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Swallows and Amazons

Swallows

Today I went to church. This isn’t a usual event for me. It’s not even a usual event for me on Christmas Eve, although I do admit I attended church the last time I celebrated Christmas Eve: an orthodox church on 5th January in Egypt.

But today’s church trip wasn’t for religious reasons, or for learning about a different culture. It was to watch Swallows and Amazons.

You see, we live in a rather adorable village where the local church doubles up as a cinema twice a month. From my pew (not as uncomfortable as I’d imagined), I drank my mug of proper coffee and instead of endless adverts watched a short film of a slightly edited Christmas song led by one of my favourite Yorkshire men. Afterwards my midget sister leant forward, looked down the pew and asked if I’d found it funny.

Then they served ice-cream.

Then we watched the film.

No messing. No excessive advertising. Just two boats, six children and a holiday of play.

And although I woke up this morning in the sort of mood that would make Father Christmas think twice before giving me any presents, I laughed. It’s a beautiful film and a gorgeous story. If you’re a British kid like me, then I do hope you’ve read Swallows and Amazons. If you haven’t, you should. It was probably one of the stories that started me drawing maps. Combined with the Famous Five, it was the source material for numerous games I played with the Midget.

But more than that, I also have a great respect for the film’s setting, the Lake District. The film was a reminder, on a bittersweet day, that amid that landscape, the important thing is let the wind take your sails, call out and play.

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On growing up and Leonard Cohen

Are you sitting down?

As I type this post, I am listening to Leonard Cohen. A fascination with his voice and lyrics began a few weeks back. It began when I read some article about him, about the strange swirl of loneliness, adoration and longing he plays his life in, and it got me wondering about his music.

Those who know me well might know how his music can anger me. Indeed, the closest I’ve ever felt to hatred is in reaction to Cohen’s voice. Sometimes his music feels like a physical attack. It vexes me with the instruments bouncing around against a backdrop of darkness. To me it’s both awkwardly disconnected and at the same time, hauntingly reminiscent of the disparity between what we so often feel and what we pretend to be. As a result, when I hear his voice, I fight to have him muted. I don’t want to feel that.

So what surprises me the most in listening to these miserable tunes now, is the distance I hear them though. I’m unexpectedly calm. There’s no sinking feeling tugging me into Hades realm. I’m not desperate in my craving; my claws aren’t out. It seems that Leonard Cohen doesn’t control me anymore.

This represents some greater movement in how I think. Fundamentally, I often assume big, overwhelming emotions drive me, they tug, as if tied to a ring though my nose. But this hypothesis is crumbling. Last autumn perhaps I was the harnessed donkey endlessly turning the mill stone long after the grain has run through, worn out and unimaginative. Then came spring, dictated by hot red anger like I’d never touched before. My relationships seemed tainted with disappointment. The disappointment evolved. The summer was more arrogant and self-possessed. Inevitably things keep changing – now I’m looking back with a smile.

Frequently, I wonder where I’m going. The freedom I craved, I won. To destroy a boggart, you merely laugh at him. Perhaps I’ve learnt to laugh at myself. And at Leonard Cohen too. It leaves a wondrous relief.Freedom.

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On mowing the lawn

24/08/2016

Feeling brave, I took the lawn mower for a spin around the garden. Typically, it’s not me who cuts the family lawns, however it was sunny, the grass had got a little shaggy and everyone else was busy or physically unable.

The current lawnmower is petrol powered. My previous experience with such machines has not instilled me with confidence. I often can’t get the thing to start. Historically, I’ve been embarrased by lawn mowers which start first time, every time, for the Midget and never for me. With this newer lawn mower I’m having a little more luck.

I managed a loop of orchard before things started going a little strange. The machine’s growl seemed to deepen and a trail of cut grass remained on the grass behind me. It should have been scooped up. I stopped and checked if it was full. It wasn’t. I went to start it again. But of course, this time it didn’t start. The cord slipped and pinged back to the machine. From here it takes an especially hard tug to get it back to the right place. The first time this happened to me I panicked thinking I’d destroyed it. Mid tug, a cheerful chap chirped up from behind the garden wall:

“You having difficulty starting it love?”

