Friday, 20 January 2017

January sunshine

Somehow I have rather lost the pattern of blogging.  Instead of that gentle insistence at the back of my mind that once a week is about right I have slipped to once a fortnight or even once a month.  There are plenty of great blogs which I like where the blogs appear about once a month but I know that for me a weekly blog is what feels about right.  It means that I get into the habit of sharing things and that I don't sit down thinking that so much has happened since my last blog that I don't quite know where to start.  I think this shift is partly down to having become fond of using Instagram.  It is so quick and easy and such a supportive and engaged community.  It is really easy to use little bits of  time to Instagram things and then feel that the longer time which you need for a blog is something you can't quite find.  But I don't want to stop blogging and I think if I don't give it a shake up and find time to blog a bit more often I might find I have just stopped.  I would miss it if I did, so, shake up time! 

So here is just a sharing of my day.  No great insights or achievements, just life in this corner of the world.  I am trying to do enough Spanish from my Open University course to cope with my second face to face tutorial tomorrow.  Last time there were only two of us which doesn't leave any place to hide.  I'm enjoying it but remembering things is a nightmare:  I read, I understand, I think I have got it, I do a practice exercise and all seems fine; I return a few days later and it is almost, but not quite, as though I had never done it at all.  Slippery memory.  And then every now and then I find I can remember whole chunks without a problem. Is this age or incompetence?  I have no idea!  Plugging away seems the only answer.

But it has been so grey and dull here for days and days and today the sun is shining and everything is bright and clear.   It is calling me though the window.   I just can't stay inside any longer so I take my camera and wander round looking for signs that winter will turn to spring.  I am not a winter person.  I don't like the darkness and the dankness and the short days although I do like the evenings by the stove!  But when the sky is blue and the light is bright it feels quite different.   It must be light levels making you feel more alive! I stand looking across at Moel Arthur and the shadows of trees and hedges sharp against the green fields.  In the hedge in front of me I can hear a bird singing and at the bottom of the bare hawthorn hedge a blackbird is tripping in and out of the hedge oblivious to me. 

There are snowdrops thrusting up through the leaf litter in the bottom of the hedge in the side garden.  In a week or so there will pools of white under the trees.  I love snowdrops.  The last couple of years have meant that there has not been time to split the clumps in the white or in the green and spread them around the garden so they are not increasing as fast as they do with that assistance.  Still they appear and spread themselves around and colonise places you had not thought of, just getting on with their lives as plants do.  It is easy as a gardener to think that you have to intervene and salutary to be reminded that sometimes it doesn't matter all that much if you don't.

The arum is emerging too, its marbled leaves as lovely as any flower.  This came from Christopher Lloyd's garden, Great Dixter, years ago.  It grows slowly up here, but it does grow.

On the sunny bank the winter flowering heather is out.  On a warmer day than this you would see the bumble bee, bombus bombus, lurching heavily from flower to flower but there is no sign today.  Too cold perhaps.

I walk down the field to see if there is anything happening amongst the native trees we planted, seven years ago now.  I smell this daphne before I see it, a handful of scent thrown in the air, catching at you with an elusive and subtle sweetness.  When spring properly arrives the colour of spring will be  yellow, with daffodils and primroses.  Now, a few weeks too early for real spring, it seems to be pale pink or the icy white of snowdrops.

For the first time for years we have no hens and the field feels oddly still and quiet.  It is strange.  You couldn't say the hens are noisy and yet their clucking, scratching presence is part of the life of the place and without them there is a silence.  Suddenly I hear a thunder of hooves from the next door field.  Our neighbour's pony is galloping up and down in the sunshine.  He ends up in a corner behind the holly tree where I can't get a photograph but as far as I can see he is doing it for the sheer pleasure of movement.

The white stemmed birches are vivid against the sky but at their feet I can't find any sign of the crocuses I have put in.  I'm not sure yet whether they have been eaten (badgers get the blame for all sorts of things round here) or whether they have simply not emerged yet.  I hope they haven't been defeated by the grass but if they have I might have another try with crocus tomasiannus.

The very first of the hellebores are flowering, a little battered and hanging their heads.  Soon the deep purple ones will be out.  They hold their own better out here than the pale ones but both are beautiful.

