Uncertainty Soup

Uncertainty Soup

I hate waiting, don’t you? I like to know what’s what.

Do you spend your whole life trying to rule out uncertainty and pin everything and everyone down? Are you unhappy until you have all the information at your fingertips and you can plan? I know the feeling. But sometimes we can’t plan. Sometimes we are dependent on the will of others, or the gods and doesn’t that feel all wrong? Uncertainty is so uncomfortable for our minds to live with that they begin running round in circles trying to bring it to an end by anticipating. They try to imagine the future in all its outcomes and prepare us for each of them. They try to have the experience in advance to get it out of the way.

Does this work? Not really and often something actually happens that we haven’t thought of anyway. Trying to anticipate the future like this is exhausting and there are some things out of our control.  We cannot bring the uncertainty to an end by sheer force of mental effort. Then we are left with the horrible feelings, the mental anguish. What to do then? Aargh!

Usually we don’t feel the feelings. We get a whiff that they might be in the air and we spend all our energy running away or trying to fix the world so that we don’t have them. When we only glimpse feelings out of the corner of our mental eye, they appear enormous, overwhelming, fatal like being chased by a man with an axe.

Try doing the counter-intuitive thing. When we stop running away from them, come right up close and shake those feelings by the hand, they turn out to be smaller than you thought. Yep, they sure are ugly and they don’t feel good (fear, anger, panic, no-one signed up for those). Can’t deny that. But hang on. They are not actually killing you after all. They are just horrible and unpleasant. That’s it. That’s all that’s happening. They are horrible and unpleasant. Are they really huge up close? Not so much.

Next time you’re waiting for that magical person to call you back, for the waiter to bring the glass of wine, that train to arrive, that bell to go, why not have a dip into those feelings. It’s good practice for when we are waiting for the more difficult things (the diagnosis, the interview, the exam). Make friends with those feelings, look them in the eye. What’s so scary? Boredom, yes it’s dull but so far you haven’t died of boredom after all. (Your mother was right. Again.) Frustration (is a polite word for anger) and it’s an energy in the body that feels like you will burst but actually you won’t. Just feel the energy and see how that goes.

While you’re waiting you can make use of the time and get a lot done! Clean out the cupboards. File those papers. Go for a run. Practise the piano. In fact you can live your life while you’re waiting. Imagine that!

Here is some soup you can make which is super healthy and a fabulous colour, like molten lava. It is chock full of beetroot and fresh turmeric which give it the outstanding radioactive colour and you can throw in any other vegetables you have to hand. The beetroot and turmeric and non-negotiable. After that it’s up to you. Carrots, courgettes, parsnips, turnip, potatoes, celeriac. When it’s done add some lemon juice to brighten up the taste and some cream or yoghurt to bring out the colour and soften the texture. Do not eat this soup off your best tablecloth. It’s a killer.

Uncertainty Soup (because you don’t know what’s in it)

IMG_1929At least two beetroots, peeled and halved (or more)

Three or four pieces of fresh turmeric, peeled and cut in four (remember latex gloves will protect your hands when dealing with the astonishing colour of raw turmeric and beetroot)

A bunch of carrots, peeled and halved

Two onions, peeled and halved

Garlic and ginger peeled and chopped (to taste)

Other root vegetables you have going spare (potatoes will make it much more calorific). Save your spinach and broccoli for a green soup otherwise you will muddy the colour.

The juice from one lemon or a tablespoon of lemon juice from a bottle

A tablespoon of olive oil (more if you are not trying to control calories)

 

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees.
  2. Put all the prepared vegetables into a heavy roasting pan which you have brushed with olive oil and then brush the vegetables roughly with the rest of the olive oil. (If you’re trying to cut back on calories using a pastry brush is really helpful when dealing with olive oil). If calories are no concern then be generous with the olive oil.
  3. Season with salt and pepper
  4. Roast in the oven for an hour
  5. Let them cool and then liquidise with plenty of water. If you want a smooth soup you will need to be patient and do this in batches so you can add plenty of liquid.
  6. Pour back into the pan and check the seasoning.
  7. Add the lemon juice and check again
  8. Heat and serve with a dollop of Skyr, Greek yoghurt, sour cream or a drizzle of double cream

Life may be disappointing, soup never. And remember that every time you cook something for yourself from scratch you are building healthy self-esteem.

 

Research supports the anti-panic measures

Research supports the anti-panic measures

I have written recently about the 5,4,3,2,1 exercise and the Strengthening Exercise devised by Captain Tom Bunn for nervous fliers and useful also in non-flying situations where the nervous system is challenged by fear. I thought you might like to hear about the research that supports the Strengthening Exercise so here is an excerpt from Captain Tom’s newsletter.

“When facing a challenge, an attuned and non-judgmental person can help us approach the situation with less anxiety. The parasympathetic nervous system (the system that calms by neutralizing stress hormones) is activated by the face, voice, and touch of such a friend – or by the memory of their face, voice, and touch. SOAR has helped countless people fly by linking the memory of being with a calming person to challenging moments of flight.

New research shows that having a calming friend in mind is as protective against stress as having the friend physically present. At the University of Arizona, 102 participants were put in a stressful situation. The participants, all of whom were in a committed romantic relationship, were split into three groups.

