Musings on spring mornings....
‘The early morning has gold in its mouth’
I am writing this at dawn, right on the cusp between night and day, when the moon is still visible and the sun just a suggestion. It is- if I think about it- my favourite time of day. I haven’t yet heard a car, or the creak of a floorboard- anything at all to suggest that I am sharing the time. Only birdsong- such a hallmark of spring- breaks the silence, though even they are quieter than usual, as though half of them too are still asleep.
Unlike other parts of the day the dawn gives you time and space to ponder, before the days’ brightness and busy-ness becomes too arresting, and when the remnants of sleep ensure there isn't yet a multitude of thoughts clamouring for our attention.
When I was young and back visiting my grandparents in Australia, my grandfather and I would go fishing together most mornings. We would wake up before the rest of the house, silently eating vegemite toast and drinking sweet tea together, before donning our tracksuits- my grandfathers always covered in silvery fish scales- and slipping quietly out of the house.
‘Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise’, my grandfather would often say to me, though he’d always leave out the ‘wealthy’ part. He wasn't convinced by that correlation. But there was no doubt he was both healthy and more than a little wise.
Many a well-being advocate has echoed my grandfathers words, with the counsel that harnessing extra time in the early morning is both the key to well being and the way to get a head start on the day.
Productivity gurus especially- and they abound- suggest various versions of an early morning hour that involve goal setting, vigorous exercise or the chance to strike a few of the more unsavoury to-do’s off the inevitably long job list. There are entire books dedicated to the subject, professing to harbour the key to a 'miracle morning' but I have to confess I am not convinced by them. Not only is the notion of ‘productivity’ as some holy grail decidedly off-putting- reducing us to some sort of measure of our own output- but there is a danger that if filled with the wrong things or when overpacked, the extra hour becomes a mere extension of the day, as frenetic and fuelled as every other.
Better I believe, to take our cues from the feel of the dawn itself, and undertake something much more contemplative; journalling whilst still propped up in bed, a twenty minute meditation in semi-darkness, a gentle yoga self practice facing a window & the burgeoning light, or even (and they are a real treat) a dawn walk.
Something that life never otherwise finds the time for, a priority that we often fail to prioritise.
The key is make it something relatively simple but that when undertaken regularly has a subtle but meaningful, and often disproportionate, impact on the day ahead. If done regularly enough to count, you will find that starting the day off in an unhurried way, cultivating much needed and all too rare mental space, sets the tone for the rest of the day to come.
If ever there was a time to try and snatch an hour from the jaws of sleep, spring is it. The weather may be as unreliable as ever, but unwavering is the extra light that April brings. And gifting yourself a quiet stolen hour is the perfect way to celebrate it.
The not so dreaded Beast from the East....
It should be bothering me, this prolonged and bitter cold snap. I never especially like being cold and its the tail of a long winter. But against my better judgement I have been strangely revelling. True I haven’t set foot much outside. From the confines of indoors it has often looked enticing- milky blue skies, arresting light and a sun that looks the part. A little higher in the sky and with the very beginnings of a kick. But then you poke your nose over the threshold and you are met with an arctic air, the likes I feel sure I have never known in 22 years of living in this country. Previous incarnations of myself could easily have been, would have been, lamenting.
I think its the intensity of it that has captured my imagination. My complaint about British weather has always been that it so often the meteorological equivalent of beige. Neither here nor there. A bland concoction of grey skies and unconvincing rain, of mizzle. Of half hearted summers whose air never ceases to contain pockets of cold, like the sea does, so that you can never fully relax into them. Or monotony. Day after day of in between in-between seasons. Never a statement.
But this so called ‘Beast from the East’ is a statement for sure. Its in capital letters. Loud, obnoxious even, and I think thats why I like it. Extreme weather means extreme responses- a battening down of the hatches, a piling up of logs, a whole-hearted pulling of curtains every night, of plugging gaps and adding on extra layers of woollen rugs and blankets, of filling hot water bottles and warming towels. Suddenly going to bed isn't just an aside, its got purpose, it's turned into a ritual. And going outside feels like a battle, some sort of war to be waged against the unruly elements.
It helps, I think, that its now the custom to name these fronts. To anthropomorphise them. A cold snap seems feeble. The ‘Beast from the East’ makes you sit up and taking notice. Its something, someone even, to do battle with. And like all common enemies, it is thoroughly bonding.
‘How are you surviving the dreaded Beast from the East?’
‘No Beast is going to bring me down’
‘The Beast is alive and kicking in these parts’
We are now snowed & iced in, unable to even get the car down our very short drive, let alone navigate the lane. Schools are closed, classes are cancelled. For a short period, everything has been brought to a standstill. Like the fairy tale counselled us, the dreaded beast has its silver-lined beauty because we have been gifted a guiltless duvet day, when we can legitimately stay in bed, drink an extra cup of tea and gorge on countless rounds of buttery toast without having to explain ourselves to anyone. It feels like stolen time, which in my experience is always the best sort.
The Art of Gratitude...
'The seed of goodness is found in the soil of appreciation'
HH The Dalai Lama
February can be a terrible tease. No sooner than you celebrate the green shoots that point to spring and the noticeable light spreading at each side of the day, you can get flung headlong back into winter's seeming depths.Some say Valentine's Day is the months redeeming future, though I must confess I heartily disagree. I find it hard to conjure up a specific emotion on demand ( though Tibetan meditations, believe it or not, can help on that front) and much as I love my husband, there is nothing I would rather do less than go out for dinner on February 14th with every other hapless couple, eating over-priced set menus and required to look doe-eyed.
