Hello Home…

Hello Home…

Here we are in lockdown again with you, dear home. Only allowed to work outside the home if our work is deemed essential. Only allowed to leave the house once a day for local exercise. Not allowed to let anyone else inside our home. These are all sadly familiar rules and in some ways, it feels a little easier this time around. What makes it undoubtedly harder are two, sad, cold facts.

One, the virus has mutated and this new strain spreads faster and easier and is now hitting younger people. The NHS is under incredible strain as the peak threatens to outgrow the last one. Quite simply and horrifically, even more people are going to die.

And two, this time our isolation at home happens in the bleak mid-winter. January – the Monday of all the months.

Photo by Chantelle Atkins on January 10, 2021. Image may contain: tree, sky, outdoor and nature.

So, here we are home, back within your safe, warm walls. Me and the children huddle within you, with extra socks and warm jumpers and numerous cups of tea to warm our cold hands. Even without the heating on, even without a fire lit, you still withhold the warmth we have built in you.

Each morning, I leave the house to let the animals out. The grass is covered in thick frost. Every blade and every branch, twig and leaf in the garden is sparkling with a layer of icy frost. It’s beautiful. And freezing. I rush about, from one end of the garden to the other, filling the watering can to provide the hens and ducks with fresh water. Stuffing fresh warm hay and straw into their hutches and houses. I let the rabbits out but keep the guinea pigs indoors until the frost has melted later in the day. I watch my breath form in the air around me. I, in turn, am watched by the horses in the field at the end of the garden. I say hello, but I don’t know their names. Jesse pup skips about with me, keeping me company, while you shelter the children, all now home from school until we-don’t-know-when.

When the early morning jobs are done I rush back inside, grateful for your warmth and stability. House, you are our home and I have been grateful to you since the moment we first stepped inside your gate. I remember I worried that we could not afford to rent you, yet we also knew we were getting an incredible deal. Your garden plot was more than I could have dreamed of and my head filled with pictures of shrubs, trees, flowers, vegetable plots and livestock.

Even now, in the depths of a freezing, frightening winter, I am grateful for this little bit of land, with its fir trees and sycamore, with its buddleia and holly hedges, with its bramble and fruit trees. The largest trees were here when we arrived, the rest I have planted myself over the years, to say thank you.

  • Photo by Chantelle Atkins on November 04, 2020. Image may contain: tree, plant and outdoor.

Your front garden used to be a square of gravel surrounded by holly hedging. It’s now a jungle of shrubs and trees and flowers with a path winding through it. We keep the birds fed so we can watch them from the kitchen windows. I love this garden, I love this house, I love this lane and all the land, the fields, the common, the woodlands and rivers that surround it.

And during lockdowns the road falls silent and all we can hear are the clip clop of horses as they pass up and down the lane, the haunting cry of the buzzard as she hovers above, the chattering of crows roosting in the Oaks, and at night, my favourite, the constant calls of tawny owls. I sleep with my window open because of them and so that I can fall asleep to the sound of the green river rushing by.

Home, we are so lucky to have you. During the first lockdown, I could have cried with love and gratitude. Some people had small houses and gardens, some people had no gardens, some people had no homes. We are so, so lucky to call you home.

Those warm, sunny months, we ran, hid, climbed, hopped and played on every inch of the garden. We set up bases and camps with army style tarps and netting, we dragged branches around to make walls, we gathered fir cones for bombs, we lit tiny fires and roasted marshmallows, we made mud pies and had scavenger hunts. The garden was our PE lesson, with running, jumping, skipping and our favourite The Floor Is Lava!

Photo by Chantelle Atkins on July 17, 2020. Image may contain: one or more people, tree, plant and outdoor.

We planted new things and watched them grow.

We ate nearly all of our meals outside, surrounded by green. And without people bothering it and abusing it, Mother Nature gained ground all around us.

But the human race and the powers that be seem incapable of learning anything…and so we find ourselves locked in and locked down. And I find myself counting my blessings once again. This lockdown is different. We are inside more than out. We have fires and drink hot chocolate. We eat cheese on toast and scrambled eggs to keep warm. We never venture far without a hot drink in our hands.

Darkness falls early and the tawny owls come out to call to each other. I know that Spring is just around the corner and already I see the smallest signs. A camelia in bud. Daffodils poking through the earth. And we are already planting new seeds so that we can watch them grow.

