These days I rarely post about my experience of being diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer (fondly referred to on this blog as the Massive Inconvenience). That's because I continue to be cancer free, am fit and healthy and, to be honest, cancer is not uppermost in my waking thoughts these days. But . . . I take nothing for granted.
It's not as if my pre-cancer diet was unhealthy but, from the point at which I received the diagnosis, I paid even greater attention to what I was eating and I still do. I chose to give up alcohol and certain foods, including dairy products, because the type of cancer I had was oestrogen dependent and I wanted to avoid anything that would push up my oestrogen levels. I missed cheese but, as neither alcohol nor other dairy foods, such as milk and butter, had figured highly in what I ate or drank, going without was not much of a sacrifice. I also stopped eating anything that contained sugar, which I am now convinced is the devil's food. (Did you know that sugar consumption in the UK has gone up by 31 per cent since 1990 and that the average Brit now eats 1.25lbs a week of the wretched stuff? Yikes!) That's stopped as in routinely; there has been the odd glass of champagne at celebratory events and an occasional cake, but only very occasional. Yes, I enjoyed them at the time; no, I don't want them every day or even every week.
Lest anyone should think I lead a hairshirt culinary and dietary existence, nothing could be further from the truth. I love good food and I've always enjoyed cooking for family and friends - and for myself; I just don't want to eat stuff that does my body no favours. Also, as a woman of well over a certain age, I'm on a tight post-60 budget, so I can't and don't spend a fortune on food. But a healthy diet does not have to be expensive; nor does it require spending hours in the kitchen. The phenomenal success of A Girl Called Jack, a brilliant blog about eating well on a minimal budget, shows what is possible and provides a welcome relief from the increasing and often ludicrous excesses of far too many television food programmes.
The photo above in case you are wondering, is a double-page spread from Nigel Slater's Tender: Volume 1, which I picked up for a snip (ie £5, that's about 1.54 US dollars) at a local charity shop on Friday. Pristine, still in its wrapper and seemingly unused. A great, fat book, by one of my favourite food writers, it's full of wonderful things to do with delicious veg.
That's Arnold Bennett in How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. The quotation continues: 'We have, and we have always had, all the time there is.' The Zen-ness of this notion appeals.
I shall print Mr Bennett's words and pin them above my desk or write them, by hand, on a small piece of paper, then fold the paper and slip it into my wallet, which is what I used to do, years ago, with quotations that made me stop and think.
So, I am at last easing my way back into blogging, which I have missed but which I could not do - because every time I thought of something to write about, I then dismissed the subject matter as trivial. I knew why and there was more than one reason. I knew that the feelings would pass, in time, and they have. I just had to let time do its work, and it did. I knew that I would see or hear something that would make me think, 'Ah yes, that is the something.'
It turned out to be the sound of bleating, on a visit to my Smallholder Friend last week. She has six Castlemilk Morit ewes and all but one of them had just lambed.
Violet - still waiting:
Abigail, the boldest of the ewes, has already given birth; she is a very protective mama:
Abigail is just as watchful of the other lambs - and of me trying to taking photographs without disturbing the flock. She's just checking . . .
I knew it would take something special to jolt me out of my seeming inability to write anything at all in recent weeks. I'd reached a point at which everything I thought of writing was dismissed almost immediately as trivial. Well, that is one of the stages of bereavement and one simply has to wait for the leaden feelings to lift and get on with life while waiting for them to move away from centre stage.
And, yesterday, there was something special.
It's five and a half years since I included one of Jackie Morris's exquisite paintings in this blogpost; discovering her work at that time was the source of immense pleasure. Since then I've followed and greatly enjoyed Jackie's delightful blog, We Three, Ginger Cats' Tales. There is now, sadly, only one ginger cat remaining - the redoubtable Elmo - but he and his elderly tabby companion, Max, have been joined by two Bengal kittens . . .
Apart from the feline tales, We Three and Jackie's other blog keep admirers of her work (her words are as inspriring as her paintings) up to date with what she is doing and, at the moment, she is very much on the road. As luck would have it, that road led yesterday to one of my favourite shops, the wonderful Number Seven, run by Jan, her daughter Davina and Davina's husband, Christopher, in nearby Dulverton. Jackie was spending the afternoon at Number Seven, giving readings, discussing her work, and signing copies of her books . . .
including the latest, East of the Sun, West of the Moon.
All of which explains why, an hour ahead of the first scheduled reading, two women of a certain age settled themselves by the fire in Jan's kitchen behind the shop, while Jackie read us The Seal Children, her first book*. I felt about five years old again, lost in the wonder of words and magical illustrations.
