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Posts tagged ‘Family’

Family. Familiar. Familiarity.

I’ve fished out my long pyjamas with the hare design: the familiarity is comforting, as is the super soft cotton.

Familiar habits and familiar objects reduce stress and provide immense comfort. I know I am not alone in this.

This isn’t just an autistic thing, it’s a human thing. (I do believe it’s likely to be more important to many autistic people though because the stress of processing a tonne of unfamiliar stuff is exhausting, and so something so totally familiar that one’s brain can take a rest is important.)

Ever since we went through the stress and upheaval of moving in June, the return of each familiar ritual, each familiar knick-knack, and each familiar kitchen item has brought massive comfort to us all. Last night we hung our old kitchen clock on the wall and it told me it was time to breathe. People keep coming back to fiddle with things like the electrics and patio windows and straighten things over the last couple of weeks, and there’s a small hole to fill outside and a new front door is on its way, and we’re expecting bedroom carpets on Friday so we’re madly trying to get ready for that but mostly we’re filling the space in a living rather than surviving kind of way and can keep popping back to our hired garage to fetch a cooking pot or glasses and other things that signal functioning domesticity and familiarity.

We’ve all longed to bring back things and bring back our ways. All of us. Home is about what you do and with whom you do it. Peace is an end to conflict, distress and disorder. So things that can bring back a semblance of a more settled past reduce trauma.

We have been traumatised, disorganised and unsettled. 2018 has, so far, shattered and scattered us – not scattered from each other but from ourselves and from our normality. The expression “my head is all over the place” has never been so apt.

On Friday 8th June we left our clean, bright former home with a huge bank of memories. As I dusted the last skirting board Rich got the call to say the house was no longer ours. This was the only home our youngest child remembered and where she grew from toddler to teenager. It was the home where I passed my degree, published a book, found peace, space and confidence to write and expand my knowledge and gained a little self-love and learned how absorbing myself in peaceful creativity was all I needed to fix my turmoil; where I learned blow-by-blow of my father’s terrible illness and death, then of my son’s terrifying head injury; where we put up family and guests over the years, and watched our eldest leave home and our middle child go from primary school to secondary school to college, to first car to second car to 21st birthday.

It’s where we took our eldest back in while she rebuilt her life and set up her own business.

It’s the last place I sat and had a cup of tea and a chat with my darling father.

It’s where my husband heard that his beloved father had died; where we went from young to middle aged and grey. It’s where we stood and listened to the neurologist give us the news we had begun to suspect about Richard over the phone. I can still picture each room I was in when each life changing phone call came in, and June of 2008 when I paced up and down on the patio, walkabout landline pressed to my ear, listening to bad news and more bad news as the most beautiful time of year took hold around me while horrors of our father’s leukaemia, treatment and pain poured into my ear is a memory of roses and footsteps, long evenings and sick fear.

When we first moved to that home, no one even owned an iPhone yet, Brexit would have seemed impossible, Prime Minister May highly unlikely and President Trump an absolutely incredible joke. No chance.

Pinochet and James Brown and Saddam Hussein were all still alive. Our mothers were still married women and not widows.

We’d created a flow and a rhythm and could get on with our lives because we weren’t distracted or disoriented by the unfamiliar.

There is something incredibly heartbreaking about taking a big old map of familiarity and cutting it up into small pieces in order to move house or initiate change. It is stonkingly painful and unnerving. It is particularly so when life is difficult and upsetting and you need that comfort.

When we walked through the front door as the new owners of Number 21 in June this year, it felt anything but ours. Someone had been a fan of fried food and fatty meats over the years in that house. Someone had been a smoker over the years. Someone had been abroad and been inspired by paint colours that better suited the Caribbean. The banister was sticky, the cooker was broken and filthy and stank of old, burnt animal fat that made me gag, the garden was no longer a garden but a hotchpotch of grey gravel, red and black brick, rubble and unusable outbuildings painted primary blue. The upstairs was a chaotic tumult of mismatched carpets, and the downstairs a cacophony of cheap laminate floor that cracked irritatingly under each step. It had looked okay when we’d viewed it but the harsh reality was that it needed tonnes of work doing.

No one seemed to have had a vague care about who would be entering that house once they left and our hands met grease and dirt on many a surface. Our youngest even woke to find old toe nail clippings on the floor on the first morning.

