The Cat Plan

I thought I got there early enough, but the RSPCA was humming. Summer holidays, of course. Children buzzing around excitedly, looking for their new furry friend. The attendants were frantic behind the adoption counter. ​

I’d been here yesterday as well, but the kitty I’d had my eye on, Buster, had just been chosen, the ‘adoption pending’ sign hanging over his profile on the window of his room. I went through to the cat enclosures. I was determined to find another. This time I would not go home empty handed.

These January visits to the famous animal shelter are starting to become an annual occurrence. Almost to the day I had adopted my first cats – Nathan and Rupert – after being an avowed dog person all my life. I don’t know what possessed me, really. I was aiming for an elderly cat and went home with two young adults; Nathan the common or garden grey tabby and Rupert, formerly known as Roger, a little choir boy of a cat in a full length black dress and enormous golden eyes.

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Adopting two cats was a spur of the moment decision. I was sitting in the FIV + cats’ room, attempting to spend quality time with Rupert whom I’d had my eye on for a while, looking him up almost daily on the RSPCA website, but Nathan was interrupting, giving Rupert a good groom.

‘Aww, sweet’, I thought and then, naturally, ‘I’ll take them both’.

What?

That wasn’t the plan!

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An hour or two later I’m opening the carrier in my living room and out strolls Nathan like he’s lived there for years, Rupert with some trepidation. Nathan was larger than Rupert, bold, confident, playful, affectionate, chatty. He asked loudly for food and demanded my lap. Rupert went into the dining room and didn’t come out for three months. Every few hours I’d go in there and put my arms around his little body, just to let him know he was not being ignored. He emerged for meals and to use the litter tray, then slunk back under the chairs.

Nathan, meanwhile, was turning into an adventurous tree climber. Fortunately, he was also led by his stomach and would do anything for a treat. He was never far from that crinkly plastic bag. Rupert watched through the window, his enormous eyes blinking slowly above huge furry cheeks.

It was becoming obvious that while they might enjoy a mutual grooming, Nathan was the dominant cat. He took to pouncing on poor Rupert as he came out of the laundry where the litter trays were kept. Nathan would settle behind the wall, hips wiggling, listening to Rupert deliberately and elaborately creating hillocks of the litter, occasionally peeking to make sure he was still there, and then leap on Rupert as he stepped unconcernedly out. One shouldn’t laugh but it was pretty funny to see Rupert leap into the air, back arched, like a cartoon cat getting a fright. I stopped laughing once I realised this was a regular occurrence.

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As the months went by and Rupert slowly became more familiar with the house, leaving the dining room occasionally for another safe place under the kitchen table. Nathan’s need for a playmate equal to him in confidence was very real. He didn’t mean to harass Rupert; he just wanted to play with him. The first crazy half hour of the day when cats realise the day has begun were a torment to Rupert. He was chased up and down the stairs, pounced on and held down by the scruff of the neck, followed and push about. There was no doubt Nathan was top cat; everything he touched ‘belonged’ to him: the scratching carpet, the toys, my lap. Poor Rupert didn’t get much of a look-in, despite my best efforts. I began to realise that my two boys were not well suited to each other. I began to realise Nathan had to go.

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In the end the decision to return Nathan to the RSPCA was not so hard. I knew as an intelligent, outgoing and friendly cat he’d be very adoptable. I thought a family with older children would suit him; he’d even take on a dog! I felt he’d be much happier with a busier household with lots of people to play with him and pay him attention. Rupert and I would live together in calm and tranquillity. Sure enough, on a return visit to top up on cat food, the workers at the RSPCA told me that Nathan had been adopted only three weeks later by a young family.

Rupert, meanwhile, began to flourish. He left the dining room almost altogether and we sat at adjoining bucket seats while I did my early morning writing work. In the afternoons we’d sit in adjoining chairs in the golden sunlight. He never sat on my lap and was not altogether happy with being picked up. He was never an overly affectionate cat. But he was sweet natured and I was fond of him.

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We only had about six months together. I had to help Rupert over the Rainbow Bridge just before Christmas. This was definitely not part of the cat plan for 2018.

Both Rupert and Nathan tested positive for  Feline Immunovirus, the cat version of HIV. They were perfectly healthy and required no medication, but needed to be watched for flare ups of the condition and of course they were vulnerable to diseases going around. Towards the end of the year Rupert stopped eating. I tried various foods thinking maybe he had just ‘gone off’ the food I had been giving him, to no avail. Weight seemed to be dropping off my poor boy by the day.

I rang the RSPCA and we booked in to see Jose the vet. The results of the urine and blood tests were not good; Rupert appeared to have contracted Feline Infectious Peritonitis and Jose wanted further tests. At the Collingwood Emergency Vet Hospital Rupert had an stomach ultrasound which revealed the fluid build up and all the signs of FIP were there and the general consensus was that euthanasia was the kindest thing to do.

Rupert was very dozy and snuggled into the crook of my arm and slipped away. I wept. Another loss. We had less than a year together but I was very fond of Rupee and the loss of my cat brought back other losses; my uncle, my father, my mother all within the last two years. I drove home in the rain.

The next day I emailed Jose to let him know what had happened. He replied with great compassion and a week later I received a condolence card from the RSPCA.  It was summer; almost twelve months since I had adopted Rupert and Nathan and now I had no cats. 

Not the plan.

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We got home about four hours ago. Dougall, formerly known as Buster (the adoption didn’t go through), has spent the best part of that time under the sink in the downstairs bathroom. Well it’s January and it’s cool in there. He dragged himself out of the carrier and collapsed on the thin blanket I’d placed over the tiles in the kitchen. He ignored the water I put out for him and lay there panting for ten minutes before slinking into the bathroom. I put the water and his litter tray and a cushion in there. He hasn’t come out yet. No doubt he will in his own good time.

I’m sure he has his own plan.

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Where Were the Tell Ahmar Figurines Found?

Recently, I’ve been communicating via social media with a fellow archaeology enthusiast in the US.

He’s very keen on digging up knapped tools, presumably in the area near where he lives. When I asked him whether he records the way in which he digs the holes, he replied that he did so via video. Perhaps he has a friend with him who records as he digs, or perhaps he just stops now and then and records the ever-deepening hole.

He told me that the places where he was digging up these flints are not archaeological sites, but merely places where ‘ancient man’ was passing by on his way to a determined destination, and where he had dropped or deliberately discarded an item assumed to be unimportant to him.

I indicated to him that any natural place or place containing an object modified in some way by a human being is an archaeological site. Objects taken out of the ground without controlled excavation are without context and therefore of limited interpretive value.

Yes, one can examine the object itself, but so much of the information needed for meaning is gone when it is removed from its context.

I’ve discussed in previous posts how the context in which artifacts are found is crucial to their interpretation.

Of all the sites in the Upper Euphrates Valley where figurines of the 7th century have been found, only Tell Ahmar provides, to date, a stratigraphically secure and well-documented deposit.

