January has been cold and it snowed a lot. Just getting around the village in all the snow and ice has been hard work. Dave spent a good amount of time cutting and bringing in firewood. We shovelled a lot of snow in the car park, sometimes just finishing to clear the car out as the snowplough made it up and formed a new bank of snow to clear away. The villagers skidded around on quad bikes and in wellies to tend their animals and cut firewood. Muffled grumblings about the winter weather and all the extra work emerged from layers of winter clothing.
We were both feeling a bit down at the start of the month. Winter hardships and covid restrictions combined with our lack of productive activity added up to a lifestyle that wasn’t very satisfying. We can’t change the weather or the pandemic, but we have made some changes at home. We switched up our routine to free each of us up for parts of the day. We also decided to liberate some of our savings to allow us to get on with things whilst Dave is still looking for work. That allowed us to buy in firewood and heating fuel so that Dave can spend time building the house instead of just keeping us warm. And we bought some materials and tools for the next building project too.
We had a visit from the local carpenter, who trekked up the snowy track with us one day to talk about making two of our windows. We discussed the options, made our decision and put in our order.
We decided what materials were needed for the bathroom wall, made trips to the DIY store and took turns carrying the stuff up to the house during breaks in the snow. Then Dave managed to get started on the construction – he put up some plasterboard on the ceiling first. Next he put up the top and bottom rails. Then he got his old work contract reinstated with the company he used to work for, so he has a bit of work coming in. It’s a relief financially but a strain on getting anything else done.
Leona just keeps on growing. She has gained a lot of confidence on her feet and often insists on doing the whole evening walk without holding our hands at all. She loves making us laugh by pulling funny faces or trying to blow raspberries on our tummies. She is a keen little helper around the house, passing us pegs to hang up the laundry, putting peels in the compost bucket, and passing logs in when we’re stacking firewood.
Dave and I have been growing too, and it’s noticeable that there has been a positive shift in our relationship this month. All those years that I’ve spent mulling, learning and talking things through in the background of our lives have finally culminated in tangible change for both of us. Over the years, I have been working away at a lot of things that have been problematic for me personally – I had some counselling sessions and no longer suffer depressive episodes, I sleep better, I stress less, I eat more healthily, I express my feelings more easily and I listen better. It’s only now that I’ve been feeling more settled in my own self that I have had the capacity to hear what Dave needed too. It’s been nice to take the things I’ve learned and work through some of our thorny issues together and share the positive effects. Of course we still disagree, argue and get frustrated with one another, but it feels a lot easier to manage now that there aren’t any more elephants in the room.
In the last week of January the snow melted and the sun came out. There are daisies popping up everywhere, buds about to burst open and the warmth is returning to the land. There were leafy greens for the picking and we enjoyed making salads again. I harvested some large black Spanish radishes, rocket, kale and other greens, and I dug up some marshmallow root for drying. I sowed some peas too.
On the first of February the neighbour’s mimosa tree was in flower, the primroses were out, the birds were singing and it felt like the beginnings of spring.
Learn & Grow
The start of February marks the start of spring and a festival called Imbloc in the Celtic tradition. The festival falls on a day around the first of February when lambing season starts, spring sowing begins and the blackthorn blooms. This day is when the Cailleach (the old woman of winter) is reborn as Bride (the spring maiden).
Imbolc is said to be the day when the Cailleach gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if the weather is fine, that means that she wishes to make winter last a good while longer and is using the fine weather to collect plenty of wood. If the weather is foul, the Cailleach is asleep and winter will soon be over.
Imbolc is a day to light fires and candles to mark the strengthening of the sun, to do spring cleaning and visit holy wells as a symbol of purification. This year, I hope that spring brings with it not just warmer, longer days, but also some hope of a reduction in covid cases, more vaccinations and the prospect of hugging our loved ones again in the not-too-distant future.
We started the month by helping out some friends replace the little roof over their bathroom. It was five days of full time work for all of us. Dave was moving tools, getting materials, and doing the building with Nik and Ellie. I was looking after Leona and Charlie, cooking, tidying, doing laundry. I actually enjoyed it for the most part and was a good test – I’ve kind of being dreading Dave getting a job, but I think I’d be alright. And it made me realise that we can make time to do other projects in the meantime.
Bouyed by that experience, we have organised a work exchange with some friends who have a three year-old. The idea is that one or two people take the kids, freeing up the others to work. The first one we did at their place, cleaning up the newly refurbished bedroom ready to fit out and use. It worked really well – the kids are so much easier when there are two of them entertaining each other, and it’s nice getting some work done with an impartial helper. At our place, we planted out the last of the little plants from the nursery into the field.
The weather has become decidedly more wintery this month. A few frosty nights, some high winds and a bit of snow and rain are setting the tone for the coming months.
We have spent some time doing indoor tasks. Dave did a few job applications. And I did a few job applications! It’s been almost six years since I had a paid job and I thought I’d never want to go back to the type of work I used to do, but one of us has to work and I would actually be quite excited if it were me.
Things have been a bit slow lately but we have been planning the next stage of the house works. We want to put the stove in position. In order to do that, we need to build the section of bathroom wall that the stove will back up against. So that means marking out the bathroom, choosing materials and getting them to the house.
We have decided where the stove is going and that we want the wall behind it to be made of bricks with studs at either end to continue the rest of the bathroom wall as a stud wall. We have measured up and been to the wood yard to collect the wood for the studs. We have also registered our interest in some locally made windows with the carpenter, who will be in touch soon.
This month has been quite up and down. Leona is a joy – she is so interactive now and understands so much more. She is obsessed with books at the moment and has started to make a few animal noises. And at 12 months she took herself to the potty for a wee on her own for the first time! This involved her walking over to the potty, standing in it, squatting on top of her feet for a pee, then stopping mid stream because her feet got wet! None the less we were very excited about this development. Now she has turned 13 months and is finally – finally – getting her first tooth!
The short days and bad weather in winter make it difficult to get much done. Since neither of us can really go anywhere with Leona because of covid restrictions, we both get sucked into the vortex of everyday chores and achieve little else. Our days get filled with cutting firewood, keeping the house warm, drying laundry above the stove, walking the dog, cooking, playing with Leona and keeping the house from getting over-run with mess. It is quite a tiring state of affairs and leads to unnecessary conflict and unhappiness. But at least being indoors with Leona is easier now that she can run about the house and play, and we do live in a lovely place to get out and about in when we get around to it.
I had been basically ignoring the fact that Christmas was coming around. Without being with the rest of the family, it just didn’t feel like holiday season at all. Thankfully some of the lovely people in my life were in more of a holiday mood. We had a small solstice gathering with two other families out in their field with a fire and marshmallows. On Christmas Eve we visited our Danish neighbours to join in their festivities for a few hours. Christmas Day was made special by our families even though we couldn’t be with them – my Mum sent us stockings and a gift box for Leona, my sister sent the same jigsaw puzzle to all the family households to carry on the Christmas puzzle tradition. Some friends sent cards and gifts. And a local friend sold us half of one of his lambs for our Christmas dinner. We had video chats with the families and a lovely Christmas Day in the end.
Boxing Day was gloriously sunny with snowcapped peaks. And I felt sad that the year is coming to an end with no end to covid in sight. I’ve never had to miss my family much before, we’ve always been able to get to each other without too much trouble. It’s hard enough missing them for myself without thinking about how much they and Leona are missing out on each other. As much as I want to say goodbye to 2020, I’m having a hard time seeing how things are going to get better any time soon. For the first time there are a worrying number of cases in the valley and we know some people who have had to go for tests. It’s all getting a bit close to home and it feels like things are going to continue to get worse before they get better.
On New Year’s Eve when we went out for our night-time walk together, it was snowing beautiful fat snowflakes and the air was still and crisp. We had a glorious walk and a good sleep and woke to a winter wonderland that brightened our spirits.
Learn & Grow
The topics of community and connectedness have been on my mind for a while. I am reading a book called If Women Rose Rooted, which is about women in celtic mythology and finding yourself in this uprooted modern world. Signe and I have been talking about these things a lot and we felt inspired to start a women’s circle. All the while of course corona virus continues to disconnect and disconcern and I think most of us feel a strong yearning to connect with each other and to feel safe.
I think about how infrequently most of us get to experience a deep sense of belonging. I’m talking about the feeling that you fit right in – that you’re not too big or too small, not too loud or too quiet, but that all of your unique qualities are just right in that moment; that you are enough just as you are. Maybe you’ve felt this surrounded by people you love, or engaged in an activity that brings you joy, or spending time in nature. It is a rare and wonderful thing in this busy and judgmental world to feel that you truly belong.
