On May 31st, 2020 I crept through an empty international airport in Chicago. I sat alone, masked and gloved, on an almost empty jetliner and arrived at the ghost town that was Heathrow Airport in the early hours of June 1st. I thought those pandemic relocation experiences would the most surreal of my life. I was wrong. This last year, my first full year in England since the 1980s has rocked my – and everyone else’s – world like no other.
I arrived to an empty Exmoor property I’d had to rent sight unseen (and pay for long before we could fly over), to spend the next months alone as my husband waited for the visa offices in the United States to reopen. I borrowed a single mattress and a chair, as shipping companies couldn’t deliver our furniture. One pan, two plates, two knives, two forks, two spoons, brought over in my luggage. Two wine glasses, borrowed. As the United Kingdom went into deeper lockdown, a highlight: my son and daughter-in-law arrived to live with me in the empty house as their London jobs shut down. After weeks on the floor, never have three people been so happy to see a moving van carrying real beds and a couch.
Hubby finally arrived from the US in October, followed by our daughter and dog in November. After a brief reopening of restaurants, we plunged back into full lockdown at Christmas, now five adults and two dogs, all fighting for the two-seater couch. We completed more jigsaw puzzles, read more jokes off Penguin biscuit wrappers and walked more isolated miles over Exmoor than we ever imagined possible.
Then a dear friend died. I gave my first eulogy in an almost empty church, the echo of silent, hug-less loss making it all the worse. That I’d made it home in time to spend those last months with her was at least something to hold onto.
As Spring arrived, the kids returned to some semblance of their lives in London. Even though nothing was open, their jobs had made a partial comeback. Two adults and one dog now settled in to fighting for the two-seater couch. There was no point buying more furniture as the house we’d been waiting for would soon be ours. We’d furnish it once we moved in. It had belonged to our dear departed friend and she’d wanted us to live there after her passing. It was all arranged. We’d care for her cat and tend her flowers while making the place I’d considered my English home for forty years our own.
We get our first COVID vaccination and life is looking better.
May arrives. Another dear friend dies. Suddenly. We’d known each other since I was a teenager. We’d been through everything together and waved to each other across the field during lockdown. We’d planted hundreds of daffodils in her garden just months before. We made plans. On the same day she dies, an email arrives from solicitors. The beneficiaries of our dear departed friend weren’t going to honour her wishes that we should purchase her house. We’re thrown into a red-hot property market in England and Exmoor properties are few and far between. Our future is clouded by the prospect of having to look elsewhere. After thirty years of planning to make Exmoor home, our future is no longer safe here. A dark day, indeed. Hiraeth seeps out with the tears. Maybe home never really existed after all.
Plans. Worthless plans.
I struggle to compose another eulogy, no clue how I’ll get through it in church next week. But though many seats must still remain empty, we will at least be allowed to hug each other this time. In some weird way, writing my sad words brings gratitude. These two special friendships endured great distance and decades of long-distance phone calls, holiday visits and missed special events. That I got home just in time to see these friends in health before things took turns for the worse is miraculous. We had the chance to make new memories before committing them to eulogies; a reminder it can be too late to come home if you don’t grab the chance. Our pandemic relocation nightmares were dreams come true after all.
Then another dream. On the same day my friend died, and the email arrived from the solicitor, a local property came on the market. We view it the next day to cheer ourselves up, to pretend there’s somewhere else out there that will match the dreams of the home we just lost. One look and we’re in love with a house and a gorgeous garden, surrounded by a stone wall. A stone wall! I’ve loved stone walls all my life, the warmth they radiate, the tangled cover of of ivy and valerian softening edges. A sign, maybe? A stream, fruit trees, a swing seat, wisteria, clematis draped over old tree stumps and creeping vines around windows, an arbour seat with views of the wooded combes and the steeple of the church where we married thirty-two years ago. Another long-time friend lives almost next door. It’s everything an English country home should be.
But could it be? Could something good happen here? The thought recedes with the arrival of a Porsche to view the property after us. And another car, and another. We shrug our shoulders, wander around the garden for the last time.
What the heck. What have we got to lose? Let’s throw in our best offer so at least we can say we tried.
A day later, I’m helping my friend’s sister choose a casket when the call comes in.
Offer accepted? I can’t even immediately grasp what that means. I shake. It means we get to stay on Exmoor. It means we make new memories, meet new friends, plant new plants. Our new garden is so gorgeously stuffed in that quintessentially English way there’s barely room for another plant. But there’s always room for a new plant. Like new friends. Though established plants and friends will always be the best.
We fight now to complete contracts before the Stamp Duty Land Tax holiday ends in a few weeks. We hold our breath. Plans. They haven’t counted for much lately. Yet here we are, battered and bruised but still standing. And, hopefully, we’re finally home.
I’m archaic enough to still find the ability to communicate simultaneously and instantaneously with people on every continent somewhat of a miracle. When someone in Australia or Bangladesh comments on my social media post five seconds after I posted it, it still jolts me. How on earth does it all work? How can I be sitting in my little Exmoor village, calling the world? I’ll never understand but in a way I’m glad I still find it magical.
Anyway, non-techie, non-geek that I am, last week I used all my skills to host the @WeAreXpats Twitter feed. It’s a rotation curation (RoCur) page, meaning the curator changes each week to share insight on a topic. The Expatriate Archive Centre, which runs the initiative out of The Netherlands, kindly branched out and included me as a repat – a returning expat. (Last year I returned to England after thirty years in the USA.) I’m pretty sure I discovered as much about myself and my relocation as those reading my tweets. Condensing complex emotions and logistics into short messages clarifies thought. Picking a photo from hundreds – or if we’re talking cream tea photos, thousands – to epitomise that phase of your life or journey can be daunting. My novels will benefit from this clarifying experience.
The assignment provided an opportunity for me to analyse several aspects of my need to return home. Like, why now? (The 2016-2020 US administration, gun violence, missing British family as we all get older.) I identified what instantly felt like home, even after decades away: the monarchy (got some push-back on that one!), the antiquity of buildings and communities, familiar food brands, almost forgotten and now staple supplies (Birds custard, anyone?).
And then there’s the stuff that makes me feel I’ve landed on a foreign planet all over again: weight and measures in metric and who knows whether or not to take a coat when temperature is given in Celsius? I struggle to apply ‘worth’ to goods and services because I no longer know what’s normal in the UK, I’m relearning vocabulary like ‘lorry’ and remembering to pronounce ‘schedule’ like a Brit. It’s harder for me than my US-born husband on the language score. People cut him slack due to his accent. They smile at Hubby and think he’s unique and interesting. Me? I ask for ground beef at the butchers and get a confused stare and a ‘You mean minced beef?’ Apparently, I sound like I should know better. But I’m catching up. I can now ask for the toilet instead of the bathroom. This has reduced the ‘We don’t provide guest baths in this restaurant’ discussion.
Curating also provided an excuse to do a little research. With regards to expats:
44% relocated for work and 62% vow never to return. (deVere Group poll, May 2020).
30% of those who retire overseas return within three years. (PropertyInvestorToday.co.uk, August 2020, though that number is expected to rise due to Brexit)
In my own (very unscientific) poll of an expat Facebook group, 91 said they would return if money were no object, 41 said they would never return (45%).
