Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Head up, heart strong

I keep remembering all those dark months of last winter when there was no light anywhere, and I struggled and struggled to find some solid ground, somewhere high up where I could get a lungful of air which would clear the fog of depression. I remember mourning that I'd lost my ability to count my blessings, to find the positive.

So, one of the blessings is that I'm through that now. and I'm counting blessings again.

On Friday I went to a workshop and had the privilege of listening to a man with a gorgeous Dublin accent telling stories of how to strengthen communities and give people the tools to make their lives better. I was surrounded by people all ready to be enthused, and there was an energy in the room. It was too cloudy for us to really see the drama of the eclipse that happened that day, but the hour of twilight and silence in mid morning highlighted the sun that finally broke through after it had passed, as though it had taken the moon and the sun to conspire on the Spring Equinox to truly signify the end of winter.

We spent an afternoon with my father, home from hospital for a few days before he returns for another attempt at treatment. Snake, whose own father died just over a year ago spoke to me about whether there is anything I need to say or do differently in these months, carefully trying to prevent any future regrets. I have a husband who is willing to try and prepare me for grief, who will face up to the shadows and walk me through them.

(Another reason that Snake should always be counted in my blessings - a couple of weeks ago the girl, home for a weekend, got a text about her boyfriend that sent her into a tailspin of anxiety and sadness. Snake's response was to take her out that night to see The Selector play, and she spent the evening with many of his friends, being bought drinks and dancing to 80's ska music. She is so lucky to have the father she has. I am so lucky she has the father she has).

I went for long walks with my girl through two different bits of woodland that are about to burst into life. On Sunday the woodland was some of the oldest in the country, one of my favourite places, full of ancient stories. The sun was shining through the trees, as we waded through mud, slipping and laughing, surrounded by bird song.

I love my work at the moment. There's lots of new stuff to try out, and people to discuss it all with, and it feels exciting and right. I know there'll be further dips and things will crash in, because that's the nature of the work I do, but while it's good I'm counting it as a blessing.

On two or three mornings a week, I'm getting to the local pool for 6.30am and swimming for half an hour. It's frequently crowded, and it can be difficult to get a regular pace because of the vast array of people who use it (men ploughing up and down with tremendous amounts of splashing, with scant regard for the women who are keeping their heads up to protect their work-ready hair; the man recovering, I think, from a stroke, who finds it very hard to stay in any sort of straight line; the man who swims very slowly, up and down, and who has just started saying hello to me after weeks and weeks of me sharing the mornings with him) but I feel very lucky to have such a facility just minutes from home, and to be able to start some of my days with the stretch and pull of a swim.

That winter, over a year ago, that was hard and it cast a long shadow. And there will always be an internal nudge now telling me that it might return. But maybe it was like the eclipse, you know? Maybe I needed that period of darkness to move into this full, active, connected part of my life.

Keep your head up - Ben Howard

Thursday, 19 March 2015


This is a Currently post, linked up with Kale and Beans and Ot and Et. This weeks themes are loving, showing, shopping, making, choosing.

Two days on, I am still loving a night out with my irresponsible, irrepressible, reprehensible  friend, the remarkable BB. Our usual bar had music for St Patrick's day, and we wanted to talk, so we went instead to a pub that in all my years in this town I have never visited, all pool tables and juke boxes and old old men. While we drank we talked of ideas and books and ageing and ideas ideas ideas. She is sharp minded and blunt mouthed and I do love spending time with her. We wobbled out of there at midnight, and I headed off through the thickest fog towards home, feeling my invisibility like a superpower.

I doodle all the time at work, while I'm on the phone, while I'm in long meetings. I've been showing them to Snake, who has started to collect the various bits of paper with unskilled but intricate, sometimes figurative but usually not images on them, and is building them into a portrait. It's taking shape. I keep doodling, and waiting to see what he turns my nonsense into.

My good friend Ms M had a car accident a couple of weeks ago. Her car stopped dead on one of the main roads into London, early one morning, and a lorry crashed into the back of her, span her round and crashed into the front. Ms M got out and walked away. Since, she has been achey but euphoric, incredulous that she's alive.While she's without a car,  I am taking her shopping for food, going to Aldi for as much as possible, then popping into Asda for the bits they don't stock, the same pattern I follow for maximum value and efficiency. She buys many more snacks and treats than I do though, which may be one of the many reasons that Goldie so relishes time at her house.

