Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Oy Yew, and what makes good children's fiction brilliant

I've been wanting to write about Ana Salote's Oy Yew for a long time, since I first saw it, and wanting to say something more interesting than "it's wonderful", particularly because so many of my book posts at the moment seem to be raving about the great books, and it could sound as though I read uncritically. (I don't. I just have something of a squeeze on my time at the moment, and while I do seem to find a good amount of time to read, only books that have made a great impression have even a fighting chance of getting blogged about at the moment. Actually I have a post brewing about the male gaze, and the insidious way it penetrates so much fiction, but that's not for here and now).

So. I'm not one of those adults who enjoys being infantile, saying that Horrid Histories are just their level and they would happily always choose children's books over adults'. A properly written, challenging, adult read is supreme: I'd choose Hilary Mantel, or Marilynne Robinson, or Dickens, or several others over almost anyone else. But there's a corner of my heart fenced off for a certain type of children's fiction.

Children's fiction that works doesn't fob us off with overly simple language or improbable happenings. It doesn't show us characters who are reductively single-faceted and expect us to identify goodies and baddies on page one. What it does is set up a world that has fewer boundaries, where imagination is allowed to go wilder than most adult-oriented authors permit themselves, and where the characters have weaknesses and nuances and are often battling a strange and confusing universe. Of course this is one of the features that lets children identify with good books written for them: so much of our world is geared at adults, and uses strange language and difficult ideas and refuses to explain things properly to them.

The characteristic that really leaped out for me, though, when I was trying to analyse this, was that (good) authors writing for children aren't afraid to tell us what their characters are thinking and feeling. We don't have to be stuck in the first person for this, but we're not given the cold detached third person that adult fiction often uses, where the main characters' motivations are opaque, and we're meant to be able to deduce them with some kind of behaviourist approach.

In His Dark Materials, perhaps the best trilogy I've ever read, we know what Lyra thinks because Pullman lets us into her head - we can also see from other factors what the limits of her understanding are, and we see more than her, so we understand more, but it's not patronising to her or to the reader, it's just acknowledging the childish viewpoint at the same time as the spectator's position. With Pantalaimon we know less, he's an animal and we read him by what he does, though of course in "that scene" on the banks of the river, anyone who's not sobbing and scrabbling with him must be made of iron. And then Will, oh, Will, and his desperate protection of his mother, and his internal battles, and his need to continue holding it together, to banish hard thoughts from his mind, well, I can't think of a better description of someone learning to master themselves. I won't even write about Hester and Lee Scoresby, because I'm tired and fragile and it might break me.

Diana Wynne Jones is the other children's author who springs to mind - her universes are wildly inventive, but mainly her people are real, real, real. The sibling rivalry in Charmed Life is very believable, and again she has no fear of letting us see inside characters' heads, even when they're not being entirely sympathetic.

This might not seem relevant to Oy Yew, but it is. It's nominally a children's book, but I've rarely seen such a complex and endearing character as Oy. He jumps out straight away and although we learn more about him through the book, it all chimes perfectly - I felt the way you do when you meet someone you can tell you'll be friends with, and whenever you find out something more about them you think well, yes, of course, in some sense I knew that already. He's got special senses and unusual skills, but mainly it's his sensibility, his sensitivity, his fragility that's a strength. It's not surprising that he grows in confidence and bravery as the book goes on, because it's how he obviously would develop, and all of his encounters make sense. The other waifs all play second fiddle to him, but that's as it should be; that's not to say they're not well-drawn, because they are, but they're in the background in this telling, even though he's the insubstantial one, or as the first line says, "slight, weakly, overlooked".
There's a whole world here, not with magic but just with different senses, and different laws, and different social expectations, and natural forces that may have a will - like our world but with a strange, fairy-like take on it. This is the sort of inventiveness I admire so very very much - keeping to the basic physical laws of the world as we know it but bending and distorting everything, inventing new hobbies (competitive bone-collecting!) and a new set of race relations. It's carried lightly - there's no sense of "look at all this cool stuff I've made up" - with just the right amount of scene-setting. This may partly be a consequence of the pitch to children - an author writing for adults might feel the need to add more ballast, more Serious Explanation and Detailed Exposition, but honestly, the courage to let the characters and the world speak for themselves, and the plot to move on at its own speed, not held back by good manners or literary pretension - well, I could think of many who could take a lesson from this.
It's funny, too - I love the rhyming cook, and the strange afflictions, and the grotesque character of Jeopardine.
And thrilling! The end took my breath away when I first read it, and I had that proper sensation of mourning, and of desperation to know what happened next (it's the start of a trilogy).