And we talked about books, painting, writing, children, travel, cats, the beauty of the Pembrokeshire coast, dragons . . .
and Tibetan bowls. I happened to mention cheetahs and told Jackie about the sanctuary I had visited in South Africa, where I spent time with an adult male cheetah and had fallen in love with these remarkable big cats.
'Have you seen my cheetahs and cherries paintings?' asked Jackie. She showed me one. That's it, I thought, I'm starting a cheetah painting fund.
If there had not been two dear dogs waiting patiently at home for their afternoon walk, I could happily have stayed by the fire listening to stories until teatime.
As I left the shop, carrying a precious parcel of signed books, I saw Jackie's van parked outside Number Seven and just had to smile.
At four o'clock, the dogs and I walked up to the top of our hill and then had half an hour of what we call 'extreme retrieving' - the object being to tire out the seemingly tireless Miss P; even though it was wet and muddy, I didn't mind one jot. It had been such an uplifting day and a privilege to spend time with someone as gifted as Jackie. But not just gifted, warm, funny and approachable too.
By this morning, the emptiness of the past two and a half months had gone; the sun shone and the dogs and I enjoyed a long walk by the river. We went up to the hill again this afternoon and I stood in the top field and did a 360 degree turn, looking across to all the other hills, disappearing behind each other, in every direction and into the distance, just to remind myself of the beauty of this place. The dogs romped and rolled in the sun and were as happy as I was.
So, thank you Jackie and thanks also to Jan, Davina and Christopher for a memorable Saturday and for inspiring me to start writing again.
If you are visiting Exmoor, make a point of going to Dulverton and calling in at Number Seven - tell Jan I sent you - and don't miss Toy Ahoy!,their shop in Minehead.
On Monday, my cousin, his wife and I made the same journey from the South West of England to Wales, to the same village church where family and friends had gathered little more than a fortnight ago to say farewell to my niece. And, just as it had on the day of my niece's funeral, the sun poured down on us but even more brightly. It was the sort of weather that one always wants on the first day of a holiday; we could hardly believe that we were now on our way to say farewell to my niece's mother, my dear sister-in-law, whom my cousin and I had known for almost sixty years, since we were children.
But the ancient church gathered us all in and gave us time and space in which we could both grieve and celebrate a long life, a life well lived and a life full of love. The four of us who spoke in her memory, each had our own particular and precious recollections but, without any prior conferring, we were as one in recounting her great loves: family, friends, home, dogs - and all animals and wildlife, music, laughter, jokes, cooking, parties and entertaining. The doors of her home - and her heart - were always open and, over the years, she had welcomed so many across the threshold of both.
One of the passions we shared was music and it was my sister-in-law who introduced me, when I was still very young, to classical music. Her great musical loves included Italian opera, choral music, and the tenor voice; she shared those loves with me, a gift that has lasted a lifetime. But she made music too: playing the piano was the source of much joy and was her escape from the demands of everyday life.
This being Wales, the music at her funeral was very fine indeed, uplifting us and soothing us like balm: as a congregation, we sang Psalm XXIII, set to Crimond and that great Welsh anthem, Cwm Rhonnda, (Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer). My sister-in-law had sung with the Monmouth Choral Society, many of whose members, including close friends, formed the choir who sang her to her rest - Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus during the reflection and, at the closing, the Sarum Prayer, God be in my head, set to music by Walford Davies. The simplest of words, centuries old, the profoundest of meanings. It mattered not who was a believer and who was not; the beauty of the music gave us a safe harbour for our shared tears and sadness and, above all, a setting in which to give great thanks for her life and for the love we had for her and she for us.
So, this, for my unforgettable sister-in-law, now resting at peace with the two of her beloved children who went before her.
I thought I might write something about my niece's funeral, which took place a week ago, about the gentleness of the words uttered in the country church where we said our farewells to her, about the sweetness of the songs sung in her memory, about the tidal wave of love that rose from those who had come to remember her and which, we hoped, would help to carry her children through the saddest day of their lives.
I would have written of these things if the unimaginable had not happened. On Tuesday, her mother - my brother's wife of more than half a century, the wife whose carer he has been for the past two years - died in her sleep. In the past year, my brother has lost two of his children and his wife.
Words do not usually fail me but, for once, I find myself struggling to find words to try to make sense of it all but there are no words; there is no sense to be made.
All I can do in quiet moments, is set down my memories of my vibrant, funny, loving sister-in-law, set them down before time begins to dilute them.