Wednesday 25 January 2023

Home Eleven

Writing prompt: Tell the story of something that happened to you, but write it from a different perspective, or as fiction rather than fact.

It was our first visit to the Green Festival. In past years I’d learned about it after the event, or we were doing something else, or ... well, anyway, this year we went along: my wife Pamela, son Michael and step-daughter Emma. When we arrived there seemed to be plenty going on. Lots of stalls and tents, noise and people. Our first priority, though, was food: somewhere to sit and eat the picnic we’d brought with us. We found a suitable spot close by a huge felled tree that was providing children with a makeshift and ecologically sound climbing frame. We attacked our picnic with good-natured greed to the accompaniment of the loud, live, 70s music emanating from a marquee somewhere close behind us.

My hunger pangs assuaged, I sat back to take in the surroundings and indulge in a little people-watching. Perhaps from a desire on the part of parents to remain within hailing distance of their newly arboreal offspring a clear, roughly circular area around the Tree was circumferenced with other little grass-sitting groups like ours.

Looking closer at some of these groups, though, I realised it was unlikely they were all parentally motivated. Some of them seemed too young to have children of their own. The plastic beer glasses and trademark khaki and camouflage attire proclaimed many of these to be students (I have been a student myself, I can say these things). Perhaps, I pondered, there were other, more primitive, totemic forces at play about this Tree.

Half an hour later, our picnic eaten and our bodies refreshed, the four of us set off to explore. Too many sights to describe properly. Hot and cold food of every description and cuisine, mostly veggie and richly spiced. Stands promoting the WWF, garden composting, Freedom to Roam and varied uses for hemp. Second-hand and ethnic clothes (a big attraction for Pam and Emma). Honey sticks. Foxglove cuttings for 25p each. “Can I have one, Dad?” No, Mike, they’re poisonous. “I know that. Can I have one?”

We bumped into a friend of ours who we’d not seen for some months. Chatting away, following the direction our children were taking through the trees, Pamela, Cal and I found ourselves all at once in a secluded clearing.

I write “secluded” and it is an uncomplicated word. No doubt the image it conjures for you approaches how things first appeared to us as we entered the space. Yet it is worth a moment’s elaboration because, looking back, the seclusion of the place was its very essence.

My word processor’s dictionary defines the verb seclude as “To set apart from others / To screen from view.” Well, the belt of trees through which we had just passed certainly screened us visually from the rest of the Festival — and screened the rest of the Festival from us. Looking back I could see nothing of the bustle and bright colours, tents and stalls and people we had just left. Only the trees. Not even a lamppost.

We were less effectively screened from the sounds of the music playing outside. Yet even so there seemed to be a certain — attenuation — that is hard now for me to describe. The sounds came through to us, but it was as if their brashness and volume and nearness were being filtered out, leaving just the music’s essential poetry. The beat and message crossed the half hundred feet of sparse woodland as readily as it had traversed the twenty or thirty years since most of it was laid down.

All of this is in retrospect, of course. At the time it just seemed like a nice place to be. The three of us found a place to sit. While the children explored and Pamela and Cal talked I looked about.

The clearing was perhaps thirty feet by fifty: an irregular ellipse delimited by the trees on one side and on the other by a swathe of large bushes bordering the park. A number of tents — signs on a couple pronounced them to be yurts — had been erected against the bushes. The Healing Yurt. The Quiet Yurt. The entrance flaps on most of these were closed but on the one closest to us they had been left tantalisingly parted. Inside it looked quiet and peaceful and part of me wanted to crawl inside and rest. But a stronger urge to caution held me back.

A number of other people sat or lounged about on the grass. Off to the right a group were seated on bales of straw about a small wood fire. I watched with pride, a little parental caution and not a little envy as Mike walked over to watch the flames and was soon chatting away to one of the women. I felt Outside.

More or less directly across the clearing a kitchen stall boasted a fiercely vegetarian cuisine. Strung between branches overhead a broad shimmering silk banner proclaimed the legend “Home Eleven”. I wondered if it was the name of the kitchen or of the site itself. A strange name, in either case. The stall seemed to be manned by a tall good-looking guy in blond dreadlocks and a girl with long red-gold hair, a great figure and a loose purple dress.

