What do I want from a friendship?

Walk with friends
Exploring the Portuguese countryside with friends.
More or less near Porto, Portugal, November 2018.

Sometimes friends apologise for not staying better in touch. Perhaps this is because of some sociata idea of what it means to be friends. Sometimes, when they say this, I want to instead thank them for not being too much in touch. If every friend I had wanted to know about the minutiae of my life I’d not have any stories to tell. I’d spend my life glued to my phone and miss out on what’s in front of me. I find myself thinking, please don’t say that you’re sorry when it’s unnecessary and don’t do something because friends ‘are supposed to’. See me from time to time. Smile when you do and share some laughter. Take occasional moments to show me you love me, as I love you.

Yes, it’s true that I’m like anyone else and sometimes fear missing out. Sometimes I hear about a group of my friends meeting up and doing something together. I contemplate for a moment, how, if only I had taken a different path, I could have been there too. Nostalgia grips tight and I shake it off, like a dog shaking off the water after climbing out of a muddy lake. We can’t live all the lives laid out in front of us and I’ve chosen this travel-focused one. It’s pretty sweet. The dog still smells but you can hose it down later. Its tail is wagging.

Each friendship, of course, is different. The nature of some involves more frequent conversation than others. Some friendships work well though instant messages – the conversation is vibrant, funny and natural. Others seem to me to never quite get flowing through on a phone screen and yet, face-to-face they glide, effortless. Some in-person conversations leave me feeling rejuvenated. Some take some time to process. Most though are a mixture of both: a flood of warm feeling towards the other person, the delight of connection, followed by a readiness again for my own space.

As much as I fear missing out, I don’t need to know everything about my friends’ lives. I prefer to know what is devastating them or what they are celebrating. The extremes at both ends. And I prefer to be told direct, rather than through some other person in passing, although I’d also prefer to know than not know at all. I like long walks and conversation. I like sharing good food and bouncing thoughts and ideas back and forth. I like exploring somewhere new: a monument, a mountain, a bookshop or an idea. I like art galleries and museums and slow meanders through airy rooms where conversation flits back and forth in low voices: yes, history, politics, art, philosophy, but gently so.

I like people making me laugh. Hysterical giggling and hula hooping.

I like friendships that look forward more so that backwards. People who suggest places to visit next year and things meanwhile I could read this year, because they saw it, read it, and thought of me. I like seeing photos of job offer emails and chickens.

I love gifts, like hand-knitted socks.

But most of all I love when I can be with someone and feel comfortable being neither more nor less than me.

You all know who you are and I’m grateful for you all.

Without a room of one’s own (but writing anyway)

If you’re going to work, work; if you’re going to play, play.
Padova, May, 2018.

If you want something done, ask a busy person.

Or, in the case of Anders Ericsson, who needed subjects to stick with his gruelling number memorisation scheme and test his hypothesis about deliberate practice, choose people who have learnt to stick with hard-work.

… I made it a point to recruit only subjects who had trained extensively as athletes, dancers, musicians, or singers. None of them ever quit on me.

Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

A focused work ethic isn’t something you can turn on with mere good intention. It takes skill to persist and skills must be developed.

As I write, I’m stationed in the Mother’s study

It’s a Saturday morning and I’ve told my family I’m going to be writing here from 10 until 12. My family are generous, including in their support for my writing, and agreed, with enthusiasm, to allow me this time, alone, in the quiet, to write.

In theory at least

My sister has come to visit and is writing a letter to her plumber. Our enthusiastic Mother is supporting her with suggestions of wording, advice (always make sure you are specific about what preparation means) and scheduling. They grab the calendar and start working out when the plumber would be best installing the bathtub.

The letter requires a template, because letter writing is not a run of the mill activity, and then printing, signing, scanning and sending. Therefore, it is twenty past ten by the time I have chased the Mother out of the room.

I look at the screen and take a calming breath

It’s not a situation unique to me. Finding time to concentrate and work on those things requiring deliberate practice, like playing the piano, is difficult. Especially when you live with other people. Routine and closed doors help, but since I live out of a suitcase, they can be difficult to come by.

We can complain about distractions

Pigeons flutter across the field opposite. However, I’m not sure the real problem is the distractions themselves. I am not a helpless child waiting until my family are asleep to have quiet to do her homework. My problem is the absence of ferociousness when it comes to dedicating, and protecting, the time I set aside for my work. I’m the one who’s responsible.

Yes, I’m at risk of sounding lecture-y, as my sister would say.

Perhaps my voice here gives away my insecurity

I want to be dedicated to the few things that matter most to me, but sometimes it’s hard to dispel the distractions. I can put my phone in a drawer and hide from social media. My phone is a tool. People present a trickier challenge. What can I do about my mother popping in to ask if I can take her to her appointment next Wednesday? Or popping into the study to tell my sister (who’s now working at the father’s desk) our father is on his way home? They’re going to brew some beer together.

When my mother is happy and smiling, she uses her sweet little sing-song voice and adds a sugary sorry to each interruption.  How is it possible to be angry with her when she’s being adorable? How can I muster up my ferociousness and declare that I need quiet when I’m sitting in her chair, at her desk, with a tummy full of her cooking? It’s impossible.

I roll my eyes and smile; I must keep trying.

