Or is it? I'm not sure...maybe...what do you think??

Thursday, 5 May 2011

X Marks The Spot - Make Your Vote For Voting

Its election day in the UK today.  Elections for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly are being held, plus local council elections in England.   But more importantly, a referendum for all of us on the future of our voting system - whether to keep the current First-Past-The-Post system for Westminster elections or move to the system of Alternative Vote.

I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on the arguments for either side of this issue.  I'm sure you can read a much more accurate version of them on other, more serious and politically well-informed websites.

Personally I've struggled more than I thought I would in coming to a decision.

I always thought I would be a supporter of any reform of the voting system that offered a more accurate reflection of the nation's votes, rather than a ping-pong match between the two main parties.  But since I've been giving it some serious thought I've found myself having to give consideration to the arguments for keeping a system which delivers strong single governments, rather than the danger of a mish-mash of small parties brokering deals.  

Interestingly, my other half has always been very anti proportional representation (something to do with Nazi Germany apparently) but is finding himself becoming more reconciled to the idea.   So we have been travelling in opposite directions and find ourselves meeting, confusedly, in the middle.

The current coalition has dented my (perhaps idealistic) ideas on the benefits of parties working together in government.  But it is hard to close the door on the opportunity to reconsider the way we elect those who govern us.

My one real, definite, hope for today is that the voting public turn out in large numbers.   If the FPTP/AV argument has done one thing, I hope it has made a lot of us stop and think about how we vote, and why, and for whom, and what we think our elections should achieve.

Looking at the history of suffrage in the UK alone, it is sobering to think that it was only in 1918 - just less than 100 years ago - that the right to vote was expanded, with property restrictions for voting being lifted for men, and the first votes for women (though with property restrictions, and limited to those over 30 years old - full electoral equality wouldn't come for another 10 years).   

It had been less than 50 years previously the Ballot Act of 1872 had introduced elections by secret ballot.   Before that, our ancestors - should they be one of the lucky few eligible -  had to announce their votes in the prescence of the candidates themselves, bearing in mind the implications that may have for their day-to-day lives if they voted against their boss or landlord.  It must have taken a lot of bravery to consider risking the family home and livelihood for a political viewpoint.

(Incidentally, I love the fact that the first time a secret ballot election took place, as it was in Pontefract, the box was sealed with a liquorice stamp - proof that sweets have a place in all sorts of history!)

So, whatever your political views, if you are reading this today in the UK and you haven't yet been to vote, please go and do it!   This is our chance to show that we care about the privilege of suffrage, that we do want to have a say in how our country is run, that - whatever the media may suggest - we do care as much about who our MP is as we do about who wins the X Factor. 

There will be no need to prove how much property you own, no employer breathing down your neck, no gun battle to avoid on the way.   The only requirement is our own determination to make space in our busy lives to make a mark on a piece of paper. 

And let's face it, if I can get organised enough to go and make a decision, you can too...

Friday, 29 April 2011

Bogus or Bonus?

Did you do any Easter hunts over the holidays?  I took my family to a "bunny hunt" around our local National Trust property.   There were gorgeous, new fluffy soft toy bunnies in spring shades of yellow, pink, blue and white, perched all around the normally rather serious house.  But as well as spotting these "bouncing bunnies" we had two other types to look out for - bogus and bonus.   The amusing "bogus" bunnies took the form of other animal toys (frog, cow, etc) wearing a pair of bunny ears.  The bonus bunnies however were the really interesting ones.  They weren't particularly colourful or fluffy.  In many cases they were pale, misshapen and with matted fur.  For these were the bunnies that belonged to the members of staff who work at the property, the bunnies that had names, and stories attached to them, that had offered cuddles and comfort over many years to their grateful owners.   These bunnies were - if you are a reader of The Velveteen Rabbit - "Real".

The idea of the bogus and bonus bunnies kept coming back to me over the Easter break.  It set me wondering what they represented in my own life.  I thought about what things I maybe gave time and attention, not realising they were actually "bogus", and not adding anything worthwhile to my life or those around me.  It was quite sobering to think that I needed to consider letting go of some of these things to leave room for the more genuine "bonus" elements of my life, even if they were not initially so attractive.  I was also surprised to discover that even when  I'd identified what my "bogus bunnies" were, it could still be quite hard to let go, that they had become so woven into the fabric of my life that it was quite hard to unpick them.  But out they have to come, I feel, if I am to see more clearly where I really need to be putting my focus.