Home, you keep us safe, you keep us warm, you are steady and true. Every day I place my hand on the wooden gate and smile at you. My family is nurtured inside you – despite the coldness and the fear beyond your windows. Staying home keeps us safe and we fill our time with home-schooling and new lockdown projects.

Photo by Chantelle Atkins on March 21, 2020. Image may contain: plant, tree, sky, house, grass, outdoor and nature.

We lose track of days and time is strange, a bit like an extended Christmas. Tensions rise within your walls – the teenagers feel trapped and isolated from their friends – they are missing out. We pull away from each other, desperate for space and time alone, and then we pull back again, needing comfort and laughter. The youngest fills you up with laughter and silly noises – the loudest child that ever lived! He bounces around your rooms, thunders up and down your stairs and races from one end of your garden to the other. I hope in years to come they all look back so very fondly on you, Home.

Time to Dig Deep

It was predictable but here we go again – heading into another lockdown in England. Like a lot of people I’d been expecting this for some time as the rate of infections has been accelerating since September. I know there are divided opinions on the best approach to tackle the dreaded Corona Virus, but I’d class myself as falling into the ‘I don’t want another lockdown but if it saves lives, okay then,’ camp.

The announcement came on Saturday night and today it will be voted through Parliament with the lockdown starting tomorrow, Thursday. It will not be as strict as last time, (which does make me wonder whether it will even work…) with schools, colleges and universities remaining open and essential shops, as well as DIY and garden centres staying open. The advice is work from home ‘if you can’, which will no doubt mean for a lot of people, life will go on as normal. Which again, makes me question what impact this will have on the spread of the virus…

For me, I once again cannot teach my writing clubs and groups in person. Instead, I am forced back online, and I suppose the only good thing about it this time is that I am better prepared. Last time, I just could not act fast enough to what was happening. I think my brain put me in survival mode and for me that meant looking after my kids and ignoring everything else. As the time wore on I did give in and purchase Zoom and I have been holding regular adult writing groups online in this way. There is no reason why my other groups cannot go online, but unfortunately children seem less keen to do this, and I have not had a good response so far to my proposed Zoom clubs.

The other positive is that having predicted this would happen, I undertook a Copy-Editing and Proofreading course and at the moment I am providing these services for free to a few authors with the agreement that they will write testimonials for my website. Editing and proofreading their work is also a great experience for me. The plan is my CIC Chasing Driftwood Writing Group will soon offer extra services to authors in the form of editing and proofreading. I hope eventually this will bring in some money to help replace what I have lost. In the long-term it gives me an income stream that can be achieved working from home.

A few days ago I felt intensely unsettled and anxious. I’m sure a lot of people did as they waited to hear whether their place of work would have to be shut down this time or not. For me, it is the uncertainty that makes me anxious. As soon as I know what is happening, I feel better and I can deal with it. I felt sad driving home from dropping my youngest at school and gave in to a few tears while alone in the car. His school have asked parents to wear face coverings during drop off and pick up time, and of course everyone has complied instantly and without complaint. But it was sad to see all these faceless parents dropping off their children and I could not kiss my son goodbye properly, which really got to me. I thought about the virus and how it has made so many things miserable and joyless. Shopping, mixing with people, moving about and now even the school run. I had my tears but I am over them now. Today I am sat here feeling thankful and positive.

I’m thankful because the schools have not closed so while that remains the case, I can get tons of work done at home without disruption. I’m thankful because I have a new business partner at last to share the load and really push Chasing Driftwood in the right direction, despite the pandemic! I’m thankful because I live in a beautiful area with glorious walks right on my doorstep. I’m thankful that so far my family and loves ones are all happy, healthy and safe from this virus. I’m thankful for my pets and my kids and my garden and all the ways I have to distract myself if I start to feel down.

Last time around, the weather was beautiful and we threw ourselves into gardening. It was a real family effort, transforming areas of the garden and making the most of what we had. It was a life saver and I know it had a massive effect on my moods. Being a woman of a certain age struggling daily with the mood swings of the perimenopause, the pandemic has been an eye opener with regards to mental health.

