Entries in family (28)


wing's beat

Twice weekly I sit pool side as Joel swims into the early evening and those little pockets of time have become an unexpectedly pleasurable part of my week. Once I've thrown off all the layers I need in the world outside, and am better placed to withstand the throat-catching heat, I settle into my nook at the back of the stands and gaze on the activity around the pool.  

For a few minutes it's like watching birds flock and gather: all is flurry, noise and motion as busy chattering mingles with the slip-slurp of wet feet and the colour-flash of swimsuits as girls bend heads to knees to fold long hair into hats. The young boys laugh and wheel their arms in animation; their long limbs lengthened further by the monochrome stretch of knee-length lycra. The older ones hold their bodies awkwardly, watching the girls shyly from under still-dry fringes. Then groups begin to slip into the pool, stopping momentarily with the cold shock of water, before arms and legs start moving and the whole pool becomes alive with the grace of bodies in water. No longer boy and girl, in the water they become swimmer - athlete. Finally, as the air calms into the regular soothing rhythm of churn and splash, the busy hum of my mind calms and I reach into the chaos of my bag and pick out a book.

Over the last couple of sessions I've been reading Kathleen Jamie's intimate, weather-filled essay collection Sightlines. I close my eyes and think about the book. I think of wind, light, birds, sea, sky, home. Transience. A startling, poetic precision of language that sometimes made me shiver. But I can't separate my experience of reading of it from the sensation of itchy, chloriney heat and yellow light on blue water and the simple, touching pleasure of watching children determinedly ploughing back and forth. Watching, amongst others, my child. In the final paragraph of the final essay - Wind - she writes:

'There are myths and fragments which suggest that the sea that we were flying over was once land. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, it was a forest with trees, but the sea rose and covered it over. The wind and sea. Everything else is provisional. A wing's beat and it's gone. 

That wing's beat echoes in the arc and stretch of the young arms pulling through water in front of me as I read; pulling, striving, growing. Growing up and away. A wing's beat - and they're gone. 



these days

They move slowly when you're in them but then you realise that they've gone - and so fast. I'm taking deeper breaths and letting things drop. 'Standards' as my grandmother would have called them. Obligations. Expectations. I'm not someone that all this comes naturally to. In fact, my husband would laugh to think that any of these have been dropped. I expect a lot from myself; from everyone. But when it comes to Joel I'm more able to let it go.

The side of my self that I like most is the one that takes life lightly and it's the one that having a son draws out. Perhaps a child, I don't know. But my son is all I know and I know that I like myself better for being his mother. Not all the time by any means but that's for another time. 

This time is about swimming outdoors, tennis and table football, drawing, playing with Lego and being silly. Hugging. Which is heaven for me, except for that point in the middle of the day when I need to draw breath and draw myself into my self for a little. So he goes up to his room with his books and I do - whatever I need. I need a lot of things but with him in my life it makes it easier. 



a little blue

Joel at 2. taken with old film.

This morning's dawn chorus was different. Instead of starting slowly, with blackbird and robin calling out politely to start a birdly murmur, there was a brisk and purposeful bird-wide chatter as if they all woke up at once and knew that the rarely-seen sun would shine for a few hours and there was work to be done.

I'm also jolted into action in the knowledge that tomorrow marks the end of the school term. There have been so many school and personal commitments filling up the days that I've kept my eyes averted from the calendar simply not to feel the acute sense of time limited. But they're suddenly here. The holidays that I've longed for just a few steps away. There is an odd sense of sadness about the closing of this term as it marks the end of Joel's time in the comfortable, homely early years. In September, he moves to another part of the school and another type of learning and a longer day that breaks my heart. Over these last months we've deliberated about home-educating Joel for the next year to avoid the working week school hours. That's what I would like to do. But he loves his school and his friends so on he'll go and we'll take it from there.

And on I'll go. I'll take my coffee outside now and watch the busy, birdly times outside. The buzzards wheeling lazily overhead now, confident of speed when they need it. The little wrens moving so quickly and beautifully from bush to fence to perch in the honeysuckle that's just beginning to bloom. Blue-tits hanging upside down on the willow. I'll sit in the noisy silence and have my fill of the solitude that will soon be a memory.   



