My 2020 in photos

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Letting go

Soon after Carol died I wrote of feeling that I’d been cast adrift. I thought of myself on a raft in an ocean of tears with no sight of land and exposed to all the vicissitudes of weather. I later watched Sarah Outen’s film Home of pretty much exactly that, except she was in an enclosed vessel but some of her rollercoaster of emotions as she fought for her life rowing across the Pacific during a dreadful storm reflected where I was emotionally during the first year. She survived and so did I.

That first year I cocooned myself in a protective bubble, not out of choice, it was just how it was. In a daze, I went through the motions of walking and talking. Sometimes people told me things and I couldn’t remember them a moment later. I’m so sorry if that was you. When I encountered new people the first thing I told them was that Carol had died. Mostly they were fine about this and mostly very kind. One or two recoiled from the impact. But I made a new friend, well I call her a friend, we only conversed for a matter of minutes after I’d blurted out my widowhood. Sarah was widowed 3 weeks before me. We became Facebook friends and I’ve learnt from her as we watch each other sometimes stumbling and reaching for a handle to grab hold of as we work out our new lives. Her man Tony was also a renegade, a wild and beautiful man.
During that first year I’d done a few ritualistic scatterings of ashes, making meaning by going to places that Carol loved. There are ashes at Dove Stones reservoir (not in the res itself) alongside those of her very good friends Joyce and Liz, mother and daughter; Esthwaite Water, which we both loved; in the mountains at Llanymawddwy; near Dunstanburgh Castle, and in the new top garden of my home.

2020 arrived. I passed the first anniversary of Carol’s death somewhere on a boat off the coast of Norway. I do still tell people that Carol has died but it’s not the first thing and it’s not every single person I meet.
As this year moved to Spring, I started to feel as if I was ready to pop my head up and enjoy the sun on my body. I felt excitement and a readiness to throw myself back into living instead of enduring. Well that was crap timing! As we veered towards Lockdown 1.0 I had a fair bit of self pity around the restrictions as well as panic. I surprised myself by finding that it was possible to survive that as well. I have been extremely careful. There is only me to look after me, at least physically. Mentally my friends and family have been fantastic. I did it without putting on loads of weight or turning into an alcoholic. I’m actually very lucky to be on my own and have not been forced to work at home cooped up with a partner or indeed any other person. Some friends are spending all day working online and are living with the same person all the time and it’s not necessarily that easy. Some have entered into difficult life phases by becoming carers and I know how achingly grinding that is. I have a lovely house and garden with a great view and I’m on the edge of a pleasant village with mostly pleasant neighbours.

I had a nice summer, took a couple of holidays, saw some friends and family, in our new restricted, contactless ways. I went a bit manic for a month or so, felt really high, euphoric even. Thankfully it wasn’t followed by a deep low. I’ve had some short periods of depression but now am much more levelled out and for the most part feel pretty good.

As we approached Lockdown 2.0 I began to put more effort into exercising and started doing weight training. As part of looking after my bones, I joined the gym last July and had been doing that 3x a week religiously. Then nothing at all since March except for walking. I now do a short fast walk most mornings followed by a 10 minute all body workout with Kelly on YouTube. I’ve started to lose a bit of poundage which makes me feel quite perky.

As part of letting go or my death cleaning 2.0, I’ve been looking at objects that I’ve carried around with me all my life and reevaluating them. Some of them are not surviving the cut. I took my wedding ring off and this does not mean that I’ve stopped loving Carol but I’m not married to a dead person. It was the right time for me to do that. It also does not mean that I’m available although I might be. Taking the ring off was a relief, a freeing up. It’s a chunky ring and is now round my neck on a chunky chain most of the time.
I’ve got back into sorting out the house. All the work needing contractors ended up in November, it all should have happened months earlier. I’ve got new bedroom cupboards and have painted the room. I’ve got a better patio and 2 new sets of steps to my garden areas. The ceiling in my sitting room has finally been fixed after 8 months of looking at a piece of cardboard! There’s still quite a big schedule of redecorating which initially I was planning to pay someone to do but I really like having something to do and it’s given me some routine. I think Carol would be pleased with the house improvements.

My grief is not there all the time, well it is but often I can put it to the back, sometimes it gnaws away at me. So the last week I have cried a lot, mostly listening to music but it’s not all the time and I’m learning to understand and control my emotions. I’m ok, despite sodding Covid, despite being on my own most of the time. Since childhood I’ve enjoyed my own company. I do miss people and I miss physical contact. I miss Carol and Chris taking the piss out of me for being a dork. The other day I looked at an old photo in a book, of a man and a woman together. It said the woman was 5’7″ tall but she only came up to in between his elbow and shoulder. Therefore he would be roughly 6’7″ if not taller. Then I realised she was sitting down and I could hear Chris and Carol laughing at me.

