New Year, Renewed Me, New Projects

I really enjoyed my Christmas break!

It was obvious back in the Autumn that it was going to be a strange one and that any plans might be scuppered at short notice by restrictions being imposed or lifted.

My son, being Muslim, doesn’t celebrate Christmas and, as Head of Triage in the IT department of a multinational company, had volunteered to be ‘on call’ on Christmas Day and Boxing Day in case a computer glitsch stopped the cash flowing. That meant he couldn’t come to see me – my broadband is not good enough! I knew I was welcome to go there and that he always cooks a huge meal for the extended family. However my daughter-in-law is terrified of dogs which makes visiting complicated.

My daughter was planning how to spend the first Christmas in her new home with her 2 teenage kids and since her husband believes me to be the source of most of his woes, ‘putting her up to it’ and misses no opportunity to tell the kids how evil I am and that it is my fault the family has broken, it seemed wisest that I not be in the mix this year.

Being on my own for the festive period held no fears for me. The infection that proved the last straw for John began on a Christmas Day and he died early the following January. The next year I decided not to inflict my misery on anyone else and refused all offers to join others. Since then I have mostly stayed home alone though I have sometimes accepted invitations to lunch with local friends. There was a debate about whether I would go to my daughter’s on Boxing Day when her 2 would be at their Dad’s and maybe we would drive over to my son’s. In the end the Welsh lockdown and then the English one kept us all apart.

However I had formed a plan! I did the bulk of my shopping, including for food, booze and chocolate, early. I promised myself a ‘staycation’ from Christmas Eve until the 4th of January when everyone would be back at work. During that time I would only do essential housework and no gardening. I got plenty of books from the library and bought some from charity shops. I also made a list of projects I wanted to at least start but kept not making time for.

Just after Boxing Day I got the weirdest sensation – that I had shrunk! A quick check showed that physically I was the same height as always and if anything slightly wider – well booze and chocolate do that to you! But I felt the same size as my Aunty Megan who was 5 feet nothing and skinny with it. It took a few days to work out that I had lost confidence in trying new things or ‘having a go’. It wasn’t my body which had shrunk but my sense of self. I think that all the restrictions have meant that my world has shrunk and whilst I have been busy in the garden and house it has been maintaining what is already there rather than doing new things. Partly I think it was feeling that if I started something and it went wrong it would be harder to get someone to help me put it right. In addition I haven’t been on a course to learn a new skill for ages so there was nothing new to practice having been shown how to do it once.

That seemed to explain the projects which had stalled when I got to a tricky bit or one requiring decisions as well as the ones I never started. I get lots of inspiration from reading all your posts, my head is full of ideas but can I actually do them?

In one of those nudges the Universe sends my way from time to time one of the non-fiction books I had got for my holiday reading was ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estes recommended to me by my new tenant, Laura. It isn’t an easy read – she is a storyteller and Jungian psychoanalyst of Mexican birth but raised by Hungarian foster parents in the USA. The slightly odd English mixed with bits of analytic theory are – um – interesting! But I have found what she has to say very interesting and enlightening. Particularly the chapter on why we procrastinate!

I am still trying to determine which of my 4 legged companions chewed the cover! Lucky it is my own copy!

A ‘good talking to’ was required so I went and did some yoga stretches to pull myself up straight instead of being rather crumpled and then gave myself one.

I recognised that on my break I had taken the time and trouble to cook nice meals and that I had previously rather got into the habit of leaving it to the last minute to decide what to eat so that it had to be quick and easy. So I started to cook my main meal at lunchtime. I am usually indoors in the mornings so I can combine cooking with another job whereas in the afternoon I am often in the garden and don’t want to bother taking my boots off and coming in to start a meal. I also browsed my cook books and recipe file noting things I hadn’t made for a long time. Food is now a lot more interesting!

I also reviewed all the stalled projects and realised that most could be finished quite quickly if I just stopped faffing about and dithering. One big one which has been going on for over a year, partly because of shops not being open, will be another post but I finished making a pair of slippers for my daughter (yet to be posted as the roads have been icy) and turned some granny squares into a cushion cover. Another lot of squares are mostly edged and I have worked out the placement but have run out of the yarn I am using for edging and joining so no more can be done until the market reopens.

I now feel back to my normal size (with a little extra for self-indulgencies!) and having ‘cleared the decks’ am ready to start on new creative projects. My next post will be scrap-happy which will be presents I made but I hope to be able to regale you with more new things soon.

