Mary Oliver; Loving the Work

Many years ago now, when I was struggling to understand the limits of my responsibility towards people who were sad or suffering, my therapist gave me a poem to read by Mary Oliver.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old rug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations –
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I thought it was a wonderful poem that fulfilled literature’s brief, as formulated by Chekhov, that ‘a writer should not provide solutions but describe a situation so truthfully that the reader can no longer evade it.’ I promised myself I would read a great deal more Mary Oliver, but it wasn’t until this year that I finally bought myself a copy of Dream Work, her collection from 1986.  A short while later, I read that Mary Oliver had died, and as is so often the case, a wealth of articles followed that told me a great deal more about her life than I had previously known. What I read was a depressingly familiar story of a woman with immense talent, transmuted into tangible success, who was nevertheless regularly disparaged by the critical elite in the poetry world. So it was for reasons on a number of levels – personal gratitude, solidarity of the sisterhood, and a strong belief that Oliver’s poetry expresses a way of living we desperately need to embrace if the 21st century is to become survivable – that I felt I wanted to do some critical justice to her work.

Mary Oliver was born in 1935 to a sexually abusive father and a neglectful mother.  You would not know this from her poetry which seeks not the release of the confessional, but the relief of turning one’s attention elsewhere. Walking in the woods of Ohio while reading Walt Whitman was her route to escape and renewal. She became fascinated by nature, by self-expression, by the spiritual life. When she graduated from high school, she decided to take a trip to Edna St Vincent Millay’s home in Austerlitz. There she met Edna’s sister, Nancy, formed an immediate friendship and moved in, for several years, to help sort out the late poet’s papers. She went to live in New York and then, on a return visit to Austerlitz in the late 50s, met the photographer, Molly Malone Cook, who became her life partner. The two women lived for the next forty years in Provincetown. Quietly. Unobtrusively. Just getting on with things.  Oliver published her first collection in 1963, won the Pulitzer in 1984, won the National Book Award in 1992. None of this went to her head.

For Mary Oliver’s poetry was – is – a practice of devotion as much as it is – unarguably – an art. ‘If I have any lasting worth,’ she said in a rare interview late in life, ‘it will be because I have tried to remember what the earth is meant to look like.’ If you’ve ever read any Mary Oliver, then you will know that a profound, vital attentiveness to nature is the foundation stone of her work. In Dream Work, the subject matter might be turtles or marsh hawks or starfish or clams, but each receives a portrait of startling vivacity and insight, one that understands the nature of its being. Oh wildlife, you might say to me. Well, lots of poets write about that. What makes Oliver special? And it’s hard to put into words, but I’d say it’s because the looking and the attention matter viscerally to Mary Oliver. It’s not about being clever with words. It’s about finding a way for the poet to be plugged into the main circuit of the universe.

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

This comes from ‘Landscape’, and expresses with characteristic simplicity and directness the bond with the world that breathes through every word of her poetry. But can you guess where she takes it? This is what happens next:

Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky – as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong thick wings.

I think what Mary Oliver understands is the extent to which we are earthbound animals with dreams of going beyond ourselves. For me, her poems only reach their full potential when humans, and their unbearable humanity, get bound up in them too. Oliver’s poetic patience, her attention, never flinch even if faced with brutality or futility. But unlike so many other poets (and yes, Ted Hughes, I’m looking at you), the violence of nature is only a fragment of the whole, and not necessarily the most important part at that. Oliver taps into the dignity, self-sufficiency, tenacity and grace of the animal world, and she remind us how close our dreams of self-extension are to these other attributes, how much we desire them, how maybe we want them even more than power and violent conquest, but gave up on them as being too difficult, too subtle for us, a long time ago.

‘You do not have to be good,’ runs the first line of one of her most famous poems, ‘Wild Geese’. ‘You do not have to walk on your knees/ for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting,/ You only have to let the soft animal of your body/ love what it loves./ Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’ Nature, Mary Oliver understands, is our Home. It is origin and end point, it is sustenance that is both physical and spiritual, it is allegory and information. If the world were not exactly as it is, we could not exist exactly as we are, and it is only the monstrous egotism of man that obscures the nature of our dependence. But if we are completely a part of the natural world, then what we see outside has something to tell us about who we are inside.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

What the critics who underestimate Mary Oliver fail to understand is that her poetry does not ask the reader to analyse it, but to live it.

