The ups of lockdown

Learning Stuff is an “up”:

Do you have an internal or external locus? A psychology article in the last (sob) Listener says: “An internal locus means you tend to see events as controllable, whereas an external locus means you see yourself awash in a sea directed by fate and outside factors.” While the writer, Marc Wilson, concedes that most of us fall somewhere between these two, it is food for thought in terms of being in lockdown. My nesting instinct means I’m quite happy to be at home. In fact, I’ve realised that having choices taken from me is liberating – now isn’t that paradoxical? I’ve learned to be patient with myself if I don’t feel motivated. Before long, the motivation returns. I’ve learnt to choose not to read or view material which will put me off balance, so I’m not likely to subscribe to Netflix or re-join Facebook any time soon. Gardening is my therapy of choice – and gardening shows on tv are fascinating viewing choices for me from which I can learn.

Judging by articles and columns in the newspaper, lots of people are learning about themselves while confined to home and in close quarters with others. Rosemary McLeod and Verity Johnson had some entertaining insights in their columns today. I like to learn from our remaining media outlets, stuff.co.nz and rnz.co.nz, especially about the nature of good leadership (and its opposite) in times of pandemic.

Today I discovered that the tree outside my study window is not a kānuka, as I had thought, but a lophomyrtus obcordata or New Zealand myrtle. The Māori name is rōhutu. It took some detective work and I’m pleased to have solved the mystery after noticing that the leaves for kānuka in Which Native Tree? by Andrew Crowe didn’t look like the leaves on my tree.

Appreciating stuff is an “up”:

I spend a lot of time looking out of the window, and it is a great view as I am surrounded by trees, many of them native. This panorama shot, complete with clothesline, gives an idea:

The akeake with red leaves is fascinating to look at because of the texture and varied shades of red to green of the pointy leaves. The pseudopanax next to it provides a contrast as does the cabbage tree, ti kouka, beside that. These are all self-sown, and I like to think there could be native forest regenerating in my own backyard. I have a mini-forest of kōwhai coming up in the front garden and pittosporums and hebes seem to pop up of their own accord too. They are welcome! We need trees.

All these trees mean lots of birds. At the moment, a few waxeye, tauhou, have arrived and are twittering and hanging upside down as they find insects in the roses, rōhutu, kōwhai and hebe outside my window. Fantails, pīwakwaka, are also frequent visitors.

I appreciate sitting out under the trees reading a book in the sun while the chooks scratch around in the garden. They are very companionable, add structure to my day and contribute chicken poo – lots – to the compost! Picking up said poo also tells me my sense of smell is working just fine.

Getting out for exercise is a bit of a stuff -“up”:

My brother and sister-in-law walk kilometres every day. I don’t go for a walk often, being busy running after the chooks and gardening (or so I tell myself – and isn’t my five minutes of yoga in the morning enough?) but it is nice to go down to the park to see how things are progressing. The new sign at the entrance reminds me I don’t have a dog any more.

Or children to keep away from the fenced-off playground:

It is good to see that there are hundreds of monarch butterflies clustered in the trees and lazily drifting on the warm autumn air currents. The roses are fewer now and autumn leaves are beginning to fall.

Mum often feels the need for a walk, and would love to visit the Abberley Park rose garden, but lockdown rules say to stay at home if you are over seventy. Instead, she has found good exercise sweeping the drive and paths.

Cooking and enjoying the harvest is an “up”:

Mum is the pudding maker, and here is her latest: apple and rhubarb (from the garden) pie, and the thirteenth bowl of raspberries I have picked this autumn. Harvesting your own ingredients is very satisfying.

This reminds me of a TV series Keep Cooking and Carry On which Jamie Oliver has created especially for all of us in lockdown. My brother recommended it and I caught up with it on TVNZ OnDemand last night. I enjoyed the bread making. What a joy it was yesterday to find yeast in the supermarket at last! Going to the supermarket is stressful – but at least I can walk there – and there’s no way I can keep two metres away from anyone in those narrow aisles. But there are lighter moments, such as finding the yeast, and this little chap parked outside. I saw a black and tan St Bernard or Newfoundland dog in a cargo bike on Monday. This little dog had a large flowery cushion and a harness to keep him comfortable and safe in his own section at the front while the space at the back is for groceries, I guess. The reflection in the supermarket windows shows a street empty of traffic, making it even safer for him and for us – another “up”.

I was going to call this post The ups and downs of lockdown, but it looks as if it’s all “ups” for me, at least, even the supermarket sometimes, even while I’m acutely aware of the hardship for many, and despite the sad loss of our cherished NZ Listener.