Little Things

Last time I posted I was feeling rather glum as I had been limiting myself to essential trips and then Wales went into National Lockdown just as I would have been able to go out again! At least ours was only two and a half weeks whereas England has just started a four week one. I can go out on Tuesday! And I will – I have an appointment to have my hair cut and plan to do some other errands whilst in town.

After writing that last post I decided I needed to get things in perspective. I am not ill, frightened or hungry. I have plenty of friends and can email or message them. So I took myself off to one of my favourite spots for a good talking to! It is in the woods I rent from my neighbour. There is a small clearing next to the stream and on the hill above it a huge Oak tree which most have been part of a hedge once upon a time as there is a noticeable bank running down the hill to the stream – an old field boundary. The stream chatters away as it rushes to the sea and the tree stands majestic and solid. Both have seen it all before; pestilence, famines, wars (I am told that the Home Guard trained by shooting across the stream into the hillside opposite during World War 2) as well as good things like the farms thriving, children playing, lovers meeting. I tell them my worries and grumbles and I can almost hear them telling me to stop whingeing!

But (isn’t there always a but!) the path from my garden into the woods had become overgrown with brambles so I had to take a pair of secateurs with me and cut them back. As I did so I uncovered a tiny nest – I assume a wren’s. Two tiny birds did all that work to build a home and raise their chicks. They don’t care who wins the American election, who gets Covid 19, whether I am happy or sad. They just get on with their lives and do what their instincts tell them.

The cup is just 2.5 inches (6.5cm) across and beautifully woven

I realised that I needed to stop fretting about things I can’t change and focus on the little things that bring me joy. So as well as that nest…

I finished a jumper for the collection at Studio 3. This is plainer than I usually do and to the pattern they provide. That makes 5 I have done for them to different designs. I have enough yarn in my stash for at least one more which I will try to get done before the end of the year. A group of refugees have recently been moved to a disused army base not far from here causing quite a lot of controversy – some protesters unhappy with the decision especially as it all happened suddenly with very little consultation, and some people organising to try to help and support them. What must it be like to be dumped in the middle of nowhere with hardly any resources in the middle of lockdown? I know my jumpers will go to a different group but if knitting helps people worse off than me I will knit!

A couple of days ago I found this little fellow in the car port. I have seen newts in the garden before but it is nice to know they are still around. Once I had taken the photograph I moved him to a safer spot. I know there is a lot more wildlife here than I know about – they keep well hidden. What a priviledge to share my space with so many other creatures.

I was weeding the bank next to the deck and found these dahlias. They were facing away from the house and as I hadn’t staked them were hanging down below behind their pot. They have taken a battering in the wind and rain but add a splash of colour to the kitchen table. I have never succeeded with dahlias before but will definitely grow them next year to brighten up the Autumn (and next year I will stake them!)

I also came across what, at first sight, looked to be a HUGE toad but turned out to be my son’s drone. Over a year ago he was here and playing with it (He’s moved on from the radio controlled car he had as a child!) and it got caught in the big Ash tree next to the deck. We tried all sorts of things to get it down but to no avail. It must have eventually blown down and landed under some self-seeded raspberry canes where it hid. Finding it reminded me of spending time with him, his 3 small foster children and my daughter, who took the opportunity of lift to come with them. That brought a big grin to my face!

What is making you smile at the moment?

On and on and on

Today, at 6pm, Wales goes into another lockdown until November 9th. It will be slightly different from the first one in March / April because apart from the half-term holiday week schools will stay open at least for some year groups and there is no limit on the amount of time we can spend in public spaces exercising. However meeting friends inside or out is forbidden and only essential shops will stay open. The idea is to slow the virus transmission before it gets out of hand and to have the same rules across the whole country for clarity. It makes sense even though where I live is one of the safest parts of the UK. Although I live in Carmarthenshire which locked down one of its bigger urban areas, Llanelli, a while back I am right on the edge of the county and within easy walking distance or both Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire which have amongst the lowest levels of infection anywhere.

Today is also the day when I can be virtually certain I did not bring Covid-19 back from my daughter’s. She lives in a medium risk area, works in a school, my granddaughter goes to a different school and my grandson works in a restaurant. I decided that when I got home the sensible thing would be to keep myself to myself for a while. I have done essential shopping and banking but only dropped cakes off at the workday I should have been to.

