I have been away years
I don’t know how to come back
And so I write this.
If you got this far
I hope you like these ones, that
I wrote yesterday.
I have been away years
I don’t know how to come back
And so I write this.
If you got this far
I hope you like these ones, that
I wrote yesterday.
Frozen solid shrew,
Winter gift on stone cold steps.
The murderer abounds.
Too cold to go out,
Black dahl, blue cheese, tomatoes:
A strange lunch today.
When looking after children, whether they are yours or someone else’s, even a basic thank-you is rare.
Compliments are even rarer.
Today I am wearing a cobalt blue 1950s style summer dress. However, apparently it doesn’t quite cut it for my nearly 8 year old daughter.
‘Mummy, I don’t mean to be rude or anything’ (looks exactly like she’s going to say something rude) ‘but not those bits on the shoulders.’ ‘And one of them is folded over.’
I ask my eldest son. I get the scrunched nose and the ‘hmm yeah, don’t like them’.
If he who does not care about clothes is willing to pass judgement, then I’m definitely going to snip them off. They’re gone.
This experience doesn’t beat yesterday’s though. After two hours of swimming lessons, three sets of getting them through the showers (are you with me on why I want to go back to work?), I am sitting in my kitchen trying to get them to eat so that I can get on with cleaning up and get everyone to bed. Wine o’clock (or is it my laptop?) is calling.
This conversation with my youngest follows.
Me: ‘Come on, eat your fish, it’s good for your brain.’
(Thinks. Comes up with motivation through competition with siblings.)
Me: ‘It will help you learn to read faster.’
T is now eating.
Pauses. Looks hard at my face.
T: ‘Does it put those lines on your head?’
Postscript: He did redeem himself later.
‘Daddy, Mummy is warmer than you. ‘She’s cuddlier than you’. ‘I love her more than you’.
You win some, you lose some…….
Mr Trebus was an obsessive hoarder who featured in a 1999 BBC documentary ‘A Life of Grime‘. He gathered so much stuff that there was barely enough room left for him to live in the house.
The British public warmed to him. Despite the filth, there was something about his humour and the way he could argue the case for every single item stacked in the towering piles he created, which were a miniature city for the local rat population. That and his catchphrase ‘stick it up your chuffer‘ which was readily bandied about to every council employee who ever came to the house to tackle the issue. If you read his obituary, you can see where his problems might have stemmed from.
So, you might ask, why am I writing about him?
I’m no minimalist but not a compulsive collector either. However, I do admit to having trouble letting go of ‘stuff’. Until very recently I had emails going back to 2001. If you look in my kitchen cupboards, it appears that I am prepping for World War three. If the nuclear Winter ever comes to Oxfordshire, I will be ready with my five giant size jars of Marmite, ten different kinds of pasta and twenty tins of tinned tomatoes.
My daughter is the same. I recently cleared out 40 boxes from her bedroom. In them, you might find a collection of pebbles, dried flowers, jewellery, small plastic toys, drawings, and lipstick. There is no apparent connection between the things she has collected but they are very consciously put together. They have meaning to her.
The Doctor on the other hand, comes from the ‘slash and burn’ school of thought. Growing up in the forces, his family moved constantly and he would find himself coming home from school to a different house from the one he left at the beginning of term. Nothing extraneous was kept by his parents, nothing. If it didn’t have a practical use, it went. He has very few things from his childhood. There’s no box of toys for our children to rummage through, no history for him to reminisce over with them.
So I am left wondering, why do some people keep so much stuff and others nothing?
I try my best to live by the William Morris quote ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful‘, but as my eldest son puts it so eloquently: #epicfail.
Pretty much everything I own has a memory attached, even the ugly stuff, so I will always have an inner struggle going on when I know the house needs a clear-out.
Which side of the fence do you sit on?
I have a clear recollection of an essay I once wrote at University on the psychology of ageing.
In short the argument went something like this: as you get older you become more like yourself, not less. Every personality trait becomes magnified. This is bad news for me, as it definitely means I am firmly on the path to grumpy old womanhood.
