Get Doing, Get Moving.

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It’s not hard to think back to a time when it felt as if the future, if unknown, was at least assured for some time. Since we first found out that we were being evicted from our rented home in Cornwall back in 2013, it has been impossible for us to plan any further ahead than the next paid job for Jude. I can still vividly recall the morning the landlord (the farmer who lived in the adjoining house to us) knocked on our kitchen door and broke the news to me on the doorstep, heavily pregnant as I was with daughter no. 4.

The shock of that, and the desperate weeks that followed while we tried to get our heads around what to do, on our limited income and with all the chaos of a new baby and our other children, has never entirely left us.

And I’m tired of it. Yes we are so very very lucky to be here in this wonderful house, I never stop being grateful for this temporary space we have been given, but there is the constant fear that it too will be taken away.

A while back, one of Jude’s clients told him about a property her neighbour had been trying to sell and he finally gave in and went with her to see it. And fell immediately in love with it: he raced home and told me about it as soon as he walked in the door. For Jude to get this excited, it had to be something pretty special so we all jumped back in the car with him and drove for an hour and a half to see it, not even pausing to think about the recent problem the car had developed with the cooling system.

We arrived just as dusk was starting to fall and walked around the place herding the children away from the stinging nettles and fallen roof sheets in the yard outside. Jess scampered excitedly into every nook and cranny yelping with joy at each new discovery. I tried to take photos of it all despite the fear of losing sight of the little ones as they scrambled up the half-tower stone staircase to the upstairs rooms, the startled pause as a dead bird was found on a windowsill and was reverentially regarded by little wondering eyes.

One attic space, two attic spaces; a huge secret room which could only be seen from above that took a bit of thinking about; arching doorways and massive old oak barrels in what was the cider pressing barn with the huge old apple press still in place. Outside yielded more excitement: odd shaped fruit hanging in the overgrown garden revealed themselves to be perfectly ripe figs; elsewhere apples littered the grass.

It became too dark to see clearly anymore so we reluctantly trooped back to the car and buckled the children into their carseats. I remarked on how hot the engine still seemed to be, but didn’t think much more about it as we set off for the long journey back home, all of us chattering happily about the wonderful house.

And then, the heart stopping judder, the needle on the temperature gauge suddenly pointing into the red and with dashboard lights flashing alarm in unison, the car stopped and steam hurled out from beneath the bonnet. We pulled over to the side of the road and got everyone out of the car.

A wonderful lady driving home with her elderly mother saw us and pulled up: “I don’t have any water, I only drink wine”, she said apologetically, in perfect English. But she stayed with us while we flagged down the passing cars. Finally a fellow Landy driver pulled up, revealing in his trunk not only a fully stocked boot space loaded with tools for any kind of emergency, but even more bizarrely, he had exactly the right kind of coolant we needed to put in our broken system. Another kind man set off in search of a bottle of water for us and returned successful despite the lack of nearby shops and, filled with water and gratitude we were on our way again.

We finally got home after two more oddly fortuitous stops: we hadn’t gone very far when the all of the lights went berserk again and I pulled in sharply to cool the engine down, not noticing that I had parked exactly next to a tap set into the side of the adjacent road. Then at a second stop, I walked back to a house we’d passed but as I turned to walk away after receiving no reply, I looked down and noticed they had a bucket of water sitting outside the front door, which of course we made use of, returning the bucket a week later with a note of thanks.

And what of the house, I hear you ask? Well, that remains to be seen. We have already been refused a mortgage for the house we are currently in, so we have to wait until January before trying again. The plus side is that this find is significantly cheaper, the downside is that someone else is also interested. And we have to somehow explain to Jude’s mother that we can’t afford to buy her house and somehow convince her not to sell it to anyone else just yet: which is particularly awkward.

There are no guarantees in life, I realise I may never know what lies ahead. There’s nothing to say that we even stand a chance of getting a loan from our bank or any other. But we have to try. The world is looking increasingly bleak as I see it and the sooner we can start moving towards a more self-sufficient and sustainable existence on a piece of land that no-one can take away from us the happier I will be. I want to start afresh, to stand clear of all the undone plans that are littered behind us: I want to slough off these tattered threads of undone-ness and get doing again, for something positive and good. For the future of our family. To be home at last.

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Un Bon Adieu

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Lacaze! Beautiful, welcoming Lacaze, sitting in a verdant bowl of ancient land in the wonderful French department of Tarn down in the South of France. Driving down the switchback lanes the trees slowly thin and the little village creeps into view and then suddenly we are there! The castle standing proudly above the prettily higgledy piggledy old houses, their tile rooftops shining in the sun.

On the bridge approaching the castle the bold yellow and black quilt representing the heraldry of the region hangs high on the wall and then the first sign! An arrow points our path further down into the heart of the place with 70273 lit up in red – but being already confused by the obfuscating sat-nav we were using to find our way, we sailed past it and went a completely different way…. and turned ourselves around on foot instead. We ascend again to the door of the castle where a crowd stands in the doorway and there she is! The shining Jeanne Hewell-Chambers, in brighter than bright red and white, her recently dye-free hair glowing in complement to her radiant outfit. I note the lovely chunky blue stones around her neck and finger and see she is representing each of the countries meeting here today in her red, white and blue.