I should have been helping build walls for the roundhouse

Before I went to my daughter’s you may remember that I had visited my lovely neighbour for a cup of tea (which turned into a glass of wine!) only to discover later that her Dad, who had visited a day or two before me, had tested positive for Covid. I therefore isolated myself to ensure that if I had picked it up from her I didn’t pass it on. So apart from the 5 days of my trip to England I have already been in self imposed lockdown for 4 weeks! The novelty is definitely wearing off!

I had several treats lined up for the next two weeks – a Permaculture group meeting at a smallholding I have wanted to visit for ages, a lunch out and walk on the beach with friends and a haircut. All postponed.

Poppit sands where we were planning a walk

It isn’t that I have nothing to do. There is always work to be done inside or out. On Monday I collected the library books I had requested as they had been waiting for pick up for ages and I knew another lockdown was coming. Handing in one bag through the door and being given another whilst wearing a mask hardly seemed like a big danger to either me or the librarian! So I have books to read and there are plenty of crafting materials on hand.

But I have to admit that none of it makes me eager to get up in the mornings and the grey damp weather isn’t helping. Tomorrow night we revert to GMT from British Summer Time, putting the clocks back an hour which always confuses my body and upsets the dogs. It also signals that winter is just around the corner with its short dark days. I want to hibernate!

If any of you spot some energy, enthusiasm, mojo – call it what you will – going spare please pick it up and send it to me. I could do with some!

Plan Z and counting

When I had finished writing my last post on Monday I decided to go and visit a friend who lives just up the hill. The friend who did my washing when my machine broke down at the start of lockdown and who got her student daughter to do my shopping for me. She and her husband had taken a much needed short break and gone away – if they stay something goes wrong on the farm and he goes back to work to fix it. Whilst they were gone her Dad stayed in the house to supervise her teenage kids. We had a cup of tea and caught up on news.

On Wednesday her Dad was told he had tested positive for Covid 19 and so my friend and her family should self-isolate. The chances that it was passed to her AND that she passed it to me are very small (we sat 2m apart) but I decided that the responsible thing to do was to stay away from everyone. So instead of being at my daughter’s admiring her new home and catching up with her and her children I am here.

As it happened, when I got the news there were 2 men replacing the wooden outside doors in my house with uPVC ones – not a very sustainable choice but I was sick of draughts and high heating costs! I decamped to the bedroom to keep well out of their way for the 2 days the job took and emerged only when they had retreated to their van to eat their lunch, made a sandwich and took it back upstairs. I was able to walk the dogs and to come downstairs in the evening once they had gone home but it showed me how horrid it must have been to be cooped up in a small flat for the 3 weeks of full lockdown. I did finish some sewing projects though!

A pair of slippers based on espadrille soles – they are not quite right but I can improve. 2 small fish from a pattern by Ann Wood Handmade. Some granny squares for a blanket.

So why is this post called plan Z? Well a friend of my daughter asked a colleague of hers for some information my daughter needed and outlined what had been happening for her over the summer. His response was to ask if she was writing a soap opera script! He didn’t know that my son’s brother in law had almost died of Covid, that Rob (who lived in the cabin in the garden in return for helping me in the garden and woods) left suddenly leaving me with no help over the summer, that Laura moved in to replace him a month ago (she is delightful and a great help), that Matt came to fit out the utility room because it was work he could do without needing to be indoors and he needed to earn, that now I need to self-isolate…..And each of those has resulted in me revising my plans.

Some of you may have noticed that I have said very little about the Diploma in Permaculture Design I embarked on a couple of years ago. That is because I have given up, another change of plan. I intended to design ways to stay alive, well, active and living here into advanced old age and write up the designs as my portfolio. I really enjoyed doing the thinking and planning. The last stage of implementation is to turn the old garage and its loft space into habitable rooms including a shower room, all with wheelchair accessibility in mind just in case I need one and that is well underway. Meanwhile they will be additional bedrooms when family visit. I am really pleased with the results of it all. Lockdown was a good test of the strategies I had put in place to increase my resilience and I survived very well. However the writing up nearly drove me nuts. It took ages and each tutor I spoke too had their own pet ideas about how it should be laid out. I could have spent a lot of time cutting and pasting and editing, dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’ but decided that the things it would enable me to do were too few to justify the work. One of my tasks over winter when hopefully life will be less fraught, is to decide what, if anything, I do next. Somehow I doubt if I will be bored! Plan Z+1 coming to a blog post near you soon!

