I wish.

I tell my friend that Chris is going on a work trip, to Budapest, my favourite city.

“Can’t you go with him?” she asks.

“I wish”, I reply.

*

I see the post on Facebook, the red brick, the blue sky, “Are you ready to walk through these gates yet? #Chq2017”.

I tag my friend Lynn.  I type 2 words: “I wish”.

*

My Auntie Po is in Australia.  I see her lovely photos – places I visited, places I lived, the faces of our family.

I like the photos, but also, I wish.

*

It’s fine to be a little wistful, of course.  A little dreamy and nostalgic.

But then there’s envy.  There’s discontent.  There’s sighing over your kitchen sink, sighing over your right-now-life.

*

Marian Vischer writes about learning to receive her own summer life.  I am learning this too.

‘Real life is not lived in highlight reel moments’, she says.  ‘When we receive those moments, they are worthy of celebrating. But the mundane moments matter too. And to begrudge them because everyone else seems to be living their best summer life now, well, it makes a mockery of our beautiful, ordinary lives.’

*

I have had some life-changing, memory-making summers, and I’m grateful.  I’ve been to some beautiful places, packed backpacks, talked under the moonlight.

But we’re memory-making now, I think, with welly boots and library cards and another trip to the same old park.

Here’s this beautiful, ordinary life and if I’m honest – when I sat by lakes, legs dangling off piers, talking all night long – wasn’t I a little wistful for this?  For a future that was still a bit blurry, a bit hard to imagine.

If you had shown me a snapshot, then, of pink rain suits and stick collections and Lego cities, of a house that smells of Apple Crisp and 2 girls that won’t come for dinner because they’re reading… I think I might have said… “I wish”.

 

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Blessing

It’s a freezing November morning and I am buckling my girls into their car-seats when the windows around us suddenly clear. I see my neighbour, washing-up bowl in his hands, sloshing warm water over our icy car. It feels like a kind of blessing on the 3 of us. It feels kind of embarrassing.

The windows clear so suddenly exposing us in all our early morning liveliness, squished into the back of my little car. It is not my most graceful pose, this back-seat-car-seat buckling.

His help feels a little undeserved. Our mornings are loud, he lives in the terrace house right next to us. I have no doubt he hears all the joy and rage and opinions that accompany our mornings. Maybe if I was a more patient mother I would deserve his help? But here he is, popping up in the middle of our clumsy antics, washing-up bowl in hand.

His help feels like the kindest thing in the world. I feel noticed and cared for and connected to my neighbour by this small act of kindness.

It can be hard to receive, hard to have our real life noticed, up-close.

I feel grateful and embarrassed all at once.  It’s a familiar feeling, in this season of life,  this letting myself be blessed.

Exactly Like Him

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I had been thinking about his garden.  Even before he lost his swallow, before his final, peaceful days, I’d been thinking about his garden.

Maybe you knew that garden.  It was exciting, and a little daunting, as children to go through the gate into what seemed like a tropical jungle. There was colour and life everywhere, and more often than not Grandpa was hidden in the middle of it, tending to something.  It was not a garden you looked at, it was a garden you experienced.  It flourished.  I had been wondering how he did it.

*

When Grandpa died at the beginning of August, I thought of that garden. And I thought of garden metaphors.  I think we all did.

We thought of him tending and nurturing plants.  We thought of him tending and nurturing us, and other people, and his faith.  We thought of the things he planted.  We heard from people whose lives he’d touched.  We wondered how he did it.

‘Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies’, we reminded ourselves.

To think of life at work underneath the surface of what looks dead and desolate, brings enormous comfort.  Garden metaphors make sense to many of us in the face of loss.  And they make sense in the face of dementia.

Or they don’t.

*

Nothing ‘makes sense’ in the face of dementia.  You could become an expert on Lewy Body Dementia, like my my mum essentially did, and it still wouldn’t make sense.

When Grandpa lost his swallow, it seemed like old Boughton’s lament in Gilead that “Jesus never had to be old!”, was fitting.  What else could you say about years of steadily losing every piece of himself?