I find thinking about deliberate practice as a mindset helps

For me, it comes down to deliberate choice. Am I reacting to the many factors around me? Is the urgency of a few tasks dominating my mind? Or am I making careful choices about how I spend my time? If I let myself roll with my surroundings, if I forget to pause and prioritise, then discover I haven’t painted or written anything in a while.

What’s more, I end up tired. This spirals: I sleep too few hours, don’t run or cycle, forget to meditate and find I can no longer touch my toes because I haven’t been doing yoga. The excuses roll in, I say I’ve been too busy but this reality is I haven’t been ferocious enough about protecting my priorities.

I used to object to time plans

The rigidity goes against my nature. I was much more comfortable with imagining I’d get things done in a gentle spontaneous manner. This was a convenient lie to tell myself. My getting things done looked like a deadline and a mighty rush. It did not feel good and often left me feeling unsatisfied with the work I had accomplished.

I could do it, because I could rely on my quick brains to solve any last-minute issues and, my tongue, if necessary, to talk me out of problems. This is like people who don’t sleep much saying they can function with less sleep between yawns. Progress might get made but how do we feel about it?

Furthermore, I used to think planning took too much effort

And as it was inevitable the plans would fail, they were pretty much pointless.

But I got frustrated by my lack of good feeling about my achievement. Not planning was resulting in an erratic output of work which runs contrary to my belief that consistency is essential. You can’t run a marathon if you only run when you’re in the mood. And you cannot complete a novel if you’re not sitting down to write when the house is silent.

In my schedule, I marked off the hours already committed to something or other with coloured pencils and then looked at what was left.  What I noticed about my plans was how little time I had to write. Furthermore, once I started looking at the time set aside to writing, I realised most of it was spent doing random admin tasks. Useful things to be sure, but not what I had intended.

At which point, I took a Sunday and I marked out a whole long stretch for writing

I designed the day to support my writing rather than trying to fit the writing around what was already in my day. And it was like falling in love with the art all over again. So I edited work I’d been doing and found I had the time to think about the wording. I wasn’t in a rush. I wasn’t contemplating the bus timetable or my to-do list. Instead, I’d submerged in the activity I wanted most to be doing and was loving it. I felt I could even do it well.

Which is why I read about Anders Ericsson’s research

He’s fascinated by people who excel, and I’d like to excel.

I’m trying to build my routines through awareness of what I’ve now learnt. People excel through conscious determination. They need a willingness to keep at the minute details. Not in a half-minded way, but with the honed skill of keeping at it. Ericsson thinks of this essential commitment as a skill, something it takes time to develop. It’s a skill found in athletes and serious musicians and, I hope, to be developing in me.

Oh and it’s all a lie anyway. I have a room of my own here; I just don’t have a chair.

A quarter of the way around the world

It’s quite the distance to Chile from here.
Penistone Hill, West Yorkshire, July 2017.

Very soon I am going to fly a quarter of the way around the world to Chile, where, for the next year I shall be teaching English. I am, if we are being mild with our words, overwhelmed. It’s not going to Chile that’s overwhelming. Nor is it the idea of teaching. Culture shock I’m sure is awaiting me at passport control but I’ve taught English before and this isn’t my first time living abroad. No, what’s got me overwhelmed this time is the haste with which I’ve been living this last two months.

It’s the travel up and down the country and the suddenness at which things seem to happen. Then, add to this, seeing people I haven’t seen in a long while and trying ever so hard to make those moments count, maybe too hard sometimes. How inevitable it is that my brain feels like mashed potato.

I was going to spend this week being calm, writing, reading and painting. That didn’t quite work out because with less than 48 hours of notice I had an appointment in London on the seventh floor of the Chilean Embassy. The lift was broken. They play Classic FM in the lobby where you wait for your documents to be processed. A couple of Americans were also waiting for their documents. At one point, the young man sat upright in his chair with a suddenness that made the rest of the room turn.

The Chilean Embassy.
London, July 2019

“Is that… Is that our national anthem?” he asked.

The woman beside him frowned and shook her head.

I thought no, that’s the music to Indiana Jones.

I walked away with an inky thumb, a visa and a selection of important-looking documents. I crossed the road and lay down on the green grass of St James’ Park with my packed lunch.

There was a black swan with tiny cygnets in the water, which seems a bit late to me, but I’m no swan breeding expert. I thought back to the pheasant who visits us at home, sadly she’s lost all her babies, and to the cygnets that we used to count every time we walked around the lake near the house where I once used to live when I was smaller and more naïve. It’s these wandering, winding thoughts that I feel have been absent from my mind recently. Perhaps I’ve been focused on what needs to get done and lacking in time spent staring, watching the world around me flutter by.

I guess I’m stressed, but saying I’m stressed feels like an excuse. I keep hearing myself implore that I’m tired. I am tired but whenever I hear the words escape my mouth, I find myself thinking back to the predictable conversation in the office kitchen, back in that distant past when I had a desk job.

How are you?

Tired. Yourself?

The same.

I’m not that sort of tired. I’m not tired of my day to day, nor the people in my life. I’m not lacking enthusiasm. No. I guess it’s more like my fans are overheating. Is there a word for that?

“Catherine, the cow is in the garden.”

Some well-behaved calves between Malham Cove and Malham Tarn. Keep scrolling to see ‘the cow’.
North Yorkshire, July 2019.

