Today is the Autumn Equinox, also known as Harvest Festival or the festival of Mabon. It’s the time of year when we officially say goodbye to summer. It certainly feels like that where I am today! Yesterday it was clear blue skies and calm seas, today it’s drizzly and grey and the leaves are falling in the woods. We’re at a turning point in the year, and winter is lurking around the corner.

From Nature Month-by-Month 2020, by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Elly Jahnz

The Harvest Festival is the closest thing we have in the UK to the North American tradition of Thanksgiving. The word “harvest” comes from the Old English hærfest meaning “autumn”. In years gone by it was a very important time in the farming calendar as the success of the harvest could mean the difference between life or death for a whole community. So if the harvest was good, it made sense to give thanks.

We are not as connected to our natural environment as we used to be, so the traditions of bringing in the harvest don’t touch most of us. And with the news as grim as it is there doesn’t seem much to be thankful for. We’re worried about our family and friends, and in some cases we don’t know when we might be able to see them again.

In times such as these, is even more important than ever for us to look after our mental health. I find that when I focus on being thankful for things, life feels more manageable. I also find that it helps if I can get outside into fresh air, away from crowds – and preferably into water.

Wherever you are today, I hope that you can find something to be thankful for. Keep safe and well – and a Happy Equinox to you all.

activities Almanac Anna Wilson autism baking bird spotting bluebells butterflies children’s non-fiction Christmas baking common dog violet Cornwall Elly Jahnz family festivals Halloween journal Kenna Macmillan Children’s Books memoir Monkey Business Monkey Madness National Trust Nature nature almanac nature diary Nature Month-by-Month nature notebook nettles nettle soup new life Nosy Crow Nosy Crow Books notebook red admiral Roald Dahl small tortoiseshell spring stinging nettles Summer’s Shadow Vlad Vlad the World’s Worst Vampire wildflowers writer writing

Time was something Mum obsessed over. Like the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland she would pace back and forth before she needed to be anywhere, checking her watch and her father’s old carriage clock and the grandfather clock in the hall, muttering over and over, “We’re going to be late!”

No wonder, perhaps, that I seem to have inherited this trait. It drives my family mad. I have a preference for being at least five minutes early for any appointment and get tight-chested and prickly with panic if stuck in traffic, watching the minutes race on by.

It’s a slippery thing, time. And the older I get, the more wily it becomes. Was it really five years ago today that Dad died? Because if I focus on that morning, not dissimilar to the one I can see today through my study window – quiet and still, the light low and golden – I can put myself exactly where I was and the years roll away and I am back there, by his side, watching his time run out.

Five years ago today time was of the essence. I had woken on the first day of a holiday on a remote island in the Chumphon Archipelago to a call from my sister to say that Dad had only 36 hours left to live. A quick calculation revealed that I would need every last second of those precious hours to make it back to the UK in time to see Dad before he kept his appointment with death.

I went to the beach while my husband raced around getting a taxi and booked a place on a ferry for me. The taxi had to arrive in the next ten minutes or I would miss the ferry. Oh, my fur and whiskers! While my husband rushed, I forced myself to walk slowly along the white sand. I picked up pieces of coral that looked like bleached bone. How was it possible that I was on a beach under an early morning tropical sun, while my dad was lying in a bed in the middle of the night in Kent, waiting to die. Had we done the maths right? Would my time-travelling across the zones from east to west get me to Dad before it was too late?

Thirty-six hours is not long. A day and a night and a day. Time that is easily wasted. I could spend thirty-six hours doing nothing but read, eat, sleep, repeat. Thirty-six hours is also the longest period of time a person can endure. I know this twice over, because my daughter took thirty-six hours to arrive into this world and there was not one second of that time that was not stretched with pain and fear.

In the end it did take exactly thirty-six hours for me to get to that bedside in Kent from that beach on Koh Tao. Thirty-six hours of excruciating minutes that crawled across the face of every clock I checked as though a curse had been put on them; as though I were living out a nightmare in which I was filled with a desperate need to reach my destination, but my legs were filled with lead and no amount of effort on my part was going to get me there fast enough.

