A new reader

An incredible thing happened on Monday. After a couple of years of, admittedly intermittent, attempts to teach Katie to read, she finally got it. I can’t explain what happened except that it seemed like a light bulb went on in her head. Unlike her sister, who took to reading very quickly when she was four years old, Katie has struggled, not recognising simple and repeated words from one line to the next, able to sound out letters but not able to put the sounds together to make words. Every attempt at reading ended in frustration and despair for Katie. No matter how much I tried to convince her I would help with words, our attempts more often than not ended in tears.

Her aversion to reading and the distress reading caused her was the reason why I took up the teaching baton intermittently. I didn’t want to push her if she wasn’t ready and I certainly didn’t want that anxiety and fear to lead to a longer-term aversion to books. I am a firm believer that, given the right conditions, children will learn to read when they are good and ready. They may be ready when they are three years old or when they are twelve years old. There is pedagogic research to suggest that children who learn to read later on quickly catch up with their peers who have been reading from an earlier age.

In the formal education system we are often too quick to label children as having learning disabilities because they haven’t yet learned to read to a certain level by a certain age. Dyslexia and related disabilities are very real and if not diagnosed and supported can disadvantage children, but being a late reader does not mean a child has a disability. The difficulty for education professionals (and, indeed, for parents) is figuring out whether a late reader is simply a late reader or is someone with a learning disability. Not so easy!

Katie found reading distressing, so I didn’t push it too much. But our home and our lives are filled with books. Julian, Lily and I read to Katie, and we read to ourselves and to each other. Katie loves books and loves being read to and can recite the entire text of her favourite Julia Donaldson books. She has recently learned to read Spanish which, with its simple and straightforward pronunciation rules, is a much easier language to read than English. When Lily received Diario de Greg (the Spanish language translation of Diary of a Wimpy Kid) for Christmas, it was Katie who wanted to read it first, and she’s been slowly making her way through it since Christmas Day.

We hadn’t read together for a few days, when on Monday afternoon I took out a level three phonics book from our Oxford Reading Tree box. She read the story surprisingly quickly (for Katie) and with virtually no help from me. She recognised common but tricky words such as ‘the’ and ‘said’ (these had repeatedly stumped her before), sounded out new words correctly, and worked out other words from their context. She continued to mix up ‘b’ and ‘p’ but, instead of becoming overwrought, worked out which letter made most sense (‘boy’ not ‘poy’ and ‘pick’ not bick’, etc) in each case. She read with such unusual ease that I wondered if she’d already read this book recently with her dad or sister, and was now reading it from memory, but she assured me she had never read this book before.

Instead of the despair and anxiety that has accompanied our reading sessions in the past, she flew through this book and then asked if she could read something else. So we tried a level 3 First Stories book (the First Stories are a little more difficult than the phonics books of the same level). Once again, she sailed through the book with glee. It was time for Lily’s afternoon half hour of maths (I am a cruel and sadistic mother), so Katie took herself off to my cabin with Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man stickman2.jpgand read it by herself (aided by what she knew from memory). Then she asked Lily to help her read, and Lily chose a level 4 phonics book. (Wow! There have been times when I never thought we’d get past level 2, never mind level 4!). She read it for Lily, struggling only over the words ‘odd’ and ‘pongs’!

Since then Katie is beside herself, and is reading with gusto. In the space of only a few short days she has moved on to level 6 – the highest level in our Reading Tree set. She is picking everything up and reading it. Lily is going to have to figure out a way to protect the privacy of her journals and the notes she’s so fond of writing, because all of a sudden her sister can read them! This light bulb moment, this spark of recognition of how to read, is astonishing to me. It is something we have all experienced, when we struggle to master some new skill and suddenly, as if by magic, we get it. Of course it’s not magic. It’s practice, the creation of new neural pathways and connections, the brain and body sparking and sparkling. Katie can’t read perfectly, but she’s worked out how to read – how to put sounds together to form words, how to pick up clues from the context or the neighbouring words, how to learn by heart some common words that don’t sound anything like how they’re written (two, said, the, we). The realisation of how to do those things was her light bulb moment.

A couple of weeks ago she learned to ride a bicycle and that opened up a whole new world of freedom and independence to her. This week, suddenly discovering that she can read has opened up another world of freedom and independence. Her first question these past few mornings has been ‘Can we do more reading today?’ You bet!

