Archive for November, 2010

The School Walk

I’ve been doing “school mornings” for five years now. Had I been doing the same task for five years at work I would have it down pat by now. Why, then, are schooldays still so fraught, so likely to spill over into disputes, shouting matches and fights? It seems so easy to come up with a winning formula.

The trick, obviously, is to get as much done as possible the night before, thus reducing the risk of it all going wrong during that tired, difficult hour before school.

I once had a night-time checklist. I typed it out and everything. It was brilliant. (By the way, if you’re super organised and always do all this stuff anyway, and never have a fraught morning, and get yourself and four kids off to school and work with ease, then please stop reading now. And know that I hate you.) My list went something like this:

Check and hang up school uniforms, including pants and socks

Check for PE kit, swimming kit, forms to return, letters to read, money to hand over

Make sure the doings for breakfast and packed lunches are ready to go

Rinse water bottles and leave by sink to refill

Woolly hats and gloves and coats on radiator to warm for next morning

Put car and house keys ready in case we have to resort to car dash

Put own outfit ready to throw on

I had everything covered. Fifteen minutes effort, tops. Sadly, I’d lost the checklist by day three of the new school term, and it all slowly unravelled from then onwards.

The reality of life in our household most mornings is that somebody has always lost something vital or suddenly remembers to tell me that I was meant to make Angel Gabriel’s costume (due in today); somebody else wants to lie in and then shouts at everyone else when they realise how late it is; somebody else feels sick/has headache/hurts knee in karate demonstration or jumping off settee onto beanbag; and somebody always loses the car key/house key/urgent form (me).

As a result we are, more often than not, cross with each other by the time we get out of the front door. My eldest is particularly cross if we leave the house a minute after 8.20am, as that means the  gaggle of mates who he walks the last 100 yards to school with will have left without him; the youngest is cross because we are walking at all; and I’m cross because I look like shit, having failed to find time to drag a brush through my hair, never mind put on any lippy.

On these days I harbour a dream. All parents harbour the same fantasy, I’m sure.

It’s the one where everyone tumbles out of bed gracefully at the allotted time, showers without fuss and dons perfectly ironed uniforms/outfits before assembling around the breakfast table (laid the night before). There we all exchange stories of the day ahead, discuss last night’s TV/family board game, while tucking into a hearty fresh breakfast. There is cereal (only healthy, non sugary brands), toast in the rack, juice (freshly squeezed), bacon grilling, eggs poaching, tea in the pot. We depart for school on time, without hassle, walking hand in hand. In some versions I think we are even skipping and singing Climb Every Mountain from The Sound of Music. I am also two stone lighter in this adaptation, but that’s another story.

This fantasy has actually happened in our family once or twice. Possibly. Though that might have been another dream.

Until I put in the effort to make this a reality, I’ll settle for just getting them to school with food in their bellies and in clean(ish) uniform. This morning was, actually, a nice, stress-free one. So much so that, on the way out of the house, I even took the time to snatch up my camera, with a vague plan to take some pics on the walk back. The images above and below are some of the results.

If you follow my blog occasionally, you’ll know I encourage myself to celebrate the mundane and simple wonders of life. It’s a bit of a theme in fact. More of a “memo to self” than to you, but here it is again: we all recognise the standout special moments – the fabulous holiday, the brilliant achievements of our loved ones or ourselves, the magical days when everything just falls into place – but these come along rarely and are generally accompanied by a loud fanfare and spotlights, so we can hardly miss them. What makes for a happy life, in my humble opinion, is appreciating those everyday moments, and realising amid the routine and the trials and tribulations of life just how blessed we are. Without these regular pick-me-ups I reckon life could soon become a despairing grind.

The walk to and from school, five days a week, is a case in point. I usually spend the best part of the 1km route trying to de-stress after the hassles of the morning, shouting at the kids to keep away from the kerb, and planning the rest of my day in my head. I’ve even been known to text or email while walking along in a bid to get a jump on the day.

We walk along a busy road for the most part, but the last section takes us down a narrow hedge-lined alley, with the school and fields on one side and a play park, football pitches and patch of marshland on the other.

This morning, the mere act of picking up my camera meant that I spent most of the walk there looking out for photo opportunities to snap on the way back. I noticed the deep blue of the wintery sky. The way the moon looked incredibly close, hanging like a globe in the empty sky. The way the light flitted through the stark trees. The long shadows cast across the playground. The frost on the ground, like a Christmas carpet. I talked to the kids about what we saw, and they spotted interesting stuff too.

I would probably have been oblivous to all of this normally; too busy plotting ahead to appreciate the here and now. Sure, I’d have noticed what a crisp, bright morning it was – but then my brain would have switched off and zoomed in on my to-do list.

I know what I’m saying is hardly rocket science – Buddhists have been practising the art of “mindfulness” and living in the moment for centuries – but I realised some time ago that I was spending large chunks of the day thinking about the next thing on my to-do list while doing something else. It’s a road that leads only to stress, stress and more stress. My life improved dramatically once I started to accept there was ALWAYS something else to do and I would NEVER be finished, if I lived to be 500. I learned, slowly, that it was definitely better to go with the flow and focus on one thing at a time.

The photos I took this morning are not of the most dazzling places in the country, nor are they the best composed, nor are they taken during the “golden hours” of sunrise and sunset, when proper photographers are out and about plotting the perfect shot. They are quick snapshots and sometimes I get lucky.