My most profound and prolonged experience of belonging was on a wilderness survival course in the wooded wetlands of Manitoba. It was a ten-day course with the instructor Survival Dave. First we spent a week doing survival skills, and then we drove to a remote lake and canoed to a small island for a few days to test those skills out. There was nobody else around; just me, Survival Dave and his dog. The water lapped at the shore, the trees waved in the breeze and the mosquitoes danced at the edge of the woods.
I set up a shelter, made a fire, caught a fish and swam naked in the water. I felt completely held by that place, allowed to feel whole by our total immersion in nature. And through that feeling of being rooted, Survival Dave and I connected in a beautiful way. We shared our feelings freely, we listened completely, and we were peacefully present. There was no room for shame or embarrassment because there were no rooms for our sense of perspective to be lost in. There was no need to fill silences with hollow words because the world was not silent. There was no need for vacuous flirting or awkward remarks because there were no pressures or stereotypes to conform to. We were fully ourselves, fully present and wholly at peace.
Although by the third day I was hungry, tired, dirty, mosquito-bitten and uncomfortable, it was with a heavy heart that I departed that island. I would have endured much more hardship in return for that feeling of connectedness and belonging.
Not a day goes by that I don’t lament the trappings of modern life that keep us from connecting with our natural environment and our true selves. I feel a deep sense of loss that we live out our lives locked in buildings, eating food out of plastic packets and breathing stale air. It makes me feel trapped, saddened and lost. I crave nature. I need connection. I miss community.
I don’t really think it’s a suitable option in the modern world to go and camp in a makeshift shelter and survive off squirrels and chestnuts. I love that Thor Heyerdahl did it and wrote a book about it so that we can experience it vicariously through him, but that’s not really what I’m looking for. It’s the feeling of belonging that I crave – and thankfully belonging is something that we can more easily cultivate whilst living an otherwise normal life.
This month I took part in my first Moon Circle – a gathering of women around a fire, sharing stories, feelings and dreams in confidence. It was beautiful. We were outside in the pale winter sun at the edge of the woods, the cool breeze rustling the branches, the view of the distant mountains stretched out to the South, the fire warming our toes, the Earth holding space for us all. We listened fully, we talked from the heart, we sang together and we felt like we belonged. For me, this is the start of a healing journey to become more connected, centred and rooted in this place we have chosen as our home.
November brought warm sunny days and chilly nights. We worked on the land to make the most of the weather, with the short days focusing the mind. It’s a great time of year to cut the grass, clear the weeds, do some propagation and get the land ready for a winter rest.
We continued scything in the field. Although we had sowed the nitrogen fixers and green manures as ‘chop and drop’ material, we have actually been using them as ‘chop and rake into piles’. Hopefully the mulch will build soil more quickly in the localised areas where we have put it. We are also using it to kill off the vegetation in places where we want to plant trees and bushes.
I took some time to clear out the plant nursery, which I have barely glanced at since the summer. Thankfully it hasn’t needed watering much and only one plant had dried out. I threw out the things that hadn’t worked, set aside the things that hadn’t germinated but still had the possibility, and got together the plants that were ready to go out into the field. Many of them are so small that they might never come to anything, but they certainly won’t thrive in their little pots, so they might as well go out.
I sowed the next batch of seeds in the nursery and started clearing and sowing in the propagation beds, too. Some comfrey I dug up got planted out in the field where it can work on building soil.
Dave spent a day or two fixing some broken tiles on the roof. The whole line of ridge tiles had to be taken down and re-cemented. Now it’s all looking ready for winter.
He has also been working on the electrical plans. He’s been learning about the rules and regulations and seeing how to run all the wiring to make sure it is safe, efficient and hidden from view!
We have also been spending some time on administrative tasks. Dave and I went to collect our residency cards before Brexit, which was a little spark of excitement amongst the bureaucratic drudgery.
Leona is 1 now and just keeps changing and growing up every day. We keep having to find new ways of allowing her to help out with everyday tasks as much as possible because it’s the only way to get anything done. She won’t let you dress her unless she is lifting up her feet to put them in the trousers, she won’t eat unless she is allowed to get stuff off our plates with our cutlery, she won’t go on the potty unless she sits down herself. I’m still figuring out how to get her nails cut since the old method starting failing me a week ago.
Some pictures from Leona’s birthday at our local viewpoint.
Learn & Grow
I watched a Netflix show called Call to Courage by Brené Brown, then read a friend’s copy of her book Daring Greatly. It is about having the courage to be vulnerable, and was a beautiful compliment to everything I have been learning about nonviolent communication, taking responsibility and listening with empathy.
A new realisation for me was realising the difference between guilt and shame. Feeling guilty allows you to take responsibility for what happened and change in the future. Shame wants you to crawl inside your shell, only emerging to lash out at others. I wouldn’t have said that I felt shame until I read the book – I guess I had shame and humiliation mixed up in my head. And feeling shame is shameful after all, and I wasn’t ready to admit that I could be so imperfect.
Now I can see that so much of my negative communication, particularly with Dave, comes from a place of shame. When I criticise his words or actions, it is almost always because I’m feeling ashamed about my own words or actions. When I defend my poor choices, it’s because I can’t bear to accept that I made a mistake. I’m always trying to worm my way out of being responsible for doing anything wrong. It’s the system that’s stupid, the tool that’s designed badly, the instruction manual that’s too complicated, it’s Dave’s unrelenting criticism that’s making me defensive. Why is it so hard for me to accept that there are things I’m not good at? I don’t expect perfection from anyone else, why expect it from myself?
Even right now I’m trying to figure out who or what did this to me so that I don’t have to take responsibility for being this way! It’s outrageous. And it’s so ingrained that it’s hard to even see it, let alone do anything to change it. If the stages I need to go through are Oblivious > I can see it happening > I can feel it about to happen > I can prevent it from happening, then I’m still spending most of my time Oblivious. Usually it’s only in the calm aftermath of an argument when I can see it all in retrospect.
Some of the traps I have noticed that I fall into include “I’m sorry but…”, which isn’t an apology at all. Another good one is coming up with lots of reasons why I did or didn’t do something, “It’s because I thought that…”, especially if those reasons are someone else’s fault, “I would never even have had to do that if you hadn’t…” Or just flat out attacking the other person in order to avoid confronting your own issues “Yeah well maybe I did that annoying thing, but you always do this annoying thing…”
So identifying that I have fallen into a trap is step 1. How do I move on from there? Well usually an apology and declaration of feelings is a good place to start. I have noticed that although I am sometimes capable of an apology, it is often swiftly followed by a criticism, because pointing out other people’s imperfections always makes us feel better. So I’m working on just stopping after the apology.
I want to be able to look at my mistakes from a place of curiosity and improvement. But you’ll have to watch this space to see how that goes, because I am so not there yet!
Leona has just turned 1 and I have been reflecting on all the changes that came with becoming a parent. One of the main things that strikes me is remembering how scared I was before we started this journey. I was scared of giving up so much of my time to parenting, I was scared of the unknown, and I was terrified about what would happen to my body. I think it’s very natural to feel all of those things in the culture that we live in and mostly I am grateful to my friends who started this journey before me. Seeing them engage with their kids has led me to see the benefits of gentle parenting. Hearing them talk about their birth experiences as joyful and empowering helped me let go of the fear around childbirth. Seeing them breastfeed their babies and toddlers normalised that relationship for me and allowed me to see how it benefited them. Watching them hold their babies close and hearing how little they cried allowed me to see the simplicity in caring for a newborn. But I did struggle with the idea that they were somehow different to me, that maybe I didn’t have the patience to stay home with the kids, to be a gentle parent, to give birth without fear. And I still had a lot of questions or sticking points in my mind. I was uncomfortable with the idea of being a stay-at-home Mum because my version of feminism involved trying to be masculine rather than embracing what it means to be feminine. I felt pretty sure I wanted Leona to go to school because I thought I’d want time away from her and I thought that school was good for socialising, for normalising, for learning. I was almost certain that I would continue to do what I wanted to do when she came along – that I wouldn’t be happy to stand around whilst she investigated leaves on the path if I wanted us to get to the play park.
I think it’s fair to say that over the last year and a half I have made gradual shifts in my thinking that have culminated in a radical change to how I see the world, how I see myself and what I value. I’m not saying that those changes would be right for everybody, but I do think that it’s important to be very intentional with our choices instead of simply following the path set out for us by expectation, societal norms, or ingrained habits.
