A time to weep

I had an allotment post planned for today but although I believe with all my heart that growing food well is one of the most important, life-giving and even holy things we can do, now is not the time for me to write about gardening.

Of all the images that have filled our screens during this summer of horrors – and I do not remember a summer like this for horror – the ones that haunt me continually are from Ferguson, Missouri, where black teenager Michael Brown was gunned down by a policeman and his body left untended in the street for four hours.

Michael Brown was unarmed and he was shot at least six times, Eyewitnesses say he had his hands in the air. He was due to start college two days later.

I have a son just one year older than Michael Brown. I am writing this late at night and I know that soon he will be emerging onto the streets of Edinburgh, elated if his show at the Fringe has gone well, perhaps more subdued if it hasn’t.

Either way, he and his university friends may be a bit loud. There’s a lot of tension to release after a show. But they won’t attract attention from the police. (And even if they did, we in the UK do not, thank God, routinely give our police officers firearms.)

How is that one teenager can walk down the street freely with his friends, while another ends up dead in the road?

How is it that I can be rejoicing in my son’s achievements while a mother in Missouri has been robbed of the chance ever again to hug hers and tell him: ‘Well done: I’m so proud of you’?

I have read some powerful posts about Ferguson this week. Two that stood out were Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin Channing and  The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland (links at the bottom of this post).

Both are strongly worded, disturbing challenges to people like me, white people who claim to follow Jesus.

These women – and the pain and anger I have seen in the news from Ferguson – have made me face up to what I know in theory but mostly try not to accept as reality: there are structural injustices built into Western society (let’s not kid ourselves this is just about the US) that work in favour of people like me and my son.

I can’t write about the allotment today  – not because the allotment is unimportant but because to ignore what I have seen these past days would be a form of walking by on the other side, pretending that the people who are bleeding at the edge of the road are somehow nothing to do with me.

In fact it would be worse than that because what I need to think about today is not just that the mother of a boy the same age as my son is grieving, but also my own complicity in the structures that are compounding that grief.

I need to think about how my life might shore up those injustices, and what I am going to do about it.

I highly recommend these posts: Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin Channing; The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland.

There is a very full and thoroughly referenced timeline of the events in Ferguson here.


12 things I wish I’d known …

This has never been a parenting blog and it’s not about to become one. But with our youngest having just started university I’m now in my third week as an official Empty Nester, and as a result parenting has been on my mind a lot. So FOR ONE POST ONLY, I wanted to write something about raising kids.

Here, in no particular order, are the 12 things I wish somebody had told me before I started.

  1. The best way to be a parent is the way that allows you to get most enjoyment out of your relationship with your children. This will not be the same way as anybody else’s.
  2. There will always be parents who are better or worse than you and it is impossible to tell the difference. Get over it.
  3. Every time you think you’ve got the parenting thing sussed, at least one of your children will move the goalposts.
  4. You cannot hide depression, not even from babies. Get help the minute you glimpse its ugly face.
  5. Best parenting advice ever: ‘Do not exasperate your children.’ (Ephesians 6:4)
  6. If your child’s music practice (read: lack thereof) is stressing you out, have a serious think about why you are still paying for the lessons.
  7. One day you will share a dish of olives with your fussiest eater.
  8. Failsafe remedy when the day is going pear-shaped: the children’s section of your local library (I just hope there will be some left for the next generation).
  9. Regular family meals, sitting round a table, eventually pay dividends of approximately 5000%.
  10. If your primary aged child has at least one good friend and no major illnesses, the thing you are worrying about probably doesn’t matter that much. (However the thing they are worried about may be very important indeed.)
  11. Teenagers always start the most important conversations when you are on the point of going to bed.
  12. In the unlikely event of your having some spare money, memories are a better investment than stuff. (And a bit of help at home may be the best investment of all.)

Our three on their way to a wedding circa 1999. Height order has since been reversed

Our three on their way to a wedding circa 1999. Height order has since been reversed

our children, our teachers

Something they don’t tell you before you become a parent: your children are your best teachers. I remember a London park on a hot sunny day and me boiling with frustration over our toddler who simply would not appreciate the wonderful outing we had planned for her. We had all come out together, we had found swings and slides, there were plans for ice cream later and here was this tiny person, so beautiful on a good day, turning redder than the strawberries on her cute little sun hat and yelling with rage.

I was close to stamping my feet and storming out of the park myself when I remembered the tantrum I had had at breakfast the day before and waves of guilt flooded me at the memory of my little girls’ bewildered faces. Chastened, I made another effort to work out what was going on with our miniature Fury. As I flopped down on the grass beside her, I suddenly saw the park from her point of view. Masses of feet and legs hurrying around, the heat oppressive, the noise unintelligible to a two-year-old. We scooped her up and went home.

