More lovely things


So enjoying this summer. It’s a real one just like they used to be. Image

I am loving:

Walking with old friends in the rolling Dorset countryside.

Many swims. This one began on the sand in Bournemouth. Classy.

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Having picnics.

Eating sweets.

IMG_2828  These are totally yum.

Feeling grateful for being alive, for the time allotted me.

Helen has a friend who practises a form of gratitude journalling.She calls it ‘Today I celebrate’ and focusses her attention on the small things which make her life worthwhile. It may be the coffee which smells so good or a call from a friend. For another person it might be light on the water or birdsong or the fact that the kids slept in till 7am.

Practising an attitude of gratitude is useful.  Recording it is more so. Research has it that that mild to moderate depression can be alleviated by noticing and giving your attention to positive things.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gratitude_journal

At one point I did something called Happy Rambles, a cheesy name for a daily online  gratitude prompt. It saw me through the dark depths of last winter.  If you practise gratitude journalling and reread your entire record from time to time, it provides a map for the people, events and small mercies which nourish you, so, I suppose, continuing the map metaphor, you can return to and revisit those sources of nourishment. Worth a thought.

I’ve done well with my non-vow to swim. It’s been delightful and liberating. And I’ve noticed a number of lumpy middle aged women just like me doing the same, perhaps they were there all the time, perhaps I’ve started a trend 🙂

Today it’s pouring hard as it hasn’t done since Noah, so I am topping up my blog. This nourishes me too in some way I can’t describe. And making cake, lemon polenta, very nourishing. And Thompsons junior are coming for the weekend – toad in the hole for tea: William’s toddler chuckle.

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Where is everyone?

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So sometimes it’s too cold to swim, so I indulge in a little beach art. I liked this but my companions didn’t give the outstanding feedback I would have liked. Of course, it’s not quite finished. The tail needs some more work.

Sometimes it’s too cold, and sometimes it isn’t. This is what the beach looked like today. Where is everyone?

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It’s the middle of the summer holidays and the sun is shining. Yes it’s a bit windy, conditions aren’t perfect but there’s a modicum of sand on the beach. Yesterday we (Helen, Jane, Abbi and I)  went wincing and limping over the pebbles to get to the water. Fortunately it shelves really quickly so there’s no room for indecision or pussying about. In you go and within two steps you’re up to your neck. You’re in, you’re committed.  What a relief. And it was great with strong waves and a warm wind to dry by at the end.

So where is everyone? I looked left and right and there in the distance was a self conscious dad and his small son in bright green shorts doing that boy thing of chucking stones in the waves. Nearer me was an extended family of tiny Korean looking people. All wrapped up in windproof layers, socks and trainers and an older woman (probably my age) in the inevitable poke bonnet and mooching about not quite knowing what to do with them selves. “Where’s your picnic?” I wanted to call over. “Come and share mine.”IMG_2797

Admittedly it was modest. Some reduced price Co op strawberries and lots of Kit Kats. But we’d have managed. I am remembering what you do when you go to the beach. You take food.

It was known as the Thompson picnic. Eaten huddled under towels or blankets on the beach, sea mist or no sea mist. Only rain, and big drops at that would make us desert our pitch. Other picnics were consumed in the Volvo, kids in the boot in rear-facing seats, adding their crisps and crumbs and stickiness to the prevailing texture of dog hair.  John and I sat in relative luxury in the front, sharing a flask of coffee, propped in one of those not quite adequate cup holders, steaming up the windscreen. It was all steamy and sweaty and itchy making, nothing really pleasant about it in retrospect. And the picnic was nothing special, just like a school packed lunch really: sandwiches, maybe a pork pie, crisps, box drink, fruit and a chocolate biscuit. My packed lunches would not have passed muster with today’s school diet police, but the kids ate them, or swapped them. And none of us are fat. It sounds hardcore now. But back then in the 80s and 90s everyone I knew did it. Some people had fish and chips at the end of the day: we saved that treat for the last night of our holiday.

