Tuesday, December 22, 2015


My writing buddy Isha's early morning run
 through Lodi Gardens in New Delhi, India. 
Since moving to America, I have become a fan of Facebook. I love checking in at the start of the day and finding posts from friends and family about their exploits. Many of these include running in some shape or form. Two of my brother-in-laws are experienced marathon-runners, another - Stephen Corke - will be running the London marathon in May to raise funds for Arthritis Care (if you'd like to sponsor him, please let me know!). Photos are posted from training sessions across the world, and I've cheered friends and family along when races post virtual real-time updates.
My brother-in-law, Sam Ainsley, preparing for the starting line of the
Grindleford Gallop (21 miles, with a 3,000ft ascent), in Derbyshire, UK. 
Since school, I have only participated in one race, although the term 'race' is altogether too impressive a term for the small collection of writers and poets who gathered together at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in August 2015. The course had been sketched out in pen on the back of some recycled sheets of paper and fitted closely into the genre of fiction. Eventually, after heading off in different directions, we reconvened at the Conference Center to discuss and compare our routes. Prizes were given out at random to people whose stories were closest to the 4 miles they were meant to have run.
Su Nutton, one of my best friends from my school days, after completing
 the London marathon. She lives and trains in the UAE. 
I take pride in the running achievements of my friends and family, and celebrate their every success. After my accident it seemed I would be unlikely to run again: there were concerns about the impact on my neck and the risks associated spinal cord damage which has left me with limited sensation down my left side. For a while I worked with a physical therapist - let's call him the Doctor - who voiced concerns about my involvement in any physical activity. During each hourly session I was required to lie on the therapy couch and tense my left hamstring repeatedly while the Doctor told me my body was out-of-synch, unbalanced, and non-symmetrical. He is a large man with a booming, authoritative voice; he wears expensive waistcoats and likes to put a lot of letters after his name. Perhaps I would be there still if I hadn't met another of his patients in the waiting room who whispered to me, in a deeply worried voice, that she had to attend twice weekly physical therapy sessions because her body was out-of-synch, unbalanced and dangerously non-symmetrical.
After a break of 8 years from her marathon running, my writing buddy Sharon is racing again. Here, she has just crossed the finish line of a 5K in New York, her first in many years. Since I began this blog, she has run in her second.  
I wanted to start running again this summer. We planned a huge family holiday across Europe, and I imagined running with my daughters in cities in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and France, but it didn't go well. For a while it seemed the Doctor was right: I strained my left calf and struggled with the increase in the pain in my neck. It was tempting to think about returning to the Doctor's couch, from where I could have announced the impossibility of running again. But running isn't easy for any of my friends, wherever they are in the world: they battle injuries and days when they lack motivation, they struggle to fit training sessions into busy lives. Motivated by the Facebook posts and blessed by a little serendipity, I found a formidable trainer called Nakeeya who runs Spartan Races and believes our bodies can be wonderful things. She's doesn't share the Doctor's fascination with my left hamstring, but is interested in how my body can move as a whole, both because of and despite my broken neck and nerve damage.
My trainer and friend, Nakeeya, doing what she loves. 
Recently, I've started running by stealth. I put my running shoes by the front door in the evening so that, in the chaos of the morning, they will end up on my feet. I trick myself into thinking my running bras are the only ones which fit well. I put my jeans away in their drawers and leave my running pants on the floor by my bed so that they become the things I'm most likely to wear. And then, after dropping the children off at school, I find myself on the dog walk fully kitted out for a run and, even if my neck hurts and I feel stiff and sore, I find it easy to convince myself to just run a few strides. And then a few more. And so it goes.

I love running. I run for the sense of space between the foot falls when I am suspended in the air; I run so that the sounds of the world become muted by the rhythm of my breathing; I run because it slows my thinking until I hold only the thread of a single idea in my mind (perhaps other runners can think about lots of things when they're running - I can't. When I try, I fall over.) I run because I love the sensation of having been thoroughly cleansed, inside and out, at the end of a run; and I run because sometimes there are moments of magic. This morning, I ran through the woods and a red-tailed hawk swooped above me through the trees: just me, the dog, and a red-tailed hawk. We were all looking for something, I guess, and while I love seeing it written into the faces posted on Facebook, it feels great to be out there looking for myself.

Monday, August 24, 2015


He wasn't with us for long: a foster child, a troubled teen, a child who can't read or write, a future statistic of poverty and social exclusion.
I'm required by law to keep his identity secret, but his story belongs to children whose names begin with every letter of the alphabet. Today I'll call him J.

