Sunday 27 March 2022

11 things having a dog of my own has taught me

Inis turns four in May. He has been in my life for four years. That basic fact will forever baffle me. Thirty seven kilos, thirty eight after a long Irish winter, he is a pointer labrador cross. His back is a jet black ridge with flecks of foxy ginger in summer time, with swirls of grey and white brindle underneath and along his legs. He looks like he’s been dipped upside down in paint. Long athletic limbs are coupled with a road-block labrador chest, long nose, firm jaw and delicate ears that bounce up and down when he speedwalks. He snacks on carrots as a treat, makes friends with every old lady waiting at a traffic light and is the most loyal being on the planet. And the strangest thing of all is that he is mine. Here are eleven things having a dog has taught me.

  1. Having your own dog is not the same as growing up with one.

Growing up with an assorted wolf pack, I thought I knew fully what I was getting into when I adopted Inis from a rescue shelter in Spain. As a toddler, I would sneak off to take a nap in the dog box with our springer spaniel, Gretel. I would bribe her with leftover toast and smush my face into her neck and snooze. As a teenager, our dogs soothed my anxiety with walks and attention. When you have your own dog, the buck stops with you. Vet bills, dog walks in the rain in November, vaccinations, toilet training, puppy proofing and early morning walks all land on your lap. The practical and financial responsibility is intense. One look at his face and it’s worth it.

  1. You will never walk more than when you have a dog.

It’s 6.45am. The alarm goes off but you roll over for five more minutes. Except there’s a dog tongue swiping for your face because his body clock is more accurate than any digital alarm and he is ready to walk! As someone who allowed my mood to dictate my activity level for years, having a dog removes that as an option in your life. Inis needs to be walked, every day, three times a day. So we walk. My step counter told me this morning that I have just 183km left until I’ve walked the length of the Sahara desert. In the last six months. 

  1. Having a dog who wants to go outside so much is a blessing in disguise

We have gone out in rain, hail and shine. I have learnt to notice the change of seasons, track the sunrise and sunset times, heard birdsong when there was no traffic to drown it out and found that, no matter where we lived, there was something beautiful waiting for us on every walk. There are gloomy January days where the sky is a dome of grey and the rain is so horizontal that I feel like I’m in a waterproof clothing test factory but when we come home, I feel refreshed, energized and proud that I was responsible and didn’t let him down. 

  1. Surprising yourself in how responsible you can become

I track his vaccinations and vet check ups on my calendar now. I have never missed a dog walk in four years. I have never decided before bed that I’m not bothered to take him outside for a walk so he can do his business. He is cared for, loved, has toys and comfortable bed. He has my attention and love and he knows daily that he is safe. When we moved to New Zealand, I tracked every single aspect of his travel requirements in an excel sheet. A friggin excel sheet. I do more for him and his quality of life than I ever did for myself and in doing so, have learned to be responsible for myself. 

  1. Newfound appreciation for free time, late mornings and holidays

Remember those nights out that resulted in sleeping in until after noon? The ones where you would casually get up, shower and then go for brunch or a run or swim or check out the local farmer’s market? Or those last minute holidays you’d take when you found a cheap flight? Or changing your mind and crashing at your friend’s house over the weekend because you were having such a great time and could go home in the morning for a change of clothes? Goodbye my friends. Hello accountability. Holidays are planned in conjunction with my dog sitter, late mornings are a distant memory and free time is scheduled. I don’t regret any of it. My appreciation for the time off I do have is immense and the reunion cuddles are worth it.

  1. Meeting people you would have never noticed before

There’s Jim & Fiona and their dog Meg. Holly and Chris and their dog Bindi. Adrian and Burgu and Kimchi. Christine and Lenny. Alicia and Ziggy. These friends and their dogs have become integral to my quality of life, joy, wellbeing and shared interest in watching our dogs run around after each other. You will have the most incredibly profound philosophical conversations with random people in the park. I would have never known the pleasure of getting to know so many incredible folks if I didn’t have my sidekick with me.

  1. Discovering an insight into your parenting style

When me and my ex were still together, we had talked about having kids. We dreamed of being great co-parents and spoke frequently about the type of parents and family we wanted to be. There were aspects to our dog co-parenting that were memorable and I will always savour. I was nurturing and empathic, focussed on well-being but also on date nights and personal space. He was routine-driven, reliable, focussed and disciplined. There were also clashes, miscommunication, mixed messaging, comparisons between my dog and his and different opinions about things like boundaries and if the dogs were allowed on the bed or not. Having a dog will unearth values and habits you didn’t know you had about parenting.

  1. Learning to understand boundaries in a whole new light

You will say “no” a lot, especially in the puppy phase and you will hate yourself sometimes and the disciplinarian mindset you need to adopt at certain points in your dog’s life and/or day. Healthy boundaries are vital for any healthy relationship and your dog, no matter how well behaved, will test them. My biggest lesson is that boundaries are also about saying “yes”, encouragement is a component of setting healthy limits and dogs are incredible at learning to respect and find comfort in those limits. Your relationship with your dog is an excellent practice tool for other relationships in your life. 

  1. Becoming more mindful 

All we have is now, today, this moment. Each walk outside is a chance to stop and notice the flowers, trees, evil seagull and new sounds. Inis frequently stops to smell, look and, if some food has fallen on the ground, taste the word around him. When he was a puppy, I was frustrated. “Let’s go!” was a well-used phrase of mine at the time. Now, I set more time aside for our outings. We walk, we stop, we look and admire. It fosters creativity, perception and mindfulness. 

  1. Appreciating your parents as dog owners

As a kid, you didn’t see the vet bill. You didn’t know the particulars of your pet’s illness. You didn’t have to walk the dog because as a kid you didn’t feel like it or got bored. They bought the dog food, tracked the annual vaccinations and picked up the poop. It is a daily, ongoing and often relentless task to care for your own dog. It brings newfound appreciation for all your parents did growing up with a veritable zoo of dogs, cats, guinea pigs and floppy-eared rabbits. Thank your parents. Give them a hug.


