Sunshine Through The Fear

We are nearing the end of Lockdown Week 2 and with no idea how long this will go on for, we push on, day by day, tentatively and with hope. I have so many things whirling around in my head that by the end of the day I’m always a bit emotional. As always, the best thing for me is to write about it.

Days have taken on a new reality. A sort of unreality. Surreal and at times confusing. At other times, it feels like the new and established normal. Humans are nothing if not adaptable. It’s hard to believe that a few weeks ago the corona virus was still something we felt we could hold at arms length and generally ignore. Something on the news, something vague and distant. It didn’t take long for the truth to catch us up. It was like hitting a brick wall. There you are then. No hiding under the bed. This is it. The new reality sees many of us jobless and forced to stay at home as much as possible. Unable to mix with our friends or family outside of those in our own houses. Real, normal life has changed beyond recognition. And we all go along with it. Day by day.

I blogged last week about the positive aspects I hoped could possibly come out of all of this and I still stand by those. At the very least, this forces us all to stop. To pause, to breathe, to think. I know I can’t be the only one considering the ‘old’ aspects of my life and wondering which ones I miss and which ones I don’t. But as the death toll escalates at an alarming daily rate, I am also choked with fear.

As my husband leaves the house every day to risk his life, we stay at home. We don’t have to set alarms, so sometimes we lie in. We do PE with Joe Wickes or we run circuits around the garden. We divvy up snacks for the day and my 5 year old sells them in his little shop. We start schoolwork around ten and as my older three are well, older, they sort themselves out which makes me luckier than most, only having to home school one child. And what a child…His light, his laughter, his love, his wide blue eyes and infectious giggles are steering us all through our days.

I work with children ordinarily and used to be childminder so I was never going to struggle too much with homeschooling. The second week has been much easier and we have a good routine now and my little boy has been so good for me. There is far less bribery this week!! I really feel like my little boy is saving my sanity, instead of eroding it as I feared he would.

He soaks up everything I show him or tell him. He whizzes through his phonics and his maths. He loves writing independantly and he told us this very seriously today, pencil poised above paper. I love writing, he said. I could have cried. He completes the literacy tasks sent by school. We usually have our dog walk and exercise around 11am and this always involves pretending to be in a zombie apocalypse. Home for lunch. He loves the forest school, art and science activities the most. We have made natural mandalas, clay faces on trees, sit spots, stone cairns and nature colour wheels. His enthusiasm and his simple, spontaneous joy make me feel like I can do this. And we are doing this. Like everyone else. Day by day. Because we have to.

There are aspects I find tough. I am used to being alone and I love being alone. My normal week would involve a lot of driving around and a lot of running writing classes and groups and a lot of working on the laptop. But I am finding ways around this. I am ensuring I have at least two long baths a week, usually with a glass of wine and a good book. I make sure the little one is entertained by the others so I don’t get disturbed. Trust me, this is essential. I need time on my own. In the evenings, since we signed up to the free Netflix trial I have been indulging in TV time with the rest of the family and so far we are onto Season Two of Stranger Things and loving it. It’s nice to find something we can all watch and enjoy together. Shared experiences are vital to get through this. After that I shut myself away in my room and get on with writing. I edit what will be the next release and then I work on fresh writing in a notebook. It saves my sanity and keeps me me.

The daily death toll is something that my husband seems keen to keep an eye on. Part of me would rather not know. I do not have the news on throughout the day as I do not want to scare the kids. I guess my husband has a vested interest in knowing how bad things are getting due to the fact he is still out there working through this. But it is terrifying. And if I pause long enough in the middle of everything to think about it, I feel the fear like a shard of ice that stops everything. There are death tolls for every country, infection rates, survival rates, advice on how to avoid it. Every now and then it hits you so hard…Everything has changed and will probably never be the same again.

But you can’t let fear rule you. You can’t stay in bed or sit and cry all day. All of us are discovering how resilient and adaptable we are and we should be proud of ourselves. Me? I’m discovering or maybe rediscovering how joyful and positive it is to be around a young child. Working in the garden the other day I noticed all the changes there…The clay faces we moulded onto the fir trees, complete with feather headdresses and stones for eyes…the chalk rainbow on the driveway…the glass jars filled with magical potions… the chalk mural on the wall…the army den constructed around the swing-set…the sit spot at the far end brightened by the primroses we planted up there…the beautiful mandala we made on the picnic table…and I smiled, almost cried if I’m honest. One day everything will start up again…school and work and driving about and there will be less time for outdoor art and science experiments in the garden.

