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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Fractions with Granddad

‘Do you want me to do some colouring or reading with them?’ my father-in-law calls up the stairs.
‘They’re learning fractions at the moment’, I call back down, and leave it at that.
Fifteen minutes later, when I come downstairs, Lily, Katie and Granddad are sitting at the kitchen table, deep in learning.

Katie is colouring in a pizza on a piece of paper, to be divided into equal segments once it’s done. Lily has multiple pieces of paper in front of her, circles and squares. She has moved beyond the halves and quarters that she has recently become comfortable with. Granddad is challenging her with thirds, fifths, sevenths. And when that seems easy, he moves things up a level, challenging Lily to see that 1⁄2= 2⁄4, 1⁄4 = 2⁄8, and so on. Katie’s pizza is ready now (‘Katie’s pizza’…Katie reads it without prompting…horray!) and I join in the fun. We work out how many pieces we would divide the whole pizza into if greater and greater numbers of family members wanted equal shares. All this talk of pizza is making me hungry!

Fractions with Granddad

Fractions with Granddad

Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed how the input of other people can lead to sudden or dramatic leaps in Lily’s and Katie’s understanding and skills. Partly, I think this is because of someone else taking a different approach to a problem, and partly because the girls enjoy the novelty and want to impress other people more than they want to impress Mum and Dad.

Katie is generally adverse to learning to read, but in the past few days has been making some progress, usually under duress. When I told Granddad about Katie’s amazing reading, she did a fantastic thing. Instead of scowling, she leapt up, grabbed the book she’s been reading and insisted that Granddad come sit with her in the sitting room so she could read the book to him. And, as I lay in the bath the other night, I could hear Grandma and Katie downstairs, writing together – Katie asking Grandma how to spell certain words and Grandma prompting Katie to figure the spellings out for herself.

Lily had been keen to learn to knit for some time. My attempts at teaching her didn’t get very far, but I was happy for her to get comfortable with the feel of needles and wool. The knitting would come with time and the improvement of her fine motor skills. About a year ago, Mammy came to stay and in the space of 15 minutes Lily’s knitting took a leap forward. Then, this summer, Julian’s mum brought Lily the final step. Lily can now knit (plain stitch for the moment) and is currently knitting a scarf.

Lily has learned to do underwater handstands by observing an older boy doing them at the pool and Katie has learned to cartwheel by observing teenage girls at the beach. I’ve been told I learned to write my name at the age of three and a half, thanks to my cousin Brendan.

Over the past few years I’ve observed the girls learning from adults and from other children, people they’ve known all their lives and people they’ve just met. I’m not fobbing off my duties and pawning off my children’s education onto everyone else who comes along, althought it might seem like it from what I’ve just written! As a home educator I’m always eager to involve as many people as possible in the children’s very informal education. Julian and I have two different approaches, but when we include other family members, friends, and people we meet along the way, the number of different perspectives and approaches to learning that the girls are exposed to vastly expands. The approach Granddad took to fractions was different to the approach I took. He used different words to describe things, he came to the problem from a different angle. I was tempted to jump in and use the words and phrases I had been employing to teach fractions, but I decided to keep my mouth shut, observe and see what happened.

Granddad’s different approach didn’t confuse the girls. Instead, it pushed their understanding of fractions further.

Life is complex and the best way to solve life’s problems are to approach them from multiple perspectives. As adults we engage with people who have different world views and who approach life differently to us. Developing the skills and aptitude to accept and be able to work with those differences is very important. I’m often reminded of my research in Arviat. One hunter would show me a method for skinning a caribou, one seamstress would show me a method for scraping a seal skin. Aha, I’ve got it, I would think. Until I did the same thing with a different hunter or seamstress, and I realised the method one person had taught me was merely one way to do things. There was no universal way to accomplish a task, but rather multiple and unique approaches that worked for each individual.

It inspires me to see how open the girls are to learning from a variety of perspectives and how quickly, when presented with an alternative approach to a problem, they come to an understanding of something that has been befuddling them for some time. As they learn maths, reading and writing from a variety of people they are also learning the very important lesson that there are multiple ways to approach a task and over time they will find the way that suits them.

Post-script: Yesterday morning Lily and I went out for a walk. When we returned home Katie had learned to strip an electrical plug and put it back together again, thanks to Granddad. This morning I had an appointment to see the nurse and left both girls at home with Granddad. When I returned they were both sitting at the table on the patio, screwdrivers, plugs, a disused iron and a broken electric kettle in front of them, busy stripping and wiring plugs! That’s my girls!!

