On Going Part-time: Working less is best, but it comes at a price.

Once upon a time, my generation – I’m one of those much maligned baby boomers born in the 50s – were promised that one day in the future, we would all work a three day week. We would earn just as much money, and have a better lifestyle with lots of holidays and our own houses. We women would – and did, at least those women who worked then – retire at sixty and continue to enjoy a good life. We believed that, we believed in the dream of living a better life than our parents, the Silent Generation, born and growing up in times of poverty and terrible wars, who had seen and experienced things that we, thankfully and hopefully, never will. Who had given their lives and health for those of us who came later. No more, they said, never again, and so we grew up in hope, if not in wealth. We were always poor, and I do mean poor, but – to be clichéd – I remember being happy and well looked after.

Anyway, that’s history, and this isn’t a history lesson. This is – I don’t know – a mix of hope and fear. Hope because since choosing to work part time, I feel more in control of my life. Fear because those dreams of the future have not come to pass and I look toward a time where I may well be poor again. Because like so many generations, we were also lied to. People are working harder than ever, for less security, less pay. Less satisfaction, more stress. I won’t go into how we academics have not had a significant pay rise in years, but our salaries have in effect decreased as the cost of living has risen. Many younger professionals are on short term contracts, living precariously from position to position, unstable lives, not daring to complain in case they are seen as ‘difficult’. But this is not about that either, except to say that it’s an immoral way to treat people who are trying to build a career for themselves.

This is about me having had enough of the constant bombardment of ridiculous bureaucracy, stress and poor mental health, which anyone who has read previous posts will know about. This is about me taking the step to work part time and the liberation I feel having done so. I now work four days a week. That feels hard won, to be honest. Again, anyone who has read my blog will know that I’ve battled hard to get this far. I’ve had to compromise in ways that have damaged my recovery, and that I’m still trying to come to terms with. But, I feel I am coming to terms now. And when I signed my contract to work four instead of five days, I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders. I could breathe again, and despite the impact on my earnings (my take home pay was less than I’d calculated – a bit of a shock and I’m still taking that in), I wish I’d done it sooner. I can now have a day where I don’t look at emails, where I don’t have to feel guilty for not being in the office. Where I don’t have to worry so much about being inadequate, something I’m always having to work on.

Some people have been sceptical of my doing this. Colleagues who know how conscientious I am have said, ‘Oh, but you’ll be fitting in five days’ work into four,’ and, ‘But I bet you’ll still…’ But I won’t. I’ll be fitting four days’ work into four. And I won’t work on the fifth. Because I won’t get paid for it, and because I’ve learned that looking after myself is a priority, and I no longer believe that the harder you work, the more rewards there’ll be. Because sometimes, there just aren’t. Sometimes you work hard and you burn out and are worse off. I won’t do that to myself any more. I’m older now, feel as though I need to start winding down from that ‘be competitive all the time’ mindset, to start to please myself rather than constantly trying to please others in ways that are detrimental to my wellbeing. It’s taken me sixty-two years to learn that lesson. Apparently I’m a slow learner!

Is my new resolve selfish? Well yes it is, but sometimes we need to be selfish. That does not mean that I will slack off at my job. Of course not. I love the teaching, and I really look forward to seeing my students and helping them to want to learn. That’s why I do what I do. That’s the only reason, other than the hard fact that I have to earn a living, of course. I believe passionately in education. But I have to say now, I don’t believe in a system that damages people. And I know too many people – including myself – who have been damaged by it.

That’s a rant. I didn’t want this to be a rant, but maybe it was inevitable given the reasons why I decided that enough was enough and that I had to cut my working hours. I’m lucky that I can afford to do so. I don’t have a mortgage and can pay my bills. Next year my partner will be moving in and can share the load. I’m really grateful for all the privileges I have; I wholeheartedly acknowledge them. I’ll always have a roof over my head, for example. But as I get older, I worry about how I’ll heat my house, because my pension will, contrary to popular belief about academics’ pensions being huge, be very small because I didn’t start to pay into a pension scheme until I was older. So I have to take my life in my own hands and, somehow, turn it around.

I have ideas. Last week I attended a very inspirational talk about how we might change the ways we look at students, about how we teach them and, most important of all, how we relate to them. Everything I’ve ever thought, everything I’ve ever said, and been told I was wrong to say it, was echoed there in those talks, and now I want to try harder to help make changes to a system that values procedure over people, instead of the other way round. It will be really hard – how do you turn around an oil tanker with a tug? – but it will give me something to work towards, and I hope – if I’m allowed to start talking change – it will make my last couple of years before retirement more positive. Alternatively, I can drop my hours even more, and concentrate on my writing.

This is my horoscope for today (I’m a Pisces and use the ‘Co-Star Personalized Astrology’ app):

‘The rebel in you is on fire. Focus on larger truths. When you open yourself up to the world, every book and every person you meet, becomes a component of your                                learning process.’

