At the airport

My 89-year old Aunt Josie gave Lily and Katie some spending money when we visited her in Ireland last week. At Dublin airport I took the girls into the newsagent WHSmith so they could spend some of their money on magazines to read on the flight back to Faro. While they browsed the children’s magazines I wandered over to the sport and lifestyle section, to browse the yachting magazines. I picked up the September edition of Yachting Monthly, flicking through the usual features on marine safety, cruising stories, boat repairs and advertisements for everything from life jackets to sea cocks. One of the cruising stories caught my eye and I flicked back to it. Whoa, hey, wait a minute…that’s…that’s…Katie…and Lily…and me and Julian and Carina. It was an article I had written a year ago for Yachting Monthly. I’d recently received a copy edit from the editor and had returned it with a few corrections and amendments. But I hadn’t heard any more from the editor and assumed it would be published in a few months.

It was quite a thrill to find myself in a magazine, at the busy WHSmith at Dublin airport. We’d left Julian at the shop entrance looking after the bags, so I carried the magazine close to the entrance to show him (being the ultimate cheapskate, there was no way I’d actually buy the magazine!). Loud enough for everyone to hear, Julian exclaimed, aka Basil Exposition, ‘Oh, wow, Yachting Monthly has published the article you wrote about sailing our yacht in Ireland’. Public exclamations of pride are Julian’s forte.

And while I should have been feeling proud of myself, I was instead thinking of all the other half-written, semi-formed or unwritten articles, essays and books on my laptop and in my head. I spent the three hour flight from Dublin to Faro making up my mind to work smarter, be more efficient and more productive; to mould more of my writing into publishable condition, so that next time I run through an airport shop to show an article to Julian, he’ll exclaim theatrically, so that everyone within earshot can hear, ‘What? Not another article published in a major magazine? That’s the fourth you’ve had published this month. After all that hard work, you’re finally making a living as a writer!’.

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My surreal cosmopolitan life!

Last week I received an email from the press office at Exeter University. I’m still an honorary research fellow at the Geography Department there, and the press office had received a request from The Conversation asking for someone to comment on a recent controversy about polar bear trophy hunting. I have written numerous academic and popular articles* about polar bear hunting over the years, as this is the focus of much of my anthropological research in the Canadian Arctic, so the press office asked if I could write a 600-800 word response to this particular polar bear news story.

I duly wrote the article, working directly with the environmental editor of The Conversation and the article was published on Wednesday morning. It got a good reaction, was widely read and shared on social media and I got mostly positive comments for the approach I had taken.

So, if an Irish woman living on the Spanish-Portuguese border writing about polar bear hunting in the Canadian Arctic isn’t weird enough, the surreal nature of my cosmopolitan life really hit home on Friday afternoon.

There I was, sitting in a bar in Sanlúcar, having a drink with British, Northern Irish and Brazilian friends, while my husband was at work in Portugal and my daughters were off watching a movie with their Spanish friends.

I resisted having a third glass of wine and I’m glad I did. When my friends left, I stayed on at the bar, ordered a Coke and turned on my laptop to check my emails. I had a Facebook message from my friend and Inuk sister, who is a journalist working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) North in Iqaluit, Nunavut. She had read my polar bear article and asked if she could interview me for the evening news. I said I’d have to see, and I’d get back to her in half an hour.

You see, my thirteen year old Nokia mobile phone is not up to receiving phone calls from Canada or anywhere else outside of Europe and the Skype connection at CBC in Iqaluit isn’t reliable. How could we do this? And then inspiration struck. I would go in search of my Dutch friends, who live in a house with a land line.

I paid for my Coke and set off up through Sanlúcar, serendipitously bumping into one of my Dutch friends on the way. He walked me back to his house and set me up with his phone and Wifi; I turned on my laptop, sent a message containing the phone number and awaited a phone call from Iqaluit.

Five minutes later I find myself, an Irish woman in a Dutch house in a Spanish village, on the phone to my Inuk sister in Nunavut, who is interviewing me about my thoughts on polar bear hunting for a television and radio station which focuses on Inuit and other indigenous Arctic Canada news  !

I may own a thirteen year old phone, but I think I’ve become hyper-globalised!!

