In the middle of the night I woke and checked the news. BrExit leaders had conceded defeat. Ok. That's that I thought. Rolled over and back to sleep. So imagine my surprise when I woke in the morning to the news that the the same leaders had "Unconceded" - that the BrExit option had won the referendum. Great Britain will be leaving the European Union. There is disappointment here on Stroud Lane, and I thought I detected a note of sadness in Petersfield today, but it's hard to say really. There's a part of me that wished I'd been in London today, to take a pulse and maybe get some photographs of the reaction. Though I'm not really sure there was much to be seen. I did hear one comment: "We won't be Great Britain any more. We'll go back to being Little England". We shall see. The full ramifications of the decision - for England, for Europe, and indeed, for us all, are yet to be fully fathomed. I have my own fears and hopes, but this isn't the place for that.
Regardless, I'm honored in a strange way to have been here for this moment in British History - a history that is long and storied and full of defining moments. Today was another, and we'll see where it leads.
After our whirlwind two days in London, we spent two days close to home. Thursday was very wet - Ok, we got it. It rains in the English summer. And we all slept in. I'm not actually sure Finn and Dick did much beyond that. I went with Julia to her Stay Fit class - she teaches a light hearted and fun fitness class for seniors. At its surface, it's a hoot and a romp and was a totally fun way to spend an hour. But it's also totally uplifting to watch Julia in this role. She's ON, with a gentle energy and compassion for her charges. She guides them through steps that push them and make them feel successful, and in doing so, they laugh and use their bodies and adore her. She's totally dialed in to what they need for fitness, and has a way of helping each of them to feel their youth. From the moment she walks in the door, they are having a good time. Many of them spoke to me after and told me how important the class is to them each week. Fun and totally worth the nutty drive in the downpour.
Later that evening, Dick, Finn and I accompanied Julia to a 500 year old pub in town called The Good Intent. It looks like something out of Dickens, with its post and beam interior, low ceilings and pubby charm. It also has wifi. I love you, England. We were there for their weekly Open Mic night, in which our Julia was participating. She plays guitar and sings like an angel from Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s. We were very excited to see her perform in front of a crowd. When we arrived, we sat down in a booth next to the nuttiest, drunkest couple in all of the South Downs. They were harmless, really - just an old couple who seem to have grown old, very eccentric, too thin, and more and more drunk together. They are clearly a fixture in the place, and as we sat down, they of course wanted to be hospitable and barraged us with all sorts of peculiar questions and statements. Dick and I found this mostly entertaining, if not a little annoying. But for a young one like Finn who had never met anyone like them, the experience was unnerving. He got very still and I saw that look come over him that tells me he's in trouble deep in his head. I kept my hands on him, I whispered in his ear that he was safe, that the two of them were strange, but meant no harm. He got more and more squirrelly and asked me to take him outside. We went out to the sidewalk where the poor kid sort of went to pieces. Finn is a guy who prefers to know all the details about a given situation before he steps into it. As such, the world can be a scary place for him sometimes, and he often has trouble walking out into it. He's been doing so well on this trip, trying new things and trusting us that we know enough to get him to and from experiences safely, but an encounter like this had pushed him just one step beyond the already bulging border of his comfort zone.
Outside I coached him through some breaths, and we talked about travel for a bit. I shared with him that when you go out in the world, you see amazing things, like castles and towers and mighty rivers and 3500 year old Egyptian artifacts. You also meet all different kinds of people with different stories to tell. It's a gift if you can listen to them, take it in, and hang on to your own story and trust where you come from and that you'll find your way back. It's GOOD to meet people so different. It's also hard. It's hard to experience people to whom life has been unkind, from whom life has taken their grasp on reality. But it's important, too. The world is a challenging place. We admire the people around us who navigate it well, and we try to have compassion for the ones who fall down. I know this sounds lofty for a kid in a near panic attack, but I promise you, he was ok, he was hearing me, and it was helping. A little. But not entirely.
Just then, the owner of the pub, I lovely young woman named Abi whom we have never met before, came outside to us and held out a bag of crisps (potato chips). With the kindest, gentlest smile, she said, "Crisps make everything better". Finn said thank you and she said "No need to thank me" and left with a wink. I immediately jumped on this - Finn, this lovely woman who cared enough to notice you needed something - she's a stranger too. Her story is different, and she took the time to notice your struggle. She came to help. Without going out into the world, you don't meet people like this either. But they exist, everywhere. And that matters.
He got it. He took a deep breath and wiped away the tears and in we went. He devoured the chips, he kept an eye on the crazy couple, he faltered a few times, he held my hand some, and we all listened to Julia sing.
