Saturday, December 22, 2012

Raising Maudie

I made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t produce as much felt this year – that I’d focus on raising Maudie, particularly when Coda was killed one morning while I was focused on my stuff in the studio. We’d had Coda for a little over a month and I had ‘shared’ responsibilities for her with P, my partner.  Actually, P took the greater part of it: feeding her, walking her, teaching her ‘tricks’ such as how to use a bell to tell us she needed to go outside to toilet, teaching her how to ‘go to her room’.  Coda was a runner.  She’d had a traumatic beginning locked up in a small apartment while her ‘parent’ was at work; and she’d more than likely been physically abused.

A dog needs attention – time spent playing, as well as the discipline of walking and the quieter moments to chill out.  It’d been a while since I had a dog and dogs had become my shadow animal – terrorized in dreams by Cerberus.  I had become fearful of dogs and found myself crossing to the other side of the road to avoid encountering a dog, even if that dog was pint size.  Coda was different.  It was love at first sight when we were introduced.  I thought her sweet natured.  She was – but perhaps she’d had the aggression beaten out of her.
First days at home, finding comfort in the cat's cubby
She was like a big rat when we first got her
First lesson, 'Watch' Maudie
I've got her on such a short lead
First graduation from beginner's class
First Road Trip
From the moment we brought Maudie home at six weeks of age, she was bossing me around.  At three months, she wouldn’t accept discipline from me.  She’d growl and bark.  She saw herself as above me in the hierarchy of the pack and I’d given her cause for that.  We have a tendency to anthropomorphize animals and attribute to them human qualities.  I have learned in the past twelve months to think more like a canine and to assume the leadership that Maudie as a young pup deserved from me. When she jumped up on me – it wasn’t to look soulfully into my eyes - or perhaps it was to see me at eye level – and to assert her dominance.  Jumping was accompanied by growling and barking.  She reduced me to tears. I read and watched tutorials on how to handle aggression in dogs and tried to change my attitude and being with her.  I took responsibility for her feeding and handling. We enrolled in Dog School for training.  When I thought I could take a back seat – I was now the main driver.  
Having my morning coffee as Maudie joins me on the couch

Having a puppy was not a joy – as a few friends continually reminded me.  The bond required work and time, as well as patience. Choices – to spend time with her – not only disciplining her but playing and having fun. I was unable to hold her on a lead when she got excited by the sight or smell of another dog, or the sighting of a bird or another human being. It’s a mind game.  It requires assertiveness and confidence on my part to think and feel that I can do this – that if she remains calm, it’s because I have the assertiveness to be her leader. However, when it comes to holding her when she’s excited – I’m still failing.  

I find it intriguing that having a dog is teaching me about how I am in the world and in my relationships. I’m neither a leader, nor a follower.  What I am is someone who has chosen to march to the rhythm of her own beat – and as an adult I haven’t had to bring up a child or a pet.  I preferred to have a pet rock to a relationship.  Of course people who knew about my pet rock thought I needed sympathy or therapy – but I chose a way of life that didn’t require much from me, and where I wasn’t required to have much responsibility for others.  I could lie in bed and write – and more recently I could spend time producing felt.  A pet rock is perfect for someone self absorbed like me. I thought with Maudie, as with Coda, that I could sit back and enjoy an occasional cuddle without putting in the time, without taking any responsibilities for her development.  But to survive in this pack or family requires living differently. As with any other relationship, I needed to put my weight into the relationship with Maudie.

With the onset of Winter, when P decided he needed a few days away to get some sun and see a football game, it meant Maudie would be all mine for those few days. I was anxious about how I’d cope if she jumped or growled, or if she started bullying Jose the cat.  She’s not so cute baring her brilliant large canine teeth.  Surprisingly rising to the task I was able to be the strong leader (not as strong as P) but strong enough, none the less.  I made time for walks, throwing a ball around, for training and learning tricks. I also decided I needed a 'Gentle Leader' collar for our walks, as she pulled too much and it made walking with her exhausting and not much fun for me.

Then there’s Dog School every Sunday morning, come rain or shine.  Maudie and I have passed Class 2 and are in Class 3 working towards off lead and agility training. I would even like us to do ‘dancing with dogs’ if she shows an aptitude for it, as I can’t get P to go dancing with me. Surprising the twists life can take.  A year ago I never would have imagined myself at a place where there’d be over a hundred dogs training or socializing. 

