Dear Untamed Human Of Mine

Look at you, so utterly absorbed in all you do, so completely within the moment, not thinking backwards or forwards. Sadly, you do now understand the concept of ‘in a minute’ ‘not now’, ‘just wait.’ It’s weird how it once seem unfathomable that you would be able to articulate speech or instigate questions, but now, approaching your third birthday, you are brimming over with why? And how? Every time you open your mouth we are shocked by the new things that spill out. You make us laugh out loud daily with the things you come out with. It only seems moments ago that you were lying wordlessly in my arms.

It’s funny to me how you know your own mind already. You have a preference for how things should be done and tell me ‘not like that, Mummy.’ And it’s always over the smallest of things, like me trying to put your shoes on, or give you a kiss. It’s like you have to have the last word, the ultimate control over everything. You’re stubborn too. There are days when you argue with me over everything. If it’s raining and I say it’s raining, you will adamantly insist that it is absolutely not raining.

Your funny walks and your funny talks, though in the wrong moment, you will hate for us to laugh at you, in the right ones, you play the clown and laugh your husky laugh along with us. Your funny faces, your spontaneity, your wildness, you have no real clue how to fit in anywhere or how to behave, but we are teaching you, and sometimes I regret this.

When I tell you to hurry up, when I insist the shoes do go on the right feet, when I take your out of your car seat on the ‘wrong’ side, when I make you sit on your chair at dinner time, when I say no to your impulsive demands for biscuits or juice, I am taming you. I am teaching you how to behave.

We are all doing it. We are all complicit in your taming, restraining you from running wild, telling you not to jump in the puddles too much or your socks will get wet, telling you have to hold hands, telling you to hurry up, come on, we have things to do…

Sometimes I watch you. Sometimes I can’t stop staring at you when you’re in a puddle and set on staying there as long as possible because there is nothing more important to you in the world, and I am tired, I need coffee, and all the bribes of hot chocolate or CBeebies have not worked, because you just want to stay in that puddle. I stare at you, at how lost and absorbed and interested you are, swirling your stick around in the water, stamping your feet, walking up and down, repeating the same actions again and again, and it hurts my heart to imagine you in a shirt and tie and blazer, forced to sit still at school.

I can’t imagine you not like this. Wellies and mud, picking up sticks and stones, not listening to a word I say, with your crazy hair and your mucky face, because you hate for me to wipe it, and how you want to climb on absolutely everything, and how it drives me crazy sometimes when I am in a hurry, and want to get on, and don’t want you to hurt yourself and absolutely know that you will. Sometimes I hate myself for telling you to be careful, for warning you of pain you have no concept of. It’s even worse when I scold you because I simply want to get home, because I’ve had enough, because I’m bored, or tired, or grumpy, because I just want one moment to myself…

I wish there was always time in this life for climbing and balancing and puddles and crouching down to intently inspect your world, for wandering off, for taking the other path, for doing something unplanned and not in the schedule, for sitting down and refusing to move, for refusing to wear your hood up in the rain, for everything you love, for everything that holds your interest. My last child, my wild child, I long for you to be forever untamed, forever entranced by trees and tigers and muck and hose pipes.

I look at you sometimes,  and I think of all the things you need to learn to be. Patient, quiet, still, orderly. I think that we are preparing you for pre-school, which will prepare you for school, which will prepare you for employment, and I want to say no, no, no no! We’re teaching you how to behave. We’re teaching you how to fit in. We’re taming you and I’m sorry.

Growing Your Own; A Positive Rebellion

Gardening is a lot like writing. It starts with a seed, and with love, care, attention, commitment and imagination, it grows into something much, much more. For me, gardening and writing are similar because they both involve creating something positive and injecting it into the world. They both make the world brighter and better. They both involve hope, love and rebellion.

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I’ve always been attracted to gardening. My parents grew vegetables when I was a kid, and so did my grandparents. I have fond memories of sitting on cool concrete steps with a plastic bowl on my lap, popping peas from their pods. There is nothing in this world quite as divine as the pungent scent of a full grown tomato plant. As soon as I had my own place, I started growing my own. There is something so deliciously simple and satisfying about planting a seed and growing it into a plant, from which you can pick and eat food. If you’ve never had the pleasure, I can assure you it’s an incredible feeling. Like all is well with the world. Like you’ve just solved all the world’s problems, by tugging out a handful of carrots and shaking the dirt from their roots. It never fails to make me smile, the sight of home grown food, picked and ready to eat. It just makes you want to sit back and go ‘ahh’.