Truly, I'd recommend this just as a novel to read, with absolutely no sense of shame in buying it as an adult. The things that make it a children's book are all the things that are most admirable about the best children's books, and all that means is that if you have the right kind of age children they'll love it too. But I'll be rushing out to buy parts two and three in just the same way as I'd hurtle to the shops if Pullman added number 4 onto his trilogy - it's in that kind of league for me.

(you can buy it from Mother's Milk Books - and also can read the first chapter online - and yes, I am associated with them, but not financially, and I bought my own copy, and am also entirely incapable of raving about books I don't love - you can check that by seeing what I said about Breast Intentions even though I'd had a review copy...)

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The forgotten and the fantastical

There's all sorts I need to write about at the moment, and a million books I've loved and want to rave about, so much I've been overwhelmed and paralysed into not-starting. Plus, and I know this sounds like an excuse, but don't even dare to dismiss it as one unless you too have more than one pre-school-age child and an evening job, I really am finding time hard to manage. It's not just about deciding to work harder or stretch myself thinner: there really are only a few hours in the day when I can be at a computer, hard in the day with the children, then in the evenings I absolutely must earn a living, and when I've done the money-bit and turned to my own projects the boys get into the phase of evening when they just take it in turns to wake, and won't settle without me. I'm trying to think of innovative ways to eke out more time, and drawing a blank. Setting the alarm "an hour earlier" as is so commonly recommended doesn't work amazingly well if your children's start time varies so massively - today we've all been awake since 5.30 and I'm not sure I'm committed enough to my art that I'd have been able to leap up at 4.30. Plus, I feel fairly sure that my getting up early would just wake them, and it's hard enough as it is, getting to that time of morning when you've done all the activities and good mothering and stuff, and it's still only 9am....

I loved The Forgotten and the Fantastical because it did that thing to me that some books do - it made me want to join in. It made me think about fairy tales, and which ones I'd like to tell again in my own way, and what messages they're giving us. I blogged a little about it a while back, about the hidden values and their dangers, but that didn't really say much about the book.
There are 11 stories, varying from fairly straight re-tellings through creative re-imaginings and brand new stories. It's hard to pick out which ones were particularly special, but I did think the opening and closing pieces, from N J Ramsden,. were properly disturbing, in a good way. The boy and the bird was just magical and lyrical and troubling and I had to read it twice before I could carry on.
Then there was the glorious Red Riding Hood retelling, Footfalls of the hunter, visceral and urgent and a proper making the story her own. Gepetto's child has a Blade runner kind of feel, but it's more original than that makes it sound. And I was deeply impressed by the versatility of the two Marija Smits stories - assuming a range of narrative voices is something I'd love to be able to do with any kind of skill, and she does just this, with Screaming Sue having a Holden Caulfield sort of tone.
I'm not trying to belittle these stories at all by comparing and referencing to other things, in fact quite the opposite. Really worthwhile reading for me gains its value through creating resonances, echoes of what I've read or seen or thought about before and noises that keep chiming through my head making me want to try my own reflections. So when writing puts me in mind of something else, then something else again, it's properly paying for itself, giving me lots of fuel for my money.