I want it to make sense. I am tempted to force an uplifting lesson out of it for a blog post, to smooth over the sharp edges of dementia with my words.

Or, I am tempted to write-it off, a dark chapter jammed between an inspiring life and a blessed eternity.

But something is making me sit with, instead of make sense of. Maybe it’s the Wendell Berry-effect. I have just finished ‘The Memory of Old Jack’, after all, where wise and gentle Mat Feltner draws up a chair and sits beside Old Jack a while “in death as he had sat with him in life”, where he refrains from exacting a tribute on his passive remains.
*

My 5-year-old wants to draw his face. It’s her first reaction when she hears about his death.

“Let’s draw a picture of him that looks exactly like him,” she says with Lola- esque emphasis.

Exactly like him.

My Auntie P and I shared a wee moment in Grandpa’s room the day before he died. We looked at the photos on his wall. With Nana on his wedding day: “So handsome”.  A portrait of the pair many decades later: “Still so handsome. So robust.”.

That second photo, to me, is Exactly Like Him. But not to my 5-year-old.

She is very clear about the face she wants to draw. She does not like the photographs that I like. She wants “a picture of him in the last home he lived in, looking like that.”

She only knew him very old. She only ever knew him with dementia. That’s Grandpa to her. That’s the face worth drawing, the face worth remembering. She will not let me air-brush.

*

We sing songs at his Thanksgiving service about Home.  All The Way My Saviour Leads Me.  There is a Hope.  The Lord’s My Shepherd.

I listen to them in my kitchen for weeks afterwards as I do my mulling over, my own laying to rest.

“For your endless mercy follows me, your goodness will lead me home.”

Beautiful.

Incredible.

I don’t know what to make of it, this vision of mercy and goodness pursuing him right through the dementia.  But I like it.  And I sing.

*

Dementia is harrowing and yet any tendency in me toward pity, any attempt to wrap up this final chapter of his life in exclusively brutal language, has always been stopped short when I have observed my daddy.

“We became the best of friends”, my dad said in his tribute.  He was talking about the relationship that formed between him and his father-in-law after Grandpa came to live with them, and then during his years in a near-by nursing home.

At one stage of his dementia Grandpa started referring to my dad as his brother.  Dad didn’t bat an eyelid.  He just started referring to him as his brother too.

Best Friends.  Brothers.

The most debilitating years of Grandpa’s life, yet the bond they formed was extraordinary.  It changed my life, a bit, to witness it.

I think of an article in the Guardian by Helen Dunmore about the novel ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ and its astonishing portrayal of dementia.  She writes: “The novel’s account of this illness and its terrible progress through a life is unsparing, but never cold or removed. Thomas creates an intimacy with Ed’s struggle against his own mental dissolution that is intensely moving.”

My parents shared in the intimacy of Grandpa’s struggle and there aren’t really words to describe that.  I just need to sit in a chair and think about it.

*

As I sit, I have these favourite quotes I am sitting with.  They mean something to me, this month.  They come to mind as I think about this particular man.

They are all from the novel Gilead.  Maybe you will find them worth sitting with, too:

“Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

He will wipe the tears from all faces.” It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.

 

 

This is the girl, all cold and cross

‘And though she be but little, she is fierce.’

[Shakespeare]

My friend Patrick recently sent me a link to the met office’s list of future storm names. For I: Storm Imogen.  Yes, I thought, what a perfect name for a storm. But, also, hasn’t Storm Imogen already hit, many times?

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You turned 3 this month and you have been celebrating yourself like it’s your job. Your capacity for celebration matches your capacity for angst. You are ALL the Emotions. You are both/and.

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It’s true, you can tantrum. You can huff. You can bear a grudge. You can give the most withering looks. When Storm Imogen hits it is loud, and a little violent. You stamp that right foot with indignation and your voices ratchets up like a crazy housewife (like your mama, I fear, when I’m not my best self). You are, we often say, a very eloquent cross person, very specific in your grievances. When you do not want to wear your coat on the Gruffalo trail and I tell you you can take it off in the car you stamp that foot and yell into the Colin Glenn: “I do not want to wear it in the Deep DARK WOOD!” You add syllables when you’re cross, as well as volume, your piercing, rising tone vibrating off the trees. When you do not want to wear a hair bobble at breakfast (you never want to wear a hair bobble) you yell in mounting disgust :”That. Hair. Bobble. Is TOO SPARKLY for me!”  (This morning, you simply insisted train drivers don’t wear hair bobbles, and that was that.)