  1. Every day is a fresh start 

Inis loves life. Every morning, the alarm goes off and he gets out of bed and saunters over to mine. He knows the second alarm goes off in ten minutes and he is allowed up for a cuddle. He wiggles his bum and wags his tail, licks my face or arm and then turns around to be my little spoon. When the second alarm goes off, I get up and he stretches out, smiling a crooked smile before sitting up and nuzzling his head into my chest. He bounces off the bed and downstairs for our morning walk. He does this every single day with the same joy, intensity and love as the one before. He is goofy for sure but also a little zen master. He understands the meaning of appreciation for the good life, he knows he is loved, and he spends the day expressing appreciation for that. Everyday is a new opportunity to love the world and fully be in it. Inis is the daily reminder of that embodied joy.

Tuesday 9 February 2021

Saint Brigid and decision making

 St. Brigid's day on February first brings mixed emotions. That mother of Spring lambs and medicinal herbal healer stirs something deep inside me, in my bones, my lungs, my cold toes. 

Practically every year since I was a child, February 1st has felt like an encounter with a dual personality mother figure. There is a mother who claps me across the head and tells me to get with it, smarten up, get a job, live in the real world, be realistic and face facts. She tells me I'm not good enough, asks me what exactly have I been doing with my time and energy and intelligence since Christmas left us. She questions my past decisions, making me doubt every decision I've ever made. Why do I bring these difficulties upon myself with wrong turns, giving up, moving too fast, diving in too deeply? Why is almost every year a repetition of the same story? Why do I move house, find a job, stay, learn, work, save and leave only to start all over again?

Anxiety fills the cavity in my chest, competing for space where my lungs and delicate heart live. A faked diaphragm breath expands out from my middle chest and then when my breast bone is sufficiently puffed out, I choke, hold trying to suck in more air and then give up with a deflated exhale. I'm overwhelmed, I'll say. My chest feels tight. I can't get the air in. For a few weeks from Christmas, this feeling of stuckness grows and spreads. I start each Monday in January trying to do my best and be productive and on time and alert. I try to remember to not leave the wrapper from the packet of almonds on the countertop and to put the dishwasher on and the cap back on the toothpaste (and to make my own toothpaste instead of this one that we have in a disgusting plastic tube full of flouride). By Wednesday, I can feel the tension creep in. By Friday, my yawning stretches into the day time and by Sunday afternoon, there is no more space left in chest and I cry to flood the cavity and hope for a refresh come Monday morning.

For approximately five weeks at the beginning of every year (I've only realised the pattern this morning), this pain and worry and fear grows inside me and I spend that time trying to make it go away with my productivity and self improvement. St. Brigid's day comes along and I believe things will magically change and I will somehow feel the benefits of winter slowly shifting to spring, and be released from this pain and have my clarity back. And then one week later, I start to read the signs.

Years ago, I saw a post on instagram of an illustration of a loveable and fat black laborador barking ferociously at a man with a caption that read "depression: when the black dog comes calling" and I thought to myself that this was the most ridiculous analogy of depression and challenging mental health I had seen in a long time because all I wanted to do was give the dopy dog a hug and tell him it was ok and have a cuddle on front of a warm fire until the fear went away. Then I adopted Inis and he taught me more about my emotions and mental state and how to love than any mental health post. His main lesson was to love and hug and embrace the feelings rather than running away in the opposite direction, wired and weary from fleeing the scene. 

Every year brings with it new opportunities for change. For a young women who has been told that she can be anything and has a gift for learning and adapting easily, opportunity scares the life out of me. A born philosopher, never satisfied with the answer to "why?", I am terrified by all my options. This phobia is swiftly followed by lists. I can guarantee you that if you found a list inside an old book in my childhood bedroom or buried in a box in the attic and compared it with the many post-its I've been compiling the last few weeks in hurried scribble, the contents would all be the same. And when I read these lists, I am filled with guilt for not having gone through with most of them, fear at what would happen if I were to seriously pick even one of them and a deep sense of loss and grief at my ignored soul for pushing her down every time she tried to push out through my lungs and breath.

You see, the other mother figure is Brid, the native Celtic Goddess. She protects newly birthed lambs and cares for injured birds. She takes her time walking barefoot through forested dewy lands, collecting herbs for teas to calm and nurture, for poultices to heal and smiles knowingly at the beauty of every day life. She is creative and sings and writes, paints and grows. She speaks to the bees and whispers to seedlings. She ignites and brings flames to forgotten dried wood. She tells me things, things that make up my list.

The be realistic mother tells me to contact an accountant, make a business plan, send my CV, follow up with the recruiter, get fit, save, don't be stupid trying to be self employed when what you really need to know is that you can pay the bills.

Brid's lists are different. Plant a bee friendly garden until you can get bees of your own. I know you think you don't know enough about gardening to share with others but there are things you know instinctually that you can share. You love taking photographs and you see things differently to others - why don't you get back to that again? Why are you hiding all those books on nature and cooking and creativity in the attic? Why do you think you can't write? You could write about Inis, cooking, nature, bees, your stories growing up. You have a wonderful way with words. Projects and memories and growing food and writing are so important to you. Do you remember being creative? Why are you so scared?

I feel ashamed that I'm too scared to listen to her or answer her questions. I know that we need to move out of here mid March and that I need to reorganise my belongings in the attic space before I go but I also know that once I open even one box up there, I'm going to want to cry for the creative child in me trying to break out. I'm too scared to write the book, photograph the waves, keep the bees, make the podcast, write the recipes. I am equally frustrated by how many people are doing all these already and how I will drown in their deep seas.

When I first started Busylittlefoodie, I did it to get the words out of my head and to photograph and cook and eat because I loved the feeling of being in the flow carrying out all those tasks. Then instagram took over and everyone became a blogger and cookbook author, memoir writer and photographer and I drowned even further. I run out of money and worry about being poor and depressed again. I don't believe I have the energy within me to do what my heart longs for. Maybe it's just easier to get a paid job. The last few weeks when I was told I narrowly missed out on office roles, I wasn't all that sad. A lust for having more time to garden and possibly make videos and write sprung up in me, until the fear of poverty drove my back underground. 

