The Star That Stayed

She came home from school  with a silver star on her jumper, hidden under her coat until Granny spotted it.

“Oh! What’s that for?”

I was going to say that we never get a sensible answer to that question, except she piped up.

“Miss Smith gave it to me. For sitting up straight and helping.” (Miss Smith is one of the supervisors at dinnertime at school.)

“Oh, very good.”

I thought that was the end of the exchange. I was wrong.

“Miss Smith gave it to me, but you can have it.”

And so the little silver star sticker was transferred from school jumper to red Granny jumper. And there it stayed, all afternoon, and all evening.

And the next day too.

“Look, I still have your star.”

And they smiled together.

The next day, I saw the jumper neatly folded on a chair, silver star uppermost.

I think that star is still there. The star that stayed. The star that is a love remembered, and shared, and cherished.

Will you share your silver star today? Will you see how long it stays?

House Guests And Hope

I We have visitors at the moment. The Dude’s parents have come up to visit for a day short of a fortnight (planned). So has some cold bugs (unplanned). Mrs Dude started sniffling on the train up, and yesterday Mr Dude was sniffling too. All the while, my The Dude is showing signs of sniffle-fighting and I can feel the lurgy trying to take hold in my throat. I suspect the only reason Little Person isn’t sniffling along with us is because she spends all day around germs at school.

Still. There’s hope.

Why, you ask. Because there’s always hope.

And that’s all you’re getting today, because like I said, house guests. And taking care of them, and myself is more important than any blog post.

So if you don’t see me for a few days/weeks, you know why.

But remember: there’s always hope. Always.

Sometimes the Best Thing You can do to Your Dreams is Kill Them

If you had told me twenty, ten or five years ago that I would be happy as a stay at home mother, finding joy in the challenge to feed my family on leftovers, I would have told you to go and have your head examined.

If you had told me I would accept, and perhaps even embrace, the reality of the special needs mum label, I would have laughed in your face.

If you had told me I would be happy with the choice not pursue a PhD, I would have been on the phone to have your nearest and dearest take you to the hospital immediately because you and reality had a very tenuous relationship.

And yet here we are. (Although I will admit to a certain tweak as I see my friends from my postgrad days edge ever closer to completion of their doctorates. Until I remember the stress.)

Some dreams, we realise are just dreams, and that was all they were ever meant to be. Daydreams and what if’s and idle chatter with close friends. Never going to happen. Not even sure if we would be able to cope if they actually did come true.

Other dreams, we don’t call dreams, and we hold them much closer. We call them plans, and goals, and we speak of them as the purpose of our lives. We are, after all, nothing without the dream. Without the driving force, without that direction, without the dangling carrot of what we want to get, what would we do with ourselves?

My PhD idea was a plan, a goal. An obsession, sometimes. (I took a laptop on our family holiday because I knew if I was shortlisted for a position, I would be required to have a Skype interview.) But in certain respects, it was a dream born out of an expectation – I was intelligent enough, so of course I would get a PhD. Growing up, being clever was all I had. Letting go of the PhD was more than letting go of the PhD. It was letting go of the only thing I was ever good enough at.

Good enough for who?

And then there are the nameless dreams, the unspoken dreams, the dreams that drift just below the surface and we scarcely acknowledge their existence. We don’t call them dreams either, because we dare not admit the power they hold over our hearts. But they breathe out in our expectations, in our turn of phrase as we describe the people in our lives, the things we are doing, the judgements we pass over ourselves. We don’t want to admit they are there. And we certainly wouldn’t think to drag them into the daylight to examine them. Because who knows what they might tell us about ourselves.

Such is the nature of my big unknowable dream that I am now trying to kill. The big one, the one I’m in the process of bludgeoning (it sometimes tries to sneak back in, wearing a different hat), is the nameless never-expressed wallowing beneath the surface. The career woman with happy children dream. The expectation that I would have 2.1 children, and that I would be the principle breadwinner (because, you know, clever) and that my caring husband and I would raise said well behaved and typically developing children to be adventurous eaters, well-travelled, sporty with a creative bent and good maths skills. Or something like that.

