Friday, 28 February 2014

My latest article on the Huffington Post

Feb 28 2014

Photo copyright S. van Dalen

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Things I saw in the woods today, part 66

A crocus disgorging its pollen:

A lily, unfurling out of the earth:

Catkins of the cobnut shrub:

A tree log trying to pass incognito:

All photos copyright S. van Dalen

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Emperors, vanessids and fritillaries...

...of which this Small Tortoiseshell is one:

Photos copyright SvD.

(I found him in an empty whiskey glass on the dining room table this morning- did he hatch indoors?)

Monday, 17 February 2014

One day in the life...

I have been meeting an awful lot of people from different walks of life recently and these are some of their stories:

Albertina- this gentle pensioner had recently lost two grandchildren- one in a road accident and the other from a heart attack. She had just returned from comforting her daughter who is 'coping' with the loss of her two children. Albertina is teaching herself French to take her mind off her lost grand kids...

Brian- a morbidly obese postman who laments his burgeoning weight since he was forced to drive rather than walk or cycle for work. Brian delivers over 100 packages from Amazon per day and much fewer letters than in days gone by. Brian wishes his son would get a job but he sits around the house all day watching TV instead.

Mrs. S. - Muslim lady who is shocked to discover she is expecting at age 45. She thought she was going through the menopause and is not looking forward to another child- she already has three grown up kids. Secretly hates her life but too dutiful to say anything.

Khalid- exiled Pakistani who prefers Britain because there is 'no fighting'.

Angela- Parisian, who is divorcing her husband as he does nothing around the house and doesn't even look after the kids (plus he wanted sex every night). Angela works full time and has too much on her plate to have to cope with a demanding husband.

Regina- Russian ex-Olympic Judo champion who appears to be asexual and has the most unnerving gaze as if she could control your mind. Scared the hell out of me. Now living in Britain 'because there is nothing' for her in her homeland since she retired from sport.

Yvonne- 60s, suffered horrific car crash ten years ago which has left her epileptic- must not be upset in any way as that could trigger a fit. Yvonne lives with her autistic younger brother.

Tina- London cabbie who is literally dying although she doesn't know it. She has had several major surgeries in the last few years and is severely diabetic. Her hair has all but fallen out. She is doubly incontinent. Just celebrated her 50th birthday. Overweight from eating the wrong things and sitting in a cab all day. Tina works from 6pm-2am five days a week. She catches me eating a homemade cheese sandwich and snorts that such a paltry nibble 'could never fill her up'. She's booked for a gastric bypass and is looking forward to it (but before then she is scheduled for bladder surgery to control her incontinence). She tells me her weight has tortured her all through her life and she just wants her stomach 'cut out'. Then she confides her husband doesn't work...

Marissa- young mum who has just graduated as a lawyer. Lives in a council flat.Will go far with her gung ho approach. Doesn't yet realise husband is a complete waste of space (I'm meeting a lot of women who regret their choice of spouse)..

Dab- exiled Dutchman who fled Holland when he found himself in negative equity and had to sell his property portfolio to satisfy the bank. He and his Irish wife have triplets conceived through IVF after 'eight years of trying'. Happy to have no money but three lovely kids.

Crissie- Trinidadian who is returning home after eighteen years in London as she doesn't want her four year old daughter growing up in Britain. She laments the lack of basic skills such as manners and being able to cook of British kids and has convinced her husband that they need to leave. Their flights are booked for August.

We're all different but we're all the same. Don't you think?

Photos copyright SvD.

Everything comes to an end

Unusually, this magpie, normally the bane of the wild poultry world as it is a fierce and heartless predator, has found himself on the receiving end of a fox's appetite. All things come to an end.

Photo copyright SvD.

Friday, 14 February 2014

My latest article on the Huffington post

February 14 2014
Dancing Canada Goose, photo copyright SvD.

