Friday, 29 January 2016

Making it feel like home

It is grey and blowing today.  Eight o' clock in the morning.  The wind lashes the yew tree.  I look through my bedroom window at the rain blowing in rippling curtains across the valley.   Ian has gone to work.  The house is quiet, apart from the noise of the wind, and dark, too dark to see without the lights on.  I pad downstairs in my slippers and go round turning some lights on in the kitchen and the sitting room.  The dog greets me with a wagging tail.   Sadness snatches at me but I turn away from it.  Today is mine to make.  I hear my mother's voice "I think to myself, what can I do to make this a good day for Graham and for me, and then I do it".  So simple.  So complicated.

So how to claim the day, how to make it feel like home?  Breakfast first.  A cup of tea in my favourite mug and scrambled eggs.  The rhythm of making scrambled eggs is soothing.  I could do this in my sleep: the little pan on the hob with a knob of butter in it melting while I beat two eggs, swirling the butter in the pan to cover the bottom and then in go the eggs, stirring them, bringing them together and tipping them out onto a blue and white plate.  It takes no more time than it would take to make a bowl of cereal.  I sit at the kitchen table, eating my eggs, drinking my tea, the dog leaning against my leg.  What shall we do today?

Making it feel like home has to start in the kitchen.  I decide to have a go at making Erika's gluten free bread recipe which Ian, after a lot of research, found on this site.  We ordered all the flour substitutes online and they have all been sitting in the pantry waiting for me to get my act together enough to try the bread recipe.  One of the downsides of having been making our own bread for so long is that our normal recipe has become another thing that I could do in my sleep.  Attempting a new recipe with a long list of  ingredients and a method quite different from the one I am used to just looks such a faff that I keep putting it off.  But suddenly the house settles around me, warmer, lighter, snug against the blowing wind.  I put on my apron and turn on the oven.  The kitchen hums gently.  I feel myself come together, curious, interested, ready to go.

I follow the recipe exactly and, when the loaf eventually goes into the oven, I sit with a cup of tea, reading my emails, checking Instagram, content.  This house needs activity and so do I.  Whether it is anything to do with more than four hundred years of being a farmhouse at the centre of a life filled with work I do not know, but the house needs to be lived in and lived in actively and busily.  It sulks when you go away.  Coming back into it after an absence feels cold and dark.  The house needs fires and cooking and light and people doing things.  With the bread cooking and the kettle boiling the house feels warm and comforting, like a blanket.  Sit for too long looking through the window at the rain and the house turns its back on you.  Get on with it, it says under its breath.  Do something, live.

The bread is totally delicious too.  It is six months since I went gluten free and I had decided that I feel so much better for it that it is fine to live without bread.  I have two slices of this new loaf with salty Welsh butter and then a slice toasted with a poached egg for lunch.  Oh my goodness, how I have missed bread!  Other attempts at making gluten free bread have produced a dry, tasteless, slightly too sweet loaf, like stale brioche.  This is good.  This tastes like bread and has a texture like bread.  I will experiment a bit more with the recipe and perhaps try a little less honey and a little more salt for a more clearly savoury loaf, but it is good.  In fact it is so good that I was too busy eating it to take any photographs.

And as the day darkens again it needs fires, and lamps and Ian's company, making it feel like home.

Tonight I will go to yoga and then use  BBC iplayer to catch up with Michael Wood's brilliant "Story of China".  What have you done to make today a good day?

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

A domestic marmalade adventure

Enough of all this deep stuff.  Time to make marmalade.  I had a cold after Christmas which could only be helped by copious amounts of whisky and hot lemon, which Ian duly supplied.  You can always tell I have a bad cold if I take to whisky, lemon and honey.  In normal times I don't even like whisky.  Ian bought lots of lemons (there must have a been a special offer on!) and when the cold had receded there were the lemons, about a kilo of them, still sitting in the fruit bowl looking as if they would like to be made into something.

Marmalade is a great thing to make if you are new to preserving because it sets easily.  I don't have much patience with the traditional chopping of oranges or lemons.  This way produces a very similar marmalade with a lot less work.

