a song of love and loss

Absent-mindedly stitching onto a little square of linen this afternoon, I found myself incanting one of my favourite poems, 'Donal Og'. A centuries old poem of Irish origin and uncertain date, I first heard it read by Seamus Heaney at a reading to celebrate the publication of The Rattle Bag. Sadly, it was shortly before Ted Hughes died, and he was too ill to attend. Heaney concluded the evening by reading this poem on behalf of Hughes, for whom it held a powerful, personal resonance. 

I've read the poem so many times I know most of it by heart. But it's never my voice that I hear. Often it's the voice of a young, Irish girl; sometimes Heaney's gentle murmur. But mostly, I hear the deep, doleful crack of Hughes' voice, making the lines ring.

Donal Og

It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;

the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.

It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;

and that you may be without a mate until you find me.


You promised me, and you said a lie to me,

that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;

I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,

and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.


You promised me a thing that was hard for you,

a ship of gold under a silver mast;

twelve towns with a market in all of them,

and a fine white court by the side of the sea.


You promised me a thing that is not possible,

that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;

that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;

and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.


When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,

I sit down and I go through my trouble;

when I see the world and do not see my boy,

he that has an amber shade in his hair.


It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;

the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday.

And myself on my knees reading the Passion;

and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.


My mother said to me not to be talking with you today,

or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;

it was a bad time she took for telling me that;

it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.


My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,

or as the black coal that is on the smith's forge;

or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;

it was you put that darkness over my life.


You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from


you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;

you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;

and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!


Anon. from the 8th century Irish (trans. Lady Augusta Gregory) from

The Rattle Bag ed. Heaney & Hughes, (Faber & Faber 1982)


and it was all yellow

 Today finds me slightly obsessed with lemons. Starting the day with a slice in hot water just wasn't enough and I've been piling it into green tea too. After a brief detour into the thick darkness of espresso, I got back on track with a lunch saturated with lemony flavours. The cupboard being a bit threadbare I ended up stirring two large fists of parsley into a bowl of bulghur wheat, gave it a good soak with lemon juice and a dash of olive oil and topped the lot with a scattering of home-salted almonds. Delicious. I may have made noises of joy while I ate; I certainly ate much faster than I'm sure is considered proper.

Now I'm trying to fight back an urge to whip up one of Rachel's heavenly almond and lemon cakes. I simply don't trust myself today not to eat the lot the moment it cools enough to handle. It does get more stickily delicious if you do as she suggests and leave it for a couple of days. But if you were to have a little slice or two before then (just to check it's ok - ahem) it's still bliss. If you haven't yet tried her recipe, I would urge you to. Preferably on a day when your body isn't seeking to maximise its levels of vitamin C. And so to supper - linguine with a little oil, basil, pecorino...and lemon.



of stars and silence

1. Untitled, 2. Dye Party, 3. nine., 4. rainy day pears, 5. stars + deer embroidery, 6. perfect night, 7. House., 8. 'arlo's space' embroidery, 9. Pojagi - Korean Style Patchwork, 10. oops., 11. paper, 12. Untitled, 13. Day 2/Dream Journal, 14. Untitled, 15. Untitled, 16. the eucalyptus is always greener

The longer a silence goes on, the harder it is to break. It becomes more important to say the right thing. But all too often lately, my ability to choose the right words has deserted me. I'm undermined by a series of griefs, hastening one after the other. By profound misunderstandings only heightened by candour. Some things, it seems, really are best unsaid. And I'm left feeling oddly mute. But the time has come to reach back out into the world and start trusting my voice again.  

Looking out at the ochring leaves it seems impossible to recapture the heat and languor of the South of France, or the gentle playfulness of our summer days at home. So I've chosen instead to introduce some of my favourite photos on flickr, inspired by Kristy's gloriously autumnal mosaic. It's only now that I'm looking at my choices afresh, right here, that I see how they reflect my recent mood and pre-occupations. Domesticity; silence; stars.