When I think about those that inspire me, they are all people who took a chance. They are gardeners or farmers, writers and educators, poets and artists and small business owners. It is not an ideal life, not without its challenges but they believe in themselves enough (even partially) to carry on with what they are doing. Maybe I imagine their level of confidence. Maybe they worked in horrible jobs for years before saving enough to take time out to do what they truly wanted to do all along. I trick myself and the voice inside me, telling her that having a backgarden with veggies is sufficient. Writing a blogpost every now and again will do but every year she is less convinced and now I feel like a fraud.

I can perfectly recall posts here where I listed out all the wonderful things I want to do with my life. And then I get a job and get more anxious and tired and weary and smaller.

I want time and energy to give to my life firstly.

I want to write about Inis and cooking memories, family and mental health, bees and relationships.

I want to have a podcast about mental health

I want to write a cookbook

I want to swim everyday.

I want to grow a beautiful permaculture garden and repair the soil there and show others with kindness and patience.

I want to run retreats for women who are weary, where herbal tea and listening is in abundance.

I want to swim everyday and write about how I feel reborn every single time I walk out of the water.

Mark Manson wrote a post recently about seven unusual questions to ask yourself about your life.

One was "What would make 8 year old you cry"? I remember being eight. We were on a farm, making mud pies in the small woods by our house and granola from scratch and planting veggies and going on adventures picking berries and leaves and pressing flowers and having pancakes for dinner some nights. This list came easily:

I don't swim.

I don't live by the sea.

I spend most of day working indoors.

I don't cook for fun.

I don't write stories/poems.

I'm not an environmentalist.

I don't think I'm making a difference.

The tears afterwards came easily. 

Another question was "What would you do if you had to leave the house everyday?"


Grow in a garden. Swim. Photograph. Write. Help others.

Life is easy in that type of life. There are seasons and time to rest and do. Creativity and production are happening alongside each other.

So why am I so scared? And confused? And scared?

I'm going up to the attic now - to try to remember what I wanted before I was so scared. While I inhale damp cardboard and musty book covers, forgotten notebooks and cherished illustrations, I am going to try to remember the humble bee. She has a purpose but works for the collective, has nestled into thousands upon thousands of flower heads but still buzzes with exhilarated glee when enveloped by a nasturtium head or finds a cluster of borage. I'm going to try to be like the bee.

Tuesday 12 January 2021

Salty sea: You let me be

 I’m easily swayed. I change my mind but not with a sense of whimsy or floatiness. No. I sway like branches in a winter storm, bending in directions not known possible, drawn and pushed to ideas and notions, places and vocations with intensity and determination.

In the last few weeks alone, I’ve dug my heels into the ground, adopting new battle plans and strategies for our self sufficient, creative life that we desire so much. The land. It’s calling me. And I can’t make up my mind exactly where it’s calling me to.

About ten weeks ago, all we could talk about was Sligo. Wild west. Surf and sea swims, vegan cafes, the Glen, an Institute of Technology and full of people our own age who were creative, setting up businesses, outdoorsy. I convinced him that it had to be Sligo. Nowhere else made any sense. Then the land prices. Out of reach.

Look outside of Sligo he said. Adapt.

I refused. Red headed ringlets of my four year old self tossing her head from left to right. Arms folded, eyes rolled. No way, I said. It has to be Sligo.

A quick search on the property website. What’s Lie-treem? he asks. Leetrum (Leitrim) I correct with the pronunciation his Spanish mind will understand. Noone wants to live in Leitrim - the land is shit. The main town is for stag and hen parties and the rest is covered in horrible Coillte forested pine plantations. 

Adapt, love. Look at this one. As we Zoom, he sends me a link to a site. 10 acres, native woodland, a derelict cottage, a stream running through it. 120k. I didn’t know. I spent the next six weeks giddy over Leitrim. It has to be Leitrim I announce, over and over again.

Adapt, he repeats. I only hear limits. He only hears stubbornness. 

We struggle to find anything that suits. I don’t want to live in the arsehole of nowhere. I want to be semi-isolated but within driving/cycling distance to a community or at least a small town that has the makings of a farmer’s market. He would happily live in the arsehole of nowhere, with no one around.

Months ago, before I came back, we were determined to build a wooden tiny house on wheels to live in, then build our own wooden open plan house with as many windows  as I could fit. Then I came up with the plan of building a tiny house in Ireland and renting land to put it on while we saved for land of our own. Then it was cob. A pacific dome after that. Back to cob. A derelict cottage with a wooden and cob extension. A dome. A cabin and then a cob house. 

Last weekend, frustrated with my obsessive nature, he suggested removing the county filter on the property search page. Just put d

own acres and max price and see. Love, you have to stop being so focussed on just one thing he says while clearing his throat and involuntarily twitching his left eyebrow. He does this when he’s stressed. I take note and begin the search. And look at Mayo, he urges. There are lots of cheap places in Mayo. What’s the problem with Mayo? If no one wants to live there, we can buy land cheap.

For me, Mayo conjures up wet, westerly gales coming off fjords and bays and curving up the sides of towering mountains, like a perfectly formed crescent wave in reverse. The wind and damp whips upwards and takes a gulp of your own energy with it. Little sister got the biggest midge bit while swimming in one of the rivers coming down the mountain in Leenane one summer. It was reminiscent of a Jurrasic Park mosquito bite and took weeks of scratching and lotion to go down. Westport was for people who wanted adventure sports and go drinking afterwards. Ballina was on the way to Enniscrone, the lesser Strandhill for surfing. Castlebar was inland and let me know as a kid that we were in fact not there yet. There being the sea, which is all I cared about. Achill was the beautiful curved beach of

Keem and mountains with black faced sheep that I kept meaning to visit and never did.

The surf was shit in Mayo. That’s what I thought.

I grew obsessive when I saw photographs of the surf off Louisburgh. I was drawn to how close Leenane was with the familiar mountain sheep. I researched like a maniac to prove my new plan. Westport attracted tourism but was also sustainability and eco conscious. There was a cool eco shop. We had to move close to Westport. A search for cycling, since we both miss this so much, shows the Greenway and then my eye follows a rugged pathway to Achill island. Basking sharks in the bay, a salt water lake, a bog filled with wild flowers and island life come flooding into my view. The plan changes again.

And I’m exhausted. 

There are countless housing options. Abandoned and derelict stone cottages on the northern point, snuggling with its back to the bog. Complete renovation and full planning permission required before you could even open the door.