You need:
As ingredients: 1 kilo lemons, 2kg (or slightly more) granulated sugar, water.
As equipment: very large pan or preserving pan, sharp knife, food processor, twelve clean jam jars with lids, measuring jug, jam funnel.
Time: three to four hours.

Take a kilo of lemons and cut off the hard, dark "buttons" where they were attached to the tree.  Put the lemons in a large pan, a preserving pan is best because it is bound to be big enough and also heavy enough for the marmalade not to burn.  Add 2.5 litres of water, bring to the boil and simmer for about two hours until the lemons are soft.

After a couple of hours turn the heat off, take the lemons out of the water with a slotted spoon, leaving the water in the pan.  Let the lemons cool so you can handle them which should take about twenty minutes.  Then cut them in half and remove the pips.  It will be very easy to do this because the flesh is so soft. It is best to do checking for pips by hand so you don't miss any.  I usually cut the lemons on a board but take out the pips over a bowl so that you don't lose any juice.

Throw away the pips.  People used to advise you to tie them up in a muslin bag and add to the marmalade but in my experience it makes not the slightest difference.  Put the lemons, about a third at a time, into a food processor and whizz them until the peel is finely chopped.  The resulting slush will be thick and opaque and looks as if it couldn't possibly make a clear marmalade but don't worry, it will.

Pour the water in which the lemons cooked into a measuring jug.  You need 1.7 litres.  How much you will have depends on how quickly your water boiled when you were softening the lemons.  If you have too much, pour a bit off.  If you don't have enough, make it up to 1.7 litres with more water.
Put the water back into the pan with 2kg of granulated sugar and the lemon pulp.  Put the pan over a medium heat, stirring until the sugar has completerly dissolved  Turn up the heat and bring the mixture to the boil.

At this stage it still looks too pale, too cloudy and not at all marmalade like and makes you wonder if you are doing it right.  You are.

When it starts to boil you need to get your jars ready.  They should be clean.  Recycled jam jars are ideal and make you feel virtuous.  They should have screw on lids which will seal tightly.  Put the oven on its lowest setting and put a newspaper on one of the shelves to distribute the oven heat evenly.  Put twelve jars in the oven for about ten minutes to sterilise them, just the jars, not the lids.  You can also sterilise jars by putting them through a dishwasher cycle but it takes longer.  At the same time as the jars go into the oven, put a small plate into the fridge on the top shelf, usually the coldest part of the fridge if you have a freezer compartment.

While the jars are in the oven keep an eye on the marmalade.  You don't want to stir it as this slows down the speed at which it reaches setting point but you do need to use a slotted spoon to gently take any scum from the top.  I find that there is often a surprising amount of this.  It doesn't matter if you leave a little in the marmalade but the more you take out the clearer the final result will be.  It is also a good idea to taste the marmalade.  If it is very tart you might need to add some more sugar until it tastes as you like it.  This recipe produces a tart marmalade so it is unlikely to be too sweet.

After fifteen minutes or so of boiling you are ready to start testing the marmalade to see if it has reached setting point.  Take your plate out of the fridge and use a teaspoon to gently drop a little of the liquid onto the side of the plate.  Put the plate back in the fridge and set a timer for one minute.  I normally leave the mixture cooking while the minute elapses although I know some recipes tell you not to.  When your minute is over take the plate out of the fridge and push the mixture gently with your finger tip.  If it is not ready to set it will simply run away from your finger like any other liquid.  If it is ready, the surface of the mixture will wrinkle slightly, not great big wrinkles, more like the kind you get under your eyes when you first start to notice them!  If it wrinkles you are ready to pot the marmalade.  If it doesn't, keep the mixture boiling for another two or three minutes and then try the wrinkle test again.  Don't forget to put the plate back into the fridge to cool down again.  I find it often needs three or four tests until it is ready.  As soon as it is ready, turn the heat off.

You can pot the mixture into the jars without the use of a jam funnel by pouring it very carefully from a jug but it is so much easier with a jam funnel that I always use one.  I fill a measuring jug from the pan and, holding it over a plastic bowl so it doesn't drip all over the place, slowly fill the jars.  Tighten the lids.  Wipe the jars quickly while they are hot because any stickiness is easy to get rid off at this stage.