Reading for comfort

Much to read for comfort here on my shelves

Our book group coordinator asked for our 10 favourite books to add to a group email last week. This was my response, with comfort reading appearing in the section in bold:

“I would struggle to select 10 favourite books – that is, to limit a list to 10. Or to even say “that is a favourite”. Apart from my childhood books by Rumer Godden: Miss Happiness and Miss Flower and Little Plum. Probably Winnie the Pooh. And my choices change with time. More recent books which have stayed with me are Fiona Farrell’s The Villa at the Edge of the Empire and pretty much anything by her, including her poetry in The Inhabited Initial. Patricia Grace’s Potiki.  Happiness by Aminatta Forna. Paula Green’s recent Wild Honey about New Zealand women poets. Jane Austen’s Persuasion, if you want a classic. Shakespeare’s A Merchant of Venice. And in between the often traumatising books we read for book group, I return constantly to Sara Paretsky’s V.I Warshawski series (always political, set in Chicago), Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series (philosophical and set in Edinburgh), Lindsey Davis’ Flavia Albia series (political and set in ancient Rome), Jacqueline Winspear’s series, and I’m enjoying some Indian detectives in the books of Vaseem Khan and Sujata Massey. My guilty pleasure is keeping up with the Janet Evanovich Stephanie Plum series. There are also wonderful discoveries, such as the books by Nigerian women writers recently: My Sister the Serial KillerGirl, Woman, OtherThe Girl with the Louding Voice. And writers I never read earlier, such as Tove Jansson, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Thea Astley – whose book The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow reminds me that detention centres are not a new phenomenon in Australia. But there are many, many books which I treasure and all books expand my knowledge and widen my perception of the world.” 

At the moment, I’m reading a digital copy of the seventh book in the Kerry Greenwood Corinna Chapman series. It is quirky and diverting, even though I wonder at some of the author’s indulgences. But we all have indulgences, and comfort reading is about indulgence. And with comfort reading, you often don’t always expect the literary writing you appreciate in more ‘serious’ literature. In comfort reading, the ability of the author to tell a good story is everything.

On my shelves pictured above there are DVDs such as a Jeeves and Wooster box set. This helped us through the earthquakes, so I recommend Wodehouse for these anxious times. The language is hugely entertaining, and we need to laugh. Here’s one of my favourites about the dreaded aunts: “Aunt calling to Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps…” Stephen Fry writes in his introduction to What Ho! The Best of P.G. Wodehouse: “…isn’t it true that we are all of us, for a great part of our lives, sick or imprisoned, all of us in need of this remarkable healing spirit, this balm for hurt minds?” A contemporary homage to Wodehouse is Ben Schott’s Jeeves and the King of Clubs. Each paragraph is a delight and this homage may be more palatable than the original stories to the modern reader.

Once, in a time of stress and exhaustion, using my kindle app, I made my way through almost the entire series of the Monsieur Pamplemousse books by Michael Bond, author of the Paddington books. It is pretty hilarious and undemanding – written for adults. The main character is a French policeman who has lost his job in circumstances hinted at throughout the series. He has reinvented himself as a food critic and travels around France (in, of course, a 2CV) sampling mouth-watering regional dishes (a bit like Rick Stein’s Secret France programme) and somehow, with the help of his faithful police hound Pommes Frites, solving a number of mysteries.

This collectible model in a shop in Ile St Louis reminded me of Monsieur Pamplemousse and his dog

Then, as a final word, there is always the comfort of the comic book.

My Tintin collection – and a few other titles and collectibles…

Reluctant reader

I can’t imagine being without books to read, but, at times, I am a reluctant reader. As I child, I would often spend ages choosing library books. They had to be just right. Even now, when I have books to read at home, I will “tiptoe” around them, choosing the one I will read first. If there’s a deadline for reading a book, such as for book group, there is less choice but often considerable reluctance when I know the content is not going to be easy. My experience of reading is that it is not always easy no matter how avid a reader you are – unless all you read is romantic fiction, perhaps. I can even understand that impulse, because life is hard enough without reading something which confirms what you knew subconsciously: that reality is hard to take. Sometimes what we need is a happy ending.

I have a technique for reading a book quickly. I divide the book into the number of pages and complete one section at a time. I keep up the pace of the reading. If it is becoming a chore, I may skim read some parts.