Maybe I was staring because the girl looked up suddenly, catching my eye. She turned to Dreadlock, said a word or two, then smiled across the clearing in my direction. I smiled back feeling strangely — inordinately — elated. Not (just) because a pretty girl had smiled at me but because her smile seemed to include me in everything that was happening in that place. Instantly, I felt Inside. Then someone wandered over to the kitchen and she turned away to serve them.

I lay back in the sun and closed my eyes. I felt totally at peace now. More simple words but I’d read what “at peace” feels like and this was it. Seclusion. The music coming to me through the trees and down the years. The sound of my wife and our friend talking beside me. Now and again a delighted shriek from Emma and Mike as they played. I tried to remember other times I’d felt that good.

After a while I sat up again and took out my camera, carefully composing one of my panoramic series of overlapping pictures. I stood up and wandered off with the intention of taking some more. At the edge of the clearing I took another series of shots, panning around the site. Ginger was still at the kitchen and I framed the picture, planning to take one to remember her by. Then someone moved beside me. Lowering the camera found Dreadlock staring at me.

“Her name’s Ellen,” he said flatly. I felt embarrassed but after a moment he smiled broadly and extended his hand. “And I’m Kai.”

“Martin,” I said, smiling back. Kai had the same all-encompassing smile as Ellen and, whatever they thought of me I felt no offence had been taken. Kai turned back to gaze across the clearing. I looked at him more closely. I have said he was tall, blond. But close-to, what I noticed most about him, apart from his hair and that smile, were his eyes. Deep, wood-smoke grey. Eyes that seemed inordinately alive.

In fact his hair was not dreadlocked but tightly and intricately braided. He was dressed in a patchwork waistcoat of green and brown velvet over baggy cord pants. On a silken cord at his side hung a slim silver pipe, like a penny whistle but of much finer work. Another touch of silver was the inch-long leaf shaped brooch on his waistcoat. It might have been a beech leaf. I’m not that hot on trees.

A strange character, certainly, with the air of a Pied Piper. Fey. I couldn’t guess what or who he might lead off with that pipe, though.

“Are you hungry?” Kai asked. I might have been but I didn’t want to spoil the moment. I was also still a bit wary of walking up to the girl — Ellen.

“No thanks. Not at the minute.”

I didn’t know what else to say. I felt rather in awe of him, to be honest. A part of me has always felt a romantic attraction for the kind of life I imagined Kai and Ellen enjoyed. When he spoke next, he might have been reading my mind.

“We move around the country, from fair to fair, festival to festival.”

“You are Travellers, then?”

“We — travel, yes.”

“What do you do in the winter. I mean, when there aren’t any festivals?”

“There are always festivals, Martin. If you know where to look.”

Once again there was silence. I guessed Kai was waiting for me to speak. I felt it was important for me to say the right thing.

“All this — the feel of the place — it reminds me of Glastonbury.” Kai still didn’t speak. I wondered if he knew what I meant. “The Festival, you know?”

“Yes, we are at Glastonbury. Every year.”

“Right. I was there in ’83 and ’84. With some friends from University ...”

Memories flooded over me, as though someone had pressed the PLAY button. Those two long, hot weekends at Glastonbury had been so important to me. What do they call such things — seminal? Me and my three closest friends in the world. The two years’ Festivals were different, of course.

The first was a totally new experience for me: like waking up one day on another planet. A planet that intuitively felt like Home — and yet, on which I wandered like an Outsider amongst innumerable, wonderful aliens. No, “Observer” would be a better word. I had wanted to Belong, so much, but hadn’t quite dared to let go.

One year later: Glastonbury ’84 with the same three friends, now at the end of our years together at University and about to move out into the world. The weekend of sun and music marked that transition: its wonder and strangeness now even more wonderful and strange — and even more remote.

Kai didn’t speak for a while; until my thoughts had come full circle and returned me to the music and drumming of the clearing in the park.

