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In Praise of Eggs

Over the past couple of weeks my father and I have made several trips out to some of his favourite watery places – though, to be honest, any place with water is a favourite with dad. And, it being the time of year it is, we had some wonderful encounters with birds and their offspring.

During a visit to Attenborough Nature Reserve Dad managed a long slow walk along the lake edge. He was rewarded for his efforts while we rested on a bench and watched a family of mallards with no less that eleven ducklings meandering and re-grouping in eddies behind their parents. ‘It’s nice here,’ he said, and indeed it was.

Another day we drove out to Trent Lock. Here you will find the blessed confluence of many of Dad’s favourite things. Firstly there is water in several forms: the River Trent, the Erewash Canal and the Cranfleet Cut, and, disappearing off towards the power station, the River Soar. In addition to these joys there are also trains! The main line from London splits here with arms disappearing towards both Derby and Nottingham. Not only that, but the trains travel on bridges over the water.

Here, though, is the sad part. My father’s eyesight is getting so poor that even when a train went over the bridge ahead of us he could hear it but not see it at all.

We took ourselves off for consolation at the teashop where they were serving the most delicious home-made ice cream. It was one of those 30 degrees plus days and I had even managed to persuade Dad to come out without his full vest and jacket regalia. Further, I’d managed to do an application of sun-cream without so much as a grumpy word in response! Clearly the omens of the day were good. Dad, to my surprise, chose pineapple and coconut flavour – even after a taste test – and I had lemon cheesecake (ice cream that is, with the biscuit bits mixed in. Yum!).

We sat there, licking happily. The elderly couple at the next table started up a conversation and Dad was able to compare careers with another man who was an engineer who had worked in the civil service. They had both also worked for the Ministry of Defence. I’m afraid I couldn’t resist revealing my Quakerly and pacifist tendencies at the end of our companion’s proud assertions about his work with Trident. I once experienced a very profound Meeting for Worship outside the Faslane Naval Base on the Clyde – the home of the submarines armed with Trident nuclear missiles. ‘We used to have a lot of problems with you lot,’ our companion told me. I’m sad to say that I simply thought: Yes!!!

Once we’d said our goodbyes, Dad and I wandered on down the canal where we encounted a family of swans. It must have been a productive and predator-light year because there were no less that eight already well-grown cygnets. My father was interested and tried to phrase his ideas but was clearly stuck for the relevant words.

‘The swans and their’ – big pause – ‘babies,’ he said. ‘When they give birth…’ he said. His mind was moving almost visibly. ‘When the babies come out.’

He stopped, flummoxed.

‘The cygnets hatch from eggs,’ I offered. ‘The mother bird sits on a nest with the eggs in to keep them warm until they crack open and the baby birds come out.’

‘Eggs!!’ said my father, happily, as he listened to my explanation. Then: ‘They’re very clever things.’

It occurred to me once again as we had this conversation, how the most effective and reassuring way to deal with someone with dementia is often the same way you might deal with a young child: by offering clarity and simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’ choices, one at a time; by explaining about things that they are curious about; by never reacting in a way that implies they are stupid.

But there was a difference between Dad forgetting that eggs were the way birds hatched their young and the way a young child might learn about them. He clearly required the explanation of how eggs worked in addition to a reminder of the actual word, but once he had grasped what I was describing his face lit up and there was this huge joy at realizing what an interesting and wonderful thing eggs are.

If we are ever tempted to worry about what dementia might mean if it ever happened to us (something I am regularly guilty of), it is perhaps worth remembering that there are a million things about nature and this wonderful world just ready for us to rediscover all over again.

MAD MOMENT

Finally finishing the final final edit of my novel with the support and guidance of a real life – and very excellent – agent. And, to top it all, the manuscript being sent out this week to a round of editors/publishers. I feel like a proper novelist at last! (Please, please give me a publishing deal…)

MARVEL MOMENT

How my front garden has blossomed into this…

www.annedegruchy.co.uk image:  front garden full of flowers

© Anne de Gruchy

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Experiencing Woodbrooke in Photographs

So here I am, investigating the Quaker testimony of simplicity at the wonderful Woodbrooke study centre. I am deep in interviews and books and writing and research. I am also deep in peace and goodwill and greenery. So here is a quirky tour by photograph…

* The beautiful sculpture of a Quaker Meeting by Peter Peri. *

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* On the first evening we held a Meeting for Worship and vigil to uphold those in parliament who were making the decision about the renewal of Trident. We sat in a circle and these candles formed a centre and focus. *

