Tea and Other Transforming Things


I refuse to believe you get fussier as you get older  more experienced (we’ve banned the “o” word in our house due to occasional bouts of melancholy). I mean it’s true that answering the question, “Can I get you a cup of tea?” is slightly long-winded these days  – “Yes please, quite strong, but not too strong. If you pour water over the teabag, go in search of milk and spoon, then squeeze the bag hard, adding about 50 ml of milk, that should be fine!” And in response to bewildered looks from colleagues, “Er, thanks!” But…this only signifies a developed appreciation for the little things in life, having accepted long ago that the bigger things, however promising, are unlikely to bring the transformational delight once anticipated.

It’s the same with mugs. At school, while younger colleagues are grabbing any receptacle likely to restrain a few mouthfuls of caffeine from lolloping unpleasantly down their leggings, I’m usually scrutinising the cupboard for just the right mug. It has to be large, of pleasant appearance – none of this World’s Best Teacher with picture of a fat teddy  for me – and preferably with gently sloping sides so you don’t surprise yourself with scalding tea across the face while swigging wildly during playtime arbitrations. (It’s so much better if you can squint down the length of your nose while delivering a lecture, to see what’s coming.)

I'm actually quite fond of this one. A child bought it for me because they'd run out of Best Teacher ones. I said "What is they'd had Second Best Teacher ones? He said that would've been fine as actually his Reception teacher had been the favourite

I’m actually quite fond of this one. A child bought it for me because they’d run out of Best Teacher mugs. I said “What if they’d had Second Best Teacher ones?” He said that would’ve been fine because actually the Reception teacher had been his favourite.

At home it’s different. I have three mugs, one for each part of the day. In the morning, I use the pale blue with the flowers on. It’s just the right size, shape and soothing colour for groggy-eyed school days. On non-school, it’s not really big enough so  I have a second one. For the afternoon, the most important cuppa of the day, I use the robin mug. Now this mug has a special place in my heart as it was given me by a child after we’d completed a topic on birds. I told the class about our robin and how he visits us every year and sits on the washing line or the log pile, his bright eyes and slab of red somehow comforting against grey skies and sadness. (I loved that class as they were gripped by my stories.) At Christmas I received the mug from a child who said it would remind me of my robin. Maybe his mother is a serious tea drinker for it’s actually the perfect mug for a 4 o’clock-ish cup of tea. Shortly after, I have to start on the decaff but this mug is great for the final cup of hard stuff – not too big, dainty, made of fine china, the handle just the right size for a fattening finger, and a tiny lip at the top for the occasional slurper.

Morning mug

Morning mug

My evening mug was demoted that Christmas from the afternoon. It’s a pleasant shape for tired fingers and has a pretty apple design. What I like most are the tiny apple leaves on the inside of the lip. Very tasteful.

So you don’t get fussier as you get ol more experienced, you just care differently. Gone are the days when you wanted fame and fortune, or a day with George Clooney, or a body like Mrs Clooney. You’re not particularly interested in status or exotic holidays or expensive jewellery. These things may have mattered once but they don’t now. The fact that you are healthy-ish and alive, and can (mostly) remember what you went into rooms for, you have a life-work balance and your children are independent and sane and able to run their lives without you – these things give great pleasure. As do sunsets and trees and a square or two of Green and Black’s chocolate.

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Will there be tea and bone china in heaven? My daughter tells me I once promised her there’d be ball-pools in heaven and if she finds there aren’t, she’ll never forgive me. Well, I think God, who invented tea and ball-pools, would not set eternity in our hearts for no reason. It must be a pretty great place to be. And I believe that, for Sheila and Norita and my grand-parents, and maybe David Bowie and Alan Rickman (who knows?) and for others I have loved, unlike life’s big things, this thing did in fact bring the transformational delight they were anticipating. The biggest adventure of all.

Of course one still wants adventure here. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m settling for a dull life without the excitement of new things. Which is why I’m making a momentous decision: I’m chucking the morning and evening mugs. I want the robin mug all the time really.

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Hills and giving thanks on All Hallows Eve


We’re climbing the Malvern Hills,  and I’m wheezing like a catfish. I briefly consider whether dropping dead on a narrow path between trees in sight of the summit, is a good way to go. An action exit, so to speak, in pursuit of something beautiful. But decide against it. There are few walkers up here and we might be left for days. Or eaten by foxes.

