Finding Myself Online. Or Not.

Mission: Identify twelve search keywords that would lead others to find you online. Go.

It’s okay, I’ll wait. Am waiting… Okay, two keywords. Can you come up with two?

I know, right? It’s really hard. But that’s what I have to do as part of a website redesign project I’m currently undertaking. If I want to be found online by those who don’t know my name (and there are a few of you), I must condense my online ramblings, posts, writing topics, and areas of specialized interest or expertise into a dozen keywords. These words can’t be too general like ‘traveller’ or ‘expat’ because I’ll never compete with Condé Nast Traveller Magazine or the billion other hits you’ll get under those search terms. They can’t include the vague term ‘writer’ because Poe, Rowling, Hemingway, and King seem to pip me to the post. I can’t be too specific either, like using the word ‘hiraeth’, because although hiraeth – meaning ‘intense longing for home with a sense of loss’- is ingrained in my very soul after so many years of geographical searching, it’s not a word many others know. Or can spell. Searches may be limited, therefore, to the one person on the planet who wakes up and says, ‘Today I’ll search the word “hiraeth” to see if anyone out there has written a novel about it. Oh, and let’s hope said novel also includes Exmoor ponies.’ A bit too niche, don’t you think? Another favourite word of mine is coddiwomple – ‘to travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination’. It defines both my own life’s journey and the novels I write. But is it a good keyword? Hands up if you’ve ever searched coddiwomple. Anyone? I thought not.

What to do. What to do. I blog, pay dues for a website, and scroll endlessly through millions of other people’s social media posts, (forgetting to mention my books on my own accounts), but marketing guru, I am not. By the way, if you search ‘marketing guru’, Seth Godin pops up. He’s everywhere. Well done, Seth. Admittedly, I’m not on every social media platform. I stick to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram mainly because I’m not expected to dance on those. Or at least I don’t think I am. And I’m not expected to use a filter that turns my face into a rabbit or gives me horns or transforms my voice into that of a robot on helium. I mean, who the heck would look for me, humorous fiction writer of a ‘certain age’, on TikTok and what would I be doing there if they did? Jamming to Uptown Funk while making my morning porridge or filming myself typing ‘The End’ on my latest novel in slow motion while my dog plays the accordion in the background? I have a feeling that last bit just shows I have no idea what TikTok does or even is. Which would be true. I bet Seth’s on TikTok. But I digress…

I should have a better handle by now on Who I Am. Professionally that is. I’ve given up trying to answer that question on a personal level, much to my family’s relief. So let’s get back to who’s looking for me online. And why. (Between you and me, I’m a bit afraid to ask, because what if the only one looking for me is that guy serving two years for pirating copies of independent novels? Or that kid I rolled down a steep hill on a dustbin lid when I was eight? Oh, come on! He wasn’t even hurt and Mum made me apologize and that’s all in the past and can we just move on now, please? This approach works in politics. Until it doesn’t.)

Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. Maybe the question isn’t, ‘Who’s looking for me?’. The question is, ‘Who’s NOT looking for me but will learn to love me if I can only identify the right keywords to get myself on their radar?’. Fear of discovery shouldn’t play a part in this. I love writing and I’m so grateful for the positive feedback I receive from readers. I need to put myself out there more and I’ve found a great professional design team to help with that.

I must march onwards in my search for search terms that improve my searchability in search engines. It’s like my perpetual search for home only without frequent flyer points or jetlag. I vow to spend the rest of the week soul-searching in order to produce my twelve terms that depict my core essence. This task will provide the perfect excuse for not getting back to editing my current work-in-progress. Procrastinator! That could be one of my search terms! I just know I’ll come up as number one in that. I’ll check it out. Later.

Happy googling to all of you reading this. Delighted you found me.

(PS Tim Urban’s funny TED Talk about procrastination comes up if you search that word. I’m not mentioned. At all. Which is good news. I think.)

Images: Alpha Stock Images

Sorry, Not Sorry. Escaping 2022.

I’m gazing out over Carbis Bay in Cornwall. It’s New Year’s Eve and I haven’t given a thought to my December blog. I haven’t missed a month in the five years I’ve been writing. I’m thinking this may be the first month I miss. I’m tired.

I’m in Carbis Bay on a whim. I needed to get out of the house, away from the garden and house tasks, away from the accusatory laptop waiting for writing projects that aren’t going anywhere because my mind is everywhere else but on the page. Away from the refugee families that need me and the politics and the drama. I’m tired.

Like everyone else, 2022 has got to me. Never-ending pandemics, cost of living crisis, war, so many in need. It’s exhausting to live during this period of our collective history, isn’t it? So back to that whim. A quick google search of any rental anywhere not fully booked for New Year. ‘I’m going somewhere,’ I say to Hubby, ‘you coming?’ ‘I’m going anywhere,’ I say to my sister and her partner, ‘you coming?’ ‘I’m going,’ I say to the dog, ‘you coming? I’ll bring cheese.’ Surprisingly, (except for the dog who’ll follow a block of cheese anywhere) they all say ‘yes’ to this last-minute getaway. They are all familiar with 2022 and not surprisingly, they’re tired too.

We drive through rain squalls and flooded roads, Satnav taking us down every farm cart track between Exmoor and the tip of Cornwall. We haven’t planned meals but we have a car full of mince pies, Christmas cake scraps, boxes of chocolates and the occasional piece of bruised fruit. Oh, and several wonderful cheeses from gift hampers. We don’t need no Tescos. Along with Christmas gift champagne, Baileys and a suitcase full of books, we’re well stocked enough never to leave our little bungalow with a view of the churning sea and the protective twinkle of Godrevy Lighthouse for the next three days.