Near identical listings of white walled single story imitation cottages, once holiday homes and vacant for months at a time, are online too. How could we change the layout to work for us? I would happily renovate and live in a shack until it’s done. How can we add the cob? I think about the 40sq m extension that doesn’t need planning permission and how many extra windows for much needed light we could put in. 

There are plots of vacant land with full planning for the most hideously boring and predictable housing designs known to man. We could buy the land and still have to pay to build a home we don’t even like. All creativity gone. 

He came home from work yesterday, tired after a long commute. I told him what I had been up to instead of job hunting, about the hours I had spent looking online for Achill land. We both get stressed. He gets a tickle in his throat again and I can feel my eye sockets sink into my head from too much screen time and obsessive detail. 

Since coming back from New Zealand at the end of November, I’ve been at a loss. I can’t understand why it is so difficult to know where to settle. Neither of us want to be chained to one place for our whole lives. Really, we would like a base. Our own safe settlement where we can eat, grow food, craft practical wooden things in a workshop, read, watch movies, chop wood for the fire and stack it to satisfaction. We would like a home that is our own, that doesn’t impede on others and cannot be influenced or manipulated by them either. The land is sometimes more important than the dwelling. I imagine my herbal remedy garden, plum trees and bee hives, curved raised beds of rocket, chamomile, beetroots of different colours, chunks of hardy spinach. Meadowsweet and dandelion would grow on the edges. Mulched pathways with soft turns where you sometimes need to duck beneath a woven willow arch or a collection of sunflower heads greeting you on the way to the compost heap. 

Maybe it doesn’t matter where. I gave up on the idea that it HAD to be New Zealand. I am happy to accept Ireland now. Under the current global circumstances, having somewhere on the West Coast as a base works. When we are able to travel again, our home will be the port we dock at for months at a time, a space to rest and restore and grow and learn, before heading off on an adventure again. Both of us want that. We’ve just been too scared to have that kind of life before. Both children of the recession that we are. 

The sea doesn’t call to him in the same way it does for me. His feet long for mountain slopes. 

But not those here in Ireland he says. They are not real mountains. Real mountains are like those on Camino. 

He’s right. For him, since the same awesome feel of insignificance in the face of something so grand is not possible in Ireland by comparison to say, Asturias, he is content to live anywhere that is cheap and let me tend to my garden and my ideas.

I just need my workshop. 

We can’t forget the workshop.

I may compulsively and destructively be drawn to one manic idea/location after the next with the comparative ambition of an ice age era squirrel looking for a hiding space for the last acorn on earth, but I do know that I could adapt to mostly any land or town.

Jessie says that I shouldn’t worry. I think a person can make anywhere a home and you could find community anywhere, she comforts me. Jess always tells the truth. Her comment is less about making me feel better or her belief in my social skills and more about the general truth that home can be made anywhere.

Maybe that is both the solution and the problem. 

Home, for more than the last fifteen years, has been a nomad’s slot machine at a cheap casino. I just keep pulling the lever hoping for a unique outcome or at best, one better than my current situation. I have put up with living in places that I really didn’t like, hated even, for the sake of getting ready for the next stage. 

I moved to Dublin four times in nine years to get enough money to get the hell out of there and ‘really start my life in a place I really wanted to live’. Since I was twenty years old, I’ve had the same dream of living in a small coastal community, being involved and connected in that community, growing and living on the land, writing and teaching my way, travelling in between.

It’s not a grand idea. It’s quite simple and yet I haven’t been able to do it. Its realisation eludes me. Am I being picky or is the sea really so fundamental to my wellbeing.

Love, you seriously need to adapt. I can live without the mountains, you can live without the sea.

I look at him as if he’s just bludgeoned and goldfish and then swallowed it cold.

Remember the entire year we were apart? I ask. The two main things that kept me sane that year was Inis and the sea. Everyday Inis would wake me up, no matter how lonely or tired or stressed I was feeling and I would go outside to walk him and feel awake and alive instantly once we stepped outside. I made friends with people I never would have met thanks to Inis. He was my comforter and my baby, my snuggle buddy and my confidant. Despite all of that, Inis isn’t like the sea.

There were days where I couldn’t cope, or even just lived the day out as if I was out of it, the days were my head felt stuffed with cotton wool and my small mind would walk around up there doing its best to trample it down while walking in a circle, only to come full circle and have to start again.

Those days, I got into the car, sometimes just holding a towel and wearing my normal clothes because the urgency of my need for the sea didn’t have the patience to wait for me to change into my swimming togs. 

I would pull in at the carpark by the playground next to the footbridge and stamp my way down to the shoreline and strip down to my underwear in a kind of drugged trance, eyes fixed to the water line, peripheral vision off, selective hearing on. He could have walked across the footbridge straight off the plane from Dublin and I wouldn’t have noticed. 

No thinking, just walking then, feet sinking into the dark metallic sand. Shins, knees and just below the waist, diving forward into the centre depths of the harbour water. Eyes wide open, the softness of the heavy salted water soothing my irises when for others it would sting. I come up for air, the dive again. And then again. Always three times. On the third surfacing, I roll and glide onto my back. The tide is almost at full height now so it’s still trickling into the inner harbour. I’m not at risk of floating out to sea. Starfished, I closed my eyes and let the womb-like orange and reds of my inner eyelids become my viewpoint. I feel warm. I can hear my breath in my ears. The water is cold and it burns my fingertips a little. I feel like a human again. Invigorated. I’m not thinking of agendas or deadlines or time differences or mortgages. I’m just floating and breathing and everything is ok in my world, just for those minutes. And I don’t want to get out of the water. Not ever.

When I step out and back onto land, a part of me wants to cry but the energy I’ve been injected with from the salty softness of that sea fills me with a strength that is intoxicating. I feel alive and womanly, energetic and strong, calm and graceful and as if anything was possible.

No other experience in my life has come close to the gripping effect of the sea. I transform.

And so, the land needs to be beside the sea. That connection needs to be there. What would be the point of living, being, buying, growing, building if there was no sea nearby to nurture, rebirth and revive?

I am still consistently confused and overwhelmed about the location of this land.

