Long Time No See

Long Time No See

Oh my gosh, where has the time gone? I can only apologise for the long silence but such a lot has been happening. So for now just a little catch up on this summer.

Over the summer I was enjoying the beach in Italy and the Venice Film Festival where I caught Some Like It Hot on the big screen. There was a trip to Sicily and !!FLASHING LIGHTS!! the temples at Agrigento. Do not die without going to Agrigento. In fact, go now! This is one of the most blessed spots in the world. I have been there three times : at twenty something, at forty something and now at sixty something. Maybe the next visit needs to be a little sooner … So I lingered in the baking heat with the setting sun turning the temples bright gold and lizards hanging out under the olive trees and the sea as blue as a promise in the distance. I clambered over stones that were trodden by those ancient Greeks who very sensibly made their home in Sicily. In 1980 there was no fence around the temples, no ticketing system, no nothing, just the temples themselves standing neglected in the valley half an hour’s walk from the town. I went at daybreak and at sunset, entranced by the ancient stones and the freedom with which I was allowed to walk, sit and climb on them. A few German tourists came and went but mostly you could pretend you were a few thousand years ago. All that changed and it got very tacky with tickets and barbed wire. Now it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and as you would expect it has been done with no expense spared and extremely tastefully. Shady paths wind between the temples and discreet wooden barriers prevent the hordes (for there are now hordes) climbing on the temples themselves. They have planted a wonderful orange and lemon grove down near the river where they grow bergamot lemons and sell marmalade of the same. The combination of taste and perfume is intoxicating.

Sicily has roads that haven’t been mended since the last little earthquake so it was an interesting drive around the island with quite a lot of reversing out of impassable situations and a certain amount of bickering between driver and map reader. But the food was out of this world. We had the best ever breakfasts in a fabulous little B & B Raffo (agriturismo) about forty minutes outside Agrigento. The owner drove to the local town each morning to buy croissants and tiny, deep-fried envelopes of pastry filled with sweetened ricotta and blitzed pistacchio nuts. They were so fresh they practically shook hands. Ricotta and pistacchio nuts are BIG in Sicily and we never got tired of them.

In Taormina with a huge silvery moon gazing down on our little table by the sea we ate the delicately flavoured pasta with pistacchio pesto and prawns that had been mooching about in the sea earlier in the day. Further along the coast in Menfi at Da Vittorio’s we ate an indecent amount of astonishing pasta with seafood and spices as we watched the sea lapping nearby. Near Menfi we stayed at a rather grand winery called La Foresteria where the food was delicious and the wine had travelled all the way from the vineyard outside. As you see, the theme that’s emerging is local food. Local food is such a buzz term now but in Italy it is just what they eat. Some of it was grand. Some of it was very unassuming. It was all melt in the mouth and yes, I came back two sizes larger.

But a major thing has happened this summer which I tell you about in due course – I have begun to fly again, having had a gap of many years. It has been a big journey and one with psychological implications well worth the telling. For now, mix yourself a Campari Spritz, enjoy the photos of Agrigento and remember the hot hot summer.

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Goodness me.

Goodness me.

When we start being kinder to ourselves a virtuous circle is created. We begin to feel our own goodness just as we are … and that makes it easier to be kind … and that makes us feel good. Being good to yourself makes you feel good and it makes you feel much less aggravated by other people too.

Letting yourself alone, just appreciating yourself as you are without trying to change a thing allows you to sense your own goodness. In not trying to change a thing, space arises for change to happen naturally.* The more we nag at ourselves the more we rebel. Try easing off and see what happens.

*I’m not talking about those of us in a place where we need specialist help with an addiction or an eating disorder that is harming our health. Today I’m just talking to the averagely dissatisfied amongst us.