This rings true to me. I haven’t decided my future yet – maybe it will be a mixture of both of the above – but finally I can see a glimmer of light, a rebellion against what has gone before, an opening up of doors and choices, and I’m slowly heading toward it.

Autumn is Coming: Turn, turn, turn.

I look out on a rain soaked garden, at the rain heavy clouds above, and try to keep a hold on my own turbulent emotions. I’m in a reflective mood, rather melancholy as I look back at the year that’s gone, aware of the anxiety building in me, afraid that this year will bring more stress, more stuff I can’t deal with. Another breakdown. Where is the serenity and joy I felt during my Italian break?

And yet. And yet…. I am here, and even within the anxiety that wants to overwhelm me (new academic year, new students to teach and impress, new responsibilities that I’m terrified of not being able to fulfill), I can see how much has changed. That despite it all, I have a lot to look forward to.

One day at a time. One day at a time. Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Both are much used phrases in recovery from addiction, but surely they can be used by people in any kind of recovery? Surely I can adopt them as mantras for my life. They’re certainly powerful reminders to me that I’ve allowed myself to fight against myself for too long, that the catastrophising and the second guessing habits my brain has adopted have been allowed to take over. CBT helped with that enormously when I was ill, and I’ve still I’ve largely got them under control. They’re still there, of course, along with the self doubt and imposter syndrome and all the other stuff that’s held me back. It’s a constant battle not to let them take over now. I think I will always be prone to mental health issues, and that’s okay. After decades of shame, I’ve learned not to be ashamed anymore. Because there are other voices too, now, that are helping me to keep them at bay.

So I look at what has been granted to me, or because I don’t particularly believe in a higher power, I look at the help I’ve received and the help I’ve allowed myself to accept, and realise there’s a lot to be grateful for. And it’s good.

Work has been chaotic this week. It’s been difficult, distressing and stressful, and to be honest, some of the ridiculous stuff that has happened because of poor communication (a pet peeve of mine, to say the least) and misunderstandings, you honestly couldn’t make it up. But I’ve realised, as I’ve looked on at the stupidity of it, that you have to laugh at it, and realise, that in the grand scheme of my life, it really doesn’t matter.

The world too is a difficult place these days. I guess it always has been but we live in the now, and the now is how we experience our lives; the problems we deal with are in the now, and that’s much harder for me to deal with. I look at climate change, species on the edge of extinction, our own species in chaos and conflict, with the obvious changes in our particular society and I often despair. I sincerely believe that our over-mediated, money-driven, success-pressured world is contributing to the poor mental health of people who may not even have been vulnerable to it under other circumstances.

But now, beyond my growing despair, is anger. White hot burning anger. Why are we so apparently intent on destroying everything? Why are the Far Right being allowed to trample over our democracy (whatever that means now), while common decency and politeness seem to have been forgotten, outdated and in danger of extinction themselves. Polarised and extreme opinions block reasoned discussion. You are either ‘right’ or you are ‘wrong’ and therefore ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for expressing whatever opinions you may hold in the echo chambers of Twitter and Facebook, and so many of us no longer bother expressing them because if the opinions are even slightly different from those heard in those chambers, it’s like unleashing a pack of bloodthirsty baying hounds who will tear you apart for a dissenting word.

I don’t understand. But I want to do something. I want to take action. When the climate change protests were taking place, I felt ashamed that I wasn’t somewhere adding my voice. Instead I put out a tweet praising those who had gone out and been counted. It felt like cowardice. It still does. I want my voice to be heard. I want to revolt and be present, instead of listening to the voice inside me that says: you’ll have a panic attack if you join a march. That says: you’ll upset people if you’re openly rebelling. That says: what good will it do anyway when The Powers That Be are so… powerful?

I don’t know how to begin to do those things. I’ve never been a rebel. I’ve never wanted to be. But now…. Now I feel I want to start rebelling in some way. Maybe this writing is a start? Words are powerful. They are both weapons and defences. We use them against others, we use them against ourselves. Maybe this year is the year, after everything I’ve learned, after everything I’ve been through, I need to use them for others, and for myself.

Autumn is coming, and as the leaves turn, as the season changes, I understand that I should accept the changes that are happening in me, and learn to act with the bravery I want so much to embrace.

One day at a time…

Post Holiday Reflections – I Need a Word

I’ve just come back from an amazing four day break in Florence (taking in a day trip to Venice). It was my second time in Italy (last year I went to Rome) and I’m hopelessly in love with what I’ve seen and experienced (more about that in other posts, once I’ve had time to think about how to present them), so I’ve decided to write a reflection on how I feel now I’m back, and it’s not great. It’s not that my depression has in any way returned – and that’s something I need to keep in mind and perspective – but that I have the strong feeling of being unsettled, of an inner agitation, a sense that things are not right, for me, for now. Being away, and now coming back to ‘real’ life, if you will, has made all that surface again.

