Monday, 31 December 2012

Endings and Beginnings

We have been going to the beach every day since we got back from England. It gives the days a real holiday feeling, which is daft because we live within sight of the sea, and it's only a five minute walk to the water. But even so, we don't go that way every day. Usually I go to the woods.

I will go to the woods again soon, but not yet.

Distant Benbulben and Knocknarea across the bay

We had to pick up a trailer-load of logs from Charlie, so we went to Portavad, a beach we rarely visit as it's further away. It was beautiful. Quiescent. Perhaps because it isn't imbued with memories of other walks.
A ghost-less beach.
We went there again today, to take the trailer back.

It's where the sea comes into the estuary at Ballysadare, so the roar of the ocean is muted, and the water laps calmly along the shell-littered shore. A short distance out, seals flop on the sandbanks, and Sligo's iconic mountains lounge just the other side of the bay.

There was no one else there.
A spit of land, rough with marram grass, stretches for a mile or so, the sea and the beach on one side, a shallow lagoon and pasture on the other. Cattle and sheep graze there, and one or two fishing boats keel into the muddy flats when the tide is out.

One-dog Badminton

Model Dog, true to her name, is not interested in the sheep or the cattle. She spent a good while tossing a piece of dried up seaweed around and catching it, like a shuttlecock, trashing the smooth sand.

Afterwards, she watched the geese and oystercatchers along the shoreline, and stared intently across the water, no doubt seeing the dogs and walkers strolling the wide beach on the far side of the bay better than we could. To us, they were just moving dots below the sharp, sun-drenched dunes under Knocknarea.

Beautiful Model Dog

It was very peaceful as we strolled along, picking up pieces of sea glass and looking through our binoculars at the heron, the distant walkers and a lone seal periscoping up through the swell in the middle of the bay. Two men were painting the hull of their fishing boat in the lagoon.

A quiet way to end the year.
A year that, like all years, has been a bit of a lucky dip.

On the way back, a rainbow arched its way across the bay and plunged into the sea. There are many rainbows here, but they never cease to be special and they always catch at me, always make me stop and look.
They are filled with promise. They light up the heart with hope.

Early this morning, as I walked through the cool, damp orchard, something crunched lightly under my feet.
It was the tips of the new daffodil leaves, piercing up through the grass.
And under the copper beech, the first snowdrops are already in flower.
'Nothing is certain, only the certain Spring.' *
The certain Spring - and the belief that no matter how hopeless things seem, there is always hope.

Happy New Year

The first snowdrops

* from The Burning of the Leaves by Lawrence Binyon

Sunday, 30 December 2012

A Suffolk Christmas

My sister's 'pet' pheasant.

December, normally one of my happiest months, has been so overshadowed this year, that it seems to have passed me by. But Christmas itself was lovely - truly lovely.
The In-Charge and I flew to England to spend four brief days with my parents, my sister and my brother-in-law, and it was the best thing we could have done.
For one thing it forcibly removed us from the axis point of our very real grief.

They all live in Suffolk, a part of England we have loved for many years - even before first my sister and then my parents moved there. Some of my father's family originally came from Suffolk, and he has happy childhood memories rooted in the county.
When I visited in the spring, it was a dust-bowl that had received only 8mm of rain in three months.
No longer.
The flooded fields visible first from the plane and then driving East from Stanstead were a sight more familiar in the Emerald Isle. My parents, who live in a charming 500 year old weaver's cottage, are fortunately located at the highest point of their village, so water has not been an issue, but my sister, whose own delightful house is probably of similar age, lives in a picturesque country lane beside an ancient ford. Fortunately the building is also raised out of harm's way, but the ford - through which she and others have to pass in order to commune with the outside world - has been in full, and deceptive, spate. In the last few weeks it has seen off not only her car, but also at least two others whose owners mistakenly thought they could cross unscathed.

'Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours' - cars included.

We have only spent two other Christmases in England in the last 19 years, and it was lovely to do so this year. A balm - a much needed balm - to our sore hearts.
And to my delight I found these creations nestling amongst the presents under the Christmas tree.
They were not there as gifts but have apparently - in my extended absence - become part of my parents' yuletide tradition. They were made some years ago by my aunt, my mother's twin.

Oh how I do love knitting!

I don't suppose they quite qualify as guerrilla knitting, but I'm very willing to make an exception!
Although, now I come to think of it, in the politics of the time, I suppose this lot were pretty much all guerrillas!

