December Reflections 21: comfort

Bureau style desk with a laptop on a raiser, keyboard, mouse, etc, and an adjustable chair

I have made some progress since the last time this prompt came up. I have replaced the desk I was talking about back then, and have obtained a proper adjustable chair. (I’m wearing the same jacket, though.)

It took me seven months of working from home to get round to getting that chair, seven months of telling myself it wasn’t as bad as all that. Probably it wasn’t. I’m very aware of my privilege in being able to work from home at all, when the people whose interests I represent are out on the front line, in hospitals and care homes, collecting the rubbish, giving schoolchildren lunch.

And this makes me think of an older meaning of the word ‘comfort’: comfort as in the Comforter, the one who stirs up, encourages, equips. Today I’m tired, too tired to express myself pithily or eloquently. I have two and a half days left to work, and I’m looking forward to the break. And if I were less tired I would want to say something about how taking a break, sitting in a decent chair, allowing myself to take comfort, equips me to do my job better, write better, serve better. As it is, I’m making this a short post and calling it a night.

December Reflections 20: best book of 2020

Trumpet - Jackie Kay
Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel
Giovanni's Room - James Baldwin
How I Live Now - Meg Rosoff
Between The Woods And The Water - Patrick Leigh Fermor
The Gospel Of Eve - Rachel Mann i Madam, Will You Talk? - Mary Stewart
The Real World - Kathleen Jowitt
My Year In Small Drawings - Matilda Tristram

I’ve read a lot this year, and taken a lot of pleasure in reading. I’ve enjoyed many books. Even after excluding rereads, I had a lot left to choose from, and I think I’d present this photo more as a representative sample than any sort of top picks.

These aren’t in any particular order, though the top three were all begun and finished before the pandemic really hit the UK. I have a particularly vivid memory of standing on the platform on Cambridge station some time in February, overhearing two men discussing what was going on in China, before I boarded my train and went back to Station Eleven (Emily St John Mandel). It’s one of the least depressing post-apocalyptic books I’ve ever read, and I was glad to have read it going in: it made the first national lockdown seem tame by comparison.

Trumpet (Jackie Kay) follows the family and friends of a trans man who’s outed after his death: a really good book with a convincing (and often infuriating) array of voices.

Giovanni’s Room (James Baldwin) gets points for having not one but two scenes including a proper Paris bus; but it also made me think a lot about relationships, and about what impossible expectations people can place on each other.

Had someone warned me that The Way I Live Now (Meg Rosoff) takes place in World War Three, I would probably not have picked it up. It made for a heavy afternoon, given the circumstances. But it’s so good that I can’t regret it: it has the eccentric, matter-of-fact quality of I Capture The Castle followed up with the devastation of the war narrative.

I read a lot of travel writing early on in lockdown, particularly older work, finding it refreshing to move in time as well as in space. Patrick Leigh Fermor gets the slot here, for the lovely luminous character of his writing.

I was in three book groups/readalongs at one point. One folded after the first book, and I’ve got behind on reading for both of the other two, but it was an absolute joy to read Madam, Will You Talk? (Mary Stewart) with perceptive and witty people on the internet. I even bought a dress because of it.

I’m generally behind everyone else in getting round to reading new releases, and several books that I thought might have been published this year actually date back to 2018 or 2019. But 2020 books that I enjoyed in 2020 included the first two of the Will Darling Adventures (K J Charles) and, particularly, The Gospel of Eve (Rachel Mann), which was a dark, twisty, theological college romp.

I only published one book this year, so obviously The Real World must be simultaneously my best and my worst book of 2020. Actually I think it’s probably the best book I’ve ever written.

Technically a book, although not one to be read as such: My Year in Small Drawings (Matilda Tristram). I’ve had enormous fun with this. There’s something very liberating about allowing yourself to not be very good at something.

Not pictured, because not a book, are any of the issues of hidden europe that I’ve read this year. Not pictured, because I haven’t finished it, is Women and Angels, a Virago anthology of women’s spirituality. Not pictured, because I never read it all in one go, is any of the poetry. Not pictured are the books I bought but haven’t yet got around to. My reading brain has been more or less shot recently; I’ve mostly been watching the skiing instead. Nor have I been doing much writing, apart from this blogging, obviously. I hope to catch up with all of this over the Christmas break and in 2021.

