Saturday, December 11, 2010

Mindful Knitting

I learned to knit when I was about four and a half. I didn't get good at it till later, of course, but I remember being in school and, tongue sticking out, trying to get the wool around the needles and pull it through the loop to make a stitch. It felt like a huge achievement every time I managed it. I remember the classroom, with it's small children's chairs and tables, the pale wood of the floor, polished to a high shine, the smell of the lino in the hallway and the rustle of the nun's habit as she glided, seemingly on wheels, between the tables, to see how we were doing.  I was inordinately proud of myself that day and raced home to my mother to tell her what I had accomplished.  For some reason, it came easily to me and I turned into the knitter in the family.

I knitted jumpers for everyone I knew. I crocheted 'cloche' hats with flowers on the side which I wore over my long curly hair. I made them for my sisters and friends. I knitted egg cozys and mittens, on four needles; socks; baby clothes; anything and everything.  I have knitted countless sweaters for husbands, boyfriends and lovers.

For many years I didn't knit because I had a job that meant I was traveling all the time.  I was usually too tired to do anything at the end of the day but read a bit and sleep so all my crafts went by the wayside.  I missed it.
From Rowan Yarns

When I came back to Ireland, my sister called me in a panic one day because her daughter was knitting something for the first time and my sister couldn't remember how to cast off. She said 'I'll be the worst mother in the world if I don't do this for her!'  I was about to open my mouth to tell her what to do when I realised I couldn't remember myself! 

It made me realise, though, how much I missed knitting and so I took it up again.  I became a wool acquisitor. Everywhere I went I bought skeins or balls of wall, whether or not I had a pattern for it. I found gorgeous red cashmere skeins in Venice.  I bought patterns, books and wool in Amsterdam in a little shop I found called De Afstap.  I haunted that place.  I had a growing pile of wool but was traveling so much I rarely had time to actually knit anything and, when I did, it usually took months of picking it up and putting it down. I ended up with boxes of non-started or half-started projects.

Flash forward a few more years and my collection of yarns has traveled with me from country to country and at last I am in a place, both physically and figuratively, where I can knit. I share a house with my wonderful friend, Hazel, and her two amazing daughters, Ishthara and Kashmira,  Hazel is a knitter too and we oohed and aahed over each other's collections of wool and patterns.  

I had had a pattern and yarn for a small handbag in cable knitting, that I had got as part of a free gift from Rowan International and had stared at it many times wondering how to do it. I had never tried cable as it always seemed an insurmountable learning curve.  One day, I just decided to get cable needles and give it a go. I found it was easier than I thought but that I really had to focus on the pattern to get it right. The bag was knitted, I was very proud of it, despite the, to me, obvious mistakes in it.  So I decided to knit it again in a different colour. (Remember, I have mountains of yarns to use!).  

At the same time, I had discovered the joys of audio books and was listening to Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I realised that listening to the book and knitting would be a great combination so, every evening, I retired to my room, set up my PC on my bed with headphones and got my knitting out.

To my surprise, I realised that my knitting improved dramatically!  I had always had  loose tension when knitting and usually had to go down a size in needles to accommodate this as otherwise whatever I was knitting came out too big or loose.  I also often made mistakes and had a few stitches that were bigger or smaller than the others, or I dropped a stitch without noticing.  

Knitting listening to my book, I concentrated on every stitch I made and was able to watch everything I did.  I had always knitted in front of the television and, of course, you are then either not watching the knitting or not watching the TV.  Now, I was watching everything and listening at the same time. 
See the difference in the size?

The first cable bag was made watching television. The second listening to my book.  The difference between the two bags is the difference between doing something mindlessly or mindfully. After more than 40 years of knitting (with a hiatus for travel), I had found the secret to making my knitting sing.

Not only did the second bag come out smaller, tighter and better knitted, I had a sense of accomplishment that I had missed for a long time.  I felt elated at this discovery. I noticed that by knitting mindfully I was also able to knit it in two sittings.  I noticed that when I was knitting I felt like I thought my mother felt when she knitted for us. I felt she was with me, inside me, moving my hands and saying 'See, darling, how good you can be when you put your mind to it'.
See how much looser this is to the one below?