Later that afternoon, our bundle of rage was transformed into an angel of light, splashing quietly in the paddling pool in the garden, radiating peace and contentment. Watching her I understood more of my own anger the day before, how it had stemmed from lack of sleep and from refusing to acknowledge that introverts like myself get excessively grumpy when they ignore their need to be alone. Like my daughter I had exploded out of simply being unable to cope with what was being demanded of me.

That toddler is nearly twenty now and we had some tears the other week, about facing new challenges, about the difficulty of moving away from the familiar. I kept hugging her, telling her it was the right thing to do, that life goes in seasons, that you can’t stand still or you stagnate and become boring. When we left her at university just over a week ago she was beaming and I was full of a good kind of proud, like when her elder sister returned from Madagascar, like when the team you have been cheering through thick and thin suddenly makes it to a cup final.

Then – bam! After a couple of really good years I am suddenly back with the sleepless nights, the exhaustion, the feeling that everything is too, too much to cope with. I thought I was through with this, that I had learned to manage it but I start to feel panicky at the prospect of more isolation, more days, hours, weeks lost to the numb inactivity that is depression.

I don’t know what makes me connect with the memory of my tearful teenager but as soon as I do I understand: she reflects me back to myself just as she did that day in the park, just as all three of our young ones do over and over again. It isn’t just they who are moving into new seasons, shaking off the familiar, called to embrace the new. It is me as well and I am as scared and reluctant as any teenager; probably more so because somehow this year autumn is reminding me more than usual that winter is not far behind.

Life goes in seasons, you can’t stand still …  I am repeating my own advice over and over and drawing strength from the beaming smiles of that young woman in her first university flat.

a letter to my daughter as she returns from Madagascar

I am so excited to think that you will be here in just a few hours. It was lovely to hear your voice on the phone from Heathrow – every word distinct, unlike those couple of Skype calls we tried when you were deep in the bush. I can’t wait to hold you and hug you, to see your face-splitting smile that I have missed so much, to admire your tan and perhaps your exotic insect bites too and to listen to the words that I know will come tumbling out of your mouth all afternoon.

For now, though, the house is quiet, your sister still asleep upstairs, your brother getting ready for school and your dad, you will be pleased to hear, out training for that marathon you hope to run together. I want to savour this moment of anticipation, this sense of everything suspended in stillness before we burst into a weekend of chatter and laughter, before we do the bittersweet work of rearranging ourselves as family when your sister leaves for university tomorrow and you settle back in your own bedroom. A real bed! After all those weeks of a tent floor!

Here in the quiet, I am thinking about another young woman, the same age as you, who moved fleetingly and unseen across my path yesterday. I was in a community centre not far from here, doing some of that work I get sometimes to assess students in their spoken English. As usual the simplest questions elicited the most heart rending answers. ‘How are you today?’ I asked a woman a little older than me, smiling brightly in the hope of putting her at her ease for the test. ‘Not too good,’ she replied. ‘Yesterday my brother died in Syria.’

I asked another woman where she came from, thinking I might see whether she could spell the name of her country. ‘The refugee camp in Ethiopia,’ she replied. I forgot about the spelling question. Later I asked her about her family and she told me of her four children. She lives with them in a small flat near here; one of them is a young woman aged twenty-one, like you.

I keep wondering about the differences between our experiences as mothers. I have worried about how many sweets you might eat but never about whether you would have enough food. I have been anxious about your safety when you have been out late at night and breathed in deep relief when I heard you come in; to my shame I have never even imagined what it would be like to decide that our own home was too dangerous a place to be.

I do not know what that refugee woman’s hopes for her daughter are and I wouldn’t presume to guess them. I would love to know, though, what makes her heart swell with pride as a mother – because we do all have those moments, you know!

Let me tell you about one of my proudest moments as your mum. It was when I read the email you sent me from Antananarivo and poured out the many ways that your heart had been changed through meeting development workers and joining them in the work of repairing schools and planting trees. It was when you told me that the vision of justice that is set out in Isaiah 61had taken root deep within you; that the words about binding up the broken-hearted, setting captives free and restoring devastated places had become the words that would shape the rest of your life.

I salute you, Miriam, for your courage and your fierce sense of justice. I pray that as you settle back into this privileged life we have here, you will discover the next steps on your journey. I know you will remember all the young women round the world who are your contemporaries and lead such different lives, whether they are refugees down the road from us or maybe young mothers in Madagascar whose babies stand a forty percent chance of dying before they are five.