I didn’t realise how I was still holding onto that dream until we were sitting in the paediatrician’s office and I was trying not to cry.

I wasn’t made to be a special needs mum, you see. At least, not in my dreams. I’m good with kids, you see. I tell them stories, play games, create imaginary worlds that help them make sense of their every day.

Little Person has little time for my world of words.

To be a happy mother, to find joy in my family, I have to kill the dream. I have to choose this reality, this life that I wake up to every day, not the life I thought I was going to live. That life was never going to happen. I have to see my Little Person for the beautiful, brave and inspiring person that she is. I have to love the watching birds, and painting boxes, and trying to find somewhere to hide my chocolate. I have to accept the one thing that makes this challenging reality better than the dream.

I get to touch it. I get to cuddle Little Person, and watch her grow, and see the sparkle in her eyes, and hear her laugh as she cries out “Tickle me, no don’t tickle me!” And I would rather be able to experience the fullness of what that means, than spend these moments comparing it to the dream I will never have.

Dreams. Sometimes you’re better off killing them.

Finding the Joy, Losing the Judgement

Thankfulness. It’s something we could all do with having a little more of. And it’s something I have been learning a little bit about over these last few months. So when the opportunity arose to write a guest post for Lily’s Thankfulness Thursday series, I knew I had to give it a go.

So I wrote something, and I think you might want to read it. But you have to click this link to do it.

Writing Wednesday: The Role of Ritual and Routine (Or, How To Get Back On The Wagon)

Writing – it’s a joy, an art, a mystery, a discipline. Plenty of wrong answers, and a plethora of right ones. How-to’s, when-to’s, must-do’s, don’t do’s – so much to remember, so much to think about. And when it’s all going well, we just write it. Doubts are ignored, hopes soar, words stream onto the page and we are all at once happy and hungry for more.

And then something happens. We write ourselves into a corner. Life intervenes. Holidays, or family visits, or the washing machine breaks, or we get a really bad cold. The happy writer routine flies out the window. A day, and then a week flies by without words hitting the page. A new feeling fills the heart.

Despair? Guilt? Fear? Hard to say. Definitely something worse than discomfort. Got to get back to the page, got to find the words again. But it’s like the quicksand is sucking us away, and the treasure is just over there and we just can’t get it, and if this was a nightmare I would be awake by now!

So what to do? How to get back on the writing wagon? How to find the words again when it feels like they are teasing us and we will never ever catch them ever again.

Two words. Ritual. Routine.

I have a zillion different herbal teas, a sample of which I reserve for my writing time. I have biscuits that I generally keep for when I am writing too – that way, when things are going well, I don’t have to move when the munchies strike, and when things are going badly, I can write about the biscuits. I have a very noisy clothes dryer, the rumble from which I can hear as I sit at my desk. On days the words won’t come, I make sure to put that on. Maybe you have a cream you can put on your hands, or a calendar you can tick the day off on. Something sensory, something pleasant, something you can associate specifically with writing, without it actually being writing. A ritual that doesn’t connect you to the internet, but rather connects you to what makes you, you.

Of course, this advice works best retrospectively. By which I mean, if you have a ritual before you start writing, then when something stops you from writing, doing the ritual can help you start up again. It jogs your brain into a different way of thinking. Helps you remember what writing feels like – without the actual writing bit. But if you don’t have a specific ritual that you have consciously put in place, you have to go back and think about the places that you were, and things you did when you were writing. Favourite writing mug? Favourite pen? Music? Take a walk beforehand? Shower? Salad for lunch?

When you’re trying to get back to the words, you don’t want to be buying a new notebook and rearranging your desk in the hope that the new words will come (the exception is, obviously, if you have written yourself into a corner). You want to capture the essence of what it was to be writing the way you were writing – just maybe without the pressure to do the actual writing.

So find, and do the rituals. Every day. And write. Badly. Or write what you’ve already written. Tell yourself it’s not about the words, it’s about the routine. It’s about the ritual, and the action and the doing. And before you know it, the words will come rushing back, just to see what you are up to.

Writing. It’s a mystery.