Now, I am going through my box of yarns and patterns, wading my way through the Outlander series on audio books (all 300+ hours of it) and finishing all the half started or never started projects I've dragged all over the world with me.

What have you always wished you had accomplished?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

BBC's 100 Best Books List

The idea is to copy this list, post it in your blog or on Facebook or wherever. BOLD the ones you've read and italicise the ones you've started or dipped into.

I find the list quite odd in some ways. Dan Brown makes it but not Hemingway or Vonnegut? Fun nevertheless.  See how many you've read.

1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4. Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6. The King James Bible
7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8. Nineteen Eighty Four (1984) – George Orwell
9. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10.   Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12.   Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14. Complete Works of Shakespeare
15. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18. Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19. The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20. Middlemarch – George Eliot
21.   Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22.   The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
23.   Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26.   Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29.   Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31.   Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32.   David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33. Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34. Emma -Jane Austen
35. Persuasion – Jane Austen
36. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis
37. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40. Winnie the Pooh – A.A. Milne
41. Animal Farm – George Orwell
42. The DaVinci Code – Dan Brown
43. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44.   A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45.   The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46.   Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47.   Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48.   The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50. Atonement – Ian McEwan
51. Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52.   Dune – Frank Herbert
53. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55.   A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57.   A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60. Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65. Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66.   On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67.   Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68. Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70.   Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71.   Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72. Dracula – Bram Stoker
73. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74.   Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75. Ulysses – James Joyce
76.   The Inferno – Dante
77. Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78. Germinal – Emile Zola
79.   Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80.   Possession – AS Byatt
81.   Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83.   The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85.   Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86.   A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87. Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89.   Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90. The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91.   Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92. The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93.   The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94.   Watership Down – Richard Adams
95.   A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97.   The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98. Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100.    Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Monday, September 6, 2010

Browsing in a Second Hand Bookstore Can Change Your Life

When I was a young woman, about 17-18, I was living in Dublin and, of course, never had much money. I have always and still do adore reading and so used to spend a lot of my time in second hand bookstores. 

There used to be one on the street where the Stephen's Green shopping centre is now, across from Stock Design (where, incidentally, I worked until I left Ireland for Sweden at 19 years of age).  I used to haunt that bookshop and often found real gems, like my favourite Herman Hesse novel, Narcissus and Goldmund. I used to also look for my father's books, of which there were many at the time. I don't think they are as available now as they used to be.  I loved finding The Year of the Lion, The Consul at Sunset or See You in Yasukuni.  I loved finding his books as it made me feel proud to have him as a father.  At that time, most of his books were still in print and he went on to write a couple more before completely drying up.  

The only one of his 8 books published at the time that I had not yet found in this shop, or anywhere else, was The Journey Homeward, which was set in India.  It was the only book, at that point, that was about India as most of the others were set in Africa.  I wanted it to complete my collection. I had multiple copies of most of the others and used to give them as gifts to close friends sometimes.

On my 18th birthday, my oldest sister and her husband took my twin and I out for dinner.  Before we went out to Howth to the King Sitric, we went for a drink in what was then the Berni Inn off Grafton Street.  There, Jacquie told us about the real reason why there was an almost 11 year age gap between herself and our next sister, three years older than my twin and me.  

It turned out that my father and mother had moved to England after WWII, from Kenya where they had met and fallen in love.  My father as going to work for the BBC and other organisations, as a writer and journalist. He got a job working on a movie about the Partition of India and headed off to Delhi, leaving my mother and a, by now, 3 year old Jacquie.  While in India, he met a fascinating Indian woman who had been brought up by a proper English spinster and educated in England. She was also working on the same project.  He fell in love with her and divorced my mother, by proxy, in England, leaving her stranded there with no money and a small child in post-war Britain.  Eventually, my mother and sisters (she had a child from another, very short-lived, relationship sometime after my father had left her) were repatriated to Kenya by the government there.

My father lived in England and India with his new wife and had two sons with her.  In 1954, he went back to Kenya looking for my mother as he had had, what has been referred to in letters I have read, as a crisis of conscience about his Catholic faith and the fact that, according to the Catholic church, his first wife was his only 'true' wife (despite the fact that they had had a civil marriage in Nairobi in the midst of WWII).  He persuaded my mother to return to him, leaving his Indian wife and two young boys to fend for themselves in India.  She, tenacious woman that she was, moved them all the Kashmir and had a farm up there and a menagerie of animals.  My half brother, Peter, has written some wonderful stuff about this time which he hopes to have published soon.

