I’m gazing out over Carbis Bay in Cornwall. It’s New Year’s Eve and I haven’t given a thought to my December blog. I haven’t missed a month in the five years I’ve been writing. I’m thinking this may be the first month I miss. I’m tired.
I’m in Carbis Bay on a whim. I needed to get out of the house, away from the garden and house tasks, away from the accusatory laptop waiting for writing projects that aren’t going anywhere because my mind is everywhere else but on the page. Away from the refugee families that need me and the politics and the drama. I’m tired.
Like everyone else, 2022 has got to me. Never-ending pandemics, cost of living crisis, war, so many in need. It’s exhausting to live during this period of our collective history, isn’t it? So back to that whim. A quick google search of any rental anywhere not fully booked for New Year. ‘I’m going somewhere,’ I say to Hubby, ‘you coming?’ ‘I’m going anywhere,’ I say to my sister and her partner, ‘you coming?’ ‘I’m going,’ I say to the dog, ‘you coming? I’ll bring cheese.’ Surprisingly, (except for the dog who’ll follow a block of cheese anywhere) they all say ‘yes’ to this last-minute getaway. They are all familiar with 2022 and not surprisingly, they’re tired too.
We drive through rain squalls and flooded roads, Satnav taking us down every farm cart track between Exmoor and the tip of Cornwall. We haven’t planned meals but we have a car full of mince pies, Christmas cake scraps, boxes of chocolates and the occasional piece of bruised fruit. Oh, and several wonderful cheeses from gift hampers. We don’t need no Tescos. Along with Christmas gift champagne, Baileys and a suitcase full of books, we’re well stocked enough never to leave our little bungalow with a view of the churning sea and the protective twinkle of Godrevy Lighthouse for the next three days.
For a brief spell on arrival, the rain stops. We feel we should at least set foot once on the white beach. But my dog is getting old. He struggles with the steep road down to the coast, manages a gentrified romp at the water’s edge, chews a few strands of seaweed then struggles back up the hill. He’s done for the rest of the holiday and will lie at my feet as I read, happy with his lot in life, even as I’m less and less happy with the tell-tale signs of his aging. He’s tired.
This may sound a somewhat depressing end to my 2022 blogs. Maybe it is. Sorry, not sorry. New Year’s Eve is the perfect time to be honest with oneself. We can’t be ‘up’ all the time. We can’t be ‘on our game’ all the time. It’s okay to reflect on all the reasons we’re tired – I’ve taken on a new house, I’m hosting a refugee family, I’ve helped family where I can and neighbours where I can, held hands with yet another friend diagnosed with cancer, and donated where I can and been kind and generous and humorous and supportive where I can. I’ve earned the right to be tired.
Next year. Next year is the year peace will return, I’ll get my house back from sheltering strangers, and someone in high places will realise you can’t starve and freeze populations for your own political agenda forever. The two books hiding in various files on my laptop will get finished and published to great acclaim and … Well, that’s enough, surely, for 2023.
This New Year’s Eve it’s chocolates and Baileys while collapsed on a rental couch and I say, collapse if you need to. Rest up. For next year we rise again.
It’s been brought to my attention that my husband of thirty-three years and my adult children may in fact be … American. I suppose I should thank the World Cup for opening my eyes to this but at the moment I’m still in shock about the whole thing. Who knew a simple dinner reservation could shine a spotlight on such a troublesome issue?
When I made a Friday night dinner reservation at the Top Ship in Porlock, an olde worlde thatched pub that predates football itself by, oh, several hundred years, I had no idea England was playing the USA in the World Cup that night. Full disclosure: I haven’t watched a football match since Bobby Charlton, George Best and Gordon Banks played, which means my spectator days peaked in the 1970s and faded rapidly. But I’m a huge fan of Marcus Rashford, awarded an MBE for his push to get free lunches for low-income children during the COVID outbreak. That man’s a hero. Anyway, apparently, he plays football too. But I digress…
The Top Ship calls the morning of our dinner reservation to advise us the game will be shown while we’re eating and would we like to move from the pub to the restaurant so as not to see the television. Why would we do that? It’s not like watching the game will cause any kind of discord. We’re all on the same team in my family. My American hubby agreed to move to England. My daughter, born and raised in the USA but now living in England, made a choice to focus on her UK heritage a few years ago. Her US friend, also now living in London, prefers the British lifestyle. We’ll be cheering for England then. No need to move us out of TV range, thanks. Game on.
My first inkling of discord comes as I prepare to head out for dinner. A Stars and Stripes flag, previously hidden in a rarely used drawer, mysteriously appears on the kitchen counter. Why is this here? Where is it going? Surely not with us to the pub? I ask my fellow family members/dinner guests about it: Hubby shrugs, daughter checks her phone, her friend freezes, seemingly wishing to goodness she’d turned down the invitation to spend Thanksgiving in Porlock. The dog, sensing tension, parks himself in front of the door so no one can escape. (He’s half French/half German if the DNA panel is accurate so maybe we should leave him out of this.) No one confesses to planning to take the US flag to dinner but there’s muttering in the hallway as people pull coats on. An uneasy feeling seeps into my gut as it’s suggested the flag remain on the counter, ‘available for after dinner’.
We arrive at the Top Ship just as the British national anthem is playing. ‘Isn’t this nice?’ I smile at my party while admiring the roaring fire, light bouncing off the horse brasses and the beer glasses. I join in the last line of the anthem, focusing so hard on singing ‘King’ rather than the lifelong ‘Queen’ I’m used to I almost don’t catch Hubby’s, ‘Did we miss the US anthem?’.