The mother is a drug addict.
The step-father is a drug addict.
The father is a drug addict.
The grandmother is a drug addict.
(More than 10% of Vermont's population are drug addicts: the number has doubled in the past ten years. The most common route into drug abuse begins with pain meds prescribed by one's doctors and ends with heroin. It is cheaper to buy heroin in this state than marijuana).

The mother was and is and might always be abused by the step father.
(Among other things J's stepfather has: burnt down J's mother's house; destroyed everything the family owned; broken restraining orders which should have kept him away from the family as they moved from motel to motel; abused J.)
J's mother runs away. Goes back. Runs away. Goes back.
She always goes back.
We cannot be surprised that she, in turn, abuses her children (the oldest is old enough to leave home, the youngest is a baby).
Social workers removed J from his mother's home several years ago. They sent him to live with his father.
The father is a violent man.
(Among other things J's father has: smashed everything in J's room; smashed everything J thought was precious; smashed J's teeth so that they are still broken in his mouth.)
Social workers removed J from his father's house over a year ago. They sent him to live with his grandmother.
J does not speak of the abuse he suffered at his grandmother's hands but, after the court hearing, she became the only family member he is not allowed to see in the future.
J is now one of 1326 children who are in the custody of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in Vermont.
That is 0.2% of the state's population. Each day, DCF try to find 60 new foster placements.

The anger inside me is not for J's family. The mother is a victim of domestic violence and the actions of each of the family members suggest they also had dysfunctional childhoods which have damaged them almost beyond repair. (I include 'almost' in that sentence for my own sanity: because if there is no hope of repair, then what can we offer to families like these?) Blaming them is as futile as picking the scab off a wound. In all likelihood, J will one day treat his children in the same way and what will happen then for the love I have for him now?

And the anger I feel tonight is not directed at the social worker responsible for J's case, even though he has given us a long litany of broken promises and guilt trips, even though he told us J would only stay with us for an emergency 3 day stay but had still failed to arrange a new placement for the boy 3 weeks later. The social worker knew today was the very latest, the absolute latest, the ultimate latest we could host the boy, but this afternoon he stood in front of J and said it was a shame I no longer wanted him in our home.

The anger I feel tonight is not even directed at the woman with the dark flowing hair and the expensive bike who chatted to me in the park afterwards. She listened, head slightly cocked to one side because she was an 'artist', while I said I was sad because I'd needed to end my foster son's placement. She told me about two of the women at her school who fostered and who would never send a foster child to another home: even if their oldest daughter was about to start high school the next day and the weeks ahead were dominated with school meetings; even if the foster son's special school was an hour's drive from their home; even if their husband worked away from home and their desks were covered in drafts of a novel they hoped to complete. These women, she told me, were angels.
'Have you ever fostered?' I asked.
'I've thought about it a lot,' she said, 'and I think I would be very good about it but I had a cancer scare last year and I'm an artist.'
'I'm sorry,' I said.
'It turned out to be nothing,' she said, raising one exquisitely plucked eyebrow, 'but my son is sensitive.'
Then she shrugged and tossed her beautiful dark hair and got onto her beautiful bike and cycled away, no doubt condemning me for the damage I have done to J by ending his time with us.

No, I'm not angry with any of them tonight, but I am angry.
I am angry with the lack of support given to foster families, the shortfalls in funding which deny foster children the therapeutic help and support they so badly need, the deficiencies in planning and the excessive workloads placed upon social workers.  
I am angry because there is a direct correlation between children who are abused and neglected and the homeless and prison populations of this country; and I am angry with the inevitability of it all. If a child is abused and frightened, stripped of self-esteem and hope, denied security and safety, then we cannot be surprised when they fail to grow into well functioning members of society.
I am angry because the State budgets $50,000 a year to keep an inmate in prison, and only $30,000 a year to support a child in DCF state custody. An additional $20,000 might provide J with mentoring and counselling and - Goddammit - some chance at having a bit of childhood before he becomes another alphabet letter among the prison population.
And I am angry because J has done nothing wrong. He has done nothing to deserve the life he is living; nothing to warrant the neglect and abuse and violence he has both suffered and witnessed; nothing to earn him a position among the ranks of the unlucky. His story is no different from so many others and no child deserves that.

I don't write to assuage my guilt - I will do that alone - but I write to share the anger which tastes like sulphur on my tongue.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"It's been a funny old year..."

When I was growing up my family used to watch a sit-com called 'Open All Hours'. At the end of each episode the main character, Arkwright, reflected upon the events of the day while clearing away his shop front. "It's been a fer-funny old day," he'd say, "And that's a lot of sky to be a shopkeeper under." The comedy documented the minutiae of life in a world where very little happened: the occasional eccentric customer, a cash register which always trapped people's fingers, the passionate unrequited love Arkwright held for Nurse Gladys.

