little red jottings

when a little red pen wanders off the page

Tag: got to start somewhere

Telling it like it is

It’s 8.30pm and we’re eating dinner. This is not some sophisticated European thing. This is a long day with too much frazzle, a fishing trip that consisted almost entirely of line disentanglement, the end of a long weekend, dwindling parental energy, the rigours of the supermarket, the complications of catering for one child with allergies, one who has decided he is now a vegetarian who eats seafood and mince, and two parents who want a simple French tart every now and then, and also it’s the sort of late you get when you start behind time and everything goes just enough wrong to really collapse the schedule. Probably, in sum, it’s bad parenting, or maybe it’s just the way life rolls sometimes.

So, here we are, eating our mince, pea, apple and olive pie and our leek, tomato, olive, goats’ cheese tart, relaxed and comfortable with each other at last, some of us playing Uno, some of us with our noses in a book. Ian is trying to convince the Rabbit that it’s time to go to bed, that there will be only a little bit of story time tonight, that a bath is not going to happen. I’ve chipped in a bit but — truth be told — I’m nearing the bottom third of a wine glass and I’m reading essays by Helen Garner and I still have to cook a lasagne tonight before I can go to bed, so now the conversation is swirling in the space around my head, but nothing’s going in my ears.

Until we get to this bit.

Rabbit: “Do you know what I’m doing?”

Ian: “Um …”

Me: “Procrastinating?”

Rabbit: “What I’m doing is I’m not listening to you.”

Checking in

In a group I’m part of, we start and end meetings by checking in. We’re chatty, self-reflective types and also good listeners, so this process can take quite some time, but it’s always worth it. Sometimes it’s hard to see what’s happening in your life, and having a good ramble about it can reveal surprising patterns and responses.

I think this check in is going to focus on birds.

We put the birdfeeder up a few weeks ago, and the birds started coming to it last week. I can see the feeder from the kitchen window and from my office; typing or washing dishes while keeping an eye on a green-flecked bunch of birds flickering around the feeder is quite a few steps up from typing or washing the dishes without the birds.

So far, the customers have mostly been waxeyes, with chaffinches, blackbirds and thrushes patrolling the ground below. But I think a tui did a fly-by a few minutes ago, so maybe she’ll come back soon.

It’s all very happy, except for the washing line situation. As mentioned in my previous post, the birds like to perch on the washing line while they psych themselves up for feeder negotiations. Then they poo on the washing and I have to re-wash it. This is sort of doubly frustrating because I already have trouble reaching half the washing line, so I’m already pretty grumpy about laundry duties.

Anyway, I guess we’ll move the line because I’m enjoying the birds too much to move them.

In other news, a youth group in the Valley is fundraising for a ski trip and I got them to dig over the vege patch yesterday. It was hilarious and wonderful in all the ways you might expect when you ask a group of teens to dig your vege patch. Two left after ten minutes when they realised the job was going to involve strenuous exercise and coordinated effort. The path is considerably muddier than it was before they started, but the patch is clean and fresh looking. They broke a pane in the glasshouse and left behind three shoes and a bucket. Some of them worked diligently and hard; some did flying leaps off the bank into the garden. The youngest and the skinniest and the biggest were the best workers. No-one stabbed anyone else, but it looked close a few times. A clump of lilies disappeared, but I wasn’t that fond of them. Maybe they’ll bloom in the compost heap. One boy did a beautiful job tidying the glasshouse and washing it down. The trays in it are neatly stacked and the mint has room to breathe.

I kept a quiet eye on the kids from my office as I worked on a copyedit, and I have to say, my feelings about them were almost identical to my feelings about the waxeyes. I loved them, but it was a rueful, charmed kind of love.

Strangely, while I was writing this, a bird flew past the window and I could swear it was a heron. I’ve never seen such a thing in suburban Dunedin, but it had a very heronesque bodyline and  it sure as shit wasn’t a seagull. It circled down towards the Gardens; maybe it’s gone to catch a fish.

Marmalade days, Part II

I picked up Shonagh Koea’s book, The Kindness of Strangers {Kitchen Memoirs} at breakfast this morning, and I’ve been rolling her words like marbles under my tongue all day. I could start quoting anywhere, really, and my stopping point will be likewise borderline arbitrary, but I thought, y’know, marmalade.