In my quest to make the most of the summer (because heaven knows the winter comes soon enough and feels interminable) I have tried to spend some time on the beach most days. If I can bank some good warm days then maybe they will see me through the dark times. I will feel I have had a summer.

I don’t have to swim. I have enjoyed reading my book (The Night Watch – Sarah Waters) and eating flapjack. l am remembering what is was like just to be on the beach, cloud watching, wave watching, listening to the water breaking on the stones. Somehow the background noise is enough to make you feel less self-conscious, if it were completely silent on the beach, I think I might feel uncomfortable and restless. But the white noise of the pebbles and waves lulls me, makes me feel more at ease, like playing whale music to babies gives them something to fall asleep to. And the World Service gives John something else to think about, distracts him from his thoughts, in the middle of the night, but that’s another story.

Making an occasion of it is what I am writing about. So I am not just drifting down to the beach and sort of deciding to go in, or not. I am preparing. Making a flask, taking biscuits, keeping my beach stuff ready, making it easy to go when I decide to. Arranging circumstances so my chances of going are greater than if I didn’t prepare and, when I do go, my ‘beach experience’ will be enhanced.

This is all very small scale of course but I think what when we brought our families up we made an occasion out of not much. A trip to the swings with box drink and some Rich Teas! How sad does that look on paper, but it worked. They felt like we had done something that day. I felt like I’d done something. I feel for all those local kids who weren’t on the beach today. I imagine them doing some pseudo sport on a screen or with a handset. Or brow beating their parents into an overpriced trip to a funfair/theme park. They are missing out on just being kids outside. Maybe that’s what I am doing aged nearly 54. Just being a kid outside.

This is something I wrote a week ago. Same sort of theme really.  (The tail needs more work.)

Summer started in May with the change

From my nanny-knitted  cardigan

and itchy-waistband-skirt

to airy blue gingham, short socks

with Playdeck sandals.

No vest.

Home from school, gulp down orange squash and digestives,

whip off grubby socks and off for long evenings

spent circling the cul de sac on my old bike.

Wide games and handstands

“Knife, fork, spoon!” and British Bulldog.

We were having fun and we knew it.

Because winter meant scuttling to school

in heavy gaberdine

or duffle coats and stiff scarves

Baggy woollen tights needing constant hitching.

Wet play lurking in damp cloakrooms,

pinging infants gloves on threads of elastic.

Reading faded Beanos.

 

Old dog

Billy is sixteen and a half, a fine age for a dog and he has outlived all his peers: his mother, Trixie and father, Buster and all his brothers and sisters who scrambled over each other in the box when we came to choose him.  He stood out, bold and independent and that, and his pretty markings and intelligent face meant that he was the dog for us. He was a lively and intelligent dog who chased balls and birds and dug for stones and could rip open Christmas presents faster than any five year old. He accompanied John on countless runs over the Kent Downs and reliably covered twice as many miles because of his pursuit of rabbits. The sound of his frantic barking getting fainter and fainter as he ran over the hill and a long way off after phantom bunnies is the sound of my children’s childhood. That and my equally frantic calling him back.

He has outlived both the other dogs we acquired after him: neither of them got to grow old. They were put to sleep because of weariiness and disease and, while they were weakened, both were steady on their feet until the day they died.

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But Billy isn’t. He sometimes slips and staggers. When I lifted him out of the car for his walk this morning ( he makes as if to jump but can’t actually) he didn’t brace his legs to meet the ground and ended up limbs splayed in an undignified fashion like Bambi. Do dogs have a sense of their own dignity? I don’t know, it pained me to see it but he scrambled up and limped on. And he does limp. He limps and hobbles despite the medication we secrete in Milky Ways and turkey ham. He is deaf and his eyesight is failing. He will stand behind an open door waiting for someone to let him in.