You like to be charmed.  You like a little effort to be made.  You are open to bribes, deals and offers.  You’re anyone’s for a chocolate button.

You like to mimic the faces of the characters in any books we read.  Your favourite, of course, ‘This is the bear all cold and cross’, a posture you adopt away from the books, whenever it matches your mood.
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Your mood: both/and.

Both the stormiest, and the sunniest girl around.

It’s true, you can tantrum.  You’re that kind of girl.  But you’re also a yes please and thank you and sorry kind of girl.  A kiss, hug kind of girl.  A dancing in the supermarket kind of girl.  A laugh-until-you-choke kind of girl.  A merrymaker. A reveller.  A celebrator of life, and of yourself.

You have a fondness for men, particularly  butchers.  You bond with people, often, by roaring like a dinosaur.

It was BLUE day yesterday at your sister’s school.  As we got into the car Olivia said “We are supposed to Be Loving and Understanding to Everyone, but Imogen’s not doing it.” Ha.  “Well,” I replied, “Imogen is often loving and understanding, but she’s still learning, just like all of us.”

Said sister (victim to the violence) is mostly your partner in crime, your crazy playmate.  Although you have a very particular, practical kind of Arnold nature, it is curiously complemented with this wild imagination.  I wonder if your whimsical big sister has nurtured that in you?  You are often lost in other worlds, bestowing names and powers on each other, solving problems and mysteries and saving the world, all before breakfast.

That Arnold nature, though, has you doing 50 piece jigsaws, has you tidying up, has you noticing details I never would and figuring out how things work… it makes you physically capable in ways that are surprising for a 3-year-old.  I may recognise myself in your Mullan-face and your wild hair but your daddy sees you straightening everything up and thinks “That’s my girl!”.

That hair, of course, is commented on by everyone you meet.  You hate to have it touched or tamed.  That may change but for now it’s nice to have your company, wee frizz.

So happy birthday to our little boss lady, may you always find yourself worth celebrating.

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Today you are you

‘Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.’

[Dr Seuss]

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“Are there elephants in Australia mummy?”, “What about rhinos?”, “Giraffes?”. You turn your porridge bowl around and ask me in turn if each animal on its rim can be found in Australia.

Then you make up your mind: “Yes, I would like to go to Australia on an aeroplane. Please.”

You’re answering a question Uncle Kerr asked you. Yesterday.

*

You arrived into the world with a large bump on your head where you repeatedly banged it for a day and a half trying to get out, a little left of centre.

Left of centre, your preferred position, still.

*

You hate baked beans and the dark and tidying up.  You love ‘psgetti’ and cocoa and strawberries and ramen noodles.  You love baking with your daddy and you love finger-painting more than any mummy-driven-craft-project I come up with.  You love the ‘No-livia and Papa Rexus’ made-up stories that you beg your Papa for (as long as he gets all previous details correct).  You love just one more book from Nana, just one more minute in her house.  “I DO like you mummy”, you told me to my amusement last night, “I just like Nana Beethie MORE”.

You love curling up in Papa Ernest’s chair and you love eating all Nana Berta’s treats.  You love running round and around the outside of their house and you love playing with you daddy’s old Fisherprice toys on their floor.

You love Jane from across the road and don’t leave her side when we go on outings together.  Jane knows what all the trees and plants are and the pair of you stop to look at all the insects and talk to all the dogs and to go a bit closer to the river than mummy lets you.  (In fairness, you and Auntie Jane are usually IN the river).

Your feet seek out every ledge or edge or wall or line on the road.  Your fingers touch every button, wall and surface.  You are always climbing and exploring, hanging off things that aren’t supposed to be hung off.

