Wintering

23 February

We have another dog. She is a delight so far- been here around 5 hours. Her name is Belle. The others have been gently wonderful with her, giving her space. Quietly indifferent. Oh right, it’s you! She is an older collie, older than the rescue said. She is a little chubby after having her two gorgeous pups. I haven’t actually told many people, and I am wondering why that is. Usually a new dog is heralded by social media posts, and joyous delight, and not this slightly guilty, secret excitement.  

It fluttered across my mind today that maybe I am wary of being judged.

Usually I can maintain a thick layer of self protection (A boss who I had locked horns with in my short and not at all enjoyable spell in her team, gave me a mug coaster depicting a rhinocerous as a Christmas present once. You get the general picture of me presenting as thick skinned. Incidentally I still have it- the coaster, not the thick skin). This caution is therefore a different experience for me. I have more dogs than I have money for. I guess that is part of the guilt. Maybe it is that she is not what people will expect? Maybe people will think I am greedy? Or maybe I am just so damned lost since loosing Izzydog that I am not making sound choices?

I am fully aware that most of us judge, all the time. It is part of being human. It doesn’t always have to be a bad thing, to make a judgement about someone, something. Especially if you can do it with kindness. At its most basic it can keep us safe.  In my line of professional work I make “assessments” all the time, and have been doing so for many years. Is an assessment just a judgement without our own baggage attached to it, a more cool, clinical  and objective look at a given set of circumstances?  There is huge emphasis on being “non-judgemental” in my line of work, and I know I can be that, mostly.

I also know that I do judge, sometimes not kindly. The woman in her pyjamas at the shopping centre at 3 in the afternoon, who is dragging her small child along whilst screaming at her that she is “a fu**ing bitch.” In a flash I judge that even if she was doing the best she could with whatever she was carrying from her own past or current life (whatever it was I’m pretty sure it was not kind, or good) that what she was doing now, was not “good enough.”

When I see social media posts of horses obviously terrified with their eyes bulging, froth dribbling from a tied down mouth, and all the other horrors we subject them too, I judge that to not be “good enough.”

When I see dog owners yanking their dogs about, or ignoring them completely when out on a walk with their eyes glued to their phones, I work hard to not judge, although a little voice whispers in the background that it is not “good enough”.

I always thought my father, with all the hardships of his early life, born in the 1920’s, mum dying young, his father an alcoholic, did the very best he could as a dad, but still, sometimes,  I found myself judging he did not always make the “good enough” standard. I was comfortable with accepting that, as I knew he tried.

The second friend I tell about Belle, (the first one is simultaneously overwhelmingly supportive and quietly resigned to my dog madness) the new collie dog, this sweet elderly lady with little white feet, and soulful eyes, informs me “you don’t really need another dog do you?”

And then I re-discover that, after all, I do not care about being judged.

Say hello to Belle. Go ahead and judge if you wish.

I am comfortable with that. 

1st March

Belle has been here a few weeks now. She has settled well, asks for little, typical of a dog acclimatised to being alone. Each day she comes out of that shell she has tightly wrapped around herself. She loves to run. Always comes back, already. She has done some zoomies. Perfect dog-dog skills. She takes the exuberance of the younger dogs in her stride, now she has stopped feeling like she needs to be mum and stop it. She is taking treats, asking for physical contact. Her body language indicates some harsh treatment. Plenty of fear lurks there. 

She has an endearing habit of weeing in other dogs empty dinner bowls, after eating, so quite polite. She has expert aim and hardly gets any on the floor. We think maybe she learnt that in a small space, to keep her bedding dry?  We are dealing with that and encouraging time outside, which she doesn’t seem very used to. She jumped on the sofa the other day, which we see as a good sign. She is the sweetest little thing, and we look forward to sharing the rest of her journey with her.

Since she has been here the weather has been largely awful. I’m wondering about a “wintering” journal when meteorologically it is spring. Thing is, it isn’t. We have seen the sun once in the last 10 days. Think grey, snow, sleet, strong wind, rain, dark, gloom. Repeat.

I find myself constantly looking for light.  

16th March

Hunched

That’s how I feel. Hunched against the wind, the rain, the cold.

