All Change 

I’m picking up her last-day-of-the-summer-holiday clothes from the bathroom floor. Greyed with fun and carelessly crumpled. Today she is wearing her brand new crumple-free uniform for the start of a new term at a new school. From oldest in a primary school to youngest in a secondary school. The stress and expense of the new uniform has plagued our lives for weeks. 

The anxiety and excitement of so much change kept her awake most of the night. Fuelled by adrenalin, her eyes shone as she said goodbye to me, keen to leave, to see her friends and share this first day with those who would understand. We, after all are not going though this as she is…. Little does she know…  I am sad and nervous and proud. This morning she had to get up and be out of the house a good 3-4 hours earlier than she’s been stirring on holiday days. Throughout this coming week there will be belly ache and a sore throat and we, her parents, will suffer the brunt of her tiredness in her efforts to cope. 

I am grateful for mobile phones and social media and all the messages passed between jittery friends in the last couple of days: “Are you wearing short or long sleeves?” “Are you getting a locker?” “Do we need our PE kit?” “Are you wearing socks or tights?” And last night: “I can’t sleep either. I’m too nervous.” This morning a phone call from someone keen to have a companion to catch the bus with. A huge thing to have to travel to school by bus for the first time after years of a five-minute walk. 

There is no doubt secondary school will change her. In what ways I can only guess for now. There is no guarantee she will be happy or unscathed, there is no certainty of anything other than this knowledge that change starts in a big way today and she will have to change to cope, and I’m not sure I’m ready for it. 

A Project, Not a Day 

“I love you. I haven’t written your card yet and I haven’t bought you a present but I do love you,” I said as he left my vitamins next to my cups of tea and walked away. I need 3 cups of tea and magnesium and vitamin B supplements to get me out of bed these days.
“Good,” he answered with much weight for only one word, and closed the door behind him. He’s unwell today and we’re not planning any conventional celebration. I have painted my nails though and am working out how to cook a special meal with no oven.

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2016’s Anniversary flowers

22 years ago today: exhausted, nauseous and anxious, carrying a modest cream roses and freesia bouquet, and wearing a sale dress, I took his name and we committed to one another. I didn’t need to take his name – I had my own name but I wanted ours to be the same name and to have a family all sharing this name. In the years since I’ve thought about all the women’s own names that have been cast aside for marriage and how my own surname was not my mother’s or grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s. But their names all came from men too, and it seems to be one of the last remaining vestiges of patriarchy. Besides you’d have to go a significantly long way back in history to find a name that didn’t come from a man, and that wasn’t a topic up for discussion when I was 24 and in love.

The beginnings of tiny baby Gemma were growing inside me and I wanted us to all share a name by the time she was born. So 22 years ago I went along with tradition without question. (And being pregnant before marriage was part of my family’s tradition!)

Our relationship was over 5 years old by then, we’d lived together for nearly 3 years and we’d been engaged for 2 of those but we’d never planned a wedding. We both found it daunting for our own reasons.
In the end it was a small, inexpensive registry office wedding with no time to do anything lavish and not enough time to overthink or over-plan as I am prone to do. I’m still glad we did it that way and, knowing myself a lot better these days, I’m quite sure it was the right thing to do.
On our anniversary each year I think only very briefly of the day – it served a purpose and an important one to me but I think mostly about the years, the numbers, the clocking up of shared experiences. I think about what’s changed through our commitment and through time, about what’s been gained and who has been lost. Somewhere there is a group photo of our wedding day. It’s stuck in a box. (We didn’t have a photographer but our tiny group of family and friends brought their own cameras – and they were a talented, artistic bunch!). But I like our relationship today so much better than the one we had then and I’d rather live in the present.

It may seem an awful thing to say but I wanted to get the wedding out of the way. I just wanted to be married and get on with being married. By the evening I was not enjoying myself at all, was completely knackered and had run out of the ability to make conversation. Big events and big, long days are not for me.

But the big, long years are for me. The learning, the shared mistakes, the getting things right through error, argument and experience, the way a relationship balances over time. Boy, we’ve made some awful cock-ups – and we will continue to make new ones but I do believe we’re getting more right than we are wrong and for me this means that being older and deep in a love is a lot more comfortable than being young and in love. I am never certain of anyone’s feelings for me. I am forever afraid of losing people and often won’t work at friendships for fear of failure or rejection. But this has been one relationship I was prepared to risk all for and really work at it. We have both perfected The Right Royal Pain in the Arse, and have a most nasty, mean, thoughtless side which we save only for each other.

Result.