It keeps for months if you can stop people eating it.

You will have a lot of sticky equipment.  Put everything in the preserving pan with lots of hot water and detergent and wash it all while it is hot.  The difference between doing this and coming back to it later when it has gone cold is the difference between a glow of achievement and a cross, hot, swearing sweat.  Here speaks the voice of experience.

It takes a couple of hours before you can see that it has set as it should.  If you have been over optimistic in your wrinkle test and potted it too early you can put all the mixture back in the pan and boil it up again so all is not lost but it does take the shine off the day so it is best to be pretty sure you have wrinkles.

I know it has sugar in and sugar is public enemy number one right now but there are no preservatives, no chemicals, no strange enzymes, just lemons, sugar and water and, if you love marmalade, it is delicious.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Reflection and adventure

Thank you so much to everyone who commented on my last blog about my father.  I hugely appreciate your kindness, your sensitivity, and your readiness to share your own experience of the loss of your parents or others whom you have loved.  It was good to be reminded that everyone will go through something like this at some time in their life and that, ulitmately, we all cope in our different ways.  It was also good to hear in your responses that you had understood what I was trying to say about my father.  I felt somehow that in reading and responding people were honouring him and his life.  Thank you.  It meant a lot to me.

And so here we are now in 2016.  I am not a great maker of New Year's Resolutions.  When I used to make resolutions, I would find that they were pretty much the same every year: the same losing weight, taking more exercise, eating well, drinking less.  Not a great advert for the efficacy of resolutions really.  Clearly if they worked, each year would bring new ones!  The only ones I ever got anywhere with at all were the positive ones, the ones where I resolved to wear my more glamorous clothes or cook interesting new recipes from my battery of cookery books or to have more time with friends.

But there is something about the turning of the year that does make you look both forward and back, like Janus facing two ways at once.And looking both forward and back seems to be just what I want to do right now.  We have had a lot of loss in the last couple of years.  My mother, Ian's father and now my father have gone.  I have often felt over the last year or so that the sheer energy, time and determination required to support my father through the last year of Motor Neurone Disease might just have been so huge that it got in the way of understanding the enormity of the loss of other people.  It was just too difficult.  There was only so much of us to go round and while Dad needed us we had to get on with doing what we could.  Now it might be time to reflect a bit more, to see where we are now and what we want to do with the time which we suddenly have in abundance.

Over the period of loss we have also gained three new grandchildren, now sixteen months, four months and three months old.  So life itself is demanding that we look both backwards and forwards.  No doubt it is sheer coincidence that the number of family members going out and coming in match.  It feels good though.  It feels right.  Reason to look forward as well as to look back.

I have read a variety of blogs in which people look to find a word for what they aspire to do or to be in the coming year and this seems to me better than making a list of resolutions.  It focusses the mind on the big picture, the important stuff rather than on the weight on the scales or the sessions in the gym.  Laura at Tell Tale Therapy blogged about her word, compassion, and I liked it a lot.  As I said to her I think I need two words and here they are: reflection and adventure.

Reflection seems obvious.  I need a bit of time to slip slowly into my new life, not simply looking backwards as in remembering but also reflecting on how my parents and my father in law lived their lives and what that has to teach me about living mine.  Much of it seems already very clear and it is about loving and living very fully, balancing doing things for others, particularly family, and doing things for oneself that keep you sane, balanced, happy and true.  I loved the way my parents lived their own lives with such energy and enthusiasm.  It freed me to live mine in a way which is very difficult to do if your parents live vicariously through you.  So there is a lot to think about in terms of loving and supporting our family, our children and grandchildren and the wider family, while at the same time living my own life, living our own lives, properly, deeply, with enthusiasm and commitment.