A calculated risk

Several areas in Wales are now in local lockdown, the nearest being Llanelli (pronounced chlanechli with a soft ch like in loch) which is about 35 miles away and in the same county. It is the first time a local lockdown has not been across a whole local authority area and it would be no surprise if it was extended even though this very rural area has very few cases. Most of the restrictions are in the more urban areas so about two thirds of the population are affected even though they cover much less of the land area.

The latest moves to halt the spread of the virus coincided with a management meeting at Dyfed Permacultire Farm Trust where we discussed requests to hold some events in our partly built roundhouse. Being unfinished it has a roof to keep the rain off but no walls so counts as an outdoor space! Today I went to the dentist to have a broken filling replaced – a treatment scheduled for the first week of full lockdown at the end of March. All these things coming together made me realise that throughout this pandemic I have been making my own risk assessments of potential activities.

Some time ago I listened to a radio podcast which mentioned that ALAMA (the Association of Local Authority Medical Advisors) had produced a way of assessing an individuals risk of being severely affected by Covid 19. The idea seems to be that a local authority can work out which employees are high risk and should be asked to work from home and who is low risk so can reasonably be expected to get the bus to work and sit in the office. Out of interest I looked at the website (https://alama.org.uk/covid-19-medical-risk-assessment/). It seems I am at moderate risk despite being 70, because I am female, white anglo saxon and in good health. So it seems I don’t need to be ultra cautious.

However moderate is not low! Then another podcast mentioned the work of a scientist who believes that the improvement in survival rates is not wholly explained by improved expertise in treating those who fall ill. He noticed a close correlation with the rising temperatures in spring and summer. He works mainly on some obscure chemical in the mucus which our lungs produce all the time to catch bugs and pollutants and which is swept up to the throat and down into the stomach where the acids kill all the nasties. This system works best in damp air. So in winter when we all huddle in centrally heated homes and offices where the air is usually very dry it is less effective. Come the warmer weather we open windows, go outside more and the mucus works better. Unusually the Covid-19 virus is not killed by stomach acid (which had me wondering how effective all these alcohol gels are but that is another issue) and that , he thinks, is why some people have a sort of gastric flu not the classic cough. Luckily that version is much less likely to kill you. Not being able to breathe is the really dangerous effect. He suggested drying washing in the bedroom, opening windows and going outside as often as possible. Since none of those can be monetised he is not expecting any funding for clinical trials to test his ideas any time soon! On the other hand they are all things I do anyway so it seems that if I do get infected I may stand a slightly improved chance of surviving.

The new unfinished roundhouse at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust. We are now finding its unfinished state very useful!

Ideally of course I should try not to get infected in the first place. Which means limiting my contact with other people and especially with other people who have, themselves, contact with a lot of people. Most of the time I am here on my own. The friends and neighbours I meet are just as isolated as I am so unlikely to infect me but we meet outside whenever possible. The meetings I need to go to are held out of doors in the unfinished roundhouse pictured above. The hairdresser I go to is scrupulously careful and the dentist this morning was in full PPE. The library quarantines books between each loan and I have to request my selection online then get an appointment to drop off my returns and collect my new books through an open door. I have, though, decided that I will not shop in the supermarkets. At the cost of losing some choice of products I can get everything I need in local shops which are generally quieter and where so far social distancing has been carefully maintained. I am also using Amazon for household items which might involve me going to several shops before finding what I am looking for.

Probably my greatest regular risk is working with Laura who lives in the cabin in the garden rent free in return for helping me in the garden. When we work together we are outside or in a very large and well ventilated shed and mostly more than 2 metres apart. Since Laura works in a care setting she is in contact with quite a few people but part of her role is to educate the students in her care about the need to observe the pandemic rules. Overall she seems a relatively small risk and the benefit of her help is considerable.

Next weekend I will go to visit my daughter. The first visit since she left her husband and moved into her own home. She lives in a large town in England and works in a school. It will be the biggest risk I have taken in 6 months! Well worth it to see her and her new place. I will just have to balance it by being extra careful when I get back – not just for my sake but so that if I have picked up Covid-19 I keep it to myself and don’t spread it around.

How are you managing the risks at present? I would love to hear how you are making your assessments and anything you have found useful. It seems we are nowhere near the end of this pandemic so all help gratefully received!

Between then and what will be

I have been feeling very unsettled, grumpy-grumbly in a vague unfocussed sort of way, fraught with unfinished to-do lists and a sense of time running out.