I didn’t expect much from our wedding day, I certainly don’t expect much from today. What I have is a certainty that through joy and pain and suffering and general life shit, I have loved someone for 27 years and somehow he has committed to me for 22 years and shown me that he loves me back and my own commitment has been repaid. So I love anniversaries and I love that we both survived another year. Each passing year that slowly becomes less and less certain through age and ill health becomes more of a celebration. I never took any of this for granted and I never will.

Throwing your whole being into one relationship isn’t for everyone but it is for me.
And commemorating the overlooked numbers like 22, and not just the rounded ones, is important too.
I am a project girl. And project family and project relationship have been two of my absolute favourites.

Happy 22nd Anniversary to me and him. And thank you, Richard, for yet another beautiful bouquet of flowers.

Storm SATs and the fright in the night 

shutterstock_356510603Last night Storm Katie rattled the roof tiles of our house in the small hours, clattering them like plates in the kitchen of a busy restaurant. It was disturbing and troubling. But I was far, far, far more troubled and disturbed that the final 4 months of my youngest child’s experience at primary school will be overshadowed by the anxieties of testing, unrealistic expectations and hideously wonky ideas of what getting the most out of schooling are. Her curious mind, her clever word play, her creative soul, her amazing observations; her beautiful choice and use of words in writing to set scenes, evoke emotion, create dialogue, and take the reader to another world. Her thoughtfulness, her wonderful sense of right and wrong and of fairness. None of that will count. She will be judged on technicalities, on her memory of rules, on her speed of taking up these rules and applying them in stressful exam situations. She will feel less able and intelligent than she is, she will feel pressure to perform on behalf of people she has never met and she will feel her worth and ability diminish. She is already frightened and I am having to take measures to deal with her anxiety.

‘What if I fail?’

‘What will happen to me at secondary school?’

I do what I can to tell her her strengths, to praise her, to show her I do not believe in testing for primary age children, and I do not trust these tests – now more than ever. But I can’t give her back these last four months and I can not change the way it means she will be judged by strangers and future education systems because of this.

Childhood should be great. It should be fun. It should be as diversely approached as possible by all of us responsible for the care of children. It is not only wrong but cruel to see it as preparation for work and adulthood. But cruelest of all is this idea that you can set strict standards for developing minds when development in children is so spasmodic and varied from child to child. Squidging all kids through sets of judgements with the very narrowest and limited of definitions of success and therefore creating massive scope to feel failure is like trying to shove a huge great, tangled multicoloured ball of fishing ropes through the eye of a tiny sewing needle. So so much will not fit and has no hope of doing so. And why should it? Why should they?

Why the hell should they?

It’s time to take back childhood.

Bugger the tests. Yes. Bugger them.

 

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We do not heal the past by dwelling there, but…

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Today is Dad’s birthday…

There are days, moments perhaps, when I need to listen to sad music and cry about my dad. It’s part of acceptance/healing/being human.

We do not heal the past by dwelling there; we heal the past by living fully in the present, said Marianne Williamson.

I don’t believe grief ever goes away or that you ever stop mourning those you love. And I don’t believe in pretending. So I don’t entirely support Marianne Williamson’s quote; I think emotions are far too complicated for such simplicity and I think remembering is important. We learn from life, we take hurt onboard and we carry the past as experience and wisdom, and are better for it in many ways.

But the trauma of Dad’s death and the events surrounding it are memories that harm me and I can’t work over them or through them, I need to shut them away. After years of circling distress, I choose to ignore the day he died and concentrate instead on the day he was born, and be forever grateful that he came into this world.

He was complicated and at times difficult but he had an amazing brain and amazing insight. I believe he observed life in a very special way and saw beyond façades in a way most people seem incapable of, and today I celebrate his life with a pride so huge it fills my chest. And he’s not completely gone; his children and grandchildren (and future great-grandchildren) are making sure of that.

It is not easy to shake off elements of the past while keeping hold of that which is dear to us and that which is good for us but I think that’s what we should do: live in the present but bring the past with us. After all it’s made us what we are today.

Seize the Calm

IMG_5574It’s ten-thirty in the morning and she’s standing on the step stool at the sink in the utility room in her mismatched pyjamas: the top is age 7 to 8 and the bottoms are age 9 to 10. I don’t get to choose what she wears these days. She hasn’t shown any interest in eating yet, but she’s only been awake for half an hour so there’s no hurry. She’s humming to herself as she cleans out her painting stuff. She does this unprompted now. The cough she had at school last week has nearly gone and there’s a gentle, wholesome, restful feel to the day.