But gratitude is love's corollary and in February it starts to become increasingly easy to find things to be grateful for. Though still in winter we are on its better side and with ever lengthening days, daffodil heads emerging almost as you watch them and all that is good in the year to come there is - for most- a burgeoning sense of both energy and with it, both positivity and gratitude. Though the latter can sound horribly saccharin, overused as it is by the 'feel good' industry, there is no denying that as an emotion it is wholly good and its cultivation is a worthy pursuit.
Self help books would have us believe that the best way to cultivate gratitude is by keeping a 'gratitude diary', which generally consists of arming yourself with a small notebook in which you write, daily, three or more things you are grateful for. Whilst I have no doubt that properly undertaken, this relatively simple exercise would probably be disproportionately beneficial but I am not convinced that many people ever do it, or if they do, that it is more than short-lived. I have usually failed to get much beyond the very willing stationary purchase ( any excuse under the sun to buy a new notebook) and the first nobly intended entry. And then it lays waste at the bottom of my bag, alongside the biros and the hair bands, eventually to be filled by shopping lists at best.
I am convinced that there is a better and more lasting avenue to gratitude. And that is by way of 'awareness'. Most of the time it is the very small things that we find ourselves- often surprisingly- grateful for. A flock of birds overhead, flying in formation, a shaft of sunlight on your face when you first open the door in the morning, or indeed those first buds of spring that contain within them all of its promise. The bigger stuff- the fancy meals, the meticulously planned holidays, the retail therapy can elicit feelings of pl
e & bring a sort of happiness, but genuine heartfelt gratitude - in my experience- is found lying in the less obvious, altogether more ordinary places. If only we are present enough to notice them.
Much of the time, our minds are too busy with thoughts of past or future to notice anything of the present- let alone its details. How many times have you been on a walk whilst simultaneously checking emails? Or have your driven somewhere, and having got there, realised that you have no recollection of the journey? How much of the time are we spending our life, as John Lennon so famously cautioned us ' busy making other plans'.
Every time you get on your mat you are cultivating a more finely honed capacity for awareness. It is arguable that this is the very point of being there- the holy grail in fact. Properly undertaken your yoga practice can and should be a moving meditation, an act of gently training the mind, as we would any other muscle, in the art of being and staying present. In using our practice to look and feel for the details within our practice, to notice the propensities of the mind, and to encourage it. little by little back to the task in hand on the mat, we might begin to hone our capacity to do the same when we are off it. To notice the small delights, on any given day, of which there are usually more than we might imagine.
'Being the Calm Within the Chaos'
“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.”
Life’s demands are many but those of December many more. The ‘to-do’ list, which is always an endless and unfinished task at the best of times, can often grow exponentially at this time of year. And when it does, it is usually our own well being that is the first thing to be compromised. If we have to let something go, all too often that something is ourselves. Yet our own well being should really be one of the non-negotiables.
Some people have woven well-being so resolutely into their lives that it is factored into their weeks with the same urgency as an important meeting or turning up to a nativity play. ( and if you don't plan your weeks and include your yoga/walk/meditation slots then I highly recommend doing it for a little while and seeing how much better the week unfolds).
But at this time of year even the the best of us can falter because whilst some of December’s ‘to dos’ are dutiful, many more are actually very alluring. It is a month when the dark nights are bejewelled by lights, with invitations and events aplenty and where feasting and frolicking abound. For all of which - I believe- no apology should be made. Quite frankly, Christmas is December’s saving grace. Without its minced pie and mulled wine fuelled merriment, it could be a decidedly gloomy month indeed. I must confess, that I am a bit like an over zealous department store, who gets excited far too early, longing to drape everything in tinsel well before it is appropriate and often having exhausted myself entirely before the main event. If ever we are to be tempted away from our quest for well-being, its going to be now.
Yet for many, we are also the hinge upon which Christmas hangs, and we forget ourselves at our own post-party peril. As saying no to all the fun on offer is not an option- after all even the Buddha preached the Middle way between austerity and indulgence- then it is essential to counter the excess by keeping some time aside for ourselves. Whilst in an ideal world we’d throw ourselves into a few sun salutations daily as an antidote to the silly season, sometimes finding an extra hour or even half hour feels beyond us. To that end I am leaving you with a three minute breathing exercise, taught to me by the very wonderful Max Strom and called ‘Where the mind meets the breath’. Because I am prepared to assume that no one foregoes three minutes brushing their teeth in amongst the Christmas rush, so I feel sure we can all probably find an extra three minutes to massage the mind as well.
Where the Mind Meets the Breath
Start by sitting comfortably- you can even do this sitting up in bed. Have a timer to hand- a 3 minute egg timer is perfect, though the phone ( as long as you don't check insta first, will do).
The idea is very simple- you are just trying to take as few breaths as you possibly can, within the three minutes, counting each cycle of breath as it happens. So you inhale- super slowly, as slowly as you can, you then pause but don't breath-hold ( because that would be cheating!) and then you exhale, again super slowly. And you count that cycle - of inhale and exhale- as 1. And then you keep going in the same way, for three minutes, until the timer rings. And the idea is you are trying to breathe as slowly as possible, and count as few breath cycles as possible.
It sounds simple - because it is- but it's also the perfect 'no excuses' daily exercise that will see you through the Christmas season, and its simplicity belies its impact.
Embracing the Change....
‘Every pain, every grievance, every stab of shame, every day spent with a demon in your brain giving chase, hold it. Know the wolves that hunt you. In time, they will be the dogs that bring your slippers. Love them right, and you will feel them kiss you when they come to bite.'
Kate Tempest - Poet
The quest for happiness in our society has reached such crazy proportions that it is a near pathology. Shelves in bookstores groan under the weight of books that tell us how to be better, happier or more fulfilled. Conferences on happiness abound with keynote speakers advising gratitude diaries and doing more of what we love. The weekend papers dedicate countless column inches to advice on how we might live better or buy our way into a smiling lifestyles.
