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 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.
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 mediation. 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.
My Exmoor home sits in the middle of a secret garden, which in turn is surrounded by an old stone wall, over six feet high. Not exactly Hadrian’s Wall but it still provides a private, sheltered, safe space. Inside these walls, it’s an oasis of calm, protection against a world of chaos, well, except for the chaotic ivy and wild geranium and forget-me-nots which have encroached on the stately roses and formal plantings like mutant variants. They refuse to distinguish between valuable plant specimens and dead tree stumps – COVID-like in many ways – but they give the space character. I love the way they tumble in and out of beds and pathways and tree roots. They feel safe here, as do I. Inside the wall, I can forget the outside world for a bit. I can close the gate and listen to the seagulls cry overhead, or the cockerel from the farm up the road, or the shrill song of a robin as it duets with the resident mourning doves. Even the wind and rain seem less threatening in this sanctuary, the watery clatter on the windows and the whistle of wind through trees complimented by the scent of woodsmoke, all delightful accompaniments to a good book.
But not all can be kept at bay behind an Exmoor wall. Walls don’t keep crazy out, nor all the worry. I worry about the valiant scientists fighting upstream against apathy and ignorance. I wince at yet another tale of a nurse exhausted beyond exhaustion by the unvaccinated. (No! No! Seriously, don’t go there or I’m climbing over my wall to smack you up the side of the head with ‘Get vaccinated or, if you don’t think you need one, stop calling ambulances and taking up hospital beds. Just. Don’t. Okay?) And I lament the lot of the hospitality workers of whom we have expected too much and given too little in this latest round of leaders telling us to ‘stay home but restaurants and hotels can remain technically open so no help from us, okay?’ Crazy, right? There’s only so much ridiculousness a six-foot stone wall can keep out.
Speaking of ridiculous, before writing this December 2021 blog, I looked back at my December 2020 blog. What was I thinking? A year ago I documented my covid-induced journey from brunette to tinsel sparkles like it was a joyride though a Christmas lights display. Now, with the transition complete, I still fight the urge to scream at the grandmother in my bathroom mirror, looking like a slightly less wrinkled version of Einstein, only without the ability to explain one single facet of the universe. I also noted in that blog from a lifetime ago that a vaccine was on the way. No worries for 2021, then. (Spoiler alert: there were a few worries still to come.) The naiveté of that blog astounds me now. As restaurants all around me close down once more due to omicron outbreaks and the travel plans I was so sure would be in full swing by now wilt on the British Airways vine, all is the same and all is totally weird for another New Year’s Eve. 2022 lies in the road like a giant bear and all we can do is poke it with a long stick to see if it is in fact dead already or just fooling us into believing it’s not going to bite. (Is my wall bear proof? Better check.)
Well, that got dark fast, didn’t it. Swimming back towards the light, I have a plan for 2022. It may not include the travel I’d hoped for or the return to more certain times. It will, however, include a) following the science (I used to be a researcher in communication disorders; I can read a scientific report), b) improving my odds of not being the person in hospital by using science and common sense as protective masks, and c) supporting as many local businesses as possible. Oh, and I plan to finish the manuscript that’s due to be with the editor by February. The novel, currently titled Life Like Lavender, involves starting over and jettisoning old baggage and finding sanctuary and cutting through the BS to find truth. There’s travel and new homes and French food and hilarity and sadness and fighting for family and plans tweaked or completely rewritten to accommodate new realities, including shock diagnoses no one saw coming. But there’s no COVID in this tale, which either makes it sci-fi or pure escapism. Your choice. But I need this story. And I need my stone wall. They are my sanctuary. I’m lucky to have both in my life.
The silver hair? Not so much. Maybe I’ll like it better next year. If not, I can always hurl the mirrors over the wall.
2022. It’s coming, ready or not. I wish you sanctuary, whatever that looks like to you.
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.)