“If you are hunched, or hunched up, you are leaning forwards with your shoulders raised and your head down, often because you are cold, ill, or unhappy.” (Collins dictionary)

Maybe all three. Letting the weather slide away from me, perhaps encouraging the emotional weight of future changes slide away too. I copy the dogs, shake off the stress and the cold.  I instantly feel more positive, although soon return to hunching.

It feels right, somehow.    

19th March

Another Mothers day without my mum, spent it delivering flowers to other peoples ‘ mothers. Being bright, friendly, and happy as I delivered them. Crying in the van inbetween. Feeling my age as bones and joints grumble about all the hopping in and out of the van, climbing into the back, lugging huge vases about. I remember Mothering Sunday as a child. Homemade cards – I still have some I made- mum kept them all. Maybe a bunch of daffodils. Simple. Not this convoluted commercialised blasting everywhere you look.

I contemplate the random missing of parents.    

No one to eat toasted tea cakes with.

Not nearly as much giggling.

Dad sitting with me on a Saturday night drinking a beer around my outdoor fire pit.

No need to buy things in the garden centre for the garden, or look for nice things to tempt anyone to eat.

No one to tell me about the clouds and what the weather has in store.

Anyhow.

This mothers day, nearly over.

And it sounds like spring.

The birds are sure it is spring.

The blackbirds sweetly calling.

I see and hear a myriad of birds fluttering and chattering, looking for a temporary home.

The horses are shedding their winter coats by the handful.

It feels like spring, and it smells like spring.   

The days are longer.

Something in the air has changed.

I accept.  

It is spring.

It is spring.

All things are possible.

And breathe.

Wintering

23/2/23

We have another dog. She is a delight so far- been here around 5 hours. Her name is Belle. The others have been gently wonderful with her, giving her space. Quietly indifferent . Oh right, its you. She is an older collie, older than the rescue said. She is a little chubby after having her two gorgeous pups. I haven’t actually told many people, and I am wondering why that is. Usually a new dog is heralded by social media posts, and joyous delight, and not this slightly guilty, secret excitement.  

It fluttered across my mind today that maybe I am wary of being judged.

Usually I can maintain a thick layer of self protection (A boss who I had locked horns with in my short and not at all enjoyable spell in her team, gave me a mug coaster depicting a rhinocerous as a Christmas present once. You get the general picture of me presenting as thick skinned. Incidentally I still have it). This caution is therefore a different experience for me. I have more dogs than I have money for. I guess that is part of the guilt. Maybe it is that  she is not what people will expect? Maybe people will think I am greedy? Or maybe I am just so damned lost since loosing Izzydog that I am not making sound choices?

I am fully aware that most of us judge, all the time. It is part of being human. It doesn’t always have to be a bad thing, to make a judgement about someone, something. Especially if you can do it with kindness. At its most basic it can keep us safe.  In my line of professional work I make “assessments” all the time, and have been doing so for many years. Is an assessment just a judgement without our own baggage attached to it, a more cool, clinical  and objective look at a given set of circumstances?  There is huge emphasis on being “non-judgemental” in my line of work, and I know I can be that, mostly.

I also know that I do judge, sometimes not kindly. The woman in her pyjamas at the shopping centre at 3 in the afternoon, who is dragging her small child along whilst screaming at her that she is “a fu**ing bitch.” In a flash I judge that even if she was doing the best she could with whatever she was carrying from her own past or current life (whatever it was I’m pretty sure it was not kind, or good) that what she was doing now, was not good enough.

When I see social media posts of horses obviously terrified with their eyes bulging, froth dribbling from a tied down mouth, and all the other horrors we subject them too, I judge that to not be good enough.

When I see dog owners yanking their dogs about, or ignoring them completely when out on a walk with their eyes glued to their phones, I work hard to not judge, although a little voice whispers in the background “that it is not good enough”.

I always thought my father, with all the hardships of his early life, born in the 1920’s, mum dying young, his father an alcoholic, did the very best he could as a dad, but still, sometimes, I found myself judging he did not always make the “good enough” standard. I was comfortable with accepting that. I knew he tried.

The second friend I tell about Belle, (the first one is simultaneously overwhelmingly supportive and quietly resigned to my dog madness) the new collie dog, this sweet elderly lady with little white feet, and soulful eyes, without my asking, informs me “you don’t really need another dog do you?”

And then I  re-discover that, after all, I do not care about being judged.

