Tuesday
Apr102012

weekending

This weekend we swapped our rural spot for urban Brighton, staying in the home from home that belongs to friends while they stayed at ours. We've been doing swaps for a few years now and it works perfectly. Only an hour's drive away, it's as welcome a change as any fancy hotel. Simply stepping out of our square little house and into their long, elegant terrace makes us live differently for a few days and allows for a type of relaxation that has everything to do with the small things. The certain pleasure of corridors. A cat again. Excellent radios in every room. Walking to a shop. More than anything, though, is just being away from those little obligations that call from your own home.

Our days moved happily and just slowly enough. We caught up with local friends, created a number of Lego magnificences, raced motor boats on the pier and wandered the narrow lanes of the old town. Two Easter egg hunts yielded Joel a full basket of eggs. I ate a lot of cinnamon buns. The local bakery is famous for its hot-cross buns but I'm a raisin hater and once you've picked the raisins out of a bun it no longer holds much pleasure.

There was a Sunday lunch at the cottages where I felt such fury for one of my extended in-laws that I actually shook throughout my body. It was an interesting moment in the middle of a maelstrom. I've never been as happy to get back to that comfortable house as I did that day. 

And then there's coming home. To a lovely bottle of wine; a fine wooden raft to float on the stream and the new buds and blossoms that have opened in our absence. All's well etc. 

 

Thursday
Mar292012

how are you?

A while back, I bought a trio of these postcards from Kerry at Seventy Tree and immediately knew that I'd have to claim one for my own. Just looking at it makes me happy - and reminds me daily that there is a long list of people I need to say hello to. 

If you know me in person, you'll have many examples of phone calls left unreturned for far too long. The phone and I are not friends and it's too easy for me to let a call go to voice mail. Then begins a self-perpetuating circle. I don't return a call promptly - time goes by - and it becomes too hard to easily answer the question 'what have you been up to?' More time goes by. It becomes even harder. And the worst thing is, it's the friends I think of almost daily - but who live at a distance - that I neglect most. I too often assume that we will always pick up where we left off. The loose, local acquaintances based on proximity and children have calls and coffees and no hint of my elusive ways.

But at this point in a new year, I realise that it isn't enough to say that I've thought a lot about someone (though entirely true). I need to accept that a regular phone call is better than a perfect phone call. To answer that call instead of leaving it to the more convenient moment that never comes. So these cheery lovelies are not going to be used to avoid a call but as an adjunct to one. And if one of them arrives on your mat then I hope it comes with a light-hearted hello, unweighted by lengthy apologies. It means I've managed at long last to break one of my most unhappy habits. 

Friday
Mar162012

at home

Stepping out into the early dark last night to pick a pair of bay leaves, I stood for a while looking up at Jupiter and Venus shining particularly brightly in the clear, cold night. Bats flickered under the willow. Walking back into the warmth of the kitchen, I felt a surge of contentment and sense of place that surprised me. We've lived here for nearly five years: longer than I've ever lived in a house, or a place. Being settled doesn't really settle me. Or so I thought. This odd little house that contains most of Joel's memories until now, with the garden that frustrates and delights in turn, has become a home that will be hard to leave. 

Tuesday
Mar132012

correspondence

It's odd how things come together. Yesterday, to make space for a new piano, I had to find a place for everything that currently lives in a large and accommodating chest of drawers. And in a small house, that means sorting and throwing and finding new containers for things that fit perfectly well in their current home but seem utterly wrong anywhere else. 

I wasn't full of joy about my task. And the sun was shining so warmly that it seemed ungrateful to be indoors, so I made a strong espresso and told myself briskly that after a short break I'd get back to the job with no more excuses. Grabbing a well-thumbed copy of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women from the pile of books that no longer had a home, I settled on a bench outside. 

It was a full two hours later when I rushed back in, full of guilty zeal, to fling books and boxes into at least an approximate order before making a dash to collect Joel from school.  I'd been charmed again by the irresistible voice of Mildred. Regarding herself with that particularly English form of self-deprecation and reluctant self-knowledge, and others with an eye that vacillates between dutiful generosity and sharp accuity, she's a perfect guide through a small slice of post-war English life.   

