Sunday, 17 July 2016

On being out of touch....

I am trying to reconnect gently.  From Monday to Saturday morning I was living in an unconnected world: no wifi, no television, no radio and only sufficient mobile signal for the odd grudging text message, with no guarantee of reply.  Air silence.

I was at an Arvon course at The Hurst in Shropshire, spending a week with fifteen others and two tutors immersed in creative non-fiction.  I'm still processing that experience and may write about it sometime but right now I am just considering how it was to drop out of the digital world for a few days.

I hadn't noticed the "no wifi" when I booked to go on the course.  Checking what I needed as I packed last week I saw it:  no wifi, poor mobile signal, payphone in the hall.  My heart sank.  I like my connectedness.  Email produces mostly selling these days but every now and then there is something interesting with news or photos from friends or family.  Facebook is much the same.  I don't post very often myself and my daily checks are swift but I do like seeing pictures of friends' babies and walking holidays and having a loose sense of what is happening in their lives.  I love Instagram with its ease and simplicity and succession of snapshots of other people's lives and of course it is a rare week when I don't read at least a couple of the blogs I really like.  And over and above all that there is the sheer usefulness of the damn thing: news, research, instant answers, phone numbers, opening hours, weather forecasts.   How would I manage without it all?  Was it really necessary to abandon it?  Apparently so.

And a bit of me was curious to see what it would be like.  I have wondered sometimes as Ian and I sit by the fire, ipads on our laps, how much time we spend online.  Not a problem, I would have said.  We talk and walk and read and knit and garden and spend time with friends and our children and grandchildren.  It is only a part of life, but an everyday part.  As much a part of our routine as cooking and shopping and brushing our teeth.

Turns out that whether you miss it all depends.  The days were so full with workshops and tutorials and writing exercises and writing time that I missed the social media stuff not at all.  Indeed I couldn't have spent any time engaging with social media and also done all the other things I was trying to do.

At home I am a news junkie, likely to listen to the radio or watch the news at least twice a day.  For most of my life I have been interested in politics and current affairs.  I usually have a week or two off when we go on holiday and I expected this break from tv, radio and newspapers to be just like that.  It's normally good to have a break but after a few days I begin to feel out of touch and I return to my normal news diet refreshed and keen to get engaged again.

Perhaps it was the timing of this break that was different.  After the shock of the UK referendum vote and the sense of chaos that overtook UK political life, I  was punch drunk with news, reeling, sickened with it.  Being without it seemed to free my head to think about other things and to give me a respite from being battered by matters of huge importance about which I could do nothing.  I did feel a leap of guilt on coming out on Saturday and learning of the deaths in Nice, realising that I had not known.  Why guilt? I do not know.  It was as if in not knowing I was not caring.  That is a response which makes no rational sense but clearly demonstrates why I normally follow so avidly.  But a period without news and the analysis of news was oddly calming. 

And all of the other facts and research and usefulness?  I didn't notice their absence at all.  Admittedly I was not living my normal life.  I was mining myself for what to write about.

So the only thing I really missed was talking to people, especially Ian who is away trekking in Norway and not very easily contactable at his end either.  It made me realise how much I use talking to him and to one or two others as a way of examining what is happening to me and making sense of it, the very process of expressing myself to someone who knows me intimately and with whom I don't have to censor myself helping me to understand what I am thinking and feeling.

As I drove home I turned on the radio to listen to the news.  Over the last day or so I have caught up with emails and social media.  No desire at all to remain in purdah.  It has been good to get back in some ways and tonight I shall turn off my brain and gently watch Countryfile on the TV and that will be a relief and a rest after such intensity and hard work.

I don't suppose I learnt anything from the experience that I didn't sort of know already: social media takes up a lot of time; television does the same; watching the news can do your head in.  But it has been a very clear and concrete lesson.  If I want time for writing I can clearly make it by spending less time online and watching TV.  Listening to and, particularly, watching the news can oppress you, especially in times of great turmoil.  Talking to the people you love is a wonderful thing.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Wondering how to use the blog...