***

I don’t know about you, but every morning lately, I seem to wake to a world that is a little more crazy, a little more corrupt and unethical than it was yesterday.  It feels like the end of times, or at least the far extreme of an argument pushed to its limits. The argument is, I think, one for selfish capitalism, its components are certainly those of narcissism, venality, grandiosity and intolerance. In the confusion that this has created, I offer Mary Oliver as a kind of North Star by which we might orient ourselves again.

Mary Oliver was not interested in fame or riches, or the spoils of power and influence. No wonder those literary critics were disdainful; she eschewed the great game they were playing in which they decided who was in and who was out. I often wonder whether Oliver had read the psychologist Alfred Adler, who was writing about a hundred years ago with astonishing prescience about the courage we need to find to be normal. Adler believed that we were all longing to be extraordinary in order to overcompensate for early wounds, early fears, and that we equated in consequence being normal with being incapable. This was a dangerous position, Adler felt, because when the project of being exceptionally good failed, then we were tempted to make the leap to being exceptionally bad.

Mary Oliver knew something about this. The poem ‘Shadows’ opens with the lines

Everyone knows the great energies running amok cast
terrible shadows, that each of the so-called
senseless acts has its thread looping
back through the world and into a human heart.

The poem is about the difference between the damage human beings can do, and the damage caused by natural disasters – ‘I mean/ the waters rise without any plot upon/ history, or even geography.’ Oliver writes. ‘Whatever/ power of the earth rampages, we turn to it/ dazed but anonymous eyes, whatever/ the name of the catastrophe, it is never/ the opposite of love.’ The quality of cruelty in the human world is of a different order, rising so often out of the failure of the desire to be exceptionally good, which curdles into feelings of hatred and envy. Though I think we may have created a category of catastrophe that neither Adler nor Oliver imagined, in our new, radical uncertainty about what good and evil look like. But both had the same solution to the problem – and that was to focus consistently on the work we were destined for, the work that is intrinsic to being alive.

Adler believed we had three main tasks to undertake. These are the tasks of friendship, of love and of work. In each case we must attend to learning and understanding what constitutes service to the community, what loving another person means, and what our individual purpose might be. Adler was very firm about the dangers courted by intruding upon another person’s task. (For this reason he was completely against parents ‘helping’ their children to do their homework, but I digress.) The point here is that these are the tasks that are given to each and every one of us to accomplish, and it is not doing those tasks that blights our experience of being alive.

Mary Oliver has an even neater formulation. As far as I see it, she rolls all three tasks into one: ‘To pay attention,’ she wrote. ‘this is our endless and proper work.’ Oliver had a very special kind of attention in mind, and she defined it when writing about her partner, Molly Malone Cook, after she died. She described how:

watching M when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the dark room, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness – and empathy – was necessary if the attention was to matter.’

I think, if I read her right, that Mary Oliver is advocating a way of being that is the complete opposite of how we often live today. She had no interest in insecurity, pride, the relentless tracking of threat, the indulgence of competition. Her poetry invites us to turn ourselves outward, away from the demands of the ego, and be profoundly attentive to otherness with compassion and curiosity. And here I bring Adler forward again. The attention we give in this way is not supposed to be extraordinary, and it is not intended to intrude on the tasks of others.  Mary Oliver did not try to save the world; she simply undertook her work of being a terrific poet. She was clear, repeatedly, that salvation was was a problem for the individual. In the poem ‘Dog Fish’ she wrote:

And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
this world.

And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better wake up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that is
bulging towards them.

And probably,
if they don’t waste time
looking for an easier world,

they can do it.