I ask her where she is on the contentment scale. I don’t know if she’ll know what I mean. I don’t even know why I asked – well, I do know, I’m just wondering why I asked in that way. I guess it seems less intrusive. It’s become an instinct not to pry too much and instead wait for information to be offered.
‘Seven point nine,’ she responds, taking it surprisingly seriously and providing me with a proper thinking face.
‘Oh. What’s bringing that number down?’ I want to know.
Apparently there’s some crusty stuff in her nose that’s bothering her. She can’t pull her chin right down and completely stretch out her face – like that: I get a demonstration. That’s all that’s wrong. She needs to wash her face with warm water, I offer. But it’s not bothering her that much apparently.

I’ve spent all week feeling guilty that we don’t take family holidays when everyone else does, that we don’t organise play dates every week, that we don’t have any kind of plan or itinerary to get up early and traipse around a country pile or a theme park, a museum, a mountain or a cycle track every day, or even every other day, for the whole of half term holiday. There are no long car journeys, no trains, no planes, no boats planned. No foreign shores, foreign foods or foreign sounds to experience. I feel guilty for being me, for being us, for having a business that can’t be left in school holidays, for having anxiety, for not driving, for struggling with the phone, the doorbell, and the pace of life other people seem to keep. My guilt is endless and repetitive; my comparing myself with others comes back time and time again even though I’ve told myself it’s wrong to do this to myself.

And it is wrong. It’s not necessary.

Because right now, right in this moment of peace and quiet humming and trickling water sounds; watching that face in concentration, feeling the planning and the self-organisation going on in that small body, I wonder why all the guilt?

Is she not loved?
Is she not well-rested?
Is she not warm?
Is she not well-fed? (she had breakfast five minutes later)
Is she not calm?
Is she not content? (seven point nine)
Does she not get to make decisions for herself?
Does she not know her own mind?
Does she not have freedom?
Does she not laugh and joke?
Does she not get fresh air and sunshine?

She’s an autonomous girl with some great creative skills that need the quiet and space we provide. Whether we always provide that peace through necessity, circumstance or out of choice, it suits her. She has grown calm and thoughtful and imaginative.

And it’s not like I didn’t try all the other stuff. I spent years thinking the best thing for our first two children was to be busy, busy, busy. It turned out I was wrong and I had to scale down all the constant activities. It turned out they didn’t want or need ballet+gym+football+tennis+swimming+musiclessons+dance+horseriding or even activity-packed family holidays. They were much nicer and calmer and easier to communicate with when they enjoyed a far greater chunk of more unorganised, unscheduled time. And they slept better too. It isn’t fact that a big, deep sleep follows a crazy-full day.

It’s almost as if people have become afraid of being at home these days and I had let myself get sucked into that fear. And yet when I don’t let myself get dragged into the latest habits of the modern world I find being at home is amazingly good. Keeping your kids close and chilling out is super-rewarding and leads to superbly restful sleep.

Mostly I find myself feeling glad I don’t drive, glad I am forced to keep my own rhythm. I’m mostly happy with the pace of life we have settled into. We take our busy days when we feel it’s a good day to be busy. We can’t completely arrange ourselves around the weather, the mood in the air, our health, our guts, our inclinations and our children’s spirits because of the laws around school attendance, but we have found something close in this crazy world of routine, clock and calendar slavery.

If my guilt is associated with comparing myself to others rather than measuring our own happiness then it’s pointless: a wasted effort, and time I could have spent feeling blessed for what we do have.

In two days’ time, the law says it’s time to get your children up in the cold early mornings again and kick them out of the house for six and a half hours. When they come back tired, cold, grumpy and hungry they will no doubt have homework or after school clubs and will be well on their way to the next virus, sulk or temper tantrum but for today life is brought to us by pale green paint and an easy-going vibe.

Lucky me.

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Learning is not a straight line

shutterstock_128134913This is a biggie. I don’t know where to start or stop with this. Where does a discussion around education begin or end? It doesn’t. It just goes around in loops and swirls, wrapping around and weaving through life. You can’t get away from it even if you’re not at school or employed in education.
It’s like all those big things people might be heard to say aren’t for them: politics, feminism, environmentalism. It’s funny because all of those things are for them, about them, to do with them and involve them, but people may be so alienated by language, systems and ideas that they don’t feel involved. And yet we talk about our lives, schools, hospitals, transport, children, energy bills, playing fields, planning permissions, personal struggles, parenting and uneven relationships all the time. We are completely involved in politics, women’s issues and the environment whether we think so or not.