I think the best thing I can do right now is soak up the sunshine from my little lad, from all of my children, from everything bright and green and alive around me and use that to keep going and keep smiling. Embrace this unexpected pause in normality and use it to breathe again, to assess life, to appreciate love and to build it all up stronger than it was before.

What’s keeping you going through these strange and scary times? Feel free to comment and share!

Salainis

I had learned already many of the Outland methods of communicating by forest notes rather than trust to the betraying, high-pitched human voice.

None of these was of more use to me than the call for refuge. If any Outlier wished to be private in his place, he raised that call, which all who were within hearing answered.

Then whoever was on his way from that placed hurried, and whoever was coming toward it stayed where he was until he had permission to move on.

The Ghosts Of Christmas Past, Present and Future

Christmas usually finds me in a mess of contradicting emotions. It’s such a strange time. I have always found it to be emotional. I love it and I always have, but it gets me right in the feels, right in the guts. Even when I was a little child I had a real thing about Christmas. I can remember sitting next to the tree and staring at the fairy lights with tears in my eyes, just thinking how beautiful was. I couldn’t really articulate it then, but I was tearful because although I was happy and excited, I also knew none of it could last. That the beautiful tree would have to be taken down, the lights wrapped up and placed in a box, the paper-chains removed. I think I knew then, it’s both a happy and sad time of year. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and I guess in this mid-life I now find myself in, I’m in a position where I can look back on Christmases of the past, think about the present and also envision what my future Christmases could look like. So I decided to blog about it. I decided to imagine myself as a ghost, like the ones that visit Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, revisiting sad and happy Christmases of the past, taking stock of the present and imagining the future…

PAST

I obviously don’t remember my very first Christmas but I do have photos that document it. I was exactly six months old on Christmas Day 1978. There is a photo of me being picked up by my father’s mother. It was only the other day that my mum told me something about that photo that I never knew. Apparently, my father’s parents decided to visit us that year from Kent and they did not even know that I existed. That’s right, my father had not even told them my mum was pregnant with me, let alone that he had a third daughter. Because they turned up unexpectedly, he was forced to get me from my cot, bring me down and hand me over. ‘Here’s another one,’ was apparently what he said. According to my mum, they were fine about it. The photo shows that my grandmother looks quite delighted. My mum reckons my grandad would have told my dad off later. But there you go. I think it just about sums up my relationship with my father since that day… I don’t know why he didn’t tell them. I don’t know how long he thought he could keep me a secret for, or why he would even want to. I know I was an accident, not planned, so maybe that has something to do with it. But there it is. Fucking weird if you ask me. I’m probably lucky that I don’t remember my first Christmas.

The rest of my childhood Christmases were better. In fact, looking back, they were always pretty magical. I remember thinking that the pile of presents was ginormous and I remember that pit in the belly excitement that just keeps you brimming over all day as the countdown runs on. I remember there being far more food than usual, things we were not usually allowed, like coke and lemonade, lollies and sweets. I remember we always had visitors and that even though I was shy, I loved this. I’d hide from them and stick my head in a book, but I loved it. My dad was always cheerful with a drink or two in him. I remember being surrounded by a sea of wrapping paper. The tin of Quality Street that seemed bottomless. The heavy stocking I could hardly lift up. The big, much wanted toy. A Charmkins house one year, a My Little Pony Parlour another, a beautiful baby girl doll another. I remember never wanting it to end and sitting on the landing after we’d been sent to bed, so I could eavesdrop on the adults downstairs, so that I could make it last longer. It was always a happy time.

There are two Christmases that stick in my head for being sad ones. When I was twelve, my parents crumbling relationship finally ended. It was messy and confusing as my dad continued living at our house some of the time, although they were divorced. Then he chose Christmas day to leave for good, to be with someone else. I think I was twelve or thirteen. I remember I got a Walkman that year and probably spent most of the time with headphones on to avoid the rows. After he left, my mum fell apart and hit the bottle. I tried to stay out of it. I looked after my sister’s dying guinea pig for her, while she looked after our mum. I think I knew then that it marked childhood being over.