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.

One year a-reading

It should come as no surprise to you that I’ve once again been thinking about reading. I’ve gushed about the joys of reading in blogs posts before here, here and here, and I’m about to do so again. But I’m also going to gush about the amazing learning capacities of young children. I’m in a state of pleasant shock most of the time, from observing how both my own children and other people’s children learn and develop so quickly.

A year ago, Lily started reading independently. Before that, Julian and I had read with her, encouraging her to sound out words and use her ‘reading finger’ to follow the story. But shortly before her fifth birthday, she discovered the joys of reading all by herself. Her first real foray into independent reading was with the Elephant and Piggie series of books by Mo Willems. My friend Angela gave us two books from this delightful, hilarious and touching series about a friendship between an elephant and a pig. The simply drawn pictures capture, with a couple of strokes of the pen, a range of emotions, as the two friends experiment, ponder, play and deal with some tough issues (What do you do when birds build a nest on your head? Or when a whale steals your ball? Or when you are invited to a party for the first time?). The language is simple – a few words on every page, word repetition, and font changes to convey changing emotional states.

epBy mid-March of last year, Lily had mastered reading these two books on her own, so I picked up four more from the series at Barnes and Noble when I was in Manhattan (it’s an American series, and not easy to find in the UK). But, in the ten days I was away in New York, Lily had graduated to more complex reading material. That’s not to say that she didn’t still love Elephant and Piggie. She continued (and continues) to read them to Katie, and Katie is now learning to read from them too.

elephantandpiggieBut with what seems to me lightning speed, in the space of only one year, Lily has gone from reading Elephant and Piggie to reading C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. We’ve already read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Horse and his Boy and last night we started Prince Caspian. Sometimes I read one chapter to her and she reads the next one to me; other times I read a chapter to her and she reads the next one silently to herself. Every night she falls asleep with a book in her hands.

lionThis is not easy literature for someone who is not yet six years old, and though she can read all the words, I am not sure how much of the content she understands. It is my first time to read the Narnia books and I find they deal with issues of duty, honour, friendship and betrayal. They contain joy and beauty, but also death and torture and pain. But Lily’s level of understanding is not important. She gets such joy from reading and she brings her five-year old wisdom and life experience to bear on what she reads. If she chooses to read these books again in one, five, ten, twenty years from now, no doubt each subsequent reading will be coloured by her experience and wisdom at those different points in her life.

She is a voracious reader, oblivious to the world around her when her head is stuck in a book. She’s deep into the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, has read a couple of Clarice Bean and Horrid Henry books, various Roald Dahl books (The Twits, Matilda, The BFG, etc), and numerous others.

Although I am thrilled that Lily has a passion for reading, what really amazes me is that I see in her the facility that all children have to learn new things quickly and easily. Children Lily’s age do this all the time. With Lily it’s reading. With other kids it’s maths, or art, or music, or building things, or natural history, or archaeology. Given the conditions to follow their own interests and explore the world around them, children have a natural desire and a voracious appetite for learning. We’ve all met a five-year old who knows the scientific names and characteristics of fifty dinosaurs, or who knows as much as a professional archaeologist about ancient Egypt. Nobody teaches kids this stuff. They follow what interests them, often until they’ve exhausted the possibilities or until they happen upon something else that interests them more.

What I find truly extraordinary about children is how quickly they develop proficiency in things that, if we are lucky, we adults can only learn with far greater effort and over much greater periods of time. Children aren’t scared of making mistakes in their self-directed learning, and they don’t have an end goal in sight. They learn simply because they love the thing they are doing – they love adding numbers up, or drawing tractors, or finding out every shred of information about Man Utd, or reading.

If we adults could approach our learning with such abandon and joy, and such a lack of self-consciousness or self-criticism, then maybe we too could learn more and learn better.

Toys, typing and a transmogrifier

In February last year I published a blog post entitled 9 essential items for happy live-aboard kids. The items consisted of toys or things designed specifically for play, such as Lego, Play Mobile, jigsaws, the dressing-up bag and play dough; and other things such as books, buckets and spades, and craft materials. A year later, with the girls a year older, and now that I am in the midst of a monster spring clean, I thought it was time to reflect on what on-board stuff keeps the girls happy these days.

Lego

Lego

Lego is the old reliable present for birthdays and Christmases (I was even given Lego on Mother’s Day) so our collection is growing. Since last year the girls have become more independent when playing with Lego and no longer need us to help them make things. That doesn’t mean they no longer want us to join in their Lego play. One day last summer I sent them into the aft cabin, where we spread the Lego bag, with the challenge to build a fantastic coffee-making machine. Seven months on they are still competing to invent ever more fantastic flying fire-dousing underwater coffee-making machines.