This couch may not look like much now. It’s grubby and wrinkled and sunken in the middle. The cream colour is hardly reminiscent of anything you’d pour over your crumble. Even the dog struggles to clamber in and out. It’s like crawling into a very low-slung hammock after three decades of Gemmell duty. But in its day, oh, how proud we were of it. Today, we make the difficult decision to send it off to the recycling centre in the sky, and we don’t make that choice lightly. No man, child, dog or couch left behind was our mantra last year as we struggled to get all our lives on the ‘right’ side of the pond. But times change. Couches sag more and more. New rooms await with different styles and sizes. Some of us just no longer fit in the way we once did. But it still stings to say goodbye.
California, circa 1990. I remember meeting this couch next to its three-seater sibling, all shiny and pristine, in a Los Angeles showroom. Hubby and I had been married about a year and we’d just bought our first house in the Mojave desert. Yes, you heard me. We left the seafaring life we’d lead on the East Coast for the driest, hottest place I’d ever been. Or even heard of. What was I thinking? Goodness only knows, because the great adventure in the cactus strewn, tumbleweed blowin’, parched, sand-in-your-curtains Southwestern USA turned out to be … let’s just say, not my cup of tea. But the thought of those gleaming couches, nestled against the baby blue carpets in our brand-new Spanish-style home cleared the desert weed allergy-induced tears right out of my eyes. No kids, no dog, so no thought of how on earth you kept cream leather clean, and no other furniture in the house yet (except for a couple of wooden crates used for bedside tables and a futon mattress in one bedroom). Those couches arrived like manna from heaven, because, let’s face it, we should have gone for something cheaper. The credit cards groaned along with the backs of the delivery men.
Our new-born son had his first photos taken with the couch. Four years later, with another child on the way, those two slightly less cream and slightly more wrinkled couches hopped in a moving van to the East Coast. They landed in a colonial house near Long Island Sound in the middle of a forest, the antithesis of their previous abode. Though stationed in the ‘best parlour’ away from the worst of the kid wetting and dog scraping and popcorn spilling and sibling wrestling, it still bore the brunt of various birthday parties and Christmas wine spillages. Uncomplaining and still the apple of its mother’s eye.
Eleven years later, it’s back on the van to snowy Wisconsin, where we discovered leather is quite chilly when you first sit on it and blankets slide off the back of it constantly which means the kids trample all over the wool and the dogs sleep on them, refusing to move as you try to pull the blanket over your freezing legs. But fourteen more years of films and Super Bowl parties and teary teenage breakups (and possibly makeups but I don’t like to think about that) pass with the now way past sell-by date cream couch. The wrinkles had turned to deep crevices full of life’s debris. It’s time for new. A functional brown sectional appeared like a grumpy aunt to take pride of place in front of the television. The three-seater sibling was trundled off to who knows where and the two-seater was relegated to fulltime dog bed, which thrilled the dogs, but may have hurt the couch’s feelings.
And there the story should end. Who, in their right mind, would drag that murky old spoilt cream couch across the Atlantic? There are better ones sitting on most porches outside college campus housing. But you see, our huge new sectionals were never going to fit in our English home. It was the height of the Covid pandemic, so no furniture shops were open to buy new and no recycling centres were open to take the old, and well, we needed something smaller to sit on in our rental property until we found a new home. So there we were, wrapping the dingy grey with spots of intermittent cream couch for a voyage to where no Californian couch thought it would ever go: Exmoor.
The dog makes his own epic journey across the water only to discover his couch is no longer a dog bed. Possession now involves fights with grandma, aunties and friends. When the film starts, all pile over the back of the couch, fighting for pillow space and elbowing others for the only six-inch sweet spot that isn’t so collapsed it breaks your back as you sit skewwhiff.
And yet, the couch, uncomplaining as ever, stoically accepts its role in the Gemmell family, doing its best to accommodate needs and provide comfort. It doesn’t know that in two weeks’ time, when the Gemmells head down the road to their forever home, it will trundle off in a different van, to be eco-recycled: leather to one place, springs to another, metal frame to another, stuffing to another. Its spare parts may help other sickly couches back to health and for that I’m so proud of it. There may not be a dry eye in the house as this thirty-two-year relationship ends.