This weekend we swapped our rural spot for urban Brighton, staying in the home from home that belongs to friends while they stayed at ours. We've been doing swaps for a few years now and it works perfectly. Only an hour's drive away, it's as welcome a change as any fancy hotel. Simply stepping out of our square little house and into their long, elegant terrace makes us live differently for a few days and allows for a type of relaxation that has everything to do with the small things. The certain pleasure of corridors. A cat again. Excellent radios in every room. Walking to a shop. More than anything, though, is just being away from those little obligations that call from your own home.

Our days moved happily and just slowly enough. We caught up with local friends, created a number of Lego magnificences, raced motor boats on the pier and wandered the narrow lanes of the old town. Two Easter egg hunts yielded Joel a full basket of eggs. I ate a lot of cinnamon buns. The local bakery is famous for its hot-cross buns but I'm a raisin hater and once you've picked the raisins out of a bun it no longer holds much pleasure.

There was a Sunday lunch at the cottages where I felt such fury for one of my extended in-laws that I actually shook throughout my body. It was an interesting moment in the middle of a maelstrom. I've never been as happy to get back to that comfortable house as I did that day. 

And then there's coming home. To a lovely bottle of wine; a fine wooden raft to float on the stream and the new buds and blossoms that have opened in our absence. All's well etc. 



at home

Stepping out into the early dark last night to pick a pair of bay leaves, I stood for a while looking up at Jupiter and Venus shining particularly brightly in the clear, cold night. Bats flickered under the willow. Walking back into the warmth of the kitchen, I felt a surge of contentment and sense of place that surprised me. We've lived here for nearly five years: longer than I've ever lived in a house, or a place. Being settled doesn't really settle me. Or so I thought. This odd little house that contains most of Joel's memories until now, with the garden that frustrates and delights in turn, has become a home that will be hard to leave. 



It's odd how things come together. Yesterday, to make space for a new piano, I had to find a place for everything that currently lives in a large and accommodating chest of drawers. And in a small house, that means sorting and throwing and finding new containers for things that fit perfectly well in their current home but seem utterly wrong anywhere else. 

I wasn't full of joy about my task. And the sun was shining so warmly that it seemed ungrateful to be indoors, so I made a strong espresso and told myself briskly that after a short break I'd get back to the job with no more excuses. Grabbing a well-thumbed copy of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women from the pile of books that no longer had a home, I settled on a bench outside. 

It was a full two hours later when I rushed back in, full of guilty zeal, to fling books and boxes into at least an approximate order before making a dash to collect Joel from school. I'd been charmed again by the voice of Mildred. Regarding herself with that particularly English form of self-deprecation and reluctant self-knowledge, and others with an eye that vacillates between dutiful generosity and sharp accuity, she's a perfect guide through a small slice of post-war English life.   

And then, while hastily sorting a drawer stuffed with cards and notebooks I came across an old postcard that I picked up years ago. I'd bought it solely because I was amused by the text. Who was the rather imperious, leggy Cynthia and why need Joan buy her stockings? But coming straight after my reading of Pym's book, it was as if the characters had come to life. I immediately imagined that Joan was a sort of Mildred; living alone in a relatively smart address, but perhaps in a small series of rooms, with washing drying on a rack and simple suppers that she resented eating. And Cynthia her glamorous friend, too busy with her romantic dramas to buy something so banal as stockings.

The synchronicity pleased me and made me feel that my distraction had a higher purpose. Rather a satisfactory day after all. 




It was another brief weekend at the cottages. A perfect pair of spring days with a sudden warmth that had me stripping off my layers in disbelief. Arriving late morning, we unpacked and ate a hasty make-do sort of lunch before heading out and up to walk the forest tracks to the ridge of hills that give us a favourite view over the area. The snow layer has been slow to go so the ground was surprisingly muddy. Joel soon regretted his decision to mountain bike and there was not a little bartering about who would push the bike on the steep sections. Back home, in front of the fire, a few slices of intensely lemony drizzle cake with a good thick crust of sugar made the efforts worthwhile, and eased the hour or two until the grown ups reclaimed the evening.  

