Green

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Cottage garden border in June with ripening columbine seedheads, rosemary and raspberry plants

We are in the clouds again today, the air thick and warm with the whispered promise of a fuller heat once the mists have lifted. On the way to the school bus stop we admire the baby fern fronds and the fullness of the flowering grasses on the roadside banks. Already the spring blooms have been overtaken by the stouter weeds, hogweed and foxgloves glowering like bouncers in a club doorway, vaguely threatening. It won’t be long now before the tractors arrive to give the verges their seasonal shave so that the traffic can pass without recourse to wielding machetes. I walk home still immersed in the morning sweetness and, knowing that if I go into the house I won’t emerge again until the magic has gone, pick up my phone and return to the waking world outside.

Each footfall releases puffs of smoky seed from the grass heads and I tuck my skirt into my knickers, a seaside daytripper playing in a swaying green sea, swim-stepping in the dewy waves. I forget too easily that all this beauty is right here, all the time, and remind myself once again, that I need to be here, more. The grass swells around me, danger near to bare feet: angry stepped-on biting ants, nettles and the ever-present giant hogweed that strides over the land, poisonous arms always reaching. I revel in this space nonetheless, reeling in this green cage, free from all eyes or cares.

Of course, none of this is really our doing, except perhaps by neglect. Along with our lack of serious gardening tools and our broken tractor mower, which squats grumpily in the long grass, like the fabled Forth Bridge our feeble attempts to make order out of all this beautiful chaos are maybe destined never to reach completion. The walnut tree has completely taken over the garden this year and the one border I have planted, with it’s confusion of swaying columbines, day lilies and hebes, is still in the process of being extended, as I slowly work to create a division between this land and the barren, chemically poisoned ground of the empty and joyless neighbouring property. Jude has put up another section of reclaimed fencing on our side but the rest will have to be added as and when we can afford it.

We have made some progress though: finding a companion for Bunny at a local car boot inspired Jude to get to work building a new bunny house outside, where the two of them are now happily settled. Jess has taken over the responsibility of tending for them as Milly decided it was too much work. Despite me being adamant about not needing another job of my own, it’s actually very lovely to go into their house and have a rabbit’s view of the world every now and then.

Like dominoes falling into line, the rabbity relocation pushed me to completely clean and repaint the middle room that had become a disaster area during Bunny’s reign. This in turn triggered the transformation of my Etsy shop, because at long last I finally have a beautiful space to photograph my listings in, which is thrilling beyond words! So the garden languishes further into wild disorder while I obsessively re-photograph all of my inventory and try to resist hunting out more treasures until I make some more sales. For the first time since I started this shop I really feel happy with how it looks.

And my other twin joys are finally having my car back on the road and buying a replacement phone, a Galaxy S9 which I am beyond thrilled with. Making the move from Apple to Android was not as hard as I’d expected, and while there is the odd feature I miss, I’m pretty sure I won’t even remember what they were a year from now. This post, for example, was created from scratch with it, so you may well be hearing from me a little more often than you’re perhaps used to… hopefully that’s a good thing!

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Down time

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May 2018 (1 of 7)May 2018 (2 of 7)May 2018 (3 of 7)May 2018 (4 of 7)May 2018 (5 of 7)May 2018 (6 of 7)May 2018 (7 of 7)

Without fully intending to do so I have had a lengthy time away from the internet in general and my work in particular. Not to say I’ve been completely offline, but I have certainly been totally immersed in children and domestic chores for what feels like an eon now.

I am finding it hard to be everything to each of these intense girls: each one with her own panoply of personality and psychological swings, each of them changing and budding in tune with the season. Elodie is going through a phase of being fiercely clingy to me and at the same time can become so wild that sometimes she cannot control herself and can hurt her sisters which causes her unbearable anguish after the event. She is remarkably and acutely aware, with tremendous empathy and is just starting to be able to voice her thoughts more clearly. It amazes me that she really is only four years old! She is so capable and eloquent.

Milly too is in a delicate phase. She still misses her best friend from Cornwall with such passion it breaks my heart to hear her talk about it with eyes full of tears even after nearly five years. She struggles with school: as a sensitive and creative soul she finds it hard to be in such a demanding and noisy environment without any anchoring connection to anyone around her. Her best friend here has recently drifted away from her and I think she feels really quite lost and alone. She has confided in me that she sees an image of a man shouting at her in her head whenever she makes mistakes and as much as I can give her suggestions of how to acknowledge and help silence this bad voice, it is something she is going to have to learn to cope with by herself. All I can do is support her and provide her with love and tools to help her through it. I am going to explore a drama group that a friend of hers goes to which I think would give her an enormous boost of self confidence and free her a little from the shadow of her brilliant older sister, who takes everything in her stride and faces life so easily.