On Sunday it was Mother's Day. We don't do cards or presents, but I wangled to stay at home while Snake and Goldie went to football, and spent the time doing some essential cleaning and making a meal for us, and for Ms K and her family, and for Peel. (That doesn't sound like much of a Mother's Day treat, written down, but Sunday mornings are the one time that I'm happy pootling around cleaning and clearing, entirely because The Archers Omnibus is on the radio, followed by Desert Island Discs and Just a Minute). After we'd eaten, Goldie asked if we could play the dictionary game - basically, pick a word out of the dictionary that you don't think people will know, and collect definitions. Educational AND fun, especially with Snake and his particular take on the world. I'm not sure why it appeals, but if my 14 year old boy wants to play a game with his parents and their friends, and if that game involves words, then I'm all in.

Goldie has been choosing his options, the subjects he will study for the next 2 years up until his GCSE exams in year 11. On top of English, maths, RE and 3 sciences, he has chosen to continue with PE, German, history and geography. His intention is to go to Loughborough University to study sports science, for which he will need 3 A's at A level. A' levels are still 4 years away. It astounds me that he has he foresight and focus to choose so far ahead, and of course it may all change, but he lives in a family notorious for their lack of planning. I must tell him today how much I admire that way in which he is different, that intention he has to follow a path that he can see before him.

Thursday, 12 March 2015


This is a currently link up, with Ot and Et, and Kate and Beand. Today's themes are learning wanting eating listening reading.

I spent today at The College of Social Work conference in London, learning so many things. Maybe the stand out message was that it's not enough for us to change ourselves, as workers. the systems have to change too. I was sitting next to my local authorities Principle Social Worker as we heard this. Later on, as he said goodbye, he said to me "we need to keep each other on track with what we've learnt today". So I'll be looking to him to locally influence that change in systems. Learning that and learning that I need to do better. However good we get at the job, we need to get better. Relentless improvement, someone said today. Relentless improvement.

So the whole day left me wanting to be better at my job. The horror stories about where social work has failed made me want to be better. The people who have at some point needed a social worker and who told us about when that experience has been good made me want to be better. Talking to other social workers made me want to be better. Hearing what the people we serve want us to do differently made me want to leap up and get back to my team with a manifesto of "THIS is what we need to be doing! Get out there! Change some lives!"

They provided food! Since austerity measures came in, it's unusual to get fed at events like this. But one of the first things I was taught as a social work student was "go to any event that has a free lunch", and I've never forgotten it. So all day I was eating wheat based delights - sandwiches and pasties and the like. I generally avoid carbs and caffeine but it was free and plentiful and I'm in no position to complain. Which might explain my slightly over excited state.

So much listening. Like, sitting in a roomful of social workers, with a woman who has had 8 children go through the care system, as she told us about the time she had to say goodbye to her daughter and hand her over for the final time. What did I feel? I felt unworthy of that woman's courage in telling us how hard it was. Or when Lemn Sickett, the poet who closed the event, told us about how he'd been abused as a child within the care system and said, "now I understand how important you are, because now I understand how important I was". And when he said "of course I ran away from the care homes. I needed to know if somebody would come after me". Listening to that, and listening to the whole auditorium of social workers groan, literally and audibly groan in recognition of our failings and our wish to do better. And listening to people say what poverty feels like. It feels like shame, and invisibility, and disapproval, and vulnerability.

I will be reading a book I bought today, almost at random, from a stall of relevant books. It's called Getting By - Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, by Lisa McKenzie.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Bread and roses, bread and roses

I've carefully hoarded and protected today as a day when I'd get up early and take off on the hour long journey to the University of East Anglia to spend the whole day in the library there, finally getting my research proposal submitted. Then, Goldie needs booster jabs and the only space where either Snake or I could fit in an appointment was this afternoon. Fine, I thought, I'll go to uni earlier - the library is open 24 hours, and I don't mind early mornings. Then, an email from the school where I volunteer as a Governor saying they have an emergency personnel meeting this morning. Of course, if I had work appointments booked in, I would have to send my apologies, but that happens too often already, and the fact that it's on my hoarded and protected day means I do have the option to go. My conscience wont allow me not to. I won't be going to the library. In theory I can do the work at home. In reality, I'll be completely distracted by the literal piles of stuff - football gear, post, laundry, bags that are on their way to the charity shop, miscellaneous piles of crap that are not quite clearly defined so need to be sorted through and separated and put somewhere.

I feel better about the state of the house when I remind myself that the reason it's the way it is comes down to extreme business, and one of those phases when life is particularly full. If housework is the thing that gives, so be it. I spent several evenings last week at the hospital with my dad, and we had an evening at Goldie's school looking at his GCSE options. On Friday I drove straight from work to York to pick up the girl from uni. She and I spent the evening in a pub that served steaks and talked to their insistent but polite cat, and then drove home on Saturday morning,

Saturday was a beautiful day, spring all of a sudden, and Snake and I took our dog and Ms M's dog for a long walk through ancient woodland, relishing the signs of summer and the aliveness of it.