*My academic articles are available on request via the blog’s Contact page, and my popular articles can be found in the Publications page of this blog.

Tenacity

On Tuesday of this week, Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize for fiction. The Booker is one of literature’s most prestigious prizes. It comes with a cheque for £50,000 but, more importantly, recognition and a rush on book sales for the winning author.

Before Tuesday not many people had heard of Marlon James. I certainly hadn’t. On Wednesday morning he was all over the TV, newspapers, the Internet. I like to read novels that have won or been shortlisted for the Booker. In fact I’m reading one right now – Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, which was shortlisted in 1996. (The greatest Booker winner of them all is without doubt Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, which won in 1985. I reread it a few months ago and it swept me away all over again).

So, here’s the thing about Marlon James, since last night lauded the world over by the literati and now gracing the windows of book shops across the English speaking world. His first novel was rejected by publishers 78 times. Seventy-eight times. Can you imagine? 78 times you send your novel, with its pitch and synopsis out into the world, hopeful that the publisher will think it’s as good as you think it is. And 78 times you get a rejection letter. Sorry, your book isn’t any good, it’s not what we’re looking for right now, it has potential but. 78 times to be told the novel you have sweated over, lost sleep over, gone insane over, is just not good enough.

What is remarkable about Marlon James is not that he has written a vast 700-page novel that Booker judges unanimously deemed the best book written in the English language this year (although that is remarkable in itself). What is remarkable is that Marlon James didn’t give up. Not after the first rejection or the second. Not after the tenth or the twentieth or the fiftieth when family, friends and his inner demons must surely have been telling him to move on, forget about it, do something else with his life. He carried on. He picked up his pen and started all over again. And then hope and self belief overcame self doubt long enough for him to send his next book out into the world.

I know what rejection feels like. It’s a punch in the stomach. I’ve had my fair share of rejection from publishers and newspaper and magazine editors over the past couple of years. For every article I’ve successfully published I’ve had five or six rejected (maybe more…I should probably count them up). I’ve sometimes ended up publishing in publications I didn’t want to be in, or publishing my stuff for free, because I reckoned the publicity and having something new to add to my writing portfolio was worth not getting paid. Not getting paid, however, does not put food on the table.

I received a rejection email in January for a book I had spent a long time writing. It was June before I could bring myself to read the rest of the email. Stupid me, because the comments were actually quite positive – telling me what I could do to improve, rather than what I had done wrong – although perhaps those five months of distance gave me the perspective to see the book through the publisher’s eyes.

Article rejection is easier. Articles are shorter and I don’t invest so much time and emotion into them. But the rejection is still soul destroying. So I try again. I pitch my idea elsewhere, I rewrite the article, I rewrite the pitch. I’ve often had four or five rejections for an article before I get an acceptance. In fact, I’ve got something (paid!) coming out in the next few days that has taken months and months of pitching and repitching, reminding editors of earlier emails, and on and on. Writing is the easy part. The blood, sweat and tears come in trying to get my writing out into the world.

I don’t think many people have the tenacity of Marlon James. To face 78 rejections and still believe in oneself takes some doing. Following his story over the past few days has filled me with hope and optimism on the one hand and despair and pessimism on the other. Optimistically, I think that if my writing is good enough it will get published if I can only persevere and keep believing in myself. Pessimistically, I think of how Marlon James could have packed it all in, and A Brief History of Seven Killings would never have been.

But I think we should all take heed of Marlon James. No matter what your passion or dream in life, if you are tenacious then some day you might just reap the reward you deserve. Despite the rejections, I can’t stop writing, because I love to write. And I keeping hopefully sending my writing to publishers because I believe in what I write and hope that others will believe in it too.

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!

Reliving the past

Last night I completed the first draft of my book. It’s a nice feeling, but I know that the hard work lies ahead, as I set about re-writing, editing, and filling all those ‘xxx’ gaps that litter the text with meaningful facts and figures. The book is about our journey so far. I dislike the misuse and abuse of the word ‘journey’. But in our case, it really is a journey. Not some figurative ‘journey’ to personal growth and wisdom, but a literal journey from Cambridgeshire to the Mediterranean, via Devon, Cornwall, Ireland, France, Spain Portugal and Gibraltar.