Kick off complete, drinks ordered, menu perused, we settle in to watch a game we didn’t know was happening just hours ago. Now it seems to mean something to us all. The other tables are definitely invested in the outcome and it’s pretty obvious that on Exmoor England is favoured to win. Except at our table. I seem to be in the minority when it comes to England fans. It starts with rumblings, a daughter’s flinch when England shoots at goal, a husband’s clenched fist when the Americans run the ball down the field. What’s this? Mutiny? An American on Exmoor? Where’s the cheer when the cameras show the England fans? Where’s the boo when the USA player trips an English player?
Oh. My. Good. God. I’m at a table full of USA fans!!
How could this be? My husband? Didn’t he swear allegiance to the flag during our marriage vows? (Remind me to check the videotape.) My children? Surely, having a British mother ensures loyalty to the English team? (Remind me to check the small print on their birth certificates.) Seriously, a life lived in the USA has to get overruled by that half of your DNA that is English once you hit English soil, doesn’t it? Though now I think of it, I never felt American after decades on American soil. Is it even possible my family doesn’t feel fully English on English soil? Apparently, it is. Halfway through the fish and chips and Exmoor Ale pie, things are getting more heated. No not on the football field, as even to my inexperienced eye, this is a tedious game at best. No, it’s become clear as day this game is pulling my family back to their roots in the USA, just as I spent thirty-odd years in America being pulled back to mine in England.
Okay. This is getting ridiculous. There are open whoops when the Americans have the ball. Obvious sighs when the English goalkeeper stops an attack on goal. Over pudding and custard, the truth comes out. The three other guests at my table openly admit they’re pulling for the USA. I shush them and glance uneasily around the pub at all the England supporters. ‘We live here,’ I hiss. ‘Keep your voices down.’ But it’s too late. The owners and managers and wait staff know us. They know our background. They smile just as usual, but I have to wonder if the chef spat in our gravy tonight of all nights.
The game ends and, thank goodness, it’s a zero-zero draw. Our family lives to watch another game. I can only hope it’s not an England versus USA World Cup final. If it is, we may have to stay home to watch. I couldn’t take the humiliation of a USA victory in the pub or the gloating of my traitorous family. But I’ve learned something: A simple game of football can provide an eye-opening view of international family dynamics.
October 2022 may have been the most ‘normal’ month I’ve had in a long time. All that happened was the shortest UK prime ministership in history, a family run-in with COVID, and the arrival of our first guests from American since we moved back to England over two years ago. Bit of a snorer of a month really. Except I haven’t received the gift of a good snore in a long time. Hello Sleeplessness, my now constant companion. Sleepless on Exmoor; there’s a book title. When one of the better-known lines from my novel, Dunster’s Calling, states Exmoor is the place I ‘sleep the best and breathe the deepest’, this insomnia is, frankly, embarrassing. It’s also a nightmare (I remember those from back when I used to sleep) for productivity.
Why am I struggling like this? I suppose when I look back there are clues. Things were just settling down enough in our newly blended UK-US-Ukrainian-Exmoor household for me to open my laptop to write when BAM! – Hubby comes down with a nasty case of COVID. I locked the house down; no one in, no one out. I gloved and masked, disinfected everything without a pulse on the hour every hour, and climbed thousands of stairs delivering tea and steaming inhaler mugs to the patient. Fortunately, a brilliant idea penetrated the exhaustion: buy a second kettle and leave it in Hubby’s isolation chamber for him to use at will. Tracey:1 Covid: 0. Well, based on the acute pain Hubby was in and the 24/7 coughing for two weeks, maybe COVID scored slightly higher than that.
For all my efforts, Verdigris streaks now mar the paint work under the tarnished handles of every door from the constant spraying, my hands are raw from scrubbing, the dishwasher’s exhausted, as is the washing machine. But, by golly, no one else in the household caught this awful virus and for that I will claim the glory. I earned it. But… but sleep! When? Dear God, when?!
I’ve been thinking about stress and the impact it has on a body; well, my body anyway. The sleepless nights lead to non-productive days lead to sleepless nights worrying about how non-productive the days were. I have three writing projects whirling around in my mushy brain: a finished novel in need of post-edit editing, a half-complete cosy murder mystery I’m desperate to finish writing so I can find out who the darn murderer is, and a barely-formed idea on a scrap of paper that feels really quite promising as a novel. I just can’t get myself revved up enough to start the writer’s gruelling routine.
I’m not alone. So many of us are experiencing depleted energy levels from the last couple of years, even those who haven’t relocated 4000 miles or taken in a refugee family. We’ve all fought our own battles to make it this far through the 2020s. So many distractions. I try blocking all news of the energy crisis, while digging out ever thicker sweaters. I try to block images of all those families missing meals due to the food price crisis. I try not to think about whether the same Prime Minister will be in office at the end of dinner as at the beginning. War footage is no-go after breakfast. But it’s all still churning inside my head.
I’m not getting out in nature nearly as much as I need to for a good old recharge. This time of year is when I’m most grateful to be back in England. Perennials are just as perky as in late summer, roses bloom, grass seed germinates in the warm soil, and bulb planting and shrub acquisition is still in full swing. Back in the snowbelt of the USA, at this time of year the ground is frozen and temps are chilly enough to freeze solid the Halloween candy. I don’t miss that. At all. But I’m missing too much of autumn glories on Exmoor galloping around stamping out viruses and worrying about dirty bombs.