And on what might seem like a slightly shallow note, it's a physically beautiful book - a lovely size to hold, and eyecatching cover, and quirky little pictures at the start of each story. It doesn't matter as much as the words inside, but it helps to make it feel special, and this matters to me when more and more of the books I buy these days are for my kindle - I like a book that I can enjoy physically as well as intellectually and emotionally, if that doesn't sound too pompous. It's a feature of everything that Mother's Milk Books sells - a physical loveliness that pulls you in before you even begin reading.

Not such a blog silence until next time, I swear. I want to write about the stresses and strains of work, about trying to balance the callings to do so many things, the rough rough challenges of a sensitive yet boisterous four year old displaced by his brother, the glorious smell and feel of a plump baby, the fun and games of learning to use a sewing machine, oh, all sorts, there's so much in there waiting for a chance to tumble out....maybe some speech recognition software and a bit of benign neglect are called for.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Why Doulas Matter

It's taken me a while to get round to writing this: often I write about books from my memory of them, relying on my impressions, which is quicker. I have huge time and respect for proper book bloggers who have lots of quotes and obvious results of careful notes, but it's not how I usually approach things. This one, though, I wanted to pin down why I loved it so much, because it's the kind of book that could seem slight and unnecessary, and wouldn't be well served by a write-up that just says it's amazing.

But, it's amazing.

Maddie McMahon is a practising doula, and has written this beautiful pocket-sized book to explain what a doula does, perhaps mainly for mothers considering using one, but also for anyone who thinks they might want to be one (and, maybe, for health professionals, to understand who the strange lady in the corner is). It's so far, though, from being a checklist or a textbook.

Really, it's suffused with love, her love for her clients, the presence of oxytocin and incredibly strong emotions in the birthing room, the sense of the relationship between a mother and her new baby. With such a strong current like this running through it, maybe the actual words would hardly matter, but they're lyrical and powerful, elegantly written, with a lightness of touch but at the same time a perfect understanding of the grave solemnity of the act of birthing.

I loved the assurance to mothers about what a thrill doulas get from being with them, and how they truly want to be woken in the night to come to a birth; I loved the descriptions from Maddie and others she quoted of relationships between doulas and their clients, showing just how deep a bond can come about from sharing this most intimate of times.

In fact, the only false note in the whole book, for me, was a quote early on from Suzanne Howlett, which read to me as suggesting that women suffering from infertility might just be able to fix it if they tried hard enough. The quote doesn't say that, it says that releasing stress might cause alignment with conception, but I still don't like it, with its implication that anyone who doesn't relax themselves into conceiving is just doing something wrong.

Such a tiny niggle, though. I'm not doing this justice, here. I can't explain the excitement that I felt reading it, the way it fanned my flames, made me desperately want to be a part of this, thinking a series of wild thoughts, I could be a doula! Or a midwife! Or have another baby! Just, really, anything to get to stay involved with this wonderful thing, and no, I'm not denying that so so many people have not had wonderful experiences of birth, but I have, and when it goes well it is the most extraordinary, life-changing, self-defining experience you could imagine. I thought this description was perfect: "Watching the bag of waters balloon in the water before the head is born is like watching a mother lay a beautiful, mother-of-pearl egg" - what a way to show the mysticism and complete everydayness, in combination, of this happening.

In the areas that I properly know about - breastfeeding - it's spot-on, accurate, supportive, again *loving* and tender and gentle and yet unflinching.

And oh, the aspect about stories, about a doula's role as a story-keeper, and the important of listening. This rang so true, both from my experiences as a mother sharing with others, and from being a breastfeeding counsellor. So often I talk to a mother of a newborn, and I ask about the birth so I can get a sense of the context of her call, and it all comes pouring out, she obviously has such a need to tell the story, and I'm honoured to hear it, and they stay with me, they all do, and I feel it again with her, and it shows me so much about her, and lets me see another angle to what's going on with her now, and I LOVE IT, and am I using "love" enough yet? I love the book, and I love the love in the book, and I love the way that both this and the next book I'll write about (H is for Hawk - watch this space) have a kind of love in them that's not a romantic partner-love, it's a deeply felt something else, but love's still the only word for it.