For many years, I considered cows to be kind of docile, boring creatures. They lacked the elegance of horses. They were scarier to meet in a field than sheep. However, I consider myself educated. According to the radio the other day, they like opera. According to a nature-loving friend, they also exhibit a great deal of curiosity.

So long as you don’t spook them.

The cow on the mind of everyone here is called Lionel

This is not what his owner calls him, but it’s the name I have given him, now we have become close-acquaintances. He’s a beautiful cow (although you could argue he’s not a cow at all, being as he’s a boy). He has a strong, muscular build and satin-like shiny black fur.

For one reason or another, the electric fence, which keeps Lionel and his buddies in the field opposite our house, stopped functioning. I blame Lionel. The father says it’s because one of the posts has snapped.

Whatever the cause, the wire no longer curbs Lionel’s curiosity, and as such, the other day he discovered himself free to adventure.

First, he investigated the river at the bottom of his field

It’s a shallow stream. Part of the river is where Lionel and his mates drink. They appear at the top of the hill and gallop down with such heavy footing I’m forced to take on a new respect for the strength of their legs. It’s a steep hill, the cows descend without fear, throwing their entire bulk forward. To my eyes, it looks as impossible that they will make it to the bottom of the hill without snapping a foreleg as it looks reasonable for a plane to fly.

Lionel leads the troops.

So, although it was a new section of the river to investigate, it wasn’t enough to sate his curiosity.

At this point, he climbed up the other side of the bank

He did not understand the Mother owns this land and he is not welcome.

The Mother said, “Catherine, there’s a cow by our fence.”

I said, “Dear cow, you are not welcome here, this is my Mother’s garden, please go away.”

Lionel scratched his head against a small bush, taking out the bush. Once the bush had been destroyed though, he did decide to return to his field.

Being naive, I said, “Let’s call him Lionel.”

I took his photo and sent it to the Father and considered it all quite jolly.

The next morning, I was waking up when the Mother shouted at me

“Catherine, the cow is in the garden.”

Now I wasn’t a witness to the incident

Lionel had made yet another excursion to our side of the river and somehow moved through the fence into our garden. I cannot quite work out how this occurred, as enough of the fence was left standing that Lionel now found himself trapped in our garden.
Not one to leave the Mother being distressed without immediate assistance, I ran outside in my dressing-gown. A couple of friends who were staying the weekend were prancing around talking to Lionel. Someone closed the gate to the road.

The fence was going to prove a problem

My parents are fans of doing a proper quality job when they do something and the fence, I believe, is supposed to outlast them. It wasn’t designed to be taken apart by me in my dressing-gown on a Friday morning.

As we were trying to create an escape route for Lionel, ward him away from the fruit trees and gooseberry bushes and keep him well clear of the greenhouse, he started getting a bit agitated. I didn’t fancy our chances against a distressed cow. The Mother called every possible place we could think of to get help with a cow problem, but nowhere had a phone line open before 9 am.
Nine o’clock seemed a long way away.

Lionel started to experience his first travel woes

And his pals, like all good friends, wanted to provide support. Before we knew it more cows were crossing the river and climbing the steep and dangerous bank to get to Lionel.

They didn’t want to climb the precarious bank but, out of loyalty, they would. These cows couldn’t, however, navigate through a fence.

My visitors and Lionel continued to prance around the garden, the Mother shut herself in the house and I got dressed.

Somehow, the fence was broken

It took a long time and left us with a further problem. We had to let Lionel out of the garden without inviting his gang in. I went through the fence and asked the cows to leave. There were a thud and a splash and, for a second, I thought a foreleg must have snapped as a large lump of cow plummeted into the stream. It didn’t.

Lionel hopped up from the drive onto the lawn and moved, with hesitation, towards the opened fence. One of my friends jolted forward and Lionel turned in panic. Adrenaline must have been flowing through the blood of both men.

“Slow down,” I said, talking to cow and man

Lionel looked at me with distrust and turned back towards the opened fence. The moment he was through another friend swung the remains of the fence back in place. From here Lionel could find his way down to the river and reconnect with his fellow cows.
Determined not to have any further cow incursions, we barricaded the fence shut with some logs and went inside for breakfast. After some time splashing around in the stream, the cows returned up the hill for theirs.

The Mother was still fuming; she is not a fan of Lionel

But I have respect for him. Curiosity is a precious skill. It’s an ability many people don’t think about strengthening. They repeat themselves in the same safe loops. They stay in their fields only heading into the river when someone else has gone there first.

Lionel, July 2019.

Learning to outline (and evaluate that outline)

Results or excuses: getting up early as planned
Results or excuses: I had to plan ahead and set the alarm to get up early enough to have a final glimpse of Murcia. I wandered through the city for an hour before going to have breakfast at one of the earlier opening bakeries.
May, 2019.

Mark Twain said, “If I had more time, I would write a shorter letter.”

And Blaise Pascal wrote, “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” Which translates as, “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

And various other people at various other times said something similar. And it’s all bullshit.

It’s an excuse.

What it means is that the writers leapt right in

They felt rushed and therefore didn’t pause to think about what it was they were going to write before they wrote it. Long-winded writing (which is something I excel at) comes from poor planning.

I have been studying writing now for a while, and the biggest factor contributing to long-windedness, without doubt, is in how well I outline. In this brief article, I will write about my outlining review process, which does assume I have already created an outline.

