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!

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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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Let there be peace on earth…

Like most people, I’m not going to be sad to say goodbye to 2016. The political news has gone from bad, to worse, to oh-my-god-what-is-this-living-nightmare, and we’re ending the year in a landscape of such unremitting bleakness that it is hard to see a way back.

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Personally I had the challenge of admitting that I was struggling with mental health problems and getting help. I also faced my darkest fear one sunny Saturday afternoon when Sophia had such a severe episode of RAS that I thought she was dead. I can’t write about it without crying. It was the most terrifying episode of my life, and I just pray that it remains so. I’ve also been physically ill a fair amount – tonsillitis, arthritis flare-up, episcleritis, sinusitis, bronchitis. Maybe not unconnected to my mental health and all the external stresses.

It is hard to stay positive, but actually, that is all we can do. On Friday it was my eldest daughter’s school Christmas carol service, held in the local parish church. Anna is in the choir, and had been practising hard, and was also very nervous. Her school do these things incredibly well, and the over-arching message, told through the Nativity story and an array of modern and traditional carols, was one of peace, love and tolerance.

“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me” they sang. I cried and cried – not the socially acceptable welling up that most mums experience on these occasions, but proper gulping sobs. Luckily we were at the back, skulking in case Sophia decided to provide some unscheduled entertainment of her own. It seemed unbearably poignant to hear all these childish voices, see their innocent little faces, and reflect firstly on the children in Aleppo who know no peace, and secondly on the desperately uncertain future that Brexit, Trump and the rise of neo-fascism seem to be creating in the West.

My husband had a different, less bleak, take on it. He pointed out that these children are the future, and here in London at least, they are standing side by side – Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Hindu – all religions and none, singing a message of peace and tolerance. If they can grow up with those values and take them out into the world, then the future will not be as grim as it sometimes seems.

Building on this, I took my girls to a Christingle service yesterday. I am a lapsed and questioning Christian, my husband is agnostic; our children are not being brought up with any particular religion. But I do want them to understand a meaning of Christmas that is deeper than lots of chocolate and new toys, and for me at least the meaning of Christmas is that love is the most important gift, that anyone in a position of power should understand and experience vulnerability and that everyone, rich or poor, shepherd or king, is equal. The vicar at this service conveyed these messages beautifully, and Anna was so proud of creating her own Christingle, and enthralled by the beauty of a group of people holding lit candles processing up the church aisle. Had I not been fairly unsettled at the combination of my whirlwind toddler and a lot of naked flames I would have been similarly entranced. She had already eaten her own Christingle.

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There seems to be very little that we, ordinary people, can do to influence events at the moment. All we can do is hope that tiny acts of kindness, making the effort to be positive and optimistic, and raising our children to absorb the values of peace, hope and love, as well as tolerance and inclusivity is enough.

And, if I don’t get the chance to blog again before the weekend – thank you for reading during 2016, and I hope you and your families have a happy, hopeful, peaceful and loving Christmas and New Year.

 

Changed Priorities Ahead

‘Changed Priorities Ahead’ has always been my favourite road sign. I dimly remember from my driving theory test that it has something to do with traffic lights, but since the first time I noticed it – getting a lift from my dad to my then-boyfriend’s house – it has always seemed far more significantly symbolic than that. 2430675363_f48e263e08_b

It happens to all of us. Maybe you’re chugging along quite happily through life, when suddenly, WHAM. A dramatic, life-changing event. You fall in love, get pregnant, get made redundant, get sick, receive an unexpected job offer, have an accident, someone dies. Your priorities all change radically, unfortunately without the benefit of a road sign warning you that this was coming. At other times you may be struggling with a problem, unsure which direction to take, and then, imperceptibly, you realise your priorities have changed. What you thought of as the problem has vanished, perhaps leaving a whole other set of challenges in its place, or you might be lucky enough to acquire a sense of calm certainty instead.

To an extent I have experienced the second of those scenarios recently. Since Sophia was born, in fact since before she was born, one level of my mind has been preoccupied with the issue of how I could carry on writing once I had a baby to look after. I’ve considered various options – a childcare swap with a friend with a similarly aged baby, a nanny or childminder for a couple of days a week, a pay-as-you-go creche. None of them seemed quite right. For a start, writing novels, certainly when you are still trying to get started and make a name for yourself, is far from being a lucrative profession, so whichever option I chose had to be a frugal one. For another thing I have had a guilty prickle in my conscience at using childcare for Sophia while she is still a baby when I didn’t do so for her sister, and when I don’t need to financially. With Sophia’s first birthday – the deadline I had given myself for returning to work – fast approaching I hadn’t taken any serious steps towards making any of these options happen.