I've got a touch of the Arkwright's this evening.

On May 25th 2014 I turned 41. I was living in an apartment in Cambridge, MA, just up the road from Harvard; I rode everywhere on my big orange cargo bike and worked on my second novel for at least 3 hours a day as well as producing a regular column for Spare Change News, the local homeless newspaper. Back then, I was nearly 5'9".

Now I'm only just 5'7", I drive everywhere in an SUV, and my drafts of novels gather dust in a corner of my study because I no longer have the endurance to parent my two girls and my foster son and to sit down and write books. I live on the side of a mountain in Vermont, a long way from colleges and cycle paths and coffee shops and the person I used to be.

I love Vermont and I am happy to be here. I love watching the mountain change her colors through the course of each day; I love the evening chorus of barred owls and blue jays and the constant two-note calling of the chickadees; I love the smells of the pine forest and the meadows and the metallic spring rush of the river. This past year I have been more aware of seasonal changes than ever before: the flourish of autumn, the colors of fresh snowfall, the skid and slip of spring mud on dirt roads, the sudden explosion of plants and weeds, the promise of fireflies and blueberries in July.

I've also been more aware of time passing because of the accident. It's 11 months since I broke my neck, 10 months since I re-learnt to walk, 9 months since two of my dearest friends provoked me, with laughter and art and endless camp fires, out of the dark place which had begun to surround me. The bouts of rage and hopelessness associated with my traumatic brain injury began to abate around 8 months ago and for several months my recovery rocketed along. And then it seemed to stop. This isn't unique to me - anyone with a major injury notices colossal improvements to begin with, if they are lucky, but then things plateau as any improvement become so minuscule as to be almost impossible to notice.

I can live with being 2 inches shorter than I used to be. It's unfortunate my head now topples forward slightly like a little old lady, but it gives me a good view of my feet and that's useful because I don't have many nerve-endings down there now. I can live with the low level of pain which accompanies me through each day and I've been working hard to regain the strength I used to have (I've started training with my daughter's taekwondo class and I've hired a personal trainer to try and remind me what my shoulders used to feel like.) The thing I don't like living with is the loss of my "cycle-ability". I've tried (every month I try!) but I can't ride my bikes. After a few hundred yards, I feel as though someone is drilling into the base of my skull (which, given the amount of metalwork I now have in there, is probably a reasonable sensation). I've blogged about this before and generally I don't like to complain, but I went to see a new doctor a month ago. We'd not met before. In the US, people have annual medical examinations and my new doctor eyeballed the notes from my 2014 annual examination - how were my shin splints, she asked?  Had I followed the doctor's advice and cut down on my running? How were my eyes? Did I have any new medical concerns?

When I talked about the things which had happened in the past year she was flabbergasted, and when I told her about my despair about not being able to ride my bike she started to cry. I started to apologize for sounding ungrateful, but she was already on the phone. Vermont is a small state, her friend is the Director of Occupational Therapy, a friend of her friend is a man called Eric - he's a physiatrist who is also a keen cyclist. He likes a challenge.

This evening, Arkwright-like, I have been tidying away my daughters' bikes from the front lawn and reflecting on things. In the shed are the bikes I used to ride, the bikes Nathan rides, the tandem which Nathan's grandmother bought us for our wedding, the bike neighbors generously gave us so that our foster son would also have something to ride. Eric is working on a bike solution for a newly-42 year old woman who lives on the side of a mountain with a broken neck. He's hopeful and his solution will be a birthday present to myself.

"It's been a fer-funny old year and that's a whole lot of sky to be a Zoe under."

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

And then there were 5...

As a family, we've never been people to let the grass grow under our feet. We like change, we thrive on the new, we believe in grasping every opportunity with both hands and shaking it, just to see what might happen. We've also always known we have more than enough love to go around and enough space in our lives to welcome another person or two into our family. I learnt this when Iola was born: we didn't need to more carefully ration out the love we had so everyone had an equal amount, we just had more love because there was Iola. That's the way love works, isn't it. Love isn't quantifiable, it just is, and the more you throw out into the universe, the more you seem to get in return.
One of the reasons we bought a bigger house than we needed was that we imagined sharing it one day with someone who needed a home. I've wanted to foster for a long time but I wanted to wait until the girls were settled and resilient and totally on board with the idea.