Why do I care so much about avoiding bloated articles?

When I was voicing my distress at my article length getting out of hand someone asked why this was a problem. There are benefits to long articles, such as in appearing in search results, and many people find putting together a short article much easier than writing a long one. All this is irrelevant to me, I want to be able to sit down with the intention of writing 800 words, outline those 800 words, and come out with 800 words.

I want to be able to predict how much I need to write and how much time that’s going to take and get the prediction right.

So, when I’m outlining, I review my outline against my prediction

The question I first ask is have I chosen the right word count for the subject matter? If the outline suggests that the article is going to be too long, which is a frequent occurrence for me, I split the article into separate outlines there and then. Before I’ve written a sentence.

A quick look through an outline can give a good sense of whether it’s about to spiral out of control. If the points I’ve outlined are vague, it’s going to spiral. If I’m too emotional about what I’m writing, it’s going to spiral. If it’s a topic I lack confidence on, it’s going to spiral.

But how does one stop an article spiralling across too many pages?

The question I ask myself is whether each point marked out in the outline is going to require more than one paragraph to explain. An ideal paragraph contains a single idea which you develop within that paragraph. If my idea will overflow my paragraph, then I need to break that idea down into its respective points at the outlining stage.

If you’ve got readers on mobile devices, then you might feel compelled to create super short paragraphs

Personally, I love long sentences and long paragraphs (assuming they are eloquently punctuated). I love beautiful writing. But on my phone, lengthy blocks of text are more challenging to consume. To keep my paragraphs short, I break-up some of the longer paragraphs and excessive sentences during my edit.

You’ll learn from practice how long your paragraphs tend to be. And from this, you can approximate how many paragraphs you need for your desired word count.

Outlines might feel restrictive – you may instead believe writing should be a free activity

Ideas should pop out at great, fabled moments of inspiration. Words should fly from your fingertips in a natural progression. I don’t disagree. This is exactly how I write my diary, it’s how I write when I’m doing writing-therapy, it’s how I first put story ideas to paper. Some of my best ideas and phrases come like this. But the gods forbid that I edit these ideas as they appeared in their raw form on the page. I’d lose days to it. I have lost days to it. Free-writing is great when you don’t have to then edit.

But what I’m trying to do it learn how to create consistent, strong content

One of the Mother’s phrases that she walloped into my head is that in life you have a choice between results and excuses. Not having enough time to write a short letter (i.e. not planning what it is you want to say) is an excuse.

It’s also inconsiderate to the reader. We’re all under constant information bombardment as it is. If you have something to say that’s worth someone else taking their precious time to listen to, presumably it’s also worth planning.

After all, if we´re being honest, to plan and write a short letter takes a whole lot less time than to write and edit a long one.

Working with your hands (Even if you’re not very good at it)

Doing physical labour on a farm in France
Misty sunrise and time for work.
Fields in France, October 2016.

“… he’s not drearily whacking at the metal like a miner with a pickaxe: Every hit, though forceful, is carefully controlled. He peers intently at the metal, through thin-framed intellectual glasses (which seem out of place perched above his heavy beard and broad shoulders), turning it just so for each impact.”

Cal Newport in his book Deep Work describing the blacksmith Ric Furrer of Door County Forgeworks

Whenever I read about someone doing physical labour with a sense of love I’m reminded of my time on the farm in France. Whilst on the farm in France isn’t the only occasion when I’ve worked the land, it was the most prolonged period I’ve done so, and the most rewarding.

I’d be up early, to share breakfast with the children before Grandmére walked them to school. Fresh French bread and homemade jam. Then, whilst Grandpère was checking his email, I’d head over to the polytunnel to water all the vegetables growing there.

Anything ripe and ready for eating I’d take to the kitchen

Plus, any eggs I’d wrestled from the want-to-be mothers in the hen coop. After this, I’d collect grain from the barn and drive out to the sheep. They would come running at me, the largest, a sheep I nicknamed ‘bully’ at their lead. It would take creativity not to end up rolling down the hillside.

Then I’d go and join Grandpère

By this time, he would have settled on a plan for the day, and would be, you could be sure, wielding some sharp implement. His favourite was the chainsaw. We chopped down trees, chopped up trees and built wood piles great enough to heat the uninhabited chateau if necessary.

I learnt to love stacking logs

There is a rhythm to it: You’re working alongside one another in almost silence. Nothing is happening fast, but you’ve engaged mind and body, and you think, one more trailer full and we’ll finish-up, just a little bit more. You ache, but you’ve got the rhythm working for you and the ache is part of the harmony.

After working all morning, I’d take a solid siesta

I would be exhausted. Not just physically, but mentally too. I was learning something new every day, like sharpening chainsaws and driving diggers.

Under scrupulous supervision, I learnt to prune fruit trees

Including, the apples in a neat espalier style. I’d cut a few branches, with great care, and then Grandmére would appear and point out what I’d missed. I’d trim a bit more, then she’d suggest another branch, explaining each step of the process as we went along.

I fell in love with it.

And whilst I am very wary here of romanticising manual labour, for me, it was a magical experience. A feeling that never came to me when I was working in an office.