I’m aware, of course, that being on holiday is a very different way of life. When we’re away, our worries and concerns (hopefully) disappear, or at least lessen, and we enter a kind of existence that (again, hopefully) frees us, liberates us, from what we’ve left behind. Take last year, for example. Before I left for Rome, I was, and had been for months and months, a depressed and anxious mess. It was so bad just before the holiday that I honestly felt like cancelling it, which was a terrible way to feel, considering that I was going away with my amazing and supportive daughter, and that Rome was a bucket list destination for me. Trying to act normally, but feeling as though I was dying inside, I wanted to cancel up until the point when we were on the plane. I didn’t believe it was possible, given the state I was in, to even think about enjoying myself. And yet, when we arrived in Rome, and I saw the Trevi fountain, busy with tourists (including us, of course) I just burst into relieved tears that I was there. But they were also tears of appreciation of the beauty. Beauty, I have found, however you may define it, has that effect on me. It feeds me, and helps me to feel positive. So that holiday was an amazing experience. I joked about living in Italy for a year, but the actual feeling itself wasn’t a joke. And it isn’t a joke now.

When I saw the sheer beauty that is Florence, when I stepped out of Venice station onto the concourse and saw the Grand Canal, I cried again – again, more on this in later posts. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Why should I be ashamed of being moved by beautiful places, beautiful things? I cried when I left too; it was as though part of my heart had been ripped out and left behind. And that feeling has resurfaced again now I’ve returned. While I was away, I didn’t think about anything else but where I was. I lived in the moment and for the moment.  Now I’m back, I’m living yet again in an uncertain future. I want to be somewhere else that isn’t here in Luton, doing something that isn’t what I’m doing now – not the teaching side of my job, mind you, never that –  but the rest of it, the sense that I’m just working as a cog in a machine that no longer values people, or that treats us respectfully. I go back on social media to find the same divisions, the same hate for anything that is considered ‘wrong’ – ‘You don’t believe the same things as I do? You’re a bad person.’ And I’m less tolerant of it than ever.

I’m all too aware of my extreme idealism, because I know that’s what it is. I know that many people feel that way about their jobs, and their lives, and I think it’s sad. I know I should be grateful for what I have, and on one level, I am. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to tolerate, and post-holiday, after being in a place that inspires me, that makes me want, more and more, to just discover more in general, and myself in particular, what drives me, how I learn to be driven by my passions, my heart yearns to do it. It yearns to really live life, rather than just be a passenger, drifting on the currents.

It all comes back, I guess, to needing change. That elusive ‘something’ that I can’t put my finger on, or define. I know I can’t just up and leave, for many reasons, not least financially, but the temptation to do just that is becoming almost overwhelming. While I was in Florence my daughter and I watched the Italian section of Eat, Pray, Love again. I love that film, it’s hopeful, and celebrates a freedom most of us can only imagine, but it’s a freedom born of despair and misery. But we can’t all afford to take a year out, and we don’t all have the courage to travel alone, as the writer Elizabeth Gilbert did. Again, much of that comes down to courage and the willingness – not just the desire – to change, and a huge amount of faith that one can change one’s life in profound ways. Anyway, I cried (yet again!) watching the beginning of that film, because whatever else Gilbert may be, however privileged she is, she still experienced that desperate unhappiness with her situation, a situation that many people thought she should be grateful for, that they thought she should tolerate, because why would she want to throw it all away? But surely sometimes we have to find the courage and the means to make those changes, take those positive steps to our own peace? Surely sometimes we have to tear it all down to build something new and more meaningful.

Anyway, those are my feelings now. This has been a really difficult year for me, as I’ve written before, but I’m emerging, still emerging, from the deadening cocoon of depression into what needs, so desperately, to lead to a new way of being. Something that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Italian friends said in the film during a discussion about finding a word that sums up where they’re from, and which represents themselves was interesting. It made me think a lot about myself: Elizabeth Gilbert said that she was a writer, but she was told that was what she did, not who she was. Maybe, someone said, she was a woman in search of a word. I kind of couldn’t stop crying at that, because it sums up my emotions now. Coming home to a place that is stagnant (my word for where I live), back to a profession that is ‘lecturer’, which is what I do, has made me think about that line again. Maybe ‘teacher’ is more what I am – and I think there’s a big difference between ‘teacher’ and ‘lecturer’; ‘writer’ is definitely who I am. One of my friends tells me I should be happy because my being a lecturer in creative writing enables me to be a paid writer, but he doesn’t get that it’s not who I am. It’s not the same, although his words, of course, have some logic to them.

So although I’m probably not going to run off to Italy to find myself, tempting though that is (I’d get on a plane right now if I could!), I am going to search for my word, and live it before it’s too late and I’ve lost it forever.