During stress, one group was asked to think about their day. A second group was asked to think about their romantic partner. The third group had their partner present. Both the second group and third group had lower blood pressure than the first group. Not only that, the researchers found no difference in the response of the second and the third group. One of the researchers, Kyle Bourassa, said “It appears that thinking about your partner as a source of support can be just as powerful as actually having them present.”

“Life is full of stress, and one critical way we can manage this stress is through our relationships — either with our partner directly or by calling on a mental image of that person,” Bourassa said. “There are many situations, including at work, with school exams or even during medical procedures, where we would benefit from limiting our degree of blood pressure reactivity, and these findings suggest that a relational approach to doing so can be quite powerful.”

As many readers know, in the SOAR program, we control high anxiety during flight by linking each challenging moment of flight to a person who, physically or psychologically present, activates the parasympathetic nervous system.

In day-to-day living, we can reduce stress by doing this three-step parasympathetic activating exercise:

When you notice stress,

  • Imagine you see a friend or a romantic partner come into the room.
  • Imagine hearing the person greet you.
  • Imagine the person comes over and gives you a friendly touch

By repeating this exercise each time you notice stress, you will establish a program in your unconscious procedural memory that will unconsciously calm you when stress arises.”

 

I hope so much that this will help others like me to cope better with daily challenges and to extraordinary challenges such as flying or other phobias. Please contact me direct if you would like to work on these issues with psychotherapeutic support.

Fear of Flying or Just Plain Fear

I wrote recently about the  5,4,3,2,1 exercise that Captain Tom Bunn describes in his book Soar and quite a few people have told me how they have successfully used it, not for flying but for other tricky experiences where our nerves can make life hell. Making Christmas Dinner under your mother-in-law’s critical eye. Driving on the motorway when you don’t like motorways. Waiting for an interview or an audition. Asking for a pay-rise. This simple exercise can interrupt the production of adrenaline which fear produces but which isn’t needed in those situations. Famously adrenaline is invaluable when you meet a tiger in the jungle. It give you the oomph to run away faster than you ever knew you could. However situations where no running away is going to be possible, all it does is wind you up, freeze your brain so you can’t answer simple questions and ruin your breath control so you can’t control your voice. Its effect is also cumulative. If the body cannot discharge or use up the adrenaline by direct action (shouting, running away, hitting someone) it builds up and the message gets through that there really is an emergency and more adrenaline is needed!

Today I have come back to tell you about Captain Tom’s other seminal exercise, designed for nervous flyers (read terrified) for whom other approaches have not worked. I can testify that this has brought my flying experience (six flights in the last 9 months and counting) well within the realm of bearable, sometimes even fun. It has also come into its own at the dentist’s and for you there may be other areas of your life where terror tends to win over common sense because the body is out of your control.

The second exercise is called the Strengthening Exercise and you need to practise it once or twice to learn it and then for a week or so before the challenging experience is coming up. (Incidentally you don’t need a week. I had two days and trust me, it works.) It is hard to believe that it will work for you but if you take a peek at the Fear of Flying website you will see hundreds of testimonials from people who didn’t believe it would work for them but did the exercise anyway (desperation is a great motivator) and now fly confidently.

The Strengthening Exercise is based a moment in your history when you had a deep empathic connection with someone. You knew about the empathic connection because of the eye contact you had with them in that moment. You felt you were the only person in their world at that moment. Bringing this moment of deep empathic connection to bear on the feared experience dispels the terror. Technically the visualisation of that moment produces oxytocin in the body and adrenaline production is inhibited. Oxytocin gives us the courage to connect deeply with others and we feel completely unafraid. Oxytocin is the enemy of adrenaline. They cannot both be produced at the same time.

The moments which produce that magical oxytocin are many. When you were just about to make love for the first time and you looked into each other’s eyes, when you were feeding your new baby or exchanging a look with your child are likely to work. Simply catching the eye of someone who makes you feel in that moment that you are the centre of the universe is the moment we are looking for. It DOESN’T MATTER what happened next!  if the relationship went on to be a disaster or if the person has subsequently died you still have the benefit of that moment and you can use it today. What matters is getting in touch with that feeling the eye contact produced. If you can, find a person. If you can’t, you may remember a moment of deep eye connection with a pet. Use that. When you have identified such a moment or two or three, what next?

If it really is flying you are dealing with I recommend you buy the Soar book because it conveniently lists all the various stages of boarding an aeroplane, taking off, flying, landing etc. You are going to connect that oxytocin-producing moment to the stages of the experience in your mind so the first thing you need is a list of the stages. If it is, for instance, going to the dentist, this is what you do. Make a list of every minute stage of the experience starting with walking out of the dentist’s surgery with a big smile on your face because it’s all over. Then work backwards to making the appointment. Your list for having your tooth filled might look like this.

