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.

70,273 Artworks or All Hands On Deck

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We moved house…. The kids have started school….. My life begins anew….. And I have no idea where to start, with everything I want to do. My hands are itching to create, something, anything. Last night I spoke for the very first time with the quite wonderful, powerfully passionate peach of a lady that is my very darling Jeanne. If I must, I will share her with you too – OUR darling Jeanne. This is the woman who, almost on a whim, created a lifetime’s work for herself as a result of watching a documentary about the T4 program in Nazi Germany which authorised the extermination of 70,273 mentally or physically disabled men, women and children who were judged by official doctors to be unworthy of life.

This officially sanctioned, secret programme of murder took place during a very specific period of time prior to the events of the Holocaust, when the remit grew to include the extermination of every non-desirable element or as we prefer to call them, ‘human beings’. During this specific window of time, between January 1940 and August 1941, doctors in mental institutions across Germany were required to submit the medical records of all those in their care so that a decision could be made as to whether each person deserved to live or was perhaps an unnecessary burden to society. Two doctors were required to read these records and make their judgement by each marking the papers with a single red cross. Once two red crosses were placed on the file, that person was singled out from the institution where they were cared for and killed, first of all by lethal injection and then, as that became too expensive or time-consuming, with gas. Each person’s medical records were examined so that a plausible and convincing cause of death could be sent to the victim’s family in order to not arouse suspicions.

This initial killing program specifically targeting the disabled and mentally ill was officially brought to a halt in 1941, but in fact the exterminations continued and eventually culminated in the deaths of 11 million people during the Holocaust, 1.1 million being children and 6 million Jews. The total figures also include groups targeted by the Nazis such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and Roma.

Jeanne launched The 70273 Project on 14th February 2016 with the intention of making a white quilt block with two red crosses on it, symbolising those marked-for-death records, for each and every one of those victims, and we are now hoping to achieve this within the same timeframe that the Nazis completed their task – just eighteen months. Needless to say, she’s going to need a little help with this gargantuan task. So the word has been spread – around the world! – and a wonderful number of hands have already created over 3,000 fabric blocks which in turn will each be pieced together to eventually create over 1,000 complete quilts to represent these lives destroyed so quickly and callously. Seven of these quilts are already nearing completion, and the first to be completed has already been exhibited in the Cashiers Library in North Carolina USA, where Jeanne lives (not in the library itself, you understand).

With the help of the wonderful Katell on hand to help with translation, I have now set up a sister group to the main 70273 Project Page on Facebook to accommodate the growing numbers in France who have stepped up to lend a hand. The francophone group page can be found here. If you are inspired to get involved, head on over to Jeanne’s blog ‘The Barefoot Heart’ where you can find all the information you need to get going.

And I was thinking… now I have all this free time, why don’t I start a little 70273 Project to run alongside Jeanne’s vision? So I began today, with my very own, one-woman 70,273 Artworks project. In keeping with my natural proclivity towards re-using and recycling as much as possible, I will endeavour to photograph, paint or collage 70,273 blocks of my own – in any size and in any media at all. I’m not a big fan of rules, so the only one I am going to keep to for creating these artworks is that none of the elements involved will be purchased specifically for use in the project except paint, pens and ink. I have started today with the first five, all composed with what leapt into my hands in the kitchen – ketchup, flowers, purse, tomatoes. Progress will be posted here and on my own Facebook page. PLEASE NOTE: this project is not in any way intended to be included or seen as a part of The 70273 Project itself, which is an entirely separate quilt project. This is just a little something to keep this little woman busy at home🙂

…See how often I have unintentionally mentioned ‘hands’ in this post? With so many people holding hands across the world through their collaboration in Jeanne’s project we can, one by one and all together, use our work to have these forgotten voices heard and in doing so, make sure that this particularly shameful episode in human history does not come around again.

So, We Got Kittens… And Went For A Walk

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Oh yeah. We’ve got three, cute-as-poo pretty little tabby kittens with squeaky voices and teeny-tiny stripey tails. But you’re not allowed to see them yet, because Ms Misty, our kitty wonder-ma, is already freaked out enough with the problems of keeping her sweet babies safe from the shrieking, sticky-grabby-fingered hordes which masquerade as my children. The kittens are a few days old now and we only found them after much ear-noodling from Jude as he hunted her down by tracking her roarsome purrs: he eventually located her beneath our bedroom, nose-to-nose with an Enormous Hedgehog who, judging from the ancient poo littering the area, had been recently ousted from his nest and was waiting patiently, either for her to remove herself or else to seize a chance to scoff one of the little kitties…. I don’t actually know if hedgehogs have nests or just a dent of earth, but it doesn’t really matter as he has now been re-located elsewhere.

Today however, the girls and I had a mild spot of panic as our Misty was spotted sauntering around, kitty-free; after my initial relief to see that she is clearly recovering well, her lack of concern for her brood unsettled me a little, so I began Operation Kitty: trying to detect the whereabout of the babies without being spotted by cat or kids. Not easy. Eventually I resigned myself to assigning the mission to Jess instead, providing her with snacks and a hat so she could play detective instead of me and carried on with my Monday morning thang. Mid-whisk in airing Tula’s duvet on her cabin bed, I very nearly swept all three kittens from their secret snugglespot and out of the window. After quickly counting them and giving them the briefest of checks, I gave Mist a little stroke before covering them all back up again. Earlier on, during her reconnaissance mission, Jess had found Misty exploring a box in my shed, so as soon as she had left Tula’s bed, I scooped each kitten up in a cloth so they wouldn’t have my scent on them and carried them out to their new nest, which I’d already lined with a cotton blanket. I gave Misty a little treat of some leftover chicken and as soon as she’d wolfed that, plopped her into the box on top of the kittens and she’s been there ever since, clearly very relieved to be away from all the noise and danger of our home.

