"I'm not someone who gets their nails done."
It's likely I've said this line a few dozen times or more in the past. What I actually meant by it was, "I'm not someone who carefully manicures their appearance. I don't preen. I'm not into my looks. I don't prescribe to that version of being feminine."
I honestly don't remember where it came from: that dull, incessant need to prove myself as not being like other girls. "I don't care about clothes," was another one. Apparently I preferred to be perceived as overtly casual and unconcerned, fitting into some kind of carefree traveller stereotype.
(I was also really nervous of the atmosphere of a beauty salon - and I get full body chills whenever someone touches me with a nail file.)
But then I needed a gel manicure for a friend's wedding this summer, and I was wholly unprepared for how ten little gel swatches on my fingers would make me feel.
Gleeful and giddy. Proud. Feminine. Different. Maybe not a different person entirely, but certainly different. You hold your hands in another way when they look like this. I watch how my fingers move and they seem like someone else's. I like it.
I sometimes forget what a tight grip you can keep on things you no longer need. Old versions of yourself. The stagnant, unappealing, no-longer-relevant versions that you're absolutely allowed to let go of.
Tomorrow I'm getting my third gel manicure in as many months. Something autumnal, perhaps. A dark burgundy red. A colour that feels like fire.
A new view 😎
Since last March I’ve been on two buses. Ticket barriers, sliding doors and awkward eye contact in busy carriages have all been replaced by an acute awareness of every park, every hill, every patch of green space I can reach on foot. I’ve looked at the London skyline from a dozen different spots but haven’t ventured any closer to it. Seeing friends has, luckily, still been manageable enough without public transport -- but apparently when you stop doing something that used to be such a daily occurrence, it results in a little surge of anxious thinking whenever you contemplate getting on a train again.
So when my friend moved to Richmond – the other side of London and a dozen miles away – I panicked. Then she had a lockdown baby, and I knew I absolutely had to get this particular bit of anxiety in check. And amazingly enough, when I finally caught two trains to this stunning part of my home city, the first thing I said was ‘How INCREDIBLE to see a new view!!’
I love Richmond Park – it’s where I scattered my dad’s ashes, in an idyllic little tree-shaded curve of the Thames. I love my friends, and I seriously love my friend’s new bundle of joy. Although I definitely don’t love my anxiety, this year has been a crash course in learning how to handle it. And sometimes it’s about doing things when they’re initially a bit uncomfortable: in fact, perhaps precisely because they’re uncomfortable. And so I’m getting to grips with making anxiety compromises. Particularly when they result in views (and friends) like this.
(My lovely new trainers were #gifted from @hiteceurope and are absurdly comfy)
And just like that it was spring 🌸
This tree appeared from nowhere in my garden. I still don't know exactly what it is. I guess my dad had kept it tamed before his death, but I didn't notice until it was towering too high for me to cut it down without a lot of effort -- and to be honest I felt bad about killing off something which wanted so much to be here.
And now it's the first tree to bloom: an absolute cascade of cotton-white blossom which I like to imagine has entranced the neighbours as much as it has me.
Happy #equinox all 🥳
Books, blankets and a sleepy black cat -- a pretty accurate approximation of the last few weeks 📚
Reading was my saving grace throughout 2020. I read 48 books, charting them almost obsessively on #Goodreads (their annual 'reading challenge' function is both a blessing and a curse for someone who adores making lists). Now that the UK is in yet another lockdown, I'm making the most of the excess reading time. In fact, I'm spending this rainy Saturday morning reading #TheVanishingHalf while Oli is curled up on my feet.
I've written a blog post about my 2020 reads - it's over on floratheexplorer.com. Any recommended reads for this year?
This woman loved a winter walk. The year the Somerset Levels flooded, she forced my dad and I out into the bright sun with wellies and heavy coats and itchy woolen hats from a drawer in my granny's house. We picked up sticks to bash into the ground with every step, and she swung on field gates and pointed to the birds and squinted for photos I never usually wanted to take. She told me she wanted two dogs when they finally retired - two Weimaraners. I was a teenager, and I'd never heard of the breed. She told me the names she had in mind, but I don't remember them.
