My Coronavirus Rollercoaster: Just wake me up in March & tell me this is all over!

I normally enjoy the moment I am in. If I am reading, engrossed in a project or out walking or cycling in the great outdoors I am completely focused and present. Although I get anxious about the future, I am not someone who generally wishes my time away, I know that every minute is precious and appreciate being alive and well every day … but these days I am experiencing a strong urge to hibernate until this melancholic winter is over.

Lancashire has now been placed in the highest category in the UK for coronavirus restrictions and we’re advised to stay confined to our county; much as I love Lancashire, I once again feel restrained. I am dreading this winter that will be a long calendar of missed get-togethers and celebrations. I am sure my partner will make it special but my forthcoming birthday will most likely be just the two of us. Christmas and New Year are not a big deal in our house but in normal years we do socialise and knowing I might not see my friends and family through December makes me weep. And then the dark days of January and February will roll in. These are difficult months at the best of times but this year I can feel them advancing like a heavy dark cloud. How will those months of long nights feel without occasional warm convivial evenings around a friend’s dining table drinking red wine, eating their fantastic food and laughing? Just wake me up in March when at least spring is springing.

I heard Simon Armitage on the radio for National Poetry Day talk about the ‘coronavirus rollercoaster,’ before he read his poem ‘Something Clicked.’ In the poem he considers some of the benefits of a pandemic such as not having to endure the commute now many people are working from home and having time to just sit and think and appreciate nature. Of course, this is the life I had been living from 2017 and retirement and while it is good to hear that some people are finding positives in this whole muddle my own rollercoaster has rushed mostly downhill with only small optimistic inclines.

I have tried to be realistic about coronavirus, knowing it will be with us for the long haul, the virus won’t be beaten or sent home with its tail between its legs. I hoped that we would find a way to manage and live with covid-19 among us. I thought we could live differently, make social distancing and good hygiene normal and perhaps invite our friends to our home one household at a time. I was optimistic and excited in June when we could drive away from home and walk in the hills again and on 4 July I was on a high at being allowed to go camping again. July was good, we met a few friends outdoors and went camping but by the end of the month it was clear that these less uneasy days weren’t going to last forever.

We grasped our chance and escaped to France in August, just in time to have to return and spend two hard weeks in quarantine. As well as thoroughly enjoying travelling in another country again, by fitting in a trip before the amounts of alcohol we can return with is limited [after Brexit] our cupboards are now full of red wine!

I always experience some dread as the cold dark months approach but I have been working on having a more positive attitude circulating in my head and in September I was learning to appreciate these days of colourful autumn colours, rainbows and stunning morning and evening light. We toured around Northumberland and Yorkshire in our campervan and walked up mountains until our legs ached in Scotland. We have met friends and our son and daughter-in-law for long walks, layering up to keep warm and hunkering down with a flask for a picnic and I was starting to feel happy and more balanced again. Having spent too long with only each other to chunter to about the state of the nation, it felt good to hear other people’s ideas and thoughts and really have a conversation in a way you can’t do as the internet freezes and falters the to-and-fro of real communication.

I am still wary of planning more than a week ahead at any time. So many lovely proposed meet ups and trips have been scuppered by the ever-changing rules and each blow sends me hurtling down that rollercoaster. Always an enthusiastic arranger of holidays, meet-ups and celebrations in the past the next few months look empty and bleak but at least I won’t have the disappointment of cancellation. I am learning to accept the gaps in my life, at least they are certain and when we do get the chance to snatch time away in our campervan or with friends it is a bonus.

We are being nudged back into isolation. I’m sure I am not alone in my feelings of despair and it is going to take a bit of effort to see the positives in this.

Something Clicked – Simon Armitage

Then something clicked

and the day quivered and rang like a question mark!

Why grit your teeth in the gridlock now the commute’s

a superfast hop and a skip from toothbrush to keyboard,

from bed-hair to screen-call?

Why wrestle with glitches and gremlins

or tussle with gubbins and gismos, or idle and churn

in the swirling pit of the buffering wheel

now you’re fine-tuning the senses, enrolling for real life,

getting to grips with arts and crafts

that were only a keystroke away all along –

you’re a rhythm guitar, a poem, a garden, a song.