Some (short) Musings on Self-(re)discovery

“And you? When will you begin that long journey into yourself?” ― Rumi

 

“Why escape your intended purpose by copying and trying to be someone else? You will discover who you were meant to be only after you have shown confidence being yourself.” ― Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem

 

Every day is a day of recovery. Every day I learn more about myself. It’s a long process and I’m unlearning a lot of previously learned ‘truths’, and while I’m still not entirely well – and what does ‘wellness’ really mean, since it’s a continuum that takes in states of illness-wellness, as proposed by Dr. John Travis in the 1970’s, who stated that ‘Wellness is a process, never a static state’ (link below). I think that wellness for me will involve developing a sense of inner peace, a sense of having and doing things in life that are nurturing, rather than damaging.  My recovery is a process, that continuum of illness-wellness, but I now have to try to work more along the wellness side of the continuum, because I’ve accepted that I may never be entirely well, and that’s okay, it really is, because this kind of knowledge is power. A movement to the side of wellness. As long as I can feel joy, love the people I’m with, do the things I like to do with a sense of pleasure and achievement, and be appreciative of the good things in my life, then that really is fine. I want to write more about that here. To chronicle what gives me joy, whether that be new writing, talking about new or established places that uplift me, or watching and writing about nature, wherever I may find it.

I’ve always been self-reflective, I know myself very well. But this recent breakdown (and it is still relatively recent and I’m still in the healing process) has taught me more about myself than anything that’s gone before. I think this was and still is elicited by an extreme fear of it happening again, and fear can be a great motivator. So I’ve forced myself to look deeper, to really continue, rather than begin, that long journey into myself, in order to recognize and acknowledge the things that that help me, and the things that harm me. I’ve learned that I must accept more of what nurtures me, and can, in a positive way, reject things that cause harm, and to start to build my life into a model of something I can feel comfortable with and excited by.

This will involve a lot of changes, and change, for many of us with any kind of anxiety disorder, is really scary. Up until now, utter terror has kept me static. I still feel that I’m static, mostly because I feel as though I can’t properly move on and plan for my life without certain situations, over which I have limited control, have been resolved. I can’t quite say, ‘screw it, I’m going to do it anyway’, and I’m very aware of time slipping through my fingers. But maybe fear is just an excuse. I have to explore this stasis. What, exactly, other than fear, is holding me back? Why am I allowing myself to remain in situations that are bad for me?

Suzy Kassem’s words hit home to me when I found them. I was searching for quotes about self-discovery for this post, and it occurred to me – as I’ve said in other posts – that I’ve spent my whole life trying not to be me. Reading Kassem’s words put that in clearer focus for me. I’ve copied and tried to be someone else, but I don’t know who that someone else really was. I guess it was someone prettier, thinner, more intelligent, less afraid, more confident than I’ve ever been. Now I think that person doesn’t exist, except in the nagging and critical depths of my nagging imagination. So now I have to consider – who am I meant to be? That looping question – what is ‘myself’? – will be another focus of my continued journey along that continuum. I’m scared of that journey, and I’m scared of what lies at the end of it – although I guess the journey itself will never be at an end.

Life is not some three act hero’s quest fantasy. Life is real, painful, joyous, chaotic, and ever-changing. I really really want to live it to the full before it’s too late.

 

What is Wellness? at http://www.wellpeople.com/WhatIsWellness.aspx

 

Suzy Kassem at https://suzykassem.com

Holiday Interlude 2: Cromer to Wells-next-the-Sea 18/07/2019

Cromer to Wells-next-the-Sea 18/07/2019

We decide to go to Wells-next-the-Sea today, Thursday. It’s a place I have special memories of from when I was a child of about nine years old, fifty-three years ago. Which is terrifying. How old I’m getting! I have a black and white picture of me posing by a fishing boat holding an oar. I’m obviously enjoying posing for the camera. I don’t know where that photo is now, but thinking about it brings back a feeling of warmth and nostalgia. Then a couple of years ago I visited with Keith and it was weird, surreal, the way the light and heat haze played off the sand and water, and the dark shapes of the seals on the opposite bank, and people apparently moving amongst them like ghosts, although they were further out, and the poor baby seal, decapitated and decaying as it floated along in the shallow shoreline waves, weirdly reminiscent of a story I wrote about that beach, which added to the strangeness and surreality.

So we decide to go again, although the sky looks heavy today, and some rain is forecast, but not much, and not in the afternoon. We’ll have lunch when we get there, and then walk down the causeway to the beach. I’m excited, looking forward to experiencing maybe that same sense of strangeness, all the while aware that you can’t go back. That you can’t recreate the past.

The bus is full of people, and again I note that the that the average age of the locals around here seems to be sixty five and above. I’m sixty-two but I feel no fellowship with these people whatever. I feel younger than that, and again, feel a sense of terror of my ageing, of my inexorable and rapid run into older age. I think that maybe working with younger people keeps me young, or maybe it’s because I’m a ‘creative’ with my mind constantly throwing up new ideas, constantly questioning my life, my environment, and the way I live within both. I balk at becoming like these people. Old in mind, it feels, as they sit passively, as well as in body. But I know nothing about any of them, and ‘m judging, projecting my own horrors of ageing, and I try to stop. Try to concentrate on the views to my right.

As we travel along the coast road I’m again mesmerised by the constant presence of the sea, the opalescent line of light that divides land from water. It’s a kind of light seen only on the coast, and I love it. It feels rejuvenating and life-giving. It starts raining pretty soon into the journey, and I don’t mind. Despite my earlier gloomy thoughts, I’m just happy to be out and about.