I have been writing this blog since 2007. That is an amazing thought!  In that time I have made lots of real and virtual friends and had a lot of fun with it.  I have been to Chelsea and to the Malvern and Tatton RHS Shows.  I have blogged about gardens and houses and cooking and had the occasional rant about consumerism and the way we bring up our children.  I have blogged as often as three times a week, although generally my pattern has been to write a weekly blog.  I have blogged with photographs and without and have found that the urge to write has been like an itch I need to scratch, a pleasurable itch, but the itch of a strong urge to connect and to find the words that make sense of my life.

So why do I feel that I am grinding to a halt, losing it, letting it drift away from me?

It is hard to put my finger on.  At one level I very much do not want to stop.  I love the connections I have made and I know my life would be poorer without them.  Yet again and again I find that I do not sit down to write.  I don't know what to say.  In part that is a simple reflection of having blogged about my life for so long.  You know that the daffodils come out in spring and that in May the cow parsley is in flower in the verges on the lane.  Do you really have any interest in  my telling you again?  Partly it is a shift in what I am doing.  For much of its life this blog has been about an obsessive interest in my garden and the attempt to create one out of a rough field half way up a hill.  For the last two years I have lost the garden as the needs of my father and father in law, particularly the weekly six hundred mile round trip to Devon to try to support my father, have squeezed out the garden.  There was only so much time and energy to go round and the garden had to be let go.  It pained me but it was necessary.  And now six months after my father died I have still not really reconnected.  To do so seems to need more energy and commitment than I have.  I am doing bits but I am also holding it at arm's length.  I am too tired, too battered.  At the moment I can't do it in the way which I have done.

And I suppose that is at the heart of the matter.   Before my father became ill and my mother died it was very clear to me what this blog was for: it was to celebrate the beauty of this place, to record the progress of the garden, to celebrate times with family and friends.  It was not for personal disclosure.  It was a public platform on which I always tried to speak honestly but it was not a place where I wrote about the intimate or the personal.  I found I could not keep entirely silent when seismic changes rocked our world so I did write briefly about the serious stroke which disabled my brother five and a half years ago and I did write a tribute to both my mother and my father when they died.  I  think any reader would know the outline of the huge shocks which have rocked my family.  But there was much that did not make it onto the blog, particularly over the last couple of years as Dad's Motor Neurone Disease took hold.

Now I do not know what the blog is for any longer, perhaps because I myself am still a bit adrift.  I feel very changed by the death of my parents and the events of the last couple of years.  I still laugh and talk and drink wine and love good food.  I still take deep pleasure in the time spent with the next generation, four of whom have arrived in the last two and a half years.  I still read and knit and walk and watch property programmes on the TV.  I still love spring and plants and being outside.  So I would find it hard to explain to you what I mean by feeling that I am changed.  I am very aware that we are now the oldest generation in our family: my mother called it being at the head of the queue.  I am aware that the time that is left is much much shorter than the time which has passed.  I don't find that difficult or depressing but it does make me think a lot about what I want to do with it.  Nothing is more important than those relationships which have always been the core of my life but I find I want to do more looking out, going out, being out in the world.  I want to travel a bit more, even if it is mainly in my own country.  I want, I suppose, more adventure, even if those adventures are small ones.

And oddly I find that I cannot quite work out what I want to write about.  This new life, feeling my way to how it works without the loving restrictions of the responsibilities to parents, still feels very tentative.  I am doing a lot of things with my time, some of which I suspect might be simply diversions from those losses.  At New Year I blogged about trying to build a year based on adventure and reflection.  I am perhaps doing too much and reflecting too little but I also feel that I just need to live this year or so to find out how it works.  Perhaps the time has come to use the blog as a place for the reflection when it the past it has been so much about practical, physical things?

What do you think? If I take fewer pictures of the garden and spend more time thinking about what I am doing and where it is taking me, looking at how and where I want to live, telling you about my adventures instead of just doing them, would that be too much of change in the contract between us, between writer and reader?  I don't want to stop blogging but I may need to blog differently.  It won't all be contemplative stuff - I am too easily distracted by a fine flower or a good bottle of wine.  What do you think?