I woke the next morning to silence as the boys had slipped next door to have breakfast with John's mother. Cup of tea in hand and a stack of old Country Living magazines weighing down the bed covers, I listened to the birds calling happily through the window until the light forced me to get up, and get out my camera. It was a day of rainbows, scattered through the house and briefly cresting the distant trees. Football and more cycling, this time on the flat, before we had to pack up and make the journey home. The grind of unpacking made more palatable by the sheer pleasure of knowing we'd each be sleeping in our own beds with all the familiar sounds of home. 


week's end

The closing days of the short school holidays have come too quickly and we're refusing to look Monday in the eye. It's been a gentle time, suddenly warm and springly sunny, and we haven't ventured far from home. The list of activities I had planned was ignored. Instead, the stream has been dipped, some tennis played, drawings made, books read. Fields walked through and the alpacas conversed with. A chocolate cake baked and devoured. Films watched in front of the fire, with soft toys tucked under a blanket. Good days.



Even though the sky was thickening we didn't dare get our hopes up. But late afternoon, home from the planetarium and with eyes full of black holes, small flakes began to fall. By evening, the unmistakeable silence that comes with snow had settled and we could relax, knowing it would be enough. Though a few days late. These last years the first snow has fallen during the night before Joel's birthday and that opening of a curtain to unexpected whiteness has been the first present. But it's worth waiting for that day of exhausting sledding down our long hill and snow fights. 

The sun is too warm though for the snow to last. Already, the whole hill has reverted to green though the lake remains weakly frozen. Yesterday, snowed home from school, we watched a heron lifting off from the still-running stream in the stillness of the snow, trailing long, awkward legs.

Today, the garden is busy with birds readying for spring. Looking out on my peaceful, if quietly active garden, with workmen sizing up the fireplace for another wood burner, I'm accommodating the incongruity of listening to a news report of the bombardment of Homs with defiant birdsong still audible amongst the blasts of mortars. It reminds me of the recording of the song of the nightingale in a Surrey garden - not too far from here - through which can be heard the drone of the bombers flying on a raid during the second world war. I'm not sure if that juxtaposition of bird and bomber lifts my heart or makes me despair more.

A male blackbird eyes me through the window as if to inquire about the too-soft grapes that usually make their way outside at around this time. I know I'm grateful to be halfway through an ordinary day with its ordinary preoccupations: supper tonight, schools, the deepening creases at the corners of my eyes. The vague, ungrateful dissatisfaction that my lunchtime bowl of leftover thai-spiced spinach and potato curry was just a little too small for my big hunger today - until sharp lime pickle brought me to my senses. 

I wish you an ordinary day. 


la mer

On Sunday, John and I were thrown an unexpected couple of hours alone. As Joel disappeared on a hunt for flints with his visiting Italian uncle, we stood bewildered by what to do. Desperate for air after the celebrations of the night before, but away for the weekend without our walking boots, we struck out for the sea. 

Fiercely cold and intensely bright, it was a perfect day for a stomp along the promenade. The sea dazzled and the wind blew strong but - oh joy and pleasure - it miraculously blew behind us each way. So my long coat and untamed hair moved smoothly around me and we moved swiftly along together; discussing, looking and breathing in all that good air.

There are some days just made for fish & chips and this was one of them. Hurrying the short steps from our favourite fish restaurant to beach with our paper wrapped food, we settled on the shingle and dived in. Eating hastily, gloriously burning fingers and mouths, we stared in companionable silence at the surf and the gulls scudding and darting over the waves.  Denise's post beautifully captures how the sea can heal and settle. I've lived near the coast on and off for years but when living away it's the shift and swell and empty horizon that I crave. 

Refreshed and restored we retraced our steps, more slowly now, back towards the cliffs and to the cottage, where a ring of flints were joined by two perfect shells. It was a good day. 


quietly happy

Back in our own little house after several days staying in rather glamorous surroundings it's the pleasure of the familiar that has us excited. I'm happy to live at a gentler pace after the rush of these last few weeks and to enjoy looser days before school enforces its own routine. 