What’s suffered is my creative life – but isn’t that the case for any creative woman who makes the choice of raising children.  At the risk of offending those with children, raising a dog is no different. Unlike a child you can tie a dog up, put her in her crate, or put her in dog care, but that’s not growing a relationship or trust.  Keeping up with a puppy requires twenty times more energy than keeping up with a toddler child; and puppies can be more destructive when they don’t get the fun and stimulation they need. Nearing Spring I thought Maudie had become more trustworthy.  I could leave her for short periods of time without supervision, and she would take herself off to bed, or amuse herself with her toys. Jose had taken up residence with its actual ‘mum’ and he wasn’t around for Maudie to hassle to play when all he wanted to do was sleep.   I took up a little sewing, within earshot or sight of Maudie. Then one day I let her outdoors with a treat but forgot about her when I became engrossed in the task I had  – then thought she was awfully quiet and must be up to no good.  I was right… she was ‘playing’ with one of the chickens that had flown out of its run.  The chicken had to be killed because it had sustained several wounds and its gizzards were exposed. 
She can now sleep on the couch in my studio without running off with my roving, prefelts or plastic

Recently celebrating her first birthday with carrot and peanut butter cupcakes

More recently I have begun to spend time in the studio and Maudie will wander in and if she behaves, has been allowed to stay.  So she may become a studio dog after all. A creative woman's dog.

Now she's becoming a joy to know and have as a pet and companion. P has rigged up a backyard 'agility' course, and we can both take the opportunity to practice with Maudie during the break from school over the holidays, while she also has some exercise and fun.  With the days hotting up, the pavements and streets are too hot for Maudie's pads and our walking jaunts have been curtailed.
P leading Maudie into the Zig-Zag

Of course I crave the times when I used to only have a pet rock.  It demanded less of me as a person and I could lie in bed and indulge my whims like Proust.  But that's not what becoming a person is about, and a dog can certainly add to our lessons about that...

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Naturally dyed for Nuno felt, with Jude Craig

Jude, while not a felt maker generously allowed me to experiment with my felted samples. Prior to the workshop I worked over a couple of weeks to make my Nuno felt samples and mordant the ones done on cotton.  I was mindful of not making them too large and hogging up the dye pots. 

On the morning of the workshop, I arrived at Jude’s studio, which is only about ten minutes away from my house, with around 16 pieces, including three scarf lengths, as well as an old t-shirt to over-dye; and my favourite pieces of found scrap metal from my backyard.  I’d made some extra Nuno felt pieces for other participants Bernadette and Helen to also have a go with, if they so desired, as sharing of materials is encouraged by Jude.

We started with the wonderful aromatics of the eucalyptus bath and after lunch, the more stinky purple cabbage; as well as the pungent brown onion, after I made a request for it. I was keen to try out the eucalyptus on my Nuno samples done with cotton muslin and gauze as carriers, as I prefer working with cotton.  I’ve not had great success with Nuno felt and the eucalyptus bath in the past because of my tendency to use cotton as a carrier. But I have to also add I haven't done a great deal of experimenting. 

The eucalyptus dye pot, with some of my bundles resting outside
Nuno on cotton muslin, on left was mordanted with alum and citric acid, on right mordanted with soy. No metal was introduced with the bundle on left.  Both were popped in the euca bath.  Cured for 21 days
I had intended to take all my bundles home and allow them to rest for up to three weeks before opening.  I'm not very patient with the waiting aspect and find myself prodding and poking and willing to see what is happening within the folds of the bundles, until I can no longer withstand it and have to open and satisfy my curiosity.  Over the three weeks since the workshop, I have opened the bundles and not only been thrilled but also dismayed at the results.  However, the one thing with this natural process is that if you’re not happy you can always over-dye.    

Both samples are felted on silk carrier, the top was placed in an onion dye bath while the bottom went into the purple cabbage bath.  The onion sample was opened at the workshop, as I had used one of Jude's lovely copper scrap pieces.  I took the sample home and over-dyed by steaming, as there wasn't a leaf print to be seen.  The copper, however, had left a nice patina to the fabric

Nuno on silk, cabbage dye, left lovely blues at the edges where I had used a rusty clamp but centre of sample full of white patches

Nuno felted with merino on cotton gauze, mordanted with soy, no metal introduced into the bundle, euca bath, cured for 7 days
Nuno on cotton muslin, mordanted with alum and citric acid,  small pieces of metal used as resists, euca bath, cured for 18 days. There were a couple of white patches although the cinerea leaf left a bright orange print.  This one has been wrapped again with leaves and steamed

My favourite piece, nuno felt on cotton muslin using merino and merino silk blend, mordanted with soy, wrapped around a rusty piece of metal, euca bath, cured for 14 days. Jude had the water of the bath barely at a simmer and the bundles were allowed to seep more so than simmer  

Three small scarves, all with cotton as carrier.  On the far left I used merino as well as adding a little silk embellishment, at centre merino silk (70%) blend roving along with pure merino was felted, and at far right no silk was felted with the merino into the cotton. Although wool is said to have a natural love affair and marriage with eucalyptus leaves, I find this not wholly true, as it seems for Nuno felted on cotton, it helps to have the silk.  The centre piece yields a much lovelier sheen because of the high silk content and perhaps the scrap metal has worked a bit of magic as well 

What I have learned
Tight bundling, as well as sandwiching two pieces doesn’t work because the dye can’t penetrate between the layers. So keep your Nuno bundles loose, unless you’re steaming and desire only the leaf prints.  Jude is adamant that the introduction of metal will make for a more alchemical effect, which I have to admit is true, when I compare those pieces where I have incorporated metals to those where I haven’t.  Allow your bundle to seep slowly in the bath after simmering. This is really important for the thick layers of felt, or even for the thinner layers of Nuno. 

