A reason for writing

I had an email recently from Stephen (Hi Stephen!). I don’t know Stephen, but he knows me. He started his email by telling me that he enjoys reading my blog and wondering if I would be writing any more. These few simple words from someone I’ve never met where the kick in the bum I needed to get me writing again.

I’ve been thinking about my lack of writing for some time. 2017 has been a bad year for me, with regard to writing. My blog has suffered from neglect and all those half-finished (half-started) short and long form pieces I’ve written with a view to old-style publishing, have failed to see the light of day.

It’s not as if I’ve had nothing to write about. Family life aboard Carina on the Rio Guadiana is no less interesting (for me at least!) than it was when we first arrived. My understanding of and passion for the place grows deeper, as my roots weave deeper into the soil. I continue to make observations about life here, about the lives of my children, and about the multiple cultures that clash or blend or mash or crash here. I find great amusement in my ongoing cultural and linguistic faux pas and continue to make promises that tomorrow will be the day when I start the business of becoming a fluent Spanish speaker. I continue to be in awe of the environment – the river itself, the seemingly endless hills like a great ocean rolling away in all directions from the brown ribbon of river. I rejoice at the passing of the seasons, ponder global impacts on local ecosystems and reflect on my own choices.

Despite all of this rich potential writing material, I have generally failed over the course of the past year to put pen to paper. I could claim it’s due to lack of time. Julian was working full time, six days a week for the first eight months of the year, while I worked part time and had almost full responsibility for the children and the boat. Since September, we have swapped roles once again, with Julian at home while I work close to full-time – teaching English five days a week, working two editing jobs, and occasionally taking care of a friend’s Air B&B property. It’s not only that I am busy with all that work, it’s that the jobs themselves are so varied and diverse, I require a lot of headspace to coordinate everything I do.

I’m certainly not complaining. I enjoy the work, the money is decent, and I get to spend quite a bit of time at home. I can walk the children to school every day, go for a coffee with a friend, have lunch with the children and help with their homework, and fit my work in around it all. I could find time to write too. But the first three months of this schedule robbed me of any desire to write. I thought about all the things I wanted to write about, but the act of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard eluded me. I finally feel ready to write again. The chaos of the first few months has started to shape itself into routine and I can find space in my days again for walking and reading – two activities without which I cannot write.

But a busy schedule has not been the only thing that’s kept me from writing. I’m not the only person feeling the way I’ve felt this past year. I follow a few writers’ blogs and in the past year I’ve been reading blogs by women writers who feel at a loss. The observations of a mother on a boat, or the verse of a poet, or the ponderings of a literary chicken farmer can seem futile in the face of American politics, the rise of the extreme right, Brexit, our oceans choked in plastic, extreme weather events, children dying of war and starvation in Syria and elsewhere, and a thousand other injustices happening on the global stage. I am not alone in feeling that my writing is pointless and futile.

But then I receive an email from someone like Stephen which reminds me that my silly musings often put a smile on peoples’ faces. And in these sometimes dark days, putting a smile on a stranger’s face is reward enough for me.

The interest people take in my writing boomerangs back to me in positive ways. Emails like Stephen’s put a smile on my face. Neeraj Bhushan’s interest in my blog lead to us recently featuring on the cover of Buland Prajatantra, a fortnightly Hindi magazine. Neeraj, a journalist, made contact with me a few months ago to ask if he could write about us for his magazine. Getting to know Neeraj by email and WhatsApp has been delightful and the ensuing magazine article (I’m assured) captured the essence of why we set sail and why we continue to live on a boat.

Martina Tyrrell

A star turn on the cover of the early December edition of Buland Prajatantra

Because of my blog I have been consulted by documentary researchers, writers, conference organisers, and my family and Carina even feature in a Hungarian secondary school English textbook!

My blog has also brought me into contact with home educators, wannabe sailors, salty old sea dog sailors, foodies, environmentalists, parents, and many more. People have contacted me with questions about buying boats, sailing boats, living aboard with children, and much more. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of these things, but the blog has sparked an interest in people, and made them want to get in touch with me. I even met a man the other day who said ‘I sailed to the Rio Guadiana because of your blog’. Wow.

I have a small blog following and, although it once seemed important to make the numbers grow, I no longer care how big or small my following is. What I am concerned about is continuing to write meaningfully for the people who take the time to read my blog. I want to write for family and friends, and for strangers. I want to continue to make people laugh, or think, or wonder, or question. Hopefully my writing can light a small candle in a sometimes dark world.