At the age of ten, I have decided that Jess can be trusted to use the computer, so I have set her up with her own account on the laptop with some restrictions. She is limited to a few hours a day, which will encourage her to use her time wisely. Already she has researched a career she would like to do and how much she could earn from it: a park ranger in Canada’s National parks – Jude’s idea of heaven and a career he would happily have chosen for himself.

And Tula. Beloved, special and sparkling but difficult Tula, with her complicated and stubborn personality and occasionally blinkered comprehension: who dances and sings with such abandon but can throw a globe-sized tantrum at the flick of a feather, Tula can be a challenge all on her own. Together, her and Elodie have an intense and fiery partnership: they are Trouble! They understand each other as if twinned and can go on day-long destructive marathons where they will literally run around together giggling and destroying, but this intense connection can also trigger crazy explosions of rage with each other, which takes it out of them both.

So during these weeks away from school it is a near-constant juggling act to anticipate approaching catastrophes and divert them with snacks and activities: to spend time actively listening to each child’s inner landscape and sufficiently refuel their mental and physical energies so that they can return to their French lives invigorated and re-inspired.

School is hard for them all: the intensity of being immersed in another language, amongst so much noise is an everyday challenge for them and the teachers do not encourage free thought in any form. Children are taught in such a linear way that there is no space for those who struggle to learn like this: there is little space for individualism. I believe in education, I value knowledge and the ideas that school is there to promote, but I do not think it should come at the expense of crushing the spirit and the soul of a child. Certainly some of the stories I hear from my girls makes me angry and sad on behalf of the children who are humiliated and taken down on a daily basis by adults who should be instead inspiring them and filling them with passion for learning. It’s primary school, not prison. Being a child is not a disorder that needs to be controlled and forced into submission.

And our beloved Lucky is struggling more and more these days. A while back he had an episode when he collapsed and we thought he was at the end: he couldn’t stand and was having fits of shaking. We wrapped him up and cried over him for an evening and then the next morning he was fine and we both felt a little silly. We had even prepared the girls by talking about the fact that he might die and to explain that Daddy was crying because he was sad. A couple of weeks after his recovery, he had an acute episode of diarrhoea: we’d wake to find the house splattered and again, thinking his bowels had failed assumed that he was at the end. However, we finally twigged that he was eating grass in the field opposite the house that had been sprayed with weed killer and as soon as it had been ploughed in, the problem stopped. He is still going, remarkably, despite the fact that he is losing strength in his back legs and can often find it almost impossible to stand up. This really will be the end: we both know that once he loses his independence we cannot justify keeping him alive. He has outlived the expected age of his breed by more than double: Welsh border collies have a life expectancy of 8-10 years and Lucky will be 16 in September. Jude knows his friend’s time is near and has said his goodbyes. The two of them have such a bond, I’m not sure Jude will be the same without him.

And fas if all that wasn’t enough, we have been at a standstill financially too: Jude has been held up on one job which means we’ve had no real income for a month which has been a struggle and has meant all the renovations and projects we’ve started have been on hold. Jude and I have given our bedroom to Jess and Tula, so our bed is downstairs and we are living in some chaos. Without my car I feel hobbled and more than a little trapped by inertia. The loneliness of this life comes in waves and every now and then I slip under and lose sight of how lucky we are and in fact how nourishing it is for me to be in silence to think clearly and be free to live without envy or scrutiny; how liberating this actually is.

I try not to feel cursed: our paperwork for the plot we want to sell (to finance a mortgage for this house) has been rejected for the third time, despite us following the demands of the previous application and creating a new access to the land. We think it is because of a large bush belonging to our friend and neighbor, which blocks the visibility from our access. She was instructed by the village mayor to reduce the height, but she is very much attached to her garden and only gave it a little trim. Somehow we will have to persuade her to let Jude dig it up completely and re-plant it for her as I doubt it will survive being chopped basically in half, which is what needs to happen for us to be able to see clearly over it. It’s incredibly frustrating: this is a road with such little traffic on it that you would be hard pushed to ever even see another car pass you, but the laws are set. And the last thing I want to do is upset my friend by forcing her to do something she is unhappy about.

But we need to make progress. We need to sell this plot. We need to own this house that our children call home, that we have so many plans for, that we want to improve to cater for our changing needs as a family. We need to finally get to work on these plans we’ve talked about for so many years now, to provide an income for us which will mean Jude can one day slow down and start taking care of himself a little more, to have some security here in a world that is looking increasingly uncertain.

