21 May 2012

Of Love, Blood and Saying Goodbye.

Four and a half weeks ago, we buried my father. A tall, sturdy man of 65, in apparent good health. He died unexpectedly, on a bicycle ride organised by a local club of which he was the chairman. About a mile from home, he gave a scream and fell over. One scream, and Dad is no longer just a phone call away.

It was an enormous shock. I had expected at least another twenty years with both of my parents. After all, life expectancy in Belgium is up to around 80, and my dad was never one to give up early.

Life expectancy is a deceptive number. It's not a warranty, nor a right. That 80 is an average. For every centenarian, one of us kicks the bucket in our early sixties, and you don't get to ask for a refund. Meanwhile our politicians discuss raising the retirement age to 67, or even to 70.

This past month, I've lived my life over and over again, questioning my choices, behaviour and most of all, my values and priorities. While mourning for my father, I've also grieved for missed opportunities and for the time and energy I have already wasted: on being impatient with imperfection, on worrying about worldly trivia and on incessant self-criticism.

I work a lot, and enjoy what I do. Yet it takes up a large chunk of my life, leaving precious little to divide between everyone and everything else I love: my husband, family, friends, 6.5 cats, writing, reading, travelling, pottering about with herbs, food and wine, not to mention my ongoing quest to understand what Life is all about.

Who am I? Why are we here? What's the true value of Man / Woman in this social, ecological network we call World? Will our spirits live on when we are no longer remembered? Does it matter? Why do I even care?

So many questions, so few answers - a downside of having said goodbye to one's childhood faith and the simple, clear-cut answers it provided. As a grown-up, I am responsible for my own answers, either to discover them, or to make some up as I go along.

Never before have I understood how deeply a parent's death cuts into one's heart. I am an independent woman and by no means a Daddy's girl. Up until a month ago, I wouldn't even have called myself a family person. I've only just begun to acknowledge my parents' impact on who I have become. But the influence is there, and it cannot be overestimated. We might radiate on different wavelengths, but our cores are solid and alike. My life would have been so different if it hadn't been for their presence and support, and I know many people aren't that lucky.

And then - a phone call, a cataclysm to disrupt our lives and shake up the status quo. In a split second, 'everyday life' turns into something spelled with capital letters. Suddenly, similarities shine more brightly and differences dissolve.

Now, a month later, the first whirlwind of emotions has settled and I feel wrung out. My skull is filled with cotton wool, my brain occupied, getting used to the new situation, incorporating, filing and wrapping up; it's hard to concentrate for any length of time.

Our only certainty is change, and times seem to have changed once again. Yet underneath, what I fear most is that soon, life will go on, and that maybe, just maybe, this won't have changed me at all.

Photo 'circle of life' by Carmen Kong, available under a creative commons license. © 2006, Carmen Kong.
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17 Mar 2012

Living in the Heart of Europe.

I'm having one of these moments where I feel incredibly lucky. It's connected with the lovely spring weather, I'm sure, and being tired helps too.

Yesterday I had a 15-hour working day, and it was a really good one.

I got up at 5:45 (okay, an awful start) to catch a train to the French city of Amiens. There I spent a few hours in a meeting and a working lunch, before getting on another train to Tournai, Belgium's oldest city, in the French-speaking part of our country.

After another meeting and a small reception in the crypt of Tournai's stunning city hall, I returned to my home town late at night to find my fabulous husband waiting for me at the station because he'd guessed I'd be very tired and not in the mood to walk home. Small actions can mean so much, sometimes.

Cathedral, Amiens (France). March 2012.
Because I travelled by train I also had some moderate exercise, walking through the wonderful city centres of Amiens and Tournai, ànd I managed to squeeze in a 30-minute visit to Amiens' stunning cathedral.

Not bad for an average working day.

Once again it hit me what a great part of the world we live in. Sure, Europe has its economic issues, political struggles and the odd cultural misunderstanding, but that's just one side of life.

It doesn't take away from the profound beauty of our surroundings and the awe-inspiring monuments those same civilisations have created all around us.

