In Wisconsin, the last two days witnessed savage war: Man against the Elements. With air temperatures of negative 26F and wind chills in the negative 50F range, surviving the coldest polar vortex in a generation was all I could hope for. I was home alone; my husband delaying his return from a business trip as travel in these conditions was too dangerous. It was me against the world. But I had an ally. My house.
Home had to
become more than a peaceful, cosy sanctuary. It had to morph into an escape
pod, a foxhole, a superhero friend in the worst of times. As the winds picked
up, the snow churned and the world turned to black of night, my survival
depended on my house. Would it stand up to temperatures it was never tested to
withstand? Would the windows fail, the pipes burst, the roof cave in? This all
crossed my mind during the vortex days and the long, long vortex nights.
I helped as much as I could: opened all the bathroom cabinet doors to let heat in around the pipes, covered curtain-less windows, turned lights on in the garage because if I’d tried to do it once the temperatures plummeted, the bulbs could explode.
But I could do little. My house took the brunt of it. It suffered for me. I listened to it scream. Cryoseisms ‒ known as frost quakes ‒ occurred all through the day and night. The boom and pop shook the house as the foundations fought against the freezing ground. The siding contracted in bursts like exploding vinyl popcorn, the windows bowed against the wind. Those windows! I hurt for those windows. As the snow piled up on them and the glass oozed ice, both inside and out, they wept real tears during their herculean efforts to protect me. I soothed them as best I could, wiping their eyes with soft towels and whispering to them to hold on, stay with me now. Just a little longer. But I had to leave them to check on the commander of the battle: the furnace. Would it hold out? Would the fuel line rupture as the ground froze deeper than ever before? If the furnace lost the battle, the war was over. I turned the light on for it so it wouldn’t fight valiantly alone in the dark. It needed to know its efforts were appreciated. That someone cared about its survival. I cared. My dog, Watson, cared. My photo albums, my computers, my artwork, my books, my indoor rosemary plant – we all cared. Fight on, brave furnace! Wisconsin Forever!
It held! My house
held! The bricks and the glass and the wood and the concrete and the wiring and
the gas line and the furnace held! I could cry with gratitude! I hug the walls
and kiss the patio doors, aware some houses didn’t hold. Rooves caved in from the
snow, fires erupted from broken power lines, houses drowned in waterpipe
breaks. Those houses tried, too. But these were times for extraordinary houses.
Mine was one of them.
How do I thank it? For holding off the onslaught, for protecting me against a frigid Armageddon? New coat of paint? Not nearly enough. So I hereby award my house a title. An honourable title.
Arise, High Commander of Highland Drive. Long live the King!
Note: I’m fully aware there were others in this battle with me: power company workers, water main fixers, snow plough drivers, emergency personnel, construction workers, fuel delivery drivers, architects, to name a few. I thank them all from the bottom of my heart. And my biggest thanks of all goes to those working to keep the homeless safe. You are true heroes.
There are pros to
life as a rolling stone: a global perspective, varied opportunities, a trail of
diverse friendships, strong adaptive skills. Cons: an outsider’s perspective, constant
regrouping, new rules. (Did you know you can display the Union Jack instead of
a licence plate on the front of your car in Connecticut, but not in Wisconsin? ‘Officer,
I didn’t know that. Thanks for informing me in front of everyone with blue
lights flashing and your hand on your gun.’ Some relocation lessons are
hard-earned, but for the most part they add zest to life.
Despite my wanderlust,
I find myself envious of those who’ve remained in an area long enough to pull
back the curtain; to know all the workings of a place. As I build momentum for
a move back to England, I thought it may be helpful to find someone who knows
Exmoor like that.
Nigel journeyed to Exmoor via Hampshire,
Nottingham, and London. He’s worked for
the National Trust for forty years ‒ mostly on Exmoor ‒ currently as the Projects
and Grants Manager for the Holnicote Estate. (From the ochre-tinted cottages of
Selworthy to the peak of Dunkery Beacon, the Holnicote Estate comprises most of
what I call home.) Nigel’s bio says
he’s ‘passionate about the countryside, wildlife, music and cooking good food!’
Sounds like someone I should meet.
We shake hands in
the car park at Horner, a tiny hamlet at the foot of Horner Wood ‒ an 800-acre
section of the Holnicote Estate. Blue skies greet us after days of rain. We
head off into what Nigel calls his ‘favourite temperate rainforest’. This is
one of my favourite spots too. Horner Water burbles through the predominantly
sessile oak woodlands. Cloutsham Ball sits at the top of the steep combe,
presiding over dramatic views of Hurlstone and beyond. Dunkery Beacon towers
over all. On horseback or on foot, I feel cosily cocooned here. It’s the
location of one of my favourite benches in the world.