And that is why the other word is adventure.  Life has been constrained in recent years by the care of my father in law and my father, even if those constraints were necessary and accepted without rancour.  Now there are possibilities and a sense that the time and energy we have now are not going to be limitless.  I am sixty, not thirty.  Now is the time to climb the mountain, to sail the sea, to navigate the rivers both physical and mental.  Now is the time to take the photographs, write the stories, lie on the sand and take up the sun.  I don't want to be perpetually on the move because I love my day to day life at home.  I don't want to have some kind of super bucket list and tick off the continents of the world.  But I do want to drive across Europe, to learn a new language, to wake up in a new city.  I want to see New Zealand again.  I want to cook things I have never cooked, knit and make and write things I have never tried before.  I want to live the life that remains as well and as fully as my parents did even though I will make my own choices as to what that means.  And I want to keep my balance, to walk the tightrope, using the stick which is reflection to make meaning of the adventure.  I want to do both: to stay still and to move, to be silent and to sing.

Reflection and adventure, that is what I want for 2016.  I wonder if it can be done?

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

A post for my father

My father, Graham, died on the 3rd December after a long and hard fought battle with motor neurone disease.  It's a cliche to talk about battle with illness but in his case I think it is right.  He fought the good fight, cheerfully, positively, with immense courage and determination.  It is over now and I am glad that he doesn't have to fight it any more.  Who would have thought that such an active, physical, practical man, such a talker, a joker, a story teller, could find a way to live with profound physical disability and eventually with his own silence.  But he did.  In a life filled with action and achievement that was perhaps the most extraordinary achievement of all.

I feel now, in relation to this blog, as I felt just over two years ago when my mother died.  My mother's death was sudden, unexpected, terrible, full of the anguish of a loss which was totally unprepared for.  My father's death was a long time coming and because of what he lost as he died so very slowly it is, in its way, both a terrible loss and a relief and a release.  Both deaths leave the world an emptier and colder place for us their children.  I don't use this blog generally as a place to bare my soul.  I use it for gardening and cooking and books and the small pleasures of the moment.  But I felt when my  mother died, as I feel now, that if I did not write about my parents the blog itself would simply be silenced by the enormity of what was unsaid.  Ian has blogged about the eulogy which he read at my father's funeral so here is a song to my father, as I wrote a hymn to my mother.  Here is a tribute to both an ordinary and an extraordinary man.

First of all he was not my father.  My own father was in the RAF and was killed in a flying accident when I was three.  I remember a tallness, how I had to stretch up to hold his hand.  I remember a sense of safety and that is about it.  His family loomed large in my life when I was a child and remain important to me.  After his death, my mother returned with her two very young children to her home town.  Dad's family and hers were not friends but it was a small community in a northern milltown.  Everyone knew the story about the young widow.  Eventually she came to live in a terraced house built, in a working class echo of a London square, with a large central garden behind iron railings.  Dad's family lived in a house on the bottom of the square.  My mother moved in with my brother and me to a house on one of the long sides.

Dad was energetic, practical and hands on.  He began doing small jobs for my mother, mending things and making things and helping to make her life easier.  After Mum died Dad talked to me about seeing her first on the street with her two young children, realising who she was and longing to look after her.  This is quite funny when you knew the two of them because, while Mum was undoubtedly struggling with her loss at that time, she was a person of great inner strength, not a natural damsel in distress.  She was young, beautiful and alone.  He fell in love with her and he fell hard.  "There was never anyone else for me" he said in those weeks after she died when I stayed to look after him, the MND already biting deep.  My mother and I were close and we had talked about all sorts of times in her life over the years.  Dad didn't talk much about feelings except at that time of loss and, occasionally,  in the two years that followed as his illness progressed.  I am glad I had that time.  In the immediate aftermath of Mum's death, his talking to me about my mother was painful because it was as though he almost mixed me up with her in those first shocking days.  He would come to look for me if I sat in her room or talk to me when I helped him to bed.   But that period means now that I know him and see him in a way that I would not have done without it.