I am better when I am busy, and I am even better than that when I am outside getting my hands dirty. I was fascinated watching the wonderful AutumnWatch the other day, where they explained the science behind nature elevating our moods. From being near water, walking among trees and even spotting birds, all aspects of nature release mood enhancing hormones in our brains. In particular there is a microbe (Mycobacterium vaccae) in soil that when inhaled by us increases the levels of serotonin, lifting our mood and helping us to feel relaxed and happy.

I can testify to this, because whenever I spend any time gardening I finish off feeling as high as a kite – no kidding! It makes me feel amazing, it really does.

Last lockdown saw a huge rise in people growing fruit and vegetables, tending their gardens, attracting wildlife and so on. This will be harder as we enter Winter but not impossible. I have set myself a challenge. To help me through this uneasy time of reduced income and increased stress, I aim to spend at least half an hour every day in my garden. There is still plenty to do out there and I will not let the cold or the rain deter me. I need it!

So, my advice to anyone with a bit of dirt near them is to dig deep and keep digging. Gardening is productive, positive and rebellious. It reminds us where we came from and links us to our ancestors and their ways of life. It connects us to nature and to wildlife and elevates our mood, making us feel happy and content, despite the crazy world we live in right now.

We are all feeling on edge as the virus increases again, as we worry about our health and the health of our loved ones, as we isolate from the rest of humanity, cover our faces and keep our distances, as we fear a reduction in income and living standards, as we fear so many things….We got through it last time so we know we can get through it again. Talk to each other, help each other, speak up when you are feeling lost and afraid and dig deep, even deeper this time to find the resilience we are going to need to get through it.

(Image by Goumbik from Pixabay)

Dreaming Of Another World

On the 17th of March 2020 I was sat in my car about to go into a primary school to run an after-school writing club. I checked my phone and found an email from one of the other schools I work at, stating that schools would be closing at the end of the week and all clubs were cancelled. I felt a whoosh of fear and shock and checked my news feed for more information, all of which confirmed that the government were closing schools and putting us into lockdown due to the outbreak of Covid 19. It was probably the most surreal moment of my life. I went into the school and ran the club and I haven’t seen those children since. I haven’t been able to work since either, apart from a few bits online. I can’t yet go back to the libraries, museums, halls and schools I normally work in.

At the end of that week, life changed for everyone over night, just like that. I blogged about it almost instantly because it was just so strange, so historical and unprecedented and because writing about it helped me to make sense of it. Here’s the link to that post; https://chantelleatkins.com/2020/03/18/and-just-like-that-everything-changed/

And then, being the highly adaptable creatures we often forget we are, we all just got on with it. We worked from home, or we didn’t work, we home schooled our confused children, we stayed in, we entertained ourselves, we thanked fuck the internet existed and we very slowly but surely got used to a new normal. Humans are adaptable. We’ve proved that. Perhaps we’ve all realised how resilient we are capable of being. At the start of this, I blogged about how everything had changed over night, I blogged about the ups and downs of home schooling and I blogged about how weird had become the new normal, as well as the positives I hoped could come out of the pause in our lives.

Life is for many of us, slowly returning to normal. At the start of lockdown, it was eerily quiet in our garden, with barely any cars sailing by. Instead we had a constant flow of walkers and cyclists. Now it’s back to normal and that’s a bit sad. But I’m one of them now, aren’t I? Doing the school run again.

And I can’t help feel a bit lost and sad. Don’t get me wrong. I want all of my children to return to their normal lives and I am desperate to get back to my writing clubs and workshops. I just can’t help comparing the stillness, the silence, the gentle creep of Mother Nature reclaiming what is hers, at the start of lockdown, to the way it was before Covid 19 stopped us all in our tracks.

But the return to everything else makes me feel sad. Driving here and there, constantly in traffic and adding to the fumes that are heating up our only planet. Racing against the clock to get it all done, pick everyone up and get everyone where they need to be, dreading getting up and it all starting again.

What we were doing to the planet before Covid 19 was wrong. All of it was wrong. And we knew that…yet we couldn’t or wouldn’t change. And then lockdown… clear skies, grounded planes, silent roads, birdsong, sheep playing on roundabouts and deer walking down the streets, dolphins in the canals of Venice…so many beautiful, beautiful sights. And in our homes, we became creative. We sought out more and more ways to entertain ourselves and our children. We got into gardening! And self-sufficiency! We worried about where food came from and whether we could get any. Our eyes were being opened and we found we were not helpless. We had power.

