Courage, caution: shaken, not stirred

My grandma was hardy and tough, bold enough to sneak out in the evenings to attend night classes in a time and place where girls were not granted education rights. Solid enough to blink back tears at the age of nine when her father hit her on the head for not cooking the porridge perfectly. Zany enough to catch a live cockroach in her hand and fling it out of the window while my grandpa and I looked on, glad it wasn’t us doing the disgusting deed. Plucky enough to stop live crabs from getting away from her in the kitchen sink, and to turn them into a delicious dinner for us all.

She was also sharp and full of common sense, forward-thinking and clever. She could taste a dish at a restaurant and quickly work out how to reproduce it at home; she had a solid memory; she was skilled in all aspects of homemaking; she wore bright red lipstick and modern outfits and travelled with ease; she once cooked for 80 people, to celebrate my grandpa’s birthday.

She was a woman with both charm and a startling temper which could descend on you without warning. She loved working with her hands – cooking for her family, always putting meals on the table no matter who was in or out that night; sewing pyjamas for us; smacking me when I got unruly; brushing my hair and braiding it. She made food to take to the temple as offerings for the gods. She loved to play mah-jong with friends and family. She rarely sat still, except in the afternoons when she sometimes took a short nap, or in the evenings when her favourite sitcoms were playing on TV.

Notions of what it meant to be a wife and mother drove her, work and duties were ingrained into her daily routine. Strongly anchored to that love was a sense of fear and needing to protect us from any harm. Growing up as a child under the roof of a father who loved boys but not girls, into a young woman living amidst the horrors of war during the Japanese Occupation, to a woman who had ambition but not the opportunity to do more beyond marry and have children … she was one of many women in her time who relied on marriage as a means of survival, as she had no education or way to make a living. Her children were her everything. Her love was both warm and assuring, and smothering.

Though she never said this to me, I eventually came to suspect that her world was an unsettling one, where the most we could do was control how things went at home and be morally upright so we might be spared punishment from the gods. She worked hard to do the right thing in every situation, to make all the right offerings at the temple, to pray to the gods for protection for our family.

With her lips she cautioned me against the many dangers of the world. Don’t walk outside alone at night. Don’t catch a cold in the rain. No jumping off that seat, it’s too high. Eat your rice, or each grain left on your plate will become a pimple on your husband’s face. Be careful, don’t mess with a man before you get married, or you may get pregnant and he will leave you. She told me stories of her past, she hoped I would have a better life and be able to help look after her when she got old.

From her I learned that it was good to be beautiful, but not to be too beautiful or a man might take advantage of you. It was important, as a girl, to marry not just for love, but for practicality. It was vital to always look after yourself, as no one else might. It was good to help others, but not too much in case your family was left with not enough.

Towards the end of her life illness and disappointment had worn her down; fear had come in the way of her once ringing laughter, and I was afraid of her bitterness and anger. I found myself feeling irrationally angry with a woman I once loved inviting over to our place to ‘sleepover’ in my room; whose tickles once made early mornings bearable; whose meals I always looked forward to with anticipation.

* * *

In the course of working on a book, I found myself tracing love’s story, love’s journey, love’s lessons … I found myself remembering my grandma. Early days. Late days. Times in the kitchen when she’d lovingly chase me out so she could fry food in hot oil for dinner. Times in the lounge when she’d talk and I’d wriggle out of her arms, tired of hearing a story *again*.

I found myself smiling and crying as I wrote the above … recalling moments in which it was easy to feel love for her, and moments when it was really tough to even like her.

But that is family, and love. So simple and yet sometimes so complex when you are that close to someone. Sometimes the love you share with someone brings you warm fuzzies. Sometimes it brings hurt and makes you mad. Sometimes it makes you question … makes you think about who you want to be. 

I love her so very much, and on many days I miss her. 

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Recently I started (again) to write my book.

It was not the book I had wanted to write last year – the one that would be fun, informative, practical, light and delicious. It has not been all that comfortable and effortless to write, as I had thought it should be.

Today, my eyes brimmed with tears as I typed. And still – the words flowed freer than they have in months. My words are light and dark. There are good moments and there are shadows. No one is an angel in my script, not even the first woman I revered as a child. Grief is allowed. So is joy.

I have allowed imperfections room to dance on paper, and by extension I have been able to allow wonderful things room to shine too. By allowing sadness a moment of its own to express what it wishes to say, I find myself happier at the end of the sentence.

This is unexpectedly easier than trying to write a 100% cheerful, picture-perfect essay. I feel lighter writing with the vulnerable, yet freeing feel of surrender powering my writing.

 

No Ordinary Sheila

In times like these, it feels especially poignant reflecting on the merits of a ‘well-lived life’. This phrase may bring to mind the notion of achievements people find notable or remarkable. But while achievements count for something, they are not everything. There is something to be said for going on mini adventures, creating stuff, staying healthy, enjoying ordinary moments, finishing what one sets out to do, having close relationships … the things that make life not just enjoyable, but purposeful! There is so much to be said about people who truly LIVE, not just survive.