For a brief spell on arrival, the rain stops. We feel we should at least set foot once on the white beach. But my dog is getting old. He struggles with the steep road down to the coast, manages a gentrified romp at the water’s edge, chews a few strands of seaweed then struggles back up the hill. He’s done for the rest of the holiday and will lie at my feet as I read, happy with his lot in life, even as I’m less and less happy with the tell-tale signs of his aging. He’s tired.

This may sound a somewhat depressing end to my 2022 blogs. Maybe it is. Sorry, not sorry. New Year’s Eve is the perfect time to be honest with oneself. We can’t be ‘up’ all the time. We can’t be ‘on our game’ all the time. It’s okay to reflect on all the reasons we’re tired – I’ve taken on a new house, I’m hosting a refugee family, I’ve helped family where I can and neighbours where I can, held hands with yet another friend diagnosed with cancer, and donated where I can and been kind and generous and humorous and supportive where I can. I’ve earned the right to be tired.

Next year. Next year is the year peace will return, I’ll get my house back from sheltering strangers, and someone in high places will realise you can’t starve and freeze populations for your own political agenda forever. The two books hiding in various files on my laptop will get finished and published to great acclaim and … Well, that’s enough, surely, for 2023.

This New Year’s Eve it’s chocolates and Baileys while collapsed on a rental couch and I say, collapse if you need to. Rest up. For next year we rise again.

Image: Scott Gemmell

USA Football Fans on Exmoor? Well, I Never.

Breaking News: my loved ones are American!

It’s been brought to my attention that my husband of thirty-three years and my adult children may in fact be … American. I suppose I should thank the World Cup for opening my eyes to this but at the moment I’m still in shock about the whole thing. Who knew a simple dinner reservation could shine a spotlight on such a troublesome issue?

When I made a Friday night dinner reservation at the Top Ship in Porlock, an olde worlde thatched pub that predates football itself by, oh, several hundred years, I had no idea England was playing the USA in the World Cup that night. Full disclosure: I haven’t watched a football match since Bobby Charlton, George Best and Gordon Banks played, which means my spectator days peaked in the 1970s and faded rapidly. But I’m a huge fan of Marcus Rashford, awarded an MBE for his push to get free lunches for low-income children during the COVID outbreak. That man’s a hero. Anyway, apparently, he plays football too. But I digress…

The Top Ship calls the morning of our dinner reservation to advise us the game will be shown while we’re eating and would we like to move from the pub to the restaurant so as not to see the television. Why would we do that? It’s not like watching the game will cause any kind of discord. We’re all on the same team in my family. My American hubby agreed to move to England. My daughter, born and raised in the USA but now living in England, made a choice to focus on her UK heritage a few years ago. Her US friend, also now living in London, prefers the British lifestyle. We’ll be cheering for England then. No need to move us out of TV range, thanks. Game on.

My first inkling of discord comes as I prepare to head out for dinner. A Stars and Stripes flag, previously hidden in a rarely used drawer, mysteriously appears on the kitchen counter. Why is this here? Where is it going? Surely not with us to the pub? I ask my fellow family members/dinner guests about it: Hubby shrugs, daughter checks her phone, her friend freezes, seemingly wishing to goodness she’d turned down the invitation to spend Thanksgiving in Porlock. The dog, sensing tension, parks himself in front of the door so no one can escape. (He’s half French/half German if the DNA panel is accurate so maybe we should leave him out of this.) No one confesses to planning to take the US flag to dinner but there’s muttering in the hallway as people pull coats on. An uneasy feeling seeps into my gut as it’s suggested the flag remain on the counter, ‘available for after dinner’.

We arrive at the Top Ship just as the British national anthem is playing. ‘Isn’t this nice?’ I smile at my party while admiring the roaring fire, light bouncing off the horse brasses and the beer glasses. I join in the last line of the anthem, focusing so hard on singing ‘King’ rather than the lifelong ‘Queen’ I’m used to I almost don’t catch Hubby’s, ‘Did we miss the US anthem?’.

Kick off complete, drinks ordered, menu perused, we settle in to watch a game we didn’t know was happening just hours ago. Now it seems to mean something to us all. The other tables are definitely invested in the outcome and it’s pretty obvious that on Exmoor England is favoured to win. Except at our table. I seem to be in the minority when it comes to England fans. It starts with rumblings, a daughter’s flinch when England shoots at goal, a husband’s clenched fist when the Americans run the ball down the field. What’s this? Mutiny? An American on Exmoor? Where’s the cheer when the cameras show the England fans? Where’s the boo when the USA player trips an English player?

Oh. My. Good. God. I’m at a table full of USA fans!!

How could this be? My husband? Didn’t he swear allegiance to the flag during our marriage vows? (Remind me to check the videotape.) My children? Surely, having a British mother ensures loyalty to the English team? (Remind me to check the small print on their birth certificates.) Seriously, a life lived in the USA has to get overruled by that half of your DNA that is English once you hit English soil, doesn’t it? Though now I think of it, I never felt American after decades on American soil. Is it even possible my family doesn’t feel fully English on English soil? Apparently, it is. Halfway through the fish and chips and Exmoor Ale pie, things are getting more heated. No not on the football field, as even to my inexperienced eye, this is a tedious game at best. No, it’s become clear as day this game is pulling my family back to their roots in the USA, just as I spent thirty-odd years in America being pulled back to mine in England.