Unfortunately, the circumstances under which the figurines from Deve Hüyük, Kefrik and Merj Khamis were acquired mean that their context has been lost. Other excavation reports, from the Yunus Cemetery and Carchemish mention only briefly the find spots of their figurines.

Melbourne University excavations in the middle-city of Til Barsib (ancient Tell Ahmar) have yielded Neo-Assyrian remains. We uncovered a complex of buildings  - about five altogether – but focussed on two, one of which was slightly earlier. There is no evidence of occupation below the Neo-Assyrian levels. So we found a ‘time capsule’ of around 50 years, with a securely dated context for the objects found in the buildings, including the figurines.

Tablets found in the earlier building (known as C1 in the excavation reports) Room XII mention the name Hanni. The dates of the Assyrian kings recorded in the texts range from 683 to 648 BC. The tablets appear to be a business archive of Hanni, suggesting that he is the owner of these buildings. They also suggest he was a person of some wealth. The final abandonment of the building probably occurred in the first half of the 6th century. I refer to building C1 as Hanni’s Workshop.

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Believed to have been initially constructed as a residence, Hanni’s Workshop appears to have become an industrial site where textile manufacture and craft production took place. Large numbers of loom weights and spindle whorls found in these rooms suggest that textile production was an important activity in Hanni’s Workshop. Residential and reception suites, (Building C2 on the excavation reports) were then constructed to the north. I call building C2 Hanni’s House.

The production of textiles seems to have centred around two parts of the Hanni’s Workshop. The first is within the rooms to the south of the main courtyard, namely Rooms X, XI and XV. The second centre is located in Room I of Hanni’s Workshop, and Rooms I and II of the second building, which seem to be incorporated into a single architectural unit.

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Around sixty loom weights were found in Room X. There are four basic shapes: cylindrical (sometimes slightly ovoid), ‘hourglass’ (or ‘diabolo’), thick, discoid with a central perforation (‘dough nut’ shaped) and bell-shaped. Most of the loom weights were cylindrical. It is possible that at least some of the discoid shaped weights were used with spindles, but only those of very even shape and well-centred perforation would be effective for spinning. 

Also related to fabric manufacture were the two spindle whorls of stone and unbaked clay, while reused sherds and a clay wheel may also have been used as spindle whorls.

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Numbers of bone spatulae may have been used in the textile process as well. Other types of objects included the occasional bead or perforated shell, as well as bronze fibulae fragments.

Also found were a number of basalt pestles and basins, possibly used in cooking.

Room XI contained more evidence of weaving activities. A mass of over seventy loom weights, several spatulae and items that might have functioned as spindle whorls, such as stone and bronze disks, were excavated. The object assemblage also included, as in Room X, beads, pins and fibulae. Evidence for textile production was also recovered from Room XV, where over one hundred and fifty loom weights were recovered. A spindle whorl and spatulae were also found, as well as the ubiquitous beads, pins and fibulae. A large amount of burnt wood which may be the remains of a loom lay across the room.

To the north, Room I of Hanni’s workshop contained over one hundred and fifty loom weights and several spatulae, while five stone spindle whorls, one with decoration on the base comprising five concentric circles and another disk-shaped, show that spinning as well as weaving was being done here. In addition, a considerable number of basalt objects, including grinders, pestles, bowls and platters were found.

Rooms I and II of Hanni’s workshop each yielded five spindle whorls, all except one of which were made of polished steatite and about 4cm high. They are more-or-less hemispherical in shape with very smooth sides and a rough base. Two were decorated on the base, one with sixteen circles each with a central ‘dot’ (shallow perforation) and another with five plain circles. A conical stone spindle whorl was found in Room I, Building C2, while an unusual whorl of ivory, broken but fortunately reconstructable, was discovered in Room I, Building C1, although there is no evidence for ivory carving in this room.

The standing figurines and most of the horse and riders are closely associated with areas where there is substantial evidence for textile production.

Who lived and worked in Hanni’s household?

Did they make the figurines?

How does the context the figurines were found in help to answer the question ‘who made the figurines?’

Do leave a comment in the boxes below. I'd love to hear your ideas! Let's start a conversation.

Sweet and Savoury Tales of China Baking

It’s just like being back in China, almost. I never thought I’d see pork floss buns or tuna cream doughnuts in Melbourne, but here they are, at the Chinese bakery franchise, Bread Top. They’re all over the city, but they didn’t exist here before I went to China. In fact, I don’t remember seeing them over there either!

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China, the land of sweet bread and I’m not talking offal. Up the north, where I lived for two years, bread is commonly on the menu, in the freezing north, you need stodgy foods like potatoes, noodles and bread – deep fried, steamed, flat – to fill up and warm up. This bread can be oily or fluffy and white; it is nothing like wholemeal or multigrain of the typical Australian breakfast table.

My eyes (or should I say my sweet tooth…) lit up when I found Chinese bakeries. Common were Holiland (nothing biblical about it) and Eanin, where I found doughnuts, cakes and little packets of small sliced squares of bread. Oh joy! I could make sandwiches! I never thought I’d long for a sandwich, but when all you can find is hot food – winter and summer – oily, fatty and stodgy, a fresh, homemade salad sandwich seemed a delicious memory. I took the bread home and eagerly opened the packet. It had a slightly odd, crumbling texture but undeterred and with trembling hands I added a can of tuna. I brought it up to my drooling lips and took a large bite….

It was disgusting. The bread was sweet and crumbly, like a slice of stale cake. Needless to say, the tuna did nothing to improve the situation. I had another go later with strawberry jam but my stomach rebelled at the sugar overload.  Sandwiches had to wait till I found Subway in Xian.

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Chinese doughnuts melt in the mouth a la Krispy Kreme (I like a chewy doughy doughnut, not those fluffy glazed nothings), Chinese cake is as light as a marshmallow and melts in the mouth (should cake melt?)  à la packet sponge.  There is little substance to Chinese baking.

I found the Holiland in Hohhot on my first trip into town. I’d caught the 63 bus outside the college and got off when I saw what seemed to be a supermarket. It was, and nearby was a branch of the Bank of China, a KFC, a printing shop where I got photos processed for sending home to my technophobic parents and the computer market. Nearby was a fabulous shop only selling long, full skirts in every conceivable fabric design. I would first visit Holiland where I’d stock up on sugary treats before beginning my day’s shopping.

When a customer enters, Holiland staff, without looking up from whatever they are doing, chant a short phrase (‘welcome to feast upon our baked goodies, beloved customer’) or some such. You take a tray and pair of tongs and choose the items you want. I usually chose a Danish or custard tart, and gazed with fascination and some degree of revulsion at the huge, vase-shaped pastries brimming with artificial cream. Once I saw a mother with her young son eating one, taking turns to scoop out the oily cream. That’s all it was. A big pastry bucket filled with artificial cream. 