You’ve learned to cook –

you’re a Sunday roast, a multigrain loaf, a recipe book!

Why be garbled and scrambled again

now you’re mindful, resourceful, neighbourly, human?

Now you’re curious. Fruitful. Meaningful. Tuneful.

And why twiddle your thumbs, though sometimes it’s good

to kick back, to noodle and doodle

letting dreams swim into pin-sharp-focus,

meander through luminous moments. Why stall,

why settle for knowledge arriving granule by granule?

No more fishing for news with a butterfly net,

doing the human aerial. You’re bright of late, ideas hitching

and switching from one domain to the next,

thoughts swiping from subject to subject, planet to planet,

globetrotting the universe. And you’re riding a bike –

you’re a walk, a hike, a mountain, a lake.

It’s a new world – you’re at school in the kitchen,

at work in the attic, in Ancient Rome in the lounge,

on Mars in the basement. Why tear out your hair

while the present dithers and loads, you deserve

to lean on the airwaves and not fall over,

to feel the hub of your heart’s heart

pulsating and purring with life’s signal.

So you’re right here this minute being your best being.

And now you’ve hooked up

with the all-thinking all-feeling all-doing version of you

why sit in the future’s waiting-room

drumming your fingers,

why lose the connection

when you could be your own greatest invention?

My first year of retirement in numbers

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Above Castleton in the Peak District

Twelve months retired – so how has that gone?  We’ve certainly packed a lot in to the last year and at home we have settled in to a pattern for a shared retirement that is comfortable and relaxed.  At home we both have our own projects and interests and often beaver quietly away at these before taking an afternoon walk around the neighbourhood or cycle to the supermarket.  But we were only home for eight months of the year and those holiday days have a different pattern of walking and cycling and discovering new places.  In some ways this year has been unusual as after the incident in Greece we were without a campervan for two months while it was off the road.

I have managed to keep my resolution to not say ‘I don’t know how I ever had time to go to work’ which I guess must annoy all those people who are squeezing work and life into their seven days.  We have also made a conscious effort to do just / at least one thing each day.

Holidays and trips – 16 different holidays from one-night to two months.  We had planned two longish trips to mainland Europe in the spring and the autumn and we had a wonderful trip to Spain and Portugal in September and October but our trip to Greece in the spring didn’t go quite according to plan.  Now this is all over we can look back on the whole Greek tragedy as a learning experience [although one we would have preferred to do without] and we haven’t let the trip knock our confidence; we might even head off to Greece again in the future.  In the UK we spent a few weeks in Scotland, went to the wonderful Upton Blues Festival and various other short breaks.  We have been away in the campervan for about 120 nights during the year.  This is less than we would have expected as the ‘van was off the road for a couple of months.  We tried other types of holidays and these just confirmed that the campervan life is the one for us.

Number of accidents in the campervan  – 1 (see above)

Number of times we have set the alarm clock – NONE!

Writing travel articles – 8- this is a similar number of travel articles for MMM as last year.  This doesn’t sound many and it truly isn’t and is in no way a full-time job.  But I work slowly and each 2,000 words represents about a months work – research, travelling, taking photographs, further research, editing photographs, writing and editing.  In addition I write some campsite reviews and short articles.  This makes my retirement a working one, although if it felt like work I would stop tomorrow.

Number of matinees we have been to – Three – hurrah!

Number of times I have wanted to go back to nine-to-five work – NONE!

Foreign languages learnt – 3 [although I am not fluent in any] – before our spring trip we both worked hard at learning some Greek with flash cards and 1970s TV programmes and our efforts were generally appreciated.  I also used Duolingo to brush up my Italian.  In the summer I learnt Spanish on Duolingo and TV learning and Mr BOTRA picked up some Portuguese.  This learning meant that we could confidently book in to campsites and order in cafes.  Mr BOTRA also keeps his German up to scratch.  Next year we will want to learn some Croatian and Slovenian phrases as well as brushing up other European languages.

