This has been an odd summer and not only because of the weather. I don't do very personal writing on this blog because it is far from anonymous and anyway I am not someone who shares very personal things a lot in ordinary life. Sometimes I read deeply revelatory blogs which share intimate feelings about the writer's life and their family and friends. They are always weirdly compelling but they also make me feel pretty uncomfortable. What if your mother in law finds out you think she is an evil old bat? What if the doctor's receptionist knows you think she is a little Hitler or your best friend discovers that you have told the world that her late night phone calls drive you nuts? I think the people you love and live with deserve some privacy and while I might tell you what they had for tea and whether they like fires because I am pretty sure they wouldn't mind my doing so, I wouldn't share anything very intimate. So suffice it to say that this has been a summer where my responsibilities to other people have been right at the forefront of my mind: husband and children and grandchildren, father and mother, brother and sister and father in law. Am I in the right place doing the right thing for the right people? This is in part an unexpected result of having left my all consuming job. Not so very long ago what I could do for other people was seriously constrained by how many hours and how much energy went into my work. Now I do have more time both for myself but increasingly to give to others who need it. That seems to have coincided with other people's needs intensifying, mainly through age or ill health. Where should I be? What should I do? What really matters? And how do you give to others and hold onto yourself?
An unsettled period like this leaks into everything. What is time for? As Philip Larkin so memorably said "Days are where we live" so what I do with my days becomes the life I choose to live. Every year my springtime obsession with the garden tails off into a tatty and tired August but this year that tailing off co-incided with this whole period of unsettled anxiety about what I need to do to feel ok about myself and other people that I love. I hardly looked at or worked in the garden for three months or more and the less I did the more like an irrelevance it seemed. How could that be when for the last three or four years I have planned and thought and worked obsessively in this garden?
It is I think to do with both time and place. Time is the currency of our lives and how we spend it demonstrates who we are and what is important to us. But place is where that time is spent. When we moved from the city to rural Wales seven years ago that change of place was intended to produce a different life, of course it was. I had always known I wanted to live in the country again after an adult life that seemed, almost accidentally, to have taken place in cities. I knew what some of the differences would be: the impact of the seasons, the lack of convenience. I didn't go into it blind. But in some ways I was astonished at how different it made our lives. All the pillars of our life remained the same: our relationships with each other and with our families, children and friends did not change; our professional lives at that stage still occupied our weeks. We didn't see the people who mattered to us more or less frequently. But the pattern of our daily lives changed utterly. What we saw and heard when we woke in the morning, the clothes we wore, the daily routine of our lives, the food we ate, all were new. More land and less house, an easy enough requirement to set out to an estate agent, provided a context to our lives which shaped our days. Outbuildings, chickens, running the holiday cottage, deciding what to do with the land and making that happen: all of these things provided a life in which the daily rhythms were utterly different to what had gone before.
The place that you live can be almost accidental or as if set in stone. You go away to university and don't go home again. You or your partner gets a job in a new place and you up sticks and move. You think you will stay there for a year or two because you still have some sense of another place as home but twenty years on you are still there, with children in schools and friendships made and somehow the accidental place has become where you live. At the other extreme, you live where you do because you always have done, because your family live there, because you can't imagine living anywhere else.
Gardening though is one of the few passions, activities, arts or obsessions, whatever it is to you, that is absolutely necessarily rooted in place, in the very ground you work upon. If I love to play golf (which I don't!) I need my clubs and to find a golf course. If I am a musician I can carry my instrument with me and play wherever I am. If I am a historian or a scientist I need access to books or laboratories, to my peers or the tools of my trade. As an artist or a writer I may be inspired by place but there are very few who, like the writer Alan Garner, are so rooted in place that they are unable to move. But the gardener, like the farmer, is tethered to the land.
So when you are at sea, pulled by conflicting claims on your time, unable to know where you should be and what you should be doing, if you are a gardener perhaps you can't garden.
I am feeling my way back again, parcelling up my time to give some to my wider family, trying to give time to myself as well as to others, trying to hold to my sense of home. Sometimes the only way to answer big questions is through a myriad of tiny answers. What should I do today? I should phone my mother. I should walk up the hill in the sunlight. I should plant out some tulips. I should wrap a birthday present for my little grandson. I should sit in my hut and do some Welsh. I should live consciously, noticing the small happinesses of every day life.
Time and place: how did you choose your place or did it choose you? How do you decide how to spend the precious currency of your time?