While society continues to change, our cities, villages and landscapes testify to the cycles that have been. They breathe our rich and colourful history and never cease to whisper stories, there for our hearts and minds to pick up.

We just need to listen.

What does your environment whisper of?

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13 Mar 2012

Lucky 13: Women Writers about Attitude.

"The excursion is the same when you go looking for your sorrow as when you go looking for your joy."
- Eudora Welty

"If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude. Don't complain."
- Maya Angelou

"The knowledge that we are responsible for our actions and attitudes does not need to be discouraging, because it also means that we are free to change this destiny. One is not in bondage to the past, which has shaped our feelings, to race, inheritance, background. All this can be altered if we have the courage to examine how it formed us."
- Anaïs Nin

"The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude."
- Julia Child

"I happen to feel that the degree of a person's intelligence is directly reflected by the number of conflicting attitudes she can bring to bear on the same topic."
- Lisa Alther

"Never be limited by other people's limited imaginations. If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won't exist because you'll have already shut it out...You can hear other people's wisdom, but you've got to re-evaluate the world for yourself."
- Mae Jemison

"Don't be a pawn in somebody's game. Find the attitude which gives you the maximum strength and the maximum dignity, no matter what else is going on"
- Anne Rice

"I think the passion for an extraordinary life, and the courage to pursue it, is what makes us special. And I don’t even think of it as an “extraordinary life” anymore so much as simple happiness. It’s rarer than it should be, and I believe it comes from creating a life that fits you perfectly, not taking what’s already there, but making your own from scratch."
- Laini Taylor

"If you can't change your fate, change your attitude."
- Amy Tan

"Reverence is an emotion that we can nurture in our very young children, respect is an attitude that we instill in our children as they become school-agers, and responsibility is an act that we inspire in our children as they grow through the middle years and become adolescents."
- Zoe Weil

"If there's one thing I believe, it's that I don't know anything and anything can happen"

- Amy Lee

"Novels don't contain only exceptional situations, life or death choices, or major ordeals; there are also everyday difficulties, temptations, ordinary disappointments; and, in response, every human attitude, every type of behavior, from the finest to the most wretched. There are books where, as you read, you wonder: What would I have done?"
- Laurence Cossé

"Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
- Mary Oliver

Photo 'stare' by Sandra Lara, available under a creative commons license. © 2008, Sandra Lara.
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6 Mar 2012

Too Cute: Little Pandas Drinking Milk.

Huffington Post shared this video and I thought it was so cute, I couldn't keep it from you.

And now ... back to work. See you later!
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1 Mar 2012

Book Review: Blood Orchids, by Toby Neal.

In case you have been wondering: I am still alive. For the past month and a half, I have been working like a maniac. Neglecting my blog - and my friends' blogs (sorry guys!) - was the only way I could save the remaining shreds of sanity.

By now The Project has been submitted and I have taken a week off to recover, read, write and spend some time in my beloved Cotswolds.

I've finally finished Kim Harrison's The Hollows series, and got to read Toby Neal's Blood Orchids, which had been on my must-read list ever since it came out.

I hardly ever read crime novels, but I'm a big fan of Toby's blog, her topics, writing style and her warm, zesty personality. As a result, I really wanted to read Blood Orchids, and I'm glad I have.

It took me a while to get a feel for the story and connect with the characters, possibly because there's a lot of Hawaiian "couleur locale" in the story, which is quite alien to my European self. However, the more I got to know Lei Texeira, the protagonist, the more I cared and the faster I began to read - a good sign.

The novel's world is drawn in rich detail and step by step the setting enfolded and I got grabbed by the lighter and darker sides of Hawaiian culture.

However, to me, the strongest elements of this novel are its characters. They're human and real, they have a history and hopes and dreams for the future, they're damaged but eager to live fulfilling and meaningful lives. Toby's characters stay with you long after you've finished reading.

Lei's a great heroine, but my personal favourite was Dr. Wilson. I'd unload my issues on her couch any day! I'm (not-so-secretly) hoping Toby will one day write another series with her as the main character.