Things to bring for your stay in England

For your upcoming trip to our beautiful green and pleasant land, may I recommend that you be SURE to pack the following:

A hat that will remain fastened to your head in winds of 80 miles per hour
A pair of wellies
A waterproof jacket and trousers
Waterproof handbag
Several pairs of wool socks
Wool jumpers
At least two pairs of gloves as you will surely lose one
Same for scarves
Thermal underwear (more than one, please)
Hot water bottles (one for feet and one for chest)
One new umbrella for each day of your stay (these are usually decimated in 3 seconds flat by our strong winds)
A Mac
Cough medicine
Vitamin D tablets (we have no sun)
Medical insurance for when you need hospitalisation for pneumonia or bronchitis (from getting soaking wet and freezing cold daily)
A flask to carry whiskey or brandy (for when the train or bus you are on breaks down and the driver asks you to disembark in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night due to 'unseasonal weather')
A lot of money
A sense of humour

Things not to bring:
Your raw food diet (unless you wish to freeze to death)
Clothing that exposes any skin at all to the elements
Anything valuable that could be destroyed by rain and damp (such as family photographs)
A bicycle

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Why falling in love is impossible over 50

When I got divorced four years ago I entered a minefield of dating. Love in middle age is a quagmire of disappointment, disillusion and forced hope. Why 'forced'? Because one always hopes for the best knowing fully well that the 'best' is nothing more than compromise and jaded acceptance.

I write as a middle -aged woman and one who is quite delighted to be on the cusp of fading away into the sunset. Once the menopause has passed we feel a pang of sadness at the lost opportunity to ever have kids but we look back with clear lenses instead of rose-tinted ones. The ability to see things as they really are is a distinct advantage of getting older. We can spot extraneous bullshit a mile away. We can also separate the bullshitters from the genuine ones in less than five seconds flat. Even better, we recognise that nothing is ever what it seems.

Take men for example. If you're a middle-aged woman with a pleasing demeanour (i.e. still have hair and teeth) and preferably live alone and are not too impoverished, men see you as an ideal 'adventure'- a chance to cheat on their wives with someone who is sufficiently independent and not potentially deranged enough to boil the pet rabbit. This scenario is ideal for 99.9% of men who hanker for passion and affection, as they all seemingly do. Cue to the 'mistress-in-waiting' who then has to choose whether the lifestyle choice of keeping the house spick and span and champagne on ice is what she wants.

Men sadly, will sleep with anything. The mistress-in-waiting should therefore be fully aware that it ain't really her mind that's irresistible. I don't wish to sound like the Pope but I don't care to be a plaything. I am far too vain. The point however that I do wish to make is that one should never lose one's zest for life or love. Yes, men can be arseholes who are motivated by what's south of their navels but at the same time, it is vital to maintain the wanting-to-falling-in-love aspect of our personalities. Otherwise the alternative is that cliche: the embittered, miserable divorcee who hates all men, stops shaving her legs and doesn't keep her facial (post menopausal) hair in check.

Hope is as inevitable as death. The human condition is one of waiting in anticipation for the best to burst forth from our fellow homo sapiens. When others disappoint us, we feel badly let down and hard done by. Many a romance-gone-sour has ruined lives. I recently found myself really, really liking someone only to discover that he wasn't really, really worthy of my affection. I did like the way though that I felt all happy, warm and fuzzy albeit only for a short moment in time and even my friends thought I looked like I was in love. But I decided it would be a better option for me to be true to myself rather than chase a fantasy. You see, middle-aged men don't change and too many are nursing hefty alimony payments and children who will not want an usurper to deprive them of their inheritance. There's also another type of man: the one who is still legally married although living apart from his wife. He speaks to her every day and still supports her financially. He doesn't have the balls to divorce her because he knows fully well that as he gets old and decrepit she is the only one who will want him around not so much out of love but only because it is sometimes better to tolerate the devil one has grown used to.

Why do men cheat? A fear of death. The sense that time is slipping rapidly away. The posturing, the strutting around, the cheating, the scheming, the lying, all lead back to the same place: that until we we actually like ourselves, we're just frauds.