I wanted to share my story of labour, birth and new motherhood – not because I think it’s anything special – quite the opposite. I want to tell it because the horror stories always hog the limelight it was only reading lots of normal stories like mine that made me realise that I didn’t have to be afraid. (For more good birth stories, check out Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth and Milli Hill’s Give Birth Like a Feminist.) I recognise that I have a lot of privileges and a sprinkling of luck, and I am not trying to say anything about anyone else’s experience or choices.
Labour and Birth
A year ago I went into labour at about 6am. I was lying in bed peacefully when the first contraction gently tugged at me, and I felt a rush of excitement. ‘It’s happening!’ I whispered to myself gleefully. It was dark and quiet and I just lay in bed for a few hours, tuning in to my body and relaxing whilst Dave slept. I had three contractions over two hours, each one was a gentle wave of warmth and tension and I felt quite peaceful. When Dave woke I shared the excitement with him. We decided to take the time to drive up the mountain for a little wander around the viewpoint to honour our last morning together as a couple. It was a beautiful winter morning. After that, Dave spent the day working from home, handing over and tying up loose ends knowing that he planned to take six months unpaid leave. I spent the day cooking, resting and walking. I remember taking a walk through the village and chatting to the neighbours feeling the occasional contraction and not telling them about it, like this feeling was too beautiful and intimate to share and could be spoiled if they made a fuss over me. After lunch, the contractions were getting stronger, more rhythmical and I started timing them. When they were five minutes apart for an hour, we started getting our stuff together. When they were four minutes apart for an hour we decided to make our way to the car. I had a hot water bottle on my lower back and was feeling the need to move, breathe and sway as the contractions came. I called the on-call midwife and we said we were on our way in.
The hour-long car journey was mildly uncomfortable because I couldn’t move around, so I was relieved to get out and walk up to the maternity ward at about 8pm. Irene met us there, took one look at my smiling face and said that she didn’t want me to get my hopes up because I didn’t look like I was in labour. I thought ‘whatever, I know my body’. She asked if I wanted a cervical check to see how far along I was and was astounded to find that I was already 4cm dilated. Obviously. I didn’t know Irene as well as some of the other midwives so it was nice that we had an hour to chat before things started hotting up. I paced around, bounced on a pilates ball and spent a lot of time just swaying my hips around. It was like my body knew what it needed to do and I was just going with the flow.
I knew what stages of labour I was going through because I had read all about them. I knew my preferences with regard to the birth but I also knew under which circumstances I wanted to deviate from those preferences. I felt confident, focused and content. Dave had taken our stuff to our room, eaten some dinner and come back to be with me. He followed me around holding a hot pack on my back, helped me lean into each contraction in the way that I needed. I took deep, soothing breaths. Irene left us to it, mostly. I don’t know what it was like to watch, but on the inside I never doubted my ability to birth, never wavered in my decision not to have an epidural. It wasn’t that I was determined to ‘tough it out’, it was that I knew it was going well and that I didn’t need any intervention or assistance.
When I got angry and nauseous, I knew I had made it to ‘transition’ (the time between reaching full dilation and starting to push). I let the anger do its thing. At one point I was crawling along the floor because that’s what I needed to do to make it through a contraction. Another one demanded that I grab onto something above me and pull down. Another had me shouting and I hit the wall, exclaiming that I couldn’t do this! But through it all, after every contraction there were a few minutes of peace and I could always collect myself in those moments to get ready for the next one.
As I felt transition give way to a pushing sensation, I knew we were getting towards the end. I needed to squat and hold onto something during contractions. Irene set me and Dave up so that we were stood facing each other and I put my arms around his neck so that I could bear down and hold myself up on him at the same time. Irene started telling me how to push and I told her there was really no need – I wasn’t even consciously doing the pushing. My body was totally in charge; I was just along for the ride. And what a wild ride! My waters broke during the second round of pushing contractions. After the third I could feel the top of the baby’s head with my fingers! It was all going faster than I would have liked but there was no stopping it now, the rollercoaster was in free-fall. On the next big wave of intense effort, my body bore down until she came whooshing out like a slippery seal. Irene caught her and somehow managed to hold her towards me between my legs so that I could take her.
In that moment, when I looked down and saw her, everything just paused for a second. I felt baffled. ‘What do I do with that?’ I wondered. ‘Why does she have hair already?’ I’d been so focused on the birth experience that I hadn’t really thought about what it would be like to meet my baby. I felt quite protective of her and brought her clumsily to my tummy as I perched on the edge of the bed, shaking from the adrenaline, the warm cord still attached. I started laughing. Haha, I just gave birth and here is the baby – wild! I had only arrived at the hospital three and a half hours before.
I lay down and brought Leona to my chest, they must have cut the cord at some point around then. I felt my legs getting squirmy again and then the placenta came out and I felt relieved. After that I really wanted to just curl up in a dark room with Leona. We had an hour of skin to skin before I got a few stitches in a horrible brightly lit room that offended all my senses. Dave went with Leona whilst they weighed her and gave her a vitamin K shot and stuff. Then we got wheeled along to our room to leave us in peace for the night. I had a midnight meal, a shower and snuggled up for the night with Leona. I didn’t sleep a wink, I was so high on adrenaline.
I hate to say this, but breastfeeding was agony. “How can something so natural be so painful?” I cried! But I appreciate now that the world we grew up in is not our natural habitat. It’s like expecting a lion raised in captivity to go out and hunt and kill an antelope on the first try. I knew nothing about breastfeeding a newborn and I’d never seen anyone do it. My boobs had spent their whole lives tucked snugly inside a bra, never feeling so much as the wind or sun on them, and were wholly unprepared for the surprisingly strong mouth of a hungry baby. But the midwives were incredibly supportive and we struggled through it with a combination of technique, equipment and willpower.
Dave and I spent our first three days and nights as parents in that private hospital room. I don’t think I got dressed the whole time. Dave rushed about doing admin and whatnot. All our meals arrived like magic. I had never been so hungry in my life! I ate everything they brought and sent Dave out for more. I felt like I’d run a marathon. My whole body felt bruised and all of my muscles that usually hold so much tension were soft and squishy. My belly went down pretty quickly, my boobs got huge after a few days and I just went along with it all like a little leaf riding downstream, accepting that I would get a little battered along the way.
After we got home I curled up in bed with Leona and just went with it. Dave was running about doing the endless laundry, cooking, tidying and baby bouncing. I cried, I laughed, I chilled, and spent a lot of time breastfeeding and even more time eating. One day Dave came into the bedroom to find me crying. “Oh no, what’s the matter?” he asked. I sobbed back “I think I’ve just fallen in love with her!”
We spent the first month just being together and it was glorious. I think Dave was quite stressed actually, and I found breastfeeding to be a challenge for quite a few months because I had some serious over-supply that made it painful for me, and poor Leona threw up constantly. She didn’t ever breastfeed to sleep until she was three months old and didn’t stop throwing up until five months. She had colic from two weeks to three months, which was tough. Dave used to stay up and carry her around in the sling or bounce her in his arms. She generally slept soundly from about 3am and didn’t like to get up until almost midday. So we slept in a lot too. It really was a whirlwind of emotion and change. I’m so grateful that we didn’t have to do anything except survive and be together in those first weeks and months.
Learn & Grow
You hear people say that the children in their lives teach them things. I don’t think I really understood what that was about, except that they could come home from school with facts about the Egyptians that you’d forgotten all about. I didn’t realise that a new born baby could lead you to question everything you had stored as accepted fact about society, parenting, feminism and responsibility. This little person comes into your life with no expectations about how things should be; all they know is that they need you to help them meet every single one of their needs. And they are capable of communicating their pleasure and displeasure very effectively.
The first thing Leona taught me was surrender, and she managed to do that before I ever met her. I was so afraid that my body would go ‘wrong’ – that I would be infertile, that I’d have a miscarriage, a stillbirth, a disabled child. Maybe I worried about that so much because I thought that my body’s failure to produce the ‘perfect’ baby would reflect badly on me, that it would mean I had failed as a parent, as a woman. It took me a good few months to accept that I had no control over the outcome of the pregnancy. Sure, I could reduce risks by eating and exercising well, and reducing stress. (Although in reality I was nibbling on toast and cream cheese, doing lots of physical labour and feeling a whole lot of stress.) Once I accepted that I had to surrender to whatever life threw at me, I also realised that I might even be allowed to enjoy it. I had been so worried it wouldn’t work out that I hadn’t allowed myself to connect with the life growing inside me in case it got extinguished. One day I realised that even once she was born I wouldn’t be able to guarantee her safety. I remember asking Dave, “when are we going to admit to ourselves that we love her?” And we agreed to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to pain and open our hearts to love.
