Dead Cuttlefish in a Cage

May is by far my favourite month of the year, not least because all the blossom is out and the birds are nesting but also because my birthday falls in May. I love the lushness of dappled sunlight filtering through bright lime green leaves and birds chorusing while the brook babbles at Pi Acres. It’s the best time of year here in particular; bluebells and wild garlic scatter the forest floor and it’s before the midges come. I’m like a toddler stopping every few feet everywhere I go at the moment to examine a flower. The photo library on my phone is full to heaving of pictures of flowers and trees heavy with blossom. When you stop and look closely, and I mean really closely, it’s quite astonishing how exquisite even the tiniest curb-side weed is. Stop and look and see how exotic the flowers on a sweet chestnut tree really are, or how utterly perfect dandelion seeds are.

It’s this time of year I feel most inspired to take on a new special interest. The year I bought Pi Acres I was tree obsessed and barely looked down from looking up all summer such was my fixation. In case it isn’t rather obvious, this May it seems to be flowers. I’m learning all the time what plants are and also what they can do for us. I recently discovered that Himalayan Balsam Wood is edible!

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Himalayan Balsam Wood in flower

The flowers are edible, but also the seeds which when toasted taste like hazelnuts apparently. Before the seed pods hit bursting stage (when they are still green) they can be harvested and cooked like mange-tout and are delicious in a curry  – or so I’ve read. I also read wild garlic leaves make a great pesto, but to be honest without the capers, chilli and olives added to my foraged leaf pesto, it was very bland indeed. Still, it feels good to eat the plants from where we stand, as if I am somehow ingesting the land directly beneath my feet and it then connects me more strongly to it. If I’m not careful, I’ll start thinking I need to poop in the woods to help plant seeds! I’m foraging and growing more and more, choosing my planting according to what is useful as well as pretty.

I love a good cruelty free food experiment so any balsam left after our ‘Balsam Bash’ in July will be harvested. I’m organising a mass weeding of it to try to largely eradicate it and help restore the ancient woodland flora but we are unlikely to get it all.  I might allow a small patch (as far away from the river as possible) to get to bursting stage and then harvest the seeds very carefully. You have to place a bag over the seed pod as the slightest touch will see it explode its seeds in quite spectacular fashion. I’m sure it’s why it’s spread so prolifically along the stream to River Torridge and I wish it wasn’t such an invasive bully because it’s so pretty.

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Big areas of Pi Acres are currently covered in ten inch to foot high balsam – soon to be as tall as me if left to mature!

The bees love it – so we are leaving the pull up until they’ve had a feasting and then we will swoop in on July 13th and remove it by hand – pop it in your diary and come and help! It pulls up satisfyingly easily with a just a little tug and seems to kiss the ground as it unplugs. No chemical weedkillers at Pi Acres, just graft. I’m looking forward to plucking this feisty yet pretty plant out the ground. Last year I tried drying the stalks to make bee hotels but they just went soggy. This year, I’m going to try drying them in the trees and see if that helps the hollow stalks go rigid. It will look so weird, I may go all out and do a Balsam wood art installation while they dry. We shall see – I have so many great plans and never seem to have the time to implement them all. We are growing veg this season (new raised beds in our secret garden here in Exeter). It’s another tie to the city, and the air isn’t as clean as Pi Acres, but if we want to practice self sustainability, it makes sense to do that where we live.

For my 50th birthday celebrations, I decided not to people. Instead, Paul and I went on a camping trip in parts of Devon we hadn’t explored yet in our new caravan. We found wild rugged beaches and secluded forests. We had campfires, played the guitar and sang. Like the sweet chestnuts pregnant with exotic blooms, I also blossomed. I belong in places like this.

We found ourselves at an incredible wild campsite set in 60 acres of woodland in Rattery, Devon. The owners of Ashbourne Woods planted the entire forest themselves back in the nineties. It’s now a mix of fir and broadleaf that has matured into a well established eco-system full of wildlife. It was like being in the middle of nowhere and off grid, yet a short walk and there were hot showers, loos, a washing machine, a kitchen area with fridge freezers and a kettle.