So, I am drawing a line under 2017, and looking ahead to 2018 where I return to doing the type of writing I enjoy most.


On blogging

I started blogging at the beginning of 2012. I’d been working on the blog for a couple of months prior to that, getting it ready to ‘go live’. My blogging, at first, was inconsistent. Whole months might go by when I wouldn’t post anything and then three would come in quick succession. Once we set sail in summer 2012 I had limited internet access and limited electricity to power our slightly old laptop. I had lots to write about, but was frustrated by my lack of opportunities to blog. About a week before we set sail for France in summer 2013 our laptop broke and we didn’t buy a new one for four months. I quickly gave up trying to blog on public computers in France, as the French keyboard drove me towards insanity and I couldn’t think slowly enough to type.

At the start of 2014, with a new laptop and a permanent move onto Carina imminent, I made a New Year’s Resolution to blog ten times per month. I’ve generally stuck to that with only a few blips here and there. Lack of electricity or Wifi no longer cause problems. Carina’s solar panel and an energy efficient current adapter means quick and easy recharging of the laptop battery no matter how long we remain at anchor (this might be put to the test when we return to Carina for the winter). These days I write all my blogs as Word documents and, when I get an hour of Wifi, copy and paste up to five blog posts a time to my WordPress site, and schedule them to come out at three day intervals. That way, there’s never a break in my blog posts due to being anchored somewhere remote or on a passage at sea.

I’m generally not short of material to blog about, and indeed I have quite a few posts written as Word documents that have never (yet) seen the light of day on the blog. Julian sometimes criticises my broad reach. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I should stick to stuff about sailing and life aboard Carina and our experiences in foreign places. But the way I see it is that I blog about what happens to me and my family and what inspires me or amuses me or gets my goat. So I blog about sailing, living aboard a small boat, the places we visit, the encounters we have with humans and other-than humans. I blog about our experiences home educating the girls and about simple living, and I blog about things that spark ideas or thoughts or memories of other things.

We’ve been away from Carina for four months now, back in the UK while I await my surgery. Being away from Carina is part of our live aboard story too. You could think of it as an interesting experiment of sampling life back in what used to be normality but now feels decidedly abnormal (blog post on this theme to follow!). It’s also about trying to maintain a sense of continuity and normality for the children when we are away from home and our lives are very much up in the air.

The truth is, I love blogging. I enjoy putting my thoughts out there and I enjoy reading comments from people who make the time to share their thoughts and ideas about what I (and occasionally Julian) have written. Since January 2012 my blog following has grown by slow increments. I don’t have the tens of thousands of followers that other bloggers have. In fact, I don’t even have a thousand followers. But with every new blog post I usually get one or two more and when I’ve had some media coverage I pick up a few more. I’m happy with that.

But a strange and unexpected thing has happened since returning to the UK. I usually write at a great distance from my readers. Few of the other sailors and live aboards we meet have any idea that I write a blog. Amongst our fellow live aboards our family is much like everyone else’s. We’re just one of the thousands of families out there on the world’s oceans, sailing to our own compass. In fact, many of them are probably writing their own blogs too. In the course of Skype conversations my mother or mother-in-law will occasionally comment on the content of the latest blog post, and a few people comment via the blog itself or on Facebook. But generally I’m oblivious to readers’ reactions to what I write and I rarely think too much about who I write for.

Since returning to the UK, however, friends, family members, friends of friends, friends of family, have told me they read my blog. My reaction is always terrible embarrassment hidden behind mumbled ‘oh really?’s and ‘thank you’s! But now that I’ve discovered some of the readers of my blog, I see their faces as I write and have become a little self-conscious, imagining their reactions to what I write. Some censorship has crept in. I’ve always censored my writing. There are subjects I will not write about and subjects I’ve avoided writing about in particular ways. But now I’m censoring as I think about how specific individuals will react.

Silly me. Because the truth is, I’m delighted that people take an interest in my blog, and enjoy reading what Julian and I write. I just don’t react to the face-to-face reality of my readers’ existence very well. I’m sure once we’re back aboard Carina my self-consciousness will wane and I’ll once again forget who I am writing for.

But for now, thank you all so much for continuing to follow my blog!

Home alone

I’ve been all alone aboard Carina for the past ten days. On Monday of last week, Julian, Lily and Katie flew back to the UK to visit family, leaving me to get on with a major spring clean, a lot of writing, and my own and Julian’s teaching. I’m generally getting on with all the tasks I’ve set myself. The spring cleaning is underway and the writing is slow and painful.