Soy mordant is excellent for both the cotton carrier and the silk content of my merino/silk blend roving, and it allows for a deeper take up of colour. I also tried a mixture of alum and citric acid (as suggested by Fabienne Dorsman-Rey) but think the soy superior. Fabienne told me that alum would increase the likelihood of yellows and I would lose the vivid orange of the leaves, but I didn't find this to be the case. Or perhaps it was beginner's luck. While the cabbage dye bath yields some stunning effects on silks (see Not Just Nat), for Nuno felt – even that done on silk Georgette or China silk, I found cabbage rather insipid. 

Those cabbage dyed samples wrapped again for steaming

Jude, opening her lovely silk bundles
T-shirt, onion bath, small pieces of metal used as resists were wrapped into the shirt. This may find its way into the steamer again

Detail of t-shirt

Needless to say, I enjoyed the opportunity to experiment with different dye baths without having to mess around with the brewing myself (and the yakking with the others).  As well, I was thankful for the warmth and generosity with which Jude opened her studio and shared her fantastic scrap metal collection, her collection of recyclable silk and cotton clothing from Op shops, and her knowledge on the 'naturally dyed'. Jude said something which struck me as sound when I asked her whether she'd tried the alternate soy and ash water mordanting for cottons - that she kept her method and aesthetic 'simple'. She had found what worked for silk - tight bundling and the inclusion of metal. The challenge for me is to find what works for Nuno felted on cotton gauze and cotton muslin, and as Jude, to keep the working process simple. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Boho Dress and the Handmade Pledge

By the time I’d searched for the dress pattern, bought it, as well as the fabric, sewed it and then dyed it, I realized that the ‘handmade’ cotton dress listing on Etsy was not so outrageously priced after all. When you hand make, it is slow, involved and takes time, and sometimes as you work, the idea, as well as the work changes. So of course for the truly handmade product, the price is justified even if at first it seems a little high. This experience with the handmade dress brings me to handmade felt and something which has been playing on my mind for some time.
As you can see my Boho dress still requires finishing and adding buttons

Dyed with eucalyptus leaves, onion skins and rust. This dress is made of cotton with silk used for the mandarin collar, front opening, sleeves and hem edges.

I make slow felt, which is what makes my partner say that I’ll never make money, because I can’t produce it fast enough. He has come up with all sorts of ingenious ideas (on paper) to speed up my felt making – including an agitating table; and has been perplexed and frustrated when I haven't enthused over his ideas.  Now if you speed up your felt in the dryer or washing machine don’t call it handmade, because I am the one who makes the handmade felt, and who needs to put in the hours on 50,000 rolls or whatever it takes to get a well-made felt cloth and garment. I recall throwing a beautiful worsted wool jumper into the washer on a non-wool wash cycle to save water and ending up with a matted shrunken ‘thing’ that wouldn’t even fit a doll. I wouldn’t pay for this machine matted process, and yet this is what some felt makers are doing and calling it ‘handmade’. What this accelerated process does is enable the producer to produce lots and at a lower price.  Now given ‘handmade’ felt, which has not been hand made at all (but machine assisted felted) has a lower price, the consumer won’t know what makes my sort of slow felt priced twice or three times as much. I’m not suggesting that the maker stop throwing it in the dryer or washer – just don’t call it handmade.

In the 19th century when the Jacquard loom was introduced to weaving it made the hand woven cottage industry for ‘paisley’ obsolete.  These weavers from the town called Paisley who worked the hand looms earned quite a good wage for their skill but most of them ended up in the poor house because of the automation introduced by the machine.  The market was flooded by the cheap paisley shawl (never mind that the Paisley was an ‘imitation’ of the Asian kind) and the cottage industry went bust.  I wouldn’t like to see handmade felt go the same way because some producers are flooding the handmade market with their fast and cheap products…

What is it about our society that promotes the fast – the fast food, the fast clothes, the fast buck, the fast car, the fast girl or boy, the fast path going to nowhere? Few of us appreciate the slow, the arduous, the deep and complex.  Or could it be that I’m a person who likes to make it harder on herself? I cried when I ruined that jumper and I would cry to have to throw my felt into the washing machine. And I'm not going to.
Dawn Edwards and me modelling my genuinely handmade jackets

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In search of lost time in dress patterns

It occurred not as elegantly as Proust’s experience with the madeleine and a cup of tea and, because of an overpriced dress on Etsy.  It was gorgeous and desirable but so costly – and for vintage cotton!  I couldn’t pay that price or allow anyone else to pay it for me, so I would make something similar. While searching for a 70s pattern on the internet, I shockingly came across various patterns that I’d made as a young girl – and was plunged into nostalgia for the lost time and a few of those wonderful creations.  It seemed that one minute I had been in my teens and eager to 'grow up' and experience the perks that came with adulthood, such as driving and voting, and the next - well middle aged...  