The shepherd's hut is tucked up in the corner of the field.  I should go in and make sure everything is all right but I haven't brought the key with me.  I should light the stove too and warm it up.  Our new stove in the house is so very warm and cosy that we are tending to sit beside it every evening.  I know the stove in here makes the hut just as warm.  It is just a bit more of a commitment to set off in the dark over the field to make the fire up!  I will do it and we will sleep here if the bright days and cold nights are to continue.

There are other signs of spring to come too:  daffodil snouts pushing up under the apple tree.

Fat buds on the camellia, flushed so faintly with pink you can hardly see it yet, against the deep gloss of the new foliage.

I think it is time to bring some of this new life into house.  I will go inside for the secateurs: daphne I think.

Spring is just around the corner.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The year of being sixty two: bonuses, some of them unexpected.

Well somehow I didn't manage to post December's extract from the year of being sixty two, principally because I didn't write it!  Somehow the coming of Christmas, trying to keep up with my Spanish and the upheaval of house redecorating just squeezed my writing time into non existence.  I had been intending to spend a chapter looking at the upsides of ageing.  From the volume of stuff you read about "anti-ageing" you might suppose that there aren't any upsides, but that's not true.  My mother used to tell me in her forties, fifties and sixties that she would not want to go back, that she was genuinely happy to be where she was in her life.  She would I suspect have stopped the clock before my father began to be ill but even that would have taken them both well into their seventies.  I never totally understood why she was so content with the age she was when we had those conversations but I could see that it was true.   Knowing that has given me a sense, as I have myself grown older, that there must be things to look forward to, secret pleasures perhaps which would be revealed to me in due time.

And indeed there are. 

How do you talk about the pleasures of wisdom without sounding as if you are setting yourself up for a major pratfall?  And yet the most profound pleasure in growing older is in learning to live better, in getting to know yourself and to understand yourself and in learning what matters to you.  And how can those things be anything other than elements of acquiring some form of wisdom?

Sometimes you do this living better consciously.  You face a situation similar to something which has happened to you previously in your life and you remember how you dealt with it before.  Thoughtfully and intentionally you might decide to do it differently.  For me those intentional times are mostly about letting go, letting go of the urge to argue or explain or to put my case.  This is an interesting balancing act because it is important that keeping silent is not the sort of repression which leads to resentment.  It is about thinking whether it really matters, in which case I must speak or act, or whether, in the grand scheme of things I can let it go, open my hand and let it rise gently into the air like a lighted balloon. 

Perhaps more often there is little conscious thought in living more calmly, more easily and more generously.  It is simply that life has thrown a lot at you and, if you are lucky, you have weathered the storms and learnt what to hold close and what to let go.   And would I wish to live again the intensity, even the anguish, of some of my twenties and thirties?  No.  This is hard won, this calm.  It is worth the saggy stomach and the wrinkles around the eyes.  I hold it to me.  I would not swap.

And I suppose that is part of the whole business of being comfortable within one's skin.  I am more confident, less concerned about what others think, less bothered about appearances, my own and other people's, less driven. 

What are the other bonuses?  Being invisible if I wish is a great one after a lifetime of being judged and doubtless judging myself on  my looks.  That is just the currency you take into the world as a reasonably attractive female.  When I started to become less visible in my early fifties I didn't like it much.  Now I have learnt that I can turn it on and turn it off, depending on my clothes, my make up and my mood.  And I find that I like being able to be invisible, or nearly, and simply to observe.  I hadn't realised that visibility as a woman could be a tyranny and how peaceful it can be to slip the cloak on whenever you choose.

Having time is another huge one.  I realise that I am very lucky in this particular sense of time to myself and the sensation has really only emerged following the deaths of my parents and father in law.  Previously the demands of children and of jobs had been almost seamlessly replaced by the demands of others who relied on me.  I hope we still do a lot for other people, particularly our children and grandchildren, but for the first time since I was a teenager there are occasional days when I wake and no one needs me and no job requires me to be somewhere doing something.  I know that this won't last.    This is a precious period when Ian and I are well and have each other and I would swap this time for more time with those that I loved in a heartbeat.  But it is a rare and precious luxury.  Sometimes I sit in bed and watch the sun come through the window in the morning and wrap it around me.