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The views are incredible. The Malvern Hills rise, sheer and spine-like, from the Severn Valley in the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. Eight miles long, from the highest summit you can see parts of thirteen counties, the Bristol Channel and the cathedrals of Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford. The hills are known for their spring water, made famous by the area’s holy wells and later through the spa town of Great Malvern which clings, crab-like, to the side of the hills. Aldwyn, the monk who originally founded the Benedictine community and priory in 1085 because of its  remoteness, would rend his cassock if he could see the old town grown up around it now. Though he might be pleased that the holy wells originally thought to bring health and healing as early as the twelfth century, developed into a spa town in Victorian times later becoming the first bottled water plant in the world. Today the town is  beautiful, even in the rain.

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It occurs to me that I could do with those healing properties now as I lurch, with bursting lungs up the steep incline towards the summit (not THE summit, I hasten to add, but the nearest one). My husband is positively bounding compared to me. The problem, when you have asthma, is you never know quite what’s going to trigger it. And, unwisely, I’d left my inhaler in the car. I briefly consider the problems the Air Ambulance Service might have landing on the scrubby slopes ahead of us, to say nothing of the headline in the Malvern Gazette- Asthmatic Londoner Loses Lung Function on Lower Levels #ourglorioushills

My husband stops and watches me critically. “Do you want to go back? Perhaps we should…”

I consider his question. I would like very much to go back, to correct those earlier years where I smoked for a while, drank too much and lived in beautiful but freezing, damp old places which did my lungs in. I would like to have lived wisely and well and looked after those vital body parts you need more than ever when you’re older – eyes, skin, lungs. Well, all of it is quite useful really, especially at work or ordering an Indian Takeaway, (JENKINS! cough, cough, J-E-N-K…No, I can’t say it louder! Cough, cough!).    But it’s too late for all that. The eagle has landed, so to speak. What to make of what’s left?

I look longingly at the view which is becoming more impressive by the step. As we rise, the Severn Valley unrolls and the town begins to hunch its shoulders beyond the trees. Having got this far, it would such a shame to miss the big view from  the top. My breathing’s not too bad, I decide. And I never know these days whether I’m being a tiny bit neurotic. I once told my doctor after a particularly bad winter that I was worried I’d forgotten how to breathe. A capable type with a distractingly large bosom, the sort you can’t take your eyes off even when reliably heterosexual, she gave me a long, measured look.

“You may have forgotten, Mrs Jenkins,” she said, “But your lungs won’t have. I would advise you to live your life and let them get on with it.”

Well this is my life, so I figure as long as I rest often, I should be alright. After all it’s not much further. After some persuasion, we continue. And after several breaks, no coughing fits and a near collision with a cyclist (A CYCLIST!! I want his lungs), we arrive at the top of the hill. And it’s breathtaking.

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We sit for a while enjoying our victory. On the way down I reflect that in my younger days it never occurred to me I’d get something like asthma. But then there are lots of good things I never thought I’d get to do either – live abroad, rebuild a house, raise socially acceptable children (this is a miracle in itself – God is good). And so many people live with far, far worse.

So tonight, on All Hallows Eve, I’m celebrating goodness. I don’t celebrate Halloween though I’m happy to give out sweets to the neighbouring kids who do. I didn’t encourage my own kids to dress up etc. (there were sometimes alternative parties at church) though when teenagers, I didn’t stop them if they wanted to. In Turkey, we gave out sweets to children celebrating the Muslim festivals to be friendly and culturally relevant, and I don’t see this as too different. In my opinion it’s just not worth offending and upsetting people over. It doesn’t help with the negative press believers sometimes experience. But this is just my personal view.

Tomorrow is All Saints Day when they pray for the dead in Orthodox churches. Protestants generally regard all Christians as saints and if they keep All Saints Day they use it to remember all Christians past and present. So I’m remembering Aldwyn and the Benedictines for starting a monastery in a beautiful place, my grandparents who started our family long ago in India, my parents. I’m giving thanks for my husband and my children and my cat (who sleeps with his paws crossed so is definitely a believer).  And for all my family and friends, who mean so much to me, whatever they believe about life, God and Halloween.

I’m also thankful for hilltop views and autumn leaves and Ventolin. For holidays and small children and good doctors (whatever the size of their bosoms). For quiet water and sunsets and tiny little cakes with cream in.

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And that God, wiser and more far seeing than we can ever imagine, somehow uses the random yuck that life flings at us, to make the small things sweeter. Like breathing.

Who and what are you grateful for, this All Hallows Eve?