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The more time I spend with nature, with plants and away from people, the more equanimity I achieve. I’ve been getting into the habit of starting my day with yoga and some mindfulness recently and it really helps with city living, but ultimately I don’t want to live in a city anymore. We want to live where our conservation projects are, and we are starting to wonder if this pretty part of England is where we are meant to be. The rest of Devon, the whole of Cornwall and Pembrokeshire are all places I would love to be. France is still an option. We are no longer tied here now Oliver has left home and we are free to go wherever we want. So how comes we are still here, trapped with DIY lists of what we need to achieve in order to leave? The bathroom isn’t finished. We need a shed. There’s decorating to do before we can rent out or sell this place and be free to move onto the next thing. But the boiler is tricky and there’s rising damp that needs sorting. It seems the more I strive to simplify my life, the more complex it needs to be first to get there.

I am fortunate enough to have an amazing manageress who runs my business, so we may yet disappear for the summer to play in someone else’s woods now we have the caravan. We are still thinking about our planning application to make Pi Acres into an outdoor education centre, and I’ve considered asking permission to stay longer in our caravan over Summers to be onsite to do our conservation work, and also thought about asking to build an eco house and live on the land, but there are so many other options. So many amazing things we could do. An overwhelming possibility of options if you strip it down to what really matters. 

What does really matter? I’ve been considering this while also learning what flourishes where in the plant world. My city courtyard garden is blooming; everything is either fat with flowers or about to burst open – all except one plant that withered and died.

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Definitely not happy here…

I’ve now moved the dying plant to a sunnier place in it’s own pot now and it’s beginning to recover but it got me thinking. So far in my life, I have felt a lot like that that withering plant, trying to flourish in a world in which I do not fit. When a plant does not grow, you look to the conditions you placed it in. Not for a second would you think the plant is to blame.  You wouldn’t expect it to ‘try harder’ (as so many of my school reports said in secondary school) or to grow in an environment that is hostile to it. You’d change its environment. And that’s how it is with me. I wither in cities and thrive in nature. The problem with being autistic is not being autistic at all – it’s the world in which we live that’s the problem. We need a different environment to the one we are being offered. But let’s be honest here, no-one thrives in this set up really – it’s just that autists feel it more painfully than most. Neuro-typicals have a way of compartmentalising the misery of being enslaved in this capitalist, fascist state that has somehow managed to trick over half the nation into voting for rich elite and believing joy can be found in the latest iPhone. may10The world needs to become more autistic to help save it from the demise we are heading to. It’s time to get back to nature and each other and stop squabbling like children. It’s time to say it like it is and stop pussy footing around with niceties. We were never meant to live this way. Animals were never meant to live (and die) this way. I feel the grief of it all like losing family to Alzheimers. The connection is gone yet the person remains. If people would only just stop and smell the flowers – literally. Just. Stop. There’s something about connecting with nature that changes you. It creates gratitude, and as Thay (a wise Buddhist monk guy with all the answers if only the world would listen to him) would say, people are ignoring the destruction of the planet because they are not connected to it anymore. Happiness is not consumerism. He says only love can change the world and he’s right. Love is kindness, joy, gratitude and equanimity, and if we all practiced it the world would not be in this mess. Our needs would be met through serving others. It’s so simple. Self serving, selfie taking, selfish goals don’t work – not individually and certainly not globally.

I need my environment to be a certain way for me to thrive. It needs to have birdsong and peace. It needs to be away from people. When I have a routine, like starting my day with yoga and I eat good food at sensible times and get outside, I’m so much more together, sorted and happy. When you strip away what really matters, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. It’s ridiculously simple.

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Thriving in my city garden!

Just stopping and considering what matters is in itself an act of joy. Unless you are utterly brainwashed and still believe joy can be found in material possessions or slimmer thighs, you will know that being outside in the spring sunshine, closing your eyes, listening to birdsong and shallowing your breath is a joyful way to commune with nature. And you don’t necessarily need to be in the countryside – even in my city courtyard garden, bursting flowerbeds and chattering starlings speak straight into my soul. We discovered a firecrest nesting in the cabin garden up the road and every time one of the firecrest parents visited the nest, the sound of the squeaks the chicks made my heart want to explode with joy.