We toured the castle, itself a monument to the dedication of the village mayor and his diligent team, and their commitment to restore it with the dignity and modern grace befitting such a beautiful structure. The mayor and I talked briefly, hampered as I am by my earnest but faulty French, about how the universe works to provide what is needed once actions are taken, to guide the course of a project whatever the scale. He pointed out a hand lettered poster on one side of the entry way, describing the award-winning work taking place and how modern materials have been used in the restoration work as a deliberate and carefully constructed statement to complement the original stonework so the years sit together in harmony. To underline our discussion, the sign was written for and donated to the restoration project by a master calligrapher who happened to become aware of the site through a chance exchange.

And then it was on to the little chapel down the hill where The 70273 Project quilts were waiting for us. The place was packed full of people when I arrived. I squeezed through and took photos of the wonderful space, so beautifully hung with the project quilts. I tried to listen to the voices in those crosses that had spoken so quietly to me as I worked on my own and other people’s contributions to this project, blocks that I have had the honour to hold in my hands before passing them on to others for piecing and quilting. I could feel their humming presence behind the surface chatter of the people present, their gratitude at being given such a space to sing of their presence and worth.

And this, finally, is what touched me most, despite the noise of the joyful meetings and exchanges that took place in that room that day: the true essence of this grand, international, all-inclusive and heartfelt Project that Jeanne has set into motion is one of listening. Not only do these 70,273 silenced souls – over 8,000 of whom were commemorated in this one exhibition alone – deserve to be remembered; they each and every one of them have been given the chance to sing of their worth, to have their individual stories heard. There is a power in their difference, strength in their vulnerability and above all, there is forgiveness and love. Such a day, such a Project: such a powerful and proud moment in my life and many others.

Thank you to each and every person who has taken part in the Project already and to those who will take up the reins at the front as others take their seats in the back. This special day in Lacaze was perfectly organised and such a pleasure to attend: I am grateful and proud to have been able to meet so many of the lovely French organisers and contributors not least dear Katell who has shared and supported me with the French Facebook group, and the fiercely funny and loveable Cécile Milhaus, without whom the exhibition would not have been such a marvellous success, but many many others too.

Needless to say, us English ladies took the wrong turning as we exited the village: the last image in my mind is of Cécile, the Mayor et al, waving and gesticulating at us to go the other way…. Adieu mes amies du projet 70273! A la prochaine XX

 

A Trip of a Lifetime

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So I’ve been back a week from my epic voyage to the South of France for The 70273 Project. I made my very first outfit – a pair of trousers and a top (sleeves are HARD!!), specifically for the trip, finished the day before I left; I drove 1000 miles in two days, there and back, spent around €500 we couldn’t really afford, met some amazing people, saw the most stunning scenery and it’s all over, quicker than a blink.

I’m filled with gratitude for being able to make this adventure. I am grateful that we had enough money to be able to fix the car in the first place so that I could do it at all; that Jude was willing to lose a day’s work to look after the girls; that he encouraged and supported me in making the decision to go at all: I’m not good with crowds or doing things on my own these days. I am grateful to the lovely people I met: Lucy and Sharon were the most enjoyable company and we made deep and meaningful connections.

The glorious French countryside on my return journey was stunning. I was sorely tempted to stop and photograph each place I came to: the prettiest little hill-top villages and then a Monday-morning market in Cathars, a wonderful, golden stone-built town with shutters of faded blues and greens at every window, bedecked in every possible corner with colourful flowers and beautiful flowering trees. I stopped off along the way on both journeys to spend time with my lovely Etsy friend, Birdycoconut and her wonderful mum, who fed and watered me. Mille mercis à vous deux! xo

But I couldn’t stop: I had to get back; I couldn’t spend more money on another night’s accommodation, and as much as I seriously considered just sleeping in the car, it felt imperative for Jude to get back to work. I was in race-mode: overtaking everything and hurling myself around the bends of these pretty little backroads that were largely, thrillingly empty. Plus I had promised the girls that I would be back on Monday, and I try my hardest to keep my word to them.

But I deeply regret not making more of this time, alone and free. Taking photos is such an essential part of my life that it feels wrong not to have recorded the beauty I witnessed everywhere I looked. There is such a casual and thrilling abundance to the France of the south, so very different to the much more formal North with so much of it having been destroyed in the war and hastily rebuilt in ugly concrete, losing both it’s heart and character in the process. It is as distinct as entering an entirely different country.

Returning to these grey stone buildings with grey slate roofs and neatly ordered tidily uniform hedgerows triggered an instant ache of loss for the bold generosity of those southern towns with their golden light and sparkling air. Thrilled as I am to be back with my brood and my wonderful man in this place we have made our home, a part of me still wants to jump straight back in the car.