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October write-off

It all started with an irritating tingle in my right nostril, during the second week of October. Two days later I woke with a severe pain across the bridge of my nose. Odd, I thought. I wracked my brain, trying to remember if I had bashed my nose against the boom or if I had been accidentally elbowed in the nose by Julian in the middle of the night. Try as I might, I couldn’t remember either. The next day the pain was worse and under my left eye had turned black. When I started to see stars and had shooting pains in my head, I decided it was time to see a doctor. The doctor looked in my ears, nose and mouth, took my blood pressure, asked a lot of questions, and diagnosed an allergy. He prescribed pain relief and antihistamines and sent me on my way. I’ve never had an allergy to anything before, so what was I to know.

For three days I took the medicine and got neither better nor worse. On the evening of the third day I had to excuse myself from the house I was visiting. My head was filled with cotton wool, my body ached and, despite sitting on a cool terrace, I had started to sweat. By the time I’d rowed back across the river I was simultaneously sweating and shivering and I went straight to bed. Through the night I tossed and turned, and all the next day and the next I was feverish and miserable. After school Lily and Katie put on their nurses’ uniforms and took care of me, Katie taking my temperature and administering Paracetamol to keep my temperature down, and Lily making me cups of tea and bringing cold towels to cool me down.

For the next two weeks I was up and down, feeling not too bad one day and terrible the next. I’d had the flu during Christmas 2010 and this felt exactly the same – aching joints, fever, loss of appetite, lack of energy and generally feeling awful.

As the symptoms gradually began to ease I developed a pain in my lung and a dry hacking cough. It was an infection and I went on a course of antibiotics. Nights were the worst and I dreaded going to bed. All night long I was drenched in sweat, the sheets soaking, my hair wet on the pillow and I coughed and coughed all night long, sometimes so violently that I vomited. And then the side-effects of taking antibiotics kicked in and I came down with diarrhoea and thrush. It’s mid-November now and, despite post-virus and infection fatigue, I’m starting to feel normal again.

I’ve lost a month. I’ve been too ill to read or write or watch movies. Too ill to teach my English classes or attend my Spanish classes. Too ill to more than vacantly and vaguely take care of my children. Too ill to take care of the boat and too ill to take care of myself.

It’s scary how quickly someone so generally healthy and fit can be struck down by a bug and become incapacitated and incapable of even basic day-to-day living. It’s been most of a month and I’m finally on the mend. My appetite is back – for food, for books, for life – and gradually I’m reintroducing myself to life again. Here’s hoping it’ll be at least another six years before something like this strikes me again. In the meantime, I have a month to make up for – to get out on the river, to walk the trails, and to see what changes have come about in my absence.

A blended education

Recently, a few people have asked me, not unreasonably, if, now that we have had a taste of formal education, I have given up on the idea of home education. The answer is absolutely not. While I love that the girls are currently attending the village school in Sanlúcar, my commitment to the philosophy and practice of home education is as strong as ever.

A very particular set of circumstances led to the decision to enrol the girls in school here. We liked life on the Rio Guadiana in general, and we felt that enrolling the girls in the tiny village school would provide them with an immersive education in Spanish language that we could not give them at home. And, we felt that their attendance at school would give all four of us opportunities to participate in village life that we wouldn’t otherwise get if we continued to home educate while living on the river. We were drawn to the size of this school, with only seven or eight children per classroom, and thought that experience would be very different to being in a larger town or city school.

Apart from learning Spanish language and culture, the girls are learning other things at school that they wouldn’t necessarily learn at home – or at least would learn very differently at home.

One of Lily’s favourite school subjects is Religion, although she can’t quite express why. She’s certainly getting a very different perspective on religion at her predominantly Catholic Spanish school than she gets at home from her agnostic-Anglican and atheist-Catholic parents!

In school there is a big emphasis on perfectly neat cursive handwriting – something that I’ve never bothered with – and the girls are now writing beautifully. The great advantage of this for Lily is that she can now write faster, and doesn’t get so frustrated when trying to express herself on paper.

And, I must admit, one of the things I like best about having the girls in school is that I no longer feel the need to do the thing I like least about home education – arts and crafts! Even as a child I hated making things with scissors and PVA glue and toilet roll inserts and poster paint, and drumming up the enthusiasm to do that stuff with the girls has always been a guilt-inducing burden for me. Katie now has a very arty teacher and she comes home almost daily with some new creation. (Finding space to display these masterpieces at home is now the challenge!)