I thought I knew this place quite well. Turns out I knew little but the trails. Nigel knows every turn in the river, every plant, every historical detail, including the locations of at least two Iron Age hill forts near by. He points to a raised earthen berm topped with mature trees, a testament to the Tudor Age men who rerouted the river to facilitate their iron ore industry. Yes, they moved the river. I didn’t know that. We cross it via a small bridge. Nigel explains the bridge timbers were replaced by iron railway lines, recycled from the West Somerset Railway. He shows me pollarded trees, a pruning technique used for encouraging young growth for fencing and ship-building. I’d never noticed their unusual shape. As we climb, we pass a storm-ravaged oak, its trunk fractured into a stunning natural sculpture. Nigel tells me the year it happened. He conveys an unspoken understanding it is worthy of note, as though the tree is a friend. Oaks here can be upwards of seven hundred years old. I feel a need to spend a few respectful moments with the mangled tree.
As we admire the
view across to Wales, I comment on the amount of holly covering the slopes. I
don’t remember there being this much of it in the undergrowth. Nigel see it as
a rather pesky plant. Since the reduction of sheep grazing in the National Park
‒ a result of agri-environment grants to reduce the impact of trampling and
damage to heather moorland ‒ holly has taken over. During research, I discover “Holnicote”
may trace its roots to the Anglo-Saxon word for holly ‒ holegn. Therefore, its dominance here may be well established.
I remember more mistletoe. I saw so much of it from the saddle years ago. Nigel tells me there’s less now, but still some near Timberscombe. Anything I notice Nigel can explain, whether it be acidic soil, resulting in fewer native flowering plants, or policy change and its impact on vegetation. He shares more: Greater than 440 species of large fungi can be found in Horner Wood. It’s considered by some the most important woodland for fungi after Windsor Great Park and the New Forest. Horner Wood is also one of the richest bat sites in the United Kingdom, boosting fourteen of the seventeen UK breeding species, including the rare Barbastelle. This may explain how busy Liz Bradshaw is, Nigel’s wife. She’s an expert, regularly consulting on all things bat.
We come to a monitoring station on the banks of the river. I can’t imagine what it’s doing out here. Of course, Nigel knows. He’s part of a research project called the Multi-Objective Flood Management Demonstration Scheme. The equipment at the station collects water flow data every five minutes. Using this information, flooding in the Bossington area ‒ where Horner Water enters the Bristol Channel ‒ has been significantly reduced. Modern science buried deep in the ancient forest. Who knew? I wonder what Tudor Man would think of this technology and if it would have impacted decisions to move the river. Maybe Horner folk considered Bossington folk too far away to worry about.
What’s it like to
know a place so well, to be so acutely attuned to its strengths and weaknesses?
It comes at a cost, Nigel feels. Not all is smooth sailing in Camelot. His job sees
him sharing information with Exmoor residents on controversial and divisive
topics, such as Brexit and the banning of hunting. It hasn’t always made him
popular. Exmoor, as seemingly remote from Parliament and Europe and US politics
as anywhere, still exists alongside current issues. That’s a good wakeup call for
me. Escaping world complexities is not what Exmoor is all about.
We discuss the
biggest changes over the thirty years I’ve been away. Nigel feels the number of
visitors, the extension of the tourist season, and the purposes for which they
visit can be viewed as blessings and curses. They change the special qualities
of Exmoor. Landscape and wildlife pay a price for successful Exmoor businesses,
such as adventure tours, hotels and shops. “Erosion, with its inherent
soil loss and water run-off is becoming a real problem,” Nigel says. This
translates into a decline in upland wildlife. He continues, “Curlew, ring
ouzel, merlin, whinchat, stonechat, grasshopper warbler – all disappeared or
rapidly disappearing from Exmoor.” It’s a familiar dilemma in areas of
outstanding beauty: the very businesses necessary to sustain an area can damage
it. Nigel feels strongly about this. “National Parks should not put recreation
above biodiversity.” I promise to remember this.
moss-covered stone walls and the quintessential wooden pathway signs. It’s all
breathtakingly beautiful to me. I ask about other places Nigel enjoys. Apparently,
Badachro, in Wester Ross, Scotland speaks to him of home as I define it: the
place you sleep the best and breathe the deepest. “It reminds me of Exmoor thirty
years ago,” he says. “A wild, untamed, wildlife-rich landscape that excites me
every time I visit.” Recently announcing his retirement, Nigel plans to spend
more time in Scotland. As my face falls – but
we haven’t got to the ‘cooking good food’ part of your bio yet! – he
assures me Exmoor will still feature prominently in his life. Its diversity of
landscapes and wildlife, its cultural richness, including archaeological
evidence of 5000-year-old communities, its wild appeal and remoteness ‒ while
only two hours from Bristol and Exeter ‒ all keep him passionate about Exmoor.