Looking up at the stars re-orients me: life is unknown and living it can be hard but there is so much that is beautiful. And when I look at these photos, their quiet beauty reassures me. Makes me look forward - to breaking the silence, reaching out, a new season. A new telescope.



When I woke up I was in a forest. The dark

seemed natural, the sky through the pine trees

thick with many lights.


I knew nothing; I could do nothing but see.

And as I watched, all the lights of heaven

faded to make a single thing, a fire

burning through the cool firs.

Then it wasn't possible any longer

to stare at heaven and not be destroyed.


Are there souls that need

death's presence, as I require protection?

I think if I speak long enough

I will answer that question, I will see

whatever they see, a ladder

reaching through the firs, whatever

calls them to exchange their lives -


Think what I understand already.

I woke up ignorant in a forest;

only a moment ago, I didn't know my voice

if one were given me

would be so full of grief, my sentences

like cries strung together.

I didn't even know I felt grief

Until that word came, until I felt

rain streaming from me.

from The Wild Iris - Louise Glück 


treading lightly

The summer holiday has begun and we all feel lighter for it. It's lovely simply to have time to be together. Getting out the bubbles and watching the butterflies and dragonflies darting in between them. Watching bubbles skim lightly over the surface of the stream and family of ducks swimming furiously to investigate. Sitting outside with boxes and tape and paper and pens and making a series of creatures and their homes. Discovering a skateboard park that's perfect for stunt biking. Building upon a growing crystal collection and reading all about them. Talking. Laughing.

Shedding constraints. I'm still tethered to earth by the practicalities of preparing to leave for France at the weekend but look forward to cutting those final ties and treading more lightly through life for a few weeks. I hope summer is being kind to you.



a life in pictures

Sometimes when I'm uploading photos from my camera I come across images that I don't remember taking. Then I realise that Joel has been photographing. Santa bought him a little camera last year but it's usually mine that he picks up, and he's pretty adept at using it now.

I love to see the world through his eyes. The sheer difference in height changes the way he sees things, and it makes me see what he values. The favourite shoes; the surprisingly lovely light of a bath-toy; John's gardening gloves drying; an outgrown tricycle. Our quiet lunches and shared painting times. Me and John - usually unflattering but always loving. When I laugh at how I look in them he says indignantly 'no, you look lovely!' (have you noticed that I haven't included any of those? yes, I am that vain).

Not many days go by when I don't photograph. Because a lot of my life is spent around the house, that's reflected in my pictures. Joel has a strong sense of what my eye gravitates to - 'Look mummy! look at that shadow! quick!' - so I find it fascinating to see what catches his eye. I like his aesthetic: the angles and exposures may not be perfect but they're surprisingly composed and take account of the fall of light, and of colour.

Sometimes Joel moans as I rush off to get my camera, 'you don't always have to take photos of everything!' and mugs the shots after I make him do that thing again (and maybe again because I haven't quite caught the expression) like he's on a photo-shoot. But I tell him that one day, when he's older, he'll be happy to look back on so many photos of himself and his home. And among them will be his own photos of home and of family. Will the memories be more precious for that?



seeing green 

With the wild flowers over and the trees now in full leaf, the garden is looking disconcertingly green. I love the tall, swaying trees that cast welcome shade and shadows but have less friendly feelings towards the self-seeded laurels that cutting back only encourages, ivy covered tree trunks, dense holly and incongruously planted conifers that border the edges of the woods.

Once you start looking though, it's extraordinary just how many shades of green there are. A glance outside the door offers the fresh, broad bean green of the ferns unravelling from the stone wall, the dusty silver of lavender and eucalyptus, sharp brightness of lemon balm and muted, white-rimmed shade of hostas. It's a subtle palette that I'm having to take time to appreciate rather than simply giving in to envy of those gardens whose bright blooms remain glorious and un-eaten.