I’m continuing my quest to lower my carbon footprint and it’s shocking how easy it is to forget and just buy a plastic toothbrush. Veganism and conscientious living doesn’t just stop with diet and plastic though, it’s a constant questioning of what matters – down to who you bank with, how much packaging is on your food, whether your bought compost contains peat along with all the obvious stuff like not eating meat. For me, it’s reached a stage of also being careful who I spend time with, what I watch on TV, and who I can have in earshot. I am so much happier now I can’t hear the simpering tones of Step-Heavy upstairs. We went to look at another house in Dolton last week, but when I heard the neighbours’ chatting in the next garden I knew I couldn’t live there. I’d be fantasising about shouting out the window that meat was murder when they had a barbeque or something equally as unwelcome to those who think they’re having far too much of a lovely time to questions their actions. They’ve found their version of joy through cream leather sofas, stone washed jeans and a good Chablis. Except it’s not joy, it’s a dead cuttlefish in a budgie birdcage. It’s not freedom. It’s not even pretending to be.

We finished my 50th birthday adventure )which included zip wires, my son visiting, pottery classes and beach trips) at Pi Acres. People came. People who have woken up. These are people I can be around. We all need to find our tribe, even autistic introverts who talk too much like me.

Being Literal

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Water levels quite high at Pi Acres when we last made it there..

Being literal, as most Autistic people are, I mean what I say, and I (foolishly it would seem) expect people to mean what they say back to me. So, when a builder says that something isn’t a problem and will be done in a certain time frame, (given no extenuating circumstances of course), I have a tendency to believe him. When a mortgage advisor (who has taken exams and is strictly monitored by Ombudsmen) works out all the sums based on my earnings and equity and then tells me that I can afford the teeny tiny house down the road, I am likely to believe him. And when a seemingly lovely couple offer to help us refurbish our horse-box lorry at a cut price deal because we are their guinea pigs on their first conversion, being lovely people ourselves, we are prone to believe that people do good deeds. Like we do. We are good deed people.

However, to my utter dismay, I keep discovering that many people aren’t good deed people, and they just don’t do what they say they will. Either they never intended to, or they are so incompetent that they mess up and expect the customer to pay, which given my heightened sense of justice (another Autistic trait), doesn’t work for me. So, as you may well have guessed, I have been entrenched in a few battles to get what I am paying for and it’s been tough few weeks. Thankfully with the builder, I have a full  paper trail of what was agreed, and have photographed, videoed and even catalogued what an utter bodge job these guys did and then demanded more money to continue when it went way over time. They broke a water pipe and refused to fix it unless I paid another £1000 instalment (they actually asked for payment in full and were most aggressive when I refused). They tried blackmailing the money out of me by threatening to walk, but my gut instinct told me that if I paid them a penny more, they would walk anyway. It’s what a rogue builder did to me a couple of years ago, (followed by legal battles that went on for two years) so I was unlikely to make that mistake again. So the builder walked – or got sacked depending on how you look at it after six painful days of us tolerating an incompetent labourer who freely admitted he was hired for our job at the last minute and didn’t have a clue what he was doing.

We’d gone with the cheapest quote because of the mortgage advisor making a right royal mess of my mortgage. The plan was always to do an equity release on my flat and end up with enough money to buy our dream home in the countryside later this year. However, mortgage man Richard was out on his sums by £106,000 and it wasn’t discovered until AFTER we had exchanged contracts. That’s a lot of money! For a few hairy scary days, it looked like we were going to default on the purchase and potentially lose £23,500 which was the 10% deposit. Thankfully buying the teeny tiny house down the road didn’t use up my full borrowing potential and so after frantically trying to find solutions and having to agree in writing that I was happy to continue working until I am 73 years old, the funding was somehow bungled together. BUT. There’s now no equity to put forward to the next house and our new mortgage payments are £300 a month dearer, so we might not be able to help Oliver like we planned. To say the whole thing has been a farce is an understatement, and the cause and effect of this has been doubly stressful as I no longer have the money to consolidate my debts and pay a builder to fix everything. My credit rating is excellent thankfully, so I’ve just borrowed more money as part of the solution. It makes me feel really quite sick with anxiety and I have never liked debt. I firmly believe this is how they enslave you; borrow money and then work yourself into an early grave to pay it off. Obviously I have no intention of working until I am 73, and plan to be debt free with a source of income inside the next few years, but as I approach 50, I can’t help looking at where I am at and how I got here, and despite the rat-race nightmares of hiring builders and being misadvised by financial ‘experts’, I’m pretty darn chuffed at where I am.

