Six.

But now I am Six, I’m clever as clever.

So I think I’ll be six now forever and ever.

A.A. Milne

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You left this morning looking like you were about to rocket into space, your school bag full of shoe boxes.  You only needed to bring in one, but if one shoe box is good, then three, surely, is better.  This is the philosophy by which you live.  You draw a sky with twenty suns.  You cover the page in penguins when asked to draw one.

‘So many penguins!’, your teacher writes.

‘So many suns!’

You draw everyone with curly hair.  Little curly queens and servants, curly farmers, astronauts with curls escaping from their helmets . You draw everyone with curly hair, apart from your sister.  You draw her by your side, more often than not.

You talk with your eyes and your eyebrows.  You talk with your finger wagging and your hand on your hip.  You skip and hum when you are happy, which is to say, when you are filled with purpose.

Your favourite number is always your age.  You were cross all Autumn because I had bought you age 6-7 tights when you were Still Only Five!  You raged at their bad fit, their lumpy toes.  Until you turned Six.  They were never mentioned again.

“Just six spoonfuls of the disgusting red stuff Mummy”, you instruct.  Bolognes is not your favourite, but you will eat your age.

Your favourite meals are all Japanese – Oyako Donbori, Teriyaki, Curry.  You keep a watchful eye on the soy sauce running out.

You upcycle everything you can get your hands on.  Sometimes we know what you are up to – the relentless sound of the sellotape dispenser.  Sometimes googly eyes mysteriously appear on things… pom-poms, washi tape, string.  Your natural habitat is the collage.  We try to sneak things out to the recycling bin before you nab them for your art trolley.

I heard someone on a podcast talking about how many books were on their ‘To Be Read’ list, how they had piles of books in every room of their house, even their bathroom. “It’s the best problem to have”, they said.

I do not know what to do with all your sculptures and projects, this creativity that takes over the house.  I do not feel equal to the internal motor that is always driving you, with all of the ways you are clever as clever, with so many suns.

It’s the best problem to have.

 

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Placards and Novels

There are books for certain weather, workloads and moods.  There are books that satisfy our need for a high body count, or for the tilling of the land. We need to escape, sometimes, from the news and from scrolling social media feeds.  We escape to Three Pines or Port William or Baltimore.  What a gift!  There are so many reasons to read and so many ways that books can reset and refresh us.

I have needed that in 2018.

In between my favourites (old and new), there are a few novels that I read this year that have been a different kind of gift. Not so much an escape, more an invitation.

I have muttered at the radio a lot in 2018.  I have wondered at the certainty expressed on placards and in memes.  How could I ever fit all my complicated thoughts and conflicting emotions on a topic on to a placard?  How could I ever have the certainty to wave it in the air?  These 3 novels, however, have invited me into the kind of issues I sometimes want to escape from.

 

These novels have simultaneously calmed me down and got under my skin.  I think this is because instead of headlines and soundbites they offer story.  Deep, wide, nuanced story.  We don’t have to align ourselves with a slogan after all, we can read many more words than that.

 

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Is it better not knowing the ugly truth, and pretending it doesn’t exist? Or is it better to confront it, even though the knowledge may be a weight you carry around forever?

I hadn’t read any Jodi Picoult books for a few years and had forgotten how well she tackles controversial issues in a nuanced manner.  She thoroughly educates herself on her subject matter and then puts a very human face on it through her novels, giving voice to both sides. Small Great Things was recommended to me by my friend Tory and explores prejudice, race and justice.  In trademark Picoult style – ordinary lives intersect in this novel which is written from the point of view of a black nurse, a skinhead father and a well-intended white lawyer (who would never consider herself racist).  It is a powerful and provocative book and it encouraged me to pick up a few more Picoult books this year.  Her latest novel, A Spark of Light, which centres around an abortion clinic, is on my TBR list for 2019.  I really appreciated her conversation with Jen Hatmaker about it on this podcast.

 

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

The first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe – comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy.

On the surface this is a story about ice-hockey, although it is much more than that.  This book is a very different style to Backman’s other books, which are uplifting and quirky.  There are many characters and dimensions to the story which make it slow to get into, but which work powerfully  in the end. The subject matter is difficult (trigger warning), but timely and necessary.  The injustice that surrounds what unfolds feels both unbelievable, yet sadly, believable.  I found myself thinking about this story for a long time afterwards and am looking forward to reading the sequel Us Against You.

 

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

Our first concern is his happiness of course; but not just today.

Because it wasn’t that  simple was it? Raising children was the longest of long games.