You make your raisins talk to each other while your porridge bowl cools, forgotten, beside them.

You notice the things in the distance and are often oblivious to what’s in front of you.

You take the scenic route, endless detours, even if it’s just across the living room floor.

You have an inability to hold your head still so we embrace the ‘messy’ style of plaiting, incorporating every twist and turn of your wandering attention.  You have the kind of hair I’ve always wanted, though, thick and smooth and taken for granted.

You have your daddy’s face, all your Arnold genes gathered in one place, while the thoughts and temperament behind it serve to thwart the Arnold modus operandi at every turn.

You love your little sister, your partner in crime.  You shared a room for 2 months in the summer until we acknowledged you have too ‘spirited’ a relationship to be roomies.  You fight, of course, but it is the shrieks of laughter that usually need investigated.  When you’re not causing destruction together you’re usually cackling and howling as monsters and witches, or calling out to each other dramatically: “Mama?”, DAR-ling!”.

You offer theories about everything you come across (why that car crashed, where that litter came from, why that thing isn’t working, who that person might be).

You unravel with too much choice, or expectation. “I’m not sure and “That sounds a bit tricky” are your go-to-answers when under pressure.

You thrive with a basic routine and wide margins in your day for wandering and wondering.  You love open space, and you love to be curled up at home.  It is the end of the world if you’re tired, and it always has been.

You are cautious, sometimes. You listen to your inner voice.  You are not a child that can be persuaded, or coaxed, or bribed.  You do things when you want to and when you’re ready and I guess I hope you always will.

*

Today you are 5 and last week I found myself googling in search of an old Huffington Post article – The Day I Stopped Saying Hurry Up.  I don’t think I’m ever going to stop saying it, daughter.  We’d never get to school.  But I’m trying to say it less and it reminds me, completely, to cherish you my stop-and-smell-the-roses kind of child.

It reminds me that I LOVE the way you are.

I love that you take your time. I love that you colour outside the lines. I love that you deviate from The Plan and twist the instructions and sneak your own rules in. I love your abstract questions and your zany sense of humour and your wicked little laugh when you’re really amused.  I love that, more often than not, I find you standing on your head.  I love the endless thoughts that fuel your chatter, and I love your Quiet.

I love that you are FIVE in so many common, shared, universal ways. And I love that you are YOU in as many quirky, not-in-the-text-book, still-trying-to-figure-you-out ones.

So Happy Birthday Livi-kins and in the words of our wise old chum:

we’ll go to the top of the toppest blue space,

The Official Katroo Birthday Sounding-Off Place!

Come on! Open your mouth and sound off at the sky!

Shout loud at the top of your voice, “I AM I!

ME!

I am I!

And I may not know why

But I know that I like it.

Three cheers!  I AM I!”

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The Miseducation of Wee Frizz

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Olivia, our eldest, starts P1 in September.  We have not had to make too many educational choices yet in our time as parents.  But, with those we have had to make (nursery, primary school), we have found ourselves weighing up what matters to us, what are the things we have opinions about, and, what are the things we actually don’t have opinions about.

Without judging, we are free to not care about some of the things other parents gush about.  Otherwise, we will constantly sway from one school or nursery to another, second-guessing our choice.  Otherwise, all the opinions around us will feed our fear of missing out, of our child missing out, whatever choice we make.

So it was the noticeboards, the uniform, the space, the Maths scores, the Christian ethos, the reputation as “just a better school”?

Without judging, we are free to leave those as other people’s reasons.  We are free to have our own.

I don’t have a strong, clear educational philosophy. My approach is probably best summed up as hesitant and open.

Hesitant: I’m uncertain about our measuring sticks, about what we consider as ‘success’, about what educational attainment really means.

Open: I click on the articles about Finland or homeschooling or why homework isn’t necessary. I’m not on a soapbox about any of those things, but I find them interesting. I bear them in mind.

With each educational choice I have as a parent, with each article I click on, I am being asked to consider what is best for my child (maybe children in general).