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* The terrace alongside the garden lounge at night – there are wonderful words of wisdom etched on the windows and doors of the garden lounge. *

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* I don’t have to worry about missing my cat too much… *

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* The rose arch looks even better in the dark. *

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* A Friend-in-Residence allowed me to photograph her emerging flower arrangement. *

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* Wow! Looking back at the main building in thirty degrees of sunshine and flower meadow. *

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* The anti-torture garden has a beautiful statue, and wirework… *

2016-07-19 11.28.33    2016-07-19 11.29.13

* …with flowers winding through. *

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* The walled garden is full of vegetables, and fruit, and herbs, and… nasturtiums.  Three watering cans make an imaginative water cascade. *

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* I met a member of the gardening team carefully clipping the Cloud Hedge.  There are so many beautiful trees – even a dead branch brings beauty. *

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* Stepping stones across the stream – exploring the woodland beyond the lake. *

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* Word Labyrinth in the Garden Lounge. There is a grass version you can walk outside. *

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© Anne de Gruchy with thanks to Woodbrooke

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Being a Daughter, Too

I’m having a break from caring for dad.

My lovely sisters have taken seriously the struggles I have had in coping with things, and are supplying back-up as well as keeping the airlines in business almost single-handed!

Currently dad is sunning himself (hopefully) in southern France where sister number one lives. To achieve this entailed my brother-in-law flying over to the UK to collect him, then packing everything he needed, depositing the dog at the kennels, and accompanying dad back to France. The same will be necessary in reverse to bring him home. Nothing is simple when you are dealing with someone with Alzheimer’s, partial sight and bladder cancer.

Dad loves a holiday. After he and mum retired they went into overdrive and booked about three holidays a year. Eventually they got addicted to the convenience of cruises and spent many happy weeks travelling the oceans to visit interesting places and watch the Northern Lights. After mum died, dad found it hard to accept that his ability to have regular holidays was affected. We have managed to give him various breaks over the ensuing years, but much travel is needed to get to Dorset where he lives before a holiday can even begin. He is not capable of going alone.

So dad is in France and I do not have to worry about phone calls that uncover unexpected needs and crises, or whether dad is managing with the newly increased care package and the interruption of his morning routine.

I also don’t have to worry about financial stuff. Sister number two is busy sending out Powers of Attorney and asking the financial institutions dad has dealings with to communicate via her. This has not been easy as she lives in Australia and she needs to provide evidence of her identity to every organization she contacts. The level of proof they require has varied, and she has had to make visits to solicitors and notaries to have her identity sworn to. One company has insisted on all three of us signing to say sister number two can take over – something that is completely unnecessary as we are allowed to act independently under the Power of Attorney we hold. So now their form is winging its way from Australia to France to the UK and back to Australia again, just so that they have three signatures in one place. The airlines are in heaven.

Dad’s finances have been a big headache for us. He has been unable to manage his paperwork for a long time, and correspondence goes unanswered or missing. Because of the distance between us it has been hard to keep on top of what needs doing, and what has got into a muddle. Recently dad has decided he needs to do a big clear out of his paperwork. This is something he has steadfastly refused to do for years, but all of a sudden it has become an obsession. I wonder whether it is a bit like end-of-life spring-cleaning – the urge to tidy up your affairs at a certain point as you get older. Certainly the pile of paperwork next to dad’s shredder is impressive. The problem is that he is no longer able to see or think well enough to know what should be kept and what should go. A few months ago he dismantled the file containing his passport, will, and EHIC health card, and it took us many days to locate the key items and hide them away somewhere safe.

After dad comes back from France, sister number two will take over the ‘Rescue-Anne’ operation and make a month’s visit to the UK. She will take dad to his next cancer check and sort out more of his finances and his Tax Return. She will try to identify once and for all who the ‘mystery stockbroker’ is. Dad swears he has a stockbroker, but cannot remember names and we cannot locate a file. Never having had to deal with stocks or shares, this is all a mystery to me – but not as much of a mystery as the stockbroker’s identity!

I hope to catch up with sister number two while she is here – Australia is a long way to travel otherwise. And even though it is tempting to have her visit me and share some wonderful Peak District walks, I may well go down to see her at dad’s. The thing is that I miss him if I don’t see him for a long time. It is like the song from My Fair Lady – I’ve become accustomed to his face.

It is good to remember sometimes that it is not just about being a carer, but being a daughter, too.