The first time I made marmalade was when I was working as a very junior reporter in New Plymouth. The Daily News was a morning newspaper so we all worked until eleven at night, or even later, and no one wanted boarders going in and out of their houses at that hour so I had a tiny flat of my own. There was a tiny kitchen with a kauri bench and a very old-fashioned gas stove on cabriole legs. It had a mottled blue and while enamel surface and I always thought it was rather pretty. I made my first batch of marmalade on that stove and when I had poured it into the jars and left it to set on the bench I thought it looked truly beautiful, so golden and glittering and clear.

This tiny flat was the first home I ever had of my own and I liked it very much. It was very quiet and looked out on to large trees. When I stepped into the place it was always quiet and exactly as I had left it. In Hastings, my father had a habit of suddenly arriving home in his big car, loading it up to the roof with anything nice like crystal glasses or the better blankets or anything he thought was worth having and, with much shouting, driving away. He would not return for several months. That is why when I had that first little flat it pleased me very much that whatever I had, and it was not much, remained where it was. If I had a coat hanging in my wardrobe when I left for work the same coat was hanging in the same wardrobe when I got home. I found the idea of that absolutely charming. Possibly it was the first time I had any reliable sense of security.

The marmalade I made then is essentially the same recipe I still use but I have altered it slightly over the years. I now take no notice of the recipe’s instructions about when the mixture is ready to be put into jars to set because, for marmalade, the timing often varies with the ripeness of the fruit.

To Make Marmalade

six large grapefruit
four lemons
12 cups of water
12 cups of sugar

Slice the grapefruit and lemons as finely as you can, after washing the fruit carefully. Cover the sliced fruit with the water and leave overnight. The following day bring this mixture to the boil and boil for twenty minutes. Remove the jam pan from the heat and stir in the sugar, bring the mixture quickly to the boil after that and boil it for thirty minutes. At this stage you can start testing it to see if it will set. I used to put a spoonful in a saucer and leave it for a minute or two to see if a skin would form on it but after several years of my using this not overly reliable method, an elderly lady I knew told me a very handy trick. It had been passed on to her by her mother. She said to dip an ordinary silver or stainless steel tablespoon into the mixture and then hold it horizontally over the marmalade so you are looking at the wide inner face of the spoon. When the marmalade drips off the lower edge in two separate places simultaneously the marmalade is ready to be put into the jars. It sometimes takes much longer than thirty minutes’ boiling to accomplish this but it is a very reliable method, I have found. When I first started to make marmalade I used to put the clean empty jars in a slow oven to sterilise, about the time I put the sugar in the mixture. Then I would have to get them out one at a time — and they would be hot — with an oven cloth, in a sudden untidy kind of scramble. But these days I put them neatly in rows in a roasting dish and then I just have to get the whole lot out at once and any drips of marmalade, when I fill the jars, are caught in the dish.

[Interlude for a marmalade loaf recipe and time to marvel at the genius spoon and roasting dish methods which, collectively, would eliminate about 80% of my previous marmalade trauma, then…]

Another very nice loaf I sometimes make has no marmalade actually in it, but I put marmalade on it and sometimes make it instead of having ordinary bread. It is a bran teabread and is very pleasant to have sliced and buttered and spread with marmalade for breakfast at a weekend when I go out to my little garden house to read the paper and have a look at my wilderness (which is really only about as big as a tennis court, if that). I have cultivated quite wild and spreading plants so there is an atmosphere of largesse and tropical wilderness in my garden and through this I walk carefully with a cup of coffee in one hand and a doorstep of homemade bran loaf spread with marmalade in the other. Once I tripped on a low-lying leaf of my big flax plant and fell flat on my face, so I have walked through my garden with greater care since then. I had thought, as it was my very own garden, that I would be able to do anything there and be unharmed but this was just a fanciful thought — I am apt to have such fancies and think that because it is me everything will be all right. It mostly is but sometimes not, like the time I tripped over the flax leaf.

Shonagh Koea, The Kindness of Strangers {Kitchen Memoirs}, Auckland, NZ: Random House, 2007 (pp. 32–35).

Getting out of the kitchen

IMAG4086We had a little revolution in the kitchen this week. First of all, the boys worked out a menu for the week, which meant that I didn’t face the daily trauma of figuring out what to cook, what to buy, what to use up, etc.

