Thursday, October 04, 2018

Song of the Builders

Song of the Builders

On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God -

a worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside

this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope

it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.

- Mary Oliver on #NationalPoetryDay


Monday, October 01, 2018

Best Pasta e Fagioli EVER

No really, try this. 
Aalto I drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil on at the end, alongside the red chili flakes and the parmesan. 



Did I mention that a whole family of peafowl are residents on the farm where we live? This is the old man and his tail feathers will be full again in the spring. He's quite bold, scares hardly at all, and directs his family around the property. He actually swans about. At dusk, you can find them perched on the fence by the gate house, all the grown ups, including the white one, and their babies. Thistle is, as you can imagine, OBSESSED.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Friendship, dumb pheasants, pasta fazool

At lunchtime today my oldest friend and I were stumbling around the beautiful open commonland in Maidensgrove. It's a huge field, at least a mile long,  surrounded by old beech trees, that was originally ploughed up as part of the war effort.  We had three dogs with us, my two beasts, and her rather lovely rather submissive Golden Retriever, named Ivy. I say stumbled because I have a tendency to walk very fast (forever being told by my mother that I was too slow, I stride purposefully like a lacrosse teacher) and my oldest friend walks rather slowly, thoughtfully, taking it all in. I considered mentioning the fact and realized that it didn't really matter. We didn't have to be anywhere (except for a 2.30pm table for lunch at the local Five Horseshoes) and our dogs were scooting around in the grass like very happy bunnies. It was then that I considered the notion of friendship, under those grey skies with the grass under our feet. A friend is someone who appears to be one thing, but shows up as something else. Let me explain, this lovely woman and I don't talk that much. We text, and occasionally chat on the phone (I blame myself for this because of phone phobia) and when we first see each other it's all quite polite and sometimes even slightly awkward, but whatever happens, I mean whatever happens, she knows me and she shows up for me.  No matter what. No questions asked.  And then it's like we're fourteen again. We laugh.

And she is an iceberg. Only a third, even less, shows. The rest is underneath, and reveals itself slowly. She is selfless and kind, and doesn't think about herself at all, until pressed. But she runs deep.

Today we decided to start a book club. But what I really want is to read the book she is about to write. It's a strange, strange world, we say, and laugh at our banality. Why we do things, what is important to us. We talked about boys, and rape, and things we felt we had to do, situations we found ourselves in which were uncomfortable as hell, but we were unable to say no. We felt it our solemn female duty to be kind and compliant and to do these terrible things we didn't want to do. We didn't know how to have agency over our own bodies.  We thought it was cool when a cute boy liked us. We thought that people were judged by the way they looked on the outside. Oh it's such a waste. It's just so sad. Our friend, at 17 and an au pair, was lunged at by the "man of the house" while she was ironing his children's clothes. And she didn't know how to say no. And she didn't want to lose her job. Or her paycheck. And she didn't know if saying no would make him violent. So she went with it. She was SEVENTEEN.

Thank God that our girls know differently. Thank God our girls have agency, have confidence, have choices, know that they can choose the boys, and not vice versa. Jeez, the horrible situations we got into. (I feel so lucky that I have ended up with good men. My ex-husband and my lovely partner are both gentlemen with a strong moral core, a sense of right and wrong, not alpha males prone to drinking kegs and trapping women.)

I'm digressing.

I was thinking so much today about the nature of friendship and how women like me, outwardly extroverted, but inwardly introverts, pretend not to need friends, like to be hermits, spend a lot of time alone, either with dogs or with a book, but how we all really, really need friends even if we are horrible ones ourselves. I am the worst. I've killed a friendship this year (I tell myself now it's not my fault, but that I could've handled it better if I had picked up the phone, if I hadn't been so stubborn) but I so appreciate those friends who see you for who you are and can get over the fact that you are phone phobic and can reach out even if you haven't, and know who you are in your core, can see your goodness and treat you as if you are good, and don't judge you or laugh at you behind your back, who realize that you are a whole human. I think of my oldest friend, who walks too slowly and thinks I'm bossy (she says this like it's a good thing, like she's envious of my forthright manner; she says this with pride), and how we can discuss the proper pronunciation of "elegiacal" for hours, and who has seen me at my worst and my most ugly and who I can still make laugh, and I feel so effin' lucky. And whereas I will leap wholeheartedly into a fire kicking and screaming and punching people in the nose, she is slow and measured and thoughtful, and waits, patiently, for her moment, and then delivers a master blow. But she doesn't hate me for my kung fu approach to life.