MAD MOMENT…

Attempting to use the interesting 6” screws the Timber Merchant sold me to join together the sleepers to create my new raised beds. A friend came to help, but the drill wasn’t up to the job. Eventually I gave up on my attempts to find someone with a big enough drill and bought some brackets instead. Does anyone need some unused super-sized wood screws?

2016-04-23 14.04.59 2016-04-23 14.04.01

MARVEL MOMENT…

After all my troubles trying to see out of my new glasses and worrying what the optician would say when I took them back (again!), it turns out that there was a fault with the coating and the manufacturer have replaced the lenses free-of-charge. I can see at last! Phew!!!

© Anne de Gruchy

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Plants on Castors

I was looking at the tags in the side bar of my blog the other day and I realized how tiny the lettering of the word ‘gardening’ had become.

Those WordPress people are clever – the way they make the tags take on a font size related to how often they have been used – and although I never intended to write a gardening-focussed blog I am surprised at how small I have allowed ‘gardening’ to become in my blog-universe.

I love gardening. I love plants, and pruning, and getting my hands dirty digging in the earth. I love the changes you witness throughout the year. The new shoots emerging as bulbs push through when winter moves to spring; the fragile unfurling of leaf buds; the way fruits swell and colour in the autumn; the beauty and fragile geometry of seed heads.

I also love designing and working on the layout of my gardens. Whenever I move house I spend many happy months with graph paper and pencil working out what I can use and what I can change in the garden framework. This is followed by a period of heavy labour – often involving the digging up and reshaping of lawns, laying paving, and even wall and step building.

I am a self-taught landscaper. I have some wonderful books to delve into for ideas and to teach me the techniques that I need. There is something immensely satisfying about actually buying and mixing the sand and cement to make mortar to bed in the bricks when creating a path or a raised bed.

There is also great joy in sourcing the necessary materials. I am a great scavenger and recycler. In my current garden I prised up paving from the back garden to relay to the front, and the lawn that I have taken up at the front was rotted down and the earth used to fill the new beds in the back. My wobbly wheelbarrow handle didn’t survive! I sourced bricks to make a wall through a local Freecycle Facebook page, and enjoyed the brief connections with new people that accompany these transactions. This week, a burst of energy led me to pick the brains of the helpful man at the trade counter of a local timber merchant. The sleepers, posts and special screws needed to make the edging to raise the height of a flowerbed will be delivered soon.

The problem with all this activity is my usual requirement for ‘plants on castors’ – a phrase that I believe was coined by my ex-husband because I move my plants around so often (see my previous blog post here). It is not for want of planning, though. I have often sat down and made detailed planting plans, catering for interest across different seasons and my reluctance to leave a single inch of soil unused. The difficulty is all those new ideas that crowd my head and demand to be listened to. In this case the strong sense that if I raised the bed in the middle of my back garden it would help to break up the entirely flat space and ‘lift’ the dynamic a little – literally. Of course this also means ‘lifting’ all the plants that are already established there, too…

I blame Monty Don. His new gardening series ‘Big Dreams Small Spaces’ is inspiring, especially to those of us who have downsized our gardens but still want a place that overflows with greenery. It was watching a recent episode that impelled me to go ahead with the bed-raising.

Maybe I need ‘walls on castors’ too.

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Flower bed in back garden

To raise or not to raise?!

MAD MOMENT…

Trying to attach the heavy hooks for a wrought iron gate to a fencepost without the aid of a drill. The screws would simply not screw! My drill’s motor died last year, and I have been borrowing a drill from friends when I need one, but maybe the time has come for a visit to the DIY shop.

MARVEL MOMENT…

Going to the Easter Day service at my parish church. As you are probably aware I am a Quaker, but in the long-distant past my leanings were Church of England and Baptist. Part of me misses the rituals of a church service and the deep spirituality that can be found there, so I dip back in sometimes. The Easter Day service is always a joyful occasion, but this one was deeply moving too. The church has a wonderful choir who add colour and descant to the rich music, and taking communion still has a special meaning for me. So glad I went!

© Anne de Gruchy

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Loneliness, Dementia and Living the Life We Want

I’ve been thinking about my lovely dad, about him sitting there at home with his little dog, and worrying that he might be lonely. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been experiencing a low period myself – in fact, a period of quite severe depression – but I know he loves company, and that without his Westie he’d be quite lost.

It’s hard not to project our own feelings and concerns onto the lives of others. When you’re caring for someone, and trying to support them, it’s hard to leave behind your own thoughts and to really listen to what they’re wishing for themselves. For my dad, that’s clearly to live independently at home for as long as he is able. ‘I don’t want to move’ is a mantra for him if you talk to him about future options – about exploring the possibilities that would be available should he no longer be able to live safely at home.