Since having Leona in our lives, I thoroughly enjoy getting to know her and helping her make her way through life’s struggles and pleasures. It has been a delightful challenge learning to let go of my assumptions and work out how to forge the path I want to travel. Of course parenting would be a whole lot easier if we lived in an integrated society and knew all of this stuff before we had our own baby to look after. I saw a video of a photographer working with newborns and watched with my jaw on the floor at how she held, rocked and soothed the babies. The babies were so peaceful they looked like they were smiling! I was like – oh, this is what we should all be able to do! We are missing out on so much joy. We are taking the hard road, learning and stumbling as we go, each new parent struggling to figure it all out on our own. I’ve read about indigenous women who can soothe ‘even the most colicky baby in minutes’ and thought about how much suffering could be avoided. All of us stressed out parents, all our crying babies, all suffering for what? So that we can go out and earn the money we need to live in this world. And that’s to say nothing of the suffering of all of those who actually don’t have enough money to live. So much is asked of modern parents – we have to be everything to our children because all of us are closed away in our little households away from everyone else. Humans are meant to live in a community where there are other people to rock, soothe, play and learn with, where advice and assistance are always at hand. Anyway, I digress. If you want to read more on that, check out this article.
Something I have learned about myself on the road through new motherhood is how to love my body. Like many modern girls, I went on a long journey from childhood ambivalence to adolescent denial, through confusion, distain, flaunting, all the way to acceptance, but it’s only now that I’m getting towards love and nurture. We ask so much of our bodies and get annoyed when they complain with aches, pains and dysfunction. Now my body has grown a whole other body, birthed her, fed her and comforted her as she grows. I think my body deserves a little tender loving care.
Another thing I’m learning is trust. To trust myself, yes, but not just that. I set out looking for the best way to navigate a pregnancy, the best way to birth, the best way to parent, the best way to mother. Because if you can just find that best way, you’ve got a template to follow, you don’t have to worry about being inadequate or imperfect and if anything goes wrong then it wasn’t your fault. But of course there is no best way to do anything. In every moment you have a choice between a whole load of different options. Your choices are limited by circumstance, by your resources and your ingrained habits. There are no absolutes. For example we can’t truthfully say that ‘breast is best’. We can say that breast milk is the most nourishing food for a baby. We can say that WHO recommends that children are breastfeeding for at least two years whenever possible. We can say that many women enjoy the breastfeeding relationship once they have it established. But we can’t say that breastfeeding is the best choice for every family, or even a choice at all for some, because each family has limitations and needs beyond those of the baby.
I used to be so judgemental. Not intellectually – I knew that everyone was entitled to make their own decisions. But I lacked compassion for those who made choices I didn’t agree with. Now that I can see that my own decisions come with reasons that don’t necessarily apply to others, I can appreciate that other people’s decisions are borne of reasons that I may not understand. So next time I feel myself judging someone, I just think to myself “I don’t know their story.” I still think it is important to discuss issues, particularly when we disagree. But if we enter a discussion with judgement instead of compassion, all we will achieve is to cement each other in our existing points of view and alienate one other. Everybody, especially parents, needs compassion and support rather than judgement. We already judge ourselves harshly enough. We all want our stories to be heard and understood, so the best thing we can do for each other is to listen.
October has been good to us and I am pleased with life right now. We had some chilly weather and the stove has been on all month but the last week or so has been glorious autumn sunshine. We spent time in the field, worked on the house a bit and even tended the veggie patch too.
Dave has been busying away on the mezzanine whenever there has been time. We bought some plywood and he cut it into slats and sanded each one all over to make a nice base for our bed. He has also put in the base for the cupboard / wardrobe. We’ve even been talking about wiring for lights, socks and switches in the bedroom too – a whole new world of progress for us!
We have been eating well out of the garden at the moment; autumn is always a good time. The pumpkin harvest has started. And although my harvest of eating pumpkins isn’t as impressive as last year, I did try two new varieties that worked well – a gourd variety for making vessels out of the shells, and a seed variety that produces huskless edible seeds.
The physalis continue to keep Leona busy – and sticky! I’ve been collecting beans as they dry. The kale has started to take off in the cooler weather. I found a few rogue parsnips in spite of not sowing any this year (hurray for seed saving) and we ate them one evening roasted with oil and honey. And I planted some chard and rocket into some of the beds for autumn greens.
We spent more time scything the field with the blades that Dave refurbished from some rusty, bend old scythes that were hanging around. We piled up the cut grass for mulch and I put mulch rings around all of the plants that are already in the field, and marked their positions with sticks if they weren’t already done.
We’ve been thinking about where to sow seeds for trees, bushes and cover crops, where to put cuttings of berry bushes and where to leave space for bought plants. I’ve been collecting seeds of plants I’d like to have more of, including echinacea and marshmallow. And we moved three little peach trees into our field that sprouted up nearby.
In the places where we have decided what we want to plant, we have mulched and marked in order to have weed-free soil to plant in when spring comes.
The current surge in covid cases is giving us some stress and we’re taking extra precautions to distance from everyone. It’s so sad – normal life was creeping closer and now it seems so far away. We are making the best of our situation though and of course we are thankful to be living out here away from everything. Leona is toddling about adorably investigating everything. We are loving spending time with her and can’t wait to share her with our family and friends too.
We did some Halloween pumpkin carving with the neighbours, which was a nice bit of socially distanced normality at the end of the month.
It’s been such a relief to feel well and have the time to get more than the bare minimum done. Dave has been applying for work. We need the money so it will be a relief when he finds something, but we’re both really enjoying the freedom we have right now. I have been working on some writing – I finally wrote my article on hunter gatherers that has been simmering in the background for months.
We have been thinking a lot about community during the pandemic and have been inspired by loads of lovely people online. Signe, Noe and I have finally had a bit more time to work on the founding document for our Association that we want to set up. We’re all really excited about it! Obviously we can’t meet up any time soon but hopefully we will be able to have it ready to go so that we can start the real work and play of meeting up when we can.
Learn & Grow
Since our communication revelation last month, we have continued to work on having productive discussions. We often fall back into our old patterns and it is so difficult to get out of sometimes, even if you’re aware that you’re doing it! But we persevere and are reaping the benefits. We can actually work together now, which is beautiful. I can allow Dave to teach me things. We can discuss our projects productively. We can make decisions a lot more easily. I feel a lot less resentment and anger and I feel less needy, more secure, more capable, confident and independent.
As a compliment to NVC I have also been reading about mindfulness. Although I have been vaguely interested in meditation for a long time, I had never been bold enough to try it, being too afraid of what I would find in the recesses of my mind. But the passing of years and experiences have made me feel more centred anyway and I thought the time had come to dip a toe in the alarmingly still water.
I downloaded the Headspace book and it turns out that meditation isn’t really what I thought it was. It seems a lot less intimidating now. Top tip: You don’t have to try to force your mind to be quiet! Just notice that it isn’t.
The author Andy talks about adapting mindfulness to daily life. You don’t have to sit on a little round cushion all day to be mindful, you can do it whilst you’re brushing your teeth, or driving. You should definitely do it whilst you’re driving! Because all it means is focusing totally on whatever it is that you are doing.
I kept being reminded of something that my Dad said years ago, which really annoyed me at the time. He was quoting John Lennon when he said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” I think the reason it annoyed me was because I was determined to live out my plans rather than sit around making them whilst other things happened to me. “No,” I thought, “I am in control of my life.” Ha!
Aside from the obvious fact that we don’t control all of our circumstances, my main take-away is that life isn’t just the big stuff. Life shouldn’t be spent rushing through 90% of your day to get to the 10% you really wanted to do. Life is having breakfast with your kids. Life is doing the washing up. Life is commuting. If you rush through these moments waiting to get to the next thing, then life is happening to you whilst you’re busy making other plans!
Like so many others, I am a life-long mind-wanderer, worrier, over-thinker and day-dreamer. Of course those aren’t bad qualities and they have got me where I am today, but it is nice sometimes to just notice that your mind is frantic and take a moment to just sit, and be.
We have had a lovely few days of fantastic sunny weather and I have been mindful to take the time to soak it in, to be in the moment, to slow down. To give Leona my full attention more often. To spend a few minutes here and there just sitting. To forget for a moment the little voice that is always asking what’s next. To put down my phone. To take a deep breath and enjoy this moment right now. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that those moments have made my day.