December Reflections 19: I said goodbye to…

an expanse of water, rippled by the wind, with a narrowboat moored on the opposite bank, under bare trees, with gulls on the water and in the air

… this lovely stretch of river. If you were to walk along this path and follow it around the bend, you’d see the railway cross the river on a big green-and-white painted steel bridge. If you were to leave the path just before you got to the bridge, turn right at the road, turn left just before you got to the level crossing, take the first right, and walk until you got to the first street light, you’d find yourself opposite the flat we lived in for almost six years.

It wasn’t meant to be that long. We hoped it was going to be the last place we rented before we bought somewhere, but I’m glad I didn’t know back in 2014 that it was going to take us that long to save up a deposit. That’s what comes of living in a place like Cambridge. That’s why we don’t live in Cambridge any more.

But six years of this wasn’t so bad. Six years of walking or cycling alongside this stretch of the Cam to get to the station or the shop or the pub or the church. Following the river upstream into the city, or downstream just for a walk.

I miss the river. I’m not that far away from it, really: the Cam flows into the Ouse, and the Ouse is about a half hour’s walk from where we are now. But it’s not there, the way it used to be. I’m glad I enjoyed it while I had it.

December Reflections 18: I said hello to…

Ely cathedral, seen from the south side, with the west tower partly hidden by a tree, but with a good view of the lantern across a green field

Ely cathedral. Not for the first time – I’d had my fingers nibbled by a duck on the cathedral green back in April 2014, and sneaked in after hours at the Christmas fair when I was doing my Cursillo weekend – but it’s different when you live in the city.

I’ve lived in a few cathedral cities in my time. None of their cathedrals has had quite the same imposing quality as Ely. I was born in Winchester, but we moved away when I was small and came back for bus running days, so in my mind the centre of the city is the statue of King Alfred on the Broadway. I went to university in Exeter: it was there that the ‘city on a hill‘ parable really started to have resonance for me, but in my mind the light streams out from the windows of the university chapel, not the cathedral. Guildford: yes, that’s a cathedral on a hill, but it’s rather remote from the city (not a city, but never mind). I used to sing at the church that served as the pro-cathedral before they built the new one; that’s on a hill, too, right in the middle of town, but surprisingly easy to miss.

But Ely is a small city, a city on a hill in the middle of flat, flat land, and the cathedral is the tallest building, and it’s very much in the middle of things. You can’t quite see it from everywhere, but you can see it from all sorts of places. A corner of the west tower and a corner of the lantern, from our bedroom window. The lopsided west front, as soon as you look up into town. Head out towards the river and look back over your shoulder, and it looks like a fairy tale castle across the water at Roswell Pits. Head out the other way, into the fens, and it joins the earth to the sky. Head up Downham Road and look back over your shoulder, and there it is rising from the swell of the ground. Not so much the Ship of the Fens as the Submarine of the Fens.

I’m still coming to understand what it means to live in this landscape that’s so flat and so much shaped by human intervention, where just the other side of the road the height markings on the Ordnance Survey map have minus signs in front of them. I know about cathedral cities. I know about agricultural landscapes, too. I know about living on the edges of things (the border between England and Wales; the south coast of the Isle of Wight), and I know about living in places that are vulnerable to the elements (bits frequently drop off the south coast of the Isle of Wight). But this particular combination, a cathedral on an island in a swamp that was drained for farmland, that’s something I’m still feeling my way into. It feels like all the places I’ve lived before, and it feels like none of them.

And the cathedral feels very much like the centre of things. This year I’ve been much more aware of the compass directions, being orientated, if you like. I’ve noticed the morning sun coming in at the front of the house and the evening sun lighting up my study. And I’ve returned to Slow Time and the monastic hours. Gratefulness.org restored the Angels of the Hours. The calendar was strange this year, but I marked the quarter days and the cross quarter days.

The cathedral, and particularly the octagon at its crossing, has felt like the centre of the compass. North, North East, East, South East, South, South West, West, North West. Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline. Christmas and New Year, Candlemas, Lady Day and Easter, May Day, Midsummer and St John the Baptist, St James and my birthday and Lammas, Michaelmas, All Saints. I pack a lot into each of the eight sides; and they’re definitely sides, not points.

I don’t feel quite settled yet. This year, this unexpected nine months’ grounding, has made it easier to get to know this new city in some ways, but much more difficult in others. And after a lifetime of moving and an adulthood of renting it feels very odd to have finally bought a house in a place where we intend to stay for a long time. I haven’t quite got used to that, but I don’t think it matters. The sun’s going to keep on rising in the east, just beyond the far end of the cathedral.