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A lifetime of holidays and I’m still learning…


So it wasn’t the best weather, and it wasn’t the best place.  The windscreen wipers squeaked double-time all the way there and there was rain on and off all week. It was cold. The upstairs shower didn’t work and the toilets were dodgy. The roof in the conservatory leaked in three places and the smoke alarm bleeped all night, until we took the batteries out, choosing sleep over fumes and crisped skin.

But we got over it. And once we got over it, it was wonderful. There was lying around and reading, and reading, and lying around (for the over 50s).  DVDs and Youtube and Youtube and DVDs for the overs 18s. There were seaside towns to explore,  cafes for getting warm and eating cake,  and  beaches, and sudden bursts of sunshine, the latter two actually coinciding once for twelve whole minutes on a beach in Cromer.  The cottage was pretty, if dysfunctional, and in the evenings we took it in turns to cook, or loaf in evening light spilling gold into the back room.

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And it strikes me how strange it is that we’re always taken aback when holidays, in common with Christmas and new kitchens, aren’t perfect. They should be. After all, we’ve paid for them and we’ve waded through a lot to get to them – all that planning and pontificating, making arrangements (so much of life is making arrangements). To say nothing of the daily grind that has dominated your life since your last holiday – cooking, shopping, keeping clean.  You’ve gone up in the roof and found the cases, though no one’s seen the toiletries bags since Brittany, and as for the automatic cat feeder, didn’t you lend it to someone at Easter? Then there’s the whole, Shall we leave the low-energy lounge/kitchen light on, blinds up or down, curtains open or closed at the back/front, plugs in/out? And by the time you’ve packed the cases, written an essay to the cat feeder and the plant-waterer and the rubbish-putter-outer (you couldn’t possibly impose on the one person to do all of this), you sink into your car feeling you need a holiday. But you’ve got to put up with the long drive/flight before you can even dream of one, let alone the blood-pressure-raising interrogation for the next few miles or so – “Did you turn the coffee machine/iron/hair straighteners off? Did you slam the dodgy freezer door?” (This all before it starts to rain.)

So after all that, and sitting in roadworks and traffic for hours, the place had better be perfect. And if it isn’t. we’re surprised, then irritated, then annoyed. This is our holiday! 

But after we’ve had a cup of tea, talked of complaint letters, unclenched a little, we shake our heads, shrug. We notice the rain has stopped, there’s a view across fields. The lounge is cosy and has a log burner, some pretty brickwork. And for miles and miles there are fields dotted with tiny hamlets, and trees and water. And arching above it all, singing, the wide  Norfolk sky. It’s pure gold.

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And it suddenly hits us, that holidays are a break from  routine, not  life. They still require us to do the things that make life work, most of the time – laugh, ignore rubbish, watch for gold. We remember, with a clunk, this hitting us last year and all the years before…But somehow in the middle of all the toiletry bag hunting and the why-isn’t-this-perfect ranting, we forgot it. Again.

I sometimes think that God, if you believe in him, and I absolutely always do, apart from on planes and once briefly in a kebab shop in Brighton,  must sometimes put his head in his hands and sigh.

 

 

 

 

Things I’ve lost and the art of growing down


I am one of those people who sometimes puts things down and can’t find them again – lesson plans, cheques, small children. I once left my  son in the meat aisle in a supermarket while I popped round the corner for salad, then couldn’t remember which meat aisle (Chicken? Beef? Delicatessen?)  He turned up eventually, in Cold Meats and Pies standing obediently exactly where I’d left him, looking a tiny bit resentful.

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I confiscated a watch from a child in class. It was one of those bleeping ones that goes off randomly every few minutes and has a touch screen that is tempting to play with rather than listen to your very engaging teacher (you could probably go on-line with it too). I put it on my desk and carried on extolling the virtues of fronted adverbials until Break. After Break it had disappeared. Now this kind of thing happens to me from time to time – with money for school trips or offerings for the Tooth Fairy – and things always turn up so I wasn’t unduly worried. Until a week had passed and it had not reappeared. Even after the Robbery talk ( “I’m not accusing anyone of taking it, but if they had, it would of course be stealing”) Or the Accidental Robbery talk (“We all understand how a person could try on a watch, admire it on their wrist and then, on the spur of the moment, almost without meaning to, just…slip it into their pencil case. But it’s still stealing.”) A bit like the difference between manslaughter and murder, I always think. Anyway, I had to go grovelling to the – fortunately very lovely – parents, insisting that I pay for it and to let me know the make/brand etc. Another two or three weeks went by and nothing happened. The child came into school with a new, rather less sophisticated watch, for which I was grateful. When confiscating other things, I made sure to put them safely in the bottom drawer of my desk, behind the defunct stapler. Then it rained one day and the watch turned up! At the bottom of the Wet Play Box between a a piece of Lego and a one armed action man. It must have fallen off my desk into this unexpected place.