We have decided to spend another year on the Rio Guadiana, so the girls can continue to attend this school. Their Spanish language skills are developing so rapidly we feel that, with another year of immersion in the village, they will be close to fluent for their age. And after that? Who knows.

At home we continue to focus on those areas of education that are important to Julian and I and, in unschooling fashion, we facilitate the girls own educational interests.

At first, Lily found maths at school too easy (although I pointed out she was learning in Spanish), so she has continued to study maths at her own pace and level at home. In addition, she writes almost daily – letters, book reports, her own daily journal – and we try to give her the space and freedom to just get on with that. And while Katie is learning to read and write in Spanish, we continue to work with her at home to develop her reading skills and I’m hoping independent reading is just a few months away (this has been my hope for a long long time!!).

But, much as before, their informal education is led by what interests them and us. Katie has decided she wants to be a palaeontologist when she grows up (independent reading a necessity, Katie!) and our walks through the countryside these days are usually with the purpose of searching for bones. The many bones we find lead us in all learning directions. Through observation, conversation and research we are learning about physiology, how joints work, how to recognise different parts of a skeleton, the structure of bones, the different wild animals that live around here, distinguishing between carnivores and herbivores based on the teeth and jawbones we find. Believe me, it’s fun!!

Lily is recently fascinated by evolution, and asks endless questions about the origins of life, how plants and animals evolved, where the Earth came from, and so on. I told her recently that the answers to these questions were much easier when I asked them as a child. ‘God made the world’ was the answer that had to satisfy me! On our long evening and weekend walks, I try my best to answer her endless questions, and back home aboard Carina, we get the reference books out or search the internet for answers.

At home, we continue to actively learn through cooking and baking (weights, measures, how to cook, nutrition), through boat maintenance and care (learning to row, buoyancy), through shopping (maths, budgeting, practicing Spanish) and through all the other things we do on a daily basis. The girls are generally unaware, of course, that they are learning, but that philosophy and practice of learning by doing informs much of what we do together.

At the end of the next school year we will have another decision to make – to stay or move on. If we do move on I hope we will return to home education. But if we stay here, well, like many families, we will continue to blend education at school and home. The most important thing for me is that the girls retain their enthusiasm and joy for learning.

Preparing to go home

We waited and waited and when the date was confirmed we knew we couldn’t wait any longer. My surgery was scheduled for the 1st of October, Julian’s contract at Warwick Castle was scheduled to end on the 1st of November. What was the earliest date we could realistically return to Carina? We looked at flights and read the NHS guidelines about abdominal hysterectomy recovery times. And we decided to fly to Portugal on the 10th of November. Forty days after my operation. Twenty-one days from today. A little optimistic perhaps? Not quite six weeks from the date of my surgery.

I’ve been taking good care of myself. Not pushing my body too hard, following all the guidelines and advice I’ve been given by healthy professionals, resting when I need to, not lifting heavy objects, not tiring myself out. I’ve been doing the exercises advised by the physiotherapist who came to see me the day after my operation and I’ve been going for walks – a little farther and a little faster every day. I’m in less pain every day, feeling stronger and less tired every day, and generally feeling good. In the first few days after my surgery, returning to Carina on the 10th of November seemed foolhardy. Three weeks after my surgery, it feels about right.

On the 10th of November we will have been in the UK for five and a half months. We arrived at the start of summer and we are departing at the start of winter. And the slow and methodical process of planning what to bring back to Carina, what to leave behind, what to dump and what to give to charity, begins.

The girls and I flew from Faro to Luton on the 21st of May with two pieces of hand luggage. Four changes of clothes each, including what we wore on the flight, seemed enough. I had carefully chosen clothes that could be layered – a sleeveless summer dress that could be transformed with the addition of leggings and a shirt into a cold weather dress; long and short-sleeved t-shirts that could be layered. The girls and I have expanded our wardrobes over the summer – me with clothes bought from charity shops and the girls with gifts of clothing from their doting grandmothers. The girls have outgrown or worn through many of the clothes that came with us from Carina and so their new clothes are a natural replacement. Some of the clothes I brought from Carina are now threadbare and the only dignified place for them is the bin.

Those throw-outs aside, we still have more clothing now than when we first arrived. So I’m trying to get myself back into a live aboard mentality and look at these clothes with an eye to their practicality on the boat. It’s hard to do – I know from past experience. The clothes I wear every day when living on the boat are not the same as what I wear when living in a house. Those clothing decisions have a lot less to do with comfort and warmth than with the presence or absence of a washing machine and the amount of storage space we have. So I have to think of my hand-washing, launderette-using self and Carina’s already packed storage spaces when I make decisions about what to bring back to the boat.