I am back to work on my various tasks: I have clothing to figure out how to deconstruct and remake; the house is in chaos and we are working on tidying up the plot of land to sell. There is much to do in the garden: cuttings are rooting – roses growing from the scraps I gathered weeks ago! – seedlings shooting up, and my border is starting to look quite wonderful now I have transplanted nearly all of the baby plants from their previous home over at the caravans. I recently bought a section of fencing to shield my heart from the sight of next-door’s desolate, poisoned backyard (he is selling the house so to save time maintaining it, he has covered all green areas with glyphosphate) and even though it’ll be a while before I have the money to buy more sections to complete it, it already makes a difference. Most of all, we need to get our finances back on track after these two huge expenses, car and trip.

And the great meeting with Jeanne? The long-anticipated long-held idea of actually being in the same room with the woman who has held my hand and my heart through some pretty tough times over the last year and who I felt a true and deep connection with? For whom I have worked so tirelessly and enthusiastically to help bring her vision to life over this past year, actively participating in and managing the two Facebook project groups, supporting her through her long weeks of illness as well as photographing and recording countless blocks sent to me from makers in France to commemorate the lost lives of The 70273 Project? I’m not sure how to put my feelings into words on that. It was unexpectedly less than expected. And clearly mutually so: another close French project collaborator simply alluded to me on her blog post about the exhibition as the “AngloNormande” of the group and whilst Jeanne’s Facebook message tagged a number of people whose friendship she would miss on her return to the States, it did not include me. She mentioned me once by name in her talk to the crowd at Lacaze, but said nothing of my role in the project except for people to send me their blocks.

I can’t help but feel disappointed and hurt that my contribution to this project has ended up as me simply being that of an administrator, unworthy of thanks or mention. And I am insulted that I made this huge journey, which was way out of my personal comfort zone and had not a single moment alone with Jeanne or a chance to communicate with her on a personal level. She took the blocks I’d brought along with me but she gave nothing in return of her heart, which, judging from the entire lack of personal communication between us lately, has been firmly locked and bolted. She made no mention whatsoever of the notes and little gifts I’d included in the huge box of donated blocks I posted to her a few months ago.

This is hard for a number of reasons: Jeanne had become someone I trusted completely, she was a surrogate mother figure, mentor, champion and tireless encourager of my artistic and literary adventures, someone I spoke to nearly daily, to whom I sent poetry at 3am when the words flew into my head. Trust me, there aren’t many who have this slightly dubious honour.

The breakdown in our friendship occurred when I asked her if she could stop by the Facebook group after her long absence. During that time I had monitored and managed both the English and French-language group pages, answering questions, introducing new members, sending encouragement and support to all. Not only did she ignore my words, she admitted afterwards that she’d felt scolded. That was certainly not my intention. I just had been doing too much and was feeling overwhelmed and needed her help. About my request at the same time for her to provide some written material for a fabric book we had discussed me making for the Project, she said nothing at all. So hurt was I by this at the time that I unplugged myself from both groups and withdrew into my real life for a while.

When I talked of my difficulties with Jeanne with someone recently, they suggested that I try to remove myself from the picture a little: wise advice I’m sure, but it’s just not how I function. You get me, the whole of me; my head and my heart, in whatever I do. I do not do shades of grey. Yet, it was my choice to be involved: no-one owes me anything, and whilst I ask for nothing in return, I do in fact need very much to be accepted as the odd, loving and passionate being that I am. I don’t give my heart away easily, and this is a reminder why.

So I have a big pile of fabric ‘pages’ sitting gathering dust; I have several boxes of baking paper which I had intended to use to transfer ink images and text as well as regular fabric transfer paper bought for the purpose, and now have to find a new use for them. My own usefulness to the Project and to Jeanne has evidently run its’ course and I need to move on to challenges of my own making.

In this year of intense online activity I have discovered new friends and rediscovered a purpose to my life outside of the narrow confines of being a housewife and housebound mother with few real-life connections of meaning. Whilst being deeply rewarding in itself, being a stay-at-home mother can also be emotionally and mentally draining in the extreme. In the time we have been friends, Jeanne gave me firm ground to walk on by providing me with an ear and a presence I valued all the more for having a do-able practicality to it. Without her I would not have had the courage to walk into that crowded room at Lacaze and hold my head high without shaking in fear even if I did spend that time hiding behind my camera: such is my terror of crowded spaces. In my dazed state I forgot even to put my bags down at any point. More importantly though, I deeply regret not having the opportunity to stand in that chapel by Jeanne’s side before the crowds arrived and witness those quilted voices singing in that beautiful, sacred space: all of those red crosses filling the air with kisses. I sense that I would have felt a forcefield of love emanating from those cloths.

I am proud of having been a part of this Project born of love and compassion: that so many hands and hearts have met and held each other through it and into the future.

I am intensely proud of myself for making this crazy trip: a year ago I didn’t even have the courage to go more than ten miles from my home. Just doing the supermarket run is more than I can cope with some weeks.

And I am proud of the fact that I can care enough for myself to choose to walk away from situations and friends that do not make me feel supported or cherished. People are strange and ineffable: some friendships just filter out without us really ever understanding why. The trick is to let go without rumination or regret. I’m still working on that one. Onward.

