In praise of literalism


The lad in the chemist was polite. He inclined his head and nodded with understanding, but was clearly bristling away to himself quietly, “Madam, you know you can buy them over the counter,” he remarked, motioning grandly towards the racks of pills and potions behind me.

“Well, yes I know,” I replied, “It’s just…my husband said that, in the past, when he’s been waiting for his batch to be renewed, you’ve given him a few days of his pills, you know, to tide him over. We’re going away you see, and I forgot to put in my repeat prescription request…” I tailed off, buried under the weight of his disapproval. Me a fifty-something woman in new pointy boots, and he young enough to be my son.

“Well!” He inclined his head again, but his expression was severe, “I will have to ask the chemist, of course.”

“Of course,” I murmured, expecting him to disappear into one of the doors at the side or back of the room. Instead of which, he reversed with alarming speed precisely one step back and one step to the side, after which he said to a hair piece on the back counter, “Mrs Jenkins would like to know if she can have some antihistamine to tide her over?” The hair piece wobbled around a bit, then replied that she was afraid they could not oblige, as this medication was available over the counter.

“Hm, just as I thought!” replied the assistant,  returning to eyeball me with satisfaction. “I’m afraid the chemist said we can’t oblige in this instance, Mrs Jenkins, as the medication is available over the counter.” His expression turned to regret.

“That’s fine!” I said, with a Cheshire cat smile, “Where is it?”

“Just behind you, Madam, in the section labelled ‘Antihistamines”

I love going to that chemist because there is a lot to be said for literalism. Who cares if your boss works precisely three feet from your left ear? She is in a separate department and may not be listening while she prints labels to go on other people’s prescriptions which say things like, “Not to be taken at bedtime” or “Swallow, after food, with water.” If she listened in to everything that goes on at the front counter, she might become distracted and print all kinds of drivel on those little brown bottles (“Not to be taken with water” or “Swallow with a bed, after food time”). It only takes one literalist…

I’ve been thinking about literalism lately, ever since my husband, chortling, drew my attention to the instructions on the back of the toilet roll pack: –

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I mean, really, who doesn’t know how to use toilet paper? And isn’t the number of sheets a rather personal thing? As for flushable wipes, well, don’t get me started on our local drainage problems. Suffice to say, flushable and wipes should never be put together in the same sentence.

It made me laugh though. What else could twenty-first century humans really do with instructions for?

How to get up –

  • Open eyes slowly, to prevent temporary blindness
  • Lift upper body from supine position
  • Blow nose  (this for people like me with sinuses)
  • Swing legs slowly over edge of bed, particularly if over 50 or hung over
  • Stand up and limp around, muttering, “Ooh, ah!” until limbered and ready for the day

How to stack a dishwasher –

  • Open dishwasher
  • Throw everything in as quickly as you can
  • Look critically at “Not suitable for dishwasher” china, mutter “Rubbish!” and throw that in too
  • Go to the toilet while your partner re-stacks everything and presses ‘Play’

How to work –

  • Get up, following the advice above (see How to get up)
  • Go to work
  • Enjoy the energy and creativity of your working environment, giving everything your best shot
  • Try not to spill coffee on the keyboard
  • Come home and lie in a dark room

* This may be most applicable to primary school teachers of a certain age

I wonder what God would put on his instructions for Life?

How to live –

  • Be born
  • Obey your parents and try not to judge them (being a parent hurts)
  • Cultivate wonder
  • Be as kind as you can, even to people you dislike
  • Forgive people, to stop your heart crusting like a clam
  • Believe there is goodness at the heart of the universe
  • Don’t give up hope, ever

Oh, and never trust a man with a mini (or was that my mother?)

What other things could we do with instructions for?

 

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The eye (and ear) of the beholder


“…If you listen carefully, the earth is singing.” I swung round sharply. The two girls nearly crashed into me, their hands cradling petri-dishes filled with wood lice, ants and  a fat snail with a shell crisis. I had one of those rare moments of tenderness.

“That’s beautiful,” I said, “Really beautiful!” They looked up at me round eyed, then at each other with one of those she-can’t-it-help-it looks.

“No, it really is!” But they weren’t listening (not unusual). One of them was pulling the blonde locks of the other away from her petri-dish. “She’s lost her lid!” she announced to no one in particular.

