Category Archives: Inspiring people

Amber Topaz: The Rude Awakening

Image © Amber Topaz

When I first saw the poster, I was suspicious of my husband’s motive for wanting to go to this (though he tried to convince me I would want to go too if I had joined them in their podcast where they interviewed Amber Topaz). MEN! – I harrumphed. 🤤🙄

Well – curiosity won and I said yes to going for the show. She was sultry and sassy, as expected. But I was swept off my feet by her warmth, vulnerability, and beauty. 💘

She told her story and she did an amazing job in portraying the wonder of WOMEN! and of the human experience. 💎

🛫 WELLINGTON (NZ) she is headed to you next week and she doesn’t know anyone in NZ … so I said I would help spread the word 

More details here


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. 

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.

A man, a podcast and meeting Ciaran McMeeken

I have always had a passion for story-telling, creative people and those wonderful books / movies / plays etc that transport you to a whole new magical world. I enjoy good films and music just like most people I know, but until I met my husband, I would never have swum deeper into the world of the creative arts, music, movies – i.e. I would enjoy them when I was there, but I wouldn’t feel a need to read up more about them or listen to commentary around them.

At my first date with Jarred, though, I learned towards the end of our leisurely coffee date that my date (too many dates in this sentence and none are the Medjool sort) was involved with a podcast on entertainment. I was intrigued and secretly glad that I had not known this before we met up, as I would have thought – with great error – that such a man must be superficial and love celebrities and be scarily extroverted and have nothing in common with me. (Okay – I was the shallow judge!)

He asked if I might like to join him at his podcast that afternoon. I looked at his kind face for a few seconds, considering. I got into his car.

Image from Bossfight

As it turns out, it was more than safe – it was great! That day I met his co-host Wal, and a couple of filmmakers who shared their experience and passion in a way that made me reflect on and appreciate films, filmmakers and the creative process more. It was like being backstage, getting to watch a performance from a closer and different vantage point, but better. I was also rather floored by the confidence they all had in front of the camera and mic!

Good surprises come sometimes when you least expect it. I had a lovely evening out with my husband last night, pretending we were in sunny Thailand at happy eatery Kiss Kiss and following up with a cozy coffee-and-slice and Circus Circus, before we headed in to the studio for a podcast session.

I found out that this evening’s guest was singer-songwriter Ciaran McMeeken. Born in Arrowtown and bred in the wild and beautiful South Island of NZ, he was due to launch his self-titled album and debut tour in NZ (both happening today). I was a little sleepy as the night was cold and it was ticking slowly towards my bedtime – but when he arrived and the conversation began, the magic happened. I was a transfixed fly on the wall.

Through lighthearted banter, spontaneous questions and honest answers between them all, I learned a little about Ciaran’s journey, feeling a simultaneous sense of respect and delight. When he sang his beautiful song “Spanish Steps” towards the end, it was like we were at our own private concert. I found myself paddling in memories of home, travels, sunshine, yearnings and writing poetry. (Did you know that one of the best ways you can encourage your own creativity to emerge is to be in the presence of someone who daringly creates and shares his own art?)

For someone who’s sung in front of thousands whilst opening for Ronan Keating, Ciaran was also humble enough to acknowledge the people he’s met who have helped propel him forward. He mentioned a farmer, John, who he once worked alongside. John cut his apprehension down to size (by $18K) with simple, grounded advice and helped him to see that his dream was not as out of reach as he thought. Ciaran left the farm a few days later and as the popular saying goes … the rest is history! (Thanks, John!)

Meeting people, the desire to create and sing, serendipity, home, travel, struggle, goals … the conversation was only around 20 minutes long but touched on many aspects of the creative and human journey (see below). In the end, I was reminded that while luck, budget, kind people, opportunities and things like that play a role in fostering success, it is the decision to step out and say YES that finally makes it all possible.

Personal courage and action have been hugely crucial in bringing Ciaran to this point in his journey and I am positive that for as long as he continues to say YES and express his shining heart, he will enjoy many future successes.

“Like anything, you need a team … you can’t do it by yourself. Like climbing a mountain – you need some sherpas”, said Ciaran. Wise words.