August was predictably a bit rubbish. It seemed tiresomely slow as it was happening because I spent a lot of it just laying on the sofa too tired to do anything.
But we did start the month with a joyous weekend with Jules. I was on my steroid high, the weather was glorious and the company was delightful. I thoroughly enjoyed it, making the most of feeling good whilst it lasted.
After those sweet three energetic days, I had two weeks of low energy, low milk supply, Dave having to do all of the chores and spending time with Leona whilst I zombied on the sofa and we got nothing else done.
No sooner had I recovered from that and I was in the hospital getting my first rituximab infusion. Cue another 10 days of being too tired to do much.
For the first four weeks after that infusion I was warned by the nurse to take extreme caution to stay safe and healthy because my immune system took a big dip. I noticed that little cuts and grazes didn’t heal well and I did my best to keep away from everyone to avoid catching any bugs. I made some plantain salve for faster wound healing, which has worked a treat.
Thankfully after that, things improved a lot. I feel better now than I have for a long time! Hopefully that means the treatment is working and we can relax a little.
Dave managed to make some progress on the mezzanine here and there when Leona was napping or I felt up to being sole carer for a few hours. All of the floor joists are in and all of the uprights for the stud walls are in place. It’s looking really good.
Then in late September once everything had calmed down a bit, we got some more time to work on it. I cleaned up an off-cut of chestnut to use as a banister rail. Dave put down some OSB panels for the central part of the floor.
Once I was feeling energetic again and we had a week of sunshine at the start of September, we enjoyed working in the field whilst Leona played in the grass. Scything, brambling, weeding and mulching have left some select areas in a much better state.
A year ago we were just finishing with the earthworks and the field was a bare, rocky desert. Now it’s almost completely greened up! The green manures and nitrogen fixers have been doing their thing. Some of the trees and bushes have been surviving, and a few are thriving. Starting plants from seed was a bit of a gamble but I’m happy with the outcome so far, especially considering how little effort I have put in.
Forest Garden Successes
Some of the best plants I have grown from seed include four sea buckthorn bushes that we’ve put by the field boundary to make a wind break. They have put on loads of growth this year and are well of their way to making an impact on the landscape. Two wild cherry trees that I dug out of a forest path and put in the front garden have outgrown me this year, more than doubling their height this season. A couple of the honey locust trees I started from seed are looking really good too. One or two of the wild service trees are doing very well. The rhubarb and strawberry patch is enjoying Dave’s weeding and mulching and providing tasty treats. The physalis plants are out of control, littering the ground with berries. The raspberries are very happy and one of the Japanese wineberry plants is taking over the garden. The comfrey is absolutely wild. The buddleia is getting massive. And the cherry tree I bought two years ago and put in the garden is starting to look established.
Against the odds, my two liquorice shrubs have survived the cold winter and the dry summer in spite of almost complete neglect. Some rosemary bushes from seed and cuttings are slowly and steadily getting bigger. My black mulberry tree that I started from seed has come back with renewed vigour after a spring slug attack. The various currant bushes (red, white, black and golden) are doing well enough to propagate this winter. The Oregon grape bushes I sowed from seed are hanging on and looking like they might make it. The bay tree that Nik and Ellie rooted from cuttings is growing slowly but surely. The two fruit trees we bought are settling in well – Dave has been keeping the mulch rings nicely fed and weed-suppressed.
We are a long way from anything that feels like a forest garden, but I think it’s nice to see a few things working out well so far.
Forest garden failures
The plethora of failures include cuttings I made of various figs (some are still hanging on, we will see what happens), elder cuttings, berry bushes we planted on the terraces that got waterlogged, and the struggling small-leafed lime tree that is optimistically planted in the hedge, which may or may not make it. And loads of things that I can’t even remember because they never even germinated!
The garden has been suffering the same neglect as the field for many months. But it continues to provide loads of herbs, tonnes of physalis, plenty of courgettes, some kale, nasturtium, beetroot and raspberries. I rustled through the undergrowth to pluck a few kilos of onions from some overgrown beds. I collected and froze the sweetcorn. The giant sunflowers are huge and heavy with ripening seeds! And the pumpkins and beans are coming on nicely too.
Autumn has arrived. The days are shortening, the nights are cooler, the sun is lower and the ground is littered with the first of the fallen leaves. I love this time of year. In August we picked elderberries. In September the paths are littered with apples, blackberries and hazelnuts. I’ve picked my first pumpkins and the first of the beans are drying in the attic.
Since all our friends here are hippies, of course we had a solstice celebration. These ceremonious occasions have always had me feeling divided. Part of me thinks that it’s silly to do things like stand in a circle holding hands and breathing in the moment or contemplating your feelings. But part of me longs for these occasions that give the time and space to reflect in a way that I usually don’t make time for. And really I suspect that my dismissive feelings about any silliness are more a reflection of my own resistance to feeling my feelings. Mockery doesn’t need to self-reflect.
Anyway, on this occasion I went with Leona. Everyone in turn had written down something from the past they wanted to leave behind, burned the piece of paper and cut some of their hair as a sign of change that autumn marks. Then a few talented souls played music and sang songs about being one with the Earth and such. Leona was sleeping in the sling and I was stood back from the circle watching my friends sing and dance, filling my heart with joy and making me realise how happy I was in that moment. I felt well. I felt relieved that I’m finally on my medication. I wasn’t fatigued, I didn’t have a tummy ache, I wasn’t stressed, I didn’t have anywhere else to be. I started to feel some happy tears coming. I thought about how hard the last year or so has been. It was only now that I felt good and happy that I was able to reflect clearly on how stressful it’s been. And I realised that I haven’t cried for months. I’ve been in survival mode for such a long time that I hadn’t allowed myself to feel sad about it all. It was a cathartic moment and I’m very grateful to have such wonderful friends.
We were given the ugly but wonderful gift of a kombucha scoby, which I used to start my own batch of kombucha. And I’ve managed to give away two scobies to other neighbours – long live the ferments! I’ve also tried a new method for sauerkraut, which is ridiculously easy and has yielded the tastiest results so far – all tang and no sweaty socks!
I have spent almost two months on the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP). I track my nutrient intake to make sure we are getting what we need and have realised the value of eating big helpings of nettles, spinach, kale and chard. We both feel really good. I usually manage to get enough sleep these days too. It has been time-consuming sticking to the protocol but it has been worth it.
Leona has been brilliant lately, so fun to be around and changing so much. She has just turned 10 months. She loves waving to people. She wants to do everything herself. She has taken her first shaky solo steps. And she has started opening drawers and cupboards to systematically throw all of the items over her shoulder one by one.
We haven’t been out and about as much as I would usually like on account of my treatment and the recent surge in corona virus cases but we spend time with the neighbours, take trips to the river and little outings around the village and the nearby woods.
Learn & Grow
We hosted a cycle tourist called Hannes for a few days and he camped in our field during a spell of glorious weather. He went about barefoot most of the time – something I have longed to do for years but rarely prioritise. I felt inspired and I downloaded Whole Body Barefoot to get my transition to barefoot on the right track. With Leona starting to walk, it’s a great time to do it. It slows me down and stops me being impatient. Annoyingly though, her tiny feet are already tougher than mine!
Dave and I have starting practicing “Non-violent Communication”. It has been a total game-changer for us! I first heard about NVC in relation to parenting, but after Signe lent us the book by Marshall Rosenberg, I realised that this skill has the power to work in every aspect of life. We used to go around in circles arguing about things (“You’re not listening”, “No, you’re not listening!”). Now we can start to think, feel and talk in a way that allows us to be understood, to empathise and to work together to find solutions.
My main take-away is that there is no objective right and wrong or good and bad. This took a long time to accept – that there isn’t the ‘best’ way of doing things. Our perception of something as good, bad, dangerous, ridiculous, organised, funny, meddling or helpful depends on our personal needs. And we can change the way we talk to reflect this realisation.
“Stop fussing Leona. We have to get in the car now – we’re going to be late!” becomes instead “If we don’t leave in the next few minutes, we’re going to be late. I like to arrive on time to let everyone to spend their time productively. How about we do one more lap of the car park then get in the car?” This might seem a cumbersome way to talk at first – and it does take some getting used to. But in the end it saves so much time. And it might be just the shift in my emotional state rather than the words, but it usually works a treat.
“Dave, what are you doing?” (Implying “That’s a ridiculous way to hang the laundry!”), becomes instead “Dave, when you hang the small items on the far line it takes me longer to bring them in because I struggle to reach it. Would you be willing to hang the few large items on the far line and the smaller ones on the closer line so that I can bring the laundry in more easily?” “Sure.” Side note: It turns out that Dave put the big items on the far line so that all of the items are in direct sunlight – not ridiculous at all.