A Knight Frank survey gives the four main reasons for returning home as better education opportunities, a better healthcare system, a new job offer, and being closer to family. (Article in The Financial Times by Liz Rowlinson, October 2020)
Do these four reasons explain why I came home? Not really. I already have a master’s degree, having spent way more time than I intended on my formal education. I had good healthcare insurance in the US. I’m self-employed as a novelist (not to be confused with making money as a novelist) and well, if you’d met my family you’d understand why I left England in the first place. (They receive this blog. Please read that bit quietly so they can’t hear you.) With the four main reasons for returning negated in my case, I’m back once again to I just wanted to come ‘home’. Home, that elusive concept; the not only where but when and why of home. The place I ‘sleep the best and breathe the deepest’, (oh, the arrogance of quoting my own work, this one from ‘Dunster’s Calling’). But it’s true. You can’t quantify ‘home’. No one else will have the same rationale for deciding where it is, how long to be away, when to come back. No one else’s pros and cons list will include the same criteria as yours. It’s incredibly personal and not at all governed by facts and figures and what’s reasonable and predictable. I’m sure those reading my tweets last week were split between jealousy at my return home and thinking I’d lost my mind for returning home. It’s personal. All I can say is when I introduce people to the Celtic word, hiraeth, meaning an intense yearning for home, tinged with sadness that home may no longer exist, they understand the sentiment. Whether they want to return or not, they’ve pondered the new meaning of home. That comes with the territory (no pun intended) of living somewhere else.
My time curating the @WeAreXpats feed allowed me to add my stories to those of thousands of others searching for a place to call home, permanently or temporarily. Those stories shine a light on everything expats are: a collection of individual stories combining to make communities combining to make history. Many thanks to the Expatriate Archive Centre for including me in this project. It was an honour to share my corner of England with the world.
To find out more about the Expatriate Archive Centre, head to their website at https://xpatarchive.com/ or follow them on Twitter @WeAreXpats
As the United Kingdom begins the countdown to loosening lockdown restrictions, all eyes turn to the sky. Or the train tracks. Or the road. We’re chomping at the bit to get out of our houses, towns, countries after three months of this third confinement. But with new travel options comes the reality: this isn’t over yet. There are still COVID risks for, and from, tourists. We’ve also had the chance to look at the positive environmental impacts of NOT travelling, documented by photos of the Venice Canals looking bluer, more wildlife on urban streets, and reduced smog from Los Angeles to Beijing. Seems our enforced hiatus from hiatuses has produced positive environmental changes. Reason for pause over that ‘book now’ button, right? So here’s the question: Is it socially and environmentally acceptable to travel or is travel-shaming appropriate?
Our planet has always spun on the concept of travelling from one place to another. From nomadic prehistoric man packing a woolly mammoth-skin suitcase to more recent exploration, travellers have changed countries and lives, for better or worse. But travellers by choice – tourists – are facing more backlash post-COVID and post-environmental awareness then they ever have before. There’s the environmental side: planes/ships/cars belch carbon emissions, tourists leave tonnes of litter, plastic straws kill wildlife, resorts clear jungles. There’s the Ugh! Humans! side: one more tourist holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, one more tourist illegally swimming with manatees, one more drunken tourist peeing over the edge of the Grand Canyon. And there’s the cultural side: do those Polynesian dancers benefit or suffer from what some will call a cultural event designed to educate and some a circus designed to belittle. All the Hot Places to be seen are now the Not Places to be seen, unless you want the ‘name and shame’ brigade on your tail as you Uber to the party on the beach.
As 2021 opens the start gates for travel, we add COVID concerns to the mix, the fear of being ‘that person’ who potentially brings a resort, or even an entire country, to a screeching halt. This is not the first pandemic, but let’s face it, there weren’t nearly as many tourists during the Spanish Flu outbreak. I doubt many soldiers shipping out for the battle fronts of WWI thought of themselves as travellers for pleasure. Arrogantly, many developed nations have considered modern pandemics the scourge of ‘other places’. Not London, surely? Not NYC, surely? Not Singapore or Tokyo, surely? Yet, here we are.
So, where do we go from here? How do we David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg and WHO our way to justifying leaving home turf to travel? Greater minds than mine provide complex calculations for and against. All I can add are a few personal anecdotes. And that’s all they are. Personal. Each one of us must draw our own line in the sand. Each one of us must decide whether dumping our rubbish on a beach is beneath us as human carers of Planet Earth. Each one of us must decide if we need our hotel towels and sheets washed before the end of our stay. (We wouldn’t wash them that frequently at home, after all.) I have never left a piece of litter behind. I always hang up my hotel towels to signify no new ones needed. I don’t use straws, even if the occasional lump of ice in a pina colada splashes up my nose. Is this enough? Can I travel, guiltless, for pleasure?
I have three thoughts on this. The first: does our behaviour during the forty-nine or fifty weeks of the year we DON’T travel make up for the two or three weeks we do? Can we make the case that what we do daily in our own homes has more impact on the planet than a few days or weeks away? If we aren’t recycling, if we are wasting food, walking around our overheated winter homes in a tee-shirt, driving when we could walk, buying every food item wrapped in plastic, eating strawberries from Morocco in January, ordering one item online each day, the delivery van rolling up to our door hourly, we are the problem. Are we fly-tipping when we remodel the bathroom because we’re tired of the colour of the tile? Buying knickknacks from all over the world, only to dump them back home during a decluttering binge? Our daily deeds are overwhelmingly negative for global welfare. We must do better at home if we hate those images of plastic oceans washing up on beautiful Thai beaches. That has little to do with whether we travel or not.
My second thought concerns the benefits of broadened travel experiences. I witnessed life ‘behind the iron curtain’ in Romania as a teenager. I could compare the lives of Romanian teenagers with my own and be grateful for what I had. I could relate stories as we learned about communism in school, putting forward the positive side shared by residents (when they were allowed to talk to us, that is). When the Romanian area I’d visited was hit by a devastating earthquake days after I left, I could collect coats and shoes for faces and conversations, for bus drivers and waiters, for school children I’d smiled at, not just for ‘those impacted by the earthquake’. I cared more because I’d been there.
I saw the poverty and beauty of Central America. Always an animal lover, I may have been guilty of chastising those owners you see in the charity ads on TV. You know the ones: their horses and dogs with their ribs sticking out and carrying heavy loads. Once you’ve witnessed first-hand that the adults and children are also thin and living in incredibly harsh conditions – and carrying heavy loads – you realise you can’t ask people to feed their animals better than they feed themselves. If you had to chose between feeding your dog and feeding your child, what would you do? I had to soften my approach to what I’d considered black and white issues prior to travel. (The ads are still upsetting, by the way.)
I’ve spent time in central coast California, seeing the hardships some of those isolated communities have experienced due to devastating Highway 1 landslides. I’ve worked with high-poverty populations in parts of the United States of America you’d never consider in the same sentence as third-world countries. Trust me. They belong in that sentence.
I was in Manaus, Brazil, a couple of years ago, a city surrounded by thousands of miles of Amazon rainforest. Manaus is now known as the centre of the Brazilian strain of COVID. That’s all Manaus is to many. To me, it’s friendly people and children in need of pencils. It’s the dichotomy between the beautiful opera house and the rundown housing minutes away. It’s the market stall holders selling fruit from their gardens and the indigenous villages on the banks of the Rio Nigro. I experienced the Amazon River in the pitch dark from a small skiff, surrounded by primordial sounds and stars so bright I reached out to touch them. Protecting the rainforest became personal in a way it never could from my seat on the couch watching a National Geographic special. Travel influences my decisions on a daily basis.