It would have been wonderful to have the finances to pay professionals to do everything, but instead we have been forced into refurbishing much of the house ourselves. Apart from the fact that my bones are seizing up and I’ve discovered muscles I didn’t know I had by doing so much hard graft, it’s been quite amazing to do this project together with Paul.

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Creating chaos and enjoying it!

It’s felt like we are young honeymooners doing up our first home together. It’s a complete do-over, only this time we are both with the partners we are supposed to be with. The difference is astonishing, and it makes me want to run around telling couples who are miserable that it doesn’t have to be that way. I look around and see so many people settling for less because they are too busy focussing on goals that don’t matter, and forgetting all about joy. Our main goal should be to find joy in everyday things. And silver linings from stormy horizons. I’m learning that mistakes are also gifts. Would I have bought a light fitting from the charity shop for a pound if I had the money to buy everything new? Would it have felt like such a hidden treasure had it not been so welcome? We couldn’t afford a new kitchen, so I painted the old one and have transformed it. I think it’s better than a new kitchen! Why have I always moved house and put a new kitchen in? I’ve had to break this conditioned notion that new is best. It isn’t! Upcycling and mending what we already have should be our priority if we want to save the planet. I am always going to try and source what I need second hand from now on and only buy something brand new when I really can’t find a greener option. If I have to buy new, I’m also going to try and buy local and support a local trade. 

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We jiggled the sink unit and plate rack round and hey presto! What magic can be achieved with a lick of paint and a bit of vinyl.

Dare I say it (and do I mean it?) but I think I’m looking forward to entering my sixth decade of living and can look at my life and be pleased with where I am at. It has sod all to do with money or equity or property or any measure of success by Western standards, but more to do with who I am, and who I have become.march6.jpg I like the me I have matured into, and the self loathing I had grown accustomed to living with has shrunk into the background like a bad dream.  I am starting to see myself the way that Paul sees me, and to acknowledge that whilst I am disadvantaged in many areas of life because my brain is not typical, I am also very gifted, creative, articulate and so capable in some areas, I can be like Wonder Woman. Fierce and brilliant. And strangely unpopular despite my kind heart. Why is it that society shuns people like me? Is it because I don’t know how to schmooze at parties? Being literal and honest can made for very cringeworthy interactions and I know I sometimes make people feel uncomfortable. It’s not my aim, but I can’t help point out things that are wrong or make no sense. It’s like tourettes, but instead of swearing I blurt out my feedback on the uneven positioning of a display or I will wonder out loud why there are no vegan options in a meal deal. Partly, it’s curiosity as I want to understand things. Like why tradition is so important, or why someone has made certain choices. Sadly, this often comes across as judgemental, rude and is often completely unwelcome. I often don’t realise this at the time however, and agonise over every word I said at home later when I can clearly sense I have said the wrong thing, but don’t know what. I find it sad that people don’t seem to want the truth; not even truthful enthusiasm for something that is good. I can be embarrassingly happy about awesome things. Paul loves that about me; I haven’t lost my childish awe and joy when I encounter something good. But people are more likely to remember the negative stuff like when I tell someone pigs are more intelligent than dogs when they just want to enjoy their bacon sandwich. I’m the girl that told the other girls at sing club it was heading towards becoming bitch club and was ousted for it (it was genuinely like being back at school they were so unkind about other women not there to defend themselves).

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I think this should be more gender neutral and say ‘To the people who are awkward…’ but the sentiment stands.

 

But I am glad of this part of me. I fight for justice and fairness and above all, kindness. People who know me know I have no malice or hidden agenda and know I am never intentionally mean, but that I will always say it as it is. I’m the one to ask if we can discuss the elephant in the room because I just can’t pretend everything is fine when it very clearly isn’t.

Up until recently, I would attend events I didn’t want to go to, to make small talk with neuro-typical people I have very little in common with, and pretend I was having a great time because I was just grateful to have been invited.  But I am now aware of what a liability I am socially; I get why I don’t fit in and have gone through stages of grieving my lack of friends and family, to accepting I am not wanted by most, and finally now realising I don’t want to be around anyone I have to mask my real self from to get them to like me. I’m excellent company to people who have nothing to hide and who want to be around people like me. And that’s the key isn’t it? Choosing to be where you are wanted. That is fine when choosing who you want to spend time with, but not so fine when it’s people you have to live alongside and they aren’t quite so friendly or reasonable.