Today of course has been dominated by the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.  One can only hope that as they build their married life together they will be able to ignore all the bogus incidents and  influences that inevitable surround such a famous couple, and instead be able to focus on the bonus of having a loving partner to share the rest of their life with.

Thursday, 7 April 2011


Stickability.  It's a sticky subject indeed.   Whether tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of perseverance in the face of outrageous failure, or to take to your heels and by quitting end them?

I'm not a good learner.  I like to go straight from beginner to great, and miss out the painful "improver" section in-between.   I'm happy to admit this is not a good learning style, and is wildly unrealistic.   Even if I wasn't self-aware enough to see this in myself, its been drummed into me through watching my older son,who unfortunately inherited this trait, and expected to be able to just climb on a bike and ride away...

This means I sometimes feel like I haven't got much "stickability".   Katherine Tyrrell in her excellent Making a Mark blog* has some great definitions of people who have this strength of character: they finish things they start; they continue with the task despite failures or lack of positive results; they resist being discouraged when they don't get instant results, being prepared to suffer a lot of failures before they achieve success.

The opposite of this, as Katherine points out, is "quitter's disease" - like people who give up painting if they can't paint like a master at the end of a two week holiday course.

I don't really like to think of myself as a quitter.   And yet I know its there, lurking, tempting me.   Just give up, you'll never make it, its not worth it, you'll never be any good, don't waste your time...

There are certain things in my life that I'm pleased I stuck with, right through to the end.  

All those hours of piano practice, for example, are something I've never regretted, even though it wasn't that cool a way to spend your time as a teenager.   Finishing my post-grad qualification alongside a full-time job sometimes felt like a long, hard slog, but I made it.   Learning to drive and passing my test involved a lot of patience, courage, lessons and failures before I finally made it, but I'm so glad that I got there.

I wouldn't want to class the relationships in my life as hard work, but even so I like to think the fact that I've been with the same man for 20 years suggests that I don't bail out at the slightest wrinkle in the fabric of happiness.

So, I began to ask myself, what makes the difference?

Sometimes its having a fixed end point.   Doing my post-grad course, for example, was liveable with because I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I knew that if I kept going then when the three years were done I could relax and enjoy life a bit more, tick it off my list, and never have to go through that again.

Sometimes its about seeing some progress as you go along, some encouragement that although the going is tough, you will get there.   That's hard when it feels as if its one step forward, two steps back.   I try to get round this by thinking of my progress as a spiral rather than a straight-line: sometimes it feels like I'm just going round in circles and keep coming back to the same point, but actually each time I'm just a little bit higher up, a little bit further along my journey.

Then there is the enjoyment factor.   It is possible (I've been surprised to discover) to enjoy things even if you're not great at them.  I love painting, but I'm not a great artist.   Sometimes it goes well and I'm thrilled with the results; sometimes it doesn't go to plan and ends up being a bit disappointing, compared to the picture in my head!   But for me the therapeutic benefits of having a brush in hand outweighs any frustration I may feel.

Mostly, my "stickability" level comes down to how much it means to me.  If I really, really, want the end result - whether its a certificate, a new skill, or a happy marriage - then I'm happy to do whatever I need to.

There's a few things at the moment I'm trying to decide whether to stick with or not, so I'm planning to run them through this test to see where I should go next.  

I don't ever want to be a quitter, but I also believe life is too short and too full of opportunities to spend time on things that don't mean enough to me, just for the sake of my pride.

It's a hard balance: stay too long and risk wasting time, money, and emotion on a battle I'm never going to win; or bail out too soon and risk missing out on the valuable pearl I might find if I just open one more gritty shell...

