Tuesday, November 27, 2018


A year ago I met Paul and we began a conversation that has never really stopped. He is that rare person, someone who can listen. My thoughts rise up to meet his and together we do some remarkable journeying of the mind.

He is interested in absolutely everything and meandering along the river on a sunny afternoon we make forays into astronomy, the habits of birds, geology, the formation of fossils, the technical aspects of photography, botany, history and..

... well, it took us three hours to complete a forty-five minute walk. We had to keep stopping to clamber up or down to look at trees, fungi, rocks, bugs, spiders.

We stopped and took numerous photos of leaves and flowers to identify later. I have a new giant book of Tasmanian flora, and am so happy to meet someone who can stand still long enough for me to count the petals on tiny flowers.

We spent twenty minutes walking back and forth trying to discover the source of an elusive scent that reminded Paul of travels in the Daintree, and also of coffee. We discovered later that it was the scent of the Stinkwood bush, which made me very happy indeed.

Tiny beautiful things cause us to stop completely in our tracks. A pink robin, fish finning lazily in the pool below the waterfall, skinks in the sun, tiny cup-shaped lichen.

I am continually delighted by Paul's own delight in every lovely and fascinating leaf and rock and creature and cloud and shaft of sunlight. If there is a single thing on this planet that doesn't interest Paul, I have yet to find it.

 I am rather humbled to be able to share this journey with a gentle, kindred soul. I am learning much along the way, but best of all is to be with someone who can stop and listen and wonder. Thank you, Paul.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Stoicism and How to Be Happy

I have thought about happiness a lot over the last few years. Going through a divorce, along with almost any other major life change, especially a negative one, tends to concentrate the mind marvellously on What Really Matters. I must admit to not reading a single one of any of the many contemporary manuals on the subject, but I have done much personal research from the depths of my hammock, and also read some Stoic philosophy here and there. Stoicism might not seem at first glance to have much to say about happiness. It is generally thought to be about bearing up under privation and various unhappinesses with a stiff upper lip. 

However, I am coming to understand, that actually, it is a way of defining What Really Matters, also, a devotion to Doing the Right Thing, accepting that What Is, Is, and appreciating every single, wonderful good thing with joy and thankfulness.

First, bad things are bad things, and this world is full of terrible, awful examples of ways in which we are unpleasant to each other. And don't forget the general categories of Bad Things That Just Happen, such as losing a job, losing all your money, fire, earthquake, plagues of locusts, the death of someone you love, missing the bus, being invaded by barbarian hordes, being married to the wrong person, not having your novel published, the cat throwing up on the rug, and supermarkets.

This is what Stoicism says about Bad Things:

Be the best person you can be. The kindest, greatest, bravest version of yourself. This resolves many problems, especially interpersonal ones.

Accept that Bad Things happen. They do. All the time. Often to kind, brave people. Railing against Fate is tiring and unproductive. Remember that you have a limited amount of control in your life. There are many, many things you can't change. And again. Railing against Fate is tiring and unproductive. If you can change it, then change it. If you can't, do the best you can in your circumstances. Also remember that changing other people is impossible. Just don't try it. Much of my unhappiness in life has stemmed from extremely unproductive attempts to Change Other People.

Don't be a victim. Really, this is not going to help. Ask me how I know. Accept responsibility for your actions, and find ways to keep moving forward whether the Bad Things that happened were your responsibility or not.

Deliberately Court Hardship. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor. He grew up wealthy in a patrician family, but as a teenager he chose to sleep on the floor, wrapped in a shepherd's blanket, and ate 'poor' food, like lentil porridge. This really annoyed his mother. However, it meant he never feared poverty, and was well prepared for his many years of campaigning against the barbarian hordes, living on the front lines with the army. 'Going without' is a fabulous strategy for gratitude for what you have. If you feel restless and antsy and unhappy with your life, if you think that more things, or better experiences would make you happier, try going without some modern conveniences, technology, or food other than rice or beans for a few days. You will be so excited about that hot shower or movie, or chicken salad at the end of the week. It is a strategy of subtraction to make you happy, rather than the pursuit of endless addition, which is how our consumer culture wants us to seek happiness.. Also, you might discover that less is just fine, and that becomes your new normal, which again lessens the probability of your being unhappy.