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I apologised to the child about the watch. I felt bad about it having been missing so long. It turns out it had been a birthday present.

“I only intended to keep it ’til Home-time,” I told him, “Then it went missing. It must have fallen into the Wet Play Box…” He gazed back at me seriously, “You know…at Wet Play,” I added. He has brown eyes, this child, the size of rolos. They looked straight at me for a while, considering. Then, very slowly, he put out a hand and touched my arm.

“It’s alright, Mrs Jenkins,” he said, “You didn’t mean to do it. It was an accident. And you say we learn more from our successes than our failures..” He stared meaningfully at my bottom drawer where I currently held two friction pens and a ball. “Anyway we’ve found it and now I have two watches!” His eyes lit up with the pleasurable realisation, “I never thought that could happen!” And off he went happily, to meet his Dad.

This is why I work with children. Their faith in human nature is remarkable. It drives me to write lists.

Things I often lose during the week

Combs, cardigans, my sense of humour, the art of forgiveness

Things I find at weekends

Baking beans (under the kitchen units), jewellery (in hidden places), a sense of perspective

Things I’ve never lost

Buck teeth, coffee-love, a fascination with children

I went into teaching because I love children – they are the funniest, craziest, wisest little people, who put a smile on my face every day. They are trusting, forgiving and kind. They see the best in things. God made me like that too, but I sometimes wonder whether I’ve allowed life to squeeze it out of me a bit. They say that as you age, your child-like tendencies re-emerge. I’ve seen this in older people who burp loudly and laugh a lot, forgive quickly and are grateful for small things (“Now I have two watches!”). God planned this rather well I think. Forget growing up – been there, done that. Now it’s time to grow down.

Must remind my child inside to live a bit – lie on the floor with the cat, let things go,  laugh inappropriately. I might even join in with a game of Tag on playground duty.

And stay alert, in case some of the things I’ve lost turn up in unexpected places.                             .

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Smug Painted Toes and the Smile of God


Now I know I am a skinflint. I can’t help it. Actually I didn’t used to be before I was married. I was the kind of person who would put unopened bank statements in the cupboard just in case there was bad news. One day my then-fiance opened the cupboard and they all fell out. And it was, er, very bad news. But luckily, the landlady was out that evening and didn’t hear anything. And he still married me, which was a relief, but as in all relationships, there had to be negotiated change on both sides and on my side these were mainly money related: –

1. Keep track of what you spend.

2. Open bank statements because this makes 1. a lot easier.

3. Think of other ways to cheer self up after a bad day.

4. Read “Freedom of Simplicity” by Richard Foster.

5. Spend money on the things you need FIRST.

6. Be as generous as you can.

(Just to say, he had a list too but these were mainly to do with flowers, candlelit meals and romantic walks)

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Well, in the first year I worked on 1-3. It nearly killed me. Old habits die hard. I remember a friend telling me she used to show her partner new purchases only when  friends were round to stop him going ballistic. But I didn’t want to do that. I did actually want to spend less money for lots of reasons. I just didn’t know how. I suppose it was a sort of addiction. Then I read the book. It was very good. The blurb said it would show me how to bring sanity to the compulsive accumulation of modern life, how to shift my focus off stuff so it enhances life, instead of filling it. Let go of the need to own. Live simply. Breathe; that kind of thing. The book had a profound effect on me. To the extent that, thirty years later, in the whole area of spending I think I’ve gone a bit the other way. Annoying, but I suppose the flip side of a compulsion.

