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I wrote last month about our impending return to England, ten years after we had left it to move to Canada.  I haven’t yet found words to express the range and depth of feeling that emerged from that time.  I can only visit in vignettes . . . powerful impressions and emotions and a great sense of homecoming.  Fresh in my heart today is a visit we made to a lovely old cottage hidden away in the pine forests surrounding Holkham Bay in north Norfolk.  It is a place that has always spoken to my heart’s dream and reminds me of an editorial piece I wrote about it many years ago . . . .

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From the Oxford English Dictionary

Elysium (ɪˈlɪzɪəm) n. 1. Also called Elysian Fields. Greek myth. the dwelling place of the blessed after death. 2. a state or place of perfect bliss [from Greek Elusion pedion, blessed fields].

What is your concept of paradise? To each one of us, it can be so different – a place, a person, a time, all of those things taken together to produce an idealised utopia. My own image of paradise may seem somewhat drab and bare by comparison to some, yet I can’t seem to let it go.

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You see, there is this little cottage. Only such a little thing. It stands on top of a high sand dune in the middle of a pine forest, its glass front facing bravely to the North Sea, it’s hand-clinked sandstone chimney turning the curve of its backbone to the sea’s gales.

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The clapboard exterior has been scoured silver by sand and salt-laden winds. Indeed, the whole cottage looks truly scrubbed within and without. Whenever I climb the steep steps to the little verandah, a little gypsy breeze greets me with its heady sweet pungence, all salt and sea-borne things, hot baked sand and marram grass, pollen and pine sap and cool green moss. Peeping through the wide windows, it is always empty. There is invariably a little pile of sand blown under the door, waiting for a loving hand to sweep it away. 

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It has all of three rooms. The little galley kitchen at the back is empty of all but a few candle stubs in jars. From the side window, you can just see into a narrow sleeping room of two bunks stacked on each other. Most of this scoured shell of a cottage is given over to the large front room facing out over the sea. Silvered floorboards are bare of furniture or rug. The room is empty but for the overwhelming glory of an enormous fireplace in the seaward corner. Above that fireplace, you see, is the mirror. Oh, such a mirror! So out of place it looks, as though it has been plucked from Neptune’s own palace and deposited to hang alone in that sand-scoured little cabin.

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Every inch of four feet high and as wide, the mirror is surrounded by a great, curving frame, deeply encrusted with seashells and barnacles. No, my friend, this is not of the souvenir-from-the-seaside variety. The shells have aged into the beauty of subtlest evening-sky hues, giving the thing an odd grace and grandeur. The enigma of that mirror intrigues me.

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This little cottage beckons me, speaks to me, belongs to me. And I belong to it. I long to sit with it on that dune. In my mind’s eye, I watch the sunset sea through the pines from its porch, return to its welcoming arms after a storm-tossed beach walk.

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I long to light a driftwood fire in the grate of that amazing fireplace. I would line those wide sills with treasures from the sea. I would sit and rock and watch the stars reflected in Neptune’s mirror. I would eat samphire from the shore cooked in that tiny kitchen. My soul and I could find each other there. I would paint and paint and paint, and when there was no colour left to the day, I would write, by the firelight, content and alone.

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 It will never, can never, be mine anywhere but in my heart. Yet we know we belong to each other, this little cottage and I. Maybe that is all the paradise I need.

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The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.
~Jacques Yves Cousteau11bc86ce365a11e1abb01231381b65e3_7

And so, the time approaches for me to make what is becoming an annual pilgrimage to the California coast of my childhood.  Excitement is building as I have made travel arrangements and begun my work on samples and supplies.  The opportunity to travel back to California regularly has become the greatest gift of my artistic life, and has given me a touchstone with my past that has long been absent.  We lived in the Greater Los Angeles area for a number of years during my childhood, and returned there often to visit grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  I spent my childhood on LA’s beaches and imprinted my soul with the colour of its sunlight.  Visits have involved a kind of double vision for me, seeing the LA of today and the LA of my childhood overlapping.  My beloved grandparents lived out the second half of a life that was amazing to my eyes on that coast.  Returning brings me back into the arms of those aunts and uncles and cousins I so love and teaches me that, for me, California will always be home.

This year will be the fourth year in a row I’ve been privileged to make this journey.  The trip this year marks some precious landmarks in my life.   Once again, I will enjoy sharing and creating with all the enthusiastic, talented and creative students and teachers at the CREATE Mixed Media Retreat in Irvine.  A full week of creation, good talk and fun times (with a bit of wine, I’m sure) to come.

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The second week will be something very different.  For the first time since my husband and I met 27 years ago, I will take a vacation on my own, away from my family.  The trip will mark another of my growing list of Fifty Things I Have Never Done.  For June 6 will be my 50th birthday.  To mark it, I will undertake the next leg of my journey to complete the Pacific Coast Highway.  This time, I will tour north from Los Angeles, ending up with a few days seeing old friends in San Francisco.  I haven’t been to San Francisco since I was a very small child.  The trip will culminate in meeting with a most dear friend I have not seen since we were both in high school some 34 years ago.CA-Highway1Sign-XL

As with my trip along the Pacific Coast Highway in Washington and Oregon last year, my days and nights will be spent kicking along through the nostalgia of the small coastal towns, walking for hours barefoot on the beach, touching the sea and talking with my grandfather, whose ashes were scattered in the sea off that coast 25 years ago.  This poem was my grandfather’s favourite and was read at his funeral. The words of the poem go to a deep place inside me that expresses the feeling of my sojourns to the sea better than any words I could conjure. My favourite line? ” . . where the wind’s like a whetted knife . . ” I’ve never known another that expressed my family’s feeling for the sea quite so perfectly.

Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

By John Masefield (1878-1967).
(English Poet Laureate, 1930-1967.)

I am eager for my days by the sea and for all those weeks will bring.  Leaving will be hard, harder each time, harder than ever this year with such special things and people to say goodbye to.    Even the prospect of a painful goodbye will not keep me away.  My beloved sea, I’ll be on my way soon.285789_10151228140617268_1161624324_n

“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach–waiting for a gift from the sea.”
– Anne Morrow Lindbergh