Friday, 13 May 2016

In the garden again

The blossom on the wild cherry is perfection in its white delicacy.

In the garden the intense yellow green sings of May,  here smyrnium perfolitatum, a triennial.

And here euphorbia characias.  If I were an insect I would live in it.

Or maybe in these magnolias.  Look at the thick creamy sculpted flowers.  What a home they would make.

Out in the orchard the apple trees are coming into flower.

And in the pots in front of the house an explosion of orange tulips: Ballerina, Hermitage and Couleur Cardinal.  Can we just hold the moment for a little longer?

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Looking back over nine Aprils

I haven't blogged for a while and seem to be having something of a blogger's block.  There seemed to be nothing new to say.  So last week I sat down and just looked at older posts and tried not to think about writing one.  One of the lovely things about having written a blog for a long time is the ability to go back and see what I have been doing.  It's like reading old diaries.  I have been looking at this time of year on my blog for the last nine Aprils and being reminded of so much that had gently slipped into the stream of time.

Here is a photo from nine years ago looking up behind the house to the Victorian privy.  We never use it, just in case you are wondering.  It  has two seats side by side.  That must have been companionable.  I remember when I was a child going to visit my grandmother's older sister who had one of these.  I was afraid I would fall in and it was a great comfort to have the loving presence of Nana sitting next to me, with her bloomers around her ankles, holding my hand.

Here is April 2008 and the arrival of the wooden greenhouse, a really beautiful one made by Gabriel Ash which has to rank as one of the best birthday/Christmas presents ever.  I had intended when we bought it that it would act almost like a little conservatory and be a place to sit in the sunshine and out of the wind.  It does do that, indeed there are three basketwork chairs in there for that very purpose.  I thought it could also house my collection of scented leaf geraniums and it does that too.  Somehow some other plants and their accompanying detritus have also sneaked in when I left the door open.

In April 2009 I find we went to Great Dixter which did not disappoint.  It is always a bit dangerous to go to somewhere you have long dreamed about.  Sometimes the whole experience just does not take off and then for ever after the dream has lost its lustre.  Not here.  I must go again because the garden was not in its high summer pomp.  The tulips were fantastic, as were the meadows, but the borders should be revisited in June or July I think when everything is throwing out its glory.  Another thing for the list.

I had quite forgotten the beauty of this Frisian cockerel, here strutting his stuff under the little quince tree that has since given up the ghost.  The hens roamed free in those days.  Nowadays they live in a large grassy run behind an electric fence - one too many visits from Mr Fox!

In 2010 things were very different from the way they are now, both inside and out.  Inside the house the old plaster came off in the kitchen and the stone walls were beautifully replastered by a father and son team who really loved working on such an old building.  And outside the apple blossom was out.  It must have been a very warm spring because this year there is no sign of either blossom or leaf on the apple trees, only the plum and the damson blossom white against the sky.

2011 must have been another warm spring  because the peonies were in bloom in late April, in all their brief, lush complexity.  I love them and every year the heavily cut foliage is a real presence but this year the buds are hard and tight.

And in 2012 the tulips were already flowering!  This is Hermitage which has become a real favourite.

And rather less trimphantly, I tried to make an annual wild flower meadow.  Funny how I had quite forgotten how much work it was to weed and rake and sow although the fact that I have never repeated it must mean that at some deep muscular level I remember.  I used a mix from Pictorial Meadows and produced something that was in many ways lovely but didn't quite work for me.

I see that I described it as a mixture of the glorious and the disappointing.  This is a picture from the glorious end.  At the other end docks and hogweed flourished.  I am glad I tried as I learnt a great deal from doing it.  One of things I learnt is that this garden is better suited to perennial meadow.  So many of the annual meadow flowers which I love such as the poppies and corncockles do not really belong up here on the hill where the land is meant for sheep and the native flowers are paler and shyer.  At some level I knew that when I started but I couldn't resist having a go.

