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The chip at the end of a bar of soap

29 March 2020
Ben Pentreath
44 Comments

The title of this blog will make sense only if you ready to the very end. But I wonder, is your week more a tiny bit settled at the end than the beginning?

we’ve had a week of walks and solitary confinement and the days have been beautiful.

We’ve all been adjusting to the new normals – how fast, in a sense how terrifyingly fast, this process happens. 

The world slows down. On Sunday evening, last week, at the suggestion of our bishop (and, later in the week, for the first time in history, all churches have been locked) we lit a candle in our window at 7pm.  

Many in the village, I am sure many people in the valley, have been doing this. A beacon of hope, a sense of continuity, a light in the darkness. It’s a good thing to do. Charlie’s been lighting the candle in our window every evening ever since – and it’s extraordinary to realise how much light a single candle provides on a clear, dark, moonless night.   The moon has begun to appear as a tiny sliver. It’s curious the small things we suddenly realise more intensely now.

In the mornings we’ve been getting up to cold frosts and the stillest calm days.

The light has been beautiful, and therapeutic. 

In the evenings the house has glowed and the birdsong has been extraordinary.

Repeat, daily.

Everything seems more intense.

Some mornings we’ve mixed it up and walked our walk the other way around….

The evenings have seen powerful sunsets. One evening, we went up to the attic to catch the last of the light. I’m recording this photo in the blog, now, so that when we’ve all forgotten these days it doesn’t get forgotten. It was a funny moment.

Each day the light was subtly different – things you don’t notice if it’s once a week, or once a fortnight…

The light plays tricks with shadows as the sun is rising. Every line on the hills is like a drawing in soft charcoal.
The fold of the hills in the Valley of the Stones could have been sculpted by Barbara Hepworth.

Last night, an extraordinary sunset lit up the sky.

And we came to the end of the strangest week we’ve ever known, yet also, in another way, the most uneventful, the most ordinary.

As I wrote on instagram, this morning, “I’ve realised that a lot of people right now are liking being able to see the morning walk that Charlie and I are doing with the dogs each day. For us, in a way, it’s nothing special – it’s what we do every morning when we’re down in Dorset, the same round. But every single day – and this week more than any, perhaps, you realise the extraordinary specialness of ordinary things“.

I’ve been thinking a lot too about how life may shape out on the other side of where we are now. Clearly, there is a sense of uncertainly and forbidding to come, but I can’t help but feel optimistic. So many people, ourselves included, are rediscovering a sense of community and neighbourliness, even at the precise moment when we must move to a solitary confinement. This is powerful.  On Thursday evening, here in the village, at 8pm, we stepped out into the garden to clap for the NHS – and were so moved to hear so many others do the same; and then people from my office started sending videos of the extraordinary applause echoing across the whole of London – so incredibly moving. But beyond the here and now, I’m still feeling optimistic. The world is being forced, momentarily, to pause – to stop and to think. The music has stopped, but we know a time soon that it will be back, and we’ll have so much fun with our friends and families and loved ones when it is.

But I wonder if we’ll also find we’re in a world that is a permanently repositioned to live as it was before, but more carefully; a little slower, a little more gently, to be a bit kinder to the planet in a way that now seems quite possible – and two weeks ago, frankly, didn’t; a world which appreciates food, and where it comes from, and who it is grown by, more profoundly; a world which realises that there is life and energy within the space of a ten minute walk – and if there isn’t, really tries to do something about that; a world that realises that we have the choice to heal as well as to damage. A world that doesn’t prevent travel, but in which it’s a bit rarer, more special, less everyday, less empty.

These are still all questions for another day; tomorrow the task is to continue with the more pressing work of living with life as we find it today – and working hard at it, solving problems, keeping the show on the road for as many people as we can, as best as we can.