Now, seriously, where do I sign up?

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Changing the fairy tales

Welcome to ‘The Forgotten and the Fantastical’ Carnival This post was written especially for inclusion in ‘The Forgotten and the Fantastical’ carnival, hosted by Mother’s Milk Books, to celebrate the launch of their latest collection of fairy tales for an adult audience: The Forgotten and the Fantastical. Today our participants share their thoughts on the theme ‘Fairy tales’. Please read to the end of the post for a full list of carnival participants. ***

If you'd asked me a couple of years back, I'd have told you vaguely that I liked fairy tales. I liked the idea of them, and had fond memories of stories with my grandmother, and of one particular book of illustrated Grimm tales (I think) with the most perfect, detailed pictures you could imagine. I can still bring to mind the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel, such detail on the cakes and sweets and biscuits, oh, and the frog sitting by the princess's golden plate and asking, horror of horrors, to drink from her golden cup - in the picture there was drool dripping from his mouth, and horror on her princessy face. I remember a boy covered in treacle and feathers, too, though I've no idea what the story might have been.

It's only getting back to them now (and sadly, not in such a beautiful edition) with a nearly-four-year-old that I realise how crude the basic premise is in so many of the classic fairy stories.

Princess and the pea - prince waits in his castle, auditioning princesses, hoping to find one of unprecedented fragility and girliness
Princess and the frog - man frog buys you dinner gets your ball out of a pond so you're morally obliged to bonk him let him sleep on your golden pillow - but it's ok because he turns out to be a prince so you grit your teeth
Rumpelstiltskin - dad sells his daughter to a king, who locks her up, sets her impossible tasks, and says if she's really really good then eventually he might marry her. (No wonder she promises she'll give his baby away to a funny little stranger)

I could go on, but it's been done before, and with greater skill. It's easy to defend them as just stories, as being simple fun and as also having other more uplifting messages (the princess made a promise to the frog, and you must always keep promises; Rumpelstiltskin was foolish enough to offer a loophole, and you must always take advantage of loopholes). But I really do fear the way we've internalised these messages. Most right-thinking modern people wouldn't agree to the idea that women should wait to be chosen by a man, but we can't stay away from this narrative, the one where the ultimate reward is marriage, obviously to a prince. Sleeping Beauty has her fate set from the beginning, and her redemption is through the kiss of a stranger who she ends up shackled to - she is the powerless woman, her whole life's structure fixed, only freed by a man who effectively gives her the freedom that should have been hers.
I'm struggling to put any of this in an original way, but it's an honest reflection of my unease with fairy tales, and my difficulty with sharing them with my boy. He questions so much but this is also the time when all his values are being shaped, when he is so receptive to everything that comes into his world. I'd not show him violence on the television, or swear in front of him; I try to model gentle and respective interactions with people and ways of talking about them. And yet here the only goal, if you're a woman, is to find someone who will marry you and keep you in style, and if you're a man you only want the princesses, the beautiful, unachievable, hyper-feminine ones, who come with a dowry.
I don't know, in real life, mothers of girls who tell them they need to find a prince. But if we don't argue with the stories, point out the problems and the stupid assumptions and the ridiculous value systems embedded in them, we're not doing right by our children. We tell them not to worry, ogres aren't real, trolls aren't real, witches aren't real; we should add that princes who make it all ok aren't real, women who are worthwhile just because they're pretty aren't real, and there are better ways to start a relationship than being rescued from a dragon.