They married when I was five and my brother was three.  Mum told me later that he had moved too fast for her and that, while she loved his energy and cheerfulness and his wholehearted commitment to her, it was only years later that she realised that she would have needed five or more years to pass after the death of her first husband before she regained anything like her old sense of self.  Dad thought any reservations she had were to do with the difficulties of taking on a ready made family.  He had clearly thought about that long and hard himself.  "I wouldn't have married Mum if I hadn't been absolutely sure I could love you and Paul properly" he told me.  And he did.  He wasn't a man to examine himself and analyse his actions.  He decided what was right to do and he did it.  He decided he would love us as if we were his own and I truly believe that he did.  Even the birth of his own child, my sister, made no difference at all to my sense that he loved us all, we all mattered just the same.  Had it been me I would always have been examining myself, poking at the issue to see if I was really doing what I was aiming to do.  Dad just got on with it.  I admire him for that.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence much of my relationship with Dad was defined for me by my sense that he was not my father.  I do not mean by this that I did not love him.   I did.    I knew he loved me too.  I relied upon him and doubtless took him for granted in the way children and teenagers do and he was always there, always ready with lifts, with help, with time and energy.  He was a very good father and he was later a very good grandfather.  I knew I was lucky to have him in my life and this feeling has only grown stronger as I have grown older.  But he was very different from me: an extrovert, a joker, a man with a short fuse and strong enthusiasms.  My mother was the thinker, the peacemaker, the person who encouraged me to put myself in other people's shoes.  My mother had a natural empathy with people and I learnt from her to try to see the world with the eyes of another.  Dad didn't really do empathy.  Sympathy he had in spades and if he thought you needed anything he would be the first to help but he was always so busy charging his way through life that thinking his way into someone else's head would simply never have occurred to him.  So I identified with my mother  and in a way I suppose I also wanted to continue to recognise somehow my own father.  For years, until after my own children were born, I referred to my own father as "my father" and to my stepfather as "Dad".  I must have been in my thirties when I ceased to make the distinction.  What did it matter?  He fathered me.  He was a loving and involved grandfather to my children.  Could I have asked anything more of him as a father?  No, I could not.  Whatever you asked of him, he would always step up to the plate.

So what else was he, this man who gave me love and confidence in spades?  He was adventurous. Physically fearless, strong and fit, he simply loved doing things.  I am sure my love of walking and of being outdoors was down to him.  Given the choice my mother would be found in a chair with a book.  Her adventurousness was of a different kind and showed itself in a readiness to do new things, go new places, have a go, make a change.  The combination of the two of them produced for their family a energetic, happy, adventurous childhood and adolescence and a sense when we became adults ourselves that we didn't have to be worrying about our parents or guiltily wondering whether they were waiting for us to go to see them.  They would be out there, having a good time, embarking on yet another project, delighted when you appeared but returning cheerfully to their own lives when you walked out of the door.

He was determined with a readiness to learn and a stubborn streak which prevented him from giving up when times got hard.  He regretted that he had had to leave school at fifteen and was a natural self educator, reading his way through the classics, immersing himself in local history.  At seventy he decided to learn how to use a computer and over the following few years (and not without various explosions and much telephone and face to face advice) digitised a lifetime's work as a photographer.  When he put his mind to something he would make it happen.  He wrote copiously about his early life, revealing a memory for the telling detail and a straightforward and accessible writing style.  He was a generous man, with his time, his energy, his money (not that there was ever a great deal of that but he and my mum had a way of making it deliver more than anyone ever had a right to expect).  He was a loyal man, ultimately to his wife and family but also to his friends.  He was good at friendship as the numbers who turned out for his eightieth birthday and later for his funeral demonstrated.  Even in his last year or so, in a wheelchair and with his speech at first failing and then gone, he made new friends.

Above all he was courageous.  He faced the last two years of his life, without his wife, his home and his health with a determination to take whatever pleasure he could in the every day which was quite simply extraordinary.  Because you knew that he did not want you to weep over him but to take him outside into the sunshine, to walk with him and the dogs, to stop at a cafe and drink coffee and eat cake, that is what we did.  While he could speak he never failed to tell Ian and me that he had a good day when we went out with him and to thank us for driving the long journey to see him.  He endured helplessness with humour and without self pity.  He loved to make people laugh and to be made to laugh.  Until three weeks before his death, and while profoundly helpless,  he was still being taken out by us, my sister or our friend Bob who became for Dad like another member of the family.  I am glad he did not linger long when that was lost to him.