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Among the things I noticed this morning was the way a weeping willow’s leaves shone gold against the blue sky; the contrast of the last remaining red berries on a tree against the azure; a bird perched on a tree branch, soaking up the warmth of the sun; the way the sunlight fizzed across a patch of ice. I noticed how my younger son made a trail through the frost on his scooter, then tried to painstakingly retrace his track, without success. I saw my older son play wrestle with one of his pals before they all broke into a laugh about something one of them had said (probably about a girl; they are at that age).

They and these things would have been there anyway, being beautiful, whether I had noticed them or not. I’m glad I noticed them though; glad I spent a few minutes watching my sons finding their way, glad to watch that proud bird getting some rays. That’s the thing about ‘ordinary’ special things – nobody points a big arrow at them and yells: ‘look at me!’. They are just there waiting.


Best Days of Our Lives…

I’m off to a wedding this weekend. The wedding will, I know, be emotional. They always are but this one is particularly special, for reasons I won’t go into here.

I’ve got a new dress and shoes, and I plan to get merry, dance my socks off and enjoy spending time with some lovely friends. I am absolutely confident that the happy couple, Martin and Clare, will have an incredible day. I can’t wait to help them enjoy it.

Inevitably, I’ve been reflecting on my own wedding day, seven years ago.

They say your wedding day is (or should be) one of the best days of your life. Now, at the risk of causing upset, I don’t think mine even makes it into my top five.

That’s not to say it wasn’t one of the most memorable days of my life – but that’s a different category all together.

“Best”, for me, means a day that you wouldn’t change any part of; that you wish you could relive over and over again. I’ve had lots of them. My wedding day wasn’t one.

Before you feel sorry for me (people generally think your wedding day should be the best day of your life, or somehow it says something bad about you, or your nearest and dearest, or your relationship) please let me explain.

My wedding day was filled with raw emotion, love and a huge amount of happiness. But I was actually a bit too emotional and too wiped out from organising it in a few short weeks to honestly enjoy it properly – and with hindsight I’d change quite a lot of it. I’d get a different DJ for starters. And make sure the wedding music worked properly. And organise a better evening buffet. And invite a few different people. And give people a bit more notice.

I had a lovely morning with family and friends, getting my make up and hair done, being waited on hand and foot, posing for photos and generally having a relaxing time with my darling mum and dad and being looked after by my sister.

Then came the big moment – and the best bit of the day, by far, was the actual ceremony. Richard and I had already been together for over a decade when we finally got married  – but it felt like an incredibly charged first date.

He blubbed, I blubbed; it was brilliant! Even our little boy, the ringbearer, blubbed (but that might have been because he was confused; he couldn’t tell who the woman in the white dress was – and why was she kissing his dad?). We had touching readings from close friends, and it was all just as I wanted it to be.

But after that, well, it was a bit of a blur to be honest. I don’t do “centre of attention” very well. Once the wedding ceremony was over, I felt ecstatic – and then weirdly deflated.

We were whizzed off for photos, when I just wanted to sit with my special friends and my mum and dad and have a giggle. It was lovely to see so many people from our pasts and present together, but I worried whether everyone was having a nice time and didn’t relax enough to enjoy the experience. It took a few (lots of) drinks to get into the party spirit, and by the time I was ready to kick on, at about 1.30am, everyone else (including my lovely hubby) was chilling out. That’s always been my problem…timing.

So it was a memorable day, of course – but the best of my life? Sorry, but a few others come higher up my list.

This is not said from bitterness, or in the wake of separation. Quite the opposite, actually. Every day I wake up next to my hubby and thank my lucky stars that I found such an amazing, gorgeous, funny and loving man who, for reasons that evade me still, wants to spend his life with me. Every day he makes me proud to be his wife.

And it’s probably because we have such an amazing life together that I have so many alternative “best days” that I can’t make room for my wedding day!

Now, at the risk of being controversial, the birth of my firstborn isn’t in my top five best days either – but the birth of my second son is. This is nothing, of course, to do with the boys and how I feel about them individually. It’s simply that the two experiences, while ending in the same dramatic style, were like chalk and cheese.

Both births were traumatic; both resulted in potential calamity, with both babies in desperate trouble for different reasons and both requiring extraction via emergency caesarean. Both births, thankfully, resulted in healthy, beautiful, adorable boys.

But the whole day of the birth of Felix was traumatic and awful and something I never felt in control of. I was sick, panicky and distraught. The birth of Oscar, five years later, was everything I wanted (except for the emergency bit). The whole day was calming, funny and an absolute joy (despite similarly intense levels of difficulty, pain and frustration).  Life’s strange, isn’t it?

The rest of my “best days”? Well, I could go on all day listing them all, but I will begin to sound like Judith Chalmers reporting on her best holiday experiences, or a smug cow telling you about all the amazing things I have seen and done. But suffice to say they involve elephants. And a tall ship. And hippos. And parascending. And tents. And water, lots of water. And doing scary things. And doing simple things. And sometimes doing nothing, just watching other people doing stuff.

But they all have one thing in common – they were all days I got to share with people I love; people who mean the world to me; people I would give my life for. And people who I gladly and thankfully share my life with, not just show it to.*

So, Martin and Clare, here’s hoping your wedding day makes it onto the shortlist of the best days of your lives. But if it falls short for any reason, don’t stress – it’s just because you’ve been living best days together for years already.

*The now famous quote “I want someone I can share my life with, not just show it to,” comes courtesy of Martin L, circa 1992, when dumping a long distance girlfriend.