Wednesday, November 30, 2011

On bravery

A friend emailed and said she thought I was brave to open myself up in my blog and in my books, but you know what? It doesn’t feel like bravery to me.

This is brave: driving SOLO from San Francisco, out of the city, over the Bay Bridge, and up to Yosemite 200 miles away. And then doing the return trip three days later. I was driving out of the city in what felt like hundreds of lanes of hurtling traffic and gripping the wheel as tight as I could and thinking “What’s the worst that can happen? I might die. Well, I’m not afraid of dying, so that’s all right.”

Here is a quote I like which seems to me to relate to this, but you may think it’s a little abstruse:

"We don’t have to hate ourselves for our own vulnerability. We don’t have to hate ourselves for what life has done to us. We don’t have to hate ourselves because hurt or loss or longing has gotten to us. Our desires will always be with us in some form, keeping us firmly attached to a world that will hurt us. We must come to love ourselves, love our life, in its vulnerability, in its impermanence, not in spite of all its flaws, but because of them. Because the vulnerability, the changes, the flaws make us who we are."               Barry Magid

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


You may not know this, but Quakers don’t have a set of beliefs that they all adhere to. (Some Quakers don’t even believe in a God – me, for instance.) What they do have are “testimonies” which are values they aspire to demonstrate in their lives. These are Simplicity, Truth and Integrity, Equality, Social Justice, Peace.

This last week I have been thinking about Simplicity. Here’s a quote from Quaker Faith and Practice -

[. . .] ten principles for the outward expression of simplicity:

  • First, buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.
  • Second, reject anything that is producing an addiction in you.
  • Third, develop a habit of giving things away. De-accumulate.
  • Fourth, refuse to be propagandised by the custodians of modern gadgetry.
  • Fifth, learn to enjoy things without owning them.
  • Sixth, develop a deeper appreciation for the creation.
  • Seventh, look with a healthy scepticism at all 'buy now, pay later' schemes.
  • Eighth, obey Jesus' injunction about plain, honest speech.
  • Ninth, reject anything that will breed the oppression of others.
  • Tenth, shun whatever would distract you from your main goal.

Some of these are very tough. Some of them I already do.

The ninth one means not only reading all those harrowing articles in the Guardian about the employment conditions of copper miners and the farmers of cashmere goats, but also acting upon them.

I considered the addiction one and realised I am not addicted to online Scrabble, but to light and to warmth. Turning down the heating to reduce our gargantuan and ever-rocketing oil bill is one thing, turning it down to save the planet is a step that as yet I am unwilling to take when I am not convinced it will make any difference. And the dim light from low–energy light bulbs depresses the bejeezuz out of me. The other addiction I have is to cashmere jumpers. They are both  light and warm. And soft!

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I thought I’d get started on point 2, though, on the principle that it is better to light one small candle than to do absolutely nothing. (Yes, yes, I know it’s “better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.” Haven’t i quoted it here often enough?) And I will work hard on summoning up the motivation and determination to work on the other areas where I am lacking.

So I cleared out some things I don’t need – i.e. I de-accumulated. We have shelves and shelves of books – mostly gathered (many secondhand) since we lost everything in a fire. I think books furnish a house: I always feel uneasy when I go in someone’s house and see no books. But I went through my books and gave to the charity shop the ones I shall never read again. (There are a lot that I read over and over.)

This led on to dusting the shelves (Dave: “Dusting? I didn’t think you even knew where I keep the dusters!”) and also to sorting through papers that lurk untouched on the shelves in my study. For example,  I found a score sheet for Dave and for me from when we did the Myers-Briggs. This was years ago and I had forgotten what it meant that I was EFNJ so I had to check it up on the net.

This brought me back to the tenth principle above: shun whatever would distract you from your main goal. So I re-shelved the Myers Briggs scores for my biographer to decipher. (As if.) He or she will read this post and see in an instant that I had a long way to go before I could be counted as a faithful Quaker (or “a well-concerned Friend,” as we say at Quaker Meeting.)

But I do try.

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

…and another thing…

…when I am in the middle of writing a novel, I can’t read fiction. I can’t live in the fictional world of my own novel at the same time as living in someone else’s. So all this time I’ve not been writing, I’ve been reading – and loving it.