We have also accumulated quite a number of new books over the past few months and it pains me to part with any of them, but especially with the children’s books. But I must make some tough choices and also remind myself that books aboard Carina, having not been opened in five and a half months, will contain all the thrills and excitement as if they were new. And I have to remember the stacks of unread books that await me when I return to Carina.

Returning to the UK has given us the opportunity to restock Carina with some much desired food stuffs, but most importanly, tea. Our ongoing search for teabags caused us no end of consternation last year. Tea in Spain and Portugal is, to our tastes, insipid, over-packaged and expensive. But how many packets of 240 Tetley teabags can we pack and what else do we sacrifice in order to maximise our supply of tea? Though our tastes have adapted to virtually all southern European cuisine, large quantities of strong tea is something we can’t bear to be without!

Knowing how much preparation I want to do for our return to Carina, and knowing how quickly I tire these days, I started the job last week. A little bit every day and gradually I’m getting there. So far, summer clothes that won’t fit the girls next summer have gone into a bag for the charity shop, along with clothes I bought from charity shops at the start of summer, but now no longer need. Books have been divided into piles – boat, storage, charity.

Little by little it’s all taking shape. And little by little I’m getting in shape too, excited by the prospect of returning home soon, intrigued to see what the Rio Guadiana is like at this time of year, and wondering where the next few months will take us.

Of hawks and wild places

I’ve retreated into myself in the past few weeks, unable to write, unable to communicate. The time of year, the news stories on the television, morose thoughts about my upcoming surgery. Early September hits me like a train every year. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, the anniversary of my father’s death comes around and knocks me down all over again. It takes time to pull myself out of that hole.

This year my grief has been compounded by images of new born babies, small children, old men fleeing in desperation from their homes and searching for hope in an unsure Europe. I feel helpless in the face of such misery and desperation, yet tearfully grateful for the crowds of welcoming ordinary citizens, opening their hearts and their homes to refugees.

So I retreated inward, grew maudlin and morose, became unbearable to live with. But during my late summer hibernation two books have pulled me through, dragged me back to the world again. Both concern the interactions and engagements between humans and non-humans, wildness and domesticity, love, awe and wonder. And both perhaps not coincidentally are written by fellows of Cambridge colleges, who are friends and who have contributed in one way or another to each others’ books.

H is for Hawk is Helen Macdonald’s powerful and moving story of training a goshawk. She and I were contemporaries at Cambridge and we met a couple of times. We shared an interest in the relationships between humans and animals and I was in awe of her knowledge and passion for falconry, mesmerised by her intellect and eloquence. Little did I know, as we stood drinking a cup of tea in her college garden sharing thoughts on hawks and polar bears, that she was deeply grieving for her father and living a half-wild life with her goshawk Mabel. Her book is an uplifting memoir of how training Mabel helped drag Macdonald out of her grief. But it is also a fascinating account of the history and culture of falconry. By the last page I wanted to walk through fields in search of rabbits and pheasants, to get my skin scratched and my hair messed up from pushing myself through hedges and into woodlands, to feel the weight of a bird of prey on my hand.

From H is for Hawk I picked up Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places. From his Cambridge home MacFarlane sets out to find the wild places of Britain and Ireland, places devoid of humanity and human history. But in his search he comes to the slow realisation that such places do not exist. The wild expanses of the Scottish highlands or the west of Ireland were once filled with people before Clearances and Famine swept human life aside. He discovers that ‘the wild’ cannot be separated from ‘the human’, they exist together. He discovers wildness in a weed pushing up through a crack in a pavement, in a spider web in the corner of a room, in an abandoned factory. The book takes the reader to the far reaches of mainland Scotland and the Isle of Skye, to Anglesey, Dorset, the Burren, even to Essex. In writing the book, he travelled to places I have been to and love and to places I have never heard of. His evocative writing carried my thoughts away from Leamington Spa to these magnificent parts of the archipelago and my soul soared.

By the end of these two books I felt ready to write again, able to communicate again, ready to return to the world. These books helped the dark places in my mind open up to the continuities between past and present, human and other-than-human, life and death.

Next on my list of uplifting books? Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It’s awaiting me on my bedside table right now.

It’s World Book Day!!

