Category Archives: Uncategorized

In search of new friends

There are certain things you plan into your life, and plenty that you don’t or can’t. There are people you never expect to meet or connect with but do, and there are people you try to find and yet still miss.

Friendship is rarely a pre-planned relationship. It’s often most easily found with those who are most like us and share our life experiences.

And yet, in the face of such odds, I am trying to find friends in my town who are different to me. I guess all we can do is keep putting ourselves into contexts that are different, hoping that friendship will spark somewhere.

In pursuit of this hope, a couple of weeks ago we arranged to visit our local mosque, on National Visit My Mosque day (Sunday 5th February). Yes, National Visit My Mosque day. Who knew that was a thing? It started in 2015, and I stumbled across its existence somewhere on social media about a week before.  I live in a town with a massive Muslim population, mostly from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and probably the majority of them live in one particular part of the town. It seems logical to me how ghettos like that grow – when you move to a new country you choose the neighbourhood where you know people. But then it gets so big that that in many ways it becomes self-sufficient with its own micro-economy and schools and community centres, and it gets harder and harder to meet people whose culture and ethnicity is different to your own, even though you’re in the same town. So. The chance to visit a local mosque, at their invitation, seemed like a brilliant opportunity. Maybe I would make a friend.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and all four of us went. Some friends, another family with small children, joined us. The Mosque in question, the only one in Luton which had opened up for the day, was actually a converted end-of-terrace house. It wasn’t dissimilar to a church hall, apart from the things up on the walls. There were girl guides (a Muslim branch), small children running around, an urn of tea and a plate of biscuits, and then, more unlike a church, curry. It was hard at first to get into conversations (I was perhaps overly cautious about launching into conversation with the older Muslim men, given the varying attitudes towards women’s roles in Islam, and then the women were all grouped together, chatting away amongst themselves) but then I found someone who was very chatty, a man around my own age. And I found out a lot. It turns out that studying a paper on Islam for GCSE Religious Studies doesn’t tell you everything about this ancient and complex religion.

Some of the things we talked about felt familiar, with many parallels in my own faith – the denominations, the evolving interpretation of Scripture, even the differing levels of reverence afforded to Mary in Christianity and the prophet’s mother in Islam. There were many differences too. Some things also sounded a bit batty, but to be honest that made me reflect on the battier elements of my own Christian faith. I enjoyed the conversation, and I was grateful to be invited into their faith community, even for a couple of hours.

A few days later we invited our neighbours round for drinks. We’d planned to do it in the run up to Christmas but had been thwarted by a chicken pox scare, and then the neighbours had seemed genuinely disappointed that we’d cancelled, so we picked another date. We had five households join us from the street – two of which have lived here more than fifty years. One of our neighbours speaks very little English and we were really touched she came. Another neighbour, an Irishman, baked scones for the occasion. I probably ate more than anyone else, but then that’s always been a gift of mine. It was a late night, and the beginning of new friendships which proximity will hopefully help us to feed.

So, small steps, and the challenge is to keep taking them even when they feel small and awkward. All encouragement welcomed…

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What I have tried to read and how cricket won me over

Half way through the year seems like a good moment to stop and update you on my ambitious reading goals for 2016. It actually just happens to be the first time in about a month when I’ve had more than a nanosecond and two spare brain cells in order to sit down and write.

If you were reading the blog in January then you’ll remember I committed to Modern Mrs Darcy’s 2016 reading challenge, and simultaneously joined a new local book group, meaning I had to read at least two specific books a month whilst keeping a brand new baby and an adventure-loving toddler alive, fed and entertained. I am nothing if not optimistic.

So it’s time for an honest update. What has been brilliant about both the book challenge and the book group is being introduced to all kinds of new authors and books I hadn’t heard of or tried before. Almost all the books I’ve read have been novels, because I just enjoy them so much and so reading novels feels more like leisure than self-improvement. Plus, entering into entirely different worlds has been a welcome distraction from the trenches of parenting.

Here is what I managed, and what I thought about them (spoiler: I got hooked on a book Andy chose about CRICKET of all things).

January I dealt with in that first blog, but February I committed to read In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie for the book challenge (‘a book published this year’), and May We be Forgiven by A M Homes for book group. I was quite excited about the first one but just really struggled to love it enough. You know when you don’t love a book enough to actually make the time to read it (unlike the books I really love which I balance precariously in one hand and read whilst feeding the baby)? Well, that was it. The second book, however, was an unexpected joy. It was really nuts, and kept shooting off in the strangest direction. It was at turns hilarious, bewildering, terrifying and just plain odd. But always imaginative. I kept expecting everything to fall apart, but it never did, and I actually relished its perverse optimism.