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We live in tumultuous times. There are many days when I want to avoid the news, for fear of what will dismay or horrify me next. I sometimes wish I could turn the clock back for all of us, back to a simpler time, where we all grew our own food, worked the fields, and reaped what we sowed.

When I am feeling distraught, just like writing, gardening will make me feel better. I forces me to take a deep breath, it forces me to get on with things, to get on with life, and to do something positive. Getting my hands dirty, feeling the soil under my finger nails, pushing seeds into the earth, it all helps me to feel grounded again and more in control. Being outside, kneeling in the dirt, choosing what to plant, putting my back into turning over the earth, it helps me remember where I come from, where we all come from. Gardening is therapeutic; I keep telling people this. I get my little man out there with me, and I want him to feel the earth and take care of the seeds, and tend them and watch them grow. Right now, I can’t think of anything more important for him to know and understand.

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Gardening grounds me, calms me and satisfies me. From the beginning, it is a labour of love and good intentions. I have the old adage of ‘you reap what you sow’ in mind nearly always, for I know I will get back what I put in. The seeds are the hope, you see. Like new life, bursting with potential. A freshly dug and turned over plot is like the womb, spongey and fresh, eager to provide and sustain. It’s exciting from the first moment you plant the seed. When it rears its head, it’s like birth. You care for it, water it, protect it and finally, you are rewarded with food. The cycle of life right there. And around it goes again, the plant itself providing the seeds from which to start the whole process again.

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When I’m in my garden, I’m calmer and happier, but I am also filled with grit and determination. For I am taking back control. Working the land, growing our own food used to be the norm. It was how we survived. But over time the food industry grew into a monstrous thing, delivering us convenience, but taking away so many other things. What have we traded, what have we compromised on in order to be able to do all our shopping under one huge roof? We’ve not only handed over control of the food chain to massive faceless corporations, we’ve compromised on animal cruelty and environmental damage and destruction. We’ve increased waste massively, through packaging, delivery, and distribution. We’ve lost contact with what is put into our food, what it actually is, where it comes from, and what or who has suffered in order for us to have it exactly as we demand it.

When you try to grow your own food, you remember how it used to be, how it could be again, how important it is to get back that control and to reconnect our roots with the earth we walk on. We have no respect for nature when we are removed from it. When all the hard work is done for us, when we have no idea how foods are made or what is in them, or what damage has been done to the planet in order to obtain them. I believe it’s crucial we teach our children where food comes from. Reconnecting them with the earth and their own wild roots is going to become increasingly important.

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It’s not easy for everyone to grow their own food. Not everyone has the space and barely anyone has the time. But in years to come, I truly believe it’s going to become imperative to learn how. We are going to struggle to feed people on this planet for many reasons. Climate change may be the biggest challenge of our generation, endless war, struggling economies and falling wages will all take their toll. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed that food prices are rising.

Growing your own food, planting a vegetable patch, may be just about the most positive and rebellious thing we can do right now. It’s two fingers up to the establishment, it’s a break away from slavery to the supermarkets, and a refusal to be complicit in animal cruelty, environmental destruction and the taking from those who have less.

Growing your own is saying, go away, I don’t need you, I can do this on my own. I’ve got a new motto this year in my house. It’s ‘I won’t buy it, if I can make it myself.’ Now this only applies to food so far, and is a work in process, but a good intention heading in the right direction. I’m digging my heels in and saying no. I don’t need to buy supermarket naan bread when I make a curry, because I can save the packaging and make my own. I don’t need to buy pizzas, or jam, or pastries or pies, sauces, breads, cakes or biscuits, because I can make my own.

I need to be outside right now. This world is breaking my heart and filling me with terror. I need to be planting things, growing things, nurturing things. I need to be responsible for new life and hope and potential. I need to believe that good things can happen if you are a good person. I need to believe that there is a possibility for a greener, brighter future for my children.

When I am writing or gardening, I am reminded that I still have power.

 

 

Prove Them Wrong

Sometimes I think that the best piece of advice I have received in my life came from a fictional character I created myself. Strange, eh? In The Boy With The Thorn In His Side , Michael is often nudging Danny along by suggesting he ‘prove them wrong’. Now is not the time to go into who ‘they’ are, but I am sure you have your own ‘they’. I’m sure that whatever your passion, whatever your dream, there is or has been someone somewhere expecting you to fail.