And we went for a very nice (but exhausting) walk by the river Vire, which is splendid at all times of the year, but especially brilliantly green to my field-dulled, housebound eyes. I took an awful lot of photos of leaves, which may or may not ever serve any purpose but who cares?! I must remember how beneficial it can be to bathe winter scalded eyes in healing, glowing green balm from time to time. A virtual snippet of summer to combat those everlong winter blues. And yes, if I hadn’t happened to have been carrying a too-tired Tula on the way back when I noticed the sign about the art installations along the route, I would have dragged everyone to see at least one or two more. Those metal chair-bones are the only Real Art I will meet in Real Life this year, sadly.

…And a postscript: Jude and I are in the throes of discussing Plan, um, 5: this may or may not include purchasing an old house in our village. Depending on the price we may end up completing our nomadic existence thus far in France all within the space of a single square mile (or so). More will, inevitably, follow. (I am already, in my infinitely foolish optimistic way, drawing up Plans!)

One Day At A Time

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Families are complicated social creations. And like anything made, they have tensions in the structure; in the interconnections between the individual elements; the bindings. This then, is the story of how we came to be living in a field in France, a field next to the holiday house of my mother in law and the complicated twists that this has created in our wider family circle.

Way back in 1998, my then-un-met husband Jude accompanied his mother on a search to find a house for her to buy in France. Between them, they discussed what they were looking for: a house in need of renovation with an adjoining barn. The plan was for Jude, a builder by heart and by trade, to refurbish the house in return for which unpaid work he would keep the barn to turn into a house for himself at a later date. At that time Chrissie had reasonably well-paid work as sole carer for her friend’s daughter who has Down’s Syndrome and Jude was, well, in need of a focus.

Slowly over the next few years, Jude worked alone on the house that they found here in Normandy. He looks back at that time now with a mixture of mourning at the loss of his life of solitude (his life now, with a family of four girls is quite a contrast to his life then!) and relief that he got through some of the winters he spent snowed in alone in a barely-habitable shell of a building. The house had previously been home to two old men who had been living in very poor conditions and was originally two separate dwellings. Jude opened up rooms and did a lot of restructuring inside, including digging out and laying new floors and turning an internal barn into a new large kitchen.

It was the kitchen he was working on when I first met him in England during a brief trip back home he made in 2007. I was working at a frame-making company and had been invited to a party and there he was. He wasn’t particularly interested in me, but I was smitten and took him home with me, wanting to never let him go. It was a bit of a shock when I found out he was about to return to France, and that he in fact lived there. Within a few weeks I’d followed him back out (a monumental trip in itself, involving my car breaking down followed by a wildly expensive taxi trip to get to the ferry, which I ended up missing anyway to arrive in France a day late with Jude still there, waiting for me patiently after spending the night in his car because he didn’t have enough diesel to get home and back out again, and then him promptly driving into another car at the ferry terminal before we’d even left the carpark) and within a few months we had moved in together and I was already pregnant with Jessie.

While Jess was still a baby, Jude and I talked about the idea of moving to France, but when the idea was put to the rest of the family there was an uproar. It turned out that Chrissie was NOT happy for Jude to “have” the barn after all. Jude’s three siblings, brought into the debate, were equally unhappy with the prospect of Jude building a home for his family on their mother’s land, despite the fact that all three had always been aware of this long-standing agreement between Chrissie and Jude. Eventually, as a compromise, Chrissie offered us a piece of land for us to build our own house but by then we had given up on the whole idea and decided to stay in England and let the family do what they wanted with the land in France. Jude was devastated: he could not believe that this long-held promise between him and his mum, for whom he’d worked so hard all those years had come to such an abrupt nothing, at a time when he finally had a family of his own, in need of a place he could build a future for himself, something she had wanted so much for him, he’d thought. She had her beautiful, if unfinished, house and he had nothing.

Fast forward three more children to a lovely old Georgian house on a cattle farm in Cornwall which we were sub-letting from a farming couple who had lived in the adjoining house to ours for ten years. Just before Christmas 2013, whilst I was heavily pregnant with Elodie, we were both served with eviction notices as the local council who owned the farmland had decided to sell up. After living in such a wonderful big space we couldn’t face the idea of taking the “normal” route for a low-income family, which would have been to find ourselves a little council house to move into (the cheapest option available to us) so we talked to Chrissie again about renting the house in France with a new idea: this time to turn one of the small outbuildings into a gîte which, as well as providing an extra income for her would also mean Jude could finish the last bits of work on the house and also install a new septic tank for her. In return we would be able to manage both properties for her. To us, this seemed a logical and practical plan for both Chrissie and us, even if it involved a wild leap of faith into the unknown for us – a new country! a new language! We genuinely thought that we would be helping her out as well as obviously needing a home for ourselves too.

At first Chrissie seemed happy for us to do this as the house was not being used for much of the year apart from a few holiday lets and it made sense to make use of the smaller barns. She had started to find the journey to France more difficult by then and money was more of an issue as her work situation had changed and she was having to do longer, harder days.

