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Body & soul: the self & exercise

March 17, 2014

shoesA strange thing has happened to me recently. Time, that thing we are all so desperately lacking, and thus constantly mourning – seems to have warped and expanded. There seem to be more hours in the day, I feel calmly able to manage all the stuff I have to do and more, without that terrible fizzy, crowdy-headed feeling Caro so aptly described in her comment on the last post – the sense of being torn in different directions by competing demands, voices, responsibilities and desires, by the world’s troubles and our responses to them, by everything hurtling in.

Free, from all of it.

This weird and pleasant sensation can be fleeting, and I have to catch it when it’s there, but I have finally figured out its source: exercise. The more I exercise, the more time slows and expands. Seriously weird.

All my life I’ve been an on-again off-again exerciser, with extended periods of good fitness alternating with long bouts of pure slothfulness. I’ve only recently come to examine why, when I know how good regular exercise makes me feel, I so often lapse away from it.

A new book by a philosopher has finally helped me work out what’s behind this: I’ve never felt I actually belonged in the world of the physically fit. I might visit for a while, and feel good about it, but underneath it flows the current of a powerful belief that I’m Not Really That Kind of Person.

I’m late to understanding what a conceit this is – seeing oneself as Of The (elevated) Mind rather than Of The (base) Body. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit here to this simplistic and, let’s face it, quite absurd desire to divide the indivisible. But there it is. Though I have often genuinely admired my friends for their skill in and love of exercise, and have long been able to see that for other people it’s not an either/or thing, I just never felt that exercise was a natural home for me.

I wonder where it began?

In my family, despite all of us kids playing sport of one kind or another throughout our childhoods – basketball was my thing, though I was never particularly good at it – all achievement in the physical sphere was met by our parents with a kind of distracted bemusement. They were much more interested in our academic and creative achievements, I guess reflecting their own personalities and backgrounds. Or maybe they just weren’t interested in the idea of competition.

I am remembering as I type this that in junior high school I was athletics champion for several years running. But it was a little school, and it was a one-day-of-the-year thing, not to be trained for or thought about between annual carnivals. And this modest physical prowess completely disappeared in the pool – I absolutely hated, feared, and was hopeless at swimming. The time a primary school teacher had to jump into the pool and rescue my scrawny, flailing form is a huge family joke.

It will be interesting to see if my siblings feel the same way about this, for as we all know, family experiences are so wildly different for each member that half the time it seems impossible one lived in the same house. But for me, while I don’t recall anything ever being said, the family ethos was pretty clear: interest in the physical world was for Other People – sport was the province of those with no interest in the imagination or the mind.

Thinking, not moving, was living. The idea that the two things could be part of one whole never occurred to us.

How wrong we were.

But how wrong we all still are, in contemporary Australian culture, almost all the time. Apart from eastern traditions like yoga, almost all discussion of exercise in our culture focuses entirely on the body – or recently, on quite mechanistic-sounding effects on brain chemistry and hormones. And for women, so much exercise promotion is also the promotion of self-hatred: we should exercise because we’re fat, our bodies are the wrong shape, we’re sagging, we’re ageing, we’re undesirable – external stuff that is all about someone making money from our insecurity and self-loathing.

Almost nobody talks publicly, with any sophistication, about the self and exercise.

But lots of people do get it. I have always had a quiet envy of people who get real peace and imaginative and contemplative sustenance from physicality – like my friend Ailsa Piper with her incredible walk across Spain, or my friends Bec and Jane who brave the waves for ocean swimming in all seasons and find it deeply sustaining, or Ali whose sense of inner peace and wholeness has always depended on being able to swim or run regularly.

dyoungbookThey have always understood what Damon Young is talking about in his wonderful new work How To Think About Exercise, but though I’ve had glimpses of this wholeness, it’s taken this book to really draw it together for me. It’s one thing to intellectually accept that what’s good for the body is good for the mind, or that body and mind and soul inseparable – but it’s another thing altogether to feel it, to actually believe in this inseparability, this wholeness, in oneself.

A Melbourne-based philosopher whose work I first read in the rich and fascinating Distraction: A Philosopher’s Guide to Being Free, Damon’s new work has come to me at a time when my own impoverished thinking about exercise was ready for some serious nourishment.