We exit the trees just above the old watermill and head back to the cars. I cherish a whole new appreciation for Horner Wood, but Nigel makes me realize just how much I don’t know about my ‘home’. Or anywhere for that matter – the curse of the constantly rolling stone. I can tell you Bora Bora is surrounded by surreal turquoise waters, the central California coast, though ravaged by fire and landslides, is still beautiful, that the brutal winter storms of Wisconsin produce stunning natural snow sculptures. I can tell you Bahamian sea water is too warm in August, your feet will get wet in Venice, and New Zealand’s volcanic and glacial topography never fails to impress. I can tell you where they serve a great tres leches cake in Costa Rica and that the Brazilian rainforest is vast. What I can’t give you is depth. I can’t express a connection forged by time. But I want to know Exmoor; to pull back the curtain and learn to greet a tree like an old friend. It will take a while. And that’s okay.
Many thanks, Nigel, for sharing your knowledge, and for your commitment to Exmoor.
If you caught yesterday’s blog, you’ll know I paid a visit to the West Somerset Morris dancers as part of my ongoing effort to reconnect with my English roots. It was a success. I left the session feeling more English than when I arrived, which shouldn’t have been a surprise. Witnessing part of something so intrinsically English is bound to stir the old DNA. But something did surprise me. I hadn’t expected to meet so many kindred spirits. Several WSM members recognized and understood the pull of home. They had also left their birth places before connecting in Somerset. I found out more about them during the tea break …
didn’t used to serve tea during practice ‒ until women joined WSM in 2015.
Thank goodness for women, I say. As the kettle boils, I get to corner a few of
the members to ask: why Morris dancing and why Somerset?
For several WSM
members, Somerset is where they were born. Mitch, Reg, Dudley, Peter, Joe,
Edmund and Ray have called Minehead, Watchet, Taunton or Bishops Lydeard home
forever. Other members followed somewhat more circuitous routes to Somerset.
Like Kathy and Andrew, husband and wife, who lived for several years in New
Zealand. Retiring in Yorkshire, their desire to be active members of a
Morris led them to Somerset. Though a passion for the dance attracted them to
the Southwest, they happily report considering the area home now.
After a four-year
stint in Africa, Nicky explored the rest of the world with her husband,
Malcolm. It was a trip to visit the in-laws in Porlock that led to permanent
residency on Exmoor. Nicky’s always enjoyed Morris music and as soon as women
were invited to join WSM, she jumped in. Or is that cross-hopped in? ‘Dancing
with the Morris is such an uplifting experience,’ Nicky says. ‘The men are
hilarious, as you may have noticed.’ Yes. I have noticed.
Anne moved to Somerset seven years ago. She was delighted when the West Somerset Morris asked ladies to join. In her opinion, the WSM is the best thing about Somerset. Barbara was born in London, moving to Somerset thirty years ago. She didn’t hesitate to join WSM as soon as women were allowed. She tells me the group makes everyone so welcome, it’s like family to her now. I’m starting to get that sense after only an hour in the group’s company.
Edwin, who plays
the concertina, was born in Watford, near my birthplace in Hertfordshire. He
studied Classics at Oxford and came to Somerset ‒ via a stint in Manchester ‒
to be closer to his wife’s family. This is Edwin’s fiftieth year as a musician
for WSM. He requires no sheet music, just the name of the dance and he’s off ‒
foot tapping, eyes half closed, lost in the moment. He tells me it’s the people
here that make Somerset home. As I witness the jovial comradery in this village
hall, I believe him.
Steve washes the
mugs while I dry. His story is unique. Having spent his life in Oxfordshire, he
dabbled in genealogy after retiring. Unbeknownst to him, five generations of
his family were out of Watchet, a Somerset coastal community. Upon discovering
this, he felt drawn back to his ancestral lands and here he is now: a
It’s an interesting mix of experiences: those who remained settled in one place and those who found home later in life. Both groups feel it’s important to perpetuate the traditions of Somerset and Exmoor. I’m shown memorabilia saved from each public display. Photos and flyers preserve happy faces outside pubs and on village greens and at Christmas celebrations. All proceeds from displays go to charity. This year WSM are supporting Halway Manor Library, The Air Ambulance and Southwest Children’s Hospice. Good fun and good citizenship. Win-win.
I ask Squire Joe
if he considers Morris a re-enactment of the past or whether it is, in fact,
forging ahead, making new traditions. He thinks it’s both. Times change: women
join, tea breaks are added, and they don’t drink as much alcohol during
displays anymore ‒ that’s what Joe tells me anyway. When asked about the main
draw to join the Morris, Joe feels it’s a fun hobby that encourages members to
connect to place, time and each other.
Sounds good to me
‒ ancient dance woven into the fabric of society. Dance aside, I see a pattern
here: people searching for connection and home. Whether through ancestry or fluke,
there’s a shared desire to be part of traditions that both precede and outlive
us. I vow to weave myself back into England as soon as possible.