2014-10-31 08.03.54The dressing-up bag has been added to, with new tutus and ballet slippers added to the nurses’ outfits and witches costumes of last year. Despite that bag brimming with dressing up possibilities, Lily and Katie seem to prefer dressing up in stuff lying around – our woolly hats, gloves and neck-warmers; tying towels around their necks to be super heroes or characters from Frozen; using woollen braids to transform themselves into Rapunzel.

And while I’m on the subject of stuff lying around, I think the most cooperation and the least fighting happens when they are playing with non-toy stuff. They can play harmoniously for hours with the ropes, scrubbing brushes, buckets and cloths up on deck, planning and acting through all sorts of scenarios that may or may not include their soft toys and plastic dolls. They’ve even taking to acting out, on the pontoon, with all sorts of props, stories from their books. Lily reads the stories, line by line, and together they act out the scenes.

Granny’s cast-off camera inherited by Lily last year has proven a wonderful addition to the boat. They both use it, and have recently discovered the video function. They now record each other singing and acting out scenes from movies and in recent weeks we’ve been going to the beach where Lily has been attempting (with limited success) to simultaneously direct, film and act in her own movies!!

There are some notable changes from this time last year in what keeps them happy. The first is reading and writing. Lily has become an independent reader and she can sit or lie on her bed for hours reading silently to herself or aloud to Katie. She has also become an independent writer and, when the mood takes her, she sits at the table or in one of the cabins, and writes – letters, song words, transcribing from nature books, etc. So, merely supplying her with the tools she needs to write, and leaving them within easy reach means she can write whenever she feels like it. Earlier this week she wrote me an angry letter, asking me to stop telling everyone about her and the man she met on the street.

Scan_20150123 (2)Katie has taken a leaf out of her sister’s book, and she likes to ‘read’ and ‘write’ too, and I’m sure is only a matter of time before those words on the page make sense to her.

Only very recently they have both developed an interest in the laptop and use it for all sorts of reasons. They play games on the Internet; Lily now has her own email account; and they use Word and Paintbox and other programmes. The Internet games they play help develop their mouse skills and we generally direct them to maths and language games. But they are equally interested in content that isn’t strictly designed for children. They’ve been intrigued by the Mi Vida Loca Spanish language programme that Julian uses and have been learning Spanish from that; and Lily’s taken a few typing tutorials to learn to touch-type.

Teddy bears and the dolls are regularly strewn all over the boat. Before I get into bed at night I usually have to do a sweep of the bed, to remove tiny Barbie shoes, handbags, shells that have been transformed into jewellery, bits of Lego and who knows what else.

They need so little to keep them happy. They keep themselves entertained and transform whatever they find lying around into some imaginative prop for whatever game they are playing. I recently read an article by a woman who travelled across Canada with her husband and three young boys for over a month. She decided not to bring any toys AT ALL on the trip. She wasn’t sure she was making the right decision. But once the trip got underway the boys never complained of boredom. Instead they played with what they found around them, cooperated more, fought less, and talked more to their parents.

transmogrifierAs all children demonstrate to us, they make little distinction between what’s a toy and what’s not a toy. Children just want to play, and anything can, as Calvin would say, be ‘transmogrified’ with a sprinkling of imagination.

Get a job!

Recently, someone with our best interests at heart suggested that our lives would be easier if Julian and I had permanent jobs. These would provide us with financial security, give us something on which to focus our attention, and provide structure to our lives. We could still have a boat, save up our holidays and go sailing in the summer. This put me in a reflective mood and I asked this person for permission to use our conversation as a jumping off point for this blog post.

It’s true that in our current situation we lack financial security. But are we so different to many two-income families? My parents both worked, they were careful with money, and yet money was always a worry. Before we had children, Julian and I had a joint income of £64,000. But it never seemed to be enough. Back then, of course, we knew exactly how much money would appear in our bank account on a certain day each month. We knew the bills would get paid and we didn’t give much thought to how much money we spent on food and going out. These days we don’t know how much money (if any) we will earn in a given month. But I don’t think it has made our financial worries any greater. Rather, our financial worries are different. We no longer have the expense of running a car, paying rent or a mortgage, and paying electricity, telephone and water bills. We have other expenses, but they don’t even compare to our expenses when we lived on land.