These first days of a new year always take some adjusting for me: I've only just dug out the new kitchen calendar. It's a ritual that I write in all the birthdays and important dates for the year - and a ritual still to be running to the postbox with a card at the very last minute and just hoping that our postal service will perform a miracle. And since I have a stock of cards always made, and envelopes and stamps and the dates faithfully written in my diary why should it still happen? I think because I feel I've already done the hard work. 

I hope this first week sees you settling in happily into 2012. 



These last few weeks have been lived largely without internet access, often without a phone line and with a dying laptop that finally had to be replaced. The daytime silence that settles through the house on a school day was heightened by the absence of phone rings and click of keys to the point where I held off automatically switching on the radio in favour of letting the external sounds filter into the quiet. In some small way, those little periods of mindful silence these last weeks have been a form of meditation. Perhaps I'm storing up the silence for winter, as term ends soon and the season of anticipation and feverish excitement begins. Storing up patience as I've stored the fruits that have been harvested, juiced, cooked and frozen.

And warm autumn sun has continued on, making these short days vivid with colour. Surrounded by woodland and heaths, our valley has been so lovely to walk through, especially as we can do so largely unencumbered by coats and layers. The heather lasted well beyond its usual season, the berries fruited on and on and our garden blue tits have recently raised their second batch of chicks this year. Until yesterday, when the first hard frosts left fields and leaves stiffly white for those first hours, it seemed impossible that winter would ever come. But I'm ready for it now; ready for the rush towards the end of the year with its making and baking and advent.

Walking to the car this afternoon in low yellow sun through rustling brown leaves with the church bell tolling the end of another life, I felt utterly grateful. For the warmth of the bonfires and fireworks and unexpected loveliness of autumn. That I was on my way to pick up Joel from school. It seems that the warm pleasures of these last weeks has enabled me to build a store of happiness against the coldest weeks of winter and those moments when joy is harder to find. Come on winter, we're ready for you. 



Digging of various sorts happened at the weekend. A bit of harvesting and planting; rummaging in the earthen side of a slope in our woods that functioned as a broken crockery depository in the glory days of the manor house; and looking for flints in the earth excavated by badger and fox. There's something so satisfying about putting things into earth and taking them out. Bulbs that hunker in the soil until you forget that they're there and appear just when you'd stopped believing that spring would come. Garlic that warms winter dishes. Flints and bits of pottery that offer a little moment into another world. Just pottering about, all digging at this and that, there's satisfaction in dirt.  


handmade home

top photo: Swedish Elle Interiors 2010: home of Maria Astrom and Sam Stigsson. bottom photos: British Elle Decoration June 2011: home of Kristin Peters

I was relieved to see the cover of last month's British Elle Decoration celebrating the handmade home. As I gazed around our own little house, I could see fewer than a handful of items that we'd brought brand new, and fewer still that haven't been adapted, or painted or otherwise tinkered with. We've always preferred to find furniture and objects to re-home and had quite a collection. But when we moved here we found that most of our furniture didn't fit. Needing new furniture throughout we had to be inventive to keep costs down. Older items are frequently more petite, so a 1950s Danish teak sideboard (bought for £10 and revived with patient applications of teak oil) sits neatly in the sitting room concealing any number of toys behind its sturdy doors; a sternly plain Victorian bookcase fits perfectly into the study alongside a pair of vintage desks and a rosewood linen press contains clothes and linens in the alcove no modern wardrobe would fit into.

The one problem with the handmade home is that it can take longer to source furniture and it usually involves a bit of work. Whitening old wood that can never be restored to its full glory is utter simplicity but while slippery modern laminate needs a little more effort, it yields equally satisfying results. A friend's unwanted IKEA chest of drawers has been transformed with some chalky white paint into a piece that is often mistaken for vintage scandinavian. I'd much rather expend a bit of energy than a lot of cash, but sometimes I admit to putting the task off. Which is why a prettily-shaped modern dining table (another cast off from a friend) has been waiting patiently in the shed for me to get sanding and painting. But it will be done and every time we use it I'll think of her.

