Sunscream

I was a Seventies baby; the first baby of a man who was keen on photography. And so, there are boxes and boxes of small, square, yellow-tinted pictures of me still at my parents’ house: like an Instagram feed, but with unintentionally bad clothes.

The weather seemed to behave in the Seventies. There’s me, in the snow, poppy-cheeked in wellies and hand-me-down overalls. There’s me, rosy with milk and Spam, peeking through the cover of the raincover on the pram. And there’s me, with shocking white lines over patches of scarlet skin where the sun had fought with my clothes and caught my non-ginger mother unawares.

Back in the Seventies, suncream wasn’t A Thing. Sunburn wasn’t really A Thing either, just a bit of discomfort and humiliation. My mum, dark of hair and eye, would tan without even that; horrified at how easily her fair-skinned firstborn would fry in the daylight, she tried hard to protect me. I went in the pool, or to the beach, in soggy T-shirts long before UV swimwear was available; lumpy and clumsy, while other children swam lithely and gradually goldened around me. I was the first person I ever knew to wear proper suncream: factor 15, back in the days when that was medical-grade hardcore stuff compared to the coconut oil everyone else basked and sizzled in.

We redheads are never kissed by the sun. Kicked, maybe. We learn early on beach holidays and long, baking days that it will never render us bronzed, just send us from translucent to boiled to back again. Every so often, we’ll think that maybe it’s a case of mind over matter and determine to resolve ourselves brown, only to learn again the hard way to hug the shade abroad or in those occasional summers at home when everyone else strips off and sunbathes. I’ve made my peace with – am even quite proud of – the fact that in really hot weather I wear long loose clothing and a hat (slightly less so the fact that I’m also usually crimson with heat and distinctly sweaty nosed under some impossibly strong sun screen). Because of course, now, we know that the discomfort and humiliation of sunburn are the least serious of its gifts.

Doubtless the photos would show it if I really looked, but the thing is, I don’t remember burning in spring. I don’t remember other, less coppery, children getting pink noses and ears after playing outside in the winter term. Perhaps it’s age, perhaps it’s the curmudgeonly reaction of a worried mother who resents trying to coat three uncooperative children with slippery white goo, but I just don’t remember the sun being such a problem full stop.

I take the sun seriously. I really do my best. But there are days like today where I check the forecast before we go out for a trip, and see that it’s a pleasant, cool-ish, April day in northern England day, and – packing the waterproofs, but leaving the hats and cream at home – we come home burned. The children not too badly, but with enough of a glow to worry my poor over-read maternal heart. Me? Livid red stripes on brow and nose and scalp.

I know it’s my fault, and that I should have been prepared for all bloody eventualities. But actually, beyond the grumpiness of an unpleasant chore and the annoyance of knowing that I’m to blame is a small, sharp gulp at what the guidelines (and the unseasonal straplines) actually mean.

Stocking up on sun cream for a holiday has become second nature. Being sensible in the summer here likewise. But getting used to skin protection year round, as part of daily life, living here in the North East? It feels as alien to suggest painting the children green before each meal, or remembering to plait feathers into their hair thrice daily – and about as practical. I am grateful that suncream exists, of course, but it costs a fortune and it is a pain in the rear. Who can afford to use it as recommended? Who, really, would want to?

I feel rather like a (mutant) canary in a mine. Orange. And probably doomed.

Reflections on a Train

My life these days is busy but undeniably domestic. If I drew it on a Spirograph, it would be a pattern of tight, interlocking small circles: a rapid series of short orbits around the fixed point of home. I travel but little; rarely stray from the same handful of destinations. My journeys, these days, are metaphors: the fellow passengers there by my choice, the for-all-seasons ticket non-refundable.

For many years, though, my life was strung along the stations of the East Coast mainline. I must have spent months in trains and on platforms, travelling between family and university; friendship and love; home and work. Over time, I grew to know the contours along the route as well as my own face, and I grew to know my own face reflected against the changing landscapes beyond the glass.