My third thought is this: What happens if we don’t travel? What about that Uber driver, that waiter, that souvenir seller, that B and B owner, that tour guide, that cruise ship entertainer? What about the economic devastation of non-travel? What does this do to cultures near and far? Will we Brits visit our own rural museums, our castle down the road? Will every Italian visit Rome, every Greek visit Athens, every Chinese visit the Forbidden city, every Brazilian visit the villages of the Amazon River? Will we appreciate our own heritage enough to preserve it? Will we all, in our own countries, purchase enough memorabilia/hotel stays/restaurant meals over and over again, year after year, to bring in enough funding to protect and preserve our own history and culture? Do we need foreign travellers to help with that? And, more importantly, will we see faces and conversations as we watch a natural, or manmade, disaster occurring somewhere in the world? Will we help as much if we’re not connected in some way to that place?
Another thought: will more of us get the vaccine if it’s required to travel? Does that somewhat selfish viewpoint lead to better global protection?
I’ve been fortunate to experience some remarkable sights around the world: the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, butterfly breeding programs in Belize, eco-hiking in New Zealand, swimming with pink dolphins in the Amazon, to name a few. And I won’t lie, I’ve really enjoyed luxury hotels and cruises: the extraordinary St. Regis resort in Bora Bora comes to mind, and the Viking Jupiter, a stunning cruise ship that transported me around the coast of South America to see glaciers and whales and penguin colonies and volcanoes. I was actually running through Buenos Aires Airport almost exactly a year ago, trying to get back into the US before they closed the borders to South America at the beginning of this COVID adventure. I wouldn’t trade a single experience. (Well, maybe the food poisoning in Nicaragua.) I wouldn’t want to spend my hard-earned money any other way than in exploring and storing parts of this remarkable world in my heart.
There are so many countries I haven’t experienced yet. So many places I don’t yet understand or appreciate for what they can teach me. Do I stop travelling now? Or do I find more ways to tread lightly as I gather and share knowledge? Am I being too simplistic here? I don’t know. Can I do more to protect and preserve? Yes. But I’m not sure yet that doing more means travelling less. It does mean thinking more about how I get there and how I behave once there, wherever ‘there’ is. It does mean I leave something positive about me there in return for taking the smiles and knowledge back home. If the beach litter is me and the wasted hotel food is me and the overuse of resources is me, then the places I go are better off if I stay home. If the wonder is me, the appreciation is me, the knowledge is me, the environmental consideration is me, the economic input is me, I should go. Yes? No? Maybe?
One of my favourite quotes comes from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I believe this. So when the skies open again, will I be there? Should I be there? What happens if I’m not there?
I’m working on unravelling the complexities of ethical travel. I’d love to hear what you think. All I know for certain is I’m taking a good, long look at my daily life to see how I impact health, communities, and environments. Let’s start there. Then we can progress to holidays.
Any parent will tell you, if the kids are happy, you’re happy. Well, for the most part. If drawing with permanent marker on the walls makes your child happy, you’re not happy. Eating an entire box of dry pancake mix or inviting college friends to play beer pong over the new carpet may indeed make them happy. Certainly doesn’t make you happy. But I mean, in general, if your children are happy, pat on the back, you can rest easy.
This, of course, goes for our four-legged children, too. My faithful (if cheese is involved, mildly interested if no cheese around) dog, Watson, needs to be happy for me to be happy. I’ve put him through a lot during this transition from the US to the UK so felt it only fair to get his side of the story. His responses will determine whether I can truly be happy in my new life. I may regret this interview – but here goes nothing.
Me: Here we are, three months into your new life in England. Tell us how it’s going.
Watson: Well, let’s talk cheese.
Me: But life in England was the question
Watson: Life is the question. Which means cheese is the question. Look, I’m a fussy eater as you well know. Those new kibbles you’re giving me? Not so good. But the cheese… oh, my goodness, the cheese! It’s awesome.
Me: Better than American cheese?
Watson: Heck, yes! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never met a cheese I don’t like but some of these Somerset cheddars are outstanding. Apparently, cheddar was invented around here. Did you know that?
Me: I did, actually.
Watson: Good to know you’re aware of Somerset traditions. I honestly think if I’d had access to these authentic cheddars as a puppy, training would have gone more smoothly. Maybe I wouldn’t have needed that extra ‘Overreactive Dog’ class you made me go to when I freaked out at the marching band on Memorial Day. Maybe I’d have learned to roll over and fetch and all the other stupid tricks you tried to make me do. I’m half Great Pyrenees for crying out loud! Rolling over takes great effort when you’re my size. I’m not messing about with tricks for American supermarket brand cheese.
Me: I’d noticed. Apart from cheese, what’s going well?
Watson: Streams. Streams are going well. When you decided I should spend my first seven years living puke-inducing long car rides away from water, you didn’t choose well. This Exmoor place? Streams every three feet, a whole coastline, and the biggest mud puddles ever. Now we’re talking!
Me: You didn’t seem too … what’s the word? … confident during your first interaction with waves on Bossington Beach.
Watson: I’m not used to water coming for me, okay? I’m used to going for it. That water down there starts off shallow, you turn your back for a second to sniff a log and bam! The water chases you up the beach. Not cool. But streams I like, even fast-running streams because you must use strategy to keep the stick in sight. Easy to lose it. Takes skill.
Me: Glad you’re enjoying the water. What about all the animals? You’ve never been around horses, sheep or cows before.
Watson: Sheep look like fields full of, well, me. White blobs. They don’t seem to do much.
Me: A lot like you, then.
Watson: Rude. Anyway, not a sheep fan. Cows and horses? I don’t get it. Huge piles of their poo on all the trails and nobody says a word. I produce something about a millionth the size on the roadside and it’s all huffing and puffing and now we’ve got to get a bag out and now we’ve got to carry it and now we’ve got to find a bin. Discriminatory, if you ask me.
Me: Any other animal thoughts?
Watson: I don’t miss possums and raccoons. Possums just keel over, and sometimes I don’t even think they’re really dead. Boring, and quite frankly, cowardly. Raccoons? Too creepy. Hunched backs and burglar outfits. Never cared for them. But squirrels! Never saw many in our US neck of the woods. Loads of them over here in jolly old England, Love them! The way they hurtle across the path and up a tree…
Blows. My. Mind!
Every. Single. Time.
Don’t think the novelty of that will ever wear off. Cheese, streams and squirrels. All-time favourite England moments, right there.
Me: Worth the journey, then?
Watson: Let’s talk about that journey shall we, Mummy Dearest? What a nightmare! First you sell my home and give my sofa away. Then, you promise me I’ll be on the plane with you. You’ll tuck me in one end of the non-stop flight and be there to wake me up the other end, you said. Well, that didn’t happen. Don’t know what this COVID thing is but it meant I was sent to live with my sister – your daughter – for five months until pet flights could get rebooked. Do I look like a Milwaukee city hound to you? Small apartment, no garden? Mind you, Sis was great at grooming and massages. I even got scented candles when the fireworks bothered me. And she gave me snacks you wouldn’t give me so that was all good. I even met a cat. Not a fan. But it was okay.