I really fucking miss her. And there's nothing to be done when you feel like this. No phonecall with a friend will fix it. No amount of fresh air can blow it all away. One of my favourite books as a kid was @rosen.michael 's Bear Hunt: "can't go around it, got to go through it!" That line is perhaps the best description I've found for coping with my grief. Missing them is awful. Crying from the pain of it is breathless and shocking and still, twelve years on, feels like a surprise. But you have to go through it regardless. Grief simply has to be felt.
And maybe that's why it's so hard? Maybe we've been so conditioned to find distraction as a solution that the sheer discomfort of FEELING it - feeling all the tear-stained, chest-shuddering heartbreak of grief - almost seems wrong?
I don't really have a point here. Except that if you're missing someone like I am this week, and if the crying you've felt bubbling under your skin is reaching a boiling point, I hope you know that you're absolutely allowed to let it out. You can cry. You can scream. You can be jealous of people who still have their person. You can feel all of it.
My house is walking distance from three graveyards, and one is home to my new favourite view of London. From the very top of this sloping, ivy-coated hill, I can look out across a strangely layered cityscape. Like a slice of archeology.
There are thousands of people buried here, from both world wars and later. And earlier, too. The oldest date I've seen is from 1862. When most of these headstones were carved and put in place, that shimmering skyline of high rise buildings simply didn't exist. Things change so fast, and yet they really don't at all.
I find it incredibly peaceful to walk through these cemeteries. I read the names and dates and heartfelt messages, and I wonder who these people were. Who stood at their graves to say goodbye? Did they know how much they'd be missed?
My mother's buried here too (though not in shot). For years I barely ever visited her grave: it didn't really feel like she was 'there', and hiding beneath my reticence was probably a deep fear that seeing her name on a headstone would make her death feel much too real. But as this year draws to a close and I walk through this cemetery more often, I find myself heading over to say hello. It's nice to know she's close by.
Apparently there's a crack in everything. And yes, I guess it's how the light gets in -- but what if you don't want it to? What if that light just illuminates all the hard work that has to be done in order to sort the crack out?
I might be over egging the metaphor.
But things are cracking all over the place this week, whether its whole countries or our collective sanity -- and yesterday I opened the curtains to find a crack in my window, splintering the bright autumn sunlight, and it terrified me. I don't do well with feeling sufficiently secure; I've had many nightmares about home invasions and the front of my house simply sloughing off, so the thought of the window shattering overnight really freaked me out.
But I also knew I couldn't face yet another bit of uncertainty.
So instead of casually avoiding the problem and then panicking about it from time to time (my usual recourse), I spent the first day of UK lockdown phoning glaziers and welcoming a lovely guy with a dust sheet into the room so he could bash out the glass with a little hammer. And when it was all sorted, I felt a certain sense of satisfaction. I'm standing up to the cracks and trying my damndest to cope, just like everyone else 💛
I was brought up to be frugal. Economical. If both your parents worked in theatre, it made a lot of sense to save as much money as possible! But the need to cut costs is so deeply rooted in me that I'm always aware of unnecessary waste, always worried that I could be saving just a little bit more -- and every year, around this time, it comes to a head with the heating.
My dad was virtually militant about how to heat his house. Even in the depths of winter, he adhered strictly to the daily timer - radiators came on at 8am for an hour, then on again for 90 minutes at 5pm. He spent the bulk of his days in this drafty study, a bottle green fleece and his shiny leather slippers the only concessions to staying warm. I honestly don't know how he did it.
I turned that same room into my home office a long while ago and quickly discovered that the sash window has gaps in its frame, the carpet is thinning and the air is a good five degrees colder than the rest of the house. And yet it's still hard to drop unconscious habits! The idea of paying for double glazing feels way too extravagant, so I dutifully stuff insulation into the window cracks, wrap myself in layers and blankets, drink lots of tea, and pretend I'm warm enough.
But not today.
Today I whacked the radiator up to full at 9am, and worked happily all day without a cold nose or occasional shoulder shivers. And it was WONDERFUL - and Oli clearly thought it was warm enough to sleep on the desk beside me. Guess I'm keeping the radiators on for a while then 😻
I must admit, when I decided to adopt Olive I hoped that she'd help with my mental health. Like many of us, spending the majority of this year in my own company has highlighted how conscious I need to be of my triggers; those changes in mood and tiny signs which indicate I might be heading for a depressive episode.