And the other great bonus sits right alongside this time to myself and is a glorious counterweight: adult children and grandchildren.  Having children is simultaneously wonderful and extraordinarily hard.  When mine were young I both loved it and was overwhelmed by it.  I was exhausted and exhilerated and cross and delighted and miserable and content and just about managing pretty much every day.   Some days I felt that the sheer weight of it was rubbing me out.  But having adult children is pretty wonderful, if you like them.  They have become people you really like, like friends but with a deeper hinterland.  And you find that they know stuff which you don't.  You are not responsible for them any more.  They are just out there living their lives but still connected to you by a invisible filament of love.  I love it.  And grandchildren it turns out give you all the deep delight of the best moments of having your own children without taking all your energy and turning your life upside down!  Well that is not quite true, they do turn your life upside down but in ways that give you most of the pleasures and few of the downsides of parenthood the first time round.

So are there bonuses in ageing?  You bet.  I don't mean to be pollyannaish here.  I don't intend to ignore the darker side.  But if I don't articulate what it good I am not being honest either.  And for me there is much that is good, so good that I would not swap with my younger self.

What are your upsides?

Friday, 23 December 2016

Coming up to Christmas

The run up to Christmas might not seem the ideal time to get the decorators in.  Over the summer we flirted with the idea of moving house.  We found something that we liked which doesn't happen all that often because this place is a place we love.  But it didn't come together and, with something like relief, we have committed ourselves to this house again for another little while.  We won't live here forever.  With a house and a holiday cottage and six outbuildings, two greenhouses and a couple of acres of land, it is not a house in which to grow properly old.  But for now we will happily stay here and as part of falling back in love with the house I wanted to reconnect with it which means giving it some time and attention.

So first of all we had our bedroom and the landing where we keep our books (well some of them) redecorated.  It is quite extraordinary how much stuff we have and how emptying a room makes the whole house overflow with things!  It is as if a flood of stuff has washed through the house leaving piles of flotsam and jetsam on beds and in corners.  How did we ever come to have so much stuff? 

And then to put things back in their proper places, attempting a bit of judicious culling, is so satisfying, and emptying and refilling the spaces makes you look at them again.  I don't think of myself as someone who is particularly good at design and visual things.  My mother was very good indeed at making houses comfortable and welcoming so I know what I want my house to feel like but I don't always know how to make that happen.  This house makes it easier because the house itself is so interesting and the old shapes of its construction so beautiful that you don't have to do very much to it other than let it speak for itself.

So here is the landing upstairs repainted and waiting for its books to go back.

And the books going back on the shelves.  I discovered that this was a job which I had to do in short sessions: do it for a short while and I could take real pleasure in sorting and alphabetising and making sense of things.  Do it for too long and the desire to be finished with it and just bung things on the shelves and run away would get too much for me.

Then our bedroom got the treatment and we did some major moving around of furniture so as to have a bigger bed and to release one of our spare bedrooms to become a sewing room and study.  For a week or so we camped in the guest bedroom and then took back our bedroom.

It doesn't look very different to be honest but just different enough to make me see it all over again.

And the sewing room came together with vast sorting of my stash of fabric and yarn and much muttering over the reorganisation of books.  I still have things sitting in cardboard boxes for the charity shop but it is nearly there.

It has one of the best views in the world anyway!

And then came the new woodburning stove in the sitting room.  This was supposed to be a half day job to install.  Wrong!  We sort of knew this would the case.  A four hundred year old house and a straight forward job are words that don't belong in the same sentence.  In the end it involved taking the plaster off the wall behind the stove, replastering, and installing a cowl on the chimney. This meant Ian asking a pre-Christmas favour of our local builder who hired a cherry picker and came and sorted it out for us.  Diolch yn fawr Gareth!

But now the stove is in and is wonderfully warm, easy to light and doesn't eat logs in the way the other one did.  The hand made Christmas decorations created by a daughter in law at a Christmas a few years ago before she had children are hanging from the hooks where sides of bacon used to hang long ago when the room was the farmhouse kitchen. 

We are not finished yet.  The sitting room itself needs redecorating as does the kitchen but we are nearly there and now it is time to take a break, to sit by the stove and knit or read.  We have our younger daughter and her family coming for lunch on Christmas Eve and our turkey was delivered by friends this morning.  The rain is throwing itself against the windows and the wind is tearing at the yew trees but inside it is quiet and warm and calm and for the time being everything is in the right place. 

Merry Christmas everybody.  I hope yours is happy and full of the people you love.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Guest blog from my lovely daughter in law!