 

Sculpture Softens The Sadness

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Everything has been in turmoil here over the last few weeks. My dear Smudge, the kitten who stole my heart, was killed on the road outside the house. I dropped the girls off at the school bus stop and on the way back home saw a cat lying in the road. My heart knew before my brain registered that it was my lovely boy. I jumped out into the rain and gathered him in my arms, dreading that he would be still alive but crushed beyond repair. But his body was heavy and rain sodden cold. I buried him in the garden, sobbing into the mud, his body wrapped in a linen tea towel, a souvenir from the Eden Project in Cornwall that could only have come with us from England. Weeks on, I still miss him terribly. I miss him running to greet me in the morning and standing on my feet to keep his warm. I planted a sweet smelling rose to tend in his memory: to give me a purpose when sadness overwhelms me.

And there have been other sadnesses too. I took the decision to close my Etsy shop this weekend, after dithering about it for several weeks. Etsy is going through a great number of changes and there have been a lot of very angry and upset sellers in the Etsy forums and within teams, all trying to work out what is going on. It’s a horrible mess and many of the changes taking place show blatant disregard for the people who pay Etsy to run their marketplace – us, the sellers. We are being squeezed, and many have already left in disgust or been forced out for not complying with new shop payment rules. We put our hearts into our businesses and to see our shops being stripped of their uniqueness and visibility is no joke for people trying to make a living.

It’s hard to find an alternative place to sell online though. Etsy’s original vision was what led me to open a shop with them: to be part of a community of artistic, creative people. Now, the artists and artisans are being squashed by the unchecked growth of re-sellers and factory-produced work being sold under the guise of ‘handmade’. It is not a supportive, happy community any more. I think it’s safe to say that it is inevitable that it will be sold over the next few weeks.

So this weekend I finally packed everything away into storage. I have bought a couple of domain names for use with a standalone website and I may try Artyah, a fairly new site selling vintage and handmade. Its clunky and needs work, but it has potential. But I am very sad to give up my Etsy shop: I was so proud to be a part of that world even if I arrived a little too late to enjoy it at its’ best.

And the third sadness is that the bank rejected our request for a building loan to buy Chrissie’s house. We bit the bullet last week and made an appointment with them and presented all of our figures, but it just isn’t enough to convince them. Stupidly, we convinced ourselves that it would be fine: that the manager would realise what a big difference it could make to us and want to help us succeed. Because buying this place means we could start working on creating gîtes as we originally planned to do all those years ago when we first talked about moving out here. Plus it would give us some security at last, and God! I need that so much. The house is still on the market, so in theory it could still be sold any minute and I can’t bear the thought of losing it now. We’re all so happy to be living here, as well as having already done much to improve the place, particularly outside. It feels like home. Of course, the political situation probably doesn’t help us; we’d no doubt stand more of a chance if we were French. But, my heart aches with the (hopefully temporary) loss of hope. 

We are blessed, of course, to be living here at all, I’m well aware of how lucky we are. But, the idea of building a business together is so very important to our future here. Jude is finding it harder each week to do such physically demanding work: his latest client needs him to re-roof her old manor and he is doing the work entirely alone. Having spent his life doing heavy manual work, his body is starting to suffer now. Building the gîtes and making ourselves a little more self-sufficient – growing veg, keeping chickens and a couple of pigs perhaps – would be so wonderful for us all.

As we head into summer, I am free to focus on fewer, deeper issues: leaving Etsy behind as I move forward alone with whatever I plan to do with my shop, I find myself heavier in spirit but stronger in my determination to make things work for us. We will keep going. That’s all any of us can do.

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These photos are of the sculpture garden at the wonderful Abbey of Cerisy La Fôret. Every year, international artists are invited to come and work on a piece each which, at the end of their stay, gets added to the collection in the grounds. Normally the sculptures are carved out of stone or marble; this year for the first time the work is in metal. This is the second visit I’ve made so far: I plan to return again to follow the progress of the work and take more photos as it progresses. Stay tuned!

A Good Spring Clean

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Hurray! Spring is here again! Every year I feel so energised and refreshed by the vibrancy of this season. I always think that this is the time of year when resolutions should be made, not in the dark depths of the new year; this is the right time to make plans and sow seeds. At last the lingering gloom and long shadows of winter can be swept aside once again. This is the season of hope and positivity.

The field across the road from the front of the house was planted up with with what I had thought was green manure, but it may well in fact be a rapeseed, or colza crop, which is not quite so environmentally friendly. Whatever it is, these shining yellow blooms throw sunlight through our windows on even the stormiest of days, and fill my heart with joy. Yellow is such a life-affirming, energetic colour.