*makingamark.blogspot.com - see The 'stickability' factor, 3 Sept 2006

Friday, 25 March 2011

A clutter free legacy

I'm not a great clutter clearer.   Let's be honest, I'm pretty awful at it.   It's not that I don't enjoy it when I can manage it - I love the feeling of clearing out, making a fresh start, making more space in my home, my life, my head.   It's just that when it comes down to each individual item, I find it hard to let go.   There's always that what if moment - what if I miss it, what if it turns out I really did need it etc etc.    Then there's the emotional, sentimental side of things - and trust me I can get sentimentally attached to a wide range of objects.   My brother could gleefully tell you numerous stories from my childhood: of my reluctance to say goodbye to our old cooker, to eat the chocolate parrot, to throw away the lamb's tail my grandad had found for me (mum put her foot down on that one, thankfully).  I have hardened my heart a little bit since those days, but old habits die hard...

But one thing that does really help me overcome my natural hoarding instinct is thinking about what clutter I'm piling up for my children to inherit.    I'm not planning to shuffle off this mortal coil any time soon, but when the moment comes I don't want to leave my boys to sort through my piles of "useful papers" or stash of strange sentimental items, their significance known only to me.

Having been through the experience of clearing out my parent's house, I know what an arduous task it can be.   And yet we were lucky: my dad was a man who lived a fairly simple life, who didn't hoard possessions or insist on tangible representations of his life history.   But in sorting through what he did have, I became acutely aware that every piece of paper I stow away in the back of the loft cupboard will have to come out again at some point to be considered and decided upon - either by me, or by those I leave behind.

If that wasn't enough, the mere fact that we have chosen to save something makes the next person's decision even harder - if mum saw fit to save this, they might think, then it must have great significance.  How can we throw it away?   And so a momentary decision not to send that ornament to the charity shop carries the danger of it being passed down through the generations, a testimony to hoarding and indecision.  

As Lake Wobegon's Clarence Bunson says "Damn souveneirs are like mercury in the bloodstream, except they're hereditary too.   You suffer from it and then give it to your kids."*

I'm pleased my dad didn't throw everything away - it is nice to have a few pieces around my house that speak of home, of my childhood.   Maybe my boys will want to be able to do the same.   But ultimately I know that what I want to leave my children is an understanding of what was really important in my life - and I hope that will be found in a head and heart full of happy memories, rather than the box of junk in their attic.

*in "A Glass of Wendy", from Leaving Home by Garrison Keillor 1987

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Bad jokes for a good cause

This week's a bit different here at Ambivalence.   One thing I'm not ambivalent about is how fortunate my family are: we have health, a home, water, heating, food, education and work - not to mention all the other luxuries we enjoy such as cars and computers.

Tomorrow in the UK is Red Nose day, a campaign of Comic Relief which aims to raise money for those who aren't blessed with the same opportunities that we have, to create a just world free from poverty.  So far they have raised over £650million to change lives in 76 different countries around the world.

To join in, here are a few of my family's favourite awful, corny, Christmas-cracker-style jokes.   When you've finished either laughing or groaning at them, please go to http://www.rednoseday.com/ and make a donation, to help other people have something to smile about (plus they have much funnier stuff!!)

What do you call a bear stood on a mint?
A polo bear

What do you call a gorilla with a machine gun?

What do you call a gorilla with a banana in each ear?
Anything you like, he can't hear you.

How do you start a rice pudding race?

Why did the hedgehog cross the road?
To see his flatmate

What's brown and sticky?
A stick

For something much funnier, and to help make the world a little bit better, go to http://www.comicrelief.com/ or http://www.rednoseday.com/ right now...

Thank you.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Creeping my way to victory

I'm an all or nothing kind of girl.   Its one of the faults in my thinking (I've read my CBT self-help book so I know this kind of thing).   It means that I like perfection, want to be the best and only the best, and if any imperfection sneaks in, I tend to think its ruined everything.

In terms of my approach to work, the house etc. it just tends to increase my procrastination.   If I'm going to do anything I want to do the whole thing, there and then; I like to feel I can do a massive job, a big noticeable task that will give me a real sense of achievement and hopefully be appreciated by everyone else.   Not some minor, every day task that feels like just the tip of the big lurking iceberg.

