Beside the seaside

Predictably, despite my panics, the summer holidays are absolutely flying by. Only just over two weeks to go, and then we’ll be back in the school-run routine again. I’m taking advantage of a very rare window of peace and quiet when Anna is round at her friend’s building a den to hold the meetings of their secret society (“I think ‘society’ sounds much more grown up and important than ‘club’, doesn’t it, Mummy?), and Sophia is having her nap. Aannnnd breathe…

The lovely thing about this summer is the amount of time we have been lucky enough to spend at the seaside, first of all in Anglesey and then in West Cornwall. I love the sea. Somehow gazing out to sea, breathing the tangy saline air, feeling the sand between my toes manages to calm and energise and inspire me all at the same time.

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It’s also been brilliant watching how much fun the children can have with a good old bucket and spade – damming streams, digging holes, building sandcastles.

One of my worries about these school holidays was that the disparity in ages between Anna (8) and Sophia (2) would make it really difficult to entertain both of them at the same time, but a beach really is a happy place for all of us.

Of course, it has also helped having lots of family around. We were in Anglesey with my parents and, for half the time, with my brother and SIL, and my MIL was with us in Cornwall. They were around to give me a chance for a solitary walk along the beach of an evening, to teach Anna to play French cricket, to pass a rainy afternoon in reading stories or teaching origami, to take care of Sophia for a few hours and enable us to have a lovely long cliff path walk with Anna. Thank heaven for grandparents and aunts and uncles!

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Just looking through my photos as I prepare this post has given me a renewed sense of calm and tranquility. The challenge now is to maintain that in the hustle and bustle of daily life a long way away from the sea. The little cafe just off the beach at Lligwy, where we stayed on Anglesey, had this poster up:

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Yes, it’s a little bit hippyish, and yes, these things are all easier to achieve on holiday by a beautiful beach than they are on a grey November morning when you have to do three loads of laundry, clean the loo and pay the credit card bill. But despite this, it actually feels like pretty good advice. I suspect that when my life starts to feel overwhelming and out of balance it is because I haven’t been spending enough time doing some of these.

It can’t always be sunset over Penzance Harbour or Lligwy Beach, but I really want to retain some of the magical peace of these beautiful places now I’m back home in East London.

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How to be good?

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What does living your best life mean for you, and how do you go about it?

One of the blessings, or possibly curses, of approaching middle-age is that I am suddenly much more able to see both sides of an argument and to realise that things are rarely black and white. Nowhere does this trouble me more than in working out how I try and balance the competing demands to live my best life.

What does that mean for me? Well, I want to be family-focussed, trying to be the best mother, daughter, sister and wife that I can possibly be. I want to be a good friend, someone that my friends can have fun with, but also turn to for support when they need it. I want to take care of myself, both so that I can live as long and healthily as possible, but also because I am slowly working out that if I feel better about myself then I am better able to take care of other people. I want to be a successful writer – defining success as giving pleasure to other people through my writing, making a modest amount of money from it, and where appropriate using it to highlight causes I care about. I want to live frugally and with as light an environmental footprint as I can reasonably achieve. I want to live ethically, mindful of the effect that my choices and actions have on the lives of others, and trying to make that effect positive wherever I can.

So far, so good. As a set of vague aims it works. But they’re so contradictory. Food, for example. Do I buy the healthy avocados I love, or do I resist because of the air miles and over-farming issues? Ethics and health dictate that I should buy organic dairy – better for the farmers, better for the cows, and no nasty antibiotics and growth hormones, but when you get through as much milk, cheese and yoghurt as my kids do, then it really isn’t a frugal option. I can see a diet plan which promises fill me up with super-foods and micro-nutrients galore, increasing my energy levels and vitality, but many of the ingredients won’t be fair-trade and the air miles will be horrendous.