Back to Dublin and being told this extraordinary story (there is, in fact, much more to it but you have to wait for my memoir to hear the entire thing). 

My jaw was on the floor hearing that I had two half brothers and a half sister somewhere in the world. It had never, ever dawned on me that this could be the reason for the enormous gap of 11 years and then the flurry of babies after that (two pairs of twins and three more singles).  I was in some sort of shock about it and, as was typical of me at that time, I suppressed how I really felt and it took many, many years to process all of it. So many secrets and so many lies. So much stored up guilt and blame. Now a lot of what had happened was starting to make sense to me but I was not prepared for everything that came afterwards.

Two days later, I was again in the second hand bookshop.  There, on a low shelf, almost hidden away, I came across a copy of The Journey Homeward. I bought it.  I opened up the paper bag in the street outside and took the book out to have a look through. I could never wait to read the opening paragraph of any book I bought.  

On dedication page it said: To my wife, Asha, with love.

My mother's name is Diana.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Catching Up

I know I haven't posted anything for ages now but it's because I have made the decision to move from Toronto earlier than originally planned and have had a mad time dealing with the most horrific heatwave and living with no air conditioning during it. That turned into a massive cold and a perforated ear drum on the flight back to London. From there I spent a week in Wales and Cornwall with Mark and had an amazing time although it stirred up LOTS of stuff for both of us and now we are working on the outcome of that.  All good stuff but lots of learning in the process. I have then had to catch up with client work and so haven't had time to really process what I want to say here.  I promise to come back to is at soon as I can, with updates, news, thoughts and plans for the future.  As a teaser - I am looking into studying to be a Master Herbal Medicine practitioner. Very excited about this.

Back soon.........

Monday, June 21, 2010


As some of you may know, I grew up near Glendalough, just outside a village called Roundwood in Co.Wicklow. Glendalough was, in a sense, our back yard. We used to go there with our mother and set up a camp beside the river, build a fire in which we would put tinfoil wrapped potatoes so they cooked in the embers and Mum would set up a kettle over it to make lovely smoky tea. We would splash about in the river, explore the woods, sing songs and gambol about. Of course, nowadays you can't light a fire and you even have to pay exorbitant fees just to park near the lake. It makes me furious in a way. I went there recently and was so incensed that I had to pay some ridiculous amount of money to only stay one hour (you can't pay by the hour!!) and felt it was like having to pay to get into my own garden.  I left in a huff.  

Despite that, Glendalough has to be one of the most wonderful places on this planet. Everyone who goes there feels it.  If you spend any real time there, it seeps into you bones and gives you magical dreams.  When my mother dies, which might be soon, we have promised to spread her ashes in Glendalough, one of the places she loved the most. I know she will be at peace there and it will make each journey back even more special, knowing that a part of our mother rests in the breezes and ancient mystical nooks there.
The river by which we picnicked as children. Take by Maya Oct 2009

Here is a wonderful poem written by Orna Ross called At Glendalough:

At Glendalough
After walking through the ruins of seven churches
head tilting back to look
to the top 
of the tower that took the round of Kevin’s steeple, 
and jutted it up three times as high, 
from earth to sky
to mark the ground you walk upon 
as holy;
after circling green lake-paths
that urged you up to top the waterfall, 
or higher, and being stopped 
and stopped again, 
by sightings of bare mountain 
dropping sheer, sliced 
by a mesh of rivers and falls emptying 
into the two, long lakes 
that somehow take 
their gush and hold it
then you will know 
the allure of here,
as of all the places we call sacred,
is the silence,
and you will hear the voice 
of your own blood 
into the deep.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Drowning in Fear

As part of my participation in Bindu Wiles' 21 days of Yoga and writing, we are tasked today with writing about fear.  I could write about all kinds of fears and have been ruminating about that all day today.  I decided to write about something I am really afraid of that is more external.  

Falling into water.