The other one marked by tragedy was the Christmas of 2003 when I was pregnant with my second daughter. Just six days before Christmas my sister went into labour and her beautiful baby boy Harry was born asleep. I don’t think I’ve ever heard news as shocking as I did that day. One minute we were all excited that my sister was in labour with her third child and wondering if it would be a boy or a girl and the next… I don’t think I will ever know how she got through that Christmas without her baby boy. But my sister is one of the strongest most stoical people I know. She has looked out for me my entire life, worried about me when she didn’t need to, fought my battles and stood up for me when no one else has. I love her fiercely and the thought I had most during that christmas, was this should just not be happening to her. Not her. Not the nicest, kindest, sweetest person I know. At the funeral, she was stronger than anyone. I was a mess but she took my hand and didn’t let go. There has not been a Christmas since that I have not shed tears for Harry and wondered what he would look like now, what he would be like. We have always been determined never to forget him.

As a new parent, Christmas started to change. It had meaning again, I guess. We had our home, our little growing family. Those first few years I suppose we were finding our own way, picking traditions we’d enjoyed from our own childhood’s and creating new ones for our own family. Looking back, we tried too hard to please everyone and as a result there were a lot of years back then when I was glad when it was all over. It never felt quite right. It got too stressful, probably because I was asking too much of myself. Something had to change.

PRESENT

I would say though, that the last few Christmases have been exactly as I’ve wanted them. I would even go so far as to say perfect. The Christmas I was pregnant with my fourth child (2013) pissed me off and I spent a long time afterwards working out why. Since then, I’ve made changes and the last five or six have been very close to perfect. What did I change? I just decided what I wanted to do that Christmas and stuck to it. That means they have all been different, depending on how I feel. It might sound selfish but I needed to be. I’m the one that ‘does’ Christmas. My husband doesn’t really get into it. He enjoys the day but he doesn’t do any of the work or preparation it takes to get there. I don’t mind this. I love Christmas and I love planning it all year, starting present buying in January and spreading it out over the year. I love adding new little traditions all the time, such as Christmas Eve boxes about seven or eight years ago, and Secret Santa within our family about five years ago, then celebrating Winter Solstice about three years ago. The kids get so excited and it’s one special day where they can get spoiled. They don’t get a lot the rest of the year so I do go a bit crazy at Christmas. But it’s me that buys all the presents, plans the stockings and Christmas eve boxes, plans the menus and buys the food, cooks the food, puts up the tree and other decorations. Everything. I do the whole thing so I now feel like if it’s me that’s done all the hard work, I should have the day how I want it. Last year, that meant inviting various relatives to dinner and cooking for nine people. This year it means seeing relatives on Christmas Eve and having Christmas Day just for us. Next year I might feel differently. I think you have to be careful not to fall into a rut where people expect you to do the same thing every year. That gets tedious and it allows resentment to grow. So my advice for a happy christmas would be; do whatever the hell makes you happy. See who you want to see, avoid who you don’t. Eat what you want to eat. Cook and bake if it makes you happy. Buy it all frozen or packaged if it doesn’t. Just do what makes you happy, especially if you are the one doing all the hard work!

FUTURE

A few weeks ago I was walking with my twelve year old son and talking about Christmas and I said to him; ‘do you know, one day I will wake up on Christmas Day and none of you will be there.’

I think it was the first time it had really hit me. They are all growing up so fast. 17, 15, 12 and 5. In another ten years my youngest will a teenager and the others may well have left home… It just hit me that one day Christmas morning will be very, very different. Now, it’s relatively similar to past years. They all still wake up ridiculously early and sneak into each other’s rooms to kill a bit more time and poke at their full stockings until they know it’s okay to come into us. We open stockings on our bed then traipse down to eat breakfast. No one is allowed into the lounge until breakfast is done and the animals are all fed. And then, the chaos commences and I love every minute of it.