I pray that you won’t be overwhelmed by the extent of the evil that you see around you but that you will be able to take up your place in the fight for justice with joy and humility. I delight in the knowledge that you will not be alone: from what I can gather reading the blogs that I do, it seems that all across the world young people are joining together to say ‘enough’ and to give their lives to building a more equal world.

There’s a photo one of your friends put on Facebook that made us laugh because it looks as though you are flying.

Fly into your future, Miriam – be bold and be you!

But first sit down long enough to eat the raspberry pavlova I made you.

shifting focus

Almost as soon as I arrive at my parents’ house I take a walk around the garden. Of all places on earth, this is the one I associate most with my mother. Gardening, and especially vegetable growing, has been her joy and passion for fifty years or more. Like many people, she had a brief fling with roses and herbaceous borders in the seventies, but with a growing family to feed she was always most focused on edible plants.

Ungrateful teenager that I was, I really did not appreciate the privilege of having fresh, seasonal food at every meal. I took it all for granted, the bowls of organic raspberries, the rhubarb crumbles, the apparently unlimited supply of French beans, salad and peas.

During the harvesting season, Mum hardly moved beyond the garden and the kitchen, sometimes falling into bed at one or two in the morning after hours of blanching veg for the freezer. I remember when she had three freezers in the garage and every one was full of square Tupperware containers packed with fruit and vegetables, neatly stacked and meticulously labelled. That was probably a legacy of the war and of growing up with rationing. She was like a squirrel who couldn’t rest until there was an abundant store of food.

Things are different now though and for the first time in my life I do not see my mother outside in the garden. Aged 77 and suffering from a horrible degeneration of her spine, she mostly sits in what we call her ‘nest’, a space on the sofa where she is surrounded by piles of gardening and cookery magazines, her glasses, her phone and her medicines all within reach.

In theory I know this must have affected the garden; in practice I am not fully prepared for what I find.

The sun shines and I take my camera into the garden again and again. After weeks of cloud and rain in Sheffield, I am fascinated by the way the light changes, how the shadows shift across the grass and how every few minutes a different plant is lit up by sunshine.

I take shot after shot of the roses growing around the arch by the shed. They have been there for years: deep pink ones beaded with dew in the early morning, and some velvety crimson ones that have flopped off their supporting arch towards some self-seeded foxgloves. You would think the colours would clash, but in fact they blend to give an impression of majestic, imperial purple. From the window my mum points out how they complement the reddish buds of the Belgian honeysuckle.

Someone is coming later to mow the grass but for now drifts of speedwell sweep across it. The bed Mum planted specifically for pollinators is a riot of ox-eye daisies; later in the day I watch the bees dance to and fro between them and the intensely blue borage flowers.

The arch into the vegetable garden is smothered with jasmine, literally hundreds of tiny pink flowers. I pass beneath it and catch my breath. I take in the raised beds choked with bindweed, the empty compost bins, the gooseberries that will rot on the bush if nobody picks them soon.

It seems wrong to linger here, like an intrusion. Instead I turn around and go back towards the house, taking more pictures of the roses, the foxgloves, the honeysuckle. I keep focusing on these, adjusting the lens of the camera over and over again as the light moves.

Later I sit with my mum and try to get her to talk about how life is with my dad in hospital and her problems with mobility. She doesn’t try to deny that it can be hard, but she focuses mainly on the good things: their many friends, the television programmes she enjoys, the pleasure of texting her grandchildren. She is a profoundly spiritual person; when we talk together she makes me think of deep rivers and of a steel blade, shining, strong and unbreakable.

We do not like to talk about ageing much in our culture and like most people I fear it, all the loss and the letting go. But sitting with my mum I realise that however much she has had to give up – and she has given up a lot – she is no way diminished as a person. It is a privilege to sit there, peaceful, with the sun streaming through the window and a song thrush calling noisily from the garden.

a (proper) tribute to my mum

It took me ages to find a decent Mothers’ Day card this year. First of all, I boycotted anything that was pink. My mother is not Barbie, nor does she wish to be. Then, pedant that I am, I had to eliminate anything with the apostrophe in the wrong place. (It goes after the ‘s’. This is not a day for one mother alone.) Then I had to pass over anything featuring high-heeled shoes, glittery hearts or ‘jokes’ about mothers lying in the garden while the men in the house burn the dinner. Seriously, in 2012 do we really still believe that men will starve if women are not in the kitchen?

Anyone know a woman whose favourite thing is popping kittens into flowerpots?