This is the story of an endearing family navigating hard questions that turn into even harder ones. The title of the book comes from the idea that parents often make huge decisions about their kids that feel like guesses. In this sense the book helps us relate to a situation that many of us have no experience of.  Yet the decisions faced by Rosie and Penn feel truly impossible, with far-reaching consequences.  The book gives such insight into the struggles faced by this family.   It lets us eavesdrop on the conversations in the kitchen between 2 parents as they go around in circles trying to decide on behalf of their child.  It captures the depths of their fear and their love.

I think, perhaps, before we ever take a ‘position’ on an issue, we should eavesdrop on these kinds of conversations.  A book that can capture them is truly a gift.

 

What about you?  What books are you grateful to have read in 2018?

 


(All Amazon links are affiliate links which means I get a few pennies from your purchase, at no extra cost to you!)

F***ing Cheesecake, and Community

“The Christmas story isn’t one of loneliness and quiet isolation in the darkness. This is a story of welcome and hospitality, of lamplight and family, of birth in all its incredible sacred humanness, entrenched in a culture and in a time and within a family.”

(Sarah Bessey)

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Photo by Mink Mingle on Unsplash

 

The first night we visited our church it was Christmas.  Our girls were tiny enough that we could bring them in their jammies.  I spent most of the service in the foyer with a toddling escapee and a chocolate-sharing elder whose name we didn’t know, yet.

After the Carol Service we ventured over to the church hall for the Pudding Party.  We hovered for a split second at the threshold – overwhelmed with dessert and noise and people we didn’t know yet.

Then we legged it back to our car.

(Our girls were tiny enough not to realise; they had just missed dessert).

We went back, though. More services, more foyer, more hovering at the threshold.  We went back enough times that the next Christmas, I was asked to bring a pudding.

And this is how I learnt to make cheesecake.

(And referred to it as The F***ing Cheesecake).

(And the name, unfortunately, stuck).

*

My girls, a little older now, dress themselves in Christmas jumpers and mismatched skirts and leggings.  They know now, that there’s a pudding party, a threshold they can’t get over fast enough.

Christmas is one of those markers, the passing of a year.  Look how they’ve changed since last year, look how they’ve grown.

Last Christmas I was grumpy.  I was tired and my children were ill-behaved. Other people ate my cheesecake and I ate something I didn’t mean to pick and snapped at the girls and tried to prevent a hundred spills. Next year, I tell my husband later,  I am making The F***king Cheesecake and eating it myself, on my own, in our kitchen.

Sometimes it seems like my daughters may be growing up, but I am not.

*

I read , recently, that Jesus was probably born into a noisy family home, not into the isolated stable that we imagine.  In Middle Eastern homes the family and animals  slept in one room, and guests slept in another.  There was no room in the guest room, Mary and Joseph were in the family quarters! Mary’s birth was likely to have been attended by many women and there would have been a community of family members in Bethlehem for the census.  Mary may have been tired, sore and scared but the one thing she was not was alone.

Which is beautiful.

And challenging.

*

Oh Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.

I have thought, every Christmas, that everyone in Bethlehem turned Mary and Joseph away.  But I am learning, now, that they didn’t.  They were brought into a household.  Jesus became of Bethlehem.

I think of the places that I am of and the rooms I am invited into.  I think of how I miss out on community sometimes when I choose my own rhythm or cheesecake or privacy.

This isn’t about pudding, is what I’m saying. This is church.  This leaving your own kitchen, your favourite hiding places.  This showing up for communion, be it eucharist or pavlova.

*

It’s a Christmas tradition now, me in the kitchen, making The F***ing Cheesecake.  (Which I don’t eat alone, after all.)

I listen to Rend Collective as I smash the digestives: “There are no outsiders to Your love, We all are welcome, there’s grace enough.”

Christmas is one of those markers, the passing of a year. Look how you’ve changed, I whisper kindly to myself, look how you’ve grown.

 

Get Cosy – Our Favourite Christmas Books

 

After we got our tree and put up the decorations last weekend, Imogen walked around the house in confusion, finally demanding “WHERE ARE THE BOOKS?!”

Daddy was sent back up to the roof-space to retrieve the most important bag – the Christmas book collection. In our house it is added to at the start of December with a new Christmas book from Nana.

If you are a book-buying nana/auntie/dad/teacher/friend and you would like some ideas for this Christmas, here are our very favourite Christmas books (so far!):

 

How Winston Delivered Christmas (An Advent Story In Twenty-Four-And-A-Half Chapters) by Alex T. Smith

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It could be fun to read this story with a grown-up, or even your whole family – get cosy and read your chapter together. Maybe have a biscuit at the same time. Books and biscuits go so nicely together, I think.

I think so too, Alex Smith! This is a gorgeous, wonderfully illustrated, hard-back book with a chapter for each day in the run-up to the 25th. Each chapter features its own (simple) Christmas activity. For children, like mine, whose love language is sticky tape and scissors, this is a total winner. Gorgeous in every way and an absolutely beautiful book to give as a present.

