little red jottings

when a little red pen wanders off the page

Tag: the things i dreamed of

Arming myself

So, a midlife crisis feels horizon-ish, not alarmingly or urgently so, but just there, hovering on the edge of my vision. At the moment, it’s manifesting itself as three white hairs, a vague restlessness, a niggling frustration at the non-fabulousness of my career, and a big twitching ache when I see anything about Paris, Mediterranean islands, good food or extraordinary writers.

I can cope with all of this, NO PROBLEMS, but in the library today I decided some extra bolstering might be in order. I came out with Peta Mathias, Primo Levi, Gertrude Stein and Anna Wintour. I CANNOT imagine what sort of a time I might construct in my 40s from this lot, but it’s got to be fun trying.

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.



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.”


Hello, dear one

IMGP9423 Well, I am undone with love. This little fella arrived a couple of weeks ago and proceeded to enthral us all. He’s a snuggly wee bundle of hope and fire, a dragon lad, a soft-furred lion, a squirrel boy. He brings out the tender in us, gentles us, quiets us to a slow and rhythmic sway. He has us in his sway.

None more so, of courIMGP9357se, than his parents, my sister and brother-in-law. They’ve stepped into parenthood — this crazy, wonderful world where you’re one minute bug-eyed with exhaustion and the next brought to your knees in adoration — with grace and courage. It’s such a fundamental shift in identity becoming a parent, sudden too, with sleep deprivation and hormone mayhem and blood and milk and tears thrown in, all part of the mix with the wonder, the wonder and the fear and the marrow-deep love. To watch someone close to you take all this on is a miracle, and like all miracles it invokes a shiver and a gasp and a sigh.

IMGP9416So, here’s to you, little Squirrel. Here’s to a long, happy, healthy life for you. Here’s to your strength and your softness, your glorious head of dark hair, your wide eyes, your beautiful mouth. Here’s to your growing and to those who hold you. Here’s to you.




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.

The rain clock

I’ve posted a couple of fragments of this story already, but it’s growing.

After three days of rain, during which the mantle clock had stuck firm at twelve minutes past five, Henry took the clock down to the basement, laid it on its front, and removed the back panel. Inside the casing, metal lay in intricate order — coils, springs, a tiny hammer, round-headed pins. Henry hesitated, gently removed one coil, and then another.

The basement was cool and still, the brickwork buffering the noise from the house and the insistent drumming of the rain. Henry’s workbench ran along one wall, beneath a window blurred with dust. He kept the workbench tidy, his tools neatly packed away, and odds and ends — nails, screws, tacks, bolts — sorted into small jars, which he kept in a gridded shelf to the left of the window. He had a CD player down there, and sometimes played music as he worked, but today he was content with the quiet of empty space, its outer edges softly frayed with children’s voices, the distant hum of the dryer, rain.

There was a tap at the door, and Rachel poked her head around. “Lunch is almost ready, love,” she said. “What are you doing?” Henry started, took a step back. Rachel edged into the basement and joined him at the workbench. Together, they looked at the clock, its body empty and its parts scattered on the bench, mute and indecipherable as fossil bones. “Huh,” said Rachel. “Do you know how that all fits back together?” Henry contemplated the wreckage of the clock, felt a ball of panic and shame rise in his chest. Upstairs something thudded to the floor, followed by a moment of silence. Henry looked at Rachel, noted the soft creases starting to form around her mouth and eyes. A child’s voice rose, a loud, shocked cry filled more with outrage than with pain. “Oh for fuck’s sake,” said Rachel, and hurried outside. Henry bundled the clock pieces inside the casing and screwed the back on. As he walked towards the kitchen door, he could hear Rachel with the children, comforting them, negotiating the terms of peace, smoothing out their spiky discontent. Henry took a deep breath, pushed the clock to the back of his mind, and joined his family.

On Tuesday, the rain stopped, and Henry took the clock to the repairer, a compact, rumpled man with fine-boned hands. “I thought I’d have a go at fixing it,” he said, “but it didn’t really work. I’m sorry.” The repairer looked at him, measured him with a gaze sharpened from years of coaxing delicate mechanical objects into working order. Henry felt himself grow large and clumsy under the repairer’s gaze, an incompetent fool who knew no better than to blunder into the back of a clock as though it were nothing more complicated than a toaster or a child’s toy.