Obviously having a cat keeps you somewhat grounded. They're like furry alarm clocks when they pounce on your head at 7am demanding breakfast, and they know how to get you off the sofa by studiously gnawing at your favourite (non toxic!) houseplants.
But what I hadn't expected before Oli's arrival were the moments I happen to look over at her and see a ton of little life lessons -- especially when she's doing something as nonchalant as sunbathing in the garden.
But today she made me think about how automatic it is for her to find a comfortable spot, even in a place which might be a little sharp and unforgiving. To seek out the sunshine and immediately settle into it, despite the fact that clouds were rolling in five minutes later. She's even totally happy with sticking her leg up if she feels like it - audience be damned!
This little panther is an expert in living in the moment. And perhaps a bit of an exhibitionist too. At the very least, her tendency to do exactly what makes her happy is something I think we can all prioritise a little more.
I took this photo four years today, and I adore it. Dad and I were in Austria for his birthday in 2016: his breathing had already begun to bother him, but he soldiered up this mountain peak nonetheless.
Fast forward a year and I was saying goodbye.
I put great stock into anniversaries. I like to think I get it from my mother, a woman who used our family's birth dates as her lottery numbers. But it's my own habit too - a dangerous one, because I tend to predict my own anticipatory reactions, imagining how upset I'm going to be on a birthday or a death day. So when Dad went and died on his birthday, it just made October 20th even more auspicious - and I started this month assuming I'd really feel the weight this time.
Grief doesn't get exponentially 'better' ; that's not how it works. But some of these high impact days - these significant, 'I'd prefer to forget about them' days - they can sometimes go better than you think. Life keeps moving, and you're always allowed to jump back on when you feel ready.
Three years ago my dad died. Two years ago I was so broken and overwhelmed I thought my world was about to be over. And today, mid pandemic, I walked through the park in the autumn sun, took a bus through Central London (my first in months!), walked over the Thames and clinked champagne flutes while eating lunch with my dad's oldest friend.
On my way to the restaurant a Trevor Hall song came on my shuffled playlist, and the lyrics really struck me. "You can't rush your healing. Darkness has its teaching. Love is never leaving."
Happy birthday, dad.
It's Instagram Live time! 📺
This Thursday I'll be talking all things grief, loss and orphanhood with the fantastic @talkaboutloss, a support network for young bereaved people here in the UK. If you haven't read my book #TheAdultOrphanClub yet, there's a free paperback copy up for grabs if you ask a particularly good question. And those of you who've already read it might enjoy joining the Bereavement Book Club that @talkaboutloss runs, as my book is their pick for October!
I'd love to see some familiar faces on Thursday evening so I hope you'll tune in at 7pm BST (2pm EST). Also I still get major thrills when I see my name attached to the word 'author', so there's every chance the entire Live will be conducted with a huge grin on my face 😂
Firstly, MY HEART 😻 Oli has finally discovered the existence of the front door. Last night I put the bins out and she waited patiently for me to come back inside, staring through the frosted glass. How are cat profiles this adorable?!
Secondly, hello! 👋 I really stopped using Instagram for a while there. Not entirely sure why. This platform has often felt like a place where I post 'good writing' - which means there's a self-inflicted pressure to showcase the stuff I'm proud of. And obviously that has to go alongside photos I feel are relatively worthy of being 'on the grid' - travel images, mainly, or photos pertaining to stories about my parents or grief in general.
But we're six months into this bizarre new world now, and my camera roll is exclusively comprised of plant progress, garden pruning and innumerable shots of my cat being cute. I'm writing every day, with plans for half a dozen new books in the works, and I'm finding quiet enjoyment in this smaller life. As we move into winter, I'd like to be a bit less try-hard and a bit more chatty on IG. The photos might take a downward turn but I'd love to get back to the community aspect of Instagram again.
In November I'll be doing #nanowrimo and chatting about my progress on Stories. If you're challenging yourself too I'd love to hear what you're working on!
And if you're dealing with grief, my virtual door is always open. Hopefully with a cat too.