These days we have to work hard to make our meagre financial resources stretch far. Some might think it burdensome to spend so much time comparing the prices on tins of tomatoes or weighing up the cost of a night spent at a marina versus the cost of motoring to an anchorage when there’s no wind by which to sail. But this is our work. These minute considerations allow us to live this incredible sailing life. If I wasn’t pondering tins of tomatoes I’d be giving essay-writing advice to a 19-year old undergrad. It’s just a different form of work.

Our way of life requires careful thought, planning and frugality and the replacement of time-saving devices and methods with manual and time-consuming labour. But without permanent full-time jobs, time is on our side and currently we undertake these boat maintenance and household chores in the warm January sun of the Costa del Sol, the beach a two-minute walk from Carina, a hulking orange mountain dominating the skyline behind us. We can leave when we wish and sail to wherever we choose, making anywhere our home. It feels like a pretty good life to me.

But having had this conversation about the benefits of permanent employment, I pondered the alternative to the life we currently live. Of course Julian and I could be in full-time permanent employment. There’s nothing to stop us. Academia is what I know and love and Julian has the research skills and experience to work in academia or in the private or public sectors. I certainly wouldn’t want a permanent job doing anything other than academic Human Geography/Anthropology. Why should I? It’s what I’m trained for. The academic life is a wonderful one, and I have to admit I miss all those intellectual conversations and debates that serve to fertilise the seeds of imagination. I miss my super-smart friends and colleagues, the opportunities for travel, the visits to the pub. I even miss my students some days!

But let’s imagine a scenario – based on my own experiences and on those of friends in academia. There is a side to academic life that makes the family life I desire almost impossible to achieve. Academic couples are frequently forced to live far from each other – in different cities, countries and even continents – as finding two jobs in the same university or city is often an unattainable dream. Julian and I lived apart when I lectured at Reading. In fact, all throughout my pregnancy with Lily, Julian lived in our home in Cambridge (where he worked) and I spent four nights a week in a flat in Reading (where I worked). My friends Tina and Ben have spent the past three years living apart in a foreign country and have only recently found university jobs in the same city in Tina’s native Canada. I have known couples who work in opposite ends of the UK, in different European countries and, in the most extreme example, a friend who worked in Fairbanks, Alaska, and lived there with her baby son, while her husband worked and lived in Vienna, Austria. Eventually, one of them had to give in and put their career on hold. In every university I have been associated with I have known couples who have been forced to live apart in order for both people to pursue their academic careers.

One of the reasons I quit my job at University of Reading after Lily was born was that we simply couldn’t figure out how to make it work. It’s a three and a half hour motorway journey between Cambridge and Reading. If we chose to live somewhere in between, Julian and I would both face up to four hours of commuting by car each day. House prices that close to London were way out of our reach and, if we factored in the cost of 12 hours of child care every day, one of our salaries would completely disappear in commuting and child care costs. Never mind how little time we would spend with each other or with our baby daughter. If you have ever been to Cambridge and Reading, you’ll understand why we chose Cambridge.

But let’s imagine that we were lucky enough to both find work in the same city. The academic workload is mindboggling. There are lectures to write and present, academic and pastoral tutorials, essays to grade, exams to mark, post-graduate students to supervise; departmental administrative duties; research grants to write and, if successful, to manage; journal articles, book chapters and books to write; editorial boards to sit on; external and internal examiner duties to fulfil; conferences to attend; research to plan and carry out; public or private sector consultation or collaboration; and much more besides. (I know as soon as I post this blog, I’ll think of ten more common tasks that I’ve forgotten to mention). I’ve rarely met an academic who doesn’t take their work on vacation. And, despite the misconceptions of non-academics, academics (in the UK) have only 30 days of paid leave a year, not the four months of freedom enjoyed by their students. Many academics don’t even take their 30 days. The long summer is a time to prepare for the next academic year, carry out research and write write write, because that old academic adage ‘publish or perish’ really holds true.

It is a privileged life, spending your days in a safe and comfortable environment, devoting your time to the research questions about which you are wildly passionate. And if I was single or had no children, I think I would throw myself heart and soul into it.

So, let’s take this scenario a little further. Julian and I have found incredible academic jobs in the same city and we are fully engrossed in what we do. In order to do our jobs to the best of our abilities and to progress up the promotional ladder, we would need to work long long hours, and so would need help with raising the kids. Pre-school, a large portion of our salaries would go on child care, and once the girls were in school (as early as possible, to reduce child care costs) they would still need after school care. We would see them briefly, morning and evening, all of us tired and frazzled.