I’m enjoying finding myself again. I’ve taken up new pursuits, albeit online. I’m singing, dancing, learning an instrument. I want to throw myself at the world. But there’s a pandemic. So yes I will take the vaccine as soon as I possibly can. I want a ticket to freedom. I want to drive, to walk the west coast of the Americas, to do the New Jersey Springsteen tour, to swim in the ocean, drink tequila as the sun goes down. I want connection. I want music. I’m so glad music has returned, it’s like a drug that takes me inside and outside myself. I wake up with tunes in my head. Feel like I’m in love, in lust. And it’s all ok. Letting go and starting to live.
It took a while to understand
The beauty of just letting go

This song, written by Patty Griffin, was on The Chicks’ second album, Fly. Patty Griffin is an astute singer songwriter and The Chicks have recorded and performed several of her songs. It’s about a failed relationship, however some of the sentiments work for me.

Ain’t no talkin’ to this man
Ain’t no pretty other side
Ain’t no way to understand the stupid words of pride
It would take an acrobat and I already tried all that
I’m gonna let him fly, mmm

Things can move at such a pace
The second hand just waved goodbye
You know the light has left his face
But you can’t recall just where or why
So there was really nothing to it
I just went and cut right through it
I said I’m gonna let him fly
Oh yeah

There’s no mercy in a live wire
No rest at all in freedom
Choices we are given
It’s no choice at all
The proof is in the fire
You touch before it moves away, yeah
But you must always know
How long to stay and when to go

And there ain’t no talkin’ to this man
He’s been trying to tell me so
It took a while to understand
The beauty of just letting go
Cause it would take an acrobat n’
I already tried all that
I’m gonna let him fly, fly whoa
I’m gonna let him fly, fly
I’m gonna let him fly, fly

The Chicks, written by Patty Griffin

Northumberland October 2019

Friday 25th

Rain. Rain. Huge rain. It took Liz and Ariel 5 and a half hours to reach me from the Forest of Dean. I watched TV turning the heating off and back on as their journey time increased. A pit stop and a transfer of interesting luggage (an axe and a bag seemingly full of footwear) from one Skoda Yeti to another and we were off into a wet time warp where for at least half the journey Google Maps told us it would take 3 hours and 22 minutes. If only. 5 soggy hours later we reached Church Cottage in Kyloe. Our landlords had kindly unpacked our Sainsbury’s delivery for us and left us a bottle of organic prosecco. Cheers.

Saturday 26th

Great to see our views across to Lindisfarne. We went shopping in Berwick. I managed to get run over by a car. My foot was trapped under its front wheel for a while but I came away completely unscathed, not even any bruising. I frightened myself and my friends and the driver for which I am truly sorry. I didn’t look before I crossed the road the second time because when I’d crossed it first I looked both ways, saw cars only going one way, saw cars parked facing the same way so made an incorrect assumption. I was lucky the driver was going slowly and that I was wearing new Doc Martens that are very rigid. Of course it was my left foot. But remarkably there is no damage. I have wanted to be dead but I don’t actually want to die. Not yet, not until I’ve finished sorting out the stuff in my house. And not then either. It was a salutary reminder that all it takes is one microsecond of inattention. I am walking around with so many dead loved ones I’m not that surprised it happened. After calming down from my idiocy we went to Cheswick and walked by the sea. Liz and I managed to walk in an area containing unexploded ordnance and quicksand! Back to gigli made by A. Yum. Started watching The Laundromat film with Meryl Streep about the Panama Papers.

Sunday 27th

My foot is none the worse. Remarkable boot. Not even a mark on the boot. From Craster we walked along by the sea to Dunstanburgh castle. At Greymare rock we sent Carol’s ashes off into the sea. A seal joined us while the crashing waves took the ashes away. Called in at Howick Hall for the slowest tea ever and an incorrectly delivered order then walked around the gardens. Back home along the lanes as the sun descended. Liz produced borscht, scrummy. We finished watching the Laundromat. Good movie.

Monday 28th

Ariel and I walked a good part of the way up The Cheviot but decided not to try the summit as it was very boggy and cold on the dark side. Instead we stayed in the sun to descend and bimbled about in some woods. We got back to Liz, a blazing fire, delicious kedgeree and a really rubbish film, Call Me By My Name which Netflix told us included “strong sex”. Only if you are a peach. It was very boring IMO.