We get to Sheringham and the bus pretty much empties. Maybe the people from Cromer do their shopping here, who knows, although Sheringham is also pretty quiet, appears not yet really part of the modern world. So it seems to me anyway.

The bus continues its journey. We pass the Sheringham golf course, behind which the sea glistens. On and on, the rain coming down harder. Although I’m enjoying watching the rain wash the countryside, I hope it stops by the time we get to Wells. We drive through a place called Saltash, and I get a bit excited because we’re coming into an area of salt marshes, and there they are to my right, stretching out as far as I can see, right down to the distant shore. This is the home of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve, apparently a wonderful place to observe birds. I watch somewhat wistfully as we drive past the visitor centre, where one man gets off, fully equipped with binoculars and long lens camera. A little wistfully, I wonder what he might see. Hope we see something interesting. Through Cley and past the road that leads down to Blakeney quay, where you can go on seal watching trips. That would be fun, I think. Through lots of other picturesque villages, past the Wells and Walsingham light railway that we visited with Lawrie and Auro on Tuesday.

Down the final road to Wells-next-the-Sea and off the bus. It’s stopped raining.  Hooray! We walk down Staithe Street, the main thoroughfare, looking briefly at the small independent shops and then, through a gap, I see the sea. We walk through the gap and the panorama opens up. Just what I’ve been waiting for. Again, I feel that sense of rejuvenation. Of restoration and rebirth. We look for somewhere to eat lunch. After asking for advice, we go on board the Albatross, a permanently moored wherry that serves Dutch pancakes. I’ve never had one before. Intriguing. But better than the idea of the food is the view. So we take a seat on the deck, order our food and watch birds at the same time.

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I spot a cormorant on the beach next to a metal framed sculpture of a horse. It has caught a fish, which it gulps down, and then it holds out its wings in that weird way that cormorants do, and dries itself off. There are many black-headed gulls squabbling all around. On the far shore what looks like a greater black-backed gull stands, looking stern and slightly intimidating. I hear the haunting piping of an oystercatcher. I can’t see it yet, but it sounds close. I use the binoculars and train them onto where I think the sound is coming from and there it is on the far sand bank, sitting in the grass. I’m overjoyed. I don’t have a favourite bird as such, that wouldn’t be fair, but oystercatchers are special to me with their black and white plumage, their red eyes and long red beak. I just love them.

Lunch comes and it’s delicious. A Dutch pancake with chorizo, mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh basil. It looks like a pizza, but the pancake base is soft and soaks up the oil from the chorizo and tomatoes. Yummy.

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We finish lunch and as we walk towards Staithe Street (it’s started raining a little so we decide to go for shelter until it stops), I’m distracted  by the ubiquitous black-headed gulls squabbling by the quayside over chips. I watch them for a while, loving their antics and their boldness. I guess they’ve become accustomed to the easy meals that people feed them.  Then we go into the Wells visitor centre, where Keith buys me a pair of glass earrings the colour and opacity of opal, my favourite stone.

 

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When we get outside, it’s stopped raining again – indeed the sun is peeking out from behind the clouds – and so we decide to go down to the causeway, which is actually a sea wall built against the encroaching high tide flooding, about a mile long, leading to the beach. I feel a tingle of anticipation as we walk, remembering how it felt last time, how the beach opened out to that wide open strange space. But there are distractions on the walk this time that I didn’t really notice before, or which maybe weren’t there. On my right hand side, just beyond the scrubby grass, bushes and wildflowers that lay just back from the shoreline of the sea channel, the tide is out. Small fishing boats, some with masts, sails furled up, sit empty and apparently discarded. I wonder what they’re like when they’re in use, sailing on the open sea, catching mackerel and bass, evidently the most common food fish in these waters. I imagine fishermen from a past time hauling in the nets, and smile to myself. As always, my imagination is getting the better of me.

 

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But it’s not my imagination when I spot an oystercatcher digging in the intertidal mud. It pulls a sand-worm from its hiding space, washes it in sea water, then gulps it down. Again, again, again. I am transfixed by it, watch it while Keith readies himself to take a photo, and then another. As I continue to watch, I become aware of more black and white, red-billed bodies spaced along the shoreline. Quite a lot of oystercatchers, I realise with a thrill that lifts my heart. I can’t stop smiling. I take my own photos but my phone camera can’t catch any details. I decide to ask Keith to share his photos later, so I always have a visual to help me remember.

We pass the oystercatchers, and then I spy a brown mottled something digging amongst the stones with a long curved bill. I stop. Again. This walk is barely a third done and we’ve stopped half a dozen times already, completely distracted by the view and the birds. I take Keith’s  binoculars (I stupidly forgot to bring my own!) and spot the curlew. It’s on its own, absolutely engrossed in feeding. Another photo opportunity, of course. This isn’t a managed reserve but it’s giving us so many wildlife gifts. Above us the martins and swallows fly by like mini fighter planes. It’s entrancing. We leave the curlew behind, and I remark that we have to get a move on, that we can’t keep stopping and Keith agrees but of course we do stop. More oystercatchers, another couple of curlews. Then, wading in the sea channel, an egret, its feathers brilliant white against the blue water. Of course we stop. We’ve seen egrets so many times, but it’s always something special, watching them fishing.

