Friday, 24 August 2012

What a Heel!

Here is Achilles, on a bad day, in a bad mood, thinking about beating up someone, famous for his volatile temper.

He had a lot to be angry about, back then in Ancient Greece.
Son of a nymph and a king, his fey mother held him by the heel when he was just a small baby and dipped the rest of him into the river Styx so that he would be immortal. Then, just to make sure, she anointed him with ambrosia (not the tinned rice pudding) and put him on top of a fire to burn away any mortal parts of him.
Luckily she was interrupted by King Peleus, the baby's father, but she was so enraged by this that she left both father and son.
King Peleus, unable or unwilling to care for his son, found a Centaur, half man, half horse to be the ideal guardian and tutor, and so it went on.

 Achilles, not surprisingly, also developed a raging temper and grew up to be extremely active in the Trojan Wars.
Eventually he was killed by an arrow shot into the one mortal bit of him - the heel, the one bit that hadn't been dipped in the Styx. This possibly happened during battle, possibly during a tricky love affair, possibly involving poison from a specific enemy, but it was that big tendon at the back of the heel that caused the problem. Without it the foot won't work, and it is always known as the Achilles tendon, a point of vulnerability for even the strongest.

Thinking about it now, it is not surprising that Achilles was vulnerable - and his poor mother, surely a bad case of post natal depression? Then the clearly inadequate father, and the totally unsuitable fostering arrangement; how could the poor lad ever be thought normal.
Yet he was.

He was a leader in the Trojan Wars, a star of the Iliad, a slayer of an Amazonian Queen (although a bit half-hearted about this one, and regretting it later), an upholder of Gay Rights, he was admired, even worshipped in antiquity and survives today in Greek philosophy and mythology.
But there is still that heel, still that point of extreme vulnerability that makes him famous today, and I think he would truly hate that fact. Known more for a bit of sinew than for all those macho exploits.

We all have bits of sinew holding our bones and muscles together at a practical level, and when something, some small part fails it can have a drastic effect.
We all have our points of vulnerability, and I think I know mine well enough to avoid or deflect the arrows most of the time - but they still catch me out occasionally.

So this is written for a son and his Achilles tendon, from a concerned mother.
We all have our points of weakness.

I realise there are lots of versions of Achilles' life story, but only one (or two) tendons bearing his name.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Marked for Life.

Here is the top of an oak sewing table. My father made it for my mother, long, long ago, when they were still at the stage of trying to impress one another. Last year my son put a glass of water on it, with the resultant white ring. He was apologetic when he realised the effect of water on old wood. I could have sanded and  re-polished it, or even asked him to have a go at polishing and removing the stain himself, but I didn't.
Now, from time to time, I see the mark and am happy to remember that my son was here, sprawled in a chair with a glass of water. He's not here very often, after all.

Today something triggered a conversation with a friend about honourable stains, marks that are made by life, for life. So many of these are part of my home, part of my life, not pretty, but stained and scarred, marked with honour.
What makes honourable scars? I think it is the process of living, and the feelings and memories that are enshrined in the scars. Some might be created in anger, and there are places in this house which bear witness to powerful passions - yet I feel that these are honourable in their way,  sad evidence of what can happen when  parents are pushed that bit too far, and when everyone is exhausted. Cautionary tales.

Would I ever want to live in a place that was pristine? Well, actually, it might be quite refreshing once in a while, but it would also be impersonal, featureless, whereas this place is a home, built up over the years, scarred by the years, just like me. Full of memories.

The door-frame in the kitchen is notched with the growth records of the family and a few selected friends, including a dog. Every so often I paint around it carefully. Everyone seems to have stopped growing now, upwards at any rate, but nearly every time there are visitors in the kitchen they notice it and comment, and my sons still like to check that they were taller than their father by the time they were in their mid-teens.

There are marks and wounds throughout the house.
There's the place where the ballpoint pen leaked on the leather of a rather valuable desk, and I can still see my husband, dabbing at it ineffectually with a handkerchief loaded with spit, hoping that no one would notice.
There are a few hand-prints on ceilings  where tall, teenaged sons tried to out-leap each other. At one point there were even footprints, too (on ceilings!) but the kitchen has been redecorated and now they are both over thirty they probably could no longer manage it. (I don't think they take much notice of this blog, but if you are reading this, my sons, this is not a challenge.)