Liz took this lovely photo of the steps near our cottage

Tuesday 29th

Billy Shiel’s boat from Seahouses around the Farne Islands. Good weather, a bit of bouncing on the waves, a lot of birds and a huge lot of seals, all sizes and ages. Only £15 for 90 minutes. Fab. Pit stop at the Ship Inn. To Ros Castle, a short steep climb for 360 views. Descended to magnificent burnt orange sunset. I made the green Thai curry, possibly the first time I’ve really cooked for other people since Carol died, and I enjoyed it. We tried to watch Capote movie but Liz and I fell asleep. Lovely day.

Wednesday 30th

We drove to Lindisfarne across the causeway. Straight into Pilgrims’ Coffee which sold nice coffee but was short on competent staff. Up to the castle for a good look round including a history talk. Around Gertrude Jekyll’s garden, over to the priory, the parish church and back to the car to get across the causeway before the tide came in. Home for lunch, then A and I went out for walks in different directions. I stayed out until dark. Dinner and another terrible movie, Roma.

Thursday 31st

We did our own things during the day. I went to Lowick and bought bread, then to Doddington. I did a circular walk to find a hill fort, a stone circle and a cup and ring stone. The paths were very overgrown with bracken and gorse and indistinct for most of the walk. I had to micro navigate using a mix of old and new tools all the way round. I found everything, well I found the hill fort easily enough, I wasn’t sure about the cup and ring marks because I didn’t really know what I was looking for. The stone circle (rems of) only had a solitary stone in a swamp of bracken. There may have been more but I didn’t want to do any more bracken than I had to. I got back to the cottage. We dined out at The Black Bull in Lowick 2 miles away. We all had really nice dinners. Back at the cottage we moved away from awful films and played Bananagram, Liz was very good and I was delighted to have been able to use the word buggery.

Liz and Ariel saw this hare on their walk

Friday 1st November

We set off to have a look at Kielder Forest, as we drove we talked about coffee at the observatory. But unlucky for us the road was being resurfaced just at that point so we couldn’t get there. Instead we had a look in the Alpnhaus (why no ‘e’?) where there is a swish B&B and an Alpine shop, all feeling pretty remote. We carried on to Corbridge where we stopped for our coffee, by this time it was well into the afternoon. Eventually we rocked up at The Moorcock in Norland which is on my doorstep and ate very well in the pub. I can’t rate this place highly enough. Then back to mine to recover from yet another mammoth journey.

Snowdonia October 2019

Monday 14th

I booked this short break when Carol was still alive. Arrived at Craflwyn Hall mid afternoon, staying in the stables again, a different stall from the last time I was there. That time I sustained an injury to my elbow and Carol looked after me from a distance, sorted out a GP appointment for me. Dinner was tapas which I enjoyed but some of the other guests didn’t. Some people are so gobby! Entertainment was a word square game. The team I was in won.

Tuesday 15th

Drove to Trawsfynydd which is mostly known for its ex nuclear power station. It was opened in 1965 after 6 years of building. Remained in operation until 1991. It will take 100 years to decommission. Just above it is Tomen y Mur Roman fort and small amphitheatre which was built in the first century and in operation for at least a hundred years and is still very evident on the ground but a hell of a lot less poisonous. After climbing the Norman motte and bimbling about I drove south from Talsarnau up tiny roads with green down the middle and branches hitting the car, out and in for a gate, continuing until the road stopped. Walked roughly 3 km along a fairly good level path, soggy and squelchy in places, to reach Bryn Cader Faner stone circle which was a delight (GR SH 64796 35329). Back the same way. This time I met a farm truck and a van coming up so I had to reverse quite a way. The evening entertainment was Benjie and Mev who are local birds of prey experts, not a C&W duo. They were knowledgeable and interesting.

Wednesday 16th

Car free day. Walked from the house straight up the hill behind, which is the lower slopes of Yr Aran, a sub peak of Snowdon. A nice mountain walk without going very high. Passed old mine. Some boggy bits. Eventually joined up with the Watkin path. Stopped in Caffi Gwynant for a coffee and a scone. Walked back to the house along the east side of Llyn Dinas on a very good well made path. Only one heavy shower early on. Sunny mostly. Unfortunately the best photos of the walk past Llyn Dinas were corrupted. Another very irritating woman staying here. I’m getting good at walking away. Entertainment was the quiz. My team came second. There are 31 guests in the house, some of whom are Brexiteers, some think it’s ok to make “jokes” about sexual violence, one thinks bereavement is the same as divorce and at least 7 who are decent human beings with respect for others and a developed sense of right and wrong. I have trouble with those who lack self awareness. I don’t expect everyone to be emotionally tip top all the time but I do think people could develop their interpersonal skills before letting themselves out of the house. My best shirt is wasted on them.