Say hello to Belle. Go ahead and judge if you wish.

I am comfortable with that.  

Wintering

7th February

An hour of extra day light.

A touch of warmth.

The still air a caress, birdsong a sweet tonic for a weary soul.

A hint of spring.

All things seem possible.  

14th February 

One of the varied jobs I took on DC (During Covid) to make ends meet was answering a local advert for a florist to do occasional deliveries. The work increased and Kevin eventually took most of it over when I returned to my regular work life AC  ( After Covid) . On really, busy days I join him to do the hopping in and out of the van, knocking on doors, smiling at people behind delightfully arranged bouquets , while he manoeuvres a large cumbersome van around small spaces and roadside obstacles. The arrangement works well. Valentines Day flowers are a delight, folks are happy to get a glorious flower arrangement, surprise or not. This is generally a happy job, a fair distance away from my usual rewarding, but not so light and happy, work. There are harder things to do  to earn a few pennies, even after negotiating road works, no house numbers, sat nav meltdowns and the occasional fortress to get into.  The day was full and busy. Sam in the pharmacy was very upset that the huge arrangement was not for her. Jess in another pharmacy was pleased with her hatbox of flowers, but simultaneously horrified and embarrassed that she had only bought her partner a toothbrush. 

A delivery to Chear Fen Boat Club proved interesting  – for starters, it is not a boat club. It may be close to the river but you cannot actually see the river, nor access it, and there was no sign of any boats. Rather it is a collection of travellers park homes, surrounded by what looked like wild west fencing after entering through an ornate metal work gate depicting a beautiful woodland scene. We delivered a bunch of flowers costing £75 (90.25 USA $; 84.85 Euros) to a 2 year old  little girl. I wondered what she made of them, as did her grandmother when she took the flowers in, looking bemused. A boy appearing to be around 10 years old careened past in a huge pick up truck. Little old ponies stood about in the mud.  We wondered aloud how planning permission gets granted for these continued encampments that appear all around us. They usually start with a lot of fenced paddocks, a solitary coloured pony in each, plus a caravan. Then come tarmac roads. Then the ponies disappear, then hey presto, a housing estate. 

Departing the site we drove around in the sunshine leaving a trail of happy faces in our wake. Turning over the paperwork I felt a sense of dread when I realised that we had a huge bunch of glorious flowers destined for the hospice where my mum lived her last days. A  peaceful and surprisingly gentle place, she received the best of care, but I did not really need the memories today. The flowers were for a man and it felt unspeakably poignant, valentines flowers, hospice, memories, someone else dying, someone else caring.  I was crying hard by the time I got into back into the van again. Immediately after we drove past the large veterinary hospital where we spent so many hours with Dylan our dog on his cancer journey, last summer. Visits full of hope and despair, as we willed him to live, and the summer last forever. It did not, and he did not. Both shedding tears now.

Spinning more smiles, we finished a further 25 deliveries and retired home.  

Reflecting my mind kept asking questions that I really had no answers too.   

Is there really a cost of living crisis?  Obviously, yes, for some. Just not reflected in today’s activities.

How would I feel if anyone spent £100 on flowers for me?  This one is easy to answer – disappointed, actually – think how many books you could buy with that, or dog beds, or bales of hay!!)

How long will grief triggers still trigger. Maybe always, especially when unexpected. Even though I understand that is how grief works, it still catches me like a punch to the gut.

How do I feel when the plight of an unknown person brings me to tears? Vulnerable at the very least. Human.

When can I retire?  Definitely no answer to that one!

Wintering

1st February

Writing about not writing, or reading, or doing much of anything.

One of my rationalisations for writing a winter journal was to inspire myself to look for the light in winter, to find positive experiences, to practice actually writing, regularly, to work on my editing skills.

And then.

Christmas happened, always a non-event in this sparse household. Also a time of rest, which is of course essential to our wellbeing. Also boring for me when there is too much of it.  I did a little writing about the year before when I won a national award, and the embarrassingly  bizarre and wonderful experience the award ceremony was. When I came to editing it, I was bored, and could not summon the interest, nor the self-discipline.

And then.

January. In January I did not write, or even read a whole book, or achieve anything much. Sunshine days occasionally lifted my spirits in between the grey. Mostly I was just cold, shrunken and hunched inside my thick layers. I felt very Januaryish, the month must have at least 343 days.