So I don't sit down and write any of my novel because I might only have time to do 100 words and what I'd really like is to solve all the plot glitches and write at least 3 chapters.  Why not wait until I can set aside a whole morning to the task, when I'm feeling fresh and full of inspiration?  Of course the problem is I never actually achieve the latter, wherease if I actually did the former twice a week then by the end of the year I'd have written over 10,000 words.   Maths and reality suggest this would be more promising approach, and yet than annoying little bit in my brain stops me.

In terms of jobs around the house I have to confess I take a certain satisfaction from taking a real mess and transforming it into beauty.  (I blame it on too much childhood reading of The Secret Garden).  In a perverse way I quite like it when the house is really untidy, the washing overflowing, and everything needs sorting and I know I can take a day to transform it.   It is sort of comforting to reach a low point and know that the only way is up.   I suppose I like to see where I've been.   So much more rewarding than the approach I know I should do - a bit of dusting each day, a load of washing, picking up a few things as I go round.  I know, deep down, that this is the answer, that it would save me having to have those awful late night cleaning sessions before the in-laws come, or panicking when someone unexpectedly calls round.   But it would still take a lot of my time, and a lot of ongoing will power, and who would notice??

But enough is enough, and so I am starting to change my thinking, to adjust to a new way of looking at things.  I am coming to realise that the all out battles often leave me feeling exhausted, frustrated and no closer to winning the war.   So I'm trying to adopt the long term trategy.   I like to think of it as "creeping death" (where death is a good thing you understand, in terms of the clutter in my house and my in-tray).  

Every toy I pick up, every piece of clothing that goes through the wash, every item that goes to the charity shop, every little phone call I finally get round to making, however small, is a point scored for me, a cause for a small inward celebration; they are all invading the enemy's territory, undermining its foundations, and bringing my victory a little nearer.

Friday, 4 March 2011

More confessions of a domestic deficient

I discovered today that my children actually have affectionate terms for our over-flowing washing basket.

"Look" said the younger to the older one, as he crammed an armful of dirty clothes on top of the already erupting collection.  "It's got its hat on again!!"
He then took the time to explain to me that when the basket is over-full and the lid perches precariously on top, they have decided it looks like a face with a little Chinese hat on.
I felt a slight twinge of self-awareness and shame that this is an event that happens so regularly they have had time to speculate in this way.   Surely they should be outside, wholesomely employed deciding if the fluffy clouds look an ice cream or an elephant, rather than debating the ethnicity of the laundry container's headgear??

I was slightly comforted by a friend's confession last week of similar laundry inefficiencies.   Her son, she explained, loves the smell of musty towels, burying his head in them and breathing in what he considers to be the lovely aroma.   She can only assume that he finds the smell comforting and familiar - which would be sweet if it was her home baking, rather than unwashed cloths.

We might feel slightly better if we were both captains of industry, flying the flag for women in the workplace whilst juggling our home responsibilities with our marathon running and saving the world.   Instead, we are two partly employed mums whose children are busy at school but who still find it hard to fit in the housework around all the other things we would much rather be doing!

As I'm trying to weigh up where I should go with various different work options I've been considering if I would indeed be better off using my time to really "get on top of the house" - something I promised myself would happen once my youngest was in full-time education.    I actually quite often enjoy the days I do spend doing housework, but I wonder if that is only because I don't have many of them.   And there is also a lurking suspicion that even given an infinite amount of time I would still never quite "get on top of things" but would always be thinking of new house-related projects that would of course give great benefits (if I ever actually finished them) but would mean the ironing could wait just one more day...

Friday, 25 February 2011

Dreams amidst the scarecrows of life

First of all, apologies for this post being a day late. Just as well you know I'm a disorganized procrastinator isn't it? It's half-term for us this week, so my priorities got shifted somewhat.  Excuses, excuses....

Which leads nicely on to the question for this week: why is it often so hard to do the things we love?
Why do so many of us fill our lives with so much "stuff" that we never get to do the things we dream of?
Why do so many of us turn back just as we start to get to where we want to be?
Why do some people seem to press the self-destruct button just as life is getting good?
What stops us making that last great leap forward?

For a lot of people I guess it comes down to one thing: fear.
Maybe the closer we get to our dream, the harder it would be to see it slip through our fingers.
Or maybe what we are really scared of is what would happen if we succeed, and we do make our dream come true. What would happen then?