I’ve watched myself at eighteen, with the excitement and terror of knowing I had an address of my own to travel to; and years later, on my first day in a suit, feeling just as young inside. I’ve watched my hair morph from wild curls to short bob and back again; my footwear from DMs to sensible pumps to perilously high heels. I’ve watched the strangeness of my own eyes looking back at me blinking away early morning sleep on the way to the office or the worst effects of the night (or term) before. The flush on my cheeks from the exchange of a glance or the prospect of a reunion; the furtive tears on separation back when there was no chance of text or call to soften the parting. I’ve turned my finger surreptitiously to see a brand new diamond flash in the fluorescent light or the sun as it sets. I’ve stared into a field suffused with spring dawn light and seen nothing but the two lines on a strip left on my bathroom shelf; watched the curve of my belly grow day by day till the suits were left behind again.

So many hours of daydreaming. So many days of watching rain run down the panes or squinting into the dazzle of the sun.  Absorbing the turns and leans of the rails, the burble of the announcements and the litany of the stations until knowing where to look, when to stand became the stuff of instinct rather than thought.

It’s years now since I’ve travelled regularly by train. First I swapped the commute for a drive: the sudden, luxurious convenience of stepping into a car outside my front door and parking just feet away from the office replacing the daily lottery of timetables and weather and peculiar fellow travellers. Then I swapped the commute altogether for a walk to school: pushing a pram, pulling a scooter, toting small wailing children rather than a designer handbag and a pair of shoes to change into. Whenever we go somewhere with the children, we tend to drive. There’s a small local tootle train which goes to the seaside, but this weekend, to celebrate a big birthday, we took them on a big train for the first time – all the way to Edinburgh.

I was there, still, at the station: the memory of countless icy Northern mornings hitting me through my behind when we sat to wait on the cold metal benches; rising up from the platform through the soles of my boots. The tiny jolt of adrenaline when the train was announced; the purposeful stride in the direction of the best seats before remembering we had reservations this time. The soft sigh of the upholstery and the tug as the train pulled away. There was even a handful of the old familiar faces, looking faintly appalled, as I would have done had a family of five looked set to disturb my thirty minutes of quiet.

I was there still when, the children finally nestled into seats with books and snacks, I caught sight of myself in the window: broader and busier, with silver and shade in my face that were never there before  -  but still me.  I think I’ve been there all the time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Ghost Kids”

We tend to eat our evening meal on the sofa, more often than not in front of the news on C4+1. Tonight, it was quarter to nine before we sat down, after a late night at work and a volunteers’ meeting.

I caught a feature on a survey of staff in the education sector by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers which, the intro suggested, had found a generation of “ghost kids”: exhausted and damaged by their parents’ long working hours and their own resultant long days.

I went off afterwards and looked up the actual report. In fact, the impact of longer working hours is just one of the many factors which staff identify as having a potentially detrimental effect on the quality of time children spend out of school hours. Increased use of technology is right up there with time away from the family home, as is the change in family dynamics over the past two decades.  There were also very positive opinions on the beneficial effects of wraparound childcare, especially for children with a background of deprivation: providing meals, warmth and safety where they might be in short supply at home.

That wasn’t the tone of the Ch4 piece, though. There was a discussion between Mary Bousted, Chair of the ATL, and Laurie Penny, and although both were clear that the survey should not be another stick with which to beat parents, the editorial steer of the entire piece was essentially to say that it was accusing parents of harming their children.  Mary Bousted stated categorically that many parents have little choice about whether to work full-time and use wrap-around childcare, and yet the presenter repeatedly suggested that the report was “unhelpful”, sending a hurtful message to working parents.

It is just so depressing that what is actually quite a thought-provoking study, looking at the opinions of professionals who work with children and young people, on how a wide range of changes in our society affect them, was used in this way; piling on the guilt, pressure and resentment.

Nothing in the report said  that childcare is intrinsically detrimental. Nothing said that parents, simply by working, were in any way harming their children. Surely we’re past those arguments now anyway, aren’t we? The report and the discussion explicitly pointed, instead, to the financial and other pressures which effectively make many families’ choices for them and which shape the environment in which children are growing up.