Then, with no warning, a crate the size of a stable arrived and I had to have my dinner every night and, thankfully, lots of cheese in it. For weeks. Then some guy shows up, sticks me and the crate in a van. Next thing I know, I’m walking the tarmac at O’Hare Airport, riding a conveyor belt into the dark insides of something definitely not your old Subaru, and subjected to hours of clunking and swaying and ears popping before bumping down somewhere no one speaks cheese. (I believe their word for it is Gouda but I wasn’t there long enough to get any.) I’m shoved in another van, hurtled through a long dark tunnel, finally popping up like a prairie dog in somewhere referred to as ‘Kent’ by a stern woman with a clipboard. Another van, and finally, after dark and in a barrage of fireworks – which apparently happen in November, not July, in this place – the doors open and you finally appear. Those tears didn’t fool me. Okay, I wagged my tail like I’d seen a huge cheese wheel but only because I needed to pee. I was mad at you and Dad.
Me: I know. That’s why you got me up at 3:30 am to pee again?
Me: I can only apologise so many times. COVID is actually a big deal and it made all our relocation plans a little complicated, to put it mildly. We did the best we could to get you here, at great expense, may I add.
Watson: A bit touchy for an impartial interviewer, aren’t we?
Me: Some residual guilt, yes.
Watson: *sighs* Okay, I’ll cut you some slack, as long as you guarantee I don’t have to take that journey again.
Me: That I can promise you. It was a one-way ticket. Exmoor is home for the rest of our lives.
Watson: Alrighty, then. Local cheddar cheese, streams and squirrels it is, for life. I can do that.
Me: Me too. For life. Thank you for your time today. I know you’re busy.
Watson: True that. Frisbee’s don’t catch themselves, you know. When’s dinner? And how about a little of that West Country Farmhouse Cheddar tonight before bed?
Me: I’ll place your order with the chef.
So, now we know. Watson’s journey to England? Sucked. Exmoor life after the journey? Not too bad. Not too bad at all. I also agree with him. Journey over sucked. Life after the journey? Not bad. Not bad at all. As Watson’s mum, I can hold my head high in the knowledge he’s happy. Here’s hoping there’s never a cheese shortage, though.
(No squirrels were hurt during the writing of this blog. Or during any Watson versus squirrel interaction. He’s just not that quick on his feet.)
New Year’s Eve. We all held our breath for Big Ben to strike midnight over the empty streets of London, like waiting for the starter pistol in a race to a free brunch buffet. We waited for the ball to drop high above deserted Time Square, the last ping pong ball in the Powerball lottery drawing when we had all the other numbers. This was it! 2020 was outta here! Woo hoo, 2021! The year of the vaccine, the end of Trump and the beginning of round-the-world cruises for all!
*Throws glitter in the air while blowing party horn.
The bell tolled, the ball dropped (metaphysically, anyway), and yet. And yet…
2021: The sequel no one wanted to write. Or read.
COVID numbers continue to climb, in the case of the UK, despite national lockdowns. Trump saves his best for last, with an assault on the US Capital. The cruise lines cancel spring and summer. New COVID variants emerge and I don’t win the lottery, only in part, I’m sure, because I didn’t buy a ticket. Worst of all, in one last kick in the 2020 teeth, New Year’s Eve sees the passing of my life-long friend, Betty. She was my ticket to America and the inspiration for Mrs Althorp’s character in Dunster’s Calling. A ninety-two-year-long life, well lived and peacefully departed, but still. I spent the last days and hours with her, so grateful I moved back to England in time to enjoy these past several months. It was time for her to leave us. But the void that was 2020 is now permanent, and with loss comes reassessment of what matters.
I’m not the only one reassessing life, wondering what will never be again and what will rise like a phoenix out of the COVID ashes. ‘What’s next?’ is the anthem playing non-stop in my brain. What’s next? When my writing revolves around humour and travel and I’ve lost the thread on why it matters? What’s next? When I’m spending the New Year writing a eulogy instead of editing my latest novel set in Provence? The one I’ve been promising readers for a year now. What’s next when the vaccine is coming but it’s crystal clear it’s not the ‘shot in the arm’ for so many small (and large – RIP Debenhams) businesses fading away during lockdown? When the local pub and the iconic cream tea shop are gasping for air.
We’re all asking, ‘What’s next?’ of our communities, of our leaders, of our countries. But mostly of ourselves. How do we cope, change, adapt, rise anew? And do we have it in us to start 2021 as though our old lives still exist and matter? It all feels so different, even though we are the lucky ones. We’ve made it this far through the worst of times and long may that continue. But are they still relevant? These old lives. The ones we thought would last forever and that we controlled, at least for the most part. I struggle with what once seemed vital and now seems frivolous. Stories. Humorous stories. Travel stories. My work-in-progress could as well be set on an alien planet in the year 2300 as on the train to Provence. The fields of lavender and the medieval town of Les Baux-de-Provence, once so familiar in the pages of my manuscript, may as well be part of a dystopian sci-fi. That’s how out of touch it feels. That’s how much it now doesn’t seem to matter. (Not that dystopian sci-fi doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t fit my work.)
As a writer, making it all matter starts with putting my butt back in the chair after a long break. (In my defence, I did move continents when moving next door would have been a struggle.) I can’t worry about whether readers want lighter fare or heavier. Escapism or real life. All I can do is write what makes me happy and reminds me of past and future adventures. I need that. One word, one chapter, one story arc at a time. It starts with the belief others will want to visit the beautiful locations into which I plunk my characters. It starts with the belief a good laugh is still a good laugh and the search for home in foreign or domestic settings is ongoing for many of us. That universal themes are still that: universal.
Much has changed, yet much has stayed the same. We will always need humour and travel plans and fun and hope. And we have all these things, in books and in our own futures. The bells will ring, the glitter will rain down. All will be well, (even if I don’t win the lottery). Today I vow to write my funny stories of sunny places and the search for home. It still matters. If we all still believe it matters.
Onwards to Provence!
In memoriam: Betty Howett (1928-2020), Fellow of the British Horse Society. Mentor. Friend.
Yes, there have been silver linings to this – what’s the word? – execrable? frightful? odious? insalubrious? (trying to avoid the ‘sh*#!’ word here. Help me out!) year. Some of those linings I dug deep to find (the Hilton points accrued during Hubby’s 139 days in a hotel waiting for a visa came at high cost), some seemed more superficial (first name terms with all the delivery people). But one that started as superficial turned out to be somewhat more momentous. My hair colour. That front-and-centre, in your face (around your face?) crowning definition of age and status morphed from accessory to my own personal meme to 2020.
I’ve been a dark brunette for decades. The first few of those, I served at the whim of nature. The last few, well, I served at the whim of beauty salon schedules and vanity combined with societal dictates as the tinsel on my head overwhelmed the natural tree, so to speak. But 2020 saw long months with no access to a hairdresser, first on the US side of my relocation and later on the UK side. I’ve never attempted the DIY bottled colours. I can barely operate a hair dryer. And me with even a simple mascara wand is recipe for disaster. (Think Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice.) A vat of dye? Not happening. I just don’t do hair and makeup. So pandemic dilemmas included whether to override my natural inability to embellish myself or override my intense fear of letting the world know I hadn’t been a brunette in a long time. There was only one option. I bit the silver bullet.
Luckily, the stars aligned for the Great COVID Grow Out. Millions of others were in the same boat. From Paul McCartney to several neighbours, we all took the plunge. Even Mona Lisa was photographed with that white skunk stripe down the centre of her head. I joined a Facebook group dedicated to the newly silver sisterhood. Its membership increased manyfold over the course of 2020. Countless of us felt forced to make a transition we weren’t ready for, hadn’t even considered before lockdown. It terrified us. What would people think? Co-workers? Family? Even our kids? Societies worldwide – and more importantly ourselves – judged us harshly for our pigment deficits. Entire industries profited from our desire to maintain membership in a world painted using the 20-something colour palette. It took the shock of a COVID world that no longer looked, felt, acted like the status quo to make us realise we didn’t need conformity either.