Rob moving out of the cabin early in lockdown left me with no help in the garden over the summer. Not that he would have been much help had he stayed. The death of a close friend and serious ill health of two close family members hit his fragile mental health hard and his usual slowness became almost catatonic. Now it is Autumn; Laura has moved in and will, I think, be a huge asset. She is intelligent, keen to learn and cheerful. But for now she has to be given time to learn where things are and how to do the tasks that need attention. That means I have to work alongside her, explaining and teaching and our speed is slow.

It is also the time when I pick wild fruit and preserve it. The time when there is an abundance of fresh produce in the shops to make chutneys and pickles. Having swapped my big chest freezer for a less capacious upright one I can no longer stash it all away until I have more time (that mythical ‘more time’!) – it has to be bottled or jammed or whatever at once.

At the same time restrictions have been easing and we all want to meet up again – I am greedy for the company and sociability. And at the same time I am alert to the risks – another juggling act. We have started to have workdays and meetings at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust, a very delayed AGM – where my treasurer’s report felt like something from another lifetime – and resuming work on the roundhouse we are building. They have thrown up another dilemma for me. We are able to meet outdoors but with everyone 2 meters apart I am a long way from anyone on the opposite side of the circle. I should have had new hearing aids in the spring but of course the hospital stopped doing hearing tests. So I struggle to keep up with the discussion, often mis-hear and find the effort exhausting. Now we must all wear masks indoors, a ruling I think is sensible since masks remind us to be careful in other ways too, but it makes voices muffled and I can’t lipread or see expressions so well. I have decided that for now I will not go to indoor events involving more than 2 or 3 people and decide about outdoor ones on a case by case basis. None of this is anybody’s fault but it is frustrating and wearing.

Whilst all these practical things are demanding my attention I have been challenged by some books I have been reading. Three are memoirs written by women who chose to scratch a living in remote rural areas. Three very different personalities and stories but thought provoking. The fourth is an academic work, ‘Sitopia’, about the centrality of food to life, politics and culture and how the world might be different if we recognised that more overtly. I had already been reflecting on the plans and projects I have been working on to prepare me and this place for my older age. So now my head is full of ideas and words which roll around and, like a snowball running downhill, accumulate more and more, getting bigger and bigger. But I can’t seem to get them organised into coherent strings or know what to do with them. I will just have to wait for them to reach the bottom and the ball to break apart. Maybe then I will be able to make sense of it! Meanwhile I am wary of sharing much of it because in this mood I am likely to put it badly. Which means using energy to both contain it all and manage my impatience with not being able to organise it into something that makes sense! Another problem when meeting friends and a block to writing blog posts.

For all these reasons blogging has taken a back seat. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading other people’s posts and my apologies for the shortness of my comments.

One day soon it will all click into place again, my sense of joy will be restored and normal blogging will be resumed.

Retreating

When I was working (many moons ago!) one of my colleagues told me that she went on retreat in a local convent two or three times a year. I was intrigued and she tried to explain to me what it was she found so useful from the experience. I kind of understood intellectually but struggled to imagine how it might feel.

Walking the dogs this morning I started to connect my experience of lockdown (which is still pretty much in force here in Wales) with going on retreat. I haven’t followed the horarium of a monastic day but a rhythm has developed which includes work (housework, gardening, decorating, time in the workshop); socialising via the internet; reading; and times to be quiet (yoga, dog walks and crafting in the evening). I have been less secluded from the world than on a retreat but because I live alone apart from my pets there has been a lot of silence. My dogs ensure I go out for walks, my cats give me cuddles and they all entertain me, but great conversationalists they aren’t! So I have spent more time alone with my thoughts and have had fewer means of distracting myself than usual. No longer can I find something to justify a quick trip to the shops or arrange to meet a friend for coffee.

In the early weeks it was fine. I did what I always do and kept busy. I had already planned to do some decorating and bought the paint. There were seeds to sow, veg beds to clear and planting out to do. The weather was glorious. My head was full of lists, plans and ideas. I finished my library books. I noticed that I then chose old favourites to read. Books of short chapters with gentle, amusing tales – Deric Longden and his cats, Jeanine McMullen and her small country living, Peter Mayle in Provence. I needed to be occupied but couldn’t settle to anything demanding. Knitting simple jumpers for charity was fine, complex patterns were beyond me.