Another experiment you might try here is being alone. If you are single, instead of hunting for a partner, become comfortable with being single. Cheerfully turn up at parties by yourself, invest in family and friendship, become happy in your own skin, learn to be independent, become skilled at looking after yourself and others. The nearly four years I spent alone after my divorce were the very best preparation for being in a relationship.. however, that wasn't my intention. I was actually preparing myself for a rewarding lifetime of happy singledom. This is the very best protection, by the way, against ending up with the wrong person. If you are happy alone, then only the possibility of a truly marvellous partner for you will tempt you out of your contented single state.

And even if you are happily together with someone, I believe it is still important to cultivate your inner self and learn how to function independently and alone.

Remember that everything is temporary. Life. Love. Wealth. Even plagues of locusts can't go on forever. Because even locusts run out at some point. Also, roses and fat baby knees and chocolate eclairs are all fleeting. The good and the bad. All we can be sure of is today, this minute. So let's kiss the baby knees, smell the roses and learn to make healthy, protein-rich locust flour.

Gratitude. I believe a lot of studies list gratitude as important to happiness. Well, yes, but.. I don't think you can start with gratitude. I believe that gratitude, like happiness, is actually a by-product of all the other things I've written about. If you are striving to do the right thing in your community, if you can embrace discomfort and accept trouble, take responsibility for your shortcomings, and recognise that everything in life is fleeting and fragile, you will be grateful every day for every single wonderful good thing. You will be content with what you have, you will be able to make plans for the future while accepting that they may never come to pass. You will not be dependent on what others think of you because you are following your own inner compass.

What if you still aren't happy? See above. I think that if you follow these principles you are as likely to be happy as you will ever be. But maybe you won't be. There are so many factors at work. I have always been a fairly happy person. Clearly genetics plays a part. Hormones. Mental health. Upbringing. Physical health. Life circumstances. All these play a part. But so much unhappiness is caused by ourselves. If we can eliminate self-induced unhappiness, there will be that much less to contend with, and maybe enough room for wee glimpses of joy to make their way in.

This is clearly a very limited and imperfect meditation on the subject of human happiness. It is really Notes to Self, So Far, For What It's Worth. Please discuss:)

Friday, November 9, 2018

How To Be Free


Modern life is absurd. How can we be free?

Many years ago I read this book and found it charming but slightly mad. Subsequent readings have convinced me that, no, actually, this is some of the most sensible advice I have ever encountered. You can imagine how compelling I found the chapter titled Death to Shopping, or Fleeing the Prison of Consumer Desire, let alone the seditious temptation of No More Housework, or the Power of the Candle.

Tom Hodgkinson believes the modern world to be unnecessarily ugly, rude, wasteful and bureaucratic. His solution? Step away from the whole unpleasant system, and create you own small, pleasant world quite apart from the dreadful modern institutions that plague us. He has many practical suggestions (throw away your watch, smash usury, play the ukelele, embrace poverty, bake bread), and in the spirit of his earlier book How to be Idle, he encourages his readers to renounce ambition, career and getting ahead, and instead to pursue freedom, merriment and responsibility. To be truly free we must take back responsibility for our own lives instead of turning them over to the many-headed hydra of modern institutions. And having recovered our freedom, we can be merry and free of care at last. 

Wanting more money removes us from enjoying the present; we should celebrate what we have. Wanting to be rich is actually the first desire that must be cast off in the pursuit of freedom.. Learning to live within limited means gives a great sense of security, because you become free of wanting more and therefore free of struggle.
Ch 27 Depose the Tyrant Wealth

The chairmen of the board think it absolutely hilarious that their staff will work their guts out and compete with one another for low wages and with minimum supervision. It leaves them so much time for playing golf and chuckling together in boardrooms.
Ch 8 Stop Competing

Above all, to be free of debt, we need to abandon our fear of poverty. I don't advocate pauperism, in other words, being homeless and starving. But genteel poverty, having enough for wants and needs and the bare necessities but limiting yourself when it comes to wants and desires, is a laudable state.
Ch 9 Escape Debt

Life can be different, according to the Gospel of Tom. We can throw off the 'mind-forg'd manacles' (William Blake). We can refuse to get entangled in the wily coils of banks, supermarkets, the media, the swings and roundabouts of careerism, the mindlessness of television, the dreariness of 'fun' that is bought with dollars. There is a better way. It involves living better with less. It offers the joy and hilarity that ensues when you free yourself from needing to be busy/important/wealthy. It is a little bit anarchist, a little bit punk, a little bit back-to-the-land, a little bit make-your-own-fun. 