I wanted to end with an email I got earlier in the week from my great friend Marianne Cusato. Twenty years ago now, she and I shared a desk space together at the office where we both worked, Fairfax & Sammons, in New York. We worked together, we actually wrote a book together (which is amazingly still in print – Get Your House Right it’s called), and have stayed closely in touch ever since. She now teaches, as well as writing and polemicising and designing beautiful buildings. Normally I call Marianne at the start of each year to find out what her ‘vibe’ is for the year ahead. I’m glad I didn’t on January 3rd, because that would have been unfair, perhaps – could any of us quite have expected what this year was to bring?  But this was the email I got on from her Thursday.  I couldn’t think of a better conclusion to the blog, so much so, it provides our title this evening:

Hello! I loved your last blog. I’ve been meaning to write you because as we are adapting to our new normal on this side of the pond, you, actually specifically your mother, have come up in many conversations.
I was on a field trip in Washington DC with students when our rapid pace of things caught up with us. The university canceled all in person classes and we were brought home. That was March 12. When I left for the DC trip, the world was twitchy enough that I planned ahead and bought a few groceries. When I got home, with two quick shopping trips I had everything I needed for at least a month. 
As I’ve settled in to my new life, I’ve noticed that I am so much more respectful of groceries, especially single use products. It is embarrassing the number of paper towels I would use pre-CV. I was so mindlessly wasteful. 
This is where your mom keeps coming to mind. I remember sitting at our desks on the third floor of Anne and Richard’s office. You told me a story about your mom collecting all of the little soap chips at the end of the bar, then once enough were gathered, remaking them into a new bar of soap. This was a result of living through the war. We of course laughed, deep belly laughs I recall as people with endless means and no reverence for the finite nature of our fragile planet. 
I’ve thought of that conversation many times since then, each time as I chucked the little soap chip in the trash glad I didn’t live in a world where I needed to keep it. 
And now here we are. I’m telling everyone who will listen about my friend Ben’s mom who never lost her respect for the resources she had even when everyone else did. I hope if there is any silver lining out of then entire mess, it will be that we collectively have a reverence for things so small as the chip at the end of a bar of soap.

 

44 comments on this post

annasays:

a very special blog, thank you, as ever. i have to tell you that the soap trick is one i learnt from my Scottish grandmother from so long ago. i totally adore delicious soap and i am so sad when the last fragment is too small to use – so i save all the small pieces of the most deliciously fragranced and wizz them up in my maximix. my husband and children are very dubious about the process.

Sigrid A Olsensays:

I love to read about these little fixes….such as something invented to re-mold the bar of soap. My mother, who grew up in the great depression, had a certain amount of disdain for the constant carefulness that came with hard times. Kind of like not getting rid of the tea towels but keeping them long after they are worn out. I think we need to find a balance between luxury and thriftiness.

Nicola Lawrencesays:

I have just read this and your recent blog post Ben. You really do have a way with words and express so beautifully things I think or feel, myself.

It has been interesting to me to note via instragram etc, just how much more people are thinking about resources – and are being resourceful or creative in their own homes. This will surely be a positive out of this unworldly situation and I hope brings permanent change to waste – but also in enjoying the tiny little things of every day. I’ve also noticed how difficult some people are finding staying at home with their children – or just staying at home. They are ‘bored’. How sad. I guess for me and for our family we are used to moment and weeks of isolation and are never bored – there is so to do and learn and enjoy and notice – and i’m quite happy pottering about in my head anyway.

As you know we have just bought another farm – one ‘closer in’ where the bigger machinery you describe in latest post – and horrible chemicals – are used. We will end up being an island of livestock amongst a sea of cropping – but I do really not like the chemicals used everywhere. However – understand they are needed to grow food in the modern manner. Our little vegetable gardens are chemical free – we are so lucky to have space to grow food and now, to isolate. Fancy moving to an area we need to isolate from an area so isolated naturally (we’re back and forth).

I totally relate to your story of your lovely mum and her soap saving. Perhaps this sort of thing will be another outcome of what the world is adjusting to now. Why waste things?