*** The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2015 book cover
The Forgotten and the Fantastical is now available to buy from The Mother’s Milk Bookshop (as a paperback and PDF) and as a paperback from Amazon.
It can also be ordered via your local bookshop.
Any comments on the following fab posts would be much appreciated:
In ‘Imagination is quantum ergo fairies are real’, Ana, at Colouring Outside the Lines, explains why we should all believe in fairies and encourage our children to do the same.

 ‘Wings’ — Rebecca at Growing a Girl Against the Grain shares a poem about her daughter and explains the fairy tale-esque way in which her name was chosen.

 In ‘Red Riding Hood Reimagined’ author Rebecca Ann Smith shares her poem ‘Grandma’.

Writer Clare Cooper explores the messages the hit movie Frozen offers to our daughters about women’s experiences of love and power in her Beautiful Beginnings blog post ‘Frozen: Princesses, power and exploring the sacred feminine.’

 ‘Changing Fairy Tales’ — Helen at Young Middle Age explains how having young children has given her a new caution about fairy tales.

In ‘The Art of Faerie’ Marija Smits waxes lyrical about fairy tale illustrations.

 ‘The Origins of The Forgotten and the Fantastical — Teika Bellamy shares her introduction from the latest collection of fairy tales for an adult audience published by Mother’s Milk Books.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Loving challenges and unsisterly sneering

There are two books I want to write about here, in such contrast to each other. I'm torn about how to go about it, because I loved one, and didn't love the other. I don't want to dedicate pages and pages of space to the one I didn't love, but at the same time I want to explain myself.

Perhaps I should start with the love: Kiss me! How to raise your children with love by Carlos Gonzalez.

I wrote about this, briefly, for the LLLGB magazine, and I don't want to repeat myself. He describes it as "a book in defence of children" and it's not got a complex premise, but it leaves a conscientious parent with a complex challenge.
Very briefly, the book's about treating children as people, not as a separate species, some kind of monsters that need to be controlled. Again and again, he uses the device of a paragraph describing some abominable way of talking to a woman, (ignore her if she cries, tell her to ask again in a nice voice, drag her if she doesn't walk quickly enough for you) and asks why, if this is so shocking when it's about an adult, it doesn't also shock us as a way of talking about children. Somehow this doesn't get hackneyed - perhaps it would if there was much more of it - but instead really made me bang my head up against the way I talk to my own children. I'm definitely on the hippy, attached end of things but I find myself slipping into shouting, impatience, and worst, abusing my power as the adult, the physically stronger one, the one with all the decision making ability, that controls all the resources. No, I don't lock him under the stairs or feed him on dry bread, but reading Kiss me has provoked some real soul-searching, right in the middle of some "transactions" with my boy, and later, in the troubled small hours of the night.
Part of my brain says this is all ridiculous, that of course we need to control children, and teach them who's in charge, and mould their spirits so they're good at taking orders for when they enter the real world. I can't actually justify that, though, can't rationalise it beyond a vague "well, surely...." or "what if...".
If I had to choose one passage that sums it all up for me, it would have to be this piece on limit-setting:

      If our child asks for something which isn't harmful to him, which doesn't destroy the environment, which we can afford, which we have time to give him, let us not say no simply "in order to set him limits" or "to accustom him to being obedient"

How liberating! I love the permission throughout the book to back down, to give in gracefully, and most of all to love your child just as much as you want to. I already knew this stuff, of course I did, but it's hammered home to me the message that my main job, my only important one really, is to love him, as hard and as truly as I possibly can, and to show him that love, and be stable and honest and generous with that love. Any decisions I make from that position will work, and they might not give me quick fixes, but actually will get us there.
(I suppose it's all phronesis really, or that kind of thing - we aspire to the best, and hone our faculties to discern this best. The better, and purer, model of love and lovingkindness that I can show to him, the better able he'll be to apply and demonstrate this himself. I don't want to demonstrate rationing love, or needing to earn it as if it was a salary; I want to show it richly and freely given, from a place of joy, and spreading that joy).

