A barefoot walk in the sand.
In 1981 I made my first miso pate. I was working as the ‘cook’ in a new wine bar in Newcastle in the north of England and determined to have some vegetarian food on the menu. It soon became one of the most popular starters. I’d just returned from living in France and Belgium and cooking for a diplomatic family who ate a lot of red meat. Obviously too much for my system as I rarely ate it again afterwards. This was my initial foray into vegetarian food.
In the following years I became less of a meat-eater and more of a pescatarian. I started reading labels on the food that I bought, and with that knowledge I started to reduce the amount of processed food and foods with additives in my diet. I then spent three years in Tanzania during a time when processed foods were unheard of – and why would you even think about them when the markets were full of freshly grown produce and abundant seafoods from the oceans?
By the nineties I was primarily a vegetarian although I still ate fish and seafood. I was living in South East Asia and there was an abundance of fresh vegetables and amazing fruits, although not necessarily the ones I was used to. I remember amongst the many dinner parties that were so much a part of the expat lifestyle, being asked if it was possible to put on a vegetarian one that everyone would enjoy. How could I not take up the challenge?
It’s strange that when a new concept in eating is first embraced, those that choose to try out the ‘new’ food or style of preparing and eating the food will do so for various reasons – it’s healthier, it’s trendy, it’s what everyone is talking about etc etc. So to many Westerners vegetarianism was associated with ‘hippies’, regardless of the fact the millions of people around the world are vegetarian through not only dietary choice but also through poverty, religion or culture.
So when I had my vegetarian dinner party – which of course was a resounding success – I realised that for some of those present, they had never really had a vegetarian meal in their life, unless of course you can count baked beans on toast.
Now I’m into raw food and I really love kale. I can get more excited by a plate of kale chips than regular potato chips. The texture of zucchini pasta doesn’t bother me in the least, although I found it strange the first time I ate it. Yes, the smell of freshly baked bread still has me salivating, and I will still eat it smothered in butter, yet I find that I’m healthier eating a diet of mainly plant based foods. I used to think I needed the seafood to ensure I had enough protein in my diet, but the farming of salmon has questionable practice, the levels of mercury in some fish is exceedingly high and overfishing is turning into an environmental catastrophe for some species.
Food has always played a large part in my life. I love food. I love the social side of it and having never lived in poverty, I love that I can choose to buy what I want. I’m pleased that over the years it has become easier to buy organic and seasonal produce and it has become easier to go out for a vegetarian meal without being offered pasta or more pasta … I once asked why vegetarians were expected to survive without any protein, save a dusting of parmesan cheese – presuming they weren’t vegan – and the confused looks of those I asked gave me the answer: a lot of people don’t really think about what they are eating and what it contains.
The latest buzz word is ‘sugar’. For so many years people have been oblivious to how much sugar was actually in their diet … but that I will save for another post.
I entered the room apprehensively and walked across the wooden floor to where the group of people stood chatting. A few of them smiled a welcome. A petite woman dressed all in black greeted me and said my name questioningly. She explained that we would start the class in a few minutes to allow time for payment and for some to take a quick bite to eat or have a drink. Once I’d paid she led me to a man who was standing eating a large piece of homemade carrot cake. He was the centre of the group in all ways. With a welcoming smile and laughing eyes he welcomed me.
“Have you done Tai Chi before?” he asked.
“I have. A few years ago when I lived in Singapore.” I was nervous in front of this man whom I had heard so much about.
I was aware that he wasn’t the only one listening. “It was with a Master Ang and it was his own Yang style.”
“Great.” It was said with sincerity where I thought he might have been dismissive.
I smiled waiting for him to continue.
“We do the Beijing 24. It’s a short form. We started last week, but I’m sure you’ll catch up.” He turned to wash his hands in the sink before drying them and running them over his closely shaven head. All his movements were deliberate.
I looked at the others and saw they were all making moves to be ready for the start of the class. A few walked across the room and spread out. Most were barefooted some wore soft shoes. I removed my sandals and found a space. The boards were shiny, well worn and smooth underfoot.
He walked, almost gliding, to the front and everyone fell silent. A large grin lit up his face. “Let’s warm up,” he said spreading his legs apart and beginning to shake his body. We followed in a series of movements and stretches. Some minutes later he stopped. He stood motionless, eyes closed, serene, with his hands placed over his kwa. I copied, watching through half-open eyes, unsure as to whether or not they should be open or closed and not wanting to miss anything. Then he let out a massive burp. I was shocked, but saw his posture and serenity hadn’t changed. Then other burps followed around the room. I was soon to realise it was the awakening of the kwa, and when I too had mastered it my burps would be just as profound.
“Let’s begin.” He opened his eyes. “I’ll go through the whole form first.”
We watched in awe. He moved as if in a trance. The soft black fabric of his tunic, swayed and fluttered with the movements. The energy in his body, obvious with each slow change of posture. His mastery of the art form showed us how body, energy and mind all became one.
When he had finished he looked around unfazed by the feeling of reverence around him. “Okay. It’s your turn now.”
Nowadays my wild weekends are more about the weather than behaviour. When did that happen I wonder?
In my late teens as a university student living away from home, the weekends were truly wild. I think partying hard became a culture. Then in my early twenties, with a decent income and less free time, cramming as much into the weekend as was physically possible became a way of life. Even with the move to new countries and cultures in my later twenties and thirties, weekends were still focused on enjoyment, partying and very little chill time. It must have been the onset of a family that slowed me down. No longer could I be egocentric and hedonistic, I had new duties and the great desire for more sleep. Finally I’d slowed down.
Standing braced into the wind while the surf roars and pounds, I breathe the salty air. This weekend was all about breathing, getting in touch with the self and spending time on just being.
In what has become a far too hectic life I am relieved that my mobile phone lies switched off at the bottom of my handbag somewhere in my room, that the laptop is unattached to the internet, but there just in case I feel like typing rather than writing, and also that no-one knows exactly where we are. Of course I will turn the phone on at least once a day to check if there is a message from my family, not because I want to play Candy Crush or check Facebook.
It’s only a few hours from where I live but clichéd or not, it could be a different world. Isn’t that what short breaks are all about? A break from the life we are in. I wonder about those who can’t afford to ‘get away’. Can you get away without actually going anywhere? Is that what meditation is all about? Did we need to drive all this way to find a space to walk, eat, read and talk, to meditate, do chi kung and tai chi, and help the energy flow more easily through our bodies?
Perhaps if I was more disciplined I wouldn’t need to travel so far to feel my body relax, my mind run free and my spirit revive. I could perhaps sit on the deck in my back garden and try to block out the hum of the highway, or rise early to meditate before the rest of the household can come into my space, or walk the beach without silently planning what I will buy in Wooolworths, or to remember to put the washer on as soon as I get home to wash my daughter’s school uniform, or even breathe deeply as I drive to work instead of worrying about the driver behind me who is texting on her phone and liable to run into me. But of course she does, and that’s another story…