Good deeds done – Never enough!  I wanted to do some good in retirement and continue to do the things I listed in this previous post.  My elderly neighbours situation has recently worsened and I feel guilty for not helping her more.

Tai chi – Between once a week and daily!  While we were away in September and October we practiced tai chi every day, a combination of fine weather and peaceful campsites made this easy and fun to do.  At home we just about have enough space for tai chi without bumping in to each other and so manage to do occasional practice, as well as get to our weekly class.

Number of books read  – 64 – this year I have made a conscious effort to read more travel books and fiction as well as novels.

Number of blog posts in 2017 – 101 – I managed 78 posts on Back On The Road Again and just 23 posts on my Memorial Bench Stories blog [I must try harder].

Number of days we haven’t been outdoors for at least half-an-hour – 4 [this is a guess] – mostly we like to get out and enjoy some fresh air even if it is raining and we get out for just half-an-hour.

It has mostly added up to a good year and bring on year two of retirement, I’m loving it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recognising the pattern of our day will be different in retirement

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For as long as I can remember Mr BOTRA and I have generally spent the first half an hour or so after work in what I think of as our evening debrief.  Once we are both home from work we will put the kettle on for that essential pot of tea and then sit down and share our news from the day or talk through something we need to sort out.  We might chew over a tough problem, making use of the each others insights to find a solution, we might share something we have learnt or blow off steam about something annoying.  This dedicated time has always given us chance to catch up with each other, transition from work to home and it allows us to then leave work behind for the evening.

When the weather is warm enough we will take our mugs of tea outside and sit in the garden for this debrief.  As our garden is now a shared space this can sometimes mean that we meet neighbours and catch up with them too.  Our garden is in a sheltered quadrangle and has benches that catch the evening sun making it a perfect spot to relax at the end of the day.

When it is cooler or wet we will stay in the flat and sit on the sofa, hands hugging our hot tea gratefully after cycling or walking from work.  There will be no radio or TV on and we just focus on talking to each other for a short while.

Retirement will mean we will mostly be together during the day and this will change the pattern of our days.  The daily debrief will become redundant and I know that I will miss that time.  Will we need to build in dedicated time during the day for talking through ideas and issues or, will our relaxed and retired selves find time to chat to each other naturally throughout the day?  We shall see.

Writing into retirement

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I am now ten weeks in to retirement [and still smiling] and very soon my retirement will be our retirement when Mr BOTRA joins me.  I am looking forward to a shared retirement and with warmer weather and opportunities to get out and about much more I have been thinking hard about my writing life and in particular how often I post on my Back On The Road Again blog.  Last year I set myself the goal of publishing posts twice a week as I built up the blog.  I have mostly achieved this with occasional failures [for which I beat myself up about of course].  In addition, over the last year I have written a travel article at least once a month and submitted shorter articles and campsite reviews and I have tried to keep on top of my Memorial Bench Stories blog.  In the last twelve months I have worked at practicing my writing at least five days a week in an effort to improve my writing and create some discipline and structure to what I do.

Despite all this practicing I have never really managed to become a fast producer of words and my craft is slow.  I spend hours editing even a short 400 word article, reading and re-reading to find just the right words and put them in what I think is the best order.  In addition, for every piece of writing you see there are hours of background research.  I really enjoy this aspect of writing as it feels like studying and learning and reminds me of those happy days as a student.  It doesn’t matter that much of what I learn never makes it on to the page.

During the last year my Back On The Road Again blog has taken up lots of my energy at the expense of my Memorial Bench Stories blog, never mind other new ideas I have in my head.  Although I feel proud to tell people I am a travel writer, I have other aims and plans for retirement and I want to leave time for study and reflection.  And so I feel it is now the moment for blogging to take up a little less of my time.  Although I intend to continue to make time to write almost every day during the next year, some of this writing may be just for me and may even involve pen and paper rather than a keyboard.  The retirement of Mr BOTRA represents real retirement and I feel ready to now really shift gear as I move in to my new retired life.