Until we accept that our own ways of doing things are based on our own needs rather than what is ‘best’, we can’t look at other people’s ways of doing things as valid and we can’t communicate about them effectively.
Of course sometimes one feels too tired, hungry or frustrated to put the new skills into practice (it’s hard to change the habits of a lifetime), but overall discussions are much more productive. In the first two days after reading it, we cleared up a few relationship-long arguments. I am feeling very relieved and I feel like we can tackle anything right now.
In summary, it’s been tough but things are going well right now. I do feel a bit wary of relaxing in case anything else goes wrong, but hopefully we have reached our new normal. Long may the good times last!
As always when July rolls around, I can’t think where the first half of the year went!
It’s been a tired and stressful month for me. We feel like we were stretching ourselves thin between the house, the garden, looking after Leona and worrying about my health and our precarious financial situation. After a bit of a crisis one day, we took stock, had a day off at the beach and regrouped. It was such a restorative day trip. Leona adored the sand and the sea and even Charlie went for a splash.
Eyeing up the waves
Leona trying to eat sand
Loving getting her feet wet
We decided on a routine of me spending the day with Leona whilst Dave works on the house. It took me a while to come to terms with this arrangement since it was never what I wanted before we had her. But whilst we’re breastfeeding it’s not very practical to share all types of work equally and we don’t want to give it up yet. My inner feminist was annoyed about this until a few people made me realise that ‘women’s work’ needs to be valued just as highly as ‘men’s work’ and that looking after Leona, cooking, shopping and clea- I was going to say cleaning but Dave does the cleaning! Still, what I mean to say is that the things I bring to the family are as important as building the house. And anyway, I’ve been enjoying myself enormously getting out and about with Leona. She is crawling, standing, starting to cruise, occasionally falling over, generally content exploring the world and loves interacting with other people. She’s been an absolute delight this month.
I’ve been meeting friends, taking short walks, chewing the fat with neighbours, enjoying watching Leona spend time with other people, and in my spare time I’ve been working on co-founding an unschooling playgroup with Signe and Noe. When things are good, they’re really good! I’ve also managed to finally convince Dave that we should have Sundays off! So that has been a lovely addition too.
Me “It’s freezing!” Leona “Let me sit in it!!”
Oscar pushing the swing
Cruising with Liv
Chilling all cute
Crawling about the house
I prefer to eat standing up
Figuring out that she can feed Charlie from her high chair
Playing with Daddy
Chewing the fat with Anton
Me with 1 month old Nolan whilst Leona goes free
Passing the time whilst I’m in hospital appointments
A much needed lie in
We spent my birthday camping with friends, which was great! I was so excited to take Leona and Charlie on their first camping trip. It was a beautiful night, all went well and they loved it.
Making friends with Paresh
Nik, Ellie and Borja
Baby with a view
The garden is so overgrown but I haven’t been in except to pluck produce from the undergrowth. The courgettes have started and I’ve been collecting kale, herbs and nettles.
Up at the house, Dave has been busying away. He mounted the ledger on the opposite wall and has finished putting the joists on top which will support the bed. He spent his birthday getting the last joists in position and was very pleased with himself. Everything is of course perfectly level and beautifully finished. Very exciting progress – now the structure of the mezzanine floor is complete!
He has also been keeping the plant nursery watered and has scythed paths in the field and maintained the track up to the house, which is brilliant.
Ledger in place
Bed joists added (gap on the right for stairs)
My parents were due to come out for four days at the end of the month and we were all so looking forward to seeing each other. But a stupid coronavirus resurge in the south of Spain led the British government to advise against all travel to the whole of mainland Spain and they cancelled at the last minute, which was very sad for all of us.
We haven’t been able to keep up our new routine all the time. I’ve been quite fatigued and my right eye started playing up intermittently. I finally decided I should go and see my neurologist, who of course wanted me to start another course of steroids right away. As much as I hate them, I’d hate to go blind more! So I’ve started them, knowing that the first half of August is going to be a write-off. We’ll be doing well if we manage to do nothing but the bare essentials for a few weeks, and even better if we don’t kill each other with frustration in the process.
The last few days of the month were busy. I got my steroids, I got a blocked duct for the first time and had to work pretty hard to prevent getting full blown mastitis. Leona entered her next developmental leap so she’s had a hard time sleeping and is more clingy. I finally got my paperwork though that puts me on the Spanish public health care system. I went to see the local GP, who referred me for an urgent neurologist appointment, which hopefully means once I’ve got over the steroids I can start on the immunosuppressants right away.
I feel like I’ve been putting on a brave face for the duration of this whole saga so far and now we’re (hopefully!) in the final stages, working towards our ‘new normal’ of life on immunosuppressants. But it’s tiring. I feel sad and worn out. We’re both stressed, which means we argue more than usual. It’s so exhausting, stressful and time-consuming being unhealthy. There are so many pending questions about the future and I feel like we’re in suspended animation. We don’t live in the house we want to live in, we don’t know when it will be ready enough to live in, we don’t know whether it will ever be sensible for us to have more kids, we don’t know whether my health is going to continue to deteriorate. I usually like to end on an upbeat note, even when there have been ups and downs throughout the month, but I’m afraid I don’t feel like it today. Although I have enjoyed reflecting for this month’s update that we have actually done a bit in spite of everything. I have two days coming of feeling good on the steroids, and we have our friend Jules coming to stay, so hopefully I can relax and enjoy myself before the lethargy kicks in, my milk supply runs out and all the stress begins anew.
June was all go in the garden, although we didn’t actually do much work in it, it’s just been growing like mad. It has continues to be warm and wet and there are weeds galore, and a hailstorm came and toppled my pea trellis!
The first poppies came up at the start of the month. My ‘three sisters’ beds (corn, beans and squash) have been growing well. And I’m so pleased with my herb beds that are settling in well now. It’s two years since I sowed the seeds.
We’ve been eating peas, kale and herbs out the garden. The kitchen is full of dried thyme, rosemary, oregano, sage, tarragon and mint. And I’ve been collecting lots of wild plants too – the little wild plums are ripening, I’ve been making nettle pesto, elderflower cordial and herbal infusions with heal-all, lemon balm and mint.
I’ve taken an interest in herbal remedies too, and found out that there are plenty whose effectiveness is proven by double-blind trials. I’ve got a jar of oil infusing some St John’s Wort in the sun. The resulting oil can be used on sun damaged skin. I’ve got some comfrey leaves blended up and layed flat in the freezer to apply to burns or sprains as the need arises. And I’ve been treating a mild case of conjunctivitis with plantain. It’s very satisfying.
Rhubarb (from seed last year)
Herb beds settling in well
Onions swelling up
We were getting frustrated with the slow progress at the beginning of the month, so the last few weeks of June we focused more on the house. We ordered the wood for the mezannine and brought it up the hill one afternoon. It is starting to take shape now. Dave has bolted the beams together and glued the wood beams onto the metal ones (as a base to built off). We put a wooden ledger up on one side for the joists to hang off, and I nailed the joists onto it.
Bolting wood top-plate in place
Joists expertly hung 😉
Dave in the bedroom
Carrying joists up the hill
Leona started crawling, then pulling herself up to standing and is now intent on trying to cruise / stand / climb on everything in sight. It’s nice watching her learn and concentrate so intently (good thing really, since you can’t take your eyes off her without her endangering life and limb!).
We have entered the ‘new normal’ in Spain so our travel and activities are unrestricted save for social distancing measures and use of masks indoors. It’s so nice to be able to meet friends again. We went to a solstice party with no restrictions on numbers, which was wonderful.
Wheelbarrow rides are a hit
Exploring in the park
Exploring in the field
One of us chills with Charlie and Leona whilst the other works
I got a possible diagnosis from my neurologist. It seems I have an autoimmune condition that is probably Neuromyelitis optica (NMO), although it could be MS. She says we’re going to do a preventative treatment assuming it’s NMO because it’s a more aggressive disease and you don’t recover in between attacks. I’m quite keen not to go blind in both eyes, lose the use of my legs, or lose control of my bladder and bowel, so I’m trying to get the paperwork sorted to get myself a Spanish healthcare card since my insurance doesn’t cover the cost of the medicine which is 2,000€ a year. I was expecting this news to get me down but honestly it just feels like more crap to deal with. It’s not a definitive diagnosis, autoimmune conditions are so individual so it’s not like there is any known prognosis, and it’s probable that stressing about it would only exacerbate the condition anyway. So just more research and hospital trips and blah blah blah for now. Maybe it will hit me at some point but so far I’m just getting on as usual.