I know that most of my readers are over forty. I have surely intensified that by writing about the whole process of ageing!  I make no apology for doing that.  I think how my generation is ageing is fascinating and the whole question is weirdly invisible in our society (unlike "anti ageing" which is everywhere!).  I also think I am not alone in having vivid recall of when my children were small.  And things that interest you when you have small children don't stop being interesting when your children grow.  Indeed lots of people of my generation are passionate about enviromental issues not simply from a political perspective but also in an intensely personal way.  How we live now matters for the future of our children and grandchildren. So I am going to get my entirely lovely daughter in law to guest blog here every few weeks to tell us about her life and the progress of her website, one baby owner.  She can speak for herself so here she is:  

Well, here goes.  Crazy idea time.  I've decided to have a year off buying anything new for me or my two girls.

By way of introduction, I'm a mum of two young children.  Eliza is 3 and Addy is 1.  We have built up a ridiculous amount of clothes, toys and equipment over the last 3 years.  And I don't even want to think about how much money we've spent on 'stuff'.  Anyway, enough is enough.  I'm going to see if we can survive the next 12 months without buying a single new item for me or my two girls. (We'll leave Daddy out of this....)

I'm not an eco-warrior mum.  We're a pretty normal family.  No hand-crocheted babygros.  I didn't consider trying reusable nappies for my girls - because I thought they looked like mission impossible (and I didn't really class myself as the type!).  I don't manage to recycle food waste - ever since a particularly unpleasant fruit fly infestation.  Anyway, the point is, we aren't living on a commune sewing our own clothes out of curtains.  I don't plan to take up sewing clothes or knitting socks.  I've got two toddlers - no chance!  What I plan to do is try to get as much as I can from charity shops, hand me downs or friends.

I need to come up with some ground rules.  Obviously I can buy food (like I said we aren't on a commune, and I don't have a nifty little allotment or smallholding).  As Addy is probably only 6 to 12 months longer in nappies, I think I will stick to disposable ones (it still looks like mission impossible - I barely manage all the washing as it is...).  Seeing as its November 18th as I write this, we will also have to accept Christmas presents from grandparents.  But, we'll let family and friends know that (other than Christmas) we don't want to receive anything new for our girls, and we won't be giving anyone anything new either.  I'm going to have to think of some way of getting people nice Christmas presents!  The point is, for a whole year, I'm not going to buy anything new AT ALL, bar food (and nappies).

The other thing about me is, I'm a part time working mum who's been having a bit of a crisis over the past year.  Well, it's not really a crisis, more of an epiphany.  I was working as a doctor in a GP surgery, 3 days a week, before going on maternity leave with my second daughter.  While I've been on maternity leave this past year, I've had a real urge to disentangle myself from my work.  The thought of dropping my two very young children off at nursery at 8, and not going to get them until 6pm, just felt too much.  I just about managed it with Eliza, but I can't face it as a long term prospect any more with two little ones.

Part of my maternity leave crisis has involved me setting up a new project that I can work on from home.  I had an idea (which I'd love to make work) of building a marketplace for parents to buy and sell gently used children and baby items.  The idea was that it is a real pain to list stuff on eBay (listing times are too short, and endlessly relisting items is annoying), Preloved and Gumtree don't let you search for items across the UK which can be posted, and Facebook selling groups are just plain annoying! (I don't really want to sell my used children's items in such a public fashion in front of all my friends - I'd prefer a bit more privacy).  What I wanted to use was a website a bit like a department store website, where I could search for children's items by age, sex, category, or postal option.  The idea is that I could be looking for a new coat for my 2 year old, and search UK-wide to find something really nice that another mum would post to me.  Why doesn't that exist already?
I'm sure there are lots of other mums like me who aren't bothered about their kids always wearing new clothes,  who would actually prefer to recycle and reuse their children's stuff  and who would love to have a website that made it really easy to find what their kids need, from other mums or dads.

Anyway, this is my, 'I have a dream' moment.  I'm really not good at selling ideas or public speaking, but wouldn't it be great if parents could more easily sell and pass on their gently used children's Items?  It would earn families a little extra cash (at a time when budgets are tight), help other families to save money while still getting good quality stuff for their kids, and help the environment - by cutting down on what we throw away and buy new.