Happy happy World Book Day and hurray for public libraries!!

World Book Day – a day to celebrate books, to read, to share, and to encourage everyone to read more. I could spend the rest of my life singing the praises of my favourite books, because once I get started on that topic I wouldn’t be able to stop. I would lament the lost years – early 2009 to late 2011 – when small needy children came between me and reading, and I was lucky to get through one book every six months. My ulterior motive in cultivating my children’s love of books was that they would leave me alone to get back to my own reading. From early 2012 my reading opportunities increased and I am now back to pre-baby reading levels.

But having babies leads to a new appreciation of books and today, on this day devoted to cultivating a love of books, I want to consider some of the best children’s literature I have had the pleasure of reading to and with my children in the past few years.

First of all, it must be said, there are some truly awful children’s books out there. Some children’s authors seem to think that young equals stupid and so any old nonsensical drivel can be thrown together and flung at children and their sleep-deprived parents. That sort of stuff can turn children and parents off reading forever. Parents are the ones, after all, who have to read those same stories day after day and night after night, and there is nothing worse than reading something aloud that is (a) badly written and (b) tells a terrible story.

But, oh, the joy of reading good children’s literature. It warms the heart and nurtures the soul. No matter how many times I read Winnie the Pooh (and I’ve read it and The House At Pooh Corner aloud at least three times) the last chapter brings me to tears and I find myself sobbing through the final paragraphs with Lily and Katie asking ‘Why are you crying, Mummy?’

When Lily was only weeks old I discovered Helen Cooper’s masterpiece Pumpkin Soup. Let me tell you now, if you are ever going to have a baby and you are expecting a gift from me, you are going to get a copy of Pumpkin Soup. Cooper’s illustrations and her uplifting and hilarious story about a Cat, a Squirrel and a Duck with a weakness for pumpkin soup are about as good as it gets when it comes to literature for anyone of any age. It wasn’t long before I bought books two and three in the series – A Pipkin of Pepper and Delicious, where naughty and contrary Duck continues to cause all sorts of problems for his two friends. Next I bought Cooper’s The Baby Who Wouldn’t Go To Bed. It is such a sweet and playful book and the brilliance of her illustrations continued to make me swoon.

I’m a firm fan of Julia Donaldson WHEN she works with the illustrator Axel Scheffler. The Donaldson-Scheffler books are tales of heroism, justice and friendship, all featuring unlikely heroes, such as a witch, an earthworm or a sea snail. The Snail And The Whale is, for obvious reasons, my favourite. It’s the story of a tiny snail who dreams of exploring the world, and sets off on an adventure on the tail of a humpback whale, and eventually saves the whale’s life. With the exception of What the Ladybird Heard, I am far less a fan   of the Donaldson books illustrated by Lydia Monks. Their tone is different and they are too full of pink princess types in need of rescuing for my liking.

And were would we be without Dr. Seuss, with his humorous and eloquent morality tales that teach us about the evils of power and greed (Yertle the Turtle), racism (The Sneetches), capitalism (The Lorex), and about humanity of the most seemingly insignificant (Horton Hears A Who), sharing (The Grinch Who Stole Christmas), and loyalty (Horton Hatches The Egg).

There are so many other wonderful children’s authors who have entertained Julian and I as much as they’ve entertained Lily and Katie – Lauren Childs, Robert Munsch, Mo Willems, Barbara M. Joosse.The girls think they’ve outgrown some of these books, but we know better! They will return to them again some day, I’m sure. Now, as I wrote in my last post, they are moving on to other things and I, for the first time, am discovering the wonders of C.S. Lewis. When the girls want me to read ‘just one more chapter’ I am happy to comply, because I am just as enthralled by the adventures in Narnia as they are.

And finally, on this day dedicated to books, I was once again reminded of how blessed we are to have public libraries run by thoughtful and generous-spirited librarians. The girls and I flew to Ireland yesterday to spend a few weeks with Mammy and my extended family. This afternoon we went to Edenderry library. I am no longer a member of this library, because I haven’t lived in Edenderry for many years. But I was a member throughout my childhood and early adulthood. We walked in the door this afternoon and Lily and Katie immediately descended on the books, sinking to the floor to read what they picked out.