Enter the visitors from America. The delight of having dear friends staying at this time stems not only from their comforting presence but that they force me to get back out there. Sometimes you have to have your nose shoved into a bloom to smell the roses. Did I mention they’re still flowering here and will be until Christmas? Got to love that. And visitors mean you stroll around your beautiful garden for fun, without weeds in one hand and pruning tools in another. Friends mean in the last few days I’ve walked yellowy-orange wooded trails, eaten cream teas in Selworthy, smiled at Exmoor ponies backdropped by the Bristol Channel, visited Dunster Castle, swooned over the amazing truffle and parmesan chips at The Luttrell Arms, ridden the cliff railway at Lynton, and consumed Prosecco at lunchtime – that’s right, LUNCHTIME! – at the lovely Ship Inn at Porlock Weir. Sometimes you need much missed friends to remind you of the wonders in your own back garden and the joys beyond the news. Friends and Exmoor restore and rejuvenate. I just need to keep that momentum going long enough to write again.
Maybe I should make a habit of reading the David Austin Rose catalogue before bed. Fill my head with scents and petals and dream of arching boughs of colour to come in my Exmoor garden. Yes. That’s what I’ll do. And sleep will surely follow.
It’s been two and a half years since I’ve been on a plane. That’s the longest I’ve spent with both feet on the ground since I was a teenager. Just when I’m wondering if I’ll ever again experience the joy of a good ol’ kneecapping from someone else’s wheeled suitcase on a jetway, my sister calls with a plan. (She’s been known to suggest things like tying a childhood friend to a dustbin lid and sending him down a steep hill. The trouble that caused. One shouldn’t agree to her plans willy nilly.) But this plan includes Tuscan pasta dishes with porcini mushrooms. It involves a swimming pool with views over a beautiful valley framed by towering mountains. It’s a chance to see Cinque Terre, a bucket list destination for me. I wait for the other shoe to drop, like Sis saying, ‘Oh, before we go, we need to dig up my entire back garden using a spoon. Then returf it.’ That shoe doesn’t drop. I’m going on holiday!
Just a couple of flies in the ointment: Two weeks before we’re due to fly out, a Ukrainian refugee family arrives at our house on Exmoor. No one had invaded anyone back when we booked the holiday. No one had suggested Hubby and I empty out all the closets in our three-bedroom house and stack our clothes into dangerously high piles on the floor in one bedroom. No one mentioned anything about completing more dangerous piles of paperwork regarding refugee visas and school applications and insurance and new bank accounts and downloading translation apps. No one suggested I wouldn’t have time to pack or time to plan holiday excursions or …
I know, I know. Even I realise that comes across a little, well, selfish. Lives are at stake here. Civilization itself is at stake here based on current events, and I’m focused on pasta. Of course, Hubby and I will make this work. Of course, we’ll get everything set up before we leave. We’ll give this family of three some breathing room to regroup from their ordeal and relax into Exmoor life. It will all be fine. Our new family members are delightful and certainly worth any extra effort on our part.
Then the second fly crash lands in the Commonwealth ointment, splattering chaos and grief everywhere. The day before we leave for Heathrow, worrying news seeps out of Buckingham Palace: Queen Elizabeth’s health is ’cause for concern’. Before we’ve had time to wish her well, she’s gone. And I’m bereft.
‘Why,’ you ask? ‘Did you meet her?’ No, but I saw her up close during a tour of Windsor Castle once. I looked out of one of the stateroom windows to see the entire Royal Family getting into cars heading to Royal Ascot. It was a thrill, seeing an icon in the flesh. She’d been part of my British collective consciousness my entire life. She provided a rallying cry during my decades in America, that call to defend your country, not from war in this case but from any mention of ‘also ran’. Nobody does pomp or puts on a parade like the United Kingdom. London’s buildings and vistas always impress and the Queen’s appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace stirs something inside me. So much history – some of it questionable looking back with today’s perspective, I get that – condensed into one lady under a pastel-coloured hat. All I can say is for me, personally, Queen Elizabeth provided the thread that tethered me ‘home’ during my hiraeth years.
I’d worried about not being resident back in England for her funeral during my years abroad. I thought I’d made it in time. I intended to go to London and pay my respects when the time came. But no. I’m booked on a flight to Tuscany within a day of her passing. I can barely pack, and I’m still trying to complete paperwork for my new Ukrainian family as the bells toll in the village church and the television pounds the sad news, over and over again, into my heart. The Queen is dead. Long live the King. The Jubilee bed in my garden tells the story; a sad transition from June to September.
I frantically hurl hand lotion bottles out of bathroom drawers trying to find a little plastic bag to fit my toiletries in because I’d forgotten you still have to do that on a plane. My eyes well up at the billboards along the motorway: a black background with The Queen’s portrait in the middle. Heathrow is full of shop windows expressing condolences to the Royal Family. Sis and I start planning our day of Tuscan mourning on the plane. We’ll be watching the entire funeral, though our partners plan to hike that day. They don’t get it. Well, one of them is American, after all.
Tuscan villages are decked out in Ukrainian flags, reminding us we’ve left our house in the hands of complete strangers. We WhatsApp several times a day to smooth any bumpy issues and our village does a wonderful job of wrapping our guests in warmth and kindness. This gives Sis and me time to buy family-sized bags of Italian chocolate, M&M’s and liquorice because this is how you deal with death in our family.
We sit down in our Tuscan villa at 10am GMT on Monday September 19th and don’t move again for eight hours. We feel sick from all the chocolate but, oh, what a wonderful send off. I take comfort in the fact I made it home for The Queen’s 70th anniversary, just three short months ago. I threw a party and shared Pimms and planted my garden in red, white, and blue, and somehow felt closer to my heritage. But today, scenes appear on the little Italian television that bring me back to the heart wrenching gut check of Emma, the Queen’s pony, standing silently as her owner’s casket passes. The Royal Corgis sit desolately at the feet of carers as those amazing pall bearers make everyone proud. The crown is removed from the top of the casket and my heart bleeds for the next-in-line, Charles III. He has a tough road ahead and big shoes to fill. He will be criticized daily for doing his job and the only thing he’ll be more criticized for is not doing his job. Poor fella.