Having the left-over financial resources to own a boat, keep it in good condition, and pay marina fees would be beyond us. Our dreams of a month or two at sea would remain just that and if we were lucky we might manage a week here or there.

But Julian and I chose other priorities. Home educating our children and exploring the world with them quickly became a priority for us. So for the past four years we have chosen a middle path. For three years I took temporary academic contracts that had set working hours. I worked professionally for those 35 hours every week, but I didn’t kill myself working every night and weekend as I used to do before. And this winter I’ve found a job teaching English 18 hours each week. It lacks the intellectual stimulation of university life, but it challenges me in other ways.

Despite not having full-time jobs, our lives have purpose and focus. Short, medium and long-term planning focus our thoughts, as we find innovative ways to make our finances stretch far, plan where we want to sail in a given week or month, and think about where we want to be in five or ten years time. We are focused on raising and educating the children – something that requires a lot of energy and innovation. And both Julian and I passionately pursue our own interests. While I have immediate and decade-long plans for my writing. Julian’s approach to planning is different, but this winter his obsession has been studying Spanish.

What we lack in financial security we more than make up for with the time and space to be innovative in our approach to living. And we have time to play, learn and grow together. No-one’s path through life runs smooth all the time, and each choice made means that other choices have to be cast aside. But at 40 and 41 years old, Julian and I have made our choices based on our past experiences, and based on what we know works for us as individuals and as a family.

Live an enthusiastic life, whatever path you choose.

I’ve been Liebstered!!

I’m thrilled that Mary Grace Stich on Let It Be has nominated me for a Liebster Award. For those of you unfamiliar with the Liebster, it’s an award given by bloggers to other bloggers. Each blogger answers ten questions posed by the blogger who has nominated their blog, and then pays the Liebster forward to another blogger with ten new questions. Over the past few months I’ve read the Liebster answers given by some of the sailing bloggers I follow and I hoped someone would one day nominate me, so I’d have an opportunity to think about and respond to some interesting questions. Thank you Mary Grace!! Here are my answers to your questions.

1. What first attracted you to a cruiser lifestyle?
I’ve always shied away from conventionality. I fancy myself a bit of an outsider and have enjoyed life most when I’ve lived in small-town Japan or in the Canadian Arctic where I’ve been noticeably the odd one out. I’ve always been attracted to stories of people who decide to walk the road less travelled. In 2011, when we made the decision to buy a boat and become live aboard cruisers, we owned a house and a car, we had careers, and I was doing the rounds of mother-and-baby groups in my local area. The conventionality of it all scared the hell out of me!

From my first seaside holiday as a four-year old, I’ve loved, and found inspiration in, the sea. My PhD in anthropology was all about embodied marine knowledge. And this was before I’d ever set foot on a sailboat. The first time I went sailing, in September 2005, I was hooked. The idea of living on a boat and sailing to wherever I wanted was hugely appealing. I was attracted to the self-reliance, the chance to see new places and experience new cultures, and the opportunity to take a step away from mass consumerism. Julian and I used to fantasise about buying a boat when the kids had grown up and flown the nest. But in 2011 we decided not to wait and to bring them along on the adventure.

2. What was your biggest concern before moving on board?
I was concerned about a lot of things. I worried about night sailing (but that has proven to be one of my greatest sailing pleasures). I worried about pirates – but so far we haven’t ventured into any pirate-infested waters. I worried about how we would make ends meet – and I still worry about that. But if I didn’t have financial worries to keep me on my toes, I’d probably be restless about something else.

3. Now that you live aboard, what is your biggest concern or adjustment?
Again, there are lots of these. The more sailing experience I gain, the more I realise what can go wrong. I try not to bury my head in the sand, but rather confront these worries and try to figure out what we would do if we found ourselves in certain situations. I worry about what I would do if Julian fell overboard. We have discussed how we would deal with this, but there are two simple facts: (a) my boat handling skills are poor and I’d likely run him over in my attempt to rescue him, and (b) he is 6’2”, weighs about 17 stone (that’s about 240lbs to you North Americans), and getting him back out of the water if he was unconscious and unable to help himself would be nigh on impossible.

I also hate fog. Fog makes me feel physically sick. We don’t have radar, and when we occasionally find ourselves in fog I imagine a huge container ship bearing down on us. The more times I experience fog, the more I hate it. We avoid going out in it, but sometimes find ourselves in the middle of a passage, shrouded in fog. Double watch, fog horn, and keeping our wits about us is about all we can do.