Especially these guys.

I particularly love the black and white lambs - but then that's not really surprising, is it?

On Boxing Day, or Stephen's Day as I've learned to call it in Ireland, we went for a long walk - on the safe side of the ford - and ended up at the tiny Church of All Saints, lost in a copse of trees in the best Meaulnes tradition.

Built in the 14th and 15th centuries, it was a gem and a delight, decorated throughout with bunches of holly for the recent candlelit carol service. The church was apparently restored to its original medieval glory in 1862, when the changes made in the 17th and 18th centuries were rectified. The whole church was beautiful, from its hammerbeam roof and painted coat of arms to its stained glass windows, but the bits that pleased us all the most were the poppyhead pew ends, each carved with different leaves and fruit. I particularly like knowing who carved them (and everything else in the church) 150 years ago - James Wormald and William Polly. What pleasure it must have given them to create so many beautiful objects.
Some of them are decidedly Christmassey.


And, of course, ivy

And the pear tree, although I didn't see a partridge lurking amongst the leaves.

Works of art, each and every one - quite beautiful.

There may not have been a partridge on the pew, but there is a crow perched on the top of the little spire. Apparently it was put there when the church was renovated again in 2004.

The day was just fading and rain beginning to spit as we arrived back at my sister's house, the pretty lights in the bushes around her windows shining to welcome us home. We sat around the fire and ate far too many delicious mince pies and slices of cake for tea, all washed down with mulled wine or a cuppa according to taste, while Tilly, her new cat, went from lap to lap to be stroked and admired.

What a perfect way to spend Christmas.

Tilly being admired

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Sweet Boys

Oystercatchers on our favourite beach

Yesterday we went to our favourite beach.
It felt like a pilgrimage - difficult. Something to prepare yourself for.
Comforting and painful in equal parts.

The tide was out and oystercatchers clustered on the sand, along with flocks of delicate brown and white birds that I recognise but cannot name. My sister would know what they are.
A lavender grey sky, heavy with rain, paused for us on the horizon, waiting patiently until we left, but the promised wind was already flirting with the dunes, sending scarves of dry sand snaking across the surface of the beach.
No one was there.
No one but ghosts. And us.

Model Dog looked up and down the beach and raced off, but only the wind chased her and finally she walked along tucked between us, the beautiful collar I bought her for Christmas gleaming pink and gold in her camouflage fur. She wasn't sad, just a bit lonely.

We are sad though.
December has been a month full of sorrow, and memories, and gratitude, and loneliness.
We buried Under Dog in the orchard on the 1st of December. He hadn't been well for a long time, and the balance was suddenly tipping the wrong way so that I was no longer sure if enjoyment was uppermost.
We had known it was coming.
It doesn't really help much though, does it - knowing?

We didn't know at the time that it would be our last walk on the beach

But, bad as that was, there was worse to come.

What we didn't know was that Top Dog was only holding on for his brother.
Although I might have known. He's always looked after his twin, right from the start. When they were just little plippys, he'd climb in and lie on top of Under Dog in the basket to keep him safe. (Hence the name, Under Dog.) Such sweet plippys they were. They slept like that for years, until Under Dog had his awful accident and damaged his back. Top Dog never climbed in on top of him again after that.

Thirteen years we had them - and I am grateful for every one, even though time has embedded them so deep in our hearts they can't be removed without taking huge slices of us too.

Sweet plippys

Some unfathomable instinct had warned me that when one of them called time, the other wouldn't want to stay for long on his own. It's why we got Model Dog in May.
But I never dreamed we'd only have ten days grace.

It was very sudden. A quiet, happy Sunday chewing his marrow bone, but then awful pain in the evening which the vet's injections didn't really alleviate. He lay calmly in his basket all night, watching us, obviously uncomfortable, but not distressed. We wondered if he'd swallowed a bit of bone.
We hoped. Too anxious to talk, we just watched and hoped.
The vet met us again at her surgery before first light, and I held his sweet face in my hands as he fell asleep, but the operation only revealed that there was nothing to be done. It wasn't a bit of bone. Our poor Top Dog was bleeding internally from a tumour tangling around his blood vessels and the kindest thing was to kiss him and let him go with our blessing, without waking up.
The kindest thing for him, not for us.