It’s the same with education. We probably feel we are either in it or out of it. We get to a certain age at which we are legally allowed to reject education or draw a line underneath it for a while. If we think we’ve had enough formal institutionalised learning we can get on with earning or living or child-rearing or growing a business or growing prize-winning turnips or travelling the world. Education comes as a construct we are led into and we step out of and then we are not doing it anymore.

“I just don’t want to be in education anymore,” our eighteen year-old daughter said to us yesterday, a day after getting her 6th form college results. No university, no foundation course, no access course, no nothing. She’s had enough learning. Or has she? Has she just had enough of the particular way her education was going?

Learning is not the same as education though – as I am repeatedly reminded. Education is wrapped up in systems, languages and traditions; institutions, instructions and rules; masters and students, lessons and exams, while learning is just something we do all day every day. By stepping outside of the systems of education we don’t choose to stop learning. We choose a different life style.

Despite knowing all this, I’m struggling with our daughter’s decisions. I’m not caught up in any academic or intellectual snobbery, I’m not concerned for her to earn vast sums of money or even avoid being “lumbered” with kids at a young age. I have no problems with any of those things. But I am concerned for her decision not to walk the expected line of education and find she never has the guts to get on it again only to find her ambitions are scuppered through that missing qualification. What I have to separate out in my head here is how much of this is my problem, how much of this is society’s problem and how much of it is her problem? And what do I do or say? Silence can mean so much, sometimes too much. It can signal disinterest – disapproval even, so I can’t say nothing.

So why can’t I just say I love her and I’m proud of her and I’ll be happy whatever she decides?

Well, I have said that – or words to that effect. But I’ve also asked her to think, and to have dreams; to imagine where/how she’d like to be a few years from now and to try to make some choices and set some wheels in motion based on that.

Life choices are difficult at any age. They are difficult for parents too. I can’t tell our daughter she must stay in full-time formal education. Well I can but she’ll just say no. I think I’ve just got to the stage where I can never ever tell her what to do again and that’s scary. Bloody scary.

It’s not a fact that a good education and a degree guarantee you a good job (discuss “good job”): certain educations give you a certain advantage in certain areas. Looking at the people with the most influence over the way our country is run in 2013, a good education is no guarantee of being a great person either. It’s not good having a degree if it didn’t teach you how to think. Many people do seem to use education in a straight, measured way, get what they want and step off. The rest of us want to relate it more to real life and find the conveyor belt system rather unrewarding. It seems in our daughter’s last interview for an art course she didn’t feel, as an artist, her particular taste style and needs would be accommodated for. Instead she would be made to fit.

So maybe, just maybe, learning for our daughter will continue without formal education. Maybe our proud moments will come without a badge, a certificate or a ceremony. Maybe her job interviews will be based on skills and experience or just being a nice, bright person. Maybe her artistic skills will land her a job without a degree, maybe she will go back to college one day and acquire a completely different set of skills. Who knows…? We still are, and will be, proud of her.

I’ve just taken a phone call for her as I was writing this. She applied for a few jobs yesterday and someone’s offered her an interview for a job as kitchen staff. If it’s what she wants right now I hope she gets it and it goes well. All I know is it’s not up to me anymore.

Whatever happens now, she’ll learn something from it – that’s for sure.

I’m still learning that learning is not a straight line for parents either!

Good luck to our first baby on her first year off the conveyor belt.

I might be crying a bit now…



Substitute

When you died, grief hung around the house in your image.
It sat in the bedroom in a chair that wasn’t there, and waited in every darkness. It wanted to introduce itself to me, but it was so heavy with trauma, fear and the unknown that we were awkward together. I flicked on lights and told it it wasn’t there.

Over time, the images were less cruel and less frequent, but grief still begged to be noticed. It stopped me in the kitchen, and held me poised with one hand on the handle of a rumbling kettle as it boiled. It took advantage of the noises of running water, flushing toilets, spinning machines; keeping me suspended in another realm whenever sounds of the outside world were held off by white noise.

It followed me to the bathroom, to my moments of solitude, and crept into bed with me at night to wait for the insomnia that always came. It seeped into my computer and chose the saddest songs, wound its way into my throat and pushed at my chest.
Like a lover, it became jealous of my family, and played with my face – dragging down my jawline to make me ugly, capturing my gaze and distracting my eyes away from my children. It punched me in the chest, poked me in the eye, bruised me, made me cry. It took control of my voicebox and made me talk about you, held my hands and made me write about you. It was a bully and yet it wanted to be my friend.