He doesn’t walk far and is picky about where he wants to go. Nowhere with long grass or hard pavement. Uneven ground doesn’t suit him either. He has a favourite walk which we call the Afghans – because of a kennels nearby which seems to house a lot of Afghan hounds. The Afghans is an out and back walk through beech woodland. It’s pretty but can get dull day after day. He likes sniffing and loitering round trees, but he walks very slowly and some way behind me and when I turn, he stops, as if we are playing Grandmother’s footsteps. If I walk back to him, he turns round and heads back to the car as if he’s pleased that at last the walk is over, and strangely he then picks up the pace and looks quite sprightly. You wonder, (I wonder), if it’s worth it.

Tricky isn’t it? But then what is left to him?

He still enjoys visitors. He can’t hear the front door bell but when he sees old friends he is still waggy and excited. He remembers. He doesn’t like new people much unless they have a dog treat in their pocket in which case he can fix them with a meaningful stare and even bark at the pocket until they get the idea and cough up. We have a steel bucket which has some stinky dog treat in, not jerky but tripe or something vile, he sits by that until I open in and reach in to give him some, holding my breath all the while.

He loves John and tries to play chase. It’s like watching a slow motion game, John ever so gently running round the garden and playing peepo behind the trees. It doesn’t last long and then he goes for a long lie down, Billy that is.

He is still a whizz with wrapping paper despite wobbly teeth and fewer of them.

When he’s finished his dinner, he goes for a good long roll and rub on the rug, or if it’s warm he’ll roll on the lawn.

More and more of his time is spent asleep in his bed, he rarely sunbathes these days. He snores gently and twitches, whining, dreaming of chasing those rabbits and sometimes is so still that I wonder if he has gone. This would be my best hope for him, that he drifts away one afternoon with his tummy full of chicken and rice.

The part in Watership Down when the black rabbit comes for Hazel still has the power to make me weep.

We have had an entire narrative of Hazel’s adventures and discovery of wisdom. When you have a dog from a puppy it’s the same, your life bookends theirs, you know their whole history, all they were and are. It will be horribly sad when that day comes to say goodbye to Billy: his life is the last link to my children’s childhood and witnessing a creature move from young to old is profound. In the same way as the Black Rabbit changes from being an object of fear to a welcome friend to an ageing Hazel, so I can see and have seen that when their lives hang weary upon them our animals’ peaceful deaths come as a relief and release.

Perhaps that’s why God saw fit to put us together on this earth, that we could observe their quiet dignity and acceptance. They are not, so far as we know, aware of their own mortality and they naturally live to the fullness of their powers every day.  I belong to a generation addicted to their own youth and vitality and yet  the inevitable happens, of course. Inch by inch and little by little our strength diminishes. To face this with grace is part of life’s work, I believe.

Self Pity

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

– D.H.Lawrence

(Don’t worry, I’ve not bought a rocking chair yet.)

Live while you are alive

At the beginning of the year I asked members of a writing group I belong to to share words, a phrase or poem or verse which meant a lot to them. I was surprised by the response. I might have anticipated ‘This too will pass’ and ‘To everything there is a season …’, but many people were very honest in sharing poems which had helped them. When Lydia (my daughter) came up with Maya Angelou’s poem, ‘And still I rise’ I felt taken aback. It’s a fine poem and for years we had a video of her giving a reading of her work and her delivery and sparkle were thrilling, but for it to resonate so deeply with my beautiful daughter?  I remembered then Lydia had shown courage in the past in standing up to bullies at school and reinventing herself, shedding a victim mentality and becoming the bold and capable young woman some of you know. What’s more she continued to consolidate that change by sharing it.

Popular psychology maintains that when a person wants to make a life change, to break an addiction or gain a promotion or whatever, telling someone about it enhances the chances of success. I think this works in both directions: by recalling and focussing on changes made in the past, we see how far we have come and how truly different we are. By flagging up ‘I want to lose 10 kg’ or be able to run for 30 minutes or try a new sport or activity, or at a more complex level, I want look for a new job in a new part of the country or leave an unhappy relationship, we are ‘accountable’ to those whom we have told. That is scary. They may well ask us about it or check on our progress. We may fail. ‘They’ will see us fail.