Over the past year or so I have slowly begun to take proper notice and care of my spine and neck, damaged through decades of sitting and computer use, with beginner Pilates and good preventive osteopathy bringing my back to its best condition in years. As well, I’ve been working with Alison Manning and hearing her ideas about integration of the different parts of ourselves being the key to sound mental health, born of the synthesis of neurological, psychological and behavioural research. And I have finally begun to understand – bodily – that everything in my head is connected to everything in my body.

I’ve had some great chats with my osteopath Eddie about the way one’s mind can hold old injuries and sort of re-tell them, in one’s body, as pain rather than a sensation that another person might perceive as a stretch or mere stiffness.

And in talking with my Pilates teacher and physio Prue about the effects on the body of how we use language and the things we visualise, I’ve become conscious  for the first time of how much writing novels can screw with your body. I don’t mean just the standard desk-related damage, which is now well documented. But there’s another angle to this too.

Fiction requires conflict – you can’t write a good novel about people being happy and peaceful (can you?). And for me at least, writing well requires periods of absolute and sustained mental focus on things, especially in this current novel, that are – well, not nice. As my mind inhabits a character who is frightened, or desperate, or grief-stricken, I realise now, it’s simply impossible to escape the bodily manifestation of such emotions (changes in stress hormones, muscle tension, neural pathway changes), even if it’s only to the smallest degree. But over years and years, this surely must have some strange effects.

No wonder writing is so physically tiring.

All of this came together for me when I read Damon’s elegant introduction of the concept of dualism – our cultural separation of body and mind into two separate, unrelated systems. I suddenly understood a whole lot of stuff about myself and my own body/mind schism.

I mentioned all this to a friend, telling him how I’d always felt my self to be quite separate from my body, and that this new feeling of wholeness – largely through Damon’s articulation of exercise in poetic and intellectual terms, like reverie and constancy and beauty and humility – was altogether exhilarating. It was the first time in my life, I told him, that I’d made a serious link between mind and body.

‘Bullshit,’ he said. ‘What about cooking?’

I was shocked: of course he’s right. I’ve written endlessly about how inseparable is the feeding of the mind from the feeding of the body. This whole blog is basically a discussion in those terms. So how could I have missed this other part of the equation? Why such an immovable block about exercise?

I’m yet to figure that one out. For now, I’m just happy to have this growing, real rather than wishful, sense of the bits of me coming together. It’s a tentative thing, and it will need cultivation and attention if it’s to last. I would like it to – if for no other reason, this sense of time opening up because of mental calm feels like some kind of magical gift.

Here’s a bit from Damon’s book that struck me with great force.

So Descartes was wrong. We are not minds who have bodies, in the way we have a cricket bat or pair of sneakers. We are bodies. ‘Body am I entirely, and nothing more,’ wrote Nietzche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘and soul is only the name of something in the body.’ Thinking and feeling always happen in, with and through the flesh.

That’s my new mantra: all things through the flesh. It helps me see the real point of going to the gym or the physio, or walking to the bus stop, or working in the garden or hanging out the washing – all these things I used to be impatient to get out of the way, so I could get back to the real business of thinking. 

Now I understand that all of these things are also thinking, are living. Through the flesh.

And now, after all this sitting, I’m going to haul my thinking flesh off to the gym.

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Disconnecting, disappearing

March 1, 2014

photo 1Sometimes I feel that life is a constant struggle between the obligation to participate in society – as a citizen with education and privilege and the responsibility that goes along with it – and the desire to disconnect completely, and burrow deep into one’s own life and head and the sanctuary of home and friends and safety. This week’s revelations about the horror of Manus Island and our successive governments’ instigation and approval of it has just deepened my desire for quietness and separation from the outside world. And, of course, silence and inaction is complicity. I know. I’ve done the minimum, like everybody else: signed petitions, expressed sorrow and rage. Nothing changes, the despair goes on.

Sometimes, a sabbatical from citizenship is the only thing that will return my equilibrium. This week, that means taking leave of absence from Facebook (quite some time ago I deleted my personal Twitter account), sinking down, going quiet. And yes, I realise the irony of talking about this here, in blogland – but somehow this space has always felt different, and quietly comforting, to me.

