What I’ve learned from yoga

I’ve been practicing yoga for sixteen years. Not consistently. I start and stop. When there’s a class nearby I go. I’ve attended classes for a few months or even years. But when I move someplace where there are no yoga classes, then my practice wanes. I lack the self-discipline to practice on my own. I’ve tried. I’ve rolled my yoga mat out on the living room floor and given it a go. But in twenty minutes I rush through a yoga practice that takes an hour in class, and I skip the bits I find tough. I never skip the tough bits in class.

I love yoga for so many reasons. Before I ever tried yoga I used to wish to be put on one of those stretching racks you see in old movies, so that I could have my limbs and back stretched. When I attended my first yoga class I was astounded to discover that yoga practice is like being put on a rack. I’m not sure what I thought yoga was before that, but I never guessed it would satisfy my desire to stretch my limbs and my back.

I love yoga because it keeps me flexible and supple, it encourages me to concentrate and work on my posture, and it has taught me relaxation techniques that I can put into practice anytime anywhere. While I’m not consistent in my practice, I have breathing, stretching and relaxation techniques that I can call upon whenever I need them.

Going to a regular class this summer has drawn my attention to the one aspect of yoga that has influenced me more than any other. It has to do with my mind far more than my body. And it is something that has come to influence the way I think about and engage with other people, the approach I take to raising my children, and the way I approach my life in general. Like my posture, it’s not something I have perfected, but it’s something I work on and try to improve all the time.

Every yoga teacher I have ever had has advised and encouraged students to focus on their own practice. Don’t worry what anyone else around you is doing. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Some students have more yoga experience than others, some are more bendy than others, some can stretch backwards but not forwards, some have better balance than others. Comparing yourself to anyone else is pointless. Focus on your own self – how your body feels, how it responds, how are you breathing, where is your focus. Don’t judge others for good or bad – look at him, he can’t touch his toes; I wish I could twist into a pretzel like her. Work on your own body and mind – on improving your own suppleness, your own breathing, your own relaxation.

Following the advice of a teacher I had a few years ago, I now practice yoga with my eyes closed for most of the class. If I open my eyes at all it is only to look at the teacher, so I can follow her example. Only she and I are in the class. I turn inwards, blocking out external sounds and the other students all round me, concentrating on improving and perfecting myself. Not comparing myself to anyone else.

And that piece of yoga advice infuses every aspect of my life. It’s made me stop comparing myself to other people. We’re all different. We have different body shapes and sizes, different life experiences, different dreams and hopes and fears. Why waste time comparing myself to the tall slim elegant woman that I will never be, when I could be focusing on working with the raw material that my genetic and environmental heritage has given me. Why compare where I am in life with the success or lack of success of others my age. Either accept myself as I am or work to change. And if I choose to change, accept that the change is mine. I will never be anyone other than who I am.

Don’t judge people because they look different to me – short, tall, fat, skinny, symmetrical or asymmetrical features. Don’t judge people because they live different lives to me – they have more money or less money, they work or they don’t work, they come from different cultures or backgrounds. It’s all a waste of the precious short time we have on Earth to compare ourselves to others. Yoga has taught me to accept people as they are, and to concentrate either on accepting myself as I am, or striving to change who I am in a way that is mine alone. It has taught me to live in the world in a way that feels right to me, not in a way that I think society will approve of.

My approach to raising my children and home educating them is also inspired by this yoga lesson. Don’t compare. I don’t compare my children to anyone else’s. I don’t care how my girls compare to other four and six year olds. We all develop differently. I’m not interested in when someone else’s child learned to read or do long division or recite the collected works of Shakespeare while unicycling up Mt Everest. And because my kids are home schooled, I’m not interested in comparing them to National Curriculum or other formal education targets. All our children are brilliant and just like adults, they are figuring the world out for themselves, each one is his or her unique way.

I also strive to not compare my children to each other. It doesn’t help me or them to compare the age at which either one developed particular skills, or to compare their motor skills or athletic abilities. They’re different. They’re built differently, they have different personalities, they approach learning in different ways, so comparing them is futile. I’m not saying I don’t ever do this, but when I do, I catch myself and put a stop to that train of thought.

And finally, not comparing myself to others has informed my approach to life in general. I live on a boat, for goodness sake, in a tiny space with very little money. If I compared myself to others I’d realise this is foolhardy – we have no rainy day savings, no pension plan, no fancy clothes or telecommunications systems. There are sailors out there who have bulging bank accounts and boats fancier than ours, and sailors who make us look rich by comparison. But we’re all following our own paths, each with our own unique goals. So it’s better to concentrate and focus on living my life, on my family, on my goals and dreams, on working with the resources I have at my disposal, than wasting my time comparing myself to others.

Banishing comparison frees the mind up to enjoy other people much more. When someone tells me about their child’s achievement I can genuinely enjoy what that child has done and not worry that my kids haven’t achieved the same. When someone shows me around their brand new half a million pound yacht I can genuinely enjoy the experience, congratulate them on their beautiful home, admire what they have, but not wish that we lived in such splendour. Because we have Carina, and our own lives are splendid. When I see a beautiful or elegant woman I can enjoy her beauty and not worry that I don’t look like her. I can enjoy the success of others and not compare my own achievements. There’s a great freedom in all that.