Yesterday I picked up my grandsons from school and took them home and looked after them till their dad got home from work. This involved spending pocket money at the local shop, playing a board game which involved a maze and a minotaur, scouring the hall floor for a missing bit of a polystyrene plane kit, washing up, and cooking fish fingers and chips. It was an undiluted pleasure.  Grandmotherhood is a rather magical state of being.

In the evening I met two friends at the village pub for a meal. We talked for hours and we left at midnight. I walked home through the quiet village under a starry sky, the trees in the field beyond our house dark silhouettes against a paler horizon, and I felt blessed to live in the country, on our lane, in this house that is not too pretty but has pretty wonderful views. Location, location, location.

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Friday, November 25, 2011

Not writer’s block

People read my book – BUT I TOLD YOU LAST YEAR THAT I LOVED YOU – and tell me they liked it a lot and then ask what I am writing now. Am I in the middle of writing the next book? The answer is “No:  I’m not working on another book.” Why would I do that when I had to publish this last one – my best – myself?

I am not writing at all these days. Writing even a chatty email is a chore. And I no longer feel like writing my blog. I no longer feel like sharing my life with people I don’t know – nice as you all are, dear readers. It’s weird. Is this just a temporary glitch in my writing life?

I thought about having a break from the blog and then considering the question again after Christmas.

I also thought that this might be the opportunity and place to publish the bereavement journal that I wrote when my father died. I tried to get it published before and received lots of wonderfully complimentary rejections from publishers. Then I fictionalised it and used it in Zuzu’s Petals – that book of mine with the dreadful cover, the cover which misled innocents into thinking the book was shallow chick-lit, or even (last week) a childrens’ book. I thought I could serialise the journal on my blog, but when i looked at the first few entries just now, I was horrified. It is so personal and so intimate. How could I show that to the world? Putting it on the net seemed so different from publishing it in a book. Why do you suppose that is?

So i am stumped. I could give up the blog, take a break, or I could do something completely different with the space. Do you have any thoughts?

If the comments section below is playing up again and you can’t leave a comment, and you don’t have my personal email address, you could email me via my publisher (me!) at infoATdelicatelynuancedDOTcom  - I am sure you know what to do with this address to make it work.

In case you’re wondering – I am not depressed. It’s rather the opposite – i am enjoying my life very much right now, and writing – this month at least - seems to be a poor substitute for living.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thank goodness I never got that column

I have been away from my laptop again. (It’s becoming a habit and I’m rather enjoying it.) I went up to Wensleydale for a long weekend with a brother and a sister. We stayed in a great B and B in the village where my parents lived. We had some good walks and good food, and we visited our other brother. My little sister couldn’t be there, which was a shame. It was wonderful to be with my sibs as a group – huge fun and great company. When I’m with them I feel bullet-proof.

Three years ago today, I wrote the following blog post about missing my mother, who had recently died:


Being bereaved is like being a walking wound. Every part of you is tender. You can't settle to anything because nothing feels comfortable. Sometimes you forget you're a wound and you become absorbed by something outside yourself - like cutting back the autumn garden, sweeping up the leaves, watching three hundred crows wheeling over the field at the back of the house.

Sometimes you go to a familiar place and chat to a friend and forget you're a wound, and you laugh out loud at a shared joke and you think to yourself "I can do this. I can live without my mother and still be happy." And then you leave your friend and walk down the street and you're a wound again. I will know I am healed, I suppose, when all the happy interludes join up and there are no aching times in between. And it is getting better every day.

This last weekend, there were only two occasions on which I missed her badly. One was when the fog descended on Sunday afternoon and I wished we could give up on the walk and go and sit by the fire with her in her cottage. The other was when i went in the gift and coffee shop I often visited with her: as soon as you go in the door you’re hit by a powerful smell of fragrant pot pourri. That smell made me miss her dreadfully, and I couldn’t stay.

Having walked in the Dales for years and years, we discovered something new up there – a stone-flagged footpath going across several fields, leading from one village to the nearby market town. 

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And Kath and I did one of my favourite walks – from Aysgarth to Carperby, where the field boundaries have gone, but the farmer has left the styles as waymarkers.

