Dances with Goats

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This week I was walking home and met a couple of cats. The first sauntered across the pavement, arched its back, yowled and invited me to fuss it. I can’t help but feel honoured when a cat deigns to talk to me so I stopped and stroked it but within seconds it got bored and wandered off to find someone else. Later, when I reached the golf course at the back of our house, a second cat darted out of the long grass and wound itself round my feet.

At the moment I have no animals of my own but there was a time when I had rather a lot. There were cats, dogs, chickens, geese, goats, and from time to time some lambs and pigs. We had a bit of land and in the morning I would lead the two goats down to the tangled woods where they would browse contentedly all day amongst the brambles. In the evening I would bring them back to their shed and lock them up for the night. That was the general plan but sometimes life didn’t go smoothly and I’d get distracted and forget to collect them. Then I’d wake up in the small hours and lie there feeling guilty. Goats hate getting cold and wet, so eventually my conscience would propel me out in my dressing gown; across the dark field and through the gate by the stream. There, Gwyneth and Mirabel would appear from amongst the shadowy, crowded trees, full of curiosity. What inevitably followed was a merry dance as I attempted to attach them to my rope and they did their best to trip me up.

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Life’s a bit different twenty years on. Not only do I have no animals, but the children have grown up, and I live in a city. Several times recently I’ve crept out in the dark in my dressing gown but this has been for entirely urban reasons. The garage in our last house didn’t lock properly and as there had been a spate of petty burglaries we used to drive the car down the back alley and park it across the garage door to block it off. A few times we forgot and had to go out late at night to do it. Each time as I walked along the alley back to the house I’d remember the goats and be grateful that I no longer had to get involved in a moonlit rope dance. All I had to do was park my car, lock it and go back to my nice warm bed.

My joy at no longer having to do this, makes me wonder why I did it in the first place. I liked the idea of keeping animals and raising our own meat in an idyllic country setting. But the cold, muddy reality was a challenge. It did create a rich mine of family memories which we all relive when we get together, but I do wonder if I might have been more ‘me’ if I’d done something else.

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Often life doesn’t allow us to have free choice, but there are mixed difficulties in even getting to the starting point of knowing what we want. It’s all too easy to get stuck in a role that bends us out of shape. Sometimes we’re not honest with ourselves. We might aim for a fantasy lifestyle, or make choices that are driven by how we want others to see us. I look back at the goat days and wonder whether I knew myself at all. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve started to remember what I love and to explore what I really want. The treats have played an unexpected part in this. They’ve been experiments in identity.

Some of the things I’ve done have forced me to confront the truth that I’m not brave, sporty or good at sewing. I never was and I may as well accept now that it’s unlikely to change. Other treats have reinforced that I love films, cooking, walking by the sea, and travel. I’ve also discovered a few new pleasures—jazz, live music, birds, industrial history and urban landscapes.

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I hope I’ll never stop trying new things. But maybe with age I’m getting better at choosing the kinds of things that I like. It’s also worth remembering that it wouldn’t be real if life was all perfect—we need challenges, wrong turns and changes of heart. They write the novels of our lives and make us who we are. I talked last time about my favourite words—kitten, elastic and home. Every list has a counter-list and I’ve only just started to wonder what my least favourite word might be. I think that a strong contender has to be ‘regret’. The goats were frustrating and exhausting but on balance, I don’t want regrets and I’m glad to have had these experiences—it’s just the way things turned out. Nonetheless in the spirit of getting to know myself better, I’m going to hang onto the thought that these days I much prefer a backstreet city alley to a dark, slippery field.

And that issue of exploring who we are brings me to another in the chain interview series. This week I interviewed Maria who talked about her life in drama, her inspiring work and her mid-life treat.