So that was my Dad, my father: loving, constant, brave, adventurous, short tempered in health, enduring in illness, funny, hardworking, reliable, generous, explosive, patient, always open to life.  It does not matter that I don't share his genes.  I would not be the person I am today without him. Thank you Dad for everything.  I love you.  I miss you.  Go gently.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Making winter like the Danes

Like Silverpebble, I am not a fan of winter - far too much mud and rain and greyness for my liking. But this year my aim is to embrace winter, to revel in all the good things and to do more than simply hide in the house and wait for spring to come.  Life is short, much too short to discount a whole season, and winter can be fun.  Even a spring fanatic like me would have to admit that every winter I do enjoy some things.  So my aim is to find more to love about winter and more ways of filling the winter days with good things.  To this end I think we could learn a lot from the Danes.

The Danes have a concept called hygge (pronounced hoogah).  Most articles I have found about hygge tell you that the word translates literally as cosiness but then immediately go on to explain that the whole idea is far more multilayered than that.  This blog, written by Alexandra Beauchamp who has a Danish mother and a French father, contains the most helpful explanation I have found and is a lovely read too.  So hygge seems to be about warmth and light, physical warmth in the glow of a fire and spiritual warmth in the company of people you love.

So how can I bring more hygge into my life?

More fire seems like a great idea.  Even an outside fire like this chases away the winter demons.  And we are lucky enough to have a woodburning stove which should clearly be lit every evening to fill the sitting room with the warmth and sound of a wood fire.

The Danes seem to be very big on candles too.  We have lots of candles but somehow we don't use them as often as we might.  I shall resolve to light them for the beauty of them instead of only when we have a power cut.

And for comfort we have cushions and blankets.  I should bring these out for the winter instead of keeping them for when someone is unwell.  Can you have too much cosiness? Probably not.

This is a little lap blanket which I made for the shepherd's hut but it is just the right size to use sitting by the fire in the house.  I have been making new cushions as well.  Perhaps my interest in hygge had kicked in without my being aware of it.

But in this house I don't see that you can have hygge without thinking about food: spicy soups, casseroles, pies and homemade bread.  We love our food up here and food is for sharing.  And that I think brings me to one of the most important aspects of Danish life.  Did you know that the Danes consistently report themselves as the happiest people in Europe?  And that seems to me to be partly at least because they are a society which relishes relationships and companionship.  In fact older Danish people object to the idea that you can have hygge on your own.  Young Danes would find hygge in a cup of hot chocolate by the fire by themselves.  The older generation would want you to share that moment with someone you love.  So food brings us to sharing and companionship.  It is easy up here to hunker down in winter and to see far less of our friends and neighbours.  I shall try this year to do more sharing of my warm and candlelit room with friends over good things to eat.

I have almost persuaded myself.  Maybe winter won't be so bad after all.  Have a look at silverpebble's blog about the idea of making winter and see what others are saying and doing about it.

Sunday, 1 November 2015


I've always been good at sleep.  My mother used to say that as a baby I slept through the night well before any of her friends' babies.  She thought that was something to do with her mothering skills until she had my brother who didn't, and she realised that babies will do what they are suited to!  As a child I loved my bedroom and I loved my bed.  I liked to have the door closed so that nothing could get in during the night (I still do, to my husband's amusement) and I loved the sense of my bed as a nest, warm and snug and mine.  In winter I loved my flannelette sheets and the comforting weight of the blankets.  In summer I loved turning over my pillow to get the cool side against my cheek.  Bed was a place for dreaming, for reading.  I was an outdoor child and for me inside was for making and eating food at the kitchen table or for bed.  You can tell I was a child from an age where television was a rare thing!

I love sleep and I need it.  When my children were small babies I quickly became a milk spattered zombie, groping through a sleep deprived fug, barely able to speak but miraculously restored to competence by six consecutive hours of night time sleep.  I don't sleep well in the day and if I do nap in the daytime I struggle to sleep at night.  So adult life has fallen into a pattern; day for wakefulness, night for sleeping, now, without the demands of work or children, bed at around eleven and ideally around nine hours of sleep.  How I would have longed for that when my children were small.  Easy.