December Reflections 17: things I missed

plastic tumbler with blue design representing the various things that go on at Ventnor Fringe Festival

I did make it to Ventnor, and was very glad to do so, but of course the Fringe was cancelled. I was able to see my family, but I missed the buzz and the music and the hanging around at the Book Bus drinking Belgian beer until it was time to go and watch something strange or brilliant or completely whack. There were a lot of holes in the calendar this year: Ventnor Fringe; our housewarming party; the Discworld convention; the national Ultreya. Whole months went by without my looking at the calendar at all.

I missed the things I’d promised myself I’d do more of – live theatre, yes (I saw two operas in two weeks back in February, though I wasn’t intending to maintain that ratio), but ice skating, too, cinema (we live five minutes from a cinema now!), taking trains to places on the Continent. I missed the things I took for granted: a pint at the pub, being able to sing in church.

I’ve said a few times that I’m quite prepared to continue being an antisocial cow for as long as it takes, and that’s true. But there are things I’m missing a lot, and I shall be very glad to do them again when it’s safe.

December Reflections 16: plant love

the trunks and branches of four bare pear trees growing against a red brick wall

The pear trees were what caught my imagination when we viewed this house. The first time, back in November last year, I think I only noticed that there was a garden that someone had clearly worked hard with. The second time, I noticed that the bare trees that had been trained against the garage wall were still wearing their tags: Williams Bon Chr├ętien; Concorde. Pears. The Twelve Days of Christmas went round my head well before and long after the twelve days.

We moved in half way through March, and things were beginning to happen in the garden. There were no bulbs (there are now) but there were plenty of other things to find. I discovered plum trees at the back; the trees growing up against the trellises turned out to be apples. I found a self-seeded holly and decided to let it stay. The pear trees blossomed. I took photos of everything I didn’t recognise and asked Facebook for identification.

I planted out the faithful herbs that had come with me in their pots from the old flat. I sowed nasturtium seeds in a pot. I know how nasturtiums can get. The garden centres were shut, but I wouldn’t have been able to get to them anyway. I bought plants from tables with honesty boxes (or letter boxes): cosmos, lady’s mantle, passionflower, foxgloves. I started runner beans off in eggboxes in the conservatory.

Digging a hole to plant the foxgloves, I found another label. Morello. The thing I’d written off as a boring shrub turned out to be a rather sad little cherry tree. Growing up around an actual boring shrub were some raspberry canes. The thing that was climbing up over the pergola was a wisteria. The other thing that was climbing up over the pergola was a grape vine.

The thing that I’d thought was a hart’s tongue fern flowered and was an arum lily. The things that Facebook had told me were Peruvian lilies flowered and were red and beautiful. The wisteria and the grapevine climbed everywhere, making the whole back wall startlingly bright green. I pulled ivy down from the back wall. I planted out the runner beans.

The cherry tree yielded just enough fruit for a sauce. The raspberries ripened a few at a time: some I froze, some I ate. The plums went into crumbles and chutneys and the freezer. Apples became apple sauce and crumble and chutneys. The pears came later: more puddings, more chutneys, and the occasional one that was so perfect that the only possible response was to eat it. The grapes were small and sour and full of seeds. I considered a home winemaking kit. Maybe next year.

The roses came in ones and twos, one bush with white flowers, two with pink. The white one put out a shoot from its rootstock and shot up skywards. The ladybirds came and marched along the leaves and the stems.

I bottled the last of the pears and blew the fuse on the oven.

The dark shiny leaves of the pears turned to astonishing reds and yellows. The apple leaves were quieter about it. I trimmed back the wisteria and the grapevine, the apple trees, the pear trees, the spiky shrubs.

Now it’s almost back the way it was when we first saw it. Except for the extra rosemary bush. Except for the tubs planted up with bulbs. Except for the decrepit greenhouse which isn’t there any more. Except for the Peruvian lilies, which are determinedly continuing to bloom, even after the snow and the frost we had the week before last.

One would assume that after the first year there won’t be anything new to discover, but this garden has surprised me enough times for me not to be too sure of that.

deep red lilies with green leaves

December Reflections 15: difficult day in 2020

 network of bare tree branches, lit up greenish in winter sunlight, with clear blue sky beyond

I used this photo earlier, posted it as number 350 of my 366 days of delight.

If my difficult day is today, it’s because 2020 has been kinder to me than it has to many other people I know, or know of. And it’s because I can be sad and slow even on beautiful sunlit afternoons with clean blue skies. If this is as bad as 2020 gets, then I will have got off lightly. And I would also have liked to have been able to take a shower this morning without crying about it. No morning walk for me today. No morning prayer. If today has not been very difficult, it has not been easy.