And whilst some of the advice makes for a good listen or read- there is more than a nugget of wisdom in the plethora of TED talks out there, or in the extremely witty musings of the likes of India Knight and Caitlin Moran- the whole cultural quest for constant delight feeds into the mistaken notion that living in a permanently exalted state of happiness is not just possible but also desirable.
But the truth is, trying to be perpetually happy is as futile as hankering after an eternal summer (and believe me, I know a thing or two about that).
With the change in the clocks, the onset of night is now coming with a speed that never fails to surprise me. The ground is strewn with the last of the autumn leaves, leaving the landscape increasingly monochrome, and whilst a frosty morning that blankets everything in glistening white is undeniably beautiful, the plummeting mercury makes it increasingly hard to ignore that we are at the beginning of what in Northern Europe is always a long winter.
It is easy- as many people do- to fall into the ritual of lamenting the lost light and the prospect of the long winter ahead.The darker days, like our quieter moods, are often harder to get through and trickier to see the benefits of until long after they are past. But the sages of every tradition will tell us that it is very often in our times of trial, or in our facing of what we find difficult, that we undergo the most growth. That whilst we might prefer the sunnier days, it is when we are beneath the clouds that we learn to grow roots, to dig deep and to provoke change. And like the trees who need their period of dormancy in order to fully flourish come the spring, we too need - both mentally and physically- to pull inward at times and refill our own wells. We need - more practically speaking- to heed the call of winter by slowing down, cooking up stews, stoking fires, and burying ourselves beneath piles of books and box sets. Warming teas, extra sleep and a gentle but regular yoga practice are other simple ways to see us through.
As the undeniably wise Anne Morrow Lindbergh suggests, in her precise but poetic way
‘One must accept the security of the winged life, of ebb and flow, of intermittency.
Intermittency, an impossible lesson for human beings to learn. How can one learn to live through the ebbs and tides of one’s existence? How can one learn to take the trough of the wave?’
Not at all easily is the answer. But developing the capacity to accept life, in all its messy and ever changing glory is a key component of a more contented life. Ironically, it is in accepting that we can not be happy all of the time, by acknowledging the impermanence of each mood, like each season, and learning to embrace them all - for they all have their gold- that we find the answer to much more lasting happiness. It is nothing more than a simple yet powerful change on our perspective, but it is one that - if successful- can transform our winters & our darker days from an endurance to an invitation.
A February Survival Guide
'In the depths of winter, I found within me, an invincible summer'
It is often said that the best thing about February is that it is short. On the greyer, bleaker days, I tend to agree. So I thought it might be cheering- for myself as much as anyone else-to come up with a February survival guide. So here goes...
1) Do yoga..... It won’t come as a surprise to you when I say yoga is my number one cure-all. But it is because I ALWAYS leave the mat feeling better - or at least more whole- than when I stepped on to it. Even if its just a couple of sun salutations a day, try to get on the mat on a regular basis and especially when you least feel like it. It is then that you need it most.
2) Invest in the humble daffodil.....And when I say invest I actually mean drown yourself in their glorious yellow trumpets. We all rejoice ‘hosts of golden daffodils' curbside in March, but why wait? The supermarkets and flower stands are already laden with bundle upon bundle of the lovely little things and they are cheap as chips. Buy as many as you can possibly afford and then bedeck every spare surface with them. That they will be cheering is an understatement.
3) Put all cynicism to the side- it is never necessary but least of all in February - and go & see ‘La La Land’. In the face of a bout of homesickness, my best friend- who incidentally is also the single most discerning and tasteful person I know - told me not just to go and see La La Land, but also that it was possibly the best advice she had ever given me. After twenty something years of wise counsel, that really is saying something. More fool me that I am yet to go, but it is in the diary for half term and I am preparing to immerse myself wholeheartedly in the romance and sheer 'feel-goodness' of it.
4) Dance around the kitchen to ‘Crystal Fighters’. I know their name sounds like they should be banging out heavy metal but trust me, they are musical sunshine.
6) Dig deep. A family friend once regaled me with a wonderful metaphor that has really stayed with me. ‘Do you know why’ she asked, ‘that the Bordeaux wines have so much complexity and depth and taste?’.
‘It is because of all the grapes, the Bordeaux grow in some of the poorest soils so they need to lay down the longest tap roots. It’s a struggle, but they endure, and their wine is all the better for it.’
Winter will never be my favourite season, but the truth is it makes me dig really deep, which is both very uncomfortable and very necessary. The key to happiness, the Buddhists and the yogis tell us, is to cultivate equanimity in the face of everything, be it good or bad. A buoyant mind, so easily accessed when things are good, takes more practice in the face of life's inevitable struggles. But when we do practice, we gradually arm ourselves with an outlook and a resolve that will ultimately only fare us well.
7) And when none of that seems to work -and it is okay to have those sorts of days too- then remind yourself of the mantra ‘this too will pass’, because it will. The seasons have their rhythms & the trees need to sleep, but sure as the sun follows the moon and night follows day, the spring will come. So hard as it can be, sometimes we need simply to be patient and to sit it out, with faith in the impermanence of everything.
A clever little exercise....
At the start of the year I did an eight week Mindfulness based Cognitive therapy course ( which- incidentally- I can't recommend more highly) and during the second last week we were taken through a deceptively simple but disproportionately effective exercise.
First of all, we were encouraged to think of all the things in our lives that we found most nourishing. It could have been anything; walks in nature, time spent with friends, a particular hobby, good food, our favoured form of exercise- the list was obviously potentially endless and necessarily different for everyone.