We of the Skunk Stripe Tribe became each other’s ‘call a friend’ when that siren call of the Clairol root touch up aisle threatened progress. We supported and lamented as we pondered whether to cut short, add lowlights/highlights, listen to loved ones, ignore loved ones, change our minds altogether and run back to the familiar comfort of the Redken bottle. There was no right or wrong answer. We had our careers and families and histories and people who loved us, no matter the colour of our hair. We focused on the upsides as the roots continued their downslide: we saved a fortune on colour treatments, and newly considered our impact on both the environment and our own health. We noted that rather than washing us out, the silver, in many cases, matched our views of ourselves better than the false narrative we’d been perpetuating.
I, personally, was grateful for the fortuitous coincidence of the grey hair trend that seemed to spring up last year. Youngsters were getting their blond/brown/black hair either streaked with grey or entirely greyed. As I walked past a teenager with her long, silver stream rippling in the breeze, I couldn’t help but think she’d look back at photos in a decade or two and realise she was now colouring to hide the grey she’d coveted back in 2020. Or maybe not. No matter. I smiled at her and wondered if she worried that the old lady in the street may have mistaken her for an Aging Ally rather than what she was going for: Instagram Influencer.
Anyway, the Great COVID Grow Out has been a challenge. Walking past a mirror and wondering when exactly grandma arrived, proved excruciating. Watching that silver parting become a silver sidewalk, then a blindingly white silver highway was jaw-droppingly disconcerting. Hats, headbands, scarves, not typically my thing, became the biggest fashion decisions of my day, beating which sweatpants to wear to greet the postman (from a distance) as lockdown dragged on. During a brief respite, when US salons opened in May, I succumbed to a few highlights to blur the stark rigid line between silver and brunette. It helped. A little. Well, not much, truth be told. The temptation to colour again intensified, the addiction strengthened. But I knew access to salon colour could disappear again anytime. I was on a plane to the UK in a few days. I’d be in quarantine, unable to see friends, meet new people, promote my books or attend functions. Didn’t that make this the perfect time to revert to nature? To appreciate what was important in self-care (handwashing, mask-wearing, self-isolation) and what wasn’t (camouflaging the aging process when so many were losing lives way too young)? I dug deep and vowed to keep growing. I’d come so far and would have to start all over again at some point if I gave up now. The good news: the transatlantic flight was nearly empty. The bad news: not a silver stripe to be seen on any of the flight attendants.
Arriving in England, I discovered the silver wave had carried like a tsunami across the Atlantic with me. The white caps breaking on the heads of many others was of some comfort. Make that a tiny bit of comfort. Awareness of silver regrowth is not the same as gnawing awareness you’re a generation older than when you started colouring your hair back in the nineties. I was lucky. I didn’t get pushback from family during Zoom calls as some making the transition did. My mother’s ‘It doesn’t look as bad a I thought it would’ raised a smile rather than heckles. Encouraging comments from my adult children were gratifying. Which brings me to my brightest, shiniest, tinseliest silver lining of the year 2020 …
… the opportunity to spend extended time with my adult children.
My son and daughter were eighteen years old the last time I spent prolonged periods around them. They headed off to college, one ten years ago, the other six years ago. They transitioned to fully-fledged adults during brief summer holidays and phone calls. Upon graduation, they moved away. One married. Hubby and I assumed our time with them would be short and infrequent as we all bopped around the world and followed our own paths. Then … COVID. My son and daughter-in-law were already living in London when I relocated back to England in May. My daughter decided to move over here a few months after I arrived. Between furloughs, unemployment and work-from-home restrictions, we decided to form one household for the foreseeable future. While I hate the reason we had to do this, I marvel at the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity it affords me.
The kids brought their boutique coffee brands and brewing equipment with them, which clutter the counters and make digging out my store brand teabags harder. They have favourite Malbecs and Cabs and even champagnes. Champagnes? My Christmas Prosecco sits in the garage, untouched. Here I am, telling my kids back in the day we drank BabyCham and thought ourselves sophisticated. Books by authors I’ve never heard of on subjects I’ve never considered cover the coffee table. New documentaries, series, and stand-up comedians beam into the house via the Amazon Prime membership they bring with them. (I never signed up.) A whole new world.
I’m learning about the adults they’ve become while they learn about our new role as parents of adults; the role that no longer includes doing their laundry, cleaning their hair out of the shower drain, shoving coasters under their drinks or changing the toilet roll. (I hope they’re reading this.) My daughter pulls me out of the road to avoid a car and cooks exotic meals and tells me why I should be listening to such and such a politician because she’s got great ideas about such and such. The last time we lived together she was watching the Kardashians (I refuse to take the blame for this epic parenting fail) and wearing all the boys’ high school football jerseys. I listen to my son on the phone with bosses, co-workers, vendors while he gives presentations and justifies enormous budgets. He moves things, creates things, solves things at lightning speed. He used to take a whole day to empty the dishwasher. My daughter-in-law pushes her company to advocate harder for transition-to-work opportunities for prison populations. Together, these new (to me) adults research apartments and interview for jobs and discuss credit card bills and politics and have oh such strong opinions on subjects I’ve never considered in places I’ve never heard of and it astounds me. These are the joys of months spent with your adult children. You learn a whole new culture through eyes you created but that you lost the ability to see through years ago.
The switch came while I was colouring my hair.
How can I remain preoccupied with pigment when I earned every grey hair creating and raising these amazing human beings? If ‘non-brunette’ is the price I pay, so be it. Here, under this single roof, in a new beginning for us all, I marvel at what we’ve all become. COVID gave me that. 2020 won’t have been a complete loss. In fact, it may go down as one of the greatest family years yet, if we all stay healthy, that is. Let’s face it, nothing matters but that. No silver roots. No aging a generation in ten months. No nothing.
As the vaccine approaches and the light at the end of the tunnel moves from a tiny star-like dot to streetlight-sized orb and finally to a full-fledged beacon of relief, I’ll take these silver linings with me into 2021. I may arrive at midnight a generation older and with a lot of stress hormones under my belt, but I’ll arrive there grateful for good health, my family all together in my homeland, and a renewed impulse to tell stories full of silver linings.
Wishing you health, happiness and your own silver linings from this day forth. By the way, I love your hair. No matter the colour.
Remember, remember the fifth of November, Gunpower treason and plot. We see no reason, Why gunpowder treason, Should ever be forgot.
The Fifth of November, aka Guy Fawkes Night, was one of my favourite childhood celebrations, if ‘celebration’ is the right word for remembering an attempt at mass murder of government officials. Slightly disturbing history aside, I loved eating baked potatoes, cooked in the bonfire in the back garden while Dad nailed Catherine wheels to a pole and let off rockets at steady intervals within feet of small children. All the neighbours came over for cocoa and bonfire toffee. The kids ran around with sparklers that imprinted swirly shapes on the retina for hours afterwards. Good times. I was looking forward to this November, my first year back after decades away from my homeland. My family and I would find a community firework display and I’d explain what this quirky British tradition all meant. If I had only known what this November 5th would entail …
Guy Fawkes Night 2020 will go down in infamy as a race against the clock. A holding of breath, an ‘If-this-fails-I-have-no-idea-what-we’ll-do’ sleepless night of tossing and turning. A foreboding sense that we had to get our daughter out of the US before election results, due to the incendiary rhetoric coming out of ‘leadership’ positions. It’s been like watching a Third World country go to the polls and wondering where the UN Peacekeepers are. And our daughter, though a young adult, was in the US alone. Well, not completely alone. Watson, our faithful family dog, was with her. Thank goodness. Maybe all those non-returned calls from pet shipping airlines earlier in the year were for the best. At least my child would have canine protection when the fighting started.
