Year of Grace, Day 44. A bird sanctuary

I woke up to a low band of red on the horizon that hinted at the coming sun. Yesterday’s forecast had been rain today, all day.

The sun peeped between two banks of grey clouds, its heavenly duvets as it were — perfectly formed – a grey circle limned thinly with gold. Before I could capture this magic on camera, the sun had hidden itself in the uppermost duvet. It stayed there for about 20 minutes. Perhaps it was making its mind up about today, perhaps even drinking its first morning cuppa, just like me. Ah, there it is now, out from its snug and fluffy quilt, it has decided to go out and work after all. It hurts to gaze on it now and gone is the perfect circle it had been just minutes ago. It is turning out to be another sunny day. I am no longer used to having sun on a reliable basis everyday. I find this regularity surprising and most wonderfully amazing!

I have to admit it is rather a challenge sticking to my normal journal-writing schedule. I wonder how Jane Austen managed; not that I’m in the same class, mind. Biographers report she had a portable desk (the forerunner of today’s laptop 🙂 ) and wrote in the midst of whatever was going on. Household chores, parties, her family conversing and conducting their normal daily routines all around her – these didn’t faze her, apparently.

The sunbirds are calling out to each other outside – click, click followed by a high-pitched “too wheet” or possibly “to eat?” They are like humming birds with curved beaks and bright blue-green feathers over a dark tiny body and they hover over the citrus trees in enormous clay jars set on the rooftop terrace just outside.

I am reading “The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared” again. It is the first novel that I was given to read in German by a friend. It is even more hilarious in English!

Perhaps it is the abeyance of my normal routine that’s affecting me. I feel I do not write with the same ease and fluidity. Perhaps too much excitement and novelty all at once hinder me. Perhaps. But I shall try and not ponder the whys too much and not let this bother me.

I have never seen as many cranes in the space of two hours as yesterday. They began as a pair twenty years ago and as the years passed, news spread by mouth (by beak?) among the wider community and now they spend all winter here, as many as 30, 000 of them. They congregate in several large flocks around these water meadows protected from cold winter winds by surrounding mountains. Egrets, nutria (an alien species — a water rodent imported for an incipient fur industry decades ago, but have escaped and are now a nuisance), kingfishers with their brilliant blue feathers, spectacular red and blue dragonflies (one of my favourite insects), orange butterflies with their wings tipped in black and white (lots of them), tilapia in ponds, owls, red kites and other predator birds – all are protected here and co-exist among groves of native oak, eucalyptus, pomegranates (many with hanging fruit), and other flowering shrubs and trees.

Dwarf kingfisher

Dwarf kingfisher

There were no pelicans or flamingos or water buffalo to be seen but I was not disappointed. The cranes were enough spectacle for me – every few minutes, a pair or more would detach itself from the huge flock, and go off and fly overhead and provide an aerial show. The flocks made such a din – their honking was loud and often it seemed to me that they were just nearby, when they were actually quite far off. Their calls reminded me of that Japanese children’s anime series, Nils Holgersson.

There were not too many people around – we hired a golf cart for a leisurely trip around the small lakes. Families picnicked under the shade of trees all around this wildlife sanctuary. I would have loved to sit and have lunch surrounded by the warm comforting scent of fig trees. Perhaps in a charming botanical garden with ponds filled with Nuphar lotus, Nymphaea water lilies, and papyrus, where lots of small fish, including endemic tilapia, swam close to the surface. These tilapia are survivors of a tropical climate here a million or more years ago. One small kingfisher on a reed was exceedingly enterprising: in the space of 2 minutes, it had dived repeatedly, each time bringing up a fish in its beak, which it swallowed rapidly once back on its reed perch. Perhaps it was just showing off for my camera and me.

We had a late lunch in a family-run, very informal eatery shaded by bitter orange trees full of ripening fruit. Here and there some fruits had fallen onto the ground. “Please do not pick the fruit,” a sign said. Stuffed peppers and courgettes, a baked kibbeh, beef braised in a sour sesame seed sauce with chopped vegetables, rice with noodles subtly seasoned with nutmeg and a bit of clove. Preceding these homely but delicious dishes was a refreshing salad of a few sweet tomatoes and sliced wild chicory greens and their stalks (olesh), mildly bitter and naturally sweet, sharply dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, and flecked with purple sumac. This plain but lovely salad keenly sharpened appetites already primed by hunger, as it was already past 2. We were much too replete for dessert. A finjan of coffee perfumed with cardamom poured into a tiny white ceramic cup rounded this simple but satisfying meal. It was a lovely finale to a great day, another beautiful, sunny day.