It goes without saying that parents – by which, really, I mean mothers – are used to our lives, choices and circumstances being judged and that we are defensive when we perceive criticism. But there is more at stake here than our feelings. It should be possible to acknowledge that we are doing the best we can; more, it should be possible to be genuinely happy with our personal decisions and choices, while still being able to look at the wider picture.

There is an increasing political consensus that schools should extend their opening times: longer days, shorter holidays. The rationale seems to be that  this will raise standards at the same time as helping working parents. Perhaps it will.  I suspect that we’ll all find out soon enough anyway.  What it will achieve is to formally shift the presumption of where a child spends the majority of its time. If schools are set up to accommodate attendance 10 hours a day for 45 weeks of the year, then parents will be freed from the burden (in terms of both logistics and guilt) of fitting children around their job; the friction of being the rope in a tug of war between two competing needs. It’s undeniably tough to reconcile work and childcare, but I would argue that most parents don’t want the problem solved by having the majority of their children’s waking hours effectively outsourced.

I think that schools undoubtedly should offer high quality, highly subsidised wraparound provision for children whose parents can’t be at the school gates at either end of the learning day. But I also think that parents who want to reduce or compress their working patterns to allow them to spend time with their children and to allow their children to spend time away from school should be supported in doing so, and those aims acknowledged as worthwhile. What price flexible working requests when childcare is, nominally at least, no longer an issue? How will children’s needs be best met?

We should be able to have this debate without it being framed as an attack on parents who work or turned into an ideological argument about whether childcare is intrinsically A Bad Thing. We should be able to step back from the personal, and instead look at where “helping” working parents could logically end up – and whether it’s something many of us would really consider to be an improvement.

 

 

Silence is…AWOL

I had a small epiphany this week. Actually, I had two.

I realised that “Questions I have been asked today” is going to be a lovely way to remember very particular moments of the children’s growing up. Writing a new one made me go back and look at the earlier two posts, and reminded me of now outgrown obsessions preoccupations.

But I also realised, possibly somewhat late in the day, that my children are people. I love my children. I just sometimes have a problem with people. Or, to be more precise, with lots of people, in large doses, for long periods of time.

If (or when) there was one of those personality-divining quizzes on Facebook when determines which room in a house you most resemble, I would not be a salon, with its overtones of sophistication and civilised intercourse. I wouldn’t be a kitchen, despite all the time I spend in it. Nor, even given my perma-longing for sleep, would I come up as “bedroom”. No; if it worked properly, it would diagnose me as a library. I am happiest engaging with the world in silence. I like quiet, order, peace (and books, obviously).

This is the bit which I didn’t foresee about parenthood. The constant noise. It’s morphed from crying and formless whinging into a steady din of happy nonsense, low-grade squabbling and occasional gale force ten rows. Snatches of songs real and imagined, tuneful and otherwise; humming and chuntering through mouthfuls of food at the table;  the volume cranked up to full on any TV or music player within a hundred yards. I didn’t realise that “I can’t hear myself think” is no empty wail; it’s a literal truth that the brain seems to stick in first gear when it’s trying, consciously or otherwise, to process audio-clutter.

No1 got a reflex-testing game for Christmas, and when I tried it the first night, cava intake notwithstanding, I did quite well. I tried it again the next day while the children, wired on chocolate and presents, were around me and I scored zero. I get that there are practicalities involved, but it seems a nonsense that driving on your phone is verboten while driving with a carful of small noise polluters is positively encouraged.

There are times – driving, certainly, but during the school holidays too  - when I feel beleaguered by company. Dusting the bookshelves in No1′s room yesterday, I realised that my youngest was sitting on my feet, his big brother leaning against my left side, his sister perched on the desk chair mere inches from my right. All three of them chattering to (or at) me, on three completely different subjects. And despite my gratitude at being able to choose to spend my children’s early years at home with them, despite my genuine love of their presence, I saw it, as I stood there wild-eyed and surrounded, suddenly like a scene from a sub-Hitchcock horror film. The Words.