 

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On we go, pausing again and again, but eventually we come almost to the end of the causeway. We see a lot of gulls in the near distance flying around a sandbank on the far side of the shoreline. It’s partially fenced around, and we see a notice telling us that there are nesting birds here, and the area must not be disturbed. I remember this from last time, and feel another jolt of excitement as we come to the realisation that the noisy, squabbling gulls we’re watching are in fact a breeding colony of kittiwakes. They’re pretty gulls, smaller than herring gulls, short-beaked, with a ‘kind’ face, soft grey plumage on their wings, and black wing tips, black legs. We spend ages watching them as they wheel around, hardly ever still. There are juveniles amongst them, distinguished from the adults by mottled spotted markings.

After a while we leave them, pass the cafe and visitor facilities, and climb the small dune that leads to the beach. At the top, I stop, a little confused by what I’m seeing. It’s completely different from when we were last here. So different, it’s like another beach entirely. In fact, apart from the sandy expanse on the other side of the sea channel, it hardly looks like a beach at all from this side, and at first I think the sand has been covered by grass. A man next to me, having overheard my remarks, tells me it’s low tide, and I realise that what I think is grass is in fact brilliant green seaweed. I can’t help but feel just a little disappointed, but then shake it off, and acknowledge that this is a different kind of beauty, lush and vibrant.

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There are gulls and oystercatchers in the channel, and on the far shore, where last year there was that eerie heat haze, our view is unobscured. There are no sandbanks, no seals, no people, but there is a distant pool with numerous birds clustered around it. Binoculars show more oystercatchers and curlews, and again I’m struck by the richness of wildlife in this area, which is also different from last year, where bird-watching wasn’t as productive as this has been. Something flits really fast in front of me. It looks different from the usual black headed gulls, and I think it might be a tern. I’m excited for a while but then what I think is the same something flies back, and it is indeed a black headed gull. I’m disappointed – seeing a tern would complete my want-to-see list. But oh well. I’ve accepted that today is not last year. That today is its own day, with its own offerings. We walk along the beach for a while, aware we can’t stay long because of the bus times, and then, there it is again, flying very differently from a gull, almost flitting, and it’s smaller, more slender, and sharper looking than a gull, and I notice it has, in the short time I see it, a small black flat ‘cap’ on its head. This is definitely a tern, and despite the fleeting time it was in my line of vision, I’m elated. As we leave the beach I keep on looking back, but it doesn’t reappear.

We walk back along the causeway, trying not to stop and be distracted, and mostly we’re successful. Walking back through the town, we chat about what we’ve seen, how privileged we feel, and how we wish with all our hearts that the tide of human encroachment and our destruction of nature could just be stopped. Now. Right now. It makes me feel angry again, and a little hopeless, but again, I tell myself that I can’t think like that because I want to appreciate it. And I have. And I do. But I long to live in a world where we live in peace alongside the beautiful creatures we share this world with. And I crave, even more strongly than before, to live by the sea on a beach as beautiful as the ones we’ve visited in the past few days.

We board the bus and travel back, and I watch the countryside go by, yearning already for the marshlands and sea strands, and hoping they’ll still be there when I next visit.

 

Holiday Interlude 1. Cromer To Titchwell Marsh and the Beach

*Note: not sure what’s happened to the changes in font size, but I can’t work out how to change it!*

Our first day in North Norfolk and we’re picked up by our friends Lawrie and Auro and driven off into the Norfolk countryside, bound for the RSPB Titchwell Marsh nature reserve. I’m really excited. I love visiting bird reserves, and who knows what we might see today? And we’re going to the coast. I’m obsessed with being by the sea!

As we drive on, I’m impressed by how fresh and lush the landscape is despite the recent lack of rain. I watch flocks of wood pigeons flying across the roads or sitting on wires, white wing bars and white-ringed necks flashing in flight. Trees hang their boughs over us like bowers, shade and then brilliant light and then shade again. Lawrie, being a steam train enthusiast, requests that we stop at the original site of the Wells and Walsingham Light Railway, so we do. At first, it just looks like a car park, with an un-weeded flower, which we learn has been allowed to grow wild to feed the bees!

Around the corner there’s an old station house housing a tiny cafe, and a shop that sells independently made and sourced jewellery and craftwork. Bought a card with a beautiful watercolour print of a fox (I collect pictures of foxes) and a pair of green dichromatic earrings that look like tiny iridescent beetles. Place is almost empty of people, but alive with birdsong. Goldfinches singing their hearts out in ‘newly painted’ (thanks to Lawrie for a great phrase!) plumage. Tiny little bundles of colour and melody. Swallows swooping overhead.