“It is good, Martin, that you feel these things about a place. Not many people do.”

“I guess so,” I said, lamely.

“What do you feel?”

“Now?”

“Yes, right now. What does this place feel like to you, Martin?”

I knew the question was important. But not as important as my answer might be. I looked around the site again. Carefully. Trying to see. To feel. The group of students lounging on the grass in front of the kitchen. Another group off to the right, playing at rhythm on a set of bongos (had they brought them with them?) One guy had one of those huge multi-coloured felt top hats that in any other setting would have been ridiculous but here made him seem to Belong. Across the clearing my wife sat, still talking with Cal. Somewhere close by — every now and then I could hear them — my children played, weaving new friendships and games out of smoke and sunshine.

“It feels like coming home,” I said.

Another pause. After a full minute, as I was about to speak again, Kai continued. “For some of us, Martin, there is no coming home. Then one must make the most of where one is.”

“‘Home is where the heart is’, you mean?” As I heard my words I cringed. They sounded so corny.

“Something like that, yes.”

Kai went silent again and looked away from me across the clearing. I wondered if my unintended flippancy had annoyed him. Suddenly, it was important to me that it should not have. I glanced across at him. In the short time since we had met, his face, and especially his eyes, had been bright and alive — present was the word that occurred to me. Now, though, those grey eyes were undeniably Distant, as if beneath the trees he saw other faces and heard a different music.

I followed Kai’s line of sight and met Ellen’s gaze again. Only this time it was not me she was staring at but Kai. No, not staring: it was as if the two of them were joined by their shared look. I knew, suddenly, instinctively and without any sense of surprise, that Ellen was experiencing whatever Kai was seeing behind his distant eyes. And I sensed that neither of them were anywhere near as young as they had first appeared.

Their intensity unnerved me. I was getting into something deep. Something was happening around me. Something that might include me, if I dared to let it.

A loud laugh from Mike caught my attention and I glanced across in the direction of the fire. He was there, with Emma and a little girl they seemed to have made friends with. All was well. Then I noticed two of those sat around the fire were staring across at us. At Kai. The man’s long hair, dark grey peppered with white like a frost upon slate, cascaded about the shoulders of a blue robe. I’d have put his age at maybe fifty, though in retrospect I am not so sure.

His companion appeared a woman of similar years. She wore a dark green dress. Her hair, though, showed no sign of age and shimmered like gold in the sunlight which fell upon her through the trees above. For a moment she turned to her companion and I caught a flash of silver from a brooch at her breast.

I shook my head. What was going on? Who were these strange people? Assuredly, they were not Outsiders like me and Pamela and Cal and the students still drumming in the centre of the clearing. The four of them Belonged here.

I looked at the drummers. They all seemed intent upon their music and paid me no heed. The rest of the people about the fire the same. Outsiders, too. The drumming was getting to me, nevertheless, and I glanced back at the players. One of them stood up — the guy in the big felt hat. Taller and older than he had appeared sitting down, he seemed to be leading the others in the rhythm.

For just a moment he looked over in the direction of Ellen, who was still stood at the counter of the kitchen stall. As he caught her gaze the pulse of his drumming paused agonisingly. A glint of silver again, this time upon the brim of his huge, ridiculous hat. Then he sat back down and brought the drumming about him to a crescendo of thrumming sound.

Kai moved beside me and I glanced back at his face. The distant look had gone and he was Present again. The drumming stopped short amid laughter and cheers from those taking part in the music.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like something to eat?” Kai asked me.

“Okay,” I replied this time. “Yes, I am hungry.”

“Good.”

Kai led me across to the kitchen.

“Ellen,” he began. “This is Martin. He’d like something to eat. Can you fix him something?”

“Of course. What would you like, Martin?” She gave me another of her smiles, but this time its effect on me was more normal. I blushed deeply.

“You choose. Please.”

“All right.”