Although of course, many people don’t work the land out of choice

I will never need to exhaust myself with full days of physical labour. For me, it’s a choice and came with a guarantee of a good hearty meal. Grandmére being an excellent cook. You can’t go and work on a farm for a couple of months and understand what it’s like to make your livelihood out of manual labour. You don’t have a clue.

When the time came, I could take a flight to my next destination and go try something else.

But there is something about seeing a patch of land you’ve dug or a tree you’ve felled, and saying, that’s what I did today. I did learn something.

Ric Furrer, the blacksmith described at the top of the page, chooses to make swords

Each one is a piece of art, crafted with care. When he thrusts the hot metal into a pipe of oil to cool it, he doesn’t know if it is going to crack, which does happen sometimes with the dramatic change of heat. The oil catches fire and momentarily wraps the sword in flames.

Part of the reward is the process. It’s making something happen with your own hands. It’s having something you can look at when the sun begins to set and say, with pride, that’s what I did today.


From the archives there’s also this post about a day on the farm. You know, should you be looking for even more.

‘Adulting’ (Is that even a word?)

By Posted on Location: 5 min read
When she had grown-up, I took the Midget travelling. As you can see by the date, this was a long time ago.
The Dragon Bridge Ljubljana, 2014.

My little sister, the Midget, put three loads of washing on, one after the other, pinned them out on the washing line which stretches the length of her back-garden and commented on how, with the wind and the sun, it was perfect drying weather.

I rolled my eyes a little because she sounded just like the Mother, adult-like.

A little while later we headed out of the house and went for a walk

It rained.

However, as we were walking, she mentioned how being an adult still surprises her. Like being an adult was something as peculiar as being a fairy. Something unnatural and kind of weird.

Of course, I was curious about what she meant by the term she used, ‘adulting’, and being grown-up. After all, my little sister is a house owner with a stone carrying ring on her finger. I might be the one without the regular job and traditional lifestyle, but I’m not ‘adulting’, I’m an adult.

I dug a little deeper wondering what all of this meant.

The other night one of her colleagues came to visit

We played the board game Carcassonne and I cooked dinner. Early in the evening, the Midget sighed, declared it was time for some ‘adulting’ and disappeared out to the shop. Her colleague shook his head with bemusement. He finds her comments about growing-up funny and totally out of character as her supposed incompetence is in sharp contrast to her behaviour at work, which he described as confident.

So, on our walk, I asked my sister about how she feels at work and if she feels like she’s ‘adulting’ when she’s there. The look she gave me said no before she even opened her mouth.

At work, she said, she just felt inexperienced. There was so much more knowledge to acquire. At work, she feels like an adult. She’s an adult who’s learning what’s required for the next step in her career.

I moved the conversation onto sport.

Sport has always been a big part of her life

She’s not doing quite as much as she’d like to right now perhaps, but for the last however long, she’s been in and out of physiotherapy after being taken off a pitch on a backboard and in a neck-brace.

For a few months, I could lift heavier boxes than she could. It was incredible. But, in general, I’ve become used to the idea that she’s fitter and stronger than me. At one stage I could beat her on a long-distance run, but I’m not so sure now.

But because of the injuries, she’s feeling unfit. She might be unfit, but she knows what she’s doing. She’s got the first-aid kits, the tape, the punch bag and the tackle pad. When it comes to sport, she feels like an adult. She’s an adult who’s training to be faster and stronger.

So where is all this ‘adulting’ happening?

I pinned it down to right here in the house. What my sister seems to mean by ‘adulting’ is form filling and kitchen floor sweeping.

It takes time to learn to do these ‘adulting’ tasks

I think the real issue here is she hasn’t accepted the learning process and expects perfection from the get-go. She’s so good at almost everything that she believes something so ordinary and everyday as writing a supermarket shopping list should come easily. And then it doesn’t.

I’m reminded of my Great-Nonna’s housekeeping book

The one where she systematically made a tiny amount of money feed and clothe the whole family. The difference between the challenge facing my sister and the challenge my Great-Nonna faced is vast. My little sister, confident and capable at work, respected and admired within her sporting circles, doesn’t have to worry about looking after the individual pennies. She just needs to get enough food in the fridge to eat during the week.

The Great-Nonna had to treat budgeting like an art form. It demanded time, patience and took time to learn.

I think this is the step my sister is missing. Her to-do list doesn’t include ‘learn to write a shopping list’.

And I think the Midget is doing herself an injustice with her terminology

She’s not playing at being an adult, she is one. Her theory is she makes too many comparisons to other people. Not to me, because I’m ‘unconventional’, but to other people who seem to manage to keep their kitchens clean and refrigerators stocked.

Well, one of the many things I love about my sister is how she is not the same as everyone else. I love how she has priorities and she’s fierce about putting them first. You can’t prioritise everything, so some things fall to second place. If we run out of food, the supermarket is probably open 24 hours. It really is not a big deal.

But comparison is a hard-to-break habit.

The other week we watched a chunk of a home video

In the video, my sister was a cooing baby and I was toddling around bashing things. Our parents were the age we are now but seemed to look younger.

Except it’s all perspective, and how old we look tends to relate more to a context than anything else. Children can’t guess the age of adults without clues like grey hair and such a clue is less viable when so many people dye their hair. At work, I’m often assumed to be younger than I am. I doubt this would be the case if I was in a different job, but many language assistants tend to be just post-university age. Not all, I know a fair number who are the Mother’s age, but many.