“These old clocks,” said the repairer, “they are so beautiful, no?” Henry nodded. He left his name and number, making his writing neat and taping the scrap of paper square on the top of the clock. The repairer said he would call in a day or two and Henry ducked out, found himself standing on the footpath, his hands empty, his shoulders easing in the sunshine.

It was a bright summer day in a quiet city, light falling on the hills and on people in the streets with equal and unstinting generosity. The air was sweet and warm, with that new smell that wears off as the sun lifts into the sky and the routine of the day takes over. But at that hour, it was as if the very leaves were rinsed in light, the leaves, and the asphalt too. He should get back to work, he knew, while the weather held. Mrs Lamberty’s garden was ready for planting, the beds shaped and filled with good rich soil. The plants were stacked against the back wall, his tools were in the car.

He turned the other way, set his face towards the distant sea, and started walking. It was a straight line to the beach. Block by block, the shops fell away, gave way to houses, square and worn, their window frames roughened by the salt wind, the gardens a straggle of weeds and toys. Henry’s stride lengthened. He could hear the waves now, their dull boom and crash on the sea wall. He lifted his head, smiled as a gull wheeled above him. He crossed the last road, climbed up the dunes, and stood on the crest. The light hit him, bright and uncompromising. The beach stretched long to either side, city at one end, rocks at the other. Henry bent down and tugged off his shoes and socks, wedged them behind a bush, rolled up his trousers, and walked down the sand dune, throwing his arms out as the momentum took him into a half-run.



The washing line was empty, and she liked it like that. She liked the unfilled space, the trees behind, the feeling that there was nothing there she needed to worry about. And the liberation was shared; she wasn’t parsimonious with her joy — the pigeon could shit right overhead if it liked, because no-one had their sheets out or their best shirt, and the rain could go right ahead and fall, fall as heavy as damn, fill the gutters and soak the plants, or settle about the house in a fine, drenching mist for all she cared, because there was nothing, not one thing, on the line.

But if not the washing, what was a girl to do? Rachel looked at her novel, contemplated the dishes in the sink, made a cup of tea. She felt adrift, cut loose in these suburban hills where the days drifted slow and peaceful like big old clouds.

She could run, she thought, start slow and build up speed until she crested the hill and launched herself into the sky with all the determined abandon of a hawk. She could circle there, held up by an air current, and look for answers in the green curved land beneath her, the thin little houses and the colour-splashed gardens, look for answers in the big blue luxury of the sky and the washing lines below—some of them empty, some carefully freighted with clean white sheets, scraps of underwear, socks in pairs, blue jeans, and a jersey, poppy red against the green.

Rachel took her tea and stepped into the garden, her feet leaving soft prints in the still-wet grass. The flowers were heavy with light-filled rain, the leaves bright, clean-edged. She leant against the old stone wall, pulled weeds from the pliant earth. She threw the weeds on the path, the pile scattering as she worked.

It was no good.

Rachel fetched a wheelbarrow, gathered the weeds and put them in. She moved on, filling and emptying the wheelbarrow, leaving the beds clean and fresh behind her. Dirt filled her nails, settled in the ridges and lines of her hands. She rubbed her nose and got some dirt in her mouth. It was bitter, mineral. Her back started to ache, that tender spot where her babies had pressed against her spine and where she wedged a pillow when she breastfed, or read. But she worked on, never looking too far ahead, narrowing her gaze on the little patch of ground in front of her until she was sure she had out every errant scrap of weed, then looking up, moving to the next patch, and the next.

These ladies whom I love

granny and me Dad and I drove to Winton yesterday to visit my grandmother and great aunt. It was a heavy day — my heart was heavy, and the sky too, with mist and cloud and pent-up rain that didn’t break until we hit Milton on the way home. Aunty Nan was bright, particularly when we got onto politics and family history, and took her for a walk around her garden. But Granny was sleepy, her head drooping like a small child’s and her hands turning together in her lap. I held my cheek against hers and stroked her hands, and I hope that somehow she knew I was there.