I wish you home
for the holidays, wherever that is for you.
I heartily thank
the West Somerset Morris for their kind welcome. The hilarity was a bonus!
‘I’m off to find
England. MY England’, I announce to my American husband. ‘Great,’ he says.
‘Bring back some Club biscuits.’ Tut. Eyeroll. Like Club biscuits epitomise my national
identity. (They’ll be in my luggage anyway.) But if not Club biscuits, what exactly
is ‘My England’? I’ve met many Brits abroad who crave the comfort of all we
left behind, without being able to pinpoint what that is. Hiraeth (or hireth,
Cornish spelling) ‒ a deep yearning for home with a sense of loss ‒ has taught
me to beware the rose-tinted dangers inherent in returning to the land of my
birth. After all, what exactly do I think I’m returning to?
Sounds like a fieldtrip’s
in order. I head across the Pond to search for …well, England. A white
handkerchief flashes in my peripheral vision. Enter the West Somerset Morris.
Morris dancing, that most quintessential of ancient English folk dances, prances proudly through my youth. May Day festivities, royal jubilees, Christmas pub crawls, the Morris dancers were always there in sashes, tabards and tatter jackets. The sounds of the concertinas and fiddles blending with the bells attached to the dancers’ shins. To the rest of the world, the scene may be evocative of cosy murder mysteries; Morris dancers used as a cinematic cue we’re in jolly, quaint, quirky, hankie-flapping England. It’s bound to be one of the dancers who trips over the dead body.
But I digress.
I’m here to discover my connection to this English tradition. The West Somerset
Morris is brave enough to let me visit a practice session.
I drive to
Sampford Brett, a village just outside Exmoor National Park. As I check
directions to the village hall, a peal of bells makes me smile. I roll down my rental
car window. The joyful tones cascade from the church belfry and wash over me;
memories of childhood Sunday evenings. Nowhere else in the world do bells sound
like this. But I mustn’t tarry. The Morris waits for no one. Gathering up my
pen and camera, I pull open the door to the village hall, and step inside the
beating heart of English tradition.
greets me ‒ Bagman an infinitely more interesting title than secretary. Ray is
also the Foreman of this Morris, aka the dance teacher. Next, I meet Squire Joe
(the leader). Other dancers arrive. In a corner, the musicians set up: fiddle,
concertina and flute.
I’m placed in a
safe position at the side of the hall – there are spinning bodies to avoid
after all. Members line up and the music starts. Foreman Ray names the dances
for me: Maid of Mill, Banbury Bill, Nuts in May (this one involves chunky sticks.
I’m here to tell you, they don’t hold back in taking swings at each other),
Border Dance, Skirmish, Jenny Lind, to name but a few. It’s a chilly night but
there’s soon a sweat on brows. This is a workout and then some.
carefully round the perimeter to take photos as Foreman Ray calls out dance
steps. Squire Joe wants more energy from the dancers. The dancers want Squire
to take smaller lateral steps so the lines remain true. This is an art steeped
in tradition, and members are sticklers for maintaining form. I try a discreet little
hop step myself. It’s harder than it looks.
During the tea
break, I ask the group about their own roots and ties, both to this dance and
this part of the country. Members recount stories of global travel,
coincidences and genealogical flukes. These stories follow tomorrow in Part II.
their tea. The fiddle, flute and concertina fire up, and they’re off again ‒
sticks clanking and whoops whooping. The steps have exotic names like
Whole-Hey, Half-Gyp, Caper, Hockle Back and Cross-Hop. Handkerchiefs must be
flicked outwards from chest level, no lower. Ray explains these little details
distinguish one Morris from another and one area of the country from another.
It’s fascinating. I’m so joining the Morris when I move back here!
Or so I think until Bagman hands me a pair of handkerchiefs and invites me onto the floor for the final dance. Let’s just say, it’s a good job I wasn’t trusted with the sticks. As I cavort gamely, trying not to trip anyone while flicking my handkerchiefs with abandon, I’m reminded of the description of Morris dancing in Cecil J. Sharp’s book, The Morris, written in 1907: ‘…the Morris dance is a bodily manifestation of vigour and rude health, and not at all of sinuous grace or dreaminess.’ I may have the rude bit down as I crash around. No one declares I dance with ‘sinuous grace’. Maybe I’m a natural after all.
All too soon, it’s 10pm and practice is over. Ray tells me I’ve only been privy to half the experience so far. It’s on to the pub for a pint, as much a part of Morris as anything, with its history steeped in ale since mediaeval times. Unfortunately, I have an early assignment tomorrow, so have to pass on the offer. Good excuse to come back for the rest of my education though.
I wind along the inky-black
lanes towards Porlock, wrapped in a sense of history, of belonging, of roots. Was
it the dance? The tea? The tradition? The comradery? Yes. Yes, it was.