What’s more, I’d look quite different wearing a formal jacket, my nails manicured, and my hair styled. Or if you could also see a photograph of me ten years ago.

I look in the mirror and see my grey hairs and contemplate that I am getting older

Meanwhile, whilst the Midget fusses about ‘adulting’, the Mother is ageing backwards. Having got the art of ‘adulting’ pretty much perfected, she’s likely to be found running around the garden in her welly-boots, swinging on her wooden garden swing, or trying to hula-hoop on one leg.

Truly, my family are the best.


As a side note here, this post came about because I asked the Midget what she wanted me to write about and she said herself. If you have something you particularly want me to write about, let me know.

Some Paintings: Watercolours Spring 2019

A Spanish cherry, in watercolour, May 2019.
A Spanish cherry, in watercolour, May 2019.

Watercolour is an unforgiving medium. It demands patience, which is something I tend to remember once I’ve messed it up a bit. In the cherry above you can see a dark line on the edge of the cherry, which came about because I wanted to make the cherry darker, but wasn’t patient enough to wait for each layer to dry.

The banana has some ‘cauliflowering’ from where I failed to create a decent shadow and left too much water sitting on the page. And the artichoke has a soft blurry edge from where again I struggled to create a shadow.

All the fruit was drawn from life, but the apples, as you can possibly tell from their odd shapes, were moved from the table for dinner, and then I finished up the painting elsewhere, fruitless.

There is an obvious lack of colour theory in the single landscape picture – painted from a photo I took on an evening walk. The hills in the background ought to be cooler. The thing that looks like a stick is supposedly a path, but it doesn’t seem to sit in the grass.

The lavendar is crisp, simply because it’s from a tutorial I was following. Tutorials are good, you can learn a lot from them, although it’s also important to mix in some of your own constructions.

I have an awful lot to learn, but I feel like despite (or because of) all the mistakes, I’m making progress.

My mother’s strawberry plant, June 2019.

And on the topic of art, you might have forgotten the story of that one time I took the Nonna to an art gallery.

If you want to learn about life, talk to someone who has lived a tough one

Conversation with a Spanish Grandmother - Jardín de Floridablanca, Murcia, May 2019
Jardín de Floridablanca, Murcia, May 2019

My Grandmother leant me a book about a nun

In her twenties, the nun in the book went to an interview for a place at the National College of Domestic Subjects to study cookery. In front of the panel, she was asked to read a section from The Times newspaper. Having been born to wealth and educated by her mother to become a lady, she read with what she describes as a ‘cut-glass accent’.

A chap on the panel whispered, “I don’t think Sister Agatha will be much good in the East End of London.”

At which point she realised her error and broke through the ice around them by adding, “Now, me ‘ole Dutch, where we ‘orf tonight?”

Smiles appeared throughout the panel, which decided to accept her. She’d proven she could adapt her tone.

Speaking in an inclusive manner can be rather tricky

Conversing isn’t always easy, especially across cultures, across differences in educational opportunity and across generations. I think those of us who seek out opportunities to converse across such barriers don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we do.

Just the other week I was reminded how hard we must work to get the most out of a conversation.

Imagine a very tidy living room and a stiff-backed sofa

I was sitting upright, body lent forward, alert because I was having coffee with my friend´s mother – a tiny woman with strong eyes. Such a situation can be a little daunting even if you speak the same language, but here I was having to converse in Spanish. Spanish. That language which has me dancing on the edge of my comfort zone on an almost daily basis.

This time, I was talking about France

I have within me a repertoire of short stories to which I have learnt, through perseverance and embarrassment, the relevant vocabulary. Good conversations involve stories or at least interesting examples the other person can connect to. Stories also fill time and make a conversation feel fluid.

What’s more, I quite enjoy trampling over people’s assumptions about me. I enjoy eliciting surprise. You need a bit of wonder sprinkled in a conversation to keep your audience paying attention.

During this conversation, however, I was doing nothing artful with my language

The anxiety that strikes me whenever I must speak to someone new in Spanish had entered my bones, and the cogs in my brain were overheating. The Spanish grandmother didn’t ask complex questions, but her Spanish is drenched in dialect, which frustrated our translator and aid (her son), who desperately wanted me to understand for myself.

I was speaking particularly badly

I was nervous. So out of necessity, the Spanish grandmother was taking responsibility for the structure of the conversation. I hate this, but whilst I can structure a conversation in English, doing the same in Spanish is beyond me.

From the start, she knew I taught English

Like many people, she was curious as to how I’d ended up where I was. I explained how I’d worked in a ‘proper job’ once upon a time. In an office, at a desk, next to a window. And I explained how I’d watched Spring come from behind the glass pane, summer pass by, and eventually autumn arrive. Then I told her about France. I told her about working the land, driving diggers and feeding the sheep.

Now lost between a historic frustration and a series of memories, I described my nostalgia for that physical sensation of labour. I tried to avoid romanticising it because hard physical labour is not romantic. But I did contrast the physical work on the land to the labours of the mind. And all this in broken sentences with the verbs conjugated aloud.

The Spanish grandmother frowned

Her eyes communicated her recognition of my naivety, not in a patronising manner, but in the way that a teacher might look at a child who just hasn’t quite got it. A maternal look, but not a soft look.