The breathing, stretching and relaxation techniques I have learned through practicing yoga are immensely beneficial to my life. They calm me, centre me, give me the skills and tools to de-stress and to self-heal aches and pains. But it is focus that has informed and influenced my life more than anything else. Just like my breathing and stretching and relaxation, I haven’t yet perfected my inward focus and concentrating on my own life’s practice. Years ago, when I lived in Japan, I thought it was silly that people could practice tea ceremony for decades and still never get it right. I missed the point. Perfection is unattainable. The important thing is striving for it. I may never have the perfect forward bend, but trying to perfect it feels good. I may never be able to completely banish external thoughts from my relaxation practice, but trying to feels good. And I may never be able to completely stop comparing myself to others, but trying to perfect my focus opens up a world of wondrous encounters with others, free from comparison and judgement.

Twenty years ago…

It was twenty years yesterday since I went to Japan on the JET programme. Twenty years – that’s almost half my life ago. I was twenty-two years old, fresh out of five years studying at a university only twenty-five miles from home. And there I was, about to fly to the other side of the world. The farthest from home I’d been before was central France, the longest I’d been away from home before was at the end of my second year at university, when my friend Louise and I spent sixteen weeks living in a tent and working on a flower farm outside Hillegom, in Holland. I’d never had any particular interest in Japan, but a little advertisement on a notice board near the cafeteria in my university had started the ball rolling. I applied for the JET programme and was one of 33 young Irish people chosen to go work in Japan that year.

Some of my friends and family thought I might not like Japan. I guess they knew how little experience I had of the world outside Ireland. I remember one friend saying that it was alright if I didn’t like it and decided to return home after a few weeks or months. But I couldn’t wait to go, and I told myself that even if it was awful, I’d stay for the whole year. In the end I stayed for three years, the maximum number of years you could stay on the JET programme at the time. I loved it from the start.

So young...I was only a child!

So young…I was only a child!

The JET programme was well organised. I was to be an assistant English language teacher at two junior high schools in Sue-machi, a small town in Fukuoka-ken, on the island of Kyushu. A representative of Sue board of education had been in touch, telling me about the schools, sending me photos of the town and of my apartment. From JET I received instructional videos about etiquette and cultural correctness, and whoever made those videos clearly had never lived in Sue-machi!

The thirty-three Irish JETs flew business class from Dublin to Tokyo via Heathrow – the only time in my life I have ever flown anything other than economy! Oh the luxury on British Airways. With thousands of other JETs from around the world, we had a four-day orientation in Tokyo. Prior to that, London was the biggest city I had ever been to, and I’d never been there at night. Imagine my little eyes popping out of my head as I sampled the night life of Tokyo for the first time. I was awestruck!!

After those four days we were sent by plane or train to our host towns. At Fukuoka airport I was met by Sue board of education representatives, who were friendly and smiling. Only one of them spoke English and I didn’t have a word of Japanese. In those early days I made so many cultural mistakes, made an ass of myself, got things wrong. Japan was even more strange and exotic than I had imagined. I loved it. I loved learning how to negotiate this strange and wonderful culture so different to my own. And gradually it seeped into my bones, and the strange became familiar, the exotic became mundane.

For a young woman from a very modest background, in her first ever proper job (apart from the flower farm and a couple of pub jobs) this was idyllic. I had my own brand new gleaming apartment, the smell of new tatami in the heat of August overwhelming my senses. I lived in that apartment for longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life. I was paid more money than I knew what to do with. For the first time in my life I could buy clothes when I wanted to, buy new music and books on a whim, afford to travel where and when I wanted to.

One of my lovely classes...can you spot me?

One of my lovely classes…can you spot me?

The two schools where I worked were so different to any schools I had been to before. Forty children per class, extraordinary discipline, exceptionally good behaviour. But boy, were those kids fun. I loved the kids I taught and I look back now and wish I had been a better teacher. The first year I was a useless teacher. I’d never taught before, I had no skills or training, and I was way too self-conscious and uptight. But as the years went by I relaxed into the job. I developed friendships with my colleagues, despite having only limited language in common with those who were English teachers. I went on school outings, on drunken nights out with my colleagues, and I engaged in a lot of school activities. Looking back I could have and should have done so much more.

During those three years I travelled extensively. I travelled all over Japan, camping, hiking on volcanoes, soaking in mountain onsens. I holidayed in Australia, learned to SCUBA dive and did volunteer work on two trips to Hawai’i, got serious culture shock in Hong Kong because it was so noisy and multi-cultural compared to Fukuoka, and flew home to Ireland once a year.

I was so good at taiko, they let me play in a car park!! Lisa Barnes McClintock and I giving it some welly.

I was so good at taiko, they let me play in a car park!! Lisa Barnes McClintock and I giving it some welly.