I’ll never take
for granted the work and dedication of individuals preserving traditions. They
mean so much to the expatriate ‒ this one, anyway. Can I fully explain my
connection to home? Not really. It just is. But I reconnected with part of my
England in a tiny hall in a tiny village, dancing with people I’d never met. I
found kindred spirits in the jingling heart of my home, complete with church bells
and Morris bells. I can’t thank the West Somerset Morris enough for pulling me back
into the dances of England.
I’ve just returned to the United States from a promotional book tour in England for Dunster’s Calling. Let me repeat that. I’ve just returned from a promotional book tour in England. I know, I know. You heard me the first time. But I needed to hear it again myself. You see, I can’t quite believe it happened. I’m not very good at self-promotion. I’m better at sitting alone and writing. I knew I had to ‘do’ social media to build my brand, but I questioned its efficacy. In all that noise, no one hears you, right?
It’s still hard to believe that a Facebook post led to a live presentation. Oh, and did I mention the BBC called? (I’d repeat that but I’m afraid I’d lose you, so I won’t repeat that the BBC called.) I write fiction so you’re right to check my credibility and/or mental state. That’s why I took photos to verify the account that follows …
After writing my debut novel, Dunster’s Calling, I thought the hard part of being an author was over. Ha! Marketing a novel, as it turns out, is much harder than writing it. But I got stuck in on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. My social media strategy was 1) to establish why I was the person to write this story of an expat’s search for home, while exuding humour (well, my mum thinks I’m funny), and 2) to connect potential readers with the setting for my novel: Exmoor, a National Park in England’s southwestern peninsular. I felt as soon as potential readers saw Exmoor’s beauty, they’d want to read a book in which that glorious setting becomes a central character. My job would be done and sales would roll in. So I posted photos of thatched cottages and moorland views over the Bristol Channel. Based on follower reactions to the photos, the beauty of Exmoor struck a chord. However, the translation into book sales was less … struck chord-y.
As time passed, I grew weary of battling to promote through social media, of limited traction, of endlessly attempting to drown out the ‘you-just-can’t-do-marketing’ voices. I almost gave up, deciding social media was a time suck and no one was listening anyway.
But someone was listening. Someone I’d never met. Someone who saw my photos while setting up her new store that sells all things Exmoor. Enter Elke.
Elke is also an expat, moving from Germany to England nearly twenty years ago. Maybe my tale of life in a foreign country, of homesickness and of the pull of Exmoor spoke to her. Anyway, she asked me to write a guest blog for her website and to provide some signed copies of my book for her store in Minehead, Somerset. I did so, gratefully. I figured that was the job finished ‒ until Elke asked if I’d be interested in giving a talk at the store.
Why, yes. Yes, I am interested.
I book my flight.
I arrive in England to discover Elke has sent press releases far and wide. There’s a writeup in the paper and an invite to record an interview for West Somerset Radio, to be played on air the next day. Before I know it, I’m sitting in a sound studio, headphones on, mic check done, Bryan Leaker counting me in: three, two, one … ‘Tell us about Dunster’s Calling’. Bryan makes me laugh, despite my nerves, and offers to give away a copy of the book in a competition on the show. I sign a copy like it’s no big deal.
It’s a very big deal, to me.
I leave the studio after my first radio interview. It’s more than I ever dreamed possible and I return to the place I’m staying for celebratory tea and biscuits. The interview plays the next morning and I listen in, disbelieving it’s my own voice on the radio. There’s more disbelief to come.
The phone rings. It’s Broadcast Assistant Luke, for the Simon Parkin Breakfast Show on BBC Somerset. They’d like me to come into the studio for a live radio segment early Saturday morning. I believe Luke said he was pitching me the idea of possibly appearing on the show. I believe I said he didn’t need to pitch very hard. We record some promotional soundbites while talking. Long after Luke hangs up, I’m still staring at the phone in my hand.
It’s an early start Saturday morning to drive to Taunton in heavy rain. I’m not exactly displaying nerves of steel. More like nerves of wet noodles. Impostor syndrome goads from the passenger seat. But I needn’t have worried. I’m greeted with a cup of tea, a welcome tour of the impressive new BBC studios, and a friendly chat with another guest waiting to go on air; a veteran commemorating one hundred years since the end of WWI. Simon Parkin comes out of his studio to introduce himself before showing me to my seat.
No headphones this time, a glowing red light says we’re on air and Simon leads me expertly and kindly through my first live interview. At the end, he asks me to come back soon. Maybe he says that to everyone, being such a gracious host, but at this point I don’t care. I’ll come back soon.
Floating on air, I return to Minehead to prepare for an afternoon author event in the gallery section of The Exmoor Store. Elke has filled the space with homey furnishings and artwork, all produced locally. The kettle’s on. Guests arrive, and I’m engaged in a wonderful hour of sharing stories of travel and the meaning of home with delightful people. It’s all surreal. Because I’m enjoying it! Me! Enjoying promoting! Words I never thought you’d hear coming from my lips.