I used to write a regular column for Spare Change News, New England's homeless newspaper. I based it on vendors' life stories. Over coffee (and normally donuts, because this was Boston and all the best conversations take place over donuts) vendors would tell me about their lives. Nearly all of them had spent at least part of their childhoods in care. It doesn't matter which country you are in - the UK, the US, Australia - the statistical trends are the same: children who have been in care are more likely to have lower educational successes, higher likelihoods of homelessness and poverty and drug use, and far higher risks of poor health. Newspaper stories tend to look at the adults in this picture: the people in prison, the drug addicts, the shadowy criminals whom we rarely see but who are the reason we lock our doors at night; but I think, instead, we should be looking at the children who don't have safe, permanent homes and who become likely to grow into these people. That there are national shortages of foster families - in the UK, in the US, in Australia - correlates with young people growing towards marginalized, disaffected lives. Can you imagine as a child not having any kind of security? Not having a hot meal each day, not having clothes to wear which fit you, not having anyone who cares whether you go to school or not, not having a safe place to sleep at night? And sometimes this is a short-term problem: the family has faced a crisis and just needs a short period of support to get back into a position where they can provide the love, security and comfort a child needs; and sometimes the problems are more chronic and require a greater period of support or an alternative solution. But the bottom line for me is that it's not the child's fault. I've never seen a baby who is evil, I've never met a child who is truly 'bad', I don't understand why some children have fabulous childhoods with all that love and material stuff and great opportunities, while other children's lives can be defined by how much they have suffered. Rather than worrying that our young people are growing into people we don't want them to become, perhaps we should be questioning the kinds of care we offer to the children who are vulnerable within our society.

Anyhow, we had our initial conversation with the Department for Children and Families (DCF) a few weeks ago. They looked around the house, talked about fire extinguishers, and listened to the rant I've outlined in the paragraph above. We explained our life plan, such as it was - sometime in the Fall we might be interested in providing respite fostering to a child around the same age as our own children, mainly at weekends... The DCF people smiled and nodded and ticked boxes on their paperwork and it was all very pleasant. Less than 72 hours later they telephoned to tell us about K. K needed a home. Immediately. 

We said 'yes', of course. We said, 'Bring him over.' We said, 'If he wants to be here, he's welcome.' And it's a short term thing because he's one of the lucky ones whose family loves him to bits and can't wait to be able to have him back home with them. But that's the funny thing about love, because our hearts have opened to him too. It feels as though he's always been here. He's the one to make Iola laugh when she needs her vaccinations by plonking his baseball cap on her head so that she can't see; he's the one to jolly Maya along when she's in a bad mood because her new braces mean she can't play her French Horn as well as she used to. He's taught the dog a long list of new tricks; he's given the chickens new names; he's rebuilt the tree house and beaten Nathan at pool; according to Iola, who knows about these things, he swims like a killer whale, and he fills the house with his catchphrase - "I've got this!"

He's not a perfect kid, and we're all breathing a sigh of relief over that because who is? But we love having him here while life straightens itself out and maybe, if we're lucky, it might make a little difference to his life. It's certainly made a big difference to our lives, but then - as I've already said - that's the way love works, isn't it.  

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Curious Incident of the Sirens in the Night-time

There was another winter weather advisory last night - snow storms and strong winds. For several months now Vermont has been breaking records for the lowest temperatures ever recorded in the State. Because the snow isn't melting we have several feet on the ground and the trails through our woods are almost impassable.

Karla, my beautiful Mexican friend, was very worried when she learnt we were moving to Vermont. Did we know about "de Narcos", she asked. Vermont, she had heard, was chock-full of crack labs and drug dealers.

Since moving here in May 2014, the only State Troopers (cops) we have seen are parked near Stop signs to catch the people who don't stop, and parked on roadside verges to catch the drivers who are speeding. They're nice guys who spend a lot of time in their cars.

Last night I was woken, just after falling asleep, by the sound of police sirens. Lots of police sirens. A half-thought passed through my sleep-fuddled mind: isn't it great to not live in the city anymore. When we were based in Cambridge, MA, the fire station was at the end of our road and every night was filled with the sounds of emergency vehicles. In Cambridge I would go back to sleep because the sirens were normal, but now we're the last house before the road peters out into a winter car parking area and there has never been a need for the police to come here.

I hoped my neighbors were safe, I hoped there wasn't an electrical emergency, I hoped there hadn't been a car crash...

I rang our nearest (and dearest) neighbors, who were fine.
I checked our electrics, which were fine.
I looked out the window at the flashing blue lights and listened to the sirens wailing.
And then I thought, 'de narcos'. Why else would there be so many cops? So many cars? My imagination, already warmed up by my early-sleep-dreaming, ran ahead: right now the police would be intercepting a drug deal and 'de narcos' would be running through the cover of the forest to wreak havoc upon my house and family, because where else would they go when a blizzard was blowing and the temperatures were well below freezing?