“Don’t worry! It’ll turn up.” This is my stock response to losses of any kind – sweatshirts, pens, teeth. I once famously wrapped a tooth in a tissue, then blew my nose during PSHE and threw it in the bin, watched by 30 horrified children. But (after the furore subsided) I did actually find it, proving that one way or another,  it’ll- turn- up -theory usually works.)

In the classroom we examined our findings with magnifying glasses, discussed common features and drew them in science books. Bent over a range of garden insects, bright eyes rising and dipping, they looked liked excited birds. I heard them using words like thorax and coiled shell and felt proud. They drew ants with antennae the size of strip lights and centipedes with lost legs, “It’s hard to draw a hundred,” a boy told me, confidentially. I could see his point. Some of them had put daisies and bits of grass in the dishes  – to make them feel at home – and there was a fair amount of soil, dead leaves and pieces of bark.

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All this fascinated them – old leaves, insects – many with missing body parts – and earth from under the hedge in the playground.

“It’s a miracle!” said a child, pink with pleasure (We’re doing the miracles of Jesus in RE), “One of my ants was dead and and it came back to life!”

“It could have just been sleeping,” I suggested. Her face fell, “Though when you think about it, sleep’s pretty miraculous too,” I added quickly. She smiled.

The world is a source of wonder when you’re seeing things for the first time. I don’t think about insects much unless they’re threatening our bedding plants in which case we dole out killer glares and slug pellets. But I have a new respect for snails after cracked -shell-boy tried bravely to escape and try his chances on the end of a ruler. At the end of the lesson, we tipped them gently back into the nature area, near a pile of logs or under the hedge in a frill of shade.

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To an observer of earth, like God, we are ants. Tiny, obsessive creatures rushing around, our heads full of dreams and deadlines. Yet he filled this place with beauty  – trees and sleep and centipedes, even those with missing legs – to make us feel at home. And one day you’ll wake up and realise you haven’t got long to enjoy it. Don’t forget to listen to the child, the one inside, who sees small miracles. The one who looks beyond the soil and leaves and pieces of bark our lives are littered with, and remembers that if you listen carefully, the earth is singing.

Only it turns out she said, “(You might die)…if you mess your hair it in, that earth is minging…”

Ah well, beauty they say is in the ear of the beholder. They don’t? Well, they should do…

 

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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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?

 

 

 

The Olive Tree


When it was all over, she resigned her job, packed a case and flew to Montpellier. It was strange really. While it was all unravelling – thirty years of careful working life – she knew, at the end of it, she would need to go away for a bit. But where? Night after night, stiff with horror at the accusations levelled against her, her mind taut with McGowan’s sweaty face, she lay awake until birdsong began and the window fringed with light. The only thing that would sometimes help – if not sleep exactly, a kind of drifting wakefulness – was a systematic list of possibilities, each night a little longer like the game she used to play as a child, “I went to the shop and I bought…” Holland, Vienna, Lake Garda; Spain, Tunisia, Venice; The Canaries, Morocco. Money wouldn’t be a problem. She knew that. Whatever happened, they would pay her off; no one wants a scandal, especially in a well-known company like theirs, struggling for survival against other giants.

So it was with a breath of surprise that she found herself on a plane to the south of France less than twenty four hours after she’d messaged Annie and bought a ticket. It had all seemed so clear in the end. Walking away from the brick building that held most of her life, determined not to look back, she ran for the 381, sat down in a seat offered by a spotty youth with sideburns, and opened Facebook. And there it was.

Kate – it’s been such a time. Saw you were friends with Ali and added you. Would so love to catch up. Come see us! We are in Almeres, near Montpellier, in France. I’m at a bit of a loose end. P away a lot. Come any time…

As suburbia had jerked past – grey October people and concrete – she’d remembered; photos, some Christmases ago – a stone house, blue shutters, an olive tree. It had struck her at the time as being the kind of place you saw in tourist brochures, not the sort people actually lived in. When she got home, she dug them out of the old tin box that had held special things since her teens. They were a little creased and she’d had to hold them up to the light to see them properly. She messaged Annie.

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Coming in to land, the plane shuddered and creaked in that way that precedes impending death. Kate gripped her seat. God, I’ve been through a lot. Don’t let me die as well. Not til I’ve seen Annie again, and eaten olives…For the tenth time she counted the seats to the nearest door. None. Good. Booking the seat next to the middle exit was the best thing she’d learned from her fear of flying therapy. That and the fact many peaceable people wear rucksacks.