And then.

I started to swim regularly which felt amazing once I actually forced myself to go.

And then.

I became unwell which stopped all of that.

I was feeling miserable about not keeping to my target of a weekly blog post, however short.  When I had missed one week it seemed irrelevant, and so I missed more. My head still spun with thoughts and phrases but the energy to either speak or write was mostly missing.

And then.        

It became February. The antibiotics seem to have done their job. I feel grateful that this is the extent of my miseries and that my life is filled with poop, hair, fur, and mud.

And then.

This. Not anything clever, poetic, literary, or original.

But done. Phew.

Wintering

Dogs are Conversataions waiting to happen

7th December

We wake to an early cup of tea in bed and a biscuit. Well, I have the tea and biscuit, Teya makes do with a biscuit. The sun does its winter best to turn the frost into a sparkling playground as we head out for a walk across some lovely grounds. The university gritting lorries are already out so we avoid those paths for Teya’s paws sake. We head for ponds and an interesting architectural spaceship style building, all stylish glass and metal. I am weirdly happy to find it is the Caudwell International Children’s Centre. Caudwell Children is a disabled children’s charity aiming  

“To change the futures of all disabled children providing access to the services, equipment, therapies and treatments they need. To increase awareness and understanding of the needs of disabled children across the UK. The CICC is the UK’s first purpose-built centre for multi-disciplinary therapy programs for childhood disability and research of neurodevelopmental conditions”.

Transpires it is a butterfly rather than a spaceship. It looks beautifully other worldly, reflecting the rising sun.

Caudwell Children is the brainchild of John Caudwell (once a car salesman who went on to set up high street retailer Phones 4U) who is one of Britain’s most influential entrepreneurs and philanthropists. His inspired rise to huge monetary success (right place, right time, right vision, self-belief, brains,passion) and having a disabled son led to the charity formation. He “remains the charity’s largest single benefactor and most passionate supporter. He enables the charity to offer complete transparency to its supporters, with 100% of direct donations going directly to the children and families who need it. John is also a prolific fundraiser, regularly completing physical challenges and staging events to inspire and encourage the support of others”

His fund raising in Monaco and across the world has led to many other celebrities  supporting the cause, including the Life-Changers Circle- each member has pledged to donate £1 Million over 10 years to support the charity. He is certainly a powerful character, luxury yachts, apartments in Monaco and Mayfair, marathon cycling challenges, and never appearing to forget his terraced street Stoke- On-Trent roots.  

However that is not the only reason that John Caudwell interests me.  Back in DC (During Covid) and lockdown, the British government introduced a raft of financial support for the majority of workers and businesses. This worked extremely well for some people who received 80% of their salary for staying home. Many started new businesses or got second jobs during this time. Still others enjoyed the unusually gorgeous spring weather and the chance to unwind. However, in excess of 3 million self-employed people were denied this support, for a variety of illogical and unjust reasons. Denied, in fact, any kind of support.

I was, of course one of them.

I won’t drone on about the reason (it still fills me with a deep sense of being devalued and ignored after working my whole life and paying taxes for 50 + years). Simply put, the year used for qualifying accounts, I stayed home to care for my mum who was dying- so did not earn enough to qualify. If you sense a residue of bitterness, you may be correct.

Back to John Caudwell (a major Conservative Party donor and supporter), he really fought our corner, as we became #ExcludedUK- a lobbying, action and support group. He petitioned parliament, personally and in the media, appearing repeatedly on television and radio to highlight the injustice and illogical nature of the rules.  He could not understand why any government, particularly a Conservative one, would penalise entrepreneurs, self-directed business folk, able to innovate and create. It made no sense to him. Or us. He was a giant supporter but to no avail. The ExcludedUK group had so many people lose their homes, their business, and in some cases their lives. There were 20 suicides amongst the group – that we knew about. John worked hard to help us, to no avail.  The man in charge of all of that is now our Prime Minister.

These memories and thoughts flit through my mind as Teya and I walk past the impressive building and head back to the hotel for breakfast. Sausages for Teya go down well. In the lobby where we had to eat our breakfast due to the dining room not being dog friendly at all, I meet a couple with a lovely Airedale Terrier. They turn out to be the brother and sister in law of Tracy, who volunteers for the charity that brings dogs to the UK  from (including Teya), and many, many other dogs over from Cyprus. Tracy is a whirlwind of a fundraiser, and has ceaseless energy and commitment to raising money for these beautiful dogs.  Such a random chance meeting that makes me unreasonably cheerful.