Year of Grace, Day 43. Coming of (great) age

I wonder what it’s like to be 90 – to be at the cusp of one’s 10th decade. What would it be like seeing your children and grandchildren and greatgrandchildren all gathered together – your own little flock, mirroring discrete fragments of you, in their eyes or nose or hair, or the way they stand or smile, or they way they regard life? You probably won’t be aware of these resemblances: others may be more aware of them than you. After all, we don’t normally see these aspects of ourselves, even in the mirror. Endearing facial mannerisms — those little tics like sticking out one’s tongue from a corner of one’s mouth during concentrated activity — need other people to point them out to us. And how would it be to have all these diverse reproductions of their original (you) set up a kabuki-esque whodunnit that highlights all the amusing tales you’ve ever told them about your life and your adventures? Would you have as much fun as the cast (your grandchildren and greatgrandchildren) had writing and refining the script, choosing their own roles, staging and rehearsing in one day (the day of the performance), and rummaging for costumes (a varied lot – from kimonos and hakama, to a monk’s robe and “tonsure,” to deerstalker hats, pipes, and tweed overcoats)? If it were me, I most certainly would. This was certainly the most entertaining version of “This Is Your Life” that I’ve seen.

To have children and grandchildren who share your love for adventure and travel, who appreciate exotic places and their culture, and most especially their food, is most rewarding. To have an appreciation of unfamiliar foods and to love experimenting with them are, I think, among the best legacies one can pass on. To have one’s progeny’s offspring, every single one of them, preparing a special dish make one’s 90th even more extraordinary — especially so when the partakers are a motley assembly of vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores.

For this rarest of events and to be present in it; to share in the enjoyment and the love and warm affection generated within this little flock; for being alive to enjoy this extra special occasion; and for the spectacular sunset that graced the evening – I am truly grateful.Sunset

Year of Grace, Day 42. Loveletter lane

There used to be a little lane in Shibuya, Tokyo, called Loveletter Lane or Koibumi Yokocho. Before universal literacy, people would go and have their letters written by a scribe, and this one in Shibuya apparently specialized in love letters. By the 70s, the scribe was no longer there nor were his services needed, but the name of the little path lived on.

As a student in Tokyo, I used to get some bargains at a used book shop on this lane. It was run by an old man, and there were countless books piled in no particular order. It was the kind of bookshop that appealed to a real book addict  because going in there was a bit like hunting.  Now with age, I have become allergic to dust mites and can no longer linger as long as I wish to in such places.  I remember buying quite a number of old cookbooks in English from this shop — one was a Hungarian one with traditional recipes. There was one illustrated book on Japanese traditional ornamental knots that I had lusted after, but it cost 15,000 yen at the time. Quite a tidy sum.

Today I decided to go into some used book shops and I have to congratulate myself that I stuck to my intended purchase of only 3 books. Had I found other books that interested me, I might’ve been tempted to buy more. I am so glad and thankful that I was able to be a bit disciplined about book buying, as I often get carried away.  Sometimes having a dust allergy can be such an advantage. I have to say that I felt quite conscientious with my modest purchase. For that I can be thankful.

Other things to be grateful for: some lovely flowers, simple but honest food, and a brilliant sunny day.

Year of Grace, Day 41. Miraculous finds

Have you ever lost something and wondered how it could’ve happened? There are certain things — quite a number — that have gotten lost throughout my life, and whose losses have always puzzled me. I call them mysterious losses.

The most notorious of these occurs with socks. Somehow or other, one of them — either the right or the left, I cannot really tell which is which —  goes walkabout. Seldom does it happen with both however. I’m pretty certain that if I spent more time chatting with them and spending more time with them face to face instead of foot to foot, I’d have a better idea of their uniqueness and be able to tell them apart.