There’s security for introverts (as most writers tend to be) in posting to an audience you can’t see. Hiding behind your keyboard, it’s easy to get comfortable there, to not push yourself out into the world, to blame all the other voices for drowning you out. Connection to readers and listeners can feel tenuous in our lonely writing spaces. The last few days have reminded me being a writer is only half the equation; readers/listeners/followers complete the whole. They aren’t as scary as you may think when you first begin the process of building your brand.
I’ve asked myself many times if social media is a productive use of my time as an author. I now have the answer. Yes. It. Is.
I have more stories to share from my recent trip and will be blogging about them in the weeks ahead. Until then, I can only say how grateful I am to all out there in Social Media World and to offer this advice: If you’re an author struggling to be heard, don’t give up. You never know who’s listening. Sometimes it’s no one. And sometimes it’s just the person you need. Thanks, Elke.
Here’s the link to the BBC Somerset interview. (If link won’t play in your location, try logging into BBC Sounds and searching Simon Parkin 11/10/18.) My segment begins at about 1:53.00: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p06pswh8
There are certain joys in traveling alone. No debate about which museum to visit. The ability to stare at the waves for hours without someone reminding you it’s past dinner time. Ah, yes. Freedom. Independence. The Solo Open Road.
Unless you need to pee. Then solo is not your friend. The following is a true story. Weak of heart? Look away.
A public toilet at a train station in England; the public toilet charging 50p, that doesn’t say it charges 50p at the top of the long flight of stairs down into the dark basement. There’s a turnstile gate at the entrance to the toilets with a torn sign. It informs you of the need for correct change. You have no change, having just arrived in the country and in possession of only large bills because the ATM failed to predict your need for coins. The sign also informs you the change machine is back up the stairs you just came down. You reclimb the stairs, dragging your suitcase, get the change and make your way back down the stairs to the turnstiles gate.
You look around. There’s nowhere to push your suitcase through the turnstile to the other side. You ask yourself, aren’t you at a major train station in a major tourist city where the probability of travellers having a suitcase is pretty high? A polite ‘ahem’ from behind. The line is backing up.
You help three elderly ladies lift their cases over the turnstile. You fumble with your money before dropping a coin out of reach the other side of the barrier. Luckily, one of the elderly travellers sees your distress and kicks the 20p back to you because she can’t bend over to pick it up. You gingerly retrieve the coin from the dust bunnies and god knows what bacteria piled up in the corner, using only your finger nail tips, vowing to wash your hands before you use the toilet. You feed the money into the slot. Three times. On the fourth attempt, the machine recognises the currency.
Wrestling your suitcase to waist level, you’re reminded of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo gun race. Super-human teams of soldiers ‒ young, ultra-fit soldiers ‒ dismantle a huge cannon, run the enormous wheels, wooden trestles and iron gun barrels down an obstacle course, heave it over a twelve-foot wall, run to the end and reassemble the cannon in less than a minute. Only your suitcase is heavier than the cannon because, well, you need a change of shoes to go with each outfit, and you prefer ‘real’ books to e-readers and you happen to read very fast so a book a day for two weeks isn’t unreasonable. Using every available body part, including your chin, you manoeuvre the suitcase. It drops like a super tanker anchor the toilet side of the gate and you’re in. You seriously need to pee now.
You attempt to wash your hands because the thought of the hand that touched the coin that touched the Ebola-laden dust bunnies is never going to touch the toilet paper that touches .. well, you know. But neither the automated faucet, the soap dispenser, nor the dryer recognise your existence; like you’re some kind of vampire, only you can see your reflection in the scratched, graffiti-covered metal plate passing for a mirror and no one’s waving garlic in your face so you must exist. The lady next to you gets her water to run just fine so you wait patiently and move to her sink. You remain undetectable to that sink’s gremlins also. Did I mention you need to pee?
Wiping your still bacteria-laden hands on your jeans, you approach a cubicle. It’s narrower than the airplane seat you spent the night in. The door opens inwards. You have a suitcase.
You have two choices: leave the suitcase outside and pray it will be there when you come out. But … the books! Or pee with the toilet door open, leaning forward at a 90-degree angle with at least ‒ hopefully ‒ half your backside over the toilet, holding onto your suitcase handle while trying to remember what the fine for indecent exposure is in London.
‘Don’t worry, luv. I’ll watch your bag.’
You look around for the voice and a large woman in standing next to you, arms folded, no suitcase of her own in sight. You have questions about her character: is she an avid reader? And her physical attributes: does she wear the same-sized shoe as you?
But I need to pee.
Then risks must be taken.
Maybe she does this for a living? Spends all day in the toilet watching bags that disappear while desperate travellers pee.