  1. Leaving the dentist’s surgery
  2. Paying the dentist’s bill and saying goodbye
  3. Putting your coat back on
  4. Getting up out of the surgery chair
  5. Having that final rinse
  6. Hearing and feeling the dentist take his hands and equipment out of your mouth for the last time
  7. Feeling the drill polishing up the new filling
  8. Feeling the dentist put the putty in your tooth
  9. Having another rinse
  10. Hearing the drill stop
  11. Hearing the drill start again and opening your mouth extra wide
  12. Hearing the drill stop and having a rinse
  13. Having the drill in your mouth
  14. Opening your mouth extra wide as the dentist leans over you to begin work
  15. Feeling that parts of your mouth have gone numb
  16. Resting while the anaesthetic takes effect. Chatting with the dentist
  17. Feeling the anaesthetic injection go in
  18. Opening your mouth extra wide for the injection
  19. Letting the dentist find the problem through examination. Telling him what has happened
  20. Having the bib put on by the nurse
  21. Sitting down in the chair
  22. Taking your coat off
  23. Being called through into the surgery
  24. Sitting in the waiting room
  25. Talking to the receptionist
  26. Entering the surgery building
  27. Travelling to the surgery
  28. Leaving the house
  29. Getting washed and dressed
  30. Getting up on the morning of the appointment
  31. Going to bed the night before
  32. Waiting for the appointment day to come
  33. Making the appointment
  34. Noticing you need to visit the dentist

 

You can add to this list as many stages as you like. The more the better. Make a small photo in your mind of the first stage of the experience and imagine that loved person is holding it next to their face as they make that fabulous eye contact with you. Make the photo black and white and small. Make the experience of the eye contact live in your whole body. Then move on to the next stage and so on right through to the very beginning where you are making the appointment or booking the flight.

If you lose track don’t worry. Start again.

If  imagining yourself in the chair or on the plane produces more fear than you can handle you can imagine your favourite cartoon character in the photo instead of you. Cartoon characters, you will have noticed, come out of every situation unscathed. Imagine Micky Mouse in the picture, or Spiderman or Pop-Eye. Put your whole mind into this as you go through the stages. You are retraining your amygdalae, desensitizing them, to accept the experience you are working on as routine, non-threatening, nothing to get excited about. You are sending the message that you are safe.

On the first day do the exercise two or three times and then fewer times over the subsequent days. Don’t worry about it in between. The magical effect on your body responses will show up when you begin the actual experience.

If you suffer anticipatory anxiety, use the 5,4,3,2,1 exercise to dispel it as often as you need to. On the day use both exercises.

This is the kindest way to help yourself with fear and it builds on itself so that it gets easier. Gritting your teeth and giving yourself a good talking to is unkind and the fear does not go away.

I’d love to know how you get on.

Stormy Weather

Stormy Weather

About two months ago things went wrong for me visiting Lisbon for a wedding.  I ended up in casualty with a bad UTI and when I eventually saw the twelve year old doctor and got my hands on some antibiotics (you could get Ecstasy easier) I thought that was that. But no. There has been pain and panic ever since.

A major attack of IBS followed and by the time I was back in England a horrible burning pain in my side which especially played up at night when I had all the leisure in the world to worry about it. A trip to casualty in England (and let me tell you Lisbon makes the National Health look like Los Angeles) established that it wasn’t a kidney stone and then they sent me home with the pain which was now a hundred times worse courtesy of lying on the scanner and worrying.

The moral of my tale is twofold. Doesn’t worrying make things so much worse (and actually produces physical sensations to order)? Secondly cause and effect is usually so much more complicated than we imagine. After months of osteopathy I was still not able to sit and meditate nor go to my piyo classes. I foresaw a future of sloth and a balloon shaped me wearing shapeless dresses. Utter misery. I tried meditating lying down and other versions but it wasn’t the same. Opening the French doors and sitting on my cushion, semi-exposed to the elements, has become a precious way to start my day and I was very sorry for myself contemplating that this might be a thing of the past. Also I had a wardrobe full of clothes I felt too bloated to wear.

Gradually I came to accept what the osteopath gently broke to me : there was a disc involved which was causing referred pain. I can’t tell you how I fought against this diagnosis but I did stop exercising and it did stop being absolute agony and reduced to miserable. But I also realised that the IBS was also still shouting its head off. So I have stopped looking for one simple treatable-give-me-a-pill-or-an-operation cause. As ever it is my spine and my bowels playing up under stress. So not even the glamour of something serious.

I am sharing this with you (and you may well say I am sharing way too much) because it can really help to stop looking for a cause and resign yourself to kindness and forbearance as a way of treating things (once serious illness has been ruled out by scans and so forth).

Arriving in Venice yesterday in stormy weather (see picture) I felt the stress fall away and this morning I did some yoga and obtained some clicks from my poor spine which may just have set things on the mend. There was no hurrying this – I just had to wait and to all those who have put up with me patiently while I learned to wait : Thank you!

I’m not sharing a new recipe today but I include photos of porridge in its different guises, sweet and savoury and risotto which seems to help the IBS big time.

 

 

New Year New Ideas

New Year New Ideas

I can see how my entire life would have been a lot jollier if I hadn’t had a total aversion to things which did not come easily to me. The feelings of shame, disappointment, frustration, self-hatred and defeat which crop up when I get things wrong have separated me from achievements within my grasp. In fact I have watched others with less skill walk past me just because they were prepared to learn. Here’s my new year’s quote which is going up on flashing lights on the kitchen wall :

‘Say to yourself : but what if I’m wrong about everything? It is from this place of suspension of belief that you may begin to listen to her.’

Now this excellent advice was from a dog trainer and the ‘her’ he was listening to was a Pug! But it came up in an article about psychotherapy because it’s a very good starting point for a therapist who is learning to listen to clients. In 2018 I have the idea of approaching myself like that, with my ears open. Let me rephrase slightly :

What if I’m wrong about everything? It is from this place of suspension of belief that I may begin to listen to myself.  

