the Bahamas but I did not have this luxury when I was a little girl (which shows you just how long this has been going on).  Five years old and dispirited by the stillness that followed a chaotic Christmas, I knew it was only a matter of time before the tree would be stripped of its ornaments and tipped into the woods to rot.  And where did that leave me?

Thirty years on, having never taken to heavy drinking, I have come to expect this discomfort every December, squirming in new ways as I try to avoid the fallout.  What a surprise then to find that after a lifetime of the yuletide blues, 2011 would be so different.

So how have I rid myself of such restlessness, you ask?  The short answer is: I haven’t.  The change has been in how I’ve responded to that niggling voice that whispers loudest at this time of year:  I feel sad.  I am not enough.  I must do better. 

I suppose the first step in moving beyond these voices is to notice they are there in the first place, witnessing how one thought leads to another in a complicated spiral.  We believe that much of what bounces round our heads like a pinball in a machine is the truth when in reality this is not the case at all.  ‘That woman doesn’t like me,’ we tell ourselves, dredging up evidence of why this is the case until we feel downright angry at such unfair treatment.  Never mind the possibility that this woman may have just had some bad news over the phone or a bad night’s sleep.  This bit of info never enters the equation.  Before we’ve had a chance to question our original thought, the mind has already accepted its particular version of the truth.

Unfortunately tracking thought patterns isn’t as easy as you would think.  To do it well you need to actually practice paying attention so your wily thoughts don’t get the better of you. 

 Here is an example of how my thoughts might have progressed last year at Christmas:

 I’m bored.

I shouldn’t be bored.

I should be using this time productively.

I am not productive.

I waste time.

I am wasting this time.

I might not accomplish anything between Christmas and New Year.

This is proof that I might not accomplish anything this year.

I feel sad.

I don’t feel like doing anything.

I am a lazy person.

Lazy people are not good people.

I am a life waster.

I am a bad person.

I need to eat large quantities of chocolate under the covers in my bed.

Most years I find myself at step 15 and can’t understand how in the world a person could be this sad so soon after Christmas.  Beyond step 15 are the hours I spend telling myself that I shouldn’t be feeling the things I’m feeling.  I’ve memorised every word of this terrible song.

This year I have been reading a lot about something called mindfulness, which is the act of paying attention in the present moment.  Some of the things I’ve tried include following my breath,  tuning in to body sensations, and listening to the myriad of sounds inside and outside my bedroom.  Essentially I have explored the ‘texture’ of the present moment, little things like the weight of my hands resting on my thighs, the subtle coolness of the air on the side of my face, the way my toothbrush feels against the roof of my mouth.  The aim of all of this is learning to be where you are, instead of spiralling into the past or the future.  And though there are supposed to be many benefits to cultivating a bit of mindfulness in your life, the only real goal is being ‘awake.’  I confess I entered into the whole spirit of this process with the hope that it would improve my life.  I wanted to feel less anxious, more peaceful and content.  I wanted a solution.

The day after Christmas my gloomy thoughts appeared, determined to dig their familiar rut.  At first I was alarmed.  This is not what I want, I thought, and it isn’t fair because I’ve been diligently practicing mindfulness .  I suppose I erroneously thought that learning to be aware in the present moment would act as a shield against discomfort. 

For a moment I just sat there watching my thoughts gurgle to the surface.  I took a few seconds to note where I was in the room and how I felt.  I was sitting in my wicker rocking chair, my feet resting on the wooden base.  Dave was playing his new Bob Marley record. The flickering bulbs on our Christmas tree were competing with the winter light coming through the window.  I followed my breath, trying to make out my own rhythm, separate from the reggae beat.  I began to emerge on the map of my experience.  This is me, I thought.  This is me sitting in my living room feeling disconcerted.  This is what it feels like to be on the edge of sadness: shoulders a bit tense, restless hands, a slight heaviness at the centre of my chest. 

The only thing absent this year was the mad scramble to make it go away, to get up and do something, quickly and efficiently, in an effort to avoid my emotional state, moving away from the present moment. 