Now days, dad simply moves through each day trusting that what has always happened will continue to happen. That, on the day of his Probus Club, someone will turn up to give him a lift. That, when his 41 Club have a posh Christmas dinner, someone will sort out the payment and the menu choices and a means for him to get there. He no longer does these things for himself, but he does not remember this. We make wonderful diary secretaries, me and my sisters!

There are many things that dad no longer does. He will open letters but he no longer replies to them. He forgets they’ve arrived, and when I visit I may or may not find them and have to troubleshoot the consequences of his lack of response. Thus he misses medical appointments or bills go unpaid. Much of his mail now comes to me, or my sisters have to deal with things by email (they both live abroad). He no longer remembers if he’s fed the dog, though fortunately she makes her needs known if she’s hungry. He no longer changes his clothes for fresh ones or eats vegetables or puts the bin out or makes me a cup of tea when he does one for himself.

We worry about dad. We know that he gets disorientated and that sometimes he leaves the door open when he goes out, but we also know that he is happy living where he is with his familiar things around him. He is totally reliant on the care package we have set up – on the carers who come and go, who take him shopping, and do his washing, who help prepare and heat his meals. Over time some of them have become his secondary social life – the people he relies on because they are familiar faces and part of his routine. They alleviate the loneliness he feels.

In many ways dad is on borrowed time living at home. His poor eyesight increases the chance of accidents and falls, and his dementia puts him at risk of fraud and means he can no longer perform everyday tasks or remember people’s names. He is like a child – happy unless you try to change his routine or tell him what he should do. But, as those with experience of dementia know, caring is also about allowing and managing a certain level of risk in order to maximize a loved one’s freedom and independence. If dad takes the dog for a walk he risks not being fully aware of the traffic or finding his way home easily, but he has his faithful companion and it helps his mobility and circulation, too.

I know dad sometimes gets lonely, because he’s told me. But he’s living the life he wants to lead and I have to step back from my own feelings and let him get on with it. If it were me, I’d no doubt feel the same – and I’d no doubt be just as single-minded in trying to maintain the lifestyle I loved.

MAD MOMENT…

Going on a full day of yoga and meditation, when it is probably 20 years since I last tried to bend my legs into the Lotus position!

MARVEL MOMENT…

Winter gardens!

annedegruchy.co.uk image: winter garden flowers

© Anne de Gruchy

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Gardening versus the Hard Stuff (That’s Landscaping, of course!)

I have been taking stock of my blog so far, and realize that I have not yet made good on my promise to occasionally talk about gardening. Now to my friends this will seem very strange, as gardening is my go to activity to relax. I also love looking round other people’s gardens, and can never make a visit without coming away with pots full of plants for my own.

My garden, like most I have owned over the years, is a work in progress. It’s just that it’s a bit more of a work in progress than usual…

To me, a garden basically means plants. And lots of them! As many plants as I can cram in per inch and more. It’s not that I want to crowd my poor plants out, it’s simply that there are so many wonderful plants to have and not enough space to fit them all in. My garden is thus like a giant jigsaw puzzle, where all the pieces (plants) are juggled round to fit the space in the most economic, and decorative, way. It is no wonder that my ex-husband used to joke that the plants I bought needed to be on casters – they get moved so often to make room for something else.

Now the problem with loving plants is that you need flowerbeds to put them in. Most of my gardens have had magically reducing lawns: ones that have gradually shrunk as I claimed more and more of the grassed areas to create earthed areas to plant in. This would have been fine in my current garden if it had been big enough for both a lawn and planting areas. Unfortunately, with my manic obsession with all things green and growing that is not called grass, this simply was not the case.

The first thing to go, therefore, was the front lawn. This was a rather scrappy area of grass, joined seamlessly with my neighbour’s, with a single hypericum ‘Hidcote’ planted by the front wall. There is also what I thought was a rather ugly acer – its lime green leaves were quite nice and fresh but they turned an ugly brown in autumn. I pruned it mercilessly before I realized it was a snake-bark acer, and rather sought after. Ooops!

Having dug up the front lawn (and turned all the sods over to rot under cover to produce soil to plant in the next year) I turned to the back garden. This has two beautiful and structural trees – a magnolia and a cherry – complete with a rowing boat (but no water) sitting beneath them. Unfortunately, plant wise, this was it. The previous owners, not being particularly garden friendly, had paved the entire area, right up to the base of the concrete bargeboards of the fence.