He caught me off guard. I laughed to cover my embarrassment and told him something incoherent about it requiring some strength. I tried to start it again. Success.

But the problem of the grass being left on the lawn and the dodgy sound hadn’t been solved. I walked along a little more. Then concluded that I needed a second opinion. I stopped again and glanced up. The man and his rambling companions were still peering down over the garden wall. Knowing they’d seen me walk only a few metres with the lawn mower, I was further embarrassed.

I started to cross the garden when the chap called out again, his cheerfulness matched the bright sunshine, but was at odds with my own feelings of failure and inadequacy. He asked a simple question about the local area. If I’d stopped and thought I’d have been able to advise him correctly, but, as it was, my mind was overwhelmed with emotion. Flustered, I told him the wrong answer (the answer he was looking for). He and his delighted companions continued their trek.

Of course, the Mother was stood watching the whole performance from the patio. Still feeling hot in the cheeks, I explained my failure to understand the lawn mower and the two of us headed inside to ask the Father for help.

He, of course, fixed the machine in a matter of seconds.

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Incompetent me, who can’t possibly do manual labour…

I’m pressure washing the patio. It might not seem like the most ideal way to spend a Tuesday afternoon, but it needs doing. There are many things that need doing. Including dealing with the fence. My aim for the summer is to not touch the fence. The fence is very long and making it respectable again is the sort of tedious job that mean gods might give to someone troublesome like Sisyphus to keep them out of trouble.

Anyway, returning to the patio. It is made of huge stone slabs that have gone green over time and need cleaning up. Incompetent me, who can’t possibly do manual labour, set the pressure washer up, despite the yellow beast being stored on a high shelf in the garage and being a little bit broken.

Now as we don’t have an outdoor tap, I had to use the one in the garage. Surprisingly I actually managed to find the key. I opened the window careful not to disturb the spiders. Through this I poked the hose pipe. One end was attached to the tap (there was a pot beneath it because it drips) and the other end was attached to the yellow beast.

At the other end of the house, in the kitchen, I put the plug in the electricity socket and told the Mother to stand guard as I ran from one end of the house to the other switching on the electricity and the water. She was instructed to shout if anything appeared to be acting in an outrageous manner. A bit of water pooled out of the beast which purred slightly, but nothing went bang.

I began work.

Forty or so minutes later, just as I was in the rhythm of things, the yellow beast stopped growling and refused to cooperate any longer.

I squeezed the trigger a few more times and nothing happened, so I put the water gun down and went over to see why the beast was upset. I switched it off and took a closer look. Interestingly, it had stopped pouring out water. For a foolish moment or two I just stared. And then it dawned on me that I was looking in the wrong place.

I raced to the garage, which involved going up a step, through two doors and down a few more steps. I leapt through the jungle of tools, wood, ladders and random pipes scattered on the floor.

There was a waterfall. The end had popped off the hose pipe, soaking everything. A river flowed through the garage adding more victims to the chaos, including the Tall Aunty’s bed (no she doesn’t live in our garage).

And so, with much regret, the yellow beast was caged for the day. I attended to the flood and put the Tall Aunties bed and a few other damp things outside in the sunshine. Everything done, I gave up with the cleaning efforts and sat down to write this blog post.

Then it started raining.

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Missing the smoke signals, again (Burnout, exhaustion and a flitting mind)

Burning out is associated with people who work ridiculously long hours. Sleep deprived workaholics are inevitably going to crash at some point. Demanding fast paced jobs make chronic stress an inevitable part of modern life. It might be a bit melodramatic to say that either you commit to this destructive style of life and have success, or you go nowhere. But few people seem to believe balance and contentment is achievable.

Combustion from over working in such a stereotypical fashion doesn’t apply to me. My lifestyle doesn’t allow for it. Eventually, I’m sure, I’ll need to attend to deadlines and commit to a desk (I spend relatively few hours here in my present set-up), but for now I’m content to travel and explore other options.

Despite this, I still crash.

I had a mug which said ‘You can take the lass out of Yorkshire, but you can’t take Yorkshire out of the lass’. The same principle I think applies for the underlying drive is that eventually results in me ending up as fragile embers. I can take myself away from high intensity situations that could stereotypically be blamed for my combustion, but such environments truly only exacerbate inherent tendencies.