I watched Ellen moving — easy, graceful — as she fixed me what looked like a piece of plain bread on a platter of leaves. I’d rather had my eye on the gooey-looking vegan chocolate cake. As she handed it to me I glimpsed what I now more than half expected to find. At her belt a silver brooch just like Kai’s.

“Thanks. The bread looks good.”

“Try it.”

I bit into the bread and almost choked in surprise. It was delicious, far better than it appeared. Ellen laughed out loud.

“It’s great!” I exclaimed.

“I’m glad you like it. Good, simple, food means a lot to us.”

Us. I looked round for Kai, but he seemed to have vanished. The older couple were still sat by the fire, but were paying no attention to anything beyond the dancing flames. I finished the bread: it was easily the most wholesome food I’d ever tasted.

oOo

I knew it was time to go. That whatever it was that had happened, had happened and was over. And yet I also knew something had changed for me. In an important way I had been allowed Inside something big and wonderful. Nothing could be quite the same again. I handed back the leaf platter.

“Thank you, Martin. Here, take this leaf in return.” And with that Ellen unclipped the brooch from her waist and placed it in my hand.

“I don’t know what to say,” I began. “But — thanks!”

I made to leave. To join my family and the Real World again. “Just one thing,” I began, turning back to Ellen and nodding to the branches overhead. “Why does the banner say ‘Home Eleven’?”

She looked up; paused for only a moment before replying. “That’s not what it says.”

 

Originally published in 1999 by Middle-earth Reunion.

Wednesday 18 January 2023

How to Use Text-to-Speech to Improve Your Blogging

Shout-out to the typos that make it through three rounds of content edits, copyedits, and two rounds of proofreading. I am inspired by your dedication and tenacity. (Unknown)

You’ve written and edited your blog post. You’ve proofread it, added the links, photos, and keywords. It’s just about ready to go — but something isn’t quite right. You can’t put your finger on it, but you feel there’s something missing or out of place. A tenacious typo or missing word, perhaps, that eluded your proofreading skills. Or maybe it’s an important topic and you just want that extra level of reassurance before pressing the publish button.

That’s where text-to-speech (TTS) comes in. There’s nothing quite like having your words read aloud to you to help gauge the tone and flow of the piece. It can help you identify repetition, omissions, typos, and awkward phrasing. It couldn’t be easier, and it needn’t cost a penny. Let’s take a look.

My First Experience of Text-to-Speech

I remember the first time I stumbled on the potential of TTS. I was at STACK Newcastle, one of my all-time happy places. I’d called in to enjoy the live music and a beer. Sat at a bench, surrounded by the lunchtime clientele, I took out my phone and continued proofreading my latest blog post. For the first time, I noticed the Read Aloud function, tucked away in Word’s Review menu. I put on my Bluetooth headset and clicked the button.

It was a fascinating and valuable exercise. It highlighted several typos I’d missed in earlier editing passes. More than that, though, I found it incredibly moving to hear my words read back to me, artificial voice or not. Like most writers, I often doubt the quality and value of my writing. It might sound corny but the experience was profoundly validating. I’m not ashamed to say it brought tears to my eyes.

I don’t use TTS for every blog post. I tend to reserve it for longer articles, or ones where the topic is particularly important to me. But it’s something I employ now and again and always find it worthwhile.

My Blogging Workflow

My blogging workflow is essentially unchanged from when I described it a couple of years ago, although I’ve added an app called QuickEdit+ into the mix. I find it easier to add HTML and CSS tags there. It also has live previews so I can test links before moving my article into Blogger. I also tend to work exclusively on my Android phone and tablet, rarely if ever using my PC. My typical workflow these days is as follows:

  • Google Keep (initial notes, idea development, drafting, and basic edits)
  • Microsoft Word (smart quotes, editing, and proofreading)
  • QuickEdit+ (HTML and CSS tags, links, and link testing)
  • Blogger (images and final proofing before publication)

If I’m using TTS, it’s best to do so before adding HTML and CSS tags and links (otherwise these will be read back along with the basic text). I find Microsoft Read Aloud the most convenient, as I have the article in Word anyway. I’ll sometimes copy and paste the document into NaturalReader or Epub if I want to try a different voice.