Italy is a great place for learning this lesson as Italians seem to have a natural gift for appreciating their own beautiful country and the huge pleasure of being alive. The photo above is of a large campo in Venice called Santa Maria Formosa and this is the church. In the photo below you see a lovely scene unfolding opposite the church one Italian morning. A young man is stripping off like Michelangelo’s David. He has come with all his kit to mend the pavement  but that doesn’t stop him giving directions to the tourists that ask him for help or performing a little for the ladies shopping at the vegetable stall. He is Italian after all. He wasn’t actually singing Mozart as well but it was touch and go.

stall

Beneath this photo again is a breakfast I prepared recently for a bunch of young people staying with us. They were such fun to feed, so full of life and enthusiasm, such beautiful creatures to have around and they devoured this spread with vigour. I think the goodness of the food, most of it raw local fruit, fresh bread and cheese can be seen from the photo. The little black grapes are called fragole because they taste of strawberries.

fruitbread and cheesecaponataIn this last photo you can just see next to the local sheep’s cheese a dish of caponata and this is the recipe I’d like to share today. Quite like a French ratatouille, the Italian caponata has the added sweet and sour agrodolce taste that speaks of a multicultural heritage.

 

Caponata

2 x aubergines cut into small cubes

2 sticks celery cut into small cubes

2 small onions, finely sliced

1 large red pepper, deseeded and cubed

A bottle of good passata or fresh tomato sauce

balsamic vinegar

red wine vinegar

2 tsps sugar

salt and pepper

olive oil

10 black olives, stoned

a handful of capers (ideally the ones that come salted)

 

Cutting the vegetables into cubes is worth doing carefully so that they are reasonably small and of a uniform size. It makes a better finished product.

First salt the aubergine cubes in a colander and leave to drain for at least half an hour. Wash and pat dry before frying in a good plug of olive oil in a large frying pan. Fry until the water is all gone (the sizzling stops) and the aubergine cubes have browned. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add more oil to the pan and add the celery, pepper and onions. Cook over a low heat until they have softened (quicker with a lid) and then add the passata. and simmer for 15 minutes. Put the aubergines back in. Add the two vinegars , the sugar, the capers and the olives. Start with a tablespoon of each vinegar and 2 tsps of sugar and then taste. See whether it needs more acid (lemon juice or vinegar) or more sugar. A drop of red wine might not go amiss. It will need salt and pepper as well. Cook another ten minutes and then cool. Serve at room temperature.

I made a large quantity of this and served it one evening on tiny bruschetta before dinner, then in this breakfast buffet and finally (when the guests had gone) on pasta with some good Parmesan. A dish with sufficient flavour for a vegetarian main course. It is also fabulous with anchovies on the side but the is very little, I find, that isn’t improved by a few anchovies.

I just want to be me.

I just want to be me.

At the bottom of this post you will find a recipe from Honey and Co for the most wonderful White Chocolate and Tahini Cake. I recommend you make it and then sit down with a slice to read a bit about being yourself.

Implicit in coming into the world as a human being is the physical connection with Mum. If you’re lucky there is also a profound emotional connection. As time goes by Dad comes into the picture too if he is available. Little Bloggins learns who s/he is by looking at Mum and Dad and working out what they like, what brings a smile to their faces and what brings on scowls and angry words. In an ideal world we want to please our parents and they like to show their pleasure in us.

However! Anyone who has been near a two-year-old or a sixteen year-old will know that there are two periods in our lives when we ‘just want to be me’. The two-year-old has just learned to say ‘no’ and sometimes can’t be persuaded to say anything else. The teenager (at some point or other) will act out the ‘no’ loud and clear and sometimes by not speaking at all. This is normal behaviour. Not pretty but normal.

If you are parenting one of these age groups let me congratulate you if you have an obstreperous toddler or a sulky teenager – it means you have done a grand job! You have children who attached safely to you and now feel safe enough in that relationship to separate as they need to, to be themselves. Because they love you so much they have to make themselves pretty unpleasant and difficult to do that. Don’t worry. Underneath is the child you love and who still loves and needs you. S/he will emerge.

