Wednesday, 24 February 2016

My latest article on The Huffington Post

24 February 2016

Photo copyright SvD.

Monday, 22 February 2016

A real tree

If you ever wondered what a real tree looks like, one that hasn't been lopped, pollarded and mutilated by human hands, we are lucky to still be able to find untouched wild specimens in our countryside. I love to walk, as you may know by now, and without my escapades into fields and valleys, I would be most unhappy. In our fast and furious world, it is good to remind ourselves from time to time what a tree should look like. A love of nature is one of the ways to discover how blessed we are to be part of this world, as artificial, chaotic and crazy as it is.

An oak, Northamptonshire.
Photo copyright SvD.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

How to be alone

As I cooked my evening meal last night it struck me that I have become a master of oneness. I cook for one, I enjoy my solitary walks for hours with my hound, none of my hobbies can be shared: painting, writing, reading, photography and my thoughts seem to have a singular thread of aloneness and solitude.  I have arrived at a stage in my life where I expect the worst from others and therefore I conduct a type of selective mental exclusion where I literally do not expend energy trying to figure others out anymore. I have concluded that people are unfathomable performers on the stage of life who come, see and leave. No more, no less. None of this means that I am a reclusive depressive- not at all but to arrive at a point where I shrug my shoulders says more about detachment and a lack of expectation. Needy people expect a lot. I, on the other hand, expect nothing.

There is a distinct difference between being lonely and being alone. Our fast-food society often confounds the two (like the article on disposable income in the press this week- many thought 'disposable' meant 'spare' and could not grasp what the difference was). Being lonely conjures up images of dejection and a self-imposed solitary confinement. Very often lonely people don't want to see anyone and reject approaches from friends and family to stay in touch. Eventually the contact is lost for good and the loneliness becomes embittered- lonely people can blame others' insensitivity and thoughtlessness for their predicament. The truth is, human beings are social animals and unless they feel that maintaining contact is too much hard graft, they are likely to disappear for good.

I'm not lonely but I am alone. A fifty-something divorcé who has gotten used to her own company. This makes me as attractive as Lucrezia Borgia to men who ultimately don't want too much of a challenge in their romantic  life. The strange thing about life is how rapidly time careers away from us once youth has passed. When we are young we consider time to be our slave, to do as we wish and we do not have an awareness of the repercussions of what we do in the present on the future. As we get older, time seems to accelerate past us and there is a real sense of it running out altogether. And suddenly, there are no options left- amends can no longer be made because they are hidden away in the recesses of a distant past, the lovers we should have kept have long ago created a new life for themselves and the connection has been lost forever.

Age brings a startling and painfully obvious awareness that we only have the present in all its ephemeral glory. The present is more fragile than the daintiest spider's web incapable of standing up to a hurricane. Our present is the sum of everything we ought to do but put off for a nebulous tomorrow. I look back at the 'aloneness' I have known all of my life and fully understand why I am who I am. Could it be any other way?

The Romans had a saying about one's disposition as being an unchangeable thing. I think quite frankly, I was born this way. Not lonely but alone. One primary school report to my parents written by the Principal opined that 'Samantha doesn't want to play with the other kids.' Nothing has changed over fifty years, then. I abhor the  idea of following fashion or trends. But I like dreaming and my imagination keeps me company from all the shabbiness of life. Had I not been alone I would not have had the impetus to create: artistic expression comes from a solitary inner core, from a place to where one must retreat completely. It is no surprise that many artists are single and egocentric in the extreme.

Life goes on whether we are by ourselves or with someone else. The crevices in our existence are largely of our own making. The important question is this: is everything not as it should be?

My advice for how to be alone is this: be yourself with all its flaws and imperfections. Find joy in the inevitability of the cycle of life. Retain a sense of wonder. Marvel at the stars in the sky and hope one day you get to be one.

 Photo copyright SvD.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

On a clear day...

On a clear day I can see forever.

Photo copyright SvD.

Molehills vs mountains

These are the famous mountains, sorry, molehills, that appear bigger than they are (with the hound helpfully investigating on behalf of M15).
Photo copyright SvD.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

How far away is Hell?

The concept of hell is synonymous with an afterlife but it is also a final destination. The last hurrah, as it were from where there is no turning back. Christianity evokes a huge guilt factor- if we have sinned, we go to hell, an exclusion zone for 'bad' people and crucially, one where there is a permanent  separation from God. Jean-Paul Sartre famously described hell as 'other people'. (Given that Sartre was a nihilist, who by definition doubt the existence of God or an afterlife, one could argue how obvious an observation this actually is.)

The etymology of 'hell' refers to a world reserved solely for the dead. One could only experience hell after life and in many faiths and cultures, this other dimension signifies torment and endless punishment in perpetuity (that is, if time applies there).

I recently re-read Milton's famous poem, Paradise Lost, and the penny dropped superbly as it often does with great writing.
'Which way I fly is hell, myself am hell.'

Is there not too a type of hell on earth? A friend recently remarked that she hates her aging body- the sagging skin, the lack of vitality, the wrinkles and seeing her looks fade is tantamount to a cruel punishment. 'I once used to be beautiful!', she wailed.

Others may rue the challenges and bad luck they have often faced and many will know first-hand that nothing ever comes easily in life and certainly not without a heavy cost. What about the images of refugees, lifeless on an otherwise idyllic beach, the outcome of escaping war and persecution- is theirs not the worst fate to have to choose?

We are already consumed by hell; some have been forced into it and others have chosen it willingly.