We were then asked to list things that we found especially depleting. Overwhelming 'to do' lists, a tricky teenager and time spent in front of a screen topped my personal list though of course again everyone's was different. ( And interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, one person's heaven was at times another one's hell).
We then had to write down what we did in a day. The idea was to 'manufacture' an average day, but then be as detailed as possible. When there were references to food it was important to acknowledge whether it was -for example- a hurried sandwich whilst also responding to emails or a sit down meal taken at leisure in a sunny corner of the garden.
When the hypothetical day was complete, we were then asked to divide up the daily experiences into those which were nourishing with an 'N' placed next to them, and those which were depleting, which were then labelled with a 'D'.
The advice was then very simple. Wherever possible, increase the things that were nourishing and reduce or limit those that were depleting. If nourishing experiences weren't being given necessary air-time, we were tasked with scheduling them in. And if something depleting was immoveable, then we were encouraged to find ways- within the the realms of possibility- to make them a little less arduous.
The next week, the feedback from everyone was universally positive. Super simple, surprisingly do-able & potentially life changing.
Worth- perhaps- a try?
Three weeks ago, our very beloved family dog, Willow, was run over and killed by a tractor, driven by a young farmer who was in a harvest induced rush.
To say it was horrific is an understatement. It was like a scene from an Ian McEwan novel; a day all blue-skied and perfect, a family celebrating a birthday, the last minute decision to go for a late afternoon walk and drink in the last of the sun. One moment we were singing the praises of the day, near perfect we were proclaiming, and then in a moment, there was a bend in the road, a hedgerow, the glint of a dog from the corner of my eye and the clatter of a tractor coming round the corner too fast. And boom – the irreversible happens.
We all claim to be acutely aware of the fragility of life and how things can change on a dime, yet the truth is, moment to moment tragedies remain almost unimaginable. It’s only when something awful actually happens- and god I am acutely aware that no matter how horrible it has been there is a lot worse that can befall a person- that we are shaken out of our slumber of permanence.
My first, instinctive thought was ‘It could have been one of my children’. In fact, in my semi-fury, semi-desperation I think I screamed as much at the muted farmer.
Experiences like that are littered with what ifs, both good and bad.
‘What if I hadn’t suggested the walk?’
‘What if I had been able to find her lead?’
‘What if we had left ten minutes earlier or later?’
‘What if the younger ones had come with us, and been running on ahead?’
It is futile thinking but it circles around in your head.
My second thought, in an experience now indelibly etched in slow motion across my mind, was ‘Oh my god, how will I tell the children?’ If I am honest, part of me wanted to run from the responsibility. I felt like, I knew, that I was going to be taking an axe to their innocence. Up until now, they have – blessedly- been largely protected from death. They have seen me grieve the loss of grandparents, but they are yet, or were yet, to experience that punch in the stomach sadness when you lose someone that is an integral part of your existence.
I hope I don’t need to be their bearer of bad news too often. Watching their wide eyed faces spontaneously twist with grief makes me choke when I think of it now.
‘How do I hug them all at once?’, I thought.
‘I cant possibly console one before the other’
‘Why cant I take it all away?’.
The protective instinct that is such an innate part of being a mother was rendered completely useless in this instance. I realised very quickly that nothing I said and little I did would ultimately be of help. I couldn’t take their sadness away, package it up and send it off as I wanted too, and I couldn’t coach them through it either. They had to process the experience – their loss, their sadness, their memories – in their own way.
And what was remarkable was that after the initial universal outpouring, they all did it, and have continued to do it, in vastly different ways.
The youngest- as you might expect- dried his eyes first. He found distraction in a computer game on which he had free reign- there was no room for rules at a time like that. When he came back downstairs, still red-eyed but composed, he counselled me, ‘Mum, if you try to think about something else, then you won’t feel as sad’.
Almost immediately, and it felt almost shocking at the time, he asked if we could get another dog.
‘Exactly the same’ he said. ‘And we’ll call her Willow’
I decided that it wasn’t the time to teach him that animals weren’t like toys, that you couldn’t simply go to a shop and buy a new one. I didn’t need to, because he already knew. It was just his coping mechanism. Thinking ahead. Being hopeful.
The middle one took all the hugs he could get and when he was spent, announced he was going upstairs to write Willow a letter. Which he did. A full heart-wrenching page written by a boy who has always proclaimed to hate writing.
And the oldest, newly a teenager, sought solace in her friends, as teenagers do. She cried and cried, and then called her friends to cry some more. She then walked the house like a ghost, acutely aware of the deep bellied grief that sat, like a stone, in the pit of her stomach.
‘I still feel sad’ she said, ‘but I have run out of tears.’
On the Saturday after Willow died we buried her at the foot of the garden, on a patch we now realise gets the last of the evening sun. She was wrapped in a white sheet, curled up as though she was sleeping, and we gave her some dog biscuits, her old collar and a pair of my husband’s socks ( which she permanently used to steal). The youngest, who had obviously stored up his tears all week, was then inconsolable. I suspect a little part of him hadn’t processed the reality of it all until he saw her nestled at the bottom of a four foot deep grave. We planted a willow tree on top of the grave, a weeping Willow. It felt like the most profoundly right thing to do, not least because of its being her namesake. But I had underestimated quite how right it was.
Ever since it has provided a focal point. Immediately all the children were making plans for candle lit vigils on her birthday and the anniversary of her death. One of them suggested hanging things from the tree, to make it pretty. Another suggested that perhaps Willow’s heart would grow up into the trunk of the tree. And that if they hugged the tree it would be like hugging Willow.