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Towards the end of my two years in Hohhot, Holiland started selling coffee which made it an ideal coffee and cake shop.  When I say coffee, I mean a sachet of Nestlé instant and another of coffee whitener. Look, when the options are limited, you make do.

Eanin staff wore smart, airline cabin crew-style uniforms in dark green and blue.  As well as the usual puffy bun things, the bakery sold a range of biscuits which were totally delicious. I think Chinese bakers were much better at the twice baked stuff than the buns, cakes and doughnuts which crowded their shelves. These biscuits were sold in little plastic cylindrical tubs and I was addicted to the chocolate coconut roughs. They were five yuan (about $1) and I stocked up on 4 or five tubs whenever I found an Eanin.

Chinese bakers combine sweet and savoury with reckless abandon. After a day out in town, I would sometimes buy a kind of ‘roll’ at Holiland to take home for tea. This was an inevitably sweet, egg glazed roll with a kind of light tomato sauce, sweet corn, mayonnaise and spring onion pushed into it. Not exactly inside the roll nor sprinkled on top. It was odd but not exactly unpleasant, like most of China.

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Pork floss is an ingredient I never got my head, much less my mouth around. Pork floss?  Floss as a concept just doesn’t team with any form of protein, in my book. I must confess I never tried the stuff because I asked what it was. Now, I’m quite fond of a BBQ pork bun, but dried, salty, fluffy pork on a cake was something I didn’t have the tastebuds for. For extra weirdness you can even get them wrapped in leaves of dried seaweed.

I must admit I’ve rather enjoyed myself here at the Bread Top in Melbourne. I ponder the name, perhaps they meant ‘Top Bread’, as in ‘Mate, this bread’s tops!’ but I think that might be putting a bit of an Australian interpretation on it. I'll ask next time I get a yearning for China or a craving for a sausage doughnut!

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Street Photography in Jerusalem

I have always wanted to take interesting photos of people, photos which are unstaged, capturing a moment, a tiny drama of everyday life. I’ve not been good at this. I’m afraid that I’m invading peoples’ privacy, that they will feel I’m stealing something from them.

I’ve learned that these two fears may be true, but only if I, as the photographer, am outside the picture. That’s the key to good street photography; being part of the street.

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We practise this idea for a while. The wide street is car-free, but serviced by a tram running down it’s centre.

‘Look’, says Ouria, the local photographer who is taking me on this street photography session, ‘See that man in the hat, waiting at the tram stop on the other side? He’s playing the accordion. Wait for the next tram. Take a photo of him through the tram.’

Seconds later a tram eases to a halt. I stand by the window and raise my camera, trying to ignore the passengers alighting. I feel odd but the effect is interesting. Not only have I captured a glimpse of the accordion player, but I’m in the picture too.

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We head into the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Mea Shearim.

‘I don’t know why but I’m nervous about this’, I say to Ouria. ‘It doesn’t seem fair somehow. Won’t the people mind?’

He laughs a little. ‘They will know we are not of the community, but we look more or less like people around here, with your long black skirt and elbow length shirt and with my beard and slightly religious-looked (softly peaked) cap. They will notice and then they will not notice. We will not blend in but they will not think about us for too long. They will not worry about it. Some might cover their faces and one or two might say something. But we are not hurting them’.

‘And they will not hurt us?’ I am surprised by my question; I’m not in the habit of thinking that people are a danger to me. I remembered Jewish friends on the dig at Beth Saida who described having stones thrown at their car for driving into Old Jerusalem on the Sabbath.

‘No, they will not hurt us’.

The narrow street was lined with sandstone buildings, the windows protected by ornate iron work. Tangled in the ironwork of one such window we find a sleepy cat and I take a photo of its pink upturned feet. It feels braver than trying to take photos of people. 

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But turning down another street suddenly there is a throng of bearded, ear-locked, black coated and hatted men. They come singly and then in pairs, hurrying down the street towards the Western Wall.

‘Stand here, in the middle of the street. Create your frame. Raise your camera and take the picture’.

I can’t.

The uncertainty and doubt is back. These are just men walking down the street, minding their own business. Suddenly they come upon two photographers aiming cameras at them. Do they want their photos taken? Do they mind?

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? I’m not leaping out from behind a pole to snatch away their right to walk down the street in peace. I’m right here, in full view, in the middle of the road between stationery cars, just another part of the streetscape.

Photographers talk about making pictures rather than taking them. I like this notion. Not only does it make me feel better about taking photos of total strangers, but it makes me feel as if I am creating something, there is an important point to what I am doing. I’m part of it now.

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Cars begin to come to a standstill in the little street, blocked by some unseen obstacle over the hill.

‘Oh well, this is not good for us’, I say to Ouria.

‘No, this is very good for us. Now they are concentrating on the traffic jam. They are not worried about what we are doing’.

I take a breath and step back into the street, raise my camera and press the shutter release with a click that I’m certain sounds like a clanging cymbal. Nobody takes a blind bit of notice.

We make pictures, the men and me. They float past, a mass of flapping black coats and swinging ear locks, eyes fixed ahead. They don’t care about me. They barely look in my direction. They are focussed only on where they are headed.

We think we are so important in others’ lives. But in general, in the minutiae of their daily lives, people are actually much more concerned with their own business to take much notice of what is going on around them. Together, the men and I have captured their moment of determination, their desire to reach their destination.

For me, this is the appeal of street photography, of making pictures of complete strangers. It’s stopping to experience a tiny insight into another person’s life. We see people rushing about through their day, as we rush through ours. We don’t stop to think about who they are or where they are going.

But a photograph makes you stop, if you choose to. Stop and look. Wonder, question, interpret.

We turn and head down the hill, in the direction the men have gone. The streets are hot and seemingly empty. We find a shady tree on a corner next to a tiny garden fenced in with an ornate ironwork fence. The uprights form a perfect frame. I compose my picture, check my exposure and settle down to wait.

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Ouria advises me to be part of the streetscape. ‘Raise your camera and survey the scene through your viewfinder. Keep pressing the shutter release. The clicks will become part of the sounds of the street’.

People walk past, framing themselves in the fence. One man, black-coat tight across his stomach and frothy white beard beneath his big hat, stood for some minutes staring up at something on the wall out of our line of vision. I pressed the shutter release and he turned, looking directly into my lens. Instead of jumping back guiltily, I kept the camera to my eye, looking at him looking at me. I was completely in the moment. Me and the camera and the man. All of us creating the story of that moment in the street.

Dancing in China

Even before I’d heard of the Eurovision Song Contest I’d hold its dance equivalent in my bedroom before tea on Sunday afternoons. 

Dressing my nine year old self in a weird combination of clothes, “Maria from Italy” or “Tatiana representing Russia” would prance around the room performing what I imagined was the national dance of those countries until my mother called me for boiled eggs and toast.  Since then I’ve been fascinated by the cultural dances of the world, so it was inevitable that I would take Mongolian dance classes while living in Huhehaote, capital city of Inner Mongolia, China.

