Summer blend 🌪️
On rock climbing, relationships and love the second time around — plus, to mark a year on Substack, the dubious merit of relentless honesty.
It’s funny because in between the stars you can see millions more.
That’s something Joel’s sister said last week, when we were camping in Wales.
Joel has three kids from his previous marriage. I have one. Together, we have none. Sometimes, I grieve for those children we’ll never have. Mostly, I think we’ve probably got our hands full enough already.
I grieve for the life I’ll never have; the love I’ll never have; the family I’ll never have. Sometimes the grief feels violent enough to eviscerate me.
It hits a high water mark this time of year and threatens to pull me under. We’re in the dog days of summer now. If you’re a parent you’ll know what that means: fractious children, a filthy house, the trappings of half-unpacked holidays and sand everywhere.
The noise of children is unrelenting. Existential dread is high.
It’s the time of year when you feel the tragedy of parenting; feel yourself being sucked dry, chained to the whims of ungrateful little beings. Wasted and husk-like, alongside the spent fields.
This post is a summer mash-up. There are some stars, some disparate things. In between, you can see many more.
See if you can spot them.
Camping in Wales, Joel’s brother-in-law caught a sea bass and we cooked it in the van.
The van belongs to Ishtar, a friend. He’s a grocery delivery driver and also a climber. He lives in his van, sometimes with his son who is two.
He told me he has a good parenting relationship with his ex-wife. His son is bright and names letters of the alphabet: chatty, secure and precocious as anything.
While we ate with our fingers, Ish told us stories about the little old ladies he worries might be trying to kidnap him when he delivers their groceries, like that ad about Carlsberg export drivers in rural Denmark.
The seabass is so fresh it makes our mouths sticky.
“They all want you to put the deliveries in the kitchen. ‘Oh, you’re a fine specimen.’ Or down in the basement. I’m like, I’m not going down those stairs, I’ll never come back out. I did go down into one. She said ‘My freezer’s down in the basement.’ She looked pretty frail and I thought I can push her over if I need to. Anyway, down I went to the freezer in the basement and opened it up and it was all pizzas. And I thought I’m safe.”
We wondered briefly why his delivery route is all old ladies.
“It’s pretty rural and mostly they don’t drive. They don’t have accidents. Except my grandma, she does. Drives really slowly into hedges and that. Then she tells me ‘oh John with the tractor come and pulled me out’. ”
Ish walked one hundred and twenty-eight miles barefoot to protest climate change. His arches collapsed and he had to strap his feet together for the last stretch.
He’s admiring Joel’s brother-in-law’s feet.
“You’ve got lovely feet. Lovely big toes, all spaced out. Look at them! They’re so evenly spaced and uniform. I don’t know if it’s climbing shoes or what but my little toe doesn’t spread. Not like those people who grow up barefoot. Their toes are all lovely and spread out.”
Twenty-four hours later, we are on a climbing holiday. It comes on the back of the camping holiday in Wales, which was spent in the company of seven (yes, you read that right, seven) children — and so was rather strenuous.
It’s no surprise to anyone that a blended family presents challenges. It is no small matter to parent, let alone to parent someone else’s child. If you’re struggling to understand, imagine being woken up at 6am — by someone else’s child. Imagine someone else’s child getting poop (theirs, probably) on the toilet seat. Imagine them dipping a smeary spoon into your meal; touching ketchup-y hands all over your taps and door handles.
Add to that how hard it is to hear someone you love chastise someone you made. Add an uncooperative ex, who doesn’t do their fair share of parenting. Add the normal resentments over who loaded the dishwasher and how many times you’ve cooked this week.
Congratulations. You’re maybe one-thousandth of the way towards understanding what’s difficult about blending families and co-parenting.
A climbing holiday is also a strenuous holiday. Maybe someday I’ll take a holiday that feels like a holiday: something with sun loungers and cocktails and nothing much to do all day but luxuriate in a warm, shaded and breezy location.
Or maybe not.