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Back on the road after coffee and snacks. Tantalising views of the coast. Flat and touched with pale gold in the noonday sunlight. Flashes of silver, silver-blue , blue, and white, the sea shining. I wait in anticipation amongst the silly and entertaining chatter in the car.

The journey is long but not at all unpleasant. Eventually at around 1.15 pm, we arrive at Titchwell Marsh. It’s not what I expect on immediate impressions. As we drive slowly toward the car park, the road is gladed, full of light and shadow, and I wonder where the sea is. We park and go toward the visitor centre, where we eat lunch. I have a bacon and Brie toastie. It’s hot, unctuous, Brie melting and dripping onto the plate. The bacon is divine – I haven’t had bacon in so long, and it’s just delicious – smoky and salty and meaty. Everything I want just then. Behind us in the cafe is a DVD playing on loop about the wildlife around the area. I become impatient, want to get going. The lady who runs the the cafe tells us there are spoonbills out on the lagoon. I can’t believe it but I want to see them if it’s true.

We start the walk round after everyone has finally finished their meals. At first we walk through a lot of trees and bushes, but then we come to a small lake. It’s so beautiful, rushes all around, the sound of birds twittering in the bushes. We see a female black cap, a small brown birdwith a reddish brown cap, rather than a black one, which the males have. The pool gains more of my attention, as I spot dragonflies, and watch them whirling around like biplanes. I think I see Emperors, with their brilliant green bodies, desmoiselles, and possibly a Brown Hawker. Auro thinks she sees a Norfolk hawker, but who knows? It’s difficult to identify them, when they’re so fast.

Butterflies are numerous. We spot: large and small Whites, Painted Lady, Comma, Small Blue, Tortoiseshell, Ringlet, Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood, Comma, Gatekeepers, Small Heath, and, possibly, Wall.

Arrived at Patsy’s reedbed, a most beautiful lake. Views across the water to a line of trees where a Marsh harrier briefly shows itself. The lake is alive with mallard, coots, moorhens, swans with their cygnets, and I hear the somewhat creepy giggling of the little grebe. We stay for quite a while just watching through our binoculars, relaxing in the hot sunshine and enjoying the absolute stillness, broken only by the call of coots and ducks.

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Further on. Walking to the Freshwater Marsh. Views of reed and other warblers flitting in and out of the reeds. Whole place alive with birdsong and butterflies. It’s a joyous place to be, wide blue skies and hot sunshine above us. In the far distance I see the change of light that indicates we’re approaching the sea. I can’t wait to be on a beach. But first. The Marsh. The Marsh is alive with birds, mostly shining white in the sunlight. At first I think it’s all gulls. But then I look. And look again. There, in the near distance, an avocet! It’s beautiful although beautiful doesn’t really describe its elegance, its delicate structure, its almost fragile body.

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My eyes fill with sudden tears. I’m overcome with emotion so strong I can’t explain it or control it, and the emotion intensifies as I look more closely at the lagoon and realise that what I thought were gulls are in fact dozens and dozens of avocets, all feeding in the shallows, and I have to cover my eyes with my sunglasses so the others can’t see my tears. We go into the hide and watch for a while. We spy the usual suspects, coots, and ducks, but among them, always the avocets. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m ecstatic. There are bar-tailed godwits too, rufous, wading and trawling for food. More mallards. Shelducks. Greylag and Canada geese. And right at the back, by a tiny island in the lagoon, seven spoonbills. Seven! I never thought to see spoonbills. They have, to me, always been exotic, evocative of tropical places I will never see. And yet here they are, in Norfolk. A true wealth of birds. I am blessed.

Eventually we move away from the lagoon, onto the path that leads to the sea. To our right there is the Volunteer Marsh. I don’t know why it’s call that, but it’s yet another kind of environment, not lagoon, not dry, but not what I’d call a marsh either. There are not so many birds here, but I spy a lone redshank in one of the brackish streams. It stands there, unaware of being watched, and again, I’m emotional. What is about this place? Is it the serenity, the purity of the environment? It’s a fact that being in nature is so beneficial to one’s mental health as you leave the hustle and bustle and stress of the workaday humdrum life that so many of us find detrimental to our mental health, and that certainly seems true today. Whatever, I love it. I bathe in it, as I bathe in the sun and sea-salt air.

I look into the distance. On the far island bank there are quite a lot of birds. When I look through the binoculars, I see that there are quite a few of the ubiquitous black headed gulls, those noisy squawking wheeler dealers of the gull world. I’ve never really appreciated them until this holiday. Now, I have really grown to enjoy them, and their squabbling natures. But amongst them, I notice some of my favourite birds. Oystercatchers! I love oystercatchers, love their black and white plumage and long red bills. Once again I’m ecstatic. What must it be like to live in a permanent state of joy? Is it something that could be sustained, or would all this, too, pall and become mundane? Right now, I can’t believe that. I can’t believe I would ever be bored with this sight, with the closeness I feel to the natural world. I’m angry, suddenly, that this is being eroded. That we’re destroying these natural habitats that bring such joy to us, and upon which the wildlife that helps make it so beautiful rely. I want to wrap it up, protect it, but accept that right now, I must simply appreciate it, wonder at its beauty. I am privileged to be here.