This morning I was reminded of the week I took off all ‘connected’ technology last year, which I wrote about for Good Weekend magazine – you can read it here. Rereading this diary of disconnection just now, I was suddenly  urgently desiring of that quiet, private space it opened up in me. Here are a few bits of it:

Day three

I’m growing used to this luxurious, expansive sense of time. But without the interruptions of email and social media, or stray minutes scooting around the internet in search of some small fact, this intensity of focus is actually a little wearing. I’m embarrassed: as a novelist, I thought I was used to long stretches of hard concentration, but it seems I’m much scattier than I realised.

On the plus side, I’m reading much more than usual: long, uninterrupted hours of peaceful reading during the day. It feels indulgent and blessed, like a return to childhood …

Day four

My email-avalanche fear is building. But I rationalise that there can’t be more than 10 really urgent ones to deal with – if anything drastic was happening, people would surely phone. I’m realising how needy I am. Maybe it’s not a fear of being pursued, but the opposite: what if, instead of hundreds of claims for my attention when I return, there are none? What if nobody has even registered my absence?

Then two “emails” from bemused friends arrive – by snail mail. One is actually a printed-out email stuck to a postcard. The other, a chatty note from a friend across the city, is addressed to me c/- Luddites R Us. I’m enormously cheered, for with my newfound privacy has come a subtle kind of loneliness. I miss the breezy chatter and fleeting thoughtfulness that email and social media allow. I’ve never believed the internet forces people away from meaningful connection, and I’m relieved to find that belief unshaken. Online talk doesn’t replace in-person friendship; it’s another way of expressing and exploring it, in ways that are rich and varied, funny and real.

Day five
Floored by a savage head cold, I have to cancel coffee with my sister-in-law. Years of SMS arrangements seem to have eradicated my sense of telephone etiquette: when is it too early or too late to phone? A straight-out call seems intrusive. What a strange place I’ve got to.

Settling back into the yawning hours of privacy, I feel a little less like I’m wagging school, and more like I’ve been suspended. Will I ever see my friends again?

For the first time in years, I find myself actually reading the daily newspaper, and watching entire news bulletins at night. When I buy a printed magazine for the first time in 12 months, I realise that some of what I’m missing is not actual communication, but a kind of idle entertainment. Without the internet, most of my hours are spent with my mind fully occupied. I see now that the web, social media – even email – must provide me with a sort of twilight half-engagement. I thought I was an energetic, attentively focused sort of person. To discover how much mental laziness I possess is unsettling.

I don’t know whether it’s cause or effect, but I do know there’s a relationship between that laziness and the skittery, skating kind of feeling I get when there’s too much outside world coming in. But one of the best cures, the most solace, is to be found in writing.  Other people’s, I mean, though a certain kind of calm does come back to me when I’m also fully engaged in my own.

Today this solace has come from reading Susan Wyndham’s beautiful, gentle, delicately wrought profile of writer David Malouf, a man who has always seemed to me to embody thoughtfulness. I was somehow heartened and calmed by this:

He knows his measured views can annoy more outspoken people, but he believes a writer should be open-minded, curious, doubtful, able to slip into other skins – ‘a person who is in two minds about everything, and when he’s given it a bit of thought finds that he’s in six minds about it’. 

and this:

‘We don’t really understand other people’s lives, because the events we see are not the significant ones. What you’re interested in writing about are those unrevealed things that have shaped the course of people’s lives.’

Maybe one of the problems I have with all the anger at public policy now is the great weariness I feel in knowing we are all so certain of everything. I’m absolutely certain our Prime Minister is wrong, on almost everything, and he’s just as certain that I’m wrong. The space between we just fill with noise, and rage, and despair.

So. Back to books, and Malouf’s decision as a young man to leave Australia for Italy.

‘I wanted to go somewhere where I could sit down quietly and discover what else I had to write, if anything.’

Next week I’m going somewhere, to the place in the picture above in fact, to sit down quietly and discover the same thing. I feel calmer already.