When I was a teenager, I called them the Plan B Realists. They liked my Plan A, which was to become a writer. They smiled at it and nodded and thought it was sweet, but they didn’t think it was realistic or sensible. It wasn’t a real plan, they said. There is no money in it, they said. I tried to ignore them at the time but fear becomes ingrained. Not being successful, not being able to support yourself, not making your loved ones proud of you, becomes too much to risk. It took me a long time to realise life is about pleasing yourself, not other people, and that maybe all the Plan B Realists had Plan A’s too once, ones that they failed to follow.

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As well as the ones who like to piss on your fireworks, I’m sure you’ve got a fair share of the eye-rollers too. You know the ones who basically change the subject if you talk about what you do. Fair enough. Then there are the ones who are so impossible to please, you could become the highest earner in the family, own a yacht, buy them a house and still be the person they just cannot see.

Michael’s words come back to me whenever I am feeling unsupported or ignored and whenever I experience doubt in my journey as a writer. The words stir a steely resolve inside my quivering belly and help hold me still. If you sometimes feel like no one is listening anyway and perhaps they never were, like no one sees you or remembers you, like your voice is too small, like it fades away before it even begins, then perhaps you could also take some advice from Michael and tell yourself to prove them wrong. And that really mean proving yourself right.

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Even if it hurts to acknowledge it, and it’s like there is something loose and rattling inside of you that is scrunched up, and batting around from one side to the other, and it’s like you can’t breathe properly when you think about it, when you think about them – it’s like you’ve been running from something that wants to crash into you if you ever let it catch you up – try to remember this. That there might never have been intentional malice in their words or actions, just a carelessness with your soul. That maybe you are family who really shouldn’t be, that you are so different  from each other that it makes it impossible to recognise what you see – Remember that maybe they did the best they could with all that they had, and that maybe they did better than their parents did with them, and remember that you will do better still.

You will never make your children feel less than wanted and valued and longed for, and you will never have favourites, those that shine and those you allow to fade, and you will always allow them their rightful dreams and be there by their side to guard them so that they are never lost to cold realism.

Maybe they weren’t there and didn’t care, maybe they turned their back or simply looked past you. Maybe you were not what they wanted, or not what they needed. Maybe they will see it one day when it is all too late. Maybe they won’t. Maybe one day all of your dreams will come true and you will finally be able to turn around and say look, I did it, I told you I could, and maybe they will still not care.

If they doubted you or mocked you, ignored you or neglected you, if they turned you away because they knew no better, then prove them wrong and do it well. Whatever it is, whoever you are, whatever your passion, do it anyway, and make it your life’s duty and purpose to prove them wrong. Do it anyway and do it well, and do it for yourself, and let their scorn and disinterest spur you to work ten thousand times harder than you would have without it. Let it be the fuel from which you draw the energy to keep going, to hold your head up high, to hear your voice getting surer and stronger. Let it make you harder and faster and brighter and smarter than you would be had you had all the love and support in the world.

Rise above. Move on, and may they choke on their words as you prove them all wrong.

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Christmas Guest Post; Anna Lock

A few weeks ago I set my writing group a prompt, which was simply ‘Christmas Is…’ I was hoping they would come up with either a memory, a rant, or a piece of fiction based on the prompt which I could then use as a guest post on my blog. I had some amazing responses, and as usual, all very, very different! But I had to go with this one by the wonderful Anna Lock. A poignant piece of fiction on the fragility of family life at Christmas…

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I looked through the box of photographs the other day Dad, the ones from that last Christmas. It was difficult but I made myself do it. There you were, sitting on that shiny blue settee smiling at the camera whilst Janet and I played with our new toys at your feet. I can see it now, of course, the illness, the portents of death that were written into your face, but then, we were children and unaware. Do you remember that Christmas Dad?

The next photo is the one with Joe wearing a hat from a cracker and blowing a silly whistle – it must have been taken after lunch. I don’t recall. It’s strange that isn’t it? The way when you look at a photo you can convince yourself that you can remember that very moment in time even if that isn’t true? He looks really happy; so youthful and unworried, God, he was so young then, my big brother and I was totally oblivious of how difficult that period of his life was for him. He was rarely at home –that was the source of so many rows and bitter fights between you wasn’t it? Janet and I used to pull the blankets over our head in bed to block them out, that and the sound of Mum sobbing and pleading with you both.