Ah, a segue! What I did there was a bit pretentious, because I dropped phronesis in there, as if I was trying to show I'm clever. But - and this is important - I didn't write I suppose it's all what old el chief Greeko philosopher Aristotle would have called phronesis.

On that note, let's talk about Breast Intentions!

So much hype for this book. In her internet-persona of "The Alpha Parent", Allison Dixley has built up a loyal following for her blog, where she writes mainly about breastfeeding with a focus on how breastfeeding goes wrong and what is wrong with formula feeding.
It may have seemed, on the face of it, that this would expand nicely into a book, and perhaps it could have done, but this isn't nice, and it isn't fair, and for me, it wasn't even entertaining.

I don't want to spend hours writing about this, because I feel a little exasperated about how much time I spent reading the book, and I want to draw a line under it and move on. It also didn't provoke in me the kind of rage that I thought it might - if it had, I could have had fun arguing with it point by point. In fact, I'm lacking the spirit here, so instead of a long piece I can offer you some headline issues with the book:

1. It's uncharitable, or perhaps cruel
This is by far my biggest issue. Let's be clear: I love breastfeeding. I love doing it, and talking about it, and supporting mothers with it. I can't count the hours I've spent on my preparation to become a breastfeeding counsellor and now my work as one, but it's a huge part of my life, and no one does this without feeling very strongly about the worth of it.
Mothers who use formula aren't the enemy, though! I'm just lost, as a reader, from the outset, with the language of "breastfeeding failure" and all the name-calling that follows. I don't buy into the idea that mothers who stopped breastfeeding want excuses and are desperate to set right their public image by explaining themselves. I don't accept a world view that sneers and dismisses them as lazy, weak-willed, or uncommitted to their babies. I'm not interested in pulling apart people's reasons for doing what they did, or in trying to imply they are lesser parents.
As a breastfeeding counsellor, I want to support mothers with meeting their breastfeeding goals. What those goals are isn't up to me, nor is what they do after we talk. And no way on earth is it ok for me to attribute motives for stopping, or for me to attempt a quantitative assessment of her love for her baby.

You could say this aspect of the book was quite obvious, so I shouldn't have picked it up, and you'd be right in that there is no masking of this attitude. I was still surprised, though, at the plain unpleasantness of the tone. I suspect the writer might dismiss me as wishy-washy when I say I really do blame society, in the widest sense, for low breastfeeding rates: I blame insufficient support in the system, and terrible horrible predatory formula marketing, and the media for their constant fanning of the flames - but I can't find any rage or scorn or anything else for a mother who didn't breastfeed for as long as she'd planned. I can't say you, you gave up too easily, you made excuses, you put your own desire for a spa night over your baby's wellbeing. I can't do this because no one, none of us, not even the crunchiest, can say we're doing it all right, that we're every single moment doing the best for our babies. We're constantly balancing and juggling and doing calculations and taking decisions and incorporating our values, and yes I do think that breastfeeding's a massively important one, and a public health issue, but the book that we need here is one about how we help people get past the pressures, not about what wicked beasts non-breastfeeders are!

2.It was a mistake to try and seem academic
595 footnotes. A glossary. An 8-page bibliography.
An attempt to mask the basic snottiness of the book by presenting it as some kind of quasi-academic treatise would, to my mind, have been more credible if there was any depth to any of it. As it is, citing "the philosopher Nietzsche" (as opposed, presumably, to his less well-known brother, the greengrocer Nietzsche) or "The granddaddy of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud" doesn't lend you academic gravitas, it just makes you look like a wally. So many brief mentions of proper thinkers with proper big brains, mostly glibly summarised in a couple of sentences - it reads like a parody of a PhD thesis. When you then combine this with language like "here's the skinny" and "bring it on mofo" it's just laughable - is the book trying to be academically credible, or to be serialised in a teen magazine?

