Usually my ideas come easily, just my time is short. At the moment I am a little short on both so I am unplugging for a while. See you after the break.
Away at my mother’s house, I have been enjoying the items that bring back memories
It’s odd how the smallest thing can send you off into your memories. This last week we have been away at my mother’s house for a change of scene. Everyday I have been noticing things with a funny jolt of recognition. I suppose when you are home, your eye becomes blind to decorations or you are too busy to stop and look. Being here I have been more aware. We are not rushing around because my fatigue has stopped us from doing too much. Staying in a different home, I am aware of spending time appreciating the things from my childhood more.
A small basket of shells arrest me at a window ledge. We collected them on the Welsh coast thirty years ago. I trace my finger down turritella shell or towers as we would call them. I think I remember the time we collected it, we used to take old sandwich loaf bags out and on a particularly blustery weekend, we walked up and down the beach stooping for more and more. I think I filled two bags. At some point I had to choose my favourite as I was told we couldn’t take the whole beach home! The crystalline pink were always my favourite though it’s a lot smaller in my hand than I remember.
I think everyone scans the bookshelves of homes they visit, many of her favourites have stayed over the years but I am not sure I have read. I pick through the shelves idolly. There are some older volumes that I think have always fascinated me, probably because I know some were her childhood editions, some her father’s. Amongst them is the copy of Little Women from our trip to Orchard House, the Alcotts home. Like the other hardbacks, it’s not in fact an antique but I still hold it with reverence. Our day in Concord is a really special memory. The postcard of Alcott’s desk sits in my writing trolley still, reminding me to stop complaining about a space to write.
Sounds too are reminiscent here. This is not my old home, though we have been welcomed here in holidays for years now. But the pigeons sit in the trees outside the back of her house just as they did in my first house and I realise that I miss the sounds of the birds coo echoing down the chimney when I am at home. We have sat this week and watched the blackbirds who play in their garden and cheep loudly when they haven’t been left food. There’s a bush here they have occupied as their own and I remember back to similar times watching birds play in our garden growing up.
Often memories can feed inspiration for me and it occurs to me in my nostalgia there is the essence of something I have been trying to capture for a while. The hard work I have been putting in in mindful walks to notice nature and neighbourhood around me. It has been come a goal to slow our time, to appreciate life. To listen to the world around. But these were things that were, at least some of the time, part of my life as a child. These sights and sounds are a reminder for me that this mindful enjoyment of the simplest things is natural to us all.
A frequent preoccupation, I think about how my Summer of reading might pan out
I have mulled over how Mum’s get time to read before because it is a constant battle. Ultimately, though I love to write and journal, my deepest, longest love has been reading. Often it is escapism. I have been having a real Edwardian fad recently, listening to The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton and The Little Ottley’s books by Ada Levenson on Librivox. Along with my current vogue for the PG Wodehouse collections Stephen Fry is narrating on Audible, I have been experiencing a world of manners and often comic sensibilities. Even with House of Mirth which is frankly tragic I have found a soothing place to escape to. Though these books are not unproblematic, depicting views reflective of their time that are uncomfortable, most of the times we can be swept away by this historic and yet somehow modern era of feisty women, feckless men and ridiculous social mores that people break with mostly little consequence.
This has been a new part of my resolve to read more. To acknowledge that audiobooks count as reading. How strange that I have held myself to such a strict standard for so long. But then if you had told me at University when I stacked my beloved library desk with piles of books and photocopied chunks of essays, that I would have an electronic reader now, I would have been shocked and saddened. Declaring then that there was nothing like “real” books. I still find grand libraries heavenly, particularly where the stacks are filled with beautifully bound books, and you can browse for hours. It will never stop my heart from soaring, but this is not my everyday life. I graduated fifteen years ago and though I love a research trip, they are not often.
An ereader has been essential to reading more. I can flick between the Kindle app on my phone and my device. I always have a book with me and can pick up whenever I do get a chance. Generally this does involve my son playing on the iPad and I suppose I may never win the war of screen time if I am always on my phone – reading or not. In addition to having access to all my library, I can chop and change as I like. I have always been someone to read different books at one time. Now I acknowledge this about myself without guilt. It’s often about mood. Just as I have been seeking something soothing in recent tired times, there has been other times where I have wanted something deeper or heavier to read (looking at you Hilary Mantel). Switching is so easy now I carry my library around, I wish I hadn’t taken so long to read this way.
And speaking of switching between books, the biggest freedom I given myself over the last few years is simple: I don’t always finish books. As a practice, it feels like giving up or failing. But what precious time I have I need to give to what grabs me. As I wrote in my post about books I didn’t finish, it is frequently about timing. Wintery books are for Winter, some time you’re too bone-tired to concentrate, other times you getting obsessed with a certain era. By not forcing myself to read something that hasn’t wrested my attention away from the world, I do read more. Maybe not of whole books but of a greater breadth, exploring more and letting my whims take me.
I still think that having a goal helps, as I reflected before, the Goodreads reward system helps keep me motivated. Odd to think I need to be motivated to do something I enjoy the most but such is my fickle, distractable brain. By thinking ahead to Summer reading and tracking my progress, I am giving myself the chance of prioritising some energy for escaping into a good book this Summer. Shortly, I will be picking my son up from school as the term ends so here are my Summer picks I aim to make time for this year.
