December Reflections 10: warm fuzzies

a woman's hand and arm, wearing a navy blue dressing gown with the cuff turned up

I was tempted to skip this day. I am in no way the kind of person who talks about ‘warm fuzzies’. I know the concept that other people are referring to when they do. It’s possible that I even experience it myself, but, you know, I’d never admit to it.

Possibly I am a stony-hearted snob.

Actually, I think part of the issue – beyond the unbearable tweeness of the phrase – is the fact that I don’t experience that sort of intense emotion as fuzziness. Rather the opposite. Clarity. And light rather than heat. Even when it’s generated by concentrated contentment it doesn’t feel fuzzy to me.

‘I don’t know about warm fuzzies!’ I told my husband. ‘You married one!’ he told me.

That’s his dressing gown I’m wearing in the picture, except it’s mine now. We swapped years ago. He has the big fluffy white one.

We’ve both been working from home through this year, ever since we moved into this new house and the lockdown came in, keeping each other company from opposite ends of the landing, occasionally dropping in on each other. It’s been very pleasant.

December Reflections 9: silver

A woman with short grey hair, looking away from the camera

The greying is genetic. My mother found her first grey hair at fourteen, and I was younger than that when I found mine. One of my brothers is going the same way.

Through my teens, my hair was very dark. In my wedding photos (age 23) there’s a grey streak visible if you know where to look, springing back from each temple. Through my twenties and into my thirties the white has been spreading steadily, working its way around the sides, not quite so dominant at the base or the crown. It’s a different texture, thicker and springier than the dark, and I think it may be faster growing, too.

I’ve been adamant for a long time that I wasn’t going to dye it. Or that maybe I’d wait for it all to go white and then start playing with exciting colours. (This year someon told me that white hair doesn’t take dye so well. Heigh-ho.) Whatever, I wasn’t going to get into a running-to-stand-still situation trying to keep it the colour it was when I was fourteen. (Could be worse, anyway. I was bald until the age of three.) I just let it go white.

It’s worked surprisingly well for me. Grey hair even came into fashion a couple of years ago. Women a decade younger than me were paying good money to get their hair looking like mine. It makes interesting highlights and lowlights, meaning that all my hairdresser (when I have one) has to do is cut. (Excuse the horrible job I’ve made at the base of my skull: that’s lockdown for you.) People who didn’t know me when my hair was brown are surprised to learn that it just grows like this.

It avoids awkward situations when I’m trying to buy wine or scissors (I did get carded the other day, but then I took my hat off and everything was fine). It confuses creepy men because they can’t tell how old I am. I, meanwhile, feel pretty damn glamorous.

And then there was this year, when not having a dye habit proved to be a great blessing: it looked the same as it always does (if a bit straggly), and I didn’t have a slowly widening tidemark getting me down.

It’s true, I do have to get it cut more often, because it doesn’t look so good long (mind you, I’m not sure that my dark hair wouldn’t have looked better short, come to that).

But I like it. Maybe it’s that I’m happier in my thirties than I was in my twenties. Maybe it’s that I have a more robust sense of my own style. Or maybe there is something about silver, after all.

December Reflections 8: favourite photo of 2020

winter trees silhouetted against a pale pink and blue sky. There are three squirrels in among the branches

I’ve already mentioned how much I’m enjoying the camera on my new phone. It’s better than the camera on my old phone. It’s better than the camera on my camera – and, because it’s on my phone, I’ve been taking it with me pretty much everywhere.

So I’ve taken a lot of photos this year. Many of them are of things in my garden: beans, flowers, fruit, ladybirds, trees. Trees outside my garden, too. Lately I’ve been fascinated by the richness of winter morning light on lichened bark, by silhouettes of bare branches. Many of them are of the amazing fenland skies that I’m coming to know better: sunsets from my study window, sunrises from my morning walk, imposing cloudscapes over flat ploughed fields.

I couldn’t have chosen between all the trees. I couldn’t have chosen between all the skies. But there was only one morning when I saw three squirrels in the same tree, and this is the photo in which they’re looking their most squirrelsome. So here it is: my favourite photo of 2020.