If we've spent our whole lives dreaming of something, what happens to our lives when that something is no longer a dream but a reality?
Where do we go next?
What if the dream turns out not to be worth all those hours of wishing and working for it?
Or what if the dream works out fine, but our life is still...well, a normal life with all its ups and downs?
What if we don't have that magic moment that makes everything "happy ever after"?

I enjoyed reading an article on The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur blog [www.toiletpaperentrepreneur.com] recently (though the blog is an old one), about how to find your hidden talent.  What was the No.1 tip, according to Mike Michalowicz?   "Sorry, No Excuses Allowed."  No hiding your talents because you're scared it might not work out, no staying put and staying safe, then blaming your problems on someone or something else.

I know I'm guilty of this - I can think of a hundred external reasons why I never get round to sitting down and writing that tricky middle section of my novel.   But the truth really is, whenever I think about it I get scared.  Its hard to explain why objectively - after all typing words into a computer screen is hardly an extreme sport.  But what it comes down to it this - in my mind I can imagine what will happen in an alternative universe where I become "a writer".   I will be happier, more confident, prettier, better dressed.  My whole household will be happier, brighter and more smoothly run.   The children won't argue and domestic appliances won't break down.  I like my alternative universe.  

Now I'm old enough to know that the world doesn't work like that.   Becoming the next JK Rowling won't change my whole life into a fairy tale where no bad things can touch me.   But there's an even worse fear lurking just around the corner.

What if I am just no good at it?  What if I never become a writer, not because I selflessly devote all my time to my family, but just because I don't have the ability?
Is it better to fool myself that I could be great if only the rest of the world hadn't stopped me?
Or to face the music and find out?

I'm starting to come round to the idea that facing the music has to be better.  And then if I truly am awful I have two choices: carry on anyway, for my own pleasure; or move on and try a different dream on for size.

Someone once told me that the really clever birds know a scarecrow signifies not danger but the best crops.   So next time the scarecrows of life start crowding in, I'm going to try laughing in their faces, and carrying on skipping through the fields.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Grown-up Orphans

"Losing a parent is something like driving through a plate glass window. You didn't know it was there until it shattered, and then for years to come you are picking up the pieces."
Author Saul Bellow, quoted in The Nation and reproduced in The Week

I read the above quote this morning and it really struck a chord for me. It was that feeling you get when someone has managed to take what you have thought or felt and put it into succinct, eloquent words. So instead of the feeling just buzzing hopelessly around in your head, you now have something concrete that you can point to and say "there, that's what it's like".

I'm what I call a "grown up orphan". I lost my mum when I was 26 and my dad when I was 34. I should be clear at this point that I know I'm fortunate that I had them both around through all my childhood, teenage years, and early adulthood. I know there are many people who have to cope with losing parents when they are very young, and that must be heart-breaking.

But still, I expected to have my parents around for longer. They were a little older than some of my friends' parents (mum was 40 when she had me), but I just assumed that would mean I would get to the "where are they going to live/ how am I going to support them?" stage a bit sooner. It never crossed my mind that I was going to lose them completely.

I remember when my mum died (very suddenly), a colleague asked me if we had been particularly close, had spoken on the phone every day and so on. The truthful answer was no - not that we weren't close, but more in a once-a-week kind of a way. I was newly married, only a few years on from university and excited about my new life, house, career. I was still really at that stage of wanting to pull away from home and become my own person. Did this mean I should grieve any less? The only answer I could give was "but she was my mum!"

One of the unconscious assumptions of childhood is that our parents will always be there for us, no matter what. And when that safety net is taken away, suddenly we become aware that it is a long way down.

My mother never knew my children, never saw me pregnant, never compared our bumps, never held my tiny babies. She wasn't there either to tell me it was ok and she knew how I felt for the two babies I lost. My dad got to know my first child a little bit, but his terminal cancer was diagnosed when my second baby was a few weeks old, and died one week after his 1st birthday.

Neither of them have been here to see my boys start school, earn their swimming badges, or bruise their knees.  They are not there to give advice (welcome or not!), or to fill in the gaps in the memories of my own childhood.  And as the boys get older, so my awareness of the loss seems to get bigger rather than smaller. I know how much my mum would love doing their junk modelling with them; how proud my akela-dad would be when my eldest said his cub promise; how he would have enjoyed being the one to take them to their first football match.