One of the ways in which those separating children may act out is with regard to food. Haven’t we all had a teenager, resident or visiting, who has a special diet? That is a way of making you notice s/he is not the same little one who complied with your food offerings. It is a way of individuating and, notice, it often disappears into the background later in life. Toddlers, of course, do not spare our feelings or our upholstery but spit out stuff they seemed to eat willingly only last week.

You can see how, if things go awry with this tricky separating process, people can get stuck in this rejecting stage, metaphorically spitting their life out as a matter of course. It’s a wearing way to relate with the world and one that often brings people to therapy. Sometimes the ‘problem’ is with food. Sometimes it is with people or other things. The curious thing is that where this behaviour becomes embedded the child remains unable to ‘just be me’. They remain attached albeit in a negative way, unable to ‘leave home’.  Of course the other thing can happen too. The eating becomes compulsive and unhealthy and, ironically, this often happens where the parents eat this way already even if they put a lot of effort into their children’s healthy eating. It may represent a refusal to separate. Whichever way of not separating occurs there is generally a lot of anger with it. The energy to separate is like rocket fuel but where it is thwarted (maybe mother is too insecure and touchy? too overwhelming?) it turns to rage. What makes working through these issues delicate is that these behaviours are deeply rooted in love and loyalty to the parents. People fear that they will lose that by separating whereas the opposite is actually true. We need to individuate to appreciate the people our parents are or were, to have compassion for their difficulties and for ourselves.

So what does healthy separation look like and when does it happen? The good news is, it is never too late. For some people it doesn’t happen until long after their parents are dead. Finding out you can ‘just be me’ without rejecting anyone or anything is the most wonderful liberation. You can explore yourself for the first time rather than defining yourself by rejecting the world around you. Likewise finding out you don’t need to hold on to Mum any more (or how she wanted you to be) is a huge gift. Separation is about growth, the way a flower pops out of its bud casing. It’s not rejecting anything. It’s not grabbing anything. It’s just being itself.

And as parents seeing the beauty of our children just being themselves is much more rewarding than trying to hold onto them or an idea of how we thought they were going to be.

White Chocolate and Tahini Cake

courtesy of Honey & Co.

Items in bold are my alternatives to their recipe.

320g caster sugar

350g plain flour or half plain white flour and half spelt flour

1.5 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1.5 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

zest of 2 lemons

2 eggs

70g chopped white chocolate

120 ml vegetable oil

230 ml tahini paste

1 tbsp vanilla essence or the seeds from a pod

240 ml buttermilk, kefir, yoghurt or milk

180 ml boiling water

For the icing and the filling I have developed my own mixture which is simpler to make and gives a much stiffer spread than the original recipe (which included Mascarpone, cream cheese and double cream and had less icing sugar).

I use 500g mascarpone and 180g icing sugar (and 1 tbsp vanilla and 1 tbsp rum as per the original recipe).

For the decoration : 30g white chocolate finely chopped and the zest from another two lemons.

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Heat oven to 170C fan (190C /gas mark 5).

Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.

In a smaller bowl mix the eggs with the oil, tahini, vanilla and buttermilk, then combine the two mixes, before slowly adding the boiling water.

Mix until everything is well incorporated.

Line the base of two 9in cake tins with a round of baking paper. Divide the mix evenly between the two tins, place both in the centre of the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Rotate for an even bake and return to the oven for a further 10-15 minutes. The cakes should feel lovely and bouncy and have a good golden colour all over.

Remove from the oven and carefully flip the cakes to flatten the tops. Allow to cool upside down.

Make the icing by mixing all the ingredients together with a small whisk until well combined and thickened. If you are using an electric mixer, use a paddle to avoid overworking the mix and splitting it. Place the first cake on a serving platter, top with half the icing, spread around and top with the second cake. Add the rest of the icing on top, spread and, if you wish, sprinkle with chopped white chocolate and lemon zest. If serving on the same day, it is best to avoid placing the cake in the fridge. If you are keeping it for longer do place it in the fridge, but allow it to come to room temperature before serving.

