#In Real Life

cocktails

Yesterday was a bit of a landmark for me as I met a woman I have been friends with for nearly five years for the very first time. Chiswick Mum blogs about her family life in leafy West London. Other than our East/West divide, we have loads in common – both born and raised Oop North, proud of those roots, but in love with our London lives, both Oxford English graduates, both passionate about reading and writing and books and making the most of the little moments of everyday life by blogging about them. Her son is only a little older than Anna, and so we are often at the same lifestyle stage with children as well. She also writes beautifully, and is one of a very few bloggers guaranteed to give me a little lift when a link to a new post appears in my emails.

Our friendship grew organically, if ‘organically’ is the right word for something which is purely a product of the digital age. Firstly commenting on each other’s posts, then following each other on Twitter and Instagram, and then eventually sharing email addresses. The honesty of her writing meant that I felt I knew Chiswick Mum better than many of the mums I see at the school gates every day, but with whom conversation doesn’t really progress beyond the weather or this week’s spelling list.

A New Year’s Resolution we both felt we could get behind was to meet up IRL (In Real Life).  Not easy when you’re juggling between you three children, a full-time job, two blogs and live on opposite sides of London, but last night we managed it, meeting for cocktails in a bar in Central London. It was bizarrely like a blind date. Or how I imagine a blind date must be; husband and I have been together since we were eighteen, so the dating world is a bit of a closed book to me.

I felt incredibly nervous. Would she actually recognise me from my profile picture? After all, that was taken about four years, 1.5 stone, 1 baby and a whole pile of stress ago, and real life sadly lacks soft focus filters.Would we really have anything in common? Would it be horrendously awkward? Would she actually like me?

I’m so glad we were both brave enough to take the plunge, because we had a brilliant evening, and she was every bit the warm, funny, interesting and engaging woman her blog led me to believe she would be. We got through three drinks each and a platter of bar snacks (got to love a girl who loves pork crackling) with no awkward silences, and the only reason we quit at three drinks was because we both had to be up at about 6am, her for work, me for Mummy Duties.We have, however, planned to meet up with children and partners for a picnic this summer, and another round of drinks whenever our respective commitments allow. Amongst other things she even helped me come up with a plot and title for my fourth novel!

Blogging and social media gets a lot of bad press at the moment. I read many articles implying that if you love Instagram/blogging/Twitter/Facebook then you must be disengaged from ‘real life’. Like many things, I’m sure you need to be careful to maintain a balance. A virtual hug will never replace a real one, and I know that I can be guilty at times of posting about how adorable/annoying my children are rather than actually playing with them! However, I do think that the wonderful world of blogging and social media enhances my life, and yesterday I made a brand new real life friend I would almost certainly never have met any other way. ‘Only connect’ said E.M. Forster, and so many more connections are made possible for me by my life online, and my real life is the richer for it.

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Fifteenth Day of Advent: Walthamstow

Eight years ago this week husband and I became homeowners and Walthamstowers. To say we’re lucky with where we live would be the understatement of the year. I assumed that I would have a choice – live outside London in a small town/village/suburb and enjoy a sense of community and neighbourliness, or live in London and do without. How wrong could I be. Walthamstow is in Zone 3, 22 minutes to the West End and 17 minutes to the City, but it is the strongest community I could have hoped for.

The day we moved in was as busy and stressful as moving days usually are. Finally at about half seven we realised we were starving hungry and had no food in the house. We popped out to buy a pizza. As we rounded the corner, we heard the sound of distant singing. We walked along, and it got louder and louder, until we came across a group of people, lanterns aloft, standing round the Christmas tree in a small square singing Christmas carols. There was free mince pies and mulled wine, which gave us enough energy to join in the singing before we went to grab a pizza in the friendly little neighbourhood Italian. There and then we knew we had made the right decision in moving to Walthamstow. The carol singing round the tree is an annual tradition, and in fact Anna and husband are there this evening as I type this, glass of wine next to me and sleeping baby upstairs.

Some of the community spirit is online – I have blogged before about the wonder that is Walthamstow Sell or Swap, but equally amazing is Walthamstow Parents where people share parenting highs and lows, get advice about schools admissions, sleep routines or breastfeeding, or seek support on coping with a fussy eater, parenting a child with special needs or managing toddler tantrums. Walthamstow Food and Drink Society is the go-to place for restuarant, or more likely these days, takeaway reviews, advice on recipes, or sharing allotment gluts!

From William Morris Gallery and Vestry House Museum, to the Wild Card Brewery and Mother’s Ruin Gin Palace, Epping Forest to Walthamstow Marshes, a fortnight long Art Trail to some original and unique neon, there’s always something to suit your mood here.walthamstow

But it is the people who live in this amazing place which really make it so special. Back in September, Anna and I held a cake sale to raise money for Syrian refugees. Saturday was spent in the kitchen baking as much as we could, on Sunday she set up shop in the front garden and our neighbours flocked to support the fundraising effort. I ended up frenetically baking muffins which were selling as fast as I could make them. In two hours we raised over two hundred pounds thanks to the amazing generosity of our community. When someone posts on a Facebook group that they know of a mother-to-be who doesn’t have any money to buy things for her baby, or an elderly neighbour who doesn’t have warm clothes for the winter, or someone’s parent who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and needs a wheelchair the response is always instant and overwhelming.