But at least I know where the salty water lies.

Saturday 23 May 2020

Five months and counting

Most people on the planet are focussed on time. Clocking up the days with hashtags, with a photo a day on instagram or another loaf of sourdough bread has become the norm. Terms like lockdown, self-isolation and contact tracing are in daily usage. Here in New Zealand, there's been a shift from counting the days at home to anticipating and guessing the number of weeks we'll have at the various levels until we are fully free.

Mariana (Millais) - Wikipedia

I've given up counting, along with hope, since I don't really care anymore how many weeks we'll be at Level 2 or that fishing and hunting is allowed again. It's comforting to know I can be in the water for a swim or a surf but I feel evaporated for reasons other than being apart from the soupy blue sanctuary of the sea. I've given up counting because there is no clear number that leads to borders opening. No clear day to aim towards exists to give us permission to book flights that will allow Carlos to finally get to New Zealand.

It's been five months since I've seen him. It could be another five before I see him again and that fact makes me unbearably sad. This wasn't part of the plan. I talk about the plan when I meet people I haven't seen since I got back here after Christmas or new faces on the beach when walking with Inis who ask me why I moved to Raglan. I relay the story and have now told it so many times that it doesn't feel like my own. I've learnt how to condense it to the bare facts. I tell it almost without pause. I'm so well versed that I feel like I'm talking about someone else's life, someone else's plans simply because the thoughts of a well-coordinated vision for our lives together seems absurd now.

I summarise for all concerned as if I'm on autopilot. We were supposed to arrive together in December. The vet missed an important step. I had to leave ahead of them to activate my visa. Carlos had to stay until March with the dogs in Ireland. Vera got sick. She has lymphoma. She's not coming. Inis is here now. He arrived in March. We both have our jobs. We're very lucky. The plan was to wait. Now Covid has happened. The borders are closed. We don't know what's going to happen. Sympathetic faces that I both appreciate and want to run a mile from follow.

I don't tell the other dog walkers the rest. That's saved for friends. I don't divulge the emotional details of the plan, the dreaming and the deflation. I no longer have a desire to get into the details.We were all supposed to arrive together in December. We'd put the dogs on a plane. They'd stay in quarantine for two weeks while we enjoyed sunshine and warmth and found a home for all four of us. We would start a new life together in a new year. It's a six month process between vaccinations and vet checks to get our canine friends from Ireland to kiwi shores. Our vet missed an important step three months in. My visa would expire if I didn't activate it before the end of December. Carlos would need to stay with both dogs until March. I cried. I called myself stupid. How could I have fucked up so badly that I hadn't noticed? I was the organised one. We had a plan. I don't tell anyone how I cried for a week at the thought of being apart from the dogs and Carlos for that long. Silent tears that came along suddenly in the middle of the working day, quickly quashed in the toilet cubicle at work with some deep breaths. Heavy sobs at home in bed with the duvet softening my shivers.

Direct, pragmatic, steady Carlos held my shaking nerves like a pool of water in a cupped hand, not wanting to spill a drop. His patience for my drama was boundless. Assurances that it would only be few months, that Inis would keep me company until he got here, that this was a short term sacrifice for a long term gain of our dream, that this time apart would be 'worth it. He was right. I got on the plane, I stayed with friends. I was focussed in setting about finding a place for us to live, a car, a job and time for friends and the beach and zoom calls. There was no distinctive, definite time we could count down towards but it felt sooner, rather than later.

We are all Edward Hopper paintings now': is he the artist of the ...

And then Covid happened. And now I get asked by well-meaning friends and new folks I meet, "what's going to happen to your partner?!" and the list of reasons why he won't be here for an indescribably long period of time mount up and I feel like suffocating would be preferable to letting my anxiety count the many ways in which we are kept apart. What follows each time is my ego's determined peacocking, attracting all my attention, time and energy with the sole focus of toppling my resolve over and revealing the shoddy foundations beneath holding me up. Threatening 'always' and 'never' comments roll around in my head. "He'll never get here", "this is your fault-such a stupid idea-why did you ever think this was going to work?" "Your plans always end in chaos or disappointment or failure". "You're so self-involved. There are families separated and partners grieving and you're whingeing about being apart". On a loop like some offensive 90's dance track.

I feel ashamed that I can't keep a level head. I am envious of Carlos who can remain so calm and only focus on the fact that all this is unalterable and so attachment to a particular outcome is futile. I'm furious at myself because I am aware that worrying doesn't help and that routine and detachment from outcomes is the only healthy way to deal with this much uncertainty. The little dreamer in me cannot grasp that reality, however. I am a little girl lost trying to be an adult woman and feel like I'm failing on the daily. Some days I make lists of tasks to do in order to feel accomplished and on track. When I wobble, I make lists of goals I have accomplished and challenges I have overcome to remind myself and my impatient ego that I am not a failure. Most days it simply doesn't feel enough, though.

I guess I'm tired. My weary mind feels as though I've spent the last fifteen years pushing through cling film bound stages of struggle. Up until a year ago, I used those wins as nourishment for my soul. I am stronger, more capable, more experienced, with clearer boundaries and a strong sense of self. I've experienced loss and heart break, disappointment, concern, stress and more than enough house moves to understand myself and how I deal with life's sharp edges. These days I often feel that Covid was just one knock too many. Perhaps for some others, this has been an awakening to a new way of being, to a redirection towards previously forgotten or unknown values. For those people, I am delighted. For me, I have already had my periods of lockdown and self-isolation. I've stayed at home for days on end and thought about the great mysteries. I've sat with myself when I didn't want to and thought about what's real and essential and valued. This year was meant to be the time of implementation. I'm fed up sitting with myself and my thoughts and having this forced upon me once more has only given room for anxiety to breathe and stretch out into the spaces it once called home. It has grown new tendrils that have started to take root again. Fertile thoughts of freedom and choice, enthusiasm and celebrated sociability have been suffocated by this weed again. I turned my back on this beautiful garden of ideals, optimism, colour and adventure in my mind and now I'm faced with a yard of brambles provoking me. I see the brambles growing and coveting more space daily and for the first time in a long time, I would love to give up, just not care anymore and lead a mediocre life with a nine to five job and zero expectations of a reunion with Carlos or my optimistic, loving the world and all its magic natural state.