In the days after the funeral, we eat pasta and stroll cobbled streets and travel to the coast. We decide Cinque Terre isn’t what we thought it would be, though it could be just our attitudes aren’t what they should be. That said, the photos on all the jigsaw puzzles I’ve completed over the years of these coastal villages are much cleaner, brighter and less crowded than the reality. Portofino proves impressive though.
Before we know it, we’re on the way home, thinking September was a bit of a washout. Until … we walk through our Exmoor door and there waiting for us is an amazing gingerbread replica of our home, made with love and incredible skill by our Ukrainian guests. We are speechless. Such talent and generosity shared in a time of great stress for them. Later, I post a photo of the house on Twitter, which the BBC picks up and before we know it, we’re interviewed on BBC Radio Somerset and there’s an article on the BBC website and another journalist calls for an interview and suddenly we’re all connected in this big old crazy world by cake. That sweet, comforting token denotes grief and celebration and peace and family. We’re all looking for a good news story; something to remind us that everything will be alright if we’re just kind to each other. Baking binds us together.
If Queen Elizabeth II did one thing right, it was instilling in so many a sense of duty, compassion and a work ethic of ‘just get on with it’. I’ll stop wallowing in pity and get on with providing a home for those who sorely need it. And I’ll eat gingerbread until I feel better.
I’ve experienced the concept of ‘home’ in so many varied ways recently I’m starting to think my ‘Write Home’ brand may be taking over my life. Not in the ‘writing a new novel every six months’ kind of way; more in the ‘Will I ever finish a novel again because, well, life’ kind of way. I blame three major August events…
Domestic home front: My mother turned ninety at the beginning of the month. This deserved a family holiday in Cornwall so Mum, three of her daughters and two long-suffering partners set off for a week under one roof. This has never happened before. Someone was always in a different country, on a different shift, unavailable. Out of sync. To have us all together, with nothing to do but chat and reacquaint ourselves with who took which kind of milk in tea, who remembered that time our childhood pony bolted down the high street, or who got the most ‘O’ Levels (ahem… not me), felt strange yet comforting. This family time was, after all, much of the reason I returned to England after so long away. How many major events have I missed over the expat decades? Too many to count, so being able to participate in this milestone will remain a treasured memory. It will also serve as a reminder not to book trips during the school summer holidays. Cornwall is jamming y’all!
International home front: ‘Home’ hit me again as I waved goodbye to my son and daughter-in-law. They’re returning to the USA for a couple of years to pursue graduate degrees. (I’m fine. No, really, I’m fine. Well, not fine but I’m told at the age of thirty our kids get to make their own decisions. Mothers be damned.) My son grew up in the US and his wife is American but when they moved over to the UK a year before I came back, I thought I had them locked in here. Because … well, because I’m gratefully locked in here. During the countdown to them returning to Seattle, I kept thinking England is home to me so surely it’s home to my children too. Why on earth would they choose to go anywhere else? They say they’ll be back, but will they? I only left England for a six-month trip. It turned into thirty-six years. Will the same happen to the next generation? Where is home for them? Do they know yet? Will they spend as much time searching as I did or will it fall into place quicker for them? Their leaving was more of a wrench than I even imagined it would be – and I imagined a lot. But really, I’m fine, though my chocolate consumption may have increased. Unrelated, I’m sure.
Refugee home front: Our Ukrainian refugee family arrived on Exmoor a few days ago. After driving for five days and crossing territory they never dreamed they’d see, heading to a place they never imagined they’d have to consider ‘home’, here they are. Exhausted, stressed, emotional yet so kind and funny and giving. Every inch of their car needed to carry as much of their lives as it possibly could. As they unpacked baking tins, a sewing machine, a skateboard, a ukulele, and a large stack of books, all indicating the life they hoped to rekindle here, I was so touched when they handed me four bars of Ukrainian chocolate. They made room for kindness and they have already turned my orchard apples into apple cake, warming my kitchen and my heart. How do you translate all these emotions? I don’t care how good your language app is, there are words not yet invented and sentence structures not yet complex enough, to convey what it is to lose a home, offer a home, reinvent a home. We will muddle through with hugs and smiles and hope that this new ‘home’ keeps us safe and strong. Together.
Constantly experiencing my ‘Write Home’ brand up close and personal hasn’t quite translated into written pages yet. Once again, the writing has been relegated to the back burner, or more like, a tiny camping stove spluttering out the last drop of gas on a windy mountain top. It’s been so long since my third novel returned from the editor, that drawer writers are supposed to hide the manuscript in for a few months to ‘marinate’ may now be rusted shut. However, the other day, while thinking about how tough it must be to leave everything you know behind, pack only the essentials in your car, and drive off into an uncertain future, that manuscript began whispering to me again. It was fully formed before COVID and before war, but its universal themes of hiraeth and starting over when life feels completely at the whim of others still feels timely. The half-written fourth novel also tiptoed out of the past to tap me on the shoulder with a ‘Hey! Remember me?’. And I did remember it. I mentally fixed a plot hole and experienced the flicker in the belly that signals the writing game is afoot, as Sherlock Holmes would say. Maybe it’s time to break the lock on the manuscript drawer.