Okay. This is getting ridiculous. There are open whoops when the Americans have the ball. Obvious sighs when the English goalkeeper stops an attack on goal. Over pudding and custard, the truth comes out. The three other guests at my table openly admit they’re pulling for the USA. I shush them and glance uneasily around the pub at all the England supporters. ‘We live here,’ I hiss. ‘Keep your voices down.’ But it’s too late. The owners and managers and wait staff know us. They know our background. They smile just as usual, but I have to wonder if the chef spat in our gravy tonight of all nights.

The game ends and, thank goodness, it’s a zero-zero draw. Our family lives to watch another game. I can only hope it’s not an England versus USA World Cup final. If it is, we may have to stay home to watch. I couldn’t take the humiliation of a USA victory in the pub or the gloating of my traitorous family. But I’ve learned something: A simple game of football can provide an eye-opening view of international family dynamics.

Image: Flickr

Our Very Tuscan British Exmoor Funeral

It’s been two and a half years since I’ve been on a plane. That’s the longest I’ve spent with both feet on the ground since I was a teenager. Just when I’m wondering if I’ll ever again experience the joy of a good ol’ kneecapping from someone else’s wheeled suitcase on a jetway, my sister calls with a plan. (She’s been known to suggest things like tying a childhood friend to a dustbin lid and sending him down a steep hill. The trouble that caused. One shouldn’t agree to her plans willy nilly.) But this plan includes Tuscan pasta dishes with porcini mushrooms. It involves a swimming pool with views over a beautiful valley framed by towering mountains. It’s a chance to see Cinque Terre, a bucket list destination for me. I wait for the other shoe to drop, like Sis saying, ‘Oh, before we go, we need to dig up my entire back garden using a spoon. Then returf it.’ That shoe doesn’t drop. I’m going on holiday!

Just a couple of flies in the ointment: Two weeks before we’re due to fly out, a Ukrainian refugee family arrives at our house on Exmoor. No one had invaded anyone back when we booked the holiday. No one had suggested Hubby and I empty out all the closets in our three-bedroom house and stack our clothes into dangerously high piles on the floor in one bedroom. No one mentioned anything about completing more dangerous piles of paperwork regarding refugee visas and school applications and insurance and new bank accounts and downloading translation apps. No one suggested I wouldn’t have time to pack or time to plan holiday excursions or …

I know, I know. Even I realise that comes across a little, well, selfish. Lives are at stake here. Civilization itself is at stake here based on current events, and I’m focused on pasta. Of course, Hubby and I will make this work. Of course, we’ll get everything set up before we leave. We’ll give this family of three some breathing room to regroup from their ordeal and relax into Exmoor life. It will all be fine. Our new family members are delightful and certainly worth any extra effort on our part.

Then the second fly crash lands in the Commonwealth ointment, splattering chaos and grief everywhere. The day before we leave for Heathrow, worrying news seeps out of Buckingham Palace: Queen Elizabeth’s health is ’cause for concern’. Before we’ve had time to wish her well, she’s gone. And I’m bereft.

‘Why,’ you ask? ‘Did you meet her?’ No, but I saw her up close during a tour of Windsor Castle once. I looked out of one of the stateroom windows to see the entire Royal Family getting into cars heading to Royal Ascot. It was a thrill, seeing an icon in the flesh. She’d been part of my British collective consciousness my entire life. She provided a rallying cry during my decades in America, that call to defend your country, not from war in this case but from any mention of ‘also ran’. Nobody does pomp or puts on a parade like the United Kingdom. London’s buildings and vistas always impress and the Queen’s appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace stirs something inside me. So much history – some of it questionable looking back with today’s perspective, I get that – condensed into one lady under a pastel-coloured hat. All I can say is for me, personally, Queen Elizabeth provided the thread that tethered me ‘home’ during my hiraeth years.

I’d worried about not being resident back in England for her funeral during my years abroad. I thought I’d made it in time. I intended to go to London and pay my respects when the time came. But no. I’m booked on a flight to Tuscany within a day of her passing. I can barely pack, and I’m still trying to complete paperwork for my new Ukrainian family as the bells toll in the village church and the television pounds the sad news, over and over again, into my heart. The Queen is dead. Long live the King. The Jubilee bed in my garden tells the story; a sad transition from June to September.

I frantically hurl hand lotion bottles out of bathroom drawers trying to find a little plastic bag to fit my toiletries in because I’d forgotten you still have to do that on a plane. My eyes well up at the billboards along the motorway: a black background with The Queen’s portrait in the middle. Heathrow is full of shop windows expressing condolences to the Royal Family. Sis and I start planning our day of Tuscan mourning on the plane. We’ll be watching the entire funeral, though our partners plan to hike that day. They don’t get it. Well, one of them is American, after all.

Tuscan villages are decked out in Ukrainian flags, reminding us we’ve left our house in the hands of complete strangers. We WhatsApp several times a day to smooth any bumpy issues and our village does a wonderful job of wrapping our guests in warmth and kindness. This gives Sis and me time to buy family-sized bags of Italian chocolate, M&M’s and liquorice because this is how you deal with death in our family.