We moved house, by the way. I don't know if that has been obvious by my complete ignoring of this blog. Between the move and the work, I am gazonkered.  But we now live in a lovely farmhouse at the South Western end of the Chilterns, in a rural community not far from Henley and Stonor, and actually even Reading, where there are fast trains to London. We live in a farmhouse down a mile-long driveway studded with chestnut trees and Norwegian maple, with wide swathes of grass verge that it's impossible not to gallop on. And my little horse lives across the driveway, with 12 or 15 other horses, and she sleeps in a field at night with another mare, a grey named Silver. And we have peacocks flaunting our lawns, and those dumb pheasants (they are the dumbest of all animals, truly) on the driveway, and partridge, and wood pigeons, and the fields are full of red-tailed hawks, as the farmers are ploughing and the vermin are being churned up. The open fields are like West Side Story - seagulls on one side, hawks on the other, crows in between spaced out like guns. The walled garden is at the crossroads of the Ridgeway and the Ridgeway bridlepath, so we are in walking heaven. Thistle has yet to bite a peacock, but my money's on the exotic white one. Fingers crossed we don't get chucked out. Or, alternately, the peacock might nip her which would make everyone happy. There is a gamekeeper called Ian and a gardener called Lester and a handyman called Steve, and they are all completely lovely and conspire to help us. They speak with pleasant, old-fashioned Oxfordshire lilts and Charlie tells me not to mimic them but I can't help it. It's the most pleasing accent I have ever heard. Lester parks himself at the gatehouse and gives ramblers potted history lessons (and throws in a lot of mentions of Henry VIII for our visiting American friends. He says things like "I'll look for your cheque in the post at Christmas" and grins broadly.

Tomorrow I shall make proper authentic pasta e fagioli with white beans and rosemary and not too much tomato (pasta fazool for you Tony Soprano fans). I don't have enough time to cook but I get on kicks. You know how it goes. I love the taste of cooked rosemary and white beans and salt. I love it.

Goodnight, if there are any of you left reading this. I won't promise you anything, but I do feel a sense of accomplishment and well being when I've finished here.

With love. xo

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Morning swim

I think if everyone started their days this way, with a swim in the Oslo fjord, in the cool blue water, when there isn't a sound but the birds, all would be well. No boats, no other people, very little breeze, just you and the salty water, washing it all away; all the angst, the worries, the self-doubt. Sea water cleanses the mind. I am going to say that boldly. Yup. 


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

An Orange

An orange (9.14.04)
A simple Valencia orange, unwaxed, with mottled yellow skin, moled with brown, when cut into revealed the most juicy, succulent flesh. With a glistening sharp knife I imagine to be a dagger, I pierce the skin and quickly sliced it into seven wedges and shoved each piece into my mouth in quick succession, ripping the flesh from the pith, spitting the pips ferociously onto the little green plate, and sucking down the sweet juice. A red Moroccan bowl on the kitchen counter holds seven more orange, each a little shrivelled, but now I know the secret. I am staring at the bowl longingly, trying to clear the fog from my mind. I can smell the zest on my fingers and can feel little bits of flesh in my teeth, reminding me that today, in the deepest of hollow moods, that little round orange saved me. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

English things abide

Good morning.

I'm not sure if the hot weather has broken, but there are clouds today, interspersed with the sun, bringing hope of rain. The rain is desperately needed. Fields are brown and corn is ripening at an alarming rate. The countryside looks more like September than July. And the hedgehogs are thirsty and coming out to look for water. A sweet little thing was in the driveway last week, so I've put out water.

English summer things abide. We've been to a party in the garden of a house in Norfolk, with Pimms and white wine, and heels sinking into the lawn. And I was worried I was dressed too loudly. And that my heels may have been too high.  It's hard to find the balance. DM's ex was there too, just for added angst. So what do you do but drink too much sauvignon blanc and dance just a little too enthusiastically at the silent disco? The following day we floated out to sea on the North Norfolk coast. The sea was warm and sandy and inviting, and it was all washed away. I am not sure much beats swimming in a warm, gently rolling sea with the one you love, while English holiday-makers frolic with colored beach umbrellas and throw tennis balls for their black labradors in the background. And England had won their game, so everyone was happy.

