Enjoy the ride, man

There a few things for which I stop and congratulate myself; to be honest it is not, on reflection, because I do little to be proud of , because I am more often involved in pulling baby porridge from my hair (am I alone in enjoying the sensation?)  But here is one thing; since my son started crawling and rolling or both at once – crolling? I have raised nappy changing to performance art.  I would happily charge someone to come in and watch me change a nappy – stick some ‘Tubular Bells’ behind it and I could sell it to Cirque du Soleil.  After extensive reviews and rehearsal,and an out of town run, my son and I have decided that nappy changing should be a) done in total silence (effort grunts are acceptable) b) he should be allowed to coat his own hand in sudocrem and c) at least one limb should moving contrary to the rest of the limbs at all times (my own or his).

 

I am also proud of my ability to use my son as an excuse for all manner of slovenly behaviour.  Grocery delivery man arrives and STILL in pyjamas? I have a 6 month old baby, so …… you know (raise eyebrows and nod to self as if this is more than sufficient justification).  Floor of kitchen resembles that of a lowdown tapas bar on the outskirts of Malaga?  Well, you know, with a 6 month old baby, it is just so hard to keep it clean and etc etc.  My son is now 8 month olds – I am not neglectful , this just demonstrates for how long I have used these particular line of thought.  Again – practice has raised it to an art form!

 

But I have been thinking about the end of Maternity Leave and the big return to work.  All around me I am seeing mothers lose their shit at the thought of going back, mothers for whom Maternity Leave and childcare has been not so much a roller coast ride as a log flume.  There’s been lots of water and the trajectory has been pretty much downwards for the duration.  I am sure there are private moments of intense joy and calm – I know there are!  But the public aspect of early motherhood is characterised by fraught interactions and the idea that martyrdom is good.  This seems pretty universal across the forums of motherhood – from the coffee morning meet up, to the WhatsApp group, to the mothership (no pun in- well maybe pun intended) – the online discussion.  Intra-mum exchanges, in my experience are 75% of the time on the subject of their child’s health and development and usually conclude with a plea for reassurance or consolation.  I know that from time immemorial, mothers have come together to discuss their children and find solace in the tough times, but add to this the layer of singular angst surrounding return to work and the tension reaches panic room level.

I am on a life raft – a unique life raft which offers baby yoga and sensory sessions, but a life raft nonetheless, floating along, evaluating my own and my son’s life  and finding them pretty pleasing thank you very much.  Gradually I notice women disappearing – I don’t see them do it at first – suddenly they’re not there anymore.  And I notice women around me noticing this – and I start to hear a low pitch whining noise, and then I realise it is coming from the woman next to me.  And then I see her do it – she leans back and throws herself over and I never see her again.  And the mood on the boat, which had been so pleasant up to now, starts to change – it gets rockier, the women start to cry and the waves get rougher, because we’re lighter in number and I have to prepare myself for leaping over the side.  I want to spend as much time as possible just staring at my baby because I WON’T EVER SEE HIM AGAIN but I also want to enjoy my last moments of freedom as a person who has hobbies and a social life, so I divide my time between speed-reading books described as ‘life-changing’ on the sleeve and cuddling my baby – and feeling guilty about not doing the other all the time.

 

And then, I hope, I’ll get pulled over the side.  And it, like most things, will probably be fine.  Okay, I may not always have porridge in my hair to look forward to.  But I will probably even enjoy being a worker and contributing to society, not just feathering my own nest. I may even enjoy wearing clothes again.  Who knows?  All I can do at the moment is try to reason with myself and my frankly hysterical response to returning to work.  Did I mention that I have two months left before i go back?  Yep.  Ages.  But it is the Crucible effect, infectious.  Once one person starts frothing at the mouth about visiting nurseries and arranging pick up times, we all do it.  But I am determined to enjoy the ride for a s long as possible, dammit – a concerted fightback, if you will.  Here are a few things that I will try out to keep myself in check:

 

Make a list of things that are good about work.

But some new clothes for work

Give the hysteria I feel about end of Mat Leave a name and face, a character.  Mine has cats, flyaway hair and writes afternoon dramas starring Jason Priestley for Channel 5 (none of which are green-lit)

Sit still for a bit every day and be calm.