I’ve even tried to be clever by putting them into net bags – purposely made so that singletons don’t end up lost in the ether somewhere – before popping them into the wash, but that has never worked. Not with me anyway. The other solution that I thought of is to buy two pairs of the same kind. That would work well for a while, all would be tickety boo, but then something or other would tick one or more of them off, and there’d be just the one left – the others having decided to run off somewhere as a threesome.

Earrings are also way up there on my list of these profound life mysteries – not as high up as socks, but pretty close. Again as with socks, with earrings it’s not so easy distinguishing right from left or, just to give equal priority to each, left from right. And perhaps that’s why one of them ends up sulking and running away to a place where it can be valued for its own sake, and not just as one of a couple. Doubtless it’s the very same thing triggers single socks to go awol. I am inclined to believe there exists a parallel dimension, a separate universe from ours – that is a sanctuary for these singleton socks and earrings. In our unthinking self-centeredness as humans, we have regarded them as simply lost, but now I am fairly convinced that socks and earrings, like all our possessions, whether treasured or not, are capable of self-determination and can decide for themselves to just get up and leave. They do not. Just. Get. Lost.

But sometimes miracles do happen. And three of these miraculous finds happened to me the other day, on the very same day, as a matter of fact.  (Why three? There seems to be a similar numerological logic to the number 3 as pertains to the number 40, but this isn’t the time and space to ponder it.)

Lost and found

The first miraculous find was an earring that had been lost for over a year. It turned up all by itself in the same blue mini-bag it had come in. I call it a miracle as I know I had searched that precise bag and everywhere else thoroughly before. Many, many times before — as I had felt lost (evocative word, that) without the two of them. They were my everyday, morning-to-evening, work-to-probably-a-night-out pair.

I can only imagine one had become rather burned out and needed some R&R, away from all the anxiety of not knowing from day to day whether it would have to work overtime. Or perhaps it simply wanted to be more keenly appreciated. Having been away for so long and thought lost forever, it is now very much treasured. I don’t wish to hurt its feelings by intimating (and this I have to whisper because I am wearing them both right now) that I cannot, try as I might, tell if it was the left earring or the right earring that had been missing all this time.

The second find was the case to my tiny camera. This is my everyday camera that I carry with me everywhere, and for several months now I have been carrying it without its case, which I had consigned to another case (oops, pardon the pun) of life’s mysteries. Guess where it had taken refuge? In an evening bag, of all places! I’m beginning to see a pattern here: the camera case so adored being taken out and entertained that it stayed put where it had more chances of enjoying the same .

There was another lost thing that turned up, I know that for sure, but my memory is not on full load at the moment. For these three things that once were lost for some time and were feared lost forever, but now are found, I am thoroughly grateful. On days like this, I truly believe the universe is smiling at me and blessing me.

There are still some remaining unsolved mysteries however – one in particular involves a lovely yellow dress with pearls and embroidery and smocking on the bodice. I have never forgotten it. It was a present from my godparents and I had wanted to wear it for the first time on a Sunday, for church. I looked at it admiringly before going off for my shower. It had been given a final pressing and was hanging from a wooden hanger on the handle of the aparador (wardrobe). When I got back from the shower, the dress was nowhere to be found. It had simply vanished. The hanger was not there either. To this day, no one has solved this early childhood mystery for me. The maid who ironed the dress was questioned thoroughly, I would assume. Why would anyone steal a yellow dress and not anything else in the room? Very odd. And it was not one of a pair either and had never been worn, so it couldn’t have run off to a sanctuary for singletons. But perhaps I had been mistaken, and it was pining for its twin somewhere? There’s a distinction between being one of a pair, brought together at random,  and being half of a twin. Twins, I am told, have a preternatural bind.

Ah yes, now I recall what the third miraculous find was: an extra pair of shoelaces, turquoise. Another paired possession! There is, I tell you, some kind of underlying pattern to these mysterious losses and miraculous finds. Someday I may just find it out.

Looking out to sea on a glorious sunny day like today seems to be an ideal place from which to contemplate and ruminate on whimsy like this.

Beach & palms


Year of Grace, Day 40. The number 40

The number 40 is linked to so many stories and events. There is Ali Baba and the 40 thieves and the 40 years that Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert before finding the Promised Land. Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert, and so did Moses and Elijah. And of course there is Noah and his ark where life was sustained when the earth was inundated by 40 days and 40 nights of rain.