I fell passionately in love with Japanese food but sadly, after three years, my culinary skills were only rudimentary. I played the taiko drum, taught by Ito-sensei, one of the most generous-spirited and light-hearted people I ever met. The mother of my friend, Tashiro-san, made me a silk kimono, and taught me how to walk and sit and wear it properly, in preparation for the kimono-modelling contest she had entered me in. I did tea ceremony, visited Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, and visited pretty much every historical, cultural and natural site of significance across the country. I went out for dinner with The Chieftains one night and sat between Paddy Maloney and Derek Bell, and another night partied with Jamiroquai in the VIP section of a Fukuoka night club.

Hello Kitty was my hero!

Hello Kitty was my hero!

And what friends I made. My friend Takako made me feel like part of her family and twenty years on she still sends me care packages of Japanese food. Three years ago she and one of her daughters visited me, and I was so happy that Julian and the girls finally got to meet my dear friend. I had other wonderful Japanese friends who I am not in touch with so often, and some who I have sadly lost touch with. The JET programme was wonderful too because it brought together young people from many different countries. Over the years I have visited my JET friends in Australia, Canada , the US and the UK and many of them have visited me. Last weekend Sarah and our families camped together and our children have known each other since they were newborns.

A year and a half ago a few of us started to throw around the idea of a reunion in Japan to mark the 20th anniversary of when we first moved there from our various far-flung home countries. If the plan had taken shape, we would all be in Fukuoka this week. Alas, Japan is a long way away, expensive to get to, and we all have young children and other commitments. So the plan foundered. Maybe if we start saving now, our piggy banks will be full for a 30th anniversary reunion in July 2025!

I went to Japan with a Masters degree in Anthropology and virtually no experience of the world beyond my little patch. Three years in Japan opened my eyes to the beauty and possibilities of other ways of living, other cultures, other realities. I had opportunities to experience Japanese high culture and the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. During those three years I grew up, I discovered different aspects of my own personality, I saw myself and where I came from differently. If someone gave me the chance to do it all again, I’d leap at it. Someday I would like to bring my own children to Japan. Maybe we’ll even sail there.

Let’s pretend

When was the last time you pretended to be someone you’re not? When was the last time you made up a story about yourself? Made up a fake history? Made up non-existent relatives and friends? When was the last time you pretended you had a baby when you don’t? Or a horse? Or a dragon?

Chances are, if you’re an adult (and not an actor or a professional story-teller) then you haven’t indulged in this type of behaviour in a long time. Or if you have, then perhaps people are whispering behind your back and suggesting you seek professional help. If you’re a child, you’ve probably done it in the past hour.

If I was to record every word Katie says over a 24-hour period, my guess is that ‘pretend’ would be one of her most common words. She’s doing it right now, as I write. ‘Lily, pretend you come in the door’, ‘Lil, pretend she’s your aunt’, ‘Pretend this is my horse’, ‘Pretend my dinosaur is your dinosaur’s sister’, ‘Pretend I’m going on a plane’ and next thing the sitting room’s been transformed into the inside of an airplane with refreshments, safety announcements and arrivals to Egypt, China or Mexico.

All day they play these pretend games. Sometimes the pretending is accompanied by dressing up. Back home on Carina they rifle through the dressing-up bag or the hats, gloves and scarves bag; at Grandma’s house they use whatever is around – towels, tea towels, sheets – anything to transform their appearance. Sometime they use props – bags, cushions, books, chairs – anything that can be imaginatively transformed into something else. They pretend indoors and outdoors, upstairs and downstairs, at home and when they’re out in the world. Left to their own devices, their imaginations run amok with inspiration from the books they read, the movies and TV shows they watch, and their real life experiences.

Through it all they are learning – learning about relationships, learning to cooperate and to work together, learning to create and tell stories. Through such imaginative and free-form unstructured play they are learning about themselves and each other. Reality is inconsequential and nothing is beyond the realms of possibility.

At what point in our lives do we start to rein in our imaginative impulses? Or do we simply divert those impulses elsewhere? Do we succumb to peer pressure or pressure from elders to ‘grow up’, ‘get real’, ‘stop wasting time’? But it’s not time wasted. For children the serious business of pretending is time well spent learning about the world, about how people interact with each other, and about how to treat each other fairly. Whether they are pretending to be dragons or princesses, physics defying space travellers or dessert shop owners, I see them working out and negotiating cooperative working relationships. They want their alter-egos to be treated the way they themselves want to be treated. They act out aspirations, and they act out behaviour they observe around them.

I hope my children continue to be un-self-consciously imaginative for a long time to come. I love to hear their imaginations run wild, taking them (and sometimes me, when I’m included in their games) to unexpected places. Who knows where their imaginations will lead them.

Now, anyone up for a game of ‘Pretend my dinosaur’s flying this plane’?

A very different river

It’s Sunday and we’re on our way to Stratford-on-Avon, birthplace of those two great English wordsmiths, William Shakespeare and Julian. It’s a girl’s day out – Granny, Grandma, Lily, Katie and me. The sun is beating down and the road to Stratford is busy. Grandma parks the car and we walk to the bustling banks of the River Avon. The place is mobbed with visitors – families and couples picnicking on the grass, Chinese and Japanese tour groups, teenage Spanish and Italian student groups. A lot of ice cream’s being consumed today.