There are two separate, or combined, theories about why I am afraid of falling into water.  The first one is pre-verbal.  I wrote about this in a much earlier post about the death of my brother, called The Drowning of Diarmuid. I have no doubt that this affected my twin sister and me on a very deep level as she also has fears around water.  We were only about 6 months old when it happened but the trauma of that would have been embedded in our mother's body. sShe was still breast feeding us at the time.  How that transfers I don't really understand but there is no doubt in my mind that it did.

The second theory is about something that happened to me when I was about 3 and a half.  We were living in Cobh, Co. Cork at the time and one day my older sister and her friend took us to Cuskinny, the beach nearby.  There were small waves splashing about and I remember we were near a slip.  My sister put me sitting in an inner tube from a car, a great flotation device.  A wave came and knocked me over so I was upside down in the water with my bum stuck down in the hole of the inner tube.  I breathed in a lot of water and when she finally grabbed me and put me upright, I was filled with water and terror. I hated the sensation of water going up my nose and burning and the horrible choking feeling of it.  She comforted me as best she could and I don't remember much of what happened after that. The actual event is etched in my memory and gets re-kindled every time I try to get comfortable in water.

The Slip at Cuskinny where I fell in

The funny part is that I love the sea, lakes, rivers, being on boats and anything to do with water. I just can't bear the thought of falling in.  When I was younger and we would go to the beach I would have to tell everyone to please not mess with me in the water as I might drown them in a panic if the pushed me under or played around like that.  I found that the more time I spent in water, the less afraid I would get but then another year would go by till it was warm enough to swim again and I would have to start all over again.


Being out of my depth terrifies me. I did get to a point, when I lived in Sweden, of being able to swim from the metal ladder pinned on a cliff, out into the open sea for a few yards and back, without panicking.  But I would often find that  I would be going along fine and then panicky thoughts would start and my breathing would tighten and then I would have to rush to grab something as I was sure I was going to sink immediately.

This is how I want to feel

The one time when I finally felt I was getting somewhere with this fear was with a friend who had an indoor pool.  She got me to get goggles that covered my nose too and she showed me how to swim with my head in the water. With my nose covered, my fear of the water going up it and choking me went away. I found I was very comfortable under the water, more so than on top of it! In fact, I was so comfortable that I had an almost irresistible urge to breathe under there.  I could see the deep end, all 8 feet of it, further down the pool and it looked perfectly benign.  Yet, when I had my head above the water, that 8 foot depth seemed terrifying and dangerous.  I even learned to duck dive a bit and loved it.  If only I had had more than one day there at her house.

I can actually swim, very badly.  I would love to find someone with the patience to help me over this fear.  I wish so much I could just jump off a boat or a diving board into the water and not be afraid. It would be one of the most liberating things I could imagine.

It's on my list of things to do before I die. Hopefully, I won't leave it too much longer. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Tibetan Breakfast and Ethiopian Dinner


Last Friday, June 4th, my sister, Jacquie and I were invited to have a traditional Tibetan breakfast with old friends of my sister. Their names are Genyen and Tashi Jamyaling (I hope I spelled them correctly).  We arrived at their house in the Markham area of Toronto and were ushered into the immaculate living room. All the available wall space had 'thankas', Tibetan silk painting with embroidery, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, famous scene, or mandala of some sort. The room had a really peaceful atmosphere and I had a yen to just sit there but we were ushered into the kitchen where breakfast was being served. 

A Thanka

Out in the garden, they had hundreds of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. They criss-crossed the whole area from the fence on the left to the fence on the right. They were also bright and new so very colourful and eye-catching. Later on we spoke about them.

I had heard from Jacquie about Tibetan breakfast but was not sure what to expect. What I really appreciated was that Tashi, the husband, took the time to explain each step to me and showed me how to do things. I have been in many situations with foreign customs where the locals don't know or maybe don't care if you understand what's going on and you flounder around trying not to make a complete ass of yourself.  This was the opposite and it made it a lot more fun than I was expecting.  I have often felt tense in these situations in case I do  something unintentionally rude or stupid.  