My boys don't miss out: they are blessed to have another set of grandparents who are more than happy to do extra turns. But on a bad day it only makes it seem worse for me that my parents aren't even missed, that their memories will gradually grow fainter and fainter.

Do I look back and wish I'd done things differently? Maybe a little, but there's not a lot I could have done. A few more conversations perhaps, more hugs, less adolescent angst. But I can't change the person I was then. And if I'd had kids earlier, I don't think I would have been as good a mum myself.

So this post isn't to ask you to be a completely different person either. If your parents irritate the hell out of you then you are probably not going to suddenly want to spend every minute of the day with them. But perhaps the knowledge that your time with them is limited may help you bear with their faults a little more patiently, and try to remember a few more of the good things.

As Joni Mitchell says, you don't know what you've got till it's gone...

Friday, 11 February 2011

A Haiku Excuse (or is it an excuse for a haiku?)

This week in my home
Lots of new things have happened.
So the blog has not.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Choices, choices...

"My wallet's too small for my fifties and my diamond shoes are too tight!"

One of my favourite quotes from Friends because it sums up one of the fundamental problems in life: however fortunate we are, we seem to be able to find something in it to trouble us.

The more we have, the more we have to look after, think about, manage, decide.  And often, the more we want.   And this is never more true than in the area of choice and opportunity.

No one likes having the ability to choose being taken away from them.  We hate that feeling of being backed into a corner, with no way out.  Not being able to do anything to alter our situation leaves us feeling impotent and frustrated. As creatures with free will so central to our being, losing that option can seem the hardest kind of deprivation.

And yet at the other end of the scale, too many choices can be paralysing.   Particularly if like me you are not very good at making decision in the first place.  Or ever.

I'm having one of those moments today.  I have the opportunity to take my working life in about three or four different directions.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not sitting here with gilt-edged job offers on the desk in front of me.   But there have been conversations, e-mails, phone calls with expressions of interest, suggestions about how we could take things further.  And I'm in the extremely fortunate position of being able to consider all of them because I've a husband who is happy to support me both emotionally and financially.    How lucky am I?

So right now I'm feeling really excited.  And confused.

A couple of months ago I was feeling exactly the opposite: my (chosen) limitation of being there for my children seemed to render me with countless other mums looking for a satisfying, stimulating school-hours only job.  And so this sudden flowering of opportunities has taken me by surprise.
Shall I stay where I am, go back to something old and familiar, or give it all up and start again with something new?

And given that I find it hard enough deciding what to buy for tea, how can I decide what to do with the rest of my life?

But I've decided that for now I'll just enjoy the feeling of all these opportunities.  Its like standing in the middle of a wide open space and seeing all these different paths laid out in front of me.   I don't know where any of the paths will end up, and once I've chosen one I don't know whether I'd ever be able to find my way back to this crossroads and try again.   But I know I'm very, very lucky to be stood here right now, enjoying the view.   The diamond shoes might feel a bit strange, but they are still sparkling, whichever way I dance.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Fitting in or messing up?

This week we went to see The King's Speech and watched Colin Firth's Oscar-nominated performance of a man struggling to overcome his stutter, whilst finding himself at a turning point in history. 

In one scene we see Bertie discuss his unhappy childhood with his speech therapist Lionel Logue.   A nanny who pinched him and starved him, a daily "presentation" to his parents, a much loved brother locked away due to his epileptic fits.   A father who accepted his children should be scared of him.  Not to mention being forced to become right-handed rather than using his naturally dominant left - a situation often linked to stammering.    In some ways it seems amazing that it is only a speech difficulty he is left with as evidence of such childhood misery.

Such treatment can seem, to our 21st century eyes, a catalogue of parental cruelty and neglect.   Yet it was more a reflection of common attitudes at the time rather than just one particular family.   

My mother, a child of the 1930s, was also a natural lefty who had her hand smacked and was forced to use her right.    She was scared of her father all her life; but as an adult she had the grace to see that he had still improved on the parenting he himself had known, of a father who would kick his pregnant wife down the stairs.  
This makes me wonder about a few things.