Then matters in my daughter’s marriage came to a head and she decided she needed to get out whatever the long term consequences. She has the support of an amazing group of friends who helped her find a house to rent and enough furniture and equipment to live in it in reasonable comfort as well as giving her emotional support and encouragement. Apart from being one of the guarantors that her rent will be paid despite her low income, there was nothing for me to do practically. But emotionally my head was full to the brim! It was weird being unable to follow my instinct and rush to her aid. She was coping well, had all the support and help she needed and I would have been putting myself at risk for no good reason. I could commiserate, encourage and send love by Whatsapp from the safety of home. A hard but excellent lesson in sitting on my hands!

Rumbling in the background has been concern for my son’s brother in law who has been in intensive care on a ventilator and a lung machine since early April with Covid 19. It began to seem that whilst he could technically be kept alive indefinitely the decision might have to be taken to let him die. This weekend he finally improved, was brought out of his induced coma and is being taken off the machines.

Now that the dramas are easing my mood is shifting again. There are still projects I want to do and I find myself almost hoping restrictions aren’t eased too much too soon – not just because of concerns about a ‘second wave’ but because I don’t want to be faced with responsibility for making choices about how much time I spend on my own here getting on with things and how much I go out and about or entertain visitors. I have been surprised how much I have got done when there are no distractions. I have quite enjoyed the solitude. Yesterday I picked up a book on garden design I planned to re-read back in March and a philosophy book the librarian picked out for me on my last visit, also in March. Both had lain on the chest in the sitting room untouched, reproaching me for my laziness. Once I started on them I found I was enjoying them both. The garden one requires me to stop and think about applying the ideas and the philosophy one needs digesting so I read a little bit of each in turn!

I am lucky. I have a loving family, good friends, kind neighbours, a comfortable home, a garden I enjoy, a secure income which is enough for my needs. Even so I have found lockdown hard at times. There have been times of loneliness, worry, frustration. I have learned things about myself. Some have been good things; my resilience and ability to pick myself up when I am feeling down, my ability to cope with extended solitude. Others less so; my need to be always busy, my impatience, my bossiness. And some are just interesting; how much I have to learn about gardening, how my reading choices changed.

I am looking forward to being able to see friends again, to have a hug, to go to the library, to shop for things I want to see and feel before I buy. But I am also grateful for the experience of confinement. I have had no temptation to do an online search for retreat houses (of whatever religious persuasion) but I am beginning to understand better why some people do.

Topsy Turvy Turning

One of the consequences of having friends from a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs is the number of festivals and greetings that pop up in my social media feeds. Just as Lockdown began my children wished me Happy Mothers Day, some of my friends later wished me Happy Easter, my son sent greetings for Ide Mubarak, and this week it has been Fathers Day from families and Happy Solstice from the earthier contingent. The Summer Solstice always reminds me of my Dad who loved to try to be the first person to say ‘The nights are drawing in now’ – a game he played with the man next door.

What was really weird this year was that it actually felt very autumnal around the longest day. March, April and May were day after day of hot sunny weather and virtually no rain. It felt like summer, the gardens baked and the grass went brown. Local farmers got the first cut of silage in early but then the grass didn’t grow back. The stream at the bottom of my garden reduced to a trickle. In many ways it was a blessing because we were all able to get outside in our gardens or go for walks along the lanes. We saw each other and had socially distanced chats. So much easier than being stuck indoors.

Then it all ended with thunderstorms, gales and torrential rain followed by days and days of heavy grey cloud, those days when it is either raining, has just rained or is about to rain.

So as I walked the dogs in the early part of this week the signs of high summer were all around. The council have cut the verges and the bottom of the hedges so the daffodils, bluebells, pink campion, stichwort and cow parsley have all gone though hopefully they will have set plenty of seed for next year. The lush growth makes visibility round bends poor and once the flowers have gone and there has been time for seeds to drop it needs to be cut back. But higher up the hedges the elders are in full bloom, there are dog roses, honeysuckle, bramble flowers and spires of foxgloves. It looks as if it will be a good year for elderberries and I am grateful because my strawberries and raspberries have been very poor. They were too dry to swell the fruit.

Walking with a jumper on and thick socks in my boots but seeing those flowers felt surreal. But today dawned clear and sunny so maybe summer is back for a while at least. I don’t think I will put my woolies away just yet. It is a funny sort of year.