We leave behind the marsh, walk on. The ground beneath our feet is becoming sandy, and I know, with increased heartbeat, that we’re close to reaching the beach. At last! There’s a tidal marsh to pass by – nothing much to see there – and then we’re in the dunes. On proper sand, and I can see the sea. I want to cry (again!) with joy. We walk through the dunes onto a beach that’s long, flat, sandy and littered with shells, especially empty razor shells, of which there are loads. Best of all, it’s practically deserted. This is what I’ve waited for. This is the place I’ve craved to see. Crave to be. close my eyes and soak in the sun, the breeze, the sound of the sea. I walk toward the shoreline, almost unaware of the others, although I’m talking to them. The sea is calm, lapping gently at the sand line. I look to my left. There is nothing but beach for what seems like miles. To my right there’s a far away headland, upon which a single house sits alone. I wish with all my heart that I could one day live in a place like this. Even as I think it, I know it wouldn’t be easy, if only because I can’t drive, and you’d need a car to be here. But what if…? My heart twists. I want it so badly.

Overhead, dark clouds are gathering, the light is dappled gold and white and grey, streams of sunlight breaking and piercing through the clouds. By now it’s late afternoon and the birds are going to wherever they go to roost. The lagoons, I guess. A flock of waders that I can’t identify go over first. And then my heart lifts again as another flock flies across. I hear the familiar poignant cries of the oystercatchers, many of them in aerial formation, their wings flashing black and white Vs. I watch them as they head toward the lagoon.

We stay for a while. I watch the way the light plays on the sand and the sea, and then it’s time to go. The reserve will close soon. We walk back the way we came, with a brief diversion into the big hide by the main lagoon. We watch the avocets again for a while as they feed and play. In the background there are flocks of redshank, another gorgeous sight. Again, I think, I don’t want to leave here. But leave we must, and I’m grateful for what I’ve seen today. I want to live by the sea. I want to make it happen. I want to be filled by the joy I see here. For now I can’t think of the restrictions, the practicalities.

For now I just want to dream of peace, serenity, the sand and sea and sky, and the birds.

 

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https://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/reserves-a-z/titchwell-marsh/

An Interlude: On the Joyousness of Birds

“She decided to free herself, dance into the wind, create a new language. And birds
fluttered around her, writing “yes” in the sky.”
―Monique Duval
“Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.”
― Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice
I am an amateur birdwatcher. For me, there are few things more enjoyable than to go into a free and open space with my binoculars, and just observe, and wonder. Birds help to heal me. I watch them, flying so effortlessly through the sky, and I wonder at their perfection. Their freedom. My current favourite place to watch birds is RSPB Rainham Marshes, in Purfleet, Essex (http://cut.do/37) . Although it’s bounded by a busy train line, and the A3016, this reserve, in the Thames Estuary, is a marvellous space where the sky seems endless, and where the wet grasslands, marshes and ditches are alive with wildlife. Visiting there is like going on holiday. There’s always something new to look at, and I’ve got into the habit of recording everything I see in a notebook. Here is what I noticed last time I visited, on June 1st. Looking at the list has made me smile on a dull day.
Seen: Avocets and chicks by the Aveley pools. Black headed gulls scrapping and screeching in unruly gangs. Buzzard and marsh harrier hunting overhead. Blue tits and great tits on a bird feeder, and flitting through trees in the woodland area. Canada geese and goslings. Coots with their fuzzy chicks. Ducks: mallard, pochard, shovelers, shelducks. Constantly diving tufted ducks with DA hairdos. Little egrets fishing: do they have any (r)egrets, I wonder? Charms of goldfinches. Herons stalking along hidden ditches, fishing for rudd. Displaying lapwings pee-witting, tumbling and wheeling overhead in the way that reminds me of black and white tea towels flying through the air. Little grebes ducking and diving for their food, their chicks, who swim with them. Moorhens and chicks. Chicks everywhere, in fact. A lone oystercatcher out on the far marsh of the Target pools. Sparrows and starlings, chattering flocks of gossip. Swans (I am afraid of swans) and cygnets, gracefully gliding on calm pools. Reed bunting (initially easy to mistake for a house sparrow) swaying on the top branch of a bush, singing its heart out. Harmonious. Melodious. Heartstopping. A single singing redshank, standing on a post on a single red shanked leg. Bees abuzz. Small blue butterflies dancing in sunlight. Mating white butterflies on the wing. Spotted woodland butterflies spotted in the woodland. Dragonflies looking like biplanes. Blue damselflies, shimmering electric neon, joined in mating hearts.
Heard but not seen: Chiff chaffs chiff-chaffing. The mellow call of the cuckoo, first I’ve ever heard. A song that excites me. A song of summer. In the reeds: Cetti’s warbler; reed warbler. The insane weirdly gibbering laughter of marsh frogs.
Felt: Peace and tranquillity.