When I think back on 2017, I remind myself that this is the year that we carved out a new life in a bigger, bolder city than before. A place where our community means more travel time with strangers on trains than with friends in their homes. A city that is not, in truth, a natural fit. That shades out the stars and puts miles between us and the sea. But we have learned how to do life here; how to not just make it work but embrace the opportunity and privilege that, as well as being all those other things, it truly is. It seems unlikely (though who knows) that it is forever, so we want to make the most of it while we can.
This blog post arrives as a seasonal coincidence. This day, the Solstice, is apparently the true start of Winter. But in truth it’s felt pretty frosty for a while. We’ve been buried. Inside and under blankets, with a hot drink in hand. Outside and under woolly hats, with a hot drink in hand (in reusable cups picked up from Oxfam).
Despite my annual trepidation as summer fades, I’ve become better at finding joy in the nature of each season. I attribute much of this to gardening giving me a greater appreciation of the year’s rhythms. For the first year, we’ve made considered efforts to winterise the garden, rather than just letting it slide into neglect until Spring. We’ve planted winter jasmine and hellebore, and still taken our morning coffee on the bench – fortified for the cold with a blanket and an extra woolly jumper.
I’ve done it. Finally. I wrote a while ago about my desire to make my own advent calendar – something that was unique to our family, and reusable for years to come. I came up with a plan that I was satisfied – but not thrilled – with. I embroidered 25 numbers. I started assembly. And by mid-December recognised that this was not the year I was going to finish my advent calendar. Maybe next festive season though. That was four years ago.
A couple of weeks ago I learned that one in three people in the UK think that this winter they will have to make a choice: warm their food or their home. I heard this as I sat in a chilly room and looked at three tins that I had no way of warming for my dinner. It was an effort to make real, for a little while at least, this terrible dilemma. And it’s one I’ve continued to think about.
The setting was Fuel by Jack Monroe, a pop up restaurant organised as part of the launch of Jack’s new partnership with the npower Foundation to expand their fuel bank network. Jack introduced the night by telling us something of the food and fuel poverty that affect one million people in the UK today. We were then presented with covered dishes for our dinner. Lifting the lid, this was the view before us.
“To those who are enthralled by mountains, their wonder is beyond all dispute. To those who are not, their allure is a kind of madness. What is this strange force that draws us upwards,
This siren song of the summit?”
– Robert MacFarlane, Mountain
I’ve been spending time with mountains. It started with the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival for a showing of ‘Mountain’. The film is a collaboration between director Jennifer Peedom, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and writer, Robert MacFarlane; an experiment in stomach-soaring cinematography, sparse narration by Willem Dafoe, and a soundtrack of original and classical music. The collaborators explore our changing relationship with the peaks over the last few hundred years. They note, but don’t push, concerns about the destruction that can accompany our quest for the summit, or a high-speed descent down it. They hint at the inequality of relationships – those touristing to the top and the sherpas who get them there (“those that have the least, risk most”). There is admiration and terror of the heights – and the drops – to be found across this world.
I wrote a while back about how we were swapping out short-lived sponges and cloths for ten durable cloths that we would wash and reuse. These cloths served us well, but a few years, and one house move (and therefore epic clean) later, and we needed a few replacements. I thought about hopping back on Ethical Superstore to buy some more, but then remembered a crochet pattern for washable cotton wool pads that I had stumbled across a few years ago. Rather than introducing new resources to our home, this would use up ones we already had to hand. I eyed up my knitting basket, and hatched a plan.
It’s beginning to end, the season of abundance, of frivolous beauty in the garden, and laboured-for harvest from the pots of vegetables. It’s beginning to feel dishevelled. The runner bean plants disrupted by (and not quite recovering from) my rifling for treasure. The annuals fading into oblivion. There is no denying that winter is heading this way.
Some of this summer has been spent in wrestling with a tension in the garden:
How do we keep gardening a relaxing past-time, whilst also growing more (plants, vegetables and our own skills and knowledge)?
We’ve entered a season of conflict in our home. I wander around barefooted, eking out every last breath of summer’s warmth. My husband looks at the turning leaves with growing anticipation; autumn is best for him. September may have a foot in both camps, but there’s a distinct chill to the evenings that even I cannot wilfully ignore. It’s time to look forward to the leaf-paved season and gather reflections from the golden one that’s past.
This summer I’ve found myself struck but the thoughtfulness of others:
Our lives are marked by the decisions we make. Where and how we fill our time, who we spend it with… the answers will sculpt new possibilities whilst excluding others. Our decisions can change the lives of other people too, perhaps never more so than in our increasingly interconnected world. By the time I’ve dressed and breakfasted, I’ve interacted with continents and communities – through the source of my coffee, the makers of my clothes, the components of my phone… This knowledge can sit heavily; we need to be enabled to make daily decisions aware of – but not paralysed by – the impact they will have.
Over the years, I’ve come up with a system; a series of questions I try to ask myself when making a new purchase. It is an evolving approach, informed by conversations, reading, mistakes. And it minimises the helplessness that can arise when becoming aware of how our globalised world means our pop into the local shop can have far-reaching ramifications.
When my parents set off on their greatest sailing adventure* over ten years ago, our belongings entered a storage unit. This summer they opened that repository, and a couple of weeks ago, my childhood was returned to me. It turns out my childhood fits in seven boxes.