In preparation for the Easter holidays which begin next week, I have had a major clean of the girls’ bedrooms. For the first time in a long while, I sorted through the books and put them back into a neat order on the shelves. This used to be a far more regular task of mine and I’ve fallen out of the practice simply because with all four of them reading, the books so quickly fall into complete disorder; piling up on every available surface, particularly the floor. Much as it thrills me that they are all so interested in books, the chore of getting them to return them to the shelves is daunting. We’ll see how long it takes them this time… Quite often an entire shelf is swept free by a child to prepare a space to put a doll to bed, even though they have a gazillion other empty spaces to use, including the quite marvellous handmade antique wooden dolls house a friend recently gave to us. All of their winter clothes have been washed and packed away (something I do prematurely every year and inevitably have to dig them all out again when we are hit by a cold snap!) and soon the summer clothes will be unpacked in turn to be tussled and cried over when some are found to have mysteriously shrunk over winter and now must be passed on to the next-shortest sister. This mammoth seasonal clothes-rotation quite often does not get completed: last year the summer clothes sat in my bedroom throughout the winter months as I never found the time to finish organising them. And as ever, more things have been added to my mending pile, which I’d like for once to also get to the bottom of this year! I did say this was the season of hope..

So, the indoor space is prepared: outside there is still much to be done, which I have deliberately left so that I can be productive whilst the girls play outdoors in the (fingers crossed) holiday sunshine. Because I don’t want to use the pesticides my neighbours spray with abandon over their driveways and paths, our yard looks a terrible mess. I have used some poison on the most persistent and difficult to remove weeds, but the rest I will be pulling up by hand or attacking with a hoe. I will have to slather the suncream on because I have recently been diagnosed with Rosacea, a long-term middle-age skin condition which has caused my face to burn red and blotchy without even being in the sun. The medication to treat my skin reacts with sunlight so, big hats and dark glasses are in order! I am very relieved to finally get some treatment for it, as it is very uncomfortable and disfiguring. The doctor laughed at me when I suggested controlling it by adjusting my diet, but I am going to gradually introduce some pretty drastic changes anyway, as from what I’ve read it can be triggered by a variety of foods, much in the way any other auto-immune disorder can be. The first to go is caffeine, so coffee is out and I am down to one cup of tea in the morning, with honey replacing the sugar I normally add. Once the kids return to school again I will start removing other triggers from my diet until I have cleaned my insides and then re-introduce each to judge the effect. An internal spring clean of sorts!

In other health news, I am very pleased to be able to say that Jude has continued to abstain from alcohol, with just one hiccup so far to remind him how vigilant he needs to be to resist that ‘one beer in the sunshine after work’ voice which can be so seductive to him. I watched a great TED talk the other day about addiction and how little help is available to addicts, in comparison to people diagnosed with socially acceptable diseases. There is such stigma about the subject that often people with alcoholism are regarded as being weak-willed or somehow morally lacking, which is why I see the need to be open about how it has affected us. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no angel when it comes to drinking, but it doesn’t have the same pull for me that it does for an alcoholic. Turns out alcohol is another trigger for rosacea so it’s another thing I need to eliminate for my health, so Jude will have company in the teetotal corner!

And finally, I took my darling Tula to see her doctor in Caen hospital yesterday and was presented with the news that she will need to have surgery on her spine at the beginning of next year. This comes as quite a shock to us as, although it was inevitable that she would need to be operated on at some point, the doctor had thought that bracing would be enough to delay this until puberty. In fact it now seems that the scoliosis is so fierce that bracing alone is not having the desired effect. So, as I understand it, the surgeon will be fusing parts of her spine and inserting a mechanism into her bones which can be adjusted as she grows. Whilst she won’t need surgery every year after this, it will still mean lots of hospital appointments to check on her progress. I feel calmer today about it, but I’m not sure it’s quite sunk in yet – these words I am writing all seem to be in a slightly different language to one I recognise. Her next appointment is booked for September.

So, this spring is going to be about focussing on joy: enjoying our time in this amazing space we have been blessed with and enjoying our time with each other, living life as fully and as lovingly as we can. Every day gives us a new chance to let go of that which holds us back and be still in the present moment. Every day is indeed a gift. The past is swept clear and I cherish this moment, us, our girls, our home. Tomorrow will come regardless. Here, now is all that matters.

Building and Breaking Walls

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I am tired. Tired of February, tired of feeling.

I have one project finish and of course, inevitably, a fresh one started. One of my “…Sunshine in my Soul” knitted scarves recently whisked it’s way over the sea to be wrapped around a friend in need of comfort, the second to do so. The third sits, finished, and unusually neat for these confabulous creations, quietly awaiting it’s own recipient. As usual, it wraps me sweetly in heartwarming colour love until required elsewhere. This one is unusual in being so lavishly tasselled… I almost get the impression it already knows who needs it most. The irony is not lost on me at all, that sometimes that person is me.

Great progress has also been made on The 70273 Project, as I have been working, finally, on processing some of the blocks that arrive each week in my post box from wonderful Makers in France. Just before Christmas I received a marvellous bundle comprising 101 blocks made by the people of Lengtigny, France during a block drive held there by Annie Paire. Annie wrote me a wonderful letter describing how people of all ages and gender stopped by to make blocks and how many were touched by the Project. I have many more still to record, but it never fails to twist my heart to hold these beautiful pieces of work in my hands; each one a memento, a symbol of love conquering darkness.