How does this relate to toes?Well, I’ve never really thought much about mine. They’re pretty average looking; I get them out in summer. In recent years I’ve started painting them in a slightly haphazard sort of way, stabbing the brush generally southwards (it helps to paint them on the wine coloured rug). But as I’ve got older this has become more challenging. Which glasses? The right light? The right position? The results have often dismayed me and I’ve sometimes left the house with feet resembling rare steaks. This week, as it’s been warm, I wore sandals to work but hadn’t made them toe-pretty so compared to everyone else’s beautifully pedicured feet, they looked awful. And these days everyone seems to go and have their feet done in summer – pedicures and gel nails and the like. I’ve always rather pooh-poohed this idea, in favour of Principles, the same ones that prevent me buying things things like ready made ice cubes, pre-cut veg or grated cheese. Except when I’m ill. Or desperate. But I looked down at the toes this week half way through story time and I thought, “You, my dears, are ugly. And you deserve an upgrade”

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So I go into the beauty salon near our house and I say, “Hello! I’d like to inquire about your pedicures, with gel nails and…er…nail varnish, or something.” They all gaze at me as if I’m from another planet. Which I am really. They are very pert and pretty but thankfully, kind. The receptionist smiles warmly,

“You haven’t been here before, have you?” she says.

“Er, no. To be honest…” I lean forward confidentially. All three of them lean in too (all of which is quite unnecessary, as there’s no one else in the room) “…I’ve come to the whole pedicure thing rather late in life. I just want to make my feet look pretty. Can you tell me what you do, and how much it will cost?”

They tell me I need a Jessica Gel Pedicure. It costs way more than a skinflint imagines. I think briefly of other things I could spend the money on: –

1. A few paperback books

2. A pair of shoes

3. A summer’s worth of ready make ice cubes

4. A worthy cause.

And I wait, for that little voice in my head, the one that usually tells me what to do, if I’m listening. They all look at me expectantly. I look down at the brochure. There is a picture of a woman with fronds of hair blowing across her face. It must be windy, I think (or a wind machine). And she’s laughing. I have the pedicure. After the weirdness of someone you don’t know handling your feet, washing them, moisturising them and putting on several layers of gel (I think – I was drinking tea and reading magazines by this stage), it was actually lovely. Afterwards my toes look good enough to eat. I’m tempted to ask the receptionist if she’d like a photo, for the brochure.

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And as I walk away, careful not to bash into lamp posts while I admire my smug, painted toes, I remember that God – who goes with me everywhere, although I sometimes forget this, and who may be a He or a She or Something Else, no one really knows – is not a skinflint. He has an extravagant smile, evident in things like daffodils. Or twins. Or badgers.

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When I tell my husband about the foot quandary, he just laughs and admires my toes. Then he says, just to rile me, the answer is probably to wear socks and sandals all year round.

Not that his today-socks would be much good in winter anyway…

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How to Age and the Joy of Nasal Flushing


I’m trying to decide how to age. Not on the outside – I have little choice about that and am coming to terms with veiny hands and neck wrinkles like the skin of a T Rex – but on the inside, where it counts. After all that’s the only part I can control. Like when you’re going  to an outdoor thing you can’t avoid, and there’s the likelihood of rain (happens a lot in the UK) so you think, “Well, at least I can splash in wellies and wear my new hat…” That.

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Growing older – and this is something everyone does every day of their lives, whatever their age – is a challenge. Yesterday, when viewed from the safer, more considered position of today will seem different from the way it did, and in a few years, even more so; the way I think of it will be coloured by the stuff in-between, like travel or hernias. I watched The Fault in Our Stars with my daughter recently and wondered if growing old is the way Hazel Grace describes falling in love.  A bit like falling asleep; slowly then all at once.  I hope not. I would prefer it to be more like waking up. All at once and then slowly.

Ageing cat, in denial

Ageing cat, in denial

I’ve been ill for a while with colds and asthma which seem to have got worse as I’ve got older. Panting my way through the house, I notice a schoolgirl pacing down our road at speed, probably late for the train. I have a stab of envy. Not for her hair – thick, long – nor her skin – glowing – but for her lungs  Does she even know how lucky she is to have them? Probably not. Not long after the steroids are working and I’m up and on with life, I won’t think much about mine either. We are only grateful in retrospect.

When you’re young you know about the ageing thing but deep down you don’t really think it will happen to you. You study and party and examine the world. You meet someone, have children and bring them up, teach them to be kind and to eat with their mouths closed. They grow up and leave home, and if they can work and cook and keep clean, you are happy. You think – Thank you God, or I didn’t do that bad! There’s a gratitude, an obscure sense of accomplishment. Then, all of a sudden, you notice younger people treating you differently – with respect or contempt or more likely a mixture of both and it hits you. They look at you the way you look at an old house – a certain charm, a solidity. But you wouldn’t trust the roof joists. New ones would be better.