I reflect on all the good conversations I have had due to dogs, the people I have met, skills learnt, hearts both healed and broken. How much fun. A sense of connection, due to these amazing creatures. Teya just asks politely for more sausage. It is after all, exactly what she deserves.         

We are late now, so rush off to shower and change for Day 2.

Pre- Registered attendance at the workshop was low, so the university staff ask a student who is helping with the project, to see if he could get a few more people along. We had, just in case, made plans for a small group which would allow for a different kind of discussion-   when in walked the entire, confused, baseball team. They did not really know what they were there for but did their best to join in with enthusiasm. There was great discussion, with some sound ideas for taking forward a chance to interact with animals on campus, without it turning into an animal welfare problem, or upsetting those who did not in fact want pets on campus (strange as it seems to me, there were plenty of those!). Linking with a local rescue to go there and walk dogs (win-win); bringing dogs along from somewhere like Pets As Therapy for dog walks around the lakes and lovely grounds; having a designated space for people who wanted to meet dogs.  All things for the university staff to consider and evaluate. The cameras whirred, neither Teya or I were phased this time, she made new friends. I hoped I had been useful.

It’s a wrap, off to lunch, journey home. Not as pleasurable as the journey there, the weather had turned, accidents forced me to use a different route, but all was safe.

We arrive home tired and happy. Feeling that the 2 days had been a wonderful experience- well I did.

Teya was  already onto the next thing. Sleeping.

Wintering

6th December

A two day 300 mile round trip to participate in a Pets on Campus research project as a non- academic partner with an excellent university sounded a great idea in sunny June. I was honoured to be asked and jumped at the chance. By December with a cold front coming in, getting dark by 4, and two of our dogs having unexpectedly died, the whole thing didn’t sound quite so adventurous. My worry head kicked in. Would the car be ok? It is pretty old, tired (or is that just me?) What if it gets icy?  What if Teya didn’t enjoy it? What if my presentations were rubbish? What if she wee’d in the classroom (not that she ever had before). What if no one came?  Imposter syndrome taking hold!    

Frustration overtook exasperation at my constant worry! This was an adventure! A chance to meet new people, do something different. Goodness knows I often rumbled on about what I did day in and day out. This was new. Exciting. Paid well. With students who were interested, committed. Teya was always entrancing. The car spent a few hours getting checked out. All was well.

I vowed to treat the journey as part of the adventure, easier as the sun was brilliantly shining, it was a glorious day. I had found myself a lovely dog friendly café with walks along the route, like being on holiday. This halfway stop was at Sudbury, where the Childrens’ Country house and museum, stands, a National Trust country hall

“an experience where children are encouraged to be curious and have fun with history. All while protecting the late 17th-century collections.”

It looked to be fun, with interactive teaching, arrangements for those with disabilities, and a way of looking at history, with some modern progressive beneficial influences. Closed, so I could not actually check it out. The National Trust seemed to cast a certain ambience across the village. People were smiling and working outside, 3 people spoke to me in the first 100 yards. Or maybe that was just the sun.

The National Trust was founded in 1895 for “the holding of lands of natural beauty and sites and houses of historic interest to be preserved intact for the nation’s use and enjoyment’.”  They own somewhere in the region of 620,000 acres of land, 780 miles of coast, more than 200 historic houses, 41 castles and chapels, 47 industrial monuments and mills, the sites of factories and mines, 9 lighthouses, 56 villages, 39 public houses, and 25 medieval barns. In 2021 they hit the news while being subjected to a sort of coup /takeover bid, by a group who objected to their seeming change of direction, and a report detailing the links between historic slavery and colonialism in 90 of their properties, as well as their equality and diversity work. The nature of their grand houses meant that they had been historically owned by people who may have benefitted from either colonialism or slavery. These people were historically some of the trust’s biggest benefactors. There was something of a “culture war” as it was penned, the NT described as becoming “woke” and ignoring their key values. This was treading close on the heels of covid lockdown which had seen them loose so many members, revenue and activity. Many staff were sacked, volunteers were left rootless, complaints abounded.The takeover failed, but the controversy continues. On a brighter note after lobbying and voting by members they banned hunting with hounds on their land. Difficult to police and monitor though, but perhaps a reflection of the changes in membership values and attitudes. Hunting is another British institution gradually loosing favour and entitlement here.    