3. I have no idea who it's for
Who's going to read and benefit from this?
People who support breastfeeding? I don't think so. I can only speak for myself, but as I said above I don't want to think of my "customers" in this way. I think an attitude of disdain would shine out and would stop me from meeting a mother where she is. I see and hear all the time the complex web of reasons that mothers doubt, slow down and stop, and applying an analytical framework doesn't really help me in practice. Reading explanations of why people's reasons aren't good enough doesn't help either: it's not my place to assess that.

Keen breastfeeding mothers? Maybe they'd enjoy the validation, but most breastfeeders I know don't really think this way. They don't self-define like this: they'd seem to, if you only read internet forums, where people quite often do pigeonhole themselves as a kind of shorthand, but in their actual lives it's just a thing they do, one of their choices about looking after their babies. And it's a long book to wade through if all you want is a pat on the back - The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding gives the feelgood factor without having to dismiss anyone else.

Keen formula feeding mothers? Not sure they'd want to buy a rant against themselves.

Those who wanted to breastfeed, or to breastfeed for longer? Just no. Everyone dissembles and self-deceives, and no one wants to read about it; more to the point, everyone makes complex decisions, doubts them later, questions themselves, takes the chance to feel terrible about themselves, and most violently doesn't need a bossy stranger hypothesising about their true motivations and dismissing their lived experiences.

  It seems I could, after all, write all night on this  - my copy is packed with post-its marking factual mistakes, heinous copy-editing errors, infuriating assumptions, and offensive language ("schizophrenic" to mean "changing from one point of view to another", really????). But I've spent too much emotional energy on it now.

Fascinating for me to note that Pinter & Martin published both of these books, one so strong and gentle and lovingly challenging, the other trying so hard to be provocative but really just lost in the middle. I didn't hate it, I don't want to go round there with a flaming torch, but I do want to ask "what did you really think this would achieve?" in much the same way as I ask it of my three-year-old when he mindlessly takes a toy from his brother.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015


Next post was meant to be about books: I was going to do two or three posts on fiction I'd read so far this year, and one on a couple of parenting books, including my thoughts on "that" Alpha Parent book.

And I wanted to do an update on my digital footprints project, and to talk about how interacting more deliberately really does change and enrich your experience.

And my babies, well, my baby and my boy, I wanted to talk about them.

Somehow I'm not managing any of it though. I've been casting around for ways to explain it, and I can't get any further than this:

My heart is so heavy

Everything is slow, and everything is difficult. I can't find a lightness in anything. Actually it's not just my heart, it's all heavy, I'm in thick gloves and a bodysuit and it's all muffled and padded and muted and just sort of bleak.

There's nothing wrong as such. We're getting through, the boys are growing and flourishing, I'm doing my work (just about), the house is in one of its tidier phases, we're dutifully getting through our austere winter veg box each week.

I just can't quite think forward, somehow. I'm one for buzzing with projects and thrilling full of ideas (yes, thrilling is a verb, in this sense, in the engaged way that I mean it, I don't just get thrilled, I thrill). I invented the "Kaffe test" for myself, for when I feel a bit down and gloomy - does looking at a picture of something Kaffe Fasset-y (either his, or in his style, or with some intensity of colour, actually anything from Attic24 will do the job too) give me a lift, a fierce desire to MAKE IT NOW and LICK ALL THE COLOURS?


Experience tells me that the way forward is to act as if. Keep doing all that daily stuff, nurture the babies, read the books, collect the projects, sign up for the work and hope that at some point the days start to be differentiated again. I'll write on here about some books, and pretend I'm an aspiring writer, an aspiring anything, and if previous doldrums like this are anything to go by, I'll suddenly find myself inadvertently aspiring again, daydreaming about quilts and crochet and blankets and textures and colours, galloping through books, churning stuff out. Suddenly and, I hope, soon.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Sunday night feeling

Oh, how I love Mondays, and mornings, and new terms, and new pencil cases, and best of all new years. All chances for a fresh start, for looking back on the day/week/month/term year before and saying what can I build on, what should I discard, what am I proud of, what have I learned.