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Home Thoughts

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I’m keen on lists but am well aware that this divides people – many of my friends and family avoid them at all costs. But for me it’s a love affair. I even wrote a book about a list. And I particularly like ranking things—I just can’t seem to help it. For years my favourite book and favourite film have been unchanged. There’s something about knowing that Remains of the Day and Cinema Paradiso are important to me that helps define who I am. The Great Gatsby and Don’t Look Now are my second-favourite book and film; 101 Dalmatians and The Shawshank Redemption come in at number three, and Far From the Madding Crowd and The Railway Children are at number four.  I could go on…but there’s a strong chance that you’re not as keen on rankings as me, so I’ll stop there.

“Which do you prefer?” I asked my husband when we first met – “Beatles or Stones?” He looked mystified and said
“Can I have both?” He’s of the non-ranking persuasion.

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I’m aware that I might take my obsession too far and for years have even been able to say what my favourite word is. For a long time it was ‘elastic’. I just loved how it sounded so stretchy. Then I moved on to something altogether more heart-warming—‘kitten’. That’s been my favourite word for quite some time now. Then the other day I read something that the Little House on the Prairie author, Laura Ingalls Wilder once said: “Home is the nicest word there is”.

I’ve been thinking about home a lot over the past few weeks as I’ve just moved house—again. This will be my seventh home in twelve years. The moves have been triggered by changing circumstances—financial ruin, divorce and then a different life in a new city. But I’d like to feel settled now—at last. The dictionary definition of ‘home’ is ‘the place where one lives’. But it’s so much more than that. I was watching a David Attenborough documentary the other day – one of my treats – and he said in relation to animals that a home is somewhere to feel safe and comfortable.

The Danish art of ‘hygge’ has been in the media recently and has inspired a number of books. It’s not about wealth or possessions but it’s about making life good in simple ways. We’ll each have our own version of this. For me it’s hot porridge with maple syrup and cinnamon, fragrant coffee in the morning, candles, fresh flowers, rose-scented bath oil, and reading a good book with a soft blanket, open fire and ideally a piece of fruit cake on a pretty china plate.

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Our new home has been completely renovated and is all ready for some hygge. The builders have been working on it for six months. There’s a new kitchen, French windows in the bedroom and it’s freshly painted throughout. It feels light and bright and my heart gives a skip each time I come back to it. It’s also wonderfully clean.

In recent years life has felt overwhelming at times so that day-to-day housekeeping has been an unwelcome drudgery. I’ve much preferred the treats. Sometimes I’ve felt like it’s less effort to move house than to clean it. The grime and the dirt seem to get everywhere in a most tiresome way. And what is this dust that settles on every surface? It’s popularly believed that dust is predominantly dead human cells but I read recently that most of these go down the plughole when we wash. Instead it’s more about pollen, the husks of insects, pet hair, soil, tiny particles from outer space, and pretty much anything else that is very, very small.

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This week, my sister-in-law has been visiting from Australia. We asked what she would particularly like to see and she said, “An English castle and a pub.” So on Tuesday we had lunch in a proper English pub, sitting outside in the thin autumn sunshine and then we went on to a nearby National Trust property, Hinton Ampner. It’s not quite a castle, but it is a beautiful example of a classic English home. I liked the gentleman’s bedroom—and especially the breakfast tray laid out with a boiled egg, fine china, silver cutlery and a folded linen napkin. I imagined breakfasting there whilst gazing out over the walled gardens and Hampshire meadows. The seductive charm of this hygge fantasy even overrode my aversion to boiled eggs.

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Photo: Chris Gunns

Some areas of the house were inaccessible as it was having its annual deep clean. We peered through doorways into rooms where odd-shaped furniture sat shrouded in white cloth. With so many treasures the cleaning has to be done in a very precise and ordered way. Everything is inspected carefully and particular attention is paid to any insects that might cause damage. Then the housekeepers get to work on the dusting using hogs hair brushes. Unlike normal hair, hogs hair has multiple split ends which give it plenty of spring so that it’s gentle but firm on delicate, creviced surfaces.

I looked at the information boards with interest. Perhaps this is what I need in my new house—a hogs hair brush and an annual deep clean. That way the pain could be concentrated into a few days. I might even be convinced that it’s easier to clean than to move. I do hope so as I’d like to stay here for the forseeable future.

Home—it really is the nicest of words.

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