Shortly after I had No1, my mum told me that when she was at home with us as babies, she had welcomed my dad home from work one night with a ten minute rant on the increase in the price of mushrooms. There are days when my husband comes home and I can’t even rise to that; I just stand in a corner of the kitchen gazing at the wall and mechanically eating crisps, while the inner workings of my ears recalibrate to the quiet. When I imagine heaven, now, I am lying for all eternity on a shaded beach with an endless supply of reading and my children playing happily, in full sight and easy reach, but just out of earshot

I fear, too, that so much time spent almost exclusively with children has started to ruin my capacity for conversation. I try to talk like an adult, but my brain still sends off runners and riders checking for potential pitfalls and hazards and “Oh look, a fire engine!”s. I try to listen like an adult, but I’m smiling and nodding and saying “that’s lovely, darling”, while mentally going through the freezer and deciding what we’ll have for tea. Maybe these long years of being the only adult I see all day (that, and the 140 character limit on Twitter) have permanently changed how my mind works so that I can only operate now on the shiny shallow level of damage limitation and constant distractions.

I’m using whatever is left of my capacity for sustained thought to hang on to one concept, though. That they’ll be teenagers one day and I will long for the times when they saw in me a permanent opportunity to bubble out their secrets and dreams and general crap. I can’t quite believe it right now, but I will miss these days. And I’ll have The Questions to comfort me in the sulky silence.

 

 

Questions I have been asked today (3)

What is Harry Potter’s first name?

What would happen if you gave someone everything they wanted but nothing they needed?

Why do boys have boobies?

What’s Isabelle’s mummy’s rabbit called?

Can I have my ears pierced?

Is this tomorrow?

What is Harry Potter’s second name?

When is it the cat’s birthday?

What is a horse?

Who would [insert character from Harry Potter] be in Percy Jackson?

Which Greek god would you be, mummy?

Can the cat do spinjitsu?

Does Luke Skywalker do spinjitsu?

Why can’t I have my ears pierced?

 

Happy Easter holidays, folks…

 

 

Dog’s Breakfast

The Gove asked
The Wilshaw, and
The Wilshaw asked
The Inspectorate
“Could we have school readiness
by age of five, Ofsted?”

The Wilshaw asked
The Inspectorate,
The Inspectorate said
“Certainly,
I’ll go and tell
The Telegraph
Before it goes to bed”

The Inspectorate,
Observed
And he went and told
The Telegraph:
“We’re going for school readiness
by age of five”, he said.

The Telegraph
Said sleepily
“You’d better tell
His Majesty
That many people nowadays
Like children-led
Instead.”

The Inspectorate
Said, “Fancy!”
And went to
His Majesty.
He curtsied to the Wilshaw, and
He turned a little red:
“Excuse me,
Your Majesty,
For taking of
The liberty,
But other ways can work, if
They’re
Really
Children-led.”

The Wilshaw said
“Oh!”
And turned to
The Gove:
“Talking of school readiness by
age of five; Ofsted
Says many people
Think that
Children-led
Is nicer.
Would you like to try a little
Children-led
Instead?”

The Gove said,
“Bother!”
And then he said,
“Oh, dear me!”
The Gove sobbed, “Oh, deary me!”
And went back to bed.
“Nobody,”
He whimpered,
“Could call me
A nursery man;
I only want
A little bit
Of school readiness
By age of five, Ofsted!”

The Wilshaw said,
“There, there!”
And went to
The Inspectorate.
The Inspectorate
Said, “There, there!”
And went to the shed.
The Telegraph said,
“There, there!
I didn’t really
Mean it;
Here’s headlines for his hobby horse
“school readiness”, Ofsted”.

The Wilshaw took
The headline
And brought it to
His Majesty;
The Gove said,
“Headline, eh?”
And bounced out of bed.
“Nobody,” he said,
As he binned the
Guardian,
“Nobody,” he said,
As he talked down
The evidence,
“Nobody,
“My darling,
Could call me
A nursery man—
BUT
I do like a little bit of school-readiness, Ofsted!”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10741986/Ofsted-all-parents-should-get-a-checklist-telling-them-how-to-raise-their-children.html

With enormous apologies to A.A. Milne

Becoming Mrs Bennet

Where once we had a social life, we now have Netflix.  Actually, where once we had conversations, we now have Netflix. It’s utterly addictive: watching just one more episode of whatever is our latest fix rather than talking to each other or doing work or indeed going to bed at a halfway reasonable hour.