Last week I realised why. I am not by nature a procrastinator. If there’s something needs doing my instinct is usually to do it and get it out of the way as quickly as possible. Except sometimes. Sometimes I find myself not doing the thing I should be doing, the thing I have decided needs to be done, and when I stop and analyse why the answer is invariably the same – I don’t actually think it is the right thing to do after all. I had this a couple of years ago when we planned to re-do our kitchen. I’d done some on-line research, allocated a budget, talked my husband into it, but I kept on failing to actually call companies to get a quote. When I made myself consider why I realised it was because I actually didn’t want to have a generic fitted kitchen. I didn’t want to spend that much money when our existing kitchen was functional, albeit shabby and dated, and the environmentalist in me was horrified at the idea of throwing out our existing units just because we didn’t like the colour of the wood. IMG_3874Once I’d realised the problem it took me only a few weeks and a couple of hundred pounds to get the cupboards sanded and painted pale duck egg blue, the walls a sunshiny yellow, a broken cupboard door replaced with a 1950s style curtain in pretty Cath Kidston fabric and a few choice accessories to transform it from shabby and gloomy to what I at least consider to be a cheerfully retro-chic space.

My eureka moment regarding writing and childcare came last week in Monkey Music class with Sophia. She was giggling away as she tried to make friends with two slightly older toddlers, and I was reflecting on how confident and sociable she is. It suddenly struck me that I have been framing my internal debate in terms of how I was as a first time mum and what Anna’s character and needs were at a similar age to Sophia. Because we didn’t feel Anna was ready for pre-school until she was three, I have been making the same assumption about Sophia, whereas actually I think nothing could be further from the truth. She is going to be desperate to get out into the world as early as she can. So I’ve put her name down to start pre-school when she turns two, and in the meantime I am going to enjoy the next precious year with her. Writing isn’t a time-limited career. My keyboard and my imagination will (hopefully) still be here this time next year, but my littlest girl will only be this little once. My priorities have changed without me really realising it.

I will carry on blogging when I can, in little windows like this when my MIL is happy to take both girls for an hour or two, or when that rarest of situations occurs – dinner is prepared, the house is clean and Sophia is still napping! I can continue to develop the characters and plot for my next novel in odd quiet moments, but I will not stress about resuming my writing career until Sophia is happily ensconced in pre-school a few mornings a week and I have the time and space to write properly, having had another year of space and time with my baby in the meantime.

I am also going to explore ways of changing, or extending, my blog slightly. Regular readers will know of my ongoing consternation with the Government’s austerity agenda, and while I would hate to lose sight of the original purpose of my blog – a record of the joys and anxieties and absurdities of everyday life – I am going to be doing some serious thinking about how I can also use it to make my small contribution to fighting a political agenda I absolutely abhor. Watch this space – changed priorities ahead!

Being the change

I haven’t posted for a while, mainly because I’ve been feeling rather depressed. This blog wasn’t meant to be political, but I make no secret of the fact that I am very definitely on the left of the political spectrum. What that means for me is the belief that the better-off should pay fair taxes in order that the most vulnerable can be supported. Who do I mean by vulnerable? Well, actually, it could be any one of us. Some people are affected by something such as a long-term disability which means that they will probably need ongoing support for their entire lives. Others may be sailing along quite happily until the unexpected happens – a shock redundancy, a cancer diagnosis, a child born with special needs, a sudden and dramatic rent increase. None of us are immune from circumstances occurring which would mean we needed support or care from the welfare system, from the NHS, from social services. Despite the best efforts of right-wing parties to paint it so, people who claim benefits are not ‘them’, they can very easily be ‘us’.

I also believe in equality. No one should be unable to fulfil their potential because of the financial or social circumstances they are born into. For me, the best chance of achieving equality comes through education in its many forms – nurseries, schools, universities, FE colleges, libraries, children’s centres, the BBC. Even if you can’t support free and fair education altruistically, think of this. The child may easily have been born who has the brains, flair, imagination, call it what you will, to find a cure for dementia, or to discover a truly sustainable form of energy. What a tragedy, not just for them but for the world, if they are prevented from achieving this because they happened to be born to asylum seekers, or into a third-generation unemployed household where the level of debt now required to obtain a university education is too terrifying to be contemplated.

Holding these beliefs as strongly as I do, I found the General Election result profoundly depressing. The decisions which are being made by the current Government create a country in which I don’t want to bring up my girls. My first response when it became clear that the exit polls were accurate was to tell my husband to start looking for jobs in Scotland. He declined robustly, pointing out that running away never solves anything. And, of course, he is right. It is easy to become demoralised, though, and to feel that you can’t make a difference as one individual against the system.

I have spent the last four weeks pondering whether it is possible to do anything constructive, and what I come back to time and again are the words of Mahatma Gandhi – “We must be the change we wish to see in the world”. I have joined the Labour Party, not because I believe it is perfect, but because I do believe it is our best chance of an effective opposition to the abolition of the Human Rights Act, the BBC, our membership of the EU, a fair and equitable welfare system and the privatisation by stealth of the education system and the NHS. I will support food banks and other organisations which endeavour to fill the gaps left, indeed created, by the Government. Without turning my blog into a political rant (honest!) I will use my writing wherever possible to try and raise awareness of the serious issues facing the country. And I will continue to look out for other ways I can ‘be the change’ as opposed to just moaning. Let me know if you have any ideas!