In March I was allowed to pick our book group’s selection so I cheated and nominated the book I was already reading for the book challenge – All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I loved it and devoured it in less than a week because it was just so darn good. The two main characters are utterly compelling. This book seems to be almost universally loved – it is beautiful, thoughtful, moving, surprising and gripping, so if you haven’t read it yet, go find it in your local library. (I now want to read Four Seasons in Rome by the same author which describes the year he moved to Rome with his wife and twin babies, during which he wrote much of All the Light We Cannot See).

In April I was supposed to read a book chosen by my local librarian and she gave me a book written by someone I knew at university, coincidentally – Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson. I really enjoyed its quirkiness and readability – I also like it when I can’t figure out where a book is going – but I didn’t quite finish it within the month. And book group were reading Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman…which I didn’t even try to read because I wasn’t organised enough and then realised I couldn’t make the meeting anyway. (Shame).

In May we read A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler for book group which I enjoyed. Like the title suggests the story kind of keeps unwinding like a spool of thread, with no great climaxes or reveals, I guess more like real life just keeps going. It’s thoughtful and warm-hearted as it winds between generations. It starts with a kind of dramatic family crisis which turns out not to be so important in the end, but the characters are interesting enough to keep you following along (for me, anyway). Not one for people who like all their mysteries to be unravelled. For the reading challenge I was supposed to read a book I should have read in school. I actually forgot which one I had decided on (The Mayor of Casterbridge) and so started The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins by accident. I’m only half way (it’s pretty darn long), still, but I am enjoying it.

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And now in June I am ahead of the game. Andy chose a book for my reading challenge. He kept threatening me with a history of American football but in the end went for a book written recently by a friend of ours: Following On: a memoir of teenage obsession and terrible cricket by Emma John. This book was a complete joy and I was totally hooked. A large part of that is due to the fact that the author charts not just her cricket obsession but her teenage years more broadly, and frankly I identified very strongly with her nerdy, hard-working, naive persona. I think we’re about the same age, and our families and backgrounds are similar. Plus, we both wanted to study English at Cambridge and become the next Emma Thompson (amazingly, neither of us managed it). Her writing is funny, self-deprecating and clever and she somehow got me completely enthralled by the story of the English cricket team. Their names were familiar to me because my dad’s family has a passing interest in the sport, so it wasn’t all new to me, but I loved the journey of discovery from Emma’s memories of the matches she followed to her modern day interviews with the key players from that era. I mean, I was just desperate to get to the Michael Atherton interview (which is right at the end), which is something you might find hard to believe. What’s more, Andy has been completely delighted by my new knowledge of cricket trivia. I have defended the legacy of Alec Stewart and discussed the relative strengths of England’s 90s bowlers. It’s not that I want to watch cricket matches any more than before, but I loved being taken into the world and given an appreciation of its beauty and drama. So thank you Emma John. (I finished it inside a week).

I am also a few days away from our book group meet-up and getting close to finishing Hitman Anders and the meaning of it all by Jonas Jonasson. It’s comical and fast-paced and, I am realising, not my kind of book at all, but I reckon I’ll make it through. The problem is that I want to care deeply about characters in books but this book just doesn’t let you. If I tried I would just be paralysed by sorrow at all of their pain and disfunction which is not really the point.

In July I shall be reading some L M Montgomery for the book challenge, and engaging in some literary matchmaking with my book group!

If you’d like to continue following my reading adventures or find out what else is on my nightstand, I have recently joined GoodReads so head over and find me there!

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Ten positive lifestyle choices we don’t make (yet)

During a fantastic and long overdue catch-up with my friend Lucy recently (she of Lulastic fame)  we started talking about how stuff you read actually changes how you live. And how so often it doesn’t. Why does some stuff inspire us but fail to make any kind of practical, lasting impact? (Or are you less flaky than me?).

My best answer, then and now, is: people who are changing with you. It’s really hard to stick at something on your own and find the energy to against the flow in any kind of sustained way without company. The pressure to default to the norm is just too great. We need company.