Only three days ago I found the youngest sat next to the tree, playing the guitar. ( Though it was less romantic than it sounds, because it was one of the push button electric guitars that pumps out a slightly strained solo whenever you hit a button, which of course children do, ad infinitum, ad nauseum). It did though, seem to make him happy that he could play music to his dog.
Even the cat has been seen, regularly enough to make you wonder, sat under the tree, soaking up the sun’s rays.
And almost every day, as we drive out of the house, one of them calls out ‘Bye Willow, guard the house’ as we have always done, for years and years.
Lessons from a Summer Well Spent....
I was tempted to blog more than once over the summer but the allure of being offline and not having to string a proper sentence together proved too great. But I am now back at my desk, in near perfect silence (I am not entirely sure how I feel about that) and figure it might be time to start oiling my altogether rusted brain (at my age, a list-free month is all it takes). So, apologies if the sentences are not yet quite strung together. It has only been two weeks since we got home, but 150 name tapes later and a single week of 6.15 am starts and the vivid blue skies of France and the endless long days are feeling like a lifetime away. The truth is, it doesn’t take long before the sun-tan gets washed down the plughole and the rigmarole of daily life feels once more like the only thing you have ever known. But I am determined to hang on like a limpet to the effects of bowing out of life. Because bowing out is exactly what I did – no phone calls, no emails, no organised activities, no clock-watching, no shoes. And god I loved every little second of it. And so did my children. A whole month of unadulterated freedom which allowed us to live life stripped back to the essentials and gave us the time to see the wood from the trees. Without all the other stuff, the seconds feel more like minutes, and suddenly the very thing we lack at home – time – we had in spades. And though it is easy to live simply and well it is rid of all the add-ons and the demands and the responsibilities, there is surely room ( I thought to myself as I boarded the plane back to Heathrow with an unhealthy feeling of dread) to bring a few of summer’s lessons back, and parachute them into our existence? Almost like bringing home a souvenir, like one of those snow globes with the Eiffel tower in it.
LESSON 1-( less of a lesson, more of a realisation) Its not the mothering that’s hard but all the add ons.
My husband has always said to me (usually after he has been left solo with the children for the weekend and has, to my mild annoyance, managed absolutely fine with them all) that looking after them isn’t that hard, as long as you aren’t trying to do anything else. And he is right. Parenting is a full time job. And if we had every waking hour to dedicate it without anything else then it would not be as hard as it so often is. Take away the washing, cooking, cleaning, bill-paying, work, school runs, swimming lessons and play-dates and all you’d have to grapple with would the odd tantrum, a lost shoe and a dose of sibling rivalry. Much more do-able. In the summer I had time to play mastermind with the middle one, kick a football at the little one & watch the eldest’s synchronised swimming without my mind (or half my body) being elsewhere. And I still had time to read my own books, cook leisurely meals and siesta in a hammock. Days that during normal life don’t have enough hours in them seem to stretch like a rubber band on holiday. So, you may ask, where is the lesson? It reads more like a grim truth. But the lesson here is simply to give ourselves and our kids a break. We can’t and we don’t mother in a vacuum, we mother in amongst everything else. And so next time I am feeling frazzled and strung out and like my kids are asking too much of me, I figure it might be helpful to remember – for all our sake and before I bite their heads off- that it isn’t them getting in my way, it’s life.
Lesson 2- The More the Merrier
This was my number one lesson of the holidays (so should have come first but didn’t) and will now apply to every blissfully unscheduled afternoon and weekend henceforth. We spent a lot of time this summer with whole gangs of children, and without any doubt, those were our happiest & crucially easiest times. Several weeks with cousins, day after day with friends to stay, and a wonderful little interlude visiting old friends north of Toulouse with three families wholly outnumbered by their children. The maths was simple- the more children there were, the happier they were, and the more time the parents had to sit, read, sunbathe and drink red wine whilst putting the world to rest. Far from becoming the bun fight that you’d expect, throw a load of children together and you get a whirlwind of creative play, and hours of it. Forget crowding around televisions or jostling for turns on computer games- which basically seems to be the default mode for two children or less. There were water polo matches with team mates that spanned from three to fifteen, full knight battles that took them to previously unexplored parts of the garden for a whole afternoon, the creation of a group music video orchestrated by our thirteen year old and a proper pyjama disco (marred only slightly by tantrums over the songs). One minute they were story telling, the next minute they were making parachutes, and the next it was full synchronised dancing routines in the pool. I managed to make my way through six novels (and far too many bottles of wine), and didn’t have to stay up absurdly late to do so pester free. For the cost of a few extra mouths to feed, you literally buy yourself hours of time.
Lesson 3- The Golden Hour
‘Children don’t need a lot, but what they need, they need intensely’, or so says Penelope Leach. The longer I have children the more I see the adage that quality not quantity applies to everything we do with them. For many summers now, we have fallen into a rhythm where we have a leisurely morning and then very specifically do something together after breakfast. When they were little we would often start with a craft project, or build a cubby house in the garden, or go on a walk and make up silly stories, or bring back stones to paint. It was all pretty simple, but the key was to do something together when everyone had the energy, and when I – in particular- was undistracted by anything else. Quite apart from anything, it meant that the mornings were lovely, and felt fruitful. If I am honest, a little part of me also felt relieved that (assuming I had kept my cool when the paint pot got spilled all over the stone terrace turning it a permanent shade of blue) I could tick the good mother box on that particular day. And there was an added, unexpected bonus. The kids were then quite happy to go and make their own fun. On some days, the effect would only last until the afternoon, when I might then be accosted to rate their dive-bombs, or to play pirates on the lilo. But sometimes, the effect would last all day. Having given them an hour or two of unadulterated attention, they were quite happy to fend for themselves. And the most brilliant part of this particular little lesson, is that it is fully transportable back to normal life- afternoons, weekends, half term holidays. Give them an hour and they will give you three.
