Make Do and Bend

Thanks to my father’s eccentric views on store cupboard necessities and general tidiness, I can make a meal out of pretty much anything using a workspace barely big enough for a dinner plate.

He taught me to experiment with recipes and cuisines, while my mother taught me to cook from scratch. So all in all, I’m well set for making edible, if sometimes odd, meals out of whatever I’ve got to hand.

But – that’s not to say I always want to. 

Last Thursday was one of those days. In fact last Thursday was one of those days when I didn’t want to do anything at all. 

Feeling positive and upbeat in the coronavirus world seemed as impossible a task as putting ten people in a lift and telling them to socially distance themselves.

Things that pushed me over the edge:

  • Waiting for ages in the pharmacy
  • An irritating working day when the work laptop kept crashing
  • Knowing it would be the weekend before I could get on with editing my novel which had been in the process thereof forever
  • Missing my son who’s fifty miles away
  • Worrying about my sister and niece who are both in the nursing profession.

On Thursday, I just had enough of feeling positive. What I wanted to do was throw the work laptop out of the window and delete my novel. What I most didn’t want to do was make another wretched meal. What I really wanted to do was stomp to the hotel and order one instead. 

Only of course, the hotel and every other eating establishment in the country is shut for the duration. 

Perhaps I’d burnt out my cooking mojo over the previous seven days. I’d made some very inauthentic but tasty ‘pakoras’. I’d made some even less authentic but tasty ‘samosas’ (they were more sort of curried vegetable pasties really). I’d made some successful flatbreads despite having only half the right ingredients. I could argue that I’d had no imagination left to put into anything, but actually I’d just had enough.

I suggested we ordered an Indian take-away. My husband pulled a face. ‘What were we going to have if we don’t get a take-away?’ he said. 

‘Stir-fried pork and stir-fried whatever veg is in the bottom of the fridge and egg-fried rice,’ I said.

‘Yum,’ he said. ‘That sounds much nicer than take-away. We’ll have that.’

‘But it takes longer to prepare than it takes to cook and eat,’ I argued. ‘And there are always so many cooking utensils involved in stir-fries.’

I’ll cook it then,’ he said. 

The thought of that was even worse. Where I can use three utensils, he can use ten. Plus he puts enough extra chilli and soy-sauce in his stir-fries to fill the kitchen with high-blood-pressure-inducing toxic fumes.

In the end, I said I’d cook it after all and sent him off on his daily walk while I sliced the living daylights out of some rather limp vegetables until I felt marginally better.

These are peculiar times when the whole structure of the normal lives of most of the world’s population utterly changed more or less simultaneously (give or take some governments’ prompt responses to the situation or lack thereof). 

The skies are now clearer than they’ve been for decades, maybe in some parts of the world, for over a century. And yet none of us knows if at any time, we might catch somehow the virus, whether or not we’ll be badly affected and either way, whether we’ll unwittingly pass it on to someone else who might subsequently die. 

Not being able to eat out, not being able to buy a specific ingredient aren’t really very important in themselves, many people can’t usually – but they’re reminders that life is not normal, that hospital staff like my sister and niece have to dress up like spacemen to work, that there’s nowhere anyone can go to ‘get away from it all’, that no-one has the least idea when we’ll be back to normal or even what normal will look like when it’s all over.

Sometimes, all that is overwhelming. 

On Thursday, I felt overwhelmed and in the end I told myself that that was ok. I decided to give myself space to feel overwhelmed and then start afresh the next day. Which I did. Then, I spent the weekend getting to grips with my novel. 

I’m glad I didn’t delete it. I’m not quite so sure whether I’m glad I didn’t throw the work laptop out of the window.

Somewhat less overwhelmed today, I’m feeling more cheerful about making tonight’s dinner out of what’s available. It’s not as if we can’t get nice food, and enough of it. We just can’t get it as often or as easily as we could a month or so ago. 

I thought of those memes that refer to WWII rationing and remind us that things could be worse. Out of curiosity, I extracted my research copy of ‘The Victory Cookbook’ . Flicking through to see what sort of things were suggested to British housewives during the war, I found a recipe for Pilchard Layer Loaf which was apparently ‘new and very exciting’. It involves, basically, layers of bread and tinned pilchards with a sort of mustardy béchamel poured over and then baked in the oven. Well, I have bread, I have tinned mackerel, I have the makings of a mustardy béchamel…. Could I? Should I?

I also have some poultry, some rather wizened tomatoes, some garlic, some grapes and some olives. A sort of cacciatore I think, only perhaps with a little chilli to keep my husband happy.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all this, that’s ok. None of us have to feel upbeat all the time, including you dear reader. But this will be over one day and we have to hold on to that even if we can’t hold on to each other.

In the meantime though, I’m sort of hoping things’ll never be so bad that I try making Pilchard Layer Loaf. 

It sounds utterly disgusting.

 

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Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

10 Tips to help if you’re worried about coronavirus

 

Honey

She climbed a tree and hunched.

We called: ‘please come down,’ but she stared over the rooftops to the wide world as if yearning to fly.

‘What shall we do?’ we whispered.

In the kitchen, we cut a wobbly doorstep from the fresh loaf and poured honey over.

‘It’s your favourite,’ we called, ‘just for you.’

Mummy turned. A moment passed. Then she climbed down and hugged us tight, bread and all.

She smiled a little, but tears mingling with honey, sparkled in her hair.

Under our kisses, her face was sticky and salty.

‘We’ll make it better,’ we said.

honey

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

 

From a prompt on Thin Spiral Notebook – check out what others have written

Feeling Failure

We rarely used our ancient microwave. Its main purpose was cooking peas and porridge (not together). Nevertheless it caught fire last week when all I was doing was heating up a little water in a dish to warm the dish. (Don’t ask me why I didn’t just use water from the kettle, but it may indicate my current state of mind. Plus the house was very cold, hence warming the plate.)