We sit down in our Tuscan villa at 10am GMT on Monday September 19th and don’t move again for eight hours. We feel sick from all the chocolate but, oh, what a wonderful send off. I take comfort in the fact I made it home for The Queen’s 70th anniversary, just three short months ago. I threw a party and shared Pimms and planted my garden in red, white, and blue, and somehow felt closer to my heritage. But today, scenes appear on the little Italian television that bring me back to the heart wrenching gut check of Emma, the Queen’s pony, standing silently as her owner’s casket passes. The Royal Corgis sit desolately at the feet of carers as those amazing pall bearers make everyone proud. The crown is removed from the top of the casket and my heart bleeds for the next-in-line, Charles III. He has a tough road ahead and big shoes to fill. He will be criticized daily for doing his job and the only thing he’ll be more criticized for is not doing his job. Poor fella.

In the days after the funeral, we eat pasta and stroll cobbled streets and travel to the coast. We decide Cinque Terre isn’t what we thought it would be, though it could be just our attitudes aren’t what they should be. That said, the photos on all the jigsaw puzzles I’ve completed over the years of these coastal villages are much cleaner, brighter and less crowded than the reality. Portofino proves impressive though.

Before we know it, we’re on the way home, thinking September was a bit of a washout. Until … we walk through our Exmoor door and there waiting for us is an amazing gingerbread replica of our home, made with love and incredible skill by our Ukrainian guests. We are speechless. Such talent and generosity shared in a time of great stress for them. Later, I post a photo of the house on Twitter, which the BBC picks up and before we know it, we’re interviewed on BBC Radio Somerset and there’s an article on the BBC website and another journalist calls for an interview and suddenly we’re all connected in this big old crazy world by cake. That sweet, comforting token denotes grief and celebration and peace and family. We’re all looking for a good news story; something to remind us that everything will be alright if we’re just kind to each other. Baking binds us together.

If Queen Elizabeth II did one thing right, it was instilling in so many a sense of duty, compassion and a work ethic of ‘just get on with it’. I’ll stop wallowing in pity and get on with providing a home for those who sorely need it. And I’ll eat gingerbread until I feel better.

Images: author’s own

Hiraeth, War and Unexpected Exmoor Refugees

Just when you think things can’t get crazier in this old world of ours, another zinger out of left field clocks you up the side of the head. But unlike with COVID and Brexit woes and drought threatening all the new plants I’ve lovingly placed in our Exmoor garden, this zinger at least comes with a silver lining: The Gemmells are about to make new friends because … wait for it … we’re hosting a Ukrainian refugee family.

Yep, you heard me. The Ukrainians are coming to Exmoor. After all, if I, with all my tales of hiraeth and struggles to find my place in the world, don’t understand the need for home and comfort, who does? My situation was never as dire as what so many are going through right now, but I feel great empathy for these families. I watched the TV coverage when war first broke out: Polish men and women standing on train platforms with signs offering sanctuary: no background checks, no prep time. Just goodhearted souls offering a home away from bombs and bullets and I asked myself: could I do that? Could I take in strangers?

At this point in my life, Hubby and I thought things would be settling down. More time to write, more time to travel. More time to be ‘human beings’ instead of ‘human doings’. I didn’t expect to be sharing my house, or working with the local school to place our seven-year-old soon-to-be housemate, or researching outlets for the very creatively talented mother and adult daughter. It’s all moving fast. From finding an organization to match us with a family to finding a family took three days. The local council has moved impressively fast to set up house inspections and link us to background checks. My head is spinning. Can I do this?

Of course I can, especially as community support has been equally as fast coming forward. It took minutes from posting about the family’s imminent arrival on the local Facebook page (with the family’s permission of course) for me to know Hubby and I wouldn’t be alone in this endeavour. The whole community jumped in with offers of beds, playdates, and school uniforms. The local school had literally just broken up for the summer holidays, yet teachers contacted us to offer help and assure us of a warm welcome. A neighbour offered to purchase sneakers as our little friend has outgrown all his clothes since fleeing Ukraine. Another Exmoor author, Tortie Eveleigh at West Ilkerton Farm, offered a free farm tour, a water sports group offered kayaking sessions, the village outdoor clothing shop offered coats and a local fisherman offered to set up our little buddy with fishing gear. And, thankfully for me, to show him how to use it. We’ve even been offered a teddy bear. Every time I check Facebook, I get something in my eye.

We never dreamed we’d be in this position but it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, not just for us, but for this community too. New friends, new experiences. The chance to move beyond the fundraisers and flying flags kind of support to the boots on the ground kind of support. For me personally, it’s the chance to pay back all the times I’ve been in a foreign place and needed the help of strangers. When I first arrived in the United States, someone fed me for three days when a banking snafu left me without funds. A lone man in a truck picked me up from the side of the freeway in Miami and, without murdering me, took me to safety. (Before the days of mobile phones, if your car broke down you put out your thumb and hoped for the best. It was a risk for both parties.) When a rental fell through, a new friend housed me for weeks. More recently, arriving back in this country during a pandemic, a landlord took a risk and rented a house to me without the usual credit checks because we had no credit history in England. Time and time again, strangers stepped up to help.

Our Ukrainian family is taking great risk in traveling so far to strangers. The stakes are incredibly high for them. I can only imagine, as a mother, how scared I’d be for my children. Will they be safe and loved and welcomed as they embark on a path they couldn’t have imagined this time last year? We’ve all needed someone to take a chance on us at some point in our lives. I have spare bedrooms. I live next door to a school and this little boy hasn’t been in a classroom since the war broke out. I have a garden. And a dog who will snuggle this family to the best of his ability. I will try to relieve the hiraeth and heartache they will surely feel. And I will offer them sanctuary on Exmoor, a place that has always soothed my soul and given me peace.