There ensued a year of chiseling, and digging, and crowbarring, as I carefully prised out many of the paving slabs, together with the cement and hardcore underneath, to create new flower beds to plant in. Not being one to waste anything, I then moved my extra soil from the front garden to the new beds in the back, and my paving slabs from the back to the front. Ta dah! I now have a lovely front garden with a central paved area and plenty of space to juggle plants in!

What, you say, does digging and cement mixing have to do with gardening? And I suppose it is really landscaping. But for me the landscaping gives me a freedom to plant, and a wonderful backdrop to show everything off. The only trouble is fitting everything that I’d like to plant in!

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Front Garden before work

Front Garden – Before!

annedegruchy.co.uk image:  Front Garden after work

Front Garden – After

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Back Garden before work

Back Garden – Before!

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Back Garden after work

Back Garden – After

MAD MOMENT…

Planting plants in the dark! (See previous ‘Mad Moment’ when I was mortaring and laying paving in the dark. There may be a theme emerging here.)

MARVEL MOMENT…

Amazing online connections. Finding a wonderful gardener through her blog, then meeting in person, having tea, and planning a plant buying trip together. Check her inspiring blog out at: https://sueturner31.wordpress.com

© Anne de Gruchy

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Just What IS ‘Reality’

I had a discussion recently with an intriguing person I met in cyberspace – all about reality. About slipping in and out of it and what this feels like. About what reality is anyway. (Check out Willem de Kooning for some thought provoking quotes…)

Of course, I got to thinking, and my thoughts went like this:

• Can we actually slip ‘out of’ reality at all? Surely, wherever we are at the moment – physically or in our headspace – is actually our reality?

• If where we are in our headspace is totally weird, doesn’t this just make reality more interesting?

• If this freaks us out, isn’t it time we started changing our idea of what reality is, or challenging others in their limited concepts of reality?

I’ve spent a lot of time around people with mental health problems and believe we should learn from the experience of those who hear voices. This applies not just to people with labels like schizophrenia, but to people with some types of dementia, too. Although the voices can sometimes be very frightening and aggressive, they are often positive and accessible. A bit like me finding I coped much better with my erratic mental health once I simply accepted that this is part of me, many people who hear voices find the solution is to make friends with the voices, rather than trying to banish them through therapy and drugs. The voices are part of reality, too.

Sometimes, when I’m having a particularly low day, I try to focus my reality in to an exact moment of time. The instant I let my reality widen out I think about the things I ‘should’ be doing but that I can’t face at all. Instead, I try to find the ‘now’ reality: the raindrop running down the window pane, the tiny buddleia seedling that has found life amidst the cracks in the mortar of a wall, the sound of the wind and the feel of it on my face.

Living with a reality that keeps creeping into the surreal, or that is not acceptable to the society we live in, is a hard thing. Occasionally I look at my lovely assortment of friends and wonder at the proportion of us who has some kind of experience like this. But then it is logical, given my own experiences, that we have found each other and formed our own community of support.

Connections through mutual experience are really important. Take, for instance, the time I was low and could not work out how to handle myself, so I sent out a tweet into the twittersphere saying:

‘Down, down, down today. Lovely friends but just can’t shake the blues. Made scones as therapy and avoiding computer.’

I had decided on the strategy of baking and avoiding digital stuff, but was finding it hard to follow my own advice. Miraculously (Or not? Some things are just given to us when we need them), within seconds a tweet pinged back:

‘Scones sound great! I’m feeling the same and must go and treat myself now.’

I replied: ‘Hope you find something treatworthy enough for you – remember you are precious’, with the response: ‘Thank you Anne. That really made me smile ☺’

I can’t begin to tell you how important this exchange was to me at the time. My reality collided for an instant with a complete stranger ‘out there’ in the ether. I have since started following my responder’s wonderful and touching blog, also about living with mental health problems. Check it out at:

http://ibelieveinromeo.blogspot.ie

So what is my reality now? Well, actually it is sitting on a beautiful stone bench in the sunshine surrounded by the wind and scent of herbs in the garden at Hardwick Hall.

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Bench in Hardwick Hall Herb Garden

MAD MOMENT…

Deciding to have a ‘Pamper’ afternoon for friends with wonderful Weleda products and reflexology (see my ‘Brain Libraries’ post for details of the brilliant Emma Brown). I now have two friends planning to do reflexology training! Just hope they want to use me as their guinea pig.

MARVEL MOMENT…

Hardwick Hall herb garden comes pretty close!

© Anne de Gruchy