The narrow-boats on the river bring me back to my five memorable years living and working in Cambridge, when friends and colleagues lived aboard similar boats. Before the girls came along, Julian and I briefly contemplated buying a narrow-boat, but I was too filled with considerations about laundry and heating to take the plunge. Silly me. Put me in a time machine and take me back eight years and I’d jump at the chance. Here in Stratford, some of the boat owners are using the tops and sides of their floating homes to showcase handicrafts for sale to the tourists. Other narrow-boats have been converted into ice-cream and sandwich bars.

We’ve brought a picnic and we spread the picnic blanket under a tree close to the river. The river is as busy as the rest of the town. Sightseeing boats ply the river, with sightseers embarking and disembarking close to where we’re sitting. There are a lot of these boats, manoeuvring gingerly around the tourists in rowboats, canoes, punts and the occasional motor boat.

Lily says she wants to go on a boat trip. The grandmothers are keen to browse the market stalls. I prefer Lily’s option, so the girls and I queue up for the next boat trip.

IMG_20150719_144335We climb aboard a flat-bottomed 40-ish foot narrow boat, half covered, half open air. We choose seats at the front, in the open. The boat holds about 60 passengers and we’re near the top of the queue. Once we’re on board we wait and wait, as the skipper seems keen to fill the boat to capacity before he sets off. Plus, he seems to be enjoying the Tupperware tub of noodles he’s eating for lunch. Katie sings ‘Over the rainbow’ at the top of her voice, while we wait. I’m not sure about the other passengers, but she keeps me entertained.

Other identical boats come alongside and take on more passengers. The river is crowded with swans, geese and ducks scrounging free meals from tourists feeding them white baguettes and loaves of bread despite signs everywhere warning ‘Do not feed bread to the water fowl’. Some sensible families are feeding the birds bird food.

IMG_20150719_142536

Finally we’re off. The boat moves slowly along the river, twenty minutes in one direction, twenty minutes back. Even at the farthest reaches of our trip the river is filled with the hired canoes, row boats and punts. We motor slowly along the shallow narrow river. The girls catch glimpses of the occasional fish. The river bank is lush and green, the wild greenery broken in places to reveal huge expensive houses with impossibly manicured lawns running down to private landing stages at the river’s edge. We pass one house with a beautiful octagonal garden shed. I tell Katie that if we lived in that house I would turn that shed into my office. I could write all day long. ‘And I’ll bring you tea’, Katie tells me. She adds that she thinks she and I should live in that house and Daddy and Lily should live in the mansion next door. A perfect Tim Burton-Helena Bonham Carter living arrangement, I think.

IMG_20150719_145540Half way through the trip, Katie announces she ‘urgently’ needs to go to the toilet. She spends the second half of the trip sitting on my lap, her legs clenched tight. ‘If we were on our own boat’ I think, ‘There would be no problem’. I work out a plan of action in case she can’t hold it in any more. Not sure how warm the day was going to be I’d packed a pair of leggings for myself, to slip on under my short dress if I got too cold. I haven’t needed to wear them. But I can sacrifice them, if need be, to soak up any wee that might otherwise pool around the feet of our fellow passengers. (The 30-something couple sitting closest to us look decidedly child un-friendly and wee-ing on them would not be good). Katie, thankfully, holds on until the trip ends and we race to the find the nearest public toilet.

The longing to be on my own boat so that Katie can go to the toilet draws me into a general reverie of longing to be back aboard Carina. I don’t want to be on this boat with 60 other people. I want to be on a wider, deeper and decidedly quieter river. Lily and Katie, it appears, feel the same way. They both, at different times, say they wish we were on Carina rather than this boat. Lily asks me how long until we go home and Katie asks if we could sail Carina up the river Avon.

Stratford and the River Avon are beautiful. Summer in England is beautiful. But we don’t want to be paying tourists on a pleasure cruise. Though we enjoy this lovely trip on the river, home on our own lovely boat is where our hearts lie.

Daddy’s summer job

In May, when I decided to come back to the UK for a few months to deal with my gynaecological issues, our biggest concern was how much this sudden and unexpected change of plan was going to cost. We live frugally, on a tight budget, and don’t really have any provision for a rainy day.

Summer flights booked at short notice are expensive and we had to figure out how to keep Carina safe and secure while we were away. In addition, life in the UK is far more expensive than life at anchor on the Rio Guadiana. So we worried about how eating into our meagre savings would jeopardise our medium-term plans.

We planned for the girls and me to come to the UK first, and for Julian to remain aboard Carina. Then, once I’d had some initial tests and discussions with my GP, and I knew how long I’d be detained in the UK, Julian would make a decision about whether to join us. If we were going to be in the UK for a few months, and Julian joined us, then we decided that he should look for a job. All we wanted out of a job was to break even on our summer expenses – the cost of our flights, the cost of putting Carina into storage, and the excess costs of living in the UK.

I quickly realised that I was going to be back in the UK at least until mid-August, so Julian booked a flight from Portugal to England in early June. He tied Carina to a mooring buoy on the river and paid a month’s mooring fees in advance with a promise to pay for additional months as necessary. To our great relief, the cost of mooring was far less than we had anticipated, so that was one financial weight lifted from our shoulders.