So I shall start in the kitchen now that my food production is scaling down from the industrial (Christmas) proportions of feeding 12 people three time a day to the more normal one or two, there will be less firefighting and more space to make mistakes. I feel happy enough in the kitchen to experiment with assuming I am wrong about what I can do and what I can’t do and opening my heart to truly new experiences. One of the wonderful cookbooks I received for Christmas (yes, my family know me well) is Salt, Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat and this will be my workbook because this is not the kind of cookbook I would buy myself.  It’s about technique and a rather scientific approach to cooking which is an area where I feel less able. Give me a book with lovely pictures and I will produce you my delicious versions of the food which I can rarely recreate exactly because I don’t measure or time things. Diagrams of salt absorption? Scientific explanation of how different fats affect pastry? That’s not me at all. Except, turns out, it can be. It is.

Because Samin has written the book so engagingly and encouragingly I am gripped by learning how to use salt properly, by different types of acid and what they are for. This book is for accomplished cooks and for beginners and it is a delightful read. I begin to hope that it will genuinely increase my skills without impinging on flair and imagination. First I have discovered that I can bear to become aware of the areas where I lack skill – and that is no small thing in itself – I generally cover them up with a passion for aesthetics. But the truth is I would dearly love to be able to the tricky, technical things  that I see others do and it just may be that 2018 is the year when I can learn. Watch this space.

Now I’d like to share with you another recipe from Nadine Redzepi’s delicious book which I have to say I adapted to my time schedule and the ingredients I had to hand and you may want to do that too. (The ingredients in brackets are my substitutions or suggestions).

Or you may want to take the trouble to muster the right ingredients before you start and take the time to follow the recipe exactly. Steering a healthy, creative, pragmatic and kind line between these two approaches is experimental work in itself.

Beef-Glazed Celeriac with Buttermilk Sauce

Celeriac – this is the main ingredient so for 4 people you need about 2 and a half pounds or a kilo

Rapeseed oil (or other neutral oil)

Beef or veal demi-glace 240 ml (and here is how to make a vegetable equivalent)

(beef demi-glace is a finishing jus sold in sachets in Waitrose and doubtless many other places. Or you could make one. The point is that it is full of umami flavour so if you’re vegetarian you will need to follow the steps on the link above to make a vegetable umami bomb. This time a few teaspoons of Marigold is not going to hack it. And if you can’t do that I would try some toasted sesame oil brushed on instead of a jus. It should produce something of the richness effect. Add a little liquid at the same time.)

pine nuts 3 tablespoons

salted butter 200g

curly kale, 2 large leaves (or any substantial green vegetable such as broccoli, chard or what you have in)

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese 2 tablespoons freshly grated

Buttermilk 60 ml, preferably full fat

(I used kefir as I didn’t have buttermilk)

flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

 

Method

Preheat the oven to 180 or 160 with a fan. Peel the celeriac and chop into 4 slabs each about 8mm/3/4 inch wide. (I made mine too thin the first time). Save the other parts of celeriac for soup or puree.

Grease a baking dish large enough to hold the pieces in a single layer.

Turn the slices to coat them in the oil and cook for 30 minutes before turning over and cooking for another 30 minutes.

Raise the oven temperature to 200 and pour over the demiglace. Continue cooking and basting for another 20-30 minutes. Add a drop of water if it gets too dry.

Meanwhile toast the pine-nuts dry in a small frying pan.

Melt the butter and whisk over the heat until it turns a lovely nutty brown. Keep warm.

Fry the kale in small pieces, discarding tough stems, in the pan used for the pine nuts and some of the oil. Drain on kitchen towel. (I added a few chilli flakes to the kale but probably better without.)

Sprinkle the parmesan over the celeriac for the last few moments in the oven.

Stir the buttermilk into the browned butter over a gentle heat and arrange on four plates. To which add slices of celeriac and a garnish of kale leaves and pine nuts.

This dish was totally unexpected and wonderful. If you are not vegetarian do make the effort to get the demi-glace or jus. The celeriac becomes a truly meaty and different vegetable under its influence.

 

Kindness and IBS

Irritable Bowel Syndrome may begin with your bowels but in my experience it makes the rest of you pretty irritable before long. We sufferers experience discomfort, sometimes severe discomfort. From time to time your clothes don’t fit and your exercise regime no longer appeals. It’s problematic to enjoy food or your favourite activities and quite quickly your life can feel out of control. This is a vicious circle as we do less of what we enjoy and limit our diet. The more it doesn’t get better the more we search the internet for cures and causes and beat our heads against the indifference of the medical profession.

So I am here today to tell you that IBS can also respond, like the rest of us, to kindness and attention. Imagine your IBS is a friendly message from your gut trying to take care of you.  IBS is a symptom not a disease and it is usually a symptom that we’re overdoing it on an emotional front. It is a message from the gut to the rest of us to lay off the accelerator and stop trying to push through stress.

Sadly when the IBS plays up we treat it like an enemy that needs to be defeated.  When we are suffering we can get caught in an endless round of looking for ’causes’ and things to blame. ‘Maybe if I stop eating wheat? Maybe if I give up meat?’ Before you know it you have a long list of good things that you are not ‘allowed’ in case your IBS plays up. IBS then feels like an enemy – we make an enemy of our own nervous system!