The new couches ordered are neither leather nor cream, and they have big shoes to fill. Our old, curdled cream friend will never be forgotten, though hopefully the backache it induces will be. From smog-blanketed Los Angeles to heather-carpeted Exmoor, it has truly been an important part of our amazing transatlantic lives. So many memories – and so many loved ones no longer with us – are embedded in that couch. I’m feeling hiraeth for it. But onwards to new couches and new adventures we go.
And just like that, the end of summer speeds at us like a tourist heading for the last table at an inundated cream tea shop. It’s been a weird old summer, hasn’t it: part supposedly post-pandemic, part not sure, part ‘no, we’re definitely not out of the woods yet’. I’m tilting towards the later so have stayed pretty close to home. A few restaurant visits, a few outdoor cream teas, one short trip to Suffolk, and a lot of hiking in the glorious isolation that is Exmoor (if you know where to go to avoid the visitors). My default setting of wanderlust mixed with a smidgin of hiraeth appears usurped by homebody vibes, which suggests I’m in the right place.
I’ve been home for long enough to have experienced all the seasons now and am enjoying the second go-around; the return of the blackberries along the Exmoor trails and the seep of vivid green to sage to yellow in the fern leaves. The Rowan trees are once more startling in their red jewellery, so bright you can see the berries from a significant distance.
There’s a delightful familiarity to local events, tentative though it all seems: the return of live music and village shows, all cancelled last year, some creeping back this year with all precautions in place – though the number of UK covid cases suggests ‘all precautions’ are proving somewhat inadequate. Delta was just a river mouth this time last year, it’s now the scourge of many a planning committee, from dog show to NHS budget conference. But this year I’m vaccinated, as are my husband, mother, sisters, and children. It’s a relief I couldn’t have imagined last year.
Onwards and upwards. Our move to our new home will happen in October so we’re busy searching for furniture. ‘Wait’, I hear you say. ‘Didn’t you have a container of goods shipped over?’ Why, yes we did. But we sold or donated all our larger furniture pieces before leaving the US. We thought we knew the house we were going to and the rooms weren’t big enough for most of our pieces. We all know how that plan turned out. Now we find ourselves the joyous owners of a home with larger rooms, we wish we’d kept those pieces. (Hindsight is such a pain.) So over the past weeks I’ve been masking up and scurrying through huge furniture warehouses, only to find I don’t connect with much modern furniture. Plan B finds me scrolling through buy and sell sites, looking for older, chunkier sideboards, tables, couches and dressers others have upcycled, or projects I can upcycle myself. Seriously, there are some very talented furniture restorers and decorators out there! And I, thanks to copious YouTube videos, now know how to use wood hardener and wood putty to reshape outdoor chairs full of rot. Just waiting for the topcoat seagrass-coloured paint to arrive and I’ll have four lovely excuses to sit longer outside in our garden.
Speaking of which, if you can’t find me, I’ll be weeding in our new garden. The beauty and tranquillity of that spot, the unexpected, delightful discovery of a new shrub wrestling towards sunlight through layers of ivy or clouds of geranium-gone-rogue, well, it leaves me speechless with gratitude at times. (And in need of a hot soak in Epsom salts at others.) I’m getting to know the locals, namely a pheasant who bolts from the undergrowth with a screech fit to wake the dead when you get too close. My favourite locals to date – apologies to all the human neighbours we’ve meet; you’re okay too just not as entertaining. Yet. – are the pair of mourning doves who ‘own’ the garden and have no problem making that clear. (They could be pigeons but a good definition of the differences is hard to find so I’m going with the more literary name.) Mr and Mrs Bobblenecker follow me around, perch on walls, trees and benches, bobbing their heads, preening and gossiping as I sweat over another bramble root. ‘What’s she doing?’, ‘Is she coming back?’, ‘Why would she cut that back or dig that up or fall over that?’ ‘Do you think she’s planning to stay because that’s where we usually sit in the afternoon?’ On and on they coo-cooooo, coo. I answer when I can, though they just laugh at my accent and poor dove grammar. The only phrase I really need to know in Dove is ‘Please stop dropping buddleia and thistle seeds everywhere.’ We’re set for a discussion about the removal of the birdfeeders if they don’t listen. Coo-coooo, coo that, Bobbleneckers!