***

Back in 1938, three years after Mary Oliver was born, Sartre made literary history with a character who, staring very hard at a tree, and its root in particular, nearly drives himself mad. The problem with the tree root is that it resists definition in the mind of the male protagonist. Whatever words he chooses to describe it, those words are not precise enough, not satisfying enough, and in this battle between vocabulary and veracity, the real threatens to win. Roquentin risks going eyeball to eyeball with existence and out of this terrifying struggle the doctrine of Existentialism was born. And a bleak, loveless doctrine it is too, exhorting mankind to have the courage necessary to live in an alien and meaningless world, taking responsibility for the overwhelming freedom of being alive. What would Existentialism have become, I wonder, if a poet like Mary Oliver had gazed at that troublesome tree root instead of a short, egotistic, entitled, male philosopher? It would still have been about full presence in the moment, but significantly, it would not have been about the battle for mastery.

Existentialism can be read, I think, as an exhortation not to be exceptionally bad in a world that is indifferent to our attempts to be exceptionally good. It has its chip of a heart in the right place. But it could not free itself from that desire for overreaching heroics. Camus came a little closer to fundamental acceptance in his myth of Sisyphus. Describing how the gods condemned Sisyphus to roll a giant rock to the top of the hill only to have it roll back down every time, Camus said that we must imagine Sisyphus is happy. He meant that the smallness of life might have its pleasures, even if he wasn’t quite sure what they were. When I look at Sisyphus through Mary Oliver’s eyes, I wonder whether he rolled that rock to the top of the hill again and again because he loved the magnificence of the view.

What if we were to swap overreaching and dominating and achieving for living alongside and paying attention and reflecting? What if we understood the enormous power of nature to be something we might respect? What if we realized that grandiose ambitions are precisely what keeps us away from doing the real work of being alive? And where we are right now, at this point in history, isn’t this meaningful humility something we can’t afford NOT to try?

If you notice anything
it leads you to notice
more
and more.

Any anyway
I was so full of energy.
I was always running around, looking
at this and that.

If I stopped
the pain
was unbearable.

If I stopped and thought, maybe
the world
can’t be saved,
the pain
was unbearable.

 

Litlove and the UFO

A couple of domestic incidents in fact, as quirk and whimsy seem essential qualities to balance out what’s going on in the world right now. You may remember a while back I wrote about my cats using next door’s delightful garden as the litter tray from Harrods? Well the campaign of intimidation continues. When the cats come sauntering into the kitchen with a particular look in their eyes we ask them where they’ve been, and they reply, ‘Oh just next door to do a poo,’ and wink at each other. Knowing full well that they annoy our elderly neighbours, they are doing what cats do and upping the ante.

About a week ago, Mr Litlove was just closing up the house for the night when he received an emergency text from our neighbour. Could he go round because Deedee was somewhere in their house and they couldn’t find her? Mr Litlove put his shoes back on and went round. Deedee had made the first stupid move by deciding to explore next door’s kitchen uninvited, and then our neighbour had compounded the stupidity by trying to chase her out. The result was a small black cat in a big dark house, coordinates uncertain. Mr Litlove hunted about to no avail, with our neighbour expressing disappointment that Deedee didn’t come when he called (as if!). And eventually they gave it up for the night, hoping she had left the building while they looked.

But by breakfast the next morning, Deedee had not returned home so Mr Litlove waited for the inevitable call about our miscreant child, which came about 9.30. Deedee had been found preening herself behind the dining room curtains and was now in the kitchen, and they couldn’t get her our. Mr Litlove went round again and was successful, for Deedee came rushing breathlessly into the kitchen, telling us excitedly that she had had a big adventure and been very, very brave, and maybe just a little bit stoopid. Then she wolfed a huge breakfast and rolled around in her favourite places until she calmed down. Mr Litlove returned having had to do a lot of apologising. and in need ot pretty much the same kind of therapy. ‘She kept making such strange noises,’ our neighbours had complained. Well, Deedee IS quite a chatty cat but she’s only really mastered the imperative (‘Stroke me!’ ‘Feed me!’ ‘Clear my path to the cat flap!’) so I suppose she probably was hard to understand. Mr Litlove looked grimly at Dexter and said that Deedee had gone one better than him, and what was he going to do about that? Dexter didn’t reply but in his eyes there was a faraway look. We live in mild dread.