So here’s my suggestion as a fellow sufferer : Try it the other way round. Do the things you like, eat what you like and if you notice your tummy is sending you warning messages, take a little extra care of yourself by making a risotto or a bowl of porridge or some other food that soothes you. This pro-active but positive approach can work absolute wonders and sidesteps the self-punishing avoidance diets that many of us in desperation adopt.

The kind approach is to stop looking for the villains of the piece (so called trigger foods) and to start looking for things that help. If you can feel into the difference in that approach you will already feel the sort of kindness that can help you. One way we feel under attack from within. The other we feel we need to listen a little more to our insides.

What can we do about the stress? Just accepting that something is stressful and that you are not to blame can reduce the symptoms substantially. When you’ve chosen a new job or a new partner or another exciting development it can be easy to blame ourselves when we find it stressful … and the blame adds another layer of stress. My last bout of IBS was associated with moving house and once I’d identified it as IBS (not the 4am bowel cancer) it responded very nicely to a little love and kindness. In fact it responded immediately to the realisation that it was probably about the traumatic business of losing one home and making another. I simply allowed myself to know that I was finding the experience stressful – even though I was moving somewhere wonderful that I had chosen.

So if you are suffering from chronic or acute IBS start by making a friend of your tummy. You are both on the same side! If there are difficulties in your life (if!) start by allowing that they are there and that they are causing you stress. Do not deny yourself things but make sure you do things that you know can help. But it is the allowing that really makes the difference. If you do a yoga class or take a massage to help with the stress it will help immensely if you don’t regard it as a deal : I have to stop feeling stressed after this. Keep an open mind. Allow your body to process all your feelings and your food in its own good time. It has its own wisdom. Treat it with respect and kindness. There is no limit to the amount of kindness you are allowed to give yourself.

Tomorrow a recipe for pasta with broccoli with blue cheese! Watch this space.

 

The Search for Honey

This is another story that tells of turning away from our habitual defences and the courage of trying something new. See what happens when we tread a different path : this is really the whole of psychotherapy.

 

At last I can wait no longer and I put on layers of clothing and open the door. I have to take off my gloves again to force the door which sticks and I hurt my hand getting it open. The wind near tears the door off and outside the bleak landscape is uninviting. My mouth is full of yearning and cursing; the hunger is insatiable now. My house was built long ago with wood from the tree of wilfulness and I leave it as little as I can. The tree still grows outside my door. Its fruits are bitter but I use the wood for the fire. It makes a poor fire but the wood is plentiful.

I venture out onto the hard beauty of the tundra and after a wearisome walk of some hours, encumbered by the thick clothes woven from pride, I find a small parcel of honey in a ruined building. I hurry back to the safety of my mean home where I give the honey to the children of my need and take some myself. The sweetness of giving the little ones honey gives way, when they are asleep, to the relief of filling my own mouth with what is left. The small fire has gone out. I fall asleep in the cold, bundled in most of the clothes I own, with sugar on my lips.

But sooner or later pride and wilfulness are not enough to keep the need at bay and I must brave the journey once more. Each time I must go further. Each time there is the fear that all the honey is gone. Each time the children cry harder.

And then, after years of such journeys a different thing happens. One day the needing takes me further from home, further into the cold than I have ever been before. The fear is great. I may freeze before I get home again to the cold comfort of the drafty hut and the smokey fire. I worry even more about the children.

My steps are heavy in my old boots and I pass the many ruined buildings where I have found sweetness in the past. These ruins are my friends and lovers of old and I pass them quickly for they hold nothing for me now. Their sweetness is exhausted.

After miles of slowgoing I can see another barn or such like ahead. Out here I am so far from the settlement that it is unlikely already to have been raided and my spirits lift with unbearable hope. My breath is short and my steps quicken. I do not feel the cold; I can see already the smiles of my children as I hand them the honeycomb later tonight; I can feel the stickiness on my tongue, the fullness in my mouth, the brief orgasm as I swallow. Don’t think about that.

And I am in luck. In a forgotten corner of this hay-barn is a jar of the sweetness I so badly need, the sweetness I do not know how to make. There is a relaxation within as I know that the need will shortly be assuaged, that my mouth will be full. I secure the jar in my top coat, tighten my scarves around my face, put on my gloves and step outside once more.

This way lies home. But see, the other way, the snows of make-believe autonomy and wilfulness run out and the bare earth is showing. I have never seen the earth before lying naked and unprotected by the snow. Here it is not frozen to stone as it is where I struggle every year to plant the terrible vegetables we must live on. Here there is mud instead. I am fascinated and I walk a little further away from home to see what I can find.

But the mud turns to mire. A man-made hell of unwanted rubble and shit emerges. Junk lies in dark oily puddles and there is scarcely anywhere to put one foot after another. I will never get my boots clean again. This is where I keep my blackest thoughts, thoughts of shame and murder and revenge and hope and self-harm. It is ugly here beyond imagination. This is why I live in the pristine snow where the suffering is less. 

I am pondering this long-forgotten decision when, beyond the mud, I see a fence. It has no doors or gates in it but it is a temporary fence such as builders erect around their work to keep out trespassers. The panels of the fence are not solid, nor are they heavy but every metre or so they are held in place by metal blocks of unimaginable weight. Each panel bears a picture of me and in every weight I see a refusal to forgive. I stand in the black mud and worse and contemplate the fence. Each weight had to be forged from the metal of unforgiveness and dragged into position. I remember each instance with an effort, each instance where I closed my heart with deliberation and turned away from forgiveness, away from the awful suffering of compassion. 