Then this plan also fell through. We moved into the house in 2014, when Elodie was just three months old. Shortly after we arrived, Chrissie decided that she didn’t want us to build a gîte either and instead again offered us a plot of land to build our own house. This time we agreed. To be honest we didn’t have much choice if we wanted to continue to live in the kind of rural space we love so much. She agreed to rent her house to us for one year whilst we got ourselves set up. During that first year we bought and renovated three ancient mobile homes and erected a large marquee on the new plot to keep all our belongings safe from the elements. Last summer Chrissie finally decided to put her house on the market.

We have been living in those trailers for a year and a half now. It is hard work with four small kids. Apart from the family visiting this summer, the house next to us has been left completely empty over the last year. Chrissie recently suggested that we use the house again and during her last trip over a few weeks ago even talked about us formally renting the house from her for a period of years so that she could have a fixed income from the property rather than rely on the few weeks of seasonal lets that she has had over the last few years.

That now seems unlikely to meet with approval from the rest of the family. Already there have been texts sent suggesting that the amount we are offering to pay is insufficient, despite the fact that money hasn’t even been discussed with Chrissie as yet – she has clearly been discussing it with them before talking to us about it and already the Chinese whispers have begun.

And so the unravellings have began yet again, revealing the persistent weak spots in the texture of our lives.

As of 1 August 2016, this is our situation:

The new plot of land has now finally been signed over to Jude so he can start to put money into it: this means we can put in a septic tank for ourselves and get mains water connected.

Up until now, we have been using our well, dug by Jude last year, but the water from this is intermittent and when there is no rain we have no water from the taps. We have been unable to find out how to get the water tested so we drink bottled water and fill bottles from the tap in the village. Ironically, in the last few days there has been some problem with the tank not filling up at all, so despite lots of rain and a high water table, our taps are still dry.

Even when the water does come through the taps, it doesn’t have enough pressure to reach the water heater in our bathroom so we have never had sufficient hot water for bathing or showering. A mini pump that we used for a while has since collapsed.

There is hot water in the kitchen trailer, which is a little more downhill from our water storage tank, so we can wash in the kitchen sink and can also wash dishes etc.

Our fairly new washing machine has been so over-worked because of the low water pressure that it has now stopped functioning altogether.

 

And a fully furnished empty house sits next door to us with anger amongst the family (half of whom haven’t set foot in France for many years) that we could want to use it.

I feel sad, heartbroken; devastated to be spending another wet and windy winter in these trailers when being back in a house felt so close and makes so much sense: to escape the leaks, the mould and the misery.

BUT.

I am grateful.

For the view from our crappy trailers all the way to the bluey horizon, over the fields and space around us.

For this land that we have: for the space it provides us all; to play, to think, to breathe and to grow flowers.

For the love of our sweet and kind French neighbour here, who would do all she could to help us if we needed her to.

For our loving, happy family unit.

For the strength and dedication of my wonderful husband and our connection to each other through everything.

For the amazing opportunity we have been given to make a good life for ourselves in our adopted land. For our children to learn a new language and cultural identity – we’re in France, yay! We are so lucky.

For the love of my dearest friends who I can rely on to send me aural and virtual hugs and support me through the darkest lonely times: those indestructible connections we’ve maintained over the years.

For the new friends I have made through my new adventures online, in particular Jeanne Hewell-Chambers and The 70273 Project, which in itself has also given me a focus and a fresh perspective on my little corner of the planet.

For my wonderful girls, who teach me every day about joy and the importance of just getting on with things.

For my own reserves of power, which I need to keep reminding myself do exist. I have the strength to get through this. We have a future to get to, but the important thing is to seek out the joy in NOW, despite everything that seems set against us.

Each single thread holds the potential to be part of something bigger than itself. In isolation it can only close in on itself: it can become a rope, a means of connection or it can become a knotted full stop. To fully reach it’s potential – as a blanket, a carpet, a cape or a sail – it has no choice but to join or be joined to other threads. It is possible to choose other threads in life, friends that return your love without question: it is fundamentally necessary to human existence to do so, to create a cohesive social fabric, a living mesh.

What I am going to work on now is slowly and gently detaching the knots that I have no hope of being able to undo and maybe trimming a few odd strands that look hopelessly out of place whilst concentrating on keeping the main body of work intact. Sometimes it is better to have a clear space rather than a tangled, meaningless mess. In this case, the focus is on the loving space of our little family, the six of us and our strength and happiness together wherever we are, whatever obstructions and minor disasters we may face. The details can be pushed aside until we have the space to focus on them more clearly.

One small knot at a time, one day at a time, slowly the future will arrive.

 

 

Tula’s Story, Part One

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Spine

If you were to meet Tula for the very first time, she probably would not want you to talk to her or touch her. She would keep her distance, physically and emotionally, until she had sized you up from a distance and decided for herself if you were a good or bad ‘un. Should you try to take her hand to help her navigate a tricky step for example, you would find it gently withdrawn. Were you to insist a second time it would be snatched away and you would lose many hard-to-recapture ‘good’ points.

Tula was born with Conradi-Hünermann Syndrome, a rare genetic skeletal disorder and a type of chondrodysplasia punctata, so named because the ends of young bones have a stippled appearance. Conradi is an x-chromosome disorder: male babies affected by it very rarely make it to full term in pregnancy because it is so severely crippling to them. As a result, the majority of people with the condition are female.