On his first day back in the UK Julian began job hunting. He updated his CV, went to a recruitment agency, and began searching online for jobs in the area. Neither of us has ever had difficulties finding work when we want it, so we were confident there was a job out there. Within two weeks Julian had found a temporary full-time job, earning exactly what we need to cancel out our summer costs.

The girls are thrilled with Daddy’s new job. You see, he’s working at Warwick Castle, surrounded by knights and princesses and birds of prey and sword fights and towers and dungeons.

Julian’s pretty thrilled with his job too. He works as part of the grounds crew, picking litter, driving a ‘gator’, keeping the place tidy, answering questions, helping people out. In the corporate-speak that fills his training booklets, his is a ‘guest-facing’ role. He wears a uniform that makes him look a bit like a park ranger. He works five days a week, with two days off mid-week. He’s outside all day long, keeping the grounds spick and span around the birds of prey display, the Horrible Histories theatre, the sword fights, and all the other activities. If he finds a missing child, he has to seek out a princess and hand the child over! He walks miles every day, up and down the mounds and battlements, all over the grounds. As an experiment, he wore a pedometer to work one day earlier this week and clocked nearly 23,000 steps!

Slowly, my health issues are getting sorted and we’re hoping soon we’ll be ready to fly home to Carina. But in the meantime, we have all fallen into a routine that revolves around Julian’s work day and the round of sporting, art and cultural activities the girls and I attend every week. It’s nice to know that our financial resources aren’t diminishing. And it’s nice to know that Julian has such a fun, out-of-doors, active and entertaining summer job.

When I grow up

One day last week the WordPress blog prompt of the day posed this question: ‘What did you want to be when you grew up?’ I’ve never been tempted by those prompts before, but something about this, combined with people regularly asking me if I’ve always been a ‘sailor’ and Novak Djokovic admitting that since he was a little boy he’d dreamed of one day standing on Centre Court at Wimbledon holding the champion’s trophy, led me to reflect on what I had wanted to be or do when I grew up and how close – or far – I have come to that dream.

Between the ages of ten and fourteen, when I really started to think about what the future might hold, I had two very different dreams. I wanted to be an astronaut and I wanted to be a veterinarian. I had many heroes back then, but two stuck out.

The first was Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. I remember when I was about twelve years old, my religion teacher at school set us a homework exercise to research and write about our hero. I chose to write about Tereshkova. I didn’t know very much about her, but this exercise prompted me to learn more. Back in those pre-Internet days (it was about 1985 or 1986) I used my Nana’s encyclopaedia and went to the local library to find books about space exploration. And I wrote – if I do say so myself – a very good biography of the astronaut, from her humble origins, to the extreme training she underwent, to her hero-worship in Russia when she came back down to Earth.

But it was all a cheap trick on the part of the religion teacher. She collected our copy books, checked them for spelling, grammar and content, and got a few students (including me) to read our homework assignment aloud. My fellow students wrote about sports and pop stars. No-one else – including the teacher – had ever heard of Valentina Tereshkova.

When we’d finished reading, the teacher asked us all what was missing from the work we had done. For the most part we looked at her blankly. A couple of students suggested structural or grammatical shortcomings. But no. The teacher, with the pained look of someone wondering why she wastes her time on such a bunch of philistines, told us how disappointed she was that not one of us had chosen Jesus as our hero. (This is the same religion teacher who, later that same year, gave me the most memorable report card of my entire educational career. She wrote this, and this only, on my report card: ‘Martina has the potential to become a good Christian’. Nuf said! Alas I never did live up to my potential)

So that was Valentina. I was obsessed by space travel. I knew the stats, the history,the Chuck Yeagers from the Jim Lovells, the Sputniks from the Saturn Vs. On my bedroom wall, amidst my posters of Boris Becker (I’ve noticed these past couple of weeks that neither Boris nor I are aging gracefully), Spandau Ballet and Bruce Springsteen (my tastes were nothing if not eclectic), and wise sayings from such environmental luminaries as Chief Seattle and Anita Roddick, I had a huge poster of the space shuttle (or a space shuttle – I can’t for the life of me now remember which one it was). One day this short, fat, un-athletic, short-sighted, mathematically- and scientifically-challenged girl from the Bog of Allen would make it into space!

My other dream and my other hero were decidedly Earth-bound. When I was eleven, I was, along with another girl (Celine Dunne, was it you?) put in charge of the little library in my primary school. It was probably our superior alphabetising skills that landed us the job. We shelves, we stamped, we took care of the books. We had unsupervised access to the library and we got to skip regular classes to fulfil our librarian duties. (Ok, so I wasn’t that special. I was also chosen for toilet cleaning duty, the memories of which have left me scarred to this day). One day I discovered a book written by Jane Goodall. I remember sitting on a low book case, getting lost in that book until my teacher brought me back to the present when she walked in and asked what was taking me so long. That book transformed the way I thought about animals and about human’s relationships with animals. Here was a woman who devoted her life to studying chimpanzees in their natural habitat, quietly and slowly gaining their trust and learning about their culture, their social organisation, their loves and their fears. People could do this work for a living?