Three years ago I had a go at something else entirely, the challenge to "Live below the Line", to live for five days on a pound a day.  The picture shows my shopping for the week.  You can see it was heavy on rice, lentils and porridge oats and had to be entirely vegetarian as the money just would not stretch to meat.  I found soups were easy and  tasty and vegetable curry was satisfying and strongly flavoured.  I really missed cheese and eggs, far more than meat!  I gave the money I would normally have spent on food to UNICEF.  The challenges of the last couple of years with ailing father and father in law have knocked ideas like this right out of my head but I might do something similar again.  I have been musing about eating more vegetarian food although I am too much of a meat and fish lover to turn vegetarian but reading about doing this has reminded me that it is just a matter of committing to doing something different.  Maybe I will commit to two vegetable based days a week.  It would probably be good both for my body and my purse.

Between April 2013 and April 2014, in early November and quite out of the blue, my mother died, tearing a hole in the world.  Life became a blur of long drives up and down the country, my sister and Ian and I struggling together to support my father who was already losing many of his functions through the onslaught of motor neurone disease and Ian and I trying to support his father who was failing too at the end of a long and happy life.  I remember wandering out into the garden, which had received no attention for months over the winter, and finding the erythroniums in flower and the trees blossoming as if nothing had happened.  It is both terrible and consoling, the way the natural world follows its own rhythms.

And last year I went with a friend to Leiden to visit the bulb fields and Keukenhof and to retrieve my long submerged cycling skills.  Ian's father had died the previous summer, a few days before the birth of our fourth grandchild.  My father was hanging on with extraordinary determination and good cheer as his speech began to desert him.  This week was a glorious week of just being me with a good friend who knows Leiden really well.  A space to look around again and see how the world works.

And so we come to April 2016.  My father has gone.  Two new grandchildren have arrived.  The hills are still beautiful.  The swallows are flying.  This is my very favourite time of year.  Time to sit and take in the world, to miss those who have gone but be glad that we had them.

Time for more adventures.

Looking back has made it vividly clear that some things change and others recur.  I am trying to balance the pleasure in those that recur with striking out and making new things happen.  Seize the day and all that.  How would you like to seize the day?  What adventure do you plan?

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

knitting for love

For a long time I felt like the line from T.S Eliot:  "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons".  When I was a student and a young mother coffee played a big role in keeping me awake.  When I was working away from home my life seemed to be measured out in train journeys, whizzing away at the beginning of the week, whizzing  back at the end.  For the last three or four years the focus has been very much on elderly parents and for the last couple of years the measure has been weekly motorway journeys, six hundred mile round trips, the weeks chopped up into going to Devon, being in Devon, recovering from being in Devon and a squished up ordinary life.  I am still getting used to life without that tempo and without my father and mother, for somehow looking after my Dad seemed to obscure the fact that my mother had gone.  So the new shape of life is taking a while to settle itself around my shoulders.  But as I knitted and puzzled my way through a new baby surprise jacket last night I realised that there was a longer term mode of measurement which had been happening quietly while the big things in life, the deaths and the births, had exploded in the foreground.  This is the measure in garments knitted for the grandchildren, easy to forget as they grow and change before your eyes.  I was reminded of it yesterday when facetiming younger son and his family and seeing the baby smiling at me dressed in a stripy top I knitted for her sister.

I don't have photos of everything I have knitted (mistake!) but here we go.  This is the first ever version of the Baby Surprise Jacket pattern by Elizabeth Zimmermann that I knitted.  The surprise is that the pattern knits up into a rather wavy rectangle looking nothing like a garment of any kind and somehow at the end converts into a jacket.  This was knitted for grandchild number three, a little girl now two and a half.  I made it before she was born.  Her parents didn't want to know beforehand whether they would have a boy or a girl so this was my attempt at something reasonably unisex.  I loved doing this pattern.  It was complicated enough to need real attention and unusual enough to keep me guessing without needing the total focus of the fairisle gloves which I have recently got stuck on.

 This little jacket was knitted for number four grandchild, a little boy now nineteen months old.  He wore it a lot and always looked delightful in it.  This is a Debbie Bliss pattern from one of her baby knit books.   I have made a number of them and they always work really well.  I love the ones with a slightly retro feel to them.  It might be time to find another pattern for him!