I also found Lei's developing relationship with Stevens very interesting and well-written. They have a number of great scenes together, which could only have been written by an intelligent and wise person with a keen insight in human nature, who's not afraid to dig deep into her own mind and experiences in order to touch on fundamental thoughts and authentic emotions.

I can't wait to see what Toby will come up with in the future. Definitely a writer I'll continue to follow!

You can find Toby's blog at http://www.tobyneal.net/.
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21 Jan 2012

Guest Kittens - the Breakthrough.

It's been two weeks since Guest Kittens 2 and 3 moved into our improvised Sunflower Kitten Hotel.

During that time they have grown like ... well, sunflowers, and after a painstakingly slow process of acclimatisation and a small amount of blood spilt - mine - they have finally stopped seeing us as a threat.

Two days ago, we experienced a major breakthrough. Turn up the volume and check out the result here:

It's been quite an adventure, getting this far. Confrontational, too. I'm not the most patient person on the planet, so this is a life lesson, a story of apprivoiser, like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's little prince who had to go through the necessary steps and rituals to approach and befriend his fox.

What a fragile and hard-won construct trust can be - and rightfully so.

But now we've come this far, we've got a good chance of finding this precious duo a warm and loving home.

They're still a bit shy, but I'm sure that with continued TLC they will blossom into the most affectionate cats you can imagine - just like their mum and their big sister. And they make great entertainers - the perfect distraction while you're trying to write ...

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13 Jan 2012

Lucky 13: Women Writers about Imagination.

“There are two ways to reach me: by way of kisses or by way of the imagination. But there is a hierarchy: the kisses alone don't work.”

- Anaïs Nin (Henry and June)

“When I read a book, I put in all the imagination I can, so that it is almost like writing the book as well as reading it - or rather, it is like living it.”
- Dodie Smith (I Capture the Castle)

"I have crossed over to a place where I never thought I'd be. I am someone I would have never imagined. A secret. A dream. I am this, body and soul. Burn me. Drown me. Tell me lies. I will still be who I am.”
- Alice Hoffman (Incantation)

“You will recognize your own path when you come upon it because you will suddenly have all the energy and imagination you will ever need.”
- Sara Teasdale

“A lady's imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”
- Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice)

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
- Sylvia Plath

“I doubt that the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, he would grow up to be an eggplant.”
- Ursula K. Le Guin (The Language of the Night)

“You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander."
- Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird)

“The imagination needs moodling,--long, inefficient happy idling, dawdling and puttering. ”
- Brenda Ueland

“Writing is a job, a talent, but it's also the place to go in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.”
- Ann Patchett (Truth and Beauty: A Friendship)

“Imagination is a good servant, and a bad master.”
- Agatha Christie (The Mysterious Affair at Styles)

“Are we all living like this? Two lives, the ideal outer life and the inner imaginative life where we keep our secrets?”
- Jeanette Winterson (Sexing the Cherry)

“Those who fear the imagination condemn it: something childish, they say, something monsterish, misbegotten. Not all of us dream awake. But those of us who do have no choice.”
- Patricia A. McKillip

Photo 'Reach' by Keith Garner, available under a creative commons license. © 2011, Keith Garner.
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12 Jan 2012

Kitten Said No ...

(No comment.)
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4 Jan 2012

Sunflower Kitten Hotel.

2012 started well for Guest Kitten 1. On the second day of the New Year, she moved to a big house in the historic centre of Bruges (how lucky can you get ...) to live with a loving couple, their wonderful little girl and two big-hearted Golden Retrievers.

Since her departure we've managed to capture her two remaining siblings and now they too enjoy the perks of our temporary three-star Sunflower Kitten Hotel (formerly known as: The Conservatory).

They're still very shy, but each day they become more curious, playful and at ease. Earlier this morning one started purring when I was near, which makes me hopeful they'll want to check us out soon.

It means that in a matter of days, these two cuties will also be ready to go to a new home.

Therefore, if you're anywhere in or near Flanders, Belgium and you have a big heart, house or garden, drop me a line.

Below I've enclosed two more videos - for your entertainment and okay, maybe a bit to play on your emotions ....

Feel free to pass them on to your family and friends! ;-)

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