In the past couple of weeks of frenetic writing I’ve delved into my diaries and blog posts to help recall the quickly-fading images of the places we visited in Spain and Portugal in 2014. Reading those accounts has left me with an intense sense of natsukashii, that Japanese feeling of nostalgia and longing brought on by memories of the past.

DSCI4213How I long to revisit some of those wonderful places we had the privilege to explore last year. As I read my accounts of As Piscinas I could see the glistening water on the smooth rocks again, feel the warm fresh water on my body as I swam in the river’s pools, hear the wind rustling through the trees that lined the banks of the river. The thought that we had spent two days at in this small piece of paradise but may never go there again brought on a strong sense of natsukashii.

DSCI4425Our two days exploring Porto will remain with me for a long time, but reading my accounts written at the time have brought back minute details that I had forgotten and which have reignited in my mind images of gentrified apartments amongst the port warehouses, an old woman’s underwear hanging out to dry between two trendy restaurants on the north bank of the Douro, and the narrow streets, each with its own unique and delightful idiosyncrasies. Porto is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited – it rates only slightly behind Rome in my estimation. And, unlike an obscure river up in the northwest of Spain, there’s a good likelihood I’ll visit Porto again some day.

DSCI4573Nine days anchored off Ilha da Culatra on the Algarve was not enough, which is why we are toying with the possibility of going back there again this summer. It reminded me of my other home, Arviat, on the west coast of Hudson Bay. The island is a sand bar, populated by a couple of hundred people. There are no roads, no vehicles apart from a couple of tractors and a few golf buggies. Reading my diaries led me to reminisce about the clam picking old women, the communal outdoor shower where we got to know other live-aboards while waiting our turn to wash or refill water bottles, the octopus hanging up to dry on a clothesline, and the friendships Lily and Katie made with local and sailing children.

It’s less than six months since we had these wonderful experiences, but already my memories are dimming. The intense sensual pleasures of these places – the swimming, the sun on our bodies, the foods we ate, the birdsong, the trees and the wind and the ocean – are fading. Reading my diaries and blog posts have brought them rushing back into my life again. I’m reading about things we did that I had completely forgotten about. Julian has a better memory for these things than I do. Maybe that’s why I need to write it all down.

This is not the first time that reading diaries or blog posts or research field notes have swept me away to another time or place. It is one of the great joys of writing that any time you desire, your senses can be reawakened, places, people and experiences can be brought back to life, and that bittersweet sense of natsukashii can envelop you.

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.

Someone took my lemons

You know the saying ‘When God gives you lemons, make lemonade’? Or, in my case, lemon curd. But what happens when those lemons are taken away again before you have a chance to do anything productive with them?

We faced such a dilemma this past week when plans we had in place since early August changed suddenly and unexpectedly. Nearly five months earlier we had been asked to house and dog sit for a week at New Year so, despite our general lack of short- or medium-term planning, this week had been set in stone. We eliminated all other possibilities and honed in on making ourselves available to do this favour. And now that we had that week set in stone, we decided to plan accordingly. The girls and I would be off the boat for the whole week, leaving Julian free to get on with a huge number of jobs on his to-do list – sanding, varnishing, spring cleaning the lazarette, repairing the sails, etc. He would visit us in the apartment and spend some nights with us, but most of his week would be devoted to the boat.

Carina in a state of undress

Carina in a state of undress

I, meanwhile, planned to take advantage of being in Almeria to do lots of fun things, which are otherwise too expensive when we have to factor in the price of bus journeys from and to Aguadulce. And, of course, the girls were wildly excited about the prospect of taking care of a dog for a week, and that experience would have been amazing for them. In addition to all this fun, I planned to complete the first draft of my book before we moved back aboard Carina. With a TV in the apartment, I planned to let the girls watch one movie each evening, giving me one and a half hours of writing time, and to continue writing for two or three hours each night after the girls had gone to bed. That would surely put the first draft of the book to bed too.

Twenty-four hours before we were due to move into the apartment, unexpectedly and for reasons unrelated to us, the plans changed and we found ourselves adrift. What were we to do? The maintenance and repair jobs would now be much more difficult to accomplish with us under Julian’s feet. And, as I’ve written before, the simple tasks of cooking, cleaning, and day-to-day life take so much more time on a boat, so the time for fun activities and writing were now drastically curtailed.