My revised goal is to publish a blog post here at least once a week.  This new ‘regime’ [I am in no way pretending this is a tough target] might give me time to write other blogs, space to complete around six travel articles a year and continue writing a few short articles.  This will also give me time to travel, to exercise, to find out new and interesting facts and just be.  It should also give me space for new and exciting projects [some of which I haven’t even had time to dream up yet].  So here we go!

 

What will we miss about being part of the working community?

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Three ginger tray bake

There are not many things we will miss about work and there are certainly not many perks to working in the public sector that we will no longer benefit from.  But there are a group of guys Mr BOTRA works with who we will miss enormously.  His workplace workshop engineers have always been willing to use their technical and engineering skills to help us out with our latest DIY project [no matter how batty] involving the campervan or the bikes.  When we needed a metal plate to protect the worktop from [further] damage in  our old Blue Bus they found a suitable piece of scrap they had discarded in a corner, cut the metal to the size we needed and gave advice on how to fix it.  In our new ‘van we couldn’t find anywhere to put the hanging knife rack we had used in the Blue Bus.  It was this team who came up with the a foam knife rack design that fits neatly in to our cutlery drawer; again constructed from a small off-cut, this not only keeps our sharp vegetable and bread knives safe it is also lightweight.  On another occasion we decided what we really needed was a small container that just fitted in to the narrow space between the end of the worktop and the back doors to use as a waste bin.  Who did we call?  Yes, you guessed it, a visit to the workshop with a rough sketch was all it took and a few days later a beautifully constructed box of precise interlocking pieces was created from some small and spare bits of perspex that would have just found their way to landfill.

There have been other examples over the years when these guys have helped us out and there are many things we couldn’t have done or we would have had to pay dearly for without them.  As well as practical help they are also willing to give sound advice based on their workshop experience that is better than any You Tube video.  When we were unsure how to deal with a mis-behaving screw in the ‘van they had a great solution and a seized up bicycle part is just a challenge to these colleagues, bouncing ideas off each other as to the best way to free the parts.

This team of engineers have the skills to come up with these ideas and access to materials and tools we don’t have.  We are very grateful for their help and like to show this in some small way.  We could spend money on chocolates or tins of biscuits for these saviours but as frugalistas we say thank you by doing something we do have the skills to do; to show our appreciation for their help we bake them biscuits and cakes.  Every now and then Mr BOTRA will pop some homemade treats in to a tin and take them in to work for their tea break.

We will certainly miss their expertise and willingness to give any of our projects their consideration.  In just a few weeks time we will be on our own [with just You Tube to help] with our DIY projects.

 

Creating a shared retired life

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The beautiful beach at Montrose

I am now five weeks in to retirement and I have settled in to the swing of it, the elation hasn’t faded and I am still grinning all the time.  How I spend my day is mostly dictated by the weather but is always very much my choice; I no longer have to spend a sunny day gazing longingly out of an office window.  If it is fine I will get out walking around Salford, exploring new hidden corners and wandering around favourite haunts picking up litter.  If it is damp and dark I stay home and work on a travel article or the blog or plan our spring trip in our campervan or meet a friend for coffee.  I don’t have anything that would resemble a routine and I am loving not having to be anywhere or do anything and the sense of freedom to be flexible and please myself.

I have had time to help and spend time with friends and organisations and that gives me a sense of usefully contributing to the world.  When I have so much, giving my time isn’t much of a gift but it is one that I can now give willingly and generously.

Mr BOTRA chose to continue working until March 2017 and so I have had this period of time to adjust to retirement on my own.  Having faced his fears about retirement Mr BOTRA has now overcome these and is looking forward to retirement with a positive frame of mind.  Everyone in his workplace now knows he is leaving and this has helped him make the adjustment and his focus is shifting from his employment to being an ex-worker and he is looking forward to projects of his own.  He is spending his last few weeks at work winding down, tidying up and finishing off tasks.  He was in high spirits recently when he delivered his last ever health and safety training session.