I’ve always been into gardening, with varying degrees of success. I think it is actually one of the most therapeutic and simultaneously rebellious things you can do. It’s hopeful. To believe in a garden is to believe in tomorrow, they say. And that is so true…. On my darkest days, when life weighs so heavy I can’t breathe…I need my garden, I need fresh air and grass and dirt under my nails. If I plant something, I am optimistic. I am hopeful. And I am clawing back power. We used to feed ourselves; we had that power and that connection with Mother Nature, and not even that long ago. But we’ve lost it, moved so far away from it we forgot it was even possible.

And to care about this planet we have to feel connected to it! We have to feel part of it, part of everything and we have to believe that everything has a right to be here, to be treated with respect and dignity.

And during lockdown, the most amazing things happened. People started growing again. There was a massive increase in people buying seeds and plants and greenhouses. I was overjoyed to see this, even among my friends and family and social media contacts. People were discovering, many of them for the first time, how addictive gardening is. People were getting excited about growing a lettuce or picking their own strawberries. There was also an increase in people getting chickens for the first time. And undoubtedly, there has been an increase in people exploring their local wild places and perhaps fully appreciating the natural world for the first time too. Pond dipping, bird watching, identifying trees and leaves, bug hunting, walking and hiking and playing in rock pools. I have seen so much of this going on and it’s absolutely heartwarming.

But what now? Do we all go back to our ordinary lives and forget any of this happened? I really hope not. I really hope people continue to think about where their food comes from, continue to grow some of it themselves, continue to make ethical consumer choices, continue to do their bit to fight climate change, continue to respect animals and wildlife, continue to walk and cycle if they can and so on. Because I don’t know about you but I am constantly dreaming of another world.

Another world where we are connected to wildlife and nature, where we respect and value and protect it above all else. Where money and wealth are not idolised or deemed more important than human happiness and dignity.

Sometimes I go there in my mind and wonder if I can make it possible, even just for me and my family. It’s perhaps not realistic, but something I can’t stop thinking about it. I call it my basic life. Because going back to basics is what I crave. In my basic life, I live in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees and rivers and streams and meadows. I grow all my own food and keep ducks and chickens and perhaps a few goats.

I have solar panels, wind turbines and a well. I have orchards. I go out each day and forage for food. I cook everything from scratch. I only go to the nearest town once a month for other supplies. I only have limited access to the internet. My kids are home schooled and spend their days swimming in rivers, climbing trees and learning survival skills. We sit around the fire outside at night under the stars, swapping stories and jokes.

I spend my time growing food, tending the animals and the children, writing, reading and listening to music and we are all at peace and at one with the Universe. Did I also mention our only means of transport is a battered VW campervan?

Haha, just a pipedream, but I like it. I go there in my head at night. I try to build up little parts of it in my real life, such as extending my vegetable plot so I can grow even more next year.

I dream of my basic life and another world while fearing and grieving for this one.

What about you? What do you hope changes when this is all over? Do you think this will ever be over? What do you think should change? Will you be changing anything in your own life? What kind of other world do you dream about?

Home Schooling Day 1; is bribery okay…?

Today was our first official day of home schooling. As I write this, the Prime Minister has announced total lockdown of the UK, so things are changing fast. With three asthmatics in our family, we were not planning to leave the house other than for dog walks, so this won’t affect us too much. Husband works in a supermarket so he can still leave the house to do that.

Anyway, back to home schooling. If I’m honest, it’s something I have always been curious about. I hated school when I was a kid and would have loved to be home schooled. I considered it when my eldest child was struggling in Years 9 and 10 but thankfully she got over the issues she was having and we didn’t have to look into it too much. I run two writing clubs for home educated children and I often envy their lives. They seem to do so many fun and educational things and all at their own pace. Often before coming to my club they would have had guitar lessons or horse-riding, and after it might be discussion group or philosophy. They are all lovely, well-rounded and relaxed children so it obviously suits them well.

As for me I love the idea of it and but have never imaged I’d have the patience to teach my own children all day every day. It’s nice to have a break from them when they go to school! But here we are. Life has changed dramatically in the blink of an eye. I think that’s the hardest thing to get your head around. We all feel a bit shocked, I suppose. This time last week I was tired from a very busy but typical Monday. This week, I am tired from schooling my 5 year old all day!