I should have been used to this feeling. I had spent the past three years running on lead-filled legs, pushing boulders up hills only to have them roll back down and flatten me, time after time after time. Mum had been sick for so long by this point it had become normal to wake every morning weighed down by dread over what the day would bring. And then Dad’s cancer had crashed in and ripped the fabric of our lives apart and honestly there were days when I wanted to throw my head back and laugh like the mad women my mother was sharing a ward with.

Time played tricks on me over and over during that period. At one point in the early summer I was driving to see Dad in hospital and I completely forgot what month it was. My teenage kids seemed to suddenly skip a couple of years overnight and become young adults before my eyes. My skin wrinkled and my hair grew white as I stared at my reflection. A year disappeared in the blink of an eye.

I wasn’t too late in the end. I walked into the darkened room where Dad lay, and exactly one hour later he drew his last breath. A breath so deep it took every last ounce of energy from him. It was, quite literally, his last gasp. Sometimes cliches are the only way to go.

Now it’s five years later. Five whole years of breathing and sleeping and reading and writing and eating and playing and laughing and loving and crying and remembering and grieving and living. Five whole years without Dad. And two and a half without Mum. And yet it’s not five years. It’s a nanosecond. A wink. A shiver. It’s as though it were only yesterday. And long may that feeling last, for as long as I can hold them in my mind’s eye, they will still be here, Mum and Dad. Together. Time without end.

E1C45C3D-E367-41FC-A0D9-F489B7442E76

This week sees the publication of A Place for Everything– a book which has taken me almost seven years to bring out into the world. I started writing about my parents, and the struggles we as a family were facing, in my journal in 2013. The book will be published this Thursday, 9th July.

That 2013 journal became a blog called Good Grief which I started writing a year after my father died from an unusual and aggressive form of cancer just as my mother was being sectioned under the Mental Health Act for extreme anxiety.

Mum’s subsequent diagnosis of autism at the age of 72 had me trying out a longer piece of writing as a way of trying to make sense of everything we had been through as a family. I completed the manuscript of my memoir in 2018, the year my mother died. The book is out this week, almost two years to the day that I typed the final words of my first draft.

Not all books take this long to see the light of day. There have been times when I have wanted it see it on the shelves a lot sooner. However, I am glad this one has taken its time. In the past two years I have learned a lot about writing: about narrative structure, about setting the tone, about taking my readers with me on a journey that has been painful and a lot harder to write than any of my books for children. I have also learned a lot about myself. I have realised that my grief was mainly expressed in raw anger while I was writing down those first pages two years ago, but that now I am able to approach it in a more gentle and forgiving way.

That is partly why I have chosen the last chapter of the book to read to you in this video. It is a letter to my mother which I hope sums up my love for her and shows my readers that the anger has gone – and all that is left is love.

6EED3583-C0E0-43DA-A379-871EF8842735

 

“And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength” – Audre Lorde

The question people have most consistently asked about my memoir, A Place for Everything: my mother, autism and me, is “Why did you write it?” It’s a reasonable enough question: why put yourself through telling such a personal story? Why expose yourself in this way? (I also can’t help feeling that behind it lies the implied criticism, which most likely comes really from my own inner critic: why expose your family in this way?)

6EED3583-C0E0-43DA-A379-871EF8842735

It has given me pause for thought, though. Why did I write it? Was it first and foremost to spread the word about missed and late diagnoses of autism in women? Was it to reach out to people who have cared for and lost elderly relatives? Why does anyone write about their own lives? A few may do it for self-aggrandisement, but I doubt the majority does.

I read a lot of memoirs while I was writing my own, and the feeling I got from all of them was, “This is a story that has to be told”: whether it was Alys Fowler writing about her realisation that she loved another woman in Hidden Nature, or Cathy Rentzenbrink pouring out her love for her deceased brother in The Last Act of Love or Alexandra Fuller chronicling her childhood in the chaos of 1970s Rhodesia in Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight or Tara Westover writing about her incredibly dysfunctional family in Educated – they all had stories that seemed to pour out of them as though there were no stopping them. And therein lies the power and the authenticity of what they have to say.