Adventurer, cyclist, sailor, writer, wife to Gilbert, friend (including to famed NZ writer Janet Frame), Sheila Natusch did not just dip her toes gingerly into the ever-changing waters of life. She brushed against life, dove into it, cycled through its meandering pathways, and truly savoured it.

As I watched the (well-made) film on her life, aptly entitled “No Ordinary Sheila”, I felt warmly invited to slow down and reconsider my notions of a good life. Aside from Sheila’s remarkable dedication to and skills in studying, documenting and illustrating natural history, many other activities she pursued are not out of reach for most people. Anyone can put some walking shoes on and hike up an unfamiliar trail, spend some moments admiring a beautiful bird, or start working on a personal project just for fun.

Anyone can appreciate the little moments which make for an imperfect, immersive, wonderful life.

An altogether warm, charming, true-to-life documentary which left me feeling a sense of loss at the end as I read that Sheila had passed away in August this year. A beautiful life worth celebrating.

No Ordinary Sheila was first launched in the New Zealand International Film Festival 2017, and screened between 3rd August and 24th September. It will be released in cinemas around New Zealand from Thursday, 19th October. For more details, click here.

Image via Hugh Macdonald Film

This post has also been published on Big Screen NZ.

Kátya Kabanová

NZ Opera’s Kátya Kabanová opens appealingly with mystery. The lovely Kátya (Dina Kuznetsova) appears in soft pink, pretty and delicate beneath a blanket of stars. An aura of childlike wonder surrounds the scene – I feel as if I am gazing at a moving scene in a picture book. A jolly science teacher praises the beauty of the river while a servant, unimpressed, disagrees. I lean back into my seat, enjoying the beautiful set and costumes, and being taken back in time.

The lyrical novel begins. Set in 1950s America, everyone is suited, booted and coiffed – the set similarly constructed to paint a picture of order and grace: religious symbols in the tidy house, a bleach-white picket fence, pruned trees, a high-flying American flag. It is Sunday, church day. At the conclusion of the service, the lawn is awash with bows and smiles.

Polite and perfect settings soon juxtapose strongly with emerging, unregulated emotions. It seems that a religious morning has done nothing to soothe the spirits of a conflicted husband, a domineering mother, a fiery adopted sister, a lonely woman, a cantankerous uncle, and a man trapped by his uncle’s demands and his hopeless love for a married woman. The river to me becomes a visual representation of the changing temperaments of the human soul – surging with secrets, calm one moment and stormy the next.

As always I loved the visual and musical feast that I have come to associate with NZ Opera’s commitment to excellence. Though set in 1950s America, there are many themes and threads which are relatable in any time – most of all the universal emotional experience that we, being human, undoubtably share. Terse, lyrical outbursts by the individualistic Leoš Janáček carry the character-driven plot forward as we follow Kátya’s footsteps through a journey of inner struggle and courage.

Though Kátya Kabanová is the New Zealand Opera’s final offering for 2017, it is by no means one that should be overlooked. The performances of the cast are bold, heartfelt and haunting. The 1950s in the USA certainly marked a time when men ruled both the workplace and the home but seldom their mothers. Kátya Kabanová is a moving example of how at times that formula could go so tragically wrong. Patrick Nolan, the director, and Genevieve Blanchett, the production designer, seem to have taken particular care to make sure that this notion was not lost on we, the audience.

Although a tragedy, which has been compared to Romeo and Juliet, Kátya Kabanová does provide enough by way of individual performances, breathtaking lighting and set designs to leave us with a satisfying smile at the end of it all. Over and above those, there are outstanding performances by Wyn Davies [conductor] and The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, as well as a spectacular audio-visual presentation which helped keep the suspended reality of Leoš Janáček’s vision and story completely alive and forbearing.

Kátya Kabanová has three more performances in Auckland this month before the production moves to Wellington’s St James Theatre for four dates from 7 October. For more details, see NZ Opera website.

Saturday, 16 September, 2017 – ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland

Written with Jarred Tito

This post has also been published on Libel.

Image © NZ Opera via Facebook.

Thoughts while washing dishes (or why I cook)

There is a certain quiet in the kitchen when everyone has eaten and left.

Sleep starts to tease your eyelids as your hands work methodically to soap and rinse the sprawl of pots, plates, utensils … getting slower as you start yearning for bed, then quicker as you look at the time and remember that your alarm clock will ring in 6 hours.

It is work, you work harder than you have all day at your day job. You hop off the train, kiss your husband, run to the store, come home, march into the kitchen, don an apron, get moving. When guests expecting dinner are due in 45 minutes, there is no pointless dawdling or twiddling of thumbs, no pointless scrolling, no staring at the clock willing 5pm to come sooner. It’s work shift #2 after a full shift #1, but it’s rewarding work – chopping, measuring, sniffing, stirring … eating … talking … checking that guests’ glasses are full and bellies filling. You whip cream and make tea. You co-host. You listen, talk, laugh, catch up. And then, just as quickly as it began, it’s over. They go home. Time to wash up and then to go to bed.