I didn’t send grief away. “I notice you,” I said. “I don’t hate you.”
I treated it with respect. I gave it time, I gave it words; I gave it music and let it enter me. We became companions, grief and I.

Now grief is quieter. It is never happy but it is settled here. It has a place and it behaves better because it is satisfied we know each other now. It believes me when I say I will take it everywhere with me and keep it safe. Sometimes it sits above me and tickles my head or closes my eyes. It points things out or sends me a memory. It doesn’t want me to be always afraid or always in pain – I know now – it came to replace you. And that is why it is so insecure: it is such a poor substitute, but substitute it is.



Today is my father’s birthday. He would have been 72. It is also Fathers’ Day.
Grief and I had some time alone in the garage today and now we are sharing a glass of wine while grief writes this.

A Farewell to Plates

(not to be confused with pilates – I never did that)
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When we’re walking the dog along the beach, I often pick up a stone or a pebble and turn it over, hidden, in my left hand. I prefer an imperfect, partially-worn pebble, still with edges, crevices and knobbles. I absent-mindedly assess its contours with my fingertips and become accustomed with how it feels and what to expect with each turn. There’s comfort in the familiarity of the rhythm, and it’s a nice simple thing to do while my conscious brain thinks it’s really engaged in walking, taking in the view, and perhaps discussing the family or the shop or something trivial with my husband. My other hand is usually in charge of carrying my camera, and that’s where all the responsibility lies.
But today I saw two pebbles of a similar size that both looked like they would be nice to hold. I picked them up and held them together, tumbling them over each other. It didn’t seem as simple or as pleasant as turning only one. The pebbles bumped together and destroyed each other’s rhythm, and they grated as grains of sand scratched as they turned. It wasn’t long before I could tell them apart though and had noticed one was sharper than the other. I became more aware of what I was doing and started to think about it. What if there were three pebbles in my hand?
I picked up another one and held the three together. As I moved them around, the tumbling became jumbled and random. I had less control. But I could soon make out three different stones by feel: one was the smoothest, one was the sharpest and one was neither the smoothest nor the sharpest – it was just there. I now had to think about why it was individual and how to identify it. It was a little smaller, I eventually decided.
But what about four or five stones in the hand – all of a similar size, all supposedly taking up as much room in my hand and all hopefully getting a fair number of tumbles?

Well I tried it. And it certainly wasn’t comforting or simple. It wasn’t rhythmical or easy to keep tabs on each stone and the enjoyment of predicting the feel or a surface on each turn and being rewarded by being right had completely gone.

There was just too much going on

Each pebble, on its own, one at a time: fine. But in the time it takes to walk across the beach I don’t have time to play some 5-pebble swapping trick. Besides, I have too much else to think of, and worrying about whether each pebble has had a juggle in my hand is quite frankly bordering on the obsessive. So… just how many pebbles is healthy?

Okay. I’ll be honest now: the pebbles are just a catalyst. I’ve also been thinking about pies and plates his week.
“How many pies is it healthy for me to have my fingers in?” I’ve been asking myself.
And:

“Is it sensible to have several plates spinning if I can’t keep up with them all, am not enjoying the chaos, and which plates would be missed if I just concentrated on one or two?”

Feeling a bit chaotic and plate-spinny coincided with a recent period of low-confidence and bad health – mentally and physically. I’m sure they’re all connected in some way but not necessarily completely related to one another. It’s like Velcro balls: all separate but cause havoc when they’re all stuck together

On Tuesday I was on the brink of writing a farewell blog post. My paid-for domain name expires on 1st July and I’m not planning to pay to renew it. I thought I could write a swift goodbye and leave it there for 3 weeks until it disappears. Blogging takes up time. It’s occasionally caused me arguments which have led to bad feelings and those bad feelings have never left me. Because my blog was initially set up as a creative and communicative writing outlet, I felt as if I was failing on the communication side of things. It’s one thing to have your comments challenged in casual conversation, it’s another to have them challenged when you’ve thought about them long and hard and spent time writing them. It begins to feel like unpaid political journalism. I’m not in that area because I’m not mentally up to it. I would focus on the negative and the conflict and allow it to ruin everything. It’s an unavoidable part of low self-esteem. Besides, I may write mildly subversive thoughts occasionally but I’m never offensive or prejudiced. I would say I simply bounce thoughts around in a benign way. In my fiction and creative writing, I particularly don’t like receiving creative feedback when I haven’t asked for it. If my writing doesn’t work for someone, I’d rather they quietly ducked out rather than telling me I’ve done something wrong (when their “wrong” can equal a different taste rather than any kind of accuracy or breaking of rules). I found myself telling my sister on the phone recently I wanted to pour stuff out but not deal with the consequences. If I’m going to have to read scathing literary reviews about my work on a weekly basis, I’d like to be a. published, b. paid for it and c. for the person to have jolly good reason for their comments and they way they are delivered. Creativity (for me) can’t be constantly interrupted by criticism. No one sits outside my window when I play the flute, yelling, “I don’t think Vivaldi meant for it to be played that slow!” And I rarely get people telling me on blipfoto that my photos could be better – which is amazing because they could always be better! I’m doing it again: focussing on the negative!