Here he is demonstrating how long the jacket fitted and how good it was as swing wear.

 Not everyone gets clothes.  Grandchild number two, a boy now six, can't wear wool and is not a boy for jumpers.  He however made a special request for a flying pig.  Naturally as he lives in Wales it was necessary for the wings to be dragon's wings.  Oldest grandson doesn't tend to wear knitted things either as they rarely feature in the sportswear which he favours.  He is ten now and perhaps a bit old for knitted pigs!  I must ask him.

And I must admit that knitting for babies is particularly pleasurable.  It grows so quickly for one thing.  This pattern is called Gidday Baby and has become one of my staples for small babies.  It is knitted on circular needles and changes quite dramatically depending on what you do with colours and striping, or not.  Below it is modelled angelically and sleepily by grandchild number five, now six months old but about three weeks old here.

 Here is the same pattern in a slightly larger size for grandchild number six, another little girl.

  I think I might have just missed getting any photos of her wearing it.  Here she is at about three weeks old, pensive on Ian's knee.

And of course sometimes you just get carried away and find yourself making slippers.  These were for the granddaughter whose jacket started the blog, now a lively and delightful two and a half year old.  Here she is last year at not quite two.

They are a funny way of marking time, these projects.  Some of them, like the slippers, take only a few days from thinking to finishing.  Some take several weeks.  But they show in a very tangible and practical way how life goes on.  I am glad I returned to knitting after years away from it when it was just too slow and I had no domestic energy to spare.  It is nice to have something emerge from  under your fingers and when you make these things and give them away they take your love with them.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Skill and no skill

What skills have you got?  And are there any you wish you had?  Skills are an odd thing.  They accumulate gently through life.  One moment you are a child wrestling with wool and knitting needles and dripping tears on the ladder of another dropped stitch in the scarf which is too loose and too narrow and curls up at the edges.  Next you are a young working mother with time so squeezed that the idea of knitting anything at all is simply ludicrous.  How can you possibly have time to knit when you don't even have time to cut your own toenails? And yet somehow you must have done enough knitting often enough because you find yourself years later able to knit and with time for knitting and finding it satisfying and pleasurable.  How did that happen?  Did I learn the skill when my back was turned?

What else can I do that I must have learned?  Cooking, but that is an easier one to understand.  I learned cooking with my mother.  My mother was a very good cook who loved food and liked the whole process of putting food on the table for her family.  I remember clearly learning to peel potatoes but I also remember the more subtle organic learning of simply being in the kitchen, being offered something to taste and being involved, at the age of eight or nine, in deciding whether something needed more seasoning and if so what.  I remember shared cooking, first with my mother in charge, later me, with my children helping, and now with one of my adult children in charge where I take the subsidiary role.  "Can I scully for you?" is a question in our family.  It means "I know you are the guiding mind here but can I chop something up or bring anything in from the garden."  So I know how I learned to cook, by a process of cheerful osmosis, and if it then became more complex and sophisticated from the reading of books or the watching of cookery programmes, that was a honing of a skill that I had acquired by my early twenties.

Gardening is an odd one.  I remember as a child wandering around after my mother or grandmother and marvelling that they knew the names of all these plants and could tell by looking at two anonymous green things that one was a weed and one was not.  I certainly didn't learn that as a child. I simply wasn't listening.   I liked being in the garden, playing or reading or just lying about on the grass picking buttercups or making a grass trumpet but I ran a mile at the suggestion that I might like to help with the weeding.  Dull, dull, dull.  What skill I have now I learned mainly from books.  I became interested in gardening in my early thirties with babies and young children who liked to be outside.  It wasuld something I co do while being outside with them and somehow it caught my imagination and the idea of  recreating the gardens of my childhood or creating the gardens of my imagination took hold.  I read widely and voraciously and began to buttonhole people who knew things that I didn't.  What is this plant?  Why is this one dying? What would flower in September and not mind the wind?  I wanted Frances Hodgson Burnett's secret garden or Lucy M Boston's topiary garden at Green Knowe, never mind that I lived in a suburban semi.  These days I may not have a walled garden but I do have sheets of daffodils and white stemmed silver birches.  So gardening as a skill is something that I acquired entirely as an adult.