During my teens, there were a lot of parties – and always another dress to make…my couturier attempts began with two years of mandatory sewing at secondary school, which I dropped as soon as I was able. I was the one usually having to unpick because my stitching was crooked and I found neither the projects nor the teacher inspiring.  There was an oven mitt that we had to quilt and embroider; a nightdress that included pin-tucks, lace and French seams – the materials all stored in a cardboard valise and kept in the class storeroom until the following week’s lesson. It was with delight, and without a second thought that I gave up the classes.

Jill, a school friend got me started on my own efforts through her intrepid adventures with the sewing machine.  I suppose one would call it ‘copying’ while another ‘inspiration’.  There was a full circle skirt in seersucker cotton and a lesson to choose one’s fabric carefully or at least read the pattern pocket instructions, as it was striped and thus the stripes were horizontal on the front but diagonal on the back of the skirt and not matching when made. A flared gored skirt in blue paisley followed, that was lovely but I hadn’t learned about interfacing and so the waistband was too bulky rather than stiff, as I had used the fabric as interfacing. I was learning and sewing on my father’s Singer treadle.  He was the one who sewed in the family, having been trained as a tailor.  I used pinking shears instead of over-locking.  Of course, swept in the current of my creations and the fun, I never stopped to consider that my dressing style and making my own clothes may have been considered uncool.

1975 -  Marlo Thomas was That Girl whom I'm sure I was trying not to be - her litheness and long flowing hair were definitely not me...Made in stretch jersey with an all over small floral motif and without the proper interfacing the seams around the décolletage kept unfurling to the right side of the fabric rather than sitting flat, which I found annoying. Perhaps it also had something to do with not having breasts to fill out the bodice. I was late to the school friend’s party, having arrived with Jill, whose dad had driven us. Unfortunately, Jill taught me about something else: ‘self-consciousness’ – an annoying habit of watching one’s self through another’s/ the other’s eyes. Self-consciousness almost killed me, as much as the petticoat, which kept sneaking past my dress length and made me feel dowdy.  I had never been kissed.   A year later although not yet seventeen, I would learn 'the truth' from boring Janis Ian that 'love was made for beauty queens' and girls like me would probably never be kissed.  However, my days were still innocently tempered by Sherbet's hit 'Summer Love', which promised that when the sun shone 'life was easy' and we could 'bye bye troubles goodbye'...  

1976 –  Kissing and finding love, was furthest from my mind, when one had ABBA and could dance the night and one’s teenage troubles away…There was, however, one form party for which Jill’s parents kindly loaned their garage, where the game of spinning the bottle found me left with Greg in the dark and his suggestion to noisily and simultaneously blow an air kiss at each other and pretend rather than do the actual dirty deed.  Much too much direction from the form teacher Mr Campbell to play silly games, and who also got us to write out those prying class assignments that made us think too much about ourselves rather than our grammar. Obviously what was missing was the marvelous disco ball…I threw caution to the wind and made myself a black uncut corduroy pant suit, with my initials embroidered in gold thread (kindly by my mother) on the front of the tunic in Laverne style, although it was Agnetha's style that I envied and tried to copy. ABBA's Arrival album cover also prompted many projects searching for the ideal jumpsuit.   

Tout les garcons et des filles de mon age was Francoise Hardy’s 1962 hit… Same theme of loner/when will I find me someone to love, in another langue sung with a group of French students, mostly whom were Mauritian like me, at the school’s Speech night.  My red gingham dress with its lace trimmings lent a French ‘accent’ though probably more appropriate for a table top dressing than a stage performance.  Our group's contribution rather summed up our French lessons – for the most part spent singing out of date pop songs rather than learning our conjugations. What could one expect from a Pommy teacher trying to teach French? 'Here's to you Mrs Robinson your students loved you more than you will know hey hey hey'... 

1977 – The school skirt/uniform rebellion.  Dumping the scratchy wool skirt I made a pinafore in heavy grey cotton broadcloth.  Wearing it underneath my jumper and blazer I didn't ruffle the principal's authoritarian feathers even though it was obvious it was not the pleated pin-striped school skirt. The school uniform rules were somewhat relaxed by then.  We’d even experimented with ‘free dress’ code one or two years prior.  But the following year, while donned in beige flares, and with the boy’s white shirt hanging out of my trousers and past my blazer, the royal blue and yellow striped tie knotted loosely around my neck peeking out underneath the boy's V-neck jumper (the shirt, tie and jumper I'd happily appropriated from my brother as he had left school), I was bailed up in the corridor by a teacher and accused of wearing ‘Annie Hall version of the school uniform’, and as prefect setting a bad example for the younger students. I shrugged and pleaded not guilty Mam as...I hadn't even seen the whiny albeit critically acclaimed Woody Allen film...but when I did, I had to admit the teacher had been right. Rejecting Diane Keaton's long flowing fair hair for a medium fro, I was setting the trend or at the very least on par with a trend setter...