I too have one story of 40 days and 40 nights – it features not rain, but snow. When I lived in Japan’s Snow Country, it began to snow just after New Year’s Day and did not let up until mid-February. By then everything was blanketed thickly with about 2 meters of it. The roof of the ancient (possibly over a century old) wooden house where we lived had to be cleared several times, lest the roof collapse. It is often unthinkable that snow — such seemingly light stuff — can weigh so much once packed.

But is there a deeper significance to the number 40? The traditional number of days of rest for a woman after childbirth in diverse cultures is 40. Forty years is also often regarded as the age of maturity.  I found one interpretation — a rabbinical one based on gematria or numerology — that the number 40 represents new beginnings or transitions; that the number 40 stands for a period of change, of challenges. Over the past 40 days, I have documented my thanks for things and events and people that have graced my life. If I include the first week of gratitude that started off this year of grace, altogether I have logged 47 days of daily thanksgiving. For the opportunity and the capacity to do so, I am deeply grateful.

I am also thankful for friends and other readers who follow my journal, and they encourage me and support me on my journey towards perhaps a new beginning or a transition to a different way of being and living. I believe that the daily writing of my thoughts and sharing them openly is a journey of sorts, a virtual pilgrimage if you will, towards a life that is more aware. Certainly my senses are more aware of and awake to what is going on around me and of the joys – the simple joys — of every single day. I am also aware that in doing so I am essentially opening myself up to the world, an act that I had not the courage to do before. I have this gratitude journal to thank for making me brave enough to do so. This grace journal has also set a new pattern to my life: my first act of the day is to sit and write and give my thanks. They are, in a sense, my morning prayers.

A new day in Sabtang Island, Batanes.

A new day in Sabtang Island, Batanes.

Yesterday I lost the post I had been working on because I had been rushed and my mind was on other things. My mind was not in the moment. But perhaps the “loss” was meant to be, because today – on the 40th day of my gratitude journal, a day that marks a possible new beginning and transition — is probably the most suitable day to give thanks to the islands and some people from those islands that made me for the first time fully and truly aware of being blessed with grace.

As a child of perhaps 7 or 8, I had come upon two photographs in a geography book, a large, hardcover one. They were monochrome – most likely sepia, as it was a very old book. One of them was taken somewhere beyond the Khyber Pass. I vaguely remember animals – camels, goats, possibly sheep. Around them were groups of people in what looked like an open-air market. Everything about that scene was like nothing I had ever seen before, and to me it was the epitome of the exotic. To this day I dream of making a journey to those countries beyond the Khyber Pass – to the ‘stan’ countries – Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan. Their names sound so fabulous to me.

The other photograph that had equally caught my eye in that book was of stone cottages and people standing in front of them, with long, pale locks, quite coarse looking. It was captioned “Batanes Islands, Philippines.” How strange, I thought, to have thatched stone houses like those and to have people with blond hair in my country. Someday I vowed I would see those islands for myself.

Six years ago, more than a few decades from my encounter with those photographs, I eventually did. I did not know anyone there but I knew I had to go. I had been warned that it was a risky journey — not only by sea but also by air.  There was always the possibility of being stranded for days, as flights don’t take off under stormy conditions.  I took the risk — I would most likely not have the opportunity again, I thought at the time.  As soon as I decided, everything fell smoothly into place – somewhere to stay, whom to contact, a guide – and all thanks to the unstinting kindness of the Alascos (Sal and Nati and their kin in Basco) and the Abads. Nati, or Knots as she prefers, in particular is foremost on my mind as it is her that I associate with having been blessed with grace throughout that time. Her links to everyone in Batanes ensured that I was in safe hands throughout. It was Sal, my elementary schoolmate, who had enlisted his sister Knots’ help. To Knots and Sal I owe my deepest thanks for such an unbelievably fabulous sojourn in those wondrous islands. And likewise to my extraordinary guide Roger Duplito, whom Knots recommended. I was so impressed that he was as familiar with the botanical names of the local flora and their medicinal and other uses as he was well versed in the islands’ history and ethnology.

The astonishing stone cottages of the Ivatans were in yesterday’s post. And the blond locks? They turned out to be traditional Ivatan raingear. The “locks” are made from the finely combed fibres of an endemic palm tree. I do hope someday to go and be in those magical islands again.