First we got annoyed. And then we got practical. Rather than viewing the changes to this long-planned-for week as ruinous, we reassessed our priorities and we set about achieving what we could. Instead of thinking of it as a week, we saw in front of us eleven days until I had to return to work. Julian’s boat jobs needed daylight and my writing could be done after dark. The varnishing of weather boards and the oiling of the boat’s external teak needed to be done at a certain time of day – after the early morning dew had lifted, but early enough so they would dry before the evening dew descended.

Weatherboards drying in the early morning sun

Weatherboards drying in the early morning sun

I took over all the household chores that are usually shared or done by Julian – cooking, cleaning, laundry, food shopping. When Julian attempted to clean the heads one day I shooed him away – no point him wasting time doing jobs that I can do. I involved the girls in all those activities, taking their maths and English books to the launderette, so they could work while we waited. Many of the chores had us off the boat for considerable lengths of time.

The girls and I went for long walks on the beach. As well as taking our balls and bats and new origami set (I love it!), I took my pen and notebook and, while the girls played at playgrounds or played games with other kids, I squeezed in what handwriting I could, ready to transcribe to the laptop once the girls were in bed.

When we were at home, we stayed as much out of Julian’s way as possible. He sanded, varnished and oiled. He removed sails. He cleaned the decks and the cockpit. Sometimes the girls helped, but when helping turned to hindering, I took them away again.

And Julian took them away from me, late in the afternoons when the light was fading and he could no longer work effectively. Sure, I had dinner to make, but I also managed to write.

I’m going back to work tomorrow and I have to admit that neither of us has achieved what we had hoped. I’m still roughly 15,000 words from the end of the book. And Julian has accomplished only about 20% of what he would have expected to if he had had the boat to himself. This week we’ve also had to contend with having no electricity for two days due to a fault on the pontoon, and a blocked toilet that Julian’s had to take apart.

DSCI0035

But we could look at it another way. I’m 6,000 words closer to the end of the draft than I was before December 28th. Carina’s exterior woodwork is in better condition now than at any time since we have owned her. And we’ve had experiences that we wouldn’t have had if we had been in Almeria all week. Lily and Katie have met and played with lots of children at the local playgrounds all week. Katie and I spent a morning visiting Bill and Rosemary on a neighbouring boat. Jesus, on the boat across the pontoon from us, gave us a bucketful of freshly caught red sea bream. And yesterday morning, while out for my walk, I met Katie and Kalle, a young German couple living and travelling in a VW camper van, and they spent the afternoon aboard Carina with us.

Things don’t always work out the way you’ve planned. Unexpected changes can occur, leaving you feeling stranded. And we did feel stranded at first, when our five-months-in-the-making plan was turned on its head with no warning. But if there’s one thing that sailing teaches you, it’s that you can’t rely on plans. Weather systems and unexpected boat problems can alter the best laid plans. Friends we’ve made along the way this past year have had their sailing plans curtailed by, in one instance, a split wooden mast that needed to be replaced, and, in another, the need to install a new engine. But what can you do? Go with the flow, make the most of the opportunities you have and, if your lemons are taken away, you better have some recipes for a bucket-load of bream up your sleeve!

New Year curmudgeon

Girl Power on New Year's Eve! Is Julian to be pitied or envied?

Girl Power on New Year’s Eve! Is Julian to be pitied or envied?

It’s New Year’s Eve. 10.15pm. I’m sitting in the saloon, wrapped in a blanket, my hot water bottle snug at my back. Julian’s snoring from the aft cabin is almost matched by Lily’s snoring from the fore cabin. Only Katie sleeps quietly. Now this is a New Year’s Eve of my dreams. The last time I ended the year with such little fanfare was in 1996 when I was on a McCafferty’s coach travelling overnight up the east coast of Australia. I can’t remember which leg of my solo trip from Sydney to Cairns fell on the night of New Year’s Eve, but I think it was somewhere in mid-Queensland. I remember waking up when the coach stopped at a road side service station. All the passengers had to alight. Bleary-eyed, I went in search of toilet facilities and then to get a bottle of water and a bag of M&Ms from the counter. Standing around in the night-time heat, waiting for the driver to let us back on the bus, a wave of relief washed over me when I realised it was 2am and, for the first December 31st in my adult life, I had avoided kissing or hugging anyone on the stroke of midnight.