The stuff I (we) have changed and stuck to in our lives in the last few years – making space in our busy schedules to build relationships with our neighbours, cutting back on flights and meat consumption and wider consumerism, walking and cycling as much as pos, trying to parent in an economical, attachment-y kind of a way, even giving up shampoo – they’re things that we’ve done in community. In the company of others (some with bigger crowds, some with a tiny crew).

So that got me thinking about all the things we haven’t done. Things that I feel inspired, convicted even, to change, and yet have not managed. I’m a big fan of honest journeys, and being able to come clean about our limitations and failures. So here is my list of really worthwhile lifestyle changes to which I aspire (in relation to simplicity and green living) that we just don’t do right now. Confession time.

(let's think positive)

(let’s think positive)

1. Produce only a modest amount of household rubbish.

We produce loads of rubbish, and I completely hate that it ends up somewhere on this planet damaging the environment. I just don’t know how to get better at this. We recycle loads, and I even tried something called a rubbish diet a while back, only nothing seemed to make much of a difference. It’s nearly all food packaging…and how do you buy food without packaging, short of spending a day a week traipsing on foot around food co-ops and greengrocers??

2. Have solar panels

Living in a flat where the council are responsible for all external walls/roofs etc limits our options here right not, but I wouldn’t even know where to start. And costs??

3. Compost our food waste

We did used to have worm bins, but then the worms died. And our local recycling services don’t extend to food waste. That is a fairly rubbish excuse though, given that we have a beautiful garden farm at the end of our road and they collect compost; but I’ve never actually managed to get on top of what type of food waste (it’s quite specific what they’ll take), get a good container, and make regular trips. I really want to get going with this when we move, especially if we have any outside space (because then we could fertilise our own plants with lovely organic compost!).

4. Go completely veggie/get closer to it

We try not to eat meat in the week, but we often fail. I default to what’s already in the freezer (which my kind mother often restocks), partly because it takes more imagination to cook veggie meals. Even though I have plenty of inspiration from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

5. Cycle everywhere

We live on a cycle super-highway (!), and the cycling gets pretty intense in our neighbourhood. I’m not hugely confident about cycling with a toddler in the inner-city (let alone on a super-highway), but I don’t exactly make a beeline for the bikes when I’m out and about alone. Work is a good ten miles away and I just can’t quite bring myself to face the ordeal. I do like cycling, I’ve just never managed to make it a habit. And now being preggers is another convenient excuse.

I should point out that Andy is (literally) miles ahead of me on this, and relies almost entirely on Boris bikes to get around London.

6. Never use toxic chemicals to clean the house

There was a time when I mainly used bicarbonate of soda to clean, and the occasional Method or Ecover product (cue eye roll from my mother). But then we got a cleaner who sent me out with a shopping list of hardcore chemicals she required. And I caved. And then she quit (was our house just too dirty?). So now I have a whole hodgepodge of things and feel conflicted.

7. De-clutter a la Marie Kondo

You may have read about our adventures with de-cluttering. I kind of really really want to read the book everyone is talking about and at the same time am a little bit scared and don’t want to spend money on it. I do always want some help with simplifying our living space (and was insanely grateful for the consultation I had earlier in the year from Sarah Bickers of Free Your Space). We recently massively de-cluttered in a temporary fashion as we put our flat on the market (full story coming soon) and wanted to persuade potential buyers that we lived in a beautiful elegant and minimalist fashion. And we really liked it. It seemed to help us eliminate unnecessary things in a way that made us feel calmer and happier. But I default to something less elegant and more chaotic which probably says something about my state of mind and confused sense of purpose!

8. Grow a reasonable portion of our veggie intake.

Tomatoes are really the only success I have had on our balcony. I just never seem to make plant care an actual regular habit.

9. Never go to Tesco

It’s not just Tesco, there’s a list of supermarkets which are fairly horrendous when it comes to their ethics and supply chain. But they all seem to be nearby and I’m always dipping in. We have some good habits (deliveries from better companies) but there always seems a reason to nip in on the way home. And everyone does it (is what I say to myself). Occasionally when I manage to do some meal planning I cut down on the regular top-up trips, but it’s a dirty habit I struggle to break.

10. The flying thing

I fly a LOT less than I did, but that’s more because of our stage of life than any radical decisions I’ve made. And we have family in Northern Ireland. We could obviously drive and take the ferry to get there, but I just can’t face it with a toddler. So at least once a year without fail we jump on a plane, and I just can’t imagine what would persuade me to make the epic road trip.