We all know the steps – but we don’t have to dance

Spoiler alert 1: This post has no pictures

Spoiler alert 2: I have been debating whether today is a good day to write this post which is a little close to home at present (my daughter is extricating herself from an emotionally abusive husband) and on what would have been my husband’s birthday so I am a bit off balance. Will I make it too sharp or wrap it up so carefully it is impenetrable? If I get it wrong please forgive me but let me know – I need to learn! The issue has been on my mind and writing will help me think.

Like all of you I was shocked and upset by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white policeman. I have felt your bewilderment and outrage in the posts you have written and the comments on them. Like you I deplore the discrimination and injustices, the inequalities and deprivations that are endemic in our societies and the cultural normalising and acceptance of them – the shrug of the shoulders and the ‘that’s life’ response. What I am not is surprised.

Many moons ago, in what feels like a different life on a different planet, I worked as a trainer for Relate, the UK charity which provides couple therapy. Inevitably part of that was helping trainee counsellors work with abusive relationships. Based on the work of Karpman (google it if you want the theory) we looked at the three roles which are there in all the fairy stories and myths we grew up with.

The wicked stepmother, evil fairy, bad witch, possessive husband, (the ABUSER who can be either gender) drives away, puts to sleep, incarcerates in a tower, the hapless princess, daughter, seal who has shed her skin (the VICTIM – almost always female) until the handsome prince, fairy godmother, brave daughter willing to undergo trials, comes along (the RESCUER) and they all live happily ever after. These stories resonate with us from an early age because they are based on inequalities of power and as small children we know all about feelings of powerlessness, however loving and secure our childhoods are, because as little people we are vulnerable and at the mercy of our caregivers.

The less happy side of the theory is the corollary – we are all capable of playing all three roles. Before you click off this post let me emphasise that I am not saying you are capable of murder! I don’t know about you but I have certainly been fleetingly tempted but I have resisted that temptation as, I assume, have you. I am much more likely to use my power to rescue. That is why I was drawn to counselling as I later came to realise. I am a compulsive caretaker!

But the roles are not stable and if we get caught in the ‘dance’, for which we all know the steps, we move seamlessly between the roles. The abuser sees the prince as an interfering busybody who doesn’t understand the situation and, in an abuse of might, is carrying off his property. The knight in shining armour does nothing in the stories to raise the hapless princess’s self esteem or sense of her own power unless it is that of her beauty and golden hair (not reliable long term sources of power as us crones know only too well!) If his ‘rescuing’ fails and ‘happy ever after’ doesn’t materialise or his armour proves creaky and tarnished he can soon be perceived by the victim as just another abuser. It is the fate of peacekeeping forces the world over – sent in to rescue the underdog they are turned on by both sides in the conflict and feel, with some justification, victimised by everybody.

We all feel vulnerable at times because we all are vulnerable in some ways. I am a strong, resilient, self reliant, older, white woman. But, during this pandemic and lockdown especially, I have been very grateful for the network of support, both practical and emotional I have been able to draw on. If I was young, black or from an ethnic minority, disadvantaged, gay, homeless, jobless, under parented, I would find my ‘tribe’ even more crucial. I might feel much better if we were armed and organised. And because the victim is stereotypically female in our patriarchal society it is very hard for men to own their vulnerability and even more so to admit that they are unable, or choose not to, fight back and protect themselves. To be a non-aggressive, vulnerable male requires vast maturity and huge courage. Policeman and women can feel vulnerable too – they are peacekeepers after all – between warring parts of society.

So I can use theory to understand how these things happen out there, safely away from me. Me? Abusive? Never! Well not often. But the real breakthrough for me came when I acknowledged that I too can abuse. Not by murder or any other ‘arrestable offence’ but much more subtly. I am blessed with intelligence, a sharp wit and a way with words. I can use those words as weapons to cut people to the quick. Just ask anyone who has caught the rough edge of my tongue. I can use my intelligence to out-argue, run rings round, others in a way that diminishes their self-esteem. I can do those things unwittingly or with malice aforethought (usually aforethought in the depths of a sleepless night when I am full of fury). I would like to say that only the unwitting passes my guard but to my shame that would be a lie. Sometimes I ‘open gob without engaging brain’ and sometimes I deliberately speak to wound and even (thankfully only occasionally) enjoy it.