It is a little bit of a blueprint for the life I am trying to create for myself here in the cottage on the hill.
I am up to Chapter 29: Stop Working, Start Living..

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Loafing and Idling

Never start on an expedition without the trusty thermos

Paul and I have many things in common, and one of those is the passionate pursuit of the idle life. We like slow. We like quiet. We like pottering and wasting time. We like stopping and chatting. Paul is a champion chatter and can talk to just about anybody about anything, at great length. We never go to the movies, or to restaurants, because we just don't feel like it. We like messing about in the garden, and if we are doing a job, we stop a lot to make tea, or because it's wine and cheese time.

When we go out somewhere, we take a picnic and a thermos, and a picnic blanket and some rugs and some cushions, and sometimes a book. Then it is an expedition, which is exciting, because who knows what will happen? We planned an expedition on Sunday. We planned the picnic, and what we were going to bring, but not where we were going. When we got in the car we still didn't know where we were going.

"Where are we heading?" I asked.
"No idea!" said Paul, happily.

We meandered aimlessly up the river, going by all the back roads and looking at the boats and Paul told me about his little boat and where he had moored it, and when I asked what it had looked like we were driving past the boatyard where he used to work on it, so we turned in and mooched around the quiet Sunday afternoon yard, with its litter of ropes and lines and piles of scrap, paint tins and the old tractor that tows the boats up the hard. Paul showed me the little clinker-built boat that was like his, and told me about the working bees they would have on the boats that turned into parties at which more drinking than working was done. We talked to a nice old man about his cray boat that he fishes from out of St Helens, we inspected an old Chinese junk being smartened up and repainted, we watched the old boats slowly rusting into the ground in front of our very eyes.

Further up the river we discovered Patricia's Beach, a little spit of sand and bush. Just big enough for a picnic blanket and a nap while watching tiny birds in the flowering tea-tree, cormorants and seagulls flying by, and the white sails of yachts tacking up the river. The Tamar is a tidal river and we watched it come closer and closer until we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and packed up to come home.

I remember I was going somewhere with this tale, but there has been so much meandering I have temporarily lost my bearings.. loafing and idling - yes, and the value of doing nothing. This expedition is was one of the more energetic ones we have undertaken. Sometimes we walk a hundred metres from Paul's mountain cabin and lie on a giant boulder for the afternoon and listen to the birds. After twenty years of sitting on a mountain listening to birds, Paul can actually speak Bird, and he tells me what they are saying. Today he rang me to tell me that the birds had been yelling that there was a snake, and he went outside, and sure enough, there was the snake. It takes a lot of years of idling and loafing and listening carefully to learn to speak Bird. Since I have had my verandah built I have been spending many hours watching and listening to my city bird friends. I can recognise them all now, by their calls, and have noticed that some of them are seasonal. Who knew? Birds say different things at different times of the year.

Another wonderful thing I have started to do up on the mountain is to find out what the wild flowers are called, and write a list of when they flower. Paul has set up his microscope so I can look at the flowers in minute detail. I have discovered that a single wattle blossom looks like a bouquet of orchids under the microscope. It is a whole new world of marvellous.

There is a whole world of busy out there for those who want it. There are endless ways to spend money in order to have 'fun'. Me, I love to spend what time I have to spare lying about and listening to birds, idling away an afternoon on a picnic blanket with a cup of properly brewed tea. I say, if you are tempted by the idle life, create some space for loafing about. Turn off your screens and lie in a hammock. Find a small, absorbing, cheap hobby that takes you outside. Birdwatching, finding out the names of flowers, identifying edible weeds, looking at creatures in rock pools, star gazing, finding shapes in clouds, reading poetry under a tree.