December Reflections 7: on my wish list

map showing most of western Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands, with major rail routes

I’ve been trying to take a trip down the Rhine ever since 2018 – when I got very close, but was thwarted by train delays. In 2019 we were saving to buy a house, and also just weren’t very efficient. 2020 – well, no. I was quite sufficiently twitchy about going to the Isle of Wight: crossing any international borders would have been too much.

And I have to admit that things aren’t looking great for 2021, either. (Plan B for next year is to hire a car and see how many of the Great Little Trains of Wales we can get around.)

Still, we’ve put together a convincing itinerary; we just need to find a convincing week-and-a-bit to slot it into. Maybe that’ll be next year. Maybe it’ll be some other time. Anyway, the Rhine is staying on my wishlist until I actually manage it.

December Reflections 6: ornament

hanging ornaments made from faceted glass beads and spirals of silver-coloured wire arranged around the rim of a crystal glass bowl

I told this story a little while ago, but I’m going to put it here again, because I don’t have any other story that’s half as good for this prompt.

The year my parents separated, there were suddenly two houses and two Christmas trees. And only one of me.

That Christmas was grim, but one thing was worth doing, and has stuck: I bought two identical tree ornaments, one for each of my parent’s Christmas trees. I couldn’t be in two places at once, but I could at least show that I wished I could be.

Over the years, I’ve expanded the practice, and now send tree decorations to both of my parents, the two of my brothers who have moved out, and my in-laws, as well as keeping one for our own tree – so even when I can’t be with someone for Christmas, there can be something of me there.

Sometimes I’ve made decorations. Sometimes I’ve bought several identical ones. Sometimes I’ve got a set and split it up. Glass angels, laser-cut wooden dragons from Ljubljana, crystal stars, iridescent hummingbirds… This year I’ve been threading gorgeous faceted glass beads onto thick silver-plated wire and bending it into abstract spirals. This tradition, born of one of the most painful experiences of my life, has become one of the preparations that I most enjoy.

This year, it’s a particular blessing. I don’t need to think of something new in a year that’s already had more than enough strangeness. I already have this way of letting people know that I’d like to be with them and acknowledging that I can’t. My family is large and far-flung: we would never have got everybody in the same place anyway. (All the same, maybe we’ll give that a go next year! In the meantime, I’ll wrap these little ornaments up and put them in the post…)

December Reflections 5: biggest lesson from 2020

Rosehip with a drop of water gathered at its base. The blue sky and brown branches are reflected in the water.

2020 hasn’t really been a year for lessons – at least, not the sort that you can wrap up in a sentence and paint on a wall. I know less about who I am and what I’m meant to be doing than I did at the beginning of the year. Nothing’s crystallised for me; the only epiphanies have shown me where not to go. I have no words of wisdom – at least, none that I think anybody else won’t have worked out for themselves.

I cannot say that in 2020 I learned that…

Which is not to say that 2020 has not been a year for learning.

I have learned how

… to change a tap and paint a wall

… the security light on the garage works

… an apple or a pear will just come off in your hand when it’s ready to be picked

And I have learned about

… staying in the same place for a long time

… walking the same walk, summer and winter, morning and noon, rain and sun and snow

… going deeper rather than broader

… time and space, time and space

… finding large things in small spaces

Putting that into small words, one lesson, is at present beyond me. Perhaps that will come next year. Perhaps it doesn’t need to happen at all.

December Reflections 4: red

This year we moved into the first place we’ve owned, and we brought plenty of stuff with us. The curtains, for example. My mother made them for the high Victorian windows of my childhood home; I used them to cheer up the horrible bedsit I rented when I first moved out; turned them up to fit the french windows in the 1960s maisonette that was our last rented property. They’ve always been comforting: good for hiding behind when I was small; good for keeping the draughts out now; bold and cosy.

A glass-fronted wooden cabinet. Behind it, floor-length wooden curtains in a pattern of blue and red curlicues on a gold ground.

Then there was the pig picture, inherited from my beloved godmother Héloïse. Her house used to be full of vibrant, mischievous pictures: this was my favourite. And there, at the middle of it, is that bright red lobster.