Wish us all luck.

Image: author’s own of Porlock Bay

Editing Books and Gardens

Last week I received The Email. Yes, THAT email. The one from the editor that filled me with both crippling anxiety and spine-tingling excitement. Attached to said email was the edited manuscript for my third novel, entitled Life Like Lavender. Anyone who’s undergone the excruciating and/or joyous journey of birthing a book understands this is the moment the book lets out either an ecstatic scream (‘I’m here world! You may love me now!’) or a pitiful whimper (‘I suspect I may be premature so ready the incubator’). For most of us it’s more a case of ‘I’m here world but a shot of adrenaline in that warm incubator wouldn’t go amiss.’

Yep. The Email was a big deal. I contemplated a week hidden under the comforter, munching cookie dough ice cream in-between slugs of chocolate syrup straight from the bottle before my brain computed the editor mentioned a few scented blossoms amongst the piles of compost. Great, he noticed the blossoms. Good, he noticed the compost that, allowed to mature, may produce better blooms. Darn it, he noticed the raw excrement that no amount of time will fix. It will always stink.

A few days after The Email arrived, I tucked the ice cream pot under my arm for safe keeping, placed the chocolate syrup bottle in the car’s cupholder for easy access and headed off to a Horticultural Society plant fair. I’m passionate about gardening and what better distraction from editing than a warm sunny day surrounded by discussions about variegated leaves and whether a one-metre-tall evergreen myrtle constitutes a mid-front border or mid-back border shrub?

Strolling around the plant stalls I find pots of Snowflake bulbs (Leucojum vernum, if you speak horticultural Latin). £5 for four bulbs. Well, for goodness sake! My garden back on Exmoor is overrun with Snowflakes! I mean huge, beautiful drifts of them, clumping in the vegetable garden, poking through stone walls and setting up encampments under every shrub. I adore them but there are probably more than I need. Eureka! I could give up writing and just sell Snowflake bulbs from my doorstep. All I need to do is decide which clumps stay and which ones go.

On the drive home, the car filled with plants that obviously couldn’t be left behind for risk of finding themselves in the ‘wrong hands’, I contemplated the editing of books and gardens. What to keep, what to dig up, what to work on, what to give up on. But therein lies the rub. One gardener’s invasive weed is another gardener’s ornamental show piece. One reader’s boring paragraph is another reader’s deep reflection. Which do I cut? Which do I cultivate? Whether words or plants, I’m just going to have to keep digging and sowing, pruning and uprooting, until I get the ratio right. Luckily, two wonderfully knowledgeable landscapers and one insightful and generous editor are there to help with shaping decisions.

Jettison the ice cream, Tracey! Dump the chocolate syrup! (Maybe one more mouthful.) Keep all the Snowflakes you love, no matter where they are in the garden. Give away the rest. Keep all the words you love, even if they need a little TLC. Cut the rest. Don’t look back. Plant your garden and tell your story the way you see it.

Editing: a process each writer and gardener must go through to achieve the ideal blend of perfect words or gorgeous blooms. Let’s get started.

I’ve Had Enough February, Both On and Off Exmoor

I’ve had enough of February, 2022; mostly my own fault. I didn’t have to put the powerlines to my Exmoor house underground; it was just a nice-to-do to improve the view. The process required digging up the driveway, dismantling stone walls and excavating across the entire front garden to lay the cables underground. Unfortunately, once the trenches were dug, Storm Eunice hit and all the power company contractors diverted to other more important tasks, leaving us with an almighty mess. I didn’t have to write a novel but I did, and February was also the deadline for getting it to the editor. More self-induced stress but I managed it by the skin of my teeth and will now try to forget all about it. The fear of letting someone else look at your work is intense. Moving inside the house, I didn’t have to replace floors and curtains, it was just a nice-to-do. But I did do it and the nice got knocked out of the project quickly, leaving just the to-do list; like needing to paint all the walls before the new floors go down.

The hardest bit about painting is choosing the paint, I always think. I’m not good with colour at the best of times but it’s one thing to have your socks clash with your jumper and quite another to paint an acre of wall in the main areas of your house only to find it looks naff with the curtains and makes the flooring look peachy-pink instead of the rough-sawn cypress you hoped for. I’ve repainted many a room in my time due to ‘choice error’.

Emersed in the complex, stress-inducing world of colour, I spread out on the floor in the paint shop with my floorboard sample and my curtain fabric sample. I’m overwhelmed by the time I reach paint sample number two and there’s 50,000 of them. Three weeks into this, I still haven’t picked a colour. I mean, why so many? Do we need a million shades of white? A plain and simple neutral? Forget anything called ‘beige’. There is no beige. Instead, the paint swatch sheet opens like the Dead Sea Scrolls and never stops unscrolling. There is Matchstick and Elephant’s Breath and Rum Camel (I ask you, who names paints?) and thousands of others which, depending on the light, look either grey or brown to me. Even a passing cloud can move the sample from the ‘this may work’ pile to the ‘yuck, that’s awful’ pile, which becomes the ‘this may work’ pile when the cloud scurries past and sunshine hits the fan of samples.

Did I mention there’s a time limit as the painting needs to be finished by March 1st when the flooring goes in? Darn this short month of February! Could you not at least be a leap year to help a decorator out? No? Matchstick, it is then.

