Life, this weird fugue

Unexpected travel assignment, a private commission and straightforward enough though I am keeping details away from public spaces. To catch flights in the warm African dusk and land in strange cities at dawn.


The house painters arrived with a gift of clementines, our naartjies, bought at cost price from a local farmer. I make soups — lentil soup, chicken and vegetable soup, tomato and barley soup — and hand out mugs of soup and toast at lunch. The dogs are now used to having house painters around and wag their tails but show no further interest.


As always in winter, rereading the Greek classics in translation and beginning a cycle of Henry James. Leon Edel’s biography of the Master written in a more circumspect time but  excellent on the history of New York: the theatres, vaudeville performances and funfairs, the sedate Washington Square, the private schools that a small Henry attended. Immense pleasure of sitting up in bed reading about the witty, eccentric James family while drinking English Breakfast tea and  munching on fingers of avocado toast. This is the season for ripe avocados, fresh dates and oranges.  And elsewhere it is the season of a new silver-white English lavender, green hedgerows and pastures, dusty sweet blackberries. Carrying the trickster Odysseus with me through airports and on trains.


In August 1913, Freud took a summer walk through the Dolomites with two friends, one of them being perhaps Rilke. In the idyll, Freud and the poet discuss how flowers and nature are prone to destruction and decay and possess an ill-fated beauty. And yet, in contrast to the poet’s pessimistic view, Freud sees value, and therefore a heightened beauty, in transience, arguing that scarcity and limitation only augment worth. He explains that what spoils an enjoyment of transient beauty was an antipathy to mourning.


So there is flight, stasis, transience. The constancy of writing, noting what Henry James is able to suggest in long sensuous paragraphs, sentences that unfold and enfold with stacking and qualifying parentheses, interpollated clauses, full stops deferred. The flight of the mind, swooping and  soaring and gliding into untested distances, blue Otherness. What is transparent; what is impenetrable.


H and his girlfriend come around to see how the painting is coming along. She does equestrian training, works on a local stud farm with imported stallions, racing breeds, show horses.  He farms fruit and plans ahead for the uncertain future of any farmer in Africa dealing with foreign-owned consortiums and no state subsidies in drought years. She is worried about a horse with a bruised leg. He is worried about his grandfather’s dementia and intractable behaviour. The house painters are happy to have spectators and show us  how good the gutters and drain pipes look now in their glistening dark coats of navy-blue and grey. The couple talk about going to Venice on honeymoon before the city with its brilliant cupolas and domes sinks into the Adriatic. We talk about global warming, transience,  adaptability. The price of apples and pears, the expense of horse feed. The terrors of international travel with an Egyptian passenger plane blown out of a clear sky. The rise of the far right in Europe’s politics. How good the fresh paint looks on the old cottage, how solid the loft steps are to have survived so many winter storms.

The bliss of having visitors leave, the bliss of coming home again, being able to close the door and sink into a necessary solitude.


Those who lived as if transient and ephemeral in themselves and their fleeting lives,  but who have endured. Adrienne Rich on Emily Dickinson, the delicate shy flower of  poetic  mythology:


I have come to imagine her as somehow too strong for her environment, a figure of powerful will, not at all frail or breathless, someone whose personal dimensions would be felt in a household. She was her father’s favorite daughter though she professed being afraid of him. Her sister dedicated herself to the everyday domestic labors which would free Dickinson to write. (Dickinson herself baked the bread, made jellies and gingerbread, nursed her mother through a long illness, was a skilled horticulturalist who grew pomegranates, calla-lilies, and other exotica in her New England greenhouse.)





House painters

Deadlines looming. Not an unusual occurrence, prepared to burn  the midnight oil if necessary. At 6am however, a team of house painters arrived unexpectedly, three weeks earlier than agreed. Sadly, I expect them to vanish like swallows at any moment because heavy rains are predicted for the next few days. House painters are not fond of rain.


Right now the house painters have put up ladders and donned paint-stained overalls. They are munching apples and talking about scraping down the walls. They seem very cheerful and will be working and siesta-taking here until they are fetched by a farmer with a large pick-up truck at 5pm this afternoon. They tell me  they would like flasks of coffee in the morning, flasks of tea in the afternoon and apples any time.


I have to keep the dogs indoors most of the day and the dogs are not happy. The garden right now is swarming with butterflies, field mice, lizards, squirrels, small birds, house painters and other things that interest dogs. The Great Dane wants to go out and befriend the house painters, he stands at the window wagging his tail and woofing joyously. The house painters are wary of large and small dogs and ask me to keep the dogs locked up.


The garden glitters and sparkles in the autumn wind. The pin oak foliage is a deep scarlet, the poinsettia flowers are hot red, the ribbon bushes are a shocking purple. It is all very gaudy and festive.


Because the ear-throat-nose infection keeps recurring, I have started a course of antibiotics. Taking antibiotics makes me feel tired and chemically assaulted, unable to put sentences together in any coherent or charming form.


The housemate arrives back at 10am and is delighted to see the house painters. She makes them toast and fresh coffee, encourages them (with my reluctant permission) to chop down a cherry myrtle tree growing too close to the wall, then agrees to take  all of them up to the farmers co-op to buy extra brushes, masking tape and an extra scraper tool. Everyone piles into her old vehicle and off they go.


I let out the dogs, who dash into the garden, find no new painter friends and  rush back indoors again. The garden looks nude without that tree and there are large containers of paint everywhere, sacking, ladders propped against the walls. Step ladders in the drive. Old carpeting (?) thrown over a rose bush.


This is going to go on for weeks or even months. I need to cultivate patience.

Autumn planting

Lazy brilliant days of sunshine and a little chill in the air. Went off to a country market, bought seedlings of red mustard leaf for salads, fresh coriander, pak choi seedlings, another young rosemary bush. Mosaic of muddy brown-grey-blue oaks leaves underfoot, horses in nearby paddocks, coppery-red pin oaks in a last dying blaze, glimpses of towering mountains. We made the trip across the treeless hills and valleys to buy homemade labneh, dripping fresh halloumi cheeses, yoghurt, little cubes of salty feta. And the housemate found a stall selling feather-light buttery brioche, a treat.


Now I am working on the garden, repotting, planting out, cutting back. Lemons yellowing and bouncy on the tree, rosemary blue as the sky. Decided to get a new slow cooker, my fourth one. I’ve never had luck with them and this one has a lid that doesn’t quite fit tight enough. But I am going to make litres of bone broth for my dogs, chicken stock for us, slow-cooked beans and barley or lentil soups for the homeless kitchen. Nothing delicate or likely to turn to bland mush. Should  we replace the new slow cooker with its defective lid? Out here we have only two brands on sale, neither very good. Many locals prefer Wonder Boxes where hot food in heavy sauce pans is tucked into insulated pillows in a big cardboard box and left for the day. No electricity needed. And others, like us, cook on  low fires over glowing charcoal and wood coals.


Right now, there are pre-soaked beans simmering in the defective slow cooker, flavoured with garlic, sliced onion and rosemary. If it works, it works. Eight hours on a low heat.


Little dogs in their tartan winter coats running around sniffing under trees. Winter fevers of expectation and appetite. How loud and piercing the calls of  the owls are at night —