The climbing holiday started at 4am the morning after we arrived back from the camping holiday. We dropped Joel’s kids back with their mum and drove home to unpack, do laundry and repack our bags in time to snatch about two hours of restful slumber before the 4am alarm.
Suffice to say, I was not in the most sanguine frame of mind when, about halfway to Gatwick, it transpired that Joel had forgotten not only his driver’s licence, but his entire fucking wallet.
He redeemed himself slightly at Europcar in Milan airport, after a nail-biting two hour flight.1 I was on the verge of signing on the dotted line when he pointed out we were, colloquially, getting fucked in the ass with the price. Checking prices of cars online, he found us a deal for less than half at Hertz.
So it was that I found myself being given control of a rental car in Milan airport, the sole designated driver, less than a year after getting my licence. On Italian roads, and more pertinently, with Italian drivers — and, if you don’t know, let me tell you without hyperbole that Italian drivers are the worst in the world.
It’s a wonder that, driving Italian roads, you don’t pass wreck after smoking wreck, and pile after heaped pile of dismembered roadside corpses.
The car was terrible: basically, just a moped engine with some slinky branding. It was a manual, which would be fine, but everybody was driving on the right, which was NOT fine because I drive on the left.
My left hand scrabbled the door, over and over again, grasping fruitlessly for the gear stick as I merged into about twelve lanes of fuming Italian traffic. I tried to indicate and the wipers swished in the sunshine.
Joel alerted me to a motorcycle overtaking me on the left, just as someone ahead of me came to a full stop. Without skipping a beat, they flung backwards towards me in reverse.
“There’s a motorcycle to the left. Careful, that guy is overtaking you. So is that guy. Pedestrians walking two abreast in the shade over there. Go left at this roundabout. No, the other way, third exit.”
It’s a little stressful.
And the kicker of course was that, as the sole designated driver, a drink to calm the nerves was not an option.
Then, we’re at a crag and I’m watching butterflies. Two butterflies swirl around each other as if caught in an updraft. My hands are a paste-y mix of chalk and sweat, my feet about two sizes bigger than usual in the heat, in tiny climbing shoes.
Oleander and centaury line the dirt track — an old Roman road into the Alps —we followed out here. Columbine sprouts from the smallest gaps in the rock. We passed giant pitcher plants along the road and blackberries, lemon trees, grapes on the vine, all dusty in the sun. The air is heavy with the scent of bougainvillea, rhododendron and the sweet fug of wasp-misted fig trees. The wasps are the size of hummingbirds.
Climbing is an intellectual adventure. Each move is a collection of mental assessments of balance and weight; strength and swing. You’re only safe when you’ve made your clip and, even then, only until you start to climb past it. Once past your last clip, you’re in the unknown: exposed and fully reliant on your partner to catch you.
That’s the other thing: climbing is a sport for two. Unless you’re Alex Honnold, you really want someone climbing with you, spotting you if you’re bouldering or belaying you if you’re on a rope. Your life is in their hands if you take a fall. There is a climb here called “Maturi e Contenti”, which without checking Google Translate, I’m comfortable to translate as “mature and content”.
That is a good description of how you want to be when you’re climbing.
I went climbing once with an ex-boyfriend. As the day progressed, I could tell he was getting a bit pissed off that I was climbing better than him. On the last climb of the day, a difficult boulder problem that I thought I might try in a swell of confidence, I came off about halfway.
Now, bouldering you use a crash pad, which is like a big mattress to catch your falls. Your partner should spot you, guide your fall to the mat.
They should arrest your momentum and hold you, to keep you safe until you stop falling.
That day, my ex was spotting me and he caught my shoulders as I landed on the mat. And then immediately let go of me.
Still full of dynamic movement from the fall, I spun sideways off the mat. My foot turned. I fell heavily sideways onto unstable rocky ground and felt something snap.
I broke my ankle that day because he wasn’t with me, every step of the way. My ankle has never been the same since, and never will be.