But as a mother, that wasn’t nearly enough consolation. Maybe I was being paranoid. This was America, for goodness sake! America protected democracy around the world, for goodness sake! How could anyone buy into the claims spouted off by one unstable family? How could experienced senators and knowledgeable US citizens allow this to happen? But the reality was, major US cities were boarding up store fronts and some citizens were answering the call to form ‘militias’ to protect (read intimidate) voters. November 3rd was shaping up to be like no other election day in US history. But I can’t worry about that. I focus on getting my dog and my daughter out of harm’s way. It’s no bed of roses in the UK right now either but at least there’s no imminent threat of insurgency to add to the pandemic woes. And at least in the UK we’d all be together as a family.
When I relocated back to the United Kingdom in May, Kerry wasn’t sure she was relocating too. And there were no options for flying Watson. We’d started the process in February, with new microchips and rabies shots, detailed timelines for when each vet check, wormer and certification needed to be complete. Then nothing. Shipping companies stopped calling us back. Airlines weren’t flying pets. If a window opened up, the flight was cancelled last minute. Months and months of fighting ensued to get our dog, and subsequently our daughter, over to the UK. (Because she can’t fly until our dog can or who will play him spa music and massage his temples during the Fourth of July fireworks – which he hates! – and generally spoil him rotten until he can join us?) After much effort, in early November, we think we have Watson’s journey finalised. Until Frankfurt shuts down for pet cargo. Watson is supposed to fly through Frankfurt on his way to Heathrow. His travel date is moved back two weeks, then three, then no one is sure. But the US election is bearing down on us and we want our family out. Like, NOW.
A phone call and a glimmer of hope. Would we consider a flight to Amsterdam, then a pet transport service driving Watson over to England? Initially we’d said we’d only fly Watson if we were on the same flight and it had to be non-stop to Heathrow to reduce his stress levels. Now, we’re about to commit to a flight, a train ride through the Channel Tunnel and a van driven by strangers! Poor, poor Watson! But what are our choices? None. We grab the November 6th flight, just four days ahead and confirm our daughter’s flight for the day after. She’ll fly once we know Watson’s in the air. We can’t risk having him left alone in the event of another cancellation.
For the next few days we live in hope. We fluff up the dog bed that’s been in storage and fluff up the pillows in our daughter’s room. But COVID isn’t done with us yet. The UK government announces a national lockdown, starting November 5th. Panic again. Will a driver be allowed to travel to Amsterdam to pick up Watson? We’re assured commercial transport will continue, but details are sketchy. Watson’s exact arrival time and pickup point isn’t confirmed and we’ll only have a few hours’ notice. We live a 3.5-hour drive from Heathrow. Can we get a hotel near the airport? Few hotels take large dogs. We finally find one (though Watson’s weight has to decrease significantly on the phone). We’re interrogated by the receptionist as to whether or not our travel is essential. They’re only accepting business travellers. Hubby and I feel like Mary and Joseph knocking on doors, only with Guy Fawkes trailing behind, threatening to blow all our best laid plans to bits.
The election is looming. The current administration continues to incite discord, with threats of violence in pre-emptive strikes against the democratic process. Plans for civil unrest are in the works. My daughter lives in a major city in a swing state. The same state where COVID-19 numbers are out of control and the courts are upholding challenges against measures to control said numbers. The US seems to have abandoned all rationality at a time calm heads, science, and community are needed more than ever. My heart pounds in my chest with every news report. It’s hard to believe it’s come to this. The America I thought I knew is fading into the mist, but my daughter and my dog are the only things I care about right now. Each day of waiting is torture.
Election Day comes and goes, with all the chaos promised us. But it turns out, a non-concession, no matter how absurd, helps us. There’s no rioting in the streets, just turmoil on our TV screens. The hours creep by until November 5th, the day Watson is to fly. We check the KLM flight schedule every hour. All airlines are cancelling flights with little notice. At last, a positive sign: a text from our daughter to say Watson has just been picked up from her apartment for the drive to Chicago O’Hare Airport. Then, a few photos arrive in my inbox, showing Watson on a walk around the tarmac before boarding the night flight. At last! Wheels up! He’s in the air! My euphoria is quickly replaced by gut-wrenching guilt that he’s going through this alone. I had promised him I’d be on the same flight. He remembers these things. He bears a grudge. He’s like a cat in that regard.
We won’t hear more of Watson’s progress until he lands in Amsterdam during the early morning hours on Friday 6th November. I focus on the next step. Kerry is on the way to the airport herself now. Step by step, we’re moving forward. But it’s 2020. How tightly, and for how long, can one’s fingers remain crossed?
Somehow I manage to sleep while Watson swoops over the Atlantic. We wake to the news he’s landed safe and sound. At least he’s only hours away now. But the thought of him on his own, going through customs and vet checks and wondering where his family is, well, it’s a lot to ask of your canine bestie, isn’t it? The shipping company does a great job of keeping us up to date. He’s cleared customs, he’s on his way to Calais with his driver. He’s having a nice walk and a stretch while waiting for the train to whisk him under the English Channel.
As we set off from Exmoor to the hotel, we check Kerry’s flight. It’s still reporting on-time departure Friday night. We relax, we almost swagger to the car with the dog’s bed and treats. We got this whole transatlantic relocation during a pandemic thing! No probs, peeps!
Five hundred yards down the road from our house, there’s a loud pop and a wobble. Pulling into a gateway, Hubby leaps out of the passenger seat, leaps back in: ‘Drive home! NOW!’ What? ‘Punctured tyre! Quick, before it completely deflates!’ No swagger now. We only purchased this car a couple of days ago. Like most new cars these days, it has no spare tyre, just a weird inflation contraption that was never designed to deal with a slashed tyre. We skid into our driveway, just as the last air gasps out. It’s been about thirty years since I’ve had a flat tyre. Why now?! Oh, right. 2020. We fling our gear into Hubby’s company car (not supposed to be full of dog hair when meeting customers) and creep past the spot of the flat, never seeing anything that could have caused so much damage. But we’re on our way. Barely! Hanging by a thread to our sanity. But on our way.
The UK is in national lockdown. We prepare our speech in case the police pull us over. ‘Essential travel. Dog needs us. He’s gonna be mad if we’re late. You don’t want to make him mad. He pouts. Refuses to eat. Sheds shaggy hair at a rate you must see to believe. And we’re in the company car. No dog hair allowed. You understand, officer?’ Luckily, we don’t need the speech.
At a service station, somewhere on the M4, we get word: Watson’s in England! He’s on his way to a farm near Heathrow Airport. We can pick him up around 8:30 tonight. Hallelujah! We find our hotel but every local eating option is closed due to lockdown. Back in the car. Back on the motorway, then winding through dark lanes, knowing Watson’s only minutes away. We spot the van parked on the side of the road and pull in behind it. The doors open and there’s Watson, tail wagging so hard he can barely stand up in his crate! I can’t stop telling him how brave he is and how proud I am of him. I’m not crying. You’re crying.