Thinking about future Christmases got me feeling a bit teary for a moment or two but then as I talked it out with my son, I realised that it is what it is and everything has this natural cycle to it. It will go back to how it was before we had children. After our own childhood’s ended, we didn’t believe in Father Christmas anymore and we didn’t wake up at the crack of dawn to open stockings, and we didn’t hang about with our parents either. But we still had fun. When we left home, in that gap between moving out and starting our own family, we still put up a tree and decorated the house and cooked a dinner and it was great. I’m going to look forward to that when it comes around. I want my kids and their kids to know that our door is always open and that they may turn up at any unexpected moment and will get fed and welcomed and looked after, but if they don’t, we will be just fine. We will have the animals, and each other, and we will light a fire and start the morning off with a glass of something bubbly followed by Irish coffee! We won’t have the same responsibilities or demands on us. Our day will be our own. I will still get the food in and put up the tree and bake a Chritstmas cake and gingerbread house and all the rest of it. And we will probably have a long walk and then spend the rest of it in front of the TV or playing games before we nod off! It will be different. But it won’t be bad.

It’s emotional, I think, Christmas. If you’re religious it has emotion attached to it and if you’re not, you have to find meaning in it, because you can’t very easily ignore or avoid it. I think the key is to decide what makes you happy and just stick to it. Mix it up, change it around, keep it fresh. Don’t try to please everyone. Aim to please yourself because it’s your time too, your day too. There is so much emotion attached because we reflect back on another year gone by, whether it was good or bad, whether we lost anyone or made any dreams come true. We think about Christmas when we were young and we imagine Christmas when we are old, and we miss those who are gone, and we love those who are still with us and want them to know how we feel. So we do it with love and presents and food and drink, and that makes it a really special, magical time of year. It should be anyway.

I’ve enjoyed my journeys into the past, present and future.

What about you? What were your childhood Christmases like compared to your present ones? What do you look forward to or fear about future ones?

Please feel free to comment!

If You Could Turn Back Time…

I’m curious. If you could turn back time, first of all, would you? Second, when would you go back to and why?

I think I’ve always been a nostalgic sort of person. It’s not that I look back at the past through rose tinted glasses, it’s just that I’m ruled by my emotions, and all it takes is one song, or smell, or random memory out of nowhere and I’m transported back to a part of my life that is now over, or different. Maybe it’s just hard trying to come to grips with how fast life goes. It goes faster as you get older, right? I think we could all agree on that. I was talking about this with one of my kids the other day and we decided that the reason summer seemed to last forever when you were little was because you had no concept of time. For my youngest child, every day lasts a lifetime, whereas for my oldest child, her life is lived against the clock just like mine. As we age we are increasingly ruled by time and schedule. We have to do things by a certain time or on a certain day, and for this reason, we are far more aware of time passing. So it feels faster.

This got me thinking about time and schedules and life in general (it doesn’t take much to set me off…) and it got me wondering, if I could turn back time and go back to any point in my life, not for good, but just to enjoy it again, soak it up, experience it one more time, what part would it be?

It came to me instantly. If I could go back, just for a while, I would go back to when I was a young mum and my two eldest children were a baby and a toddler. And the reason is because life was so unbelievably simple and carefree at that time.

I had my first daughter at 24 and nineteen months later her sister was born. Looking after my daughters was my job, my full time job, my only job. I had started some of the training that would eventually lead to me qualifying as a childminder when my eldest was three years old, but back then, at one point, they were my only job, my only responsibility. They were my world.

And what a simple, sweet time it was. I’m not sure I realised it at the time but I do know I was happy. I had wanted to be a mum for a long time and felt like all my dreams had come true. I had these beautiful little girls and my entire life was looking after them, keeping them happy, having fun. I didn’t drive back then, so I walked everywhere pushing my double buggy with pride. I look back and I can see my face smiling. I remember strangers saying the predictable; ‘havn’t you got your hands full?’ and I would always say no, not really, it’s fine, I love it.

There aren’t always that many positive narratives about motherhood. Mostly, you hear horror stories of pregnancy, birth, ruined bodies, sleepless nights, dirty nappies and temper tantrums. Obviously, that’s all part of it, but I remember being surprised by how much fun it was, how much I enjoyed being with these two tiny humans.