It took a while to find the Love Sport Gym, located as it is among the food court of the Hailiang Shopping Plaza.  Perhaps they hope to attract guilty over-indulgers.  Finally I found it, lodged between the noodle soup place and a posh restaurant serving brown slimy things from the sea.  Tiger Wang, the sales manager, was most helpful and before I knew it I had parted with several thousand yuan for sixteen months membership of the smartest sports club in town.  The dance class schedule was exciting; belly dance on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Latin on Saturdays and best of all, Mongolian on Sunday afternoons. 

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m any good at dance, just because I’ve attempted various stylizations such as flamenco, salsa, Greek circle dancing and a little bollywood (I’ve also learned basic Arabic drumming).  I just enjoy the rhythms and the movements and the insight gained into that culture.    I don’t relish going to the gym but taking a dance class after a boring workout gives me the impetus I need.  It’s a good way to make new friends too, even if we’re still on smiling and nodding terms.  I can also count to eight in Chinese. 

For Chinese people, taking a dance class is all about exercise and discipline.  Classes for the interested amateur are serious business.  Learning the steps and performing them correctly is the goal, any actual fun had in the process is secondary.  The Latin dance class is a good example.  Our teacher is a tall, lean woman in a short black skirt and grey leggings and an animal print top.  She stares belligerently at us, lecturing us and stopping the music at each error for further correction.  The students stand in military rows.  We dance individually.  There are no men and absolutely no partnering up.  We learn two steps in the whole hour.  It is not fun. 

Not speaking Chinese, I leave each class with a cricked neck from straining to see the teacher.  I am always two beats behind.  With the exception of a couple of other ’40-something’ ladies, most students are flexible young girls in their twenties.  ‘Tatiana from Russia’ is nowhere to be seen as I strive to keep upper body stiff, my legs straight and my wide western hips under control in a very stiff, rather forced form of Latin dance.  Where is the smooth, sexy, rolling salsa I so loved at home?

I asked a friend to help me speak to the teacher after the class.  “So, where do people go in Huhehaote to dance salsa socially?  I mean, for fun?  You know, practice the steps we have learned?”  A lengthy and heated conversation takes place between the teacher and my interpreter who finally turns to me and says, “There isn’t”. 

“But what did she actually say?” I insisted.  I was desperate to find a place where I could have a fun night out dancing my beloved salsa. 

“There is nowhere you can go.  Well, maybe there are some dance halls but these are for people of…bad reputation…it could be dangerous for you…” 

“I don’t mind!  I don’t want to talk to them.  I just want to dance with them!”  I wailed.  It was hopeless.  People in Huhehaote do not dance for pleasure. 

Soon after my arrival in Huhehaote I joined a foreign colleague for a night on the town.  The nightclub we found looked much like any other; a large dark space with dance floor and DJ.  Strobe lights revealed college students in trendy clothes gyrating to the latest American hits.  Tables were laden with beer bottles and sunflower seed shells.  Friends lounged on sofas.  It all looked quite normal except for the fact that nobody was touching each other; dancers were separated by at least a foot and there were no smooching couples in dark corners.  It was like a 16 year old’s birthday party, with the parents still there.  Clearly for Chinese people dancing is not a courtship ritual. 

China has been open to western modes of life for a relatively short time, about thirty years.  However, in that short span many social customs have changed irrevocably.  Around Huhehaote couples walk hand-in-hand and although embracing in public is rare, kissing passionately in the street or park is definitely not the done thing.  On the city’s packed buses a girl might sit in her boyfriend’s lap, but it is unusual for the boy’s hand to be around his girl; it usually hangs rather self-consciously by his side.  Clearly public expressions of intimacy are still frowned upon, at least in the north.  Perhaps this is why partner dancing for fun, to make a connection between two people is as foreign a concept in China as not smooching in a nightclub is in the west. 

I wanted to know if this was the case throughout China.  On a trip to the city of Guangzhou in southern Guangdong province I spent a morning walking the shady boulevards of Yue Xiu Park.  Turning a corner, Latin rhythms drew me up the hill.  My heart skipped a beat.  Salsa!  

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A group of ladies (and some gentlemen) were dancing together but despite this, there was little eye contact between the dancers.  Faces expressed concentration, limbs moved with precision; this was not dancing from the heart, it was dancing for the heart, like aerobics. Like so many things in China this activity was for self-improvement, keep-fit for the elderly.   I joined a congo line doing the rabbit dance, the simple repetitive steps mimicking the catchy tune.  It did get me smiling, even if it was not salsa.

On another trip I spent a few days at the beautiful Jiu Zhai Gou Valley, up in the mountains of Sichuan Province, famed for its stunning lakes of turquoise and lapis lazuli, said to be coloured by the eye makeup of a goddess which fell to earth with her tears. Walking back from the national park, I came upon a party of Tibetans; they were dancing in the open area behind a row of hotels. It was not a formal display; there was no costume. I think they were travelers like me, all ages, an extended family on holiday or perhaps visiting relations.

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I noticed suit cases nearby. Perhaps they had just arrived. They danced joyously, with smiling faces, young and old, in a formal circle formation. I was transfixed. They danced with freely swinging arms, the boys most exaggeratingly, the circle flowing then abruptly pausing with rhythmic stamps. Unexpected changes of direction often caught a teenage boy out, much to the delight of his sisters and friends. I watched until I felt I was imposing and then moved on, feeling uplifted somehow at the obvious delight generated by their shared dance.

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Back at the Love Sport Fitness centre, our Mongolian dance teacher, a young man with natty black boots and a name I couldn’t master (rather than insulting him continually with my appalling pronunciation, I resorted the Chinese term of respect and just called him ‘teacher’), hails from the north of Inner Mongolia, from the grasslands around Hulunbeir. 


Summer in the grasslands attracts crowds of tourists, mainly Chinese and some foreign, to this autonomous province.  Tourist villages of yurts punctuate the grassy steppe and each busload of visitors is greeted by holiday camp workers dressed in the bright silks of Mongolia and offered a sip of fermented mare’s milk from a tiny cup.  Then it’s off on horseback across the grasslands.  Held in August, Nadaam is the Mongolian version of the Olympic Games, with events in horse-riding, bowmanship and wrestling.

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Life on the grasslands is reflected in Mongolian dance.  Hands are held in front of the body, fingers curled as if around reins.  Legs skip, kick and jump.  Arms stretch wide, as if firing an arrow.  Shoulders, elbows and wrists undulate like the eagle’s wings.  The steps are deceptively easy, simple enough to feel as though you are ‘getting it’ and want to come back for more, but difficult to perfect if you have never been a grasslands dweller.  The teacher agreed that it would be helpful if you actually knew how to ride a horse.  The twenty-something girl behind me is clearly a long-time learner, performing each step prettily, her body on a graceful angle.  She looks like a sleek Mongolian horse rider, born in the saddle. I look like a city-dweller coaxing a clumsy donkey to perform Swan Lake.