At that moment, the only fireworks we’d seen all night kick off. Watson’s terrified of them. Poor chap, sees the door of his crate open, sees his Mum for the first time in five months, and BOOM, CRASH, FLARE! He must think he’s landed in a war zone. ‘Green and pleasant land, my foot!’, he mutters. He’s scooped into yet another car, at least this time with room to stretch out, his Mum scratching his ears and telling him he’s the bravest dog in the history of pandemic doggie travel. She tries to explain the whole Guy Fawkes thing but Watson’s having none of it. He’s bundled from the car into the hotel room between star-bursting rockets, (via an elevator which doesn’t exactly endear the whole evening to him) where we all collapse in a heap of tangled nerves.
No time to rest. We check our phones every five seconds. Is our daughter boarding her flight yet? Will it be cancelled last minute? Will a delay allow time for the US or the UK to impose tighter sanctions on travel and our window close to get her out? Will the US election be called for Joe Biden (which, let’s face it, in any other year would have happened days ago) and kick off the expected aftermath? Where’s that plane?!
We’re exhausted. But we can’t let our guard down because Watson’s decided the hotel couch is where he needs to be and that’s not allowed and we can’t afford to get thrown out of the only hotel in the area allowing pets. He grumbles and gives us the steely-eye of distain as we drag him off the couch. Again. Where’s Kerry’s plane?!
More heart-pounding as the British Airways flight just before Kerry’s is cancelled. Tick tock. Tick tock. Shouts and hugs! She’s boarded her plane! Doors closed and cross-checked! She’s in the air, arriving tomorrow morning! Watson’s about had it and leaps on the couch during the happy dance, only to be thrown off again. We finally get to eat the sandwiches we bought at the motorway service station. We get ready for bed and I come to the conclusion the only option is for me to sleep on the couch to keep Watson off it. He’s decided he hates England, with all its fireworks and hotel rules and even the water tastes funny. He curls his nose at it. He decides at 3:30am he needs to pee. Because jetlag and time zones and Mum won’t let me sleep on the couch so she’s not sleeping on it either.
An early start to Heathrow the next morning but of course there are road works on the M4 so we’re almost late to meet Kerry’s flight. She reports via WhatsApp there’s no one at immigration and no one at customs and before we know it, she and her luggage trolley are sailing towards us. It’s a joyful reunion with Watson who seems to have forgiven her for bundling him into a crate so many hours and adventures ago. The clan is back together and heading down the motorway to Exmoor. It’s a dream after a long, long nightmare.
In your face, 2020! (Only not really because it’s 2020, there’s over a month to go, and all rational bets are off.) We’ll take nothing for granted, ever again. Especially not a sleeping dog on a mat by the fire. Or the chance to spend extended time with an adult daughter while she settles into her new life in a country she’s part of genetically as a UK citizen, but new to experientially. We settle into a 14-day quarantine. We hope for peace and the democratic process in the US. We hope for peace and health in the UK. We have much to be thankful for. Most of all, family; two-legged and four. And sleep. Definitely, sleep.
Every day lasts a year when you’re missing loved ones. After four months apart, my husband finally arrived in England to as big a celebration as you can have in quarantine. What a relief! But it’s been five months since I saw my daughter and my dog. Five months of planning and plotting and forking over money and waiting and calling and booking and vet’s visits and rabies shots and re-microchipping to be compliant with new 14-digit chips and crate-training in a custom-made crate because Watson is just too big for the biggest off-the-shelf crate and on and on and on. And now, with only days to go before Watson was to arrive on November 3rd, his flight is cancelled. No reason. No appeal. Just a rescheduled flight for November 11th. Which, since I wrote that sentence yesterday, has been cancelled again. Embargo on pets flying through Frankfurt apparently, which means redoing all the paperwork as exact timelines must be met. Which means more trips to the vet which means more … you get the idea.
This delay also means moving my daughter’s flight back as she needs to be in the US until Watson flies. For the love of Pete, will this relocation-during-a-pandemic turmoil ever end?
Of course, I know the answer is yes. But on a day-to-day basis, it’s getting old and we’re all battle fatigued. We’re fighting a ticking clock as this pandemic seems to be getting worse, not better. What if we’re weeks away from a total lockdown and we can’t get the rest of our family over here for months? Holidays are coming up, winter is coming, possible US election results are terrifying for those of us who feel there is, if not a perfect result, at least an OH, HELL NO! result.
I’m whining. I don’t usually whine. But I’m whining and I know I shouldn’t be. I know many of you out there have greater concerns than getting your dog from A to B. You have sick loved ones. You have permanent holes at the dinner table rather than the (hopefully) temporary ones I have. But worry shouldn’t be rated. Worry is worry. And I’m worried. Darkness pervades every thought.
With almost perfect timing, the Exmoor Dark Skies Festival is taking place during the month of October. Exmoor is a designated International Dark Skies Reserve, the first in Europe, due to its low light pollution. While the pitch black can make for a nerve-wracking night drive over the moors, it has its benefits. On a clear night, the stars appear close enough to touch. They dazzle both the eye and the mind. They fill the entire sky, barely a gap between them. The Milky Way is more intense than a wispy veil and even the least knowledgeable stargazer can pick out planets and constellations with ease.
As part of this year’s Dark Sky Festival, last weekend saw me driving up Porlock Hill, across the moors, down Countisbury Hill into Lynmouth, then up over the moors again to Heale Farm. Set in rolling hills with views across the Bristol Channel, Heale Farm is about as dark as anywhere you’ll find. On arrival, I meet Judith, our guide to not only the stars but to a new way of looking at darkness. She reminds us of the special place darkness holds in our lives. Yes, you heard me correctly: THE SPECIAL PLACE DARKNESS HOLDS IN OUR LIVES. It’s like she knows my story, though we’ve never met.
A small band of fellow stargazers (including my husband, son, and daughter-in-law in a delightful reunion as we hadn’t all been together in a year) take the muddy route up and up and up to the top fields of the farm. Our headlamps are set to red light so as not to interfere with our night vision. It’s been raining hard for days and the forecast was for more rain. Luckily, it’s not raining as we walk, but the heavens are hidden behind layers of inky blue to black to grey clouds. The moon teases as it dips in and out of view. No stars are visible. We stop at the highest point and look across the combe. A triangular view of the Bristol Channel opens up to reveal pinpricks of light from the coast of Wales. There is barely a breath of wind, rare up here. It’s as silent a place as I’ve experienced in a long time, perhaps since my night journey up the Brazilian Amazon River. We stand and listen to the silence. Awed silence. It fills my ears, my head, my mind. It’s deafening. It’s total relief. It quiets the mind and absorbs the heaviness of recent events. A single night bird cries. We don’t know what it is – owl? hawk? It calls out into the silence for reasons unknown to us, then just as suddenly stops for reasons unknown to us.
Silence. When was the last time you heard absolutely nothing? I can’t even begin to explain how the lack of auditory input calms my soul, deepens my breathing. It’s the most glorious nothingness. Miraculously, the cloudy veil opens up; only small, fleeting tears in the fabric but enough to reveal those dazzling stars and planets. Then they’re gone, the darkness complete. I realise how many shades of black there are. Though the sky could be considered black, there’s still an even blacker outline of the hills and valleys beneath it. Inky outlines of trees stand out against the hill. A black fence post stands out against the trees. Layer after layer of black. Then another opening in the heavens and we gaze up again in silence. Am I the only one to wonder who, or what, is looking back at our blue dot floating in the heavens? I don’t know how long we stand there. All I know is I don’t want it to end. But end it must, so we stroll back through fields of napping cows, jealous of the hours of silent darkness that stretch before them.