It's also a palette that is acutely sensitive to changes in the light. Delicate and fresh in the morning, by mid-day the sun bleaches out the subtle tones, making the garden heavy with shadows and sombre dark-greens. Late afternoon the variety returns and the garden sparkles lightly. While I'll never entirely lose my summery desire for bright drifts of colour outside, I'll console myself with the thought that looking at green is supposed to be good for the mind and body, and relax.

How does your garden grow?


love, actually

Flicking through my notebook, I stopped at this photo of Picasso and Dora Maar. Look at the two of them together: perfect. Her glossy voluptuousness alongside his bullish solidity. The symmetry of their poses and their bodies a contrast to the horizontals of sky and sea. And, apart from wishing it was me in that sea with the scents of the Mediterranean around me, it set me thinking about the mysteries of pairings.

Often, during my (many) moments of people watching, I pay particular attention to couples. What was it that drew them to each other; what keeps them together? Over the years I've seen friends and family un-couple and re-couple. I've done the same myself. Sometimes it's a mystery why one individual is chosen over another. But a greater mystery to me is this deep need to move through life with another person. At times it seems that being in a pair demands more than it gives; times when love can be hard to summon. Times, to be honest, especially with the conflicting needs of family life, when a relationship seems less a matter of love than a practical arrangement. There is no hiding in a long relationship; all one's flaws are exposed and tested, over and again. To know someone utterly is to be known, and the vulnerability that comes with that sometimes overwhelms me.  

But to be willing to endure this exposure, endure all the compromise and contingencies and uncertainties that moving through life with another person involves, is to me what love is. To love someone despite, as well as because. To ask 'would I do it again?' and be able to answer yes. Yes. What more?

Bei Hennef

The little river twittering in the twilight,

The wan, wondering look of the pale sky,

       This is almost bliss.


And everything shut up and gone to sleep,

All the troubles and anxieties and pain

        Gone under the twilight.


Only the twilight now, and the soft 'Sh!' of the river

        That will last for ever.


And at last I know my love for you is here;

I can see it all, it is whole like the twilight,

It is large, so large, I could not see it before,

Because of the little lights and flickers and interruptions,

         Troubles, anxieties and pains.


You are the call and I am the answer,

You are the wish, and I the fulfilment,

You are the night, and I the day.

          What else? It is perfect enough.

          It is perfectly complete.

          You and I,

          What more - ?


Strange, how we suffer in spite of this!

DH Lawrence, from Selected Poems (ed. James Fenton, Penguin)



perfect moments


Do you sometimes find that, in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day, there are little moments of near perfection? Today's little moment came about through lassitude. Idly clicking through my inbox to avoid doing any of the many things on my list I'd prefer not to do, I opened a link to the Toast blog. Did you know they had a blog? News to me. But it's surprisingly interesting, and rather lovely. On it, I discovered a little video of Maria Bosch working in her studio. It's silent, which was what made the whole perfect moment.. perfect. At the time I was listening to one of my favourite pieces, Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel. The rain was falling heavily and audibly through the trees and tapping gently on the windows. It synched gently with the sublime melancholy of Pärt's music and provided the perfect soundtrack to the engrossing dexterity of Bosch's hands working the clay.

Desperate, suddenly, to shape something myself and with my old block of clay lying neglected, poorly wrapped and hard as stone in the shed, I hurled myself at the only thing to hand; a block of white air-dry clay in the craft cupboard. With no aim in mind I formed a few tiny little bowls similar to some we've unearthed in our garden, simply by pressing out the shape with my fingers. They were too hastily made to be lovely and I think we'll gift them back to the garden, but I may try and make some with a little more care. Now to find myself a pottery course. I hope you've had a perfect little moment today.


rich rewards

There was bunting. There was fizzy stuff. There was lovely food and more wine and warm sun and presents. The crostata passed muster. All in all there was the stuff needed for John to have a happy birthday. Surreal moments included the assembled family stumbling their way through a deceptively difficult Italian children's tune about bells that Nonna is determined Joel will learn, with the reward that when he does 'we can move on to a lovely song about fruit'. Cricket played with sticks that shortened after each stroke. Dogon the sweet natured greyhound sighing and groaning with thwarted ecstasy at the chicken bones just out of reach.