Thank you Ben – at least you are cosy and enjoying your time with Charlie and the canine co – and The Parsonage and garden. I love the idea of the candle in the window. So peaceful. xx

Suzy Jamessays:

It would seem that although it may be a tortuous path life really does go in full circle. Your mum I’m sure would not be of the ‘I told you so’ clan but just go about her business as normal, secretly hoping you collect another gem along the way. God bless.x

Shelley McGeadysays:

I saved this week’s blog for a moment during the week when I knew I would most appreciate it, rather than gobble it up first thing on Monday as I usually do to start my week. Being cooped up inside can start to wear on one, even though I am used to my own company and often prefer it.
Perhaps it is becoming a widely recognized feeling, but I had just responded to a text from a friend checking in to see how I am faring when I read the blog, and part of my response to her had been that as inconvenient and frightening as life is now, in some ways being forced to slow down and reconsider how to spend the days: to “make do”, has sometimes been satisfying and oddly soothing. I hope that we may all look back on this time as a wake-up call to be more aware and careful of life, and realize the impact of the decisions we each make every day. Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful and eloquent reminder both visual and verbal, of all that we have, and all that we stand to gain, or lose, by the decision s we make going forward.

Deborah Wagnersays:

Ben, you are a man with a beautiful soul living in a beautiful place, and we need your calmness of spirit, your humanity, optimism, goodness, and sensibleness now more than ever, when we are afraid to look at the news or venture outside.

I recently reactivated my Instagram account (which only lasted a day). Your postings are everything an Insta post should be, but they are nothing compared to this blog.

The photo of the house with the light in the window brought me to tears.

The soap ends? I don’t save them up. I wrap them in a damp face flannel to soften them and then use them in the shower. They make the flannel deliciously sudsy, and what’s left of the bar of soap is used down to the last bubble.

With love,

Deborah

Amanda Cartersays:

Thank you Ben for ALL your blog entries – when I am looking for inspiration and the need for an uplift, you are my go-to blogger. Your words of wisdom and stunning pictures are nourishment for the soul. Keep posting, keep safe. Amanda

Peter Chattansays:

Beautiful Ben, thank you.
Big hugs and love to you and Charlie.

Corasays:

Reading this whilst sitting by the fire and next to pippin our dog. We are very fortunate to also live in the green and much more pleasant land without planes, train and automobiles . Bird song aplenty and yes a much greater appreciation for this wonderful world. If we learn nothing else …Let’s please look after it and one another! Thank you and your photos are reminiscent of a Ravilious landscape. Good evening

Sarahsays:

Thank you Ben, lovely, lovely post – and fellow readers comments.

Nicolasays:

As the child of parents who in their early teens experienced real wartime hardship and, it has to be said, fear, this time has reminded me of their careful and respectful approach to all resources whether natural or manmade; their lack of narcissism and kindness to others; their optimism in the face of difficulty. Thank you for this important post and the beautiful photographs. Best wishes, Nicola

Stellasays:

I try to live by this :
Use it up, wear it out.
Make it do, or do without.

Thank you for your graciousness.

Kathie Johnsonsays:

Again I am moved to sacred places in my heart. I breathe in your gifts you share and I exhale more comforted. Your images and your narrative linger with me. So grateful, someone else shared your existence to me long enough ago that I’ve had time enough to trust the pure goodness of your blogging. So I can breathe it in deeply, no worries, just a nugget of peace.

Oliversays:

I so enjoy your writing and beautiful photos. The story of the soap bits brought back warm memories of my grandmother.

Darlene Chandlersays:

Thank you for the wonderful pictures, so warming to my well being during these tough times. I so enjoy just a walk through your countryside, through your pictures and the flowers starting to bloom. What a lovely idea about the candle. Loved the email from Marianne about the soap. My dearly departed father used to say over and over again, be resourceful and not wasteful. He to told me, as a young boy, about the scarcity of everyday items during the war and having to put cardboard in one’s shoes when holes came. I never forgot that. I look forward to seeing your garden in bloom.