So why did write about my life? If I am honest, and I really face into the question, I have to say that the reason I wrote it is because I wanted – needed – to be heard. I needed people to understand that my relationship with my mother was difficult as I grew into an independent-minded young woman, because my mother found the transformation of her daughter from small, compliant girl, into opinionated, adventure-seeking woman, very difficult herself. And the main reason that she found this so hard, I now understand, was because she had autism.

2BE54F27-C0F7-4670-A75D-70AD562E2F46

In the words of psychologist Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, people with autism have “a profound difficulty in appreciating another person’s different perspective, as if one’s own perspective were the true, correct view”. So when I wanted to live in London rather than down the road from my mother in Kent, as she had chosen to do, she couldn’t understand and she was angry and upset. And when I wanted to write books instead of use my language skills to teach as she had done, she couldn’t understand why I would want to waste my time in this way. And when I wanted to spend more and more of my time in Cornwall because the place tugged at my heartstrings, she took it as a personal rejection of my Kentish roots – and of her.

And so we fought. We fought and we fought and we fought. And at times I felt as though she hated me. And I hated her.

I knew, deep down, of course, that we didn’t really hate each other. It was just that something wasn’t right – that something in Mum had gone undetected and unexplained. Other people didn’t have these battles way into their 30s and their 40s with their mothers. Other people didn’t spend hours on the phone trying to convince their mothers that, yes I want to live life differently from the way you envisaged, but that doesn’t mean I love you any less.

So when Mum finally got the diagnosis, it made sense. And it gave me and my sister an enormous gift – the gift of being heard. Yes! Your mum is different. Yes! She sees the world in a completely different way from you. Yes! She doesn’t always understand where you are coming from. And it’s no one’s fault.

And yet, there were many people – still are – who did not believe it. These people had always seen my mum at her best: the charming, intelligent, engaging, charismatic woman who was immaculately dressed, smiling and accompanied by her adoring, equally charming and intelligent husband. These were the people who looked at my mum and thought, “This is a woman who has everything”. They didn’t see her have meltdowns when playing the part of the charming intelligent friend had taken its toll. They didn’t see her sink into depression and talk about “ending it all”. They didn’t spend hours on the phone listening to her say that “all I can see is misery”. So they didn’t have the full picture.

Writing the memoir, then, goes some way to trying to provide the full picture. It is me, standing on a mountain and shouting, for all the world to hear, “My mum was not the person you thought she was – she was like this!”

But it is also my attempt at reconciliation. It is my chance to say, “I loved you, Mum, in spite all your traits and tics and tempers and tantrums. I loved you because of them too.”

The feminist writer Audre Lorde wrote: “And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that is always fraught with danger”.

This is what it is to write a memoir. I was afraid – I am still afraid – of how the book will be received. I am afraid of what my friends and family will think of me and I am afraid of how strangers will react to the book. Because yes, it is an act of self-revelation. In writing the book I couldn’t get away from my own traits and tics and tempers and tantrums. But, as Audre Lorde’s daughter told her, you have to speak out because if you don’t, “if you keep ignoring [that little piece inside of you] , it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter and if you don’t speak it out, one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside”. To which Audre Lorde responds in her essay with the words, “And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength”.

So why did I write the memoir? To be heard, yes. But in doing that I had to confront my worst vulnerabilities. I had to be truthful and show myself in the worst light as well as showing Mum how she was – I had to show how I was too. And in doing that I hope I have gone some way towards earning forgiveness.

**

With thanks to the London Writers’ Salon for inviting me to their Writers’ Hour and sharing these quote from Audre Lorde this morning.

(quotes from Audre Lorde, ‘The transformation of language into silence and action’ from her book, Sister Outsider)

 

 

 

If you would like to hear me in conversation with Steve Slavin of adultswithautism.org.uk about my book and my mum’s late diagnosis, please click on this link.