I already had an idea that I wanted to be a vet, to work with animals, care for them, make them well. And although reading Goodall didn’t at first make me consider more exotic forms of veterinary medicine, it did help me to think about more empathetic and caring ways of working with and assisting animals. That, and watching All Creatures Great and Small on television every Sunday evening with images of Yorkshire vets up to their shoulders in pregnant cows settled it for me. This mathematically- and scientifically-challenged girl could become a vet.

I gave up on the astronaut option pretty soon, but considered astronomy instead. At fifteen, I chose two science subjects for my Leaving Certificate (Irish end of school state exam) even though I was mediocre at best when it came to biology and absolutely clueless about physics. I tried higher level maths, but it was way beyond me and I only stuck at it for as long as I did because I had a crush on the teacher!

What I loved and what I was really good at was Geography. Not only did it come easily to me, but it fascinated me and in the end that was the path I followed. After all, an F in physics was neither going to get me on the International Space Station nor into veterinary college.

I have no regrets about not becoming an astronaut or a vet. These days I take a more critical view of both the military-industrial complex at the heart of manned space exploration and its environmental consequences, and my anthropology research has, by my own design, brought me around to researching cross-cultural human-animal relations. I’ve got to hang out with some pretty cool people and animals as a result.

These days, I enjoy listening to Lily’s and Katie’s plans for when they grow up. Lily plans to be a writer-fisherwoman-ballet dancer. And why not? Katie wants to be a hula-hooper and a sailor. We’ll have to buy a bigger boat if she plans to pursue these simultaneously. No-one ever told me my dreams were wrong or unrealistic. No-one ever said ‘You? An astronaut?’ (Although a priest once got annoyed with me when I confessed in the confessional that I wanted to go plant trees in the Amazon. He said I should go help people instead. In hindsight, two thoughts spring to mind: (a) I was a weird teenager and (b) that priest really didn’t get the bigger picture, did he? I hope he’s somewhere now, studiously getting to grips with Laudato si’). My dad was a little concerned about the physicality of being a big animal vet. But I was generally left alone to figure things out for myself. Never in my wildest dreams would my 14-year old self have predicted that I would become a live aboard-sailor-writer-environmental anthropologist-English teacher. And who knows where my life will lead me next?

For the past decade I’ve been getting to grips with maths and physics, thanks to my geophysics-glaciologist-maths and physics teacher husband. Lily asked me the other day if we’ll ever go to the moon (she meant ‘we’ as in our family, not ‘we’ the human race). ‘Maybe someday we will’, I told her.

I guess what I’ve learned is that there’s nothing wrong with dreaming big and dreaming weird. But that other paths – just as interesting, just as incredible – are always open and calling to us.

An attachment to stuff – part II

I cried when I opened the box and saw the damage inside. There lay the remains of a dearly loved possession, chewed to pieces by a squirrel and transformed into a nest. My father-in-law had to console me.

I recently posted a blog about our growing detachment from our material stuff and how Julian and I continue to rid ourselves of things that we once thought we couldn’t live without. However, there are a few precious possessions that we treasure – things that are meaningful because of the people who gave them to us or the situations in which we acquired them, or objects that are simply beautiful. In fact, most of the non-utility items we keep in storage with my parents-in-law fulfil both these criteria – they are beautiful and we are sentimentally attached to them. There’s a cake plate, a red sandstone dancing polar bear, a heavy woollen blanket, Bob the bear. None of these are of any monetary value, but to me they are priceless.

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And one of those priceless things was a pair of seal skin kamiks (boots) with duffel kamikpaks (liners) made for me in 2000 by the great Inuit seamstress Elisapee Muckpah. How I treasured those kamiks. I loved how they looked on me, I loved the feel of them, I loved the way I glided across the snow and ice when I wore them. They were instantly recognisable to those in the know as Elisapee’s with their signature pattern around the leg, made by cutting and sewing together contrasting triangular sections and parallel strips of seal fur. They were silver, metallic, pewter, shimmering and beautiful. And oh so soft to the touch. The feet were ingeniously made, following a tradition of generations of Inuit women – black seal skin soles and white caribou skin uppers, hand stitched with precision and delicacy, impossibly tiny and uniform stitches. The kamiks came to precisely beneath my knee and the white kamikpaks ended a few inches above my knee, the part above the knee hand decorated with colourful woollen roses. How I loved slipping into those kamikpaks, pulling the kamiks on over and then tying the kamiks securely at the knee with a black woollen tie.

I remember going to Elisapee’s house in early winter. She measured my feet and the length of my lower legs. A couple of weeks later they were ready. I wore them for the first time that night, walking across town to my friend Brenda’s house. Brenda’s mom had sent her a care package from down south and we got silly together, drinking illicit red wine in a community where alcohol was banned. I spilled some wine on the kamik on my left foot and from that day on the caribou skin upper bore a tiny red wine stain.