Apart from all that, the Hall was beautiful, there were some lovely dog walks, the sun was still shining, and The Sweet Little Café turned out to be just that. I stayed a while due to the fact they forgot my order ( it was worth waiting for and I did not let it dent my mood!). A range of lovely shops (Christmas presents also sorted) and we continued our journey in good spirits.

Arriving at the Marriott hotel on the university campus was also a delight- having Teya alongside created a lovely warm welcome from staff and guests alike. I bathed in her reflective glory! Luxury accommodation thoroughly checked out by Teya and found acceptable, we headed out for a walk through the beautiful grounds and onto our first workshop of the day.

I was to talk, while Teya hopefully demonstrated how the K9 project works. What we do, why we do it, what difference the dogs make, if any. Lead a conversation about animals in general and how they help our wellbeing. Maybe a conversation about leaving animals at home when you come to uni – let’s see where it all goes. Meanwhile university lecturer’s videoed, observed, took notes. The entire research study was exploring “pets on campus”. Yes or no, what would be the difficulties, what might work, what would be gained/lost? There was an online survey, individual interviews and focus groups, and my workshops. We were just a small part of the overall project, and the only part that involved a dog!

I met Dr Dan, who I already knew, and Mark who was my “minder” for the stay and ensured we did not get lost on campus. The workshop was fine, the students had plenty to say about pets on campus, and loved Teya- who wouldn’t? We went out for an evening meal which proved a little tricky. Finding both dog friendly/ not full of almost end of term lively students letting off steam, and watching the world cup football, was a challenge. I also met the Head of Department. Lively and different discussion, new ideas, sharing of experiences.

Teya and I went back to the hotel, another walk, and then collapsed, exhausted, onto and into the huge bed.  Fell asleep pondering that this was a light in the dark experience. A bright spark, something different, meaningful, and working as part of a team, all with the same objective. A beautiful day with a beautiful dog.

We both slept well, to repeat the process, in reverse order, tomorrow! 

Wintering

December 1st.

“Happy Heavenly Birthday Steve” was the post on Steve’s’ Facebook timeline.

I felt shock. Not surprised, exactly. But still shocked. I had headed off to that virtual space as I had done for the past 2 years, to wish him a happy one, never knowing if he saw it. We had not heard from him since the day he phoned my husband Kevin, to incoherently tell of the death of his beloved dog Chilli. Chilli was all he had left in the world by then, and his death left us with concerns for Steve’s wellbeing.      

The first time we saw Steve was at the animal shelter where we were all volunteer dog walkers. Independently of each other, Kevin and I had both noticed him and the skill set he had with the dogs. The kennels were old and poorly designed. Getting dogs in and out was a stressful, visceral experience as the dogs lunged at each other across the narrow walkway between the kennels. By the time you got their wriggling bodies harnessed up, outside their kennel, along that narrow corridor of stress, and outside to the grass, you felt exhausted. That was before the actual walking part happened!

Then this man was standing, in the centre of the green outside the kennels. Totally calm, still. Totally in and of himself. A slight man with a commanding but kind presence. A large cross breed dog threw himself about in a frantic frenzy of frustrated energy at the end of the lead. Steve waited. And waited. Impervious to the loud barking, the rest of us being hauled about, the general mayhem. The dog looked a bit puzzled, eventually calmed, and off they went for a walk.

We were impressed and made sure we spoke to him the week after. We all hit it off, felt a camaraderie amongst the heartbreak of the kennels. Steve and Kevin began to walk Taz together. Taz was extremely large, and semi-wild. A rottweiler cross mastiff. It took both of them to safely get him out without being pulled over. Even then he was a handful. Sometime in the future, and after many pleading phone calls from the shelter, Taz came to live with us. Although that is another story altogether. Steve came and worked with us on our K9 Project, supporting young people alongside rescue dogs. He demonstrated the same calm approach with people as with dogs. He had enough of a rebel in him to get on with most teenagers, and a dry sense of humour. He was with us when we met Izzy at a different rescue, instrumental in her coming to live with us. He formed an amazing relationship with a young man called Jack, on the autistic spectrum. Our weekly walks were the highlight of Jacks week.