My older children, aged 12, 15 and 17 are quite able to get on with things themselves. They have work sent to them from school or college and I trust them to work through it. It’s the 5 year old’s learning I’m now responsible for and yes, I was daunted, and yesterday I felt horrible all day, panicky even. Today was better because we were busy. Less time to think or doubt yourself!

My 5 year old is a typical little boy of that age. At school he is a delight, perfectly well-behaved and very keen to learn. At home, he is noisy, attention-seeking and at times quite demanding as well as over sensitive. We all adore him, don’t get me wrong, he is without a doubt the funniest and sweetest person in our household. But we can all agree with a roll of our eyes that he is exhausting.

So, armed with masses of helpful links which have been splashed all over Facebook since school closures were announced, plus activity booklets we printed out, writing books we already had and the stuff school sent home…I planned two weeks worth of timetables and today was Day 1.

How did we do?

Pretty good if bribery is okay!

It went a bit like this;

‘You’ve got to get dressed now so we can do PE Joe on YouTube,’

‘No, I don’t want to.’

‘Well, you sort of have to. Its good for you, it will be fun. We are all doing it together. Come on, get dressed.’

‘No, I don’t want to.’

‘After that you can run your own snack shop and sell the snacks?’

‘Okay then.’

Result! Me, the 12 year old and 5 year old spent twenty odd minutes jumping around in front of the laptop with the excellent PE Joe. I enjoyed it. 5 year old did pretty well but had his eye on his snack shop the whole time. This was another brilliant idea from Facebook. I chose some snacks and told them they could ‘buy’ two to last all day and the 5 year old could sell them from his little wooden toy market stall. He loved this.

He then did art with one of his sisters outside. Another win. He made a rainbow to hang at the window. Something all the kids are doing to cheer people up. We followed this with free time, or ‘discovery time’ as they call it at school. To placate him from moaning, his sister let him play Happy Wheels on her laptop. Snack time, then I did his phonics with him. This took 5 minutes because he’s pretty good. But I had to bribe him again because he really wasn’t in the mood. I can’t even remember what I bribed him with but it worked.

We had garden time then, playing with the dog, digging up nettles around our ‘sit spot’ and planting primroses. He mostly marched around with a massive stick, scaring the dog and getting shouted at by his unimpressed sister. He likes the ‘sit spot’ though; an idea I came across after signing up to Forest School activities. The idea is you create a quiet, peaceful place to sit and observe the world, practice mindfulness, that kind of thing. Not sure he cared much about mindfulness, he just asked if he could bring cars to play there and I said yes. As for me the sit spot is now my favorite place and I use it often…

His best part of the day was definitely the science experiment which was in one of the booklets I printed off. You just put raisins in lemonade and watch them go up and down, but he LOVED it. He loves stuff like this, so of course we added marshmallows and pasta which didn’t go up and down and we talked about why the raisins did and I learned something new… I got him to draw and label the experiment and then I let him have an ice cream float. (Yes, another bribe…head hanging in shame…)

Is it me or does this look like a Dalek?

Free time again (I swear every activity we do lasts about 5 minutes??) and he found a movie to watch. I wanted to get writing and spelling ticked off so out came the bribery again because he was really whinging now. If he did a bit of writing in his book he could have his second snack….if he then came on a dog walk with me, I would bring biscuits.

I mean, I’m not offering him much, but it’s still bribery right?

He wanted to play zombies on the dog walk but I really didn’t have the mental energy. I felt too much like a zombie myself. Of course more bribery came up…if he kept going, when he got back he could play Plants Vs Zombies on my phone…That worked for us both to be honest, because I escaped to the sit spot with my book and a coffee. Bliss!

So, I think we survived our first day and I even gave him some more biscuits at bedtime for being such a good boy and doing so well. We have some maths and computing planned tomorrow plus two lots of art and some forest school stuff. I’m looking forward to it. The other bonus so far is that because I’m in his face so much, when he gets free time, he does not want to play with me! That’s not how it usually works. He’s usually terrible at playing by himself!

All in all, I feel positive, despite the blatant bribery. Whatever works, right? And like I predicted in my last post, I’m sure many parents already have increased respect for teachers who do this every day with thirty plus kids! It’s different with my writing clubs because I love writing so much, anything that involves writing is pure joy for me.

If you’re home schooling for the first time, how are you finding it? Any highs or lows so far? Any tips?