It’s nearly the end of another year, and time for a few reflections before I have to start panicking about hosting Christmas next week (Can I possibly cope with making bread sauce? Especially when bread never lasts for long enough in our house to actually go stale? Will 12 bottles of wine be enough? For four of us for two days? When one of us doesn’t really drink? Maybe I should go and get more?).
Well, if 2012 was a transformation, and a vintage year, 2013 can perhaps be best described as ‘mixed’. In the winter, I moved to a four day week at the day job. In the spring, I lost my beloved Nan. In the summer, I finished one book, The Heartland of the Winter, secured an agent, and started another book, Forever 27. And in the autumn, I strained my back so badly that I’ve been essentially out of action for seven weeks and counting. Out of my creative writing and my husband’s rock climbing, who’d have thought my hobby would turn out to be the more dangerous?
Overall, I’m not sure I’m going to be looking back at 2013 with great fondness, but it hasn’t been a total annus horribilis. The last couple of months have been painful and a bit surreal at times, but it’s at least been a chance to rest and reconsider, and I’m trying to take away a few lessons. Bittersweet lessons about the important things in life, about the need to be patient and enjoy things for what they are, as they come. And harder lessons about the need to make choices, to prioritise the things which are really necessary, work hard at what matters, and accept that sometimes, you have to let go. To quote the Rolling Stones: no you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need. This can perhaps be summarised by my reaction to my injury: at first I wanted to just let it get better by itself, without actually doing anything to help it. Then I tried throwing money at the problem: massages, chiropractor, private yoga tuition. But then all these people I was paying to make me better told me that, in this instance, I have to heal myself. Exercise, posture, breathing technique, not overdoing it, all that stuff. Boring, maybe, but necessary.

And so another year will shortly begin. What does 2014 hold in store? A publishing deal is too much to expect, but not too much to hope for. Completion of my second novel, Forever 27, should be within my power. And also, perhaps, some refocusing, a bit more yoga and a bit less time slumped over a hot computer.

I’ll leave you with some half-baked homilies, fresh from the same oven I used to bake the loaf of success in a previous blog post. If you have to do something, do it with a smile. If you don’t have to do something, don’t feel bad about not doing it. All things in moderation, including moderation. Enjoy the good things, and remember, you don’t need to leave room for dessert, because you have a separate stomach for that.
Anyway, a merry Christmas to all, and a happy and productive 2014.

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The Gorge

In my last post, I described how I have been laid low with back problems. I’m now sorry to report that my progress towards recovery has been extremely slow, and that accordingly I haven’t been doing terribly much in the last fortnight. Although I have learned that there is an upside to Parkinson’s Law: and, since I’ve decided I can’t face the long journey to visit parents, they will be coming to us for Christmas, so I now have a Christmas dinner to plan, which should take up quite a lot of time, and stop my project management skills from becoming too rusty.

In the meantime, remembering the happy days when I could make it further than the local shopping centre (soon may they return!), here is some travel writing for you, an account of an incident from my holiday to Sicily a few years ago:

Sicilian road designers have an approach best described as whimsical. They enjoy creating motorways with no road markings, changing speed limits at random, and leaving important turnoffs entirely un-signposted. And sometimes, they try to kill you.

I was staying in Ortygia, the old town of Syracuse, with my then-boyfriend (since upgraded to husband). We were there for a week to absorb some culture, and it was our last day before moving on to Taormina and the more beach-focused half of our holiday. Before we abandoned ourselves to sunshine and beer, we decided to make one more cultural excursion: to the necropolis of Pantalica. Part of the Siracusa world heritage site, a rocky gorge honeycombed with over 5,000 prehistoric tombs from the 13th to the 7th centuries BC.

Getting to the nearby town of Sortino should have taken about half an hour, if the satnav was to be believed. It actually took an hour, as the satnav sent us on a ridiculously twisty and steep mountain road, while the road layout and signage were up to the usual standards. The highlight was probably the roundabout where all four exits were signposted to the same place.

Eventually we made it to Sortino and had the fun of navigating the one-way system. As in all Sicilian towns, they like to send you down the narrowest streets and cunningly don’t put any signs at crucial points. At one point my boyfriend had to reverse into a blind junction after he realized he’d gone the wrong way.

But once he got us onto the right route, finding the gorge was very easy. The map showed the road, the Via Pantalica, heading southwards out of Sortino and then over the gorge. This is not, however, quite accurate. In fact, the road stops abruptly at the edge, with nothing but a small wooden fence between you and an exciting but messy Thelma-and-Louise-style death.

You can see the road continuing on the other side of the gorge, but the bridge is missing. Evidently they never bothered to build it, but the mapmakers thought it would be entertaining to put it on the maps anyway. And I’m not just talking about out-of-date road atlases; it was clearly marked on the satnav. Fortunately, we spotted this in time to stop short of the cliff’s edge, but in darkness, or heavy fog… I would not be surprised if the prehistoric graveyard contains a few more recent corpses.

            As we made our way down the footpath the sky was ominously grey, and soon we could hear rumbles of distant thunder. But sunny weather would have ruined the dramatic atmosphere, for Pantalica is a place both spooky and spectacular. Steep rocky walls on either side, pockmarked everywhere by the tomb entrances, the rushing of the unseen river far below. The tombs are extremely simple in design, just square holes cut into the cliff, each one only just big enough for a couple of bodies and maybe a few grave goods. There aren’t any fancy carvings or paintings or flying buttresses or ornamentation, no cherubs or crucifixes. After the ostentation of some of Sicily’s other sights, like the baroque daydream of Noto, or the mighty temples of Agrigento, they seem stark, primitive, almost clumsy. But there are thousands of them, all over the gorge, whichever way you look, cut into even the most inaccessible-looking bits of rock.

Image

For more about the history of Pantalica, check out this website: http://www.bestofsicily.com/mag/art320.htm (which is where this picture is from)

The overall effect is of rugged, primeval grandeur, a memento mori on a grand scale. Further on there is the remains of a Byzantine village. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live in this place, surrounded by the remains of a distant, unknowable culture, a constantly looming reminder that all things must pass.

            But Pantalica isn’t depressing, rather deeply impressive, humbling. It touches something inside, with an experience at once remote from everyday life and somehow fundamental.

We didn’t linger long. Not because we were bored, but because the thunder soon grew closer and it started to rain. The kind of rain which starts off light, but then rapidly becomes biblical. We ran back to the car and headed off, enjoying our narrow escape from both death and drenching, determined to find a better route back to Ortygia, and, although we didn’t talk about it, quietly haunted by the ancient necropolis.