Darlene Chandlersays:

Thank you again, I so enjoyed all of your wonderful pictures of the countryside, and to hear of you and Charlie’s daily walks in this beautiful setting during these very tough times. You are so lucky, even in this time to be able to walk out your door from your beautiful home, and flowers that are now coming into bloom, and take in this beauty and spent time reflecting. Gives everyone hope that the world will come back from this. I love the idea of the candle being lit each evening, just lovely. And what a nice picture of Charlie taken with the sunset. I loved what your dear friend Marianne said in her email. My dear departed father experienced the war and used to tell me over and over again to be resourceful and not wasteful. As a boy when his shoes wore out, he had to walk in shoes with holes and put cardboard in them, as things were so scare. I have never forgotten his wisdom. Yes, it is with great pleasure to tell you, living in a large city, your beautiful pictures of your landscape is so warming. I so look forward to hear about Charlie’s flowers.

As ever, I’m moved and inspired by news from the world according to Pentreath. Your beautiful words and pictures combine to fill me with a sense of right-ness in a life of uncertainty and uncouth-ness. (Is that a word?) Thank you thank you thank you!

christiansays:

it is a pleasure to read these words during this sad period.
beautiful pics.

Millerballsays:

Thank you Ben, love your thoughtful, heartfelt words. My BIG hope is that everyone will use this time for reflection, building awareness of how we are all connected to each other and the natural world, and make meaningful, positive changes in our everyday lives and not return to the same old, same old.

meridith mooresays:

Your blog lightens my day. Here in Santa Barbara CA due to fire danger, we are putting led candles in the windows at night.

Dianesays:

Thank you Ben for sharing. I am fortunate enough to have my four young adult children at home around the dinner table now and i tell them that for their children and grandchildren this is their Great Depression story, their war experience, and their victory garden to nuture. Not to take anything from our parents and grandparents who suffered through these events, but it truly has formed and shaped us at a result—and their experiences now will form and shape generations for years to come. xoxo Diane
.

Margueritesays:

Oh Ben, thank you for sharing, for sharing all of this…. Your words, your heart, your photos , your walk, THE COWS, the candle, the light, THE DOGS, and especially your mom and her wisdom. The experience of our elders , esp those who went through WWII (my mom and grandparents fled Europe, many relatives lost, my dad a Bombadier out of, England) taught us so much The Greatest Generation. May you and all you love and indeed all the world stay safe. Wishing you health, joy and Peace.

Judith Haxtonsays:

Ben .. last night I opened a new pump bottle of liquid soap I found hiding in the back of my bathroom cupboard. The contents looked clear in the container but when pumped came out Foamy.I was surprised and it made me so happy I had to call my husband for him to try it …. Oh the little things !!! Please stay safe and thank you for your beautiful photos and words.
Judy

Patricia Lillian Taylorsays:

back in the 6O’s/7O’s I read with awe Rachel Carson’s “The Silent Spring” – at around that time there was a movement afoot to conserve
and make do and there was a publication, maybe weekly, that gave tips
to do just that and using the last of the soap to make a new bar.
Can anyone remember the title of that paper? I used to buy it regularly
and did in fact keep a copy for posterity but it got lost in subsequent house moves – how relevant it would be for today’s world.

Maureensays:

Lovely.

Sophiesays:

So lovely to see photos of the Dorset countryside which I am not allowed to drive to at the moment. I totally understand why the government make this rule but it is hard. I am stuck in urban Dorset 🙁

Sineadsays:

Dear Ben, your words and photos and thoughts and ponderings and company make my Monday, each Monday, your newsletter, one of the “small” but important components of my life. So important I have often prescribed you to patients. We will get through this. I am going to light a candle in my bedroom window this evening. Thank you.

Jaysays:

From the other end of the earth, I also have memories of my parents saving little pieces of string, silver paper from cigarettes and chocolate, brown paper bags and of course “the chips at the ends of bars of soap” after the war years in London. The soap shaker was also used to wash dishes.
We are not as far advanced here, but life is changing daily. The pleasure in having a garden and plenty of room to grow our own vegetables ( not to mention the gorgeous dahlias at this time of the year!) is immeasurable in these times. Thanks, Ben, for your wonderful writing and peaceful photos. They are much appreciated.