Blisters and Calluses

I have a whopper of a blister on my second from tiniest toe on my left foot. I blame my father’s genes for the crumpled up toe that refuses to lie flat even when I’m wearing open-toed heels. Also, I blame my well-developed non-conformist attitude to the whole women and shoes thing. Mostly, I wear a pair of trainers (the kind you can just slip on your feet, you don’t even have to tie them up), or boots in winter. Comfortable. Practical. Efficient.

Not what you want when you’re going to a party. Which is where I was Saturday night. So, blisters. Which will eventually fade away, because I’m going back to wearing my trainers for out and about and slippers in the house, thank you very much.

Blisters. Painful. Awkward. The body’s response to a localised trauma – be it a sudden burn (done that) or the repeated friction of ill-fitting shoes. And if I carried on wearing the shoes, the blisters would eventually turn into calluses. And calluses are just plain ugly. Well they are, aren’t they?

Except here’s the thing. Right  now, I have blisters on my feet and calluses on my hands, and both tell a story. Both are necessary. The blisters are raw, and new, and painful, and tell me to take care and be gentle. They speak of an injury that requires nurturing. The calluses on my hands are the result of years of writing in notebooks, and months of weaving yarn through my fingers as I crochet. Actions repeated over and over again, until they become part of my body, part of my identity. Calluses speak of repetition, and time invested in an activity – they speak of swellings that have healed over, and skin that has grown thick to protect what lies beneath. Without the calluses, long afternoons of crochet, and evenings of writing would just be too painful.

The blister protects the injured and raw skin below as it heals. The callus protects the body below so that it doesn’t get injured. The blister is sensitive and feels too much (which aids the protection). The callus is thick and heavy and blunts feelings (protection of a different sort). Sometimes in life, we are injured and everything is painful. Sometimes, we can be hurt so frequently that we become calloused and unfeeling. Sometimes a blister becomes a callus, but sometimes it heals back to normal skin.

Sometimes we need calluses. But we also need to be able to feel.

Writing Wednesday:  10 Things I Have Learnt From My Secret Project’s First Draft

My Secret Project (a.k.a. the novel I am writing) has been an eye-opening experience. I had written two attempts at novels previously – the first being more of an elongated and very boring short story, and the second a witty but shallow piece that I could never face editing. This third attempt, though, has real potential. And that is exciting and scary in equal measure.

But things I have learnt from this writing process:

Continue reading

A Place to Belong

All I ever wanted was a place to belong.

It sounds stupid really, to want a place to belong. I mean, I have a family. I have excelled at school, and then (much) later, at university. I’ve done things, helped people, but all along, all I ever wanted was to belong. To be accepted, loved, embraced. Even when I made mistakes. It’s one of the reasons I became so good at hospitality.

All I ever wanted was a place to belong. There were moments, when I was part of a group of kids’ church leaders, that I thought I belonged – and some of those relationships persist (albeit long-distance) to this day. But for the most part, I have stuck out like a sore thumb. Throbbing, awkward. And very aware of the discomfort I cause.

It’s difficult to admit. We are social beings, and to admit to not belonging is to admit to failure. I’m a South African living in North East England. The cultural divide makes the Grand Canyon look like a farmer’s furrow. I don’t know how to breach it.

I thought when I became a mother, it would entitle me to membership of the motherhood club – play dates and after school clubs and chatting at the school gates. I know about those things, because I experienced them as a nanny in London. Or I watched them, since I wasn’t actually a mother. But Little Person is atypical in her development. After school clubs are rare. Play dates awkward. School gate chats almost non-existent. One of the most isolating experiences in my life is the knowledge that half the time, I do not understand what my child is trying to tell me. So watching other mothers with their children only increases my awareness of the differences between my child and theirs. (Yes, I know. I’m not supposed to compare. I’m also not supposed to walk this road alone, but there you go.)

I thought, since I had felt a certain sense of belonging at certain churches in South Africa, I would at least be accepted in churches over here. No. Hell, no. That’s what has put paid to any decent writing over the last month or so. How to put in words, when the place you thought you belonged turns around and tells you, in not so many words, you’re not worth the effort? Of course, I can’t write about it, because to admit the problem is to be judgemental, and that is not allowed.