Plan in a few trips.

Wear pyjamas and don’t stress about the food on your floor.  Or your face.  Or in your hair.

All suggestions gratefully received!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Alright

I never do anything fully, so I never do anything at all.  This phrase popped up in my journal this morning.  It’s a restless day, a day for the stay at home mums (as if any mum is genuinely a ‘stay at home’ mum now – we’re all too busy attending sensory/swimming/playdates).  But it is stay at home today, because of an unexpected and very beautiful snow fall which is now into its fourth hour.  Plus my son (I have a son now, eight months) is asleep in his chair and the house is more or less tidy and yes I’ve changed the TV License so well done me.

 

Stay at home – what sort of image do these phrases conjure up?  Home …comfort, home …safe, home ….sweet home.  Stay ….put, stay …still, stay ….calm.  All lovely and soothing if taken in isolation but far from accurate depictions of my experience.  When I genuinely am a stay at home mum (i.e today), these connotations are kind of soporific; I totally understand how people become sofa-locked when they are ‘stay at home’.. We become children – we work on a task and reward basis and if I ‘stay at home’ too long, the task reward ratio becomes ever slighter.  Day 1: I tidy out the drawers, freeze several meals and sort out life insurance, therefore, I shall meditate for half an hour and make a pot of tea.  Day five: I haven’t watched television for an hour, therefore I shall watch television for an hour.  You see? Who is the bigger baby here? When my son is awake, he is active, engrossed.  Sometimes I lose half a day being ‘stay at home’, dreaming of the things I’ll do when I’m not stay at home in the same way that, out and about, I dream of the things I’ll do when I’m ‘stay at home’ again.  Plus ca change.

This is not self-criticism, but written more in the spirit of acceptance.  The day is busy, but busy in a way that I never thought I would find busy – with dishes and nappies and stacking cups.  Being temporarily sofa-locked, I am going to wildly paraphrase here, but I’m thinking of the section in The Golden notebook when Doris Lessing writes about a change in her heroine’s character, when she moved from appreciating a certain hour as when day turns into night to seeing it as the ‘time to put the vegetables on’.  The day can be meted out thus; but it is no bad thing, it is how things are, for now. Continue reading

Build your beet basket! Build it high!

I’m going through a bit of a change.

No, not hot flushes (I’m always sweaty and flushed, so it will be hard to tell when they begin), nor am I coming out. Things are changing. I am undergoing change. change is upon me, etc, etc.

Like one of my chillis, this has been a bit of a slow burner. In fact, any change that I make is the result of many arduous hours of half-assed research, handwringing and procrastination interspersed with what I like to call the ‘settling process’, which involves many hours of oblivious television watching. Seriously, rocks form faster.

The most important part of any change-making I undergo is listening and subjecting myself to the stereotypes and pronouncements offered up by family, friends and media.

For example, I wore black trousers and a black polo neck consistently throughout my year at drama school. Urged on by my mother (who had never been to drama school), I was pretty much convinced that this was the uniform of all serious students of theatrical arts. I then went on to wear a mood ring during a vaguely hippy phase which culminated in me visiting a a pagan store twice in one week, feeling the relationship was becoming too intense and guilt buying a bookmark before leaving, never to return.

The black theme resurfaced when I moved to London, teamed now with Buffalo trainers and a droll expression, as my friend, who already lived in London and was therefore already always in black with drollface, assured me that this was ‘what Londoners are like’.

Well done, you noticed: my stereotypes are very image led – shallow me! And I think lots of them were formulated during childhood. Most of the time, they’re not bad prejudgements on a group of people or type of living; they mostly aim at being humorous (my family deal almost exclusively in jokes and jokes alone). Some of them are quite strange, specific and could only be deciphered if you belonged to my family (hence the title of this post).

I also feel that my keenness to adopt stereotypes and images when I was younger was because of a desperate need to afiliate (thanks Maslow). I would happily have joined any group that would have had me and if all I had to do to identify was wear a ring, bandana or shell suit, so be it. I was part of the gang – or so I thought. Sometimes the desire to fit in is stronger than the desire to be yourself, after all.