Which does not excuse, could never excuse, killing someone, institutionalised racism or any of the other evils apparent in the George Floyd murder. I too have signed a petition and I salute those of you who have protested peacefully. I offer this post because to solve a problem we must, I think, first understand it. We start from a poisonous legacy of colonialism and slavery overlaid by (growing) inequalities and twisted by the failure of our political and economic system to make good on its promises. The policeman who killed George Floyd and the colleagues who looked on without interfering must face justice. Equally they must not be scapegoats for the system which created them and allowed them to operate freely and with an expectation of impunity.

I wish I had answers. I wish I had the power to change the world. I wish that if I had that power I could be sure I would always use it wisely, fairly and for the good of all.

What I can do is call out injustice wherever I see it. I can use my vote. I can spread kindness, empathy and compassion as freely and widely as I can.

But there is one more thing. This event caused the furore it has because a witness filmed it, and the press and social media published it. Whatever the faults of facebook et.al. they allow ordinary people to publish things the establishment would rather remained hidden. A free and fearless press, from those young reporters who sit through endless boring council meetings sniffing out nepotism, shady deals, collusions and wastes of money, to the old warhorses who interview politicians on primetime TV, is the best protection for our democracy. So when I can go shopping I will buy a local and a national paper even if their main use will be to light the fire and I will continue to pay my TV licence fee, even though I have no TV, in order to feel justified in accessing public radio.

Thank you for reading this long and not very cheerful post. Please join the conversation so we can all find a way forward – I am looking forward to seeing any comments.

 

A mistake or just bad timing?

Way back in 1961 I passed the exam and interview to go to Bury Grammar School for Girls, a Direct Grant school (the equivalent of an academy in the modern UK). It was a very traditional establishment with a strict policy on school uniform so my Mother took me to the one shop which supplied it to kit me out. Gym knickers (horrible scratchy woolen things), shirts and socks were the limbering up exercise. On to shirts, tie, and gymslip (yes, gymslip! The original one-size-fits-all unflattering passion killer) and finally to the main event THE BLAZER! It was navy blue, made of heavy woolen cloth, fully lined, with the school crest on the breast pocket and it cost a fortune. It was so expensive that my Mother needed very little encouragement to buy one with ‘room to grow’. It had it in spades! I was still wearing it, admittedly straining at the seams somewhat and rather short in the sleeve, when I left school seven years later. I don’t know what happened to it but I suspect it was passed down to a new girl.

My house feels like that blazer at the moment – waiting for me to grow into it.

When I was widowed 9 years ago and had got a builder in to finish the renovations, I was faced with the decorating. What I really wanted to do was to crawl into a deep dark burrow just big enough to turn round in and curl up in a little ball. There I would hibernate until the world found its way back to normal. Of course, I knew that normal would not be back. My beloved was dead not just in hospital for a bit. The decorating and the rest of life had to be faced. But perhaps inevitably I was drawn to dark, warm colours, lots of clutter (a.k.a. security blankets) and a ‘cosy’ ambience.

By last autumn it was all looking rather scruffy and dingy. Me, two dogs and three cats carrying in dirt, brushing against walls, sitting on the furniture, and all the everyday wear and tear had taken its toll. Touching up the paintwork was no longer an option – the original paint had faded in the sunlight. So it was time to do at least some rooms again.

I no longer needed my burrow. Like the blazer when I left school it was too tight. I had built a new life for myself and was more outward looking. Time to lighten up as well as freshen up.

I looked at dozens of paint charts, trawled through endless DIY stores, perused interiors magazines and made some tentative choices. Then Beccy, my neighbour who had recently painted a whole house for a friend, suggested I use paint from the Laura Ashley shop as it was much better quality than the stuff from the DIY or builders merchants. Expensive per tin but needing only 2 coats at most she thought it worked out no dearer and was less work. The range of colours is not huge which actually made the job of choosing easier!

I did the fireplace wall of the sitting room before Christmas and have continued round the three living spaces since. I need more paint to do the bedroom but at the moment can’t go out to get some and the shop isn’t open anyway. Of course, it isn’t just painting is it? Everything has to be taken off shelves, pictures taken down, curtains and other soft furnishings washed. And in the process there is a decluttering exercise, stuff is rearranged. Most of my home is lighter, brighter, cleaner, clearer, more spacious.

Externally I am constrained by lockdown. I am at home much more than usual. There are no visitors coming in to use the space I have created. There is ‘room to grow’ but I feel slightly un-contained by it. It’s all a bit discumbobulating! Have I made a mistake or will it all feel right in a few weeks time?