Look. Do you need to pee or not?
‘Er. Thank you.’ The door slams and you fiddle with the broken lock, deciding the only thing for it is to jam one foot against the door once you’ve sat down.
And for one brief moment, all is right with the world. The relief! Sun shines into your underground cubby. You’re in a meadow strewn with flowers. Is that birdsong you hear? For the first time since Heathrow, you take a deep cleansing breath. Never repeated because the lady next door is having obvious … difficulties. Remembering where you are and that your books are in jeopardy, you snap out of it.
Are the shoes you can barely see under the door the same ones the bag-watching lady was wearing when you first entered your WC coffin? Damn it! Should have taken a photo of them for the police report later. Now, you have one foot jammed against the door while bent double at the waist trying to keep an eye on the shoes. You feel you’re participating in some kind of warmup routine for the Royal Ballet. Your ham strings scream and your hip pops ominously. Using the toilet paper holder for support, you manage to hoist yourself back upright and zip your jeans faster than an atom heads around the CERN particle accelerator.
You fling the door open. There is a god! Your bag is there! The lady who watched it is still wearing the size thirteen pink moccasins she was wearing before and she’s not reading anything but her wrist.
‘Got to run,’ She says, looking at her watch. ‘Mum’s waiting upstairs with the suitcases.’
I want my Mummy! Please say that wasn’t out loud.
You wave hands, body, feet in front of every faucet, soap dispenser and dryer again, to no avail, while watching a steady stream of women successfully complete the task. You lug your suitcase back over the turnstile and up the stairs, exhausted, beaten down, sweating. But at least you no longer need to pee. You watch others gather their bags from friends and family waiting at the top of the stairs. You’d complain to your travel buddy but you’re travelling solo. You wipe your hands on your jeans and vow never to travel alone again. And to pack only one pair of shoes. And to get an e-reader. A backpack would have fit through the turnstile and inside that cubicle just fine.
I leave for London in a couple of weeks. Planning to stop all fluid intake the week before.
I’ve wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa since childhood. Its scary, yet giggle-inducing, tilt just seemed like something I should witness before its inevitable collapse ‒ not so inevitable, as it turns out. Much more inevitable was getting trampled by the crowds. And being bonked on the head by a selfie stick. Or poked in the eye as hundreds of tourists threw their hands out in a hilarious (sigh) attempt to capture the moment they held the tower up. Or knocked it down. Or got squashed under it. Seriously, the overwhelming memory of my recent visit to Pisa will be of an off-kilter tower surrounded by floating hands.
Yet, steps away from the errant tower, sights existed of which I was previously completely unaware. Miraculous sights, hence the name: ‘The Field of Miracles’. This ‘field’ contained structures of such stunning architecture, I was struck dumb. Those who know me realise this is a big deal. I’m never speechless. But the Duomo, the Baptistry, the Monumental Cemetery, even the ancient entry gate and the surrounding walls, were all breath-takingly beautiful. And … no one trying to hold them up!
(Full disclaimer: these other buildings are not perfectly straight either due to the uneven ground in the area. But compared to the tower, the lean’s not nearly so obvious. But I digress …)
How had I gone through life unaware of these other spectacular structures? I must have seen at least part of them in photos of the tower, right? Apparently not. Which begs the question: why had I ‒ and the rest of the world seemingly, based on crowd patterns ‒ focused all attention on the glaring ‘mistake’? The structure most likely to fail?
As I beat off another selfie stick assault to move away from the tower towards the Duomo, I wondered: was this unhealthy preoccupation with failure whilst filtering out success a metaphor for my life? The answer may be, yes. I can write 100,000 words and wake in a sweat over one typo. I can remember a mistaken action from decades ago yet struggle to recall the good deed of yesterday. I can still cringe at the heartless comment I made in high school and forget the kind word shared today. I know I’m not alone in that. We seem to hold onto failure more tightly than success.
Maybe the roiling crowds around the Leaning Tower of Pisa are a tilted reminder: success is not synonymous with perfection or lack of error. Fail. Get up. Try again. And sometimes let your imperfection show. It may be your imperfection that leads to your greatest success. Just ask Mr. Pisano, credited with designing the tower.
I’m off to Tuscany in a few weeks. Haven’t been to Italy since a school ski trip saw me in the Italian Alps and Venice—so long ago the Alps were shorter and Venice wasn’t sinking yet. Loved Italy back then and sense I’ll love it even more now. But when I venture into unchartered territory, I always find myself wrestling with the same quandary: gallop like a mad woman all over the place to take in as much as possible as quickly as possible, or chill the heck out? It’s a holiday, for crying out loud! A chance to relax, stroll, sip, live in the moment, save something of myself for later. It’s a retreat from the craziness of life. From minutia and housework and diet plans. From deadlines. A chance to stop and smell the Chianti. Why do I find that so hard?