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I do not want to become that older person that responds with defensive irritation; by looking down at you because you are young. I do not want to say when you think of new ways of doing things, “That won’t work” or roll my eyes and make for the door. I don’t want to be that patronising older person who says things like, “Been there, done that!” or “I wouldn’t if I were you!” or “You’ll find as you get older…” I want to give advice humbly and with respect, to treat you the way I would a contemporary, the way I want to be treated. There’ll be days when I’m rubbish at this. There’ll be days when you are.

It’s great being young. You have energy and ideas and a body that works. You have time to make a difference. But being older has its gains – you get pleasure from the small. A bad hair day is funny not shameful. Your heart rate still soars (sometimes alarmingly) at sex, but also at sunsets or a path through trees. (Maybe yours does this already? You are the lucky ones.)

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My consultant recommended nasal flushing. The pack was huge – a long bottle-like thing with a hole at the top and a tube. I baulked,  “Just read the instructions,” he said, “And try it.” I read them, all 31 pages. In very small print. It’s an American product and very effective for reasons I won’t go into, but I suspected it would be, because of the testimonials. They were my favourite part –  “I want to thank you for improving the health and life of my whole family…My wife suffered from horrible allergies, but now finds that doing a nasal rinse stops the reaction and gives her a break…My daughter, who is 5, can’t wait until she can do a nasal rinse too. She actually asks us every day…I just want to thank you for a wonderful product. It has truly changed my life…” And best of all – “I have been using your product on a regular basis for over two years. The improvement in my ability to breathe is just remarkable. Thank you for providing a great product. You have a loyal customer.”

The truth is, life can be scary, with or without blocked sinuses, whatever age you are. It helps if you believe in others, and are grateful and trust that there is Goodness at the heart of the universe. Testimonials are good too – whether in diaries or to friends or on the back of packets advertising nasal flushing. They make you realise how far you’ve come.

So now that you know about the ageing thing, if you think I could help you, ask me, and I’ll encourage and give advice as humbly as I can. Forgive me if I sometimes raise an eyebrow or look at you archly. It’s a mixture of impatience and regret. I am trying to get it right but I have moments. And I know I need you, for the laughs and the hopeless optimism.  To know again that, at any age, anything is possible.

Perhaps after all, we’ll do it well, the ageing thing – A bit like waking up – all at once and then slowly…

And the improvement in our ability to breathe will be remarkable

 

So, how’s the ageing thing for you?

 

 

How Merry is Yours so Far?


I’ve been struggling with semantic honesty lately. Don’t know why, but I’ve found myself analysing what we say and imagining what would happen if we took each other at our word. For an English person this could be social suicide because so much of what we say is cultural, not literal, as in, I really should be going, Oh, must you? (Thought you’d never leave…) or Good Christmas? Lovely thanks! Really quiet…(It was actually quite boring).

When my children were small, an American friend pointed out that I was setting myself up for angst by asking my children, Shall we clean our teeth? instead of her direct, Go and clean your teeth! After all, I had no intention of cleaning mine and the question set up the – quite likely – scenario of the children refusing and me chasing them until they caved in (must warn my son’s fiancee). But change is harder than you think and it felt wrong to be so straight. Why? Will Brits just do anything to avoid directness?

There’s a joke in our house that my husband will never say yes or no. Darling, are you in tonight? As far as I know. Dad, is your computer on? It certainly seems to be. Sometimes we even amuse ourselves by conspiring to get him to say the definitive words and it’s hilarious how adept he is at avoiding them. Has he been forever scarred by his past, working for a) a local authority, and b) a private company, as a surveyor? British builders are famed for scratching their heads and mentioning best case scenarios but avoiding definitive dates.

Dad, are you carving the turkey yet? I certainly seem to be...

Dad, are you carving the turkey yet? I certainly seem to be…

In our house on Christmas Day when we see someone for the first time we say Happy Christmas! in a heartfelt and congratulatory way, as in, It’s Christmas Day and this is the first time I’ve seen you and so I greet you with festive joy!  I hasten to add that we don’t say Good Morning to each other formally on normal days but then we get up earlier and 2 out of 3 of us are so groggy and depressed that it actually is morning, that a cursory grunt is the best you can expect.

Have a lovely Christmas! we all hooted to each other on leaving work. Give someone the Christmas they’re dreaming of…says the John Lewis advert. Have yourself a merry little Christmas…croons Frank Sinatra immortalising the words of Judy Garland in the film Meet Me in St Louis. (Interestingly, the lyrics, written by Hugh Martin, were changed as they were considered too depressing.) Despite the advertising and the hype and the fact that we all know we’re spinning this impossible tale of perfection and romance, we still do it, but I wonder what we actually mean when we say these things?