First they served us 'tsampa', a roasted and ground barley flour.  It looks just like wheat flour in the bag but the taste is something totally unexpected.  The bowl is half filled with tsampa, some dried cheese added and then weak tea is poured on top. You can either mix it all up together to make a thick paste or you can scoop up the tea with a bit of tsampa in each spoonful. I chose to mix it all up and try it that way.  I took my first mouthful and was very pleasantly surprised to discover that, rather than being glutinous like wheat, it was dry and nutty.  The texture was soft but crunchy from the dried cheese, the flavour somehow benign and relaxing.  It reminded me of the feeling of eating porridge, which is always feels gentle and healing.  Other than that, the flavour and texture were not like anything I had eaten before.

The Makings of Tsampa

Tashi was surprised I liked it so much and then he went to the fridge and brought out a dish of some salsa he had made with tomatoes, onions, coriander and very, very spicy dried yellow chillies that he told us were from only one valley somewhere in India.  Not being chicken when it comes to hot and spicy food ( we called it pili-pili growing up, to distinguish from hot heat; our parents both spoke Swahili so that's where that came from!), I took a big spoonful and Tashi showed me how to make balls out of the tsampa and eat it with the salsa.  We used our hands for all of this, of course.  The salsa was seriously pili-pili I can tell you but, wow, what a flavour.  I have noticed that hot chillies tend to do a variety of things in your mouth depending on the type of chilli.  This one even made my gum tingle!  Despite the tingling and my lips almost going numb, I couldn't stop eating it.  It was one of the most delicious things I've eaten in a long time.

On top of that, they served us some of the tofu stew they had had the night before. They were observing a month long vegetarian 'fast' in honour of the Buddha's birthday which, this year, happened to be the day before mine!  The stew was also delicious, not spicy at all but very flavourful.

With the whole meal, we drank Tibetan tea, which my sister tells me one gets used to with time. I think she may be right but I still don't really like it. It's buttery and salty.  An acquired taste. I must say, though, that it completely suited the rest of the meal.
Sitatapatra - The White Umbrella

While we were eating, I asked about the prayer flags in the garden and they told us the story behind these particular ones. I was wondering what the prayer on the flags actually said. It turned out that the prayer covered ten flags before repeating itself. It's called 'Dukgar' in Tibetan or Sitatapatra in Hindi, which means White Umbrella and represents the goddess with the thousand arms and thousand heads with small white umbrella at the top.  The prayer was used by a Lama in Tibet to help create world peace. According to him, it is the only way we will ever have world peace and we need to spread the word by everyone having the prayer flags in their gardens and back yards.  Tashi and Genyen had been at his monastery in Tibet and found him and some other monks laboriously printing the prayer by hand with giant stamps on very low quality material that disintegrated quickly.  Tashi approached the organisation he was working for at the time, A German organisation called The Tara Foundation, about funding the mass printing of the flags.  He laughed when he told us that the Chinese printers in the nearby town was delighted to take on the job and they did an outstanding job of printing literally millions of flags.   On top of that, it turns out that Chinese business people will print anything that they're given very efficiently even if it's totally against Chinese government policy.  One man ended up in jail, finally, after printing thousands upon thousands of copies of Tibetan material that the government deemed seditious.  Tashi's comment was that the Chinese are so industrious that they are happy to create anything and do it very efficiently, if it will make them money. They don't ask questions.  Perhaps they should!

Once they had printed the millions of prayer flags, they were flown to the US and other countries and distributed.  I love this idea. The thought that this wonderful prayer could help change the world by the wind carrying it up to heaven, is simply beautiful.  Tashi and Genyen gave me a set of ten flags to hang in my garden when I get back to Europe. If anyone wants some, let me know.  You could make a donation to the cause and get as many as you want.

We left Tashi and Genyen's house feeling replete but very comfortable. I was dying to write this to tell you all about the flags and world peace.


That night, my sister and my niece, her boyfriend and my nephew were taking me out  for my birthday. We had intended to go to one place on Queen St but ended up at Addis Ababa, an Ethiopian restaurant. I had wanted to eat Ethiopian food since I got here as I have missed it.  The restaurant was expecting a huge group of 40 people so we were put on the stage area at the front and told that a band was arriving at 9pm so we might have to move.