And so, the world turns. New friends, old pandemic worries, upcycling projects, bulging garages full of stuff waiting for a permanent home. And me. A writer doing anything and everything but write most of the time, even though my editor is expecting a third novel by February. Another season into my epic journey and I’m just trying to be kind to myself. The stories will flow again, and I’ll be ready when they do. Covered in paint, mud and dove droppings, probably, but I’ll be ready. Hiraeth and wanderlust don’t remain dormant for long.
Everyone’s talking about staycations during this never-ending pandemic. ‘Where are you going for your holidays this year?’ ‘Oh, I’m staycationing this year. Just heading up to the Lake District.’ Well, correct me if I’m wrong but doesn’t leaving your house mean you’re NOT staycationing? Doesn’t taking a staycation mean a deck chair in the garden with a cup of tea out of your own teapot and possibly a curry delivered to your own front door followed by a Netflix binge? According to Wikipedia, a ‘staycation’ means you stay home or within day trip distance of home without overnight accommodation. But in 2021, that definition seems to have morphed. Apparently, now ‘staycation’ means much more than a potter around your garden with a Scotch egg in one hand repeatedly throwing the next door kids’ ball back with the other. Apparently, it now means you only pack one suitcase and you don’t need your passport, antidiarrhea meds, or proof of yellow fever vaccination. Oops. Now I’ve done it; opened the ‘vaccination passport’ debate. I’ve been carrying a ‘vaccination passport’ for years and just don’t get the hoo-ha about adding a new jab to the list. But I digress …
Staycations. Yes, I’m trying to work out if I’m going on one next week. I thought I wasn’t, seeing as I’m leaving not only my house, but the delightful county of Somerset. Surely that means I’m going on holiday, not taking a staycation? But as soon as I tell people I’m remaining solidly on English soil they mention a staycation. As one privileged enough to find it strange not to have travelled by air, sea or even bus yet this year, I fully understand this first world problem of defining ‘staycation’ may reek of triviality. It does. But this is my blog. I get to decide what’s important here.
This thirteen-month long pandemic ‘original definition’ staycation is the longest I’ve spent in one place for … well, I don’t even know how long. Luckily, I now live on Exmoor, with all the space and beauty and novelty of a divine vacation spot just outside my door. I have to admit, though, I’d like to experience a different view once in a while, if only to remind myself how lucky I am to live where I do. Hiraeth brought me back home but wanderlust never died.
I’ve always taken more international flights than domestic ones, wherever I’ve lived, so once upon a time, a trip to Suffolk wouldn’t have counted as a ‘real’ holiday for me. Fast forward to 2021 and I’m hopping from foot to foot excited about a trip along the M5 and the M4 … and after that I’m not sure what roads as I’ve never been to Suffolk. It’s east of here, I’m pretty certain. Why Suffolk, you ask, when I obviously know nothing about it? Well, back in March when we started thinking about holidays, Hubby and I were certain the pandemic would be over by now. We also assumed foreign travel would be a nightmare. The pressure of pent up vacationers hitting the airports and beaches of exotic locales like corks from a bottle of champagne at a NASCA rally wasn’t something we wanted to deal with. ‘Let’s explore England’, we said. After all, I’ve been away a long time and there are huge swaths of this green and pleasant land I know nothing about. I could direct you to the airport in Bora Bora more easily than to Canterbury Cathedral, for example. So we started looking in all the usual places: Lake District, Cornwall, Isle of Wight, figuring everyone would be somewhere requiring a flight.
Not so fast. Apparently, many others knew back in March airports wouldn’t be the happiest place on earth. We couldn’t find a hotel room in England for love nor money. Plenty of money, I hasten to add, as the price of hotels and B&Bs skyrocketed. No room at the inn: Devon-cation? Out. Derby-cation? Out. East, West, South Yorkshire-cation? Out, out and out. What the heck? Where’s left? I grab a map of England and start sticking pins anywhere that looks like dry land. Hey, Suffolk! ‘How do we feel about Suffolk, Hubby?’ ‘I feel great about Suffolk,’ he says, not knowing whether I’m talking about a dance step or a type of vegan pasty. Several clicks later, we have the last room at a hotel in Woodbridge. No idea where or what Woodbridge is but it has a hotel room and that’s good enough for us. Others tell us it’s a wonderful spot. So off we’ll trot on our ‘current era definition’ of staycation, that in any other time in history wouldn’t technically be a staycation.