If a book becomes not just tedious but distasteful to me in some way, I will abandon it, having defied the unwritten law of completing something I’ve begun. I nearly got to the end of an Anthony Marra book, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, when I saw it was not going to end well and I could do without knowing how. I have abandoned two books this year: The Orchestra of Minorities and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

A book I did persist with last week – albeit reluctantly – was American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. I had already imagined many times what it must be like for the people in the “caravans” moving from Central America and Mexico to the United States at a time when Trump was building his wall and separating children from their parents. I also heard the news of the drug cartels killing people, such as a busload of trainee teachers. American Dirt relates the experiences of the people who have no choice but to put themselves in incredible danger as they try to escape violence, civil unrest and consequent poverty. The book was an agonising mix of being unputdownable and hard to pick up. In this time of heightened anxiety, it was a particular challenge. My heart raced and I found it hard to sleep after reading as I raged against the injustice in the world. Cummins researched her subject for four years. She cleverly appeals to her audience by making her main character a middle class woman who owns a bookshop in Acapulco – not the picture we have in our heads of a Mexican migrant or of a place (tourist hot-spot, cocktails on the beach) you would flee. The title is a clever play on words. The migrants need to reach a place of safety, but politicians, vigilantes – and often you and me – denigrate them or dismiss them. Remember our own dawn raids. I don’t regret reading this book.

So reading is not always easy, even in the apparent safety of my “bubble”, but it enriches my perception of humanity and the confronting world we have made and, sometimes, offers a way forward.

The end of Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

Three calling birds

I’m finding the language of hens fascinating. Here are some of their sounds, from loudest to quietest:

AAAARRRKKK-ark-ark-ark-ark-ark – A long, very loud, drawn out call. Based in the back of the throat, employing the glottis between sounds. Often repeated for what seems a long time. The neighbours around the block will probably hear this one. What does it mean? Something momentous has happened. An egg laid. A major breach of hen protocol perhaps, such as another hen sitting on your egg or hogging the nesting box when you are desperate to lay your egg? These options seem likely, as the call tends to occur around the entrance to the nesting box. Many people say that this call is the hen announcing she has laid an egg. I’d say that is something to make a fuss about. Did you know the rounded end comes out first? Ouch!

SQUAWK! SQUAWK! SQUAWK! Loud, high-pitched and with a tone of panic. At this point, the hens are running in all directions, in a flutter of feathers, probably to evade something like this:

Well, he does practise on a stuffed duck.

WWEERRKK! WWEERRKK! WWEERRKK! A loud, sharp sound. High pitched, almost a whistle. This call is accompanied by the neck stretched up, head swivelling like a periscope. It seems to indicate that the hen has spotted something out of the ordinary which may pose a danger. A warning call.

EK EK EK EK A quiet sound with rising inflection made as the chooks browse together or as they follow me about the garden. It is like a voiced question mark. I picture little question marks floating over their heads.

BOOK BOOK BOOK BOOK Mid-volume when running to see what I’ve brought them. Low volume when used in everyday activity such as scratching in the dirt, or grazing on the grass. Perhaps a contented sort of sound, or a “nice bit of earth here” moment.

MUTTER MUTTER MUTTER MUTTER Lowish in volume. Often with a rising inflection at the end, giving it a tone of peevishness or complaint. They make this sound when I’m getting them their morning mash or their evening mash or … anything, really.

Hens also do a kind of percussion. When they jump down from something such as a low wall, they make an echoey thud which reminds me of the settling of the voice box of a teddy bear when you turn it over to make it growl.

TRRRIIILLL TRRRIIILLL TRRRIIILLL My favourite call. Very quiet. Often overheard when they are settling for the night. Almost like purring. A quiet, calming sound.

Good night.

A painterly eye

Now that the art galleries are closed, I’m pleased I spent so much time carefully viewing each painting in the Frances Hodgkins European Journeys exhibition on three occasions. By my third visit we knew more about Covid-19 and I was not keen to use the touch panels! There was an elderly couple carefully viewing the paintings. I felt quite sorry for them (even when one of them sneezed copiously); they looked quite frail. It would be a last treat, I expect, as before long over-70s were asked to remain at home.

I took note of who owned the paintings. The Auckland Art Gallery seems to own most of them. Other owners include the Christchurch Art Gallery, Te Papa, the British Council, Dunedin Art Gallery, and some private owners such as the Fletcher Family Trust. I was a little disappointed not to see the painting entitled Loveday and Ann. I looked it up online and found it is currently with the Tate St Ives. This seems fitting, as Frances Hodgkins lived and worked there for some time after she had to return to England from France at the beginning of World War I. The painting is dated 1915 and had two private owners (one of whom inherited it) before being purchased by the Tate London in 1944. It shows two women with a basket of flowers. The different characters of the women are quite striking, not to mention the bright colours.

The striped chair in Loveday and Ann reminds me of Hodgkins’ self-portraits which feature a favourite chair with objects belonging to her arranged haphazardly. I like this way of doing a self-portrait.

After my second viewing of the exhibition, I found the way I looked at things was enhanced. I would be struck by how a scene looked like one of her paintings. Even the pink bathroom cloth hanging over the window catch with pink flowers in the garden beyond reminded me of the rose tones she used in her later work particularly. She had a number of paintings which showed objects in the foreground and views through an open window or door.