I’m not going to lie, experiencing once-in-a-lifetime events almost daily is tiring. The thought of writing again is tiring. The adrenaline keeps me upright but maybe I should be switching to an alternative source of power. That said, adrenaline may be the cheapest energy in England during this fuel crisis – and crisis it is – so I should probably stick with it. I don’t have an adrenaline metre but I’m pretty sure the tank needs topping up. As luck would have it, a trip to Tuscany is just around the corner, planned long before war sent a new family our way. We’ll go anyway. Can’t let the Powers that Be mess up every single part of our lives. As fun as the trip will be, I know returning home will be the icing on the cake.
I hope the birthday celebrations, the family partings, and the arrival of new friends see you all through the tough months ahead. As Sam in ‘Dunster’s Calling’ says, may we all find the place we sleep the best and breathe the deepest’; whether it’s Cornwall, Seattle, Exmoor or anywhere free of bombs and bullets.
Just when you think things can’t get crazier in this old world of ours, another zinger out of left field clocks you up the side of the head. But unlike with COVID and Brexit woes and drought threatening all the new plants I’ve lovingly placed in our Exmoor garden, this zinger at least comes with a silver lining: The Gemmells are about to make new friends because … wait for it … we’re hosting a Ukrainian refugee family.
Yep, you heard me. The Ukrainians are coming to Exmoor. After all, if I, with all my tales of hiraeth and struggles to find my place in the world, don’t understand the need for home and comfort, who does? My situation was never as dire as what so many are going through right now, but I feel great empathy for these families. I watched the TV coverage when war first broke out: Polish men and women standing on train platforms with signs offering sanctuary: no background checks, no prep time. Just goodhearted souls offering a home away from bombs and bullets and I asked myself: could I do that? Could I take in strangers?
At this point in my life, Hubby and I thought things would be settling down. More time to write, more time to travel. More time to be ‘human beings’ instead of ‘human doings’. I didn’t expect to be sharing my house, or working with the local school to place our seven-year-old soon-to-be housemate, or researching outlets for the very creatively talented mother and adult daughter. It’s all moving fast. From finding an organization to match us with a family to finding a family took three days. The local council has moved impressively fast to set up house inspections and link us to background checks. My head is spinning. Can I do this?
Of course I can, especially as community support has been equally as fast coming forward. It took minutes from posting about the family’s imminent arrival on the local Facebook page (with the family’s permission of course) for me to know Hubby and I wouldn’t be alone in this endeavour. The whole community jumped in with offers of beds, playdates, and school uniforms. The local school had literally just broken up for the summer holidays, yet teachers contacted us to offer help and assure us of a warm welcome. A neighbour offered to purchase sneakers as our little friend has outgrown all his clothes since fleeing Ukraine. Another Exmoor author, Tortie Eveleigh at West Ilkerton Farm, offered a free farm tour, a water sports group offered kayaking sessions, the village outdoor clothing shop offered coats and a local fisherman offered to set up our little buddy with fishing gear. And, thankfully for me, to show him how to use it. We’ve even been offered a teddy bear. Every time I check Facebook, I get something in my eye.
We never dreamed we’d be in this position but it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, not just for us, but for this community too. New friends, new experiences. The chance to move beyond the fundraisers and flying flags kind of support to the boots on the ground kind of support. For me personally, it’s the chance to pay back all the times I’ve been in a foreign place and needed the help of strangers. When I first arrived in the United States, someone fed me for three days when a banking snafu left me without funds. A lone man in a truck picked me up from the side of the freeway in Miami and, without murdering me, took me to safety. (Before the days of mobile phones, if your car broke down you put out your thumb and hoped for the best. It was a risk for both parties.) When a rental fell through, a new friend housed me for weeks. More recently, arriving back in this country during a pandemic, a landlord took a risk and rented a house to me without the usual credit checks because we had no credit history in England. Time and time again, strangers stepped up to help.
Our Ukrainian family is taking great risk in traveling so far to strangers. The stakes are incredibly high for them. I can only imagine, as a mother, how scared I’d be for my children. Will they be safe and loved and welcomed as they embark on a path they couldn’t have imagined this time last year? We’ve all needed someone to take a chance on us at some point in our lives. I have spare bedrooms. I live next door to a school and this little boy hasn’t been in a classroom since the war broke out. I have a garden. And a dog who will snuggle this family to the best of his ability. I will try to relieve the hiraeth and heartache they will surely feel. And I will offer them sanctuary on Exmoor, a place that has always soothed my soul and given me peace.
June sees the United Kingdom coming down off the highs of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations. No matter your views of the Monarchy, seventy years in a job means Queen Elizabeth deserves a street party or two, as far as I’m concerned. The country proudly showed the world spectacular pageantry and the beautiful backdrops of our capital city. Hubby and I shared our jovial Jubilee Garden Party with our new neighbourhood, and we stuffed ourselves full of wonderful British cuisine (read sausage rolls, cucumber sandwiches, trifle, and Pimm’s Cups). It was great fun. And the month was supposed to only get better. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned lately it’s that we all live in ‘What The Actual Heck?’ territory now.
June started out with exciting plans. After two whole years apart, my dear friends were due to arrive from the US on June 25th. This was our third attempt to get together. Covid had other plans in 2020 and 2021. Surely, we, and the rest of the planet, had earned smooth sailing for the third go around? Exmoor, The Cotswolds, and London look out! Here we come!
But what the actual heck? I spy on my news feed shortly before our guests’ expected arrival thousands of suitcases waiting at Heathrow to be reunited with owners who’d been wearing the same underwear for a week in Lisbon or Barcelona. That is, if their flight took off at all. Apparently, the UK can’t get background checks completed in a timely manner so airlines and airports can’t rehire enough employees to run a full schedule. And that only matters if you can actually get to the airport.