Firstly, are we still guilty of pushing our children in ways they don't want to go, just to make them fit in?  I know mums now who have confessed to "encouraging" their left-handed child to use their right instead.    Why wouldn't I want my child to be the same as the majority? they may argue. To be able to use the same equipment in the same way as everyone else?  To write without smudging the ink, use normal scissors, standard sports gear?  

Even if we're not guilty of that, how many of us have pushed - ever so gently of course - in other ways?  To make a "geeky" child interested in football so they can have more friends.   To send a child to music lessons, whatever their preferences or ability, because lots of the other children are, and we wish we'd had the opportunity. 

Are these bad things to do?   Maybe not.   But they do raise the question of valuing our own individuality versus fitting in to our social grouping. 

I wonder what our parenting will look like to the eyes of future generations?   We may be shocked by the cold, distant, harsh approaches of our great-grandparents.   But what will our great-grandchildren think when they look back at us?  

Will they see children who have countless opportunities for development and exciting leisure activities?  Or will they see poor over-stimulated children who are shuttled in metal boxes from one lesson to the next, with no chance to stretch their legs; whose experience of playing outdoor games comes only from balancing on a strange white board in their living room?  

Will they appreciate parents who took the time to talk and discuss issues with their children, to help them understand decisions rather than scaring them into submission?  Or will they simply laugh at our need for TV nannies to get our offspring to behave?

Who knows where the best balance truly lies?  If we really love our children, is that enough to overcome any other parental misjudgements?   Colin Firth himself has been quoted recalling a friend's advice, that "every time I screw up with my children I put a dollar in the jar to pay for their therapy"!   Maybe every generation looks at the one before and thinks "you messed up, I can do better than that".   And maybe that's what keeps us moving on, keeps us hoping for a better world.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Home or Away?

I had to write an official letter today to explain myself.   My strange behaviour that needed to be justified?  Not having a current passport.   I had other documents - driving licence and so forth - that served the purpose of identifying me, but apparently being a grown adult and not having a valid passport is enough in itself to arouse the curiosity and suspicions of the powers that be.

This got me to thinking if it really is so strange to be lacking in this area.  I have had passports before - the temporary ones you used to be able to get for short, cheap, trips with student friends, and a proper one that proudly bore my new married name.   I've never been a huge traveller, but I've made a few trips, seen a few sights.   But this of course was all B.C - before children.

Since becoming a family, the idea of foreign travel started to lose its appeal.  I know lots of people manage perfectly well to explore the world with small people in tow.   But whenever we sat down to plan it we could only think about all the disadvantages: the possibility of being stuck for hours on end in an airport lounge with two hungry, shouting, rowdy boys; the endless sun-creaming of fair, eczematous skin; trying to persuade them to eat the beautiful local food when all they wanted was a jacket potato and baked beans.

Why, we thought, would we want to do that when we can pile everything (and I mean everything) into the car and head off to the beautiful places that good old Blighty has to offer?

We're fortunate in that we already live in an attractive part of the country - the capital of city-breaks and a surrounding area that draws those hoping to find the magic of Heartbeat/Herriot/some-other-heart-warmingly-northern-tv-show country.  So even a camping trip not far from home can offer outstanding views.   But so many corners of the country have offered us wonderful experiences.

We've climbed misty hills in Wales; body boarded in Cornwall; hand-fed deer in Devon; tracked dinosaurs and spotted seals in Norfolk; sunbathed and skimmed stones in Sussex; big-wheeled over London; visited zoos and played crazy golf pretty much everywhere.  And yes, sometimes its rained.  Often, to be fair.  But the boys don't care, and neither do we if we have a warm Aga and a glass of wine to go back to.

We have a map of the UK pinned up at home that shows all the places we've been and what we've seen.   And when I look at it I don't think how small it is, but how big, and how much of it we've still got to see.

But now I have started thinking about the world outside these shores.  I've started to remember the joy of sitting in a small taverna in a quiet Greek harbour eating feta and olives; the experience of standing in the ruins of Ephasus and imagining all those who had stood there before; the eternal magic of wandering hand in hand through Paris with someone you love.   I can almost taste the food and feel the sun on my back.