The impregnated memories of previous residents and thoughts of impending building work, combined with the exhaustion of selling up, downsizing and moving, on top of a Parkinson’s diagnosis and preparations for closing down and selling of a family business left us in what I have now come to recognise as Coping Mode. We simply talked practicalities, and monitored and recorded progress in order to survive. There was no way we could afford ourselves the luxury, at this stage, of discussing just how awful it was surviving in a small, foreign space surrounded by unfamiliarity, dirt, dust, noise, and other people’s, often offensive, smells.

The building contractor who followed our requests, organised the work, and hired all the subcontractors for all the jobs we wanted doing called our renovation project “A Challenge Anneka” (you’ll have to be British and over 30 years old to have any clue what that means…) but we felt supremely challenged ourselves.

I hate chaos, clutter and dirt so much it makes me squirm. I went to bed many a night with the windows wide open trying to ignore the taste and sensation of concrete dust and plaster dust in my mouth and nose. My senses are ridiculously highly tuned, and foreign objects – however tiny – scream at me. Life is a constant battle of trying to quieten or ignore those screaming senses at the best of times, but this was extreme. Foreign sights, foreign sounds, foreign smells, foreign tastes, and foreign sensations all around me began to drive me mad. And all the time my natural desire for cleanliness and a clutter free home so that my poor over-busy mind could rest and stop processing every damn detail, was being monumentally challenged.

Richard needs to eat regular, healthy meals, he needs to rest and recover from the extra exertion simply having Parkinson’s uses up and he needs to exercise regularly to keep his dopamine circulating. He needs to remember to take the right drugs and the right supplements at the right times. Just like me, he needs peace and periods of time when no one is asking questions or creating extra work or upheaval. We both began to find it difficult to attend to each other’s needs as we concentrated on our own survival. But somehow we did the bare minimum and we have survived.

Fortunately, despite being a much more built up area, the small strip of no-mans land between us and the modern houses behind our garden, the nearby river and the nearby Great Field mean that we haven’t lost bird song. The crows, seagulls, starlings, sparrows and pigeons are all here, and at night, when all is quiet and I feel I am the only person left in the world, I can hear a tawny owl couple communicating to each other.

I am learning the new soundtrack to my life, and learning to accept – if not quite filter out – all the new stuff. We haven’t quite created the right rhythm yet but at least it’s no longer a rhythm-free filthy chaos of unknown beats and crashes.

I think I will be traumatised by 2018 for some time. It will take me a long time to put the upset far enough back to live with it. I’ve come to recognise in myself how trauma doesn’t want to fade but wants to keep upsetting me and causing me ongoing pain. But exploring your own neurology can make you beautifully self-aware and able to accept moments of failure as human and just part of life.

I coped. I had mini failures and I will continue to. But I coped. We coped. And this too will fade into birdsong. Eventually.

We are not OK and that’s OK

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Dylan the dog coping with the chaos

Whilst over Christmas we might have looked like lucky buggers with enough time and money to be swanning off to Australia, in truth it was more like “pinch from Richard’s pension to have a holiday of a lifetime because we don’t know what scary news 2018 will bring with his brain scan looming”.

We hadn’t had a holiday for many years and we’d never had a big holiday. And we’d only ever had one family holiday with all five of us – which Tess was far too young to remember.

Richard had almost stopped surfing and we were both suffering from anxiety. The shop takings were down, the books weren’t balancing and we’d borrowed money three times to see us through winter and for much needed home improvements. We’d both also had 10 years of various physical and mental health wranglings to deal with on top of losing both our fathers.

Rich doesn’t like talking about this stuff. He grins and tells everyone he’s fine even when he’s absolutely not. He internalises money worries until he’s ill. So I joined him in the stoic front while privately I was in turmoil about his health and our future.

Grin and bear it is not my style though and I found it difficult to pretend – particularly as I had done months of research and knew the various reasons for tremors, and had contemplated the possible outcomes and the effects on not just his but all our lives.

While we were away thoughts of what we would be returning home to prevailed, and on the flight home I watched Richard’s tremor increase with the tiredness and anxiety, and wished I could stop it. I wished I could turn off his brain and give him a break.

When we returned from Australia in early January we had to gear ourselves up for hospital appointments and test results with months of winter still left to plough through. Surely it was finally time to stop pretending we were okay?