I’m sorry, Mum, but as you will know by now, the best I could find was a picture of a rather anodyne bunch of flowers. So by way of compensation, this blog post is for you. There are many things I can thank you for but I can honestly say that one of the most important is compost. Other people might laugh at this, but I know you will understand my appreciation.

You see, my mum has always been way ahead of her time. She was an environmentalist probably before the word was even invented. She has been gardening organically forever, certainly years and years before it was trendy. What she doesn’t know about comfrey and wormeries and rotation planting probably isn’t worth knowing.

But in the end the most important thing is compost. I honestly cannot remember a time when I did not know the difference between what went in the compost bin and what didn’t. Thanks to my mum, my sister and I are physically incapable of putting even a sliver of potato peel in a regular bin.  And thanks to my mum passing on her skills in this way, I am currently gardening quite successfully on heavy clay, made fertile and productive through the addition of copious quantities of home-produced compost.

Clematis 'Niobe' in our front garden last year. It has oodles of compost around its roots.

Another thing my mum was brilliant at was reading us stories, especially fantasy and fairy tales. But as you grow up, you have to leave that kind of magic behind. All the more reason to be grateful for compost then. Because no matter how often I see it, I will never grow tired of the magic that ensures that this

becomes this

Texture of chocolate cake - perfect!

which helps this

end up as this.

And of course then the whole cycle begins again. I can’t remember what those baby beets became in the kitchen, but I can guarantee that the peel and the roots went in the compost bin.

Thanks, Mum! Have a great day.

For anyone who needs them, there are some good instructions for making compost here.

season of change

My lovely daughters have made it possible for me to get my hands on a digital SLR. Miriam handed it down to Susanna when she upgraded, and Susie has lent it to me because of a forthcoming Very Exciting Trip.

I’m still just practising and haven’t really got the hang of all the knobs and twiddly bits, but I’ve been having a great time capturing the shift from summer to autumn round here.

I’ve always loved September and seen it as a time of new beginnings. I’ve worked in education, and of course my children’s big milestones – nursery, primary school, big school and (gulp) university – have always come at this time of year.

Now that I work similar hours all year round and my children actively discourage me from accompanying them to their places of study, I was afraid the excitement might dim a bit.

That was before the aforementioned trip came up! I’m very excited to say that I shall be travelling to Bulgaria tomorrow to stay with some dear friends for a week, see some amazing work they’ve been doing and even talk about a possible shared writing project.

What with passing a big birthday recently, along with watching the ‘children’ become ever more independent, I’ve been really aware of the seasons of life changing as well as the seasons of this particular year.

In many ways it seems like a time of loss. Of course we are glad to see our teenagers growing in independence and making their own decisions. But there is still the wrench and a sense of disorientation as they move further and further away from home.

This trip’s been good for reminding me that I can be more independent now too! As the season changes outside the window, I’m getting quite excited about the new horizons that might open up.

the visitors’ book

Just before she left for New Zealand, my elder daughter gave me a copy of Simon Hoggart’s Don’t Tell Mum: Hair-raising Messages Home from Gap Year Travellers, a collection of funny, surreal and frankly terrifying extracts from emails between travelling teens and their long-suffering parents. It was a follow-up to his collection of excerpts from Christmas round robins – a few examples here http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2004/jan/03/christmas.comment

After about 20 years of spending our holidays in rented cottages, I have decided that Hoggart should do something about the visitors’ book. I do not think we have stayed in a property that did not have one, and they provide a wealth of tantalising glimpses into the kind of holiday enjoyed (or not) by the people who came before you.

Unfortunately, the two properties we rented this year were relative newcomers to the holiday scene, so the visitors’ books were short. But to give you a taste, I’ve jotted down a few of my favourite entries.

Unsurprisingly – this is the UK – the weather is the main topic. Anyone who enjoys a lot of sunshine mentions it with surprise. However, few are quite as unfortunate as the family  who wrote of their week on Skye: ‘On the last day the rain finally fell vertically.’

As with so many family activities, a note of competition is always present, and on Skye that seems to centre on wildlife spotting. ‘On the way back we saw ravens mobbing a golden eagle,’ is bound to inspire jealousy, but I remain unconvinced by the family who claimed to have seen sea lions.

The best entries, though are the ones that give insights into family life, intentional or otherwise. ‘We took a trip on Loch Lomond but would recommend the one hour trip as opposed to two’ reminded me of some rather tense and tight-lipped times we have had when confined in a small space with difficult relatives. Finally, I rather like the sound of the ‘large and boysterous family’ who stayed in our property near Helensburgh. Given that they consisted of Mum, Dad, four sons and a lone daughter, perhaps the mis-spelling was deliberate.