I have my family. The Dude, and Little Person. And even Little Cat, who sleeps on the end of my bed and nominates herself as my alarm clock. But being mother, and wife, and cook, and laundry-fixer and shopping guru makes it all a muddle. It’s a place to belong, but the moments to appreciate it can be fleeting. That’s the struggle when the rest of the family lives so far away.

All I ever wanted was a place to belong. And then I realised, it’s write under my nose. I can write my belonging, if I’m brave enough.

It’s who I was always meant to be.

Meowthpiece 5: Butterflies Are Not Cat Toys

Little Cat has been enjoying the sunshine. She’s been running around pretending that being all black makes her invisible in daylight. There have been no new mice coming inside (although last night she had us convinced – cue a furniture shuffle just before bed). An awful lot of activity, and only once have I seen the Ear Twitch of Annoyance.

If you own a cat, you know what I’m talking about. Something does not go to plan and the cat sits, looks at offending situation, and a single ear twitches, before the cat pads away as though nothing could ever go wrong. “I would be annoyed but that is so beneath me.”

Yesterday, Little Cat was inspecting the gravel by the back door. I was sitting on the step, contemplating my obligation not to spend the entire day sitting on the back door step in the sun (not really, I wasn’t thinking anything). Little Cat noticed a butterfly on the grass a good few metres away. Without hesitation, she was off.

The butterfly, of course, waited until the very moment she lifted her paw, and fluttered nonchalantly away. Cue Ear Twitch of Annoyance. Butterflies are not cat toys. They do not flick to catch our attention and then wait obediently to be caught. They are not predictable. You want to catch a butterfly? You have to earn it.

But even if Little Cat didn’t catch that butterfly, I know it’s just a matter of time. She’s a little rusty on her hunting skills. Dare I say the cat toys have made her lazy? Still, the interesting thing is that after months of demanding cat toy play every evening, now she is just happy to snooze.

When there’s real hunting to be had, cat toys don’t get a look in.

Love in The Shadowlands

Shadowlands. We all have them – the paths we’ve walked that we wished we hadn’t, decisions we have made that are now tinged with regret, maybe even parts of ourselves that we wish just weren’t. Sadness, pity, hopelessness, despair, neglect, doom, pain, anguish, wretchedness. Shadowlands.

It is easy to think that the point of life is to pretend the Shadowlands don’t exist. To live as far away as possible. To be bright, and sparkly, with full tummies and warm beds, and a holiday twice a year. Familes that are well behaved, friends that think we are fabulous. That’s the dream, isn’t it? A life far from the Shadowlands.

I live close to the Shadowlands. I suspect many creative people do. I look at the people in the happy places, with their happy jewellery glinting in the sun and sometimes, it just hurts my eyes. Too loud. Too much. Too hard to tell if it’s real or just a game.

When I look to the Shadowlands, my eyes may ache from peering into places that are difficult to see, but ultimately, it’s not my eyes that hurt. It’s my heart. I see people struggling, and alone, and dealing with very difficult problems. Addiction. Depression. Fear. Financial pressure. Relational pressure. Hopelessness. I see little things made big, and big people made little. So I go there as I often as I can.

I would hope that I should stop and visit every time I see the Shadowlands in somebody. Give them the gift of my time, my shoulder to cry on, the knowledge that somehow, they are not alone. Because I know the difference it makes. But of course, I don’t do it often enough. I walk past people everyday who carry the shadows silently, hidden. I cannot see, because we don’t talk about the Shadowlands.

Because there are other things to be found in the Shadowlands. How can you know the joy of forgiveness, if you have never felt the pain of regret? For ever wound, there may be healing. For every despair, there is a hope. For every pain, there is a joy. If we can find it, if we can share it. If we dare to love, and care enough to make a difference.

The people in the Shadowlands are us – unmasked, unprotected, ashamed. We are no better, no more worthy. We just look like we have our act together. Those is the Shadowlands don’t need our judgement. Sometimes, they don’t even need our help. But they (we) always, always, need our love.

Love in the Shadowlands. It’s a beautiful thing.