As with many genetic disorders, the condition is wide-ranging in severity and symptoms. Shortened stature along with a difference in limb length between the two sides of the body are the most striking aspects of the condition: very often babies are born with shorter proximal long limb bones, specifically the humerus and femur, the limb bones closest to the body. These bones are also often asymmetric so that the limbs on one side of the body are shorter in length than the other, which can have a severe effect on mobility, particularly at toddler-age.

Along with growth deficiency, other features of the condition are ichthyosis, blepharitis, cataracts, coarse uneven hair growth on the scalp, kidney problems and scoliosis.

Tula was born with ichthyosis: this is a skin condition named for it’s fish-scale appearance. The skin is weirdly textured, with a rough, scaly surface which can harden and crack and easily become infected. After a very simple home-birth in our house in Cornwall, Tula’s appearance caused the midwife to exclaim, almost in horror, at the state of her skin. She was covered with what looked like at first a weird layer of extra skin which on examination had a lacy pattern to it, particularly on her arms and legs. During the initial baby check, the midwife noted a disparity in the length of her legs and that, coupled with her strange skin, led to us being immediately transferred to hospital so that she could be examined by a paediatrician.

During my pregnancy with Tula I was horribly ill. I felt nauseous nearly constantly and some days could barely move because of it, let alone interact with or care for my other girls. Milly, in particular, suffered because of this.Towards my due date I then got a sinus infection which was so severe I could not lie flat in bed and felt as if I was drowning. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. It was one of the most utterly miserable points in my life. At one point I remember sobbing at Jude to never ever get me pregnant again, that I would prefer death to the suffering I was in. Hi Elodie!!

So when the paediatrician informed us that we would be required to remain in hospital until tests had been conducted on Tula to ascertain whether her appearance was an indication of an underlying abnormality, I pretty much lost the plot altogether. We stayed on a neonatal ward where the new mothers were forbidden to carry their tiny, needy babies in their arms when they left their rooms; babies were banned from eating areas on the ward and co-sleeping was extremely frowned upon. As I have co-slept with all of my babies, I would leave Tula on my bed to go to the bathroom and come back to find her neatly packaged in swaddling and placed in the hitherto unused crib in my room; I was told I had to leave the door open at night so they could check my baby was safe in my bed; my window was closed if I tried to open it. Because of the ban on babies in the dining hall, I refused to eat and stayed with my baby instead. Eventually I was brought a tray and treated as if I considered myself something special.

I absolutely cannot understand how an idiotic health-and-safety rule can be enforced due a fear of possible litigation in a place where the most vulnerable and poorly babies are most in need of their mother’s constant presence. That the law requires that mothers push their infants in special trolleys in hospital corridors “in case they drop them”. These are babies who are most in need of and benefit most from kangaroo-care.

Eventually, the tests resulted in the diagnosis of CHS and we were mercifully released form the hospital and Tula came home to await further test results. A number of other examinations and investigations quickly followed, including genetic investigations of Tula as well as Jude and myself and in fact the majority of her first two years were spent in hospital appointments as well as appointments with a disability team to monitor her developmental progress.

Pretty early on we started to notice that her spine was an odd shape and that led to the discovery that she had begun to develop scoliosis. We were given the choice of whether to use a plaster bracing technique as pioneered by the visionary Min Mehta or to use a removeable plastic version. Mehta, who suffered from scoliosis herself, believes that early use of the technique of casting a plaster brace to hold the spine in a fixed position can radically decrease the extent of the spinal curve.

Plaster bracing using Mehta’s technique involves stretching and rotating the spine under general anaesthetic into the corrected position before adding the plaster jacket, which is then worn for up to three months until outgrown and then replaced. The restriction of the brace means that the curved spine has no choice but to correct itself as it grows. Mehta’s research has shown that use of this technique can considerably improve idiopathic scoliosis in young infants, particularly so if used prior to the age of two, which is when the bones are comparatively soft and malleable.

Needless to say, we were horrified at the idea of putting our new little baby through this treatment so, because we were given the choice, we opted instead for the removable plastic version and her bracing began a few months before her second birthday. We did eventually also start plaster bracing as well, a few months on. However, during this time in Cornwall the curve of her spine actually worsened. My (unsubstantiated) theory is that because her scoliosis is non-idiopathic, ie it has a specific cause, it is actually far more aggressive than other more commonly found idiopathic types.

Since living in France we have had zero input into her care: she has been in a plaster brace since she began receiving treatment here. The brace is put on her without putting her to sleep: she is placed in a rack and then the plaster wrapped around her whilst she is conscious, with just local anaesthetic. The first time Jude watched her being treated like this he came back almost in tears at the apparent brutality of it. There is no nannying of concerned parents in France: you simply are not qualified to have an opinion. However, in spite of this, I now feel strongly that we should have had her in plaster as early on as possible. Children do adapt and those young, soft bones can be treated far more easily at that early developmental stage.

Tula’s spine has significantly improved since we have been in French care: the curved shape of her back is far less pronounced than we have seen it before. The x-ray shows the extent of the side-t0-side curve of the S and the pressure that her lungs are under.

Tula has been free of any brace for the last week, she has been able to move and flex just like any other child, for the first time probably since she can remember, other than for those single nights prior to a new plaster being fitted, when she has been able to bathe. She has been normal.