And yet I am struggling at the moment with this very problem in my life right now. The man I adore, my beloved, yang to my yin, yin to my yang, is making me sad. He struggles within himself and uses alcohol to cushion his struggles. Alcohol, that bully in the playground; that persistently, obviously legal, socially acceptable drug that destroys so many lives, hopes and yes, often even otherwise solid and loving marriages too. I have no doubt that we will get through this, and come out of it stronger than before, but it hurts right now, watching my love dancing with this false fake friend.

Art rescues me, as I find it doing increasingly these days, knowing I have an audience of sorts, that I am making myself visible to the world by publishing these posts and sending my photos through the wires that connect me to you. I took these photos on a trip to the quietly stunning La Chapelle Sur Vire: there is a beautiful playground next to the river and I slipped into the chapel without the girls to explore the ancient walls inside. How long did it take for that chair to mark the pillar like that? How many hundreds of people brushed past that spot on the wall as they stood after a sermon and walked out of the church, their heads filled with the words of their religion, not seeing the plaster and stone surrounding them that echoed those speeches into their heads at the same time as they bent the light shining in through the stained glass windows high above, shining it onto faces passing by, passing through the years.

Those everyday marks stand in stark contrast to the photos posted on a friend’s blog recently, recording her viewing of a photographic exhibition of the walls of Auschwitz, taken by Norwegian photographer Örjann Henriksson. Those walls saw pain and grief beyond measure. But it interests me how the walls that surround our ordinary lives record and reflect our everyday movements and actions without our awareness of their involvement in our lives beyond keeping us warm and safe.

How structures you take for granted can be slowly eroded by habitual behaviours.

My eyes might be red, but my camera sees clearly.

Goodbye 2016. Hello Hope and Happiness

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So here we are, finally. 2016 has ground to a halt and it seems I am not alone in being ready for a fresh start for 2017. This has been the murkiest, most bewildering year I have seen for a long time; when at times it has seemed impossible to see beyond the next step and momentum only possible through sheer willpower and self-determination not to succumb to the gloom.

To be honest, by the run-up to Christmas I was ready to stop everything. In particular, the end of the school routine came as a relief to us all: Tula has struggled this year with the twice daily removal of her scoliosis brace, being unable to wear it whilst in a vehicle because of the support around her neck as should she be wearing it in an collision there would be no doubt that her neck would snap. Being at home every day she is accustomed to her confinement: each time she is released and re-imprisoned she is reminded of her torture and it becomes a daily struggle for us all. Her health has been poor too: the ongoing challenge of getting her to eat was tested for a few weeks by a persistent tummy bug which tired her out and took away what little appetite she has with the pressure of the brace on her torso. In the bundle of paintings she brought home from school on the last day of term is an unsmiling self-portrait which she explained was her at school, not smiling because she was not happy.

I took a break from my online life which has been very good for us all. It is easy to forget how disconnecting it is for those around you in real life when your eyes and your brain are occupied elsewhere. Particularly so for the younger girls. Elodie has made great progress this year with her general development: she is completely out of nappies day and night, the youngest to do so out of the four by far. Her independence is quite astounding: even in this big old house she is quite happy to trot downstairs by herself at night and use our unheated, unlit bathroom. She is still a handful though: constantly in need of attention of some kind and very vocal about her requirements, which can be exhausting for all of us. Bringing my awareness back to her needs has helped her calm down a little, even if I do find it a little frustrating now that I have become used to my freedom. I do not want her to feel that the only way she can get attention is through negative behaviour: it is easy to fall into the habit of shouting back at a demanding child. She just needs total, positive attention every now and then, surrounded as she is by her older, differently-demanding siblings.

The house has been the most important change in our lives this year: without doubt it has been the best thing to have happened to us since we moved to France. It feels as if we have finally settled here at last. The language is coming more easily to us all – even Tula, the silent one at school, has come home singing in French and talking with her toys in a squeakily invented Franglais which is very sweet to hear. We have our family carte vitale, or health card plus we no longer need to fill up bottles of drinking water from the village tap, both of which make me a whole lot happier! We have conceded that we cannot build a house on the plot as we had planned, and accepting this has released us in all sorts of ways. Sometimes you just have to admit defeat: even if you had the best intentions to make a plan work, there just is no point in making yourself and those around you suffer unnecessarily. I don’t think I even realised just how unhappy I was living in the mobile homes whilst we were there: I only knew how impossible it felt to make any progress when just standing still required so much effort. Now the task of unpacking and organising the wreckage of our belongings is still to do, but again, that too feels so much more do-able with space around us. It is bliss to be able to finally get our lives in order: particularly so for me as I have so much I am interested in that I very easily become overwhelmed with it all. The simple joy of unpacking my books and being able to find materials is thrilling to me when I have so much I want to do!

I plan to do a lot of making in 2017: I have a new patchwork quilt I have started working on, with which I want to explore the theme of female ancestry in my life, with the Grandmother’s Garden pattern I am following as a starting-point for some stitched writing. A big part of this project is about condensing my enormous hoard of saved fabrics so that when we do eventually move – whether because this house is sold and we need to find somewhere to rent, or if we manage to sell our plot and find our own home at last. These precious scraps need to find a purpose in case the time comes when I have to decide what I must do without.