It was a great night out in the real world. These are the moments when I feel so grateful to be able to travel with my family.
After our late night "down the pub", Friday came fast and early. No worries, we had nowhere to be and once again slept in. This time (in addition to the news that England has flown the coop) I awoke to sunshine and birdsong instead of gray skies and rain. My god that was nice. I didn't realize how much the weather was starting to bother me until it cleared up. I actually sat in the sun for 5 minutes during my second (small) cup of coffee.
While our Songbird and ever-busy-taking-care-of-us Julia hung laundry outside (oddly poignant on this day as she hung my new purchase - Union Jack knee socks - like small, narrow flags), we all chatted quietly about decision BrExit. Regardless of how you feel about it or about our own politics, it's a privilege to sit quietly in the sun with a cup of coffee to discuss these things.
Having thoroughly worked the issue through (to no real resolution or comfort) we decided to take advantage of what could be our only sunny day and get out into town. Petersfield is old, like all of England, and has some beautiful old structures within its tiny parameters. We walked the village with Mike as tour guide, stopping to read the blue plaques on buildings of special note and impressive age. The oldest building we saw was 1350. Come on. This little home has been around twice as long as the United States. It's closing in on 700 years. The stories it could tell. We saw other buildings in which slept the likes of King Charles II and Sir Thomas Moore. Just in this sleepy little town, the history is staggering and so long compared to our own. Other signs of note included my name sake, Heath Road, and perhaps most importantly, a pub with a sign that says "Blessed are the Cheesemakers". Regardless of whether you voted Leave or Remain, I think we can all agree on that.
Petersfield is a lovely village full of kind and good people who were just a little more quiet today, it seemed. We rendez-vous'd with Julia's son Johnny, who handed over to us the delightful Sammy, who joined us for lunch at a great little Italian restaurant, and lunch turned into a boy-strous, pizza-pasta-lasagna sort of affair. Thank you, Cheesemakers!
And before we returned home, we made the requisite sweet shop stop. My boy left this place with only a Pez dispenser and three refill packs. Slowing down on the candy a bit here....
We haven't had much of our host Mike, as he's been working since our arrival, but I'm happy to say that I think we've got him to ourselves for the rest of our stay. As Mike isn't one to sit still for long, we decided on an afternoon hike before we even finished with lunch.
I'm not a hiker. I have short legs and unsure balance and am awkard on land in general. I sure as hell don't like to walk up hills. But the 6 mile round trip trek from Mike & Julia's back door, up Butser Hill and back has been a stand out in my memory from our last trip. With its start up the ancient Roman cart path (past the ornery cows), through a sleepy hamlet of thatched-roof homes, up the steepest greenest hill I've ever seen (called Grandfather's Bottom - I don't know why), and back through an ancient wood and numerous verdant fields, this South Down loop has got history and variety and a great payoff of a view at the top. This allure combined with my desire to burn off cheesy (Blessed!) lunch had me joining hiker ranks without hesitation. Mike, Dick, Finn and I set out in glorious sunshine and just a light breeze for a great 3+ hour adventure (Julia can do it in 2, but I'm slow when not swimming).
Just when I needed a boost, we came upon a tree on which someone had written my name. That's twice in one day I've been given signs of welcome - three if you include the sun (I do).
More than just a hike (with fitbit accounting at 6 miles and 15000+ steps for me), our Butser trek was yet another shot at redemption for Finn, who made this trip last time mostly on Dick's back. This year (to Dick's relief), he walked, ran, hopped, leaped and ninja moved the whole way on his own power. All while jabbering away and refilling his Pez dispenser twice. He makes me feel both proud and old, as I hobbled home the last mile through the stunning wheat field, so beautiful in the breeze.
This kid is doing so well on this trip. I love him so much.
So it was a big and quiet few days here in the South Downs, full of downs and ups, and important moments of both the global and personal variety. Old pubs and houses, ancient cart paths and wheat fields, remind us that we build and cultivate things that can last and last. Strangers can be both strange and kind, but always have a story of their own to tell, and for us to hear. Humbling group decisions remind us that sometimes people feel a need to take a step back before they keep moving forward. Happy, fit old folks and stunning hill top views remind us that forward movement is usually good, even when we don't feel like we can. Amid all of that, I have the inordinate pleasure of watching my boy make strides, big and small, both internal and corporeal, as he bravely runs out into a world where nothing is ever for certain.
He can be certain that we will continue to stop for candy and cheese along the way.
Blessed be the Cheesemakers indeed.