 

 

My memoir, A Place for Everything – my mother, autism and me, is available for pre-order now and will be published in hardback, e-book and audiobook formats on 9th July 2020.

 

Today is Empathy Day – a day which focuses on a human being’s capacity to understand and share feelings. Is empathy something that we all have? Sometimes, looking around you and seeing other people’s behaviour, you might feel the answer is ‘no’. But I think we do all have empathy – we perhaps just don’t all show it in the same way and for the same things.

My mum had autism. We didn’t know she had autism until she was diagnosed at the age of 72. This meant that throughout her life she was misunderstood by people, not least by members of her own family – me included. One of the criticisms I often levelled at her was that she was not very empathetic. She could often come across as harsh and rarely seemed to even want to try to understand what others were feeling. She sometimes acted in ways that seemed inappropriate – laughing when I was sad about something, or shrugging me off when I needed a hug, for example. Once when I ran home crying because I had seen a squirrel run over by a car, Mum was simply baffled that I could get so upset over the death of a wild animal that she considered to be a garden pest. She didn’t seem to know what to do with all the emotions I was feeling.

After Mum was diagnosed, I read as much as I could about autism. I quickly realised that I was guilty of a lot of preconceptions about people with the condition. I had seen the film Rain Man, I had read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – I had seen the stage play, too. I had watched The A Word. I was pretty confident that all people with autism were ‘closed-in’: self-contained and absorbed in their own inner world to the point that they could not communicate with ‘normal’ people and certainly had no capacity for empathy.

What I read made me feel ashamed. The writer Alis Rowe of The Girl With the Curly Hair says, ‘It is thought that the way people on the autism spectrum experience emotions is different from neurotypical people’. In other words, people with autism still do experience emotions, they just don’t show it in the same way as a neurotypical person (a person without autism).

Some people with autism are so overwhelmed with empathy that it can feel physically painful. In cases such as these, they can either shut down completely (as my mother did when my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer) or they can go into a complete meltdown (as my mother did when I left home and she felt heartbroken).

So perhaps today, Empathy Day, is a good time to take a moment to have empathy for those who appear to behave differently. And to realise that just because someone doesn’t behave how you expect, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t feelings things as deeply as you.

Screenshot 2020-06-02 at 16.32.15

A Place for Everything: my mother, autism and me is a memoir, published by HarperCollins publishers on 9th July 2020.

Reviews for A Place for Everything:

‘Painful, raw and with an honesty that rings clear as a bell’ – Catherine Simpson, author of When I Had a Little Sister

‘This is a seminal book in this area. The new frontier for the diagnosis of autism is the very last decade of life. In this captivating story, the author describes how her mother’s lifelong eccentricity was finally explained, providing a sense of closure and resolution.’ Professor Tony Attwood, clinical psychologist and world authority on autism in women.

All of a sudden I am noticing a lot more butterflies while I am out taking my daily exercise. Yesterday I saw orange tips, a large white, two speckled woods (who seemed to want to follow me!) and a common blue. We are also noticing caterpillars on the nettles. They are most probably the caterpillar of the red admiral or the tortoiseshell as those are the butterflies that like to lay their eggs on nettles.

Screenshot 2020-05-19 at 10.12.49

I have written about nettles before on this blog and also in my nature almanac – so many people hate them because they sting and also because they grow fast and clog up flower beds. But if you can leave a patch of your garden or allotment for nettles, you’ll be helping the butterflies, which has to be a good thing. (And don’t forget that in early spring you can make delicious nettle soup and pesto from the early shoots too!)

Why not take your nature notebook out on a walk and note down how many different types of butterfly you see – and where you see them too? If you go to the Butterfly Conservation website you can find out how to send them the information you have gathered. You’ll be doing a fantastically helpful job!

**

Nature Month-by-Month – a children’s almanac by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Elly Jahnz is published by Nosy Crow and The National Trust and is available to order online.

Your independent bookshop can take orders over the phone and post books out to you, too. Give them a call!