Last Summer I realised that I was feeling quite upset with the owners of the barn next door as they had not cut their front lawn for weeks and it looked like a meadow. In truth I knew that being in well paid jobs, young and yet to have a family, they probably had better things at the weekend than to waste time with a lawn mower and a pair of garden shears. In reality though I was bothered that they were making the place look untidy. As a friend said to me soon after though, I need a swift visit to a yurt in Cornwall and some surfing lessons. Starting to grumble about the neighbours not caring about the environment is a slippery slope to washing out your bin every weekend, deciding a cream tea in the garden centre is a fun day out and thinking that topiary is a good idea.
However, it’s happened again. Today I am grumpy about this. In the middle of a recession, with some countries having been on the verge of a total collapse of the banking system, Barclays in the UK have spent out on an advertising campaign to personalise your bank card with a photo. Every time I see the advert I wonder who on earth duped the banking executives into thinking this was a good idea.
I can imagine that the bank went to the agency with a brief about making the retail banking industry trustworthy again. However, whether or not you have a picture of your friends on your bank card, some cuddly dogs or anything else that makes you feel warm and fuzzy, the fact remains that you do not bank with your dogs, or your friends, and never will.
I am worried that they have evidence that every time you look at your bank card, that you will in future experience some kind of ‘awww’ moment that begins to become associated with their company logo. I hope they do though as otherwise someone in a pinstripe suit has given over millions to some skinny jeaned, black polo necked adman who is currently laughing on the other side of his face.
I’d like to tell the bankers out there that if that’s the best they can come up with, then if you’ll just give me your bonus this year, I’ll come up with something better. In the meantime, I’m off to shout at children on bikes wearing iPods, shake my fist angrily at people who don’t pick up after their dogs and find some nail scissors to trim the lawn.
At the end of last week, I was readying myself for the afternoon’s entertainment when I received an email on my phone. May Pole Dancing cancelled.
As an ex civil servant, who spent most of the last twelve years writing, anything involving semantics amuses me.
However, if you are not familiar with the tradition of Maypole dancing, involving children holding on to pieces of ribbon and leaping round a large pole to folk music every Spring (see here), then you may not understand why I laughed. The school’s wording was unfortunate to say the least and caused me a momentary chuckle.
However, I did then think to myself that I don’t actually know in detail what Maypole dancing is about. So I looked it up. It seems there are quite a lot of theories on the subject. It turns out that one of them is that Maypole dancing is an ancient fertility rite harking back to the time when tree spirits were worshipped, and which originally would have involved a real tree having been cut down to make the Maypole.
My interest was piqued so I read on. You can probably guess what is coming next but it’s probably not a surprise to learn that some think the Maypole is a phallic symbol. A tall pole planted into mother earth illustrating the bringing forth of new life. All this sexual symbolism and the high jinks that went with it (dancing, round a pole, with flowers in your hair – I’m outraged) apparently led the Puritans to outlaw the custom in 1644. The ribbons, which came along in the nineteenth century with the modern formation dancing? Well apparently there’s still sex involved. This time the weaving together of two ribbons by the dancers to form a new element represents the joining together of two people and their resulting offspring. There are other theories but this is the one that appealed to a woman with a mischievous sense of humour and therefore the one I liked the best.
There is one thing that is guaranteed to take me back to the feeling of being a tantrumming two year old.
Sewing. Or more generally any kind of arts and crafts.
Meanwhile I can barely sew on a button. Sewing badges on to cub uniform brings me out in a cold sweat. My eldest son comes home to tell me I have sewed them on in the wrong place. I do that thing little children do – head on hands, face on the table. ‘I am not doing it again!’ I wail.
Like me he is a perfectionist and looks mortified at the thought of going to his beloved cubs with his badges incorrectly located on his sweatshirt. He knows however, that in this case, when I say I’m not doing it again, I mean it.
At school, I would regularly pass my basket weaving (oh yes, we had to) to my more talented friends to finish. As the end of the lesson neared and I was still struggling with crooked stitches, gaping edges and stuffing spilling out, the offending item would be swiftly removed and completed in five minutes so that I didn’t end up in trouble. Wood and metalwork seemed easier but mainly because the teachers took pity on me and did most of my projects themselves.
I have tried though, I have tried. Last year I went with a group of friends to one of those cafés where you sit and make things and chat while you do it. While all of us wondered what we were doing when we were sitting there decoupaging a pottery flip flop, the level of stress I felt when being made to thread beads onto a wire heart and fix it to a piece of card was unparalleled. The whispering of one of the staff members in my ear of ‘don’t give up’ was the last straw. I suddenly realised I DON’T HAVE TO DO THIS. So I didn’t. To the amusement of my companions, I sat there, hands in my lap, face set in grim determination and resolved never ever to go back.
I know that sewing is on the person specification for motherhood and is even apparently still up there on the list of desirable requirements for wife-hood. I have always struggled with the fact that I don’t meet 100% of the criteria for either job. Sometimes though your expectations of yourself are too high. You get better at letting yourself down gently as you get older. So I’m letting myself off this and focusing on the fact that my fairy cakes taste just fine.
The weather here is dismal. No don’t fall over in shock, but it has been raining today. All day. Not only that, it is cold.
A few days ago though, things were different. Spring finally burst into life. We had a long long Winter and then suddenly, almost overnight the birds were singing, the butterflies flitting, the tulips, grape hyacinths and daffodils all coming up at once. English people reacted in the way that they always do. They went out in as little clothing as possible, lit the barbecue, got the Pimms out and sat in the garden all day, with no sunscreen. They smiled even while they (almost) burned.
Me? Well I wasn’t ready. My Summer clothes were still in the garage. I had to make an emergency dash to the loft, scramble up the ladder and heave down the right bag so I could find something cool enough to wear so as not to have a Jane Austen era style fainting fit.
On looking through the things I haven’t seen in some months, I suddenly realised that my Summer wardrobe bears absolutely no resemblance to the fact that I live in England. In a village in the countryside. Where it rains all the bloody time.
I seem to have stealth acquired a rainbow of dresses that make it appear as though I’m waiting for a role in a remake of John de Florette or Chocolat. In some of them I would look just right with a baguette tucked under one arm and a basket of flowers nestled in the crook of the other. I can almost imagine myself wandering happily down the alley of some remote French mountain village, nodding at the older generation as they sit gossiping outside the front of their houses.
I do have a bike (that mostly sits in the garage looking pale blue and beautiful) but I also have a mum bus which is the transport I actually use. I won’t talk about that too much though as it ruins the imagery.
There are no children in this picture. I don’t have to stand in muddy parks, on wetter than they ought to be cricket pitches, or walk along shingle beaches in Gale Force 10 winds, trying to catch up with my Mother and her Dog. I don’t appear to do anything involving dirt or in fact to do any actual work.
There’s the dawning realisation that the trouser suits, the dry clean only, the freshly pressed white shirts, the ‘don’t-mess-with-me-I-know-what-I’m-doing’ clothes have all but disappeared from my cupboards, wardrobes and chest of drawers. I’ve worked from home for the majority of the time over the past three years. I’ve only needed the occasional smart outfit when I’ve had to travel to the office, sometimes more, but usually only once or twice a month.
So this, I suppose is how my dresses have eventually revealed me as a bit of a romantic idealist, (ignoring the outlier of the running kit) who apparently sub-consciously wants to live in the South of France.
In reality, most of the time, at least when it isn’t hot, I’m in my jeans and Converse. If anything ever happened to me though, I’m afraid that if they looked in my wardrobe, the detectives piecing together my last moments would form a very different picture.
Running makes me unbelievably happy. I was a pretty good long distance runner at school but didn’t rediscover it until my late thirties. Now I’m a regular. I will run in wind, rain, hail, snow, heat (in England ‘heat’ is anything over 20C) – balking only when I think I might break my ankle on ice. I once ran 9 miles in pouring rain. If anyone else had been out, which they weren’t as they were clearly saner than me, they’d have seen someone so wet you could have wrung me out and filled the nearest reservoir.
After my initial rediscovery of running, I felt like I’d had some sort of epiphany. I wanted to go up to total strangers, poke them and explain what they were missing. I was like some sort of running evangelist, leaping about, hands in the air, trying to spread the word. I’ve calmed down since then, although if no-one is looking I have been known to start waving my hands in the air for other reasons, generally because of whatever is on my iPod. I really do hope no-one ever does see that, as the blue lights and sirens might end up not being far behind.
I have to be honest and say that initially I took it up as I was working from home and needed some exercise to lose weight. However, unless you’re really going to get the miles in, this doesn’t really stack up. For example, two days ago, I ran almost 5 miles and according to my beloved Garmin, I burnt off something in the region of 550 calories. Basically if you went into Starbucks and ordered a Grande wholemilk hot chocolate with whipped cream, you’d have wiped out the whole run in the course of the ten minutes it took you to drink it. Fortunately buckets of hot chocolate don’t do it for me, so I’m relatively safe. Puts it into perspective doesn’t it?