I got lumbered with the washing up so rewarded myself with wine to sip after each water change. And since Dogon was my kitchen companion, he finally received his own reward for patience beyond the call of duty and had a little plate of meaty joy.

Lastly, coffee and eton mess and a bit of a relax in the warmth of the early evening sun. A gentle way to contemplate the fact that another year has passed.


light and dark


My day, my moods and my writing seem to be overly influenced by the weather at the moment. I realise, too, that the photos I post are sunny when I complain about rain. That's because the sun will shine in sudden bursts that illuminate the house in stripes of light and, generally, the skies relax in the early evening, resulting in long low shafts of sun across the lawn and through the bottom of the trees. I love the light then. But when it's taken away we're thrown from bright sunshine to a sudden darkness that needs lights to be switched on to avoid feeling like we're living in a cave.

Thinking about it, I wonder if the weather is reflecting my shifting moods as much as influencing them. This week I'm too easily thrown from light to dark and long for the simplicity of a day where skies and moods are even and predictable.

Today wasn't one of those simple days. A morning party for Joel and an afternoon of baking. Or rather, sweating anxiously over my first attempt at a birthday staple in John's family, the crostata. My grandmother taught me that pastry must always be made in a relaxed, unhurried state. That wasn't the state I found myself in. Returning from the party, distracted by the ludicrously bedraggled, wet and muddy alpaca massing around the fence to greet us, I reversed the car into the corner of our wall. At the time I was impersonating their high-Andean accents so, really, there is no excuse. And for my childishness there is now a largish hole in the bumper that irritates me every time I have to open the boot.

It isn't hard to make a simple jam crostata but it's been made by John's Italian mother for family birthdays for nearly 50 years so to take it on this year was, well, a little intimidating.  Emerging eventually from the oven (having had to whip up an additional batch of pastry owing to certain .. technical issues) with something that at least looked like a crostata, I worked off my nervous energy with a vigorous pillow fight with Joel. You'll notice perhaps that there isn't a photo of the crostata. I covered it ready for tomorrow and I'm damned if I'm looking at it again until then.


desperate measures

Looking onto a steel grey sky with rain pouring straight down and heavy, it seems I need to take matters into my own hands. Gardening being central to our lives, we are friends of rain. We appreciate that each day the world is getting greener. But precious, life affirming blooms are also being defeated and bent sadly towards the ground they spent so much time getting clear of.

So it's out with the secateurs and in with the blooms. A bunch of ludicrously blowsy but delicately fragrant peonies. A few darkly red, modestly proportioned roses that fill a room with their rich perfume by the evening. And last night John brought back the first, intensely fragrant sweet peas. Some have evolved into a particularly attention-seeking neon coral that doesn't seem quite the thing, but for their scent and brightness in the gloom I'll forgive them anything.

I'm also peppering my notebooks with flowers, even digging out the watercolours, inspired by brand new but long lost brushes I found tucked down the back of the desk. Something like this perhaps? And I still have Emin's embroidered flowers urging me to get back to stitching. I have the fabric, the ideas and the thread and, from next week, a little more time.

So, I've determined it will be summer inside if I can't have the real thing. I'll pretend the blazing wood burner is actually a summer campfire and sing along with Minnie (although I'll probably have a bit of a distracted cough when it comes to the difficult up and down bits.)  


familiar ground

 A weekend away in the depths of the Kent countryside; a ten minute drive from Canterbury but a curiously remote and rural world of wheat fields, high hedges and ancient lanes. We stayed just down the road from the house we once lived in. And possibly made the mistake of visiting it. Or rather, trailing muddily alongside down a footpath, peeping into the garden as we went.

I pointed out the field that Joel knows only from one of my favourite photos of him, at a little over a year, running topless back from our blackberry gathering. The greenhouse where he took his first steps and helped John water tomatoes and me pot up seeds. The gates that he walked with John to open each morning. The grounds that I wheel-barrowed him round in when he was too heavy to carry and our return journeys laden with vegetables we'd picked. Searingly vivid moments of remembered happiness stand out amidst the background grey of profound isolation I felt during our year there. And our visit brought that remembered unhappiness to the fore.