1978 – The pant-suit in stretch jersey for my 18th birthday party.   Dubbed the party of the year by Jill, it was multi-generational, including parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, great aunts and uncles, school friends and teachers.  Under the disco lights in my pink pant-suit with hand sewn sequins and a band-aid on my arm (hiding a TB vaccine) for the first time I was centre stage (though not, as I shared the birthday with my uncle).  While I didn’t leave the dance floor, rumour had it that my brother spent the whole time making out with my friends outside. Though John Paul Young sang of love being in the air – I didn’t get to breathe any of it  (while my brother must have been greedily sucking it all in). Unperturbed, I fantasied of skipping barefoot and making cartwheels on the moors along with Kate Bush, as her alter ego Cathy deliriously sang her way towards Wuthering Heights and the arms of Heathcliffe. Love, as Emily Bronte would have us believe was only possible for the passionate protagonists in the realm of the supernatural.  My possible fate suggested by others in the school's year book: 'pavement artist'. I must say - that though I don't make use of the pastels or the pavements for drawing - one can describe my contemporary dress style as bohemian bag-lady.  

In search of lost time, I've realised what a marvelous friend I had in Jill - that girl who had the gall to tell me once that she became friends with me on that first day of secondary school only because I could read the time table.  Although we had our ups and downs during school (and after we left school) she was there to discuss music videos from Countdown and swap albums, and I gladly followed her home on those hot and restless afternoons that we wagged Economics classes. Along with her dad and later her boyfriend, she enabled me to be chauffeured to parties. More significantly, she inspired my girlish and seminal efforts in dress making, as well as, my self-expression through clothes. Wherever you are Jill - my heartfelt gratitude...

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Taking to the bed, and with Chocolate

Laid up with flu, I read Chocolat by Joanne Harris.  Years ago I saw the film and enjoyed it, so I was reluctant to pick up the book – and as expected the book and film are quite different entities.

The book opens with Vianne Rocher and her young daughter arriving in a small French village called Lansquenet-sous-Tannes on Shrove Tuesday, just as the carnival packs up and Lent begins.  Vianne decides to move into an old bakery facing the church and convert it into the chocolate shop, La Celeste Praline, much to the disapproval of the curé Francis Reynaud.  Harris has said that she wanted to write a book about the conflict between indulgence and guilt (during Easter), with chocolate as the central metaphor. Narrated in two voices (Vianne and Reynaud) we get the sense of the opposing forces (and they are conveniently located opposite each other in town), of good and evil, light and dark, Christian and Pagan, and sometimes these two can flow into one another, just as we can momentarily forget who is narrating.  Reynaud addresses himself to his mentor-priest Père (who could also be God the father - a non intervening, non interacting presence) who lies as a vegetable after a stroke; whereas Vianne often reflects on life on the road with her Pagan magician, tarot reading mother, who seemed towards her end travelling to escape the cancer ridding her body before death caught up with her, and as if chased. It would be too simple a reading to say one was good and the other bad - as both characters have their faults and their redeeming qualities. They are but different sides of our own nature.  I know the ascetic priest within me that tries to curb the wicked excesses and hedonism of the Pagan witch. He will make sure I feel guilty for even thinking of having that piece of chocolate, or leaving home gaudily dressed from head to toe in orange, when I could have chosen sombre chic black.
The book is filled with references to people drinking chocolate laced with liqueurs or chocolate ‘espressos’ accompanied by chocolate goodies, such as Florentines, or pain au chocolat.

My mouth watered, as much as the mouth of Reynaud, who is fasting for Lent and who increasingly feels himself faint and euphoric, simply on the pungent scent of chocolate emanating from the chocolate shop. Reynaud preaches to members of his flock to abstain from chocolate and views Vianne, as close to the devil – certainly his adversary.  He is the Black Man – a symbol of the grim reaper to Vianne, who teases him with her carefree mores and hedonistic attitude towards life. Certainly chocolate can be a sinful pleasure – aphrodisiac, it can lead us towards social and sexual abandon and wantonness.  Vianne has sex with Roux a gypsy, even though she knows he has feelings for another, and that it is a one night stand. From this one night stand, she’ll beget a child; her first child was also begot in a similar way.  But she’ll know the second child’s seed came from a good man – whereas the first, she couldn’t say who the father was. The climax is the Easter Sunday chocolate festival for which Vianne has prepared a sumptuously decorative ‘window’ which Reynaud decides to sabotage, with startling and wickedly funny consequences.  

The linking of chocolate with sin or with self-abandonment and excess is intriguing.  Do we let ourselves go – indulging in chocolate, or anything else to delight the senses?  We have as a society made it OK to indulge in chocolate by associating it with good health (a little dark chocolate because of its high level of antioxidants, just as a glass of wine is good for our health and helps with lowering blood pressure and cholesterol – note a little).  The villagers of Lasquenet indulge in more than a little. With a gourmet artisan chocolate shop in their vicinity they become gourmands.  Armande, who is losing her sight because of a complication with diabetes – decides rather than languish in the nursing home, she will go out in style with a party and an excess of good food, wine and chocolate.  'After a five-course banquet you'd want coffee and liquers, wouldn't you? You wouldn't suddenly decide to round it all off with a bowl of pap, would you? Just so you could have an extra course? (p.241)'. Reynaud who has put his body and soul through austerities for Lent, begins by tasting one chocolate and finds he can’t stop without tasting all. He ends up to his shame, stuffing himself with chocolate.  It is perhaps a lesson to those of us who do try and deny our bodily desires, when a little indulgence would have made the pangs of lust go away.