Visiting in August the grasslands around Xilinhaote, some ten hours by train north of Huhehaote, the tourist yurt villages are in full swing.  Guests are welcomed to dinner in the traditional style, with sips of strong liquor and the gift of a white scarf while a whole roasted sheep, grass hanging out of its mouth, looks on. 

While the singers and dancers are ethnically Mongolian, I asked the dance teacher whether children and young people learn traditional Mongolian dance at home.  I wondered whether Mongolian traditional dance was only performed for tourists.  It was a question he found difficult.  He told me he started learning Mongolian dance while at Middle School and studied traditional singing and dancing at college.  There is little doubt that the yurt village entertainers were college graduates who had formal education in their cultural dance, rather than local grassland dwellers dancing as an innate expression of their culture.

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The teacher suggested that when young Mongolian people get together with friends, the preferred dance form is western nightclub style dancing or street dancing such as hip hop. I thought about my student, Ben, a self-confessed ‘B-boy’ and the student rock band in my computer programming majors class, ‘A-Bomb’.  The teacher told me that Mongolian dancing is also common, particularly at multi-generational, community celebrations, events unlikely to be witnessed by tourists. But traditional dancing performed for tourists is not necessarily any less ‘genuine’ than traditional dancing in private.  

Mongolians are only one of 56 ethnic minorities living in China.   I encountered another, the Muslim Uyghurs from the west of China at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and found them to be truly fond of dancing.  On Sunday afternoons the Temple of Heaven is transformed into a smorgasbord of musical delights from choirs belting out hearty nationalistic anthems to young men in black t-shirts strumming love songs on their six-strings.

Wandering through the covered pavilions I was attracted to the Central Asian flavour of the Uyghur music and the obvious delight of the dancers, who looked a little like characters from a medieval Arabic folktale; the women’s coloured scarves flowing behind them as they twirled and the men laughing cheekily through their luxuriant moustaches.  The irresistible four-four beats had me toe-tapping along while the dancers stepped forward and back, turned and turned with raised arms and twirling hands.  Nobody frowned in concentration.  Nobody was scolded for making mistakes.  Faces were relaxed and creased in smiles.  This community loved to dance and it showed.

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From the sultry south to the bitter north, folk in China love to dance.  Traditional dances are preserved by minority groups and through tourism while the young have embraced many foreign styles, such as street dancing, Latin and even belly-dancing.  The opening of China to the outside world may have changed social norms forever, but come without expectations. Certainly you can attend a Latin dance class, but don’t imagine it will be fun and flirty.  You  can also see traditional Mongolian dance, and you might even get a peak at sneakers under their bright costumes. 

The Fascination of the Miniature

Why are we so fascinated by ancient figurines? To my mind there are two main reasons.  First, they are recognizable as objects from our world and second, they are small.  What is it that makes miniature replicas of everyday items from our natural and domestic worlds so appealing?

Have you seen pictures of tea-cup pigs or puppies? What about miniature horses?

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Do you know anyone who collects doll houses with their tiny furniture?

My father had a collection of teeny-tiny books, each an inch high and containing a full-length classical novel.  I used to love playing with them as a child, though they were certainly not children’s toys. Many children’s toys are miniatures – match-box cars, dolls, prams, soldiers – objects that belong in the world of adults but which have been reduced in size in order to accommodate little hands.  

For children, then, they play with small things because they themselves are small, while adults are intrigued by small things because, well, small things are intriguing!

But why are small things intriguing to us? Why did people in the ancient Near East make miniature replicas of life size objects they saw all around them?

Figurines from the ancient near East come in a number of shapes; zoomorphic, anthropomorphic, architectural and vehicular.  Many others defy classification.  When you have the original, life-size object, why make little versions of it?

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Thinking back on my last post about the collection of figurines from my home, the makers had a variety of reasons for making these small replicas.  The bishop from the Lewis chess set would have been made in order to play chess. Real-life bishops are not used in games of chess; the choice of the bishop was based on the needs of the game. The inventor of chess chose people of power and privilege in medieval society to be the most important pieces.

The Han Dynasty female figurine was a replica of how a Chinese woman of that era (and perhaps of a certain social class) would have dressed.  I doubt that she represents an actual woman, those it’s possible that she might have. The figurine might have been believed to have served the dead noble in whose term she was interred. 

The angel figurine holding a dog personifies hope and peace, to me. For others, she may represent other thoughts or feelings. She is not a replica of an actual being we can see or experience of earth. The figurine is a product of the designer/craftsperson’s imagination, while drawing on imagery known in Judeo-Christian cultures.  We might think of her as a tiny replica angel, but as we don’t know what angels look like, we can only conclude that she is essentially a product of the maker’s own decision-making processes.

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The Mongolian figurines are protective spirits. Whether they embody an invisible being, or whether the figurines themselves are thought to be protective by the fact of their being made, I am not sure. Are they tiny replicas imbued with the power of ‘real’ spirits, or do they represent those spirits in tangible form?

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The sewing ladies (if indeed that is what they are.  Please help me with information, if you recognize these figurines!), like the ancient Chinese figurine, represent miniature women, but probably not particular individuals, as they appear to be mass produced. From their attire, it appears that one represents a lady from the 18th century and the other perhaps from the 1920s. Like the Han Dynasty lady, these figurines have a function, but it likely doesn’t relate to any kind of belief system.

What do these musings mean?

I thought it might be useful to think about the figurines I have collected and keep around my home because the variety of shapes and ideas embodied in them shows how challenging figurine interpretation can be.

Ancient figurines from the Near East, however, seem to have been held hostage to one particular interpretation and that is a topic which I will revisit in another post!

Please do join me in my journey of exploration into the meaning of figurines. If you have some interesting figurines around your home – souvenirs from trips, gifts from friends, family treasures – please do post a comment and picture below. I would love to hear from you!

Daylight Saving: Why I Can’t Wait to Change the Clocks

Summer is absolutely my favourite season. I adore hot weather. Such a relief from the chilly winter, though here in Melbourne the winters are hardly bitter. But there’s nowhere so cold as a Melbourne tram stop when the cold southerly wind is blowing and I’ve spent decades waiting at cold Melbourne tram stops in winter!

 A warm breeze in spring bodes of the hot weather to come. It brings hope, a sense of better things to come. Summer as a child means freedom, no school, no homework, no bloody PE. For me it meant travel, packing up the caravan and heading for the beach, or sometimes inland to the mountains. It meant books, games, beach, time with family, exploring new places and spending time as one wished.

I remember as a child the rhythm of summer that went a bit like this: four or five days of hot weather and then a build-up of puffy clouds, growing denser as the afternoon wore on and finally erupting in what many people (but not me) longed for: the cool change. The temperature dropped twenty degrees in half an hour. The rain came down in buckets and on the roads steam rose with that gorgeous smell of newly-wet tarmac which I will forever associate with summer. 