It may be that strange thing that depression does to memory, by which I can only bring to mind a very narrow now and the current emotion convinces me it’s permanent. I went back through my diary, looking for other difficult days. There were plenty in which I felt more or less like this – 16 July, for example, reads:

presumably this day happened? (i was not happy)

reading all of the internet

Zoom mimealong to Steal Away

I didn’t write, but I remember, that I had to go and cry on the stairs halfway through that.

On 17 June there’s:

FEELING ABSOLUTELY AWFUL

which I think was fatigue rather than anything to do with mental ill health.

There was a Monday in which I broke my phone and a kitchen knife and received an unsolicited review request for a deeply distasteful lesbian Nazi mystery novel followed by a Tuesday in which I had to deal with an ant infestation. There was the week clouded by worry when my father was in hospital back in March.

(And I know all of that’s very small beer compared with what some people have had to deal with, this year in particular.)

But today, because I’m in it, feels like a difficult day, if not the most difficult day. A slow day, a sad day, a day in which it took me an hour to get out of bed and tears to get me into the shower. The first day in a long time it’s been as bad as that. A day in which I did some little work, but also read a lot of irrelevant Tweets.

A day in which I wore silver shoes to go to the postbox. A day in which the sky was a clean clear blue and the trees were as lovely without leaves as they were with them.

December Reflections 14: mask selfie!

person with face almost obscured by - from the top - a black trilby hat, a pair of sunglasses, and a face mask with a pattern of black and white piano keys. Also wearing a bright purple coat

I’ve had an extensive collection of hats for a long time. Masks, not so much. And I have to say that I enjoy wearing masks considerably less than I do hats. But here we all are.

I’m lucky in that, working from home, I mostly don’t have to – it’s just trips to the shops, or church, or (as here) the post office. I’m also lucky in that I can see without my glasses if I really need to, so I do have options if I can’t keep the fogging under control.

And it’s quite fun to be an international woman of mystery. I’m sure you’ll all be pleased to know that, after months of meticulous preparation, I was able to make the drop well before zero hour.

December Reflections 13: reindeer

Model reindeer made from logs and twigs of wood, wearing a red bow around its neck, standing outside a blue door.

We haven’t put any Christmas decorations up yet: this reindeer belongs to one of our neighbours – one of the few we’ve actually met in person.

It’s been a bit of an odd year to move house, and not least among the ways it’s been odd has been the way that we haven’t got to meet our new neighbours. We’ve met next door, on either side, over the road, and behind us. Everyone else remains a mystery. We might have seen any or all of them in town, but we wouldn’t know.

Which is not to say we don’t know them. There’s a WhatsApp group, via which people swap recommendations (and jigsaw puzzles). There was socially-distanced trick-or-treating at Hallowe’en. They seem a very friendly bunch. Next year I hope to meet them.

December Reflections 12: best decision of 2020

A tarmac path leading out of sight between trees. A streak of sunlight breaks across a grassy area and illuminates three of the trees.

This hasn’t been a year for huge decisions. The one that’s made the most enduring, most positive difference, was the commitment I made back in May, to go for a walk before breakfast every work day.

I haven’t managed every day: illness, bad weather, and the increasingly tardy sunrise have occasionally stopped it happening. But I’ve managed most days in the average week, and it’s made a difference.

Usually I take the same route: south along the footpath that runs behind our house, and back again. Sometimes I go all the way to the main road; sometimes, if time is short, I turn around part way. Occasionally I go up into town instead and explore the back streets. But mostly I’m walking the same path, out and back, every week day morning, home in time for a shower and breakfast and to join Morning Prayer over Google Meet.

I’ve walked through three seasons. I’ve walked through the silence of the first lockdown and the hum of rush hour. I’ve walked through rain and frost and sunshine, freezing fog and sultry heat. I’ve come to recognise the dogs and their walkers and the young couple with cropped trousers and reusable coffee cups.

Some more photos:

I’ve come to understand a little more about where I live now, have grounded myself in space and time by taking a very small journey through the one, moving through the other the only way I can. And I return a little more awake, a little less wound up about the state of the world.

As for last year’s decisions, which I was a bit vague about at the time, one was ‘which house to buy’, and has worked out very well so far. The other unmade itself, very decisively, in January. (There’s an argument for calling that this year’s biggest decision, but it didn’t feel like a decision at all from where I was.) They were both big, and took up a lot of my headspace, and it’s something of a relief that this year has only involved little ones.