This afternoon, Jude is taking her to Caen to have her summer plastic brace fitted. I have spent time talking to her about it, and even though she is unhappy about it, I feel she understands to a certain extent that she has no choice, and that it is to help her back. Even though I know we have no option but to continue bracing her spine, my heart breaks to think about her being put back into her prison. These photos I’ve taken of her over the last few days show how flexible and relaxed she is: she can raise her arms above her head, something she is unable to do in plaster. As well as being more comfortable and able to wear the pretty dresses she adores, she is also able to be independent: she can wipe herself after using the toilet, for example. She is such a capable girl, it is going to be even harder for her to re-adapt to her restricted life again, and it is this that makes me want to cry today, event though at least this time she will be able to be released periodically for bathing and swimming, which will hopefully help her come to terms with it.

So she has gone to see her ‘special lady’ who although she really likes her, she will say nothing to: not a squeak will issue from her mouth. I don’t know how this new plastic brace will fit her, how restrictive it will be or how uncomfortable. I will wait for her return and cuddle her and let her be grumpy and difficult. She has the right at least to express her feelings of frustration. And I will cry a little now at her loss of independence once more so that I will have dry eyes on her return and the strength to support her through this.

Unknottings, Cat Kisses & Letting Go Of Bad Habits

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I love my family. A favourite thing I like to do though is to stay up late in the blissful silence of them sleeping, getting shit done. Or maybe just reading Facebook. Sometimes, like tonight, I sort through the medicine cabinet and build a pile of expired drugs that no-one needs or is likely to need within the printed expiry date.

Ideally of course, I’d be in a large cosy studio space: able to dabble at will in whatever project has me around the neck and won’t let go. This week has mostly been held in the fading grip of a long-time-sat-doing-nothing blanket project and a fresh nose-dive into Dremelling anything I can get my hands on (so far shells and china smashes) in the periodic vague lurch I make towards jewellery-making. I want/need/crave to be making clothes for myself but it’s too much of a challenge: I need projects which give me quick-fix results within a few hours, not the weeks/months it’ll take me to learn new skills. I even padded out Maud to make her measurements more like mine; Jude’s response “Are you making a fat bird?” “Um, no, that’s actually my size…”

The threads I’m using on the blanket to overstitch the original, unravelling hastily machined joins are all salvaged from a bundle of knotted and tangled tapestry wools which I bought as part of an Ebay lot of old fabrics. It feels good to unify this blanket with more handwork. The circles cover moth holes in the original fabrics and I may embellish them as well at a later date. I’m wondering whether and how to add a backing layer to it to cover the joins.

The downside of my naturally nocturnal predilection is that I am one grumpy mother in the morning and often later on through the day as well. This can easily spiral into a rage of dissatisfaction and frustration with the rest of the family which has the knock-on effect of making them squabbly and irritable with each other, thus continuing the spiral by making me roar at them some more. All because I’m tired.

And I rarely achieve a great deal at night either.

But the bliss…. the mental and physical clear space: free of the demands of anyone under 3 feet tall (apart from possibly tickling Lucky’s ears as he harrrumphs and flops down beside me on the floor) is always irresistible.

Yesterday Jude quit smoking. No plan, just did it. Right at the beginning of the school holidays, just when I am in the middle of a week-long “what the hell is wrong with my head, why am I angry all the time? oh yeah, maybe I should start going to bed earlier” phase. Result? Cross parents, cross kids. Not good. So before bed, the girls and I all sat and played a few games together to try and rescue what had been a bit of a non-starter of a day. Jude had a little pre-emptive bedtime lie-down, to find his inner quiet space that doesn’t whisper sweet nicotine-laced nothings to him, which turned into well, actual bedtime, at 8pm. Who needs reality when it just keeps kicking you in the nuts to get you to start smoking again?

Lellie is slowly emerging from a terrible hacking cough that she has been swimming though for about two weeks now… she is at the ratty tail-end of it: snotty, whingy and argumentative. She will grab and pinch when she loses her temper: Tula is an easy target, ultra sensitive as she is to hurts of any kind.

And poor Tula: she went to Caen recently to be fitted, we thought, wth her new plastic summer brace which Jude and I had talked to her about and even taken her plaster brace off in preparation for. In fact instead she returned home with the plaster brace re-fitted and re-taped shut: hugely disappointed, and I’m guessing, pretty pissed off with us too for not telling her the truth, as she saw it. She was looking forward to having buckles to undo! Jude looked quite grim when he was trying to describe the plastic to me: apparently it has a wire contraption to hold her neck in place and sounds positively medieval. I can’t see her being very happy in it.

So, with all of these elements flying around us as individuals, it has been a hard kind of week. The high point was going to the beach last week: we needed to have a good day out together before Jude starts work again. I’m thrilled to say that a client who had almost fallen for a malicious builder offering a rackety over-priced quote against Jude’s realistic one has finally seen the light and chosen Jude for the job. This is an enormous relief for us; most particularly for Jude, whose sense of moral justice was thoroughly shaken when it looked like he was going to lose out to someone he could clearly see was a swindler. It really has been a struggle for him having to deal with the many crooks he has met since we’ve been in France: he’s been ripped off by clients not paying him for his work as well as met numerous builders who knowingly overcharge and lie to their clients. None of them have been French, I have to add.