You’re ok if you’re an ultra runner though. For those 40, 50 mile or longer (try this one?) runs, which are a whole other level of
craziness addiction, you are allowed to eat cake on the way round.
So I don’t run to lose weight or even to maintain my weight. In reality, I run to let go of stress. There are very few things that have the same effect on me and now I understand why some other runners don’t smile. It is because they are focusing on being alone. When a slightly sweaty woman in skin tight pink and black neon flashes them a broad grin from the other side of the road, this is interfering with their production of Alpha waves. These are the ‘smooth, regular, electrical oscillations in the brain that occur when a person is awake but relaxed’ source. Even that definition makes me feel relaxed. When I run, I can go out feeling like a bag of knotted rope and come back feeling like a bunch of little white flowers have opened out in my brain. I’m happy when I come home and the rest of my family get the benefit.
One of the other things that seems to do this for me, is writing. So despite the fact that I have a million things to do today, this is why I’m here, writing about running.
What does the same for you?
My spirits are lifted by the sea, the hills, a big expanse of open sky. Sometimes though to keep the children happy in the holidays, I have to go to places I’d really rather not. Two places I will happily wave goodbye to as they grow up: soft play centres (jungle gyms) and bowling alleys.
I do not know any parent who loves soft play. My local centre has its own Facebook page. This is possibly not their best advertising strategy seeing as the half term post they left ‘thanking everyone for coming to play and hoping they’d had a lovely half term’ was followed by no fewer than ten complaints and not one positive comment. It is a place where you go out of desperation, if you’re parenting alone at the weekend and the rain is coming down in sheets. The coffee is terrible. Whilst stories of used syringes being found at the bottom of ball pits are (I-am-hoping-to-God) just an urban myth, if you want the certainty of your children catching an unpleasant virus that they will take a week to recover from, soft play centres are ideal. On a busy day, if you could bottle the ‘essence of toddlers with nappies so full they are hanging round their ankles’ that permeates every corner of the place and sell it to take home and ward off burglars, you’d make a fortune. Still, your children will come home worn out, you don’t get wet and if you take ear plugs to drown out the screams of yet another child who has lost a front tooth coming down the giant slide, you’ll be absolutely fine.
So on to bowling alleys. I am scarily competitive with my children, but will write about that another day. Throwing balls at skittles though, whilst wearing clown shoes, in a place lit by neon lighting and dark enough to wipe out all sense that it could still be the daytime, does not float my boat. Then there is the sensory overload from the hundred television screens all showing different music videos (*can I still say music videos?) turned up to a volume that only people living in the next actual town could not still hear, combined with the overwhelming stench of carpets soaked in stale beer. The one I had the pleasure of attending last week also involving the staff playing mind games with us at reception. The conversation went something like this: ‘So it’s £8.99 each but we’ve got a special deal on at £6.99 with food’. ‘Oh, we don’t want the food, can we just get the deal and not have the food?’ (lunchtime was an hour ago). Cue receptionist looking really confused. ‘Um no, to get the deal you have to have the food.’ It ended up that we got the food as my friend and I didn’t want to be responsible for a member of staff having to leave work early with stress induced anxiety.
Last but not least, I fail to understand why bowling alleys feature condom machines in the toilets. Forgive me for saying so, but I’ve never been overcome with amourousness while subject to any of the above conditions. I have never, not once, felt the urge to shout ‘take me now husband, that shiny hard floor looks just right to lie down on and I’d really like to hear the word ‘STRIKE’ while watching a bit of Justin Bieber during the act’ that would require the emergency purchase of a strawberry ribbed one to avoid the obvious pregnancy that would follow. This is lucky, as otherwise I feel it could take the whole ’embarrassing mother thing’ that I usually enjoy playing on, a step too far. I would also have to give my children a lot more information than they’ve required on the act of human reproduction up until now.
There are many other things I question the need for in life. Don’t get me started on the existence of the baby wipe warmer, any item of clothing made in beige polyester or on Truman Show style holiday parks. Before I think of others, I had better ask if there is anything you won’t miss as life moves on and I will go off to calm down in the Spring sunshine while it lasts.
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