Left alone I still go up in flames.

It doesn’t really matter where I am or what I’m doing. My brain is going to latch onto more problems than I can reasonably hope to handle. It’s going to make those problems appear vital to my sense of identity, and then, when elegant solutions hide, it’s going to become overwhelmed.

Physics is attractive because it provides beautiful solutions to problems. However, I’m in the blind spot of physics, somewhere on the scale between the single atom and the entire galaxy. The understanding I crave is both scientific and emotional. I don’t have industry funding or a super computer; my total processing power is one loopy human brain. My laboratory is my life. I make assumptions that make a frictionless surface seem logical.

My small brain goes between helpful answers, like ‘42’, and answerable questions like, ‘why do I feel upside down?’. Since this is my thinking pattern, it’s incredible I’m not more flammable.

I shouldn’t underestimate my brain. Its resilience is remarkable. I’ve got to admire its ability to keep fighting, even if it’s failing to land a single punch. The bell rings, I wipe the sweat from my brow and then turn back to the ring for another round. Simultaneously it’s eyed up the fire-escapes for a swift exit. I flail between fight or flight in an exhausting state of paralysis.

Do I over analyse and therefore over complicate my life? Or does my analysis simply make me aware of problems that would have existed regardless? I’m the scientist asking for more funding, more research is needed but I’m not sure that someone wiser might not see that the truth is right in front of me. I feel the answer writhing within reaching distance, but I just can quite get a grip.

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Yorkshire. Home sweet home.

Yorkshire cowsCows graze in the field opposite. The grass they chew is brighter than I remember, as if someone had added a little extra yellow from the paint box. Unlike the neatly mowed lawn of the house, the field is uneven, scattered with thick tufts of dark green and clumps of light brown that catch the sunlight and almost look pink.

I stare for a while.

For me, there’s nothing ‘normal’ about this setting. The clouds mask the bright blue sky, with a brilliant white that makes the ceiling of the study in which I work look dull. Bright fuchsia foxgloves grow on the bank of the winding stream, choked by something my mother calls ‘bindy weed’. She has a names for all the weeds which in no way represent their Latin counterparts.

The house smells of freshly baked bread: rich wholegrain spelt flour and the sweetness of honey. It’s deceiving, if you go into the kitchen you might be disappointed to see it’s been me at work rather than my father who actually knows what he’s doing.

There’s a comfort that comes with this place. The house is full of furniture from my childhood. Black and white faces with my nose or my chin look at me from the original black and white wedding photos. My sister and I dominate the coloured photos:  me as a grinning toddler, grinning child, grinning teenager and grinning adult, all with a scrunched up nose. These things make it feel homely, but it’s also the land itself. I can’t say why. I don’t know exactly. I didn’t grow up here. The land is just the right colour.

Our Yorkshire hills aren’t huge, but there are a lot of them. They look down on the valleys and the reservoirs. The roads, with their bends and dips are the sort that bring a smile to your faces as you’re driving along. I often wish that I had tough, strong legs to peddle up the hills like the Tour de Yorkshire riders.

Except, actually got some pretty strong legs now. I sometimes forget how much I’ve changed. I use to detest going on long countryside walks. Some years ago I recall the misery of clambering ungainly up a hill in the Lake District, feeling that it was entirely unfair that I was incapable of enjoying myself as others bounded up the hills in front of me, chatting and laughing without whining for another rest. I was unfit, carrying more weight than I do now, and my unused muscles were in shock.

Today, things are different. Yesterday, I took my bike out and within minutes was heading uphill past a sign that said 17%. I focused on my breathing – a trick I learnt from meditation – dropped down to the lowest gear and told myself that as long as I made a good effort to get as far up the hill as I could then it would count as a reasonable first ride out. I could always cycle a little further the next time.

I had the rubber clips to put on my cycling shoes in the back pockets of my jersey for when I needed to walk. Yet I never needed to walk.

I kept climbing, went around the corner and glanced up and saw the top of the road. At the top I kept on cycling, turning left and heading further up. Up and up I climbed until eventually the road flattened out. I paused for a drink, for my banana and to look out over the stunning view across the valley which is now my home.

If you’d told me a few years ago my life would look like what it does now, I’d not have believed it was possible.

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