With four days to deadline, I hump ladders and buckets of paint around and pick a million strands of dog hair off the paintbrush and make gallons of tea for the wall-building construction crew working outside. I remind myself to look up and enjoy the fact the UK lifted all remaining COVID restrictions. This should be something to celebrate after two years, right? Instead, there’s conflicting information on whether we’re too early and will we go back to hospital tents in car parks. However, I choose to celebrate the sentiment of lifted restrictions while still wearing my mask at Tesco’s as I pick up more industrial-sized sacks of teabags for all the workers.

I paint. And I paint. And I paint. The walls keep growing longer, the roller brush extension pole keeps getting heavier and don’t get me started on trying to reach all the nooks and crannies behind the toilet. I worry about the bird of paradise plant that came with the house. Will it survive in the elements outside the front door while I paint the indoor porch; the only home it’s ever known? It’s not exactly native to Exmoor. Fingers crossed the hurricane force winds of last week don’t return until BoP is back inside.

Anyway, there’s all this chaos around my not-so-nice-to-do list and just when my wrists decide to painfully spasm with each brush stroke and it all gets a bit much, Russia invades Ukraine. Now most of my disgust with February involves other people’s nice-to-do list. You know who you are, Vlad. You didn’t have to do this, either, but poof! just like that the world changes. Paint? What paint? Construction site mud? Gone from human consciousness. Now it’s all about the poor Ukrainians: frantic parents, crying children, bombed civilian apartment blocks, columns of cars stuck at borders, certain countries refusing Ukrainians visas (BORIS, for the love of Pete!!) while others (POLAND, bravo!!) allow even pets without passports to escape the hell that is Kyiv, a place that just last week was simply focused on what colour to paint its own walls.

I try to push the flooring company back a week but no can do. I have to keep painting, but my heart is elsewhere. Missed a bit? Don’t care. Second gloss coat on the cloakroom skirting board? Not happening. How to help Ukraine? No idea, but I offer my two guest rooms to any family that can get to the UK. Twitter and Facebook posts seem pathetic in the face of such enormous need, but what can I do? Once more, silly men with fragile egos and ridiculous bucket lists cast pain and suffering out into the world like most of us casts seeds into flower beds. A former clownish comedian shows true statesmanship while supposedly experienced ‘statesmen’ look clownish. You can’t make this stuff up.

I just want to write funny novels about average people searching for home and their humorous travel adventures along the way. Oh, and choose a paint to match the curtains. That’s it. Instead, I’ll spend my post-painting time trying to find out who to contact about offering a temporary home to yet more refugees running from yet another country destroyed for no other reason than to add a trophy to the wall of a bored multi-multi-billionaire. Why can’t they just find a wall to paint and spend all their time and resources choosing the perfect colour? February, I’m done with you.

Sending hugs to Ukraine. Your room is ready here, painted, if you need it.

A What Bath? The Day I Met the Gongs.

Another session of writing late into the evening. February 21st – the date the editor expects my latest novel – is barrelling down the tracks towards me. The driveway project is due to start around then too, requiring masses of attention to detail, like how to get a large telegraph pole off our property down a tiny, narrow alleyway. The dog needs a walk and guests are coming to stay for the weekend. I should probably go grocery shopping. And get a haircut.

Facebook Messenger pings. ‘Want to join me for a gong bath?’ Ugh. Another hacked account. There are some right weirdos out there. No, it’s really Jill.

‘A what bath? Not that it matters. I don’t know you nearly well enough to take any kind of bath with you. Count me out.’

‘No, silly,’ Jill says. ‘A gong bath. It’s like meditation. You bring your blanket, mat and pillow, stretch out on the floor of the ancient Tithe Barn in Dunster and chill while bathed in sounds from various gongs.’

‘Are you serious?’ I’ve never heard of such a thing and, unfortunately, I collect the kind of friends likely to prank me with something just like this. The refusal builds on my lips…

‘We could have a drink at the Luttrell Arms first.’

‘I’m listening.’ Even my friends wouldn’t fake offer a drink out for a joke after so long in less-than-splendid isolation. They also know Dunster is one of my favourite Exmoor villages. I wouldn’t have named my fictional Exmoor pony after just anywhere.

Only one problem: I’m not a meditating kind of person. I probably should be as, goodness knows, my mind could do with switching off. It’s typically pounding the pavement at a hundred miles an hour; mostly heading places I don’t need to go because I can’t control the things I worry about anyway. But I’ve tried the kind of meditation that requires quiet and focus on the breath and I typically end up composing my mental grocery list and worrying about the itch on my foot and whether Sandra Bullock and Judi Dench will ever make a film together or if that boy from high school ever got his comeuppance for getting the whole class detention, making me miss my bus home – forty-two years ago. See? This is why I can’t do the quiet, stare-at-the-wall stuff. I’m not hopeful this gong bath will be any different, but the Luttrell Arms is on offer and I really need a break.

‘I’m in,’ I hear myself say. ‘Just once, though.’

Wednesday night, I find myself supping my first Baileys on the rocks in many moons. Standing at a bar now feels somewhat dizzying in its strangeness. The quiet clink of glasses from still socially distanced tables speaks a foreign language, like it’s out of context somehow.

The Baileys disappears all too quickly and Hubby, Jill and I walk the quiet lane from the hotel in Dunster High Street. We chat. Don’t remember about what. We walk through the Tithe Barn car park noticing little around us.