Does chocolate bring us happiness? Science/ medicine/ Harris' novel would tell us – indeed it does.  As well as tasting good in our mouths, chocolate stimulates endorphin production which gives us a feeling of pleasure; it contains serotonin, which acts as an anti-depressant; and, as well, it contains theobromine, caffeine and other substances, which are stimulants.  Chocolate can certainly make us feel more alive.  
Despite the dulling of my taste buds with flu, I drank several cups of hot chocolate; made a self-saucing chocolate pudding to appease my growing lust for chocolate, and I can also say that it made me more wanton – in taking to the bed.  Taking to the bed used to be a remedy for all sorts of ailments for the Irish, and according to Brian Doyle it is even a ‘refuge’ from the Black Dog and heartache. I used to take to the bed to write, to draw, make collage, and of course to read, without any sort of ailment prompting me, except of course, laziness.   Having been laid up for the odd day here or there recently, it’s certainly reminded me of the benefits to be had from taking to the bed – to read about chocolate, to eat it and to allow myself to be wanton. I may take to the bed more often regardless of being ill or no. And just to make sure that I do – I bought myself a new pair of pyjamas – while in lying in bed with my laptop. Oh such wantonness...

For those feeling the mouth watering reading about chocolate, here is my favourite and less rich (for those treading carefully rather than wantonly) recipe for Chocolate Self Saucing Pudding adapted from Cookery the Australian Way (2nd ed., 1974, MacMillan, South Melbourne). It is easy and you can whip it up in no time at all.

1/2 cup of caster sugar
60g of unsalted butter
1 cup of self raising flour, 1 tablespoon of dark cocoa powder, sifted together
1 egg
1/2 cup of milk
For the sauce - 1 cup loosely packed brown sugar, 2 tablespoons of dark cocoa powder and 2 & 1/2 cups of boiling water
Cream butter and sugar, add egg and beat well.  Add the flour and milk alternately with a metal spoon until well blended. Pour into a large well greased casserole dish (use a large dish to allow for the cake to rise, otherwise the sauce will overflow and make a mess in the oven).  Mix sugar and cocoa powder - sprinkle over cake batter.  Carefully pour boiling water over the top.  Bake in a moderately hot (around 190 degrees Celsius) for approximately 45 minutes, or until skewer comes out clean.  Serve with custard sauce or ice-cream or both. Bon appetit

Joanne Harris,  2000, Chocolat, (Black Swan, London).
Joanne Harris talks about her book in the following article
Brian Doyle on 'Taking to the Bed',
For the benefits of dark chocolate,

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

30 Centimetres of Water…accustoming to bathing…


...Bored...the water weighs or the heat; ennui suffocates.  The stagnant water, as Bachelard noted leads to reveries of death. Water Opheliarized – but my hair is swept up in a bun and the water I soak in is not a river.  The Pre-Raphelite painter John Everatt Millais posed his model Lizzie Siddall in the bath while he painted the subject of the drowned Ophelia floating downstream.  Siddall became ill with pneumonia after the lamps used to heat the water went out and yet she did not complain of the icy water.  The painter was engrossed in painting and didn't notice. The narrow passage in which Ophelia's body lies still evokes a bath despite the nature setting. 

Perhaps because of thoughts of dead Ophelia and passive Lizzie, I don't like this island on its back trying to float in 30 centimetres of water.  An aversion to water has stopped me from learning to swim.  Can't float, as though I have ballast in my buttocks.  Also, in/during a bath, one encounters one's Self – or at the very least, one’s body in all its imperfections.  There are no suds as the water seeps with Epsom salts, and I added another kind of salts, which tinges it green.  I can barely keep awake.

Running water in the shower invigorates, makes the right brain,  the creative brain tick over.  Poems appear, or that elusive word that I may have been trying to think of earlier in the day.  I know exactly how to cut a pattern or sew a seam...but this still bath water weighs.  I understand how one can drown in 30 centimetres of water, or even less; and how it occured to a painter to use a bath for the setting of a drowning.



I try to read so that I can extend my time in the bath - perhaps also to forget about the body soaking in the green liquid.  The sound of the TV pulses from the other room.  A fan circulates air.  I could be in a bubble.  I'm reminded of the tisane baths that Garcia Marquez's characters take. This is my tisane bath to remedy leg cramps and improve my circulation.

There is also Jacques Louis David's painting of the Death of Marat (1793) which pops into my head.  Jean-Paul Marat, who ailed from some skin disorder that made it more comfortable to be in water, improvised a desk and did most of his writing there.  It was his office. He was murdered in his tub while writing, by a member of the aristocracy during the reign of terror in France. The painting by David became one of the greatest political icons of the revolution.  It was subsequently simulated on the album cover of rock band Cold Chisel’s East released in 1980, with Jimmy Barnes in the role of dead Marat (replete with makeshift desk and writing materials).  The cover turned me onto Cold Chisel’s music when I accidentally found it in my brother's collection of LPs. Of course, Barnes doesn't look murdered at all - rather passed out drunk from cheap wine and has a three day growth.