Our lives back then were so simple. No nursery or school or work, so our days were our own. We did not have to be anywhere by a certain time. We did not have to pick anyone up or drive anyone about. It was just me and them and days to fill with fun. Good times. The best of times. And that is not to say that going on to have my two gorgeous sons was not as good. In many ways, my sons have always been easier than my girls! But because I qualified as a childminder before my third child came along, life was different. The eldest started school, the next nursery, and my son had to fit into this very scheduled life, of work and school run and dashing here and there. Same for my next son. Life is tiring. Often it is stressful. Often I start a day wishing for it to be over. I look forward to Friday and think about it as the week marches on. Sometimes there is not enough time to breathe or think. Sometimes I am horribly aware of how fast I am hurtling towards cold, final death. Sometimes I look in the mirror and do not recognise the tired eyes and fine lines staring back at me.

Back then, I was so young. So hopeful, so happy, so vibrant. I had my two longed for children and we could do anything we wanted. Life was an adventure, not a chore. I also actually liked my body. Having my daughters had shook me clear of the eating problems I had lived with for so long. For once, I was proud of my body, for growing, nurturing and feeding my babies. I was young enough to bounce back quickly after birth. I felt slim and young and attractive. The opposite to how I feel now!

So, that’s mine. If I could turn back time that is where I would go back to, just for a little while. Not that I would trade or change my life now. I wouldn’t. I just realise now how much more complicated and tiring it is. I would go back and spend some time in my young, slim body, cuddling my two tiny girls, who were the only people I had to please and who were so very pleased with every little thing I did. Simple times.

What about you? If you could turn back time just for a bit, where would you head back to and why? I would love to know.

Writing, Running, Habit and Obsession

I was once a fat kid obsessed with writing. Back then, real life was just about tolerable if I had my imaginary one to escape to. For I had discovered a magical and powerful thing. Writing could do anything. Writing could take me anywhere. And I was in control. I could have whatever fun I wanted; invent new friends adventures, create whole worlds if I wanted to. If I look back now I can see that need for control was a big factor. A shy fat kid in the middle of a dysfunctional family does not have much control, if any. A shy fat kid at school has even less. But in writing? The shy fat kid can do whatever the hell she wants, because she owns this! It’s liberating, I can tell you. And for many, many years after that, writing was my addiction and my obsession.

I’d endure school and then run home after, up to my room to write. I’d carry notebooks everywhere so that given the chance I could vanish into another world and write. I’d write past my bedtime and first thing in the morning.

Writing was all I ever wanted to do and anything else was just an annoyance and a distraction. Including exercise. I hated PE as a kid. I was chubby and awkward and shy and despised having people watch me fail at something. At least with other subjects at school you can thrive or fail in private, but PE is kind of cruel because your failures are obvious for all to see.

Chubby kids who like reading and writing and being alone shun exercise for obvious reasons and in return what happens? Yep, they get chubbier. Which makes them even less likely to exercise in front of anyone and even more likely to hide in their room with a notebook and pen for as long as they can get away with. What you have is a vicious circle that as a child, you have no idea how to break out from.

And self-loathing builds and builds. I’m not sure what finally made me embrace exercise. With no money, I was limited for choice, so running seemed the best option. I’d always hated running! Though to be honest, it was more the thought of anyone seeing me that was the problem. The estate I grew up on had a horseshoe sized ‘green’ enveloping one side of it. I could access this from the back gate and run around the backs of the houses in a loop. I think I set myself a goal of three times a week but when I started to notice the results, I soon upped that to daily. And I developed a habit, much like my writing one, that benefited my mental health as well as my physical.

They say that to form a habit you must do something every day for 30 days. What started as a habit with running soon became an obsession that I started to view the same way I viewed writing. I had to do it. If I didn’t do it, I didn’t feel good. It would ruin my day. I felt like bad things would happen. I’d lost a lot of weight, between that and some very silly eating habits at the time that haunted me into adulthood, and I really, really, really did not want to risk ever putting that weight back on. I’d been fat and life had been hell. I never ever wanted to be that girl again.

I sometimes wonder where I would have ended up had I not become a mother at the age of 24. I think my obsession with running and my growing fear of food would have got worse. I think I would have carried on writing and possibly would have got published a lot sooner than I did. I don’t think I would ever have let either of my obsessions go.