I think about how I'd like to be in my own conversations in my mind with myself, as well as socially. I want to be friendly and enthusiastic and joyous in my free time. Effortlessly. Not manically high on life on the daily but content about life in general and the direction it's heading in. Maybe that's why in others' rush to socialise as soon as the new levels permitted, I hid away. I was more eager to cancel with the thoughts of meeting new people and retelling my sad separation story one more time. I missed others but eight weeks alone with my thoughts has taken its toll. I don't feel proud of where my head is at. It takes effort to hide that. Socialising is probably the medicine required to ease me back into my natural state and yet it's the one thing I struggle the most with right now, more than I ever have before.

There's still some hope there, fed by Carlos' smiles on Zoom, his stupid jokes, his steadfast commitment to routine and his ability to make me laugh when I'm a mess. When I was a teenager, the Love is... illustrations were incredibly popular.The randomly naked cartoon couple, holding hands and explaining to us what love was all about both disturbed and fascinated me. I learnt what love was from dramatic love sick dances and exchanges in Pulp Fiction, Casablanca and Fred Estaire and Ginger Rogers moves. And these illustrations. I was perpetually confused. Love is....when he walks you to your car. Love is...the relationship you never thought you'd have.

Love Is

These last five months have taught me my own version, much more aligned with Puuung's illustrations. Puuung draws images of day to day realities of being in a relationship. Hugs in the kitchen for no reason except that you're passing by. Binge watching movies on a rainy Sunday. Doing a food shop together for the week ahead. Surprise gifts and Sunday pancakes.

I have run out of hope for myself lately. I'm tired and fed up of the challenges I've put myself up against and walked into blindly. I really believed this year would be a break, a small pause in all of that when in reality, this lockdown is an experience that all of us are feeling. It's the largest obstacle we have encountered so far. The only way to get through this is to desist concentrating on the long distance, separation and unknowns that keep Carlos and me apart. Instead I think of the times and experiences we have to look forward to.
Sunday pancakes. Weekends camping. Learning to surf again. Walks on the beach with Inis together. Cuddles on the couch. A hug. More hugs. Seeing those brown eyes again in person. Reaching out to a hand to hold. Hearing him potter around the house. Planning and dreaming while sitting on the same couch. Sleepy conversations before falling asleep at night. Dozy grins across from me in the morning. Watching him excitedly roam around the wood shed at the local recycle center. Cycling side by side while chatting about what to have for lunch. Drinking coffee quietly with my legs balanced across his lap, feet dangling and carefree. Making a home together. Having my best friend back. Companionship and that energetic Spanish accent in my ear. These are the things that keep me going. These are the thoughts, memories, sounds, smells and dreams that I hold close to my heart to get me through each day. When I can't think how I'm going to explain to one more person what I'm doing here alone, I think of Carlos and the life we deserve so much to have together.

Love is complicated and risky and completely unpredictable, much like this lockdown. I just need to try and find a way to embrace the process of waiting with the same eagerness I want to hug my man again.

And maybe then this experience can be that one great story that marked our lives and relationship and I can start to feel that joy, enthusiasm and idealism that makes me feel free.

Saturday 8 February 2020

Why I hate cooking now, Thermomixes and choice

I’m not sure where to start. I only know that I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. Too long. And so here I am writing. Not apologising for not posting a damn thing for over a year. Not feeling guilty for neglecting my need to get things out of my head and onto a page. Not being hard on myself for procrastinating the shit out of anything that wasn’t necessary to day to day living just right at this moment in time.
Partly, I want to write about the book I’m reading.

The other things buzzing around in my head are as follows: 

  • moving to New Zealand (after 10 years of trying)
  • reaching my 10 year goal and not knowing what to do next and (oddly) being ok with that
  • having arguments over the phone with my manfriend with a thirteen hour time difference and then lovingly resolving those arguments and realising that we’ve got this more than we ever thought we had before
  • adulting according to society by completing paper work to meet deadlines for the pet transport of my dog while also making sure I don’t just eat cereal for dinner while organising rent, bills, getting a car and a place to live
  • staying in touch with friends old and new and negotiating a new job
  • wondering how I got so horribly unfit that my dreams of being a good surfer again and someone who is active seems insurmountably unattainable
  • realising that my previous love of cooking and its inherent expression of love that I weaved through my cooking for others dissipated two years ago and now I resent it every day
  • being unattached to the outcomes of anything I set my mind to
  • feeling lost in terms of how to start doing the things I love after putting so much of that aside for the best part of two years
  • mothering, listening, the mental load and the division of labour at home
  • how I’m going to find an outlet for all these things above.

Clearly, this blog can’t contain all those thoughts.
Sometimes, it’s better just to start where you’re at.
Let’s start with the book.

It’s got a neon green cover. I’ve been meaning to read it since it came out. Friends had read it. I’d perused through it a few times in the library. Podcasts were listened to. There’s no reason that I didn’t read it before now. Except maybe, in the odd way that books can arrive in your life just as you need them. This one had to wait for certain aspects of my life to catch up before I fully clicked with all that the author had written about.
Sometimes books are just waiting for us to begin.

When I arrived back in New Zealand, this time with the knowing intention that this was final and I was not leaving this time round, I stayed in a house bus with fuschia pink and the same neon green colouring as the book. Set on the top part of a rolling hill leading down to my friends’ section of land, my favourite Karioi mountain was blocked from view but I could see their new house build, Jess’ stunning English country garden planted up and could hear their son Alistair’s sweet five year old voice outside my window while he trapped cicadas to listen to them buzz in his cupped hands.

I was thankful every day of being there. Not simply because it was free accommodation. In fact, that became less than secondary. I was thankful for the space, the time, the lack of outside influences and noises and lights and hassle that came from everywhere else when I lived in Dublin.
I could hear birds and insects rather than buses and traffic lights. I went to bed when it got dark at 9pm and woke up when there was a buzz outside early morning.
The time to make tea and drink it before it went cold. The space to take a few breaths and write a gratitude list. The chance to get my hands in the sandy soil and pull out creeping weeds, mulch up around feijoa and fig trees and sweat under the sun. Breaking every day down into its simplest tasks was an enormous relief after last year.