It’s not that I believe there is something inherently wrong with doing things.  Some of my friends actually joke about my incapacity for sitting down…  The real problem is doing things because we have met with an emotion or a situation that is troubling us and we don’t want to feel the pain.  We flick through the channels on the television so we can forget the fight we had with a sibling.  We assume that a few hours in front of the tube will make us more able to cope.  What we find, more often, is that we are just as desperate when we finally get up from the sofa.  Annoyingly, our problems are still there. 

I’m not advocating a chair in the corner of the room where you battle with your inner demons until they are defeated.  What I’m proposing is allowing unpleasantness to come and go, noticing that it is there, and noticing inevitably when it leaves… because it always leaves.  Very few people are in a constant state of agitation.

At some point I got up from the rocking chair and decided to look through my new book on baking bread.  I was still feeling blah but I allowed that feeling to be there while I curled up on the sofa and read about the advantages of fresh yeast.  I was being mindful of where I was in that moment, even though it wasn’t particularly pleasurable.

At some point I felt the heaviness lift.  It came back at different points in the day and drifted away in its own time. 

 So it seems feeling a bit down the day after Christmas isn’t the end of the world.  I suspect that these emotions and physical sensations will visit me for the rest of my life but that doesn’t have to be a travesty.  Am I strong enough to allow a little emotional pain to enter my life without fanning it into the very full flames of distress?  It seems I am. 

I assure you there is no other Christmas gift I will be treasuring more as I move into January 2012.  Expect more posts on mindfulness throughout the year!

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Holiday Fusion

Trevor the tree is awaiting visitors.  He’s all decked out, flickering happily by the window, not lifting a limb to help me as I give the flat a thorough cleaning.  Visitors, it seems, are the only real reason for mopping my kitchen floor and hiding all my clutter in the desk.  Tomorrow night he will be the star of a rather spectacular melding of tradition since we will be celebrating both Hannukah and Christmas at the same time.

Tradition is a funny thing when you are an American living in England.  Some customs you accept with open arms and others you spurn.  I will never forget the first time I learned of the traditional English ‘Christmas Dinner.’  I was convinced this friend was having a good joke at my expense.  He said the meal consisted of turkey, Brussels sprouts, balls of stuffing, roast parsnips and a Christmas pudding for dessert.  Brussels sprouts for Christmas?  My only exposure had been a dinner in which I’d gagged on my first green globe, saving the rest of the family from the same fate since my mother announced with exasperation that she didn’t want anyone else to choke.  The fact that Brussels sprouts were considered celebration food in England did not bode well.  And what in the world were parsnips, I wondered, hopefully some English delicacy that would save the meal from being soured by the veggies.  They turned out to be strange anemic looking carrots with a sweet taste and a texture like a potato.  As for the Christmas pudding, this really had to be seen to be believed.  The explanation was interesting.  Well… It’s sort of like a rich fruit cake only it is steamed in a pot for several hours in boiling water… 

This was the final straw.  A steamed fruit cake?  Fruit cake in America is something you re-gift as soon as humanly possible, the one holiday confection that people are capable of rejecting.  Up until this point in time I’d thought my grandparents were the only people in the world with a fondness for green cherries and dried out pieces of pineapple wrapped up in cellophane.

What’s surprising is that after living here eight years, I have become a fan of the English Christmas dinner.  Brussels sprouts, it seems, are delicious when they haven’t been boiled within an inch of their lives.  Parsnips roasted with thyme and drizzled with a bit of honey are a fine thing indeed.  I can’t say I’ve ever truly warmed to the Christmas pudding but every year I enjoy watching someone try to light it on fire at the table.  (For my American readers… the Christmas pudding is doused in brandy, lit on fire, and then brought to the table as a wonderful yuletide spectacle.)  In reality someone stands over the pudding with a pack of old matches or a lighter, swearing because the damn thing won’t light, pouring on more alcohol, making what is quite a moist stodgy dessert into something altogether more soggy.  If you’re lucky someone lights themselves on fire and flaps around the room, more satisfying on so many levels.