I'm not easily frightened. Most weeknights I'm here alone with the children. I have escorted snakes out of our downstairs loo, chased mice from the cellar, given the raccoon his marching orders when he took up a position in the tree outside our kitchen window. When we've lived in cities (too many cities to list here) I have worked with people at the margins of society: the dispossessed, homeless, unemployable, drug addicted and mentally ill. I've spent time with those we label as 'scary' and 'dangerous' and I've always been committed to listening to the voices of the broken people who stand behind the scary 'bogeymen' our society makes out of them.

But, last night, I was terrified at the thought of a whole tribe of 'de narcos' staggering across our blizzard-blasted meadow while the police stared hopelessly at 'de narco's' abandoned cars. I phoned 911...

... which might sound extreme to anyone except the person who answered the phone.

'What is your emergency?' asked the woman with the Vermont accent.
'I don't know if it is an emergency,' I began.
'Oh, you're at 122 Mountain Road, aren't you,' she said, as though we'd just bumped into one another at the supermarket. Either her computer had immediately tracked the number and location of the phone I was using, or we had already met and she recognized my English accent.
'Yeah, there are lots of police cars outside my house,' I began, wondering if she might understand my sudden fear of 'de narcos'.
'There are,' she reassured me, 'You need to call the State Troopers,' She gave me their number.

The state troopers' office was expecting my call.
'Sorry to disturb you,' the telephonist said to me, which was a bit weird because I was about to say the same thing to her.
She explained a skier had got lost on the mountain. When he phoned 911 his cell phone signal showed he was lost on our land. The police cars were blaring their sirens and flashing their lights so that he could use them as a beacon.
'Is there anything I can do to help?' I asked.
'Switch on your house lights.'
I switched on every spot light, lamp and light switch in our house until we were bright as a Christmas tree and then I phoned the State Troopers back to find out if they needed anything else: tea, coffee, cookies, a warm fire, access to broadband...
They were fine, she told me, they were warm in their cars with their engines running.

My bedroom is on the third floor and looks out towards the woods and the river. I stood there for a while, still in my pyjamas, imagining the poor skier lost in the blizzard. Someone was shining a light in the area where the river creates a boundary to our land, and I imagined the cop wandering along by the edge of the water hoping he wouldn't find a body.

After a while, I phoned the State Trooper again. The telephonist didn't seem quite as pleased to hear from me this time.
'How is the search going?' I asked.
'We're not searching,' she said, and my heart sank. For the skier to have been so close to getting off the mountain and to have not made it. For the skier to have died in our forest, so close to our house.
'I'm so sorry.' The lump in my throat made my voice sound hoarse. 'I've been watching the guy out there and I've been praying and... and... that's just awful.'
'We don't have anyone out there searching,' repeated the phone operator. 'There's no point to us sending our men out in this weather: it would be like hunting for a needle in a haystack. They're ordered to sit in their cars and to wait for the skier to come to them.'

I decided the light I was watching must be the skier. I described his location and the cops brought their cars further up our driveway and parked so their lights angled across the meadow. I stood in the upstairs window, praying and hoping and watching the light pause and flicker and pause and move. Occasionally I checked on the girls, who were sleeping through the whole thing. After a while, I became convinced the light was a reflection from the police cars and I realized I should go downstairs and tell the cops I had been wasting their time. Before I did that, I decided to check on the light myself: if I put on my snow shoes, I could walk across the meadow to the source of the light and find out if it was the skier or a reflection. When you've been scared of the nightmare monster of 'de narcos' parading towards your house, the thought of the forest in a blizzard at night holds no real fear. The cops had been ordered to stay in their cars so there was no-one to help but me and I know the trails down to the forest pretty well. I changed into winter clothes, put on my coat and hat and scarf, picked up my snowshoes and was just letting the cop parked closest to my house know where I was going when the light cleared the forest.
From my whoops and cheers, the skier might have thought he was arriving at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The cop just clicked on his radio and said, 'He's coming out now.'
The man who reached us was in his 60s.
'Been a long day,' commented the cop.
'Yeah,' said the man.
'You cold?' asked the cop.
'No.' The man clicked off one ski with edge of his ski pole. 'My kit's ok for this weather.'
'Hypothermic?' asked the cop.
'No. Just a bit tired,' said the skier.
'Can I get you anything?' I asked, and repeated the list I'd offered to the cops earlier - coffee, tea, whisky, cheese and biscuits, a blazing fire, use of a phone...
'I'm fine,' said the man, taking off his other ski.
'Give you a lift to your car?' asked the cop.
'Thanks,' said the man.