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The other thing I love about summer was daylight savings time.

Long balmy evenings, the cricket on the radio and sometimes the TV, hanging around the caravan playground after dinner, or playing cards around the little table in the van. The bite of the sun is tempered by the soft lingering dusk.   Nowadays I enjoy the long summer evenings with the back door wide open, listening to the birds settle in for the night. Or with friends, glass of cold wine in hand, on a picnic in the park or a lovely private garden. And finally, the night closes in, heading for bed, relaxed and pleasantly weary.

But I’ve been feeling tired recently.

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I switch off my bedside light between 10pm and 10.30, which might seem early to some of you night owls, but I try (more or less) go to bed with the sun and wake with the sun. I wake about 6.30 to 7am and get up straight away. In summer there’s light behind the curtains and it’s time to get the day underway.

During the summer it’s easier to sleep with the sun because the sun doesn’t set till later, but the times of dawn and dusk are changing now that we’re heading into autumn and I think that may be the reason for my tiredness.

Over the past few days, I’ve woken mid-dream. It’s still dark outside and I feel like I’ve been roused grumpily from a heavy sleep. I guess I normally have the right amount of REM sleep, but I rarely remember dreams, nor do I usually wake in the middle of them.

As I understand it, your body should naturally wake you during the first phase of sleep, a very light phase without dreams. Waking in Stage 1 of the sleep cycle is easy because you’ve barely dropped off.

It seems that at the moment I’m not waking during Stage 1, but rather during Stage 5, REM sleep or even Stage 4, which is deep, slow-wave sleep. Apparently waking during these stages is what makes you feel sluggish and heavy. Napping during the day should be kept to a maximum of 25 to 30 minutes to avoid this slow and lethargic feeling when you need to be refreshed and energetic to do what you need to do for the remainder of the day.

The thing is, I wake at about the same time, 6.45 or 7am, but I feel awful. I’m wondering if waking during REM sleep is what is making me feel so groggy in the morning and more tired during the day.

But why should I feel so exhausted upon waking when I’ve had the same number of hours asleep? I don’t know.

I’m also wondering if this is related to the fact that it’s still dark at 6.45am.

Compare that to this morning, Sunday, when I woke after 8, perhaps 8.20, when it was light, and even taking into consideration that I went to sleep slightly later than usual, about 11ish, I still had the same number of hours and I still woke up refreshed and ready to start the day.

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I think I might have had enough of daylight saving now.

I’m thinking that waking in the dark is what’s making me feel sluggish.

Part of my body clock is saying, ‘All right then, you’ve had your 8 hours sleep, time to wake up!’ and so I do. But some other part of my body clock is saying ‘What?! It’s still dark. Go back to sleep’.

Perhaps my body has had enough rest and is ready to be up and about and my brain is attuned to the sun and isn’t going anywhere until the sun is up too.

I’m not really sure but I can tell you this…getting up in the dark is hard.

In ancient times, people slept when the sun went down and woke up at dawn. Life was so different when we were all hunter-gatherers, and later when we settled down and became farmers. While there might have been time to relax in the evenings, around the camp fire, or the kitchen fire, chatting, telling stories, singing songs and all those old-time fun things, people mostly went to be early and rose to work the next day when there was enough light to see.

The advent of electricity kind of mucked things up for us.

Shift-workers can find their body clock goes severely out of whack from working during the night and trying to sleep during the day. Even starting in the wee hours of the morning can be very difficult.

Special lights that simulate the dawn have been designed to gradually brighten the room to something approaching daylight, encouraging bodies of shift workers to believe that the sun has actually arisen. It’s much easier to assimilate to gradually diffusing light than to be rudely awoken by a sharp alarm clock and a blindingly bright bedside light.

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In a week or so we’ll change the clocks at the end of daylight saving. I think I’m quite looking forward to it, even though it means the end of summer too. But that’s OK, winter brings its own set of things to get excited about.

Light and Mood

I’ve not seen any holiday brochures for dark, gloomy, wet and cold places. OK, maybe you want to experience the aurora borealis or polar bears in the arctic; maybe you need to be there over winter…but generally speaking, we are attracted to sunshine, beaches, palm trees waving in the breeze, green and luscious mountains and so forth for our hard-earned holidays.

Why? Because, as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, sunshine makes us feel good.

Moods all over the world are known to rise in summer and drop in winter. There’s even a name for wintry depression: Seasonal Affective Disorder. I don’t think it’s a disorder; I think it’s quite normal to want to stay inside, hunker down and wait for warmer days.

Going outside, into the natural light, is mood-boosting wherever you live. Even on overcast days, natural light is much brighter than inside lights. I find a great way to start my day is to take my morning coffee outside and sit in the warm sunshine for 10 or 15 minutes. I’ll still do this in winter, though the air may be chillier. With a warm jumper and a scarf you can still get your morning dose of sunlight.

Getting a few rays within an hour of waking also resets the internal body clock via tiny receptors in the eyes. Take your early morning tea or coffee outside with you; don’t wear sunglasses but don’t look directly at the sun either. Take a moment to do some mindfulness meditation – with your eyes open, of course! Focus your attention on the sounds you hear and the aromas that waft in from other people’s breakfasts; the temperature of the air and your hands around the warm cup. Look around you. Let the sunshine in!

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The end of daylight savings means getting the sleep cycle back in order.

I’m always a bit wistful about the end of summer. No more hot, easy-to-dress-for days, no more chilled glasses of wine on the balcony, no more strolling about the neighbourhood after dinner, no more picnics in the park.

But I need to get my body clock back in order. I need to feel that it’s time to get up when I naturally awaken. Time to look forward to all the goodies that autumn and winter have to offer! Crunching leaves beneath your feet and comforting soups and crackling fires. Wrapping yourself in a favourite coat and scarf…That thin afternoon light that’s so evocative. Frost. A gentle rain. Casseroles. Snuggling. Books….

Until it’s time to change the clocks back to daylight savings and the cycle starts again.

Epicurus, Gardening and Eating with Others: A Recipe for Happiness?

A few weeks ago I had dinner with good friends. It was the end of summer and the evening was warm and they had set up the dining table outside, in the garden.

To the sound of birds getting ready for bed, evening scents of jasmine and lavender hanging in the air, we dined on lentil salad with tomatoes they had grown themselves, grilled fish with lemon and wonderfully-perfumed basil from their herb garden, stuffed zucchini flowers from the plants which sprawled half-way across the veggie patch and finished up with fruit including figs and apricots, plucked fresh from the tree that afternoon.

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It was a feast!

We had a delightful evening, sitting under the stars in their productive and gorgeous garden, enjoying the fruits (and veggies) of their labour, sharing our news, the funny and perplexing anecdotes of our lives.