She and Annie examined each other with wonder by the double doors near Arrivals. She supposed she had changed as much as her old friend, a shy dark eyed girl who had somehow chrysalised into an elegant woman entirely at ease with herself.

“Thirty years!”

“Where did they go?”

“I don’t remember you being so tall!”

“You’re practically French now!”

They talked all the way to Almeres, spinning past fields, around hills and under leafy archways of filtered light. Kate stared at the space, the sky, tiny villages with their twists of olive trees. It was such a relief to exclaim over things other than work. Other than the latest development on the case. On McGowan and his newest angle. On her certain demise. She had worried for six months that the worst would happen. Well, the worst had happened, and here she was in France, in October, with her old friend.

“Come!”

Annie had negotiated a narrow street, crested a hill and pulled into a driveway edged with pots. Kate, punch drunk with exhaustion, felt herself opening the passenger door and sliding dream-like into this other world; a breath of wind, of lavender; through the gate, fields bathed in amber light. The stone house, perched on a rise above the village, was low with blue shutters. Her heart lifted with pleasure.

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Inside – filled with polished wood and stone – Annie left her to rest while she prepared supper. She drowsed, aware of drifting across a sea of sunlit geraniums, tomatoes and olive oil. Until McGowan’s angry face thrust itself into her dreams in its usual way – large, red, devoid of all feeling, all humanity. Shouting, always shouting.

“Do you honestly say you were unaware of this? That you had no idea? You are the last check, Kate, the last check, before it gets to me! That is your job! How was I to know the risks if you didn’t tell me?”

She jolted into consciousness. Beads of sweat pricked her scalp. A familiar surge of antipathy towards her old boss overwhelmed her. She had never liked him – the hearty laugh, the self-interest – but now she found herself inventing his ruin. He was a hard man. The only time she’d ever seen a glimmer in him, a softness, had been when mentioning his daughter. There were no photos, no clues to the man ever having had a life, a family. But he had mentioned her once, and his whole face had changed. Kate had never forgotten.

The distant clink of china was replaced with Mozart, Kate got up, washed her face, went down.

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“Ah! Bienvenue en France! How was your journey?” Pierre was an English gentleman with a French name. He was solicitous, seating her by the window, pouring wine. She smiled. Annie appeared, carrying olives and a baguette.

“I love olives! Are they from that tree?”

Pierre nodded. “It was a dry, stunted little thing,” he said, “I had to move it. Quite a tricky business. Had to prune it, dig a moat, soak the roots…but look at it now! And just taste these olives!”

They ate, reminisced, filling in the gaps, but still there was no talk of work, of how they’d really spent the years.

“What do you do, Pierre?” A different job, a safe topic.

“I’ve been seconded out actually. An airline.”

A beat. A gust of wind. The patter of rain, olives falling.

She cleared her throat, “Which one?”

He named it. “I have to travel a lot. Not so good!” His eyes shone behind steel rimmed glasses, belying his words, “But it’s mostly trouble shooting. I’m never away for long. Actually, I’m in your neck of the woods next week. Our HQ’s on your doorstep.”

Spearing asparagus, Kate was aware of her heart, pausing, stepping out, staring. Her fingers, slippery, struggled to hold her glass. How could she have travelled so far, to be in this place again?

Pierre poured wine, became expansive, “Sad case really. There’s been a complaint – bullying behaviour, a dismissal. And the gentleman concerned is now fighting for his own job. There’s a disabled daughter apparently. No mother…”

A roaring in her ears, a memory. McGowan in his office, late one night; she, thinking he’d gone, not bothering to knock. He had reacted instantly, pretending to be asleep but she had seen – the look of despair, the head lowered along a length of arm, flung out, palm up, fingers splayed like drowned sausages. She pushed aside a shred of pity. Now, at last, she had a chance. She would tell Pierre everything.

Annie served sizzling meat, gratin dauphinois.

“I was the one he dismissed. Well, I resigned in the end.”

Her voice, quiet, calm, held a steadiness she did not feel. Her hosts did not respond at once. Annie took ratatouille, Pierre a mouthful of wine, they resumed their placid eating. It was only then she realised she had not said it out loud. She had not said it at all.

“Where do you work these days?”

Kate observed her old friend over the rim of her wine glass. Her eyes, still huge, were warm and wise.

“Oh,” She replaced her glass carefully on the coaster, a slim square of wicker, “I’m between jobs at the moment. That’s why I decided to take up your invitation. How long can I stay?”