Every love leaves us a little wounded.
Today, Joel lead-climbed his first tough climb outside. To the non-climbers, that means he climbed, tied into a rope, from the ground up to a bolted anchor 20m above the ground and then lowered off it. I was on the other end of the rope at the bottom.
Along the way, he clipped six bolts, which means he attached his rope to a piece of gear called a quickdraw, which was clipped into a specially-placed loop of metal glued into the rock. That means if he was to fall at any point, he would fall to the bolt below him plus the amount of rope above the bolt when he fell (plus a little extra for rope stretch). This is in contrast to climbing on a rope that is already attached to the anchor above (called top-roping, seconding or following) — where there is little risk of falling any great distance at all.
When you are below, on the bottom end of the rope, belaying someone who is lead-climbing, you have to pay close attention. You have to be right there with them, watching how high up above their last bolt they are, assessing how secure they look or how likely to fall they might be, making sure they haven’t inadvertently got a leg behind the rope (which might flip them if they fell suddenly), making sure you have let out enough rope for them to clip but not so much that they will deck if they fall. You have to be ready to brace, to pull in rope if there’s an excess or feed out rope quickly if they need extra.
Joel started to climb and the route went up into a roof, the inside of a cave that curved sharply above his head and flared out. There were big holds (amusingly called jugs) but he was almost horizontal to the ground. He made the first two clips and rested on the rope. We talked briefly about the next clip. It was right at the crux (the most difficult move). To make it, he would need to hang on one arm, clip a quickdraw to the bolt with his other arm and then pull up enough extra rope to make the clip. All while still hanging from one arm in a near horizontal position.
Trust me, this isn’t easy unless you are very, very strong.
The problem was that, if he fell after pulling up extra rope but before making the clip, he would effectively hit the ground (or at least land on me below). It was my job to watch him and make sure that didn’t happen. Any extra rope needed to be taken back in immediately, if he started to look squirrelly.
He moved up to the lip of the roof and, hanging on his right arm, put the quickdraw in the bolt. He pulled up the rope to clip, and just as I was celebrating internally thinking he’s made it, he dropped the extra rope and said:
“No I don’t have it, take!!”
‘Take’ means ‘take in rope’ and is climber code for ‘I’m about to fall’.
I whipped the extra rope back in and he fell, safely.
“I couldn’t make it. It’s so pumpy on the arms. But at least the draw is in now. Next time.”
And so, after a rest, he went again.
This time, he made the clip, heaved himself over the lip and finished the rest of the climb with ease.
While we were on holiday in Italy, I published a note on Substack.
Here it is.
Joel backed me.
He’s the one who told me to publish what I feared might be too controversial a note.
Do it, he said. No one cares about reading wishy-washy mealy-mouthed insincere pleasantries all day. Just say what you feel.
That’s not being unkind: it’s being honest.
It strikes me as the peak of insincerity to advocate for “kindness”. Telling someone to be kind is a way of telling them to pipe down, to conform, to avoid causing trouble. It’s what people above tell people below to keep them in line, to maintain their perch, to quell criticism.
It’s insincere because this world isn’t kind — and, this being Substack, this being a writer, means giving your innermost thoughts a goodbye kiss and sending them out to be bludgeoned. Picked through, ransacked, ignored. Or, maybe just maybe, every once in awhile, adored.
*That* once in awhile makes it worth it. It’s how I feel when I alight on something I love too: gold.
It’s why I would rather have one genuine “this resonated” than fifty platitudinous empty hearts. Spare me your faux-kindness; honesty is the only kindness I care about on Substack.
I write what I like to read. If I say I like your writing, you can rest assured: I really do. You don’t need to wonder if it’s because someone paid me or I got told it’s important to be kind or because I’ve got my eye on getting you to like my ‘stack, follow and subscribe. That is my solemn Substack vow.
And — this is crucial — if I like your writing, I want MORE of it. Not less.