Was this the cause of my snippiness and critical eye this weekend? Easy to say so. But despite it all we managed to make a lot of happy little memories. Fresh fish on the beach at Whitstable, and discovering scores of fresh oysters hiding in the sand (reader: we left them). A trip to the new Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate that surprised and pleased us all and Joel's first stick of rock. Tree climbing, flower sniffing and hide and seek in the glorious garden of the cottage we were staying in. No TV, computer or radio so quiet nights of reading and just a bit too much wine.

And the relief of coming home and appreciating again that then isn't now.


grand oasis

my photo of Russell Crotty installation, Turner Contemporary Gallery, Margate



Then I looked down and saw

the world I was entering, that would be my home.

And I turned to my companion, and I said 'Where are we?'

And he replied 'Nirvana'.

And I said again, 'But the light will give me no peace.'


from 'Fable' The Seven Ages, Louise Glück 



risky behaviour

We strung a zip wire in the woods alongside our house last year and it's proved to be both a great source of entertainment and a way to develop and direct risk taking. Over time, we've raised the angle of the wire so it goes pretty fast, and ends just short of a tree. But it's possible to hurl yourself off the platform so that you hit the buffers with a bang and a slam of feet on tree trunk. I wince every time. But I'm happy for Joel to keep on doing it.

One of the things I've found hardest as Joel grows is to stop myself crying out 'be careful!' on a loop through the day. We're surrounded by woods and water to explore and have done so since Joel was tiny. Building dams, floating boats, stream dipping and tree climbing have taken precedence over traditional playgrounds for us, mostly because it's on our doorstep rather than a drive away. All lovely but so full of potential danger! 

Despite my fears (the endless dreams I wake from in a cold sweat and run through in my mind whenever we're near deep water) I'm the one who urges Joel on to keep trying to climb a little higher, or ride the track that seems hard or jump into the deep end. I know that surge of self-confidence that comes with being scared and trying it nevertheless. He'll grow and the risks will get greater. I'll keep being scared and urging him on neverthless. We're both learning. 




Listening absent-mindedly to the online repeat of Desert Island Discs with Floyd's Roger Waters, I was startled to hear Neil Young's Helpless. I'm afraid I was lost then and heard little else as my mind wandered. Very little throws me so quickly to a particular time and place as music - or poetry.

Poetry is a private passion, known only to those who know me really very well. Robert Lowell is one of the first poets I read through choice and treasured more because I first discovered him in my father's own, annotated copies. I read everything I could of his, and all the books about him. I tracked down old vinyl recordings and painstakingly recorded them onto cassettes (remember those?). Hearing his voice for the first time shocked me utterly, it was so counter to the impression I'd formed.  But now, oh joyful interweb, people are putting poetry onto YouTube.

So, glass of wine in hand and vegetables roasting I can listen to Lowell, reading one of his later poems. And reminisce.



easy days


These have been a lazy couple of days. With Joel still not at school but not terribly ill, we've been able to make the most of the sudden warmth to swim outdoors.  Drifting along on my back as he jumped and practised his tumble turns I discovered the perfect combination of supervision and pleasure. Ears underwater and the sounds of splashing satisfyingly muffled, I could tip my head one way to watch the acrobatics or another to see the distant trees bending in the wind. The gentle movement of my body in the water, combined with the scent of thyme and honeysuckle, a faint tinge of chlorine and warm skin, induced a satisfying sensory langour.

Eventually, time to dry and rest in the sunshine before moving slowly home.



lines and grids

Do you find that if you're dwelling on something, you notice it everywhere? I find myself today seeing the world in terms of lines and grids. Flicking between notebooks and calendar, I'm trying to work out how to fit in all the projects I want to complete and which can be interleaved with half term, which is still a week away for us. 