A couple of days after this, the internet router went into death spasms and finally croaked on Friday evening, just in time for a weekend when having access to the web was actually essential rather than simply desirable.

This seemed a fitting end to a stressful November and I’m trying to restrain the illogical superstitious nagging voice which sneers “things come in threes – it’ll be the washing machine next. Mwah-ha-ha!”

This time two years ago, everything I had ever written was for family viewing only because I was too shy to let anyone else see it. In 2015, with some prompting, I entered a local competition and then joined some Facebook writing groups and by the end of November, had managed to complete my first Nanowrimo with a thriller (completely different sort of genre for me), had written a piece of flash every day for Flashnano, had joined a local writers’ group and was, having enjoyed this experience so much, was about to launch into writing a piece of flash every day for advent too. These two sets of flash ended up as the basis of two collections of short stories: “Kindling” and “The Advent Calendar”.

So having got to the end of 2015, my plans for 2016 included: finding a new job or new role within my current organisation; self-publishing “Kindling” before June and “The Advent Calendar” in September; revising last year’s Nanowrimo novel and finding an agent with a view to maybe getting it published; finishing a novella I started a few years ago and maybe (when feeling at my most optimistic) losing two stone (twenty-eight pounds), getting fit, getting/keeping the house straight and increasing our family intake of vegetables.

Things started ok. I went running after work in January and used my Christmas money to book onto a “how to self-publish your book” course at an arts centre which counts as local if seventeen miles is local. In February, I finally braced myself to actually read my 2015 Nanowrimo novel and found it was not too terrible. I started to read bits of it out at my Writers’ Group and got some good, useful feedback.

The actual slog of revising the novel however, was put to one side as I revised “Kindling” and “The Advent Calendar” and found volunteers to be my reviewers/proof readers and tried to work out what to do about covers. Meanwhile, the “how to self-publish your book” course was cancelled. The urge to exercise waxed and waned with the outside temperatures/weather fronts and inside stress levels. All the other things were a non-starter as they had been every year beforehand.

Then again, with the help of old friends, new friends, internet friends and books by Jo Roderick (“Publish it Yourself” and “Format it Yourself”) and Rick Smith (“How to Publish your Paperback with Createspace”), I published “Kindling” at the end of September. I agonised over the design of a cover and in the end, bought one. “The Advent Calendar”, with a cover I designed myself, came out just in time for Christmas and the leader of my writers’ group organised a story evening when I would get the chance to showcase my work and maybe sell some copies of both books. I decided I would do Nanowrimo again and maybe actually finish that novella after all and should it finish short of 50k, start something else to make up the words.

Meanwhile, after seven internal applications, I finally obtained another role within my own organisation and this started on 1st November, with two days of travelling to London and back from country-mouse territory, just in time for Nano and Flashnano. All started well. But, to cut a long story short, what with work and a number of other things, I gave up on Flashnano after 11th November and on Nanowrimo on 20th (having reached 25k and knowing it would be impossible to get any further).

The day of the story evening loomed. I was immensely nervous. “Tell us something about yourself” I was advised. What’s there to say about myself? I’m just a working mother who juggles work, teenagers, husband, housework, writing despite the fact I can’t juggle. In the end, on the way to a meeting the morning of the event, I sat on the train and jotted down a plan to “tell my story” using my actual stories. The day at work then deteriorated into one of those where you end up just wanting to crawl in a hole and lick your self-confidence back from minus ten to maybe zero. From this, I had to force myself into actress mode and be a story teller, make people laugh, make people think, make people go “aah”.

Do you know what? It went well. It went really well. I should have an Oscar for that performance. I sold some books. People said nice things. They wrote even nicer things. I came home high as a kite. But at four a.m. what woke me up was the bad day at work, churning over and over and over, obliterating all the positives. And although I had already resigned myself to not finishing Nano, I still felt disappointed that I hadn’t managed to do half of what I’d done the year before.

I’m not naturally a pessimist, so what’s wrong? Why is my default to think about the things which haven’t worked out rather than the things which have? My whole life has been a series of changes of direction resulting from bad choices or bad grades or just taking different routes from the ones I meant to take or simply life getting in the way of plans as it tends to do. (For example, if I’d followed the plan I’d set at eighteen, I’d have married my first love, would now have four grown up children and be a long established, award winning novelist. Instead I married a later love, have two teenage children (aargh), am still employed and only just starting on my published journey.)

Of the many management courses I’ve been on in a long (some days it feels longer than others) career, the one which I found most useful was about coping with change. Reference was made to “the change curve”. This was established from research into grieving, when it was discovered that the same pattern of behaviour applies to major change as it does to grief. Understanding this helped me immensely a few years later when my father died. I knew I was feeling positive because I needed to do a lot of coping for myself and my mother and also knew that shortly, the grief and disbelief would kick in, followed by a period of depression and/or utter weariness, followed by picking up the pieces once more.

In November this year, I started a new job and launched two books to an audience of strangers. These two things were good but stressful. The two books were the result of a year of work and emotion.

It is now wintertime, getting darker and darker, colder and colder, a season which drains me. My daughter is about to do her GSCEs and my son, about to do his A Levels, has his first university interview next week. They are on the threshold of adulthood. It seems like a hundred years since I was at that stage of life. There was bound to be a reaction.

Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, the ability to feel positive, however illogically, is overwhelmed by negative events. I need to give myself a break. It’s just the way I feel right now.

And if you’re feeling as down as I am, you need to give yourself a break too.

watch

Words and photograph copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission