Tag Archives: London

The things I will miss most about London

Well, it’s all happening here. Things are in boxes, furniture is being removed (by people who are not pregnant) on a daily basis, all is chaos. I ricochet from feeling vaguely on top of things to being stressed beyond all my limits and wanting to curl up in a ball and cry. Also, I’ve spent half of this week actually sick in bed which has made it even worse. Andy is holding everything together spectacularly (and holding me together, frequently). The final countdown is on. Life as we know it is changing.

Given that we’re down to our last few days in London I feel like I should write something nostalgic and celebratory about the past 13 years in this city, seven of them as a couple and two of them as a family. My mind is so full of practicalities that it’s difficult to find the space to reflect in that way. I feel like we’re going to get through this big move physically and then finally the emotional reality will hit me and I’ll need to sit down and grieve properly. (Not that our move is something that will be miserable! But, you know, grieving the old, celebrating the new…).

PhotoWizardCreated

(I should explain at this point that my camera is packed and I’m writing from my sick bed, so tragically there will be no beautiful illustrative photos. Sorry. Here’s a moody one).

For now, drawing on my limited resources and space for reflection, here is a list of the things I am going to miss most about this glorious, mad city we call home.

  1. The people. Oh, the people. Frankly this should be a whole series of posts itself, and I’m tearing up just thinking about all the people we are leaving. I know that special people aren’t unique to London; I know they won’t even be so far away; but I just can’t imagine life that isn’t shaped and coloured by the brilliant people who surround us. There are all the folk at our gorgeous little church, who have loved us so fully, adored and looked after Jesse (and prayed him through those first terrifying days and weeks), put up our relatives, cooked us dinners, babysat, cleaned our flat, encouraged and inspired us. If Jesse understood he was leaving his ‘god-sisters’ (their words) behind he would never let us go. Then there are the local mums, who have been a complete lifeline. I never realised how desperately I would need their camaraderie, humour and presence EVERY WEEK. What will I do without Chrici, Jules, Claire, Katie, Hannah, Anna, Kirsty, Katie, Carola, Jo, and Lucy? How will I fill a whole maternity leave without them? And then there are the friends from university who mostly gravitated towards London and are still mostly spread across the city. I worked out recently that my very closest friendships were all formed within a few short years – university and the two or three years afterwards. And they’re all here. (Well, one escaped to Devon, and one has just decamped to suburbia, but mostly they are here). It’s strange to imagine they won’t be just a bus ride away.
  2. The Ruby Dolls. I co-founded a theatre company whilst I was here! I spent more hours with the dolls than any other team of people in my life (except maybe my family) and they undoubtedly know the reality of what it is to work closely with me better than anyone else. We poured our hearts and souls into an unknown and courageous creative journey (one they are still continuing). We sang, we wrote, we did puppetry, we clowned, we learned all kinds of other weird other stuff (body percussion!),we put stories out into the world which we cared about. We sank countless weekends and evenings into it all. We did the most random, thankless gigs, we appeared on the BBC, we performed in the West End and Edinburgh and in shabby corners with bad PAs. I’m so proud that we made stuff, and got better doing it.
  3. Our big wide, tree-lined street and the view from our balcony. We’ve actually spent the last two or three months encased in scaffolding – our building, that is. And I’d almost forgotten how wonderful the views are, until they were revealed again this week. We can see the London Eye and the Shard from our balcony. On a good day, even Big Ben (which, ironically, is the smallest). And our street is just unnecessarily wide and has these big old trees that line it. Looking out of our living room window on the third floor, you can mainly just big tree canopies, and not realise that you’re in the inner city.
  4. Our eclectic neighbourhood. Our neighbours are Nigerian and Ecuadorian, Polish and Lithuanian, West Indian and Irish. They are council tenants and private renters. They are families too big to ever keep track of, they are single professionals, they are recent arrivals, they have lived here more than 50 years. We are all crammed together and bump into each other on the stairwells and balconies and car park every day. It’s hard to imagine rediscovering all of that on a regular street.
  5. Our local parks and how insanely close they are. Three minutes walk in either direction from our building brings you to parks, both with toddler-friendly playgrounds. Even before having Jesse I loved walking through and round them (we’re not talking the scale of Hyde Park here). When I was overdue and trying to bring on labour I remember setting out to walk around Kennington Park without stopping until the baby came. And then after about three laps I’d need to go home for a little rest. My commute to work takes me through the park and I see it in all seasons – at the height of summer when it’s crammed with sunbathers (even on the days it’s barely hitting 20 degrees celsius, but the keenos are out in their bikinis), and in winter when it’s locked in darkness, even before I get there to cross it on my way home. After manhandling a toddler down three flights of stairs, it’s a dream to be only a stone’s throw from the park.
  6. All the free stuff. The galleries. The museums. The food markets. The Royal Festival Hall. Hyde Park. Regents Park. Dulwich Park. Burgess Park (there are lots of big parks). And then even some of the not-free but amazing stuff like the London Transport Museum (£16 for an annual pass and Jesse would spend days climbing on all the buses and trains and trams) and the DIscover storytelling centre in Stratford (with regular, storybook-themes installations in the basement).  So much choice all the time. We’ve been spoilt.
  7. The big red buses. I was a fan of the tube for so long, but then it’s got so crazy expensive, and have you tried carrying a buggy containing a toddler up stairs, whilst pregnant? Jesse adores all the big red buses and they take us anywhere and everywhere. Now I adore them too. Except when there are already two buggies on board, dammit.
  8. The theatre. It’s strange to be putting this at the bottom of my list when it’s really the reason I moved to London. I applied to drama school here, and decided that even if I didn’t get in I’d work in a theatre box office somewhere and find a way to act. I spent two years training and then some more years intermittently performing, six as a Ruby Doll. I’ve been to insanely overpriced West End musicals and tiny fringe shows in every corner of zone 2. I’ve been transported, inspired, captivated and challenged; I’ve been bored, annoyed, disgusted and disillusioned. I thought that theatre would be my world and it hasn’t turned out that way right now. I’ve watched peers and friends get the jobs I craved; I’ve seen others be crushed and worn down by the whole dirty business. I know theatre doesn’t just happen in London, but it’s a pretty big epicentre, and stepping away feels like something.

So there you go. Look out for 8 things to love about Luton, coming soon! Well, maybe in a few weeks when we emerge from the chaos into Christmas and then a new baby. Hmm, it could take a while. Maybe someone could write me a guest post?!

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Sorting life out

There’s an inevitable sorting through of life that happens when you move, I am discovering. I guess you could just limit it to your possessions, as you pack and unpack them all, deciding what to take and what not to bother with. But for me, at least, the process stirs up all kinds of bigger questions about life, about what to travel with and what to leave behind.

sorting things out

Leaving the city where I have built my entire adult life is throwing up all kinds of questions about the past and the future.

Friendships, jobs, hobbies, projects, causes, habits, even attitudes and ambitions feel suddenly up for grabs. Are they the things to cling to, or to leave behind? In the midst of all the practical chaos and long to-do lists I am trying to make some space to reflect.

This past Saturday I hopped on a bus into Parliament, because that’s the kind of ludicrous thing I will only be able to do for a few more weeks. A writer I love, Sarah Bessey, was speaking at a conference and I went to hear her, in the hope of receiving some wisdom and insight to help me in my sorting. In fact, she has just written a book called Out of Sorts, which begins:

Once upon a time you had it all beautifully sorted out.

And then you didn’t.

(I would estimate that my belief in having life sorted out peaked at age 17. Apologies to anyone who knew me then).

I didn’t really hear her speak much about the book (maybe she did that more in the second session I couldn’t stay for – anyway, I bought the book), and I didn’t hear her pass on much practical advice for how I could sort through the past 13 years of my life in London. But what she shared still spoke very deeply to me, because of its authenticity. This week I have been reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (more on that another time – it’s amazing), and I loved her words about originality:

Attempts at originality can often feel forced and precious, but authenticity has quiet resonance that never fails to stir me. Just say what you want to say, then, and say it with all your heart.

I know that authenticity is something of an obsession for my generation (Mel Wiggins wrote a brilliant and challenging blog this week about what that means for how we blog about parenting). But I seem to crave it above all else. I have so many issues with people-pleasing, high-achieving and rule-keeping, that the invitation to authenticity (in how I live, how I relate, how I make decisions) always feels liberating.

Sarah’s two points in her opening talk were that we are already loved, and we are not forgotten. I guess they probably weren’t new ideas to anyone there. But she brought them alive with story, with experience, with specificity and detail, so that there was nowhere left to hide from them. And so they broke us open and exposed all our excuses for not living from the truth of them. Or they did me.

The other speaker I heard that morning, Sheridan Voysey, told a powerful story about uprooting and moving from Australia to England in search of a new beginning. (It’s almost like they tailored the whole morning personally for me). He spoke about dreams dying, about the metaphorical wilderness, about how we work out who we are when everything changes or things fail. It was more life to my dry bones; I’m about to read his book too.

It was a raw and unexpected morning. I wouldn’t regularly choose to spend my Saturday morning in a darkened auditorium in front of an almost entirely male soft rock band, lit up in hues of pink and purple, with hundreds of other Christian women I don’t know. But somehow that didn’t really matter. The familiar words and songs the band were leading again broke me open. Being there felt like stepping back into an enormous and glorious mystery, one that somehow holds me up and together, and restores me.

And an anchor is a good thing for me right now. I know my faith is an anchor, or more truthfully, the thing, the one, in whom I have faith, roots and steadies me more than the frame or language I put around it. There is plenty to let go of, plenty that I will lose hold of anyway; but there is enough of God to trust in that I don’t need to worry too much about the detail. (Let’s be honest, I’m not much of a detail person anyway).

(I was at the Premier Woman to Woman Conference 2015. Or rather, half of it).

 

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The latest from limbo-land

Well, things are pretty crazy here which is partly why there have been so few blogs. I was planning to post this a week ago and then last week happened. (Enough said on that front). It turns out that everything people say about moving house is true. Is it any easier when you’re not pregnant? I will spare you a post full of moaning and limit myself to a paragraph. I feel like we’re stuck in endless limbo with occasional stressful peaks (and did I mention how much I hate limbo?). Living on a building site for three months is not much fun either (they’re re-roofing our whole estate at the moment). The phrase ‘Chinese torture’ was used by a recent visitor to describe the experience. Jesse miraculously naps through everything, despite the fact that builders stand on the roof of his bedroom and hit huge slates with hammers every lunchtime. Meanwhile my nerves are torn to shreds.

A happy moment this past week - a trip to the Summer Pavillion in Hyde Park with some friends.

A happy moment this past week – a trip to the Summer Pavilion in Hyde Park with some friends.

There have been happier moments. We recently got back from a week of holiday up in Cambridge, which brought some welcome relief. I’m still readjusting my holiday-related expectations in light of having a toddler (it turns out all the things I used to do in Cambridge aren’t massively toddler-friendly). We had a ball though. We swam, we played, we dodged bikes. We accidentally crashed freshers’ fair and scooped up a bunch of freebies, including pizza, ice-cream, cookies, pasta sauce and a ‘big ass burrito’ (which was won by my husband’s fine darts-playing skills). In my day all I got was a pineapple which I absent-mindedly left in my wardrobe for the rest of the term until the musty smell drove me to investigate… But it was so good to see so many companies pulling together to encourage positive nutritional choices for today’s students.

We scored a babysitter one night when we were away and made it out for a mini-birthday celebration – burgers, fries and milkshakes at Five Guys (continuing our health trip) and then an outing to the movies to see Macbeth, which I thought was brilliant in loads of ways bit which didn’t have the emotional punch I was expecting. We were also staying in the house of some friends with the most extensive film collection I have ever encountered, so we caught up on a few recent releases – Mr Turner, Suite Française, Captain Phillips…and Andy probably took in a few more after I crashed out each evening. (And did I mention the life-saving joy of lie-ins every other day?!).

On our last evening I managed a solo outing to evensong at Kings College (along with a few hundred others) and had a magical time. Autumn is my favourite season and Cambridge is full of happy memories so I savoured every moment of my stroll through the city.

And otherwise we have been in the usual routines with housing related adventures on the side, and occasional moments of grace in the form of friends and outings. I’m just starting my final trimester, and while the baby still feels like a distant reality, everything is ramping up with pregnancy. I’m really feeling all those stairs. I glug indigestion relief like juice. I find, too, that I have fewer emotional resources with which to face the various domestic challenges which seem to come hurtling my way. I’m trying to be kind to myself, and Andy is trying even harder to be kind to me and look after us all. So we’re ok. I’d just really really like to move house before too much longer.

 

 

 

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We’re leaving London

Here’s a story I never really anticipated writing. After 13 years of living in London – basically my whole grown-up life – we are moving out of town, before the end of the year.

except that now it's goodbye...

except that now it’s goodbye…

If you’ve been reading for a while, or know us outside the world of the blog, you’ll know how much we love this place. This enormous, chaotic, diverse, beautiful city. And more specifically, our little corner of it in the south. We have lived in the same flat since being married, on the same estate, and have tried to put down roots here. We got to know the neighbours and helped relaunch the tenants’ association; we tried to grow veggies on our balcony (not all that successfully); we became part of a local church and threw ourselves into loving and serving this patch of earth. We worked part-time and hung out on the balcony. We lived in a small flat on the third floor and were very happy. We thought we were here to stay.

And then those stairs (and the prospect of another baby) pushed me over the edge and so we started looking for somewhere local on the ground floor. In fact, nearly a year ago I went round to all the local estate agents to ask them to call me if they ever got word of a ground floor flat for sale on our estate (we didn’t even know if three bed flats existed on the ground floor at that point). Then, earlier this year, we had an amazing offer. A wonderful neighbour across the road who we knew from the tenants’ association offered to sell us her lovely ground floor flat.  Only the financial stretch was much bigger than we’d anticipated. We agonised over it. Staying in London is expensive, we know that, and we weren’t dreaming of anything big or fancy. But it brought into focus some other priorities. We work part-time because we want to make space for a certain kind of life. We don’t want to be fenced into working longer weeks and longer hours because we have to pay the mortgage; to see less of our kids as they grow up, and have less energy left to dream and take risks on creative projects. So in the end we walked away.

We circled around the area and viewed a whole host more flats, never seeming to land on the right thing. There was one place we saw that seemed like something close to the perfect thing, and I stood outside and prayed about whether we should go for it. And I heard a clear no.

(It’s not that I had much confidence in that ‘no’, or my own ability to hear any meaningful direction from God at that point, but then it was all I had right then. So we walked away).

It was a confusing and disorienting time. We sporadically googled properties in other parts of the country where we had friends and family, but there never seemed like a strong enough reason to go any further with those searches. We didn’t want to leave.

We decided to take some time to pray. Because that’s a large part of how we make big decisions. Not that we don’t try to think practically and creatively, to talk about what we want for our family and future…but we always come back to the question of where we feel led, where we feel called, if we sense anything pushing or pulling us in a specific direction, anything we might discern as God’s Spirit leading us somewhere.

We asked some friends to pray and to share with us anything they heard, or felt, or thought. And a strange unity of responses came – pictures and stories and suggestions that started to point in one particular and unexpected direction. (A northerly one). Towards a place where Andy had lived before, where there were people we knew and loved, from which we could still reach London. As we look at it now, it makes a lot of practical sense. But in all honesty we never saw it coming.

And so to cut a winding and unexpected story a little bit shorter, we will be moving to Luton before too long.

If you know anything about Luton it’s probably the fact that it has an airport (that hilariously titled hub, ‘London Luton’). Or you might know that it rarely appears on lists of picturesque and desirable places to live in the UK. The airport at least will be good news for all our family in Northern Ireland, and also for Jesse who adores seeing aeroplanes overhead.

I feel a huge mixture of things about the move. There is definitely excitement in there because I love new horizons and adventures, But there is also grief – at leaving our home, our community, basically my entire parenting support network, and perhaps even the life I moved to London in order to create. A very different life materialised, and one that I treasure. But there are also some dreams that were buried here.

There’s more that could be said, that I will try to find ways to communicate. But for now, it’s enough to say that there’s a big change coming.

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We are moving house, so maybe you’d like to see around?

One of the biggest reasons that things have been quiet on the blog for the past couple of months is because I have been CONSUMED with the intense experience that is trying to sell a house (or rather. flat). Of course, I don’t mean that we’ve moved house in the past two months, because we all know it takes FOREVER (in the UK, when buying and selling is involved), but we have been doing the hard yards of transforming our flat into a clutter-free oasis of beauty (or something a little more in that direction, anyway), getting it on the market and then thinking about what next. There have been days when I have felt done in by the whole experience.

There are a lot of questions you are probably asking: Why are you moving? When? and where to? To be honest we’ve been feeling our way as we’ve gone and it has often felt like an epic treasure hunt, so I’m going to try to tell the story bit by bit, a little like the manner in which we have uncovered it.

As I have mentioned many times when writing about where we live, we absolutely love this flat for so many reasons – the community, the neighbours and the neighbourhood – but the stairs are killing me. Carrying a wriggly toddler up and down them (all 6 flights) repeatedly each day is pushing me to the edge of sanity. And once we add another munchkin into the mix it will just be too much, so we have to lose the stairs. (Farewell beautiful views of the London Eye, the Shard and Big Ben). And then we try to find a stair-free way to stick around in the neighbourhood.

After all my battles with clutter, who knew that the incentive of needing to sell the flat would finally drive Andy and I to go the many extra miles to get rid of it? You remember that below-stairs area I was trying to take in hand a while ago? Well, look at it now. I hardly believed we had it in us.

This is what it was like for months...

This is what it was like for months…

well, here it is now.

well, here it is now.

I’m really not one to offer up my interiors as a thing of beauty – neither my decor nor my photography are up to it – but seeing as it’s all so tidy now, and seeing as we won’t be here too much longer, I thought you might like to see some corners of our home? Because it has been such a lovely home.

Here is the sofa which the previous owner found abandoned on the street, the day after praying for a sofa. She had it fumigated.

Here is the sofa which the previous owner found abandoned on the street, the day after praying for a sofa. She had it fumigated.

The dinner table, and the painting Andy gave me on the day he proposed.

The dinner table, and the painting Andy gave me on the day he proposed.

And the kitchen.

And the kitchen.

I don’t have one of those nifty lenses that estate agents use which make your flat look twenty times bigger than it actually is, but obviously those photos are somewhere on the internet now. In fact these are low-fi, badly lit iPhone photos, as you can probably tell. My nice camera is at the back of a big cupboard.

We’re not going to win any Ideal Home awards but living here has been a total delight and a privilege, and there will undoubtedly be some serious grieving to come. I have been here, in this very flat, nearly seven years, and in every way it has been a grace and a gift to belong here.

The stuff that has been shuttled off and out of our flat is sitting in other friends’ houses and garages. There’s nothing I miss (apart from my maternity wardrobe, now there was a lack of foresight), which begs the rather large question of what we’re doing with all that stuff in the first place.

Even Andy (who is usually less bothered by the clutter than me) has reflected that it’s nicer to have a tidier home, so maybe this might kickstart us into a new season of pared down living. (If it wasn’t for the toys).

So there’s our beautiful home, ours for only a couple of months more (I’m guessing…). Stay tuned for the sequel.

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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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Tips from an expert declutterer

A few weeks ago I wrote about my (underwhelming) adventures in decluttering.  And then a brilliant thing happened.  A reader, who is also a PROFESSIONAL DECLUTTERER, got in touch and offered me a free consultation.  This is probably the only perk I have ever received from blogging.

So of course I need to tell you about our extremely helpful meeting and pass on her words of wisdom.

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Meet Sarah Bickers.  She runs Free Your Space which is an organising and decluttering service and, helpfully for me, is based in South London.

She came round earlier this week and began by asking me a series of questions to get to know me and my priorities. My main problems really are the main living space we have, because I spend a lot of time there with Jesse especially, and because we have lots of STUFF in the room and next to no (invisible) storage; and then everyone’s favourite creator of chaos: paperwork. It sits in piles on surfaces, occasionally graduating to the stairs, but seems to take an age to make the epic journey to the place it belongs.

I imagined Sarah might arrive at the flat, take one sweeping glance around our living quarters, and announce wryly that she could understand why I needed her services. But actually she was warm, encouraging, not at all judgmental, inquisitive and great at asking very helpful questions. Perfection, she repeated, was not the goal.

She got me to think about the things I had done that had worked in the past, and to reflect on my strengths. She asked me how I wanted our home to feel – to us and outsiders (friendly, warm, personal). And then my absolutely favourite insight was that in essence decluttering is about making decisions. I LOVE decisions. I just want to march around the house and make some more now!!

And then there were the practical tips. I don’t want to give away all her highly confidential trade secrets when maybe you need to just go ahead and hire her, but let me tell you some of the most useful:

1. She recommended going around the house and making a list of areas that need to be organised or decluttered, in manageable chunks (e.g. that one shelf over there, that oversized plate which is attracting junk like a man drawer, that kitchen cupboard).  And then when you have a little time, pick one thing, and get it done.  Don’t try to take on whole rooms at once, but bite-sized projects.

2. Reward yourself.  (And in the case of significant others – like husbands and children – bribe them to participate).  For me this might mean – declutter the sideboard and then you get to download the next Poldark novel. Or on a very special day, have a glass of wine.  Already I am incentivised.

3. Bring the filing boxes downstairs.  Given that the paperwork seriously struggles to make the final move up the stairs and into the files, we could just make everyone’s life more straightforward and bring them to live downstairs where the journey is less taxing.

4. Use the limits of your space as a limit on your stuff.  If books are piling up on top of shelves, or DVDs overflowing out of the allotted space, then work out which ones can go to the charity shop so theta what you have fits neatly.

Finally we had a really interesting conversation about kids and how to help them to make good decisions about their stuff.  Even now, she suggested, I can encourage Jesse to help us put toys back in the boxes at the end of the day.  And as he gets older we can decide together, before birthdays and Christmases, which toys we will pass on to others before new ones arrive. Jesse already loves lining up and organising bottles that he finds so I have great hopes for his potential as an organiser of his personal space!!

Do check our sarah’s website and Facebook page, and get in touch with her if you’d like more help.  And I would love to hear about your decluttering successes and tips!

 

 

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Meet the Neighbours (it’s an order)

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Some of the neighbours enjoying our Big Lunch last summer

 

From the time I Ieft home at 18, it took me nearly ten years before I really got to know any of my neighbours.  It’s just not how I lived.  I moved around different flats, living with different people, I travelled to meet friends, and it never occurred to me to make an effort to meet the other people in my building or street.

I went through some kind of epiphany or conversion around the age of 27, and decided to start making an effort,  But it was just that – an effort.  It wasn’t something that happened very easily or naturally.  I didn’t seem to have a lot in common with these random people.  The only communal spaces in our building were the narrow, outdoor balconies along which our front doors were strung.  In the summer it was nice to stand outside and gaze at the view, but it was weird to hang out there in the British winter.

Over time I’ve come to believe more and more in the value of knowing our neighbours.  It makes home feel more like somewhere we belong and want to return to, it makes it feel safer and happier.  But there are other advantages too, and that’s one of the reasons that I’ve been watching the progress of the Social Integration Commission over this past year.

You might have missed the fact of its existence, so allow me to catch you up.  It was set up in the spring of 2014 by an organisation called The Challenge as a way of investigating the state of social integration in modern Britain, the economic costs of a lack of social integration, and to make a set of recommendations which could improve the situation.

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There have been some fascinating discoveries.  In the UK our children are actually less socially ingregated than older people, which doesn’t say much for how socially mixed our schools are.  (Needless to say the new faith schools popping up through the Free Schools initiative aren’t helping the statistics).   Despite being much more diverse (in terms of ethnicity and class) than the rest of the country, our biggest cities are less socially integregated – perhaps because it’s easier for large homogenous groups to stick together.  Churches and other faith communities are often the best social melting pots and one of the few places where people from different backgrounds interact.  And white Brits are the least socially integrated group in the country.

Fascinating.  But what do you do with that information?

One of the main reasons that we live where we do is because we put a high value on living alongside and getting to know people who are different from us.  (We also feel acutely aware of the dangers of segregation and growing resentment between the different ends of the income spectrum, especially when it’s usually the people in the middle who leave the inner-city).  On our estate there are individuals and families from all over the world – Ecuadorians and West Indians, Sierra Leonians and Nigerians, Poles and Spaniards, Indians and Thais.  There are people of very different ages, different religions and different income brackets – the private owners and the social tenants live side by side.  We’re still struggling to work out how to be good neighbours and build the sense of community people seem to crave but we’re still working out how.  All I can come back to is that it takes effort.

But then there are moments – big ones like The Big Lunch, and small ones like running out of milk for Jesse and knowing that Agnieska will bail me out – when it feels incredibly worthwhile.  I love how many people in the block know and treasure our little man.

We are on such a learning curve, which is why I was so eager to read the Commission’s recommendations for improving social integration.  There are some obvious (and important) ones relating to schools and work-places, but what were their neighbourhood-related suggestions?  One easy answer is banning ‘poor doors’ (the practice of creating different entrances for private and social residents within the same development), which I hope is a no-brainer.  But they also recommend that planning authorities stipulate that new developments must incorporate plans that will enable different residents to mix (rather than trying to curtail this).  Bring back shared spaces!

There is also a laudable but unhelpfully vague recommendation that “people living in diverse areas should be encouraged to meet their neighbours.”  Yes!  (From the rooftops). Totally!  But who will do this encouraging? (Apart from me, obvs).  There are schemes afoot to help – Play Streets, Streetbank, The Big Lunch.  But it’s not exactly something you can legislate.  You can’t make people come to a jumble sale (ahem).  It takes time to win trust, and how many of us are willing to spare it?

(A side note: I think meeting the neighbours is a good thing to do whether or not you live in a socially diverse area).

I’ve enjoyed all three of the reports by the Commission (although maybe the economic one was the least exciting), and I’ve discovered that there are all kinds of practical proven reasons why making an effort to build friendships with people who are different to us contributes to our common good as a nation. As a city dweller it’s sobering to read how bad we are at it, despite all the opportunities we have.   I’m not sure it has changed much of my thinking.  I guess the point of it is to try to influence public policy to create a greater likelihood of social integration across the country, and that is definitely an initiative I’d support.  And it fuels our resolution to live where we do and be persistently sociable.

I’d really recommend reading the reports (they’re eminently readable), and would also love to hear any ideas for how to encourage the world to meet their neighbours!

 

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The jumble sale that nobody came to

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Sunday was the big day.  Cakes and scones had been baked,  Someone had painted a banner on a sheet from primark.  We had decluttered and were pretty pumped at the prospect at making a little bit of pocket money from selling our wares.  Saturday’s sunshine had totally vanished, but we were undeterred.

Our first Tenants and Residents’ Association Jumble sale kicked off at 2pm.

FullSizeRenderThe stalls were run by a handful of the faithful core of the TRA and selected family members, but there were also a couple of new families I’d not met before who showed up to claim a table. We even offered people cups of tea, and Lourdes’ legendary Spanish tortilla.

And hardly anyone came.  I sold 3 items and used my full profits to buy a pair of shoes from the next stand along (which I will not wear until April because of the capsule wardrobe).  Most of the cake and the tortilla was eaten by the stall holders.  We had some great chats but hardly any actual customers.

So the clutter will be re-allocated to the charity shop and the TRA will scratch their heads a little and try not to get despondent.

Andy and I are no strangers to community gatherings that no-one comes to.  When we first moved in we invited lots of our neighbours to a housewarming and about 3 people came.  We have learnt a lot of lessons along the way, like why it’s intimidating to go to a social event with lots of neighbours you don’t know, especially when English is not your first language.  And how to build trust.  How there’s no substitute for time lived in a place and regular conversations on the staircases.

But when it comes to organising events for the whole estate rather than just our building, it seems like we still have a lot to learn.  I couldn’t tell you why people didn’t come.  Except for my neighbour Mark who explained that he got a great deal for all his stuff on eBay.  When we ran the Big Lunch last summer people loved it, and loads of them (like 150 people) showed up.  What’s more, they all spoke really positively about wanting to meet their neighbours and find a sense of community.  So maybe it’s just that nobody wanted a jumble sale?