There's a fire and a cat and Christmas colours - all will be well...

There’s a fire and a cat and Christmas colours – all will be well…

Well, just so we’re clear, judging from the things that are making my Christmas merry so far, this is how you can be more precise when wishing me a happy time next year (so we both know where we are) and there’s semantic integrity: –

1. May your mother-in-law, who’s had a stroke, say as clear as anything “I really should be helping!”

2. May you find brioche in the shape of a Christmas tree.

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3. Hope there’s great festive listening on Radio 4 for you while cooking.

4. Hope someone buys your minister husband a musical tie for his Christmas preach.

5. Hope no one gets ill or vomits.

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6. Wishing your cat joyful hiding in bags.

7. When unearthing Christmas decs, may you find something pretty a friend made.

8. Hope your advent lights work.

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9. Hoping you get fun labels (A family thing due to the boredom of writing labels. E.g. You are Matthew, We are your parents, It is Christmas, Be Happy… Love Mum and Dad)

10. May there be sunshine.

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Every year we remind ourselves it won’t be perfect. People will get sick, there’ll be blocked drains or arguments or duplicate presents. But a tiny part of us, buried deep down like a vein, still hopes it will be. And God, who does Christmas every year and knows what works, just smiles and gives us a baby, hidden small between festive ties and brioche. But he’s there and sometimes, when you say the word s-l-o-w-l-y you can hear him. In the ancient magic of that word which is maybe more than just festive sibilance – C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s.

And, in fact, there’s been semantic integrity all along. I just forget to notice it.

Thanks a lot to those who regularly read this blog.

Hope you’ve had a good Christmas and wishing you a Happy New Year, whatever these things may mean, for you…

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What’s making yours merry?

 

 

 

Habits of Delight and the Myth of Joyful Parenting?


The international happiness expert (yes, there is one), Paul Dolan, was on Radio 4 this morning. He says true happiness is finding the balance between things we find pleasurable and things we find purposeful. He cited having children as an example, saying that according to all the happiness data, we shouldn’t bother. At best they come out as neutral. But he admitted that what he hadn’t appreciated was the sense of purpose associated with the experiences of having children, and of the pleasure gained from seeing the world through their eyes. There is a difference, he claims, between this and the stories that we tell ourselves about how happy children make us. According to his findings most of spend our lives living out such stories via the things we think should make us feel good, without paying enough attention to what actually does.

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I, filling my face with chocolate croissants and coffee in bed, along with the paper and a pack of Oreos (for back-up), decide I don’t have a problem with this. I work hard all week teaching the nation’s children column subtraction and kindness (“So stamping on spiders is okay is it? How do you think that spider’s mummy feels?” “Um…sad?”), so I feel this purposeful, and frankly exhausting, vocation justifies a bit of sloth at weekends.

I know what he means about the stories we tell ourselves (and others). Though I think as you get older, you tire of them and find it easier to admit the truth – that gardening’s more fulfilling than shopping, small houses hold as much joy as big ones, and that your favourite holiday was in the New Forest when a pony lunged your tent and scoffed a packet of Frosties. It might not have been pleasurable at the time but you’ve had endless laughs reliving the memory at Christmas. And it’s become the stuff of legend, pleasantly embellished each time to the point where you’d trade your mini-break in a hotel in Venice for it any day. Who’d want you to talk about that?

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There’s so much around reminding us that happy people enjoy small pleasures, live in the present, pay attention to the moment. Mindfulness is the new “You’re worth it!” so I’m grateful to it on that score, if on no other. Is happiness just positive thinking then, invading your emotions? Or is it something that can’t be quantified on a scale, whatever the experts say? Someone living with daily physical pain, would be happy for a day without it. A person of limited means would be happy with one holiday. Someone used to three annual holidays abroad wouldn’t. The small pleasures associated with a cottage on a farm in Devon would probably pass them by.

Is happiness more like a habit, a lens through which you view your life? This, I think, is where children are experts.

“Mrs Jenkins! There’s a man on that roof!”

“Mrs Jenkins! I’m going to the park after school!”

Some adults are good at this too – there are at least two of them in my family and being with them always gives me a lift. The word I would ascribe to their way of looking at life is “delight”. Everything excites them – from a cup of tea to the prospect of snow. And neither of them are children. You don’t need children to teach you how to be happy. There’s a child inside you, with a delight habit. You’ve just forgotten how to listen…

So what would be your perfectly happy day?