Year of Grace, Day 39. Stone cottages and coconut crabs

Up to now I have been blessed by daily grace, in that writing my daily posts have come fairly smoothly. Today, somehow I lost the entire post, photos and all. Just one of those days where certain things can go wrong. I am still thankful about something: that I don’t have the flu after all. And that the symptoms that I had yesterday were most likely, as one friend said, just the normal transition of my body to a new season, a different weather pattern. I’ve tried to recover the file but failed.

I am sharing some photos of that post, which focuses on the Philippines’ most northerly islands — the Batanes. I shall try and recreate the post at some point, as it was during my visit there that I became truly and fully aware of that rarest of divine blessings — grace.

The Batanes Islands and the people who live there — the Ivatans — have an amazing culture, so radically different from that of the rest of the Philippines. And their cuisine is also surprisingly different — deliciously prepared from the most unexpected of ingredients — coconut crab, banana corms, dried taro stalks — partnered with rice dyed yellow with turmeric root, a locally grown spice.

Have a lovely day, my friends, and this teaches me a salient lesson, for which I am also thankful.

Year of Grace, Day 38. Glorious garnet

Strong winds and rain two nights ago have knocked down the Gloriosa lilies off their perch on the window sill outside. The cachepot broke, and now I know what caused the sound that woke me in the middle of the night. However, Miss Gloriosa has, miraculously, survived the trauma intact. She was even standing upright. Thanks to the Westerland rose nearby that the Gloriosa’s leaves had clasped, the plant itself is unharmed. I am so glad and grateful!

There are still a few blooms left on this glorious lily: one more bud waiting to open and then she can wind down towards her winter rest. One of the blooms has been snapped off by the wind and rain, and this I’ve put into a wineglass near my laptop to observe and enjoy. I’m thankful it was just the one. Now I’ve got Miss Gloriosa recovering from her shock in the warmth of the kitchen. Once all her leaves have fallen off, I shall move the pot with its corms to an unheated and dark room. Once in a while I shall water her pot a little, just to keep a bit of moisture on the soil. And when it begins to warm up outside, I shall take her out again to begin life anew.

Gloriosa lily showing spots caused by rain

Gloriosa lily showing spots caused by rain

Miss Gloriosa lily has had a good run this year, her second year with me. The first year she spent indoors, as it was my first time ever to have this lily. She was full of blooms when I’d bought her and I was anxious lest any late frost would come and harm her if she were placed outdoors. This year she has certainly enjoyed the spot I gave her – a relatively sheltered place where she can enjoy sun from midday onwards, though any strong sunshine is tempered by overhanging leaves from the yew and Philadelphus. The wall behind also gave off some stored warmth at night gained from the sun during the day. Miss Gloriosa obviously liked this particular spot by throwing off strong stems and plenteous blooms, and not a sign of pest or disease.

I was quite sparing with organic manure, having learned from the Kirengeshoma’s demise. I am still hopeful though, that it’s only the Kirengeshoma’s stems that have suffered and from the remaining roots, new growth may arise. I am that optimistic, perhaps too much so sometimes, about plants I have nurtured. I do check in on the pot where it is and encourage it with well-meaning questions (whispered, of course) about its health. The sad result of overfeeding plants, even with natural organic manure (a mix of chicken pellets and composted leaves) from good intentions has taught me a good lesson, and I am grateful for it. I remember my mother’s advice about her houseplants which I have not been practising: feed plants often but sparingly.

Other things to be grateful for: the quince jelly has turned out so well – it is a beautiful garnet red in the light. And where it has been cut or spooned into, it has clear facets — the sign of a good jelly. I did want the jelly to wobble just the tiniest bit, but I am not quibbling; this is perfection enough.  I am thankful that I followed my instincts and reduced the sugar called for.  I used only 250 grams sugar to 800 ml of juice. I’d started with about a litre and a half of juice (this much covered the quince slices in the pressure cooker) and boiled this down to concentrate the quinces’ natural pectin. The recipe, from a collection of British country recipes, would’ve called for 400 grams sugar for that quantity of juice. With the reduced sugar, the perfume and taste of the quinces shine through very clearly.  Spread on rice crackers atop a layer of cream cheese, it is lovely with coffee. And yes, one more naughty departure from a totally refined-sugar free regime; but hopefully the natural antioxidants from the quinces balance out the relatively small intake of sugar. Unrefined sugar — honey or palm sugar — may not have given the desired clear gem-like colour. It may be worth experimenting with the remaining quinces.