Which is why it amuses me when prominent Substackers tell us to write less, to go quietly. Write a set number of words (sub 1000). Conform to the formula.
Essentially, the message is this:
Smile more. 2
Seriously? Who do they think they are? Aaron Burr, sir?
I thought this was Substack, the home of great writing. Not Substack, the home of generic platitudes and formulaic writing-by-numbers….
Awakened late in the hotel, head full of the Notes turmoil, I laid back down and tried to re-enter my dream.
It was a particularly vivid one in which waves surged around a bay and an unmoored tanker smashed into boats, churning the sea to planks and the boats to pulp.
It reminded me of The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, that heavy teak Nazi yacht smashing around Providence in a hurricane.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this book because I was asked to write about it for a popular book review Substack. When I expressed enthusiasm and said sure, I was sent a questionnaire (!) to fill in, asking me to pitch for the honour.
I’ll be very honest: I couldn’t be arsed to fill it in and decided I’d rather share my thoughts here on my own platform anyway. I am not a fan of middlemen. The beauty of Substack to me is the ability to speak directly to an audience.
Anyway, The Shipping News is a book of quiet genius, often overlooked in the canon of Pulitzer winners — because, well, female author? It tells of Quoyle, an unlucky man mistreated by life — failed marriage, physically unappealing, slow of wit — who returns to his father’s home island of Newfoundland with his children and a maiden (read: lesbian) aunt. There, he flexes his writing muscles and eventually rises to editorship of a local paper, writing the shipping news. He includes a profile of an interesting boat each week. No prizes for guessing which yacht was called ‘Tough Baby’.
Each chapter of The Shipping News opens with a diagram and description of a sailors’ knot, from the Ashley Book of Knots — for all those ways we tie ourselves to others (unintentionally or otherwise).
There’s a murder, a tremendous storm and a near-drowning. There’s seal flipper pie. There’s a trailer-rocking wild shindig of a party with the most grotesque bath-soap-rime-ringed chip barrel you’ll ever find.
There’s love, both wild and quiet. The old axiom about the four women in the life of a man: the maid in the meadow, the demon lover, the stout-hearted woman and the tall, quiet woman. I think of all the times in my life I’ve worn those various guises.
And also the times I haven’t.
Newfoundland is a weird place, by all accounts. A place of interior pine forests and small coves, where the easiest way to move from town to town is by boat. As the book makes clear, the place has a reputation for backwoods incest and sexual abuse. My parents lived there briefly in the early 1980s.
Not even a childhood home is safe, tethered to the rocks by steel wire. As in The Shipping News, it can still come loose in a storm, slip board by board into the sea.
But houses can be rebuilt, and new lives can be started.
The Shipping News is a book about second chances for flawed imperfect humans, and the improbability of love without pain.
Joel and I both needed a second chance. Both of us flawed humans, with our failed marriages, trailing children — flawed, febrile children that we love fiercely, just like Quoyle and his bawling, squalling daughters in The Shipping News.
Ultimately it is a hope-filled book. What speaks more strongly to you: second-chance love or misfortunes paving the way to success? No need to choose: The Shipping News has both.
All the ways in which misfortunes, mischances and wrong turns accrete into the life you really want.
If there can be hope for Quoyle, if Quoyle can blend families, find a rewarding career outside the city as a writer, full of family and love and redemption, so too can I.
So can we all.
Out to dinner on our last night in Italy, I went up to pay.
I said “tavolo trente-cuatro”3 with confidence and she responded just as confidently “yes!”
And I laughed because I’m sure her English is better than my Italian and she said to me in Italian “no, that’s the only thing I can say”. And I said in English “well, ‘tavolo trente cuatro’ is the only thing I can say in Italian” and she laughed and laughed and I said “I see you” and we both laughed more and Joel said what’s so funny and I explained to him and when I finished explaining to Joel, she nodded at him and said “my sister” and we both laughed some more.
As we’re packing up, I noticed my AirPods are missing. They were on my bedside table, I’m sure of it, and now they’re not.