The sad work of erecting that fence took years and I called it growing up. 

Eventually I think to lift my eyes from the ground at last and I am overwhelmed to see, above the fence, the pink and gold domes of San Marco. The warmth, the pleasure, the plenty of Venice awaits there, within sight. I can hear music and laughter, like a party. Venice is like a party and I recognise that this is my heart, my journey’s end. The pink and gold domes sparkle in the sunlight with an inexhaustible supply of honey and I remember that within it is dark and private. Inside the cathedral there is the glimmer of the everlasting flame reflected in the ancient, gold mosaics which celebrate the deeds of the saints. There is the jewelled altar screen and an eternal holy singing and the smell of incense as the Blessed Sacrament is offered for adoration.

I begin to pick my way through the mire towards the singing. 

Narziss and Goldmund. Two Lives.

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Watercolour by Hermann Hesse

Here is a short story I wrote some years ago which I’d like to share with you on this Autumn morning. It is not difficult to see what the story is about and it is of course partly a tribute to Hermann Hesse’s work. His lovely water colour introduces the page.

 

When I was about ten there were brothers in school and privately I called them Narziss and Goldmund because they were so different from each other and yet somehow they belonged together. In the old story Narcissus can love no-one but his own reflection and his own reflection dissolves as he reaches out to grasp it. That is his suffering. But the Narziss that I knew was not like that. He had a handsome face and he wore his compassion on his open brow like a standard from the wars, like a young Hector. He worked hard, he was popular and he regularly came at the top of our class. Narziss and Goldmund loved each other but they did not understand each other.

Goldmund was subtle and his intellect glittered like a dagger with a jewelled handle. In class he was unpredictable. If only he could be more like his brother, the teachers said. He was musical and often the first you knew of Goldmund was his song coming ahead of him and the last was the music he left behind like perfume in the air. At the village dance after the harvest it was Goldmund that people watched and it was Goldmund who did not notice. The boy with the golden mouth was gregarious and attractive. But he was elusive and there was something about him which made me feel even then that he was a visitor in his own community. He was lent to us. I was not surprised when he was first to leave the village. We all turned out to see him off and all the girls swore to wait for him but he just smiled and struck out towards the first town with a small knapsack, a stick and a beautiful melody he invented himself.

There was talk of his going to Dortmund to continue his education. Some said music, others said he had gone into the church and been sent to Rome, that he was highly spoken of in the Vatican. There were even rumours that he had gone further afield, changed his name, given up everything to pursue an idea, to become an adept of the mystical practices of the East. In short, what happened to Goldmund became the stuff of local myth and in time we who had known him divided into two camps. Those whose pride he had hurt said he had burned himself out and come to nought. Others preferred to imagine him living the lives they would have liked for themselves – lives full of adventure, or of extraordinary asceticism and spiritual revelation, or perhaps of fame and adulation. In listening to this talk we learned much about each other but nothing of Goldmund.

Meanwhile Narziss had married and bought a plot of land. He built his modest house with wood from the tree of patience and turfed its roof with the flowers of honesty. He had sons who looked like him. He never spoke of Goldmund but a terrible endurance came into his eyes if you asked him about his brother. He would put his hand on his heart and he would say,

“My brother is in here and in here he can be free. That is enough.”

On Narziss’ land there ran a good stream which he used to water his crops and his animals. His wife brought water from the same stream to drink and to wash with. At the edge of his plot the stream went underground to reappear in the field beyond as a river. Narziss could see the field and the river over a gate in his hedge. The gate had been padlocked before his time and no-one now knew where the key was. In any case, the lock was thick with rust. In his heart when he was a young man, there was a yearning to enter the next field which looked so beautiful from his own land. When his family were out, Narziss had even searched the outbuildings for that key, thinking perhaps to find it in some hayloft or forgotten corner, but he never did. For a while there was a terrible conflict in his heart.

In time the yearning died down. Life became too busy for Narziss to worry much about anything but providing for his family and enjoying the prosperity that his labours brought him. By the time his sons left school to help him, he had extended his house with hard-earned stones of wisdom and he had built barns of prudence and charity against hard times. He gave work to six men and he was a person to whom others came in their need. He turned no-one away, although to each he gave from a different purse.

Years went by and his wife died; his sons did more of the hard labour on the land and Narziss had more time to look around him. In the evening, especially when the sun was setting, he liked to stand by the boundary gate and the yearning that he had known as a young man, grew in him again. Cut down like a thistle, it sprang up again more vigourous than before. His heart hankered after the field beyond where the wheat seemed always golden and waiting to be cut. With the evening sun in his eyes, Narziss sometimes thought he saw figures harvesting that wheat or resting in the stacks after their labours. Now and again it seemed, one or other of them might give him a friendly wave but they were never close enough to be sure. The river ran with milk and honey in the distance.

Narziss often looked wistfully at the rusty padlock and the tall hedge – again the conflict arose within. Why had he not dealt with these things when he was young and had his strength? His sons were busy enough now, he could not ask them to help him. Regretfully Narziss accepted that he had left it too late to strike out and find the key, too late to keep the brambles from the hedge. He had been too busy building his house, weeding his fields, providing for his family and giving charity to others. He had stilled his heart in a way that Goldmund did not know how to do and it made him sad. Perhaps after all, Goldmund had chosen the better path and he was ashamed of the judgments he had made those years ago.