And then there’s the peace, the guilt and the time involved in writing.

Writing does great things for me but it doesn’t make me feel like a good person. I feel inconvenient. I want solitude while my thoughts and words arrange themselves, and any interruption destroys everything. EVERY THING, I TELL YOU!! The trouble is the interruptions are usually unavoidable and my responsibility. I can escape the rage and frustration of interruption and the guilt of being inconvenient if I don’t write, right?

I quietly made up my mind to stop writing and slowly began to let it slip out.
Then three things happened in amazingly quick succession just as I was planning my final blog post that stopped me:
1. Someone whose opinion I value very highly said something complimentary about my blog posts
2. Someone else who follows me on Twitter didn’t know I blogged asked to see my blog and said that after reading my tweets – they would be interested in reading longer versions of my tweets
3. My mother came over for a visit and I didn’t get a chance to go near the computer that afternoon.

The farewell blog post never happened.

I realised the crisis in confidence had been a bigger part of the decision to stop writing than I had been admitting to myself. I don’t actually want to stop writing. And I don’t want to say I’m not a writer. I just want life to be easier. Easier on my terms. I want to sleep better, I want to have more energy, I want to stop having days of nothing but brain fog, I want to be able to do everything I want to do and everything other people want me to do. I want to be brilliant, amazing and the world’s best multi-tasker. But most of all I want to stop being disappointed with myself and I thought I would be better company and more efficient if I stopped writing.
But I haven’t been.
And I haven’t really stopped. I’ve been writing in my head. I do it regularly. I can’t stop. And I can’t make myself be more efficient or organise my time better. I just can’t. I’ll write a list and then feel ill all day, or I’ll plan to make bread and then end up planting potatoes. I cannot put aside a time to write, a time to play the flute, a time for walk, a time to take photos. I simply can’t.

I’ve tried again and again and again and I fail over and over and I hate myself for failing.

So I’ve looked at my plates, my pies and my pebbles. I’ve stopped spinning the plates, I’ve taken out my fingers and licked off the gravy (yum, pies…), and I’ve put the pebbles on the desk (<- that one's literal). There are too many needless plates and I’m getting rid of them. There are nice plates but I don’t need them so they will have to go. There are other plates I have no idea why I’m still trying to keep up. Social conditioning I guess.

Well. No more spinning. I don’t need to be something. I don’t need to prove anything. I need to survive. When I’m anxious, when there’s a lot going on, when ill health or exhaustion strikes I won’t write and I know I can’t write. I won’t be committing to anything at all any time soon, and I won’t be thinking of it as something I need to fit in somewhere like a task that grates against everything else going on. I’m just going to take each day as it comes, and try to stop taking any notice of people who like to provide endless lists of how bloody marvellous they’ve been, or people who are totally conventional and have no idea how it feels to be me. This is how I have to live because this is who I am.

What else can I do?

Besides: stuff it all. Who said there are any rules about anything, anyway?

So. Erm. Yeah. What’s the conclusion?

I’ve simplified my blog and it stays. For now. But I’m not paying to keep a paid-for domain, so it’ll just be any old WordPress blog soon. And I’ve removed the “About” page because I can’t keep up with who I am/was/might think I am sometimes. It keeps changing anyway.

Whatever.

Box of plates anyone?

(There really are pebbles from the beach in front of me)



Beating Dave With a Banana

Or: Being a ‘What if…?’
“Because it is egotistical, controlling, over-inflated, self-important & meddles & ruins all things good, I think I’ll call my anxiety Dave,” I tweeted this morning.
And then I remembered Jo had recommended that I eat bananas. (Thanks, Jo, if you read this!) So I fetched a banana and wondered why it would do me good. I looked it up on the Internet and found out about the benefits of bananas to our mental health.
I have a mental health problem: I suffer from anxiety.

Anxiety is a rotten thing.

For me it’s also a constant thing.