And then there are the skills I do not have, would quite like to have but have now accepted that I am unlikely to acquire.  I would quite like to have learned to ski but I didn't do it when I was younger and now I have neither the time, inclination, courage or physical competence to try to learn it in my sixties.  I wish I had learned to play a musical instrument as a child but I didn't.  That is something I could try to learn now I know but instead I decided to learn to sing, and, while I will never have a great singing voice, I have improved enough to enjoy my choir singing and to feel that music is not such a gap in my life. It might be good to be able to play the piano but then it might be good to play golf or go rock climbing and it doesn't look as though I am going to make those happen!  So it seems that many of the skills I don't have are skills that have not been important enough to me for me to make time in a hugely full life to acquire them.  And that's ok.

But I think I would really like another language, and to learn to draw......

Monday, 29 February 2016

Time and memory

Time is a strange elastic thing.  A day at home pottering through the domestic routine just whisks away,  and in no time at all we are sitting by the woodburner and then going upstairs to bed.  Two days away in London and time seems to have stretched.  Driving back from the station on Friday afternoon it felt as if we had been away all week.  If you want to get more time out of your life do something different.  I can sort of understand that one.

Time and memory though, that's a strange fluid thing, not the elasticity of stretching out the moment but instead a fluidity, moving, changing, like rushing water.   And just like water,  memory is sometimes cloudy and dark, sometimes pellucidly clear.  We spent Thursday morning last week in the Courtauld Gallery.  This was absolutely my territory when I was at university, forty years ago now.  Somerset House and the Courtauld are right next door to King's College where I studied, and failed to study, English Literature in the seventies.  The Courtauld is a smallish gallery with a fantastic collection of Impressionist paintings.  I used to go to the gallery by myself for an hour or so in the middle of the day to escape a noisy commonroom or to remove myself from sight when there was a lecture I didn't want to go to.  I know I did this, with the intellectual part of my memory, but I can't feel it.  That girl from forty years ago doesn't feel like me.  She was another person.

This is not the case with all the different parts of  my past.  Much of my childhood and adolescence is vivid to me.  The period when my children were very young feels as if it only just happened.  Then much of the time when my first marriage broke up and I struggled with money has slipped down under the water, as has quite a bit of my working life.  Occasional bright memories leap up like a salmon: with my children on a beach in Cornwall lighting a fire in a small stone lined pit  and cooking sausages as the sun went down,  climbing Blencathra in the snow with Ian, the sun setting over the sea in the far North West of Scotland, achingly clear the births of all six of the grandchildren.  Then there are more prosaic but still vivid memories: speaking at a conference in Las Vegas, learning how to plot a course without GPS in a room full of would be sailors in Hoylake, painting a window on a shaky ladder.  But whole tracts of my life seem to have happened to another person, someone I have read about, so that I know the facts but can't recall how it felt or even exactly what I did and some has gone entirely, right down under the water.

I was thinking something like that as we walked along the Strand past the entrance to the college and turned into the Courtauld.  Where had it all gone, those years of my life, disappeared, down under the water.  We paid to see the Botticelli drawings for Dante's Inferno and very beautiful and moving they were.  How strange, I was thinking, that the girl with the long hair and the floaty tops and the platform shoes was me.  I had been here countless times but I felt no connection at all.  I admired the Seurats, I tried to understand the French teenagers laughing in front of me, with only partial success.  And then we went through a door and Manet's girl at a bar in the Folies Bergere looked out across the room and the moment was one of those leaping salmon.

I had been here countless times.  I remembered the tall windows and the sun striping the floor.  I remembered feeling her sadness, as she failed to meet my eye.  I remembered wondering if I had time for one more Cezanne before the bus went and my embroidered bag heavy with books on my shoulder.

And then it went again, back into the stream.  I walked.  I saw different things. We crossed Waterloo Bridge and met a dear friend for lunch.