Lesson 4- Get up before the kids
Waking up before your own children sounds completely counter-intuitive, especially if you are like me and feel that even a lifetime of shut-eye might not make up for the crippling sleep deprivation that comes with the early years. But actually it proved to be accidental genius. There is a small caveat that this lesson can not possibly apply to anyone with tiny children or babies, who rise – like a rooster- with the first light. So if that’s you, skip this entirely. But for anyone else, pre-empting the kids and giving yourself anything from fifteen minutes to an hour to get ahead of them is completely sanity inducing. On holiday, it meant that I could lie in bed, have a cup of tea, read my book and look out at the brilliant blue sky behind an old lime tree for at least half an hour before anyone asked me for anything. It was bliss. At home, I have kept this going – which means waking up at the very painful time of 6.15 which still only buys me fifteen minutes- and the effect is huge. I am one step ahead of everyone else, and the impact seems to last all day. It doesn’t feel pretty when the alarm goes off, and more than once I have been sorely tempted to hit the snooze button until half past, but if there was ever a way to multiply time, I think beating them out of bed is it.
Lesson 5- Take more holidays
In an article that made the rounds of the internet back in February 2012, the second of the top five regrets of the dying was ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’. Quite apart from the necessary respite from the treadmill of life, getting away- and it can be as simple as taking off to a windswept campsite or as high end as a villa in some exotic location- means that everyone in the family has a bit more time and a bit more energy to be together. My absolute best memories growing up were when it was just my dad, my mum, my sister and I, usually cramped in the cabin of a little boat or squeezed into a tent, with little more than time for each other. And it is the bank of family memories-which after a holiday seem always to be in mad technicolour- that sustains you most when you get back to the job of life.
Is head-space the new mini-break?
Two weeks ago, my ever surprising husband took me away for the weekend for our tenth wedding anniversary. It was a milestone, he rightly said, and one that we needed to mark. Something to add to our bank of memories. And I, he thought, really needed some sun.
I couldn’t have agreed with him more. Apart from the fact that I never again have license to complain about his lack of romantic gestures, everything about this idea was brilliant. A spontaneous 48 hours on our own with no agenda, no meals to cook and no one to think of apart from ourselves. Much as I completely love my children, two days childfree is a treat whichever way you look at it.
We decided on Ibiza. Blue sky, incredible water, beach bars, long lunches in orange groves and late dinners spilling onto the street- as well as my ultimate luxury, the mandatory siesta. It ticked every box. (I am all for a city-break and a museum or two, but somehow not having the pressure to be cultured felt like an added bonus ).
So day one, and we were up before the birds to catch a proper red-eye. I was slightly dreading the 4am start but, without children in tow, it was practically a pleasure. A couple of hours and a power nap later and we were making straight for breakfast on the beach, squinting into brilliant sunshine for the first time in months. And it was as early as this that I discovered a potential spanner in my otherwise perfect works. In the excitement of packing too many dresses I had forgotten to pack a book. Maybe not a problem for some, but a borderline disaster for me. Realistically I can live without a book, but two days to myself and no page-turning novel to lose myself in was feeling like a missed opportunity. I very nearly screeched out loud. I definitely did on the inside.
For those of you who have never had children, my sincerest advice is to read as much as you possibly can now because reading, alongside going to the cinema and having a lie-in, will become something you almost never do. ( And because reading four lines and then passing out, book on head and often dribbling, of an evening doesn’t count as reading )
Holidays are my one chance to indulge in the ultimately anti-social but glorious act of immersing myself in a book, sometimes with such intensity that I forget to breathe. Two days with no one’s schedule to heed but my own and NO book felt almost sacrilege.
So much so that I very nearly insisted we give up half of our precious two days to go hunting for some literature to indulge me. But then I decided not to bother. I was hungry and the beach was too close. Maybe, I thought to myself, I will just sit in the sun for a while. And do nothing. And I have to say, how I rate doing nothing. Because before very long, whilst I was literally doing nothing ( and by that I mean, not eating, chatting, reading, not doing anything) I found something so unfamiliar that to begin with it almost felt uncomfortable. Head space.
As any of you with children will testify too, family life is decidedly lacking in space. Bombast, colour, chaos and love it has in spades, but space is very definitely an outmoded concept post the pitter-patter of tiny feet. And I always thought it was physical space that I was talking about when I proclaimed, sometimes loudly, ‘I need some space’. The space to detach from a little being who was clinging to my leg or climbing on my back. Or the space to be able to go somewhere or do something without at least one but very often three extra people in tow, even if that somewhere was as decidedly unglamorous as the toilet. Or the space from their different demands that often came (come) in breathless succession.
But the truth is, it’s not just our children who take up space, but modern life and its frenetic pace and crucially, its capacity to distract us. The minute there is even the glimpse of a void, it can (and usually is) filled with phones and facebook, texting and twitter, pinterest and instagram and the multitude of other sites and gadgetry ( or in my case written words) that clutter our mind and, ultimately, feed what can fast become a greedy addiction to distraction.
Obviously its not all bad- I am not throwing the baby out with the bath water here and there is something to be said for it all, and most especially the written word- but there is so much at our immediate disposal, both the frivolous and the less so, that whenever we have an opportunity to do nothing, we don’t.
We fill the gaps and clog up the spaces, until we have forgotten what it is to just sit, and look, and ponder and just be. The latter especially being a well-explored philosophical concept and a much touted route to happiness which the vast majority of us so rarely practice. And it is, to my mind, highly underrated.