My biggest adjustment to the cruising life is my daily routine. Before moving onboard I worked full-time. Now that I no longer work full-time I’m trying to find time to write while at the same time home educating my daughters and, this winter, working part-time teaching English. My problem is that I like routine and I imagine that I can do more in the day than is realistic. I make to-do lists and I like to stick to them. I like getting up at the same time every day, going to work for a set period of time, ticking tasks off my to-do list. Living in the close confines of the boat with my husband and kids throws my routines out the window. I am no longer my own boss, but must work around the routines (or complete lack thereof) of the three other people I live with. I’m adjusting gradually, and Julian and the girls are meeting me somewhere in the middle.

4. What did you do for recreation/hobby before you became a cruiser and what do you do now?
I have young children, so I don’t understand these words ‘recreation’ and ‘hobby’!! In the years after meeting Julian and before the kids were born, he and I went SCUBA diving, hill walking, camping and on insane driving holidays at every opportunity. It was during that time too that I developed my love for sailing, and we chartered yachts, and did various RYA sailing courses. Then the kids came along and put an end to our exploits.

Cooking has been a competitive sport for Julian and I since the start of our relationship. Moving on board hasn’t changed that. We still try to out-do each other with our creations, and having to cook in a confined space with limited cooking facilities only enhances the challenge. I’m still sulking due to my Szechuan spare ribs getting the cold shoulder last weekend (they were too sweet, seemingly).

I’m a fanatical reader, and that hasn’t changed between land and sea. If I didn’t acquire any more books I reckon I currently have enough unread books on board to last me a year. But I’m always finding new reading material at marina book swaps, and family and friends share their books with me. I read on long passages, when I’m on buses and trains, before I go to bed, when I wake up – I’m almost never to be found without a book by my side. The wonderful thing is that Lily is now a fully fledged independent reader and, with any luck, Katie will soon follow suit, thus freeing up more time for me to read the books I like rather than the books they like!!

5. Has your initial estimate of how long you would cruise changed from your original plan?
When people ask how long we plan to do this, my glib answer is ‘Anywhere from six months to sixty years’. But, perhaps it’s not so glib. We don’t have any master plan. We have met other cruisers who plan to circumnavigate the globe in four years, or who are taking a year out to cross the Atlantic and back. But our plans are looser. One day we would like to cross the Atlantic, and one day we would like to circumnavigate the globe. But we may never do either. I guess the answer is that we will continue to sail for as long as we all enjoy it, and for as long as we can afford to do it. Right now, we’re looking forward to more cruising in the Mediterranean in spring 2015. But we’re not thinking much farther ahead than that. If a very different opportunity presented itself, then we might well turn our backs on sailing. I would love to live in Arviat again, in the Canadian Arctic, and one day I hope we can do that. Equally, if we sailed into someplace irresistible, we might well stay put and put down roots.

6. What is one unusual or surprising thing you have on board?
This is a really difficult question to answer. What seems normal to me might seem whacky to someone else. If someone else came on board and went through my stuff the thing that might most make them scratch their head is a big backpack, stored in the aft heads, full of newspaper clippings and academic papers about polar bears. It’s some of the material for a writing project I started about nine months ago, but which has been lying dormant for six months. The other surprising items are a little black dress and a pair of black stilettos. I’m just waiting for someone to invite me to a party – preferably NOT on a boat, so my stilettos won’t be frowned upon!

7. What is the most surprising/rude/absurd or annoying question you have been asked?
It’s not really a question, but what annoys me most is that other sailors often have opinions about how we should raise and educate our kids. Quite often those opinions are given by people who haven’t taken even a minute to say hello to the girls. They see two children and immediately assume that they know a better way (even though they haven’t bothered to ask about our way). The rude opinions usually come from people who haven’t cruised with their own children. Those who currently cruise with children, or who have done so in the past, are generally very supportive, I guess because they too have had to deal with the annoying opinions. Cruisers who raised their children onboard years ago usually have very insightful and helpful suggestions, and they’re usually very kind and accepting of young children at anchor or on a pontoon next to them.

8. Name something that is better about living aboard than living on land and does it surprise you?
Can I give an x-rated answer? Hahaha!

9. If you had a magic wand, what would you change about your boat right now?
I hate making the beds. Tucking in bottom sheets requires bodily contortions that in summer cause me to break out in a sweat and the rest of the time are just plain awkward and annoying. If I had a magic wand I would make the fore and aft cabins wider, so that they had proper beds that I could walk around, which would save me having to simultaneously kneel on top of mattresses while picking up the edges to tuck in the sheet.
Alternatively, I might close my eyes, wave the magic wand, and open my eyes to find Carina in Tuvalu in the South Pacific – somewhere I’ve dreamed of for years. (Hello, Alice Baker!)