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And I discovered that my journalist nephew – Joe Willis – now has his own column on the Darlington and Stockton Times. I’m so proud! In the days when I used to have pieces in The Times on a regular basis, I used to long to have my own column. Jane (co-author of Plotting for Beginners) always said I would hate it if my wish ever came true. She was probably right: writing this post has been a major effort.

Friday, November 18, 2011


Did you ever read Oranges are not the only fruit by Jeanette Winterson? 

On the flyleaf of her new memoir, Why be happy when you could be normal?, Oranges… is described as Jeanette Winterson’s fictionalised semi-autobiography. I have wolfed it down. I am just savouring the last few pages.

There is so much in there that is quotable, but this paragraph in particular meant a lot to me:

And I suppose the saddest thing for me, thinking about the cover version that is Oranges, is that I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A changed life

When people ask if I like living in the country I always say “Yes in spring, summer and autumn.”

isaac';s tree

This week I am struggling: I am still trying to accommodate myself to the idea that these long dark nights will be here for three months. And that the grey days and the mist and the overcast skies and the mud will be here for four. Winter gets longer every year, at least to me.

I am trying to summon all my patience (that doesn’t take long) and also to get myself into a Zen-like-going-with-the-flow state of mind, so I can retain my Pollyanna approach to life through the coming months.

(Remember this quote from BUT I TOLD YOU LAST YEAR THAT I LOVED YOU? -

“You bouncing bunny types are always taken aback when life smacks you in the teeth.”

- that was a direct quote from someone in this house speaking to me.)

I am typing this in bed, as per usual, but now I have the SAD light on the chest of drawers switched on, so anyone walking their dog along the lane and glancing up at our bedroom window will see the strange and eerie, bright white glow, and think we have some kind of alien visitation.

The best medicine for me, though, is actually getting outside under the sky – for at least an hour every day. The garden has never felt so loved.

Inside the house, the Scrabble addiction has had its first casualty.  Yesterday morning I woke from a night full of those ridiculous annoying dreams that wake you up, over and over, and finally at 4.30 a.m. i decided I had had enough, and gave up, fetched a mug of tea, turned on my laptop, and emailed the ageing hippie in Redwood City (she of the trip to the Grand Canyon with the 1971 map.)  It was a sensible time at her house – 8.30 p.m. - and yes, she was up for a game of online Scrabble. We had two games and a nice chat via the message strip at the bottom of the screen. “See you tomorrow!” we said. We’d arranged a game for 6.15 a.m. my time today.

I was so tired last night (having been up for so long…and incidentally my Pollyanna approach had gone AWOL and poor, long-suffering Dave bore the brunt of this when I gave him an undeserved and outrageously unreasonable chewing-up) so that when I went to bed early last night, kissing him good night and saying “I will be nice tomorrow” and his saying “We’ll see,”  I forgot to set my alarm, and so there was poor AH at 10.15 p.m. her time waiting in vain for me to log on. I am SO SORRY, AH.

(photo credit – Isaac took the photo of the tree on this date last year, when he was staying here with us.)

Monday, November 14, 2011

A letter from home


I’ve had a busy week away from the laptop, and that’s why I haven’t blogged.

What I’m reading -

Jeanette Winterson’s memoir – Why be happy when you could be normal. Brilliant in all kinds of ways.

What I’m doing at home -

Practising my sax, gardening, playing Scrabble (on and off-line) watching old DVDs of M*A*S*H when I want to lie back and vegetate (as we still don’t have a telly.)

What I’ve been doing other places -

Attending a spiritual review day at Bakewell Quaker Meeting;

Taking my grandson Gil to the Sheffield Fire Station Museum, because it is one of his favourite places and the rest of his family are sick of going;

Attending my first AGM of the National Autistic Society, which was interesting and enjoyable, (and I sold a few copies of BUT I TOLD YOU LAST YEAR THAT I LOVED YOU, as well. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know why it is relevant.) The charity is impressive. It does a huge range of good work which if I list I will miss something out, but includes advice and support for everyone affected by autism, running schools for autistic children and young people, supplying training for parents, carers, employers and professionals in understanding autism and how to deal with people on the autism spectrum (which includes people with Asperger syndrome.) Lastly, it lobbies parliament about the rights and the needs of people on the autism spectrum.