Humble words.

We won’t be surprised when he wins his Grammy.

P.S. Of course I had to take a ‘we-fie’!

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Tune in to the remarkable Ciaran McMeeken

On Julie, Julia and Hunger

Life itself is the proper binge.
~ Julia Child

Tonight, I watched “Julie and Julia” for the second time. I can still feel a laugh simmering in my belly, and my face is still wet with tears.

I feel like I have finally enjoyed their stories on an empty stomach.

You see, in my two previous encounters with “Julie and Julia”, I was distracted. The exact dates on which I chanced upon Julie Powell’s book “Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously” (some time before the movie was released) and on which I attended a late night screening of “Julie and Julia” at a cinema in Singapore are lost amongst the loose leaves of my memory now, but I have not forgotten the state I was in when this story made its way to me. Both times, my heart was a dark shade of grey. Both times, “Julie and Julia” was a nice meal, but it was like trying to eat at a loved one’s funeral – I couldn’t really dig in.

This time though, the film shone/showered on my crimson heart, and I loved every ray/drop of it.

By the way, did you know that “Julie and Julia” (the book) is also one of the things that inspired the birth of this blog (well, that and a night of insomnia)? And while I have no Paul Child or saintly Eric now, I had – and have – a wonderful troop of family and friends who help keep it going.

Happy I am.

And while I’m on the subject of happiness, I’m happy to be on holiday leave, too. You get more time to think and make breakfast and go for long sea-smelling walks when you’re on holiday.

One of the holiday thoughts that surfaced in my mind the other day while at the beach was this: that to be hungry… really hungry… can be a marvellous thing.

In suffering hunger, senses are sharp, everything is real. Alive. To sounds, smells, sights, tastes. Facial expressions. Thoughts. Feelings. These are some of the things that I like about hunger in food, and in life – that keenness, clarity and drive to go after something that will fill and satisfy. The spontaneity to try something new. The vulnerability. The awareness that we need other people. The desperation. The jolting reminder that “I am a human being”.

That day, I found myself hungry in a curious way. Hungry enough to defer eating because no food immediately appealed, I found myself wanting to wait till I knew exactly what I wanted to eat (thus I ate breakfast at 12, no lunch, and dinner past 8pm). I found myself thinking new things about hunger and the function of eating. I was hungry for the smell of the sea, hungry for a sunset, hungry to dream. And I was content to be hungry, and gleeful when I finally ate and felt like I was really eating… satisfying the essence of my hunger, rather than eating just ‘cos it was time to eat (or time to blog). ;-)

I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but I think my thoughts have been coming together slowly… the truth is: I’ve gotten used to the feeling of fullness, of reaching out regularly to grab a cookie even when I’m not hungry (a phenomenon frequently observed in the lives of people with desk jobs), of eating more than my body requires at birthdays/other occasions, of eating when bored or moping, of eating when I’m not hungry just so I can experience a food more fully (and write about it). And when I’m not eating, I’m nibbling on food-related prose/events/stuff the way a kid feasts on candy – very greedily.

Food fascinates me. Probably always will.

But I begin to see that too often, I miss one real and obvious aspect of food/eating – hunger. Perhaps knowing hunger is crucial to knowing food. And perhaps… loving hunger (within reason) is crucial to truly loving food.

I don’t really know hunger well at all, and while I know I’m so fortunate to even be able to say that, I think that I want to fall deeper in love with food by coming to love hunger too.

Now, before you start worrying about me developing anorexia, it’s not gonna happen. The way I plan to go about this whole “knowing hunger” thing is simple. No diets. No starvation.

Just a few simple mental guidelines addressed to myself – 1. Eat when truly hungry. 2. Pay attention to food. 3. Be not afraid of hunger. 4. Laugh and love and cook like Julia Child. 5. Fall deeper in love with life, God and people.

And that, you may be relieved to read, concludes my Sunday ramble. :-) Thanks for listening (in particular – a huge thank you to you darling readers including Celi, Greg and Kristy for always making me smile with your comments)! Adiós for now!