lawn gatheringWhen we were children, we often stayed with Granny on the farm. She had a beautiful house and a beautiful garden, with a berry cage and a glasshouse and a tyre swing in a big tree. The garden had stone walls and wooden gates, with secret hiding places and a lawn we played croquet on at Christmastime. Papa died when I was little, and Granny kept all this up on her own, although I know she missed him very much. But we were too young for that for a long time, so we picked berries and collected pine cones and swept leaves and snuck into sheds and stole grapes happily.

mum and mary 2 Granny woke early, and she always got to the kitchen first. She’d check the traps for mice (which ended up, unceremoniously, in the compost bucket — I shiver at it still), light the Rayburn, make a pot of tea. She’d make the rounds of our beds with the tea tray, give us each a cup, and a slice of bread with butter and sugar on it. It was a lovely way to start the day, lovely too when I managed to get up in time to help with the ritual. Granny would be dressed, always neat and trim, but Mum would be soft and warm in her dressing gown, and I loved them both, loved the order of my grandmother and the sleepy arms of my mother.

peasChristmas was a big deal at Granny’s house. All the aunts and uncles and cousins came, and the cooking started early and the dishes stretched forever. We were allowed our stockings before breakfast, and my sister and I opened our presents to each other. But everything else had to wait until after church. Then the other families arrived, and the feasting began. The uncles put all the leaves in the table, and we used the best crockery and cutlery. We got most of the fruit and vegetables from the garden — teams of children sent out to forage, pod, pick, scrub — and I guess the lamb came from one of the farms. The luckiest adults got the ruby-red glasses that Papa brought back from Florence, and I’d watch them carefully, wondering when it would be my turn.

readingI was never allowed to read as much as I wanted to at the farm — children needed fresh air and activity — but on a cold day, Granny would light the fire and then I could curl up beside her chair, its leather worn, cracked, and she’d stroke my hair, her fingers curved, the bones tender against the nape of my neck. She understood balance, the weighting of exercise with rest, work with play, talk with silence. And maybe that is why it’s hard to see her now, to see her quiet and still, without the counterweight of activity and independence and work. She drew life from hospitality and conversation and making a home; without that, she is frail, unmoored.

reading with grannyAnd in that unmooring, I lose myself too. So many of my lines to the past are traced through these women — mother, grandmother, great-aunt. Their talk gave me my history, and it is their arms I returned to again and again in that vaguely tortured sorting out of self that our teens and twenties so often demand.  So now that they are gone, or going, I feel unsteadied, unsure on the shaky ground of my middle years. I reach out to them, stroke a hand or gently kiss a cheek, and my touch comforts myself as much as them; it comforts me, and I fear its breaking.

mum and mary

This post is part of a brave blogging link-up that’s part of Liv Lane’s How To Build a Blog You Truly Love ecourse. As a participant, I was challenged to step outside my comfort zone and share something with you that felt especially brave.

swing stile painting christmas

Get thee to a library

Another piece for my sporadic but fervent library fandom, geek-happy, book-philic, dance-crazy series.

But who gets to do the reshelving?

The river mouth


From the Otago Daily Times

From the Otago Daily Times

My family has a crib at Taieri Mouth; sometimes I think it’s my one true place. It’s where I go to wear jerseys and drink tea, where I go to slip into the old stories of people no longer here, of the child I once was and sometimes still am.

The house sits on the hill below the bend of the river, facing not to the light and the open sea, but upstream, turned to the dark green hills narrowing the river, to the bush and the water and the gentle birds of mud and tree. It’s a simple house, a rectangle slowly falling into the hillside, with concrete steps to a wide, dusty veranda, rugs, floorboards, speckled windows. Nothing matches much, although a faded, pinkish red seems to be a theme — the red and the deerskin brown of old wood and a limey yellow.

bridge and mudflatsThe house came by the river, well, the bits of it did, floated downstream on a raft from Waihola by my great-grandfather. I write that sentence and I realise that I might have all the details wrong, but I think that’s okay. This must have been before the first bridge was built. There’s a new bridge now, built in the 1980s, an efficient slice of concrete curving out of and into the road on either bank. The old bridge was wooden and as rickety as you might expect, with gaps between the boards through which you could see the slow, deep water. Things went into that river and were never seen again: crabs collected from the mudflat, an old bed, a car that would now be vintage, but then was just worn out and heavy. I think that’s what happened to the car. That’s the story I have in my head, anyway.

paddlingDad taught us to kayak on the mudflats. When the tide was in, we had plenty of shallow water to practise in, and you could look down past your paddle to the river bed. When I got bigger, I went further up the river or over to the other side, but I always came back to the mudflats, cool and squelchy, with the crab holes opening and closing like eyes. It’s quiet out there, in a kayak on a slow river. Just the soft dip and lift of the paddle, the ripple where you trail your hand in the water. Dad built his own kayak, a sweet, sturdy craft of canvas and wood. It was just big enough for two people, two smalls or a big and a small. It’s still there, and one day I’ll take my boys out in it.