The interiors I love most are those where you have a strong sense of the people who live there. They may not be the most styled, or even entirely my taste, but to me there's nothing better than stepping into a characterful and individual home rather than one expensively but blandly furnished. What I like about the photos above, and this eclectic bedroom, are that they're examples of relatively simple but still individual and homely rooms.

For our own home I prefer a simple palette of white and wood offset by splashes of colour. I like pictures and photos (both snaps and John's own fine art photographic prints) books, fresh flowers, candles in jars and glasses and a mix of textures. I like looking at our collections of natural objects and discovered treasures but dislike clutter, so tend to only display a selection of our things at a time. And I'm bordering on obsessed with keeping all the necessary clutter of life (art supplies, paperwork and inevitable mountain of toys) firmly behind solid doors. I also make quite a few things for the house - cushions, coverings, throws, table linen - and like to display a few pieces of Joel's work properly amongst our other things. All in all, it's a home handmade by us all and we like living in it.

As I'm writing the guilt of that languishing table is gathering. It seems there's nothing else for it but to get out the sandpaper and the paints and get down to work. 


ah, grasshopper

detail of a journal entry

We plan our lives according to a dream that came to us in our childhood, and we find that life alters our plans. And yet, at the end, from a rare height, we also see that our dream was our fate. It's just that providence had other ideas as to how we would get there. Destiny plans a different route, or turns the dream around, as if it were a riddle, and fulfills the dream in ways we couldn't have expected. Ben Okri 

A couple of weeks ago during heavy rains, the little stream that runs down through our garden to join the wider stream at the bottom started to forge an alternative tributary to accommodate the greater volume of water. I have a little perch next to the point where the streams meet and, sitting there one afternoon in the stillness of the after rain, I noticed how beautifully the stream had dealt with its problem. Instead of overspilling wastefully over the garden it had quietly forged a neat path past various obstacles, to join the river at a very sensible point close to its twin. I saw there might be a lesson in that for me.

My life so far hasn't been entirely predictable. I've stopped and started and moved and changed. I went to Nepal seven years ago to teach and to explore, with a deep need to change my life. I anticipated the change would come slowly, through travel and encounters and the gradual unfolding of a new path. John joined me after a time and we planned to change our lives slowly in tandem. Instead, in Nepal, I found myself pregnant. So life did change - and it's been a wonderful change - just not at all as either of us had anticipated.

The route of my life has taken hasn't been straight and undoubtedly I'll continue to encounter detours and change. The lesson I take from the stream is that if I move purposefully and consistently back in the direction of my childhood dream - moving steadily and calmly past the obstacles - I'll get there. The journey and the destination may not be exactly how I planned, but perhaps that unknowing is part of the joy?


treading lightly

The summer holiday has begun and we all feel lighter for it. It's lovely simply to have time to be together. Getting out the bubbles and watching the butterflies and dragonflies darting in between them. Watching bubbles skim lightly over the surface of the stream and family of ducks swimming furiously to investigate. Sitting outside with boxes and tape and paper and pens and making a series of creatures and their homes. Discovering a skateboard park that's perfect for stunt biking. Building upon a growing crystal collection and reading all about them. Talking. Laughing.

Shedding constraints. I'm still tethered to earth by the practicalities of preparing to leave for France at the weekend but look forward to cutting those final ties and treading more lightly through life for a few weeks. I hope summer is being kind to you.



a life in pictures

Sometimes when I'm uploading photos from my camera I come across images that I don't remember taking. Then I realise that Joel has been photographing. Santa bought him a little camera last year but it's usually mine that he picks up, and he's pretty adept at using it now.

I love to see the world through his eyes. The sheer difference in height changes the way he sees things, and it makes me see what he values. The favourite shoes; the surprisingly lovely light of a bath-toy; John's gardening gloves drying; an outgrown tricycle. Our quiet lunches and shared painting times. Me and John - usually unflattering but always loving. When I laugh at how I look in them he says indignantly 'no, you look lovely!' (have you noticed that I haven't included any of those? yes, I am that vain).