So, that's my dream.  I'm going to give it a bash.  And now I've decided - to prove my dedication to the cause - that we are not going to buy anything new in our family for a whole year.  Wish me luck - I think I'm going to need it!

To get a sharing and selling marketplace to work, what I need is for mums all over the UK to list one or two items on the site.  It takes literally 1 minute (just start with 1 photo).  You can use your Facebook to log in.  If we all did this with a few good quality items, we could literally cut down on what we'd need to buy new overnight.  It would make my next year so much easier!! 

So if you are in sympathy with Katie's desire to make better use of things for babies and children and to reduce, re-use and recycle, please tell your families about One Baby Owner  and have a look youselves.  There is lots of really nice stuff on there for very small amounts of money and it would make the world go round more happily and sensibly if we shared it out.  I shall certainly be buying some extra bits and pieces myself.  Can a toddler ever have too many pairs of rolling around trousers and nice t shirts?

Friday, 18 November 2016

The question of hair colour...

 I have only just managed to slip in November's selection from the Year of Being Sixty Two before the end of the month.  Am I the only person who thinks a lot about her hair?

Hair colour defines us. Describe someone and it is one of the first things you will find yourself saying: the blonde woman, the dark haired man, the redhead.  Once you become grey haired you shift.   All the other hair colours say something about you, however stereotyped it may be.  Redheads are feisty and quick tempered.  Blondes are sexy and just possibly a bit dim.  Brunettes are sleek and glossy.  Grey haired people are just old.  So what do we do about the vexed question of hair?

Perhaps how you think about this is affected by whether you have been colouring your hair when you  were younger.  I have had a lifetime of colouring mine.  I lived in New Zealand when I was a teenager where the sun ensured that my light brown hair was always gently sun streaked.  By the end of a short New Zealand winter those streaks were further down my long hair but every summer they returned again.  I didn’t think about it.  I took it totally for granted.  When we came back to the UK when I was nearly eighteen it slowly dawned on me that this natural lightening just wasn’t happening any more.  I remember looking in the mirror at my eighteen year old self and deciding I wanted to be fairer again.  And so began a lifetime of hair colouring: out of a box in the many periods when I was short of money, at a salon when I had a bit more disposable income.  I have been very blonde indeed, which is a tyranny to maintain, through various shades of pale and mid blonde.  I have been all over blonde and streaky blonde.  I have been blonde with a pink streak.  And for the last twenty years or so I have been a colour which reminds me of my teenage self:  not so blonde as to be in your face but the colour I would go from a summer in the sun.  I like it.  It makes me feel like myself.

When I go to the hairdresser to have the regrowth coloured she inspects my hair and says “You have hardly any grey” and I feel as if I have been let off making a decision.  I also feel quite proud of myself.  This is a nonsense.  Where is the sense in being proud of retaining a colour I choose to change?  And what credit of any kind can I take for whether I am going grey or not?  It must be simply the luck of the genes.  My mother didn’t really go grey.  Her deep auburn hair faded over twenty years or so to a pale chestnut with just a couple of streaks of grey at the front.  And my most beautiful friend went grey in her thirties and has worn her hair stylishly cropped for years.  She looks stunning with her silver crop.  But I don’t think I would...

We don’t see much grey hair on women in the media.  Male newsreaders and actors can apparently age into grey without losing their credibility.  Nobody suggests that George Clooney should attempt to restore the glossy brown hair of his youth.  But women in the public eye don’t seem to be grey haired.   The supposed role models for older women of Helen Mirren and Judi Dench (both of whom I admire without expecting or wishing to look like them) offer us that very pale blonde which might be silver, might be blonde but is definitely not grey!   A quick look at two BBC newsreaders of a similar age, Huw Edwards and Fiona Bruce, seems to produce a classic example of the difference between men and women:  Edwards is fifty five, Bruce fifty two.  Edwards is grey haired.  Bruce has a light brown hair colour not unlike mine.  Now it may simply be that Bruce is not going grey.  Who knows?  Only she knows, and her hairdresser.  Her hair always looks great.  But she is at an age when many women would be starting to show grey.  The only grey haired woman I can think of on TV is the historian, Mary Beard, whose long grey hair is a distinctive sight on our screens.  She has been on the receiving end of much vitriol on social media for the way she looks and her hair is no doubt part of that.  She is very defiantly and visibly herself in a way which is counter to the norm and there is clearly a section of society which is not comfortable with that at all.  Women over a certain age should be invisible, sitting in a corner knitting.  I love knitting by the way but I don’t intend to be invisible ore relegated to the corner while I am doing it!