I’ve sorted through all the food stores – cleaning, reorganising and throwing stuff away. There hasn’t been much to throw away, as we generally make sure that everything is eaten before its use-by date. But the pine nuts covered in green fur and the rusty old tin of treacle had to go in the bin. With everyone else away I’ve been using up foods close to their use-by date, or foods that exist in such small quantities that they can only provide a meal for one, such as tiny quantities of Japanese rice, okonomiyaki flour and maize flour.

Because the troops are returning by car (with Granddad), Julian’s taken a shopping list back to the UK. It’s a rare opportunity to buy some of our favourite non-perishables that either can’t be purchased in Spain or are far more expensive here, so we thought we should treat ourselves. I’m looking forward to having the ingredients to make Thai green curry, to have mango chutney and lime pickle to accompany our dahls and other curries, and to have an ample supply of Golden Syrup for baking.

The aft heads, which we use as a storage space, was in dire need of cleaning, so I tackled that last Saturday, removing all the folded sails, reorganising the medical cupboard, and cleaning the mould from all the surfaces. The fore cabin – Lily and Katie’s bedroom – had turned into a black hole recently. Every toy, piece of paper and shell got sucked in there, and I couldn’t wait to have the boat all to myself to get rid of all that stuff without being told ‘Don’t throw that out. I need it’. After two hours in the fore cabin, and two days of airing the mattresses, I had amassed two large bags of clothes and shoes for recycling and one bag of things that will not be missed!! I sorted through the jigsaw puzzles and removed those they no longer play with – replacing 24-piece jigsaws with the 50- and 100- piece jigsaws they play with now.

This weekend I will tackle the aft cabin – Julian’s and my bedroom. I know I have clothes and shoes in there that I no longer wear and there are books to be recycled or sent back in the car with my father-in-law. So I’m sure another couple of bags will emerge from there. The floors throughout the boat need to be washed and the galley and forward heads given a more thorough cleaning than they get on a week-to-week basis.

I was feeling a bit down about my writing, thinking that I hadn’t achieved as much as I had hoped. But then I thought more about it. I completed the first draft of my book. I’ve now given it a thorough read-through, taken notes, and I am now in the process of re-drafting. I’ve got an article almost ready to submit to a sailing magazine and another one in my head ready to be committed to the page. And I’ve blogged regularly.

So I can’t complain about what I have achieved in the past ten days. Having the boat all to myself has meant having more time to catch up with people far away. I’ve finally had the time to email friends in Japan, Canada, the US and the UK and I had a one-and-a-half hour Skype conversation with a friend in the UK the other night. I’ve watched a couple of movies (making up for lost time with Michael Fassbender!), I’m listening regularly to my favourite radio programmes – Woman’s Hour, Desert Island Discs and the Mayo and Kermode Film Review, and I’ve finally caught up on all my favourite blogs that have been lying unread in my inbox for months.

But boy oh boy do I miss my family. Perhaps I don’t miss Julian so much, because we have been having telephone and Skype conversations, and we’ve been emailing each other every day. So, although we are far apart, we can still be there for each other to some extent. But, with a 4-year old and a 5-year old, things are very different. Our phone and Skype conversations are short, and the girls quickly get distracted by other things. I’ve come to realise how important their physical presence is – their hugs and kisses and their need for assistance with getting dressed or washing their hair – I miss that physical closeness to them.

Julian and I, of course, are used to being apart. He used to do four-month stretches of field work deep in Antarctica and I used to do two-month stretches of field work in the Canadian Arctic. We missed each other, but we were always so busy we didn’t have time to wallow and we could always keep in touch by email. Anthropological fieldwork is a very social activity, so I was always with people I knew and cared for, and my Geography field trips to New York in 2013 and 2014, when I was away from the family for 10 days, were such whirl-winds of activity that I didn’t have time to miss the girls or Julian. But writing and spring cleaning are solitary affairs, and so I have more time to miss everyone.

In the ten days that my family has been away I’ve had good news followed by bad news followed by good news followed by bad news followed by bad news. I know if I had my family here I would be so caught up in the mundane activities of everyday life – caring for the girls, keeping them fed and busy, etc – that I wouldn’t have time to get swept away by these highs and lows. The practicalities of family life would force me to maintain a more even keel. But here, on my own, the highs feel higher and the lows feel lower.

Eight more days to go and I will be reunited with my three favourite people. In the meantime, there’s a lot of spring cleaning and writing still to do, a novel or two to read, and maybe a few more movies to watch on the laptop. And now it’s time for Woman’s Hour, so I have to go!