I really don't like that question. It's often asked by the nicest of people, with the kindest of intentions, but also those whose lives seem to be full of meaningful, productive, worldly activity, just hearing about which makes me feel daunted and somewhat tired. In an instant my existence becomes a void, a slough of idleness, I have nothing to tell them. Seriously, I often avoid people and let friendships slide because of the widening gaps these moments make evident (I toyed with using 'evidence' as a verb there, and decided against). It's probably not even as though they want an answer anyway, it's just a polite formula, like 'how are you?', to show they are interested and not self-centred, but really, I'd much rather hear all about their busy, active, important lives, and not be required to give an account of myself.
And I suppose blogging is rather the same, though it shouldn't be, since this is the place where the trivial does have value, because it's seen in one's own terms, not in the (perceived) judgement of others, and by and large those who come and comment give me the kindest of affirmation.
So, what have I been doing lately?
Currant confections. The white currant crop was good but the red currant one poor, a consequence of the cold late spring I think. Both red and white currants are the principal ingredient of Bar-le-Duc jam. Bar-le-Duc is a village in the Berry region (appropriately), the jam has been made there since 1300. It is the most expensive jam in the world, because each and every currant has its seeds individually removed by hand while being left intact, then is suspended in the syrup jelly. This act of fructal evisceration is performed by ladies wielding the sharpened quill of a goose, who rejoice in the job description épépineuse.
I think it is largely the pips, visibly suspended in the gel inside the translucent skins, like tiny vegetal souls awaiting rebirth into another realm, which make the currants so beautiful. We decided to grow currants partly with a view to serving them with oysters, having tasted this in a restaurant once. However, we have never got up the nerve to buy, open and serve our own oysters, fearing injured hands. But the currants, we find, go well with all kinds of things, scattered on green salad, with chicken or pork, either straight or sautéed (awful Franglais) with a little honey, or with oily fish. We don't mind the pips. We had about half a kilo, which amounts to quite a few currants. I froze some and sweet pickled a small jar. Unfortunately, once suspended in pickling syrup they look less like pearly soul-vessels and much more like frogspawn.
Knitting, of course. Just a week after the materials arriving I'm already fifty inches (I had gone almost entirely metric in recent years but find that with taking up the needles I am slipping back into imperial) into Emily's Hufflepuff scarf. I have also found a source of good quality German felting wool in lovely colours close at hand and am wondering whether if we live out of the garden for a few weeks, I can afford to go and stock up on it, and make felted slippers for everyone. I've requested a basketwork chest for Christmas or birthday to accommodate my growing wool stash, like the one we have for blankets and linen, the kind of thing that used to be called an Ottoman, an instance of the most cosy and banal, possibly feminine, of domestic items being named after a culture conventionally perceived as fairly fierce and butch; the other one that come to mind is calling those sweet old crochet blankets 'Afghans'. Now how many Pushtun tribesmen do you see wrapping themselves up in granny squares to keep themselves warm in the Tora Bora region, I ask you? I'll probably do a knitting post soon with photos anyway.
Sea swimming, again. It was as clear as Gordons' gin but much warmer.
Prom watching and listening. Loved Rachmaninov's 2nd.
Courgette cutting - argh, the marrows are coming! (Despite grating them into Spanish omelette and anything else I can think of, thanks Joe). I'll post pictures of the bed they grow in later.
Munching mussels; you should photograph that, said Tom.
There's a shortage of other bivalve sea-food with which to make coquillages farcies just now, especially since we're scared to open oysters. I resorted to buying frozen scallops and putting them into the empty halves of the mussel shells for variety.
Picking up pine cones. Sometimes when Mol and I are out we do this, we gather quite a few over the summer when they drop, and burn them the following winter. On one occasion I brought one in and put it down on a pile of renovation materials and forgot it. When Tom went to use said materials, he lifted the pine cone and, in the words of the old story, it came apart in his hand. This strange Fibonacci marquetry was revealed:
Sadly seeking Cyril. He became quite bold, coming frequently in the day for his hazelnuts,
I would often hear quite a loud sawing noise as he got into them, he clearly knew we were around and that he was being watched.
He always picked the nuts up with his mouth, only using his 'hands' to manoeuvre and manipulate them.
After a while though, only one or two nuts would be taken, and now he comes no more. I don't know enough about their life cycles, perhaps they are fairly nomadic according to the season, or perhaps he was a she and was only desperate enough for food to come while feeding young. I hope nothing's happened to him, but one can't protect wild creatures much really.
There he was gone.
I have painted the bathroom extension, on the outside, though not the window surrounds or wall plate. It's been about fifteen years since I last did it; beige rosé has been re-marketed as ochre de Provence but it looks the same colour, and now it's water-based like almost all paint, which is a vast improvement. While it's satisfying to see it done, and good to feel confident on a ladder again, I'm slightly shocked and disappointed at how my energy levels have waned in that time. Then, I remember, I undertook to get the whole job - scrubbing it down with the village Karcher, a high pressure water-cleaner that was joint owned by a couple of local households and which was handed round according to need, a situation one couldn't imagine now - applying primer then topcoat (it was bare rendering), and painting the window frames - done in about four days while we were waiting for something else, like a delivery of slates for the roof or something. I didn't even use a roller, just a wide brush which I thought would be less messy, and a couple of our elder women neighbours stood by making supportive and curious comments: Why not use a roller? Isn't she hard-working! Well yes but if we were thirty-six again... This time I did it over a much longer time, but was still exhausted almost to tears by the end of the final roller coat. I did do all of that part of the job in one day, a hot one and working my way round to the hottest side at the end, because I couldn't face the thought of cleaning up the roller and tray then having to get it all out again, and the roller, loaded with masonry paint, is remarkably heavy, but still, I felt too much like beaten.
Coming back to Proust listening at long last, over four years from when I started the project. Having tidied and reclaimed my blue room, and with work in my hands to be done and listening easier really than reading, it's been a good moment to pick it up again. I abandoned it for long periods, boggled by his bizarre and frankly nasty obsessions with same-sex relations, culminating in and made almost worthwhile by the hilarious and surreal flagellation of a disappointed Baron de Charlus by a bored and kind-hearted sailor whose heart just isn't in it, spied upon by a shocked if prurient Marcel through an interior window. The strange episode at the Guermantes' where everyone has turned into white-haired, wrinkled benign old people, in a lapse of time that can't seem to be accounted for, seems to chime with the sense that I have on waking sometimes, that here I am in my fifties, and how has this happened, when I was only back there just then? Or indeed, when the paintwork on the outside wall needs renewing, those neighbours who were in their sixties and seventies then are in their eighties and nineties now, that years and seasons and fruit and vegetable crops and animals and birds, and people, come and go, always changing and always the same, and people ask 'So what have you been doing lately?' and there doesn't seem to be much to say in response.
Otherwise, not a lot of reading, still less writing. I did, however, enjoy The Secret Life of Objects by Dawn Raffel, which also inspires an idea, perhaps.