I watched them drive away and, one by one, switched off the lights in my house. I checked on the girls, who were still sleeping, and slowly undressed.
There's something about prayers coming true which always makes me cry.
And there's something about Vermonters which means that whatever happens and however bad it might be, they'll make the minimum of fuss with the minimum of words and then work out how they're going to drive back home.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Monday Morning

It began as a fairly typical Monday morning: Nathan left at silly o'clock (at the start of each week his taxi picks him up at 4 am which, in our past lives, would have constituted Sunday night rather than Monday morning) and I was kept awake by the loud rattle of the furnace. I'm cautious about criticizing my furnace in this blog as it took a long period of industrial (in)action last week, but it shouldn't sound all furious and fired-up during the early hours of the morning: we keep the thermostat turned low while we sleep and heap duvets and blankets on our bed instead.

The moon was stunningly beautiful when I went downstairs to investigate - a crystal edged crescent hanging in the East, with the sky already pale enough to see the outline of the mountains - and the inside of the kitchen windows were also crystal-edged with frost, the olive oil was frozen, and the fresh herbs sat in glasses filled with ice. It took me a little while to make the connection between the panicking furnace, the frozen kitchen contents, and the window which had come loose from its frame when Nathan tried to fasten it shut at some point during the weekend.

By 5.30am, I had taken the window unit to pieces, cleaned off the snow, run my hands under warm water until my fingers would bend again, and refitted the window so that the outside was outside and the inside was inside (and never the twain should meet). By 5.45am, I'd lit the wood-burning stove in the hope it would give the furnace a rest.

The kittens don't like the cold and refuse to go outside. Instead they have transformed my house plants into an assortment of climbing frames and outside toilets, reminiscent of some of the less salubrious playparks we used to live near in London. Before making breakfast, I was cleaning cat shit out of plant pots, sweeping soil off the floor and complaining loudly about my lot in life to the dog. The dog doesn't do well in cold weather either. He's a feisty little rescue dog who likes at least 2 hours exercise a day, but that's simply not possible at the moment so he spends his days barking to go out and barking to come in. Being inside worries him because he knows the chipmunks and glove monsters who live in the trees outside will stage an attack on our house if he doesn't keep them in check; being outside worries him because his feet start to freeze and he can't stop shivering.

So, I was complaining, the dog was barking, the kittens were running amok, the furnace was rattling and then I found the letter. Some of you might know from my earlier blogs that a bone graft was used in the surgery to fuse my broken neck. There among the titanium pins and screws are fragments of bone taken from a donor. I didn't know this was going to happen before my surgery - at that time our thoughts were on living wills and the possibility of my permanent paralysis - but as soon as I learnt about my donor, I wrote a letter to his family expressing my thanks and explaining how significant the donation was towards my recovery. I wrote that it was thanks to the donor that I am able to hold my children and, believe me, I have held my children very close since my fall.

I didn't know my letter had been answered until this morning. I was irritable and cursed as the envelope wouldn't open, assuming it was junk mail promising me a guaranteed lottery win, cheaper car insurance, a new career, free pants, or more of the same when what I really needed was a new furnace, double-glazing, better behaved kittens, and an all weather dog walking solution.

My donor's name was Danny. His wife's letter told me about their 40 year long happy marriage and their 6 grandchildren whom he loved to take fishing, about their foster children and his career as a pipe foreman. She wrote about her gratitude that I'd been able to benefit from his death and said: 'Even though I miss him, I know that a part of him lives on, and for that I am grateful.'

Pat, Danny's wife, also wrote that she'd never really considered the implications of being a donor before and I can understand that. When I die I want my body to be sent off to the nearest teaching hospital so they can admire my surgeon's handiwork, but I know it's important to other family members to be buried in woodland, or cremated and scattered in significant places. Whatever you want though, and I hope it's far off for each and every one of you, perhaps you might want to register as a donor at the US Organ Donor webpage or the NHSBT in the UK.

Sometimes we read things - see things - live things - which create a hiatus in our lives, completing altering our perspective on what is happening around us. It's still Monday morning, the dog is still barking, the kittens continue to cause their own special brand of chaos, the furnace sounds as though it might not make it through the day, and the children were late to school - but I've got this letter in my hand and it reminds me that I'm here, that I'm living it, and that makes everything different.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


I've been taking skiing lessons. Downhill, cross-country, Nordic - it's all the same at the moment as the terrain is necessarily flat while I learn to balance, and balancing is something I now find myself unable to do. The downhill coaches have been supportive (pun unintended, although their support has sometimes been needed whether it's the physical grabbing of my arm to help me back onto my feet or a timely shove to keep me upright), but we've reached a point where they have suggested I might want to consider their Adaptive Ski program. 