Mine would be breakfast in bed with the paper, a walk with my husband somewhere beautiful, then an afternoon’s writing. I’d spend the evening wandering narrow streets, lined with shops for browsing, towards a restaurant with a view. And I’d do this with the people I like most in the world, who are all still children where it counts…

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In Praise of Useful Things?


I’m shopping in that vague way where you can’t actually remember what you want to buy. And all that’s keeping you is the £2.90 bus fare which you now wish you’d spent on a Kindle Single or a bar of Green and Black’s chocolate to be eaten, slowly, while reading the paper or someone’s blog post. So when it begins, a slender rain the colour of gravel, I’m almost relieved. Good. I’ll buy an umbrella. But where from? My history with umbrellas is patchy. Over the years I’ve left them on buses, trains, in libraries, restaurants and once, painfully, on top of some pointy railings where we both became impaled, inside-out, during a storm in Skegness. I’ve had so many I can never remember what the current one looks like, occasionally taking pot luck leaving a party or after church. So my job description for an umbrella is considerable. It must be memorable, strong, easy to operate, easy to carry, small and very, very cheap.

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I flump along a bit, watching smart women with pert bottoms and wishing I’d worn something pretty and kept up running. The shop signs march past in neon – Specsavers, MacDonalds, Primark – and I suddenly remember that my last umbrella was from Primark, was very cheap and lasted two years. It was also (revoltingly) memorable – black with pink dogs on. I left it on top of a towel dispenser at Kingston Eye Hospital. So, despite the fact that the shop is heaving and even the security guard is queuing to get out, I squeeze past a tattoo covered youth and a woman in a headscarf, and slide in.

The umbrella stand, which used to be conveniently near the door is now, according to a polite East European, upstairs. I notice that the queue for the till snakes round the shop in triplicate and the escalator is threaded with bag-laden hordes all miserably resigned to their fate – getting out dead or alive, whichever is quicker. It strikes me that I used to love shopping. The chance to get a few hours to myself, try on some clothes and twirl about in a changing room – preferably a low lit one – always seemed a treat. I’ve never been stylish but I’ve always kept an eye on trends and usually succumb just as they’re going out of fashion. But in the last couple of years, what with work and family and the fact that life’s too short for personal grooming, I haven’t really bothered much (as those who know me can attest, I’m sure).

I arrive at the top of the escalator, fling myself off, grab an umbrella – black, compact, £3 – and hurl myself onto the downward one. A gaggle of teenage girls parts and reforms with no conversational break as I plunge between them, round the corner and into the queue.

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“Oh my gawd! No-o-o-o!” I can hear them shrieking behind me as the line inches along and we shuffle forward like convicts, buckling under the weight of multiple purchases. I look down at my umbrella, trying, and failing, to feel smug. I have done this too. The woman in front of me can hardly move. Her pile of clothes so engulfs her that she doesn’t actually appear to have a head. Behind me are a mother and daughter, both similarly submerged, arguing over who is paying for which part of the daughter’s holiday wardrobe. I feel sick. How has it come to this? That we buy a whole wardrobe for a holiday, just because we can. That we spend our lives replacing the stuff whole industries exist to get rid of. You have to queue to donate to some charity shops near us.

When I finally get to a till (number 92 please! Or something like that…), I hold up my mini umbrella like a talisman, and smile. The pretty Filipino girl smiles back,

“That, ees all?”

“Yep,” I say, “Because it’s raining.”

She tilts her head, trying to see through the window, which is too far away, a wedge of sky just visible between a mirror and a rack of tartan trousers. She shrugs and her pigtails bounce, “Ees good reason to buy umbrella!”

Feeling affirmed, I give her the £3 and she asks if I’d like a bag.  I shake my head.

“I’m going to use it,” I say, ridiculously proud.

She nods, then says something I don’t understand. She hands me my change.

“It means,” she says, “Happiness found inside.” She taps her chest energetically, “Not, um, not, in a lot of theengs!”

“It’s true!” I reply, “So true.” I am glad we agree on this. I smile again, “Bye then!”

When I get to the door, I look back. She’s serving someone else but she looks over as I reach the exit. I want to unfurl the umbrella with a flourish, in defiant praise of useful things, and wave it at her. But I don’t. Not because she might not see me, or even because the security guard is eyeing me with rancour, but because I’ve spent too long in the shop.

It’s stopped raining.

Buses0006 Pedestrianised and busy Kingston Shopping Centre Route 71