And driving around the Norfolk countryside, along tiny lanes with arched hedges that practically meet in the middle, by families walking with dogs, bike riders in their lycra, staring intently at the road, cattle lazily flicking away flies, groves of horse chestnut trees in large, formal fields, eccentric little bridges, and crazy Queen Anne architecture, and found objects. My friend has a large iron cart wheel, just the rim of it, ancient and rusted, hanging in the tree above their pond, like an Anthony Gormley sculpture, providing a specific and site-specific view. The essence of the land in one little circular piece of metal.

A friend I haven't known for years and hardly knew as a child really, but someone I oddly felt connected to, is an artist, and we were surprised and delighted to go to the arts fair she helps run. Serious work. Good work. Strong work. Nothing like what you'd expect in a sleepy little country village. A lovely surprise. But best of all to know you have found your people. "I feel like myself when I'm with her" I said to DM. It's true. We laugh as if we're 12. We're children. That's a very good feeling. Seek out those with whom you feel childlike.

The dogs, I'm unhappy to report, are still very very naughty. At a little birthday in Hyde Park last night, they rushed enthusiastically at every other dog - a lurcher and a rather gentle Weimeraner - with the ferocity of storm troopers. The Weimeraner, uncharacteristically named Scooby, fell in love with Bean, and as you do when you're in love, followed her everywhere and wanted to do everything she was doing, including stealing chicken bones from the trash bag under the table. Old and young, human and canine, on the grass, with blankets and rosé and tiny cupcakes, until it was dark and we realized it was time to go home. A lovely way to celebrate a birthday.

English things abide. A nice man is boxing in our bathroom cupboard so that the mice no longer congregate there for group therapy and potluck suppers. His name is Neil and he lives in Tring and he has told me that it will cost between 600 and 800 pounds to replace the windows in the house. I am worried that they won't last another winter. He agrees, which makes me feel slightly less OCD.

The gooseberries are doing extremely well. We've decided to harvest them this week, for jam and crumble and fool and vodka.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018


Inspired by Tilly Culme-Seymour's book Island Summers - Memories of a Norwegian Childhood, I'm including this piece I wrote about my grandmother (Mormor literally means mother's mother in Norwegian) in 2004. She was a phenomenal woman, both glamorous and groovy, and I miss her:

That's my glamorous grandmother, cigarette in hand, on the right.

Mormor, my grandmother, lived in the house just up the hill from ours in the summer, along the sometimes treacherous stony path, where you had to hop from rock to rock in your bare feet so that you wouldn't stub your toe or step on a thistle. Half way up the hill was a little oak tree with happy green leaves and a little bell which hung on a branch extending over the rocky path. To this bell, someone had tied a piece of muslin that read RING. Brilliant that it meant the same in English and Norwegian. Brilliant especially for my father who was irritated beyond belief when a conversation went on in Norwegian when he was in the room, despite the fact he was the only member of the family who couldn't speak the language. 

Every morning at about half past seven, we would see Mormor in her yellow towelling robe, large black cat-eyed sunglasses, hair wrapped in a colorful scarf, toothbrush in hand, walking through the trees and the dappled sunlight on her way to the sea for her morning swim. Sometimes we'd go with her, in our bare feet and our bathing costumes, down the sandy little road with the little stones in it, past the shoemaker's house with the ugly bronze deer, past the little red house where we'd turn left onto the rough sea grass which paved the way to our jetty. Or brygge. Mormor would walk up onto the little wooden deck, kneel down and pull up the thermometer which was dangling on a string into the ocean, lift up her glasses so that she could scrutinize it and announce to everyone "seisten grader." It was always sixteen degrees (which is about 62 degrees fahrenheit) but sometimes on good days she'd shout out with glee "uff o mei, nitten og hal" ("oh my goodness, nineteen and a half" - 67 degrees) because that was hot! Mormor would disrobe and disappear down the steps that led into the ocean, flinging herself into the cold sea, putting her face in the water and splash splash splashing her legs both to propel herself out and, i think, to warm her chilled bones. She'd then turn round and with a brisk breast stroke come back to the jetty to grab her toothbrush and do a quick seawater gargle. She swore by this "I never have a cold," she would say in her ridiculously upper class English accent, "because I gargle in the fjord." She would never wear a bathing suit either, only if there were lots of people around. My whole Norwegian family love to be naked; it's probably where I get it from.