Along the line things got difficult for him. His wife tragically died of a heart attack next to him in bed one night. She was really his rock, his guiding light, his star. Their home was linked to her family, Steve had to leave. He experienced PTSD, flashbacks, confusion,  alongside his immense grief. He was admitted to hospital. It got pretty hazy understanding what had happened for, and to, him after that.

Hospital stays left him confused, he was discharged with a heady mix of prescribed anti-psychotic drugs and he was also self-medicating. He became homeless for a time. Eventually rehoused, he was then alone, and attempting to reshape his life. We met him again by chance out walking with our dogs. Our joy at seeing him was tempered by sadness as he was incoherent, frail, fragile. This previously articulate and humorous man, who ran his own business and lived a full life, had become a fragment of his former self. He was still unstable, muddled. Determined however to reshape, to try again. We live an hour away and did what we could to assist with his reshaping.He was very isolated, his pride made it hard to ask for, or accept help. At that time he still had Chilli, we helped with money, mostly for transport and vet bills for his beloved Chilli, who was all he had left. We went out for dinner, to try and establish some normality for him – a total pleasure with glimpses of the old Steve with his humour and wit. He came back to work with Jack when he was well enough. He came to our K9 Community Café, where he and Chilli were popular attendees.

Then he disappeared again. He previously talked of moving to Wales where he had family. We hoped he would make it there -it seemed the best chance of healing for him. He was in my mind often, as my feelings of helplessness and unease quietly rumbled along in the background.

After the phone call to tell us Chilli had died, we never heard from him again. Texts and phone calls were not answered. It seems not so long after that he died, we have not been told how. I can only imagine what happened.

Visually I have strong memories of him- standing in an oasis of his own quiet strength and calm, surrounded by the dogs he helped so much. Or maybe wandering along arm in arm in the sunshine, with Jack, each making the other one happy, dogs trotting merrily close by. And laughing, laughing.

Postscript.

The subject of mental health is a complex one. I do not pretend to be an expert. Each person is unique, each response needs to be equally so. I know that some of the support Steve received from front line workers was positive and highly valued by him. I cannot comment on his hospitalisation and drug treatments as he was always unclear about what exactly had been happening. Nevertheless I do know that mental health support is geographically variable, and relies on a pharmaceutical approach to treatment, with not always positive results. (see Horatio Clare- Heavy Light -amongst many others)    Currently we are told we are going through a “mental health crisis”, especially amongst the young. Anxiety is on the increase.  Suicide rates are increasing, especially amongst young men. Mental Health Services remain stretched to impossibly thin, unsafe levels. Covid created a vacuum into which many people fell, and I know many who are struggling to get back to the levels they were before covid before. I do not have any answers. Just concerns. 

Wintering

November 17th

Finding it almost impossible, today, to look outwards, to find the joy. Impossible to not feel the weight of the 4 days of rain. Rain so dense it looked like fog. Or mizzling rain that should not make you wet but does, just a little more slowly. Real fog too- the kind England is often (mistakenly) thought to be cloaked in, all winter. I feel disillusioned, disappointed at my own lack of fortitude and resilience. How pathetic am I? Get a grip! It is just weather. I irritate myself with my inadequacies.  

Seasonally sensitive, that doesn’t really cover it. Maybe SAD does. Seasonal Affective Disorder, seasonal depression, is now recognised as a mental health condition potentially affecting 2 million people in the UK and 12 million across Northern Europe. According to the NHS website symptoms of SAD can include a persistent low mood, loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities, irritability, feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness, lethargy.

Shorter days, less sunlight, increased production of melatonin, being female, getting older. Lots of predisposing factors- none of which we can do much about. Unless we follow the sun across the hemispheres with the seasons. An attractive thought, sadly way beyond my reach.

Treatments can include light therapy. I do have a light. (note to self, find it and switch it on occasionally). Talking therapies such as CBT.

Horatio Clare in his book, The Light in the Dark, talks about going to see a psychiatric nurse after a referral from his GP. His relief at not having bipolar or clinical depression- of being cyclothymic instead, is palpable. He goes straight from the assessment to the health food store and buys a variety of supplements. At the till he breaks the pill bottles open.