Once inside, strands of intertwined fairy lights line the wall at the far end. There’s just enough light to take in the wooded beams of this sympathetically restored space. Whitewashed walls turn an orangey-yellow in the dim lights. Reflecting the speckled glow, the gongs wait in majestic splendour. Hanging in wooden or metal frames, some the size of cream tea shop tables, they look … intimidating. I learn later each one, including those not on display tonight, has a fantastical name, like Nepalese Singing Wind Gong, Flower of Life Gong, The Queen Gong, The Head Chakra Gong and the planets: Neptune, Jupiter, Pluto.

I focus on not tripping over other participants already settled on the floor. We spread our mats in empty spaces and settle under blankets. Shuffling my towel pillow, I wonder how comfortable I’ll be after a few minutes. Will I cough, or disturb others as I write my mental grocery list? I vow to hold my breath and get through this as best I can without embarrassing Jill. It’s only an hour and I don’t need to come back. Ever.

Our leader, Alex, speaks gently, of what to expect, of how to behave, it’s okay to sit up and watch if you care to, to leave if it’s not for you (Does she read minds? I attempt to block my thoughts like in that 1960s film, Village of the Damned, where the teacher must fill his mind with the stone wall so the alien schoolkids can’t suss he’s trying to blow them up. See?! Here I go, completely off track again. But Alex’s voice is soothing. I can’t make out all the instructions as the barn absorbs the low acoustics of her vocal patterns. Hope I can hear the gongs.

Needn’t have worried on that score. A bell tone begins the session, produced in a bowl with a mortar-type object. I know because, unlike everyone else who’s lying flat, face up with eyes closed, I’m tilting my face forward so I can watch. Alex moves silently to the first gong and with sweeping, circular choreography of arms and drum mallets she fills the space with gentle sound. Vibrations cross the floor, closer and closer to my mat, touching my toes first and seeping into my chest cavity. It’s instantly overwhelming. All else moves aside to make space for this new creature, because the vibration feels like that: a being unto itself, something warm and cuddly that snuggles somewhere deep inside you, wrapping you in a hug. Like James Earl Jones’ voice. When he’s not Darth Vader.

The sounds build, additional gongs add layer after layer, much like a painter layers the brush with multiple hues. I’m mesmerized, by the sounds and the movements of the gongs, the rings of molten colour in each of them ever changing in the twinkling glow as sound and light collide. My head lowers, my eyes close, there is no discomfort, no grocery list, no film reels, no high school bully. Just vibration. Sometimes as intense as crashing waves on Bossington Beach shingle, sometimes as gentle as a kitten’s purr against a collarbone.

I’ve studied the ear intensely as part of my life as a speech-language pathologist but I learned nothing about this. Nothing about the way those tiny bones and a curled cochlear can work together to produce an entire body-encompassing reaction that stills the mind, like the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard. Occasionally I open my eyes, lose myself in the ceiling beams again, wonder about the sounds they have absorbed through the centuries, the voices, the worries, the celebrations and the commiserations. I drift back to the gongs, absorbing the present, the here and now, exactly what I should have done during all those other attempts at stilling the mind. I’m in. Completely in.

A calming voice guides me slowly back from wherever I’ve been. An hour? Over an hour, actually. How could that be? Did time fly or did it freeze, trapped in the song of the gongs? I haul myself up to a sitting position, a little dazed. Alex hands me tea and a chocolate-covered date. Warmth and sweetness slot in next to calm and quiet, like little flowers in a solid stone wall. Exquisite.

We wrap up our mats and without talking, make our way out of the barn. The full moon catches us in the face, every star in the inky sky a pinprick of revelation and serenity. The moon turns the Bristol Channel to molten silver. Even the distant lights of Hinkley Point seem softer, a glistening mirage shimmering as though floating above the shiny water. No sound registers. Or maybe the gongs are still pulling that part of the brain back to them, blocking all else. Fine by me. This view and this peaceful world were here when we arrived earlier. We just didn’t notice them. We pause to admire it all now.

Is this what a gong bath does? Reboots the senses, relinquishes head space formerly given over to the groceries, the dog walks, the haircuts? Does it free up memory for the absorption of new stimuli, shut out old-world noise allowing for new-world sensations? If it does, I need it. More than I ever knew.

I’m coming again next month. Won’t even need to stop for a drink first.

Many thanks to Alexandra Simson for the wonderful evening. And to Jill, for opening my ears and mind to this adventure. For more information on gong baths in the Southwest of England, check out https://www.sound-well.co.uk/services/gong-well. Quality online gong baths are also available, currently enjoyed by listeners across the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Germany.

Image: Alexandra Simson

FINDING MY ZEN IN GLITTERY CARDBOARD

It’s November 29th and I’ve just posted all my international Christmas cards. You heard me. For the first time EVER, I’ve posted greeting cards in November. Why you ask? I’ll tell you why. ‘Tis the year 2021. That’s why.

Now, you may accuse me of a panic response to the latest breaking updates about a new COVID variant. I agree, I’ve always been a bit of an alarmist. Just ask my kids. Growing up, I provided a constant stream of advice each time they left the house about choosing clothing to save their lives during a blizzard (a tougher sell in June, but you never know), secret phone codes to identify themselves during a hostage situation (‘Mum, it’s the Fourth of July parade. I’m literally marching in front of the town police force.’) and what to do if a 747 Jumbo jet lands on the freeway in front of them (‘Mum, my friend lives on a farm down a single lane dirt track.’). Stampeding cows, then. Be on the lookout, kiddo. You’ll thank me.