So that’s all my excuses. I’m hoping to push through some of them, if I can only find some company…

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A day in the life of me (and Jesse)

Following some questions about parenting in the inner-city, and inspired (as ever) by the excellent blog, enJOY it, I thought I would share with you a typical day when I’m at home with Jesse. I haven’t picked out an especially wonderful or terrible day, I just went for the first opportunity, which was Tuesday.

So, we woke at 7am. This is UNHEARD OF. And amazing. Usually I wake when he does, about 6am, and I stumble downstairs with him, get his milk, grab the spare duvet and we snuggle on the couch while he drinks the milk. Then he plays, whilst I struggle to come to terms with the day whilst remaining under the duvet. (I call this “teaching him the value of independent play”).

snoozy cuddles

snoozy cuddles

But returning to the actual day, rather than a more normal one…I actually felt quite awake at 7am. We slouched down and had our regular snoozy cuddles over milk, and then he played. We remembered that it was his cousin’s 11th birthday, and that despite buying her present a month ago, I had forgotten to post it. Jesse and I recorded a birthday message for her and whatsapped it over. Then I headed for the shower. (Our bathroom is about a foot away from the main living room, so Jesse usually follows me in, or is never far away).

By about 8am I was dressed (very unusual), Andy was just waking upstairs, and Jesse was onto breakfast. He had a banana on the move, then sat down for some cereal, which he mainly emptied out on his table before handing me back the near-empty bowl. Gggrrr.

Then Jesse discovered a bag of raisins which an unnamed male in our family may have left out overnight.

The raisins did not stay in the bag

The raisins did not stay in the bag

Andy was off to work about 8.30, and  Jesse merrily waved him off. We assembled necessary kit for the morning (snacks, nappies, wipes, change of clothes, cash, water), I wrote a shopping list and a list of jobs for the day, and started to feel stressed. Well, it was probably growing all morning. We have a big life decision on our hands and I just hate living in limbo. That morning I was feeling all the feelings.

What was more, I discovered we HAD NO COFFEE. Things were already looking bleak and it was still early.

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At 9.20 we set out. Down 3 flights of stairs to the bike locker to get the buggy. Only it wasn’t there. So, back up three flights of stairs carrying wriggly toddler to retrieve car keys, back down stairs to open car and retrieve buggy. Steam may have been coming out of my ears by this point.

We made it to the post office to send off my niece’s present. And we stopped for coffee because sometimes you just have to help yourself out. I am expert at pushing a buggy one handed whilst holding coffee.

Then we were at a local toddler group, Oval Teenies. Two of Jesse’s buddies were there, which is currently of limited interest to him. But more meaningfully for me, their mums were also there, and so, hello sanity. Nothing brings me back to a happy place like some company and solidarity.

At Oval Teenies

At Oval Teenies

We made it back for lunch around 12, and I thought we’d see if Jesse has got over his egg allergy yet. He adores eating eggs, but can’t really because he gets rashes. But the doc says to try every few months to see if he has outgrown it. So, scrambled egg and toast for lunch, followed by much scratching. Sigh.

And then he was asleep by 12.30. At which point I wolfed down some scrambled egg of my own and began the cleaning. It’s not my usual way to spend nap time, but that evening my in-laws were arriving for a week. They weren’t staying with us because we have no room, but still, they spend a lot of time in our flat. And did I mention that our cleaner quit a couple of weeks ago?

From my point of view, I did a kick-ass cleaning job. I don’t want to brag or anything, but I actually mopped the floors. Sadly, my ‘kick-ass cleaning job’ appears to be the equivalent to the bare minimum undertaken by any other member of either of our families. So I probably just brought the flat up to a vaguely livable standard.

He slept three whole hours, and would have slept more but we had to walk to the doctor (nothing serious, just the ongoing eczema). No time to go to the park first because of all that sleep.

And then the final thrilling component of our shared day was a trip to the supermarket. We needed more than i could comfortably carry while pushing a buggy so unusually, we took the car and went to a decent sized shop. Thankfully, Jesse finds sitting in the trolley to be something of an adventure, so everyone’s a winner.