But things have started to change recently. Really change. After years of diddling about, I finally learnt how to practise Transcendental Meditation. My battles with my negative talking mind have been well documented and while my audio fast gave me some respite (as does writing), mindful meditation hasn’t suited me. After reading ‘Catching the Big Fish’ by David Lynch, I was inspired to finally give it a go. I will write more about it at length elsewhere,but suffice to say that I am enjoying the process and wonder whether my shift in perspective has led to other changes.

After one lost Saturday too many, I finally gave up alcohol. This has been miraculous – who knew being clear-headed could be this much fun? Please bear in mind, that I used to get the most God-awful hangovers, like the inside of my head and stomach lining were being peeled back simultaneously. I looked like I had been poisoned. I had been poisoned! Dumb ass that I am, it has taken me this long to realise that maybe alcohol and I didn’t get on too well.

From this point on, the floodgates have opened. I’ve stopped eating all dairy except for goats cheese and most meat as well. Naturally the stereotype dial has just shot past ten and up to eleven, but please, give me a moment of your time. I’m no fan of animals; pigeons are satan’s minions and I’ve no desire to pet a monkey. But recently, when I’ve eaten steak, I’ve heard screams. Not because I’m eating in bad neighbourhoods. I mean mental screams. And I’ve clunked down on far too many of those chewy veins that you get in chicken, the bits that make you gag then spit hurriedly into the nearest receptacle, then spend the rest of the meal wondering what sort of monster is lurking in there. So my reasons are really those of a fourteen year old girl, except I am also aware of the benefits of a plant based diet. If it’s good enough for Prince, it’s good enough for me.

It’s this final change that has led to the most stereotypes. Stereotypes extempore, as I’m about to demonstrate. When I told my mother about my swtich in diet, she responded ‘oh go and build your beet basket, then’.

Beet basket?

I’m not entirely sure what a beet basket is and neither is she, but I love her crystallization of what being a vegetarian teetotaler was. God, it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. But is eating dead flesh and poisoning oneself?

I can’t guarantee that all these changes will stay (vegan cheese ain’t fooling anyone and tempeh tastes like the devil’s drainscrapings), but they do at least feel like changes from within rather than without. They’re not a mood ring for the soul. And in the meantime I shall continue building my beet baskets with pride.

Make like Patti

I went to New York recently (she says casually like Cindy Crawford would, or a businesslady from the 1990s).  Okay it was April in fact, but it’s been a turgid few months since then, filled with regret and lassitude at no longer being in New York so it has taken me a while to write.  New York is ridiculous; having haunted my imagination since I was of Athena poster buying age, I wasn’t disappointed  by the steam from the drains, the yellow of the cabs or the sheen from the mirrored skyscrapers.  It all felt unreal and familiar.

 

Boozed up and jetlagged, I took notes from every day of my stay, but do you really care what I did?  Does anyone? That’s my business.  From childhood, I vaguely remember ‘slide shows’, where we would formally gather with other families at nieghbour’s houses to have a guided tour, with projected images, of what they did on holiday. You may remember Don Draper singing the praises of the home projector on Mad Men, but he clearly never visited the denizens of Hull, because all I recall of the slide show is the click and the whirr of the machine and Uncle Brian or Aunty Sue telling us the date and time that the picture was taken, where it was taken and normally who had been sick or was about to be sick at the time of execution.To be honest, if I ask you ‘how was your holiday?’  Just say ‘fine’ or ‘shit’ and leave it at that (actually if it was shit, I’ll probably want to know why.  I’m such a schadenfreude freunde). Looking at my travel journal (which I imagined as a full blown epic) I can tell where I got bored of writing about what we did, because it becomes a ‘did list’.  And it’s awful.  If you really want to know what I did, go and read ‘Just Kids’ and pretend that I’m Patti Smith.  That should do it.

 

So now, we’ve established that I’m not going to give you the blow by blow of my trip, what am I going to do?  I’m just going to write about two things that I noticed, that’s what.  

 

New Yorkers have to have the last word, which means, as a Brit, you can get stuck in some serious politeness showdowns.  Here’s an example from a restaurant that we went to.  It’s between a waiter (played by Don Draper), me (played by Patti Smith) and my husband (played by Betty White – why not?)

 

HUSBAND:  I see what you mean about slide shows and i totally agree.