 

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss

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And what happened then…? Well… in Who-ville they say, that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!

Olivia’s favourite. This is a delight to read aloud, nobody does rhyme and rhythm like Dr Seuss. There is Grinch merchandise everywhere at Christmas but it tends to portray the grumpy, mean-spirited Grinch and not the joyus heart of the story. You can’t beat the book.

 

Christmas in Exeter Street by Diana Hendry

Everyone agreed that the house in Exeter Street was the best place of all to be at Christmas time. The little black cat, curled up in Mrs Mistletoe’s lap, thought he might stay until next Christmas and Lily-Lou, snuggled up in Uncle Bartholomew’s arms, waved her little curly fingers at the Christmas tree and smiled and smiled and smiled.

Lovely, funny and a joy to read aloud, this is probably my current favourite.  It’s Christmas eve and there are guests in every nook and cranny of the house in Exeter Street – wonderfully  illustrated by John Lawrence. My girls would describe this book as “the good kind of weird”.

 

Mog’s Christmas by Judith Kerr

One day Mog woke up and nothing was right in her house.

This was the book that introduced us to Mog, so it has a special place in our hearts. The audiobook is lovely too.

 

How Many Sleeps ‘Til Christmas? by Mark Sperring

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WAKE UP! I think it’s Christmas Day!

Little Pip wakes Daddy Grizzle up every morning convinced that Christmas is HERE. Sound familiar?!

 

Song of the Stars by Sally Lloyd-Jones

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The One who made us has come to live with us!

A Christmas board book that captures the celebration in all of creation at the coming of Jesus. Grass and trees, robins and bees all spread the word.

 

CS Lewis once said “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” Our favourite Christmas books are enjoyed by the whole house. What about your house? What would you add to the list?

Little Somethings

It seems dark this evening, something’s changing, and I feel like I should text my mother.  It’s the kind of thing she notices.

It’s raining hard and loud outside.  I love it.  She knows this.

“You have the gift of drinking it all in” someone told me a few Sunday mornings ago, having recently discovered my blog, giving my hand a squeeze.

I haven’t written all summer.  Is it because I’ve been drinking it all in? It seems like summer should be the season for it. But honestly?  It’s been hard to finish a cup of tea.

Liv has been singing ‘Sing Ho! for the Life of a Bear!’ in impromptu talent shows all summer long.  In the living room and in my parents’ garden and in a car park waiting for someone who thought we were somewhere else.

We love Pooh (silly old bear).  It’s been a summer of listening to Stephen Fry, Judi Dench and co. on car journeys.  For a while nobody talks to me.  We drink it all in.  Olivia sings.

Sing Ho! for the life of a Bear!
Sing Ho! for the life of a Bear!
I don’t much mind if it rains or snows,
‘Cos I’ve got a lot of honey on my nice new nose!
I don’t care if it snows or thaws,
‘Cos I’ve got a lot of honey on my nice clean paws!
Sing Ho! for the life of a Bear!
Sing Ho! for the life of a Pooh!
And I’ll have a little something in an hour or two!

It’s been a summer of little somethings.  An ice-cream, a Lidl cookie, a sleepover at Nana’s.

We love Pooh (silly old bear) and despite the ghastly Guardian reviews (In which Pooh rescues Ewan McGregor from a midlife crisis) Liv goes to see Christopher Robin with her Nana and Papa.  She recounts every funny bit to Imogen and I the next morning, still chuckling.

*

I wish I could drink it all in, or at least have a lie in, but my daughter needs 2 toilet rolls and some string and a metal pole and a voice recorder and it is only 7.05am.  This is how the summer went.

A little something that saved my life this summer? Our library card.  We discovered Mo Willems (via this podcast) and I reserved whatever was available on Libraries NI.  I thought they were going to be for Imogen, they are recommended as Early Readers, but they are A DELIGHT and the whole family loves them.  If you need a break from The cat sat on the mat, I couldn’t recommend anything more than The Elephant and Piggie books. Great characters, facial expressions and humour yet so very simple. They hit a sweet spot.

There are a zillion of these books on Amazon, but it’s worth trying the few available on Libraries NI, to see if you like them.

As the new school year rolled around, I thought about how to mark it with a little something for the girls.  I thought about scented stationary from Smiggle, truly I did, but watermelon erasers just don’t communicate the way a book does.

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So for Imogen – Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Horan – a great book for developing readers AND fussy eaters!  The lunchbox struggle is real for this little daughter of mine.

And for Olivia – Lola Dutch Is A Little Bit Much by Kenneth & Sarah Jane Wright – because we don’t want her to lose her “little-muchness” at school.

*

I started this blog post as the summer was ending and now, already, our pockets are full of conkers and pinecones.  I guess Autumn has its little somethings too.