We were back to have tea about 5pm (salmon on the move, and then a bowl of pasta. If you serve something with pasta he ignores whatever isn’t pasta, so we have to stage these things). Andy was back around 6pm and whisked Jesse over the road to accompany him to the Tenants and Residents’ Association meeting (always a favourite with Jesse) and I put the grown-up dinner on. Then they went in the car to pick up Granny and Granda who had just flown in from Ireland. Cue much excitement. Needless to say he had a later night than usual… (Bed time is usually just after 7pm and is no longer a struggle, once milk has been consumed and stories have been read).

Andy took his parents to where they were staying and I crashed out about 9.30 because I have a stinking cold. Ordinarily I can make it to 10pm, and who even knows what time Andy gets to bed because I am asleep by then!

So there you have it. A not untypical day of parenting – both wonderful and maddening.

 

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What happened with my job

You might remember that earlier in the year I mentioned I had resigned from my job. Much as I love grand and dramatic gestures, and radical changes of direction, that particular decision wasn’t part of any great master plan I had concocted, but more a pragmatic reaction to the discovery of how much international travel I was going to be expected to do on my return.

There followed an unanticipated season of reflection (while outworking a hilariously long notice period). You might have noticed bursts of acute introspection on the blog in the last few months, alongside more practical advice about store cupboards, decluttering and capsule wardrobes. My friend Mel wrote a blog recently about purpose and strength, and taking the time to think about what we do best. I have had some time for that recently. I redid Strengths Finders (and Myers-Briggs, and the enneagram…) I talked to a coach. I applied for some jobs. I tried to think about what I’m good at. I tried to answer the question of what I wanted to do (much harder).

I find people often like to quote that saying about ‘finding where your greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need’. As if that question were not dastardly hard to answer. Are you doing the work you want to be known for? (is a question Mel asked). I just don’t know.

I spent a few months trying to dream up new things (or even old things) I wanted to do which might take on a salaried shape. I had meetings and made plans. I applied for interesting sounding things and dealt with the rejection that followed, trying hard not to re-evaluate the past ten years of my life as a waste just because they didn’t make sense to someone else reading my CV. What a fun journey.

Four months on, and some of you will have picked up from fleeting references that I appear to have not left Tearfund after all. You might be wondering what happened.

At the 11th hour we started having conversations in Tearfund about a new role that was coming up which involved a lot of storytelling and some strategic thinking. And a lot of talking to different people, which is another thing I like. It seemed like something I might enjoy doing.

Because the closest thing I can get to the thing I want to do is telling stories that change us. That change me, and might change you in tiny ways – because you feel less alone, because you feel inspired, or liberated or incensed, or something. Stories that make you feel something. There, that’s elegant isn’t it?

Tearfund (excellent as it is, and I really am a big fan) is by no means the only place I can do that. And to be honest I’d got my head in the game of leaving by the time the new job came up. I was imagining a future that didn’t involve the one organisation I had worked for consistently for a decade, because I like different kinds of stories. (And did I mention that I love radical changes of direction?) Part of me felt like staying was a bit like admitting defeat: I tried to leave, but I failed.

But the end of the story is that I stayed. I got the job (and am very grateful). There are a lot more stories here than have been told already, stories we haven’t found a way to tell yet, and so I’m sticking around to see if I can help to tell some new ones. And to learn things. And to figure out where else I might take my storytelling mojo. Ideas on a postcard (or in the comments).

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A thing I thought I’d never do: get a cleaner

It’s time for a confessional blog. I live in small council flat, I work part-time, and I have just started paying someone else to clean our home.

It’s a thing I thought I’d never do. I used to work as a cleaner, for goodness sake. For two long university summers I worked in a fancy hotel cleaning bedrooms, bathrooms and even mews cottages. I am confident handling a hoover. I know how to tidy up. I can shine up a sink using an old hand towel with the best of them.

And I have grown up with a beautiful example of competent, but not obsessive, house-cleaning. My mum worked part-time, and looked after us, and still managed to keep the house spick and span (and she lived in an actual house rather then a flat).  It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to do the same.

What’s more, it’s not like I’m on my own in this.  When we got married Andy and I divided up various chores and boring household responsibilities between us.  He took the laundry (and, incidentally, the ironing which he has somehow now palmed off to my mother) and I got most of the cleaning.  He does help, but the idea of doing anything weekly is still a fairly ambitious level of frequency for him.  And probably for me too, although I want to be that person.