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A fellow Aspie

Society currently doesn’t want people like me, but as I live in this society and am not quite ready yet to go and dig a hole in the mound at Pi Acres and live in it like a crazy lady, I have to do something to help change it. But I also have to at least try and pick my battles carefully as it’s exhausting. I have more battles going on right now than I need, so I will not be going to Shirley’s all women shindig because it’s my idea of hell (sorry Shirley, this is no reflection on you) and I do not feel guilty that I have said no. My attendance is not required and I just don’t need to put myself through the anguish of parties anymore. I will however, be putting myself quite squarely in the firing line and standing up for my rights when I feel passionately that they have been ignored.  Or I have been ripped off or bullied. There’s been some strongly worded and much edited correspondence coming from this laptop the last few weeks including an email to Step-heavy upstairs telling her that she and the entire management committee are ableist and guilty of discrimination. They told me that I was not allowed to have Paul with me at management company meetings despite my admission that I need support to attend these things, but that I could request that a proxy attend on my behalf. So I had to send Paul to a meeting upstairs that I wasn’t allowed to go to despite being a director of the management company. That’s madness! I was also told that despite being a director of the management company I was not allowed to draft a letter for Step-heavy (my remortgage application required some simple questions answering) for her to sign. They are the most awkward, unpleasant, unsympathetic lot I’ve ever had to live alongside (and I’m from London originally!) so I no longer care if they think I’m highly strung/crazy/too sensitive. In fact, I care so little now what they think of me that I’ve rented out the flat (subject to references) but have kept my parking space at the rear. I’m going to put a caravan on it.

So, that brings me to the horse-box lorry and what has happened that has made us ditch the project and buy a caravan. I sold my cute little red Fiat 500 last year and the money was put aside to refurbish the horse-box lorry into ‘tiny house’ living. We planned to stay in it on the land when we could this summer and then sell it. It didn’t cost us much and we have been sitting on the cash from my Fiat patiently waiting for months and months for work to start on it. I had drawn plans, written lists and sourced all secondhand and free bits for it, and I made sure I liaised thoroughly with the people due to work on it. Everything in writing. However, they turned out to be as sneaky as the damn builders and it’s destroyed any trust I have in them. I shan’t bore you with too many details, except to say that without checking with us first, they spent 15 days stripping off all the metal panels (so Fern is just a naked frame now) and asked us for £1800 for doing so.

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Stripped bare!

It’s brought us to a rather unpleasant stalemate situation because we haven’t got £1800 to effectively pay to make our lorry worse than when we gave it to them. Doing this has made it a project not worth continuing with – financially at the very least. Despite the fact that it was always a budget conversion on an old lorry, and we had sourced all second hand/free cookers, showers, windows etc they are now claiming they thought we wanted a bespoke, top range conversion and money wasn’t an object! How do you deal with that? Apart from that, their timing couldn’t have been worse, what with the builder, the mortgage advisor and the management committee all being either incompetent or shifty. I just don’t have the tolerance anymore to be taken advantage of, and although Paul is warning me I have started to sound like I don’t care, I have to toughen up. Being a kind person doesn’t mean you allow people to take advantage of you and in fact, it is unkind to future empaths like myself not to try and protect them from the same experience from the same sharks.  So, the money that was put aside for the first fix on the horse-box lorry has now gone on a caravan. It’s not a fancy one, but I will work my Shelley magic on it and we will stay on the land in it this summer. We’ve been planting willow (Andrew has more for us apparently so I am most happy about that) and will be planting up hawthorn and holly next time we go. Sadly we had to cancel a couple of events like path making (Paul has started cutting a path up to the top of the mound) as we will soon be moving into our new home. We have to leave the flat immaculate for the new tenants so there’s that to do as well. I feel guilty that we aren’t at Pi Acres right now, fixing the broken geodome or sorting out the area for the caravan but it is what it is, and the land will still be there when we are free to come and love it properly again. We’ve invited the local scouts to share the space with us so I’m excited about that too. So long as they respect our compost loo, all is well. I don’t want to have to deal with any more unnecessary shit. Literally.