When appearance is everything, there are those desperate to stop time in its tracks- the veneers, the face lifts- or to embellish their appearance- breast augmentation, nose jobs. This perpetual search for the elixir of youth poses several questions. By forcing time to stand still are we not just delaying the inevitable? And in so doing, are we not creating our own misery? When the anaesthetic wears off, we had better like the surgeon's handwork. There is also an element of self-loathing, or as it were, living in a hell of our own making because we cannot accept ourselves as we are. A recent survey concluded that one in two British women hate the way they look. This too is the Achilles Heel of the human condition: to want to be someone else, somewhere else or something else that is more perfect that our present reality.

The opposite of hell is heaven (real or imagined)  otherwise put, the perfection we seemingly yearn for. Whilst we associate hell with punishment, suffering and cruelty, heaven is a place of repose, peacefulness and endless joy. A type of nirvana filled with bliss-on-tap but without the mind-altering drugs. Many of us would find it difficult to make the transition from stressed-out to blissed-out and would probably also find the experience somewhat comical. I would argue that we choose hell willingly over its arch-enemy, contentment and because we have gotten too used to the demands of daily living. Letting go and giving in to the universe don't fit it in with our expectations of life anymore. We prefer to be popular, well-off, attractive and most importantly, to have everything we want. Yet we still perceive that if we have been 'good', 'bad' things should never happen to us.

So we choose hell but in many ways, we need to. By making mistakes, wrong decisions and failing, we learn to recognise the difference between what we need to do in order to be happier and what we can live without. Regret, recriminations and in some ways, tragedy, are the spurs which propel us towards a better future. Without experiencing hell on earth, we would not have the courage to find inner peace nor be able to create a happier life for ourselves. In order to be happy, one must learn to overcome unhappiness. Ironically, one is not born happy but every one of us without exception, is forced to earn it.

An unhappy life is a living hell but it does not have to be. We can choose to turn sad tears into rivers of joy. And I guarantee even the devil himself would be impressed.

Photo copyright SvD.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

A very excellent ragoût

Saturday was my birthday and I overindulged somewhat on the food and booze front. Sunday was a recovery day and I made a simple and very tasty ragoût. I invent these recipes as I go along- all cooking follows certain principles and like any artist, I add my interpretation of the rules to the pot. I have one golden rule which I never veer from: do not over-season food and stick to salt, pepper, bouquet garni and wine/vinegar, if at all possible. The ingredients should sing their own melody and we should know what we're eating. For this reason I dislike spicy food.

This ragoût (and I use the term only to describe the cooking method and type of ingredients) is a combination of lamb chops, pork sausages, haricot beans and red lentils. The flavour is out of this world and it is nourishing- the most important criterion of all. The red lentils create a thick, unctuous sauce which along with the haricot beans, add a robust, heartiness to the stew. This is warming food ideal for getting the blood flowing.

I've written the recipe below without any measurements- see if you can take the idea and try it out on your own terms- then you'll be a real cook!

In a large pan, heat a splash of olive oil over medium high heat. Brown the sausages lightly- around five minutes. Remove from the pan. Add a knob of butter to the pan and as it begins to foam, add the lamb chops - season lightly with salt and pepper. Do not move the chops for at least two minutes then turn them over and sear the other side. Season again with salt and pepper. (A note on salt: please ditch iodised salt and switch to sea salt only. The flavour is far superior.)

Once the lamb chops are nicely seared- just a light caramel colour and the fat tinged at the edges (please leave the fat on as it adds flavour. In order not to gain weight: eat just enough, throw out the TV and exercise. Not rocket science.). Remove the chops from the pan and keep covered. Add a handful of lardons to the pan. Once some of the fat is rendered, add two medium finely chopped onions to the pan. Toss around until the onions have browned - again, a light caramel colour not charcoal :). Now add as much finely chopped garlic as you like- I tend to use four or five cloves as garlic is very good for the heart and digestion not to mention it staves off infection. (PS A good digestive system means you won't reek of garlic).

Return the sausages and lamb to the pan. Deglaze the pan with a splash of wine- more than a third of a cup is plain unnecessary. Allow the wine to evaporate. Add the lentils and beans (canned, organic haricot beans and dry red lentils). If you're feeling virtuous, soak dried haricot beans overnight and cook in a pressure cooker- without salt as it hardens the beans. If however you'd like to eat within one hour of starting to cook, use the canned beans.

Place a bouquet garni  in the mix along with a good grinding of pepper. Add enough water to just cover the contents of the pan. Bring to the boil and simmer (covered) for 30 minutes by which time the red lentils will be cooked and will have turned into a thick sauce. Stir the stew and check for catching (sticking) at the bottom of the pan. You may need to add more liquid to the pan as the lentils will have absorbed a great deal. Now add the salt to taste- go easy and stick to one teaspoon only. You can always add more salt at the table. Cover and leave for twenty more minutes. Just before serving, add a knob of butter and stir into the stew- this gives it a sheen (and is rather delicious).

Sprinkle the dish with chopped parsley and serve at once. I accompany the ragoût with steamed green beans tossed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. After a bowl of the ragoût, a light cheese and two squares of chocolate is all I need!

PS I make a ton of this and freeze it- that way when I come home shattered from work I do not have to cook.

PPS Beef, chicken, pork, anything really, all work well with this dish. The secret is to brown the meat and onions and to deglaze with red wine.

PPPS Forget about using stock when cooking- if a dish is well executed, it won't need it. I only ever use fish stock when making sauces for fish simply because the depth of flavour can be lacking with white fish in particular.

Photo copyright SvD.