So the medicines are re-arranged and in order, my threads are all neatly balled; Jude is scowling and sleeping a LOT and I am aware that I need to slow down again. Sometimes I can feel myself just starting to spin slightly off kilter at an un-maintainable frequency which is usually quite self-destructive. I have a bazillion ideas fizzing around in my head every day and it can feel overwhelming. I’ve signed up to a zen email newsletter for a little reminder of how to make slowing down a little more achievable. Like dress-making, this is a long-term project that I will not be an instant success at, in the way I’d like to be with everything I want to do. But it is always so important to take that first tiny step forward.

I’m tired and feeling a little short on perspective this week. I felt snubbed recently by a comment directed at me as one of  the ‘cheerleaders’ of a Project I’m involved with – you may have already read about it here or here: it’s a project I feel enormously passionate about and do my best to be as active and supportive as I can with; not only because of my intense admiration and adoration of Jeanne, the wise and wonderful wonderwoman behind it all, but because of the ideas behind the project, which in a different time and place would have had a massive effect on our family. Of course, there is no reason to be hurt by a tiny, inconsequential comment, but it stung for some reason; as if my support for the work of the people in the group is just somehow tinselly and unimportant. CHEAP, somehow. I know myself well enough to realise that this is just Bad Chloe boxed-in thinking and one of my mental areas most in need of a good de-clutter for everyone’s sakes, not just my mental health.

My goal therefore: to gently untangle and sort through my mental clutter and work on getting it into a better state than it has been for a while. Wish me some quiet, non-tinselled but possibly slightly sparkly good luck, will you? Perhaps I’ll start by getting an early night tonight. Dammit, it’s nearly 3 am already.

 

 

 

A Watery Kind of Week

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Really. It hasn’t stopped raining or being grey. Almost to the point where I’ve forgotten that this is truly summer. Oh wait, we’ve had the solstice so the nights are already drawing in again dammit. There’s a Douglas Adams book (The Long Dark TeaTime of the Soul, maybe) in which a truck driver is followed around by rain wherever he goes because he doesn’t know that he is a Rain God. He keeps a note of every type of rain he encounters, and gets very grumpy about it. We’ve certainly been treated to a good selection from his list in the last few days.

Spills. Every day something gets poured on the floor/table/child in an epic way. Today Jude knocked an entire washing-up bowl of dirty dishes, in hot water, onto our kitchen trailer floor, which has that particular kind of wood-effect flooring that hates water. Not good.

It’s just been a really wet, drippy kind of week. Soggy.

And then there’s Brexit. Which has pretty much broken our world. Temporarily, but emphatically. The majority of Jude’s clients are expats from the UK who have bought property to renovate here in Normandy as a retirement project. They have very little money (or they would have relocated further south) so they want cheap, English builders to work on their houses. So up until now, Jude has had plenty of work, so much he has even turned people down. Britain leaving Europe has changed that completely and has made us aware how fragile our existence here really is, reliant as we are on these expat types for our sole income. No one knows how this change will affect their futures here, no one has any idea how this will play out in the long term, everyone is just waiting.

The only thing to do when everything feels as gloomy as this is just to knuckle down and get on with what you can. We have decided that we are going to concentrate entirely on getting this piece of land looking as good as we possibly can so that it looks irresistably beautiful by the time we come to put it on the market. Jude has taken down and replaced our neighbour’s fencing on both sides of her garden and begun preparing our side for hedge planting. Doing everything on a budget which still allows us to eat has been tricky these last few weeks with zero income but it is still satisfying to see some progress. Most of the plants we’ve put in so far are cuttings I took about two years ago; the majority are rosemary, which rooted incredibly easily and quickly and a few bits of honeysuckle from the roadside which I also rooted for the first time. This seems to be my new thing: I’ve lost track of the things I’ve snipped and potted up this year… my latest addiction is to try to root rose cuttings and I would be so happy if my lilac cuttings survive too. Note to self: label everything! You will NOT remember.

The girls finish school this week and then we have Les Grands Vacances, when France basically shuts down until September. Nothing is open, everyone is at the beach if it’s sunny. One thing the French really do spectacularly well is to do everything en masse: the right time to do things is when everyone else is doing them too. The looks we get if we, in our English way, sit on a bench and eat a sandwich when it’s not lunchtime! Craziness! Jess and Milly once asked their neighbour for a biscuit when they were over there playing together and were politely informed that it wasn’t biscuit time…

We did have a bit of a treat this week actually; our lovely neighbour Françoise, of the new hedge, invited us over for lunch. Now, in England if you were to pop over to a friend’s house for lunch you might be offered a bit of quiche, maybe a little salad and a cup of tea. We started with aperitifs (white wine and cassis for Françoise and I, Pernod for the boys – I silently waved goodbye to Jude at that point😉 with a selection of nibbles. Then, cold meat stuffed with a mayonnaisey salad mixture. A little pause, a few anecdotes, more wine. Then the main meal: beef bourguignon, mashed potato and gravy and oh, it was heavenly! Just perfection. And more wine of course. Red with the meat. Of course. And then egg custard pudding. More wine. Then coffee. And dark chocolate. We waddled home together afterwards and collapsed in a puddle of contented after-dinner haze. And then picked the girls up from school and fed them pasta. Of course. Lellie slept VERY well that night: she spent the whole time playing with Françoise’s four-month-old fluffy puppy, who she’d picked up from a local farm having gone there to buy some chickens. Evia, her previous dog, died fairly recently and Françoise was devastated and swore she’d never have another dog. Then turned up at my front door a couple of months ago with a little white cloud of two-month-old fur, looking slightly shell-shocked but ecstatic, telling me that she’d gone to the farm and out of the litter of puppies she’d chanced to find there, this one had jumped up into her arms – chosen her. And promptly left a little pool on her lap.