To begin with, a grid-based activity. I found this on pinterest and was immediately taken back to the late '80s, when I spent more time than was probably good for me attacking my clothes with bleach. Impatient and rather slapdash, the results were somewhat variable and the bleach fumes and splashes didn't endear me to the family. But now perhaps I can achieve something slightly more sophisticated. It will also act as a little rehearsal for the shibori scarf dying that I plan to tackle during the summer holidays, using the instructions in the Winter 2011 edition of 3191 Quarterly

Now to root about in my wardrobe for something appropriately dark to tackle. Maybe even a little tie dye t-shirt for Joel. And, to show how much older and wiser I am, I'll even dig out the rubber gloves.


quietly busy


Joel stayed off school today and we had a quietly busy morning of making. While he constructed a submarine and a space explorer out of boxes and tape, I made a pile of notecards out of images torn from magazines. It's so satisfying to have a stack of cards ready to go. I'm notoriously bad at making and returning phone calls: I much prefer to send a few words by mail and talk in person. My rationale is that I gesticulate too much to make the phone a natural means of communication for me.

Still creatively energised and seeing my cards scattered over the table, Joel then papered over an empty IKEA biscuit box to act as a little desk storage box for my cards, envelopes and address book. I love the rather Moroccan theme and now I really have no excuse for non-communication.

I also finally wrapped up a pretty Old Navy dress I found for my god-daughter Rosa. And, oh the feeling of being so organised, I slipped in one of my new cards to say hello.

A bit of moussaka making is now on the cards. I haven't cooked it for ages and it feels rather seventies. Perhaps I should slip on my kaftan? I unearthed an embroidered jewel-blue Antik Batik in a tatty thrift shop and was thrilled with my find. The only problem is, I keep catching the pockets on our door handles, tearing the pockets a little every time and pinging backwards with a start and a cry. Not entirely sure I'm in the mood for that and the weather isn't very Greek, so I'll put on my vaguely Nana Mouskouri-esque glasses and leave it at that.


travellers' tales


On Friday night, I slipped out of the cottage to listen to Colin Thubron in conversation with Paul Theroux, as part of the Charleston Festival. Discussing their respective new travel books, the similarities and differences between their motivations and methods were revealing.

The impetus to travel comes from a similar feeling that the world 'out there' is inherently more interesting than home and offers a bracing corollary to the writer's desk. Both men prefer to travel alone. For Thubron, however, the impulse to travel and choice of destination arise from a more complex and internally generated desire. Theroux takes a more pragmatic approach that stems from a need to see and to find out about the world. Neither carries more than a notebook.

As I listened, I considered what travelling without a camera would mean to me. And I realised that I 'look' differently with a camera in my hand. Seen through a lens, the world tends to distill to the elusive and the incidental: a moment, a colour, a pose, a shape, a texture. To catch what my eye sees reminds me what I value and adds depth to my memories rather than simply acting as a substitute for memory.

So the shadows on a tent roof, bunting fluttering in the darkening sky and the impressionistic blur of a flower bed at dusk evoke memories of a cool glass of sparkling wine, sipped in shivery haste amidst the blooms as house-martins swooped overhead. And a starlit welcome back to the cottage and the comfort of fresh mint tea and a very hot, very unseasonal but very necessary, hot-water bottle.



forest getaway

There is another little house we visit regularly, a tiny forest-enclosed cottage belonging to John's family. With no TV or mobile reception it offers a welcome step away from normal life. And that's where we were this weekend. Breakfast is early for the boys, before they take a walk to look for flints. I prefer to eat alone, a little later, after I've wandered through the garden to see what's happened overnight. A new set of blooms or piece of pottery unearthed by an industrious rabbit, perhaps.

Later, some football will be played, bikes ridden and more walks taken through the forest. The piano will get a workout and tea with cake will be eaten.  For the grown-ups, the day ends with a quiet supper, some reading and a nightcap. 

It does us good to take time away together and makes returning home, to our own beds and our own lives, seem so much more enticing!