And there are many things I am planning to do for The 70273 Project, one of which is a new adventure in fabric printing with the idea of creating a densely-worked fabric book to be used as a performance prop. This has been put on hold during the holidays as I find the subject matter too traumatic to balance with family life: this serious and sad history needs space and silence to dive into it fully and at the same time to be able to leave it behind enough so as to be able to function inbetween sessions. The horror can seep into your skin if you do not make an effort to buffer each visit.

La Corbeille will be kicking back into action in the New Year with some stitch kits I plan to put together for sale in the shop: bundles of old lace and ephemera for scrapbooking and crafting. I have a new shed to work in, which whilst lacking the light and the beautiful view of the one Jude built for me, more than makes up for with character and photographic potential.

For 2017 I intend to live in the moment: to concentrate on inner calm and self-fulfilment and to devote myself to learning and growing. There has been such a wave of negativity smothering the world lately, with political and environmental issues dominating the news around the world and, without wanting to stick my head in the sand and ignore it all, I do feel that now, more than ever, the focus has to be on personal growth and connecting with people in a positive, uplifting way. Through self-improvement, through creating and connecting with like-minded souls, together we can choose happiness over defeatism: simple pleasures over mindless consumerism.

The future is slow: clear and bright with hope. And facepaint. Lots of facepaint.

House, Home and Holding On.

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So we’ve been living in the house for a few months now and I still haven’t taken many photos or even really announced it as such. It’s not our home, yet we have made it ours for the time being: it is filled with us and our stuff.

I am grateful every. single. day. to not be living in the mobile homes any more.

We had such great plans with those trailers: despite the disappointment Jude in particular felt about losing his barn, our aim was to live off the land as cheaply as possible in order to save money for the new build, which Jude estimated would take about three years to do by himself. He would need to continue finding outside work to pay for materials and keep us fed, and after the work was completed we could sell up and move on, either further south or to the west coast, perhaps to the south of Brittany, where we would find our own crumbling farm to renovate.

Not to be. We discovered, after having lived in the trailers for a year and a half, that should we sell the finished house within four years of completing the build we would be charged an astronomical fee which would knock out such a chunk of the sale price that it seemed pointless to continue. Having lived for so long without mains water to run the washing machine or a proper flushing loo or working shower, I for one couldn’t bear to continue any longer as we were and started pushing for us to find a house to rent. The land may have been free for us to live on, but the price we were paying in stress and exhaustion was not worth it.

In the end it was Chrissie who finally suggested we move into the house. I don’t know whether Jude’s dad had finally convinced her or whether she just realised how crazy it was for the six of us to be living as we were, with all of our stuff mouldering away in the leaky marquee and no further along with our plans, but however it came to be,  I am intensely grateful.

Now there is a desk for Jude to do his paperwork. I have a desk to create – I can leave things out without worrying about them being eaten (I’m not even joking) by Elodie. The girls have real beds to sleep in and space to play. The washing machine works! We can have hot baths and showers any time at all. Best of all, no more  outdoor compost loo.

And, inevitably, us being us, we have started tidying up the land. Left unloved for so many years, gardening not a high priority for Jude while he was renovating the building nor for anyone who made the trip out for a holiday, there is much to be done. Whilst it certainly benefits us during our stay to make it more practical and useful, the fact also remains that the house is still up for sale and whatever we do will probably increase the chance that it actually will sell. Jude has to resist his natural urge to build, even though these lovely, languishing barns call out to him every time he stands in the yard.

We haven’t finished moving our stuff out of the marquee, but it’s getting harder to work up the energy to go over and sort through it all. So much of it is water-damaged and mouldy. I’m thinking we just need to chuck the whole lot into a trailer and put it in landfill. Do I really need to keep all the stuff we brought over from England all that time ago? Things I packed away whilst still pregnant with Elodie? How much will our girls really miss their baby photos and drawings, all those lost objects from a life they have already started to forget – or in the younger two’s memory never even existed at all. We all cart this kind of stuff around with us our whole lives but how much of it do we really need to keep? I cannot separate my attachment to stuff from my need for attachment to stuff: it is my only connection to my past; my life pre-children, pre-France. But do I need it? Here now, is surely all that matters. Who knows where we will be six months, a year from now. Will I miss it in the future? When my girls have all gone down their own separate paths and left me far behind in their daily lives as I have my own family. I’m scared of letting go, but I’m also aware that the stuff itself – the jetsam that drags me back – may be all I am left with one day, and by then be more precious than air.

 

Takes courage to be wonky in a straight-edged world.

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I spent years rubbing my rough edges up against anyone who fell into my chaotic inner world. I was in pain, I couldn’t seem to find my feet anywhere; I didn’t or couldn’t belong. I attached myself to people who did their best to love me back, in their own flawed human ways, but I was always close to the spinning edge: the safe, familiar vortex of despair and heartache.

My mother died when I was two years old. The story goes that neighbours were alerted of her death by my crying after she had drowned in her bath following an epileptic fit. It was just the two of us. How long I was there with her I will never know. My father had disappeared long before: I have just one photo of him holding me as a tiny baby. 