Talking of taking care of people, lately I have received unexpected gifts in the post that have reminded me just how lucky I am to have such wonderful friends taking care of me from afar. My dear friend Emma sent me a package containing a beautiful hand embroidered tablecloth she’d found in a charity shop and a children’s book by Roddy Doyle called ‘Her Mother’s Face’ which made me cry. I only have a handful of photos of my birth mother so these words dove straight into my heart. The book is so sweetly written. And just the other day my lovely Lilli sent me her copy of the delightful tea party book by Angel Adoree…  deliciousness on every page! I am truly blessed by these women I keep so closely wrapped in my thoughts. This past week I have been meditating with Sara, my soul sister and the woman who has held my hand and heart in hers since I moved away from her world in Cornwall. These guided mediations have opened me up: as I listen I draw and it is helping to unblock my hand from thinking and judging. I am re-finding and focussing my energy in a way that feels positive and nourishing.

And if I am nourished I am better equipped to nourish my girls in turn and support my man as he begins his long goodbye to his best friend. We slide off the tracks from time to time, but with kind and gentle nudges we can find a way to move forward even if the way is still not entirely clear. Onward, held in the green embrace of spring.

After the rain

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the church lit up at sunsetKnotted trees glowing at sunsetSpiral stairs in a French farmhouseLines crossing a misty view over the countryside.Mist over the fields at sunrise

My dream balloons are being popped one by one and it’s a battle to fight the idea that that is in fact all they ever really were: sparkly bubbles of hot air. This winter, during the wild weather that besieged Normandy as well as many other places across the world, La Corbeille was torn down overnight by a storm: the gable wall collapsed under the weight of wet cob and brought part of the roof down with it too. In addition to this, we have also finally let go of the idea of buying the poor old broken manor house we (I?) had my heart set on and, just as a friend suggested I enter an art competition and I’d started seriously considering the idea of selling my art, my external hard drive died, taking with it every single photo I’ve taken since we lived in Cornwall, including all of Elodie’s baby pictures.

And as I grieve these three individually, personally enormous things, which may or may not be repairable, my heart sinks under the added weight of all the despair in the world: the killing of innocents and the tortured children; the abused animals, endless wars and never ending seas of plastic.

Even as the sun shines and I tell myself to be grateful for a home and for clear skies, I cannot convince myself that anything has any real worth, that there is ever anything but heartache, even in the comfort of my glorious growing girls and my relentlessly practical man who works and works and works.

I was so ready to leave this part of France behind me: to walk into a life we’d chosen rather than muddle through the chaos we’ve woven here in our various plans and and projects, all of which seemed pre-destined to fail. From the very first idea, so long ago now, of Jude building a new home for us out of the barn he thought was his and creating beautiful simple gîtes to rent out, to us all living in tin cans on an empty plot planning a new-build, via a brief interlude of fanciful thinking of moving to be near the coast, we have come full circle, back to the house we were never entirely welcome in in the first place.

And I can’t help but feel dismayed, even if I am truly grateful for this fearless man in my life, as he starts on this new project of his: to move me and my shop into the roof of this house which has become our home, fulfilling a long-held idea he’d had from the days before we’d even met when he was renovating this house by himself. What started as an innocuous, oh-wouldn’t-it-be-nice conversation (one of many) has become a complete upheaval as we fall into an entirely unplanned loft conversion. The girls are now all together in one bedroom and the old bedroom two of them were in now has a newly installed, beautiful spiral staircase leading into the new opening into the attic.

Needless to say, the whole house is full of dust and chaos, but the girls are thrilled with it. I don’t mind the chaos too much, now I’ve made it workable. I even don’t mind the dust and the dirt: everything can be swept and tidied again. I can also see how beautiful this space will one day be, when we eventually have the money and time to complete everything that needs to be done, as well as how immediately useful it will be for me to be able to re-open my little shop, which adds just enough extra income to keep us ticking through the lean times. It will certainly add value and space to this old house that gives it a completely different feel.

But I can also see how very tired Jude is, how worn out he is just coping with the everyday arduousness of physical labour for his regular clients without having to do this too. There’s very little I can do to help him, much as I’d like to be of use: I cannot handle heights and don’t have the strength to dig the clay out of the beams. All I can do is watch, through the grey filter of depression that these separate, private catastrophes have cast on me. And I feel desolate somehow. For once I don’t know how I feel about where we are going – I can’t even begin to think past today. We’ve achieved so much in many ways, and yet there’s a part of me that feels we’ve only been going in circles around the same stick in the ground.

Maybe all I need is to tie some sparklier balloons to the post.

Today I am focussing on gratitude and waiting for spring. Sunshine makes everything seem better. Soon I will plant flowers and start growing food. Everything will be fine. I will get back to work. The photos of my babies are in my heart forever. And one day Jude will be able to start building those gîtes we’d planned and we’ll have an income which will mean he can stop breaking his back. One day.

 

 

 

Peace

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Photos from the year we arrived in France, and my old kitchen window in Cornwall 🙂

So happy. Quietly, undramatically, melodically content.