My dislike for New Year’s Eve is the inverse of my love for Christmas. Partly it’s because by the time December 31st rolls around I’ve simply had enough food and alcohol and dressing up. But a bigger reason is that I despise the forced jollity and camaraderie of it all. Christmas is all about family, about being surrounded by loved ones, people with whom I have a shared history. All too often, on New Year’s Eve, I’ve found myself in a crowded noisy pub or club, standing beside someone I barely know, or worse, someone who every other day of the year wouldn’t even speak to me, and because it’s midnight I’m grabbed and hugged and kissed and wished a Happy New Year. My eyes scan the room to find my friends in similar unwanted clinches.

Since the kids have come along I’ve had an excuse not to go out on New Year’s Eve and at least my past five December 31sts have been spent either at my mother-in-law’s or my mother’s house, often with extended family. But then there’s the hassle of staying up past midnight. And when your kids wake you up at 7am every morning, staying awake past 10pm requires stamina. Conversing, wearing uncomfortable party clothes and keeping a smile on your face until midnight is an endurance trial.

Here, right now, is the perfect way to see out the year. The three people I love most in the world are safe and snug and close-by. I got my kisses and hugs before they went to bed. And, despite the Moroccan music that is blasting around the marina right now, I have time to quietly reflect on the year that has passed and prepare for the year that is to come.

Unlike 2014, when we set our sights on sailing from Plymouth to the Mediterranean, we have no definite sailing goals for 2015. Now that we are in the Mediterranean, our intention is to hang around here for the next year or so, sailing for wherever the wind and our mood take us. We have no destination beyond some vague ideas about our first port of call when we depart Aguadulce. France, Italy, Greece, Croatia, Turkey, Morocco – who knows. We certainly don’t, but the possibilities fill us with great excitement.

I finished writing Book #1 in 2014 and submitted it to a publisher and, hopefully before I go back to work next week the first draft of Book #2 will be complete, and I plan to spend the first three months of 2015 revising that and getting it ready to submit to a publisher. Book #3 currently exists as a very flawed first draft that has been in cold storage for about a year and a half. I’m resolving to complete it by the end of 2015. Meanwhile, I carry on with smaller writing projects, and I am resolving to pitch a certain number of publication ideas to magazines and newspapers each month. I am thrilled with my new 2015 diary, an experimental move away from the same filofax I have used religiously for the past fifteen years. And I am thrilled with the new multi-coloured pens to which I have treated myself, in order to colour-code my to-do lists. (I am, folks, a woman of very simple pleasures!)

I resolve to be more patient, kind and empathetic; to eat less chocolate and get more exercise; to care less about the messiness of four people living in a tiny space; to read more; to make a greater effort to keep in touch with loved ones; to become a better sailor; and to once again fit into my favourite skirt!

I wish you all a happy and healthy 2015 filled with love and fun!
xx

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

50 things I did this year

It’s that time of year when every newspaper, TV programme and blog reviews the best of the year that was. Even we’re guilty of it here on Carina’s blog. Is it just me, or have these reviews started way too early this year? In mid-November, I was disappointed to find my weekend newspaper’s book, movie and food reviews already trawling through the best of 2014, and I’m now longing for January, when normal service resumes.

But this week I read a different sort of review of the year. I follow a great writer’s blog, Live to write – Write to live. Diane MacKinnon, one of the regular contributors, this week posted a blog encouraging readers to devise a list of 50 accomplishments in 2014. Diane’s reasons are clear – we set New Year’s resolutions that all too often slide into obscurity by mid-February. Many of us experience negative feelings about failing to live up to our personal expectations, and beat ourselves up about how little we achieve (I’m guilty of both of these). But we seldom reach the end of the year and review our accomplishments. While film and book and even wine reviewers celebrate the highlights of the past year, we seldom stop to think about our own highlights. I couldn’t resist taking up Diane’s challenge.