But THIS moment, washing dishes, marvelling at how cooking smells and laughter give way to crumbs on the table and oil splashes on the stovetop. THIS silence is golden. You understand that time is your own to do what you want with it. You understand why people are the most important thing in the world. You understand that all the work that goes into cooking and feeding makes sense and is worthwhile, even though food takes effort to cook and less effort to eat and once done it is a cycle to be repeated in the days to come.

Finally – when people have left and the plates are clean again, you can feel the difference it has made. You have given, but received so much more in return. You are satisfied with food and the fullness that comes from eating together with others. And you are filled with gratitude.

That’s why I do it. To feel good, to have fun – but equally, to enjoy the satisfaction of working hard with my hands and feeling rested, well and grateful.

Book Beginning: A Paris Year by Janice MacLeod

So begins A Paris Year: My Day-to-Day Adventures in the Most Romantic City in the World. The Kindle version of this book has been my recent companion on my daily train commute to and from work. (Seriously – it is so beautiful and may well be the second eBook for which I end up purchasing the print version of as well)!

I bought this eBook one evening when I was feeling whimsical, in the mood for a read that would be both light and intelligent, charming and inspirational.

A few pages in, I found myself smiling – and continued to do as I travelled to the city of light on the back of a beautiful, humorous, talented spirit. This is a book created by someone whom I haven’t met but am sure I would adore in person! – author and illustrator Janice Macleod.

If I visit Paris again, I’ll be sure to take this precious book with me.

This is my first post joining in the fun with Book Beginnings!

A lovely article / interview I came across that features A Paris Year / Janice Macleod is here.

Bacon, tomato & mandarino spirals

On my birthday last month, I drove purposefully to Sabato. One has to be strong (as I learned) to shop there with self-control! On this particular day, full from brunch with friends, I thought I might manage …

When I got there I was greeted with a smiling face, pleasantly-stocked shelves, a table with various oils and vinegars to taste. I took my time, dipping cubes of bread into oils and vinegars, gazing at cheese and chocolate. It was difficult to maintain my resolve to pick up just dinner ingredients and a treat or two. In the end, I left a little guiltily with a brown paper bag filled to the brim with goodies.

After all of that, I didn’t enjoy our dinner that night that much, though J complimented me very kindly on it.

But this dish, made a few nights later with one citrusy Sabato purchase, won both of us over.

    Bacon, tomato & mandarino spirals 
    Ingredients:
    Olive oil
    Pasta spirals
    Fresh heirloom tomatoes – halved
    Garlic cloves, minced (we used 3 for 2 of us)
    Shoulder bacon, roughly diced (we used 100g)
    Sundried tomatoes, chopped
    Handful mushrooms, sliced
    Chilli flakes
    Ormond Rich Cream or white wine (optional)
    Mandarino* oil by Marina Colonna
    Salt
    Pepper
    Method:
    Bring a saucepan of water to a rolling boil. Salt it generously, then add in pasta spirals**. Ensure that the pasta is well covered with water. Cook till al dente, stirring every so often to prevent the pasta from sticking.
    While the pasta is cooking, place a skillet over moderately high heat and add in a tablespoon or two of olive oil. When the oil is warm, fry the tomato halves until they smell sweet and begin to collapse, then remove and set aside.
    Add in a little more oil if the skillet is too dry. Throw in the chilli flakes, minced garlic and sun-dried tomatoes – sauté. Once you can smell the garlic, deglaze with a splash of Ormond Rich Cream (you can also use any white wine or water) and cook for a minute or two till it evaporates. If you add in too much liquid at this point, just take some of it out with a spoon and set aside.
    Add in the bacon, fry till they turn a rich pink and brown in bits. Add in the mushrooms. Add in excess liquid from above if any – or add another splash of cooking wine / water, as well as a tablespoon of water from the pasta pot. Stir and lower the heat. Add the cooked tomatoes back in.
    When the pasta is ready, drain it, shake off excess water and stir it into the ‘sauce’.
    Now for the finishing touch*. Drizzle on the Mandarino, and serve immediately. Add freshly ground salt and pepper as you wish.
    * In lieu of using Mandarino, perhaps you could leave it out / experiment with another infused oil, or perhaps with adding a pinch of sugar, some chopped preserved lemon or a squeeze of fresh orange juice?
    ** Depending on the cooking time of the pasta, you may wish to adjust the order of cooking so the pasta and bacon ‘sauce’ are ready at the same time.
    Measurements are not exact as I cooked this rather spontaneously (i.e. without measuring things) – this post is intended to serve as a guide / inspiration rather than a definite ‘how-to’. :-)