Those of you following the labour disputes in the UK will understand that Saturday, the day my friends were supposed to arrive, was the third day of the national train strike. What the actual heck, again? Roads would potentially be chaos from London to Exmoor as everyone tried to reach their Cornish beach holiday or Devonshire weekend home or Somerset cream tea. Tumbling off the red eye from Chicago, crumpled, bleary-eyed and stiff, is not exactly fun without the added joy of a possible five-hour traffic jam to deal with once here. But hey, at least we friends would be together at the overcrowded service station or in line for the ladies’ loo, and it would be entertaining to count overheated cars on the hard shoulder of the M5. Unless one of them was ours.
Assuming we survived the motorway tailbacks, we had tickets for The Tower of London and Westminster Abbey. We had a delightful rental cottage in Bourton-on-the-Water waiting, and we had hiking and cream teas and pub lunches and long catchup chats waiting for us on Exmoor. (We decided not to pack the Pimm’s for hiking lunches. Some of our Exmoor coastal footpaths have a long and steep drop into the Bristol Channel.) Fish and chips was obviously on the menu for our friends. I’d even prepared an introductory booklet on why the jam goes on the scone before the clotted cream. As long as planes flew and roads eventually cleared and trains eventually ran and all the cream tea shops stayed open, this would be a trip to remember. We couldn’t wait. I’d spent a lot of time planning to show our friends the best England has to offer during this, their first visit to my homeland. We’d make them just as welcome as if they’d been visiting royalty. Even the full-sized cardboard cut-out of Queen Elizabeth still held court in the living room. She just needed a bit of a dusting after three weeks.
You may have sussed by now the trip didn’t happen. With only days to go before take-off, a ‘What the actual heck?’ freak tick bite rerouted our guests from Heathrow to a US hospital. And just like that, the world seemed to implode on us again. Instead of COVID, it was a different health scare that threw us off kilter. At the same time, the US Supreme Court, henceforth to be known as the ‘What the Actual Heck’ Supreme Court ruled everyone in America (or maybe it was only in New York, but at this point let’s just call it everyone in America as that’s the reality of life there) could carry a concealed weapon, no questions asked. The following day that same WTAH Supreme Court sided with those who deemed no one should be able to access appropriate healthcare. If you’re a woman, that is. If you’re a man, it’s written into the Constitution that Viagra may fall from the sky whenever you push a little blue button. To sum up the Supreme Court’s week, apparently no questions can be asked of anyone wanting a gun but a million questions can be asked of a pregnant woman. By people she has never met. By people who have no knowledge of her personal circumstances and care nothing for her life. Said strangers then get to make judgements and medical decision on her behalf, with no expertise or thought for her privacy. Got it?
Oh, and the Ukrainian war looks ready to expand. All nations are in ‘What The Actual Heck?’ territory now.
I know. This could be construed as a rant. And it is. But it’s also a warning. While we’re focusing on planes and trains and automobiles and where to get the best cream teas and how busy it is at the motorway service station loo, our minds are distracted from two much bigger issues:
Nothing is more important than our health.
Democracy is not inherent. It requires constant vigilance. We the Distracted People are all that stand between sanity and something that doesn’t look or feel anything like sanity. Or democracy.
(And breathe, Tracey. In through your nose. Out through your mouth. That’s it. Good. Repeat.)
Seriously, what the actual heck? I just want to write humorous fiction set in gorgeous locations. That all. But I can’t ignore what’s going on in the world or there will be no humour and no gorgeous locations left. I have to step up and speak out. So, what can I do? Well, I can vote in the US and I can virtually meet a Ukrainian family tomorrow to see if my Exmoor sanctuary can be a sanctuary for them too. I can do little things that hopefully lead to bigger things. I can’t just keep repeating ‘What the actual heck?’ over my morning cereal as I read the news.
The good news is our friend is recovering and the trip is rescheduled. I wish the fix for what ails us on both sides of the Atlantic was as simple as a fistful of antibiotics. It won’t be. But I hope to have the world fixed before my friends arrive later this year. One day at a time, Tracey. One action at a time.
Today is the second anniversary of my leaving the United States for the last time to return home to England. I’ll be spending the day, in fact the whole week, excitedly preparing for my neighbourhood Jubilee party. For those of you living under a rock, the British Commonwealth is celebrating the 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s reign with a four-day special holiday. I’m hosting a garden party on Saturday, which some find odd seeing as my household contains one of the only Americans living in my village. Hubby isn’t known for his monarchist sensibilities. How could he be, given the rigmarole his forebearers went through to get rid of King George III? But here Hubby is, unpacking boxes of bunting, streamers, balloons and flags and wondering why on earth his typically non-baking wife has ordered 180 Union Jack cupcake cases. He’s being a good sport about it. So far. (Wait until he finds out about the full-sized replica of Her Majesty he needs to put together so she can stand at the gate to welcome more than forty guests.) Luckily, Hubby finds it possible to question the place of a monarchy in this century and still have tremendous admiration for someone who has navigated the royal waters for 70 years with aplomb. He agrees with me that anyone who’s kept a job for 70 years deserves respect.
I’ve always loved the pomp and pageantry of the British monarchy. I’ve watched Trooping of the Colour in person and followed the Household Cavalry parade down The Mall. I love the bands and the way crowds of people (who’ve complained all year about everything British from the weather to the price of petrol to the latest football loss to the VAT on biscuits) appear for the Queen’s official birthday celebration decked out in red, white and blue sunglasses and Union Jack capes singing ‘Rule Britannia’ – or some slightly drunken version of it. As a figurehead, Queen Elizabeth still works, thought the intent behind ‘Rule Britannia’ may not.