When we first came to France, on that crazy journey across the watery divide on a dank March morning, our household possessions stacked inside a makeshift cage on a trailer pulled by Jude in his Landy while I followed behind with our crumbly caravan tied to my old white van, silently scoffed at by officials and passersby on both sides of the water and praying both vehicles and cargo would make the trip intact, I never really had a clear view of what the future might hold for us here. I was too busy, holding my post-partum body and brain together, moving forward through each day and each new problem as it arrived. Jude and I, with our four little girls and an aging collie dog, setting off into the unknown together.

And now, three and a half years later, I can honestly say that I am the happiest I have ever been. Ever. Yes, I still occasionally get side-swiped by depression, that heavy psychological heritage that sits deep in my bones, but the bouts are less frequent and those hard days of just containing my despair enough to continue to exist, seem to be fading at last.

I am domestic: I cook and clean without resentment in a way I’ve never known before; actively inhabiting my home, sometimes even with joy at my duties within it, something my feminist-talking, housewifery-hating mother silently taught me to be anathemic to a modern female life. Lately I have discovered new avenues of food-sourcing so I am finally starting to extricate myself from the hated weekly supermarket shop, which makes me feel so much more aligned to my core values. It’s not precisely where I want to be, with my own veg plot and fresh eggs from hens in the garden, but it’s a big step in the right direction for us. And even as it challenges me every week to create more and more of our meals from newly-discovered raw ingredients, the majority of the time I find myself relishing the task I have set myself, even if I do bemoan the lack of English-language cookery books at my disposal.

And I make art! I’m not certain which direction it will take me yet, but I am happy with taking little meanders as I go forward with my creative path. I may even begin to make Art, but I’ve never been entirely comfortable with that capitalisation, so I feel no real pressure to do so. Whatever I do, I am thrilled to have the mental and physical space to play with ideas and roll them around in my hands until I know how best to use them productively – ie to create an income to supplement Jude’s, whose business is going from strength to strength.

When we told people in England of our plans, nearly everyone made a point of telling us that we’d be back, most likely within three years, regaling us with tales of friends of theirs who’d tried to make it but became too homesick to stay longer. For us, I would say that it has taken three years for us to find our feet here, but we are finally, absolutely in place. And I have no doubt whatsoever that had we not spent the first year living out of suitcases and the second in mobile homes without drinking water on tap or running hot water for bathing, that we would have felt this way far sooner.

Certainly I think back to those first two years with relief that they are behind us. There is a certain frisson of excitement about the little challenges a foreign country can offer a newcomer, from finding food staples to replace familiar home brands and the interesting learning curve as you buy products that turn out to be entirely different to how you expected them to be, to remembering the new little courtesies that are so much a part of daily life here – who to kiss and how many times was a struggle, particularly for Jude! The answer, if you’re male, being don’t do it at all, generally, unless you are related or very close friends and never another man unless you are deliberately inviting intimacy…

But there were – and still are – many obstacle courses that we stumble over, in particular the mountainous piles of paperwork we have to negotiate for health and tax. There are a gazillion weirdly initialed organisations that I still struggle to differentiate between or even remember what they represent – CPAM, RSI, CMS &c. And whilst our understanding of how the bureaucratic system works here has improved so that we take it for granted now that information is never going to offered but that you are quite likely to be given the wrong information if the person you ask happens not to know the answer to your query, which in our first year led us on many a desultory wild goose chase through various offices we had no reason to be in, we at least are a little better now at explaining ourselves and understanding the responses!

But the biggest thing by far I think is that we have found our strength as a family. Jude and I have faced serious challenges that we’ve come through together, that could easily have broken us had we been less committed or in love. And I find my love and admiration for my husband deepening all the time. His stamina, the strength of character that radiates from him, blinding and binding me to him from the moment we met at a friends’ gathering where he persistently tried to ignore me, has never faltered, no matter the obstacle. For one thing, he has stuck by me, this crazy lady who drove him home with her from that party and has been nothing short of a violent tornado in his previously quiet, bachelor existence ever since. I am truly, deeply and forever grateful for his constant, calming presence by my side.

And whatever the future holds, whether we find our forever home as I dream or whether we stay in this wonderful old house we have on loan, I am confident that it is going to be bright and beautiful even with the shadows that will inevitably fall across our paths from time to time. I am proud of the adventure we are on and I know I am in the very best company I could wish for.

A very happy and peaceful Christmas and New Year to all my friends and family, may your path be full of sunlight and your shadows long behind you. See you next year!

Get Doing, Get Moving.

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Fierville1Fierville2Fierville3Fierville4Fierville5Fierville6Fierville7Fierville8Fierville9Fierville10Fierville11Fierville12Fierville13Fierville14Fierville15Fierville16Fierville17Fierville18Fierville19Fierville20Fierville 21Fierville22Fierville23

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.

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.