TTS Options

I’ll list the methods I’ve used, but no matter what hardware and operating system you prefer, there will be a TTS solution for you. You can pay for extra options, but it’s likely that the free services will be more than adequate.

Microsoft Read Aloud
Read Aloud is one of a number of TTS options available to users of Microsoft Word and Office. Other options include Immersive Reader, Narrator, Speak (Windows only), and Speech (MacOS only). If you routinely use Word / Office, this is probably the best place to start. Options vary with version and operating system (Web, Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android). You can find full details on the Microsoft support page.

NaturalReader Online
Published by Naturalsoft Ltd, NaturalReader is a text-to-speech service (website and app) that supports text files, PDFs, webpages, and eBooks (excluding DR-protected formats such as iBooks, Kindle, and Nook). The free service more than meets my needs but there are subscription levels offering more options.

Epub Reader
Epub Reader is a free app by Librera which allows you to read a wide range of document formats and includes a TTS voice engine. I find the voices less natural than those of Read Aloud and NaturalReader, but it is highly customisable and you may find it fits your workflow perfectly.

One More Tool in Your Toolbox

It might seem a lot of effort to go to, just have some synthetic voice read your lovingly crafted words back to you. Some TTS voices do sound artificial, but others are excellent. Most TTS systems offer a choice of male and female voices, and you can often vary the tone and reading speed to suit your preferences.

It’s not only applicable to bloggers, of course. Whatever you write, you may find it valuable as a proofing tool, or simply enjoy hearing your precious words read back to you. Ultimately, TTS is one more tool in your writer’s toolbox, to use or not as you wish.

Over to You

In this post I have described my experience using Text-to-Speech systems as part of my blogging workflow. Have you used TTS? If so, did you find it valuable? What other editing and proofing tools do you use? Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.

 

Photo by Laurent Jollet at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 4 January 2023

2022: My Year in Photos and Blog Posts

At the end of 2020 I shared one photo and one blog post for each month of a year that none of us could have predicted. I did the same thing at the close of 2021, documenting my emergence from covid lockdowns and restrictions. Continuing the tradition, here’s my personal look back at 2022 in photos and blog posts. I hope you’ll enjoy looking through it as much as I did putting it together.


January

The year began on a social note when I attended a party organised by my friend and fellow blogger Aimee Wilson to mark her blog’s continuing success. I enjoyed helping her celebrate her achievement and met several of her friends for the first time. Taken at the venue, Room 305 in Whitley Bay, this photo captures the spirit of the occasion and my hopes for the year ahead. From January’s blog posts, I’m choosing Helping People Helps You Too (But Don’t Lose Sight of Your Needs). I wasn’t doing very well at the start of the year and this post reminded me there are things we can do to lift us when we’re feeling down, including being there for other people.


February

It wasn’t hard to choose a photo for February, because I hardly took any! I’ve selected one of my Traveler’s Notebook at my favourite coffee shop, Costa Coffee in Kingston Park. It’s one of my four happy places and one of my all-time favourite writing venues. I spent many hours there during the year, mostly on a Saturday when I’d settle at my favourite table to work on my blog post for the week. Of the articles I posted in February I’ve gone with Too Small for Comfort: When Life Closes In On You which describes how I was feeling at the time. I’m happy to say that I closed out the year feeling a lot more positive.


March

In March I rented a car for the first time since December 2019. It was great to get out and about, and visit places I’d not been for a couple of years. These included the Barn at Beal, Bamburgh, Alnwick Garden, Morpeth, and Otterburn (pictured).

I’ve chosen an article called Shhhhhhh! A Friend’s Guide to Secrets which was inspired by a quotation by Vikrant Parsai: “Be careful with whom you share your secrets. Don’t forget your best friend has a best friend, and your best friend’s best friend also has a best friend.” I found it an interesting topic to explore, and it’s a post I revisit at times.