As it turns out (and this will probably surprise no one) I live in a permanent state of mild-to-medium dread. Fed up with the perfect storm caused by perimenopause and CFS, I started working with the OHC, a clinic in London that specialises in ME/CFS, and I have finally had some tests. My big anomaly lies with my cortisol level, which is off the charts in places. What was really annoying was that I felt quite good on the day I did the tests and was of the opinion that they would come back fine. But high cortisol over a long stretch of time accounts for most of my symptoms. How to solve this problem? Well, that’s the million dollar question: it’s not easy. Diet, meditation, maximum rest and peace and quiet that sort of thing. I need to gain the sort of serenity I’ve never really possessed. Suggestions on postcards, please.

I’m working with a nutritionist who is okay but a bit scatty. Before our first interview I filled in a 16-page questionnaire and wrote a medical and personal history worthy of a Pulitzer. In our first skype call it was clear she had read neither. When I told Mr Litlove he said, ‘You should have asked her if she’d like to take a moment to read through the papers.’ I stared at him and told him that was brilliant and it had never occurred to me. He said modestly that he had learned one or two little things in his 25 years of conducting meetings. The nutritionist and I are at a bit of an impasse as we must move to the next level of tests but are undecided as to what they should be. I think my hormones are all to blame and want to have my estrogen metabolism checked; the nutritionist is longing for me to have parasites (I so do not). I am supposed to get arbitration from my GP who, as a matter of professional dignity, will undoubtedly disagree with both of us. It’s too hot for any of it.

But like the good girl I am, I go to bed nice and early and lie there listening to audio books, summoning inner calm. A couple of nights ago, as I was doing just this, the most extraordinary noise suddenly erupted directly above my head. It sounded like the extractor fan had gone berserk, or an old strimmer in the loft had leapt to ghostly new life. It was the kind of noise that propelled me off the bed, exclaiming, what the hell is that? I called for Mr Litlove who normally has short shrift for the strange noises I hear, but even he found this one disturbing. He went up in the loft, where all was quiet, and then moved towards the back of the house, feeling the ceilings as the noise carried on in staccato bursts. I had just asked him if he thought it came from outside, and he had said no, when there was a knock on the door.

Mr Litlove went down and opened it and all I could hear was some guy saying he was so very, very sorry. And then Mr Litlove went for his shoes again. He called up to me as he went past – there was a father and son on our doorstep apologising because their drone had got stuck on our roof. Who could have guessed that? Apparently they’d been fitting it with new batteries when it had come to life, completely out of control, and flown madly away down the street. It was lodged on our roof and Mr Litlove offered our stepladder. He said the first time was amusing, the second time he would be shorter with them and if there was a third time, it was staying there. The father hastily promised we would never see it again. The next morning, they came back with a bottle of wine as an apology, which was very sweet and as I said, entirely unnecessary. I told them I fully intended to dine out on the story for weeks to come. It’s so 21st century to have someone at your door saying, please may we have our drone back.

Yesterday we were in the garden, trying to brush Deedee (don’t ask) when we heard the strange noise again. I looked up and high in the sky above us, twinkling in the brilliance of the sunlight, was the oddest contraption I’d ever seen, a fine metal cat’s cradle flitting about. We stood up and waved at it while it hovered uncertainly over our garden. And then it flew away.

 

Of Workshops and Kittens

So ages ago, I promised you the saga of Mr Litlove’s new workshop and now that he is finally in and preparing for Open Studios once again, I think it’s safe to employ hindsight. In the last episode of Tales From Litlovia, we had decided not to move house but to extend the single garage where Mr Litlove works. We found an architect in the village who drew us up a plan and said he knew a builder who was semi-retired but liked this kind of groundwork job. Let us call him Dave. We were now in, ooh let me see, early November? And Dave apparently had no trouble working over Christmas, in fact he loved to work over Christmas! So, terrific. I had fantasies of calling Dave in from the garden to have a spot of Christmas dinner and Mr Litlove, with great reluctance, started emptying the contents of his garage in readiness.