“I neck fish oil and vitamin D and St Johns Wort. Come on life- lets have you back”

I love that sentiment.

Now I take vitamins D and B complex in winter, maybe they help,and it feels logical. Fish oil too. Get outside when the weather breaks. Get outside anyway- the horses ensure that happens. There is no doubt that owning horses, and any livestock, is harder in winter. Mud, cold, dark, wet. The horses can get a different sphere of ailments in winter, although lets be clear, horses can get a dizzying array of ailments whatever the weather. Each season brings its own unique challenges.  Wheelbarrows, however, are easier to push on dry ground, and longer days spread the chores out.

Naming it, accepting it, not fighting it, working with it. That has to be the way forward, for me. Small lifestyle changes to accommodate being “seasonally sensitive”. Lower expectations, less stress.

And keep looking, looking for that light.

Bathing in winter sun. Wonder at the ultra bright blue winter skies. Enjoy raindrops flashing. Icicles sparkling.

Keep looking, for the light. If it is not here now, it will come.  

Wintering

November 12th

I am awake. Early. Unreasonable, unrequired, undesired. Darkness still presses against the windows. Silence.

I stretch a leg out to the end of the bed, feeling for Izzy dog. She is not there. She never will be there again.

Those 14 years of daily rhythm and flow, easy companionship. No more. Every day starts like this now.    

Today is a Saturday and I am off to a county youth work conference. My travel crate is full of inspirational postcards, books, ADHD toys. I hope to sell some, or even give them away. Everything is full of Izzy. She even wrote the books. So many memories. So much shared love and fun, so much to be thankful for.

She demonstrated to young people that they could still live their best lives, without having to be the same as everyone else. Without always fitting in. Just find a passion and a purpose -“I realise I can be crazy and lovable all at the same time” said David aged ten.

She demonstrated to me that it was fun to go wild swimming, encouraged me to try paddleboarding (although sitting still was a bit boring for her wherever it was). That we could enjoy finding people in trucks, in water, hiding in fields in the dark. That it was fine to be independent, whilst close. To be both busy and restful. Slightly off field yet still whole.

Loosing a pet is now (hopefully) widely recognised as a painful experience. How can it not be? They live alongside us, very much a part of all aspects of our family life. For many they are the only family. Especially dogs, with their non judgemental approach, their relative dependence on us, their joy in everyday activities. Worldwide we now have many organisations providing pet bereavement support. They offer free, confidential advice and support through our grief. There are also books, videos, webinars, a myriad of mediums to help us through this inevitable process. That’s the thing -we sign up for the pain the moment we take on a pet. Inevitably they do not live long enough. Inevitably we are broken by their loss.

We seem freshly surprised each time at the depths of our despair. Inevitably, I am a serial victim of my own actions, of this life compulsively shared with dogs. I cannot stop signing up. Even though the loss is so brutal.

This time feels harder than before. She really was my best friend. This quirky girl found on the streets, narrowly missing death in the shelter, arrived in my life like a whirlwind. She is braided into the fabric of my life, entwined in thought and deed. Here or not.

I miss her.

There is an irreplaceable part of me missing.

I miss that part of me, alongside the deep missing of her.

Nothing is the same.

Wintering

November 8th.

The wet clings to my hair, my eyelashes, my lips. For three days now the sky has been so grey and low I feel I can touch it.

If I could touch it, I would push it upwards, back where it belongs! Rain and yet more rain pours from the blocked stable yard gutters in sheets. Strong winds send the leaves ever spiralling downward. Melancholia invades every sense, collaborating with the sky to press me downwards.    

What happened to the girl who liked the rain? Who would deliberately get wet and rejoice in the seasons?  Who never let a little weather beat her need to get stuff done? She seems a long way back, right now. I give myself a shake, put up the hood on my partially waterproof coat, and head out of the barn into torrential rain.

It is after all, the best time to sweep the fallen leaves away. Use the rain to sweep the leaves. Use the melancholy to lift itself. Lift my face to the rain in defiance and push on with lightness.

Somehow, it works.

The tidy yard gives me a feeling of satisfaction. I am wet and cold but that is no big deal, really. I quietly cheer myself for turning the gloom into action. I am happy for a small win, although really I feel like I have won some huge battle.

And that I totally deserve the tea and cake that I intend to eat.