Her voice, however, when she spoke, was soft and steady. She said that outside work is both, body and mind.

I felt that she was navigating through some of her own memories

Even now she works on the land and has done I believe for much of her life. Her skin is golden, showing a lifetime of being drenched in sunlight. The previous week she’d been picking flowers. She knows more about the land than I ever will, but when she spoke, her words were more like poetry, describing the relationship between the worker and the land as a form of art.

This was not what I had expected

As I learnt about the woman I was speaking to, I was reminded of how although she had little formal education, she possessed immense wisdom, and it gave me an insight into my own child-like self. In her eyes, I am not much older than a child.

Although, she acknowledged with a little surprise, I have experienced a lot for one so young.

Her school life had centred around the church

Every morning in her school she’d had to start with prayers because her school life had happened under Franco’s Catholic Nationalism. A complete contrast to my upbringing. I declared myself an atheist at the age of 7. The only people who argued the case for religion with me were my father (whose beliefs don’t appear to include an almighty being) and much later, Grand-père (who went to mass every Sunday and brought me back gigantic meringues).

She asked about my religious beliefs or lack of belief

And I fumbled through my vocabulary, trying to find the words to describe something I’m not sure I could articulate in English. All the time she watched me with immense curiosity.

Religion in Spain is a dangerous topic. Some people talk about religion as a pillar holding up the rest of life, whilst others have an audible snarl in their throats when they mention the church. I’m fascinated by these attitudes to religion, but I know I must tread with care. The girls at school describe my Yorkshire influenced accent as being cute, and although I’m sometimes conscious of the childish sound of my voice, sometimes I’m grateful for it.

She listened though, receptive to what I was saying, and I was grateful.

And then just before she was about to leave, she motioned to my ebook reader

It lay on the coffee table where I’d discarded it when she’d arrived. She told me she didn’t read on phones and suchlike, she reads books printed on paper. A literature lover. Despite all the differences we might have, we are fellow bibliophiles. My heart felt lighter.

Which brings me back to my Grandmother’s book about a nun

I started off sceptical. Reading about a rich young lady who gave up her fiancé and dedicated her life to her God, I wasn’t sure how well I’d connect. At first, I found her story a little frustrating.

And then, in her fifties, she decides that she’s going to travel. She doesn’t have much in the way of cash, because nuns don’t, and yet, her passion to travel forced her to find a way. And that I could relate to.

What’s more, when she talked about her terrible driving, I couldn’t help but think of the habit-wearing nun who nearly ran me over the other day.

The book was A Nun’s Story by Sister Agatha and Richard Newman.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might like a reminder of this old post about what I learnt talking to Grand-père.

Afónica: How I taught English conversation without speaking

Communication without speaking - pilgrimage route
John Francis not only stopped speaking but he also stopped riding in motorised vehicles. So I thought I’d choose one of my own photos from the Via Francigena pilgrimage route through Italy.
May 2018

The environmentalist, Dr John Francis, didn’t speak for 17 years. It wasn’t that he couldn’t, it was that he’d got sick of arguing with everyone. To tackle this, he decided to not speak for one day. That one day proved a bit of a shock. What took him by surprise was how much he learnt about listening. And so, the next day, he didn’t speak either.

This continued for 17 years.

I thought about John Francis the other morning when I woke up unable to speak. A silence they call ‘afónica’ in Spanish. A curse that teachers, who depend on their voices, are susceptible to. It was not that I felt unwell. As far as I could tell, the rest of me was fine.

Yet when I opened my mouth there was no sound

Since my job is to teach conversation this presented a unique challenge. And, like for John Francis, not speaking proved educational.

I discovered that:

  1. I hadn’t been aware of how frequently I’m speaking
  2. The students help each other more when I’m not getting in their way
  3. It’s not hard to give corrections on paper, but effective praise is always difficult

Luckily, my first class was of twelve-year-olds

It’s a good class and the students and I have a nice rapport. They don’t have an expansive vocabulary and grammatically they’re just learning the past tense, yet, due to their less aggressive hormones, they have more freedom of expression than some of the older students.

They’re all different from one another

And I’ve become rather attached to them all. One child responds to every question by exclaiming ‘oh my god’ (in Spanish), before collecting himself and answering the question. They make me laugh.

The morning’s task was a role-play about an ice-cream shop

They take it seriously as it’s preparation for their exam. The work in pairs. One child has some question prompts whilst the other holds an information leaflet. This is partly a reading comprehension exercise, but I focus on their ability to construct questions. Most errors are derived from incorrect word order or missing auxiliary verbs (do/does, am/are/is, can).

Unable to speak, I listened and jotted down corrections in my notebook

The pages filled with scrawl as the children spoke. Unless they stopped and looked at me, unable to continue without a prompt, I didn’t interrupt. I waited until they’d completed the task before sharing my notes.

Normally once they have finished, I go over the questions out loud. The children tend to lean forward in their seats to see the paper and to watch my lips. I trace over the relevant points on the paper with my fingertip. This systematic reading, after correcting for their mistakes, allows the children to hear everything joined together. It’s the point where it’s easiest to identify between those who are genuinely engaged and those who are bored. I read through the role-play at natural pace letting them feel the language in action.