It wasn’t all good though. One day we drove out to find the house full of dead rats — in the beds, the vacuum cleaner, under the table. There’s no rustic charm in the rats; they’re plain disgusting. The possums I can handle, their scratching on the roof, their yelling in the night. But the rats are a problem.

cabbage treeThe water is always a bit of situation too. We have rainwater tanks, and I would happily drink rainwater — two such lovely words — but the rain passes through the leaves in the gutters on the way to the tanks and then it all sits there fermenting between visits, so the water is often brown, with a pong of leafmould. We don’t drink the water, but we shower in it if it’s not too bad, and after a few days we all smell faintly of leaf, so that the first shower back in the city is a miracle of clean, white water, a bleaching back into adulthood and the everyday. I always crave that first city shower, yet it saddens me too to wash off the mud and the sand and the leaves, to stop being grubby and clearheaded and sunsleepy and happy.
brothers boys birds upstream volcano castle sweeping steps spoonbill and oystercatchers sleeping by the river sisters rocks rockpool minigolf hole


Finding my people

Being self-employed, working from home, juggling parenting, and running a small business — there’s a lot of fun and satisfaction in there and NO BOSS, plus you get to listen to whatever music you like while you work, and the only office politics are when you have to convince the children to scoot on out of your office and let you concentrate on your work, which may or may not include checking Facebook and reading The Toast (have you found this yet? you should) and watching reruns of The Cosby Show, or you have to negotiate with your partner for an evening or a weekend of work time while he does the Dad-ing. And if you get really into the zone and the proofreading’s flying, you may have to stop to make dinner or pick up the kids, but you’ll rarely have to push the pause button to go to a meeting that’ll get you so wound up you’re good for nothing for the rest of the day, so while you’re mothering and cooking and playing and all the rest of it, your mind can kind of keep trundling along thinking about words and ideas and what your logo should look like. Also, there’s all the stress about money and why there isn’t enough of it and where the next job is going to come from, but best we don’t think about that too much because this post is supposed to be upbeat.

But one thing you don’t have — and that you start to miss after a while — is co-workers, the good sort who instinctively get you and take turns making the coffee and never startle you with casual racism or sexism and who tell good jokes. The sort who make every project you work on together come out somehow much better than either of you could have managed on your own. And in the process of doing which projects, you have lots of those moments where you have a little jump inside because you’ve made sense of something that seemed impossible and found the right words and got the structure just exactly perfect and quite possibly written something that will change the world, or at least a small, tame corner of it. Anyway, forget it, because you don’t have them, those co-workers.

However, you do have a group on a social media website (which will remain nameless) of people who are just a bit like you, with the silly, wordy jokes and the incessant mulling over punctuation and syntax and the secret comma anxiety and all. So when you collapse into bed on a Thursday night after a day stressing about the workshops you’ve got coming up and making soup and reading stories, you roll into your partner’s arms and say, “I had such a great day; we had this thread running for hours about punctuation.” At which he sort of pauses, then says, “You’re really quite geeky, aren’t you?” But luckily, he finds that quite endearing, you think. And on a Friday, while making train sets and doing water play and chopping vegetables and walking the children home and getting everyone into bed FAR TOO LATE, you have this parallel fantasy in your head the whole time of working towards Friday night drinks with that virtual, barely glimpsed, desperately real out there somewhere group of not-quite-co-workers, the ones with whom you’ll pour a G+T and kick back, make increasingly bad puns, sit up in sudden, garrulous enthusiasm when someone mentions a book that no-one else ever seems to know about, but which you will quietly treasure for all time.

And that — and also the lovely, endlessly surprising, ever unfolding blogging world — is why the internet is QUITE A GOOD THING.

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