Hammocks make idling at home into real luxury. I recently put up our old hammock between our new verandah posts, and life suddenly got so much better. Idling is now possible just a step outside the back door.

Idling and creatively doing nothing very much seems to be a bit of a lost art in a world devoted to productivity. But I commend it to you as a way of sinking slowly back into yourself, finding pleasure in the small and insignificant details of life and rediscovering the joy of naps.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Great Tomato Catastrophe of 2018

Six weeks ago I planted out my first tray of seeds. The daffodils were blooming, the wattle birds were hanging upside down on the crocosmia outside the window. It was cold and the nights were still frosty. Now the daffodils have finished and the herb robert and the foxgloves are blooming pink in the garden.

This spring I am determined to grow all my vegies and flowers from seed. No more plastic punnets from the garden centre. No, I have plenty of plastic punnets in the shed. I have plenty of seed, and I have used so much of it this spring, even the really old stuff. I replanted the beetroot three times. After the first two times I realised that the packet of seed I had just wasn't going to sprout, but luckily I saved my own beetroot seed from last year, and that sprouted within a couple of days. Fresh seed is the best! Having said that, some of the very old seed is sprouting pretty well, too. It all depends on the plant and how well the seed is stored as to how long seed stays viable. I keep mine airtight in the coolest room in the house. Paul gave me a bucket of seed from his place the other day. It is all ancient, and stored in a hot shed, but you just never know. I will plant it and see.

One month ago I had two trays of seedlings living on the kitchen table. I planted out the hardiest ones in the garden - first the peas. It was either the pigeons or the blackbirds which pecked the tops of every.single.seedling overnight. I then made a twig fortress to protect them, but to be honest they have never quite recovered from that first setback. A whole packet of snow peas!

Then came the Great Tomato Catastrophe of 2018. I planted out forty-two tiny tomato plants into pots of compost. I have plenty of compost. But this is fairly woody compost, maybe not cooked quite as long as it needs to be for planting into. Which is ok in general as I am using it as a mulch.. but the poor little tomatoes turned up their toes, turned yellow, and died. I think the woody mulch drew too much nitrogen out of their little leaves..

Lesson learned - don't use the compost as a planting medium by itself.. but.. forty-two tomato plants! aaargh! I have replanted, but straight out into the garden this time. Fingers are crossed. If frost threatens, I will run out and put jars over the little babies. Gardening, such a gamble. Maybe that is part of the excitement.

So far this spring I have planted out lettuce, rocket, broccoli, kale, zucchini and cucumbers into the garden. I have capsicums, more lettuce, beetroot, basil, chilli and a whole tray of flowers still on my table. I take them out for an airing in the sunshine or rain every day, to accustom them to Weather.

I love having the seedlings on the dining room table. Baby plants are utterly adorable. I talk to them at every meal and every time I open my laptop. I think they like me. Although the tomatoes still haunt me with their reproachful little yellow leaves..

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

What I Did On My Holiday

So the girls flew away to have adventures with their dad, and I, well, you know how it is.. I decided this was the perfect opportunity to paint the bathroom. It's always difficult to paint the bathroom because it is always in use and anywhere along a continuum from damp to wringing wet, so for three days I painted in the daytime and commuted to the mountain cabin to use Paul's shower and have him cook for me. Oh, the bliss. Apparently I am an Extravagant Wastrel in Paul's kitchen, and turn up the gas too high under the pot, and cut off too much of the vegetables and put them in the worm bucket. Honestly, those poor worms would never get a square meal if I didn't visit regularly. Anyway, for my sins I am banished to read on the couch while Paul cooks. It is very hard.