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A seasonal shift…

February 27, 2014

ImageHello friends. It’s the first cool day of late summer here in Sydney today. It’s kind of nice, even for a heat-loving old girl like me. So I’m thinking about changeable weather and new seasons. 

Old faithful followers of this blog will know it has been a long while since the old days of regular posts here. I’ve felt bad about my disconnection from this blog over the past – well, the past year, really. I have toyed with the idea of shutting up shop, quite often, but something has stopped me each time. 

I can’t quite account for my absence here, really. I still cook all the time, but I’ve somehow lost the impetus to write about it so much. Maybe it’s a simple as the momentum finally running out after four or so years – I started the blog way back in 2009. 

So, with sincere apologies to new followers and subscribers who signed up to a cookery blog, I’ve had an idea. I’m going to branch out from writing strictly about cooking, and just write about whatever takes my fancy. What do you think? The thing I really loved about blogging when I first began was the luxurious freedom and looseness of it, and somehow over the years I think I lost sight of that, and began to feel a sort of professional obligation to this space – when the whole point of starting it was to write stuff that was not related to my usual writing life at all. That it could be a place to write in a much more relaxed, dreamy way. I still love that idea.

I feel that my days are very full with lots to think and talk about. I spend huge amounts of time reading and writing all kinds of stuff – I’m trying to complete a PhD this year which involves finishing my new novel and producing a thesis about psychology and creativity – and I’ve been doing some work I absolutely love with a new colleague and old friend. I’m lately involved with the beautiful Camdenville Paddock Community Garden, where I somehow got myself elected secretary (yikes), and I still do lots and lots of cooking. I often feel the urge to share some bit of interesting reading I’ve found online (like this great article a mate James sent me today, about procrastination, or this profile of Baz Lurhmann my friend V sent me last week), or information about something that makes a huge difference to my life, like my new swishy standupanddowny desk which still retains my battered and beloved old teak desktop but means my back and neck pain is much reduced, or how interesting I find the writers I talk to for my digital magazine

As I’m doing a lot of private and some public talking about writing, and writing processes, probably lots of my posts will be about that. But they might also be about how I just grew my first capsicum. ImageOr about what I’ve been reading and loving lately. Or what it’s like to get out of the city and get immersed in my own weird new book for a week (next week). Maybe it will sometimes just be a photo, like this one, of the rather beautiful grasses I saw at uni last week. 

Anyhow, we’ll see. I’d love you to stay and hang out here with me, but won’t be remotely offended if you unsubscribe and go find a proper cooking blog that actually is what you were looking for in the first place. 

And if you stay tuned, we’ll talk soon.

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Flashback – citrus couscous

December 13, 2013

citruscouscousLast night I made this lovely couscous salad – we haven’t eaten it at home in a couple of years I think, and now I can’t imagine why. It’s very good. I remembered it because I watched Jamie Oliver’s 15-Minute Meals the other day and he made some terrific lamb rissoles with pistachio, honey & thyme, and he served it with couscous.

The recipe for this salad is here, posted way back in 2009!

The meatballs were excellent – I’m a big fan of the J-man – and extremely easy. The recipe isn’t online, but I’m wondering if that book might be a very good present for cooks for Christmas (though of course everything takes longer than 15 minutes – I’d double the time personally, though the meatballs certainly didn’t take any longer than that).

But anyway, back to the couscous. Recommended – and it keeps forever and ever and a day.

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Grrrr, apology

December 9, 2013

Hello subscribers! Sorry about that chief – WordPress destroyed my last blog post immediately after I made it. I’ve rewritten and reposted, so it is available again here: http://howtoshuckanoyster.com/2013/12/09/christmas-material-a-festive-salad/

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Christmas material: a festive salad

December 9, 2013

photo 2[2](Take two! Sorry about the disappearance of first draft – I blame WordPress!)

A few weeks ago, when we had some pals round for dinner, I made a salad. I had planned an attempt at replication of one of the most perfect dishes I have ever eaten – a beautiful little salad I ordered as an entree in a Rome restaurant back in October (I could go on, and on, and on about that holiday but I won’t for fear of bursting into bitter tears of post-holiday-self-envy).