I have friends who have had cleaners for ages (and are extremely grateful for them; one cites employing a cleaner as “the best thing I ever did for my marriage”), but almost without exception they live in MUCH BIGGER HOUSES.  It feels more than a little shameful to have so small a space and still not be able to keep it that clean.  I mean, I can do the superficial things – I can wipe surfaces and sweep floors and clean sinks.  But behind the sofa? The corners where dust and crumbs accumulate? Somehow, no. I can’t quite keep on top of the chaos except in short sharp bursts.  Nothing gets really really clean. (Except when my parents or my in-laws come to stay and take matters into their own hands – for which I am deeply grateful).

And it’s a privileged choice, isn’t it? To have the income to be able to pay someone else to do something you don’t want to? That’s the hardest bit for me to swallow.  Owning up to my privileged-ness.

Is it compatible with any conception of simple living? Perhaps I could argue that it frees me to focus on things that are more important to me (and that I’m better at!!).  Perhaps it bursts my bubble of self-sufficiency? It certainly shatters a collection of illusions I have about myself and the way we live, and reminds me of all the choices we have.

Our bathroom was beautiful when she (our lovely cleaner) left it a couple of weeks ago, more beautiful than it had been in years. And there was less chaos (partly because I ran around clearing chaos before her arrival so that she could actually see the surfaces). I felt calmer.

But mostly just grateful.

 

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Things I start to realise when I leave the city

Tatton Park

Tatton Park

This week I had the treat of getting out of London to the countryside.  I went to spend a few hours with a friend who has been coaching me, on and off, for the past six years (one of the many gifts that Tearfund has sent my way), and he suggested that we roam the wilds of the Peak District whilst talking about all the big questions life is currently throwing my way.

Do you know I walked for about half an hour before I realised that my eyes were fixed on my feet and I was missing the view?  There were a lot of boggy puddles to avoid, but still.  I was intent on each right step and I was missing the snowy peaks in the distance, the stark, bare trees in the foreground and the bright blue sky above.  I was wasting the extravagant beauty that I’d taken so much effort to escape to.  All I could see was where I was.

But when I did look up, it did my soul good.  The horizon was so wide, the sky so immense, the air so clean and cool.  There was space, so much space.  There was no rush, no bustle, no pressure.  I could breath deeply and slowly, and pause the urgent train of thoughts carolling through my mind.  I thought of the organisations that I’ve been exploring working with, and the stories they tell about what matters in the world and what must be done, stories which I believe but which too quickly become all encompassing, the only stories.  I caught my breath, and felt like there was something bigger.

As we slowly paced the fields and dales (is it only Yorkshire where you have dales?), the pressure to power on forwards and reach some arbitrary landmark seemed to dissolve.  It’s not that there was no intended destination, but our pace was of no great importance, and it was such a shame to miss the view.

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I didn’t look at my phone, not even to check the time. (But I did take a couple of pictures)

And as I savoured the gentle ramble, I realised that we (as a family) have stopped going on walks, besides the daily treks around the neighbourhood.  We never seem to get organised enough to get the train to some serious greenery, and the logistical challenges brought about by taking a one year old have apparently defeated me. My parents always took us on walks as kids; there was plenty of camping, and climbing mountains.  We even had proper walking boots.  I bought my first adult pair in South Africa a few years ago; this week was their second outing.

What a shame.  Not to make the effort to get out of the city and escape its physical and psychological confines.  To accept its deadlines and pressures without stopping to look up at the view and realise that the horizon is wider than it can seem.  At moment of change and rebalancing I need reminding to stop and look up.
What do you realise when you get out into the countryside?
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The Good Enough Mums Club

Fresh back from holiday, with Andy away for the weekend, I recently embarked on an overly ambitious programme of weekend activities with Jesse, in sweltering, muggy weather.  Better to be out and about, I thought.  We started with a wedding where I bumped into a colleague who had also recently had a baby – in fact, far more recently than me.  The dad asked me if I was finding the whole parenting thing easier than everyone seemed to make out [pause]…or harder?

He covered his tracks well when I opted for the latter, with numerous illustrations.

I was thinking about our chat again later that night, and how it always looks like everyone else finds parenting easier than me.  I mean, we’ve moved beyond the white-knuckle ride of the first few weeks and the sanity-eroding first few months, but it’s still an endurance test.  And yet there are mothers who have gone to have more than one child, so they have clearly evolved beyond me to a level of competence and calm I can only imagine.