The rheumatologist thinks I probably have Grave’s disease as well, an autoimmune condition that causes my thyroid to be overactive. Anyone who knows me well won’t be surprised that the list of symptoms includes being unable to tolerate heat, having an increased appetite, increased sweating and feeling nervous. It’s nice to find out why I’ve spent my life eating like a horse and getting evils from other commuters in scarves and coats whilst I’m stood in a t-shirt trying to open all the windows! Ha.
I found that there is a small amount of evidence that changes in diet and lifestyle can improve certain autoimmune conditions. Inflamatory bowel disease, arthritis and certain thyroid-related autoimmune conditions have been shown to improve or even go into remission when patients try the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP). The lifestyle involves low stress, moderate exercise, lots of sleep and a high-nutrient diet that aims to reduce inflammation. You eliminate everything except vegetables, fruit and meat for 6 weeks, then gradually add foods back to find out whether they make you feel worse. Seems like it’s worth a try! The meat aspect of it is less than appealing, especially since the recommendation is to have as much fat and offal as possible (trying not to puke as I write). And from an environmental and cost point of view, I want to source parts that would otherwise be discarded. So no jamon Iberico for me unforunately! Just fried liver and onions with a bone broth to wash it all down – just close my eyes and try and think of all the vitamins it contains. And if none of it makes a difference then I can go back to cheerily adding soy chunks to my stir-fry!
The weather has been glorious this month! Hot and sunny with the occasional storm. The plants are growing like mad and the redstarts and blue tits that were nesting in our house have fledged.
We were supposed to spend a week in the Hebrides with my family at the start of the month and I am sad that it was corona-cancelled. I was so looking forward to some family time. The trip has been postponed until next year, when Leona will be running along the beach!
Lockdown is easing in our region and it’s very nice to be able to see the possibility of normality again. We met up with some friends for a walk around the reservoir one day and I went to the river with Leona to meet some friends when it was really hot. We sat in the shade and kept cool with our feet in the water.
We’ve been weeding, sowing, planting out and harvesting – May is always a busy time in the garden. The weeding always feels like a thankless task at this time of year but if I can keep on top of it now then the summer is a lot easier.
Lots of grass has been scythed and added to the field or the compost heap. The comfrey got so tall that it’s all fallen over, but the bees keep on buzzing all the same.
There are berries popping up for the first time this spring, which is very exciting. The raspberry plants we put in last year are starting to set fruit. The Japanese wineberry that I grew from seed two years ago is putting on flowers. The few blueberries are busy swelling up and there are a few handfuls of strawberries every day. I am getting the first tastes of my dream of going around the forest garden in the morning to collect a bowlful of fruit for breakfast!
I’ve put out a mulberry tree and a small-leaved lime into the field. They’re both only about 10cm tall, so it will be a while before they’re contributing to the harvest basket. But some of the plants that were already out in the field are growing well. The sea buckthorns have put on half a meter of growth already this year. The black mulberry has come back from a slug attack with renewed vigour. The green manure crops have gone to seed and some of the cover crops have gone so mad that I need to go around rediscovering the little trees and bushes I’ve put out!
I’ve sowed my courgettes, pumpkins, sweetcorn, popcorn, sunflowers and beans, which have popped up quickly in the hot weather. Then I had to make a load more space to put them all in.
My elderflower champagne worked beautifully. We went through the first batch pretty quickly but the second and third batches were left longer and are more alcoholic, so we’re taking our time with them. It’s fizzy and refreshing and delicious, just as I had hoped.
Japanese wineberry flowers
My lupins flowered this year
Wild cherry tree putting on new growth
The strawberry connoisseur
Spider eating a bee
Ox-eye daisies in the field
We have been working on the mezzanine floor and chimney. Dave fixed the joists for the central part of the mezzanine floor into the beams, thereby securing the beams in place without the need to weld them. We placed chipboard on top so that we can go up the ladder and stand in our bedroom, which is cool. There is a good amount of head room in the middle – I can only just reach the Velux windows to open and close them.
Dave dismantled the tiles and flashing around the chimney to adjust the height and make it straight before putting it all back together again in its rightful place.
We’ve been trying to plan how to build the remaining two parts of the floor, which need to be slightly higher than the central section. And the stairs, which need to be built without any margin for error because we’re short on head room on every level. It’s fiddly and there are lots of factors to consider, but we finally have come up with a plan. So then I spent a few afternoons pugging up the remaining holes in the pointing.
Dave has been getting a bit frustrated by the pace of progress with a baby in tow, but I think it’s been going quite well. There are days when we manage to inch our way towards our goal, discussing and working with Leona asleep in the sling, and other days where we seem to achieve nothing but the bare minimum of laundry, food and walking the dog. But such is life.
Eyeing up the chimney
Joists and chimney in place
Leona is six months old! They say the days are long and the years are short and that seems to be about right. I’ve enjoyed these six months more than I could have imagined.
We have spent a fair bit of time just hanging out together. Leona has more time awake these days and needs more stimulation, so it’s nice that we’ve been able to see people again – she’s always happy to see a new face. We’re back to taking walks through the village and chatting over garden gates. We had a visit from Kasper and Elise one day – they were Workaway volunteers with us last year and have bought their own piece of paradise 20 minutes from us.
We’ve had a few more hospital trips and I had a week or two out of action after a high dose steroid treatment. We still don’t seem any closer to a diagnosis for me. I’m getting a bit fed up of the hassle but hopefully we’re getting somewhere.
It really feels like summer already. The long grass sends clouds of pollen into the air as you walk through it, Dave has stocked up on hay fever medicine, the days are long and warm and the garden is growing.
Taken six months apart…
Last morning as a couple
Little family 🙂
Feeding my curiosity
In the years since I quit my job, I’ve had the beautiful freedom of time to learn what I want. The last six months in particular have allowed me time to read and learn whilst breastfeeding and contact napping. I’m not talking about learning facts, like “pandas are born smaller than a mouse”, which is just interesting. I’m talking about learning things that change how you see the world. Like when you realise how much extra land, water and other resources are required to make 1kg of beef compared to 1kg of beans and your eyes widen, give way to a deflated sigh and you start googling ‘can tofu ever be delicious?’ whilst thinking how blissful ignorance was.
Dave often jokes that the only consistent thing about me is that I’m always changing. This is a source of pride to me now. But I remember the first major unravelling of all I knew to be true happened in my early teens and there was no pride or joy about it. It was over the course of my confirmation bible study classes, when I finally realised that I had to call myself an atheist. It was a years-long and painful process making the shift from seeing the Church as a beacon of hope, righteousness and truth to seeing the systematic indoctrination, abuse of power, perpetuation of the patriarchy and the web of lies required to keep the institution alive at all costs. I came to despise something that had previously seemed so vital, and that unravelling made my teenage years all the more turbulent. But that fundamental change in how I saw the world opened up more possibilities than I ever dreamed possible. Once I could accept that everything is up for debate, that the tenacity of an idea does not make it true, and that I have the power to change my mind upon learning new information, there was no stopping me. The pain in realising that my reality had crumbled gave way to a craving for learning and paved the way for my mind to be open to change. I realised in my late teens that I was an environmentalist. In my early 20s that I was a feminist. I craved knowledge and adventure. Once I had seen all the pain and possibility in the world, those things could not be unseen or forgotten. Thinking in this way means a life of uncertainty, opening your eyes to the unnecessary injustice and suffering in the world, constantly admitting that you were wrong, and forever changing not just what you think but also what you do and say. It requires being seen as radical and weird. By now I’m pretty used to people thinking I’m weird, so I figured I may as well carry on learning.
Over the past year, my thinking about my body and about having children has changed dramatically. It pains me to say this now, but I used to see pregnancy and breastfeeding as a kind of parasitic relationship – the mother giving her body, her nutrients, her love and care, the child receiving those things. Now I see my relationship with Leona as symbiotic, each of us getting what we need from each other.