Beautiful Borscht

Beautiful Borscht

Recently I was raving about the health-giving properties of beetroot and so I thought it time to make my first beetroot soup or Borscht. I looked at lots of recipes on the internet and decided that what I needed was the usual blend of aromatics to get the thing going (carrot, celery, onion) and some raw beetroot. The only change from my usual vegetable soup was introducing beef stock (not for everyone I realise) so I bought some fresh in the supermarket. The soup was a great hit – so much so that I forgot to take the final picture so you will just have to imagine a beautiful dish of steaming hot beetroot coloured soup garnished with yoghurt, freshly grated raw beetroot and a few seeds. Take it from me this is a very cheap dish that is really worth trying and if you’re vegetarian simply replace the beef stock with the usual Marigold vegetable stock or freshly made vegetable stock. For more of a meal in a bowl you could make some simple dumplings, boil them separately to keep them white and then add them to each bowl carefully. Boiled potatoes would also work well.

The recipe

Peel and chop as finely as you can bear to a few carrots, onions and a stick or two of celery. This is your Mirepoix which I am thrilled to say I had ready in the freezer from when I was Cooking the Fridge. Peel and chop the beetroot. (Disposable gloves are handy. especially if you’ve just had your nails done.) Keep back one peeled beet to grate into the soup before serving.

Sweat the vegetables in a stock pot with a tablespoon of the oil you like and the lid on. Keep the heat low so there’s no sticking and be patient. After 15 minutes add your stock of choice and simmer for about half an hour . I used Waitrose beef stock plus some home made chicken stock from the freezer. Add a glass of red wine if you like.

When the beetroot is soft enough to eat turn off the heat and allow to cool before liquidising. You can serve this hot or cold or freeze it of course.

The garnish : the amazing seeds that go with everything and are also cheap to buy and healthy to eat!

Saute a handful of pumpkin seeds with a handful of sunflower seeds a little Maldon salt and a teaspoon of oil in a frying pan until the seeds start popping. I was going to toast pine nuts but I was feeling mean and pine nuts are more expensive than face cream. As I stood at the cupboard hesitating these unloved seeds caught my eye and I gave them a shot instead – what a delight! They are so tasty I had trouble keeping enough back for the soup garnish. You can garnish anything with them but salads and vegetables are a great place to start.

When you are ready to serve choose a dish that sets off the soup to advantage (for me that means a large white pasta dish with a rim and I’m giving you a link here because I think these dishes radically improve the presentation of just about every food I know). Grate the raw beetroot and put a bunch in the middle of the soup next to a large spoonful of yoghurt (or fromage frais or goat’s cheese or sour cream). Add a sprinkle of the seeds and you have a beautiful looking first course or lunch.

 

Sad News

We’re deeply sad to report this – Le Guin influenced us dearly.

via Ursula Le Guin has died – we’ve lost our very best — By Her Hand

 

As so often, I owe what I know of Ursula Le Guin to a dear client who introduced me, perhaps on our first meeting, to the key ideas in

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

from The Wind’s Twelve Quarters: Short Stories

Omelas is a near-utopia which rests on a dark secret. An innocent child tethered and neglected in an underground prison is posited as the requirement for the good lives of the good citizens above. It struck a chord with me as an illustration of a psychological deal we may do with ourselves and one which brings untold suffering. I believe that the work of the therapist is in part to break this internal pact whereby we keep ‘the bad stuff’ locked up in order to have access only to the good. As an individual and also as an individual within a society I do not believe in this. It’s not just that there is cruelty in this approach to our inner landscape. It is a cruel approach that does not achieve its objective. I say it often and I’ll say it here again today : the bad stuff needs to be loved and thus transformed, not excommunicated, shamed or hidden and we need to start by doing that work internally. I don’t know what Le Guin thought about this (others probably do) but her mesmerising story powerfully illustrates the problem of how to live a good life in an imperfect world.

How to be a Dad when you only see your children at weekends.