But motherhood changed everything and rightly so. I was now amazed at my body and in awe of what it had done. When one little girl became two, I had my hands full at a young age, and I also knew that I shouldered a huge responsibility here. I did not want my problems with food and weight and body image rubbing off on them. Writing fell by the wayside. Hard to believe that now, but it really did. I was far too exhausted, overwhelmed and obsessed with my new life as a mother. I was in love and there just wasn’t the time or the energy.

Over the next decade, I had a third child and I sporadically forced myself to run and write. I tried and failed and tried and failed to develop those habits again. I told myself I did not have the time or the energy for either. I told myself I was wary of getting obsessed with them both again, because that wouldn’t be good for my children. And this all went well for a while. I was too busy to consider anything else.

Writing came back to me, or I came back to writing, I’m never sure which way around it was, in the summer of 2011. My then youngest child was due to start school that September and at the time there was no plan to have any more. I suddenly felt horribly afraid and set adrift. I didn’t want him to go to school as not only was I losing my last baby, I was losing the identity I had spent the last decade carving out. Chantelle, the mother.

I hadn’t forgotten about the old me…I just didn’t think she was relevant anymore. I still remember the moment my writing whooshed back into my head, and it was kind of blunt, terrible and painful. I was reading a book and the young character in it reminded me of a character I had created and believed in when I was just 12. I’d written and rewritten his story many times over the years…could I do it again? Could I write again? Was I a writer? As a child and teen that was all I had identified as, but it had been gone so long, did I have any right to try to reclaim it?

I started writing again after finishing the book that had reminded me of my long lost character. I was so embarrassed at first, I wrote in a notepad and hid it if anyone walked in the room. I didn’t dare tell anyone what I was up to because I was suffering badly from imposter syndrome! And I wrote every day, without fail and that built the habit back up and the habit soon became an obsession again. It devoured me. I started writing every evening without fail and any other spare moment I had. I started this crazy, up and down writing and publishing journey and the arrival of a fourth child did nothing to slow me down and I have not looked back. I could never, ever stop writing now. I still can’t believe I let it go for so long…

“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”

— Franz Kafka

But what about running? Could I claim that obsession back too and was it healthy or sensible to even try? Over the last year or so I’ve noticed major fluctuations in my mood which I am now blaming on the perimenopause. If you’ve not heard of the perimenopause, don’t worry, neither had I, and I will be blogging about this another day. In short simple terms, its the period of time before the actual menopause and women start suffering from a variety of symptoms that for a while, they probably won’t attribute to anything other than life stress.

I don’t want to go into it too much in this post but the way I had been feeling for no real reason, was very, very similar to how I felt as a teenager. That intensity of mood and emotion that can shift at the slightest thing. Intrusive thoughts about how rubbish I am, cruel thoughts about how pointless my life is. Lovely stuff like that. Incredible anger. Deep sadness. And most of all? Just wanting to be alone. The worrying thing was the effect on my mental health, particularly before I did some research and found out about the perimenopause. I was feeling horrible, to put it mildly. I was crying a lot for no reason. I was focusing on body image more than I had done in a very long time, and given my past issues, this was not a good thing.

One night I was sat writing and crying when I suddenly felt the most powerful urge to move. To get up and run. It was like my mind telling me to get the hell out of there and move. It seemed stupid and my other mind tried to talk me out of it. I was too tired, it was nearly dark and so on. But I ignored that one and I did it.

Now, what normally happens with me and running since I became a mother almost 17 years ago, is I can keep it up for a bit and aim for 3 times a week, not be too hard on myself etc, but that’s not enough to build a habit. Inevitably I miss a few, and that turns into missing a few weeks and the weeks turn into months, just like what used to happen with writing.

This time? I have decided to run every single day without excuses. I do have the time. It’s 20 minutes usually. I have managed to stick at this for over a week now and the difference in my mood is astounding. I have not felt down, sad or angry once this week. I have felt more energetic, more motivated, more rational than I have in a long time. I feel proud of myself too. And we’re not very good at that are we? But I am proud of myself. It feels good. It feels right.

We all know that exercise is good for our mental health, and most of us know that writing is also good for it. Very good, I’d argue. If I can manage to hold onto both of these habits (yet try to stop them becoming obsessions) then I will be very happy indeed and heading in the right direction. I just might be able to get through this perimenopause thing unscathed and have the energy and mind power to deal with the actual menopause!