A print of a painting featuring a large pig nosing at a bright red lobster on a picnic cloth while a boy sleeps

This was not the only picture we brought with us. It wasn’t even the only one with a red element to it. We also had a drawing of the two of us that we’d had done, in true tacky tourist fashion, at Montmartre, on our honeymoon.

A drawing in red pencil of a man in glasses and a woman in a headscarf

The new house had its own contributions to make. Most of the fanlights in the conservatory were decorated with a stained glass red rose.

A fanlight with a red rose of Lancaster in stained glass

With all that, it became obvious pretty quickly that the dining room wall – an insipid lavender when we moved in – needed to be red. We bought a pot of paint in our first week, on 17 March. We painted the wall on 25 May, bank holiday Monday.

Room, seen through an arch, with one red-painted wall, dark wood dining table and chairs, just a corner of the curtains from above, and the whole of the print with the pig and the picnic

My new book goes beautifully with my red wall, though in fact I didn’t plan it that way. That started with stained glass flowers rather than with domestic decor. I’d had my eye on the passion flowers in one of the windows of the south aisle at my previous/current church (it’s complicated!) for ages, wanting to replace the more realistic one on the cover of my first book. But if it was going to be a series then I was going to have to find other stained glass flowers to match. I knew I wanted this one to be red, but it was surprisingly difficult to find ones that weren’t roses (made it look too much like a historical novel) or poppies (also made it look too much like a historical novel). I eventually found these ones at a church I popped into on last year’s narrowboat holiday. I’m not sure what they’re meant to be – maybe carnations? – but anyway, I’m really pleased with them.

Really, when it comes to it, I’m just very, very fond of red.

December Reflections 3: best day of 2020

Ladybird on rose leaf

It would probably be cheating to say ‘Sunday’, wouldn’t it?

I remember one day in March, standing on Clifton Suspension Bridge with two of my friends, looking out over the gorge, feeling intensely aware of all the strata of my own past, intensely uncertain of the future, with empty air under the bridge under my feet, feeling faithfully supported.

That one was a Sunday.

And I remember one morning in late July, having been blessed with a visit to the Isle of Wight and my family, revisiting all my favourite spots around Ventnor, spotting lizards, walking the dinosaur labyrinth, drinking coffee on the seafront.

That one wasn’t a Sunday.

But it’s the cumulative effect of those quiet Sunday afternoons at home that feels both the loveliest and the most characteristic of 2020. Sunday afternoons, with a stack of books and a folding chair and the contained space of the garden; the sound of a neighbour’s cockerel; the traffic not too obnoxious; bees and butterflies.

I had to go back through my diary to find the one I was thinking of specifically: 12 July. Earlier in the day, after church, I’d taken my bike out into the fens to the west, climbed the nearest hill and kept going under big fenland sky.

Huge pearly grey-white clouds against a blue sky, over a dark brown ploughed field

And after a shower and lunch I took my chair and my books out into the garden, and sat and read a few lines at a time, and watched the ladybirds crawling over the rose leaves and whizzing around the place in tiny red blurs, and much higher, white birds soaring, and, higher still, gliders circling, winking in and out of sight.

Sunday afternoon.

December Reflections 2: my favourite hobby

three shelves of books; authors include Arthur Ransome, John le Carré, Eva Ibbotson, Noel Streatfeild, Lorna Hill, C. S. Lewis, Charlotte Brontë, and others

I’m never quite sure what makes something a hobby rather than a mere pastime. How seriously does one have to follow it? Does it have to be creative? And of course, one person’s hobby is another person’s livelihood.

So I’m going to go for the very broadest definition and say something that I do because I enjoy it, that nobody pays me for.

I have plenty of hobbies, and I have most of them because I saw something in a book, thought, ‘I could do that’, and tried it. Some of them (crochet) I abandoned again; some (knitting) I do very intermittently; some (making bead jewellery) I do quite often.

Some (teaching myself to play the piano) are part of my regular routine; some (teaching myself to ice skate) have been scuppered by the coronavirus pandemic; some (gardening) have been made very much easier by lockdown; some (doing small drawings) I even do daily.

But really, all of those feel like quite a lot of effort at present. Indeed, at this point in post-launch torpor, I find myself thinking that I only write books because nobody else is writing the precise thing that I want to read. And so I go back to reading.

