The Dodo at the Story Museum
Alice bemused by the Caucus Race
Our own Alice
My word for this year is GROW, and that means doing some things I thought were beyond me. I did one of them last week: my first writing retreat.
I’ve always wanted to go on a writing retreat, but until now it never worked out. Sometimes money was the problem, sometimes health, sometimes family circumstances… sometimes all three.
Mostly I’ve been resigned to this; I have bad retreat karma, and that’s that. But when I heard that Kindling Words was holding a retreat here in the UK in March 2012, I desperately wanted to go, especially since some very dear friends were going to be there, friends I rarely get to see.
I just didn’t see how I could make it work.
Last fall, when we were supposed to sign up, I was going through a lupus flare. These happen sometimes, and I just grit my teeth and get through them, but this one was bad enough that my doctors decided it was time to try a new treatment… and the treatment just wasn’t working.
But then, in mid-February, I finally started to see some results. It’s not a cure (those are really, really rare with lupus), but the pain finally started to recede.
Unfortunately, the improvement had come too late for the retreat. Or so I thought. But then out of the blue, lovely Alison James of Kindling Words wrote again, just before the retreat began, urging me to come just for the weekend if I could; she said they would find space for me. I pieced together the travel arrangements and snagged the very last room in the hotel. My generous husband offered to cover for me at home and helped me pack. And suddenly I was on a train to the Lake District, headed for the misty hills of Derwentwater:
As you can see, the weather was blustery – perfect for curling up with a manuscript, or for a writerly chat over tea and scones. But we had sunny hours, too:
The lovely jeannineatkins, taking a post-breakfast perambulation with me
The view from the hotel window
My three days there were filled with laughter, hugs, and book talk. I wrote. I meditated. I spooned up sticky toffee pudding. I got soaked to the skin on a soppy lake cruise. I stayed up for late night heart-to-hearts.
The food was incredible, the company even better. An enchanted weekend, right down to the fairy butter sculpture:
Really, truly, she’s made of butter.
Look at those wings!
To be honest, the trip was at the limit of what’s possible for me at the moment, and I’m still in recovery mode back here at home. But as I told a friend the other day, I know the exhaustion will fade – and the memories of that weekend will be with me forever.
I’m a bit late to the resolution game this year, and that’s only partly because I’m in the middle of revisions. Truth is, 2012 is shaping up to be a challenging year. When I finally sat down to take a look at what I’m juggling, the single-spaced list went on for over a page. And some of those juggling balls are mighty big: WRITE BOOK TWO, for instance.
So challenging is putting it nicely. How about terrifying?
After making that list I felt like cowering under the covers till 2013. Only I’m not sure it’s going to get any easier then. And cowering under the covers isn’t any fun.
Yesterday I decided it was time to reframe things. It’s the beginning of January, and when I look at that list, some of the items on it look darn near impossible. I have no idea how to pull them off. But you know what? I don’t need to know right now. I don’t need to have the perfect game plan. I just need to get in there and try. Because in the very act of doing these things, I’m going to grow. And it’s the growing that will help me find a way through them.
So that’s my word for this year: GROW.
I have to admit, the word was inspired partly by a New Year’s visit to the Oxford Botanic Garden, where I saw these beauties:
Who knows? Maybe by the end of the year, my word for 2012 will turn out to be BLOOM.
Can a ghost be in two places at once?
Last month I saw two houses where the same woman seemed to walk. As luck would have it, she was a writer: the extraordinary Vita Sackville-West.
At the turn of the last century, she grew up at Knole, one of the greatest of England’s great houses. This palace of a place is said to be a “calendar house,” meaning it has 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards — not to mention its own deer park.
As you can see, Knole is enormous.
Even a close-up can’t help but be substantial.
The clock tower
And here are the deer.
Amazing as the outside is, the inside is even more extraordinary. The darkened rooms are filled with priceless paintings and shimmering silver and exquisite tapestries. Passages lead every which way, and steps appear where you least expect them. At the top of the ballroom walls, mermaids dance. If houses can have souls, this one does.
By the time Vita came along, Knole had belonged to the Sackvilles for nearly three centuries. She was an only child, and her parents were cousins. Had she been a boy, she would have inherited without question. Instead she lost the house, and she never quite got over the blow. When you walk through the house, it’s hard not to hear the footsteps of her ghost.
She did, however, go on to create another extraordinary place with her husband Harold Nicholson. I’ve wanted to see their gardens at Sissinghurst for a long time.
The tower at Sissinghurst
A quiet corner of the White Garden
The blooms are exquisite.
And so are the color combinations.
A purple border, with the tower just visible in the upper right
You can feel Vita Sackville-West’s ghost in this place, too — especially in her writing room in the tower, which is kept just as she left it. There are fresh flowers on the tables, as there were in her day.
Seeing these places made me wonder if we all leave pieces of ourselves behind in the places we love most deeply. If so, there are ghosts of me out there… by a waterfall, in a barn, in a yellow bungalow surrounded by lilac, lavender, and roses.
Are there any ghosts of you?
What do I love best about England? It might be all the time travel. The other week we managed to work our way back to Regency England, and then medieval England, and then finally the Stone Age, all in the space of a day.
We started in Lacock, an English village used as the location for the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice and for a host of other films and series, including Cranford. Jane Austen fans, hold onto your hats!
We arrived so early that only the locals were about.
It was easy to imagine how Lacock looked in Lizzie Bennet’s time.
From Lacock village, we walked through gardens to reach Lacock Abbey, a grand manor built around a former abbey dissolved by Henry VIII. It has a real Northanger Abbey feel to it, with bits and pieces added to it over the centuries. Until 1946, it had its very own copy of Magna Carta on the premises. (The founding abbess was a widow on one of its signers.) Lately its biggest claim to fame is that it was used as a location in the Harry Potter films.
The cloisters were my favorite part.
But lots of other parts were spectacular, too.
After a spectacular meal of toasted local brie and tomato sandwiches, we then headed up the road to a very ancient site indeed: Avebury, a stone circle thought to have been built over 4500 years ago. We reached just as a thunderstorm was sweeping up, but it would have been a dramatic place at any time. The sheer scale alone is awe-inspiring.
How on earth did they drag these stones here? No one knows.
But there are a lot of them.
And you can see how time has carved them all.
It was a lot to cram into one day, I suppose, but it gave me the feeling of being in a time machine, and traveling further and further back into English history with each stop. And now I’m home again, with my mind full of sights and sounds and smells that I can use for my usual kind of time-travel… the kind that happens at my writing desk.