After her death, I was legally entrusted to the care of my mother’s sister, a complicated and emotional woman who had only recently herself undergone a life changing experience by getting married to her Canadian-born student engineer boyfriend. The loss of her sister was a tragedy that subsumed my new mother in a total and unquenchable grief that was never given a voice, never brought out into the light and examined. 

I was not told of my mother’s death until I was about 13, an age when my adopted mother felt I could be entrusted with this information about my past. I was sat down in our front room and given a few possessions kept for me through all those years including a green vinyl-covered photo album containing all the photos that she had taken of me.

The thing was, I always knew everything. I had already, long before, searched through their household papers and found recorded details of my mother’s death that they had no knowledge I knew anything of. ‘Sneaky’ being an oft-repeated epithet of mine. Along with selfish and lazy. From as far back as I can remember, my maternal grandmother had often called me by my mother’s name by accident: this poorly-buried totemic word rising up without her conscious awareness. I always knew of her. Her unacknowledged presence in our lives was palpable, tangible reality for me. 

So I had a lot of rough edges. I suffered from unrecognized, untreated depression throughout adolescence and into adulthood, which after I gave birth to my first daughter became manic and severe, leading to me losing the job I tried to return to after her birth and a permanent, unhealable rift between me and my husband’s family. Indeed, my mother-in-law, witnessing my mental fragility during this dark time and, despite training to be a counsellor herself as well as having spent a lifetime working with mentally and physically disabled people, has chosen to treat me with distrust ever since. 

My adopted mother and I are not close. She and her husband did their very best for me, but they were cold and distant and my lost and forever sad inner child craved warmth and colour. They are neatness and I am chaos kept neat through duty and necessity. I love them, but they will never understand my world that was, the sorrow that they refused to see, that they could not let loose into their ordered, tidy lives.

I am lucky. I now have my very own crazy, chaotic and beloved family. I have my own tribe at last. We are far removed, living here in rural France, from my scarring, London roots. I tell my girls as often as I can how much I love them, I hold them tightly and touch their beautiful faces. We are not perfect by any means: as parents we struggle in the same way that every parent struggles; with anger and irritation at these noisy, irrational lives we’ve created. But we are all of us held close by the heat of our love: there is warmth in our rage, in our daily frustrations because we are real: this is us, there is nothing to hide or keep hidden, no need to nurture secret pains. 

This essay has been brewing in me for weeks now, triggered initially by Jess, who has lately returned to the idea of death – why do we die? can someone just drop dead for no reason? what happens to us when we die? – which has bothered her on and off for a long time. I have always made a point, because of my experience, of being completely honest when discussing important and complicated subjects with all of my girls. I will never respond to any question of theirs with the brusque “I’ll tell you when you’re older” reply that I received to many of my no doubt irritating childish questions. So, my answers to the questions about death have always been honest: that’s the end when we die, our bodies are finished. There may be such things as reincarnation but empirically, there is no justification for believing in that unless you need to use that idea as a crutch to get through life. Lately Jude has questioned my stance on this, suggesting that I should encourage her to believe in heaven, to make it easier for her. And I wonder if he is right, but in my heart it feels wrong to lie to her. I tell her what I believe: our bodies are gone, what remains is what we leave behind, in our lives, our children, our creations. I feel there is something external to us, but I cannot pinpoint it with any accuracy, let alone put it into words. I am attracted to the idea of guardian angels and have been told through a spirit reading that I have my own – described with such a degree of accuracy that it shakes me even now to remember those words. But how much of that is my inner yearning for the mother I lost? We hold such complicated and  vast universes within us, every one of us is capable of extraordinary feats – inventing a spirit guide is totally do-able: I just cannot bring myself to tell my eight year old girl that this is fact.

It is a long time now, since I last fell into that solid silent scream of despair, the blank cold embrace of depression. When the bleakness of pure, inconsolable grief is tight around my heart. When I can’t speak for fear that if I let go of the walls around me my tears will never end. I have my love-long, tirelessly, fearlessly strong, indefatigable husband and my four sweet hearted, shouting mad, angry, happy girls, who found me and hold me with all my rough edges. My lonely and forever heartbroken inner child has finally found acceptance and the love she craved so hard, for so long. Death is never forgotten; my experiences make me who I am: this mother, this wife, this human being. Living, loving, remembering and growing stronger every day, held in the arms of the people who matter most to me.

At last, I find myself home, and free.

Going Around the Roundabout

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There is so much going on right at the moment that I can’t even choose what to start writing about. Each time I think about it I find my thoughts spinning off in all directions. The 70273 Project. Girls in school. Kitten escapades. Emotionally unbalanced daughters spinning themselves into teary spirals. Beach days. BEING IN A HOUSE days. Days (weeks) of packing away twelve years of accumulated house stuff and unpacking two years of badly stored house stuff. I can’t even pick one tangled thing to start unwinding into a story. So in the meantime here are some sweetly still shots I took of the prettiest roundabout I know, which just happens to be one that we pass on the way to the beach. Yes, I made Jude go round it twice so I could get these shots. In fact, this post epitomises my thoughts better than I had anticipated.