I can be sitting with my children while they have their tea, when I get a whatsapp message from a friend having a bad day and needing some support. Do I ignore my children while I reply, setting them the bad example of being a slave to social media, and the not-so-subliminal message that they are less important than this metal box, or do I ignore the message for a couple of hours until after their bedtime? By which time I should either be pursuing a healthy life by doing some exercise or cooking a nutritious meal, or having a relaxing bath, or being a caring wife by chatting to my husband about his stressful day.

Three mornings a week my children are at school/pre-school, and I have a 2.5 hour window to myself. Do I use it to do some exercise? Or to work on my writing? Or to clean and declutter our home to make it a nicer and calmer environment for all of us? Or to batch cook some healthy food so that I have more time to spend with my family in the evenings, but we all still get well fed? Or to walk to the budget supermarket 30 minutes away to stock up on a wide range of healthy food at frugal prices? Or to visit the local, independent butcher, greengrocer, fishmonger, baker and cheese shop (all a 20-30 minute walk apart) to buy organic, fair-trade produce with generally lower food miles, but at budget-busting prices? Perhaps I should use the time to phone a friend I never get to catch up with, and have a proper, uninterrupted chat with her. Or have a coffee with a local friend. Or write to my local MP about one of the many political issues which trouble me at the moment.

I can get so over-whelmed by the decision making process that it is all to easy to end up slumped on the sofa, staring vacantly at my phone, my mind churning, and realise that 30 minutes have gone by without any productive activity at all.

Is this just me? How do other people find a balance between all the competing demands of ‘being good’? Am I over-thinking it? Am I missing an obvious solution, or do I have to decide on just a couple of priorities which are most important to me and focus on those? I am so interested to hear your views!

Beside the seaside

It’s an appropriately grey, rainy and blustery day for the first day back at school, preschool and work after a (mainly!) sunshiny half term at the seaside.

We rented a cottage in Hastings for the week, and had the most idyllic time imaginable. I’m surprised Hastings isn’t better known as a holiday destination, because it is perfect in every way, from the narrow, higgledy-piggledy streets of the Old Town lined with independent cafes and delightful antique shops, to the dramatic cliffs rising up straight from the town, their tops a lush carpet of wildflowers leading to the South Downs beyond, to the waves crashing on the beach and the fishermen pulling in their catch, to the traditional family holiday amusements of fairground and crazy golf it has everything you could want.

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We spent hours on the beach, paddling, wave jumping, hunting in rock pools, searching for pretty pebbles and shells, burying each other’s legs and damming streams. The children were both in their element. The miraculous thing about a seaside holiday is that, even though we took practically no toys (Anna had her Kindle and her favourite soft toy, Sophia had a handful of picture books as well as Mouse and Bunny, who are indispensable sleep aids), and we bought a couple buckets and spades, and they were both totally content with these for the whole week.

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We had a morning at the fair, and an afternoon playing crazy golf (which by some fluke I won, managing no less than two holes in one!), and then a couple of day trips out to National Trust properties in Sussex. Bodiam Castle is the ultimate child’s storybook medieval castle, complete with moat, and we got there by steam train! Bateman’s is  Rudyard Kipling’s old home, and dreamily beautiful. June must be one of the best months to see an English country garden, and this one was spectacular.

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I was feeling totally fed up with cooking and housework at the beginning of the holiday, and really needed a break. I was a bit worried that self-catering meant that I wouldn’t get one, but I needn’t have worried. We had fresh sourdough bread and pastries from the local organic bakery for breakfast each day, picnics for lunch – either humous and oatcakes or sausage rolls from the same bakery and a bit of cucumber and some cherry tomatoes to keep scurvy at bay, and then dinner was either fish and chips, a Waitrose ready meal courtesy of the Ocado delivery I booked for the first day, or something really simple like locally smoked mackerel and salad which was well within husband’s limited culinary capability. All delicious, no-one starved, and I have come home with a renewed enthusiasm for cooking. As for housework, well, we were out pretty much all day every day, so things didn’t really have a chance to get messed up.