Then Paul pours the wine and suggests we have a little wander down to the creek to see how the fires are burning.. we won't stay for long, he promises, just a little look and then we'll be straight back up to finish dinner. He puts his pleading puppy dog eyes on. We go and inspect the fires. They are very little fires, smouldering during the day under a blanket of ash, with more sticks and little logs, piles of bark and dried grass thrown on in the evening when the humidity rises and the wind drops. The cool spring night keeps the fires from getting away and burning the trees all around. Paul is clearing a fire break around his house and making a clear path down to the water turbine along the creek. Not long ago I read a list of the most fire-prone native plant species. Paul has them all. So to eliminate brush where he wants paths and a clear space near the creek, he makes these little fires in the spring and autumn. They provide nutrients in their ash for the big eucalypts, and encourage the native grass to grow, so that where he has burnt starts to look like a manicured English park. Well, except for the giant eucalypts and the bush all round. This very small, localised style of burning was practised by the First Peoples of Australia for millenia, to create grasslands for encouraging kangaroo grazing grounds, and to create beneficial conditions for growing useful crops like the yam daisy, which looks like a smaller, more delicate cousin of the dandelion, with an edible root.

Also, they possibly did it because it is enormously fun. Of course, no sooner are we at the fires than Paul seizes the shovel leaning handily against the nearest tree, and starts shovelling on more debris. Up crackle the flames and the sparks fly in the twilight gloom. "Shall I set this patch of cut grass alight?" he asks himself meditatively. Cut grass grows in huge clumps and is immensely flammable. Paul digs out a shovelful of glowing embers from the base of a fire and tips it into the middle of a cut grass clump. It smokes like a chimney, then smoulders, then busts into a column of flame and sparks. Paul's eyes begin to gleam insanely in the firelight. "Maybe that one over there as well? While we're here.." Soon it is deep dusk and periodically a man jogs past me with a shovelful of live coals, cackling with the glee of a confirmed arsonist. I peer interestedly at a tree, wine glass in hand. "This one seems to be on fire," I mention. "Should I do something?"
"Bash it with a shovel," comes back the advice from the pyrotechnics expert. "Then rake the burnt bark out."

It really is the most addictive kind of fun. Just one more branch on the fire, one more tea tree seedling to uproot, one more pile to light up. Eventually I remember the dinner, which must be saved. Clearly it is up to me, kitchen ban or no kitchen ban. The cook is too busy lighting another clump of cut grass. I look back and see the fire licking upwards, with Paul leaping like a demented goblin in black silhouette in front of the flames.

Dinner will be slightly late tonight.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Why I Quit The Gym

Last week I had 3 cubic metres (about 4 cubic yards) of lovely organic compost delivered. It is very nice compost and I hope it will grow me all the vegies I can possibly eat this summer, because it almost killed me getting it down to the vegie garden.

I don't have any off-street parking, so I had the compost delivered in the street and then shovelled it into the wheelbarrow then barrowed it down 17 steps and around 6 corners to get it down to the bottom of the block. Then I did it again. And also again. For six hours. Next time I am planning to order less than 3 metres of compost. Much less. I made these raised vegie beds in the bottom garden. I am going to make paths in between them with bark chips. Currently, the unplanted garden beds look slightly sinister, like graves. At some points on Monday afternoon I thought I was going to need one..

But then I remembered I am practising Stoicism, and began to enumerate all the virtues of my situation. I am strong and healthy enough to barrow compost onto my garden all afternoon. What a blessing!  I am only going to remain strong enough to barrow compost if I continue to barrow compost. I am a fortunate person who has the means to buy compost and the ability to grow organic vegies for my family. The rain gods went somewhere else for the afternoon so I could barrow compost in the sunshine. I never in my life worked as hard at the gym as I do at barrowing compost, but lifting weights at the gym never contributed in the slightest to the production of organic silverbeet. In fact, the gym cost me $12 a week, and now I work in other people's gardens and my own, get an amazing workout and earn money instead. Ha! I try not to feel smug as I work in the sunshine in other people's gardens and get to play with their lovely dogs and talk to their chickens and listen to birds and develop great back muscles as I shovel mulch onto their gardens, and get a very nice shoulder and upper arm workout while pruning their apple trees. And all the while they are working in an office somewhere. Poor poppets.

At sunset, my lovely neighbour from up the road brought me a glass of wine and we sat on the back deck and watched the sun go down and the stars come out and I looked at the quite large pile of compost that is now at the bottom of my garden instead of in the street, and planned my next vegie beds and was very quietly happy. Then I went to bed and slept for thirteen hours straight.