And then, while hastily sorting a drawer stuffed with cards and notebooks I came across an old postcard that I picked up years ago. I'd bought it solely because I was amused by the text. Who was the rather imperious, leggy Cynthia and why need Joan buy her stockings? But coming straight after my reading of Pym's book, it was as if the characters had come to life. I immediately imagined that Joan was a sort of Mildred; living alone in a relatively smart address, but perhaps in a small series of rooms, with washing drying on a rack and simple suppers that she resented eating. And Cynthia her glamorous friend, too busy with her romantic dramas to buy something so banal as stockings.

The synchronicity pleased me and made me feel that my distraction had a higher purpose. Plus, I had topped up my levels of vitamin D. Rather a satisfactory day after all. 

Tuesday
Mar062012

fare forward

I'm in a bit of a bind. Part panic, part paralysis, with this new year hurtling by so fast it's taking my breath away and this song going round in my mind. I need to decide what I'm going to commit to over this next year, and beyond, to make myself happy. The kind of intrinsic happiness that comes from doing something that you love and that leaves you with the sense of a day well lived. Something beyond the daily contentment of family: something entirely personal. These last years have been so full of parenting that this kind of decision was, more or less, redundant. Now, before another birthday comes, I feel I need to make that choice and get going. But making the choice between different options is where I come unstuck.

There are many things I love and that fire me up and make my world a brighter place. Some of those things - art, making, photography - are more simple pleasures. They don't cause me too many problems. But the writing that I guess I know is what I really need to commit to is where the fear lives. It's words that have always held me and exercised me and filled my secret corners. The trouble is, I'm not at my happiest whilst lost in words. It's too deep a descent into the world of the hidden, and the excavation of words and meaning is hard. I'm distracted - preoccupied - often lost. It's like being back in the forest and choosing the path that looks the most impenetrable. It may be that I have to exchange the comfort of a gentle, immediate form of happiness for the sort that comes when something hard has been achieved. When fears are faced down and seen off.

There's a small circle of blue breaking through the dense clouds that have suddenly taken away the promise of spring. Enough to make a sailor a pair of trousers my grandmother would say with satisfaction; knowing it was likely that the day would turn out well after all. I have most of this day in front of me and I won't make it better by indulging in yet more circular thought. I think I know what I've got to do. 

 

Sunday
Mar042012

dreams of flying

 

The Treekeeper's Tale


I have set up house in the hollow trunk of a giant redwood.

My bed is a mat of pine needles. Cones drop their spirals

 

on my face as I sleep. I have the usual flying dreams.

But all I know when I wake is that this bark is my vessel

 

as I hurtle through space. Once, I was rocked in a cradle

carved from a coast redwood, its lullabies were my coracle.

 

I searched for that singing grove and became its guardian.

There are days when the wind plays each tree

 

like a new instrument in the forest-orchestra.

On wild nights mine is a flute. After years of solitude

 

I have started to hear its song. I lie staring at the stars

until the growth rings enclose me in hoops - 

 

choirs of concentric colours, as if my tree is remembering

the music of the spheres. And I almost remember speaking

 

my first word, how it flew out of my mouth like a dove.

I have forgotten how another of my kind sounds. 

 

Pascale Petit


Friday
Mar022012

another life


Some years ago, at a work conference, I met my other husband. We didn't know each other but the mutual recognition was instant. He made his way steadily, but too slowly, towards me; pausing at intervals to shake hands and pat shoulders. Finally, he reached my table. Ignoring the chair held out for him, he fell into the one next to me and we smiled in astonishment. Leaning close, we began to talk. There wasn't much time and there were constant interruptions. He and I had grown up in neighbouring small towns in Canada. He was a year younger than me and more than two heads taller. His face was handsome and kind and his big hands moved with an unexpected delicacy. Our food lay cooling on our plates and we talked softly; seriously. That night, I was pulled away to a function. The next day we spent in separate meetings with the promise of dinner that night. But I was suddenly called back to work and flew home without saying goodbye. 