Admittedly I didn’t have any sacred or profane revelations, in this newfound head-space of mine. But I was able to think about things for more than a disjointed nanosecond. And instead of burying my nose in a book, I actually looked around and noticed things that I would have otherwise ignored, or quickly forgotten. And though it meant that I took an almost embarrassing number of photos of plants and unusual Mediterranean flowers that I had taken the time to marvel at – my thirteen year old daughter was bemused and might have even rolled her eyes –it also meant my actual memories are that much more vivid, that instead of always being a million miles away, I had actually been there, drinking in the whole experience ( alongside the lunch time wine), and giving my head some much needed time to unravel. And it was this, more than anything else, that made the whole experience a proper, and rather heavenly, break.
‘No, you can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime, you just might find
You get what you need’
The Rolling Stones
‘Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance’
Steven Pressfield – The War of Art
My brother in law said something fascinating to me some months back, when we were talking about the maddening yet seemingly fundamental human resistance to doing things that make us happy. And it was that the only way around it was trickery.
It happens to me all the time, this strange resistance. Writing my book, playing board games with the kids, tending my garden, doing my yoga practice- all of which I do regularly, but always with a moment’s hesitation and a tendency to think I would rather be doing a load of laundry. (Please tell me it is not just me? I know I have at least one ally in my friend who is a supremely talented artist, but seems to find everything else to do rather than pick up a paint brush.)
My wonderful brother in law’s advice is that in the face of this insanity, you must make the plan to do something so far in advance that it feels decidedly unthreatening and then rope in as many people as you can to do it with you, so that you are then beholden to your own plan.
It clearly works for him. He is the single most productive person I know. Now a successful musician in Berlin, his back catalogue spans three and nearly four albums, endless videos, rock-umentaries and merchandise. The man is an all singing, all dancing, one man machine of creativity and productivity. If he suffers from ‘resistance’ then he hides it well.
So it got me thinking that this clever little tactic can and should be applied to family life- and in particular family adventures, which I am increasingly convinced are the key to it all. My happiest memories as a child were when I was in cramped and often calamitous conditions with my sister and parents- so in a tent up a Himalayan mountain in a storm or the cabin of our miniature sailing boat in a heat-wave so intense that sleep was impossible or stuffed into one rickety mode of Asian transport or another. We were all together, no one was distracted, we chatted, we laughed, we played games- it was good old fashioned family time -and quite frankly I think it all needs resurrected.
All too often our current weekends are now spent carting one child to a sports activity whilst the other is late for a birthday party and the third is trying to work out the best bus routes for her trip into town, whilst grabbing my last remaining fiver on the way out. Meanwhile, my husband is sneaking off to get a quick computer fix and I am just longing for a nap.
For some families, adventure is already the fabric of their existence. No plans or tricks necessary. But for a lot of us, we might well yearn for it but the allure of a comfortable bed, the rhythm of an undemanding weekend and a diary that is so full it suffocates all spontaneity means that adventure extends to the local park if we’re lucky.
Now anyone who knows me will tell you I am something of a planner. I love a diary, and I especially love a full diary ( spontaneity quasher right there). Back in February I wiled away many an arctic day planning summer weekends, and merrily booked up the May bank holidays with carefully researched camping idylls. Five weeks ago this particular plan looked like complete insanity. It was still snowing. Even at the beginning of last week, when I was driving Skye to the bus in 1.5 degrees, I was thinking the only thing worse would be camping. In fact if the truth be told, camping always seems like a crazy idea. Who in their right mind would want to pack up everything including the kitchen sink, drive for miles with children fighting in the back from the first bend, to spend the weekend hunched over a single hob camping stove making saltless food, only to sleep uncomfortably all night and to wake up feeling (and looking) as though you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards. Lesser trials illicit great resistance.
Friends’ plans of lazy lunches and late dinners were all sounding increasingly covetable. I lay in bed every morning, relishing the duvet and dreading the adventure. Luckily for me, I had ‘done a Jamie’ and paid for the campsite and roped in my sister to join us. There was no squirming out of my own plans.
And how glad I am that I couldn’t. Three glorious sunny days of being outside, of swing ball and boules and Frisbee, of Herefordshire cider and incredible scenery and nights by the fire roasting marshmallows and warming our toes. Sure, getting up in the middle of the night to go to the loo felt like an ordeal and every morning without fail I looked like the Wreck of the Hesperus. But how often do you find yourself only two hours from home but feeling a million miles away, walking a ridge and a valley that were some of the most beautiful you’ve ever seen? And on the Monday afternoon, before we had even got home, my six year old wanted to go again.
So my sincerest advice is whenever possible, trick yourself into an adventure. I am already busy plotting the next one.
The Upside of Being Broken
I have an ongoing (and desperately boring) problem with my back, which involves an unstable sacro-illiac joint and a lot of pain. I spend far too much time with a thankfully particularly lovely McTimoney chiropractor. Whilst I would never wish a back problem on anyone, there is – I assure you- an unexpected upside to the experience and it is that when i go and see her, I get to be looked after by someone else for a change. Its only half an hour, and obviously I am paying for the privilege, but it’s a crazy fact of mothering that it involves such relentless and unrivalled nurturing of other people on such a constant basis, that to be nurtured yourself can actually feel like a genuine luxury. It’s not quite as tragic as the Japanese cuddle cafes (what does that say about our lonely, individualistic society?) but its not far off.