And there's so much more I'd love to see - Italian cities, Norwegian ffjords, ancient ruins.  I'd like to drive huskies and see the Northern Lights; to ride the train from one side of America to the other; to sit on an endless white beach and look out at an aquamarine sea.

So maybe, just maybe, I'll be finding out about renewing my passport.  But I think a part of me will still always be happiest eating fish and chips on the end of the pier.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Another Eden?

Do you ever wonder what that first Eden would have been like?

A beautiful carpet of flowers of amazing hues? A tall jungle, huge leaves giving refreshing shade?  Tumbling waterfalls and glistening lakes?

Or maybe a living buffet, where every tree and bush provided something new to eat?  Eye-catching colours, mouth-watering flavours, satisfying and nourishing.

As we look around at our world today, with all its fears and sorrows and disasters, we may long for another chance to live in paradise.  

But if we did, I wonder how we would behave?  Would we be able to re-connect with our Eden selves, our pre-fall, pre-selfish, selves and be able to eat just what we needed, when we needed it, content with what we had and trusting that the Gardener would provide more when it was required?

I hope so.

But a small part of me, unable to imagine such innocence, fears that we would still want to gather more, hoard it away (just in case), consume too much just because we could, always have more than the other person, and so still end up with paradise lost.   Not because we would be banished from Eden, but because we had banished Eden from our way of living. 

So this year I am trying to live a ibt more lightly.  Not in a huge way, but in the every day decisions.  To not buy all that food, all those books or CDs or gadgets to make my life more comfortable.   To not have 5 different sorts of biscuits in the cupboard at any one time just in case. 

To decide that it is ok that we might not always be able to meet our current desire instantaneously, that it might need to wait until the next time we go to the shops or the library. 

To recognise that even that is a trivial inconvenience not a hardship.

To accept that maybe a few occasions of going without might help us understand how life feels for those who only get to the fruit tree after our greedy harvesters have already been through.

Friday, 7 January 2011

The year is not new for me yet

Well, it is the New Year.  2011 is here.   Resolutions have been made, attempted and possibly even abandoned by now.   So do you feel all new and raring to go, or do you still feel like you'd like to crawl back under the duvet and sleep till spring?

For me, January 1st isn't the real new year, whatever my calender says.  The time-clock within me knows that this is just an artificial arrangement.   How can you have a sense of renewal, of new life, of starting again, whilst the trees are still bare, the sky a leaden grey and the sun can barely make it into the sky?   To put it bluntly, how can you turn over a new leaf when there are no new leaves to be seen?

As a child we all knew the real new year was the beginning of September.   The summer holidays had faded and gone, we were back at school, dressed up in our smart new uniform, and were in a new class, a new year, older and wiser and infinitely more grown up.  Oh the feeling of hope and anticipation when we neatly copied our names on to the covers of those brand new exercise books and opened them to that clean, white, unblemished first page.   What an opportunity to start again, and what resolutions we made, only varying slightly as we progressed through the educational system.   This year I will write neatly and keep my book nice.   This year I will keep all my pencils sharpened.  This year I will learn my times tables.   This year I will not leave my homework till the last minute.   This year I will start my revision early.   This year I will copy up my lecture notes straight away whilst I can still understand them...

Now, September does still have a sense of the new year about it, if only vicariously.  But for me, my real year follows that of Mother Nature.   Winter is the old age of the year - not without its pleasures, maybe even sweeter because of the pains - but often feeling like it is dragging its heels, reluctant to let go.   It seems like there will never be warmth or sunshine again.  

Then one day we draw the curtains and the sun is shining shyly at us.  When we step outside the air is still crisp, but with a hint of warmth and encouragement on the gentle breeze.   We look around and notice pale green buds appearing on the trees, stab of white, yellow and purple flowers dotting the ground, birds singing.   People start to lift their heads and smile at one another.   We cast off hats and gloves and scarves and feel the sun on our skin again.   We take a deep breath and feel how good it is to be alive and to see the spring once more.  And then, then we feel hope returning and can start to recognise all the possibilities that life offers us, the things we might do.  

So for now I am hunkering down and working my way through the winter, counting the weeks until that sunny day when my new year will really truly start.