Friday, August 16, 2013

So what have you been doing lately?

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.


christopher said...

I too have a friend with that unfortunate habit of asking after me. It is actually more than a simple question, which would be fine. It is a question with expectations clearly attached. *Sigh*

I love your activity list.

I am buried in the efforts of readying my house for sale, and every activity grates on my soul in some way.

marja-leena said...

I know what you mean about those polite inquiries. I keep my replies very short unless true interest is shown by more questions.

I always love your stories of daily activities, they are as if we are having a chat about our daily lives, even if they may seem ordinary to some (not to me). Now I didn't know anyone 'pits' those tiny currants though I know they are strained for jellies. I have the red ones, so tiny this year that we've been lazy getting all of them picked. My black currant bush was the favourite but the bush is almost dead after a bear broke it up.

The pine cone photos are stunning! What a beautiful find, I've never seen that.

As for squirrels, I was most upset when one very brazenly in our view, sat on top of a pot of impatiens while munching away on the inside of a piece of bark. Said impatiens are broken. Other impatiens have been nibbled by deer.

Thanks for a chat over the fence :-)

Nimble said...

I always hope for something small and personal that I couldn't possibly guess. Your writing is very particular and you graciously share your joy in unexpected perceptions.

I notice that I am much better at planning for seasons and holidays in the future now that I am in my 40s. (Not that I am a master planner, just clearly better at it than I used to be.) It just doesn't seem like it'll be that long until it swings around again. In my 20s it seemed like a crazy investment of attention to plan for a year or more ahead of time. And I was often surprised by weather or quite regular seasonal changes.

Catalyst said...

Ah, just you wait, Lucy, until, like me, you are in your 70's. But life is still a great adventure, what with reading, concerts, art galleries, movies, and what seems like the constant wait for the temperatures to get out of the 100's (115 predicted today - 46 Celsius). But your posts are always a joy, no matter how mundane you think they are. Wonderful pictures of the mussels and the pine cone fragments.

Roderick Robinson said...

So what have you been doing? Ignore that question, 'tis me clearing my throat, getting going, since I intend to answer the question on your behalf. Laying linguistical eggs is what you've been doing, and here's one with purple spots: "fructal evisceration". I sit at my keyboard like Balzac, wearing my fleece dressing gown (much expatiated on down the months) and imagine a nineteenth-century novel with you as the central character. You've disgraced your employment, muckied your ticket as they say oop North, and the Lord of the Manor is dismissing you from his house: "Go forth and fructify," he says. And so you have. But not by peopling the world with babies (of which there are too many) but by going foreign and acting as a sampler/translator/distiller of that foreign land. Eventually your homeland will recognise what you've done and give you an OBE, which is almost insult given what the words stand for. Your home-from-home will be far subtler, giving you a little ribbon which will force you to wear suit jackets for the rest of your natural, a burden which I recommend you accept.

I shall read the rest of your post but will not comment however seductive what follows. Having set myself a 300-word on my own blog I find I've been going elsewhere and, like Peter Rabbit, bursting out of my clothes in whatever comment boxes will have me. That's cheating.

Oh hell and damnation! There's painting (a veritable ode) and Proust later on. But a promise is a promise.

Francesca said...

The pine cone images are wonderful. I have never thought to look inside one. And the white currants do look as though they are lit from within.

I imagine your squirrel is finding enough late summer wild food, and doesn't need to visit.

Anonymous said...

Oh Lucy, I sat here transfixed by your photos of pine cones. I too sometimes pick them up when I'm out hiking, but somehow I have never looked at them the way I did just now in your photos. How marvelous they are.

And I too loathe the question "So what have you been up to lately?" It instantly exhausts me. I just smile dumbly and stare vacantly until I offer up some lame version of "Oh, you know, the usual." Somehow that question makes me feel incredibly boring.

And having said that, I need to come up with a different question, one that I can ask, instead of another version of the same tired one.

Thanks for this wonderful post.

- alison

Rouchswalwe said...

A friend I speak easily with asks, "So what's going on?" At first glance, it seems the same as "So what have you been up to lately?" But I find my friend's opener much more pleasant and engaging:

"So what's going on?"
"Not much, you?"
"Not much. Thirsty?"

At that point we drink an ale together and conversation can last for hours.

This post had some beautiful images: Unfortunately, once suspended in pickling syrup they look less like pearly soul-vessels and much more like frogspawn. made me laugh; Sea swimming, again. It was as clear as Gordons' gin but much warmer. had me imagining possibilities; and the mussel and pinecone photos are simply delightful! Cyril, fortified with your hazelnuts, has no doubt gone off seeking adventure! To be a squirrel in France!!

And I can't help but nodd my head as I hear of your painting job. My last brewing took quite a bit out of me this time. Although the knees are finally stronger again.

Prost sweet Lucy! Here's to all the things goin' on!!

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Whew, Lucy! I'm exhausted,impressed and admiring of all that you have been doing since you answered the question and the marvellous way you have of describing it. Let all those who are busy with so-called 'important' things crawl away in shame.Your post is a lesson in living well, sufficient unto the day, observing and appreciating whatever life offers each day. Plus great pictures! Who can ask for more?