Suffolk. Land of the I have no idea what, home of the I have no idea what. But I’m excited about it. All I have to do now is remember where I put the suitcases. They’ve never been stored away this long.
Here we come, Suffolk-ation! Wait, whaaaa? That’s doesn’t sound nearly as pleasant as I’d hoped. Of all the counties …
Tomorrow I age by a day. Just like any other day. Except tomorrow I also age by a decade, a staggering mental concept that sees all of us on the cusp of a new decade do one of two things:
Tear out our hair at all the opportunities missed and the shortness of time left in which to pack an entire life of ‘Maybe I’ll do that next week/month/year’.
Let a few things go, offering oneself up gracefully to the hard-won wisdom that some things probably aren’t going to happen now.
I must confess to a bit of the first option this past week or so. It is the easy option. Much easier to regret than to implement greater effort over the years. Not that I haven’t worked hard and achieved much. I left home at sixteen, financed my way around the world, married well (VERY well, my husband adds, reading over my shoulder), obtained a Bachelor’s then a Master’s degree while simultaneously raising two children, remained married for thirty-two years (though that streak may end if Hubby continues to harp on over my shoulder about how well I married) and published novels when many struggle to complete a Twitter post. All in all, I’ve done okay.
But I haven’t reached the giddy heights of some, like the Olympic gymnast, the Nobel Prize in Literature winner, the world-renowned expert in nanoplankton, the wine sommelier placing an exalted blessing on a new vineyard. The joy/curse of being born the same day as Princess Diana constantly reminds me some people influenced the world in a far shorter time than I’ve been alive and kicking. Reaching the stars may require getting up earlier, planning ahead, dressing better, putting myself out there more with the essential thick skin that requires. It all sounds so … exhausting.
The second option would seem less strenuous. A simple talking to oneself: ‘That’s never going to happen, Tracey, let it go.’ Less strenuous, yes. Easier? No. Admitting you’ve missed the boat sticks in the craw a bit.
But it’s also struck me that so many of the targets I now realise I’ve missed actually weren’t ambitions until the deadline passed. In all honesty, I feared the asymmetric bars at school (being afraid of heights didn’t help) but I see those twists and turns on television and now wonder … could I have? If I’d had access to that striking sequinned leotard instead of being forced into the awful school-sanctioned baggy gym shorts and sweaty, bottle green polo shirt ensemble, could I have ‘perfect-tenned’ it to glory? I’ve marvelled at Nobel Prize-winning books, never aspiring to write anything even close. And yet, every now and then I write a sentence that seems to me quite brilliant in its revelation of the quintessential human spirit and I wonder; only another hundred thousand of those sentences to go and I could be off to Oslo. I’m not a strong swimmer and get claustrophobic in a dive mask yet perhaps I could snorkel my way to wherever nanoplankton live and discover something that gets named after me. Surely, if wine didn’t now make me so tired I fall asleep after half a glass, I could learn to sniff loudly into a glass of something fruity and pinpoint the location and vintage? It’s not too late. Is it?
I think we all know the answer to that. So what’s still open to me as I pass into another decade on this planet? What’s NOT too late? The answer is, pretty much everything I’m doing now. Writing something funny and entertaining (IMHO), even if not earth-shattering in its brilliance. Checking off a few more bucket list destinations. Volunteering in ways that may change another person’s life – think tutoring a struggling young reader or opening a door for a refugee. Learning more about this marvellous world, even if not to a PhD level. There is ample time for all this. And I’m already doing it. Tomorrow will be no different.
So I choose to age only a day tomorrow. I determine to push forward and let go in equal measure. I decree July 1st, 2021 will be the first birthday of all the rest. Not the last birthday of all the others. I may even have a glass of wine. If I can stay awake.
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