Walthamstow made the national news a week or two ago because our local MP, Stella Creasy, voted in favour of the military action in Syria, and many of her constituents were very unhappy with that decision. There was a bit of nastiness on social media, but the main protest took the form of a peaceful candlelit vigil to which many people took their children, and with which local religious leaders from a number of faith backgrounds were involved. Walthamstowers were motivated by deep concern at what the air strikes might mean for innocent civilian Syrians. Stella Creasy took the time to write a long and detailed letter, hold several public meetings and engage extensively on social media to explain why she felt compelled to vote as she did. On balance I am not convinced that the military action is a good idea, but I do respect the thought Stella clearly put into her decision and then the effort she made to explain it. I also respect the many people who protested peacefully and entered into intelligent and informed debate on the subject, online and in person. Although it was an issue which divided Walthamstow, I felt it is more evidence that this is a community where people care, and engage, think and debate, which is one I am proud and happy to be part of.

Plus, there are a lot of cafes which serve really excellent cake!

 

Ninth Day of Advent: Social Media

“Only connect” said E.M.Forster, and the connections which are made possible by social media are something that make me very happy. This is not a fashionable point of view. There are several prevalent attitudes to social media. One is that it actually makes people unhappy, because they are constantly comparing themselves to others, and Facebook, Instagram et al put an unrealistic gloss on the mundanities of life. Another is that the ‘traditional’ social media, like Facebook which I love, are now totally over, and the world has moved on to heaven knows what. I don’t know, and probably won’t until my daughters are teenagers and can patronisingly explain it all to me. Others worry that social media stops us connecting in real life, and that we are having relationships with our laptops and smart phones rather than our family and friends.

There is probably some truth in all of these, but I don’t let it worry me. As a stay-at-home mum and writer – both fairly solitary jobs – social media is a total godsend to me. This blog lets me get things off my chest with a good old rant, and records day-to-day moments for me to look back on. A paper diary could also do this, of course, but I love the sense of connection which I get from sending my thoughts out into the blogosphere, the lovely comments and feedback I get in response to my posts, and the ways in which my life is enhanced by other people’s blogs. Chiswick Mum has become a blogger friend, and I look forward to her beautifully written and photographed posts about her West London life and adventures with her young son just as much as I might look forward to coffee with a Real Life friend. Mostly Yummy Mummy  is a full-time mum-of-four in Yorkshire, and she’s like my online life coach for beauty tips and fashion inspiration. Local (to me) mum and blogger Katie is a fantastic source of brilliant recipes to tempt my occasionally fussy big girl, and, hopefully, to instil a love of good food in my little one. Holly Bell’s blog is also fab for this, and I love her chatty and breezy writing style. Through blog posts I’ve been privileged to gain a small insight into how it feels to parent a child with special needs, live with cancer, move your family onto a narrowboat, emigrate to Australia or cope with infertility. I feel that access to the blogosphere widens my world and horizons just as much as traditional media, and I am certainly no more likely to be distracted from my real life and long-suffering children than I would be reading the newspaper, and less likely than when I’m in the middle of a good book!

On days when, as this Monday just gone, things are feeling a bit of an uphill struggle, Facebook gives me a chance to moan and offload, and get some realtime feedback which makes me feel I’m not totally alone with my grumpy teething baby, attention-span-challenged 6 year old and the sticky bits of 500 paper chains, which are not on the paper chains or in the packet, but stuck to me, the children, the cat and every surface as far as the eye can see. I also like the little uplift I get when I see someone I was at school with has had a baby, or announced their pregnancy, or got a new job or met a new bloke. Yes, I know people put a positive spin on things, and I can see why if, for example, you had just had a miscarriage someone announcing their pregnancy would hurt you. But then it probably would in real life too. Even on bad days, I generally feel that someone else’s good news will cheer me up as I can be happy for them even while feeling sorry for myself.

Social media has practical benefits too. What do a set of Miffy books, some doll’s house furniture, a vintage sideboard, an apple slicer and a wicker Ikea children’s chair and some Joules wells have in common? They’re all things which I have got either for free, a couple of quid or a packet of biscuits on Walthamstow Sell or Swap Facebook group in the past few months. I’ve also made a couple of hundred pounds myself, selling baby gear Sophia has outgrown, or clothes I have (sob) outgrown. Brilliant bargains, less stuff going to landfill and the chance to make real, live connections with neighbours I wouldn’t have met otherwise. What’s not to love?Anna astronaut

A panicked Facebook plea when Anna announced she needed an astronaut’s costume for school led to my next-door neighbour coming round with the loan of the (amazingly creative) jet-pack he had made for his son’s space party a few months ago. Silvery grey leggings and tshirt, a pudding bowl, a roll of insulating tape, some foil and a bit of swearing and some pink moon boots I picked up on Sell or Swap, and Astronaut Anna was ready for take-off!