Hubby and I watched Elizabeth: The Unseen Queen on the BBC. It contained never-before-seen footage of Queen Elizabeth’s life from birth up to scenes from her coronation when she was twenty-five. Twenty-five??!! At twenty-five I doubt I could have been consistently responsible for a goldfish let alone greeting dignitaries from around the world without causing an international incident. Could I have demonstrated such interest in teapot making, or four-year-olds drawing stick queen figures, or a demonstration of the latest battery technology without stifling a yawn or cutting short the official visit to attend a Eurythmics concert instead? Doubtful. Maybe the Queen would have preferred a concert too. It’s not like she was asked if she wanted to take on her royal role. Her Uncle, the abdicating King Edward VIII, made it impossible for her to say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ to it all. To remain so poised and filtered, when she wasn’t born to be queen, takes great discipline, determination, and dedication. That can be admired, even by an American.
Having spent thirty years or so in the USA, hiraeth (a longing for home overlaid with sadness that home may not exist anymore, or perhaps never did) was a constant during my American life. I decided to return to my birthplace for many reasons but one hope was to return while Queen Elizabeth was still on the throne. Her presence has been a stabilizing factor throughout my life; a reminder of my British-ness. Maybe you must spend a long time away from familiar rituals and traditions in order to appreciate them. Once they disappear from your daily life, and no mention is made of them in your adopted homeland, there’s a hole. No Superbowl, no presidential inauguration (certainly not the last few!), no Fourth of July or Thanksgiving can fill that hole. When you’re required to explain your traditions to others, you begin to clarify what they mean to you personally, as opposed to them just ‘being there’. I ask myself why I cry every time I hear Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’, the coronation anthem. What does that magnificent piece of music about a biblical figure, played during the religious anointing of a British king or queen, stir in me? I wasn’t exactly raised in the church. But the moment I hear that music and they place that crown on Elizabeth’s head, I tear up. I tear up when those around her curtsey. I sniffle when I watch her young face in that golden coach stare out at the crowds of subjects, who, for a moment, come together in unity and pride at something so quintessentially British. This is patriotism I suppose. That feeling, however brief, that you are on top of the world. The only ones who can do this particular thing well. And we Brits certainly do a parade well, don’t we?
So here’s to another string of bunting across the swing seat. To another batch of cupcakes with Jubilee toppers. Here’s to keeping the cardboard cut-out of Queen Elizabeth dry from the forecasted rain showers and making sure only respectful photos are taken of her. Here’s to being back home in England during this never-before-achieved milestone event. And most especially, here’s to Queen Elizabeth II. Job well done, Ma’am.
One last thing: here’s to Hubby not mentioning Boston Harbor or Paul Revere. At least for this weekend.
No one said reacclimatizing to a new life in my old country after decades away would be easy – and that was before factoring in pandemics and wars. But here I am, twenty-three months into my Exmoor adventure and for the most part, things are settling down and taking shape. However, there’s always something coming down the pike that throws me for a loop. Here’s my latest battle.
May means local elections. Like many, I’m sure, the thought of voting fills me with a breathy ‘ugh’ along with stomach-churning dread. It seems, wherever we live, leadership and those that represent ‘us’ are failing in their mission to, well, lead and represent. ‘What’s the point?’ is the voting battle cry of the moment, at a time when ‘What’s the point?’ glares at us down the barrel of a gun in Ukraine, down the massive fire hoses spitting at climate change-induced wildfires, and down the lines of people queuing outside food pantries due to cost-of-living increases gone ballistic. ‘What’s the point?’ The point seems to be the very existence of the planet. Ugh, indeed.
The good news about being back in England is that ‘election season’ only lasts weeks here, not years as it does in the United States. Wall-to-wall television attack ads don’t interrupt everything from Christmas specials to Fourth July concerts to Thanksgiving movies. That’s the good news. The bad news is I’ve been gone for so long I need to put a great deal of time and effort into finding out where I belong on the political spectrum at this point in my life. I haven’t voted in my home country in decades. I lost the right to vote once I’d lived outside the country for fifteen years. I didn’t have the right to vote in the US for most of my thirty years there as I wasn’t a US citizen until 2019. My guilt at not stopping what happened in 2016 pushed me to intervening in 2020. But I’m a rusty participant in UK politics. Though I’ve kept an eye on the goings on from afar, I don’t have in-depth knowledge of the nuances anymore. Much has changed since John Major and Neil Kinnock were party leaders back in the 90s. I know more about what I don’t want than what I want, but I can’t complain if I don’t step up and research my options.
At my US citizenship swearing in ceremony in Wisconsin, the eloquent and impressive Judge Nancy Joseph said the US wasn’t a perfect country. (Same can be said of any country. Certainly, the post-Brexit UK I’ve returned to is less than perfect. Teasing apart what’s due to Brexit, what to Covid and what to war – the unholy Trinity of the 2020s – will take more brainpower than I possess.) But Judge Joseph said it was now our duty as newly naturalised citizens to leave the US in better shape than we found it. I promised Judge Joseph I would do that, then decided America would never be home for me and left. So now Judge Joseph echoes in my head about improving the UK. I must leave my birth country in in better shape than I found it on my return. But how?