I approached the desk. ‘Hello’, I said to the librarian. ‘I’m from Edenderry, but I don’t live here. I’m just here for three weeks. Would it be possible to get a temporary membership?’ ‘Are you Bridget’s daughter’, the librarian asked. Bridget reads more than anyone I know and it was she who took me to this library about once a week throughout my childhood. ‘Yes’, I said. ‘Don’t worry about membership’, the librarian said. ‘Take out as many books as you want on your mother’s card’. Ah, the generosity of librarians.

A while later we walked out, the girls with three books each, Mammy with three books, and I had C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew (the only one of The Chronicles of Narnia that we don’t have aboard Carina) and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam (which I was planning on buying the next time I was in a bookshop). World Book Day has been good to me!!

We read the first two chapters of The Magician’s Nephew when the girls went to bed. And now, if you will excuse me, it’s time to make a cup of tea, get into bed and start reading MaddAddam.

I hope World Book Day has treated you well too.

9 + 9 + 9 = 36

In July 2013, when I spent a week in Ireland, I visited my friend Bernard in Navan. Bernard and his wife Moya have twin girls who are a year older than Lily. They were five at the time of my visit and I remember being mesmerized by what they could do. Their manual dexterity and language abilities were so much more advanced than Lily’s or Katie’s. They could skip with skipping ropes, put slides in their own and each others hair, and have conversations with me and their parents that seemed, at the time, terribly mature. But, you know, they’re Bernard’s kids, so I wouldn’t have expected anything less.

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A year and a half on, and Lily is now five and three quarters and Katie is four and a quarter. When I reflect on what they could not do last year, but can now do with ease, I am astounded by the ability of children to learn so much so fast. Over the years, a great deal of my anthropology practice has focused on how and what we learn about the world around us and how we put our embodied knowledge into practice. So it should come as no surprise that seeing my own children go through this process of engaging with and learning about the world around them is fascinating to me – as I’m sure it is to most parents.

I’m not bragging about how great my kids are. I’m gushing about how great ALL kids are. The ability of children to learn so much so quickly, and to make sense of a very complex world, astounds me. Some people compare kids to sponges soaking up information. But this analogy doesn’t capture the exciting, complicated and innovative ways that children re-organise all the information they receive in order to make sense of it and of the world. All children are learning all the time. They are all learning different things, each one at his or her own unique pace and with his or her unique style. Here are just some of the things my children have learned since last year:

Lily has learned to swim and Katie is nearly there too and both of them love to fully submerge in the water, their little heads disappearing below the waves. They can now both dress themselves, and brush their own hair and teeth. Some mornings, Lily makes breakfast for both of them (Katie’s still too short to reach into our top-opening fridge or to reach the cereal bowls). They can both use knives and forks, although Katie protests loudly at the indignity of having to cut up her own food and prefers her minions to do it for her.

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This time last year, Lily could read simple picture books (we thought them very advanced at the time). When I went to New York I bought her some Elephant and Piggy books by Mo Willems, to add to those she was already had at home. However, within a week of returning from New York, her reading ability had advanced beyond Elephant and Piggy. These days, she can read anything. I mean, anything! She doesn’t always understand the words (‘Mummy, what does superficial mean?’, ‘Dad what’s oesophagus?’) but she can pronounce pretty much every word she reads. I’ve heard a rumour that Santa is bringing a dictionary!

Because she is such an avid reader, her spelling is fantastic. Until a couple of months ago she was a cautious speller, and always sought reassurance that she was right. Not any more. Sure, she gets some things wrong, such as ending a word with ‘y’ when it should be ‘ie’. On the other hand, she knows that a word such as ‘pick’ is spelled with a ‘ck’ instead of a mere ‘k’. I can only imagine she knows these things because she reads so much and so she knows what words are supposed to look like. We certainly haven’t taught her. She has never ‘learned’ spellings off by heart the way I had to do for homework when I was a child.

She now has her own email account, and regularly emails Granny and any other family members who take the time to email her.

We have taken a very different approach to Katie’s reading and writing. You might say no approach at all, as our philosophy of unschooling has evolved. With very little input from us, Katie can now read most of her letters, knows what sounds they make and can write many of them. It is now her turn to get to grips with Elephant and Piggy.

Two months ago I wouldn’t have believed it if I was told that Lily would soon be able to add together three numbers in the hundreds. But she does it with ease. Even her mistakes show she’s learning. The other day she added 9 + 9 + 9. Her answer was 36. I told her she needed to try again. Her brow furrowed for a minute and then she said ‘Silly me. That’s four nines. I should have just done three nines’.