“Have you seen them?”
“No. These are mine.” He waved his near my phone and it flashed up: Not Your AirPods. “Check FindMy.”
I opened FindMy and it gave a location for my AirPods, twenty miles away in Savona.
“Savona? What the fuck? We’re not in Savona. I’ve never even been to Savona.”
We drove past Savona on that hairy drive down the Italian motorway from Milan.
Joel looks dismissive.
“It’s probably malfunctioning or low on battery, I’m sure it’s just in your bag.”
But then it pings up, 8 minutes ago: Savona. A very specific location in a very specific apartment building, unmoving.
We went down to the lobby.
“My AirPods are in Savona.”
The elderly Italian woman at the concierge has no idea how to help me and, to be honest, I’m not sure what I want from her either.
I trudged outside to Joel.
“She doesn’t know.”
We looked again at FindMy. Still in that same apartment building.
“Let’s go to Savona and see if we can find them.”
“Oh Joel, no, let’s just leave them, it could be dangerous. I don’t want you getting shot or stabbed, this is Italy. What about the mafia?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, the mafia don’t steal AirPods.”
In Savona, I parked illegally (it’s ok, calm down, this is Italy) and Joel got out FindMy again. Sure enough, there they still are, in a nearby apartment building.
We bickered quietly. I am inclined to come with him. He wants me to wait in the car with my son.
He eventually leaves and I watch his buzzings on FindMy.
After ten minutes, I message: all ok?
He doesn’t respond. I call. He doesn’t answer. I call again, and again, and again. No response.
I am on the verge of springing from the car when he calls me back.
“It’s ok, I found them. They’re in this apartment, I can hear them pinging when I play sound on FindMy but the girl won’t give them to me. She says they’re not hers and she’s just a guest and the guy won’t be back until 3pm.”
“Tell her we’ll call the police.” I am a bit hysterical. “No, no, it’s not worth it, Joel, just leave.”
“No way, I’m getting them back!”
He emerged five minutes later, holding my AirPods.
When we arrived back home, we had about ten hours before Joel’s folks came to babysit for us, while we went to see The Yeah Yeah Yeahs play at All Points East on Friday night.
At the gig, we played festival bingo:
✔️ Someone sleeping in public
✔️ Someone vomming
✔️ Someone crying
✔️ Public urination
✔️ A massive blazing row
✔️ A silly hat
✔️ Matching shirt and shorts tropical-print combo
✔️ Someone eating something filthy
When she left us the next day, Joel’s mom hugged him tight. “You have a beautiful family,” she said.
All my life to fill one pure cup of love.
That’s somethingsaid to me last week, in Italian, in the middle of my Notes firestorm.
When we were walking to a climb in Italy, Joel said to me:
Paths are like rivers. Where people cut the corner, it makes the path. Like a river. They’re not predefined things; they exist where things flow over them. And if you didn’t walk it, in ten years it would disappear. Like a dry riverbed.
I think a relationship is a path you walk. You re-forge the path over and over again.
Sometimes, you stop and rest together in the shade. Sometimes, you beat back the brambles, which threaten to overtake.
The thing you’re waiting for never happens. Instead, lots of other things do.
I don’t have the family I expected. Something else happened instead.
We put up with a lot to love each other.
Joel could have every other week child-free, exploring the world. I could have only one child to care for, instead of an extra three sometimes.
We sacrifice a lot to walk this path together. It is not an easy path.
We may not have made children together. We may not fit everyone’s notion of family.
But, when the chips are down, he is there for me. Lost AirPods, a cheaper car rental, an Italian road navigator. Advocating for truth and authenticity when it counts.
And I, for him, ten feet above the last clip, with precarious footing and an excess of rope. I don’t let him fall.
What’s a forgotten driver’s licence and a poop-smeared toilet seat really, in the grand scheme of things?
Here’s Joel after his lead climb. He was stoked.
Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda — an unending source of wisdom.
Table thirty-four, I think.