It was such a simple thing: a scattering of semi-roasted cherry tomatoes, a handful of tiny, sweet Ligurian olives, and a large, perfectly fresh zucchini flower – uncooked – filled with the most delicious ricotta I have ever tasted. It was one of those dishes that depends absolutely on the quality of each element, yet was so utterly simple, who wouldn’t want to try making it?

photo 5Well, things didn’t exactly to go plan for my dinner. For some reason the day came and rapidly went in a shambles of chaos and disorganization. I can’t recall what  put me in such a flap that day, but it was one of those afternoons of delays, interruptions, annoying shopping glitches – I couldn’t get enough zucchini flowers for the number of people, and the flowers were nowhere near the fresh, springy, silky quality of the one I ate in that dish. And nor could I find any really good ricotta in time. And I decided to add some asparagus to make up for lack of flowers, and my Ligurian olives were boring old kalamatas. By dinnertime, I had reverted to my usual cookery approach: 1. Get all the stuff. 2. Chuck it in a bowl. 3. Stick it on the table.

photo 3The one thing I did get right was the roasting of the tomatoes – little cherry lollybombs of sharp, salty sweetness with a concentrated delicious flavour. Easy to cook, but also easy to overdo at the last minute.

Still, despite being a completely different animal from the elegant entree of my memory, the salad was really quite nice. And one of the friends present liked it so much she told me later she’d decided to make it for her family’s Christmas lunch.

Well. I happened to run into her last week, and she told me she’d given it a trial run at home from her memory of the one we had, as you do. Her bloke and daughter ate the test dish, gave her a dubious glance and said, “Well, it’s not Christmas material.”

Not Christmas Material.

Them’s fightin words, pal.

When I repeated this outrage to Señor and said I’d be making it again and this time writing down what I did, he said: “Is that going to be the headline? Not Christmas Material My Arse?”

So here, in the spirit of reputation reclamation and hopefully the restitution of a Perfectly Good Salad to Miz G’s Christmas table, is a recipe.

The key thing, I reckon, is to use as high quality everything as you can, and  to make sure to roast the tomatoes very slowly. You can do the whole thing ahead of time and then just eat it at room temperature – or eat it warm just after cooking.

Ingredients

  • assorted cherry tomatoes
  • sea salt
  • spray olive oil
  • 2 or more bunches asparagus spears, cut into thirds or halves
  • best black olives you can find – the little sweet plump Ligurian ones are perfect
  • fresh zucchini flowers with tiny zucchini attached
  • best quality balsamic vinegar and olive oil for dressing
  • Best quality soft goat’s cheese or Persian feta

Method

photo 1[2]1. Halve the cherry tomatoes and arrange on baking paper, sprinkle with salt and spray with olive oil. Roast slowly for a couple of hours – I did these at 125 degrees C in a fan-assisted oven for two hours, then turned off the fan and turned down the oven to 100 degrees for another half hour.

2. Blanch the asparagus in boiling water for maximum one minute, the refresh in cold water.

3. Halve the zucchini and flowers lengthwise. Heat a little olive oil in a non-stick pan and then fry the zucchini on the flat side for a minute over moderate heat. Splash a little water into the pan, add the asparagus and cover for a minute, cooking till both zucchini & asparagus are tender.

photo 3[2]4. In a wide shallow bowl or platter, toss the vegetables, tomatoes and olives gently in a dressing of three parts oil to one part vinegar.

5. When it’s all mixed, dollop a few blobs of feta or goat’s cheese over the platter.

Who knows, with its red and green baubley goodness, this one might even make the grade as Christmas material for our table this year.

So what are your plans for Christmas cooking, hmm?

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Vine & cheese…

December 4, 2013

vine-haloumiOn the weekend, along with another crack at the char-grilled octopus (a big hit with the punters, it turns out, specially served with aioli) I revisited this old Karen Martini recipe for haloumi and roasted garlic wrapped in a vine leaf and served with peach.

I just put a slice of peach on each piece, stuck a toothpick through each one and then handed a platter around at an afternoon of drinks and snacks in the back yard. It was another hit, so keep it in mind if you need a slightly unusual plate of morsels some time. I did everything but the cooking ahead of time and then it was just a matter of slinging them in the frypan for a few minutes. Worth it, I reckon.

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