Monday, 30 July 2007

Trials, Tribulations and Mood-Busters

The school holidays are so far mimicking the summer; doom and gloom interspersed with bright sunshine and the faint promise of settled days just around the corner. As some of you reading this will know, I have a friend who was seriously injured in a horrible accident last week; a driver going far too fast in atrocious conditions - and having had a fair few drinks – took a corner too quickly and ploughed into her as she was walking towards her car. I feel a sense of outrage – of sheer affront – as I look at my friend – my strong, capable, funny, dear friend – lying broken in a hospital bed. Her brain is slowly starting a long process of recovery, but will have to re-learn how to speak and walk. My throat constricts as her five year old daughter announces that it isn’t Mummy lying there, and as her seven year old boy screws up his face against the world and punches a wall. I hold my outrage in my mind at the same time as I feel sheer relief and gratitude that she is, in fact, lying here alive.

We can feel so many things at the same time; I feel deliciously lazy as I spend all morning in my pyjamas with the children; mild panic as I realise that another precious day of holiday is hurtling past us with little focus or purpose; joy as we come across a young hare, gazing silently into the distance, sitting by the sundial among the herbs. I feel giggly and childish when I take the children roller-skating and my son and I collapse, again and again, in a heap on the floor, while my three year old glides by effortlessly. Our rhythm has slowed, and since picnics and parks and beaches have been a bit of a wash out, so far, we’ve just, to coin a phrase, hung out, and it’s been great.

I did promise a fellow blogger, ages ago, to come up with my top five mood-busters, and having read many other sane and sensible ways to beat the blues, here are my own idiosyncratic, but usually failsafe, ways to come out on top. I’m lucky that I’ve never suffered from deep depression, although I worry for Britain, and anxiety can often catch me unawares.

1. I indulge myself. Shocking, but true. I wallow in my own misery – but with a strict time-limit. When I was younger, and, say, mourning the break up of a relationship, I’d allow myself a whole weekend of sobbing to girlfriends, re-reading love letters, playing sad music. These days if I’m feeling down it’s more like half an hour in the bath and a quick cry before getting the tea. But I always have to acknowledge how I’m feeling and have a short burst of self-pity before I get stern and get on with phase two.

Things that help me get through phase two include:

2. Cleaning, or more often, clearing out. I am a terrible horder and attacking a room or a cupboard helps me re-direct all my negative energy. I am the world’s most inefficient and, frankly, slobby housewife, but cleaning the kitchen floor has the same effect.

3. Reading, by a real fire in winter, or in the garden in summer. If I’m feeling low, I re-read old favourites, particularly children’s books, which instantly transport me back to a safe and cosy world, where there was often someone else to sort out the problem.

4. If I’m feeling low and have that empty, nothing-new-happening feeling, I plan little tiny treats for myself, to give myself little things to look forward to. They’re rarely anything big or expensive, but it’s astonishing how the promise of a new book or a new lipstick or a trip to somewhere I haven’t been before can make me feel rich, and gives me a little marker on the horizon.

5. Gardening. My passion for gardening appeared out of the blue, and has a miraculous effect on my mood. I love walking too, but although I live in a really beautiful part of the country, there aren’t actually many good options for walks nearby – we’re mostly surrounded my farmland. So in lieu of a bracing walk along a beach, I get digging and staking and pruning and planting. I used to suffer from the January blues – now those dreary late-winter days are filled with seed catalogues and plans and promises. Anyone who loves gardening will know what I mean – I feel reconnected to the life-force, to the pulse of the earth, just by digging a little hole in the ground. Magic.

Monday, 16 July 2007

What I Did On My Holidays

I was asked to write about the above, and, ever the class swot, I of course complied. So what did we do? Nothing different, probably, to millions of other families in the summer months. We stood in long, weary lines at airport security, no-one daring to moan (except littlest, natch) and all grimly aware of why the extra precautions are necessary. I forgot to take my nail scissors out of my make-up bag AGAIN, and lost yet another pair, and we drank too much coffee and got hot and headachy in the weird micro-climate of Stansted. We sat on the plane for an interminable 2 1/2 hours before we were cleared by air traffic control, and quelled those reminders that we should have driven that popped into our heads – we were seduced by the cheap tickets, as ever. The children ate too much chocolate and felt sick; we all got fractious and cross waiting for the air-con to kick in in the hire car, and got lost on the ring road of a strange southern French city. We spent the odd morning driving around aimlessly, having taken the wrong road to some out-of- the- way destination, spent too long stocking up in the Intermarche and keeping the children from their swim. We blew a tyre on a track that forded a stream and while my husband did the manly thing, the children and I counted fishes in the water and watched a heron. We listened to the crickets and drank too much cheap and robust local wine (the adults) and ate too many pain au chocolat (all of us). We swam in rivers that came straight down from the mountains and should have been ice-cold, but were deliciously warmed by the sun and felt like a tepid bath. The children played under a baby waterfall and made dams and spotted lizards. We sat out in restaurant courtyards lit by fairy lights until far too late, and were awakened by warm sun in the morning. We lay in hammocks and read, we took a steam train into the mountains and wandered round markets in fortified renaissance villages. We sat out under the stars, opened another bottle of wine and talked about the property we’d seen in the local estate agents. We watched with pride as J said ‘bonjour’ and ‘merci’ to everyone and even asked for an ice cream with the most perfect accent, and cringed when K announced, with her usual loud 3 year old assurance, that the French were very silly for not speaking English.