It was complicated. I left work and the country within a month. My life changed and moved. 

If the quantum physics theory of parallel universes is true, then I'm living somewhere with my tall, gentle, garrulous Canadian. Am I happier there than here? 

 

Monday
Feb272012

break

It was another brief weekend at the cottages. A perfect pair of spring days with a sudden warmth that had me stripping off my layers in disbelief. Arriving late morning, we unpacked and ate a hasty make-do sort of lunch before heading out and up to walk the forest tracks to the ridge of hills that give us a favourite view over the area. The snow layer has been slow to go so the ground was surprisingly muddy. Joel soon regretted his decision to mountain bike and there was not a little bartering about who would push the bike on the steep sections. Back home, in front of the fire, a few slices of intensely lemony drizzle cake with a good thick crust of sugar made the efforts worthwhile, and eased the hour or two until the grown ups reclaimed the evening.  

I woke the next morning to silence as the boys had slipped next door to have breakfast with John's mother. Cup of tea in hand and a stack of old Country Living magazines weighing down the bed covers, I listened to the birds calling happily through the window until the light forced me to get up, and get out my camera. It was a day of rainbows, scattered through the house and briefly cresting the distant trees. Football and more cycling, this time on the flat, before we had to pack up and make the journey home. The grind of unpacking made more palatable by the sheer pleasure of knowing we'd each be sleeping in our own beds with all the familiar sounds of home. 

Saturday
Feb182012

week's end

The closing days of the short school holidays have come too quickly and we're refusing to look Monday in the eye. It's been a gentle time, suddenly warm and springly sunny, and we haven't ventured far from home. The list of activities I had planned was ignored. Instead, the stream has been dipped, some tennis played, drawings made, books read. Fields walked through and the alpacas conversed with. A chocolate cake baked and devoured. Films watched in front of the fire, with soft toys tucked under a blanket.

I'm happy to drop my expectations and follow Joel's lead when it comes to how he wants to spend his holiday time. Those days spent just being together, chatting about this and that, messing about and being silly, are the ones I secretly like best. 

Sunday
Feb122012

hindsight

I spent Saturday with a friend I rarely see alone. As we wandered through the busy streets and in and out of vintage clothes shops, we caught up on each other's lives and plans and vacillating priorities. As that point in the afternoon when the sun dipped and the air cooled further, we stopped for a cortado in a fashionable new coffee shop and talked longer and deeper. Then a moment when I realised how far I've come in tamping down my people-pleasing tendency, but also that I could have strayed too far the other way.

A waitress reached silently between the two of us and snatched my (not yet empty) glass away. I reached out silently to take it back. Something in my look made her step back, silently, and stand there a moment or two longer at my shoulder after I'd turned away. Then she moved on. I found Nicole watching me wryly. All she had to do was ask first. I've been a waitress: I would have asked. I still care what people think of me and I care what I think of me. I should have acted with more grace. Does it make it better that I'm thinking of it even now? 

 

Friday
Feb102012

solitude

Another overnight delivery of snow rearranged my day and left me with a couple of spare hours this morning. I was happy. The sun began to assert itself as I walked and the silence of the empty fields was punctuated only by the music of birds. The buzzards wheeled in slow arcs. A tiny wren perched on a thorned branch for a moment to catch its breath. An apricot-coloured young fox paused in fright at the crest of the ridge as I climbed, and disappeared in an instant. I stopped to speak to the pair of horses I'd last seen trespassing in the grounds of the manor house at new year. 

Sometimes I'm not sure if I value such moments of solitude more than others or if I'm more accepting of them. I've spent a lot of time alone during my years of academic study and work and during long bouts of travel and living abroad. Alone a lot even while in a relationship because of work. Being alone in public doesn't bother me. I can eat alone, travel alone, go out alone. But long periods of living alone is something that saps all joy from me. I miss that daily routine of being with another person. At the moment, John is clattering through the cutlery drawer to lay the table for the supper I've prepared while he's put Joel to bed. I like that. All the daily inconveniences of sharing a life with another person are secondary to the simple pleasure of knowing that my solitude has an end. My achilles heel. 