NB The author of this blog accepts no responsibility for the content from links added to this page.

Last night we helped to carry out a bat survey on our house. This is because our roof is leaking and we need to fix it, but we had seen some bats flying around at dusk and we were worried about disturbing any that might be living in our roof space.

The “bat woman” came round and gave us this “bat phone”! We had to open a window and put the phone on the sill and then… wait!

The red bat detector, which is plugged into the phone, picks up the bats’ calls and then a little message comes up on the screen, telling you what type of bat has been spotted.

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 15.41.15

We discovered that there are pipistrelle bats, brown long-eared bats and noctule bats in our garden. So far, it doesn’t seem as though the bats are living in our roof space, but we will do a second survey in a couple of weeks’ time to double check.

Bats are a protected species, so it is important for us humans to make sure that we do not disturb their nesting sites. If you want to help look after bats, ask if you can put up a bat box in your garden or get involved with the Bat Conservation Trust.

 

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 15.40.21

 

**

Nature Month-by-Month – a children’s almanac by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Elly Jahnz is published by Nosy Crow and The National Trust and is available to order online.

At last! We can all go for longer walks and even meet a friend with whom to share the beautiful spring weather. Now that we are allowed to drive further to go for walks, there will be many of us who have been shut up in towns and cities who are desperate to visit the countryside. Most people in this country now live in urban settings, so even before the coronavirus kept us in our homes, a trip to the countryside was a treat rather than a normal part of daily life. This means that a lot of us don’t perhaps know that there are some helpful things we can do while we are walking to make sure that we don’t make life difficult for farmers and the animals and crops that they are taking care of.

When I was at school (a long time ago…) more people lived in or near the open countryside, so as well as learning about how to be safe in the town, we also learnt something called The Countryside Code. When I was researching things to put in the next Nature Month-by-Month book for 2021, I was surprised to find that this code still exists in exactly the same way that it did fifty years ago. When I mentioned it to my children, I discovered that they had not heard of it, so I thought it would be a good idea to put it in my next book. So here is a sneak peek of that page which will appear in next year’s book:

Screenshot 2020-05-12 at 11.47.38

I hope that you do manage to get out into the countryside this week and that you enjoy birdwatching and looking at all the beautiful wildflowers and the new leaves on the trees. If you do, remember to follow the simple code above as it will make your walk more enjoyable and you’ll be helping the wildlife and farmers too.

Stay safe and keep well.

**

Nature Month-by-Month – a children’s almanac by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Elly Jahnz is published by Nosy Crow and The National Trust and is available to order online.

 

When I went out into the garden with my dog this morning, I saw two goldfinches on the grass! I very rarely see them so close up, so I stopped and made the dog sit quietly so that I could watch them.

It’s a good time of year to spot goldfinches, because they love the seeds that are around right now. They particularly love dandelions.

Screenshot 2020-05-06 at 12.39.54

 

Thinking of the goldfinches’ favourite food got me thinking about the sort of plants people call “weeds”. I am actually a big fan of weeds! My grandmother always used to say that “A weed is simply the name for a plant in the wrong place.” In other words, a plant is only a weed if you are a gardener who prefers a tidy garden – and I am certainly not that! My favourite places are wild patches of land where “weeds” come and go, depending on the season. And it seems that the birds agree.

Not only the birds, in fact. I read last week of a woman called Sophie Leguil who is going around London chalking the names of weeds on to the pavement next to where they are sprouting! She is taking photos of them and putting them on Instagram, too. Her idea is to teach people to look more closely at pavements, walls and building sites to appreciate the little bursts of beauty that Nature offers us in the most unexpected places. You can follow her at @more_than_weeds. Here is one of her recent posts:

Screenshot 2020-05-06 at 12.44.22

Wherever you go today on your walk, I hope that you spot something beautiful like a goldfinch or an unexpected “weed” to lift your spirits – a little flash of gold in the gloom.

**

Nature Month-by-Month – a children’s almanac by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Elly Jahnz is published by Nosy Crow and The National Trust and is available to order online.