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I find being by the sea so therapeutic that I have come home refreshed, calmed and energised. Oh, and determined to start a fund to buy a second home in Hastings Old Town. Maybe if I start saving £2 coins…?

Gratitude

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Husband and I were talking over dinner last night, and somehow the subject of who we were most grateful to came up. We challenged each other to name the five people in our lives to whom we felt we owed the most gratitude, excluding people we were related to. It was a thought-provoking discussion. After a little consideration, my list, in chronological order. looked like this:

  1. Mrs Wadsworth – she was my English teacher in years 9, 10 and 11, and she really inspired me with the love of the subject I went on to study at university. I had always loved to read, but she helped me to go further, to think about and analyse what I had read, and to get more out of reading by doing so. She gave me confidence in my ability. She also gave my friend and me a catchphrase we regularly use to this day – “Don’t worry, just work”. This was in the run-up to our GCSEs when it was easy to get paralysed by panic, and to spend longer working out your revision timetable than actually revising. Mrs Wadsworth’s breezy “don’t worry, just work” was excellent ‘get on and bloody do it’ advice, which I still remind myself of frequently when I have a difficult or unpleasant task I am anxious about. Stop fretting and get it done!
  2. Mrs Wilson – was my Head of 6th Form. It was she who persuaded me to go to Merton College, Oxford, for a student open day when I was in Year 12. I was highly sceptical, convinced that Oxford would be snobbish, elitest and not for people like me. However, Mrs Wilson stuck to her guns, and in doing so did me one of the biggest favours of my life. It only took ten minutes wandering round Merton’s exquisitely beautiful quads and garden for the chip on my shoulder to vanish, replaced by a steely determination that this is where I would study. I succeeded, and had three incredibly happy years, made some amazing friends, and met the love of my life.
  3. Jo Naylor was the Infant Feeding Advisor at the hospital where Anna was born eight years ago. For one reason or another we didn’t get off to the best start with breastfeeding, and I found many of the midwives looking after me to be unhelpful at best. But Jo was amazing. Warm and caring and sensitive, but also sharing my total bloodyminded determination that this baby was going to be breastfed. She gave me confidence in my body and in my baby when I needed it most. She taught me to express and finger feed so that I could be sure of Anna getting some food, even before she was able to latch on properly. She visited me several times a day when I was in hospital, and then came to see us at home afterwards. We got there, and I am so grateful to her because breastfeeding my babies has given me some of the most precious memories of my life, as well as hopefully getting them off to the healthiest start possible.
  4. Professor Lesley Regan – runs the Miscarriage Clinic at St Mary’s Paddington. We were referred here for investigations after my third miscarriage. I saw many lovely junior doctors and nurses, and had a plethora of scans and blood tests, culminating in an operation to see what was going on in my slightly defective womb. They discovered that half my womb was actually missing, a condition known as a unicornucate uterus. The doctor who performed the operation and gave me the results was incredulous that I had already had a full term pregnancy, and was extremely pessimistic about my chances of doing so again, and I was heartbroken. We then had an appointment with Professor Regan herself. She looked at my notes, and commented that she would never have believed my anatomy to be compatible with carrying a healthy baby to term. However, she said, you’ve done it once, so I don’t see any reason whatsoever why you can’t do it again. Those words imbued us with the confidence we needed to try again, and risk putting ourselves through the heartbreak of miscarriage again. She also advised us, contrary to our inclination to wait for a few years to let ourselves heal mentally, that I was nearly 33, that I wasn’t particularly young in child-bearing terms, especially as I had had complications, and that we should get on with it. I was pregnant with the baby who turned out to be Sophia two months later. I didn’t see Professor Regan again, but her clinic was then fantastic at supporting us through those tense and panicky early weeks of pregnancy.
  5. Francesca Best – Francesca was the commissioning editor at Hodder and Stoughton who made the decision to publish my first novel, Two For Joy. This achievement is one of the things I am proudest of, and I will always be grateful to Francesca for spotting my potential and giving me the chance. She was also a brilliant editor to chat with and work with and helped me bring my work up to a standard I wouldn’t have believed possible, and which, indeed, wouldn’t have been without her input.