Never before had I understood the extent to which my husband is a pack rat. I mean no disrespect, after all, I myself have a handful of books about the place. But the amount of stuff that came out of that single garage was mind-blowing. Mr Litlove filled the entire conservatory to eye level and still it kept coming. Every stray piece of wood or metal that had ever passed below Mr Litlove’s pretty little nose had been squirreled away ‘just in case’ and we were looking at the fruits (or nuts) of twenty-one years of dedicated squirreling. The wood piled up on the lawn and was propped in great stacks against the garage wall. Mr Litlove was even surprising himself. But eventually the flow steadied and ceased and December came and the garage was empty and ready, and of course there were no builders.

Dave turned out to like working over Christmas so much that he went on a long and lovely Mediterranean holiday until a few days into the New Year. And then January came and went while they were working on a tricky job elsewhere. To look back now and think we were fussing about whether or not he’d ordered the steel in January. Ha! Finally towards the end of February the builders arrived, just as we were looking into the possibility of finding someone else to do the work. The first day they came there were three of them, likely lads one and all, but by the end of the first day they were reduced to two. Apparently, one had been sent home for having ‘too many opinions’ which was quite fascinating. Was it really the quantity of opinions that was the problem, or their content? I would have loved Mr Litlove to find out, but Dave was a talker and Mr Litlove was already drowning under a tide of anecdote. They went through Dave’s complicated romantic and medical histories and moved seamlessly into a chapter on Great Exploits. This featured, for instance, a story about Dave seeing off a burglar with stealth and one of his collection of sword sticks. I was admittedly cynical. But at least when I lay in my bath in the morning and heard the dulcet tones of Dave’s voice floating over the garden towards me, I knew it was a good day because the builders had turned up.

Because of course, they hardly ever did. See you Wednesday! Dave would say cheerily, by which he really meant, see you next Monday. Maybe. And when they were here, I had never before seen a wall rise so slowly. Dave placed a brick at a time as if arranging jewellery in a shop window. The plants in the garden were growing quicker. Where are Polish builders when you need them? I would wail, and then amuse myself by sending emails to friends in America, telling them I’d found the perfect crew to build that Mexican wall of theirs. March came and went.

Now March was an interesting month on many levels. I think it was the first ever month of my life in which I had to enforce a news blackout because watching it was beyond painful. i did some stockpiling, mostly the heavy duty eye gels that get me through the day, all of which come from Europe. of course. But also tinned tomatoes and sardines and loo roll because Annabel said it was a good idea. Little did I know then that it was all a rehearsal for next October. Brexit seems to me to be a problem caused by insufficient reality checks, and the inevitable outcome of trying to push through a bad idea whilst pretending it is a good one. You know when you were a kid and you told a lie to get out of a tight spot? Only the lie just made the situation worse and worse until you knew the truth was going to come out and then you really didn’t want it to? Well, that’s pretty much where our politicians are now. The overinflated fantasy of Brexit is going to run around on the uncompromising rocks of reality at some point, and there’s a scale from bad to apocalyptic along which it might land. Well, my friends, reason and compassion are the only things that can save us in this life. However much people might love their outrage and anger and hatred, they get us precisely nowhere.

But on a brighter note, we did find one solution to a vexing problem.  You may remember that we had new kittens last spring? Dexter and Deedee. Well, last summer Deedee developed an alarming health issue.  She began to scratch great wounds in her fur and to develop odd swellings – in her eyelid, on her cheekbone or a paw. The two seemed to be related but we weren’t sure how and at first there were all sorts of frightening diseases that might have been its cause. When she was old enough we sent her for blood tests, and these fortunately came back clear. There is always amusement to be had even in worrying situations. I will never forget the moment when the vet rang up and, on Mr Litlove answering the call, asked cheerily, ‘Am I talking to Deedee’s daddy?’ This threw Mr Litlove somewhat, but once over the first shock of paternity, he took to the role quite willingly.