I eventually broke my silence and told Richard to prepare himself for a positive Parkinson’s diagnosis. I was worried that he had been hanging on too long to his former GP’s opinion that it was “just a tremor” and to the story he was telling himself and others that the scan was just to “rule out” Parkinson’s. I could see him coasting into yet another year of stress and full-time shop-running shenanigans without giving himself time to process the enormity of his own health issues. We are complete opposites when it comes to denial or self awareness and discussions of such, and I could foresee life getting very difficult with this “just keep plodding on” mentality of his.

It was time to dig deep and lay it all out.

So for seven months I have pushed to put what is important to the fore. I have made all our actions and visions and plans about family life and simple life; about peace, about reducing stress, about visualising what is best for all of us and making it happen. I am trying to force us both to recognise and accept – and love – each other’s quirks and limitations and work around them to make them no longer limitations.

Money, school grades, possessions, appearances, status, other people’s ideas about a life well lived are all off our radars. Bugger all that. We’ve bought a small unassuming house in order to pay off our mortgage, and don’t give a flying fig what people think of us.

Life is now going to be about acceptance, day-to-day appreciation, little stuff, beauty in nature, eating well, and space. Space in our heads, space in our timetables, space away from duty and phone calls, space away from the rat race. We have split open everything we ever were on the surface and are being the real us that we always were anyway – before we stopped lying.

And I do believe silence is a lie.

Other people use lies to survive, I get that. People need to ignore the truth in order to cope. Some people’s very existence depends on being as unaware of their true selves as possible.  But we’re using the truth to live by. The painful truth and the honest truth and the comfortable truth.

The hurdles to getting to that truth are huge though. We have a list as long as our arms of things we need to achieve and throw off, to finalise and to tolerate for a while, and we’re only down to our elbows so far.

We are exhausted. Richard’s tremor is awful. I feel sick regularly. I run out of peopling energy regularly. We are absolutely pig sick of eating out, of microwaving, of being uncomfortable. I don’t usually eat bread but I have had to for the last few months and I have a constant bread belly pain. We don’t sleep well at night, we get up early each day in case the builders/plumbers/electricians are here. We are unnerved by the inconsistency of life on a building site and of never knowing when noises will stop and start or if today the builders will come or they won’t come, of who wants to discuss what and what we have to answer. The days of nothing are as bad as the noisy days because the uncertainty is traumatic.

The concrete dust and insulation dust are bad for Richard’s asthma, and the decision-making and constant change is bad for his tremor.

I have had to try to forget I have an Asperger’s diagnosis and chronic anxiety. Noises, smells, newness, being surrounded by people, disruption are all excruciating and I am holding on to my big internal Mamma who is telling me I can cope and I will cope and I can collapse when this is all over. Internalising isn’t great though. It gives me mystery pains and nausea. I want to explain to everyone that anxiety is the most inexplicably exhausting thing to deal with and that I can’t live normally. I have periods of insomnia, periods of sleepiness and periods of illness. I can’t say that. Instead I rock up in the space we will one day call our home and sway weirdly from exhaustion, talk less than I should, indulge in fewer social niceties than I should and struggle massively to answer questions amidst the chaos and the noise and the dust. Loud noises make me freeze until they have passed. I can feel myself underperforming and it’s absolutely bloody horrid. I can barely function. And yet I do. Simple things like having a shower and drying my hair before the electricity is turned off this morning and trying to dish out dinner from the slow cooker on a desk in the hall last night are no longer feeling like an adventure but a nightmare.

The list is being ticked off though. And that’s why I’m writing this. We need a reminder of just what we’ve done, what we’ve gone through, what we’ve achieved. I keep visualising the future and feeling impatient that we aren’t there yet, and I need to visualise the past too. Because, hell, we’ve done really well so far.

We’ve processed a life-changing diagnosis, sold a house, bought a house, dealt with the appointments, emails, phone calls and stress involved in those things. I coped with the excruciating anxiety of house viewings that only a perfectionist with crippling anxiety can comprehend. We’ve closed the business and put the building up for sale and dealt with the tirade of communications involved in that; we’ve planned massive house alterations, communicated our needs, tolerated 7 weeks of utter chaos and lack of space, lived without a kitchen, a sofa or a place to eat; we’ve kept up with Richard’s meds and appointments. We’ve put up with incompetence, planning regulations, disappointment and frustration. We have taken on board an enormous amount of heartache and processed some difficult truths too. I’m not going to pretend our lives are in any way perfect right now.