I wore them throughout the winter and spring of 2000 and 2001 and again through the winter and spring of 2002 and 2003. I wore them during my fieldwork in Quaqtaq over in Nunavik in northern Quebec and I wore them in the winter of 2007, the last time I went to Arviat. And when we moved aboard Carina I put them in storage in my father-in-law’s loft.

I thought they were secure from damage, but I was wrong. I had reason to go into the loft a few weeks ago and out of the corner of my eye I saw something strange on top of one of the plastic storage boxes. On closer inspection, I discovered it was excrement. It wasn’t a mouse, but I wasn’t sure if it was a squirrel or a rat. I discovered a hole in the lid of the storage box. What had once been a very thin crack in the sturdy plastic, sealed with heavy duty tape, had been chewed by a determined rodent into a sizable hole.

Armed with a dustpan and brush, a piece of cardboard and masking tape, and wearing rubber gloves, I determined to cover the offending hole, clean the box and then bring it down to the garden to empty it. The poo smelled fragrant, so I ruled out the rat and decided it must be a squirrel. But I chickened out when it came to covering the box, scared some sharp-toothed rodent would leap from the box and run up my arm! So my father-in-law climbed the rickety ladder into the loft to secure the box before I took it downstairs!

In the open air and space of the garden I was much braver. I opened the box to find out what harm was done. Inside I found the Julian’s little thirty-five year old badge-covered Cub Scout jumper – untouched; my arctic hare mitts and polar bear mitts – untouched; and in the middle of it all a nest of seal skin and duffel. The rodent had made mince meat of my beautiful kamiks and kamikpaks. I was heartbroken.

Those boots reminded me of a wonderful and transformative time in my life; they reminded me of the friendships I forged during that time; and I imagined my daughters inheriting them one day, a tangible accompaniment to the stories of my youth.

But then I became philosophical. Elisapee’s art lives on in the clothing owned and worn by her children, grandchildren and many people like me, who admired her work. And her art lives on in the skills she passed on to her children and grandchildren. The loss of the kamiks doesn’t diminish my memories of that time or my connections to those people. Memories and connections are not material. Rather they live on in ongoing relationships with people and place. And those relationships are as strong as ever.

And so it goes for all our material possessions. While they are beautiful and tangible reminders of times past, of people and places, they are no substitute for the living relationships that are forged and maintained through communication, giving and receiving. My kamiks are gone. But the people and places they remind me of are still there, and the relationships that matter remain strong.

An attachment to stuff – part I

It’s amazing how quickly we can devalue our material possessions, so that they become virtually meaningless to us, devoid of the emotional connection we once felt for them. Four years ago, when Julian and I were in the process of ridding ourselves of so many of our material possessions, we often faced tough choices about what to keep and what to get rid of. I like to say we rid ourselves of 90% of our belongings, but the truth is I don’t actually know.

We lived in a sizable house with a big garden shed and an outhouse. We owned a car. Julian had an office at work and, later, when we swapped roles, I had an office at work. Our possessions were spread amongst all those places. By the end of summer 2011 we had downsized from a three-bedroom house to a two-bedroom flat and by June 2012 we had moved aboard Carina and sold the car. With each move we downsized, ridding ourselves of more and more stuff – at car boot sales, on eBay and Freecycle and to charity shops. The first summer we lived aboard Carina we had far too much stuff and when we moved aboard for the second time in early summer 2013, we brought far less on board. We culled even more for the final and permanent move aboard in spring 2014. These days the sum of our worldly possessions fit aboard Carina, with an overflow of about twenty boxes in my father-in-law’s loft and a few items stored in cupboards at my mother-in-law’s house. It’s not a lot.

Yet in the past couple of weeks Julian and I have been de-cluttering even more. We’ve been sorting through the boxes in my father-in-law’s loft and have amassed another pile of items that we no longer desire to keep. Some things, such as a potty, children’s clothes, blinds for a car window, are no longer necessary. But other items are things we had previously put into storage because we had some emotional connection to them, but now we can’t remember what that emotional connection was. So we’ve sifted and culled and made a pile in one corner of the loft to take to a car boot sale in the next few weeks. Anything we don’t manage to sell we’ll take to a charity shop.

There are still many things that we love – gifts and books and photos to which we have a deep emotional connection – for now. That connection might fade over time.

This culling makes me realise how little we need in order to be happy and to find contentment, and how transient are our attachments to things, compared to our deep connections to the people who gave us those things. Our happiness does not reside in this material stuff and our lives are not diminished by not having that stuff in our lives. On the contrary, our lives are free of material clutter. I have moved nineteen times in the past twenty-five years. When I think back on all the packing and unpacking that accompanied many of those moves and all the stuff that only ever saw the light of day when it was moving from one house to another, I realise how much time, effort and money I squandered.

Our lives are not diminished by owning one corkscrew instead of four, one set of cutlery instead of three, one rolling pin instead of two. Our deep affection for family and friends is not diminished by not having in our possession the photo frames, candle holders and wind chimes they have given us over the years. We don’t need that stuff and in ridding ourselves of it we have lightened our load and can walk our path through life more freely and less encumbered.