Thursday
Feb092012

not talking of love

Hurtling as we are towards Valentine's day and those depressingly dutiful, standardised, expressions of love, this Fenton poem offers a comicly earthy twist on love - and sightseeing. Because, let's be honest, travelling somewhere engrossing and diverting during those early days is simply a waste of time. A room or two, some food. That's all you need. That's all I need now. Oh sigh. Now I've gone and stirred up stirrings. 

I'm going to think instead of Devon and the first time I heard this. That night when another road wasn't taken. 

 

In Paris With You

Don't talk to me of love. I've had an earful

 And I get tearful when I've downed a drink or two.

I'm one of your talking wounded.

I'm a hostage. I'm maroonded. 

But I'm in Paris with you. 

 

Yes, I'm angry at the way I've been bamboozled

And resentful at the mess I've been through.

I admit I'm on the rebound

And I don't care where are we bound.

I'm in Paris with you.

 

Do you mind if we do not to the Louvre

If we say sod off to sodding Notre Dame,

If we skip the Champs Elysees

And remain here in this sleazy

 

Old hotel room

Doing this and that

To what and to whom

Learning who you are, 

Learning what I am.

 

Don't talk to me of love. Let's talk of Paris,

The little bit of Paris in our view.

There's that crack across the ceiling

And the hotel walls are peeling

And I'm in Paris with you.

 

Don't talk to me of love. Let's talk of Paris.

I'm in Paris with the slightest thing you do.

I'm in Paris with your eyes, your mouth,

I'm in Paris with ... all points south.

Am I embarrassing you?

I'm in Paris with you.

 

James Fenton

 

Sunday
Feb052012

snow 

Even though the sky was thickening we didn't dare get our hopes up. But late afternoon, home from the planetarium and with eyes full of black holes, small flakes began to fall. By evening, the unmistakeable silence that comes with snow had settled and we could relax, knowing it would be enough. Though a few days late. These last years the first snow has fallen during the night before Joel's birthday and that opening of a curtain to unexpected whiteness has been the first present. But it's worth waiting for that day of exhausting sledding down our long hill and snow fights. 

The sun is too warm though for the snow to last. Already, the whole hill has reverted to green though the lake remains weakly frozen. Yesterday, snowed home from school, we watched a heron lifting off from the still-running stream in the stillness of the snow, trailing long, awkward legs.

Today, the garden is busy with birds readying for spring. Looking out on my peaceful, if quietly active garden, with workmen sizing up the fireplace for another wood burner, I'm accommodating the incongruity of listening to a news report of the bombardment of Homs with defiant birdsong still audible amongst the blasts of mortars. It reminds me of the recording of the song of the nightingale in a Surrey garden - not too far from here - through which can be heard the drone of the bombers flying on a raid during the second world war. I'm not sure if that juxtaposition of bird and bomber lifts my heart or makes me despair more.

A male blackbird eyes me through the window as if to inquire about the too-soft grapes that usually make their way outside at around this time. I know I'm grateful to be halfway through an ordinary day with its ordinary preoccupations: supper tonight, schools, the deepening creases at the corners of my eyes. The vague, ungrateful dissatisfaction that my lunchtime bowl of leftover thai-spiced spinach and potato curry was just a little too small for my big hunger today - until sharp lime pickle brought me to my senses. 

I wish you an ordinary day. 

Friday
Jan272012

winter morning

Sipping slightly too hot soup by the stream at lunchtime, I welcomed the bracing, wintery feel to the day. I'm feeling oddly emotional; or rather, full of emotions that I can't quite identify. The intense happiness that I felt this morning on my drive home from school has filtered into something more complicated. Like finding something lost, I retrace my footsteps. I remember the joy of that drive through the narrow lanes with the sun still low and pink in the sky and the air heavy with ice crystals. I remember the pleasure with which I listened to Vikram Seth as I drove. Then I remember what the music made me remember and it occurs that perhaps the answer lies there.