ME:  Great

WAITER:  More water?

ME:  Yes, please.

WAITER:  You’re welcome

ME: That’s great, thanks

WAITER:  Not a problem

ME:  Great job, well done

WAITER:  My pleasure

ME:  Lovely.

WAITER:  Fantastic

ME:  Nice one.

WAITER (running away, shouting over shoulder)  ENJOY YOUR MEAL!

 

As a Brit, I like to patronise waiting staff, to make them feel cared for and listened to, but most importantly I like to seal off the conversation by having the last word.  Every rejoinder takes away from my benevolence!  Really, I should face facts; my platitudes are squat: a damn big tip is worth more than a feigned grin and attentiveness.

 

Unless our visit coincided with a Tresemme conference, the men of New York have hands down collectively the best male hair I have seen anywhere on ths planet!  It is spectacular: lustrous, bouncy and product free.  Curls the colour and density of wet sand, worn long, nestling on shirt collars and flopping over foreheads.  Full white clouds of cauliflower.  A crisp afro.  I had full blown middle aged man hair envy – something in the water, perhaps?

 

Yes: everyone shouts at each other a bit, sandwiches are massive and the skyline is amazing.  But should you visit  New York, I recommend that you check out the pompadours and try to out-polite a waiter.  

 

And pretend your Patti Smith.  But that’s just a general life lesson, isn’t it?

 

Spanish Castle Magic

I’m puzzled by the parts of my childhood home that I can remember in detail; I would have no idea on what colour the walls were, or the bathroom even (though it was probably avocado, let’s face it), but I remember certain parts very very clearly.  Our house was a converted telephone exchange, but few of the original features remained.  Thank God for the ambition of the architect though; where many may have seen a functional bungalow type thing, she saw …. a Spanish villa.  So the walls were white, the patio was red tiled, and running across the facade were a series of arches which continued over the driveway.  I loved how it looked.

The stairs were awesome.  They were big wooden slabs driven horizontally into the wall with a balustrade of wrought iron.  What magic could I create here? Would I scale the underneath of each step? Would i wriggle straight through between the slats and enter a world of intrigue and mystery? No: I would spend most of my time wedged between two slats, my legs dangling freely and preted to be in an office. At a desk.  You see, I also had a little typewriter in a briefcase, which featured a series of images guiding me through what people did in an office and at what time.  At 9.30, according to the pictures I would arrive at work.  11 meant time for a black coffee, 1 oçlock was a ham sandwich.  I was supposed to down tools at 5 pm, but hey, sometimes I finished a little earlier to beat the rush home.

 

What I did during these hours is anyone’s guess. This was pre-internet, so I couldn’t even access real online information through my office space.  I wasn’t building an app empire, and there was no-one to email.  So I think I spent most of the time … pretending.  Pretending to do things that I associated with offices; like typing letters, making up imaginary data, sighing and musing on lunch.  Turns out I was scarily accurate on what office life was like!

 

Granted, there was probably a hella lot more engaging things that I could have been doing, like building dens, bike-riding, dancing in my pants, but hey, it’s not what i was pretending, it was how I was pretending.  I could pretend, quite happily, to be in an office for entire days, so much so that my mum and dad became adept at walking right over my little head if they needed to go upstairs.  I was part of the furniture (buh-bum-cha).  

 

It turns out that my husband was similarly fascinated by the stairs in his house, but his big challenge was seeing from how high he could jump down and not slam into the wall at the bottom.  He’s a bit like that.

 

My niece and nephew live there now (with my sister and brother-in-law, thankfully) and the house has adapted into a new home.  Fashions change: the arches are still there, but the inside is much sleeker and spacier.  Regardless, they’ve found their own pretend adventures.  In spite of their myriad toys, one of their favourite games involves sliding off the back of the sofa, pretending to be innocent fairies in the thrall of the wicked witch, my mother.  They can play this game for hours, something which takes a year of the wicked witch’s life each time they do.  The stairs have gone, but the sofa remains.  Space is adaptable, as are we, but what is re-assuring is that we still have the guaranteed imagination to find joy in pretending. 