One memory won’t leave my head, however, and wasn’t anything that we captured on camera. On the way back from a trip one day, we took a detour down a dusty track, interested to see what the monument was that was signposted from the road. We parked the car in the hamlet and walked off down a path, surrounded by stone garden walls with hollyhocks peeping over. The day was hot and still, though with lengthening shadows, orioles sang in the oak forest around us, inky-blue dragonflies and sulphur-yellow butterflies darted above our heads. We came out into a meadow, fringed by oaks and horse chestnuts, neighboured by olive groves, overlooked by a few ancient stone houses which felt private and watchful. The small monument was in the far corner, with a brass plaque telling us how in 1944, with an SS division quartered in one of the old Mas in the hamlet, a resistance group had tried, and failed, to launch an attack. As a reprisal, the Nazis had taken everyone in the hamlet that day, some 25 people in all, including the children and the old people, and shot them, in the meadow. You couldn’t hear the click of the guns being loaded now, of course, though I’m sure that somewhere, preserved for eternity, the horror of that day is played out over and over. We could only hear the drone of the bees and the sound of my children swishing through the long grass, not really understanding the actions of years ago, intent on the present. The war seemed boring to me as a child, a long way back in the past, the preserve of grainy black and white footage and endless repeats of The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai (which I adore now, of course). Yet now, sixty three years ago seems less than a heartbeat in time.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Tears For An Unborn Child

I took K along to our local toddler group one day last week. I’ve got lazy with regard to chatting to other parents I barely know, which I suppose it’s inevitable; its hard to enthuse about baby ad toddler milestones when you’ve done it once, and, given that my first child is four and a half years older than his sister, I had an established group of ‘Mum’ friends by the time she came along. There is usually the same old crowd there, anyway; people I’ve known for years now, and with whom I can share a coffee and a biscuit without much need for small talk. Last week, however, my daughter made a new friend. Usually shy, her eyes lit up when she spotted a little girl there, one we’d never seen before. There seemed to be an instant chemical reaction between them, and they were holding hands after two minutes, embracing after three, and, inevitably, squabbling over who got the pink beaker after four. I guess that’s the way friendships are often formed – on the basis of gut reaction, a sense of mutual recognition. I had never seen the girl’s mother, either, and started some desultory chat with her. Within five minutes, I too, had that pleased, excited feeling that I’d found a new friend; although, guarded as we adults are, our thoughts were no doubt laced with ‘maybe’s’ and ‘possibly’s.’ It’s thrilling to connect with someone instantly, and as anyone who’s lived in a deeply rural area will know, new friendships can be a long time coming. They had moved in to a neighbouring village a couple of weeks ago, and were clearly expecting another baby soon – she was visibly and heavily pregnant. She was a little reticent, though, when I asked all the usual questions, and eventually told me that the baby boy she was carrying was very poorly; he has only a 50% chance of surviving the birth, and that, even if he does, his condition is not compatible with life beyond the first year. I won’t go into details, it doesn’t seem appropriate; almost an invasion of her privacy, somehow, but it’s a reasonably well-known condition. It was a strangely shocking thing to hear, amongst all the rumpus of small children and toys, and I was reminded again of how removed we are, in these days of choices and medical interventions, from the raw and savage lottery of childbirth. My eyes filled with easy tears and I fiercely willed myself to stop, to emulate her quiet composure. She wanted everyone to know – her daughter is due to start at the local preschool next week, people will be interested to see the baby, to know where he is if he doesn’t come home. Much better to be open and matter of fact, but horribly hard for this to be your introduction to a community. Horribly hard to be in this position at all. Such a contrast, between her swollen, fertile belly and the talk of imminent death, between the kicking visible beneath her maternity top and the hurt behind her eyes. We all carry an entire life cycle within us when we’re pregnant, but we only celebrate the beginning; few of us expect to even be present at the end. I asked his name, and it felt good to say it out loud, to roll the traditional, solid English name around my mouth. I hope I get to say his name to him, to hold him, to welcome him.

I know the deaths of babies and infants used to be part and parcel of everyday life, and not so long ago, either. My grandmother was one of fourteen, of whom only four survived. I’ve had experience of losing babies in early pregnancy; I wouldn’t seek to minimise the trauma for anyone else, and each loss is a little scar on your heart, but I know that, in my case, what I mourned was in no small part the anticipation of a life. To have to say welcome and goodbye in a small space of time seems unnatural and cruel. I think she’ll need a friend, I thought, as I walked home across our ordinary village, suddenly reminiscent of a Manhattan street with steam rising after another ferocious downpour. I hope I’m up to the job.