Or perhaps not quite so easy.  Because sleep, it transpires, even for one like me who seems to have been built for it, is the measure of a quiet mind.  If Ian and I have one of our rare but brutal arguments I might as well spend the night reading in a chair.  When I have known that one of our daughters or daughters in law was in labour I have bobbed in and out of sleep all night like an apple in a bowl, coming up for air, wondering why I am awake and immediately remembering.  How is she?  Is there a baby yet? How is the baby? Is everyone all right?  And the night before I see my father, roughly once a week these days as his motor neurone disease paralyses and silences him, I both struggle to go to sleep and wake at three or four in the morning.  I have grown accustomed to making myself sleep on these nights by sinking half a bottle of wine at speed when we arrive at my sister's house after a five hour drive.  Is this wrong?  Probably.  But it works and leaves me with only the darkest hour to contend with.

I have become good at not allowing my father's illness to overwhelm my life in the nearly two years since my mother died.  I have learnt to focus on the fact that I am doing my best for him, that I am a wife, a mother, a friend, a grandmother, a sister, as well as a daughter and I know he wants me to live as well and happily as I can.  I can see that even now he can no longer tell me because he himself lives as well and happily as he can, an extraordinary example of what can be done in adversity.   So it is only in that dark wakeful time that I am invaded by thoughts of what it is like to be him now, paralysed and silenced, staring into the dark.  I can't seem to stop those dark minutes but I have learnt to go with it, to breathe slowly and calmly, feeling the breath coming in and going out as we do in my yoga class, accepting that it is what it is and letting it go, opening my hand and seeing the thoughts fly away like the swallows above our bakehouse.

So I can't really give anyone else any advice about sleep.  For me it seems that sleep is easy when life is easy and hard when life is hard.  I know all the advice about restricting screen time before bed and gently raising your temperature with a warm, not hot, bath.  Mostly if life is ok and I cannot go to sleep it is because I have not enough done enough physically to make myself tired and getting up for an hour before trying again seems to work.  I certainly do not recommend my half a bottle a wine technique except in extremis.  And night waking for me is the simple result of the fact that not everything can be slept away.

But sleep is to be treasured and the place that you sleep to be cared for: a clean bed, a calm and quiet room, an electric blanket in winter and dark and star filled skies, if you are lucky.

How do you sleep?

Saturday, 17 October 2015

The season turns

It has been an extraordinary autumn.  Morning after morning up here on our hillside we have woken to golden light and heavily dewed grass.  We face South East and the morning sunlight pours in through our bedroom window, pooling gold on the carpet.  Outside everything is still flowering and glowing.  By lunchtime it is warm enough to eat outside.

On many mornings the sky has been full of sun while the valley below us is brimming with mist.

But by lunchtime the world emerges bright and clear and warm.

Sedum throbs with bees and butterflies.

Everywhere berries are ripe.  Cotoneaster herringbones its way up the stone wall by the drive.

Rosehips swell.

The walnut tree is laden with nuts in their glossy green cases which stain your hands a vicious black.

In the edge of the hen enclosure I find this huge fungus, the size of a small plate, ignored so far by the chickens.  They are moulting and looking a bit scraggy, their feathers lying on the grass. There are very few eggs right now.  We let our hens stop laying in the winter.  This happens naturally when the days shorten sufficiently although you can keep them laying by providing artificial light.   We prefer to leave the natural course of things to play out.

I have planted many more new daffodils, Actaea, Cheerfulness and Minnow, up round the shepherd's hut.  I used to try to do this with a bulb planter, taking out a core of soil and trying to achieve a good depth of planting, but now I try to do it for the least effort possible.  The best technique for our stony soil seems to be to lift a sod halfway using a small spade, leaving one side still attached, cram as many bulbs as will fit underneath, and stamp the sod back down again.  I still have all my tulips to plant, both for pots and for the cutting garden, but they won't go out until November.

More sunshine please!