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 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.

December Reflections 11: ink

the last page of a handwritten letter, which reads '...will be a different person. Who? Don't laugh at me. No, do. Laugh, & keep going. With love, & hope, Kathleen/ 2343, 31st December 2008

I wrote this letter on the last day of 2008, to be opened on the last day of 2018. It took me until well into 2019 to remember about it, at which point I took it out of the box with all the other important documents, wasn’t brave enough to open it, put it down, and promptly lost it.

It turned up again a couple of weeks ago when I unpacked the last but one box from my study at the old house (in the sitting room at the new house, not that it’s really relevant). This time I opened it and read it. I didn’t laugh at my poor curious twenty-three year old self, not really. I wanted to reach back through time and give her a hug. She was so grimly cheerful, so resolutely clinging on, so obviously scared that she wouldn’t keep on doing that.

It’s an interesting mixture. Curiosity about my own future (in answer to my questions: yes, though it takes a year to find one to stick, but that one really sticks; no; yes – funny you should mention epidemics, though; yes, finished, self-published – bet you weren’t expecting that! or that I’d prefer it that way!; no, if anything it’s got worse but I type most things these days; yes, but then it went away again; yes, no; not in any practical way; haven’t tried). Gossip (no; yes; not that I know of; yes, and would you believe four children; haha, no; yes; very well; some of them; yes; OK so far as I know; ahahahahaha, no; yes, most of them, every now and again.) And a gloomy fatalism:

I’m guessing that life isn’t going to get easier. I almost wish you could write back – but not quite. I don’t want to know.

It’s probably just as well that I can’t. I don’t know that I’d have been able to convince her that, though we’re twelve years closer to the end of the world, I’m a thousand times happier than she was. I could tell her that I’ve fallen on my feet over and over again, that I have some of the things on the list of things that she wanted for me, that I very much don’t want some of the others, and that actually some of them are none of her business. I could tell her that all the things on the list of things that worked for her still work for me. But would she believe me if I told her not to worry: we were going to make it? Because look, she was worried that we wouldn’t:

What do I want to tell you? Not to give up, I suppose. Because if you give up, I might as well not even try. To live, to love, to be what I can be – what you can be, I mean – & not to make excuses. To hold on to what is good & true.

She had her excuses. Good ones. 2008 was an awful year – she knows that, she listed the reasons at the opening of the letter. I think she’d be wary, rather suspicious, of my compassion for her; she’d worry that I was letting us off too easy.

And of course I wonder what my self of twelve years hence would make of both of us. I don’t know that I’d write another letter. I notice that I’m just as wary of hearing back from her as my twelve years gone self was of hearing from me, though for rather different reasons. But I do wonder what she’d see me hiding from myself, what she’d read between the lines that I wouldn’t be aware of having written between them.

Assuming, of course, that either of us could read my handwriting. Perhaps I’d better type it.

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 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.