April

My fortnight off work was interrupted when I started feeling poorly. I tested positive for covid at the end of the first week, which put an end to being out in public. I spent the second week at home, apart from a couple of short walks for exercise. I wrote up my experiences in a blog post titled Pathologically (Covid) Positive in which I reflected on what it meant for me to get poorly, and how fortunate I was to be able to rest and recoup without any serious risk to my health or employment. It was also a reminder that it’s okay to acknowledge that I was actually feeling pretty ill for a few days. I was fine after a week or so, and fortunately haven’t caught covid again since.


May

The photo shows a Lego sculpture at Washington Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, which I visited with family in May. It was interesting to see how the place had developed in the four or five years since I’d last been there. I’ve sponsored a swan with the WWT for a number of years now and the program includes a complimentary ticket to any of the Trust’s sites. My subscription has just renewed, so I’ll definitely pay a return visit in 2023.

I wrote an article in May titled It’s Not Enough: Exploring Loneliness for Mental Health Awareness Week. The inspiration was a quotation by Mark Rowlandthe, CEO of the Mental Health Foundation: “Loneliness is the feeling we experience when there is a mismatch between the social connections we have and those that we need or want.” I touched on more positive themes in Up-Blips of Emotion: Exploring the Strange Things That Make My Weird Little Heart Happy.


June

I took very few photos during June, but this skyscape near where I live reminds me of the many local walks I took, and the pleasant summer weather we had before the debilitating heatwave that hit the UK in July.

Throughout the year I kept myself busy teaching myself shorthand. I shared my interest in different modes of writing in a blog post titled From Thought to Page: Adventures With Teeline Shorthand and Other Writing Systems. I’m still far from expert but it’s something I want to continue with this year. As well as enjoying learning a new skill, it’s proven a useful distraction technique when I’m feeling down or otherwise not at my best.


July

The photo shows the view from River House, just outside Ambleside in the Lake District, across the deck and garden to the hills beyond. This was my first trip away from home since October 2019, and coincided with the highest temperatures the UK has ever recorded. I didn’t set foot outside the house for two days, but there were plenty of opportunities to explore through the rest of the week when the temperature was more reasonable. I enjoyed revisiting old haunts from previous vacations, including Bowness, the Lakeside to Haverthwaite steam railway, the Lakes Aquarium, and the Kirkstone Pass Inn. Best of all, I got to visit the Wateredge Inn in Ambleside, another of my four happy places.

I’ve chosen to spotlight an article of mine, enigmatically titled Brass Taps and Watering Cans: a Few Thoughts on Friendship, Duty, and Sacrifice. Like many of my posts, it was inspired by a conversation with Fran. It allowed me to explore some of my thoughts and feelings about offering help to others, drawing on my experience supporting Fran and other friends, as well as some of my short story writing. It’s one of my favourite posts of 2022, and a close runner-up for article of the year.


August

It might seem odd to choose a photo of a keyboard, but it represents a couple of things that are important to me. I’m never happier than when I’m sitting — as I am now — at my favourite table at my local coffee shop, with my little traveling office set up in front of me: my phone and tablet on their respective stands, and my Bluetooth headset and keyboard. My previous TechGear keyboard was great, but it was fiddly to switch it from phone to tablet. I fell in love with the Logitech K380 the moment I saw it advertised, but what sold me was the hot key function which means you can swap between up to three devices at the press of a button. I had a few issues adapting my typing to the K380’s layout and larger size, but it’s made a huge difference to my writing experience, whether I’m sitting in a coffee shop, at home, or in the office. Continuing the writing theme, in August I shared a post titled Write without Fear, Edit without Mercy: Eight Questions for the Honest Blogger. Presented as a Q&A, it invites the reader to explore their approach to writing with integrity.


September

The photo I’ve chosen is of the sun setting over the tracks at my local Metro train station. It serves as a reminder that I crossed the tracks to go to Costa Coffee (up to five times a week) or the supermarket (Tuesdays and Fridays) far more often than I took train rides anywhere. I went into the city centre three times. I commuted to the office twice a week. I caught the train to the airport to collect and return rental cars in March, July, and October. I visited the coast twice, in January and November. Barring those Metro journeys, and occasional taxi rides to Blyth, my year was lived within walking distance of home. And it was none the worse for that. I’ve learned that where I am is less important to me than what I’m doing and who I’m with, whether in person or online.