The aspect I cherished the most, however, were the relatable, thoughtful and inquisitive conversations we had at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Politics, land, energy, soil, tree planting, favourite desserts, bushfires, climate grief, travelling, personalities, how we met stories. No topic was off limits and it was such a beautiful and nourishing time. No tv, no clock, no interrupting messages from our phones to intervene.

Many times, myself and Jess talked about domestics, motherhood, goals and choice.
As a mother of a five year old with Nathan, she is calm, loving, dedicated and nurturing. Alistair innocently told her the other day that he never wants to leave and just wants to marry her. He imitated her tone of voice to tell a play mate that he could jump and roll down the hill, “if you feel safe” and it warmed my heart. The greatest aspect of Jess’ parenting and our conversations, is the realism.

One part of that realism that we threw ourselves into was the topic of cooking, how we both used to love it and happily spend hours in the kitchen cooking for our men and friends and selves and now, the last few years, we both fucking hate it.

We still make the healthy, dairy free home made pesto with our hand held blenders. And it still tastes amazing. But we both want to clock someone over the head with the blender. We budget and meal plan and make food from scratch. We boil pot fulls of potatoes from the garden (her) or the market (me) and turn those spuds into something beautiful with a homemade mayonnaise or a fresh herb-seasoned omelette or a mild curry with freshly steamed jasmine rice. We bake muffins and make energy balls and think about time and money and health and dietary requirements and preferences. And we’re both fucking sick of it. Over it. Hate cooking.

And we’re both equally devastated.

How did this happen? We both talked about the point for a long time. When her son was born and when me and Carlos moved in together. When cooking changed from a creative expression of love and pleasurable food to a day in, day out expected chore that was sapped of value for its sheer ordinariness.

When Carlos and I first started dating, we went to a small park with a little pond where his dog Vera could swim in to cool off. It took us forty minutes of cycling in the Spanish heat to get there, I realise now, but at the time I looped in and out of the cycle lane users with abandoned ease as we made our way there. I had gone to the market before and smelled about six mangos until I had found two that were tropically perfect. I handmade granola with toasted coconut furls. I whipped coconut cream to a cloud and blitzed vanilla and maple through it all to make vegan compotes for our lunch. Quinoa salad with fresh avocado, lemons and vine tomatoes with ripped fresh basil leaves on the side. I played music as I spent all morning swaying around my kitchen lovingly stirring, whisking, dicing, assembling and neatly packing all the various elements of this romantic meal for two.

Looking back, I didn’t need Carlos to be amazed at all I’d done. I had no expectations as I swanned about the kitchen that morning. I just loved going to the market and having the time to cook for those I loved. I even put the same amount of love into making food for myself back then. It was bliss.

When I took the lids of the various containers, his eyes widened and he asked questions about what was in each tub. He was appreciative and expressive. And then he ate the vegan mango compote and announced, “wow, that’s amazing!” and instead of being uplifted with my previous people pleasing barometer, I just smiled because not only had I made someone I love happy with my food but I had also made myself happy with the time and care and joy I got from making it.

Fast forward two years. We’ve just spent a six month winter in Ireland eating dinner on the sofa with both dogs while watching Netflix followed by an entire cup of peanut M&M’s he gets for free from Facebook. I’ve come home from another shit day at work to our hyper dogs only to drop my shit (stuff) on the bed and bring them outside for a walk straight away. I try to relax and breathe but all I can do is keep an eye on both dogs as they run around and look on in dismay as people have littered along the canal side walkway as far as the eye can see. I’m trying to think of what to make for dinner. Again.

You see, in saving money, we budget our shopping list severely and I have to decide what to make for dinner, that’s not vegetables with rice or vegetables with pasta or vegetables with noodles. Again.
There is no discernible difference in the meals I make anymore. Sometimes it’s soup but then it’s soup with vegetables and some rice thrown in to bulk it up. There are some mixed dried herbs in there. Sometimes, if I’m feeling adventurous, I throw in a table spoon of apple cider vinegar. Go wild! It’s Groundhog Day in the kitchen. We buy a near identical shopping  list every weekend and then I try to make something nutritious and affordable with what we’ve purchased and every day that I sit down to eat on the sofa in our tiny cottage, I mindlessly put the food into my mouth and chew and get annoyed at Carlos that I have to remind him to say thank you.
“I forget” he says.
“I’m always thankful that you cook” he says.
“Then why don’t you say ‘Thank you’? Why do I always have to remind you?”
“You know I thank you for your food and for cooking. You always make amazing food”
“Then why don’t you ever say it’s amazing anymore like you used to?”
“This is just what happens, love. When you’re in a long relationship, you don’t need to say those things anymore”
“Well I need you to say them, so say it”
“Thank you”

And now I feel like a needy asshole.


Because truth be told, I know he appreciates me cooking and meal prepping. But also because it’s taken me this long to realise that I’m not losing my mind; I’m realising that after close to thirty years of not letting patriarchal systems and expectations dictate my life, those systems have nonetheless parasitically creeped in and infected the one thing I hold more dear than all else: my completely lacking-in-expectation joy in expressing love to others through my cooking.

Why in a modern, cohabiting relationship did it take a standoff from me after a month of living in our new place for him to learn when the bins go out, where we keep the spare toilet paper and where the teabags go? Why did I need to ask him and remind him at least four times in one week to hoover the floor when he never has to remind me once to make the shopping list or cook the dinner?
Why has he still not figured out if cardboard goes in the recycling bin or the compost?

And then I started reading the book. Clementine Ford’s Boys will be Boys and the rage within me rose higher on each page turn.

Let me be clear, before we moved in together, Carlos cycled with me back home, forty minutes out his way, to make sure I got home safe.
He would ooooh and ahhhhh over a slice of toast with avocado on it if I made it.
He used to go the bakery around the corner to get pastries and coffees, come back and set the table and give me a hug before the pancakes I was making were even ready.

He’s my greatest supporter when I have a job interview or a wobbly moment of self-doubt.
And even now, living together, he offers to take the dogs for an extra walk before going to bed and tells me to go ahead and relax and he’ll be home soon. When we go to the supermarket together for groceries, he packs the heaviest items into his backpack so that I don’t have to carry so much. He cracks the best jokes when I’m stressed, holds me accountable for my choices, goes to my favourite Vietnamese restaurant even though he’s probably sick of going there so often and always has my back.