For anyone who hasn't eaten Ethiopian food let me explain a bit about it.  They make a bread called Injera which is made from barley and teff, a grain grown only in certain areas of Ethiopia.  The dough is fermented and then the bread is cooked something like a pancake. The bread is spread out on a big dish and the various recipes you order are laid out on the bread. You use the bread as the utensil to pick up the food.  A lot of Ethiopian food is spicy but not all of it.  The whole meal was delicious.  

At 9pm, we moved to another table and the place was packed to the gills. They then brought us the traditional coffee.  First they arrive with coffee beans roasting on a small tray and they waft it around the table. They disappear off with that and come back later with a pot of coffee made from those beans, some small glasses and sugar and an incense burner with frankincense smoking. The smell of frankincense is, of course, familiar to people who go to Mass or other churches so it gives the whole experience the sense of ritual.  Some people across from us were intensely curious about what was going on and one of them came over to ask what the smell was. It's very enticing. 

A great day with so many culinary experiences. One I won't forget in a long time.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dinner with a Narcissist

Last Saturday, my sister had organised for two pairs of her friends to meet up with the potential to create a new friendship. The other idea was that one of the couples owns a boat and the other couple miss sailing so, all being well, they could sail together.

My sister went all out, buying beautiful fish to grill and making fabulous salads. I helped her by taking loads of broad beans out of their pods, making a roasted yellow and red pepper salad with anchovies and generally being the sous-chef.  We prepared most of it at home and then transported it to her friends' house in downtown Toronto. 

This couple are in their late 60s and quite wealthy. They had spent 15 years living on a yacht sailing in the Mediterranean and were missing sailing now they were back in Toronto.  I had met them briefly at the opera a few weeks earlier and noted that the husband was the sort of man who makes bad jokes when he's uncomfortable.  

We arrived at about 6pm and started to organise the food. I then went out and joined the husband who had made us each a martini (a very good one it was too). It turned out he was a fount of information about the history of Toronto and I really enjoyed learning all of this. I thought it would turn into a lovely evening of good conversation and new friendship.

About 7pm, the other couple arrived.  I'll call them T&M. Immediately, the wife, M, noticed we had had martinis and I thought it was pretty clear that she wanted one too but our host chose not to hear that and served us all a glass of champagne.  Our host had that week had eyelid surgery to correct a problem where his upper lids were starting to droop so much they were obscuring his vision. He looked a bit like he'd been through a few rounds in a boxing ring.  As it happened, the husband, T, is a doctor who works ringside at boxing matches on occasion.  He make a quick joke to our host about his eyes. All seemed well.

We sat down to dinner after crackers and cheese, champagne and get-to-know-you-chat.  All very nice.  Jacquie and our hostess dished up the food while I stayed at the table joining in the conversation.

After a while, it became more and more apparent that our host loved the sound of his own voice and was starting to usurp the conversation and making it all about him and his exploits, experience and knowledge. Indeed, he is knowledgeable and was interesting before the dinner when the drinks had not yet started to flow.  As the dinner wore on, it was getting harder and harder for anyone else to get a word in edgewise.

I was sitting beside T, an older man, clearly warm and thoughtful who exuded a curious sex appeal, despite his bulk.  Our host somehow brought up the subject of a well known impresario in Toronto who, after years of enormous success, had been found to  be a swindler and who had extorted large sums of money from various sources.  Our host had had dealings with him and his business in earlier times when he, our host, had been in investment banking.  He took some pleasure in describing to us how he and his company had taken this extortioner for a financial ride.  At one point in the conversation he referred to this swindler as 'tall'.  Immediately, T&M broke into the conversation to refute that. Being a neophyte in the world of Toronto social life, I  had heard a bit about the swindler from my sister before this dinner. I noticed right away that the way T&M were refuting our hosts statement that the man was 'tall' had an air of insider knowledge.

Eventually, T managed to get a chance to say something and told our host that this swindler had been intimately involved in business with T's father!  At that point, it was clear that our host had trampled on T's sensibilities. Well, it was clear to me, to T, to my sister and to T's wife.  It was not clear to our host and hostess, however, as our host launched into another long story about the swindler and his character while also mentioning a certain cabinet minister by referring to her as 'fat Eleanor'.  At this point, I could feel T bristling beside me.  He sighed, huffed quietly to himself and was clearly about to walk out the door. What stopped him, I don't know.  Politeness, I would imagine.