We will get though this miasmic trough that we’re in. With our wellies on, spades in hands, even if there are days when it really does feel an awfully long way off, we will wade forward to the bright future that must surely lie just ahead, sniffing the roses along the way.

A Shed Of One’s Own

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So I thought I’d introduce you to my shed this week. And yes, I should probably post more frequently, but this is pretty speedy for me so far. It took me two years to post a gift to my dear friend that I promised her millions of moons ago, so you know, time / relativity and that.

My glorious shed: my wonderful, custom-built superspace; built almost entirely out of scrap materials by my clever husband in which is housed La Corbeille and my art yearnings. I have been spending increasing amounts of time in this, my very own and quite luxurious bolthole not, I have to admit, always working on the shop, but sometimes just gazing at a rusty (foot-long!) hook…. today I heard the blissful sound of Jude outside my door saying to The Menace: “come on, leave Mummy alone, she’s working”. Of course, I kept quiet about the fact that I was knee deep in my button collection at the time  – I find old glass buttons as mesmerising as rust (and by that I do mean a lot!)

Another wonderful encourager who I’ve been talking to recently has suggested that I spend thirty minutes a day exploring my art, so I’m taking steps towards making that an actual thing, rather than a thought of a thing I’d like to do. I just finished reading the altogether too-short “Slow Stitch: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art” based on someone’s recommendation and it is exactly where I want to be right now. After years of fighting to be “normal”, to be like everyone else appears to be; to do what was expected of me rather than try to find out what it is that my heart wants to do, I am for the very first time feeling free of those constraints and able to see a path magically opening up ahead of me. I have never been someone who has ‘fitted in’: I have never seen the 9-5 existence as anything other than a set of chains and a crushing of my soul. Which is why I have never had money or new clothes, or all those surface accoutrements than make one more able to fit in and be like everyone else. But I don’t want to be that person – I’m happy to stand out. I’m happy to be poor if that’s the price I pay for a deeper and more substantial sense of fulfilment. Life is very short to explore all that there is to do. Stitching is definitely high up on my list of priorities, buoyed as I am by the sweet encouragement of art minded souls like the ever-lovely Jeanne Hewell-Chambers, in whose hands that little stack of twin-cross blocks will soon be nestling – this is where you can find out all about why a small army of us are creating these for The 70273 Project. Most are stitched, but I have been experimenting with gestural fabric marking for a change of rhythm.

Next to the curtain are my lovely assistants, Maude and ‘Enri the ‘Atstand as they are affectionately known in my head and behind the curtain is the most amazing wrought iron and glass door salvaged from the scrapyard which I neglected to photograph…. My shelves (all freshly re-arranged and cleared during my recent hunt for a t-square) are stuffed with leftover packaging ready for crafting emergencies and all the bits and pieces I can’t keep at Lellie-height. The children have been quite wild lately, enjoying the break from outdoor neatness we’ve been subjected to since the ride-on lawnmower was quickly followed to mechanical heaven by the strimmer. We may have to find a cow. Or perhaps a small flock of sheep. Somewhere on the endlessly unending list of chores is for Jude to dig a hole in the ground for the girls’ trampoline which was rolled around during the storms last winter, despite being harnessed to the ground at the time.

Jessie has taken to sleeping in our pretty little caravan which we refurbished with gusto last year. We had high hopes of travelling around exploring France in it before finally taking it down south and realising how extremely unpopular and unwelcome they are at rest stops. Whopping great squillion-Euro funbus with satellite dish & aircon? No problem. Tiny little caravan custom designed to house a family of six holidaying on a minimal budget? Moved on by unsmiling Gendarmes.  And Jess? She takes after her mother: she’s in heaven to have a space of her own.

*Misty Clara (Miss T Clara, or just Misty if you like) has settled in very well indeed: she eats three times her own body weight in catfood every day as well as thinning the local shrew population with glee: she has also been spotted actually playing, which she didn’t seem to have any understanding of at all when she first arrived. The Grices are enriched by her sweet and pretty presence and of course our own Mr Tibs is thrilled beyond measure with his arranged marriage.

Next week: The 70273 Project in more detail.

An arrival…

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Jude came home yesterday with an extra passenger in his Land Rover: a tiny little grey and white tabby cat with the most amazing topaz eyes. She has been living in the barn in the middle of nowhere and she is completely used to people so clearly not feral. Jude has been working on and off for the last few weeks over there and she will not leave hime alone so he finally brought her back with him, much to the delight of the children! Mr Tibs, our maybe-two-year-old tabby cat was not very impressed at first but has taken to following her every move and calling for her when she’s out of view.

The problem is what to call her… she’s so delicate and pretty, yet clearly quite a tough little cookie so I’m drawn to a name that’s quite powerful but strong – osidian-esque, if you know what I mean. So the girls have decided that she is called Clara, and Jude wants to call her Smoky… Mr Tibs (Thibault) is smitten, so we may soon have kittens too.