These two women, Fiona Bruce and Mary Beard, seem to me to represent two very different ways of growing older on screen.  I admire both of them.  I recognise that each is a successful professional woman in her own area and I want to see more women like both of them on our screens.  Bruce has said in the past that she would not consider plastic surgery so I do not have any sense at all that she represents women who are intent on holding back ageing at any price.  The Sky newsreader Kay Burley had £10,000 of plastic surgery on her fiftieth birthday.  Not Bruce’s style at all.  But I wonder whether she will go grey naturally on our screens in the way that Huw Edwards has?  I suspect not.

But why should I expect her to when I am busily colouring  my own hair?  It is a strange contradictory business, women and hair colour.  Many years ago I worked for a very senior man who dyed his hair.  Everybody knew and everybody thought it rather sad.  He was a pleasant man and a good boss.  On the whole his staff did not laugh at him but they did think it was a weakness, a failure of confidence somehow.  People would shake their heads, with a half smile, when it was mentioned after a drink or two in the pub.  When a man dyes his hair as he gets older we think of it as vanity.  When a woman does it we don’t think about it at all.  It is perfectly normal behaviour, not worth mentioning.  In fact it is when women go grey that it merits discussion.

So you might see why the fact that I am not yet going grey makes me feel let off the hook?  I don’t yet have to decide whether to let myself go grey.  For the moment I can just continue to do what I have been doing all my adult life, colouring my hair just as I did in my twenties and thirties.  Part of me believes that women should be allowed to age as men do and that we are oppressed by the tyranny of the whole anti ageing business of which colouring grey hair is a part.  A very large part of me likes and admires the look of those of my friends who have decided to be grey and proud.  And yet despite being a lifelong and noisy feminist I have always enjoyed colouring my hair and wearing make up when I choose and I don’t see any reason to stop that as I get older.  I came to that political consciousness in the seventies and received a fair amount of challenge from feminist friends for continuing to wear make up and heels when I wished and for not , as they saw it, joining them in rejecting the whole idea of what women were supposed to look like.  This was the era of abandoning the bra and having hairy legs.  I thought then and I think still that how I look is my affair and that it is perfectly possible to be interested in what you look like while describing yourself and living your life as a card carrying feminist.

So is this question of going grey simply a part of that conundrum where the answer is that each of us must do as we choose?  What do you do about your hair colour as you age?  Are you proudly grey or proudly the same colour you always were, natural or otherwise?  And does it matter at all or is it simply each to her (and rarely his) own?

A walking meditation

Over the summer for six weeks I had one or the other of our children's dogs while our children and their families went on holiday.  Different dogs, different temperaments but one constant: every day for around an hour I went walking with them.  I walked when it was wet, when it was windy, when it was cold.  I walked when it was so misty the view had entirely disappeared.  I walked when I was tired and when I didn't feel like it.  I admit that by the end of the summer I was quite "dogged out", love them though I do, and I have settled back into my usual pattern of two or three walks a week.  But I should also admit that at the end of that six weeks I had lost three pounds and now, eight weeks later, I have put it back on again.

So I am trying to walk every day again, not primarily for the weight control but for health and wellbeing.  Walking every day seems to be one of the best things we can do for our health.  It helps prevent the onset of diabetes, it improves heart health, it maintains mobility and even helps with depression.  We were not made to sit still.  Read about the miles the poet Wordsworth and his diarist sister Dorothy used to tramp.  Better still and closer to home, talk to your own parents and grandparents.  Five miles was a stroll.  Fifteen miles was not that unusual.  In a couple of generations we have moved from a nation of walkers to a nation dependent on the car.  I believe strongly that such a sedentary life is not good for us.  I know that again and again the simple act of putting one foot in front of another calms and energises me.  Add to that the lifting of the spirits which comes from walking in a beautiful place and walking seems a simple and powerful way of looking after myself.