With an open bag of chocolate Minstrels sitting unashamedly on my lap, I begin the task of identifying my place in the UK political system. I open a tab for each UK party manifesto. Well, that’s all very confusing. I need to take a step back and begin at the beginning by asking myself: ‘What am I politically?’ I write a list:
TIRED. Which party represents the tired? Can’t see it in any of the manifestos on the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats, or Green Party websites. Guessing that can’t be my defining political quality, then.
DECENT. Whatever that means.
CONFUSED. Who isn’t?
INCLUSIVE. A buzzword every party spouts while excluding someone.
FISCALLY RESPONSIBLE. Again, buzzed, spouted, then trampled upon by Every. Single. Party.
ENVIRONMENTALLY CONSCIOUS. Buuuuuzzzzzzzzzzzz! It’s like sitting inside a beehive during a honey rave complete with black and yellow-striped DJ and speakers set to dynamite level. So much buzz. So little action. From anyone.
How the heck am I to vote?
I try looking at the character of individuals to see if I can build a framework for a party and my place in it based on its chosen leaders. Leaders need a basic moral spine, a set of principles that guide their judgement based on world knowledge, human compassion, rationality … And here words fail me. One look at what dominates the headlines on both sides of The Pond strongly hints (foghorn blasts!) the possibility the basics must be completely lacking in order to win elections. My father always said about politicians that the attributes necessary to get the job should preclude you from the job; his rationale for never voting. But surely when we give up fighting for better we give up on ever injecting some of ourselves into the process, allowing these nonrepresentative ‘others’ to lead us further and further away from the world we want. (Again, my guilt at not being able to vote for so long weighs me down here.) While local election candidates don’t seem to reach the level of national figures in this regard, local elections are a springboard, so we need to be careful who we set upon the first rungs of the ladder, right?
I recently participated in an interview on BBC Radio Devon and was asked to choose four songs that represented my life. (Try it yourself. Tougher than you think.) But one of the songs I chose was Seal’s ‘Crazy’. Originally written about the chaotic times around the fall of the Berlin Wall and Tiananmen Square and all the promise of world-change, it also heralded the beginning of my own world change as I married and moved to America. Within months of me moving back to England thirty years later, that world shift is happening again: Ukraine, climate crisis, millions more moving into poverty, pulling up the drawbridges against marauders from global refugee camps without addressing root causes. Crazy. Seal suggests we get a little crazy if we want to survive. And I do. Want to survive.
CRAZY. I add it to the list. Who represents the crazy?
It hits me. Crazy world leaders do in fact represent us all. We’re all crazy, either in what we believe or in what we tolerate or in what we expect. After exhaustive research, I conclude any party can represent the crazy; but I still must decide which level of crazy I’m going to vote for. I scroll slowly through all the open tabs for political parties in the UK. I wish I’d never asked the ‘What am I politically?’ question, because confused is definitely at the top of the list.
Last week I received The Email. Yes, THAT email. The one from the editor that filled me with both crippling anxiety and spine-tingling excitement. Attached to said email was the edited manuscript for my third novel, entitled Life Like Lavender. Anyone who’s undergone the excruciating and/or joyous journey of birthing a book understands this is the moment the book lets out either an ecstatic scream (‘I’m here world! You may love me now!’) or a pitiful whimper (‘I suspect I may be premature so ready the incubator’). For most of us it’s more a case of ‘I’m here world but a shot of adrenaline in that warm incubator wouldn’t go amiss.’
Yep. The Email was a big deal. I contemplated a week hidden under the comforter, munching cookie dough ice cream in-between slugs of chocolate syrup straight from the bottle before my brain computed the editor mentioned a few scented blossoms amongst the piles of compost. Great, he noticed the blossoms. Good, he noticed the compost that, allowed to mature, may produce better blooms. Darn it, he noticed the raw excrement that no amount of time will fix. It will always stink.
A few days after The Email arrived, I tucked the ice cream pot under my arm for safe keeping, placed the chocolate syrup bottle in the car’s cupholder for easy access and headed off to a Horticultural Society plant fair. I’m passionate about gardening and what better distraction from editing than a warm sunny day surrounded by discussions about variegated leaves and whether a one-metre-tall evergreen myrtle constitutes a mid-front border or mid-back border shrub?
Strolling around the plant stalls I find pots of Snowflake bulbs (Leucojum vernum, if you speak horticultural Latin). £5 for four bulbs. Well, for goodness sake! My garden back on Exmoor is overrun with Snowflakes! I mean huge, beautiful drifts of them, clumping in the vegetable garden, poking through stone walls and setting up encampments under every shrub. I adore them but there are probably more than I need. Eureka! I could give up writing and just sell Snowflake bulbs from my doorstep. All I need to do is decide which clumps stay and which ones go.
On the drive home, the car filled with plants that obviously couldn’t be left behind for risk of finding themselves in the ‘wrong hands’, I contemplated the editing of books and gardens. What to keep, what to dig up, what to work on, what to give up on. But therein lies the rub. One gardener’s invasive weed is another gardener’s ornamental show piece. One reader’s boring paragraph is another reader’s deep reflection. Which do I cut? Which do I cultivate? Whether words or plants, I’m just going to have to keep digging and sowing, pruning and uprooting, until I get the ratio right. Luckily, two wonderfully knowledgeable landscapers and one insightful and generous editor are there to help with shaping decisions.
Jettison the ice cream, Tracey! Dump the chocolate syrup! (Maybe one more mouthful.) Keep all the Snowflakes you love, no matter where they are in the garden. Give away the rest. Keep all the words you love, even if they need a little TLC. Cut the rest. Don’t look back. Plant your garden and tell your story the way you see it.
Editing: a process each writer and gardener must go through to achieve the ideal blend of perfect words or gorgeous blooms. Let’s get started.