I sometimes wonder if my fear of missing out is something to do with being an expat. As you know, I tend towards the “grass is greener” philosophy of life, always worrying I’m missing out on something somewhere else. This results in hurtles through foreign cities, blurred sightings of famous artifacts—Louvre Lite, anyone? —scarcely slowing down long enough to smile at the Mona Lisa. It leads to studying maps on the sightseeing boat ride, planning the next venture before this one’s absorbed and filed for posterity in the memory banks of life. Why would I add more craziness, more wake-up calls, more deadlines? Even if the deadlines signify more enjoyable reasons to be on time, like closing hours at the winery, restaurant reservations, sunsets from castle battlements?
My get up and go has its advantages. I’ve lived several lives, several careers, several manifestations of myself; all driven by hard work and a sense of ‘better get it now while the getting’s good’. But I’m starting to think trying to take in everything means I’m missing out on something vital to existence: peace. Serenity.
Tuscany, if everything I’ve heard about you is true, I’m going to be relying on you to show me the way. Don’t let me down.
The best piece of author branding advice I’ve received to date was to be myself in my social media interactions. So that’s what I am; an oddball mix of England, America, dogs, horses, gardens, world travels, cream teas, books, epic fails and homesickness all bundled up in self-deprecating humour. And, it seems, I’m slowly finding my tribe online.
But one day I missed the mark. I shared me on a bad day.
The US administration began separating children from their families at the border. That should have been a bad day for all of us. But I took it very hard. After all, I write about finding home, about separation from home, about missing home. I’m also an immigrant and a mother. I couldn’t imagine losing my children in exchange for a shot at a safe home. I. Just. Couldn’t.
So, I posted the following on Instagram and Twitter on June 20th, along with a photo of one of my dogs staring up into the camera: ‘Not feeling very funny today. I’ll be making a long journey with this face soon. If he’s taken away at immigration, I’ll die. And he’s just a dog!’ I hash tagged ‘children first’, ‘immigration’, ‘keep families together’ and ‘no separation’.
Within a few hours, I lost five percent of my Instagram followers.
Now, I’m no JK Rowling with millions hanging on my every word. Five percent can hardly be defined as a mass exodus in my case. But to me it was significant. We indie authors compete for attention against millions of other voices and I treasure each follower on my social media platforms. I’m honoured you’d want to spend a few seconds of your day with me. Losing you hurts.
I asked myself why I lost followers. Was the subject matter unexpected, coming from goofy old me? Was it taken as politically biased? I didn’t mean it to be. I figured every affiliation would be struck dumb by the cruelty. Were followers just jaded by the barrage of negativity? Possibly. I know I was exhausted by it. Maybe you were all bots and got booted at that particular moment. Truth is, I don’t know what happened. But, slowly, over the next few days, I came to this conclusion: I don’t care what happened. If you look back at the list of criteria for being me, you won’t find ‘cruel’. And I won’t let ‘cruel’ be added to that list by default because I didn’t speak up.
As I write this, an effort is underway to reunite families. That’s good. It’s a better day. But what about the next bad day? Will my followers tolerate me sharing my bad days? Guess what? That’s the last time I’ll ask that question. Because if you want me to be myself ‒ and I hope you do ‒ you’ll need to add ‘not cruel’ to the list of fun facts about me.
Note to self: being you is not going to please everyone. Be you anyway.
Birthdays are funny little things. We look forward to them yet dread them, celebrate them yet lament them, plan them yet attempt to ignore the fact they’re happening at all. That single twenty-four-hour period makes us crazy, doesn’t it?
This year, I’m attempting to make my upcoming birthday more like New Year’s Day: an opportunity to clarify, reassess, make course corrections ‒ only with cake and an earlier bedtime. This year I’m asking for two gifts. Firstly, a wheelbarrow, owing to a perpetually flat tire and a rusty, crooked frame on my current twenty-five-year-old model. Secondly, I’m asking for the ability to live in the here and now. You see, I’m horrible at it. Not gardening – I have a green thumb that practically glows in the dark. I mean, I’m horrible at living in the present. If you’ve followed my trials and tribulations with hireth and making plans to return to England, you’ll know this already. I spend way too much time wishing I were somewhere else. And that has to stop.
Or does it? Is the drive to be somewhere else at the centre of all human progress? If we were completely happy where we were, we’d never have left the ocean floor, or climbed down from the trees, or left the African continent or the tiny village of Flamstead where I grew up. Following that logic, predisposition to NOT live in the here and now, to NOT accept the status quo, could actually be the cure rather than the ailment. Now I’m really confused. Is my hireth an ailment or the cure for an ailment? Should I live in the present or not? Constantly think about going home or not?
Well, that puts a spanner in my birthday plan works. Maybe I should just settle for the wheelbarrow and call it good.