Things not all together pleasant can happen in the bath. A toe may get stuck in the plughole, or a finger in a tap. Whitney Houston recently died in the tub. After my first night in the tub, I felt so sleepy, I could barely make it upstairs to the bedroom. I find a bath, an unpleasant experience...


Tonight as I was filling the tub, Maudie puppy dog walked into the bathroom.  I ushered her out quickly before she had time to pull the toilet paper to shreds.  Outside I told her - 'go do pee'...A few minutes later she came in wet and dragged her wet body through the house.  The water running into the tub may have suggested to her that she take a quick soak in the pond.   A labrador, she has none of my aversion for water.  My bath was several degrees cooler by the time I'd dried Maudie and fiddled with the incense burner.  I eliminated the green salts.  I would be naked with myself tonight. I'm more at ease with the island on its back.  Steam rises from the water but it feels cool around my body.  The ylang ylang essential oil I have burning fills my nostrils with its sensuousness.  It's supposed to have aphrodisiac properties but I don't feel sexy in the bath.  I'm not sure what I'm supposed to 'do' in a bath. As a person, I’m wired to 'do' rather than 'be'.  A bath is an invitation to be. 'Being' gives me a headache - rather like the times I've attempted mindfulness meditation and ended up with headaches. I grow impatient with this ‘soaking’ indulgence and find I’m eager to get out. 

Three days without a bath…I’d rather watch a film and there have been visitors to entertain. No time for soaking and ‘being’ in the bath.  My toes begin to cramp.


I take a book which I read sitting on the edge of the tub as the bath fills.  A sense of anticipation grows.  But I need to soak slowly, gently accustoming my body to the sensation of water.  Feet first.  Then, I squat and introduce my buttocks, before I’m able to submerge my legs and lie back. My body causes the water to sway and tip over – I have overfilled the bath. I groan at the size of the tub as I’m rarely ever able to find a tub that allows me to submerge my whole body.  But perhaps that’s a good thing…

There’s a leak from the shower rose above my feet and I watch the plops which are not uninteresting.  Well what else is there to find interesting in a bath unless I'm dreaming?  Steam rises and fogs the mirrors.

I go into free association, the thoughts tumbling in and out.  The book, which I can’t bear to open now because I have inserted pages of emails from a friend. There are also a couple of cards that I've used as page markers.  All make the book more precious. I don’t want my emails and cards falling into the bath water.  The ducted heating kicks in and reminds me of the felt scarf I have hanging in the drying closet, and the other projects mentally queued for playing or execution. I can’t seem to get to felting lately…

The plops of water at my feet draw my attention again.  I wonder whether I can reach the tap handle with my toe and turn it off.  I’m surprised when I reach up and manage it…It causes a group splurge of droplets.  They sputter from the rose and delight.  Suddenly I feel like a child and the heavy body no longer drags.  I’m flooded with a memory of sharing baths with my brother as a 6 year old.  (Perhaps a bath can be more pleasant when one shares it and has rubber toys with which to play though I can't remember that we had toys.) The heating shuts down and the blast of the football commentary on the TV in the lounge assaults my senses. 

The water feels heavy around my chest again and the hypochondriac in me thinks of heart disease.  Finally when I can no longer stand the weight of water, I lift myself out and pull the plug – and watch the little twister in the plug hole as I dry myself.  There’s a Simpson’s episode where Bart rings someone in Australia to see which way the water flushes in the toilet bowl. It’s supposed to be counter-clockwise in the southern hemisphere but I can’t really make out which way the water spins.  I stare for the longest time at this vortex of water spinning in the plughole. 

Taking a bath makes my body ‘flush’ hot and this may be what actually combats the cramping.  I perspire so profusely for the next hour that I’m unable to slip into my PJs.  Bathing has me going to bed naked.


Lunch, with a woman whose husband has renovated her bathroom and installed a spa bath – customized to her body.  She describes how she’s able to spend hours in the bath.  She takes in ‘nourishment’ such as ‘bubbles’ (champagne) and dumplings.  She indulges in books.  But bad things can happen in the bath, I say limply. 
I’m encouraged to change my attitude towards bathing.  I’ll challenge myself to enjoy taking a bath. I may even start to take in writing materials...