I live in a permanently anxious state. It’s in my blood, it’s part of who I am. It’s somehow linked to my furtive imagination, and sometimes that can work in my favour and be a benefit (and, I hope, perhaps to those around me too on occasion), but sometimes it works against me. I come from anxious, imaginative parents so it’s bound to have rubbed off or been passed down or both. Most of the time it’s bearable and I wouldn’t recognise myself if I woke up one morning and wasn’t repeatedly taking the real into an unreal place anymore. Being a ‘What if…?’ person is the best part of me. (Well, it’s the part I like best anyway!) Everyday things can be turned into adventures. News stories can be turned into fictional stories. There’s a feeling that nothing is impossible. When I see that positive side of us ‘What if…?’ people in others I realise that the world needs quiet imaginative people having sometimes crazy, sometimes useful creative ideas.

But I have times when it can be more extreme. And ‘What if…?’ isn’t very helpful. In fact it’s downright disruptive. I am on edge all the time and far too easily startled. I hate surprises and sudden noises. If I have more than a split second to think about doing something I take the possibilities further than they need to go so that I am imagining myself in a situation where I am unable to cope or incapable of being myself or presenting myself normally. Put simply: I imagine deaths, accidents, public embarrassment, failure; I imagine anything that could go wrong but also things that couldn’t possibly go wrong. I might find myself feeling increasingly overwhelmed by an impending social situation, for example – something that is, to others, normal and everyday. I can actually freeze for a whole day if I know I have something vaguely socially demanding to do in the evening. Or I can lie awake all night practising in my mind how I will get everything done if I have a lot to do the next day. I believe a lot of people do this but perhaps not to a point where they become unable to function properly. If I have guests I will be so busy worrying whether everyone has everything they need and if the towel needs changing in the loo that I become unable to make conversation – and I will have worried myself stupid that exactly that would happen! But I can’t stop it because I find myself physically as well as mentally overwhelmed. And that’s the other problem: anxiety comes with a whole host of physical complaints. Headaches, sleepiness, shakes, skin problems, stomach pains and digestive problems, hot flushes, caffeine intolerance, weak muscles… The urge to crawl away and sleep in a dark corner comes over me as an answer to all my problems regularly.

For most of my life I haven’t talked about this because I didn’t even admit it to myself. When I started to notice at some point in my childhood that I seemed to need more time out than other kids I didn’t want it discussed, I just wanted to be left alone. As a teenager, dominated by hormones, I fought against the anxiety and tried to block the imagined disasters for a while and tried to be more outgoing, more active, but I look back now and realise my trying-to-be-normal behaviour was just daft and out-of-character. My life seemed to be full of much nervous garbling and much exhaustion. So worried was I by my own silences I thought I had to fill them by speaking tosh.

Still in denial – and possibly rather afraid of the outcome of any self-analysis – I struggled to maintain what I perceived as normality by watching others. I copied patterns of behaviour that didn’t necessarily feel comfortable for me but that’s what we humans do, isn’t it: try to fit in with majority behaviour? The fact that I would often find myself pacing up and down the sitting room crying and biting my fingers until they bled didn’t suggest to me that I was becoming a little like a caged animal by denying myself my instinctive behaviour, no – strangely, I would just move on and pretend it hadn’t happened and carry on looking to others for clues.

But it was when I started to get the more frightening ‘What if…?’ disaster feelings every day about three years ago, that I started to worry about myself and wonder if it would ever stop. I compared myself with people who wrote about their food intolerances, depression, bipolarism, and saw similarities, but not enough to feel that any of those were what I was struggling through. Why was I so frightened all the time? Something told me this wasn’t about needing medication, major life-style changes or forcing myself out of this. I began to feel that this was more to do with understanding and accepting something rather than fighting. But understanding what?
Starting writing helped. It helped a lot and it has continued to help. Throw a lot of ‘What if…?’ situations into a short story and Hey Presto! my imagination’s had a little outing and it’s happy and bothers me with less with the madness, and I’m happy because I’ve created something and have given myself a present. Separating the real from the imagined like that is therapeutic, I’ve found. But what also helped was taking writing courses that included life-writing. Hesitant and embarrassed at first, I was convinced I had to nothing to say, nothing that anyone else would be interested in, but a wealth of strong emotions and memories came tumbling out. There was a lot of guilt in there: guilt for not appreciating my father while he was still alive, there was an enormous sense of loss that I hadn’t dealt with, but there was a surprising amount of childlike vulnerability that I didn’t recognise and wasn’t sure if I liked it.