Angie Dawsonsays:

My family always think I’m mad to wash out the small plastic bags and put them to dry on bottles on the Aga- – but that’s what my Mum always did! Hopefully we will all learn a simpler way of life.

Kathrynsays:

That brought a tear to my eye. My granny used to do that and, after she dies, we discovered whole drawers full of melted-down soap bars. And we laughed. Lesson now learned.

Debra Mooresays:

Dear Ben. Your blog has offered calm and beauty in the midst of uncertainty thank you. I love all your photos as l always do the candle in the window is so beautiful and offers hope thank you keep safe and well.

Margaretsays:

Your photos and words are now more appreciated than ever. Thank you so much.

Anna K,says:

Thank you, Ben, for this – as always – positive and uplifting post.

I was a war baby, born during a bombing raid, and feel so lucky now to have grown up with real austerity, because it has made me appreciate every single day how blessed we are with abundance; but also made me confident that I cope with the privations ahead. Oh yes, I remember the saving of soap chips, and to this day, I never throw away the wrapping on a pack of butter, but keep it to grease a pan or baking tin.

We’ve had glorious sunsets in mid-Wales too; the primroses and fritillaries are out in the garden, and the buds on the magnolia stellata are promisingly fat and furry. St David said, ‘Remember the little things.’

Lyndasays:

thank you Ben! I love this. I am a home body and “isolated” with a full house so not very lonely, but I am realising that I have gotten away from a lot of things I feel strongly about. Cooking nice food for the family, keeping the house in order. It isn’t all bad, reconnecting with my home. I think there will be some silver linings.
Take care,
Lynda

Lesleysays:

My mother used to boil them up with the hankies ! Thank you, Ben. We relish your contributions.

Caroline Ravilioussays:

Perhaps you could source for the Shop the soap-saving device my grandmother still used in the 1950s: a little rectangular wire basket on the end of wire handles which opened like a nutcracker. You put your ends of soap (coal tar, in her case) in the basket, clicked it shut, and swished the device in the hot bath water before you got in.

Bridgetsays:

Thank you – beautiful photos, do so enjoy my Dorset ‘fix’ from you, reminds me of happy times.

I made ‘new’ soap bars out of the remaining slivers in the 1970s and 80s and had a mould – you could get them then – to do it with. You gathered the pieces in the mould and when there were enough added a little boiling water and pressed it all together ending up with a ‘new’ harlequin bar. Since moving to liquid soap it’s not been necessary but we do refill the dispensers from a massive 5 L container.

Kjpsays:

My mum used to do this, she even had a gadget to put all the ‘chips’ in to fashion a new bar! She’s long gone but that’s one of a millions memories I have. Thank you for the beautiful post, keep safe and well x

Isla Simpsonsays:

Thanks so much Ben for the most reassuring post. We have so many things that my Granny made during the war, a waste paper bin made from papier maché, Christmas decorations from Jif lemon bottles. I think about how little she had and how much value she saw in what we would throw away today. This will change the course of our lives in so many good ways. Sending you and Charlie lots of love xxxx

Henrietta Bredinsays:

You write so beautifully and take such glowingly gorgeous photographs – thank you so much. In our family those last bits of soap were and are always known as snucky soap. Onwards.

Kaysays:

Your photos bring me a measure of peace and awe, that in the midst of our mess, such beauty exists. Thank you!

Jamessays:

Beautiful words, especially read from the other side of the Atlantic about the place where my heart still lies. Please keep up the blog – it’s a vital respite in strange times.

Willa Lloydsays:

My mother always did the same. I used to laugh but not now.

Sue Grantsays:

Lovely photos. I have on the bathroom basin,2 pieces of old soap stuck together. Keep calm and carry on.

Sue.

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