He thought more often now of his brother. He remembered his laughing mouth, his bold countenance, his disregard for the everyday and his courage as he strode away from all he had ever known. He knew that in his position Goldmund would have let his land go to wrack and ruin, his children go hungry whilst he hunted for that key until he found it. He envied him a little. Why did Goldmund not suffer the same struggle as he? But I could not have been different, he told himself. It is in my nature to be steadfast and I could not abandon my duties to

follow my heart. Still I will do what I can for those who come after me, for my sons. I will bring a little piece of wire wool with me on my evening walk and I will remove the rust from the padlock though I will never be able to open it.

And that is what he did. Each evening that Summer after supper cooked by his daughter-in-law, he went down to the boundary hedge and sat by the gate. In the golden light he worked with his once skilful hands at the rust on the big, old padlock and all the while he soothed his heart with the beauty of the field nearby, the faint rushing of the river, the harmony of the figures in the distance. By the time his own crops were in the barn, the padlock was bright and well-oiled and that evening there was joy in his face as he went back to the house and to bed. It was as if, in polishing the padlock, Narziss burnished his own heart.

Autumn came and Narziss still took his walk each day. He needed a thick jacket now and a stick to help him and he leaned heavily on the gate when he got there to get his breath back before returning to the house for the night. As the months came and went it was by moonlight that he toiled down to the gate and each night it seemed further away. On such an evening with a full moon and a mackerel sky, Narziss was

rubbing his cold fingers and looking across to the river, black and silver in the moonlight, when something caught his eye. There was a figure moving towards him across the field. This he had never seen before. The people he had seen cutting wheat or making hay had always remained stationary like figures in the mind’s eye. This soul was different as it came – purposeful, deliberate and of course it was Goldmund moving easily, as lithe as when he left fifty years ago. He too had a stick, though he used it for cutting tall grass ahead with all the old energy that Narziss remembered. As he grew nearer Narziss could hear his song, a song he had heard in his dreams. As the notes settled into his old heart Narziss began to weep with love and with hope. His tears washed away the last grains of rust, the last traces of conflict within.

At length Goldmund was upon him, seemingly the same young man who had left, the same song on his lips, the same glitter in his eye. But no, now Narziss could see him close too. Goldmund too had aged. Leaner than Narziss and fitter it is true with a young man’s vigour about him, yet in his face were the lines of a life-time’s learning, the hollows of many hungry days and sleepless nights.

‘What have you learned on your travels, brother?” asked Narziss.

‘I have learned patience and fortitude’, replied Goldmund. ‘The very things you were born with. And tell me, what have you learned at home?’

‘I have learned joy,’ replied Narziss, ‘The gift you came into the world with I had to learn, and I learned it late’. They embraced across the gate and were silent a long time and then Narziss felt a movement in his heart like the spiral of the Milky Way.

‘What have you brought me, brother?’ asked Narziss.
Goldmund did not reply but put his hand deep into his shabby coat and pulled out a large key. At this Narziss was overcome and put his head on Goldmund’s shoulder for a good while.

‘Have I wasted my life, Goldmund, toiling after food and shelter? You have brought me my heart’s desire and I have nothing for you.’ He began to chastize himself but Goldmund touched his face and looked into his eyes. Narziss was quiet.

‘I am the key, brother, but you are the gate,’ said Goldmund.

When they found them next day the gate stood open, the old key in the shining lock.

Let your heart do the eating and give your brain a rest.

Now this post does not have a title that trips off the tongue easily but hear me out. This is about the mind and the heart and how we may get the best out of them. In this context the heart is not some sloppy sentimental old dear hanging like a millstone around the neck of that great warrior, the mind, and rendering it less efficient. It is the winged Sufi heart, a warrior in its own subtle way. The Sufi heart is a thing of great beauty and wisdom, a connector between body and mind, a temple within which to worship which reveals that where ever you turn, there is God’s face.

Unknown

Did you know the Buddhists do something handy when they are meditating. If they are distracted by discursive thought they simply label it ‘thinking’ and return the attention to the breath. It’s a great technique. No fighting, no arguing, just name it and return to the present. Thinking is pretty much how we run our lives here in the West. It has had a great press in these parts since the Enlightenment, so much so that we seem to have forgotten all other ways of being. Don’t get me wrong, thinking is a wonderful tool and it does things we cannot do without. Following a recipe springs to mind. Reading instructions for your new chainsaw (aargh!).

Our minds are a bit like the government. They tend to hog all the credit for what happens when it goes right and to blame the rest of the system (the body, the heart) when things go wrong. Yet the mind is wrong about all of that for our actions are rarely, as they seem, the end result of careful consideration. We now know that the body is preparing for the action you have committed to (lifting that glass of wine to your mouth) way before our minds know we have ‘decided’ to act. Monitoring our physiology reveals that the brain is already enjoying dopamine to the reward pathway while you still think you’re deciding whether to have the drink of not. Our conscious decision-making and careful weighing of evidence is not quite as linear a process as it feels. If you don’t believe me take a look at The Decisive Moment by Jonah Lehrer or Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

So the mind is not quite the action hero we thought. In addition, things not even accessible to my mind crop up all the time it’s just that the mind is very reluctant to acknowledge them. They may be of the elevated philosophical kind (the infinite nature of the universe, the apparently localised nature of time – what’s that all about??) but they may also be personal and hum-drum. Shall I go to my brother’s birthday party even though I am upset with him? Shall I tell my friend I don’t like the way her boyfriend treats her and of course he’s like the last boyfriend? The mind has a strong storyline about these things but the logical conclusion may not feel right. The heart has its reasons, said old Pascal, that reason knoweth not and while he wasn’t the kind of guy you’d want at a party, he had a point. He was no slouch in the mathematics department, young Blaise, but he knew the limits of thinking. In tricky areas I have to ask my mind to take a step back and engage with my Heart instead.