The distinctive voice of Lata Mangeshkar sent me back to a cinema in Kathmandu and the first Bollywood film I'd ever seen. Breathless after the scrum to find a seat, I sipped gratefully from a flask of chai laced with ginger and pepper to try to combat the vicious cough that would only clear when I briefly left the choking pollution of the city for the mountain air two months later. Senses already heightened by my rapidly rising temperature, watching that film was unlike anything I'd known. People clapped, cheered, booed. Walked around, chatted, argued and spread out food. Sang along. I remember my hands on that flask in the dark and my senses singing.

Intense cold, a constant cough, an odd sort of loneliness and a discovery of my own self-reliance are what I remember most from those first weeks. The intensity of that time was greater than the warmer, easier days that came later with familiarity, changing seasons and the arrival of John. An intensity of memory that equals my early days of motherhood: always intertwined because I came back from Nepal pregnant with Joel. 

So when it came to Seth's choice of Bach's Partita for Solo Violin No 3 in E Major, another layer of memory was revealed. One of my favourite pieces and especially so during those odd, intense, exhausting early weeks after Joel's birth when I'd lie on our bed with Joel propped on my knees and we'd gaze at each other, working on our new relationship in the outside world, letting the music fall around us.

Funny things, memories. Now it's time for the drive back to school and I've let the fire go out, so wrapped up have I been. It's the onion, memory. *

 

* Craig Raine

Tuesday
Jan242012

of books and colours

After the darkness of yesterday, today has been surprisingly colourful - despite the rain that's falling relentlessly. With time to spare before my pottery class I lost myself in nostalgia in a second hand bookshop. As a child I spent far too much time reading and the books of Enid Blyton, Louisa May Alcott and Susan Coolidge were amongst the first I read independently. I haven't dared dip back into Little Women or What Katy Did because I'm sure I'd find much to disapprove of, but I'm currently ploughing through the Blyton back catalogue with Joel and remembering how vividly alive the characters of the Faraway Tree and the Famous Five were to me. Indeed how alive those other favourites were; Jo (boyish and brave), Anne of Green Gables (loveable and strong), and Pippi (so unlike me in her complete disregard for the regard of others). 

Suddenly aware of time I bolted for the pottery room and lost myself in the steady, cold press and smooth of clay as a bowl gradually took shape. Around me, slips were mixed and oxides applied and the colours and possibilities began to build. Meanwhile, I wedged and smoothed and enjoyed the gentle press and whirr of the wheel, as colour combinations passed in front of my eyes.

And seeing that the hyacinth bulbs discovered in the corner of the shed and hastily crammed into pots are doing just fine is a satisfaction that rounded off an afternoon. Now - sitting in front of the wood burner with a glass of cold white and Radio 4 and a peppery, oniony, potato frittata just ready for cooking - everything feels good.   

 

Monday
Jan232012

walking back 

Sometimes only a long walk will work. I fled the house to stamp sightlessly along bridleways and through fields until eventually I could slow and breathe and start to look again. I walked to connect myself back to a world I recognised.

I'd been reading from a book examining the excavation of the mass graves in Bosnia and the importance of the work of forensic anthropologist Ewa Klonowski, who directs the recovery and classification of human remains. The physical recovery of clothes, of bones, is central to those left behind; a key element in their process of mourning. It reminded me of the first time I saw Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam and the photographs on the wall of those piles of shoes and of glasses that were discovered in the camps. In the same way that the ordinary objects left in a house after a death are so heavy with meaning that they're sometimes too painful to bear, it was seeing those careless piles that finally released the tears. 

The book is careful and rigorous and utterly devastating. When I'll have the courage to pick it up again I'm not sure, but how I admire those people who are prepared to face down their own horror and bear witness. 

The day outside is still and muted. There is nesting beginning already and the daffodils are pushing through. The world outside my window hasn't changed but inside me all is adrift. I think I need to get my boots on again. 

Tuesday
Jan172012

la mer

On Sunday, John and I were thrown an unexpected couple of hours alone. As Joel disappeared on a hunt for flints with his visiting Italian uncle, we stood bewildered by what to do. Desperate for air after the celebrations of the night before, but away for the weekend without our walking boots, we struck out for the sea. 