 The Adaptive Ski programs in the Smugglers' Notch and Stowe areas are amazing. Specialist instructors use a variety of equipment to enable a wide range of individuals to be able to ski. I've seen blind skiers making rapid descents with their guides, and teams of instructors supporting children in wheelchairs as they come down some of the other slopes. I saw a woman with a zimmer frame/walker type device riding the chair lift, her skis dangling, her walker swaying precariously over my head, and a massive smile on her face as she passed (I'll confess I was relieved she didn't try to wave). Both resorts are fierce believers that skiing should be for everyone. I recently read an interview with the parents of a severely autistic girl who was learning to communicate through skiing: the sense of movement freed something inside her and allowed new kinds of communication to come through. That's amazing, isn't it!

But I'm struggling with the notion that I might be best suited to an adaptive program. I don't think of myself as disabled - but then who does? Perhaps the issue is less to do with how I see myself and more to do with how society sees me and the things I try and do. We live in a society which exists around an assumed polarity between people who are 'normal' (that idealized standard of health and ability, independence and functionality) and people who are 'disabled'. But that's a clumsy definition of disability. The concept of disability (and any physical therapists' attempts to measure it) emerges from an understanding of 'activity limitations'. This begs the question of what kinds of activity it is reasonable for an individual to expect to be able to engage in. The last time my 'disability' was measured by the physical therapist, I scored highly. 

My most recent x-ray, showing the
fusion of 4 vertebrae and the metalwork
I'll wear for the rest of my life.
If you saw me walking down the street, you probably wouldn't notice I have any disabilities. I walk like one of those 'normal' people - unassisted and balanced and able to easily navigate to where I want to go.  Looking in from the outside you won't know about the metalwork in my neck, the absence of sensation in my left foot (a definite benefit in winter weather), the fact that I can no longer remember what's it like to wash my hands without wanting to cry out in pain. I can safely drive a car. Friends sometimes notice I can't turn towards them while we're talking, but it's easy to set up furniture so that's not a big deal. I did meet one woman who told me she knew I'd broken my neck because I moved like an automaton and kept staring at a fixed point in space, but no-one else has said anything so I think she was just being rude. 

My point here is that, in relation to being able to walk about, cook and eat meals, and chauffeur the children, I don't have any real activity limitations. Should that be enough? Shouldn't that be enough? Given that I broke my neck in two places, I suspect many people reading this will say 'Be grateful for what you've got. You're fine!' 

But I live in skiing territory. I watch people of all ages, shapes and sizes wander around in their skiing equipment, with the haze of anticipation of that day's snow in their eyes or the post-ski adrenalin-reds coloring their cheeks. I've joined skiing classes with people of all ages, shapes and sizes and watched them progress from beginner slopes to chair lifts while I ski in circles and fall over. I'm friends with a network of women in their 60s and 70s, the 'Mountain Mamas', who hike during summer months and ski during winter. There is a great sense of celebration when they turn 70 because ski lift tickets are free for seventy year olds and over. I want to ski with them. I'm 41 years old, and I can't. 

In spring, I want to ride my bike. My physical therapist is working with me towards this goal, but he's been pragmatic about the unlikelihood of me being able to ride the bike I have / the bike I want to ride because my neck won't allow the flexion needed for me to look where I'm going. I might be able to ride a 'sit-up-and-beg' bike, but I live on the side of a mountain. City bikes don't do well on steep gradients and mud tracks. 

I bought Nathan a pool table, and I'm able to take easy shots when the balls are near me. If I try to angle myself for a long shot, the pain is so severe that I get double vision. In those circumstances, I tend to aim for the middle of the 'two' balls and hope no-one notices the difference, then I make an excuse and say I'd prefer to be doing my knitting.

In summer, I want to get back in a kayak and explore Lake Champlain. I've always been a fairly good kayaker - I have good upper body strength and the skills have always come easily to me. My surgeon has told me I might be able to kayak for up to an hour at a time, but I'll pay for it the next day. 'Paying for it' is medical speak for more pain. I have had 5 completely pain free days since breaking my neck. I no longer expect to have a 'pain-free' day when I wake up in a morning. I used to imagine all day kayak trips with my daughters and Nathan, followed by camping out on one of the islands. It's a nice daydream, but probably needs to be shelved next to the one where I can sing like Nina Simone. 

I don't mean to sound sorry for myself because I'm not. I'm glad to be alive and I feel tremendously fortunate to have the wonderful life I am able to live. But I am learning to recognize I have limitations, that I'm not going to be able to easily pick up many of the things I was able to do before my fall. 