But back to the evening in question.  Having already been to a wedding, I thought I’d just pile on the adventures and head on out to the theatre (well, actually a local pub masquerading temporarily as a theatre) and trust the little man’s erratic post-holiday sleeping pattern to a babysitter.  Arriving home a sweaty mess around 5.30pm my plan seemed ill-advised.  But it turns out it was a cracking decision.

A few friends had recommended I go and see ‘The Good Enough Mums Club’, a new musical created by Emily Beecher (I could name-check the whole team but it’d be easier if you just looked at their website).  To cut a long story short, writing the musical started out as a way for Emily to process her own experiences of post-natal depression.  Which might lead you to thinking that it’s a bit of a downer.  But it’s a hoot.

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I laughed a lot because I saw the hilarity of my life reflected back at me.  I cried probably a bit more because so much of the material is painfully and embarrassingly accurate in its portrayal of the ordeal of motherhood.  From the frantic bouncing on birth balls during the opening number to the lament for how motherhood has changed our bodies (“Only my nose is the same”), it was all ludicrous and familiar.  And yes, they reflected back to us, every other mother looks like they have it all together, we feel like we’re the only ones holding on by our fingernails.  We compare ourselves with one another, we feel inadequate.  The audience were invited to share (anonymously) their “guiltiest parenting confession” on a wall of post-its.  I had a read of them in the interval and it was all reassuringly human: it mainly involved sneaking in extra naps and escape-time, and failing to catch falling babies.

At the end we were all given a badge that said “Proud to be a good enough mum”.  I’m wearing mine with pride.

The show is more than just a well-conceived, fun musical with an unusual target audience.  It’s part of a wider project, supported by charities in Lambeth and Southwark, to help share the experiences of mums today and combat the isolationism we often battle.  Chunks of of the show are verbatim – that is, re-enactments of the exact words that local mums have shared during their research.  Probably the most powerful and extraordinary of these set pieces are the monologues delivered by the character Aimee.  Her son has been diagnosed with a genetic condition that means he won’t live past his third birthday.  Her words are heart-breaking in their honesty, wisdom and raw grief.  They feel like the emotional anchor of the piece.  As mothers (and fathers) we complain about, and find solidarity in, the struggles of parenting, but there is always the expectation that things are moving on.  “This too shall pass” is the oft repeated mantra of mothering; but how does it feel when time is ushering us towards certain loss and grief rather than growth and new possibilities?  We weather the bad days because we know we are nurturing these small, vulnerable beings into their future selves.

I may have cuddled Jesse a lot more the day after the show.

Something else I loved about the show was that it was conceived and created by a mother, directed by a mother, and performed exclusively by mothers.  Which makes the logistics of rehearsing more than a little challenging, but as the director Helen Eastman said in a recent interview with The Independent, “Mums are the most unbelievably reliable and efficient people because they are juggling so many things that their eye is always on the ball.” What’s more the company go out of their way to take the show to mothers, who are not traditionally regular theatre attendees for reasons of a practical nature.  They schedule matinees around the school run, and babies are welcome. (The language is a bit strong for school age kids).  Seeing such inspired creativity pouring out of all these mums has got me thinking a lot about some new writing projects.

And on that note, very soon I will have *exciting news* about both of those big writing projects (the play and the book) which I was working on during pregnancy.  So watch this space!

If you’d like to see the show, there is a tour planned I believe, but no dates as yet.  Keep an eye on the website: www.thegoodenoughmumsclub.com.

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“The Evening” returns

An extraordinary thing has happened in the past couple of weeks. We had heard stories of this phenomenon from other families but it had, to date, eluded us entirely.  Little man has started to go to bed before us.   We are welcoming the return of “the evening”.

The first night it happened I was overjoyed and not a little incredulous.  Just think of all I’ll be able to get done! Imagine watching a whole film without interruption!  Can I even remember what it was to eat dinner accompanied by adult conversation?  I can have a bath! And read a novel! And, most excitingly of all, ACHIEVE THINGS!

When it came down to it, I morphed into a strange, glassy-eyed, slightly deranged figure, wandering aimlessly between rooms with no idea what to do.  Without a baby attached to my person somehow, I felt bereft and not a little confused.

Andy has this phrase he uses to describe the endless cycle of laundry, tidying, cleaning, paying bills, fixing all the stuff that breaks.  He calls it “getting back to zero”, and gets not a little frustrated at how long it always takes.  We have this drive to be out in the world, moving things forward, making new things, and yet we have to waste all this time just “getting back to zero.”