From the day they are born there is this emphasis on what they are learning and (when we’re not too tired to brush our own teeth) we try to adjust our environment and our words and the toys we provide accordingly.

I am hesitant and open, knee-deep in figuring things out, but I do know I want to cast the net of ‘learning’ as wide as possible.  What’s at the end of this obsession about learning environments and stimulation and bed-time stories for my girls?  Say we get our educational ideal and we nurture well at home and they grow up articulate and intelligent and capable. What then? Well-paid jobs?  Well-run homes?

At 4 and 2 I delight in their curiosity, their love of learning, their language acquisition.  I want it to grow, at home and at school, but not as a means to an end.  I don’t want a qualification or a job to be the full stop to their curiosity or their way with words.

*

I have been flipping all these thoughts over recently, taking a break from obsessing about how we are shaping our children and thinking more about those of us who are already grown-up. Am I the adult I was educated to be?

What does it mean now, at 35, that I was taught and nurtured as a child?  How do I honour my ability to read?  What do I choose to do with it?  Where does my curiosity take me these days?

Sometimes it seems like we want to know how to develop and stimulate our children, while numbing and exhausting ourselves.

In an essay that I love, Anne Lamott asks some writing students if their children grow up to become adults who spend this one precious life in a spin of multitasking, stress, and achievement, and then work out four times a week, will they be pleased that their kids also pursued this kind of whirlwind life?  “If not, if they want much more for their kids, lives well spent in hard work and savoring all that is lovely, why are they living this manic way?”

I want much more for my kids, I suspect we all do, that’s why we deliberate over their choices and why we click on those articles.  And yet, the multitasking, stressful life is where so many of us land.  I don’t want to waste a good education pursuing that life and I don’t want to be a mum who models it.  I want them to see that I’m still curious, still reading for pleasure, still learning new things.  I want them to see that their dad and I are intelligent in different ways and that we make room for our passions and our interests.  Every time I obsess over their environments, I want to pause and look at mine.   Am I the adult I was educated to be?

 

I look at my environment
And wonder where the fire went
What happened to everything we used to be?

[The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill]

Gentle Men – some collaborative praise

A repost from 2014…

I stood this year, like every year, at a bit of a loss in the Father’s Day card aisle: golf, remote controls, beer, sailing. It would just be weird to get my dad a card with any of those things. Some years I settle for tools, or gardening.

Alternatively: cards with poems and jokes about dads being lazy, stupid, fat. Is it too mushy to say those things have just never applied to my dad?

Some years I have settled for poems about dads who are mental, or flippin’ bonkers.

It’s hard to find cards or presents or words sometimes to honour our men. But I have been asking, the past few days, for people to tell me about their dads, their ‘father figures’ or the dad they share parenting with. And it turns out that lazy and stupid aren’t the right labels for lots of men. And it turns out that being a good dad means even more than fixing things, or football.

I mean, Russ is a dad who is passionate about football, he plays it for hours with his boys and is involved in coaching their teams. But he is also a dad who is passing on his childhood love of the Famous Five at bedtime, who tells stories for the hundredth time about his old dog Rover, and who takes them to the river to catch tadpoles. Fiona watches him teach their boys how to treat others fairly, to consider other people’s point of view and to do the right thing even when it’s hard.

Tory’s husband is a Fireman. I’ve bumped into him in the leisure centre on his day off, taking the kids swimming so she can have some time to herself. He encourages her to do this whenever there’s a chance. He encourages her to pursue her passions. She is soon going to have 3 kids under 5, but she says I never think of it as a one woman show. As a dad he is patient and fun and energetic and she sees this encouraging their children to be fearless and free, and steadying her.

Jerome is Chief nappy-changer and bather. Judes notices how he takes such joy in these menial tasks. His humour and laughter and ridiculous voices have made her laugh in the tired, newborn days. He supports Judes breastfeeding by tending to their baby’s other needs. She has been surprised by his amazing patience. She so appreciates his sensitivity to know when to take over without discussion. It is a team effort.