Can you believe we’re in summer? Last week I was pulling out extra blankets for everyone, now I’m closing all the curtains during the day to stop us all being cooked in our little metal boxes. It is much much easier to keep these mobile homes warm than it is to cool them down.

So lots of water fun for the littles after school to cool them down a little. Four wet feet and one kind older sister pouring water from a blue elephant. My little piece of garden is looking splendid: one of the artichokes is just coming into flower which I’m thrilled about, and the Californian poppies are positively rampant. The bees are wild about the Granny’s Bonnets – Aquilegia, another of my favourites – all grown from seed. Whilst potting on all of the new little seedlings this afternoon I tipped out an old bag of compost and dug through it, squeezing out all of the lumps and almost squeezed the life out of this little toad who looked up at me very reproachfully. Note to self: always check the bags of compost for unexpected inhabitants first.

I treated myself to a Kindle book “Slow Stitch: mindful and contemplative textile art” to get some thoughts ticking along about all the stitching I’d like to do but don’t just yet. Jeanne’s 70273 Project has sparked such a great itchiness to get going with all I want to be doing… all these bags and bags of saved clothes and fabric: not hoarded, you understand, just waiting…. I’m looking forward, and kind of intrigued as to where that path will take me…

Return to Crazy and a Change of Plan

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Tibs in a chairLellie in the washing 2Lellie in the washing 3

Lellie in her kitchenTiibs in bedJude strimmingCabbage disaster

We returned home over the weekend after too long in a house and the rains arrived with us. You’d never think we were only moving next door. The exhaustion of the move meant that I forgot Tula’s school outing on Monday morning so she went without a packed lunch. Not one of the teachers or her classmates gave her any food I was shocked to discover when I went to collect her from the coach at school. Her class teacher (also the headmistress) took the time to walk up to me as we were getting into the car and enquire whether I knew I’d forgotten to give her a picnic but clearly did not care enough to spare a sandwich for my child during the trip, who as a result of my forgetfulness and their lack of care, went without any food from 8am until 6pm.

So, back to trailer life. I have forgotten that much of what I really get frustrated by with our lives in trailers is the constant moving between the separate spaces to do anything. Our living space, or home, is separated from the kitchen trailer by a marquee which contains all our non-essential items: out of season clothing, my fabric hoards and all kinds of other junk. Here’s a slightly crappy video on YouTube of how the trailers looked when we first moved in 2015. Since then Jude built our shared shed which is divided into separate spaces for me to keep my shop and he his tools; my side of which is a wonderful, bright and beautiful space.

Since we finally updated our tired and decrepit 2008 Macbook Pro, I have been trying to get my head around Lightroom and using Creative Cloud storage for my shop photos and family pics and to be honest I’m finding it all a bit bewildering. Up until the purchase of the new laptop, all of my photo editing was done using Photoshop and an external Seagate hard drive. Having a new machine is wonderful, but I’m buggered if I can get anywhere near a useable workflow yet, despite following online tutorials. I am also feeling pressured by Jude needing to update his poorly-performing website which I designed last year using a free template and Kompozer: he and I have very conflicting ideas about how a website should look which isn’t helped by the fact that I have since completely forgotten most of the coding I learnt.

Despite the bore of having to put coats on and wait for Lellie to put her shoes on again each time I want to walk outside, it is nice to be home again. The light is wonderful here and I’ve worked hard to clear everything to just the bare minimum in all of our living spaces so I can breathe again. Living in a tiny house, which seems to be a dream for many people requires a ruthless attitude to clutter, which the girls still struggle with: use it, put it away or lose it. One of my priorities during this period of sorting things out, was to get rid of excess toys. The girls are so much happier to play with a few, organised things rather than a constant sea of what ends up feeling like trash in such a small space. I’m a firm believer, despite my own personal need for ‘stuff’, in the importance of having visual space to think. Inside is good now. Outside, still a jungle…. Jude is slowly attacking it with a strimmer.

So much work to do, all of the time. All of this would all feel so much more d0-able if I didn’t have my constant two year old shadow demanding my full attention at all times.

Today I drove to the local mini-supermarket after delivering two shop parcels to the lovely lady in the post office in Saint-Samson de Bonfossé and filled up a trolley (around the Potts of course – she is far too much of a liability to let loose in a shop) only to find that my card was denied at the checkout and had to return home again sans groceries.

And then I knocked over a pan full of yesterday’s buttery leftover cabbage and peas which I had intended to turn into one of my very favourite meals: bubble and squeak with of course the sausages from the failed shopping trip.

Really these two days have not been a great start to the week.

Luckily I have this to keep me sane, which is Chuck Wendig’s funny, funny blog about his kid and writing and stuff.

On the subject of sane? We drastically revised our long-term plans during our sejour at Granny’s due to finding out that should we try to sell our newly-built house within four years of completion, French law dictates that we be charged a minimum of €15,000 in tax from the sale. We would be required to live in the house for five years in order to reduce this charge to a slightly more bearable 6% of the sale cost. So, plan no. 423 (I joke, but I am starting to lose track here) is now to simply sell the plot as it is. And go! Due to the struggling French economy, there are some wonderful properties out there at reasonable prices. It’s just a shame that we have wasted so much money on making a home here for no purpose, but I guess we did what we had to do.

Onward! The rest of the week can only get better.

And yes, the cat has his own favourite sleeping spots which the girls are permitted to borrow now and then.