My quote for the day -

This arose in an hours-long conversation I had this week with an old friend I have not seen for years. We are both mothers, and being mothers we always include in any catch-up chat a run-down of the health and happiness of our children. The tenuous nature of such a summation is nowhere better expressed than in the last paragraph of Carol Shields’ novel Unless -

"Day by day Norah is recovering at home, coming alive, atom by atom, and shyly planning her way on a conjectural map. It is bliss to see, though Tom and I have not yet permitted ourselves wild rejoicing. We watch her closely, and pretend not to. She may do science next fall at McGill, or else linguistics. She is still considering this. Right now she is sleeping. They are all sleeping, even Pet, sprawled on the kitchen floor, warm in his beautiful coat of fur. It is after midnight, late in the month of March."

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

I’d like to give Norah Jones a piece of my mind

Last week my excellent, sassy, funny, sympathetic and unfailingly encouraging sax teacher (who doesn’t read my blog) presented me with a transposition for my tenor sax of The Nearness of You, because she knew I loved the tune. My lovely teacher (who is a genius on woodwind but has to work very hard at piano) had even been practising the piano accompaniment so we could play together. I was so delighted and touched I wanted to hug her.

But she’d used the sheet music of Norah Jones’ version of the song, and when the tune is actually written down as music for a solo instrument - apart from the first line - it bears very little resemblance to the original fabulous, classic, haunting, romantic Hoagy Carmichael tune. WHY WOULD NORAH JONES MANGLE A CLASSIC TUNE? Why would she do that? Did she take lessons from Eva Cassidy (also a hugely talented singer) who definitively mangled Over the Rainbow, and San Francisco Bay Blues?

I have been struggling to practise this mangled version all week, because there are notes on the music in front of me and they don’t match up with the notes in my head i.e. Hoagy Carmichael’s notes. I want to play with my teacher – I want her to know how I appreciate her going to all this trouble - but it has been really really hard to learn this version. And I HATE it!

The following singers seem to understand that you can’t improve on perfection, and yet they have made the song distinctly their own.  Click on the links to hear them. If you want to listen to Ms Jones, you can find her for yourself!

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

Frank Sinatra

Michael Brecker and James Taylor

Jo Stafford

And this is Hoagy Carmichael, whose expression suggests he agrees with me…

Monday, November 07, 2011

My ‘Wet’ November Friday

On Friday, rain was forecast all day in Sheffield and Derbyshire, but at lunchtime the rain dried up and the sun came out and I had a fresh, quiet cycle ride through the autumn colours that still remain – on an empty Trail – the way I like it best.

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Friday, November 04, 2011

Losing it

You may recall this phone conversation I reported in my blog in January this year -

“Hey, Zoe, I read in the Guardian on Saturday that if you learn a musical instrument when you’re an adult, you grow more neurones and expand your brain. Isn’t that great? Now I’m learning the sax, I don’t have to worry about Alzheimers any more.”

Zoe: “You told me the same thing yesterday.”

In the last week I have twice left the hot tap running and forgotten about it, lost my handbag in the house and found it in a very strange place I can’t fathom the reason for, and I’ve been unable to find a perfectly ordinary word I needed, not in a game of Scrabble but in conversation – limits? boundaries? rules? framework? – No! Parameters! – that was the word I was looking for.

It’s becoming urgent. What do I do to stop my brain from deteriorating even further?

I have started to do the Sudoku in the paper again and I have taken up online Scrabble to boost the already sizable Scrabble portion of my life. Does anyone have any other suggestions?

Thursday, November 03, 2011

What do you do when…

…you have nothing you want to blog about?

You titivate your blog.

I’ve taken off the bright berries that were yesterday’s new November header because although they are lovely, I’ve decided they are too bright for November, which I see as a watercolour month, not a poster colour one. The berries picture was taken in the right month but it didn’t represent it – it was more like an accidental note used in a song  rather than a note from the main key used. OK, I’ll stop wittering now, and practice The Nearness of You on my sax.

Here is the banned berries picture in case you didn’t see it yesterday…

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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

My headers

You’ll have noticed that I change the top photograph on my blog at the beginning of every month.

I always try to have a picture taken locally, and always for the appropriate month. I took the one above in November 2006 – the tree is on the lane above our village.

That’s it, really. I Just wanted to change the subject from Twitter.