My brother and I were never as brave as my grandmother, preferring to deliberate until the very last minute before dipping a tenuous toe into the cold sea. We used the cold as an excuse, the jelly fish, everything we could, but, as we didn't have a shower or a bath in the summer house, this was the only "wash" we'd get and, we were told endlessly, it's the way it's done in Norway. My father told us the only way to do it was to dive in, thus rendering the shock more quick -- total imersion as opposed to one tortured body part after another. I remember the shock of hitting that icy water and the immediate frantic swimming and then the sense of incredible triumph as one's body became acclimatized.

Later we would walk up the hill to see my grandmother and she'd be sitting out in the sun, usually in a brightly colored bikini, halter neck tied behind her back, for maximum tanning, her feet in a footbath a large cup of strong tea and a piece of toast and marmalade on the table next to her, barking instructions to Bestefar, my good-natured grandfather, who was usually up some tree or other, cutting off branches to her specifications. I just adored my grandmother. She was the coolest woman I'd ever known. Chic and well-educated, with a penchant for wonderfully eccentric clothes ("It's the summer house!") she could speak at least five languages fluently, and would quote great gobs of Shakespeare when given half a chance. She could fish, she could sew and she made the absolute best beef stroganoff I have ever tasted in my life. To this day I remember the way her secret ingredient, tomato puree, mixed with the sour cream and the beef juices to create the most incredibly delicate flavor. In fact, at my cousin Mathilde's christening, Dee and I snuck into her kitchen at least ten times before lunch to steal small teaspoonfuls of that delicious liquid.

The Oslo fjord is dotted with little granite islands which extend the length of the coast line. South of Oslo and Drammen is Norway's oldest town, Tonsberg and off the coast just south of this little shipping town is a small group of islands, the largest being Tjome. About 12 miles long and three miles wide, this is the island where many Oslo residents spend their summers, and it is dotted with little red and yellow and white wooden summer houses, each with a lovely Norwegian flag outside. It seems that the whole of Oslo comes to Tjome in the summer, rather like the Bostonians and the Cape. Every morning a whole flotilla of little boats goes out fishing, or sunbathing or for a picnic on one of the little islands and this is where we spent all of the nostalgic summers of childhood.

God Bless America

It's the Fourth of July and I've been humming "God Bless America" in the car, unironically. I think this is the time that America needs as many blessings as possible. I'm thinking of my American children, my American family and friends, and of the happy, happy day that this is. Los Angeles is filled with families grilling up a storm in the local parks, playing ball, going to the beach, eating corn and watermelon and potato salad, hanging at the beach, dressing up their dogs in red, white and blue (well perhaps it's just me that does that). My daughter is in Martha's Vineyard with her closest friends; my son is in Aspen with his girlfriends family, and is sending photos of jumping into mountain lakes and paddle boarding down gorgeous lakes, the mountains framing them from behind. And we're in the Chiltern Hills, my American girls and me, thinking about Springsteen, and the Hollywood Bowl, and fireworks at the beach at Marina del Rey, of red plastic cups, and Sousa marches, and carnitas. We have artichokes, some corn to grill, hamburgers and some lovely sweet peaches for a cobbler.

I have watched with dismay as this untruthful, uncurious, narcissistic idiot of a leader we have unleash all the ugliness in the land. He has brought out the worst in us, no better angels, just our most base and fearful instincts. He relishes his divisiveness. He likes to turn people against other people. He disrespects the press, our constitution, basic human values. He only cares about the bottom line. We have an environmental crisis that cannot be reversed and a humanitarian crisis and a rise in fascism that has not existed since pre-WWII. There has never been a better time to stand up and be counted. I am becoming an American citizen. Finally. I've filed my paperwork and I will use my vote and and my voice to stand up for what I and most of the people I know care about.  I don't think this is about politics any more; it's about basic human rights. America is better than this.

So my wish for this Fourth, beyond potato salad and corn, is that we stand together, arm in arm, all colors and creeds and genders, and unite the country with love again. Love is the only way.