Year of Grace, Day 37. Reverse engineering

I love baskets, and before M and I decided to downsize, I collected them. I still have my old collection, stored in Leamington, where I hope they have survived without being touched or seen or appreciated all these years. And more importantly, I trust they have not dried out, as they need immersing in water to rehydrate the fibres and wash off any accumulated dust, once a year at least. It had occurred to me to donate them to the nearby museum of country crafts and handiwork. There, with proper storage under controlled humidity and temperature, they may last longer than with my amateurish efforts. Perhaps others may find in their often quite complex structure, or even in the simplest ones, the natural harmony of form and function that I appreciate.

One of these I simply could not bear to part with and I have it with me here in Bonn. It is my favourite. Its form is that of a hexagon. It would’ve been a proper circular basket, but at three points, a flat piece of bamboo wider than any other in the basket has been inserted to create a narrowing in of the form; thus creating six sides – three convex and three concave.  Ever curious about the how of things, I tried my hand at recreating it in Leamington, though not quite succeeding. But the attempt at reverse-engineering it was quite fun and provided a few days’ entertainment and recreation (pardon the pun).

My reverse engineering attempt

My one  attempt at reverse engineering a beloved basket.

While living in Yuzawa, Akita in Japan’s Snow Country, I took to visiting craftsmen other than my friend, Goto-san the cooper and kitemaker. There were quite a few basket makers, most likely the last of their kind there. Just as with Goto-san, none of them wished their offspring to take on their specialized skills or their occupations. They preferred them to work in a regularly paid job – to be “salarymen” サラリーマン. And that meant finding a desk job as Goto-san’s son did.

I share with you a few photographs of those craftsmen. In this day of plastic bags and industrially assembled disposable containers, their handiwork is now considered out of reach of ordinary people’s pockets. There are a few fortunate craftspeople in Japan whose work is exceedingly valued and they have been designated National Living Treasures. These Yuzawa craftsmen created everyday baskets – for fruits, mainly apples, which are the region’s most abundant fruit; for fish; to go to market with; for just about anything that needed to be carried. They are not all baskets meant to grace a decorative alcove – tokonoma – in a tea room with a few choice flowers in season. A few are. But most of these craftspeople’s work were simple everyday, unabashedly straightforward baskets. They are all to me — whatever their purpose, whether functional or decorative — equally lovely. Perhaps now, over thirty years later, no one makes them anymore in Yuzawa. What there is, is most likely made in and imported from China. And more’s the pity.

I wish now I had taken more photos, made more visits, bought more baskets. It is evident from their faces that, difficult though it must have been to be economically secure from their specialized skills, they were happy in their work. Their faces look content and satisfied. And what’s more, their physical agility would put much younger people (that would’ve meant me at the time)  to shame.

I am grateful that I had a chance to visit these craftsmen in Yuzawa, Akita and observe their skills. With so many years in between and my notebooks of that time in storage, I am afraid I have forgotten their names or may have mislabelled some photos. I ask for forgiveness in advance. If any reader from Yuzawa should chance upon these photographs, I would appreciate your identifying some of these marvellously skilled and fine Yuzawa craftspeople. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to spend some time with them.

どうもおつかれさまでした。Domo otsukaresama deshita. Thank you for all your fine work and untiring efforts.

Year of Grace, Day 36. Living in the Past

It is not uncommon to know people who believe they have had a past life or even multiple lives. I know a woman in England who actually went to a “past-life reader” to confirm what she has believed for some time. For the sum of a hundred pounds or so, she was put into a trance. If I remember correctly, the entire session lasted some hours. And what did she learn? She found that in a past life she was a noble lady, married to a powerful lord, who was not congenial. And in her unhappy state she had a paramour, one of the men working for her husband. What I found curious about this reading of her past life was that it mirrored to some extent her current life. And he, the current “paramour,” also got a reading, on the same day, and it mirrored what the noble lady’s reading was. Perhaps her past life was reliving itself in her present…. who knows?