So here we go. This walk takes about fifty minutes and starts at my kitchen door.  Boots on first.  I have walking boots, a trusty Scapa pair for serious walks, walking shoes for when something heavier than trainers is on the cards and two pairs of wellington boots, one for gardening in and one for walking.  The walking pair would not take you hill climbing but they are surprisingly comfortable for an hour or so's walk when it is wet or muddy.  My current pair are by Aigle.  They have a neoprene lining and they are both the most expensive and the most comfortable boots I have ever owned.  This is not a foregone conclusion.  Their predecessors were nearly as expensive and  less comfortable.  And after only a year or so they failed at a seam.

So here we go: walking socks, wellies, fleece, waterproof.  Down the path and over the stile and along the edge of the scrubby wood.  I am walking downhill today.  Living as we do half way up a hill you must choose when you come out of the door whether to walk up or down.  Down is the way I go with the dogs.  Down is for when you want the little river at the bottom of the valley or for when a battering wind would take you off your feet at the top of the hill.  Up is for sunny evenings when the huge view across the Vale of Clwyd lies peaceful in the sun.  Up is for wind and sun and large views.  Down is for shelter and trees and rushing water.

Through the gate and into the field, sticking to the edge where the footpath runs.   The field is growing its winter crop, the ground greening again.  This oak tree by the fence has the perfect fairy house in its base.  I loved these holes at the base of a tree as a child.  I used to make tiny posies in the spring and gather acorn cups in the autumn and carefully leave them by the entrance.  I was always delighted when I found they had disappeared.

Down the field, over another stile and into the lane.  Some of the leaves here are crisp, some slippery with the weather.

Even though it is November and with every fresh wind there are fewer leaves on the trees, there is still colour everywhere.

The path winds along the contour of the valley, the woods falling away down to the stream.

It feels odd coming down here without a dog.  This in particular is a walk with Flora, the black labrador.  She is a middle aged lady now and can be guaranteed these days not to slip through the fence to inspect any interesting birds or livestock and she loves the river.

Two young Highland cattle, like great shaggy teddy bears, watch me through the fence.  They are shy.  When I try to climb up nearer to take a closer picture they start and skitter and wheel away up to their mothers.

Down and down I go.  This walk feels easy in this direction!

In the bottom of the valley the little River Wheeler is rushing with water.  Again it feels strange not to have a eager labrador with her tail up watching for the stick to go into the water.

One of the old trees by the water is covered with winding ivy and with a strange fungus.  I think this may be Hairy Curtain Crust fungus but I am far from sure.  There is a similar fungus called Bleeding Broadleaf Crust and this  may be that.  You can see in the centre that there is an area showing red.  I had thought however that the Bleeding fungus grew closer to the trunk than this one which is clearly a bracket fungus.  Anyway, who knows?  Mysterious and in a strange way beautiful.

Walking back up the track is when you notice its steepness.  My challenge to myself is to climb the very steep part without stopping even though my breath is short and my heart is pumping.  Here the track levels out a little so I allow myself to stop to look over a gate and see the winter shapes of the trees beginning to emerge from the billows of leaves.  I am always amazed that the branches and twigs of trees are so differently coloured.  In the summer there is a tendency to think that all leaves are green and all branches brown.  Now you can see that there are reds and golds and oranges in the naked trees and that the browns shade from pale milky coffee to darkest molasses.

The sun is still out but the sky is beginning to bruise with raincloud as I turn off the track and back into the fields.  I wonder if I will get home before the rain comes or if I will get wet.  I try to quicken my pace but the path rises steeply here too and I am puffing as I reach the gate below our garden.

The stile is slippy under my boots.

I love the way that, as you come over the stile, the slope of the land hides the house and that it reveals itself as you come up the path.  It is still dry.  As I pull off my boots the first fat raindrops splatter on the flagstones by the door.  Exercise done for the day.  How lucky I am that this is my playground.

Friday, 28 October 2016

The year of being sixty two: the lessons of becoming an orphan

Here is the October extract from the year of being sixty two, rather late in the month!  

Eventually we all become orphans, unless we die young and leave others to cope with the mess.  It’s odd then that it should be such a surprise.  My mother’s death though was a surprise.  One day she was apparently well, if tired, coping with my father’s motor neurone disease cheerily, orchestrating a move for them into an assisted living flat with customary energy and skill.  The next day we were driving desperately behind the air ambulance that was taking her to Exeter, my father talking determinedly about how they would manage her convalescence, me with a cold pit of fear in my stomach.  A major heart attack.  She was dead in her nightie on the bed in the recovery room when we got there, her hair askew, marks on her chest and arms from where they had tried to revive her.  She looked very small and very alone and totally gone.  I heard a wail of grief and rage go up from my father’s wheelchair.