He had seemed so fit and well. Ageing, but fit and well.
But it explained why he hasn't wanted to walk very far recently. Why he'd hide behind my legs when Model Dog was racing and chasing, why he'd handed the responsibility for small jobs over to her - like going out with me to feed the hens.

We buried him next to his brother. Model Dog sat and watched, visibly appalled, as his grave was dug. When we placed him in it, she tried to get in too, and the next day I saw her carry his bone up to the orchard and leave it close to where he lies.

Model Dog and I didn't go to the woods for a week or more afterwards.
I couldn't face it, and still find it difficult. They are there, two black and white ghosts dancing through the trees, racing down every ride, swimming in the river, running along the bank.
They are carefree, full of joy.

Nothing can prepare you for how you will react when something happens. The morning he died, I removed Top Dog's bed from the kitchen because I couldn't bear to see it, perpetually empty. And I sent an email to the family, to my friends, to people I might bump into, because he was so important a figure in our lives that I needed to 'stop the clocks'. Everyone had to be told of his death immediately, so that I wouldn't have to explain later, although I couldn't bring myself to speak to anyone except my own two boys.
But how kind people are. I hadn't thought beyond the ordeal of telling them, and I was more touched than I can say by the kind messages, the texts, cards, emails, even flowers we received during the following days and weeks. Such an outpouring of love and comfort - it has helped so much.

Candles for the Winter Solstice

And on the Winter Solstice - that day when for so many generations our ancestors have reached out from the enclosing darkness to welcome the return of the light - I filled the windowsill with candles in memory of them, in celebration of their years and the joy they brought us, the companionship, the trust, the love - in gratitude for the continuance of them.

They are woven in, woven in. Nothing can remove those we have loved, and truly, it is only ourselves we weep for, not for them, for they 'have slipped the surly bonds of Earth/And danced the skies...' *

But the trouble is, neither of us can quite get used to a world without them.

More than ever, I am grateful for my lovely Model Dog.

A dear friend sent me this poem in the days after Top Dog died.
It made me cry all over again, but it is beautiful, and I think you will like it. It was written by Mary Oliver.

Her Grave  

She would come back, dripping thick water, from the green bog.
She would fall at my feet, she would draw the black skin
from her gums, in a hideous and wonderful smile -
and I would rub my hands over her pricked ears and her cunning elbows,
and I would hug the barrel of her body, amazed at the unassuming
perfect arch of her neck.

It took four of us to carry her into the woods.
We did not think of music,
but, anyway, it began to rain

Her wolfish, invitational,  half pounce.

Her great and lordly satisfaction at having chased something

My great and lordly satisfaction at her splash
of happiness as she barged
through the pitch pines swiping my face with her
wild, slightly mossy tongue.

Does the hummingbird think he himself invented his crimson throat?
 He is wiser than that, I think.

A dog lives fifteen years, if you're lucky.

Do the cranes crying out in the high clouds
think it is all their own music?

A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house, but you
do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the
trees, or the laws which pertain to them.

Does the bear wandering in the autumn up the side of the hill
think all by herself she has imagined the refuge and the refreshment
of her slumber?

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the
smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know
almost nothing.

Does the water snake with his backbone of diamonds think
the black tunnel on the bank of the pond is a palace
of his own making?

She roved ahead of us through the fields, yet would come back, or
wait for me, or be somewhere

Now she is buried under the pines. 

Nor will I argue it, or pray for anything but modesty, and
not be angry.

Through the trees there is the sound of the wind, palavering.

The smell of the pine needles, what is it but a taste
of the infallible energies?

How strong was her dark body?
How apt is her grave place.

How beautiful is her unshakable sleep.

the slick mountains of love break
over us

Mary Oliver


How apt are their grave places indeed.
It is where they loved to be. It is where I love to be.

My brother wrote:

'What a very special orchard you have now, and for a long time. 
May every season you walk there bring you more peace.
And now you have Model Dog, in the nick of time.
And God's Good Grace, all the time.
Love and love and love.
Sorry I can't offer more but I know you have been blessed and you will be again.'

Amen to that.
Blessed indeed.
Farewell, sweet boys.

* from High Flight by John Gillespie Magee Jr


Monday, 17 December 2012


The winner of the wonderful Talentui Gift Box is Life on the Bog.

The winner was randomly selected.

I hope you enjoy your lovely skin care products!