And where is Dad in all this? I see a lot of step-family members in the work I do, sometimes as couples, sometimes as adult survivors, most often as stepmothers blaming themselves. So let’s take a common situation and just for today let’s concentrate on Dad. We’ll call him Geoff. Let’s say Geoff’s marriage to Lorna was rocky. Geoff meets Babs and falls in love. The rocky marriage becomes a shipwreck. Geoff leaves and lives with Babs. He has been honest. He pays proper maintenance. He has ceded the family home to Lorna and his children and now lives in reduced circumstances. Geoff should be able to look himself in the eye, shouldn’t he? So why isn’t everything okay at least for Geoff?

Geoff is not okay because he is trying to leap over the stage where he feels a lot of pain in response to the pain he has cause his children (and yes, even Lorna). He knows his children are hurting and angry with him. Why does he choose this moment of all moments to step down from doing some proper fathering just when his children need it more than ever? I’ll tell you.

Geoff is not doing much fathering because fathering includes being the bad guy and saying no and have you done your homework and you can’t speak to your teachers like that and I’m not buying new trainers today and of course you can’t smoke in the house and on and on and on telling them all the stuff they don’t want to hear. Parenting involves being super unpopular and Geoff can’t afford to make himself even more unpopular because he’s already the bad guy.

Geoff sees less of his children than he used to, less than he would like. The children do not like his new flat with no garden. They tell him so. Their weekends with him are boring and yet they have to be ‘special’ because their time together is limited. How can Geoff risk his children sulking during their one weekend a fortnight with him by denying them what they think they want? The last thing he wants is for them to go back to Lorna and say they don’t want to visit Dad again. So he capitulates and buys them stuff, takes them to MacDonald’s, let’s them stay up and watch unsuitable TV. In fact Geoff begins to behave like a mate and not a Dad. Lorna feels he tries to buy his children’s love and that she doesn’t have the funds to compete. In addition Lorna now feels like the only parent because Geoff is taking a break from parenting. A bad situation has become truly horrible. And children with a living breathing father are trying to parent themselves because their Geoff feels too bad to do it.

You see Geoff isn’t trying to make his kids feel better by indulging them. He is trying to make his own horrible feelings go away, the horrible feelings he has when he sees his children in pain. (The only person who can see this clearly is the luckless Babs and of reasons we will come to, she is not a good person to tell him.)

What does Geoff need to do? What can Geoff do? It’s really simple. No, not easy, but simple. Geoff needs to be honest. Starting with himself he has to admit that his new life and his new love are happening alongside the terrible pain he feels in seeing his children in pain.When Geoff sees his children showing him how hurt and angry they are – fighting, demanding stuff, treating him like dirt – he needs to remember that what they are telling him is how hurt and angry they are. He can safely ignore the content of the demands. Instead, Geoff can explain to them in simple words that he feels terrible that he has hurt them and he knows they feel terrible and he is sorry. He can normalise their anger and hurt. He can demonstrate that he accepts that this is how they feel. This means  that they can accept that this is how they feel. This acceptance is a process not an event. It may take 12 months. Geoff may encounter a lot more hurt and anger in the shape of bad behaviour before the children settle down again. Children recognise the truth immediately as we all do. Although they may be hurting and angry at least they are not utterly bewildered by their feelings. Dad has made sense of them and honoured their bad feelings. He hasn’t tried to lie to them and make the bad feelings go away.

They may kick off but they have’t lost their Dad. He is still recognisable as a father and for this they are relieved. If Lorna still has a charitable heart, she will also know that Geoff is doing his bit and not leaving her to be the only parent.

Next time I promise we will address the step-mother caught up in this maelstrom. What can the unfortunate Babs contribute to this situation and what is she going through?