Although I really appreciate having this work-free period in the gap between retiring and taking our first long-term trip away in our campervan, I am thankful that I won’t be the lone retiree in the house for too long.  I can already see that if this continues for much longer I would have carved out my own way of doing things and got used to my own company, leaving Mr BOTRA to fit in or around this, rather than our adjustment to this next phase of our life being shared.  It is perhaps just as well that by taking ourselves away from home for a few months while we travel in the campervan we will have the chance to settle in to a redrafted retirement.

 

 

Embracing imperfection when I #amwriting

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Manchester reflections

I tell anyone who will listen that I am retired now [with a huge smile] but I am still working at writing travel articles for MMM , as well as this blog and occasionally posts on my Memorial Bench Stories blog.  I have been publishing my writing for about eight years now, starting with our Blue Bus Blog and moving on to magazine travel writing not long after.  But still, every time I write a piece I struggle to be comfortable with what I have written, feel it is truly finished, let it go and put it out there for judgement.  Being able to decide that something is good enough to publish doesn’t seem to get any easier [in fact I think it gets harder].  I want my writing to be interesting, entertaining and just perfect and so I edit and edit again. I read it out loud, I print it and read it through repeatedly and I keep procrastinating, trying to reach some idea of perfection that I am not sure I would even know even if I created it.

I have been reading about writing and story telling recently and I am starting to try and change my mindset and stop trying so hard.  Although I still don’t think it is a bad thing to aim for perfection, I see that I need to recognise that point when I must embrace imperfection, face my fears and publish.  I need to let go of striving for an ideal piece of writing and concentrate on publishing something that is honest and true.

Of course I make mistakes and have to learn to laugh at the goofs I make.  I am a flawed individual making a mockery of the perfectionist I want to be.  But it isn’t really this that makes me hesitate over the publish button, it is the fear of demonstrating my vulnerability that stops me and a concern that critics will concentrate on my faults, rather than anything I have achieved.  On really bad days when my confidence is at rock bottom, I compare my writing with the writing of my heroes and it doesn’t stand up at all and so I wonder what is the point of even trying.  The grip this anxiety has on my output is interesting to note and sometimes difficult to break out of.

Julia Travers in a Be Magazine article wrote brilliantly on this subject; ‘I had a friend in college who called editing “shooting puppies,” because it was so painful to cut off valuable pieces of a work to make the whole stronger.’  This describes perfectly the physical pain I feel when I have to ditch what seems like a nice phrase or paragraph that perhaps took hours to research and compile because I know in my heart that it doesn’t fit the narrative I am creating or the word limit.

So, although I can’t promise I won’t make mistakes or post duds that are boring festooned with shoddy photographs, rather than hang my head in shame I will try and remember that those rough edges are part of what makes me a human individual and that one person’s perfect is really annoying to another.

 

Retired and loving it

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Party time nibbles

I do like to mark occasions with a celebration and I also love bringing friends from different segments of my life together.  Last night was my retirement party and I had a ball.  Mr BOTRA and I hosted an informal drop in at The Lime Bar at Salford Quays so that those who were already retired and lived further away could come early and leave when it suited them or those more local and still working could come along after work and stay late.  The Lime Bar provided a lovely selection of nibbles and I made a selection of cakes as gifts for everyone to eat or take away [like a party bag], so it wasn’t a party that took a big chunk out of our savings.

By the end of the evening my cheeks ached with laughing and grinning so much; the love and friendship in the room made me feel cherished and really should be bottled – its true to say I am still smiling today and the whole evening was like one very big hug.  I was on my feet all evening, determined not to feel regret at not talking enough to someone after they had left but inevitably there were a few people who I didn’t feel I had caught up with enough.  But I did re-connect with previous colleagues from Preston, many of my NHS Manchester colleagues, who are always game for a party, and mixed these up with local friends; I feel gratified that they were all willing to come out on a Thursday night to celebrate with me.

Despite my instructions for no presents my generous and loving friends bought gifts that were beautiful, useful and interesting.  I received books, flowers, bottles of fizz, useful stuff for the ‘van, smelly stuff, a beautiful scarf and a fantastic mug that sums it up really, it says ‘Retired and Loving it!’