Joe is pretending to be tipsy; so ironic when I think of him now, and wonder where he is. How is he spending Christmas this time? Another year in some remote godforsaken land, keeping us all at arm’s length, and in that place he goes to in his head, where the hurt can’t penetrate. He’ll be wasted and alone. I could always try texting him again, although he probably won’t reply and then I’ll get sad and worry that he’s dead somewhere and the cycle of anger with him, you, Mum, God and the world will start again and cripple me. That unbearable burden that each of your children carry, because you left us too soon.

In this photo, Mum and Auntie Audrey are clinking sherry glasses and laughing at the camera. Audrey always spent Christmas with us didn’t she; all those years, before she finally married in her 40s. How she made us laugh! Her exuberance seemed to fill the house, revelling in everything, even Julia’s dreadful mince pies and inedible Christmas cake. Looking back I can see now that we were her surrogate children but at that time, all I knew was that she was such fun to be around; the loud bubbly extrovert and contrast to her quiet sister. Mum looks okay, given the circumstances. Did you know, she mentioned that Christmas to me a few years ago? I can’t remember the context but unusually for her, the rose tinted specs were off, and she told me how Joe had lost yet another job a few weeks before, and that she had given him some money to buy his sisters a present each. Money was so tight then, and she could ill afford it, poor love. But I remember what he bought us, Dad. We had a bottle of bubble bath each and the stopper was like a Barbie head! Janet’s was blond, mine was brown and Julia had a red head.

Mum said that because you had been so ill that autumn, and hadn’t been in work for such a long time, she had been rushing around and consequently neither of you had been able to get a present for Joe – it is difficult to find the right present for an 18-year-old whose only interests are T. Rex, Slade and Manchester United I suppose. So you had decided to give him a cheque. But what with one thing and another it didn’t get written, so you had tried to do it secretly on Christmas morning and hide it in the tree. But somehow that hadn’t happened. Mum was still so sad about that after all these years you know? She had tried to tell Joe later that it wasn’t because you had forgotten him or didn’t care, but deep inside she knew that his pain that day, just added to all the other hurts he was collecting in his heart. She didn’t know then how to handle him – after all her life was so busy with the relentless struggle to make ends meet and look after four children in addition to an increasingly ill husband. And so time ticked on, and Joe gradually dropped off the edge of the family until one day, he slipped beyond our reach.

But none of this is visible in that photo. Maybe in that fleeting moment, Auntie Audrey had succeeded in resurrecting her fun-loving older sister and Kevin had captured it with a “click” – proof preserved forever that the happy, smiling mum once did exist. After you had gone Dad, that mum vanished too. Oh, I’ve seen a similar smile on occasions, when she looks at a new-born grandchild, or when they climb onto her lap for a cuddle but it’s never quite as full, never whole or secure, never quite complete again.

In the photo of Julia, I can see the tree behind her. Ah, the tree; our one luxury, always a real tree, no matter what eh? And the excitement of the trip to choose it! Do you remember Dad, the fun we had fixing it to the car roof and the drive home again singing Christmas carols in the car all 4 children squeezed in tightly in the back? Mum kept this ritual, despite the financial frailty – did you know that? We tried hard, but with just Janet and me at home, and little money the tree became thinner, subdued and less robust – a bit like us.

Do you remember the Christmases before that Dad? How you and Joe would carry the massive tree through the house and upstairs to the cosy lounge, where Mum had lit the fire in the huge Victorian fireplace, scattering pine needles in your wake. The annual drama of wedging it into the bucket and the “it isn’t straight yet” arguments between Joe and Julia, while Janet and I danced around gleefully, full of anticipation, picking up on wafts of excitement and cheer from the conversations between the adults, happy, for once, that there were no rows or slamming of doors, or tears. We inhaled the wonderful pine scent that meant Christmas was really here as the fire crackled cheerfully, impatient for Mum to finish untangling the old fairy lights, traditional red, green yellow and blue, with a nursery rhyme motif that mysteriously tangled themselves in their box each year.

For two weeks the tree shone in the huge bay window, and on Christmas morning it was surrounded by a sea of wrapped presents quietly waiting for the 6 of us, Auntie Audrey and Godfather Kevin. Oh, the anticipation of that moment, the build-up was almost unbearable for us then. I can’t find any photos of the tree Dad. I suppose that’s because only Kevin had a camera, and he liked to take pictures of people. Thank goodness he did, otherwise, we’d only have our memories and that would be unbearable. It was thoughtful too, of him to send us the photos, or bring them with him when he came to stay the following Easter. He knew of course; he was your best friend and confidant. He stayed loyal to us Dad – but you’d know that wouldn’t you, why would you have doubted that?