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That evening, she sat at the window, looking out. The rooftops, threads of orange and red, dipped and rose into liquid indigo. There was the sound of doves. Below, the olive tree’s silver leaves trembled in twilight. She thought of her job, of the years of early starts and late returns, of the sacrifices, hours and hours of effort, of energy, of giving ‘til there was nothing left to give.

“You and I,” she said softly to the olive tree, “We were the same, really. All washed up, and nowhere to go.” She remembered something she had read in the middle of it all, derided, pushed aside.

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. 

“I do not need revenge,” she told the olive tree, “I’m beyond that now. But it will be a long time before I can forgive him!”

But as she lay down and slept a sleep she had not known for years, she knew in a way, she already had.

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The olive branch is usually a symbol of peace or victory. Greek myths tell how a dove brought an olive twig from Phoenicia to Athens, where it was planted on the Acropolis to become their first olive tree. The early Christians often allegorised peace on their sepulchres by the figure of a dove bearing an olive branch in its beak.

 

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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Play


You know when you get a trolley with a dodgy wheel? The realisation sort of creeps up on you, doesn’t it? First you’re scrabbling for a pound (Is that one? No, it’s a franc or a token for the Belarus metro).  Then it won’t fit in the slot unless you press down, applying your full body weight. Then you try to pull the trolley out but it’s stuck so you have to heave, bruising your own leg and that of the old lady behind you. Finally, having apologised to everyone in the queue including someone who might be your boss – you’re flushed and studying the ground at this point- and a librarian who you once shouted at, you limp away with your trolley and immediately veer off into a stack of paddling pools. You have a sudden urge to stab somebody.

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This happened to me the other day.  I finally managed, with great huffing and puffing and pumping of arms, to manoeuvre my trolley into the fruit and veg aisle. Gasping into the lettuces, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something that cheered me immensely. I wasn’t the only one with a dodgy wheel. Two lads were having the same problem. Aged about 8 and 12, they had been consulting a list, all serious and responsible. Should we get a big one? No, she said a small one. They lifted lettuces, smelled herbs. Is this parsley? Dunno. Smells like grass to me. Oh look, it says…

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Then the wheel jammed. The older one pushed a few times. Then they both leant on it before trying to turn it manually with their fingers. Finally the younger one put his foot on the bar and climbed up, leaning his body forwards while the other one pushed. The trolley whirled round. The boys let out a shout of pleasure. The trolley went faster, this time in a straight line. A few shoppers leapt out of the way. Others looked disapprovingly round, mainly at me since I was the nearest adult and possibly in charge. I, typically, was just fascinated at their absorption in this new game. As the list drifted, forgotten, to the floor, the boys began to play, pushing each other, calling, seeing if they could do wheelies. Of course it was only a matter of time before a supervisor, face like a spatula, came to break it up. He was not happy.

“Excuse me Madam!” I’m picking over carrots at this point and don’t realise he’s addressing me, “Ex-CUSE me Madam!”

“Yes?”

“I’m afraid we can’t allow this sort of behaviour in fruit and veg…” He had glasses and a nasal voice. I looked down at a misshapen carrot I was about to reject and wondered if he meant that.

“It’s simply not safe,” he continued, “People could get hurt. Just saying…” He motioned towards the boys. A man in shorts was giving them a wide berth.

“They’re not mine,” I said, replacing the carrot. He appeared to ignore me.

“Well, it’s an issue of health and safety,” he said, “Just saying…”

“I understand!” I said more loudly, “But they’re nothing to do with me. I’m just doing my shopping!” He stared at me for a second as though he didn’t believe me.

“I don’t know them!” I repeated as forcefully as I could without actually appearing rude. He eyed me severely.

“Just saying,” he repeated enunciating each syllable as to a child. Then he spun on his heel and marched off.

When they saw the supervisor, the boys suddenly came to their senses. Shame-faced, they listened to him meekly, then slunk out of the store, leaving their unbought purchases for the staff to sort. They even left their list. I nearly ran after them, but I didn’t like to leave my trolley with its carefully chosen cache of fruit and vegetables. Despite its dodgy wheel, I felt unable to leave it. We were in a relationship now.

And the moral of this story is – when life gets stressful, maybe we should be more like children, and learn how to play…

So next time you go into a West London supermarket and see the backside of a “middle aged” woman, whisking past you and hooting loudly, pursued by a supervisor, well, it might be me.

Just saying…

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