Eventually, after having to sit through another half an hour of our host's monologue and dismissal of anything T or his wife said, T got up, ostensibly to go to the lavatory and, when he came back out, signaled to his wife that it was time to go.  I could feel their relief.

After their goodbyes, all seemingly amicable to the hosts, our hostess said, while smiling at her husband, that he should have realised when T said that the swindler had been a close friend of his father's, that it was time to shut up.  Our host replied that he felt he could say what he wanted about anything he liked and didn't much care if anyone was bothered by it.  As my sister and I were trying to leave, he started to tell us horrendous Irish jokes, in a Hollywood brogue...

The next day, we called M to see how T had taken the whole thing.  She laughed about it but said that her husband as appalled at out host's lack of sensitivity and his boorishness and it would be a cold day in hell before he would invite the man onto his boat.  Then, it got even funnier. It turned out that 'fat Eleanor' was a relation of Ted's too!  We laughed about it but both my sister and I were disturbed by what had happened.  

Later that day, the hostess came over to pick up some medicine for her husband and we discussed the previous evening as she was leaving. We had both thought that she was coming over to have a debrief about it.  When we told her that 'fat Eleanor' was a relation of T's she laughed about it. She seemed to have very little understanding of the impact her husband had had on poor T and M, let alone me and my sister.  

It was only later, while deconstructing the evening, that it became clear that she had to do that in order to survive living with a consummate narcissist and alcoholic.  I had wondered, at the time, why she had done nothing to stop her husband's headlong assault of his guests.   How she coped living on a yacht with him for 15 years is anyone's guess.

It is clear to me that this man is deeply insecure, despite his intellect and experience.  He makes bad jokes to cover his discomfort and then rules the conversation and doesn't give a damn about anyone else's feelings or opinions.  The classic narcissist.  Very sad really as he has a lot to offer.

Needless to say, T&M won't be seeing them again any time soon.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Growing Old Disgracefully - The Only Way to Live

As many of you know, I am currently in Toronto with my oldest sister, Jacquie. She lives in a nice apartment not far from the centre of the city in an area with lots of restaurants and shops so there's plenty to do.  I have slowly adjusted to life here and the different rhythms, all of which have been immensely good for my general mental and physical well being.

Jacquie and I seem to fit well together - despite having only lived together briefly when I was a child as she left home when I was 9 and had spent much of the previous years at University and working.  We knew we had a lot of common interests and have spent many short stays with each other over the years; when I was living in California I used to come to Toronto fairly often and stay a few days; Jacquie has met up with me in California, New Orleans, Spain and Morocco on occasion and we've always had a great time.

Jacquie, my wonderful sister

We imagined we would work well together in close quarters and, indeed, that's how it's turned out to be. We both have a similar sense of order and similar rhythms with food. We both wanted to lose weight and get more healthy and fit so we eat very carefully and well and we go for long walks in the nearby ravines. We've been to operas and concerts, dinners and explorations, museums and shopping.  We have enjoyed it all together.

We laugh a lot, play Sudoku (although I have to make sure not to leave my Sudoku book in the bathroom as she's quite likely to steal it and finish the one I was working on!), watch First Talk, a TV program made for the aboriginal community in Canada or The National, Canada's main news program.  Jacquie is a news junkie so the radio is on every morning and we can barely speak to each other at breakfast as she is riveted by whatever they're talking about. So I read the Globe and Mail.  I now know more about Canadian politics than I do about Irish politics, something I have to remedy when I get back to Ireland.

On the whole, you can tell, we're very well behaved and responsible people.  Last night I went out to dinner with my niece, Sinead, who treated me to a wonderful all-you-can-eat sushi meal nearby.  We solved all the world's problems and then I walked home to close out my email and head to bed.  Jacquie had gone over to her friend Marie's for dinner.  At midnight, I switched off my light and drifted off to sleep.  I woke up a 1am and saw that the light was still on in the hall, which meant Jacquie wasn't home yet.  Oh well, they must be having a nice time but it is quite late, I thought.  I drifted off again and woke up at 2.30 and she was still not home!  Now, I was getting worried. She and Marie are in their 60s so I was having a hard time imagining them staying up till all hours.  I tried her phone but, as usual, she either did not hear it or the sound was switched off.  I didn't know what to do.  I stayed awake for a while worrying and then decided that I would give a bit more time.  