What I remember

What I remember, of course, is the monster munch crisps…

… from the tuck shop at the one and only summer scheme we went to, in the Arts Centre.  It isn’t there any more, but if we pass that road I’ll say something: about how it used to be an Arts Centre, about how I went to a summer scheme there, about the monster munch crisps.

It was an ordinary thing, the same old summer scheme in the same old house, that was an Arts Centre. But what it becomes is this treasured memory. This thing we always did. Remember the tuck shop? Oh yeah! Monster munch crisps.

We didn’t show much appreciation, I imagine. We just went. Years later we think, I loved that.

*

What I remember, of course, is how frizzy my hair would go in the sea air. How it would double in size, impossible to detangle.  It was always the same.  In Portballintrae, at the Giant’s Causeway, on the Strand, on the cliff walk past the convent, in the sand dunes, on the rocks, in the nooks and crannies.  The sea air and mizzle and big hair.  Walking, exploring, a landscape full of settings for Famous Five adventures.

*

What I remember, of course, is the smell of cut grass.  Practising handstands and cartwheels.  Hay fever.  Practising anyway.

I remember the rope-swing.  The tree climbing. The wasteland.

I remember the summer there were ladybirds, everywhere.

I remember the sound of the ice-cream van and the treat of being given money for a screwball.

I remember playing with our neighbours, and our cousins.

*

Kim John Payne says that childhood is an unfolding experience, not an enrichment opportunity.

I bear this in mind as I think about the summer, as I block off a week or 2 on the calendar, pay for a summer scheme, book a few activities.  The rest is blank space, margin.  The rest has room to unfold.

There isn’t a calendar space for cut grass or frizzy hair or monster munch crisps.  There’s just space.  I wonder what smells and snacks and places they’ll remember?  What they’ll love, in hindsight?  What will unfold now, that makes them nostalgic later?

I’m tempted to fill in July & August in coloured pen, I’m tempted by that word ‘enrichment’, I’m tempted by the opportunities that pop up on Facebook on a daily basis.  And so I’m grounding myself, in June, by rereading Simplicity Parenting, by listening to the voice of Kim John Payne – that ‘too much, too fast, too soon’ creates stress for our children.

*

We talk like where we live is a rubbish place in the summer, unless we get the weather.  But that’s not how I remember it.  We live in a land of settings for Famous Five adventures, where ordinary things can unfold in the mizzle and the wasteland and the queue for the tuck shop.  They don’t advertise these things in glossy brochures, but they are what we remember, of course.

 

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Dismantling Forts

Lola Dutch, in some ways, was made to give encouragement and give a pat on the back to the kids that are still enthusiastic and still on fire, and still curious about the world, and just say, ‘Look, here’s somebody just like you, and we love it, and we need more people like you.’
[Kenneth Wright]

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Photo by Inês Pimentel on Unsplash

This week’s epiphany: “I think I’m spending too much time dismantling forts.”

This is what I do. I dismantle forts.

I say, “This is not THE TIME for fort building”.

See also: This is not the time for dressing up, This is not the time for making things, This is not the time for reading, This is not the time for hiding from a hurricane or putting out fires. (I wanted imaginative children, the joke’s on me).

I spend the evening returning tiny lego pieces to the lego box, furniture into the playmobile house, separating dentist and school sets into their cases and binning googly eyes.  There are always so many googly eyes.

Imogen wakes early and plays quietly and purposefully.  Everything is opened and mixed in 2 seconds flat.

That’s not really true.  Everything is not mixed in 2 seconds flat. What is true is that Imogen plays quietly and purposefully.  Resulting in a purposeful mess.

(“A creative bombsite”: a phrase I sometimes use to warn my husband about the living room.)

What I really wanted, it seems, is children who would keep their imaginations segregated by brand and theme.

I want creativity to be one of the values in our home and the frustrating, and slightly embarrassing, truth is that I find this hard.  Tiring.  It does not come as naturally to me as I would like.  I would like everything tidy and quiet so I can have some Sharon-time later.

I listen to an interview with Kenneth and Sarah Jane Wright, the creators of Lola Dutch Is A Little Bit Much, on Readaloud Revival.  They are talking about giving kids creative courage – “if the parents just get out of the way.”

If the parents just get out of the way.

(Stop dismantling forts).

I hover and intervene when I should be giving them space.  I dismantle when I should be encouraging the build.

Making space matters, Erin Loechner says, in whatever way we can.  ‘Trading theories for wonder, criticism for curiosity. Kissing the precious plants and spotless sofa goodbye; heralding in an unpredictable mess. Swapping out a limited view of self care and allowing ourselves the surprise of something else. Giving up our cozy couch; receiving front row seats to a far greater show.’

I want to make space for creative courage, for forts and Princess Dogs and integrated play pieces.  An unpredictable mess.  A far greater show.