Not many days go by when I don't photograph. Because a lot of my life is spent around the house, that's reflected in my pictures. Joel has a strong sense of what my eye gravitates to - 'Look mummy! look at that shadow! quick!' - so I find it fascinating to see what catches his eye. I like his aesthetic: the angles and exposures may not be perfect but they're surprisingly composed and take account of the fall of light, and of colour.

Sometimes Joel moans as I rush off to get my camera, 'you don't always have to take photos of everything!' and mugs the shots after I make him do that thing again (and maybe again because I haven't quite caught the expression) like he's on a photo-shoot. But I tell him that one day, when he's older, he'll be happy to look back on so many photos of himself and his home. And among them will be his own photos of home and of family. Will the memories be more precious for that?



rich rewards

There was bunting. There was fizzy stuff. There was lovely food and more wine and warm sun and presents. The crostata passed muster. All in all there was the stuff needed for John to have a happy birthday. Surreal moments included the assembled family stumbling their way through a deceptively difficult Italian children's tune about bells that Nonna is determined Joel will learn, with the reward that when he does 'we can move on to a lovely song about fruit'. Cricket played with sticks that shortened after each stroke. Dogon the sweet natured greyhound sighing and groaning with thwarted ecstasy at the chicken bones just out of reach.

I got lumbered with the washing up so rewarded myself with wine to sip after each water change. And since Dogon was my kitchen companion, he finally received his own reward for patience beyond the call of duty and had a little plate of meaty joy.

Lastly, coffee and eton mess and a bit of a relax in the warmth of the early evening sun. A gentle way to contemplate the fact that another year has passed.


familiar ground

 A weekend away in the depths of the Kent countryside; a ten minute drive from Canterbury but a curiously remote and rural world of wheat fields, high hedges and ancient lanes. We stayed just down the road from the house we once lived in. And possibly made the mistake of visiting it. Or rather, trailing muddily alongside down a footpath, peeping into the garden as we went.

I pointed out the field that Joel knows only from one of my favourite photos of him, at a little over a year, running topless back from our blackberry gathering. The greenhouse where he took his first steps and helped John water tomatoes and me pot up seeds. The gates that he walked with John to open each morning. The grounds that I wheel-barrowed him round in when he was too heavy to carry and our return journeys laden with vegetables we'd picked. Searingly vivid moments of remembered happiness stand out amidst the background grey of profound isolation I felt during our year there. And our visit brought that remembered unhappiness to the fore.

Was this the cause of my snippiness and critical eye this weekend? Easy to say so. But despite it all we managed to make a lot of happy little memories. Fresh fish on the beach at Whitstable, and discovering scores of fresh oysters hiding in the sand (reader: we left them). A trip to the new Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate that surprised and pleased us all and Joel's first stick of rock. Tree climbing, flower sniffing and hide and seek in the glorious garden of the cottage we were staying in. No TV, computer or radio so quiet nights of reading and just a bit too much wine.

And the relief of coming home and appreciating again that then isn't now.


risky behaviour

We strung a zip wire in the woods alongside our house last year and it's proved to be both a great source of entertainment and a way to develop and direct risk taking. Over time, we've raised the angle of the wire so it goes pretty fast, and ends just short of a tree. But it's possible to hurl yourself off the platform so that you hit the buffers with a bang and a slam of feet on tree trunk. I wince every time. But I'm happy for Joel to keep on doing it.

One of the things I've found hardest as Joel grows is to stop myself crying out 'be careful!' on a loop through the day. We're surrounded by woods and water to explore and have done so since Joel was tiny. Building dams, floating boats, stream dipping and tree climbing have taken precedence over traditional playgrounds for us, mostly because it's on our doorstep rather than a drive away. All lovely but so full of potential danger! 

Despite my fears (the endless dreams I wake from in a cold sweat and run through in my mind whenever we're near deep water) I'm the one who urges Joel on to keep trying to climb a little higher, or ride the track that seems hard or jump into the deep end. I know that surge of self-confidence that comes with being scared and trying it nevertheless. He'll grow and the risks will get greater. I'll keep being scared and urging him on neverthless. We're both learning.