I used to be terrified of pregnancy and childbirth, thinking they would wreck havoc on my body. But Ina May Gaskin taught me that the experience of birth can be joyful, empowering and beautiful. I used to think of babies as pretty boring, but now I know what parents everywhere knew all along – that they are small humans with needs, feelings and personalities and the ability to communicate these surprisingly effectively. I’ve gone from thinking that babies should sleep in cots to realising that there was a time before cots when every baby slept with their mother. I’ve learned the benefits of safe co-sleeping and am absolutely loving my bedtime cuddles and the extra sleep I get not having to get up in the night. I’ve gone from thinking unquestioningly that it’s normal for all babies to wear nappies, to realising that there are millions of babies around the world who never wear a nappy. I’ve gone from having a vague idea about unschooling, thinking that it sounds interesting but being unsure how kids can really learn without school, to thinking that radical unschooling and mixed-age interaction are the best ways to learn. I’ve gone from wondering how to get my baby to do what I want when I want, to learning the importance of timing things to perfection so that everyone’s needs are met with as few tears as possible. I’ve gone from wondering how to raise a polite and happy child whilst respecting their autonomy, to making the dreadful realisation that Dave and I are going to have to be polite and respectful to each other in order to lead by example. Oh the sacrifices we parents make!
I’m ever grateful to my own parents for nurturing my inquisitive nature and allowing me substantial freedoms from a young age. Questioning everything has led me to some interesting places – cycle touring, off-grid living, learning how to communicate more effectively, and apparently now parenting like a god-damn hippy!
The hardest thing about constantly learning new things is having to change your behaviour accordingly, but that’s also the best thing about it. Over the last few years I’ve become so much more content. And since Leona arrived I have been more at peace than ever. I worry less – actually I hardly worry at all. I sleep better because I’m worrying less (although sometimes I can’t sleep because I’m too busy processing all the new stuff I’ve been learning!). I don’t tend to get angry or stressed as often or as easily. I understand my feelings better. I care less about trivial things. I tend to enjoy whatever is happening in that moment, even if it isn’t what I had hoped or planned for.
I keep thinking about an article I read by a writer who returned from the UK to her native Kenya to have her baby, who had this realisation, which applies in fact not just to babies but to life in general: “I suddenly learned the not-so-difficult secret as to the joyful silence of African babies. It was a simple needs-met symbiosis that required a total suspension of ideas of ‘what should be happening’ and an embracing of what was actually going on in that moment.”
I guess we all know that life would be more enjoyable if we could just enjoy it more, but it takes time to learn what that means and how to do it. I think the key is aligning your lifestyle with your values – and that is serious work. So although there is little visible progress on the house this month, I feel I’ve made a step forward on the never-ending path towards living according to my ideology.
It’s a lovely spring. The flowers are out, the grass is growing, the forest has almost completely greened up. We have a pair of redstarts raising a brood in our house. The lizards, slow worms and myriad of insects having been making their presence known – two male Iberian Emerald Lizards had a fight right at my feet as I was raking grass clippings! Lockdown continues.
We’ve spent much of our time on the land – planting, sowing, weeding, doing minor earthworks. Dave has been working on his drains. We want to channel the water to prevent giant puddles but have places where it is stored and can be used to water the land. So he’s been putting ditches in along the terraces and adjusting them after the rains. I’ve been planting water-loving plants like comfrey, mint and hyssop alongside them.
One of the channels in the making
We have done a fair bit of weeding, although there is always more where that came from! We went around the field taking out brambles and nettles. Having done this once or twice a year since we arrived, it only took a half day this time. Progress indeed. The other areas around the garden and stone walls are a bit more tricky but still nothing like they have been in the past. I’ve been picking away at the weeding in the vegetable garden. Dave scythed around some of the beds.
Lots of mulch has gone onto the barren field. Piles of branches and cut grass have been spread across the terraces and banks to provide shade, moisture, shelter and nutrients. It makes such a difference – the cover crops come up better, there are loads more insects about and the idea is that the twigs will rot down and start to make some soil too. In the places that were sowed in September, the mustards and oil seed rape are head hight and the nitrogen fixers are making a beautiful carpet underneath them. They are all buzzing and scurrying with lovely insects. There is hope for the forest garden!
I’ve been planting out more of my nursery plants; shrubs, trees, nitrogen fixers and berry bushes have made it out into the field to fend for themselves. There is honey locust (nitrogen fixing firewood tree), wild service trees (fruit tree), black mulberry, white mulberry, sea buckthorn (berry bush and wind break), Oregon grape (berry), golden currant, Japanese wineberry, rhubarb and asparagus, to name a few of the plants I have managed to start from seed over the last few years. And this year my small leaved limes have just started to come up, 20 months after sowing!
The herb beds I sowed two summers ago are filling out really nicely. We’ve had our first strawberries of the year and the pea shoots are going mad. There are a few spring onions but other than that, it’s a bit sparse in the ‘hungry gap’ at the moment. We have been making our way through the array of home made sauces, chutneys, relishes and jams that I made last year. I’ve been making batches of sauerkraut and we just put on our first elderflower champagne of the year to ferment. I hope it works! Nothing says spring like sipping elderflower champagne amongst the wildflowers.
We went out one day to forage some little plants from the free nursery of the woodland caminos. By the late summer they have all been cut back to clear the paths, so rather than stealing from the woods, we have been rescuing plants from the strimmer! We found wild cherry, willow, sloe, oak, sweet chestnut, small leaved lime, elderflower, broom, wild rose, lemon balm and hazel. We are very pleased with our bucket of refugees and have added them to our borders and hedges for windbreaks, future food and wildlife habitat. I also found a honeysuckle growing on one of our stone walls, which was a nice surprise since the ones I sowed failed to germinate.
The nursery has filled up again. Never takes long! I’m starting lots of stuff for the veggie garden as well as some herbs for the field. My peas have gone out into the beds but most are waiting for better weather. The slugs are quite prolific at the moment with all the rain!
The mulch machine
A wild service tree
My ‘green manure’ plants getting nice and tall
Small leaved lime seedlings
Peas growing up
Nursery full up again
The comfrey propagation area
Sage, thyme, tarragon and poppies
Planting a hedge
Planting a wind break
Firewood tree… you have to start somewhere!
Snack break during planting
Comfrey going into the field
Rescuing saplings / collecting free plants
Leona has been growing like a weed too. She’s five months old now and it’s amazing how much she changed over the course of the month. She’s holding herself up quite well, so we have started baby-led weaning, which mostly involves her smearing various fruits all over herself in between licks, which she is delighted by. And we’re learning to carry her on our backs, which is a great development because we can get more stuff done that way.
We have also started Elimination Communication (EC) – reading her cues and putting her on the potty to reduce cloth nappy washes. I’d heard of it a while ago and was curious about it, but we only got around to it when she was 4 months old. And now we wish we’d started sooner! I can only describe it with an analogy – imagine growing up in a place where it was normal to formula feed babies on a standard schedule. Then you heard about people in a far-away land who breastfeed on demand and you think… Hmm… That sounds like a lot of work. And how do they know when their babies are hungry? But maybe if I learn how to do it and it works out well for us, it could be less expensive, less time consuming and involve less washing. Maybe I’ll give it a try. So we did and now we’re hooked, so that’s another thing that I’m so thankful to our lovely neighbours for letting us know it existed.
Lockdown games getting imaginative
Enjoying some nice weather
Like father like daughter
Piggy back rides
Woodland pee stop
We have had to make a few more trips to the hospital this month. I noticed that the vision in my bad eye was significantly worse and emailed my neurologist to ask if she was concerned about it, since it didn’t fit my diagnosis. She must have been lacking patients due to lockdown because she was very keen to get me in immediately for a barrage of further testing. I got admitted for a morning and about ten people stood around the bed whilst she performed a lumbar puncture, a nurse took loads of vials of blood and I spent an hour an a half in the MRI machine! Between each test I had to pop out of the hospital to feed Leona in the carpark where Dave was trying to keep the wolf from the door. It was a pretty stressful day for everyone. Then I got a five day headache from the lumbar puncture, which was annoying. We still haven’t got a diagnosis but I think the options are being narrowed down. She has ruled out Lyme’s disease, MS, tumours and a whole host of conditions I’ve never heard of. It is looking like an auto immune condition but since we don’t know which one, I don’t know whether it will be treatable, manageable, curable or not. I haven’t been thinking about it too much, surprisingly, since there’s not much point in speculating. But it has made us think a bit more pressingly about our priorities and we would both love to hurry up and live in our house at some point… So we’ve been doing some thinking on that front. Watch this space (but don’t hold your breath!)
Overall I feel life is treating us exceptionally well at the moment. The lockdown is taking its toll on a lot of people, so there’s a tinge of guilt to us enjoying it, but I think it’s important to count our blessings. Neither of us are working, we’re just busy on our land with our lovely Leona and Charlie for company, living the dream. Or as Dan would say “Living in a dream, more like!”. It sure does feel like it right now.