On Saturday I woke up to discover my back worse than usual. It was clear by about 8.30 that I was not going to be able to just grimace and get through the weekend with a dose of stoicism and a couple of ibuprofen. Luckily, Nicola could see me that morning, so I wrenched the boys away from cartoons and the preteen out of her onesie and our family outing became a trip to fix mum’s back. Understandably no one seemed that excited. Secretly, I was quietly lamenting that my half hour of being put back together was going to be punctuated by an irritating cacophony of ‘I’m bored’, ‘Are there any snacks?’ ‘Why did we have to come?’ and the insistent sound of the massage chair being started and stopped.
But this time, I suggested they stay in the waiting room.
‘They will be all right, wont they?’ Nicola asked me.
‘Of course they will’ I said, as I skipped (actually hobbled but mentally I was skipping) through the door before they could follow me.
Now to anyone who has not got children, this will not feel remarkable nor worthy of note. You’d be forgiven for asking why on earth I am boring you with such irrelevant detail. Except that after having three children spread out over now thirteen years, and having needed to have at least an eye on them if not be completely surgically attached to them for all or part of that time, that I can now leave them alone for a full half hour, with little more than faith that they will entertain themselves and not need me, is HUGE.
‘It gets easier, doesn’t it?’ Nicola said to me knowingly (she is the mother of four grown up boys) as we sat down without them.
‘It does’ I replied.
And here is the thing, IT REALLY DOES. it doesn’t get easy, but it gets easier.
Yes, as their physical needs diminish, their emotional ones grow and without doubt it is still hard work at times, often gruelling, in wholly different ways, but the truth is, its those early years of mothering that are the ones that drain us of our every resource and put us under so much pressure that at times we feel we just might crack.
The truth is that small children need all of your attention all of the time. Idle parent philosophies are wonderful- this blog will end up littered with them I have no doubt- but they simply can not be applied to the parents of babies, whose needs are continuous and fierce or toddlers, who in the hands of an idle parent would without doubt end up somewhere perilous before anyone’s had the time to finish their tea. (I had a friend around the other day with a toddler who, whilst we were busy chatting away, somehow managed to fall into an empty laundry basket in the back loo and was stuck there for a full half hour. It was hardly perilous, but I am not sure she found it that much fun.) None of the early child-rearing is rocket science- although you’d be forgiven for thinking that PHD was a genuine requirement for getting a baby to sleep through the night, it so elusive, but it all so constant. Being needed, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week is exhausting. So them growing up a little bit, and you becoming less needed, can feel like a revelation.
But there is also another, often wholly overlooked, reason why it all gets easier, and that is much more to do with us than with them. And that is the fact that in those early days, we don’t just feel like we might crack, we do crack. We have to.
To say as a society we are unprepared for parenthood is a huge understatement. As Penelope Leach says, ‘bringing up children is probably the most difficult task people undertake, yet our society offers less preparation for it than for anything else’. We get more guidance on how to raise a dog than we do a child. There are no courses, degrees or apprenticeships in motherhood- we really have no choice but to learn on the job. In some ways this is a great leveler. No matter what you have done previously, how you fared through education, or which lofty heights you might have flown to in your career, you are literally thrown back to the start line with the birth of your first child, and expected to undertake an impossible obstacle course with no map. As Alice, founder of The Mother Movement in Australia says, its a bit like asking all men aged 30- regardless of their qualifications, previous experience or ambition -to all become accountants.
Some mothers take to the experience like the proverbial duck to water, whilst others find it a huge anti-climax and wholly unfulfilling, and most ricochet to and from each extreme like a manic depressive, never having imagined they could so long for a shade of grey ( excusing that phrases’ other connotations!)
On the good days, there is the love that is so intense it is visceral, the time gloriously wasted trying to illicit the prized gummy smile and there is often an unexpected relief that comes with days that lack of structure and the license to come off the treadmill, but on the hard days – and you will have both, no doubt- its as though the ‘you’ that you have so carefully constructed through your teens and in all likelihood throughout all of your twenties is disappearing into the fog of sleep deprivation, the mounds of washing and the monotony of basic nurture. And its this loss of ability, this sense of being unqualified and having absolutely no sense of who you are anymore apart from an adjunct to someone else, that makes the whole experience so hard for so many. Its as though to become a mother, you have to give up every inch of the person you were before motherhood, as though you need broken to be reformed.
Transition, under any circumstances is not easy. As human beings we are often ill-equipt for change. And when the change is wholly surprising and on someone else’s terms, it can feel difficult, even painful. But in the process of becoming a mother, that adage ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is nothing if not true.
In my job I work with mothers or women who are becoming mothers all the time. I see first hand the lack of confidence that the majority of women have in their early pregnancies and in those early weeks and months of becoming a mother for the first time. I see otherwise forthright women, who are instead tentative, unsure and questioning. I see women grappling with sleep deprivation and the necessary muddle that is those early weeks and sometimes, I see them falling apart. But I also see what can only be described as an extraordinary process of metamorphosis in each and every one of them. Because as the days, weeks, months and then siblings roll by, these same women get more vocal, more sure of themselves, more confident in their ability- not necessarily to get it right but to at least muddle through. Only today I was speaking to a woman who was telling me about the magic of being the mother to a third child. ‘I don’t have any more answers this time around’, she said, ‘the difference is I don’t mind’.
In the process of their experience, these women (and that means all of us) are not just learning the tricks of the trade and developing the confidence to leave things undone but they are also –probably unwittingly- forging a whole new identity. Very often it is out of the ruins of their old one, and sometimes it can feel as though we have lost more than we have gained, but without doubt, women as mothers become bigger, stronger and better versions of their former selves. A bit like those Japanese earthenware pots, with their cracks filled with gold. And it is that; the new, more confident, more whole identity that we forge, not just as women but as women who are also mothers, that makes us more capable of handling the immensity of what it means to be a mother. And it is this, above all else, that makes it easier. Not easy, just easier.
‘There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’