Saturday was also the launch of the poster campaign that I've been working on as a member of the local branch of the Fawcett Society, to encourage women to vote in the general election, and our International Women's Day celebratory quiz night. For the posters, 22 local women have told us while they'll be voting, and it was fantastic to see the pictures and words up on the wall. With the exception of mine, which makes me look shockingly bad, a complete wreck. There you go.

I had such a good time. Sometimes being in a room in a social setting is a slow drip of wanting to be somewhere else, but Saturday was a joy. I drank way too much - my remarkable friend BB has a terrible habit of buying bottles of wine as if they were single drinks, but I remained reasonably coherent. Which was lucky, as the local BBC radio journalist turned up and interviewed me and another member of the group about the importance of women's participation and women who inspire us. Having heard the result, I am proud to say that I sound like a fairly intelligent person, and that I manage several multi syllable words without stumble. They caught me just in time.

Sunday morning I was hungover, but less so than I deserved. Watching Goldie's football was made infinitely more pleasant by actual sunlight instead of the perpetual cold drizzle of the last too many months. We found a couple of hours in the afternoon to snuggle up under blankets, all of us, and watch Pride, a film that last time I watched made me cry for 12 hours and sent me back to the GP for a reinstatement of anti-depressants. The film is a comedy, largely, but it is firmly rooted in a bit of my life that is a poorly healed wound. Anyway, this time I got through it with only appropriate crying at the singing of Bread and Roses,and at the bitterly triumphant ending.

For Christmas I bought Goldie tickets to see a band he loves, Clean Bandit. He chose his sister to go with him, and last night we dropped them off at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge, and Snake and I went to eat at Jamie's restaurant. For all his detractors, I love Jamie, his Essex boyness, his concept of naked food, his campaigns and his commitment. The food was simple and delicious, total taste explosions, in a beautiful old building with friendly chatty staff. We moved to the bar after we'd eaten, to watch for when people started pouring out of the gig, and were there to meet our two, sweaty and euphoric and united.

It's easy to moan about a life that's too full, to feel like something is being missed, somehow, for the very reason that too much is happening. But I do know how lucky I am to be able to complain that it's full of friends and fellow campaigners, opportunities to work and to study and to walk, good food, and all of it shared with and given shape by my most beloved.

Bread and Roses

Thursday, 5 March 2015


This is a currently link up, with Kale and Beans and Ot and Et. Each week, they give five words to use in summing up your week. This week's words are setting, using, watching, choosing, imagining.

I feel like I have been setting myself up for criticism at work, by being....outspoken....about, well, everything, really, and in all forums. But, so far the criticism hasn't come. In fact, the opposite. I'm being listened to, and I'm getting responses. Which is a huge deal for me. I am enjoying my work more at the moment than I can ever remember. It may not last, but I'm relishing it.

We've been using all the food in the house, including the often neglected tins and pulses and long frozen things, because there hasn't been time to do a shop. Not going to happen tonight either, I don't think, as we have a meeting at Goldie's school about GCSE options (from his interim report that came in yesterday, it looks like the world is pretty much his oyster in terms of what he chooses to study....except music. Not so good in music. He LOVES music, but obviously that doesn't come across in any actual knowledge or skill that they measure these things by at school). Anyway, the food thing, it's fine - it's not like we're going to starve. It's good for us.

I have been watching my father become a patient, and my mother a carer. Although his diagnosis was a while ago, it's only now that it's been decided that he will have chemotherapy to manage symptoms. He had a strange reaction to his first treatment, and was admitted for a few days. Last night, I stopped off to see him, and went through with the nurse the many medications he's going to have to take. A carrier bag full of things to be taken half and hour before meals or an hour afterwards, or on the three days leading up to chemotherapy, or in the days following. It's going to be their lives, for a little while.

Reading on a Kindle is a mixed blessing. It's great not to have to turn a light when insomnia hits, but I miss flicking through the pages of a book, returning to bits that I loved or that suddenly fall into context, and most of all I miss not being able to say to someone take this book, read it, tell me what you think. But another thing I love about it is the luxury of lying in the bath and choosing the next read. This evening I finished Nora Webster by Colm Toibin, and seconds later I had The Female of the Species by Lionel Shriver ready to go.

I am imagining summer. We have tickets to the music festival we cant stop attending year after year, and there will be light in the mornings and in the evenings. If we're lucky (it's not guaranteed, but I can imagine) there will be some weeks of heat.