So I've no idea why I've not been able to call up this spirit yet for 2015. It may be the horrible timing of the baby being ill - he started grumbling and fussing on Christmas day and just got more and more miserable, pretty much a week of constant crying, desperate need to sleep but inability to do this without a half hour lead in of rocking and swaying, only staying asleep if held, and in exactly the right position. I'd been hoping for a few days of gathering myself up, tidying things inside and out, reviewing and reflecting and restoring and consolidating and preparing, and instead I paced for hours and hours, and I'll admit to some weeping and cursing too - it was just a grim week, and it's taken from my already sparse resources.

Somehow the year ahead doesn't seem to be brimming with possibility: it looks like a trudge, a series of days where success would be treading water, keeping my mouth just over the surface, not letting anything get any more chaotic. And it's pretty gloomy to have your goals being no more ambitious than staying just about level with entropy.

So what now?

I don't think I'm quite in the place for massive "stuff" goals, not for this year. Big boy will be four in May, little boy one in June, so they need me a lot, and their day to day needs are going to be consuming no matter what I do. My maternity leave is over so I'm back to working in the evenings - at an absolute minimum I need to get in 15 hours each week, but if we want any wriggle room then it needs to be more than that. I'm aware this sounds like nothing, but that's 2.5 hours a night with Sundays off, and if the children aren't both asleep until 8 that means I have to work till 10.30, or later if (ha!) I have to stop and resettle them several times. It exhausts me just thinking about it.

Looks like it needs to be the year of attitudes, and cultivating my ability to "act as if". I've let myself off the 1st January hook - obviously I missed that boat - and instead am going to deem my own new year to start on a Monday, on 5th Jan, just after I get through one more weekend. And in this new Helen-year:

1. I will act as if I am a patient and tolerant mother, even when there's an inner scream and I'm bored of glitter and dirt and bodily fluids and I don't want to carry anyone around and I want to be asleep.
2. I am a writer. There are things out there, published, with my name on, and I write this blog, and I'll be doing all sorts this year - I will think of myself as a person who writes, which will let me carry on being one.
3. All the reading stuff that I wrote about in my last post - I'll read what and when I can, without a big self-important goal of covering Great Literature, but choosing what I'll enjoy and benefit from, and being sure to reflect on it and acknowledge it. Whenever I have a gap in my fiction-reading I forget how much it does for me, and how much I need that mental escape, the transportation to somewhere else.
4. Must remain conscious of the need to avoid bitterness: again, I've written about this before, but it's still warping me with no obvious benefit. I've got to learn that other people's happiness doesn't steal mine, and that we all have different opportunities and resources, and that, most importantly, there's nothing at all fruitful about comparing my insides with other people's outsides. Yes, on Facebook everyone's always beaming, and their three-year-olds had rosy-cheeked saintly Christmases where they played blissfully and absorbedly and gratefully with their toys, and ate without a fuss, and of course doted, as they always do, on their baby siblings - but that's not what happened here, and there's no point wishing it had. And everyone else's blog is beautiful and they have artistic coffee breaks every day and they take pictures of themselves making gorgeous craft projects and of their children smiling (those rosy cheeks again!) and they just get so much done and have so much exciting going on....STOP. It just doesn't get me anywhere. I can't know how complete the picture is from others, and even more importantly it doesn't matter, and all that thinking about it does is make me bad-tempered and ungrateful about my many blessings. So this year I will enjoy my friends' happiness, and maybe quietly daydream about having an aspirational lifestyle, but I will be on constant guard against allowing jealousy or negativity creep in.

What a gloomy, self-absorbed post, but it's honest, and it's a sort of purging - just one more day now of my version of this year, and a fresh start on Monday, and new shelves to fill, and my new diary about to come, and time to continue being at the centre of two small boys' universes, and so much to read and learn and do....there's hope yet.