And then recently I discovered the connection between grief and anxiety. My anxiety had become slowly worse just after my father had died. (It seems crazy now – that I hadn’t made this connection but I suppose when you are not only denying that you have a problem but that you are worthy of any analysis you are not looking for solutions.)
I had anxiety. Of course! It was okay to accept that, and in doing so to begin to manage my life a little bit better around it. So now I know that when I am being irrational by imagining the worst too often it is because I have suffered a great loss in my life.

But all this has opened up some very very old wounds indeed and made me understand something about myself that I had been blocking for nearly forty years…

Thirty-nine years ago, when I was three years old, my 13-month-old sister, Beatrice, died.

I rarely talk about the death of my baby sister. I don’t like to “use” her (for want of a better word) or my family. I don’t feel like I own the monopoly on the pain that her death left. My parents, of course, were totally devastated when she died and I always felt that the greatest portion of the pain belonged to them. I also felt that my sisters have suffered in their own very different and individual ways because of what happened to our family, and I couldn’t take my own loss and discuss it separately. It’s been a bit of a taboo, I suppose. But the life-writing, the feelings after my father’s death, reading about anxiety, and the sudden increase in fear and the childlike feelings that were emerging made me remember dreams I had when I was four: I kept dreaming that my new baby sister was going to get hurt. Bad, bad things had happened and could happen again, I must have thought. This must have given way to the extreme and terrifying dreams. Too young to realise or explain my fears I suppose I absorbed them and turned them into dreams and now they are part of who I am: anxious.

Today had Debilitating Anxiety written all over it from the start. I’m not sure what the trigger was (perhaps concern about my Open University degree) but I knew it wasn’t just regular anxiety – it was Dave. I began to blow everything out of proportion. So, I ate the banana. I organised my thoughts. I gave myself permission to write.

There’s a still a young, vulnerable part of me who needs to express those emotions she bottled up for so long, but I’m feeling less anxious already just because I’m accepting everything.

And because I ate a banana, I expect

🙂

How to Be a Successful Modern Family Woman

This is one end of our hall. The other end is even messier. There are five of us making this mess. Six, if you include the dog. (He’s responsible for making the carpets permanently filthy.)
Sometimes I look around me and think that it looks more like twenty people live here, we have that much clutter and footwear.
I often wake in the middle of the night and think I am failing as a woman/wife/mother because I am not keeping things tidier (I promise you it’s not all about the hall). But deep down I know that tidiness is not a representation of any sort of success in those roles.

So I thought about how I could get through the days (and nights) without beating myself up over every little imperfection.

And this is what I came up with:

Add “Look tired” to your list of desired achievements for the day. (TICK!)

Make “Emergency ponytail” your favourite hairstyle.

Make “Teaching daughters about feminism” your reason for having breakfast dishes on the kitchen table all day and a confusion of clean and dirty laundry strewn around the house

Add “Check Twitter” to every even number on your “(AS LONG AS IT TAKES, OKAY!?) To-do” list.

Add beguiling entries to said list, such as: “Read that thing I have to read”, “Google that important thingy”, and “clear out underwear drawer”. Tick them and put list on fridge for all to see. This turns the guilt of time spent reading, web-browsing and having no clean underwear into achievements.

Wear a “Period Pains Hurt!” t-shirt once-a-month – or anytime you need people to sod off and stop asking you to do too many things.
(“The Menopause Is No Joke!” “Ask Me When I’ve Had Enough Sleep” and “The Most Productive People Take Breaks” are also useful for sending an important message)

Get “Superwoman Doesn’t Exist”, “Oh, Sod it!” and “All the best people are a bit smelly & messy” magnets for your fridge.

Have a partner who is a partner and not a stereotype.

Before anyone can ask you about all the things you haven’t done tell them all the things you have done.

Every time anyone says anything about how much better things used to be when families were more disciplined, mention the mass, hidden, domestic, mental and physical abuse of women and children of the nineteen fifties and the inequality and fear of the patriarchal figure that stinted the potential of many people for many years and still fuels the guilt and perceived (= made up) duties of the twentieth-first century woman.

Know that the best people trust you and like you a lot more when they know that you are not perfect

Never allow chores or household appliances to remain an enigma. Repeatedly marvel at how fun and easy the dishwasher/washing machine/cooker/vacuum cleaner are to use instead of being truthful about how depressing housework is. (Now that I’ve read this through I want to point out that what I mean by this is other household members should be allowed and encouraged to do more)

Don’t be a domestic goddess because your daughters will think they have to be a domestic goddess and your sons will expect their wives to be a domestic goddess and you don’t want that do you?
DO YOU?!
Well. I don’t.