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The list of things the girls can do aged four and five that they could not do aged three and four seems almost endless. Their drawing, painting, inventing, role playing and much more besides have all become more complex, detailed and advanced. And they are such great company. They have a much greater awareness now of the impact of what they do and say, and they use that awareness to great advantage, teasing their Dad and me, making us laugh, playing tricks on us. They are avid communicators, talking the hind legs off a donkey at every opportunity, and making friends with people of all ages.

One of the things that I find fascinating is that I always notice a leap in their abilities when they have had new social experiences. After we’ve had visitors, or have spent an out-of-the-ordinary day with family or friends, both girls show an improvement in their aptitude for everything from drawing to mathematics to making conversation. I don’t know what the reasons are for this, but I can almost see the synapses in their brains going into overdrive and ensuring that they respond to these new stimuli and learn quick and fast.

This Christmas, take pleasure in what amazing creatures your children and grandchildren are. Revel in their curiosity and hunger for knowledge. Enjoy their creativity and humour and inventiveness. Answer their questions and laugh at their (awful) jokes. Make the time to listen to what they have to say. Take them seriously. Read to them. Sing to them. Allow them to read to you and sing to you. And accept that they’re smarter than any of us will ever be! Happy Christmas xx

The goldfinch

Last week I discovered that my copy of Ruth Ozeki’s novel A tale for the time being had followed me from A Coruña on Spain’s northwest Atlantic coast to Aguadulce on the Costa del Sol in the Mediterranean, a distance of some 850 nautical miles. You can read about that discovery here. This week I had a strange literary experience of a different kind.

130902164718-fall-books-preview-the-goldfinch-horizontal-galleryWhen my friend Katie visited us aboard Carina in July, she rapidly read The goldfinch by Donna Tartt, racing through the final sixty pages on her last day with us, so she could leave the book with me, so desperate was she for me to read it too. I started to read it a few days later and I became so engrossed that one day I even forgot to make dinner for the family until Lily’s and Katie’s complaints of hunger drew my attention to the fact that it was two hours after their usual dinner time!

Fabritius' Goldfinch

Fabritius’ Goldfinch

The goldfinch is the story of a boy, Theo Decker, who, in a moment of great personal tragedy, steals Carel Fabritius’ 1654 painting of a goldfinch. The story follows Theo through his teenage and young adult years, and through his obsession with the painting. The goldfinch in the painting is a captive, chained by its leg to a perch. At one point in his life, Theo finds himself living on the outskirts of Las Vegas, in a house in the middle of a mostly deserted housing development. His life spirals out of control. He grows pale and gaunt and his teeth rot.

If you haven’t read the book, I urge you to read it. It is funny and heartbreaking and shocking and joyful, and certain scenes have remained with me (the morphine lollypop☺).

But what I have just recounted of the story is enough to set the scene for my strange literary encounter of last Thursday morning.

I have been attending a GP and having medical tests at a clinic at the opposite end of Aguadulce; about a 40 minute walk along the sea front. Eventually the road and path by the sea come to an end and, to get to the clinic, I walk through a partly deserted apartment development. It is one of those property developments built before the Spanish economy crashed, when houses and apartments were thrown up with little consideration to who might occupy them. (We have similar ghost housing estates in Ireland, built when times were good and when loans for property development were dispensed like confetti). From the beach to the clinic I walk past six or more ghost apartment blocks – three or four entire street blocks of apartments where eighty percent or more of the apartments appear unoccupied. There’s a never-been-used tennis court and a lots of empty parking spaces on the mostly deserted streets.

European goldfinch

European goldfinch

As I walked through this development the other morning on my way to the clinic my attention was drawn to something on the windowsill of a ground floor apartment. It was a tiny bird cage, no bigger than 20cm wide and 10cm high. As I got closer I realised there was a bird inside. It was a goldfinch, instantly recognisable by its red face and bright yellow patches on its wings. It fluttered about in a cage that was probably no more than four times its body size. I was shocked to see this bird imprisoned in such a tiny cage, perhaps even more shocked than I might otherwise be as it’s a bird I am used to seeing flitting about the UK countryside. I stopped for a moment to take a closer look. As I did, a young man appeared at the open window. He was pale and gaunt with fair hair. He wore a coffee-coloured dressing gown loosely tied at his waist. I said ‘Hola’, but he did not speak. I walked on. When I walked back along the same street half an hour later the bird cage was gone, and I couldn’t remember at which of the closed windows I had seen it.