Deedee the fearless adventurer

So after all this, we understood that the problem was an allergy of some kind, but what it was we couldn’t discover, and regularly Deedee would puff up with what the vet called her ‘comedy leg’. Well, finally at the end of winter we made her a ruinously expensive appointment with the consultants at the vet school in Cambridge. They initially prescribed a special diet – kibble made of pea and venison, if you please which had Mr Litlove shaking his head in disbelief. In Mr Litlove’s cat philosophy, Whiskers is the food of the devil but any other cheapo options really ought to be fine. Now of course the cats adore this kibble and refuse anything else. But that didn’t do the trick. Finally, Deedee had a course of steroids, and these cleared the problem up immediately and – I am touching wood fervently here – so far she hasn’t had it back. Will we ever understand what happened during those ten months? I doubt it, but I can’t tell you the relief to see her fully-furred and normal shaped again. She is such a darling little cat.

And so, thus distracted, the workshop crawled towards completion. Finally over Easter towards the end of April, Mr Litlove could get the electrician in and, the great moment he’d been waiting for, his new machines arrived. This turned into a lovely party, as the lorry driver’s tail gate bust and he had to hang out with Mr Litlove and the electrician all morning until his brother turned up to fix it. The lorry driver had voted Brexit but was going to live in Thailand later that year with his Thai wife. I just mention this in passing. Finally by the end of April Mr Litlove had his new workshop and was very pleased with his expanded space. In fact, I fully expect curtains to appear at the windows and a little plaque with the number ’10A’ upon it. Oh, but of course there was one more thing – the new bi-fold doors that are to go on the front. Mr Litlove swore blind to me that there was no way he could order them until he had the exact measurements to send. He finally got around to doing that in May.

We’re still waiting for the doors.

 

So Where Were We?

Goodness, how time passes! The last update I wrote on this blog, we were putting our house on the market and were all set to start a new venture somewhere that we could have a bigger workshop for Mr Litlove and possibly some sort of writing retreat or artists studios for me to run, yes?

Well, none of that happened.

So let’s go back to where we were last summer, with an unnaturally tidy house (‘Did you stash it all in the car?’ the estate agent who came to take photos asked us. ‘That’s where most people put their stuff.’) a grand plan and, in actual fact, a criminal bear in the boot of my car. In retrospect, August probably wasn’t the best time to put the house on the market, and an August in the run up to Brexit was even less promising. We did have some people come and look, but for the most part they were what Mr Litlove termed ‘tyre kickers’. Showing your house to strangers is an awful business, and we also had two new kittens who were brim-full of curiosity and wanted to do the showing for us. This problem was summed up in the moment when I was making small talk with one woman while Dexter edged in and started to lick her toes. How cute, I thought, until I saw the woman’s face and had to drop kick the kitten gently into the garden. I was having a bad day that day in any case. I’d managed to chat gaily about my son having thrown over his chemistry degree in favour of training as a counsellor to licked-toes woman’s husband, who turned out to have been a chemistry professor all his life. But for me the epitome of house viewing awfulness was the elderly Chinese man who came in complaining about the road outside our house. We live opposite the village green, and the main road through the village passes in front of us. We have a queue of cars at the lights at 8 in the morning and 5 in the evening, and the buses to town go through, but it’s just a village, and so mostly it’s quiet enough that children from the school and ducks from the pond wander across it. Anyhow, this man came in saying how busy and loud it was and weren’t we bothered by the noise? As we were standing inside the house in my study, I asked how loud the noise seemed to him. At which point he threw his hands in the air. He was hard of hearing, he told me, how should he know?

So August rolled into September and the estate agents said, ah now the market will pick up again after the summer holidays. But what happened was the complete opposite. We had no viewings whatsoever in September. And it didn’t seem to be just us – the same story was happening across our region. First houses were selling, and houses over the million mark. But all of us four-beds in the middle of the market were stagnating in the economic uncertainty. By now we had had too long to think about the house we’d been wanting to buy. Mr Litlove was very unsure about it, and there was no certainty we’d get planning permission for either his workshop or my retreats. By the middle of October, we’d only had one more viewing, and by a family who thought they ought to downsize but didn’t really want to. We were starting to feel very uncomfortable with the process. Neither of us could get on and do any work because we seemed to be waiting all the time for this miracle to happen, a buyer to arrive, and there was no sign that one would.