Lucy said...

Thank you everyone.

Christopher - yes, there are people who just weigh on you like that, aren't there? Go easy yourself while doing the house selling stuff, it really is the most exhausting thing, physically, mentally and emotionally.

ML - what tribulations your garden has at the hands - or rather paws - of the local wildlife! I almost think it would be worth having no blackcurrants to be able to say the bush was broken by a bear! We had kilos of blackcurrants from several bushes for years, and truth to tell I got quite tired of them, so when Tom suggested getting rid of them in a moment of remodelling the garden, I didn't object. I didn't believe about pitting the red and white ones when I first heard about it, but just making jelly wouldn't be quite so special I suppose. We have more jam than we know what to do with; I make it, people give it to us... and we really don't eat that much of it.

Nimble - thanks. Yes, awareness of time and cycles increases with age; young children have little idea of the seasons at all, they only vaguely notice if it's hot or cold!

Bruce - I know, and Tom still does so much I feel quite bad complaining about feeling my age! I do feel very well, never better, and enjoy and look forward to so much, but I have grown more aware of the need not to waste precious time and energy.

RR - glad you enjoyed 'fructal evisceration', I imagined you might like 'épépineuse'. I don't think I've owned or worn anything resembling a suit jacket since leaving school, where we had to wear bottle green Harris tweed ones. I did the other day find a scrap of tricoleur ribbon in a box of scraps and can't for the life of me think where it came from...

Francesca - it was a big pine cone, I don't imagine the small ones would come apart in the same way. I have occasionally found the individual petals, but never considered the inner structure before! I hope you're right about the squirrel, the fact that his visits tailed off gradually seems to indicate nothing baleful has happened!

Alison - thank you. I'm cheered that you too have that reaction to the question, and yet of all the people who seem to me to have achieved marvellous things and to lead a varied, busy and vivid life, you would be one of the foremost. Just goes to show... not sure what! But you're right that we do need to show interest in other people, rather than just launch straight into immediacies or abstractions, I guess, but how to do it?

R - 'What's going on?' is in the present though, so it's kind of checking that you're OK, or not preoccupied elsewhere, or give people an opening if there's something they are bursting to talk about. It seems a better question really. I'm sure your brewing is worth all the effort!

Natalie - like you said (or something similar) at yours recently, I'm very good at being in the moment, serenity, counting and appreciating my blessings, finding joy in the detail etc, and I consider myself very blessed that I'm able to do it, and certainly don't find it empty or meaningless, and though I can take things pretty easy I don't really think I'm too idle. I live the kind of life which the busy-busy-busy brigade might well claim they wish they could, but in fact I suspect they would find it, and me, very dull. But who cares! I shall try to take more pictures, though, or spend more time editing the ones I do take anyway.

Ellena said...

I am late because I did not know how to describe how I felt after reading this great post of yours. You know what? You made me realize how meaningful my life is.
I am curious to know how this lovely section of the cone could be sort of fire-proved to make a candle holder of it.
And, brushes and rollers can be tightly wrapped in plastic see-through food wrap and picked up the next day as if never put down (I have only done so when using water based paint).

Lyse said...

Hello! En voilà de jolis passe-temps! On attends le post tricots... J'admire ce petit animal qui prend la pose pour la photo , pourtant les écureuils sont "frutes" en principe...
Bises et bon tricot ;

Unknown said...

A pine cone has been sitting on the study mantlepiece for some years. Like yours it appears so much like a piece of beautifully crafted sculpture that it is hard to believe that it is a natural object. Yet the fact that it is is all the more cause for wonder.

Lucy said...

Thanks again.

Ellena - is that to say you realise how meaningful your life is compared to mine?! :~) The pine cone base is in fact quite fragile, more pieces keep breaking off it when it's moved. I've put it on top of the bookcase where I keep various found and fugitive objects. I do sometimes wrap paintbrushes in plastic, even oil based paint (which seems to be being phased out altogether, which is good) will keep a day or two like that. But I really couldn't face having to start again the next day, so I pushed on, and was glad I did.

Lyse - bientôt les tricots! Je ne trouve pas le mot 'frute' -c'est Gallo?

Joe - they are among my favourite natural things to bring into the house, perhaps all the more because I keep them to admire for a while then they serve as firewood. We get fine big ones round here too.

zephyr said...

your photographs are exquisite. And i love the ones of Cyril.
i will miss seeing more of him/her.

Ellena said...

Lucy!!!Ever since I wrote this comment I was wondering if you had understood the way it was meant and had scribbled the following on a piece of paper "can't think of more meaningful activities than the ones you are writing about and now realize that my life is meaningful". This sentence said it a bit better but I left it there thinking that "she knows what I mean".

Lyse said...

Oui, frute c'est gallo ce qui veut dire vif et sauvage ( il n'y a pas de mot français réellement
Bonne journée

Lucy said...

Ellena - I knew that really! Don't worry :~)

Lyse - aha! J'ai deviné que c'était quelque chose comme ça :~)