In that mostly unoccupied housing development on the outskirts of town I had encountered Theo Decker and his goldfinch. It sent a shiver down my spine.

The time being returns

In June we set sail from L’Aber Wrac’h in northwest Brittany. For three days we sailed south across the Bay of Biscay. The north wind sped us along, the sky was clear, and dolphins accompanied us day and night.

DSCI4802On the first day of our Biscay passage I started reading Ruth Ozeki’s novel A tale for the time being. It is a story about the ocean, about Zen Buddhism, and about the unexpected flotsam that finds its way into our lives and our hearts. In true Ozeki style, the lines between fact and fiction are blurred. Ozeki and her husband are in the story, and half of the story is set on the small Pacific Northwest island where they live. The protagonist, Ruth, finds a battered Hello Kitty lunch box on the beach near her home. She brings the box home and opens it at her kitchen table. Inside she finds a diary, mildewed and water damaged, written by a teenage Japanese girl. The girl’s story unfolds as Ruth slowly translates the diary and begins to make sense of the other items in the lunchbox. The two stories are separated by the vast Pacific Ocean and by the time it has taken the lunchbox to drift from Japan to the US. Yet they are also bound together, as Ruth believes the story of the Japanese girl cannot reach a satisfactory conclusion without her careful reading of the diary.

By the time we reached Ria de Viveiro on the northwest coast of Spain, I was more than half way through the novel. I packed the book in my backpack for our first trip ashore from our anchorage. I hoped to read a few pages while the girls played on the huge empty beach where we landed the dinghy. Julian left us to explore the town and the girls and I had fun on the beach until the sky turned black. The thunder crashed loudly around us and spectacular lightning filled the sky. There was no shelter to be found on the beach and for twenty minutes we huddled miserably in the lee of a sand dune. By the time the sky cleared the girls and I were soaked to the skin, and we soggily slopped off to find Julian.

When we returned to Carina I discovered that the contents of my backpack, including A tale for the time being, had also suffered in the thunder storm. For the next couple of days I dried the contents of my purse, my notebook, pens and, of course, my book, in the cockpit. When it had dried, I gingerly read the last quarter of the book. It was waterlogged, the spine wilting under the now fluffy pages. In the Galician humidity, mould quickly took hold, and black spiral patterns spread across the pages that I carefully turned, willing the book to stay intact until I reached the end.

I finished the book and considered throwing it in the bin, due to its poor condition. But when we arrived at the marina in A Coruña I decided to leave the book in the marina lounge. One of the joys of being at marinas is browsing through the books left behind by other sailors and I like to donate my books when I’ve finished reading them. Amidst the novels in German, Swedish, Dutch, and so on, that one finds at these marina book swaps, there are always a selection of English books. And amidst the Danielle Steeles and the Harlan Corbins, I occasionally find a book or two to add to Carina’s library. Only yesterday, when I deposited my beloved copies of The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt) and Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), I was delighted to pick up Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. Oh, what delights.

But I digress. I deposited A tale for the time being, tatty, waterlogged, mouldy, at the marina lounge in A Coruña. It’s fragile state reminded me of the diary at the centre of the story. So you can imagine my surprise when, last week, I wandered into the marina office here in Aguadulce to find my very own copy of A tale for the time being sitting on top of the book swap pile! It was instantly recognisable – the mildewed, water stained and swollen pages. It’s dried out since I last saw it, and the pages are now brittle and yellowed. But it was unmistakably my book. A book about a diary that floats across an ocean had followed me in the hands of another sailor (or maybe more than one) all the way from the Atlantic coast of northwest Spain into the Mediterranean (over 850 nautical miles, passing the entire coast of Portugal, west Galicia and Andalucia)! Discovering that my own copy of the book had followed me here made some of the more surreal and improbable elements of the novel seem spookily more plausible!

The sailor who picked it up in A Coruña could have gone anywhere with it. A Coruña is a major stopping off point for yachts heading south to the Canaries and the Caribbean and it is a landfall for sailors sailing east across the Atlantic and making their way to northern Europe. Between A Coruña and Aguadulce there are probably fifty marinas, many of them far more substantial and along more significant passage-making routes than Aguadulce. So for the book to travel over 850 nautical miles to the out-of-the-way marina where we have chosen to spend the winter is remarkable. What a thrill I experienced on seeing the book again.

PS…I had a goldfinch experience a couple of days ago, but that’s a blog for another day!