So why am I so friggin enraged when he doesn’t do the laundry/hoover/take out the bins/wash the dishes/make a shopping list/remember to give the dogs their meds/put the toilet seat down/rinse down the shower/fold the laundry when it’s done/turn off the tumble dryer/put out the bins on bin day/take the bins in once they’ve been emptied/remember the vet’s opening times/cook?!

Mindless, unaware, patriarchal society structures my friend.

I’m tired
I forget things easily
You’re so much better than me at doing that
It’s easier for you
I do other things for us

These are not new sentences to this one relationship and they are also not unique to my relationship alone. Talking to any of my female friends in hetero relationships and the exact same issues appear.

And as a modern, feminist cis-gender woman, I do not want this dynamic and to speak out about it only to find that the next layer to this ingrained structure is a long, repetitive, tiring, cyclically unsatisfactory tennis match where inevitably neither he nor I get what we want.

He ends up feeling that his inputs to the relationship are not “good enough”.
I end up feeling that if I want something done right, as a modern woman, I better do it myself.
Only catch? The whole point was I didn’t want to be the one doing it. I didn’t want to remember/cook/clean every goddamn thing.

As it turns out, Clementine Ford has discussed and experienced the same structures at play in my relationship and she experiences the same frustrations even though she too is in a relationship with a similarly clued in, feminist man who is aware of gendered roles and still unknowingly sinks into them.

So my love of cooking is gone. Markets and food blogs and photography and writing and inventing dishes. All gone.

But I want it back.

Enter the Thermomix, a contraption I had up until now associated with rich Instagram influencers with nothing better to do, as parodied by the hilarious The Katering Show

Jess invited me to a demonstration at her house. We watched the high revolution blade make icing sugar out of raw cane sugar in two seconds.

It’s blitzed through a whole chilly and a thumb end of fresh ginger in two seconds as if an old Indonesian lady had been pounding them in a pestle and mortar for the guts of an hour.
And when I say two seconds, I’m not adlibbing; the digital timer on the interactive screen told us so.
We made vegan ice cream in two minutes and steamed kumara curry with homemade cauliflower rice that wafted throughout the kitchen in twenty three minutes. I shit you not.

The flavours were incredible, there was minimal prep and it was one container with one attachment. It was the first time in two years that I got excited about the smells in a kitchen and yet we were still making vegetables with rice but this time, it had flavour, there were new ingredients and none of the blunt knives, shitty pots, cracked steamers or slow ass blender blades of all my previous kitchens combined featured.

And yet I wasn’t sold. Me and Jess talked a lot. Did we really need a Thermomix to cook for us? Could we not just get some decent knives and do a short cookery course to get our kitchen groove back? Then two realisations occurred to us. Jess realised that as they’ve been building their own house, Nathan will often say to her that he thinks they need to buy a new electric saw/drill/cable/whatever and since it’s a tool he needs to save him time and do his job more efficiently, she doesn’t think twice and tells him of course.

If we are to cook efficiently in our domestic space of the kitchen, surely then we should have our own tools. Jess would never tell Nathan to get on with it and just make do and saw the wood by hand. Not that he would ever expect her to make do in the kitchen but Jess and I both realised that as women, even modern women, we expect ourselves to make do with the shit, sub standard ‘tools’ we have at our disposal to crank out at least one if not three meals a day, seven days a week. What?!

This Thermomix seemed to be combination of a steamer, hot pot, high speed blender, set of knives, timer, accurate scales and cookery book in one. Why the hell where we thinking about not getting one?!

I then pointed out the aspect of cooking I had grown to hate the most-the mental load-the one that French artist Emma illustrated so aptly in the Guardian. I’m halfway through cooking when I get a phone call or I’m late coming home from work.
One scenario is starting to cook and when Carlos comes home allowing the following conversation to ensue:
“Hey love. Great, you’re home. Can you finish dinner for me? I just need to call my Dad”
“Sure, what can I do?”
(Pause as I quickly task manage a list of requirements, cooking times, recipe measurements and steps in my head and tailor it to this situation)
“Ok, so just boil the potatoes, blend the pesto ingredients and boil the eggs. We can add some salad on the side when I get back”
3 minutes later, his voice trails down the hallway corridor.
Where’s the pesto? How many potatoes do you want? How long should I boil the eggs for? Cold water or hot water? Do we have stuff to make salad?
I tell Dad I’ll call him back. Mentally, it’s just easier that I do it myself. I will remain frustrated. He doesn’t understand what he’s done wrong. He was happy to help me and make dinner.

The Thermomix has an inbuilt scale with a ‘next step’ touch screen recipe built in. The instructions are clear and the timer saut├ęs and steams and boils and simmers for you. This is the moment I realised that I may consider buying one. Because the mental load would disappear. I could, during the week, split the cooking 50/50 and just walk away. I could spend my weekends using a tool that helps me make pesto and nut milk so that there’s so much less horrible packaging in our home. I could create at the weekends with my time. The time I would make back with space in my head after the mental load leaked out and away.

Do I need a Thermomix to do that or simply keep reading the book and get Carlos to cook 50% of the time while I leave the house? Will I continue to be disappointed or jaded with my own cooking? Will I still need to manage the household simply because I’m a woman? Do I really need to buy a machine that costs almost $2500 NZD simply because I’ve lost the will to live in the kitchen?

I just don’t know. All I’m sure of is that my loving, practical, attentive, modern and feminist partner still falls into the same trap of expecting me to take the household management mental load on 24X7 and I find myself resentful in the kitchen making vegetables with rice and no flavour or sighing at a raised toilet seat or another half completed shopping list.

I think back to my modern parents and all the feminist and modern ideals they raised us with. I think to the regular conversations I have with my female friends about their identical predicament. I think back on the chapter I just finished in Boys will be Boys and I realise we have a very long way to go yet.

And a Thermomix isn’t going to magically solve the issue. Though maybe recognising that we are lacking in sufficient tools (including time, energy, creativity, money and hardware) could be the starting point.