Fiercely cold and intensely bright, it was a perfect day for a stomp along the promenade. The sea dazzled and the wind blew strong but - oh joy and pleasure - it miraculously blew behind us each way. So my long coat and untamed hair moved smoothly around me and we moved swiftly along together; discussing, looking and breathing in all that good air.

There are some days just made for fish & chips and this was one of them. Hurrying the short steps from our favourite fish restaurant to beach with our paper wrapped food, we settled on the shingle and dived in. Eating hastily, gloriously burning fingers and mouths, we stared in companionable silence at the surf and the gulls scudding and darting over the waves.  Denise's post beautifully captures how the sea can heal and settle. I've lived near the coast on and off for years but when living away it's the shift and swell and empty horizon that I crave. 

Refreshed and restored we retraced our steps, more slowly now, back towards the cliffs and to the cottage, where a ring of flints were joined by two perfect shells. It was a good day. 

Tuesday
Jan102012

how to irritate people just by being you

Today I took my first pottery class and my hands have that slightly dessicated feel: a rather pleasing raspiness that makes them feel used, as they do after a day's gardening.

As the only beginner in the class I found myself asking question after question about different techniques and their possibilities. And as the tutor gazed at me over her glasses, admiring my enthusiasm perhaps but wishing to god that I'd just calm down, I realised, yet again, that my need to map out an area in advance - to see the whole and then focus down on the detail - isn't always appreciated. 

Needless to say, I didn't produce a masterpiece. An adequately stable little bowl and a pinchpot that has a degree of internal integrity is the sum of my hours (all those questions to ask, you see). I'm having to damp down my perfectionist streak and see these next weeks as simple experimentation. And perhaps I'll try to be a little less annoying. But it was meditative and absorbing and has made my appreciation of master potters even greater. 

Sitting here overlooking the garden, I've just watched three full-grown swans chase each other down the little stream that separates us from their lake; blurring the air with their wings and sending drifts of leaves skywards. Although I need to head out soon to collect Joel from school, I'll brew a quick coffee to drink outside. To watch the birds as they move serenely now on the lake, in slow elegant circles, and imagine it's my hands turning clay on the wheel - turning it into something magical. 

Thursday
Jan052012

gift

Ten years ago, when she was eighteen and was not called Arrow, she borrowed her father's car and drove to the countryside to visit friends. It was a bright, clear day, and the car felt alive to her, as though the way she and the car moved together was a sort of destiny, and everything was happening exactly as it ought to. As she rounded a corner one of her favourite songs came on the radio, and sunlight filtered through the trees the way it does with lace curtains, reminding her of her grandmother, and tears began to slide down her cheeks. Not for her grandmother, who was then still very much among the living, but because she felt an enveloping happiness to be alive, a joy made stronger by the certainty that it would all come to an end. It overwhelmed her, made her pull the car to the side of the road. Afterwards she felt a little foolish, and never spoke to anyone about it.

Now, however, she knows she wasn't being foolish. She realises that for no particular reason she stumbled into the core of what it is to be human. It's a rare gift to understand that your life is wondrous, and that it won't last forever. 

Steven Galloway The Cellist of Sarajevo

Tuesday
Jan032012

quietly happy

Back in our own little house after several days staying in rather glamorous surroundings it's the pleasure of the familiar that has us excited. I'm happy to live at a gentler pace after the rush of these last few weeks and to enjoy looser days before school enforces its own routine. 

These first days of a new year always take some adjusting for me: I've only just dug out the new kitchen calendar (and as I type, remembered the MUJI diary that I bought back in October).  It's a ritual that I write in all the birthdays and important dates for the year - and a ritual still to be running to the postbox with a card at the very last minute and just hoping that our postal service will perform a miracle. And since I have a stock of cards always made, and envelopes and stamps and the dates faithfully written in my diary why should it still happen? I think because I feel I've already done more than enough. In the same way that thinking about and finally committing to a gym membership makes me feel I'm fit already. So I've cancelled my membership and am back onto a morning run - and this year I'm not going to write all those dates into my diary. It's never too late to start a new ritual. 

Hope this first week sees you settling in happily into 2012.