I’ve selected two blog posts written during September. Each was inspired by conversations with friends. The first came about after my friend Maya challenged me on something I’d previously written in an open letter to my father. In I’m Weak and What’s Wrong With That? I explored aspects of weakness and stigma, with a particular focus on men’s mental health. The second article — A Few Thoughts on Taking My Own Advice — was my response to my friend Brynn asking if I follow my own advice. Spoiler alert: not always!


October

During my October break from work I rented a car and enjoyed days trips in North East England. These included the Heatherslaw Light Railway and Etal village, the Blacksmiths café at Belsay, and Otterburn Mill. I spent the rest of my fortnight blogging and practicing my shorthand. In Speaking Up, Speaking Out: Harnessing the Power of the Spoken Word for World Mental Health Day I explored the importance of the spoken word in countering stigma and ignorance about mental health. There are links to video and audio recordings from some of my speaking engagements, so you can hear me for yourself, if you’d like to!


November

I mentioned earlier that I only went into Newcastle city centre three times last year. The first two occasions were in February and March, respectively, to celebrate birthdays with friends. The third was in November when I traveled in for my covid booster at the NHS vaccination centre at the Centre for Life. I didn’t linger in the city but I did stop for breakfast — and my first mince pie of the season — at Caffè Nero at Central Station. November also included two meet ups with friends. Aimee and I had a great time at the Christmas Market at Spanish City in Whitley Bay. A week later, Louise took time out of a visit with family to meet me in Costa and revisit our bench! Thank you, both, for ensuring my Christmas got off to a great start!

For International Men’s Day (November 19) I wrote Being a Man: Exploring My Gender, which proved a lot trickier than I imagined. As I wrote, “it’s not that I’ve ever felt misgendered, or unhappy at being thought of as male. I’ve worn my gender identity all my life, albeit without thinking much about it. I was a boy. I am a man. But what does that mean?” My exploration led me to consider some of the most important men in my life, including my father and uncles. It’s an important topic and one I’m likely to revisit in the future, because I don’t think I did more than scratch the surface.


December

I visited my local Toby Carvery several times through the year. This photo, though, recalls one particular visit in early December when I met up with my American friend Laurel and her sister Tiffany. Laurel is one of Fran’s best friends. We’d shared video calls a few times over the years when she’d been with Fran, but this was the first time we’d had the opportunity to meet in person. Whether the chance ever arises again or not, it was fabulous to see them both. As testament to friendships young and old, I’ve chosen something I shared originally on social media in 2011. I Am Known, Inside and Out is a short expression of the best that any friendship — any relationship — can aspire to.


Post of the Year

It wasn’t easy to pick one photo to represent the year as a whole. I settled on this one of my Traveler’s Notebook taken after I’d archived the older of the two completed inserts — each crammed full of memories — and added a new one. It’s always a poignant moment for me. The archived insert ran from October 2019 to March 2021, so that’s eighteen months I’ll no longer be carrying around with me everywhere I go. I’m excited, though, to discover what moments and memories will be recorded in the new insert over the months to come.

One way or another, 2022 was a transition year for me. At work, I moved from supporting systems I’d worked on for years, to an old-but-new-to-me application which will be the focus of my work for the coming year. As well as learning new skills and practices, it meant integrating into a new team, which I enjoyed greatly. (Shout out to Nick, Pete, Shilpa, James, and Ray; also to Tony and Gary who made the transition with me.) There have also been shifts in my key friendships over the year, with some easing away and others opening up.

I explored transitions in my final blog post of the year, And Sometimes It Happens: The Gentle Art of Letting Go. That might seem a sad topic on which to close, but ultimately there’s a message of hope and moving on, which feels appropriate as one year ends and another year begins. We need to let go of what has happened — the good and the not so good — in order to make room for whatever is coming next.

Here’s to 2023, whatever it may bring.