But this was impossible without a voice. Instead, I used the prompts I’d scribbled down to help the children themselves find the correct phrases. Correcting pronunciation took some creativity, but somehow we managed.

Surprisingly, they needed fewer prompts than I’d supposed

Which made me question how much of my speaking is for them and how much it is for me. The truth is, I enjoy speaking. I like telling stories. But what about them? Their eyes light up when I’m telling a story, but their eyes also light up when they’re the ones with the tale to tell.

When they laugh, giggle and share their own eccentric ideas I know they’re enjoying themselves. Part of this confidence comes from my own story-telling – I make the unconventional permissible. But perhaps I’ve not been taking this far enough?


Now, I find myself wondering how can I shift back and forth between them and me in a more balanced fashion?

My second discovery was that I get in the way of them helping each other

Knowing I wasn’t going to leap in, there were a few students who started taking more responsibility for their partner’s learning.

This is something I believe to be valuable but I have been struggling to encourage.

I’ve tried mixing up the pairs of students

I was hoping to find pairs who are willing to challenge each other and push each other a little further. This is more difficult than it sounds. Sometimes the intention is there, the students want to help one another, but they do so in Spanish which isn’t helpful. Other times their kind advice becomes telling. Occasionally it takes a stronger tone and comes across as posturing.
But then, there are some stunning partnerships where the peer support is wonderful to see.

And although I’ve thought about all this before, I’ve been rather blind

Because having not spoken for a day, it’s obvious that one of the biggest reasons why one child doesn’t speak up and help their partner, is me.

I’m getting in the way of the children helping one another

As without a voice, I was unable to make instantaneous corrections, they leapt in to explain things to one another. And in English. My inability made them act as if they were me. They momentarily took on my role.

It seems I need to think this over. The children are able to help one another out but often don’t. What is it they lack? Is it a sense of responsibility to their partner? Is it something to do with permission? I know I’m getting in the way here, so what is it that I need to do differently?

On reflection though, I’m proud of them and how they handled themselves.

Which brings me onto my third point, praise.

Regardless of what you do, criticism is easier than constructive praise

Constructive praise is difficult. As the conversations progressed, I took notes of the incorrect grammar, the misused vocabulary or the pronunciation errors. These mistakes stand out to me as if they were painted in vivid colours.

Praise-worthy constructions don’t flash so boldly in my awareness

Since when we’re thinking about praise, we’re thinking about incremental improvement. Especially when it comes to language acquisition. The changes from one week to the next are tiny. And yet, it’s this progress that needs to be praised. It’s the journey of continuous learning, which is so hard to stick at, that deserves commendation.

Ideally, I like to give specific praise

It is more memorable for the student. Sometimes using a phrase on the paper allowed me to do this, but I found that without a voice it was tricky.

General praise can be given through body language

Although… I already tend to smile a lot.

Excessively it has been said. And I guess in the back of my mind I have the image of a ‘cool’ person who doesn’t grin like a mad cat at everyone shouldn’t be. I’m not that person. When I’m happy it’s impossible for me to hide my smile.

Once upon a time, I worked as an au-pair

My own advice to new au-pairs, who would despair at the children they had to somehow care for, was don’t force the children to like you. We all want to be liked, but it’s important that we also respect not everyone is going to like us. When we try to be likeable, we are doing so because we’re driven by fear. We present something fake and are therefore being dishonest.

Trying to get everyone to like you is the surest way to screw-up

Already, working with teenagers I worry that they think I try too hard to make them like me because of my wild grin. Losing my voice made me more conscious of my facial expressions. I didn’t have much else to communicate praise with.

What reassured me though were the questions I’d asked earlier in the week

A teacher hadn’t turned up, so I’d taken the opportunity to ask the students for feedback. They wrote down some thoughts and suggestions.

We don’t like speaking in English but, when we have to speak with [Catherine] we feel so comfortable because she is always smiling.

[Catherine] smiles a lot and I feel safe when I talk with [her] in class.

Maybe all my worry had been for nothing

And when my voice disappeared knowing that my smile had been regarded positively gave me a bit more confidence. Which meant, that on occasion, I went further and beamed with a thumbs up at times to make my point clear.

They are all remarkable individuals.

I remember when I was reading The Ragged Edge of Silence

That’s the book John Francis wrote on his experience of being silent. He describes teaching a discussion class without speaking. It seems so contrary to my own university experience where all my teachers at university did was speak. It lodged in my mind as remarkable. In his TED talk he says:

“Now this was a discussion class and we were having a discussion. I just backed out of that, you know, and I just kind of kept the fists from flying. But what I learned was that sometimes I would make a sign and they said things that I absolutely did not mean, but I should have. And so what came to me is, if you were a teacher and you were teaching, if you weren’t learning you probably weren’t teaching very well.”

Dr John Francis

If you aren’t learning you probably aren’t teaching very well… Leaving space and silence for the students to develop their own voices shouldn’t be remarkable, it should be part of what it means to teach.

Moving onwards, what I can focus on here is:

  1. Varying how much I am contributing to the conversation
  2. Staying quiet and letting the students correct each other
  3. Investigating what is important about praise

And I can smile plenty.

Not being able to speak didn’t prove to be much of a problem

My job is one where speaking is taken for granted. But being ‘afónica’ for the day was a good lesson in the importance of speaking less.

Here’s the TED talk, if you want to watch it…