Thursday 17th

Leisurely breakfast. Heavy rain expected so I drove quite a way to a National Trust property, Plas yn Rhiw. I’ve really had my money’s worth out of the NT membership fee this year, at least twice over, if not more. Makes up for the years when all I did was park the car. It was a nice little house previously owned by the 3 Keating sisters who were an interesting bunch and rebuilt this house in a stunning location looking out across the bay. Then the rain came, on and off. Had my lunch in the car. Went and looked out over to Bardsey island. Through a torrential downpour to Betws y Coed to see if there were any outdoor kit bargains, there weren’t. The rain settled in heavily. The mental and emotional toll of grief is obvious but I hadn’t even considered the physical aspects, the sapping of energy, lethargy, continued poor sleep, fatigue, reduced muscle strength, low stamina. I am working on all of these. Feels like slow progress. At least my left leg muscles match the right leg, 6 months later.

Friday 18th

To Llannymawddwy through more downpours. However they more or less stopped as I parked up. This is a place Carol and I went to several times (misnamed by me as Pennant in that blog post) when we used to stay at Llanfechain. Carol liked it because we could be in the mountains without having to actually climb one. It’s a gentle walk up to a col, about 100m of up to 1 km of length. We never saw anyone else and I didn’t today. We last went there in March 2015, after getting our civil partnership upgrade. I buried some more of Carol’s ashes at the col overlooking the east valley. It’s such a lovely spot, with valleys east and west. Constant sound of tumbling waterfalls. Back at the car, the rain came on again. I decided it would be ok to do the mountain road and it was though I was cautious through the flooded bits. The really scary bit of road has had big new barriers put up which I was grateful for. Round Lake Vyrnwy and then to Oswestry to get some veg. On the spur of the moment I stopped at Chirk Castle, knocking up yet another National Trust property visited this year. I got wet because I’d failed to take my brolly. It took a long time to get home because of the terrible weather.

Wedding anniversary

I drove over to Near Sawrey, it’s near to Hawkshead. I stayed in Belle Green B&B. Carol and I had stayed there I think 4 times before, definitely 3 times. The last time was the day the EU referendum was announced. Ann and Steve were very welcoming and I felt safe. I went and had a meal in the Tower Bank Arms, it was nice being out in the very dark.

Over breakfast I had a chat with Sally, a visitor from Wisconsin. We hit it off instantly, she’s a photographer with a keen Beatrix Potter interest. I told her about the “behind the scenes” tour I’d booked at Hill Top in the afternoon.

I walked down to Esthwaite Water and selected a spot for Carol’s ashes that didn’t have much obvious footfall but was still overlooking the water. She and I loved this place, we never saw anyone there when we went, it’s such a beautiful spot. I buried the ashes and spoke these words, feeling slightly foolish so did it quietly.

Give me a drink. You know I have always wanted to get married, not for always, but just for once in my life I wanted to live out my love for a man like they did. I suppose you think I mean I want to walk down the aisle in white with my friends watching, but that’s not it, that’s not what this feeling is to do with. Or not all of it, because of course I would love to do that. But that’s easy to laugh at. What I want is to hold his hand in public. And what I want then is to hold his hand in front of the television for several evenings a week, and if you don’t understand that, if you don’t know what that feeling is, if you don’t know why it’s like that then you know nothing, nothing, nothing.

Neil Bartlett, from Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall

Our wedding was just right for us. We didn’t go mad. Our clothes were a bit odd, it was one of those times fashion wise when there wasn’t much around for gender queers, it was all a bit baggy trousers.

Those ruddy broken pots!!

I know I grinned all day long, so much my face hurt. In the morning, Carol gave me a card and these tickets that she’d kept for 14 years.

So when it came to her funeral, I knew exactly which poem to read (W. H. Auden’s Funeral Blues). We managed 10 years of marriage and 26 of being together.

After my own private ritual, I walked to Far Sawrey along the road and then cut up through an old wood and across some fields. Then back to Near Sawrey in a circuit. Sally and I met up again at Hill Top for the tour which was nice because it wasn’t as madly crowded as when Chris and I went there a few years ago.

I headed for home, stopping briefly for a scone at Claife Viewing Station, then over on the Windermere Ferry. The last time I did the ferry, they’d taken off the man who collected the money and replaced him with ticket machines that were completely incomprehensible and slowed down the whole process so much it created enormous queues and frustration. I wrote a letter of protest it made me so cross. Now the machines have gone and the man has returned to take the money off the passengers. Win!!