One of the American traditions that I cling to at this time of year is making Christmas cookies.  Not only are they scrummy and gorgeous, they are also a real pleasure to make, much less work than cakes and pies but just as satisfying.  I’ll never forget the first time I had my friend Jennifer over so we could exchange gifts.  ‘Let me make you a small cookie plate,’ I told her as she followed me into the bedroom.  Hunched in front of our storage space in the eaves of the house, I began pulling out tin after tin of homemade biscuits, carrying them into the table in the living room.  I had made most of the usual culprits: chocolate chip, peanut butter, fairy fingers… plus a few new ones. Jennifer was an instant cookie convert. 

For the last two years I haven’t managed to honour this tradition. We’ve either been away or having the kitchen remodelled. So this year we’re bringing back Santa’s favourite treat and Jennifer and I are going to have a little exchange

I’ve certainly broken with tradition this year,  but I can’t say I’m disappointed.  I think the cookies that have made the cut are rather delicious and there is an excellent mix of flavours.   I didn’t want to go overboard so I’ve made seven different cookies.  One year I made ten and let’s face it, ten is just excess.  (Seven is sensible…. says my husband who likes cookies.)  Here are this year’s winners:

Jose’s Oatmeal Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies: 

These are wonderful… definetley a favourite this year…  rich and chocolaty with just a hint of peanut butter.  The oats are finely ground and give them a crumbly texture that I really love.  They are a bit more labour intensive than your standard cookie because you have to grate 12 ounces of chocolate by hand… Don’t attempt it without a microplane!

Candy Cane Meringues: 

These are a new yummy addition.  Candy canes are crushed up and folded into the meringue mixture.  I’ve made them look a bit more festive with some edible Christmas disco glitter.  I suspect my mother would love these since she is fond of her peppermint patties!

Soft Almond Macaroons 

I make these with the students in my Italian cookery course.  They are probably the quickest cookies to make and they have a sophisticated taste, surprising since they are essentially made of only three ingredients: egg white, sugar, and ground almonds.

Gingerbread Cookies:

I managed to find a royal icing recipe that didn’t contain raw egg white and it was easy to make and fun to pipe onto the stars and trees.  These are not the cakey variety of gingerbread.  Mine are crisp and very spicy.  Delicious. 

Toasted Coconut Chocolate Chip 

This is  a cookie made with my sister in mind since I have been sustaining her coconut craving for years by sending her Bounty bars in the mail.  The combination of oats, chocolate and coconut is heaven.

Hazelnut Crisps: 

I got this recipe out of a Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall recipe booklet that my father in law saved me from the newspaper.  The drizzle of chocolate makes them reminiscent of a Ferrero Rocher.

Cinnamon Palmiers: 

This recipe reminded me of my Dad because one of his childhood memories is extra pastry scraps cooked in the oven with cinnamon and sugar.  This recipe came from Epicurious and involved making homemade puff pastry.  I was lazy and bought good quality all-butter puff pastry instead.  The only other ingredients are sugar and cinnamon making these pretty simple even if they look complicated.  They taste divine.

Tomorrow night will be a lovely evening of Christmas cookies and homemade latkes in honour of Hannukah.  At the moment there is a pumpkin sitting on my living room table that we bought for Halloween and never carved with my sister and her family when they came to visit.  My husband, inspired by the eccentricity of Trevor, has decided to carve a Menorrah instead of a face…  We are going to add a new candle each night. 

Here’s to tradition: the new, the old, and the bizarre! 

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Losing our Heads

I bet you didn’t know that I’m a double Pisces, an astrological term for someone who has their sun and moon in the same sign.  I only know this obscure bit of information because I went through a brief, slightly embarrassing period in high school when Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs and Parker’s Astrology were my sacred texts.  When I was 16 I actually ordered my birth chart and had it sent in the mail, a bland document which arrived in an ordinary envelope with a typed list of planets and signs.  I had been hoping for something more spectacular, something with an embossed sketch of Saturn or a unicorn, at the very least some written reassurance that I’d been born with a good astral mix.  Instead, I found myself staring at the words on my chart with the same perplexity that I stared at myself in the mirror.