One day I said to Mr Litlove, why don’t you have the car port? If we incorporated the car port into the garage, you’d have double the workshop space you have now. So we got an architect in to discuss it, and it seemed viable and the thought of being out of the range of the circling dementors of a stagnant housing market was so tempting. Plus, it was killing Mr Litlove to be that tidy all the time. With many a mixed emotion, we took the house off the market, and the saga of building the workshop extension began.

But you’ll be wanting to know what happened to Big Beery, right? Well to begin with I kept forgetting that he was in the boot of the car, until I popped the trunk to put the supermarket shopping away. Then there he lay in all his disreputableness, as other shoppers wheeling their carts past threw us strange looks. So I moved him into the back seat of the car, which was nicer than the boot, but increasingly cold as winter approached. When Mr Litlove and I got into the car together, we kept having the same old argument. I’d say, couldn’t we move Big Beery back into the house for a bit? It seemed such a shame to leave an old bear out here in the damp and the cold. But Mr Litlove was adamant. ‘We were only supposed to be housing him while he got back on his feet,’ he’d say. ‘If you let him back in we’ll never get rid of him’ I’d protest that it was hard for him, when even the charity shops wouldn’t take him. Then Mr Litlove would complain that he wasn’t even trying and all he did all day was sit drinking cans of Stella from the Co-op in the village. About this point in the conversation Big Beery would often attempt to defend himself with his own brand of lobbying, and Mr Litlove would reply that wherever we were going, we could go past the council tip on the way there. That would shut us all up.

As I write this, Big Beery remains in the back seat of the car. If you listen carefully, you can probably hear him belch.

Also I don’t think I’ve told you about our new kittens, Dexter and Deedee. They came from different litters but they might as well have come from different planets. Dexter is a big, fat, fluffy bundle of schnuggles, a laze in the sun cat, a beautiful tabby with kohl-rimmed eyes but oh so dumb. Deedee is a whippetty black ninja with crazy golden bat eyes and relentless curiosity. They are very bound to one another but in an odd, mismatched sort of way. Now the days are lengthening they love the early evening hours when they head out on cat business in the neighbourhood together. Deedee scampers ahead, gesturing wildly and talking nineteen to the dozen about tactics and strategies, while Dexter plods alongside her, saying every now and then, ‘But Deedee, I don’t want to fight him.’

However, it’s not just Pogo, the big marmalade tom, whose animosity has been aroused. Our next door neighbours, who professed their pleasure that we were staying, are probably changing their minds now, as unfortunately, the cats have taken to using their garden as a toilet. It’s a lovely garden and if I were obliged to go outside, I’d probably choose it too. But our elderly neighbour was incensed when, having risen at five one morning, he looked out of his windows only to see Dexter squatting serenely in the middle of his vegetable patch. Just the other day he came to fetch Mr Litlove to complain to him about an especially awkward discovery. I remember that he’d paid quite a lot to have his driveway gravelled in such a way that the little stones are thinly glued to the surface, providing an easy upkeep version of a raked zen garden. Well, one of the cats had done a poo smack in the middle of the driveway and had evidently been surprised while scratching to find that the gravel did not shift to cover it as they expected. Mr Litlove said that he did feel a bit guilty about that one. We’ve provided earthy areas and shady areas in our own garden for the cats, but if you’ve ever owned one, you’ll know that they do not take instruction well. Personally I think our neighbour has missed a trick by letting the cats know that he is so displeased. Disapproval is, for them, an open invitation to ever more provocative acts of defecation. The only thing he could do is, I think, to beam appreciation on them and tell them they are behaving exactly as he wishes. That can sometimes cause a u-turn in feline policy.

Well, look at me rambling on. This post is already too long and I haven’t told you half the news. And the next one must be a review I have promised.  I will cross my fingers that my eyes hold up well enough for me to post a bit over the summer. In the meantime, if you’re reading something really good (that’s available on audiobook), do let me know.