How do you make time to read what you want?
Six months on from getting infected, I pause to reflect on what life looks like now
As I wrote back in January, I was lucky to contract a mild case of covid. I still consider that I was lucky to have had a relatively easy time. I was at home and managed my symptoms with help of tablets and extra asthma inhalers. I even managed to work at first though I was mildly weary. It lasted about ten days and, for a few days after, I thought that was that.
But like many people who have had covid-19, I have ended up with a much longer, more complicated picture and at six months I can’t help but consider how it has completely changed my life. I have what is colloquially called Long Covid or Post-Covid Viral Fatigue. It has meant learning and managing fatigue far beyond the tiredness I have been experiencing before now. It has stopped me and forced me to do things differently in a number of ways.
Not everyday, but on a bad day I block out the world. I have had to strip back what I do, prioritising my activities and often managing to work for a few hours or maybe play for short bursts with my son. If I socialise I can be thrown off for days because I am getting post exertional malaise that knocks me off my feet, leaves me achy and able to do little. Never has the feeling of being hit by a bus felt so accurate.
I often spend hours on my bed although I now try and meditate not just nap. I have had to reduce exercise to the point of tracking that I don’t do too many steps, rather than counting them up, on my Fitbit. All of these changes are hard-won lessons I am still learning. Trying to find what I can and cannot handle has become my preoccupation. I am reading and watching a lot about the condition (and related advice for people with chronic fatigue syndrome) trying to get the game of pacing right.
I have had to tune into my body much more. Listening to a podcast or watching the tennis I may discover suddenly it’s far too intense. My tolerance for stress, even the pleasurable kind of tension we choose to put ourselves through for entertainment like a thriller, overwhelms me. Instead I look for things that are light, funny or soothing. And use the meditation practices that help me listen to my body more clearly.
Really doing these things has been a lesson in what I wasn’t doing for myself before. Like a lot people, my stress increased in pandemic times. I became more anxious and felt some of the losses of not seeing family, feeling isolated, very keenly. Now I am seeking help both medically and for my mental health. Actually I don’t really have a choice.
The whole world stopped for a while in 2020 and that was a lesson about how we cope with modern life. Everything too fast, too consumerist, not to mention too close, stopped and stripped back to what was essential. Well, it seems I still have to learn this lesson. My body has chosen to stop me in my tracks. I can’t be grateful for every difficult moment in the last six months, nor for all the sadness and loss in this pandemic, but I am starting to get very grateful for the chance to assess what is really important to me. To spend my energy where I can, doing what I most value. To reassess and prioritise.
And top of my list, for the first time in a long time, I am having to look after me.
I’ll never been a plotter, but I have been experimenting with writing from the start
“And what about your writing”, a kind friend asks as I recount my months of coming to term with chronic illness alongside my usual life stresses. What about it? Well, it’s clear that I always bristle against this question. But the truth I have been making small slow steps in the direction of finishing a draft. One of biggest, and hardest revelations has been that I may have been doing it if not wrong, then definitely the hard way.
While I confess I enjoy the spark of an idea leading me to write a scene, as inspiration really is everywhere, it might not be the best way of getting to the end of the draft. I have scores of words written on the same book. But will the end ever be in sight?
To disentangle my plot I resorted to an excel spreadsheet of scenes and started to see where there was too much jumping around. I stripped away these scenes so that I could follow the main character. It is a story told from more than one perspective, but I was unbalanced by the main character who kept insisting on her chapters. Once I had more of a handle on the chronology of the scenes, I was able to start again from the beginning and write, you know, what happens.
It has been a laborious process and I suppose it could be called rewriting really. I have been training myself to go through from start to finish – what a revelation! On the way I notice the gaps and write them. I also notice the
repetitions which are numerous and seem to be mainly based around having cups of tea. Set in a quaint English cottage, I suppose we have to expect that she would drink a lot of tea but I really did notice how much she used the kettle. I repeated the Word Cloud exercise I have recommended before as a technology that can help writers. Definitely a lot of tea and kettle!
And even in this systematic process, I am not at the end. Well, maybe I am. I have a scene written, but I am really not satisfied with how we ramble our way there. As I have worked through from the beginning, diligently start to finish, I come to another even more disturbing revelation; I am not happy with my start. My start is probably a middle, a twist midway.
So, since the beginning of the year, I am filling in the characters that been on the peripheral of the story and shaping much more to the journey where my original start comes in. And in the thickets and weeds of the story, I have started to pull out other elements and be merciless with others. What is it they always say about writing: leave early, enter late. Seems like this is the issue I have been wrangling with – where is the start, how do we get to the finish and hoping others will care enough about where this person is in her life. About the disruptions and problems she faces.
I have been writing, even in small fits and starts but “It’s difficult” I tell my friend. I have to keep my energy packets for my son, for work, leaving the house occasionally. But it’s also difficult because I have made it so. With other projects that have snuck in to take my attention, I am being much stricter now to give myself a chance. My writing process, though always likely to be slow for a variety of reasons, well now it goes from the start and plods on to the finish. Unless inspiration just happens to strike again, of course!