So what has all this to do with eating? Put simply, it is interesting when you are contemplating what to cook tonight or put in your mouth right now, to try that Buddhist technique and label all that is going on within your head as ‘thinking’. Let your enquiry into what to eat become a kind of meditation from which a wonderful action can emerge. It can let the steam off the pressure-cooker of the brain and its constant efforts to do the right thing.

This very morning I ended up in the beach kiosk having a splendid breakfast, a departure my mind had all kinds of reasons for not making. Great decision, thanks to my heart.

 

And now finally, you’ve been very patient, a recipe. This is a great dish if you have mixed vegetarians and meat eaters at the table since it goes brilliantly with steak or roast chicken or fish but can also hold up its head on its own.

Mozzarella Stuffed Aubergines for four

You can make it a day or two ahead and bake it as needed. If you don’t know what time people are arriving, take the dish out of the fridge in good time and get your oven nice and hot. When they knock the door pop it straight in the hot oven for half an hour or so while they are having a glass of Prosecco and an anchovy puff. (I’m coming to those).

1-2 aubergines depending on size

2 packets of mozzarella

A large bottle of tomato passata

Start by griddling some sliced aubergines, lengthways, pretty much as thin as you can slice them. Brush your griddle with olive oil and either salt and drain the aubergines first or simply sprinkle a little salt on them as you take them off the griddle to cool. Now cut the mozzarella into convenient chunky strips and wrap each one in a slice of aubergine. Roll the aubergine up into a sausage.

aubergine

As each little roll is ready position it in a shallow oven proof dish. When the dish is full cover the lot in tomato sauce. You can either use a bottle of passata ready made from the supermarket, or you can use the same bottle of passata that you have improved.

How to improve bottled passata

Depending on how much time you have you can either :

  1. let it reduce slightly in a large shallow pan with some olive oil, salt, fresh basil and a smashed garlic clove. (Some people add sugar – you need to taste and decide.)
  2. or add roasted fresh tomatoes to the pan as well

If you have mozzarella left over you can put slices on top. If not serve the baked dish with fresh Parmesan. It makes great leftovers too. It is calorie heavy so make sure to eat it with a large plate of salad and a light hand with the bread basket if you’re watching the pounds.

Anchovy Puffs (Halloumi also works)

I hardly like to give a recipe for these since I serve them all the time and they are shamefully easy. Once upon a time I got the idea from a Victorian cookery book called Mrs De Salis’ Sweets and Savouries which I bought as a student. I also use her Christmas pudding recipe. However we will not be using Ruby the kitchen maid to make the puff pastry when she gets up to light the boiler. We will be using Tesco’s best.

Roll out your shop bought puff pastry (fresh is better than frozen but frozen will do). Cover the sheet of pastry with individual anchovies our of a tin or jar and cut round each anchovy leaving a margin of pastry so that you can make a parcel of it. Now brush round the edges with milk and roll them up into fingers or parcels – it is impossible to make them unattractive so don’t worry – and put them on baking parchment on a baking tray.

Brush with milk or milk and egg and put into a very hot oven (180 degrees) 10 minutes before you want to serve them. Serve with paper napkins as they are a bit oily and flaky as well as delicious. (You can put your Stuffed Aubergine into the same oven.)

Being Awake and the Sunshine Breakfast

I have been dipping into Pema Chodron’s writing again and finding, as ever, joy and wisdom there and above all an encouragement to accept myself with love. So I fell to wondering how this relates to what I eat.

PC is talking about meditation when she says ‘Whether you are caught up in […] thought for the entire sitting period, or whether you feel that enormous sense of space, you can regard either one with gentleness and a sense of being awake and alive to who you are. Either way, you can respect that.”

But what does this mean outside the meditation zone? When I get on the scales this morning and they give me a figure I do not like, can I regard that with gentleness and a sense of being alive to who I am? Can I respect that? If I wake up with a hangover and a sense of having poisoned myself (with food or alcohol or rage or hatred), can I regard that with gentleness and a sense of respect? And what happens if I do?

To me it feels as though simply in making space for those horrible feelings (hating my body, hating my behaviour, hating others) eases my suffering. Simply by considering that I can be gentle and respectful of myself when I am full of rage, without having to change myself even when I feel hateful, there is balm. An outbreath. A letting-go.

If you are interested in meditation, do read Pema Chodron. If you are interested in your life, do read Pema Chodron. She has written a lot and it pretty much doesn’t matter which book you choose. The message is the same. It’s not complicated. I can be with myself (however I feel) with gentleness and respect, alive and awake to who I am.

And now, in the same spirit of simplicity, I give you :

The Sunshine Breakfast

sunshine breakfast

Arrange your peach or apple slices or both into a sunshine and pop a few berries in the centre. Now the sun is shining where you are.