We found loads more photos from Christmas when we cleared his flat – he kept them all you know; we hadn’t recognised our value to him then when we were children. But we loved his expensive gifts from Harrods and Selfridges. The trip to the station to collect him from the London train on Christmas Eve was the start of Christmas proper. He was the one who bought Mum the lovely presents, perfume, expensive chocolates and silk scarves because he could see what the rest of us could not, her selflessness, and the grim future that lay ahead.

Do you remember Dad, those endless monopoly games with him that lasted the whole week between Christmas and New Year? All the arguments and negotiating that went on – that time when Auntie Audrey stood guard of the board over night because we were convinced that Kevin was cheating! It was all put on of course, for Janet and me; adults conspiring in the great adventure, and jolly larks, and, oh, how we revelled in that! Leftover turkey with bubble and squeak, cosy afternoons with the telly, satsumas and Christmas chocolates and that protracted game of monopoly. Those were the best Dad, really happy times, for us all I think because everyone joined in, battles forgotten, money worries, sickness and impending loss and grief suspended momentarily. A family united and sharing good times with a friend.

That was over 40 years ago Dad, such a long time ago, yet it’s as fresh a memory as if it was last year. The grief is less raw now of course, but it never goes away; all those other Christmases stolen from us, future photos that were never taken and happy new memories that could not be born. Just memories of that last Christmas, kept alive through those photos, and made so poignant by the knowledge that 3 of the key players were keeping a dreadful secret, and hiding it from the children. Do I wish we had known? I don’t know Dad; how could an 8 and 6-year-old handle that knowledge? You all meant well I realise that; you thought you were doing the right thing.

But each Christmas became harder to get through than its predecessor, for fifteen years. The tree lights that didn’t work and were cracked or broken came out of their box only to be put back – no money to replace them. The Chinese lanterns that we repeatedly sellotaped together and resolutely stuck to the ceiling were eventually thrown away when they became beyond repair and the decorations that we fixed to the tree using paperclips grew fewer each year. It was good that we had learned at school to make 3 d shapes. Janet and I would spend Sunday afternoons each December making a batch and eking out the remaining glitter in the Christmas decoration box, to hang on the tree when the time came to cover its bareness.

So here I am, with these photos and memories, planning Christmas with my children Dad. I shall check the boxes of decorations surreptitiously to reassure myself that everything is intact and working, so that when they open them to start decorating our tree, and I watch their excitement at discovering favourite treasured memories again, when they exclaim aloud at the ones they had forgotten, I shall know that we will not have to put things back in the box quietly and go without. I will check, double check and then check again, that everyone has been accounted for with presents and cards well in advance, and that I have some spares tucked away just in case, so no one can feel the hurt of being overlooked.

And there will be the real tree. We’ll all go to collect it, and we’ll pick a huge, bushy, scented evergreen – all of us together; my children, their boyfriends and cousins and the dog, all crammed into the car. There will be shrieks of laughter as we try to fit the tree into the car, around all the bodies and the bags of Christmas veggies, while Pip the Christmas tree man joins in the fun giggling at them all while he secures the half open boot with rope. Then we’ll drive home, boot slightly ajar, with two feet of Christmas tree trunk sticking out behind, children clutching the dog, and complaining merrily of pine needles ticking their ears and everyone will sing along loudly and exuberantly, to my old Christmas cassette tape that is saved just for this occasion each year, and marks the start of Christmas proper. Faces will be suffused with happiness and smiles at the golden oldies, groans will be heard at the corny cheesy songs and, then we will get to track seven. In that moment I will look back in the mirror and watch as my children exchange glances, nudge their boyfriends, and my nieces grin at their cousins, and, then, surrounded by the heady pine scent mingled with that aroma of satsuma that epitomise Christmas as one, we will take a deep breath and sing. We will sing at the top of our voices and slightly out of tune, to accompany Wizzard with “I wish it could be Christmas every day” and everything will be all right Dad.

Thanks so much Anna! Now, don’t forget, I am always on the lookout for guest posts and submissions for my blog! I’m looking for anything to do with writing or reading, as well as essays/articles/rants etc on being an outsider, and any short fiction or extracts from novels which are along the same theme.