There are many things in life that make me really impatient.  Things that seem to take an unnecessarily long time.  I can get really fixated on doing stuff, achieving stuff, ticking things off my to-do list.  Some of that is self-driven, sometimes it’s the pressure of external deadlines.  But weirdly, I feel ok about things going slowly in our neighbourhood. It’s unlikely we’re going to launch any great projects this year – if that’s even something we want to do – but we can find ways to get to know each other better, and listen to one another.  Maybe that means some kind of survey among our neighbours – an excuse to talk to people about why they live here, and what would help them feel part of a meaningful local community (if they even would like that).  Maybe someone else will have a better idea.  I’ll keep you posted.

Anyone have some more successful community ideas they’d like to tell me about?

 

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The great de-clutter

I am sure that you’ve all been on tenterhooks since the end of 2014 when I started talking up my plans to de-clutter.  You are going to be amazed at my progress.

So far I have taken a set of impressively cluttered “before” photos, collected up several bags of clutter most of which have gone to the charity shop and the remaining one of which has been repeatedly unpacked by Jesse.  And the result is almost imperceivable.

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Here we are “before” the de-clutter

 

And this, apparently, is "after"

And this, apparently, is “after”

Have things actually got worse?

I took a TON of stuff out of the bathroom (and donated it elsewhere), and these are the “before” and “after” shots, side by side.

The difference is hardly dramatic.

The difference is hardly dramatic.

It’s more than a little depressing. I feel like I have bounded forwards in determining how much I can do without.  I’m living my whole life in 28 items of clothes, for goodness sake.  And yet, our flat feels as cluttered and chaotic as ever.

I’ve been waiting for ages to have something to show for my increasing conviction that we need to simplify our living space.  Constant chaos just gets to me, and if we’re going to live in a small space then we need to hold back the tide.  But even the logistics defeat me.  I pull together a bag for the charity shop but then I can’t carry a huge bag and a small child down 3 flights of stairs (let alone down the street) so there’s no way to get it out of the flat until someone else is home.  It stays in the corner and is repeatedly unpacked by the little man who thinks he has a new set of toys.

But I am not losing heart, and I have two reasons.

The first is that we are having a COMMUNITY JUMBLE SALE in a week’s time, on a Sunday, so somebody else can hold Jesse while I carry piles and piles of beautiful clutter down the stairs in order to flog it all at bargain prices to my neighbours.  Farewell ice-cream maker. So long newborn nappies and terrible lamp shades.

I stumbled across a link to Jumble Trail on a street bank newsletter, in the midst of a list of ideas for bringing your neighbourhood together, and I thought it was just the thing to try on our street.  The ability to make some money off your neighbours and score some bargains is almost guaranteed to bring people out of their flats.  Hello community building. (Have any of you tried it?)

The challenge is not to come back with more stuff than you get rid of.

My second reason is that my convictions are growing rather than shrinking, even in the face of so much mess.  This is a long-term commitment, I am hollering internally. I have been reading (that revolutionary activity), and been inspired by the experiences of bloggers like Joshua Becker, Tsh Oxenreider and Andrea Dekker.  None of them live in a context anything like ours (or even this country), but that doesn’t matter at all.  Joshua Becker writes, in his ebook Simplify:

Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of anything that distracts us from it.

That discipline, or discovery, or pilgrimage of focusing on what is important and getting rid of what isn’t is a necessary and healthy one for me,  but it takes a whole lotta wading through accumulated clutter.  For weeks and months. I actually spluttered into my coffee when the same ebook suggested an order for going through and decluttering the rooms of your house.  There were 12 rooms mentioned, and one of them was “children’s bedrooms“!  At least that’s one advantage to a small flat – a much smaller list!

I am more convinced than ever that (responsibly) removing unnecessary possessions from our flat will do us good. If nothing else, it will make me happier and calmer which benefits everyone else indirectly.

I’m sorry there are no amazing photos of clear surfaces yet.  I dream that one day they will be mine to share with you.

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