Last night, sated on House of Cards and The Killing and The Bridge, we found ourselves watching the old BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

It came out originally just after I’d done the book for GCSE English, one of the rare pieces of literature to survive being studied and remain a favourite. I still love Jane Austen, love her, cool, elegant, dispassionate study of her world. Elizabeth Bennet has always ranked high on my list of People Out of Books I Want To Be.

I was never pretty or nice enough to be Jane. I did a passable Lydia/Kitty when drunk. (Did Kitty and Lydia drink? Perhaps if they thought they could get away with it, but probably not snakebite and black.) I had sinking moments where I realised I was really, probably, Mary. But who wouldn’t want to be Lizzie? Pretty, lively, clever, with integrity and wit enough to secure a marriage for love to a man of means? Yes please.

And so, I’ve always read it and watched it as Lizzie. I know the contours of her everyday so well that I live them with her, as familiar and unquestioned as my own. I love our close bond with Jane. I squirm at our younger sisters’ shameless exhibitionism. I relish our father’s barbed tongue and acid asides. As for Mr Darcy; do I really need to explain?

Maybe it’s because I’m making plans for my husband’s approaching fortieth birthday. Maybe it’s because my own is not far behind. But last night, I realised – properly realised – for the first time that I am twice the age of Lizzie Bennet. That I am old enough to be her mother. And, as I giggled and writhed at Alison Steadman’s familiar, bustling, self-absorbed, ridiculous Mrs Bennet, I realised that of the two, it’s not the daughter whom I resemble most.

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Mrs Bennett is a caricature, of course;  drawn in lurid tones for comic effect. I’m not that bad, I promise. It’s just that until last night, I’ve never before felt sympathy for her. I’ve never before seen a glimpse of myself in her circumstances and preoccupations.

I don’t stage-whisper to friends at social occasions about the eligibility of possible suitors for my children’s hands.  I don’t trade in gossip about settlements and scandal (not audibly, at least).  I don’t have to worry that my estate will be entailed away from me if I don’t produce a son (unless “estate” means “house”, “entailed away” means “repossessed”  and “produce a son” means “pay the mortgage”). I don’t think I make myself ridiculous in social situations, not least because I almost always have to drive.

But I do have long, fraught conversations about schools and catchment areas. I do fume and fret about property prices and the best place to live. I do worry about saving and stabilising and doing all in my power to secure and smooth my children’s future. I wish I were worthier. I do care about other things, some of them passionately. But what honestly keeps me awake at night? They’re all three of them sleeping not far away.

Wikipedia states that Mrs Bennet’s main ambition in life is to marry her children to wealthy men, and (the introduction of same sex marriages notwithstanding) that’s definitely not mine. Perhaps, though, there’s a different way to interpret what lies behind her silliness and narrow mindedness. Perhaps they are just the natural consequence of the general vertigo-inducing responsibility of making choices for small human beings whom you love beyond all else. Perhaps we’d all look a little ridiculous, if the things which mattered most to us were bared for all to see. It’s hard not to be narrow minded when it comes to your children. It’s hard not to succumb to an attack of the vapours at the sheer liability of it all.

I am still Lizzie in my mind. I probably will be when I am a hundred (on the days when I’m not Jo March or Anne Shirley; assuming, of course, that I get to a hundred at all). She’s the heroine, after all; she’s the promise and the anticipation of being young and having all the possibilities of life as yet unfettered and unrealised. But you can’t grow up to be someone younger than you are; you can’t live without those fetters and realisations changing you. I wonder who else I’ll read differently as I get older. I wonder who else I’ll see myself in, even when I’d really rather not. You can’t be the character at 40 you wanted to be at 20. Can you?

Déjà Do

Albert Einstein said that doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different result was the definition of madness.

Me, I think it sounds a lot like a job description for parenthood.

Actually, that’s unfair. There is usually a different result eventually, sometimes even the one hoped for, but on a day-to-day level it does feel very much as though raising children is an endless war of attrition, doing the same thing over and over in a kind of ankle-biting Groundhog Day (do groundhogs bite ankles?)