The first time I experienced this “painterly eye” effect, was on observing my hens scratching about under the raspberries.

I wasn’t sure, but I thought one of Hodgkins’ paintings featured hens. On my third visit I found it.

This is an early work, painted in 1914; watercolour and charcoal. It is entitled Barn in Picardy. (I’ve also caught the reflection of the exit sign in my photo!) This painting is owned by our art gallery, so I look forward to seeing it more often.

Many of Hodgkins’ paintings respond not just to landscape in the many places she worked, but to events at the time, particularly wartime. In World War I she tended to paint portraits or inside scenes, as she could come under suspicion for painting outside in St Ives, on the Cornwall coast. In World War II more abstract trends in painting seem evident in her work, but rendered in her distinctive style. Her portraits too, could make social comment, such as The Edwardians (1918).

I like this photograph of her, particularly her woollen socks! Worn over thick stockings, I could see, by looking closely at the bigger-than-life photo on the wall at the exit from the exhibition. Yet bare arms. Practical considerations, perhaps when painting. And does her slumped posture indicate how grateful she is to sit after painting for long hours? She was 76 in the year this was taken (1945).

The Press today lists online exhibitions we can visit while the galleries are closed. A nice way to feast on visual experiences and nurture (code cracker word today) the painterly eye.

Home sweet home

It has felt quite good to be retired (note the qualification). Being at home has always been something to look forward to, such as at the end of each working day and during holidays. Now that we have to stay home, home remains a sanctuary for me.

There was a southerly blast last night and I’m pleased I photographed the roses before they were blown about. There’s a nice autumn second – or third – blooming happening.

The abundance of Japanese anemones or wind flowers brightens the whole garden (once you’ve got ’em, you’ve got ’em). At night, the flowers close up forming lovely nodding heads.

Loads of cranberries, framed by Japanese anemones – and parsley, chives, swan plants, Cecile Brunner, pittosporum, kowhai, and lilac which is turning to autumn colours.

There are white anemones too, with one of three rhubarb plants behind.

Herbs, fruit and vegetables are doing pretty well despite, in some cases, the ravages of chooks and caterpillars.

It’s rather nice to have hens to keep me company when I’m out in the garden. Yesterday, I picked the seventh bowl of raspberries, and a few blueberries. The chooks don’t like raspberries, but love to jump up and pick low-hanging grapes. Mostly, they prefer to scratch about for bugs.

I felt sorry for the hens when it rained the other day. They didn’t go into their little house for shelter. Instead they huddled under trees or scratched about in the rain getting quite wet and bedraggled. So I found an old umbrella and tied it up over their perch. There it sits quite fetchingly under the banksia rose and behind the abutilon and fairy rose. Even Popcorn, the white hen, matches the colour scheme as she turns pink under the umbrella!

Making a “home sweet home” for the hens is calming somehow in these days of uncertainty and anxiety. My WEA course on Sustainable Living has been cancelled (with two sessions to go) but now I can practise what I have learned at home.

Living room

My niece has decided the chooks may stay with me as they are happy here. “We’ve bonded,” I told her. I’m not entirely sure how this happened. Looking back at my earlier posts, I noted that I found them slightly sinister, messy, and sometimes gross. I also felt responsible for their welfare.

They have caused all sorts of mayhem, digging holes in the garden, stripping tomatoes from a plant, pooping on the door mat and outdoor furniture, and digging up a planter. Was there room in my small garden for these fowl?

I wondered how long it would take till they’d wrecked the whole garden, but found there were some benefits. They have worked some patches of soil to a fine tilth, great for new planting as long as I can protect the plants. Despite their little brains, the chooks are able to comprehend tone of voice, particularly when I express disapproval! I can have a lunch plate composed of garden produce – and home-made bread. It seems there is room for us all.

They often peck on the windows when they see us inside, occupy the back door mat, and wander inside if the door is left open. Maybe this is endearing. A couple of eggs a day helps. Watching them puts you in the present moment, a distraction from the ‘interesting times’ we are living in. Their care structures the day, that’s for sure: giving them kale leaves in the morning, a fresh bowl of mash and fresh water, cleaning out the nesting box, checking they have enough oyster grit, picking up poop, swabbing the deck after they’ve been let out in the afternoon (it seems cruel to leave them in the enclosure all day), filling in holes they’ve dug, putting up more barricades to keep them out of the vegetable plots, and saving some corn cobs from our dinner as a treat before they take themselves off to bed.

Today, I put a pea straw bale in their enclosure. They now have quite a living room.

Popcorn inspects the ‘sofa’.