 

 

The shellsuit in my head

When I leave in the morning, it is generallly darker than when I return in the evening.  Some people I know would find this incredibly depressing and the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder are well-documented.  I know, because I convinced myself that I had this once and even bought a lamp to help me, but I don’t really. Have SAD, I mean; it turned that I was always grumpy and tired and that actually, I had anti-SAD.  I’m at my best in the morning and I genuinely (sort of) enjoy being an early riser

 

Larks and owls and what kind of person are you and all that stuff aside, I derive pleasure from getting up early, because when I was young, getting up early was associated with a big adventure or treat; like the pre-dawn shufflings of Christmas day or the strategic planning of a trip to the airport before going on holiday.  My dad took this part of the trip very seriously.  The car journey to the airport would normally take about 3 hours and if it was an early flight, parental discussion for weeks beforehand would revolve around such crucial topics as optimum positioning of luggage in boot and the necessity of a centralised bumbag holder for the placement of passports and tickets. The night before we set off, my sister and I would be charged with making the back seat of the car as comfortable as possible.  This was the most exciting thing ever for me.  As a 7 year old, the backseat of a car is huge and ripe with possiblities (particularly in the pre-seatbelt era), so I would spend hours deliberating on where to put my pillow and blanket for the journey.  The car was my house – thrills!  

 

The possibility of sleep the night before an early start diminishes with age, but even at seven I remember being beside myself with aniticipation at going in the car to the airport in the middle of the night!  I don’t recall being enthusaistic about the holiday to follow and nor can I remember which country we ended up in afterwards.  But I do remember being lightly shaken awake, forced into my ‘travelling gear’ and carried to the car.  I normally slept throughout, which suggests that anticipation of travel is better than travel, which in turn is better than arriving.

 

A note on travel attire.  One winter, my father booked us a last minute jaunt to Spain.  The weather in England had been pretty terrible, which added spice to planning our voyage to the airport.  Assuring us that it would be ‘white hell’ on the motorways, dad fretted, cogitated and formulated on the additional time that we would need to catch our flight.  He decided, and we agreed, on leaving at 2 in the morning for a 10 o ‘ clock flight, giving us an extra five hours.  Travel kit became even more essential; it’s one thing to dress for comfort but what about durability?  What if we became stranded on the motorway in an avalanche or blizzard or something and have to rely on our wits and survival instincts to get by?  Once you consider these questions, there’s really only one answer for a family of four of varying ages, sizes and genders:  we’d all wear our matching shellsuits!  That way, the helicopters or SAS rescue soldiers would know that we were a team and we’d get airlifted out of the snowdrift together, of course.  At two in the morning, the atmosphere in the car was tense, but by the time that we arrived at the airport, a mere two hours later, two hours during which we hadn’t seen so much as a flake of snow, , we felt a bit like dicks. Prepare to fail?  You betcha!  The phrase ‘white hell’ is still used in my family to imply that someone is overplaying their part.  But that trip also had its uses.  Sometimes, when I’m dozily and reluctantly pulling myself together before the crack of dawn, I like to don the shellsuit in my head and relive that jolt of excitement that I felt as a kid.  The adventure begins ….  

 

 

The joys of hypocrisy

Secret number one: I judge you through your living room windows.

 

Walking home gives me a great opportunity to assess you through those sturdy 2 by 4 panes of glass that beckon me into your front room.

 

I see people in their dressing gowns at 5 o clock in the afternoon.

 

I see children transfixed by a plasma 4 billion inch rendering of Jake and the Neverland Pirates, their hair upended by a static charge from the TV screen.

 

I see christmas lights, still up.

 

I see people in the dark, temporarily lit up by tablets, laptops, mobile phones, sometimes all at once, their faces moving greedily in and out of the blue glare as they dart between devices, like underwater swimmers in a murky pond.

 

I see you eating a pot noodle.

 

I see laundry in piles, like monuments in Greenland.

 

I see dead velvet stretched over cushions, unwashed and unloved.

 

I see terrible family photos.

 

And then I get back to my flat, slip into my pyjamas, put the kettle on for a cuppa soup, switch on my computer, check my phone and cuddle up close to the fairylights and TV screen, ignoring the pile of laundry prone on the floor.  I nod with familiarity at the grinning bozos in the photo frame, pull a tattered cushion under my bum and thank God that I’m home.