And it made me think. It reminded me of Epicurus and his property in Athens which he shared with friends and grew fruits and vegetables which appeared on their dining table.

Epicurus was a philosopher who lived from 341 to 270 BC and died of kidney stones at the age of 72. Like many philosophers, he was concerned with what makes a good or happy life. He set up a school of philosophy, known as ‘The Garden’ because it met in the garden of his home, which he shared with his friends. It had few students, both men and women, but they were devoted to him and his teachings.

According to Epicurus, two of the ingredients for a happy life are to eat with others of foods you have grown yourself. Be self-sufficient and surround yourself with friends.

Why would that make us happy?

Growing Your Own Food Is Very Satisfying

We are so distanced from the origins of our food. We go to the supermarket and buy things in packets, open them and zap them in the microwave and eat them from plastic trays. Well, sometimes we do. They’re called convenience foods but while they may be convenient, I wonder whether they are actually food.

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Oh sure, tinned foods and frozen foods are handy and I can understand why you’d have them in the pantry. I used to have many more than I do now because having adopted the Mediterranean Diet several years ago, I know it actually doesn’t take that long to prepare meals from real, raw foods. After all, people have been doing it all the way back to Epicurus’ time! But it does require a commitment to preparation…

But getting back to the origins of our food - hunting and gathering and farming – these are time-consuming tasks but can you imagine the joy of finally eating a juicy steak of whatever it was you caught or sinking your teeth into the first apples of the season?

Do you eat mindfully? I never did, not years ago. I would eat on the run, often in my car, or at my desk. I was already thinking about the next thing I had to do. Sometimes I couldn’t even remember what I’d eaten that day.

How sad, when eating is one of the great pleasures of life.

I bet when the wild boar is roasting on the open fire at the hunter’s camp or the chicken is coming out of the oven in the farmer’s kitchen, there is a real sense of anticipation.

Why? Because so much effort has gone into catching or raising that food.

Growing your own food is very satisfying. It’s satisfying because it’s an accomplishment, it’s rewarding and things that are rewarding make you feel good. ‘These are my carrots’ you say to yourself proudly. ‘I nurtured them through the work of my hands and they’re going to taste fantastic!’

There’s something visceral about connecting with your food. Burying the seed in the earth, watering it, watching and waiting for the seedlings to appear. Watching for rain, nurturing the young plants and finally harvesting. It’s work that connects us with the earth and the food it produces.

It’s slow work, farming. There are no instant results. You have to watch over the plants and the animals, ensuring they get what they need to stay healthy. Weeks or months (sometimes even years) later, the harvest is brought in or the animals are taken to market.

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Growing your own food, even creating a small herb garden, can lift your mood in a number of ways.

First, it is a mindful task that requires your attention. While your attention is focussed on your plants, it gives the mind a break from the worries that can often take over. Working on your garden means there is no space for rumination. Focus on the earth in your hands, look at it, feel it, smell it.

Shut your eyes and meditate mindfully for a few moments on the experience of being in the garden.

What can you feel? Is it a warm day, a windy day? Are you sitting on grass or crouching over the path? How does that feel in your legs, your knees?

What can you smell? Are there fragrant flowers? Something earthy in the compost? Something a bit unpleasant coming from the rubbish bin? Don’t make any judgements about it. Just focus on the smells.

What can you hear? Are there birds in the trees around you? The rustle of the breeze in the leaves of the trees? Cars on the nearby roads? Children shouting or laughing? An argument at the neighbours? Again, just sit with the sounds, letting all worrying thoughts pass by.

Now open your eyes and finish your gardening. Have you watered your plants? Pruned any dead bits away? Put a little mulch through?

If it’s the right time of year, choose something to eat today, from your garden.

It’s Very Satisfying To Cook With Your Own Produce

I don’t have a garden, but I have a small balcony and on that balcony I have a little herb garden: basil, coriander, mint, parsley and rosemary. I hope to add others very soon. I’m planning to try my hand at strawberries and chillies and perhaps even a tiny lime tree.

I love going to my little herb garden and choosing some leaves to add to a salad or soup.

All over the city community gardens have popped up. People who live in apartments without much space for growing their own produce can now rent or purchase a couple of plots. There’s one right in the heart of my city, over a carpark, near the main train station. A little oasis of green in the concrete jungle.

Nowadays, fruits and vegetables are available all year round. I think that’s a bit sad because we’ve lost the thrill of ‘nectarine season’ or ‘avocado season’. Produce is kept in cold storage or flown in from overseas. Does anyone preserve, bottle or dry foods any more? Yes, I’m sure they do. But not as often as in our grandmother’s generation. Imagine opening a bottle of preserved tomato sauce or summer fruits in the middle of winter! Today we expect everything to be available all the time.

No wonder the slow food movement is so popular. Many people have grown tired of the instant, 3 minute, fast food lifestyle.

Why is cooking with your own produce, or at least, seasonal, well-cared-for produce better for your health and emotional well-being?

Omega 3 for one thing.

And other nutrients.

When hunters bring home the wild bacon, it’s been feasting on wild grasses and plants, not force-fed grains. Wild plants contain Omega 3 fatty acids, which are important for brain health. Meat animals today do not roam freely across the plains enjoying a healthy supply of wild-grown plant foods, so their meat does not give us the nutrients it would have supplied to our hunting forebears.

Fresh, seasonal, organic vegetables and fruits are available at regular farmer’s markets throughout my city. Look for them in yours too.

Enjoying a Mediterranean Diet, ingredients for which you can grow yourself, is a very good diet for the brain and therefore your mood.

The food-mood connection is well known now. The diet enjoyed by villagers on the island of Crete in the 1940s has many benefits for your physical as well as your emotional wellbeing. Full of fish, fresh vegetables, seeds nuts and fruits, the Mediterranean Diet has been shown to be effective in improving your mood and the health of your brain.

You can grow all sorts of fruits, veggies and herbs which are consumed in high quantities in the Mediterranean Diet.

You know who else enjoyed a Mediterranean Diet?

Epicurus.

Well, he had to really, being Greek.

Epicurus was keen on self-sufficiency as a key component of happiness, and while it may be difficult to live an entirely self-sufficient lifestyle in today’s world, growing some of your own foodstuff certainly can bring a smile to your face.

What else did Epicurus claim as the cause of happiness?

Eating With Other People Is Very Pleasant

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Epicurus and his friends lived together in a large house on the outskirts of Athens. They had a productive garden, with fruit trees and vegetables and created and ate their meals together.

Friendship was one of the keys to happiness because friends provide each other with security, support and help when required. But Epicurus believed friendship was important for its own sake, that friends are more than just the bringers of benefits, but that real friendship makes the other person part of ourselves.

Diffuse communities were the Epicurean norm, rather than small, tightly knit nuclear family structures. A village if you like. Communities of like-minded individuals, supporting one another in many ways including the production of food for communal sustenance and enjoyment.