Looking back, I can see where my words, repeated often enough, have wrought change. At the time, though – right now, for example – the steady drip-feed of requests and reminders is more reminiscent of Chinese water torture. And I’m the victim.

The current Top Ten

1. Stop Sniffing
I know that at some point they will learn to manage a cold with tissues and handkerchiefs. In the meantime, though, I am treated to a five-minutely cockling and snorting of snot, an audible swallowing of mucus, a manual transfer of bogies from nose to lip to sleeve. Bleeech.

2. Yes, we do have to go to school
My youngest has been raised on the school run. He’s been trotted out in sling, pram, scooter or bike twice or thrice daily since birth. Yet we still have a battle each day at 2.55 when I have to convince him afresh that we can’t leave his big brother and sister at school overnight.

3. Pick up your pyjamas
This one is part of the dreaded Morning Routine, a hydra-like creature which throws up a new challenge each time the previous one is defeated. The general principle is always the same: please try to leave the room you’re vacating in a state similar to that in which you found it, rather than the set of an alien invasion movie.

4. Turn the TV down
I said turn it down. Down, please. TURN IT DOWN!!! Why are children compelled to watch telly inches away from the screen and at a volume which threatens the eardrums?

5. Flush the toilet
Mother’s Day is coming up, but my children leave me a gift several times a day. Lucky old me.

6. Yes, you do need to wash hands.
This is No3 again. Before any meal or snack time, when he gets wind of the fact that food is in the offing, he will creep up to me. Holding out grubby, germ-encrusted (see number one above) little paws, he asks piteously: “Are I alright?”
No, darling, you is not alright. You is a biohazard. Wash your hands please.

7. Be careful
This is the parental equivalent of those disclaimer notices you see in public places. Of dubious effect both legally and otherwise, they’re an attempt nonetheless to transfer responsibility. Yes, I know you were trying to cross the room on your fingertips without touching the floor, but I did tell you to be careful…

8. Play nicely
Similar in nature (and efficacy) to number 7. You know it is unlikely to do much, but by saying it (and saying it, and saying it) you hope it will give rise to a miracle. At some point before they all leave home.

9. No
Sometimes, I wonder if my children think that “No” is their other name. No, you can’t have biscuits for breakfast. No, you can’t come down the stairs on the wheelybug. No, you can’t read till midnight. No, you can’t play Minecraft while walking to school. I try to reframe it sometimes; try not to always answer in the negative. But as long as I’m the subject of such daft requests: No.

10. I love you
This is probably cheating. But all the others notwithstanding, this is the one I say the most. With a grin as we walk to school. With a hug after a falling out. With a smoothing back of hair, into a long-sleeping ear at the end of another busy day. It’s what I’m saying the rest of the time too, and it’s why I’ll never really tire of any of it. I love you. I love you. I love you.

Endings

***warning – talks about baby loss ***

This afternoon, after a hectic morning at preschool and elsewhere, with the rain pouring, No3 and I settled down on the sofa and decided to make the most of our recent re-subscription to Netflix.

He wanted to watch Lego Ninjago, I would rather have pulled out my eyes with tweezers. So we compromised. He curled up with his choice on the tablet; I decided to revisit The Bridge on the telly, with the sound turned down, and in the certainty that No3 doesn’t understand Danish. Or Swedish. Or subtitles, for that matter.

I’ve already seen both series of The Bridge. Now that I know how it finished; now that I know where these two strange, fictional, utterly engrossing characters ended up, there’s a strange pleasure in watching it again from the beginning. I can focus less on the plot and more on the dialogue, the motivation, the clues which even from the beginning start to mark out the ineluctable intertwined destinies of two Scandinavian detectives. I can observe with dispassion, knowing always where their paths are taking them, and with a kind of comfort in the certainty that no surprises await. I enjoy it more, now that the fiction is more apparent, now that I am not living the story with them.