And it was funny when I got my evenings back, I had that sensation – finally, the baby’s asleep, the laundry’s up-to-date (thanks darling), I HAVE GOT BACK TO ZERO.  I CAN DO STUFF AGAIN!

I just couldn’t work out what the stuff was I should do.

(Okay, the flat is still fairly chaotic, I could have done more tidying but that wasn’t the point).

My life over the last four months (thanks to the amazing gift that is British maternity leave) has become about looking after the wee man.  He’s not just the cute-but-annoying practicality I have to accommodate until the moment when real life kicks back in.  He is life.

And I realised another thing I do.  When things are tough, or draining, or overwhelming, one of my chief coping mechanisms is planning my way out.  Planning the next thing.  Looking ahead to the next adventure.  Seizing life by the neck and taking it my way.

That’s why the beginning of Jesse’s life was especially terrifying, because I could not think ahead.  I wasn’t sure I’d be able to cope with tomorrow, let alone next week so please God don’t make me even contemplate it.  Today, I can do today, or maybe just the next feed.

Now that life is not so frankly overwhelming on a minute by minute basis, I do have the headspace and the time to think ahead.  I have started looking in at the window displays of estate agents (we’re not moving house); I am puzzling over my job and return to work (I’m not due back till 2015); I have a few crazy ideas about complete changes in life direction (which alter daily).  It’s my go-to-strategy when today feels scary in its smallness, or draining with it endless feeds and vomits (his, not mine).

But I’m slowly understanding that the frantic forward planning does me no favours.  It robs me of the moment by moment joy of now, and the things I’ll learn and the ways I’ll change whilst I concentrate on loving and looking after little man.  Not that I’m saying every moment is joyous.  But I’d like to not be too scared to face each moment, for all their highs and lows.  It would be good not to plan my way out just yet.

So that still leaves me with my evenings.  Once I move past the zombie phase, and skip over the mapping out of my future, it would probably be good to remember how to relax.  And I think something creative would be good.

Any ideas?

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When a cosmic kindness bends towards you

I watched this beautiful little film the other week, about grace.  The woman in the film, she says: “Grace is the only buzz I have left and they will take it from my cold, dead hands.”

I guess I don’t hear many people talk about grace as a buzz.  It’s not the word I would immediately reach for to describe how it feels, although I have known its exhilarating, liberating energy.  It’s a word I have used a lot recently, the only descriptor I can find to account for surviving these past two and a half months.

When giving birth was the opposite of everything I had read and set my heart on, when it seemed every possible medical procedure was enacted on my body to get the little man out, when I lived for a week in hospital, and mostly apart from my baby: somehow, it was ok, there was grace.

When I couldn’t physically get out of bed, when my baby was plugged into machines and having unexplained seizures, when there was little sleep and they sent Andy home every night and my reserves of everything were pretty much depleted and I was good for nothing: somehow there was grace to keep breathing.

When I was home but more spent than ever and I couldn’t feed the baby enough and I felt I was failing him completely, and he wouldn’t stop waking up every hour; when I didn’t know if I could make it to morning, let alone to next week, when I was ready to give up and everyone around me was googling ‘post-natal depression’; even then there was grace.

It came in the shape of gentle, practical nurses and doctors, it came in eggnogg lattes and hugs, it came through the outrageous volume of prayers prayed on our behalf around the world, it came in text messages and voicemails, in quiet moments and beautiful views of the river.  It was more than just friendship and goodwill, it came with the right people at the right time.  It brought friends across the country to sit in intensive care and pray for our baby.

Even today it came in the shape of twenty dinners delivered to us by a woman I’d never met.

It was, and it is, unmerited and unfathomable.  It was a cosmic kindness bending towards us when we were at our most fragile: an unconditional benevolence and compassion before anything else.  I couldn’t describe it as a buzz; it was a tidal wave that carried me back to the surface.  Again and again, I welcomed it with a belly-cry of relief, incredulous that I had not drowned.

Grace is emblazoned over this season, over all I have known of motherhood.  It’s not that it’s new – I have tasted grace before, had all my efforts to be good enough and loveable enough swept aside by love and acceptance without explanation or cause – but just recently I have plunged into new and terrifying depths of neediness.

Grace – and as I know it, the cosmic grace of God – is why I’m still here, why our family is still here, still breathing and hoping.

Less a buzz, more a resuscitating embrace.

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