Ideally I would saunter down to my local shops of an afternoon, basket in hand, select the freshest and most delicious vegetables, fish, meat, breads on offer, then whip up an elegant little feast in my calm and orderly kitchen. Unfortunately, very few of those adjectives apply round here, I can’t afford the nouns, and the verbs aren’t really how I roll. So the menu was helpful, decorative, and came in at budget.

Hooray for you, my boys.

Then, last night, the boys offered to cook bruschetta. We had a rocky start, with both children pushing past their screen-time limit and then demanding hallway soccer before cooking started. I sliced and oiled the bread, which would have been easy if it hadn’t been frozen — cutting frozen bread makes me crankier than a bear in a beehive. The boys started well, washing their hands, putting on aprons, getting out toppings. But it all fell apart at cutlery, with separate disagreements over forks, knives and spoons. The Cat stormed off, the Rabbit asserted moral superiority, and I started thinking about beer.

My next move, however, was a rare and delicious moment of parenting genius. I offered to get out of the kitchen and leave them to it. And, behold, that was all they needed. I sat in my office and finished my book, and the boys put out all the toppings, cut up carrot without losing any fingers, made a pot of hot water (covered with a tea cosy), set the table, and called me in time to toast the bread and help open cans.

And I guess it was a reminder to get out of the way more often. To step back from the refereeing and the negotiation and see what they can do. To let their relationship find its own ground, its own workings. A reminder to trust and a reminder to make space. And a reminder to tend to myself too, to read, to complete, to breathe.

Marmalade days

The llama made marmalade, marmalade jam.

Marmaduke Duck and the Marmalade Jam, Juliette MacIver and Sarah Davis (Illustrator)

P1070335Well, I did it. I made marmalade. It’s like I joined the matrilineal mafia in one long evening of chopping, stirring, sugaring, boiling, testing and bottling. When I say “I”, I’m lying. I did the chopping, slicing grapefruits, a couple of oranges and some lemon into fine golden slivers, and I added the sugar and water and turned it all on. I washed the jars and put them in a low oven, and I poured the final product into the jars, screwed on the lids and wiped down the benchtops, but Ian led the charge on the stirring and testing regime, which I nearly fucked up by removing a pile of cold plates from the fridge at the tail end of the process when we were both hot, tired, frustrated and TOTALLY OVER IT ALL. And then, BOOM, we had a beautiful collection of jars filled with glowing, softly jellied, sweet, sour goodness. Jam —and all its kin — is magic.

When Mum died, I thought we’d finish the last jars of marmalade, then never eat it again. I couldn’t imagine making my own, and store-bought seemed like a sacrilege. My childhood was filled with marmalade, with the hunt for pulp in the freezer section of every supermarket, with weekend afternoons in the kitchen, the sweet, steamy smell of sugared citrus all around me, with a pantry full of agee jars, with toast and marmalade at the sticky heart of every breakfast.

P1070339Then a little while ago, I inherited my grandmother‘s marmalade jar, one of the few remnants of her rich, full life to pass to our side of the family. It sits in my cupboard, pushed back out of the way of clumsy hands, and comes out each morning, bringing a little grace and history to our bright, battered kitchen table. I’ve been buying marmalade, trusting in a facsimile to carry the past for me, which it does, a bit, through the alchemy of an old jar, sunlight, butter.

P1070337But now I’ve made the real thing, and how much more powerful that alchemy is when you add effort, love, a mess created and cleared, the lessons I should have learnt while I still had the teachers. I’ve been making oatcakes too, a sort of light, crisp, aniseedy alternative to the stock-in-trade porridge and toast I grew up on. Put butter on one of those babies, add a spoonful of marmalade, pour fresh coffee, sit in the sun, and you’ve got a fine breakfast on your hands, my friends. A fine breakfast, some gentle ghosts, a lick of the past.



My head is in the clouds

I made a Little Red Pen cloud! Not procrastinating AT ALL. I’m also rewriting the website — what do you think? Work in progress…



The mouths of babes

The necessary context: It’s our 15th anniversary and I forgot for the first half hour of the day, then remembered only to realise that we have no money for presents, no babysitter for a date, no time to relax, and I was going to be parent help at Rabbit’s childcare all morning. I was unhelpfully Eeyore-ish about all this through most of the day, but rallied enough to buy flowers and tuna, sweep the kitchen floor, chill a bottle of white from the “fancy” collection, and get out the flash cutlery.