Truth and perception

One of my favourite bloggers, Chiswick Mum, wrote a post recently about Pinterest and how real life never quite seems to live up to the shiny perfection of many of the pins on there. It got me thinking about writing and blogging and how easy it is to portray a one-sided image without even entirely meaning to.

Take last Sunday. We had an idyllic family day out around Central London. Anna loves fountains, and so we decided to set out and see how many different fountains we could spot, starting in Trafalgar Square.trafalgar sq We were disappointed that the fountains which normally fill the central courtyard of Somerset House had been replaced by an exhibition of sculptures, but actually Anna and Sophia had a wonderful time playing there anyway. Sophia was thrilled to have such an enormous space to crawl round, Anna adored playing the protective big sister and looking after her, and husband and I were pretty pleased to be able to relax in the sunshine and watch our girls having fun.somerset house

We pottered through Soho and Covent Garden, bought Anna a long-coveted policeman’s helmet at one of the tourist trap gift shops, and then ended the day in the newly refurbished Granary Square by Kings Cross station. Sophia ate her tea while we watched Anna caper through the amazing fountains there; me feeling like a very smug mummy that I’d thought to bring a change of clothes for her!
granary squareNot bad to have weather good enough to do that at 5pm in early October.

When we got home I had another smug mummy moment as, after putting Sophia to bed, we all sat down to black bean chilli which I’d remembered to lift out of the freezer that morning, with sweet potato wedges and frog dip (aka guacamole) which Anna and I made while the potatoes were cooking. Delicious and nutritious.

All this is true, and the photos are an accurate representation of a really lovely day. But, it’s only part of the story. In that portrayal I have chosen to leave out certain elements. Like the fact that we almost didn’t manage to leave the house at all because husband and I were arguing about whether we had breakfast at home and then went out afterwards, or whether we should go out for brunch. Like the fact that I was recovering from a 24 hour vomiting bug and spent the whole day watching the children like hawks for any sign that they too were about to start throwing their guts up. Like me telling Anna off and her getting upset because she started messing with the nappy bin in the fairly grubby public loo where we were trying to change Sophia’s very messy nappy. Like me dropping my iPhone and smashing the screen (for the second time in a month!). Like me deciding to make a microwave steam pudding as a treat after our chilli, and ruining it because it transpired that the milk I’d used was on the turn and curdled as I began to whisk the mixture. I could have written a blog post which played up all these incidents and created the perception of a truly disastrous day.

The truth, in social media as in life, is always more finely nuanced than any one-sided picture can accurately portray. It’s worth bearing that in mind when peeping enviously in at the window of someone’s seemingly golden life, and it’s also worth bearing in mind when you feel like all the balls you’re juggling yourself have come crashing down, and that there is no silver lining to your particular cloud, because perhaps, just perhaps, if you look at it from another angle, there is.

Only connect

“Only connect” is the epigraph of E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End. It’s also one of the very few quotes I can ever remember, so it is particularly pleasing when I can find a genuine reason for working it in, thereby contributing to my image as someone well-read and erudite. Ahem.

How we connect with others has been very much on my mind today. One of the only disadvantages of being a writer is that it can get lonely. My house suddenly feels very empty when husband has left for work, daughter is at school and the cats have gone off to do whatever cats do when they have a free morning. Today, however, I’ve enjoyed a wide variety of human interaction – some through social media, and some through far more traditional methods.

When I went for my usual walk after school drop-off I bumped into a friend taking her daughter to pre-school and we had a chat. When I got home a local handyman arrived to give me a quote for fitting a cat flap (the kitty cattens are now venturing out, but I’m constantly tensed for the sound of a plaintive miaow at the back door, and it’s driving me mad). I’d got his number from a leaflet pushed through our front door – old-school methodology here.

Then when trawling through the Facebook page for local parents, I spotted a child’s bike for sale for £10. It’s a bit shabby, but we’ve been having a huge debate as to whether it was worth buying Anna as bike yet, or if we should wait until she’s older. This means we can experiment at a reasonable cost. I messaged the seller, another local mum, and am popping round later to collect it.

I exchanged emails with a friend about arranging a meet-up when I’m in Liverpool in February.

And I’m now sitting in my local cafe, surrounded by noise and bustle and babies, exchanged greetings with several other people I know. When I’ve finished this blog post I’m going to phone a clown (as you do), to see if she’s available for a certain 5th birthday party which is fast approaching.

 

So maybe the life of a writer isn’t so isolated after all. Problem is though, the eagle-eyed amongst my readers will have spotted that there hasn’t actually been much writing going on today amidst all the connection…maybe the dilemma continues.