So for now we are busy being not OK. It’s perfectly reasonable that we are not OK. We know how to be okay though and are working on that.

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The Power to Rearrange

Recent events have taught me many things. Importantly, though, they have taught me that the future is not just ten years away, one year away, one month away, one week away. The future is our next breath, our next step, what we’re having for dinner. Tomorrow is the future – not just sometime; not just some other time down the line.

We can’t put off what we want to do, what we need to do, and pretend there is still time.

Old age is not a certainty. A healthy old age is most definitely not a certainty for us. We (as a couple) know now that our old age – if we are lucky enough to have one – will come with some big challenges. And we don’t know which ones.

A Parkinson’s diagnosis shouts “Uncertain shit ahead!” in a way we’ve forgotten to look out for. Life is all about uncertain shit ahead for each and every one of us. We have Richard’s dopamine receptors to thank for that nudge. I find myself wanting to tell other people “Don’t wait for your nudge!” “Don’t have regrets!”

Remember how you nearly weren’t born. Remember how it was nearly a different sperm, a different egg. How lucky are you to be here?! Life is full of accidents and butterfly wings and chains of events that we can control some of and we can’t control a lot of.

Our simple existence is a random chance to spin around the sun a few times and catch a few summers that we are so bloody lucky to experience. It’s so very precious and so very short and so very precarious.

I’m a very straightforward thinker (believe it or not!)

I don’t believe in meant to be.

I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason.

I don’t believe in any greater plan, and I really really don’t believe in destiny.

I’ve seen too much senseless pain to believe any of it happened for a reason. I’ve seen too much destructive greed and excruciatingly difficult lives to believe it was meant to be.

I’ve seen paths of equally good people go such different ways I can’t believe it was fate.

I believe that life is a series of events that could have been changed if we knew, that can be changed based on our tools, and that can’t be controlled totally because of our genes and our circumstances.

I even believe our power to make the best of situations is partly ours to control and partly impossible to control simply because of our genetic makeup and past experiences.

You can choose happiness but you can’t make it choose you.

This wasn’t “meant to be”. I wasn’t meant to walk behind my husband watching his muscles waste and his right side seize up and those beautiful muscly surfer’s shoulders I fell in love with shrink. Iwasn’t meant to look forward to spending our whole lives frightened of what’s next and wondering if he’ll ever be able to hold his grandchildren when they come along. I wasn’t meant to spend every day trying not to pity a man who can no longer sign his name or write without a huge struggle. He’s in pain when he wakes and slow to get out of bed before he’s even old. How can that be some kind of plan? I wasn’t meant to lose the freedom usually brought by middle age and big kids who no longer need care 24/7 to a disease that forced us to rapidly and drastically change our lives before we were ready. Just as I don’t think our baby sister was meant to die of neuroblastoma or our father of leukaemia.

I believe in atoms and free radicals and chances and missed chances and metabolic cravings and the effects of greedy men on our lives.

I believe in power. I believe in self-power being easier to harness in some of us over others, and however much some of us want life to be better we can’t make it happen.

Being able to harness what you have is a big separator. Whatever the individual components that made me are useful tools in spotting the good in life, in making choices towards happiness, in seeing and feeling the good around me. My chances are better because the series of events that made me who I am today make me better able to choose happiness.

A house full of books, a childhood learning music, much free time for thinking, a home in a beautiful area, educated parents, some fairly untypical opportunities at a young age to be forced consider others and to realise I was lucky to be alive ????? I don’t know? Some of that? All of that? Other stuff? My biological makeup? My fussy guts? My good bacteria? My bad bacteria?

I know I have the power to be happy. I know I do and I know I’m lucky in that.

I know that’s partly because happiness chose me – and that’s not fate or destiny or meant or be. It happened for reasons. But not a reason. And this is why we can rearrange our lives and make it work and be happy. This doesn’t make us better than anyone else. It makes us lucky.

I’m sad about what’s happening to my husband but we will cope and we will find ways around it because we have the power to. But I don’t for a second think it was meant to be. Another kind of nudge would have been kinder.

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.

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