I made an old and sentimental favourite for dinner, poisson cru, a raw fish salad served on rice. I should tell you how to make it because it’s a happy and bonding meal, with little heat required and not too much fuss. You start by marinating chunks of tuna in lemon or lime juice, and when I say chunk, I mean something that you can pick up in your fingers and pop in your mouth without either dropping it or doing that embarrassing thing where you can’t chew effectively and look like a gerbil until you either spit or swallow. Because that is not the look you are going for on anniversary night, or indeed on any night involving loved ones and the fancy wine. So then you have your tuna marinating for about 20 minutes and in the meantime you can put on the rice and start preparing the vegetables. I’ll leave the rice to you; we have our method and it’s foolproof, but no doubt you have yours too. I do think jasmine is best for this — you want a little bit of sticky.

Next we come to the vegetables. The cucumber is fun. I use a whole cucumber if I’m feeling rich and generous, and the first step is to peel strips lengthwise to give a stripy effect. I don’t know if that makes sense, but you’ll probably know if you’ve got it right, and if you haven’t, you’ll have something anyway and I’m sure it will be useable. Then you need to cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. I find this easier in shorter lengths, but it might depend on your prowess with a fork. You really want to scoop with the fork rather than scraping; it’s a textural thing. Once you have your stripy, scooped cucumber, slice it into half circles, a couple of millimetres wide, again about the size you’d want to pick up with your fingers. The garlic is easy — just finely chop a couple of cloves.  Tomatoes are also straightforward. Quarter them and cut out the stalky bits, then push out the seeds. I know no tidy way to do this; you’ll have to use your thumbs, so if you’re a bit on the hygiene-sensitive side like me, wash your hands first. Of course, you’ll have been washing your hands throughout this whole scenario anyway. You probably just did it, hey? Cut your quartered, de-seeded tomatoes into chunks — you know the drill. The last thing is spring onion. Slice it. Diagonally, for class.

So somewhere in the middle of all this vegetable finangling, you should have drained the tuna, tasting it first to make sure it’s “cooked” to your liking. And then you just mix the tuna and the vegetables with a can of coconut cream, decanted, aber natürlich, and then you serve the salad over the rice and pour the wine and have a jolly old time.

And that’s the context: poisson cru, fancy wine, a significant anniversary for which I am totally unprepared and under-resourced, plus (which I forgot to mention) two slightly cranky children, a not-very-pristine house, a strong desire for everyone under the age of ten to go to bed without any fuss, and actually, now that I think of it, the miracle of sharing my life from my early twenties to my nearly forties with the same long-legged, enthusiastic, kind, hilarious man. WITH TWO CHILDREN AND A CAT. Eight houses and as many gardens, hundreds of books, countless reeling conversations, walks and meals and nights and mornings and days, estuaries and mountains and beaches and cities, Paris and Melbourne and Tahiti and Dunedin, kisses and all the rest of it, collapsing laughter and tears and the occasional grump and stomp, all of those things that brought us together, that keep us together.

All of that, and at the bottom of the first glass of wine, Rabbit announces that he got himself a lolly this morning. I don’t understand; I question logistics and mechanics, get him to demonstrate his technique, express disbelief, incredulity. For the record, he pulled a chair over to the bench, climbed onto the bench, pulled down the lolly box, and extracted his prize. We watched him demonstrate; he was perfect. I still don’t know when this happened — he says this morning while I was in the shower, which seems incredible as Ian and the Cat were faffing around getting ready and the house isn’t that big and the chair takes a bit of shifting, so he must have been both quick and sneaky. Anyway, I’m trying to get my head around this small, determined, independent child, who — apparently — is mine, and so Ian tries to explain that the second-borns just are like that: they don’t need parental approval and they want to sort their own stuff out and they go ahead and do what they need to do to achieve the ends they want to achieve. And from the corner, the Cat lifts his head from his book. “Shite,” he says, “that’s so unfair.”