I didn’t feel too guilty about spending day time watching TV, because it gave me a chance to put in some knitting on my current project – a blanket for SANDS, for their Always Loved, Never Forgotten memory boxes. Knitting is relatively new to me, and until now I’ve only made scarves. Then a friend posted a link on Facebook to a group started by a mum whose baby had been stillborn, and who wanted to support SANDS in a very practical way. Coincidentally, at the same time, another friend had the same tragic experience, at the same hospital. Making a blanket felt important to me; a tiny way to help parents going through something unimaginable.

It’s a strange thing to do, really. Making something by hand for another person is such an intimate, personal thing to do (even if, in my case, the thought eclipses the skill by some margin). Until now, everything I’ve knitted has had an intended beneficiary, someone I’m know and am close to. I’ve chosen the wool, spent the time with a friend or family member in mind and handed it over with love. A happy ending, if you like. This blanket, though, will go to someone who I’ll never know.  And, even harder, it will probably go to someone who at this moment has no idea of what their future holds.

I’m still knitting with love, but with sadness too, and with an odd reluctance to finish it, as if by doing so I am somehow influencing someone else’s fate. I’m not, of course, it’s a silly, superstitious reaction. I’m just one minuscule cog in the mechanics of support which committed people are compelled to offer to others experiencing a grief and loss which cleaves a life in two.

We have been incredibly lucky never to have suffered in that way. The sudden death of my cousin last year, though, has made me realise as I never truly did before that there are no happy endings. Even what is  most precious is held on trust, with no guarantee of certainty or lack of surprises. There will be a tomorrow, but it is not a given that it will be like today, or that I will want to live it at all.

I don’t believe that life is scripted. I don’t believe that anyone knows what will happen, knows how my story will unfold, as comforting as it would be to to do so. I do know, however, of the power of love, care and compassion in the face of tragedy. They can’t promise a happy ending, but they can offer a hope of a future in the worst of circumstances.

And so, I’ll knit my blanket, knowing that tragedy is unavoidable, but hoping that there will always be someone there to offer comfort.

 

 

 

Bare Faced Selfies

Over the past 48 hours, my Facebook feed has been filled with close-up images of women’s faces. Some are friends, some are acquaintances, some are just friends of friends all over the world who’ve been tagged into my timeline. None are wearing any makeup.

I’m not good with makeup. It isn’t that I think I don’t need it; more that my colouring and (lack of) skills always make it look weird. It masks my freckles, it clashes with my hair, it (increasingly) sinks into wrinkles and clings to little hairs and generally exaggerates what it’s supposed to conceal. I do wear a bit, but it’s applied more as a tribute to the god of grownupness than in any hope of looking better.

I know there’s debate and disagreement about the value of the bare faced selfie as an awareness raising stunt; less so about the money which it’s undoubtedly raising for cancer research. That’s not what will stay with me though, long after the photos and their male counterparts (far more disturbing!) have gone from my page.

Instead, I’ll remember women looking softer, younger, more vulnerable. I’ll remember natural skin with its flaws and imperfections, tired eyes, pale lips and creased cheeks. I’ll remember the expressions: nervous, proud, happy, reluctant. Smiles at a camera turned to a self portrait or smiles at a loved one behind the phone. Intimate. Exposed. Honest.

Everyone looked different, but everyone looked beautiful. We lacquer ourselves so much when we go out in the world that it is touching to be forced to realise and remember that there’s a real person behind the veneer. What strikes me is how many women post an apology alongside their picture: humorous or heartfelt, there is an almost universal self-deprecation, a disclaimer that they are only showing themselves for a good cause and that normal service will be resumed soon.

I suppose it just makes me sad that all these women, in all the myriad roles they fill which keep our world turning, are fairly unanimously agreed that they’re only acceptable when they spend their precious time, money and effort on looking different. That their natural state is unacceptable, ugly, even frightening. Why is it taboo to be ourselves?

I don’t have anything against makeup. Who doesn’t want to be more beautiful; who doesn’t want to take what they’ve been given and improve on it? I just want to tell all those gorgeous, pallid, lashless women that they don’t need it and they don’t owe it to the rest of the world to cover up. To show them the beauty they have. To tell them that they’re worthy of occupying their space just as they are. Because they’re worth it.