Eating with others is also part of the Mediterranean Diet. It should really be called the Mediterranean Lifestyle. Those post-war Cretans lived a hard life, eking out a living from the hilly, stony landscape. It must have been backbreaking work. But it made them fit and hardy people, and I can imagine weddings and other social occasions were the highlights of the year.

I can also imagine food having an important role in such occasions. Sharing a feast together is binding; it makes us feel that we are part of a group. It connect us with a shared experience.

Perhaps we should take a leaf out of Epicurus’ book.

Go on. Go to the nursery and get yourself some seedlings. Some basil, some parsley, some oregano. Take them home and nurture them. Harvest a few leaves. Make a soup, a salad or a stew. Invite a neighbour or someone who has been going through a bit of a hard time recently. Invite them over and nourish them with the food you have grown and created. Sit outside if you can.

Bet you anything you’ll feel better for it.

Epicurus said so.

What Would An Archaeologist Think of Your Figurines?

Do you collect figurines? Do you have any china or wood figurines in your home?

I do.  I thought it might be interesting to take a look at my own figurines to illustrate how interpreting figurines can be quite problematic.

My set of miniature Terracotta Warriors was purchased at a cheap souvenir shop near Zhong Luo (drum tower) subway station in downtown Xian, China.  I bought them to remember the year I taught English in Xian and because they were replicas of the ancient, life-size soldiers found buried near that city. I also thought they would be easier to carry home in my luggage. They are factory made and sold by small business owners looking to make a profit from tourists to this ancient capital of China. They live on one of my book shelves.

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Shortly before leaving Xian I took a tour to some of the historical sites around the city. The Yangling region around Xian is covered with mounds which rise about the horizon like tells in the deserts of the Middle East. Waiting for the lift to take me down from my 6th floor apartment I could count three or four on the horizon.

In the shop of the wonderful archaeological museum of the mausoleum of the Han Dynasty Emperor Jing Di, his wife and courtiers at Yangling I found clay figurines, replicas of the many that were found in the tombs of nobles. I purchased a standing female figurine resplendent in robes of the period, her right hand raised and left arm reaching forward; evidently she once held something in her hands or arms. It was a spur of the moment purchase, expensively priced, prompted by a sense that I was soon leaving and that I mightn’t find such a figurine anywhere else. Silly really. I should have known replicas of the replicas can be found throughout Xian for a fraction of the price.

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Another piece bought at a museum shop was the bishop from the 12th century Lewis chessmen which I found at the British Museum. I fell in love with the bishop’s intense gaze from his googly eyes. It appeals to me and makes me smile whenever I see it.

Two little figurines which intrigue me belonged, I believe, to my grandmother and may have something to do with sewing. If anyone knows how they were used, please leave a comment below or send me an email! I love them because they are a connection with my grandmother, though I don’t know exactly how they came to be in my possession. They live in a special glass display case which was also a gift from a relative along with other small objects with high personal significance.

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Another pair of figurines were purchased by me from a souvenir shop in the grasslands town of Xilinhaote in Inner Mongolia. I never saw anything like them anywhere else. They are a woman and a man, whose bark penis was ripped off by quarantine at the airport on my return to Melbourne. I haven’t yet replaced it, which is probably why he is baring his teeth at me so ferociously!  The shop owner explained that they are protective figurines against evil spirits, which is why they are so ugly. Interestingly, I saw similar figurines in the museum in the Inner Mongolian capital, Hohhot. Such frightening faces can also be seen on shaman’s cloaks used in indigenous religious rituals among the Mongols. Despite being tourist souvenirs, they are unique, fascinating pieces which stood out among other religious items for sale such as miniature prayer wheels, prayer beads and pictures of Buddha.

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These gorgeous little Scotty dogs came to me as a gift from a friend; I love them because I love dogs and because they remind me of my friend.

The last figurine I wanted to share with you today is made of wood and takes the form of a faceless woman holding a puppy or small dog over her shoulder.  She has angel’s wings made of wire and wears a long skirt.  I bought it shortly after the death of my beloved dog and it comforts me. I like to think that my sweet dog might have had a soul which is now at peace after her undoubtedly uncomfortable (but mercifully brief) struggle with lung cancer.

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Why do I love these figurines?

  • They remind me of loved ones and friends
  • They remind me of enjoyable times overseas
  • They interest me because they are replicas of ancient ones
  • They have cultural significance
  • They have intriguing faces
  • They make me feel happy

Some of the figurines share certain similarities. The little iron dogs are not dissimilar to that held by the ‘angel’ woman, who wears a dress not unlike that of the ancient Chinese figurine. The Mongolian figurines also wear long skirt-like garments. 

If we consider these figurines purely from a physical or morphological point of view, we can see that some are male, some female, some may have a military function, another is seated holding what looks like a shepherd’s crook.  They are all made of different fabrics: wood, clay, metal and resin (originally walrus ivory: the bishop from the chess set). 

I wonder what archaeologists would make of all these figurines if my house was ever excavated in 1000 years time?

Would they connect the function of the Chinese figurine with the angel woman on the basis that they look vaguely similar? What about the ‘sewing ladies’?  Any significance in the fact that they don’t have lower bodies? Would the miniature terracotta warriors be interpreted as toys for little boys? Would the archaeologists assume that children live in my house?

I don’t utilize any of these figurines in the manner in which their originals were first created. I don’t play chess with the king, I don’t place the Mongolian protective spirits in relevant parts of my home and I don’t use the ‘sewing’ figurines, if that is what they are, for sewing. They are all ornaments.

I feel certain emotions as I view them; they hold particular stories for me which they would not for a visitor entering my home and viewing them for the first time. I could explain how I feel about them, but that visitor could never actually feel the same way, even if they understood the feeling.

Have you found any figurines around your home?  Why do you have them and how do they make you feel?  Do they hold special memories for you?  Do you feel the same way about all your figurines?

I’d really love to hear about your figurines. Please leave a comment and if you can, a picture of your figurine/s.

The Kinger and the Van

Where did You go on Your School Holidays? 

We lean our arms on the ledge between the head rests of the front seats, resting our chins in the crooks of our elbows, our two small heads close together. It’s hot and the Kingswood’s green upholstery clings to our skin.

We’ve probably been to the beach, maybe Port Fairy or Peterborough down the Great Ocean Road or Tathra or Bega or Ulladulla on the NSW coast, or perhaps we’ve just hiked the Golden Stairs in Tasmania’s Mt Field National Park or spotted a wombat in Cradle Mountain-Lake St Claire National Park.

Maybe we’ve been on a paddle steamer on the Murray River, or perhaps fishing from a little rowing boat at Victor Harbour.

Perhaps we’ve been scavenging for opals at Coober Pedy or exploring Broken Hill or the collecting firewood for tonight’s BBQ around the ghost town of Whitecliffs.

We could have been Christmas shopping in Adelaide, Brisbane, Hobart or Sydney.

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