My father’s death could not have been more different.  Over three years or so Motor Neurone Disease rubbed him out, beginning with the joke about not being able to tie his shoelaces and ending in silence, immobility, helplessness, nappies.  Prometheus in chains had a luckier time of it, at least he could shake his shackles.  By the end, his face all bone, his tongue stilled, his body useless, I was desperate for it to stop.  So was he I think although he could not say.   After months and years of determined good cheer in those last days he closed his mouth against the spoon.  Enough.  Time to stop.

Gone, both of them.  Shuddering shock for one, relief and release for the other.
Is it different for everyone or the same, to finally be an orphan?  I don’t know.  I have friends who have lost their parents but we do not talk about it.  We express sympathy of course and you might allow a good friend to talk about their sadness or their relief, once maybe, twice, three times would be pushing it.  But we rush back into the world of the living, caught up again in the swirl, caught out occasionally by the impulse to ring someone who is no longer there or by the shock of seeing their handwriting.  Those who struggle to accept it provoke both sympathy and irritation.  I have a friend whose mother died soon after mine did, nearly three years ago.  She still grieves.  She bursts into tears at odd moments.  I see her hurt and I am sorry for it but I am running out of patience.  Shit happens.  Death happens.

To lose your parents is to float free, an untethered balloon.  That might be good if your relationship had been a difficult one.  You would at last be free to be yourself.  My parents were supportive, loving, non-judgemental.  They loved having a good time with good food and good conversation, children and dogs and another bottle of wine.  Being with them was generally fun.  Losing them is both dreadful and puzzling.  How am I to live well now they are gone?  Partly I seek to do as they did in living each day intensely and happily for myself.  Partly I seek to do what they did for me.  Carefully, consciously, I try to recreate for my children and grandchildren what my parents created  for me: that sense of haven.  Each family event is another weighted rope thrown out over the side of the basket, trying to tether myself again.

This is necessary because the wind blows cold when your parents are gone.  There is no one ahead of you in the line, no comforting bulk taking the edge off the wind and the snow.  “Walk behind me.  Put your feet in my footprints” Dad said as we trudged across the common in a snowstorm.  “I can’t.  I can’t.” I was maybe seven.  “It’s too far.  Your feet are too big.”  “No, look.  I’m taking baby steps.  See, can you do it now?”  We are the ones in front now.  The next round of deaths will be ours, my generation.  So how to know that, how to look that in the eye and not go mad?

Glancingly might be all we can manage.  If we look directly into the basilisk eye we may be completely incapacitated by our own mortality.  But to look glancingly, to accept that the time that is left is much less than the time which has gone, can be the opposite of incapacitating.  It can be, and for me increasingly is, energising, focussing.  What do I want to do? Are there places I want to see that need the physical capacity I have right now?  Are there things I want to do which I had better get on with?  It helps with the hugely difficult question of what time is for to know that is it limited. 

And there can be a relief too in letting go of things.  In my twenties and thirties I envied people who could ski.  I used to watch the glorious, graceful, swishing speed and think that it must be wonderful to be able to do it.  I had friends who loved ski-ing so much that they would forgo a summer holiday to do it.  And now I am sixty two and it is pretty clear that learning to ski was never important enough to me for me to make it happen. If it didn’t matter earlier it is unlikely to happen now.  Articulate that thought and many people jump in: “You could still learn.”  “If you want to ski  get out there and do it.”  They miss the point.  I haven’t done it.  I don’t intend to do it.  When there is so clearly not enough time for lots of things you can let some of them go without guilt or much regret.  Looks like I will not be ski-ing, or playing a musical instrument to a high standard or learning to scuba dive.  That’s fine.  Acceptance of that doesn’t sadden me, rather it is a relief a let it go.

But I need to think about the things that I don’t want to let go and try to protect them.  I want to travel, adventurously as well as comfortably.  I want to continue to walk distances and hills.  So what I really need for as long as I can in this next twenty, twenty five years of my life, is health and strength and energy.  So I am trying to use that sense of the briefness of life to look after myself and others so that we can make the day sing.  Do I succeed? One day at a time.