I woke up again at 4.30am and went to the loo and saw she was home at last so went back to bed and slept in as I had not had a restful night.  In the morning, I could see the funny side.  She was very apologetic but also giggling about a) that I was worrying about her and how nice that was and b) how it was like worrying about a pair of teenagers who had gone out and not said when they'd be home.

Once I got over my worry, I thought how marvelous it was that two women of a certain age, intelligent and full of beans, were staying up till 4am, talking about life, the universe and how to solve the problems of the world, all the time taking small nips of brandy.  It's nice to know you're never too old to stay up late, drinking and talking and generally behaving disgracefully (by some people's measurements anyway!).  

We had a great laugh over the whole thing and now I know, if she's not home by 4am, not to worry.  She said she's hoping she's still doing it in her 80s.  Right on,sister!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Maya, Maya and Warriors

Yesterday, I was trawling around the web, doing some research on my father for my memoir, Silence and the Black Wolf. I thought I might find something interesting someone had said about him.  Mostly, I found what I always find, site after site with listings of his mostly out of print books.  I decided to go a little further on Google and go past the 2nd or 3rd page of the search.  It was worth the effort.

I found Maya Alexandri. I saw my father's name mentioned in the search blurb and wondered who she might be.  What I discovered, on her blog, was that she has written not one, but two pieces about my father's book, Warriors

Maya Alexandri

Warriors was originally part of a bigger book called Warriors and Strangers. One part was about his time in Somalia in WWII and the other part about going back to Kenya after many years away.  After his death, it was re-published but only with the section about Somalia. 

Gerald Hanley drawn by John Huston, dedicated to my twin, Una

I read the blog post with great interest.  It was well thought through and well written. The gist of it was that whenever she reads books that describe fascinating but awful places, she immediately wants to go there.  Indeed, Warriors describes Somalia after the British had taken over from the Italians. It was not a place anyone would want to be. His descriptions of the privations they suffered; not getting their rations, cigarettes, alcohol and food for weeks on end and how that affected the 'askaris'.  He describes an almost mutiny when they don't get their monthly ghee ration.  During the time he was there, 7 of his fellow officers committed suicide.  That said, his description of the place, the people, the suffering, the grandeur is riveting. 

Warriors is also a book about colonialism and the paternalistic attitude of the coloniser towards the colonised. It is a damning indictment of what colonialism has done in Africa.  If anyone wants to know why Somalia is in the state it's in now, read Warriors.  In fact, it should be mandatory reading for anyone thinking of invading another country.( You know who you are!)

I wrote to Maya.  First of all, her name is Maya. That caught my attention. Then, her surname is Alexandri.  All you have to do is add and 'a' to the end and you have the city of my grandmother's birth.  She's a writer, someone who gave up a law career to pursue her dreams. When I wrote to her, I thought she was in Beijing.  This morning I got an email response from her.  You'll never guess where she is now, writing another book.  Kenya.  The coincidences are piling up here.

My mother was born and raised in Nairobi. She lived there till she was 36. My father spent from 1934 to the outbreak of WWII there and was then posted to Somalia and later to Burma.  My two sisters lived there till they were 10 and 12.  My father has written several books about Kenya, novels mostly.

I love synchronicity like this.   I sat here this morning wondering what it might mean. I am pretty sure it does mean something but I don't know what.  Why has my path crossed hers?  Why has she written two pieces on Warriors?  Two very thoughtful pieces.  Here they are:

Ready for the Shovel  and Of Wisdom and Imperial Ambivalence

I have not gone any further into her site yet but it looks like she's written about a lot of authors.  Her own novels have not been published yet, despite DM Thomas personally helping her with her first one.  

More and more, events and research are leading me back to Kenya.  It's highly likely that Maya and I might meet there next year.  Wouldn't that be interesting?


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