There is a conversation which has recurred a lot over the past few months. People who know me a little and know of my accident look at me with eyes filled with compassion and say, 'Are you better now?' 
What answer can I give? If better means back to 'normal', back to how I was before the fall, then no. I'm not better and never will be. But then, as another friend recently pointed out, 'normal' is a setting on the tumble drier. 
Perhaps the better question should be 'Are you happy?' And the answer is unequivocally 'yes, I'm happy and I'm fortunate and I love my life...' but I wish I'd bloody well taken skiing lessons last year rather than waiting until now.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


I've been wanting to write a blog about how it feels to live in Vermont in winter. I thought it would be easy to describe, but the words 'cold' and 'freezing' don't really do justice to what it feels like. Winter in Vermont isn't just cold, it's...
Cold enough to bring a priest to his knees
Several summers ago, we met an Irish priest who now lives in Ontario. He was on a houseboat, we were on a houseboat. He and his friend were very accomplished at navigating their boat, we were not. We followed them into a lock gate and I tried to copy the easy grace with which he wrapped his rope around the bollard. After I'd dropped the rope and we'd collided, we fell into conversation. He loved life in Ontario, he told us. There was nothing quite like a brightly shining sun in a vivid blue sky to make one feel God's benevolence and loving kindness. He particularly loved how the sun shone during winter and how that contrasted with his dreary memories of Irish winters. Sunny winter days made him feel glad to be alive.

Two lock gates later, our conversations had become more personal and he made a different confession. There had been a day during his first Ontario winter when he had nearly died. He'd left the house - no doubt eulogizing about the bright blue sky and bright yellow sun - and started to walk to the corner store. The store was only a few blocks from his house - no big deal, he'd thought. He was lucky that neighbors rescued him, although he couldn't remember that happening. He described his thoughts screeching to a halt inside his head, and said the next thing he knew was that he was lying on someone's sofa thanking God for saving his fingers, his toes, his nose.
'Always wrap up well,' he warned us as we said our goodbyes, 'And always wear a hat and scarf.'
Cold enough to make your eyeballs hurt
I understand the priest better now than I did when I first heard that story. I understand the temptation to slip outside without going through the palaver of finding your gloves, your hat, your scarf... I understand how easy it is to persuade yourself that it's not that cold because the sun is shining and the sky is blue. I know how the first step out of the door supports that illusion because you carry some of the warmth from the house with you.

It's on the second or third step that you begin to notice your chest burning from the cold. A few steps more and filaments of ice begin to form on your nasal hairs. It hurts to blink because your eyeballs are beginning to freeze.


When it's cold in Vermont, your eyeballs begin to freeze.

Cold enough to wreck your car
Not having money enough to build a garage (and having been foolish enough to move into a house without one) we bought a portable version. It arrived in a large cardboard box and looks a bit like a tent: a huge swathe of canvas, some guy ropes and some very long tent pegs. The instructions are straightforward and we didn't think it would be a big deal to put the thing up. We meant to do it in summer, but with one thing and another we didn't remember until it was November and then it was too late.

It's worth a quick digression here to explain what I mean by 'too late'. When we moved in, our neighbors had an old horse which had been in their family for nearly 30 years. The children and the grandchildren had all learned to ride on that horse. The family loved it. We loved it and used to pop by the field to feed it carrots. The family were worried the horse was too old to survive another Vermont winter so, in October, they shot it. It was the only way they could be sure the horse could be buried in their garden. Having tried to put the tent pole from a portable garage into the ground in November, I realize why our neighbors didn't keep the horse alive for a few more weeks.

Because our portable garage remains folded up in a box in the basement, the car takes a fair bit of time to defrost every morning. The windshield disappears behind layers of ice, the doors freeze shut, the engine refuses to start, the tires go flat. I have to prise open the driver's door, spend a few minutes persuading the engine to turn over, scrape ice from the windows, drive very slowly for the first few miles until the friction of the road against the tires causes them to reinflate.

One of the most beautiful things about very cold days is the silence. In part, that's because the snow muffles every sound; in part, it's because all the song birds have had the sense to go and live somewhere else. The silence on our side of the mountain is destroyed each morning around 7.15am when I start swearing. On a bad day, the car stays silent until nearly 7.30am.

Cold enough to spoil your groceries
When the local Burlington supermarket's freezer units broke last week, they put the frozen food into shopping carts and stored them in the car park. Their freezer units normally keep food at 0F (for my English readers, that's about -18C). On the day the freezers broke, the temperature outside was several degrees lower and the store manager told me she was concerned the food might spoil because she was having to keep it at too low a temperature.

So, if you want to understand what winter in Vermont feels like, climb into your freezer with a picture of some blue sky.

We get windchill too, but you'll have to imagine that.