10. Can you name one thing that is a favorite part of your “normal” day?
There comes a time – not every day – late in the evening, when the girls are asleep in the fore cabin, and the boat is closed up for the night. The light is quite poor in the saloon, which makes the boat feel so cosy and ‘homely’. I sit on the port side settee, a light overhead shining down on the book I’m reading, a cup of tea or glass of wine on the table beside me. The boat rocks almost imperceptibly, accompanied by the gentle creaking noises of ropes and rigging. I should try to make that moment in the day a more regular occurrence than it currently is.

Another favourite part of the day that seems to be sadly fading is when the kids climb into bed with us. I’m not too keen on getting woken up at 7am, but if one of them comes into our cabin earlier than that, they usually fall back asleep. You can’t beat an early morning snuggle – with Katie especially, who is far less wriggly than Lily. This morning we had both of them in and later, after Lily and Julian got up, Katie stayed with me for a sleepy cuddle.

____________________________________________________________________

Well, that was fun! My Liebster Award nominees are Photo art by Anna and The Dancing Irishman, two very different blogs, and neither about anything even remotely related to the sea or sailing. They are written by two people I know personally, and who I admire because they have chosen the road less travelled in order to follow their passions. Photo art by Anna and The Dancing Irishman, here are your ten questions:

1. Did you have a ‘this is the life for me’ lightbulb moment?

2. What’s been the strangest reaction to your chosen lifestyle?

3. Why are you a blogger?

4. What is the most interesting or unexpected thing that has happened to you as a result of writing your blog?

5. What book would you recommend everyone read before they die?

6. When you eventually come sailing aboard Carina, where would you like to sail to?

7. Who is the one other person you would like to come along on that sailing trip? Why?

8. What are your other passions in life?

9. Who has most inspired you to do what you do?

10. Where do you see your passions taking you in the next ten years?

I hope you take up the challenge, answer the questions and pay the Liebster Award forward to bloggers you admire. xx Martina

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!

I am not Superwoman

I have a superhero complex. Specifically, I think I’m Superwoman. As well as believing myself to be faster, stronger, and generally more capable than I am, I believe I have the special superpower to stretch time. I believe I can make one hour stretch to three; I can make one day stretch to two. My weeks have twelve days. But it’s a complex. The reality is I can’t stretch time. I certainly cannot slow time down. I wish I could. But I can’t. And recently I’ve been giving myself a good talking to, telling myself to hang up the cape and come back down to Earth.

I’m a list maker. I live by lists. Right now, I have a long-term list of things I want to accomplish before I’m fifty. This is not a bucket list sort of thing. It’s not of the ‘visit the Taj Mahal’, ‘bungee jump’, ‘skinny dip’ variety. (Two of those I have no interest in and the other I do as often as possible). No, my list is a serious ‘work to be done’ list. And from that big list, there are yearly lists, monthly lists, and daily lists.

Here’s the long-term list: by the time I’m fifty I want to have published five books. FIVE. I’ll be fifty in eight and a half years from now. Let me review the status of these five books before you think I’m completely off my rocker.
Book 1: Written and currently being reviewed by the publisher.
Book 2: 100,000-word draft written two years ago. I’m unhappy with the ending and it needs to be overhauled on a monumental scale. To be tackled as soon as I’ve finished writing…
Book 3: Working on it at the moment, trying to write 10,000 words a week, first draft complete by the end of November, and hoping to have a manuscript ready for a publisher or agent by the end of March.
Book 4: I know exactly what it’s about, and have a written synopsis of each chapter. To be written after I’ve completed Book 2.
Book 5: A sequel to Book 3.
(Only one of these is novel. The rest are all firmly non-fiction)

So, I write like a motherfucker.

But, unless I’m Isabel Allende (who I long to be) or Bill Bryson (oh to be that funny) or Cecilia Ahern (shoot me if I write like that), I’m not going to make any money writing books. I read recently that 150,000 books get published in the English language every year. How many of them can you name? I’m not doing it to make money (although wouldn’t making money be grand?). I do it because I can’t help myself. I’m miserable and grouchy when I don’t write.