What does that mean? Not achieving the desired result in the optimum time is not failure. Moving in the direction of change is change itself. Who is counting? Who is watching? So often we are our own worst enemy in our efforts to experiment with new activities. We sabotage the work early on in order not to have to try so hard, to avoid the pain of doing something different. It is so much easier to carry on doing the same thing, being the same person, the familiar is comfortable. And safe.

I am talking to myself here of course and those of you who know me will understand a little how and why I think about these things. I was a painfully shy child and an awkward teenager. I played safe and underplayed my hand. I found a place to belong and a tribe to belong to in the evangelical church and it suited me for a few decades but it does not suit me now. One task of midlife is I believe to find out what we were created for. I now have some time before I get too old to explore possibilities that were closed to me before and to paraphrase something I heard a few days ago, I don’t want to die with the music still inside me. So, now to the poem which Sue shared at the beginning of the year and has meant so much to me these last seven months.

To an English Friend in Africa

Be grateful for freedom
To see other dreams.
Bless your loneliness as much as you drank
Of your former companionships.
All that you are experiencing now
Will become moods of future joys
So bless it all.
Do not think your ways superior
To another’s
Do not venture to judge
But see things with fresh and open eyes
Do not condemn
But praise what you can
And when you can’t be silent.

Time is now a gift for you
A gift of freedom
To think and remember and understand
The ever perplexing past
And to re-create yourself anew
In order to transform time.

Live while you are alive.
Learn the ways of silence and wisdom
Learn to act, learn a new speech
Learn to be what you are in the seed of your spirit
Learn to free yourself from all things that have moulded you
And which limit your secret and undiscovered road.

Remember that all things which happen
To you are raw materials
Endlessly fertile

Endlessly yielding of thoughts that could change
Your life and go on doing for ever.

Never forget to pray and be thankful
For all the things good or bad on the rich road;
For everything is changeable
So long as you live while you are alive.

Fear not, but be full of light and love;
Fear not but be alert and receptive;
Fear not but act decisively when you should;
Fear not, but know when to stop;
Fear not for you are loved by me;
Fear not, for death is not the real terror,
But life -magically – is.

Be joyful in your silence
Be strong in your patience
Do not try to wrestle with the universe
But be sometimes like water or air
Sometimes like fire

Live slowly, think slowly, for time is a mystery.
Never forget that love
Requires that you be
The greatest person you are capable of being,
Self-generating and strong and gentle-
Your own hero and star.

Love demands the best in us
To always and in time overcome the worst
And lowest in our souls.
Love the world wisely.

It is love alone that is the greatest weapon
And the deepest and hardest secret.

So fear not, my friend.
The darkness is gentler than you think.
Be grateful for the manifold
Dreams of creation
And the many ways of unnumbered peoples.

Be grateful for life as you live it.
And may a wonderful light
Always guide you on the unfolding road.

March 1991
Ben Okri

(thanks to Mustafa Kudrati for sharing this)

(Reprinted by the Community Development Resource Association – http://www.cdra.org.za)

http://www.cdra.org.za/site/creativity/Ben%20Okri%20-%20To%20an%20english%20friend%20in%20Africa.htm

I am so grateful to Sue for sharing this. These words accompanied me on the Camino and continue to roll around my brain.

‘Time is now a gift for you
A gift of freedom
To think and remember and understand
The ever perplexing past
And to re-create yourself anew
In order to transform time.’

There is so much hope in these words.

Ok, back to making personal changes. Start small.

While I am not making a heavy duty vow about it, I am trying to make the most of living near the sea and swimming most days, even today when as you can see conditions are not conducive to relaxing on the beach. IMG_2778

But I did it. I even went the other day after a sweaty shop in Sainsburys and I had forgotten my cossie so went like a child in my vest and pants ( bra and pants) and it felt good and free and worth the small embarrassment.

I have been given a deal of affirmation for my writing and so, despite my feelings of fraudulence, I am going to commit to adding to this blog once a week. It’s hard because it is exposing and you might notice me fail. But here goes.

Another quote, from Thoreau this time:

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.

Don’t complicate things. Don’t over think. Just do it.