I think what drew me to astrology as a teenager was my fascination with people.  As an insecure teenager I was not only interested in my compatibility with the boy in my biology class who I fancied in secret, I also wanted to know about the nature of people, what made one person awkward and  another person talkative and confident.  I never doubted that the way I perceived people was the way that they were.  I just wanted to know how the whole thing worked. 

Interestingly, I came across a strange exhibit in the wood panelled library of the Scottish National Portrait Society that got me thinking about the flaws of human perception.  In the library there were two glass cases on opposite sides of the room, both of them displaying the plaster casts of people who’d lived at least 200 years ago.  The first case had twelve well known artists, poets and statesmen: Felix Mendelssohn, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge…  I spent a long time looking at Keats who looked peaceful, his features surprisingly feminine.  His face had apparently been cast from life.

In the display case on the other side of the room I was shocked to find three shelves of murderers, though none of the names seemed familiar.  What struck me when I first looked at them was how normal they appeared.  I found myself looking for physical attributes that tied them together, crooked noses, deep eye sockets, strong jaws, fleshy lips.  The more I stared at them, the more vulnerable they became. Frozen in plaster, closing their eyes tight against the memory of what was probably their very worst mistake, they appeared to be more human than monster no matter how hard I tried to scare myself with the imagined details of their crimes. 

One murderer at the top of the case had had his face cast from life, which begged the question: Who had been given the task of coating murderers, both dead and alive, in plaster?  After questioning a tartan-clad museum attendant I was handed a booklet of information.  Apparently all of these life and death masks had been part of a collection formed in the early nineteenth century by the Edinburgh Phrenological Society. 

Phrenologists believed they could discover the function of different parts of the brain by studying the bumps on the head.  After dividing the brain into regions, they assigned particular mental characteristics to different areas of the skull.  A person with a particularly bad temper, for example, might have a larger than average brow.    In its heyday in the 1820’s and 30’s, it was common practice for employers to ask prospective employees to be assessed by a phrenologist, presumably so they could be assured the new cook or clerk didn’t have an enlarged bump proving his propensity for stealing or deception. 

I found one account of a seven year old girl whose future prospects were being assessed by the bumps on her head.  Nature versus nurture did not enter the equation.  Most phrenologists believed that your ‘type’ was fixed at birth.   It wasn’t much of a leap, then, to assume phrenology had the power to predict the degree of success you would have in the future and the nature of the mistakes you would inevitably make.  By the end of the 19th century phrenologists were grouped with fortune tellers and clairvoyants, having never been taken seriously by the scientific community.

In order to bolster what they considered an established scientific theory, the phrenologists needed heads to examine. And thus they began to compile an impressive collection of plaster casts.  There were particular ‘types’ of people who were sought after: poets, musicians, murderers, doctors, lawyers.  One of the few female casts on display was labelled: female of cunning, a label which made me both laugh and shiver at the same time.  Presumably females capable of deception all had the same pronounced bump and were to be avoided at all costs.  (I’ve kept this bump well hidden from my husband!)

What astounds me about phrenology and astrology and so many other types of pseudoscience is the presumption they make about the human personality, that it is fixed and inflexible, something which can be summed up in an arbitrary list of traits,  something capable of being fully known.  I used to read about Pisceans in my books, astonished at how accurately I was being described.  I assumed that the traits that didn’t fit would show up later in my life.  I made allowances for the holes in the theory.

But the danger of labelling ourselves, or worse of being labelled by someone else, is that we carry around those beliefs like weights.  We tell ourselves: I am a shy person.  I am a loud person.  I am a negative person.  The more we tell ourselves that this is so, the more it becomes the truth, and the truth is a very dangerous thing when it is based on something as slippery as human perception.

Unfortunately I will never know exactly who I am.  Perhaps it is out there waiting to be discovered, or maybe it is like a vapour cupped in my hands.  If, in centuries to come, a plaster cast of my face makes its way into a museum, I hope the caption will read: a life too beautiful and complex to be fixed in words.

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