Looking forward to a new life

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The wonderful Bundestag in Berlin

It is that time of year when I instinctively look forward.  Yesterday we celebrated the winter solstice in our usual way by watching the sun rise over the river Irwell on the shortest day of the year, happy to know that the days will now start to get just a little bit longer and spring and summer are on their way.  After the sunrise we treat ourselves to a leisurely breakfast before going on to work.  So it feels fitting in this forward-looking time that the day I have been dreaming about since I was 16-years old and started my first working day as an optician’s receptionist has arrived.  That 16-year old wanted retirement immediately with all the impatience of youth and truly [and mistakenly] thought it was wasted on the elderly!  Now, at the age of 57, I am equipped both financially and mentally, for taking life easier and I am looking forward to my new life as a retiree.

It has sometimes felt like a long slog through over 20 different jobs but it feels appropriate that on my last working day I will be busy producing another beautiful spreadsheet for the organisation; I will never stop getting a thrill and joy from what Excel can do and how clever it is.  As I beaver away I will be mulling over my working life; how for over 40-years I have had to get up when work dictates, rather than when my body is ready; I have had to follow orders and regulations, no matter how stupid they might seem and I have sometimes felt that it is my employer that gets the best of me, rather than my family.  I have experienced the drudgery of working for the ‘man’ and the independence and uncertainty of self-employment and in between I have been grateful to find sympathetic employers that gave me the right balance of freedom to be creative and a strong framework of support that allows me to give my best.

Of course, I am celebrating today as my ‘retirement’ marks the end of daily nine-to-five office work.  But my future won’t be completely idle as I will continue to be a travel writer.  This certainly isn’t as glamorous as it sounds but is a passion of mine that I can work on when I wish and is by no means a full-time job.  There is also a liberation in knowing that if I write something fit for publication I receive payment, if I don’t, well it’s not the end of the world because we have those savings.  I feel very lucky to be moving in to this new and exciting stage of my life.

 

 

The tale of the postman

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Leather album with wrap around strap

I get such a thrill when a stranger does you a big favour so here is the story of our postman who made my day this week.  With so much happening at work, so many long-standing colleagues being made redundant and so many leaving presents for everyone to buy I thought I could slip quietly away in to retirement without anyone noticing.  But my lovely and generous colleagues had other ideas and sent me a retirement present I will always remember, a beautiful Italian leather album with beautiful cream textured pages interwoven with tissue.  This is such a lovely thing to own and perfect for creating a memento of sketches, postcards, tickets and other memorabilia from our next big trip.  But how this perfect retirement present reached me is a tale of a postman who went above and beyond the call of duty.

You may recall I have been working from home since the summer and I have clearly continued to provide such efficient administrative support from my home-base that some of my colleagues never even noticed the change.  I work for a national organisation and my colleagues are dotted around the North-west and the Midlands so communicating by email and telephone has always been the norm.  This week I received an email from a colleague in the West Midlands that mentioned I should expect a parcel that day; however when I checked where it had been posted to found it was on its way to the ‘old’ office that is now closed up and empty.  After an initial panic, he emailed me the receipt and I could track the parcel and so could see it was on its way to this abandoned office.  Armed with the receipt I walked to our local Royal Mail collection depot to see what would happen with the parcel.  After a long back and forth negotiation with supervisors they were happy [or at least satisfied] that I could collect the parcel from them, even without the failed delivery card, if I provided ID and headed paper from the old office [thank goodness I have been using this as scrap paper].

Back at home there was a knock on the door at lunch time.  The ‘old office’ is near to my home and we share a postman.  I often pass the time of day with this postman both at home and at work and he had noticed that I was one and the same person [I have an unusual second name].  He had arrived at the shuttered and deserted office with my parcel, noticed who it was addressed to and put the parcel back in his bag to bring round to our flat later on his round.  He presented the parcel hesitantly, clearly worried about whether he had done the right thing, but I was over the moon.  I am so grateful for his thoughtfulness and quick thinking and amazed that even in a big city like Salford it is impossible to be completely anonymous.