Now if I were to imagine my own past life, it would probably not be one of privilege or title. Even though from most people’s accounts, the majority of imagined past lives seem to be so. I imagine my past life to have been close to nature. Perhaps it was lived in a forest or surrounded by lush vegetation of different kinds. I wouldn’t pay over a hundred pounds to have this confirmed however. My intense delight at being in a forest – just walking through one and being surrounded by so many different trees and shrubs – is enough to make me imagine that such a past life could be probable. Coming upon a mushroom, edible or not, is enough to make a walk through the woods or anywhere a special one.

Perhaps I was a farmer or a farmer’s daughter — one who would often go into the woods to search for edible mushrooms or to pick wild berries. Or, since I am fascinated by the healing properties of plants, perhaps in a past life I was involved with the making of “simples” – simple cures concocted from herbs — for ordinary people. Whatever my past life or lives may have been, I would not go to a past-life reader to have it confirmed. I am living that kind of past life now.

I was born in the city – Manila to be precise – and it was not until I was 11 that I saw rice plants growing in a flooded field for the first time. I mistook them for spring onions! The tint of that green is one that I have loved since. The other kind of green that I love is one that has blue and grey and purple highlights within it. The kind of green that cabbage leaves in the shade take on. This blueish-greyish-purplish green I remember seeing for the first time in my teens and being so impressed by it, when one of my brothers grew cabbage in our backyard. The first kind of green was introduced to me by my other brother, the oldest one. For years these plant encounters have lain dormant within me and I had not put too much significance onto them until now, so many decades later. I find it quite curious that the seeds for my love of plants and gardening were sown way back then. And they have to come to life only when my life and my own senses were ready for them.

Despite having lived in cities most of my life, it is in the country that I love to be. I find a certain comfort in doing the things that country women in the past might have done on a daily basis. Having a cottage garden with herbs for the table as well as for healing, a few flowers for simple posies or just to brighten up the table, putting up some preserves with fruits in season, going off to the woods to gather fungi or wild berries – such are the simple joys that I love about country living.

Living in the city of Bonn, I find that it is still quite possible to indulge my love of these traditional country activities. I came upon a lovely lady named Waltraud Wosch at the Munsterplatz one day, and was truly enchanted by her and her homemade liqueurs and cordials, as well as her preserves. I also bought her book of recipes for preserving and bottling fruits and vegetables, and which also gives some homemade remedies for colds and other minor ailments. And, most interestingly, I found that in it she also gives her perspective on life, based on her encounters with nature. Her perspective, amazingly enough, mirrors my own.

Waltraud Wosch, author of Marmeladen und Andere Kostlichkeiten

Waltraud Wosch, author of Marmeladen und Andere Kostlichkeiten

I quote from her book, Marmeladen und Andere Köstlichkeiten aus der Welt der Blüten und Früchte (Jams and other Delicacies from the World of Flowers and Fruits, Monschein Verlag, no date).

“Probleme…kann man sehr gut lösen, beim Beerensuchen im Wald, oder man setzt sich einfach unter einem Baum, so wie die Japaner oder Chinesen, die dann innerlich ihre Probleme mit dem Baum besprechen. Sie glauben gar nicht, was einem so alles in den Sinn kommt, wenn man so vor sich hin pflückt. Hier eine Beere, ach die ist ja noch schöner…, dann ein wunderschön gefärbtes Blatt. Wenn ich mich dann umdrehe und die Sonne lacht mich an, sehe ich hier und da schon langsam den Herbst kommen. Aber im Moment noch nicht, denn heute spüre ich noch den leichten Sommerwind in meinem Gesicht und freue mich auf die Beerenpracht, die um mich herum zu sehen ist. Hier und da stehen noch ein paar schöne Pilze. Und wenn ich dann mit meinem prall gefüllten Körben auf dem Weg nach Hause bin, danke ich Gott, dem Wald und der Natur um mich herum, denn meine Seele ist gestärkt fur neue Ideen und Taten.”

“Problems are very easy to solve while looking for berries in the forest, or sitting under a tree, as the Japanese or Chinese do, confiding their problems to the tree. You would not believe what comes to mind when one goes to pick berries. Here is one, oh and there is another even more beautiful… and a wonderfully coloured leaf. And then I turn around and the sun smiles upon me, and I see that here and there autumn is slowly coming. But not at the moment: I feel the summer wind on my face and I am happy with the splendour of the berries that I see all around me. Here and there stand a couple of beautiful mushrooms. And when I head home with my baskets fully laden, I thank God, the forest and nature all around me, for my soul is strengthened with new ideas and activities.” (p.70, italics and translation mine).