Friday, April 20, 2012

Happy in my own backyard

Heinrich Zimmer uncovered a story from the Khassidischen Bucher of Martin Buber, which seems to represent the "archetypal" reason for travelling. The story is about a rabbi called Eisik who resides in Cracow, and who has a recurring dream of a voice telling him to travel to Prague to look for a treasure under the bridge of a castle.  After the dream is repeated three times, the rabbi decides to listen to the inner voice and make the journey.  When Eisik arrives in Prague, he finds the castle guarded and dares not approach.  Instead he loiters until he attracts the attention of the captain of the guards, who asks him, and not unkindly, what he is doing there.  The rabbi tells him of the dream and of the voice that prompted his adventure.  The guard laughs and tells him about his own inner voice in a dream, which had told him to travel to Cracow to find the house of a rabbi called Eisik, where he would subsequently find a treasure buried behind a stove in a forgotten corner of his house.  The rabbi thanks the guard; then travels back to his own house and looks behind the stove to discover the treasure.
Zimmer comments that the real treasure is not very far away; certainly we need not travel and search for it in a distant country.  'It lies buried in the most intimate part of our house; that is of our own being.  It is behind the stove, the centre of life and warmth that rules our existence, the heart of our heart, if only we knew how to unearth it.'
Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz learns much the same thing, to not go looking for her dreams or her heart in any one else’s back yard but her own.  And if she can't find it there, well she never lost it to begin with.

As a young girl, unlike Dorothy I was happy in my own suburban backyard, on the outskirts of Melbourne. I would lay in the banana lounge chair, skin oiled, book or imagination wide open, and travel in my book or reveries, while my dog lay beside. While my friends made their grand European journeys and sent back their postcards (many of which I appreciated and still have), I never felt the compulsion to leave my own backyard.  Once the summer passed and I resumed studies at university, friends would assume by my tan that I’d traveled far and had many adventures. I’d smile and keep my inner journeys to myself…

It was only as a woman in my early thirties that I felt restless, as though my heart lay elsewhere, beckoning.  A house under the beautiful Mountain Ash Gothic in the Dandenongs wasn’t enough.  I would often climb onto the roof when my husband Ed cleaned the gutters, and sit to stare up at the sky and wonder about what was beyond. Tall trees pushed the sky further away, much as I felt further away from my heart.  One of our favourite pastimes was for Ed to put on a carousel of his slides, for unlike me he had traveled widely, mainly through Australia and had amassed a huge collection; and along to the music of Copland, I would travel with him in my armchair. However, I left my backyard and went in search of my heart, which I thought was ‘over there’ on the island where I was born. It took many journeys back and forth to realize that my heart had never been lost. Perhaps confused but never lost.  Of course, in the process I lost my backyard and Ed.  I felt like a fool. Yet, I needed the reflection of the self found by encountering ‘the stranger’.  

The archetypal or spiritual journey is usually for self discovery, or remembering our own treasure, not to tick another item on your ‘to do or to see’ list.  More recently, on a train coming back from Giverny in France, I overheard some tourists discussing their list – the next stop for them was Montmartre which they needed to see to tick off – and it was not unlike our own list I thought wryly to myself. I couldn’t be bothered traipsing the many steps to get to Montmartre that afternoon and fortunately, we got lost. 

Travelling with a list of sights to see or experiencing the trip behind the lens of your camera, because you want the ‘proof’ that you were there and it’s not even to collect into an album anymore, but to post on Facebook. It is rather like experiencing the new or strange as an automaton. Where is your Self in all of it?  When you feel the need to get away, what is it you want to get away from?  I knew when I suggested that particular getaway that I wanted to get away from myself, but also to find a connection to that self, as I approached one of those 'big' birthdays. I hadn’t anticipated that we would get away as far as Europe.

I’ve been pondering what travel ‘means’ to me because this year the Melbourne Scarf Festival has this question as its theme for the scarf makers, and I usually contribute a couple of entries.  It may not be terribly exciting but what it ‘means’ is remembering and savouring the treasures from my own backyard because now I know where that backyard is.  Like the duke Des Esseintes in Huysman’s  A Rebours I understand how wearing it is to actually make the journey to not only discover that I’ve brought myself along as baggage, but that I could just have easily made the journey in my armchair. One need never leave home.  For instance, in my armchair in front of the computer I can get much closer to the many treasures in the Louvre without queuing for hours, without feeling dehydrated because I've been forced to dump my water bottle, without getting lost, without being pushed, without someone blocking my view, without another saying that I’m ruining her photo by being in front of the painting when I actually get an opportunity to get up close.  In my armchair, I can get a closer view of the Mona Lisa than I did being in the same room.
A play on the postcards we send back home or keep for our own memories

Making use of the eucalyptus leaves collected from my backyard

First experiment, Nuno felt on China silk 

We often dismiss children and adolescents as not being very ‘worldly’ but sometimes we don’t need to have seen or been in the world to know what it is we want, or are.  As we get older, it is then that we lose our spiritual connection to things, including what’s in our own hearts.  It is usually then that we think, or someone has led us to believe that the grass is greener or more exotic on the other side.  Of course, what we discover when we get there is the mud, or the dust, the heat, the mosquitoes, the sand flies, the one thousand steps we need to climb…  It is never as we anticipated…That girl on the banana lounge with her dog beside, was much wiser than I ever gave her credit. 

The story of Eisik is recounted by Mircea Eliade in Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, Translation Philip Maires (1975, pp244-5: N.Y.: Harper Torchbooks).