I’ve read quite a lot in 2020. I note that there’s a ‘best book’ prompt coming up later in the month, so I won’t talk about preferences, but I will recall…

  • taking a folding chair out into the garden to read Julian of Norwich over Holy Week
  • lounging on a blanket on the lawn, reading Miss Moonshine’s Emporium of Happy Endings
  • turning my ebook reader back on after lights out to finish Slippery Creatures
  • sitting in an armchair, legs tucked under me, working through the first seven Bond novels
  • picking up Busman’s Honeymoon to take a photo of it, and the rest of the day just disappearing
  • reading all of Four Quartets out loud to myself, with the rain beating at the roof of the conservatory
  • unable to sleep, making myself a late night cup of peppermint tea, and reading Spiderweb For Two for the first time
  • starting off a Saturday morning by inhaling a Jae or a Jill Mansell
  • bickering amiably online about Madam Will You Talk and The Man In The Brown Suit

I’ve read for research, both for other people’s blogs and my own, to finish things I’ve been meaning to read, and for sheer fun.

I have until the 20th to decide which was my favourite. I’ll let you know.

December Reflections 1: star

a deep blue night sky with three stars in an inverted T shape seen over a pitched roof

I’ve always loved stars, loved looking up into the night sky to see more and more pinpricks of light becoming visible to my adjusting eye.

My ability to recognise the constellations has been limited, however; I’ve known Orion, the Plough/Great Bear/Saucepan, and Cassiopaeia for years, but others have been trickier. Bootes has broad shoulders and slim ankles. The big square one might be some combination of Perseus and Andromeda. My knowledge remains sadly lacking.

What’s really helped has been having a phone with enough memory to cope with Stellarium. (The fact that it has a camera with settings advanced enough to cope with stars has also been a bonus.)

This year I’ve added Cygnus, sort of. There it is, dropping behind our neighbour’s garage. And the planets have been big and bright and hanging around in the same place for long enough that I’ve got used to them. Here are Jupiter and Saturn over the Solent in July. The moon is at the right and looking a bit lopsided; Jupiter is the bright speck about a quarter of the way in from the left; Saturn is just visible as a point about halfway between Jupiter and the left-hand edge.

Seascape at twilight with a bright full moon lighting up a stretch of sea at the right of shot, two ships, and, at the left, one bright speck, and one just-visible point of light

More recently, Mars has been looking very handsome in the south-east.

I could say that this year, when I haven’t really been going anywhere, I’ve been more aware of the stars, but I’m not sure that would be true. I haven’t had my evening bike rides home alongside the Cam, with Orion huge over the opposite bank; I haven’t paused in the back garden to look up before unlocking the shed.

I think, though, that I’ve become more aware of the here and now, and of the stars as a marker, a backdrop, a map, have wanted to know more. Much as I’m grateful for Stellarium, I’m also delighted by this analogue guide to the night sky. The rivet at the Pole Star allows the transparent window to be moved according to the time, day, and month: here I’ve set it at the time I took the photo at the top of this post.

Philips' 'Planisphere' - a star map with a transparent section revealing the stars visible at a particular time

And I’ve been fascinated by the way that humans relate to them. I’ve been reading this book, a history of astronomy that has itself been overtaken by history, one chapter every Sunday afternoon over the last couple of months. I’m still with Copernicus and Galileo, jumping through a new paradigm shift every week.

hardback copy of 'And there was light' by Rudolf Thiel held up in front of the same roof as in the first photo, but in daylight)

Also on Sunday afternoons, I’ve been reading back issues of hidden europe magazine. This week I read about a village called Groβmugl, just outside Vienna, which has become popular as a stargazing site, and where:

locals sometimes refer to the village as ‘Groβmugl an der Milchstraβe’ (Groβmugl on the Milky Way)

“On a Starry Night”, hidden europe issue 54, spring 2018

Well, I immediately wanted to go there (some day, some day, I’ve already promised myself a return to Vienna), but it resonated on a deeper level than that. Like a child adding as many lines as possible to their address, I thought that this could be here, too.

With love from Ely-on-the-Milky-Way,