Judith D has never once cut her boys’ nails. It’s daddy’s job. She also credits Tom that the house is clean as he does housework around her long evening breastfeeds. Her 3 year old teaches her about radar towers & wind socks & taxi ways… passing on the knowledge that Tom passed on to him. Some days as soon as he gets in from work he takes Samuel off to see something he notices on the way home – lambs maybe, or a forage harvester. He involves him in gardening, recycling, washing the car.

Erin says that words to describe my brother Paul as a dad are patient, gentle, kind and sensitive to their family’s needs. She says patience is a HUGE one.

Chris does the ironing, the groceries and the nursery run. He can achieve something that eludes me: symmetrical pigtails. The worst night of breastfeeding I ever had he simply sat on the floor beside me. He whispered to the girls that I’d gone to the dark side today, and it brought me back. He is joker of the pack and a well-used climbing frame.

Rach talks about one night when Ruben was barely 2 and a half, just starting to string sentences together, when they were outside a caravan, eating pizza by the sea. She went in to do dishes and he talked to his dad for 40 minutes in an epic monologue about everything on his wee heart. Jürg listens. Rach says it’s one of the greatest gifts he gives their kids, and she notices it all the time these days. She says: “He gives them all the time in the world to talk. No expectations, no pressure, the conversation can flow wherever they lead it. And he listens, and they can feel it, and so they talk……..and it is beautiful.”

Lorraine says there is no part of Eoin’s life that Andy is not involved in. Nappies, feeding, getting up in the night, minding him regularly. He loves it when his son watches him doing DIY, but he also models cooking, cleaning and helping. He models loving women. He works part time so that he won’t miss his son growing up, even though this means sacrifices in other areas. He prays that Eoin would be a person that is kind. Over and over. He is super proud to walk around with his son in a backpack.

Kate says she couldn’t ask for a better dad for her son. They live close to each other and share care in a way that works. Their son has routine, stability, love and a lot of time with both parents.

My dad remembers fondly his own dad  playing gentle “fighting” with him as a young boy. He would try to hit his dad who would gently hit back without hurting him. He loved these “fights”. He says his dad really cared for his family and included them as much as he could. He always made you feel that he had time for you. That you mattered to him.”  He says he thinks he understood the Fatherhood of God quite well and emulated that (I would say the same about him).

And the first thing my mum said about her dad? He was a carer, all his life. He looked after his siblings, his children and his wife. He was an avid reader and taught himself DIY skills, gardening, cookery and theology. He was a hard worker and a strict disciplinarian but also full of fun and practical jokes.

My friend Jenny says that her dad and granda have ruined her for life as she expects all men to be respectful, kind, loving and caring.

Rosie could write a book about her dad, and I think she should. She sat by his bedside today watching him sleep thinking of the lifetime of friendship and closeness they have shared. They have always been best buddies.  She loves his wisdom and his ability to see things from every angle and his great sense of fun. She loves his interest in other people and their well-being. All these traits are still obvious though he’s now so weak and confined.

It’s been an emotional few days receiving these stories, hearing women praise their men. They wrote more and said more and confessed there was still more. Hallmark can’t really design cards for these men, can they? So today we will praise them. I mean, honestly, we all still roll our eyes and bicker and tell tales on them, I’ll still be doing that tomorrow, no doubt. But today let’s just say it, there are many men who aren’t stupid or lazy or useless… and neither are they THE WORLD’S BEST DADS in some perfect, macho, aggressive, cartoon super-hero kind of way. They are Gentle Men – patient and kind, hardworking and fun, serious and silly. They are sharing their passions. They are listening to their children. They are saving our lives a time or 2 with their humour. Thank You.

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(As I wrote this I kept starting and deleting disclaimers. Some fathers seem to confirm the stereotypes, some are abusive and some are difficult and brilliant, both. Some fathers are absent and some deeply missed. I cannot write about these things with any wisdom, but I read those who do, and hope they will continue to write.  Father’s Day could prompt all kinds of stories. I’m just holding space, today, for some of the good ones… for the fathers who are carrying on generations of good men, and for the ones determined to be the father they wish they had, wee frizz salutes you)

Feel free to praise a man in your life in the comments section …