The hills around, the harbour below

IMAG3852On the day that my nephew, the Squirrel, came home from the hospital, we came back together as a family. I’d spent a lot of time in the hospital, magical time, and we were glad to re-connect as a four.


The boys took some persuading to get out of the house, which is a polite way of describing it — actually we had to forklift the Cat off the sofa and break up innumerable squalls and squabbles and promise chocolate AND soccer — but we got there, out of the house and into the car and up the hill. Then we had a steep, calf-burning hike up a track, with the Rabbit on Ian’s shoulders and the Cat trailing behind, the city opening up behind us and the long dirt road in front.

IMAG3849I’ve done this walk several times before, but never with my family, and I thought I’d taken the wrong route most of the way — something about the angles and the gates and the views felt unfamiliar, so it was a surprise to get to the top and see the same electricity and phone towers, such a surprise that I thought they might be a double, a copy of the better-known set somewhere further along the hill. The track through the manuka seemed different too, more overgrown perhaps, with the shrubs forming a dense, woody tunnel for us to hurtle along. But then we got to the fence and the trees and this view, and it was all right there before us.

IMAG3848Some days this city is so beautiful it brings me to a standstill. It’s all just there, the hills, the water, the light. And we played then, around the sheep shit and the old stones and the long view. It felt like a blessing, that day, to be together and here. It felt like we knew our place.


Exercise is a box of chocolates

How ridiculous, but wouldn’t that be awesome, right? If exercise was like a box of chocolates, full of variety and treats and dark and light and with plenty of hard caramels, I would be all in. As we’ve established, however, I’m more of a dabbler.

Still, what I am working on is variety.

I run every now and then (I might run today, and having written it, am slightly more likely to —will let you know), but running doesn’t feel very good if you only do it every now and then, so I’m going to have to make a call on that one. To run or not to run? I need to answer this question before I turn 40. That doesn’t give me very long.

I tried cycling for the first time since childhood over the summer, and I really like it. It’s time consuming, but extremely pleasant, so I think I’ll do that more. The little things trip me up, though. My partner made me shift my bike from the back porch to the garage for aesthetic reasons. So you can guess what that did for my motivation.

Yoga’s good. I like yoga. Also a time investment. And the money! Yikes!

And last night I returned to an old love — I went to an adult ice-skating class. It’s been about 15 years since I skated properly, so my brain keeps getting in my way (what? go backwards? you must be joking!), and a few muscle groups think it’s madness, but my legs remember the flick of speed and pull of an edge that had me hooked all those years ago. So, that one might stay in the mix. The rink has weekly classes and I’ve written them in my diary until July. Wish me luck. I need my brain to behave and my knees to bend.

Update: Well, I did go running. I think I feel better? Apart from wanting to lie in a small, quiet heap somewhere for about half an hour.

Let your fingers sing

I’m pulling together a collection of writing tips for a client, a little toolbox of ideas and strategies to help them strengthen their writing. Number 10 is “Have courage”, and I’ve copied it below. Please tell me what you think about these thoughts. Does anything ring true? Miss the point? Touch a nerve? How do you take the leap into writing? How do you make your writing sing?

Your greatest enemy as a writer is fear. Fear will freeze your ability to get your ideas down on paper, will lock you into focusing on your anxieties and concerns rather than on what your readers need from you and what you want to give them. Fear will drown your writing in overly ornate phrases, jargon, complicated sentence structures, and obscure, opaque prose.

Fear springs from many sources. You may fear showing ignorance or confusion. You may fear alienating or angering your readers. You may fear being overwhelmed by too much material, too many ideas. You may fear striking empty ground, having nothing to say. None of this fear will do your writing any good.

So, what to do? First, take a big turn from self to others. Think about your readers more than yourself, think about what they need to know, how you want to engage them, educate them, entertain them, inspire them, get them thinking. Think about what they know and what they need to know. Think about how you can lead them through your document, and how you want them to feel at the end. Put your readers first in your writing heart and, with a bit of luck, the fear will fall away.

And then turn back to yourself with trust. Trust your knowledge, your wisdom. Trust your sense of what is needed. Trust your integrity and insight. Trust your ear, your ability to hear when your words are working for you, and when they aren’t. Draft and write and revise and revise again until you trust that your writing is shapely, elegant, clear. Until you trust that you’ve nailed it.

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