The armchair in the kitchen, beside the range, has supported more bottoms than I will ever know. So many hands other than ours have come in straight from the garden and rubbed dirt into the chair arms. So many other muddy feet have scraped along the stretcher between the chair legs. For many years during my professional life I wrote about antiques. I know patination when I meet it. It takes a century of dirt and hard wear to build up glowing scars like that chair has.

Some of the more flamboyant scars have been repaired. There were teenage excesses that are better not recalled, but still lurking just beneath the surface....those incidents with the poker and the fire in the sitting room, for instance. Well, the  brass poker is still badly dented.

There is still glue and solder on a carpet up in the attic where younger son spent hours assembling extraordinary circuits, and there is a chipped and scarred rocking horse who has been ridden too hard by generations before and after me. My grandfather stretched the leather reins, as did my uncle and my father after him, and they finally came apart while my sons were riding. Perhaps I should have it restored, have the scars painted out, the leather replaced for the grand-daughter now on her way. Or perhaps she should also hold the battered old reins used by her great-great grandfather?

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Lucifer and Friends

Lucifer stands proud in my garden - that tall, very bright red 'Crocosmia'.
Before Lucifer became a by-word for Satan it was the name of the morning star, Venus, shining bright and clear at dawn. That is what Lucifer, the plant, does so well, brightens the mornings, and the afternoons and the evenings. Perhaps especially the evenings when it glows in the dusk.

Lucifer has spread around my garden and has travelled into many other gardens I know. It is so easy, so dramatic, such a joy to pass on to friends and neighbours.
A large part of the pleasure of gardening is to pass things on, to share favourite plants, to exchange a bowl of loganberries for a bowl of blackcurrants. So Lucifer appears, shining brightly in a garden down the road, across the road and over the hill.
I hope I have not be-devilled my neighbours' gardens.

It seems sad that the name of Lucifer, originally something shining and beautiful, should now be generally recognised as devilish.
There are many plants more directly named after Satan, many of them poisonous, barbed, threatening, bright red, horned, long-tongued or otherwise weird. Poor old Crocosmia Lucifer only got the name by being bright red.

Creeping Devil is apparently weird. It's a cactus that lies flat on the sandy ground of the Arizona desert and creeps like a caterpillar, dying at its rear end, growing forward from the front. Weird, but also practical because a cylinder on its side gets more light than one standing upright, and the Creeping Devil is basically a horizontal cylinder.

Devil's Beggar Tick is a nuisance, an irritant, having hooked seeds which attach themselves firmly into clothing, preferably socks. But also clever, because it uses animals and people to distribute seeds well away from the parent plant.

The Devils Walking Stick has very sharp thorns. It is related to Ginseng, and apparently (do not try this at home) a paste made of its poisonous seeds will kill head lice.

Devil's weed, of the Datura family has dangerously poisonous fruits. Devil's Ivy, an attractive houseplant is altogether poisonous, as is the Devil's Backbone, which is related to Jacob's Ladder.
Devil's Tongue is a name for both an very hot pepper and the Snake Palm tree, which grows with a trunk as sinuous as the serpent in the garden of Eden. We don't understand why these plants need to create strong poisons in their systems, or grow in convoluted form or generate such heat in their fruits that they can take the skin off  your mouth, but there will be very sound and sensible reasons if we could but find a key to them.

Here are the seed-pods of Devil's Claw from South Africa. Well, you can see the fingernails, can't you? Obviously devilish, but also useful as an anti-inflammatory and a help to those with arthritis, so not all bad. Imported, ground into pill form and sold by those promoting natural health cures, so not very Satanic after all.

Can any plants be all bad?
Some are poisonous, some are potentially dangerous, but that is undoubtedly because we do not have the knowledge to understand their properties and powers. There is so much we do not know - isn't it wonderful?
So I drink my early morning cuppa and admire Lucifer, the morning star, shining clear and bright and vividly red on even a dull damp morning.

And on a personal note, the roubles did not get squandered in Southern Russia. The paperwork failed us at the last moment. The passport has been nowhere in the last weeks. At some stage I will saunter beside the Black Sea in my gauzy dresses (probably not from November onwards though!).