These days we take greater care of the few possessions we do have and we treasure the few precious objects from loved ones that we have chosen to keep or the few objects that remind us of particular times or places in our lives. We have kept those because they are beautiful or quirky or unique objects, and we have kept a small selection of household items in case we one day want to move back into a house. But the less we have the less we need. And the less we need the less we want. And that feels good.

So, how would you de-clutter your life for the better? And what would you do with your unwanted stuff?

The wild city

More than a year of living aboard our boat and we’re predisposed to seek out the wild side of the city. I’m not talking about clubs and bars, but caterpillars and blackbirds. Julian’s and my curiosity about the world around us has rubbed off on Lily and Katie, and we all get very excited about the wildlife we encounter – everything from megafauna in the shape of orcas and dolphins to tiny ants marching away with our dropped crumbs. We’re just as excited about finding animal signs – the muddy footprints of an otter on the riverbank, the discarded shell of a growing crab, an abandoned bird’s nest.

Back in England for the summer, we find ourselves in Midlands suburbia where, despite the tarmac-ing and bricking over some gardens to create extra car parking space and to brighten up gardens with plants that are hostile or unwelcoming to British wildlife, there are signs aplenty of nature in the city.

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People looking through their front windows must wonder at the sight of a woman and two little girls, pointing excitedly at a plant or a brick wall, or staring intently at a tree trunk. You see, we’re finding exciting, amazing wild life everywhere we go in the city and the little creatures we find are no less exciting than the dolphins and loggerhead turtles we’ve encountered farther afield.

Grandma’s small back garden is home to frogs, newts and ants. The ants, in turn, attract a vivid green woodpecker. A squirrel also visits the garden, scuttling along the wooden fence and jumping into the tree branches at the end of the garden. One day Lily spotted an unusual bird in Grandma’s garden and when she described it to Granddad he immediately identified it as an ouzel (and confirmed his guess by checking his bird book). From Grandma’s window we regularly see wood pigeons, magpies and blackbirds and Lily’s been using the binoculars to take a closer look.

Grand-dad’s garden hosts wood pigeons, collared doves and sparrows. A few days ago Lily and Katie excitedly called me out to see what they thought was a butterfly. It was a species none of us had ever seen before, vivid red with black edging. I suspected it was a moth rather than a butterfly and, later that day, while visiting Ryton Country Park, I spoke to a lepidopterist who confirmed it was a cinabar moth. This species is on the decline as people eradicate from their gardens the ragwort upon which the caterpillars feed. Grand-dad has plenty of ragwort in his garden!

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Alone, with the girls or with my mother-in-law, I take long walks around suburban and urban Leamington Spa. If you pay attention, you see that life abounds. On three separate occasions we have found the egg shells of hatched wood pigeons. The girls are delighted with their finds, and treasure them like priceless diamonds (until they inevitably get smashed by being treasured a little too much!). There are robins and thrushes, bluebells and foxgloves, bumblebees and spiders carving out their own niches in this suburban landscape.

One day, as Lily and I walked into town, we began to notice a pattern to the activities of bumblebees. Certain gardens and patches of grass were abuzz with lively bees, while others were empty. The bees were attracted to clover covered lawns and to the flowers of certain plants. We don’t know much about the likes and loves of bumblebees, so it’s time to carry out some research and try to learn more.

We’ve been watching the behaviour of a pair of blackbirds on a piece of scrubland near a busy road in Coventry. We suspect they have a nest and each day we walk past we look around for fledglings. So far, we’ve only seen the busy parents.

We’ve been spending a lot of time in parks and gardens managed by local authorities, and these are wonderful places to get up close to ducks, geese, water hens and squirrels. But there is something even more special about encountering animals in gardens, hedgerows and on the sides of suburban streets. Even in places seemingly devoid of nature, life finds a way and carries on.

Reunited

After three weeks alone aboard Carina, Julian motored a few miles downriver. Other live aboards in Alcoutim and Sanlucar suggested leaving Carina on a mooring buoy near a small hamlet of . So down the river Julian and Carina went, hoping to find the man who owns the mooring buoys and hoping to that he would be open to Carina remaining on a mooring buoy for an indefinite period of time.

Not only did the owner of the moorings agree to take Carina for as long as is necessary, he also helped Julian with the lines and made sure everything was ship shape before Julian’s departure. Julian’s journey back to the UK began with rowing the dinghy ashore for a very early morning bus journey to Vila Real. The owner of the moorings kindly offered to return the dinghy to Carina, bring it on board, deflate it, and stow it safely until our return.

The amount he’s charging us for all of this wonderful service is laughably low – and has taken a huge financial weight off our shoulders. We had worried about the possibility of finding ourselves out of pocket having to pay summer marina fees, but the price of mooring on the river for an entire month is the equivalent to about five nights in a marina!!

And we are all (apart from Carina sweltering in the southern European sun) reunited in the English Midlands. It looks like we’ll be here until some time around mid-August. While I await a referral to a specialist, my GP thinks I might need an operation – but it’s nothing life threatening, so chances are I will be on a six month waiting list. So, at the end of summer we plan to return to the Ria Guadiana and home to Carina.

My blogs might be a little less regular over the next couple of months as I focus on completing some writing projects, and as I look forward to returning home to the river in time for autumn.