I must say I’ve found it a difficult task. I flew through the first 25, had to do some serious head-scratching, and then got to 50 and wanted to write more. My achievements – big and small – fall into various categories – writing, sailing, parenting, wellbeing, and others that I’m not sure how to categorise. The exercise has also reminded me of what I have not achieved. I failed to win a research grant that would have seen the girls and I spend this winter in Arviat. I’ve had more rejections than successes with my attempts to publish, and I have earned far less money from writing than I hoped I would. But while I can think of 50 accomplishments, I can’t think of 50 failures. With two weeks of 2014 still to go, here are my accomplishments for the year:

1. Published an academic article on polar bear conservation and CITES in the journal Global Environmental Change, the highest rated journal in its field.
2. Completed my 80,000-word anthropological monograph about Inuit and the sea, and submitted it to a publisher.
3. Stuck to my New Year’s resolution to publish 10 blog posts per month.
4. Maintained a daily writing practice (well almost!)
5. Got paid for writing for the first time ever.
6. Published four articles – in two magazines and a newspaper.
7. Began writing a sailing memoir, and am on course to complete the first draft before the end of 2014.
8. For three months published a regular blog for an online magazine (until the magazine went bust 😦 )
9. Since June, submitted at least two publication pitches per month.
10. Increased my blog readership by 3-4 times since the start of the year.
11. Improved my knowledge and skill with using WordPress!
12. In my head, ironed out some of the major flaws in my draft novel – now I need to commit them to paper.
13. Researched the history of exhibiting humans in museums and fairs.
14. Learned about Theodore Roosevelt’s contribution to wildlife conservation in the US.
15. Learned about the history of industrial whale hunting and whale conservation.
16. Learned more about Columbus’ voyages to the New World.
17. Visited New York and Princeton.
18. Fulfilled a life-long dream of seeing Lucy at the American Museum of Natural History.
19. Sailed from Plymouth to the Mediterranean.
20. Completed a three-day crossing of the Bay of Biscay.
21. Spent more nights at anchor than ever before.
22. Realised the dream of becoming a full-time live aboard cruiser.
23. Lived aboard Carina over winter for the first time (admittedly, in the Mediterranean).
24. Dramatically improved my confidence in solo night sailing.
25. Finally mastered bowlines, figures of eight, clove hitches and sheet bends.
26. Tied up to dumb-bell moorings.
27. Berthed fore-and-aft.
28. More frequently brought Carina on and off moorings and berths.
29. Learned to use the outboard on the dinghy (horray…we finally got a newer working lightweight outboard).
30. Learned to use a pressure cooker.
31. Perfected my on-board laundry technique.
32. Perfected my on-board bed-making technique.
33. Perfected my on-board bread making.
34. Made perfect pancakes.
35. Made lemon curd for the first time in my life (yesterday!).
36. Improved my university teaching skills.
37. Landed a part-time winter job.
38. Made a transition from teaching university Geography to teaching English as a second language to eight year olds!
39. Improved my English language teaching skills.
40. Won over my difficult English language classes.
41. Learned at least 150 Spanish words.
42. Achieved near pre-pregnancy flexibility and strength thanks to resuming yoga practice.
43. Committed to a sugar-free diet for long periods of the year.
44. Started un-schooling the girls.
45. Got Katie out of night-time nappies.
46. Taught Lily to read.
47. Helped both girls develop their maths and writing skills.
48. Took Lily and Katie on day-trips to A Coruña, Porto, Lisbon and Cadiz.
49. Helped Lily learn to swim unaided.
50. Met and befriended wonderful fellow cruisers.

What is obvious is that few of these have been accomplished by me alone. My sailing accomplishments have been in the company and under the guidance of Julian, and this whole adventure would not be possible without his partnership. My chosen path of educating the children would not be possible without Julian’s enthusiasm and at least equal contribution. My teaching skills have developed in the company of a community of fellow educators. My writing accomplishments have been facilitated by Julian giving me the time, space and encouragement to write, by the inspiration and encouragement of friends, and by a community of bloggers who keep me motivated.

With 2015 just around the corner, I’m now thinking about my New Year’s resolutions. There certainly won’t be 50 of them. A nice safe four or five will do. As for this blog? Normal blogging will resume in a couple of days!