 

 

 

Wicked Step-Mother

Splitting is a recipe for mental health that we learn before we can speak. It is a normal healthy strategy the human psyche employs before reason arrives. We imagine there’s a good mother that comes and feeds us and a bad mother who doesn’t come. We imagine there really are two separate people. The good mother is happy and smiling and loving. The bad mother is Mother on an off day, in a bad mood, grumpy, tired, fed up or maybe when she just needs five minutes to herself! It’s a convenient ‘pre-conscious’ behaviour which enables us to hold conflicting experiences in the same tiny heart and mind before we can ‘understand’ or rationalise what is happening. And before you tell me it wasn’t like this for you because your mother was always there, let me clarify. For an infant lying in its cot and feeling miserable, Mother feels hateful even though she’s just finished feeding you and fallen asleep next to your bed because she’s exhausted.

It is too confusing and produces bad feelings if we ‘think’ bad things about mother. (It is too difficult for many of my adult clients so no wonder the dependent infant has problems.) How will we love her again if we really feel these bad feelings about her? And how will we survive if we don’t love her? We need her.

Let me say this with flashing lights and siren accompaniment : this is about the normal infant with the more than adequate mother. All mothers fail their infants every day and they need to so in order that children can learn to handle anger, disappointment, fear without cracking up (or as we hygienically call it,trauma.)

By the age of about two we are ‘supposed’ to have developed what they call ‘object constancy’ which means you can just about tolerate knowing that wonderful Mother, whom you adore, has off days and is the self-same harridan that handles you roughly and burns the toast and yells or puts on her best dress and goes out for the evening leaving you with a babysitter. Trouble is most of us don’t seem to reach that integration by age two and some of us still don’t get it by age fifty-two. Some of us feel the only safe way forward is to hang on to that ideal mother in our heads and guess what happens to the horrible hateful feelings we’re not dealing with?

You’ve read the title to the post and you’re way ahead of me. Enter the wicked step-mother who is purpose built for all those negative feelings we can’t allow ourselves to feel about Mum. If you’ve ever read a fairytale you can’t help noticing that stepmothers get a bad press. They are murderous, greedy, manipulative and fatally attractive to innocent men. Snow White’s stepmother actually plots to have her killed, Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother sends them out to starve in the forest. These iconic monsters of children’s literature represent a safety valve for kids to hate their mothers in an entirely healthy unconscious way. But hey, if they’ve got a stepmother in their lives they can keep all their good cosy feelings for Mum and channel all those bad, ugly feelings towards That Horrible Lady Who Has Stolen Daddy. And Mum is superhuman if she doesn’t encourage this splitting. Who wants to be the villain? (As a mother and stepmother myself I have some experience of being the Good Cop and and the Bad Cop and I know which is nicer.)

But this naturally occurring splitting also points to an unhealthy split that many societies (yes, and religions) make between the good female (self-sacrificing, sex sanctified by reproduction or abstained from) and the bad female (autonomous, dangerous, sexual and unapologetic). Mixed feelings about sex lie right at the heart of this and the impossible question : how can my saintly, pure mother whom I love also be a powerful sex goddess? Many of us wall up the sex goddess in the garage the minute children arrive because we just don’t know how to combine those roles. The paradox of the Virgin Mother is one we are still wrestling with. Stepmothers embody all those unmotherly female attributes that the world finds just too powerful to feel comfortable with. The wicked stepmother is beautiful but not maidenly. She is sexual and autonomous. She is in touch with her own sexual desire but not as a means to procreation! She is in a mothering role without any of what we euphemistically call ‘mothering instincts’ (for which read ‘biological investment’). Wow! No wonder she’s hot stuff.

This is the first in a series of posts about parenting and step-parenting and in the next one I shall be addressing how as mothers and step-mothers we can cope with the horrible feelings coming up in ourselves and the horrible feelings coming towards us from our step-children. And don’t worry! We will be asking an all-too-unasked question, Where Does Dad Fit In With All This?

Happily this experience is not the same for everyone but I encounter many women for whom this is a really painful area and not much talked about with love. Look out for my next post but meanwhile there is support for stepmothers here and it looks really good.

Recipes are taking a back seat today but more soon.