Our evening concludes with a delightful meal around a firepit. We hear from a fellow guest, a cultural astronomer, about how mankind has viewed the stars through the ages. Judith talks about resetting our circadian rhythms, using nature’s darkness to address mental health issues, physical ailments, and healing the planet in ways I’d never considered. It’s enlightening – no pun intended. I needed this to refocus my negative dark thoughts and turn them into positives views of the darkness of the universe. At the end of the evening, I drive back over the inky-black moors with far better night vision than on the outward journey.
I’ve been looking at darkness all wrong, thinking dark times are to be endured, got over with, escaped. But maybe, just maybe, there is a healthy place for darkness. It focuses the mind, resets circadian rhythms, offers hyperclarity to points of light. Silence is more than an absence of sound; it’s a moment filled with clarifying potential. I’m taking that silence and darkness with me into the chaos that lies ahead. Stillness. Serenity. A reminder of all the universal beauty that goes unnoticed in the blinding light and exhaustive noise of daily existence.
My trials will end. This dark period will accentuate the light to follow. We need dark to see light. We need silence to hear sound. Oh, how simple pleasures will become extraordinary events: a dog snoring on the mat. Watching a film with a daughter. A clink of glasses and a ‘cheers!’ around the dinner table when, government rules permitting, my whole family is together for Christmas. Each event will be a pinprick of light, made brighter by the dark days required to get to this point. I highly recommend opportunities to place yourself dark silence whenever you can. I intend to do it again. But hopefully, I’ll get to take my dog and daughter with me. Soon.
(Friday update: Watson may have a flight next Wednesday through Amsterdam. Please cross everything you have for a smooth and safe crossing! And forgive any typos. It’s been a day.)
Bubbles used to be fun, didn’t they? My dog, Basil, certainly thought so. He’d leap around the garden, snapping at them as they bobbed on the breeze. He’d look through crossed eyes in shock when they popped on his nose, like it had never happened before. He’d stamp on the ones he couldn’t eat, then spin around and laser-focus on the wand in my hand, begging for the next batch. I’m guessing Doggy Heaven has a 24/7 bubble machine at the end of Basil’s bed. (Which is placed right next to a mud bath full of frolicking squirrels who also blow bubbles as they run.)
During my days as a speech-language pathologist, working with young children, I may have used bubbles as much for my benefit as the child’s. The simplicity, rainbow reflections, effortless flight and spontaneous, spectacular pop never got old. The joy in a child’s face, maybe a vocalization from a little one with language delays, well, it just convinced me bubbles were indeed magic. Who among us has not imagined taking flight in one, nose pushed against the transparent porthole on the world?
And just putting this here for anyone who needs it today: Prosecco bubbles. *sigh*
But here we are, 2020. Bubbles have taken on new meaning in COVID World. They conjure up less free-spirited flight and more prison-like restrictions. Though possibly containing some loved ones, they also lock out other cherished family and friends, forcing uncomforting choices. They clunk along rather than float, changing shape and size on a governmental whim or the flip of a statistical coin. They seal closed rather than burst open.
I managed to make it over the Atlantic back in May to my Exmoor home and a new bubble. But half my family is still locked out of my personal bubble by thousands of transatlantic miles and enough red tape to ground a Zeppelin-sized balloon, I’m not even sure where my bubble begins and ends anymore. Even those family members within the UK are at a loss as to whether we can see each other. A cousin allowed to visit here; a son not allowed to visit there. A discounted restaurant voucher this week, verboten behaviour next week. The flight path of my bubble echoes a cartoon balloon, popped by Wile E. Coyote with a needle, now zipping erratically across the sky. Will it ever land on solid ground?
This bubble-wrangling’s exhausting. But raise that glass of Prosecco! May our bubbles become a symbol of free spiritedness soon. May we see them as protective, fortifying, miniature globes again. May they hold the promise of floating away to unexplored, exotic places. Cherish your bubble. Protect your bubble. Wait for the pop with a sparkle of stars. Be ready to float in happy suspension at a moment’s notice. We’ve got this. Stay strong, Bubble Blowers of the World!
Seven thirty on a Sunday morning and I’m in the woods between Porlock and Porlock Weir on the Somerset coast. Steep combes reach up toward the blue skies, the smooth waters of the Bristol Channel pave the way to Wales. After days of rain sunlight dapples the muddy trails. Spontaneous streams gurgle through the undergrowth. Soggy blackberries glisten, like tiny strobe lights. They’re prolific, dotted along prickly branches that snag my trousers and claw at my fingers. Berries burst as I pick them, bloated with moisture or furry-white with mould from the incessant dampness of the last week. But there are still multitudes of perfect ones; dark burgundy orbs conjuring up warm ovens and oaty toppings. They promise friendly visits and glasses of wine for Sunday lunches – once social distancing becomes social history.
Motor memory controls my fingers, resurrecting sisterly outings of decades past along the childhood lanes, mouths covered in red stains, one for the basket, three for the instant gratification. No washing, just a wipe on the jeans or a rub of a thumb. Once home, we dunked the berries in tubs of water and watched the creepy crawlies float to the surface before Mum baked the fruit into pies or crumbles.
I didn’t gather these foraging memories in the US. I picked blackberries only in England, teaching my children the skills (and the maths of one in the basket and three in the stomach without washing or worrying) during visits home. You can pick berries in the US of course, but in the areas I lived, it was pay-to-play, organized, rule-driven, commercial. Back on Exmoor now, I wander the free smorgasbord of fruit, alone except for a solitary bird. I can’t identify the cry, a croak almost, not a pheasant or a pigeon or any of the little fellas I see on my birdfeeder. I search for a glimpse of the bird, but the trees are too thick to allow more than the one-sided conversation to penetrate the greenery. Still, it’s nice to know I have company.
I’d expected to be showing my US husband the charms of blackberrying – yes, it’s a verb in England – by now. He should have been here months ago. But I’m alone. So is he. Still. The immigration systems in both the US and the UK seem coldly detached from the immigrant/emigrant’s needs. It’s bizarre that we can go to restaurants, schools and shops but visa applicants still struggle to get a one-on-one meeting with an immigration officer. Why is it not safe to send passports and paperwork into someone who could easily be isolated at a computer terminal? It’s easy to harbour thoughts of darker forces interfering with the immigration process. Easy to think that certain powers are conspiring against the sharing of ideas and ideals, of relocation and residency variation. Against joining families together and reuniting citizens of all nations in the country of their choice. Against the joys – nay, the necessities – of adding new ingredients to the global stew pot. If we can rally on the White House lawn, we can carefully tiptoe though travel hubs and follow quarantine rules dictated by scientific data.
I push the darker thoughts aside and let the sunlight play on the fruits in my own berry pot. Here in the woods I feel part of my homeland. Reaching, picking, the plop of the berry in the pot, and the sounds of Exmoor remind me why I’ve fought so hard to return home. I’ll wind my way back along the trail to Porlock, peel a few apples, wash the blackberries, stir the crumble topping and wait for warm scents to fill the house. Hopefully, next autumn’s crop of berries will be harvested by my entire family. Settled, safe – and home. But for now, when life gives me 2020, I’ll make blackberry and apple crumble.