For some reason, I’ve found it hard to instil in others a sense of urgency in many situations. Luckily, I’ve taught myself to stay awake all night and worry alone if necessary while others enjoy themselves. It’s a hard-earned skill. Anyway, this latest game-changing variant (how many is it now?) tickertaped across news broadcast feeds less than twenty-four hours before my husband flew out on his first business trip to the US in over a year. Yep. Only hours to disseminate the repercussions of staying versus going, of whether it’s the antigen test or the PCR test or both that should be booked at Heathrow on his return, or whether he should unpack the dressier clothing for the now unsure-it-will-happen business dinner at a nice New York restaurant. Those of you following along on the Gemmell relocation saga will remember Hubby spent 139 days in a hotel on his own after the visa offices shut down in the US and UK, making it impossible for him to enter the UK with me last year. Visions of more isolating months earning billions of Hilton points we can’t use due to everlasting travel bans flash through our heads. He didn’t even get the free breakfast during his last extended stay as they closed the hotel kitchens. I mean, no cinnamon pastry and sausage? What’s the point?

Long story short, he got on the plane last night with minutes to spare when the British Airways app locked him out and he couldn’t report the negative test he’d just taken to get on the flight. Stressed? Bet he wishes he’d learned to stay awake all night now. Wait, he did. Let’s hope he sleeps on the plane to New York, wrapped in plastic and breathing though the dive tank mask I made him take with him. You’re welcome, luvvie.

After a few deep breaths, I sat alone last night, mostly in the dark as the power went out due to the latest climate change-induced storm to hit the UK. By candlelight, (I always have plenty in stock for emergencies) I took control of the only thing I could control. I folded my Christmas letters as neatly as frozen fingers could and stuffed them in envelopes. I sent encouraging messages of love and support to family and friends I haven’t seen in almost two years due to travel restrictions. And I planned the Christmas Eve menu for eleven people in the hopes I’m not eating the whole lot by myself in holiday lockdown while video calling Hubby in his New York hotel because he can’t fly home. I picture him wearing the same shirt he’ll have been wearing for a month. Should have made him pack the Christmas sweater. Too late now.

I can think of all that can still go wrong in 2021 (none of which I can control), or I can just focus on the few things I can control. I can control the timing of sending my Christmas cards. So that’s what I’ll do. I’ll find my zen in the glittery cardboard.

(If your card arrives tomorrow, just put it on the mantlepiece, unopened, until Christmas. Or at least until December. Thank you.)

View From The Bathroom

View from the bathroom: Title of a book? Podcast? Punk band tour? Horror film? Maybe not. Hardly catchy or warm and fuzzy or exciting. But this week, now all the boxes have been moved into my new home, ‘view from the bathroom’ is my favourite phrase. I had to make it the title of something.

‘Just going to check the view from the bathroom.’

‘Have you seen the view from the bathroom?’

‘Let’s take our drinks and look at the view from the bathroom again.’ And again.

Weird, right? You’ll have to forgive my excitement. My new home boasts a view of the Bristol Channel, but only from my bathroom window. It’s only a thin strip of water on the horizon, but enough to see the aquamarine or green or grey waters, the purple bruise of stormy skies whipping up the whitecaps, the chalky cliffs and intermittent sweeping glints from a Welsh lighthouse, guarding entry to the green hills. On a clear day I can see the mountains in Wales, too. It’s a delightful sight.

I’ve never had a view of water from my own home before. Oh, I’ve spent many lovely holidays by water, typically after many long hours flying over vast oceans. Bora Bora saw me living over the water in one of those huts on stilts. From California to New Zealand, from Scotland to Nicaragua and The Bahamas, I’ve spent plenty of time by the ocean, even working on luxury yachts many moons ago. But now, I stare, mesmerized, at the changing colours, the white caps in a stiff breeze, the flapping of sails and the wallowing progression of a ferry heading for Bristol, all from the bathroom window.

It’s a lifelong dream to be in my own home and see the water. Now, I hear you all saying, ‘view from the bathroom? Not exactly a Malibu mansion, is it, and wouldn’t that be weird, taking people up to the bathroom to see the view?’ Now you mention it, it is a bit weird but so far only a few family members and close friends have visited Bathtub Observation Point. They understand my excitement and have no problem standing shoulder to shoulder, leaning over the sink and kicking the bathmat out of the way to see the water over the Exmoor roof tops. I admit, it will be ‘socially tricky’ to show acquaintances the view. I mean, the new neighbours who’ve been so welcoming, do I invite them upstairs on their first visit? What about the gracious chimneysweep who taught me about the five vents in our new fireplace, or the lovely chaps who built the picket fence required to make the property fully Watson escape-proof? The delivery lady? Nah, probably not appropriate. But they’re missing out.

It’s a beautiful view. Would it be better from the kitchen or the sitting room or the patio? Of course, it would. But I have long, sweeping views up the wooded combes from those rooms and garden areas, and equally stunning they are. Autumn colours sweep towards me, rolling and waving in the stiff breezes like waters themselves. I love every inch of those combe views dearly. It’s just water. I crave water. So, if I must chat over prosecco in the shower stall while watching birds scuttle over the Bristol Channel, that’s what I’ll do. I just have to invite the right people to join me; those who understand what a long transatlantic journey of hiraeth it’s been to earn my view from the bathroom.