So there’s my top five! Of course it’s an artificial list in many ways, because the rules of our game excluding family meant that I had to miss out many of the people (my parents, grandparents and husband spring to mind) to whom I actually owe the biggest debts of gratitude for their constant and ongoing support and inspiration. I am also lucky enough to have many friends to whom I am grateful for many things, but the five people above are ones who gave me what I needed at crucial pivot points in my life, and indeed have influenced for the better the whole course of my life.

What about you? Who are the people who have made the the biggest difference to your life, and to whom you are most grateful?

Being Kind

Last week was not a good week. It kicked off with Sophia ill with a high temperature and a cough. The cough was worst at night, so we were getting woken up every couple of hours by  distressed little girl. Then I discovered Anna had nits (again), and so we had to add daily assaults with the nitty gritty comb into our daily routine, which was popular with everyone. The weather was cold, grey, foggy and, it turns out, poisonous. Air quality in London hit a record low, and it felt impossible to get properly warm. Then Anna fell off the climbing frame at school and hit her head, and then vomited, and then complained her vision was blurry, so we ended up at the GP and then being sent off to A&E. She only had a mild concussion, and is fine now, but it was fun at the time. Then Sophia fell downstairs, top to bottom – she was totally unharmed, but this was the morning after the night in A&E, so my nerves were pretty shattered. The week was rounded off by Sophia falling off the bouncy castle at a party on Sunday and having one of her seizures. And this is before even thinking about the terrifying and depressing political developments in America.

But yesterday, even though it was Monday, and (still) January and (still) cold things suddenly felt better. I had a text message telling me that some friends of ours had had a baby daughter at the weekend, and baby news always makes me happy. I took Anna out for a hot chocolate and some quality mother and daughter time whilst my MIL looked after Sophia, and was reminded how lucky I am to have this bright, funny, imaginative girl. I went out for dinner with my closest friend from those early, blurry, sleep-deprived first baby days and we had a proper catch-up and marvelled at the passing of time which means we are now parents to nearly-eight-year-olds. And after pre-school, Sophia asked if she could sit on my knee to have lunch instead of going in her high chair. I agreed, and she leant back into me, snuggling her head against my chest, and said contentedly “Love you” for the very first time.

Someone I know from years back posted on Facebook this morning that protests against Trump’s policies or against Brexit, are utterly pointless, and instead we should be directing our efforts to loving our friends and family, volunteering at church, supporting colleagues at work and taking the time to be nice to people who we come across in daily life. I couldn’t agree, or disagree, more.

Being kind to the people around us is what we should be doing anyway, and all the more so when there seems to be such a dearth of kindness in high places. And the only way to get though these dark political times is to take time to appreciate and value the little things – sharing a meal with someone you love, the sleepy weight of a child on your lap, a conversation with a friend. But right now I also think those of us who believe in hope not hate should try to do a little more, go a little further, and make our voices heard just as clearly as those I firmly believe are far fewer in number but shout much louder.

This morning I have followed More United‘s advice as to what we can do to fight the horrendous ban on Muslims from certain countries entering the US – a ban which is going to tear families and friends apart. I donated some money to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is fighting the ban. I posted a supportive message on my MP’s Facebook page, as Stella Creasy is being very vocal in encouraging the British Government to speak out, and MPs who are taking this stance need our support, just as those who are not speaking out need to know that this is something their constituents care about. And I co-signed the letter which Hope Not Hate are sending to Theresa May, asking her to unequivocally condemn Trump’s actions.

None of this took very long out of my day, and none of it stops me also continuing to try  (even though I don’t always succeed) to be a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, neighbour and friend. Love and hope are stronger than hatred and fear, and we can, and must, prove that.

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