Today I am thankful for my brothers as well as my mother and sister whose love for plants and gardening they imparted to me, quite unknowingly. I am also thankful to live surrounded by nature, close to a forest, and to be able to experience all the joys of country living.  One of those joys is making jams and jellies from fresh fruits, preferably given by friends or picked from the wild.  I have now made 3 jars of quince jelly from half of the quinces given by my friend; the other half is waiting for me. Joy!

Year of Grace, Day 35. Labora et amare

Tove Jansson, known for her children’s books about the Moomintroll family, has the above words for a motto – work and love. I am reading again one of her adult books – Fair Play– written when she was 75 years old – her last one actually. It is about two friends who live at opposite ends of an apartment building. Both are artists: one is a writer and illustrator, the other is a filmmaker and artist. I picked it out the other day to share the rereading of it with my friend on our weekly Setting the World to Rights session. But we ended up talking of something else entirely – which was perfectly all right. There is no planning involved or set agenda in these fun discussions.

It’s a short book and I read a few pages of it as I was drinking my morning coffee. This morning, like most mornings, M brought me coffee in bed, often with a treat. Today it was a bear claw (a crisp Danish pastry) filled with marzipan. I could only finish half of it, as I found it too rich and too sweet. After months of being on an almost gluten-free and almost refined-sugar free regime, a little bit of this pastry is more than enough for me. (This, btw, is another departure from my gluten-free and refined sugar-free regime. Thankfully, I do not get such naughty treats too often.)


The relationship between the two women friends in Fair Play led me into thinking about how long-time companions, whether spouses or friends, spend their time together. Often I find the most satisfying and comforting of days are those spent doing simple things together. Labora et amare, work and love.

Yesterday centred around quinces. M is making Quittenbrot (quince bread), which is not a bread, nor even a cake, but the German version of membrillo – a thick, sweet solid paste of quince. (Now you realize why a few days ago in a phone conversation, I confused Quitten and “kitten.”) Rather like an unsticky guava jelly made into a paste, Quittenbrot is cut into squares or diamonds and rolled in sugar. As an alternative to cut down the sweetness, M is planning to roll them in dried coconut flakes.

He’s taken the solid puree from the boiled down quinces and I’m using the juice.  If you remember, I almost forgot about them in the pressure cooker. Though how I could have not paid them any attention is a wonder. Their perfume suffused the entire house as they cooked gently away. So there we were, companionably working together in the kitchen: he with his Quittenbrot and I boiling down the juice with sugar for jelly.

Much later I worked alone in the front garden, planting some blue fescue grass seedlings that are long overdue transferring into the ground. Meanwhile M worked in the back garden, filling in a raised bed with soil. And later in the evening, we watched an old film that both of us enjoyed immensely – The Grand Budapest Hotel. It is just the kind of film that I like and thankfully that he also likes: full of adventure and eccentric characters, set in an atmospheric locale, and with brilliant acting by Ralph Fiennes and others.

Yesterday was indeed just a simple day, spent doing the most ordinary of things. I am exceedingly thankful for the comfort of such simple but satisfying days.

I am also thankful that I have finally finished planting out all the seedlings that I had sown in rain guttering. With the intermittent rain over the past weeks, I was unable to plant them out. It was an experiment to see if planting out is easier with this improvised seed bed than in a sowing tray where each seed goes into a single compartment. I found it much easier to slide out the small plants from the rain guttering than to dig them out individually. I would certainly do this again for next planting season. The idea for using rain guttering isn’t mine, btw: it’s from Sarah Raven, who’s got a cut-flower garden and now has her own website for seeds.

I am looking forward to the blue colour of this grass, called “Elijah Blue.” Its blue blades will look superb as a foil for the orange tulips that will be coming out among them in spring, and as they are also slightly tall, they will hopefully support and hide the tulip leaves as they start to fade.

I am also thankful to rediscover and reread simple, satisfying, and comforting books, like Fair Play, and looking forward to reading more from Tove Jansson. I have yet to read her Summer Book and Winter Book.

And, last but not the least, for my morning coffee, I thank M exceedingly.