Detail of "The Kiss", oil on canvas, photo and painting copyright SvD.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

There are places I remember.....

In my sixth decade I recall with some difficulty the many, many people I have known in my life. Not only is my memory getting more unreliable but those faces I do recall sometimes lack a name. The sense of losing a substantive connection with the past first occurred to me when my beloved father died. When the physical presence disappears all we have left are memories and when those go...we have nothing.

I have been re-reading one of my all time favourite books by my favourite author: Jean Giono. Le Hussard sur le Toit. I think had I been alive during Jena Giono's lifetime he would have been my perfect man. He fought in two world wars, and not only did he live in the same place all his life but he viewed the cycle of nature as both poetic and profound and to which the human condition is inextricably linked. Le Hussard sur le Toit is essentially the story of a cholera epidemic in France and what happens to us when we are surrounded by death. There is a wonderful passage I have just re-read today, one where a doctor speaks of what sickness is: he explains that on the autopsy table we all look the same regardless of how we have loved or been loved. The pleasure that we experience in life leaves no trace on our bodies but the ravages of ill health can be seen in the liver, spleen, lungs or inside the digestive tract, for example. The concept that bad things leave their mark but good things do not is profound and begs the question- is happiness therefore all in the mind? But let us return to memories.

Cast your mind back to Four Weddings and a Funeral when Andie/Macdowell/ Carrie remembers the names of each of her thirty plus lovers. That in itself is quite remarkable even moreso that she could recall the chronological order in which all that copulating occurred. She must have been sober and loved them all (or kept a diary)! Memories are only active inside our heads if we choose to keep them. Let's face it, there are things we would rather forget.

I can remember almost nothing of my primary school days because I hated school. Did I learn anything back then? All a mystery to me, really. I recall having a crush on one of my classmates, Ian, and the jungle gym and playing with plasticine. In secondary school I learned even less. It's a wonder I got any O and A levels. French and English left a mark on me due to my very attractive French teacher and ditto for Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. The rest of the school curriculum is a complete blur.

The things/lovers/those-who-crossed-our-paths and which are worth remembering must be the ones that changed us. Made us better. Made us happier. Made us think. Or simply brought out the best of us. Perhaps that is why love is the axis on which our hearts spin; that dopey feeling brings out the qualities and attributes we hadn't realised we even had. Suddenly we want to nurture, feed, protect and smile all the time. Love transforms us if even for a brief moment but forever the imprint will be branded into our innermost core.

Part of my fascination with growing old, as I am, is the contentedness that comes with memories. The smile that comes upon my lips as I recall a former lover and the crazy things I used to do (I'm so thrilled I don't do them anymore!!!). Jokes aside, the fondness with which we hold the past is a vital cornerstone to our own existence: we measure our lives by the past and the present is the sum of all the experiences we have had before. A recent walk down a London street where every nationality and age group are represented, reminded me of the way our lives get etched in our faces. The down-turned mouth, the reluctance to smile, the eyes that never meet yours, these are the bitter memories that refuse to fade away. Better to give in to the nymph of joy than the tears of regret.

If it moves you:

Having lost a court case this week- well and truly trashed- I walked out of the courtroom and into the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. This gallery is my regular haunt where I escape for a few hours as often as required. I spent two hours walking around, sitting and staring longingly and just emptying my head. Art is a magnificent echo of what we're feeling. Rembrandt, Rubens, van Dyck and Velasquez- thank you.

And finally:

The actor Philip Seymour Hoffman ended his life by a suspected drug overdose this week. The Greeks maintained that a peaceful death was the reward for one who had lived a good and honest life. In this crazy world we live in, 'good', 'honest', 'peaceful' seem at odds with the word 'reward'. Why? Probably because we don't feel the need to earn brownie points with the universe too much these days. RIP Mr. Hoffman. Wherever you are.

Photo copyright SvD.