So, to my medium-term, six month list, which is divided into ‘writing’ and ‘everything else’.
I write other things in an attempt to make some money. In the past four months I’ve had seven pieces published in magazines, newspapers, and online magazines. For all of this writing I’ve earned the princely sum of £140. Hardly enough to keep the wolf from the door. For every article I write, I spend at least the same amount of time researching appropriate magazines and newspapers to pitch to, pitching ideas to editors, chasing editors up when they fail to reply, pitching again, on and on. I’ve had articles accepted and fees negotiated, only to have the person I was in contact with leave the publication and set me back to square one. So, for the time being, my budding career as a freelance writer is not paying the bills either. Just like the books, I write because I can’t help myself. But it sure would be nice to get paid for doing something I’m so addicted to.

The ‘everything else’ side of the medium-term list includes, inter alia, the following items: ‘study Spanish 1 hour every day’, ‘jog 30 minutes every day’, ‘remove mould from entire boat’, ‘thorough galley clean’, ‘assess and reorganise provisions’, ‘update Lily and Katie’s clothing’. It’s a long list. Absent from any of these lists are Lily and Katie’s education or general day-to-day household chores. But of course, those activities take time and effort too.

We need to put food on the table. Because my writing is not (yet) paying its way, Julian and I are both working this winter. I’m teaching English 18 hours a week. It’s not my dream job (see above) but it does pay the bills (see above). The teaching materials I work from are pretty self-explanatory, so I only need an additional hour or two of planning each week. I leave Carina at 3.35 every afternoon, Monday to Friday, and I step back on board at 9.50 at night.

You can see where this is going. Only my Superwoman time-stretching superpower could give me the time to do all the things I want to do every day. And as each day goes by and I fail to draw a line through every item on my list I get more annoyed and grouchy.

Somehow, I find time to do much of the writing I want to do. I try to do a couple of hours every night after I get home from work, a few hours each weekend, and one morning a week at the public library. Most mornings Lily, Katie and I do a little school work on board, followed by an hour at the beach (learning to swim is as important as learning maths, as far as I’m concerned), and some activities that are ‘educational’ in one way or another – drawing, crafting, wandering around looking at and talking about trees, etc. (Julian teaches some mornings and does laundry, grocery shopping and other off-boat chores on the other mornings).

But I’ve had to give myself a serious talking to. An hour of Spanish every day? A 30 minute run? Who am I kidding? I’ve given up the Spanish. The only reason I ever wanted to learn Spanish in the first place was so I could read Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the original Spanish. I’m never going to learn enough Spanish to do that, and I love Garcia Marquez plenty in English. Anyway, I’m learning a little Spanish from talking to the pupils I teach and from simply living in Spain. I’m all for learning languages, but I’m starting from zero here, and life’s too short. Language acquisition is not a priority for me, and I have to remind myself that I’m not a lesser human being for only having proficiency in one language.

I cut out the running too. A 30 minute run takes an hour, by the time I got ready beforehand and recovered afterwards. I swim pretty much every day, swimming lengths parallel to the beach where the girls play when they’ve had enough of swimming. Why do I need to run for half an hour as well? I’m trying to be Isabel Allende, not Sonia O’Sullivan.

And I’ve stopped beating myself up about the state of the boat. The cleaning will get done. Just more slowly. What difference does it make if I assess the provisions this week or next month? We’re living beside a supermarket and not planning a transatlantic passage any time soon.

It’s time to focus on the priorities – my family and my writing. And also to learn to relax a little. I feel terribly guilty when I’m doing ‘nothing’. Julian enjoys long walks, and they do him the world of good. I used to like long walks, but these days I only walk with a purpose – to the shop or to work, not just a walk for its own sake. When I read I have this nagging guilty feeling that I should be doing ‘something’, and not wasting my time doing ‘nothing’. A couple of days ago I sat in the cockpit and forced myself to read a magazine that Mammy had brought to me when she visited. I made a cup of tea and read for two hours. Sure, I felt a little twinge of guilt that I wasn’t doing anything ‘productive’, but I finally managed to relax. Yesterday morning I even managed to stop myself ploughing relentlessly through the water as though I was being chased by a shark. I stopped swimming, closed my eyes, and floated in the warm sea water with the hot sun beating down on my face.

For us, moving aboard Carina was never about giving up work, but rather about approaching work in a different way, concentrating on our passions, and working damn hard to achieve the goals we set ourselves. And that’s how we live our lives. As Stephen Fry said on the Graham Norton Show recently ‘Work is more fun than fun’. I agree. (Oops…I let it slip…I watch Graham Norton on YouTube sometimes!)

But recently I have been trying to accomplish the unnecessary. So, for now, I’ve hung up my cape and superhero tights. I’m teaching myself to relax, to recharge my batteries, and to make shorter, more realistic lists. Five books by fifty remains my goal, but there’s not a chance in hell any of them will be written in Spanish!