Monday 31 October 2011

Lily's shelf

I have spent large parts of this holiday has been packing, sorting, reducing, rationalizing stuff. Boxes of things have been put aside for when we move onto the land in January, boxes have been put on another side to be taken for immediate use in the new house later this week. Slowly, slowly our shelves are emptying. But one shelf is still the same. In fact it hasn't really changed in essence since June 2009. It's Lily's shelf.
When Lily was alive she shared a bedroom with Tansy, and as the older sister appropriated most of the available storage space. As we live in a mobile home right now, this amounted to three of the four shelves in their room and a 'dressing table' area where she had a season table.  Big sections of the shared wardrobe space were filled with her clothes, while Tansy happily squeezed into the remaining areas.

After the accident, everything stayed the same, clothes in the wardrobe, season table, books, dolls, jewellry boxes, all in the same place. Except the top bunk was empty. Tansy continued to use one shelf for her belongings and squeeze her clothes into limited areas of wardrobe space. After a few months, I condensed Lily's clothes onto one shelf,  painfully removing a few which weren't her favourites, passing some over to her dad in North Devon.
Then we made a little dolls house for Tansy's birthday, where could it go? Slowly.. item by item I moved the season table, her little purple lizard, the vase of flowers, the coloured cloths, and Tansy's dolls settled in.
And so it has gone, over the last two years and four months, bit by bit, all physical evidence of Lily's presence in that room has been erased.
The clothes had to go when Leo moved in, a year after her accident. I hated not to see them in the wardrobe so I could pretend just for a briefest moment that she was still here. Even though Icouldn't even bury my nose in them to capture some tangible wisp of a Lily scent as they had started to turn musty.
I hated that her precious top shelf near her bunk was cleared of her horses and notebooks and crochet work, to make way for Tansy to move up. I couldn't stand next to her bed any more and pretend that she was still there needing a knee massage for her growing pains, or wanting me to look through the pictures of her drawing book with her.

But there's still one shelf left, Lily's shelf. The contents has ebbed and flowed slightly as other children borrow items and then put others back. but in essence it is hers.
Her music box, her marbling kit, some books, her puppets which I made for her last Christmas present, her magnets, a painted plate..... Most of her personal things are now in a carved wooden chest in the sitting room but I could never bear to empty her bedroom shelf. Proof that she was once there, lived and laughed and cried and played there. Was grumpy and wouldn't go to sleep, was loving and cuddled with Tansy and Leo in bed, was upset when I was cross with her.

The problem is, that I now have to empty the shelf, as in two or three days we will no longer live here, and her bedroom will no longer exist. In any new house, or dwelling that we live in from now on there will never be a place that Lily has inhabited, there will be no memories of her making beads at the table or looking at her flower fairy books in bed or eating her dinner with Leo perched on her lap.

For the rest of my life I will live in a place that Lily has not been in.

And even as I write these words I know they are not true, not really. Lily will always be here with us, wherever we are. Not the physical little seven year old girl who hated cooked raisins and mushrooms,  but loved hawthorn leaves in spring, not her, but the intangible, undefinable, sparkling presence of Lily  who makes herself known to us in so many ways, so often. Who still wants to be with us and still loves us, wherever we are.
A bedroom is just a bedroom, a shelf is just a shelf, her spirit is stronger and more enduring than that, and so are we.

Saturday 29 October 2011

Doing without and making do

Doing without something that we usually take for granted, like electricity or running hot water, or bedrooms or bathrooms is a challenge I (rather oddly) enjoy. Although I might moan if the washing machine freezes in winter or the door falls off secretly I quite relish getting the buckets out and scrubbing away! I know it's wierd! But as if by magic,the washing pile is always smaller when I hand wash, and I am far more aware of what I'm washing, hmm, funny that one....
At the moment we have run out of the giant bottles of calor gas which heat our water. We have them delivered to the edge of the wood, then have to maneouvre them in along the little path into our clearing.  As we are about to move, it was generally deemed not worth dragging a new bottle in, and as I am generally keen to reduce our reliance on non renewable fuels anyway, I was quite happy to do without. Now, I keep a huge cauldron of water on the woodburner and dole it out like a miser in giant tin cups. We have all experienced the joys of  'the splash bath' (standing in the shower and pouring tin mugs of water around) and I feel as if I have a new child to tend to, as I nurse the woodburner to just the right temperature and plan water use, monitoring how much has been used for hand washing so I can still do the washing up later on.

Strangely, rather than cursing the lack of easy quick hot water,  I have felt more grateful for the water we do have. It feels more like the precious resource it is rather than an expendable commodity. The time I spend fussing over it builds my relationship with it; connects me with it, and I don't take it for granted. The sentiment is of my children just asked me what he could do with last night's hot water bottle water, as it seemed wasteful to just chuck it away. Scarcity of resources engenders reverence and care, well it should, though we could learn a thing or two about oil.
It was the same in our yurt, where we lived for six months in 2008. For the first few weeks we had only an outside cold tap a short distance from where we cooked, and bucketed everything in. Finally Hugh found time to make an outdoor sink and we had running (albeit still outside) water. The moment Hugh turned the tap on for the first time felt like a festival, everyone was so excited and we all felt so grateful (well mainly me) that we weren't carrying heavy buckets every day. Weeks earlier we had been living in a comfortable house with hot baths on tap, but the period of abstinence completely changed our relationship to water, and lots of other things.

We all loved our tin baths! (the adults had theirs indoors by candlelight)

 In tandem with our appreciation for a precious resource, and a greater connection with water, I did also realise what tough, time consuming labour it is, not having running water. In my time at the yurt, I found it hard to find time to write much, or have any personal creative time, and large parts of my day were spent kneeling by nappy buckets, sluicing and scrubbing! I felt connected by invisible threads to women all around the world who do expend huge amounts of energy fetching and carrying water and scrubbing things, babies, dishes, clothes....In fact I  felt connected to everything, the water, the clothes, my sore hands, my knees on the hard ground. I was aware. It wasn't a bad feeling.
The problem is my life is too fast. I felt as if I was living in the 19th century at the yurt whilst still trying to maintain 21st century speed in all other areas of my life. Trying to maintain the two in parallel was exhausting.

What am I trying to say? I'm not really sure! A large bit of me longs to live simply and sparsely, paring down the dashing, accumulating, achieving parts of my life to spend time calmly creating what I need, with my own hands. Clean clothes, delicious food, toys for the children, knitwear, medicine, candles, work, crafts. My labour and time, not money or a switch. The problem is that I do try to do all this, but also dash around and put pressure on myself to achieve as well. Two life styles in opposition?

 I do know that doing without a so called 'necessity' such as electricity or running water can bring me down to earth with a big flash of realisation about just how disconnected we have all become from what is real in our lives. The easier and quicker tasks are to achieve, the less I engage with them and the more I try to cram in. I don't have to use my ingenuity and creativity to work out how to do something or develop a system to cope with a difficult task.
The work  involved to fill the gap left when I can't just flick a switch does help me to slowly slowly think about radical changes that I can make towards simplifying and enriching my life.

Times are changing for us.
How about you, do you find satisfaction from doing without? Do you become more creative and have fun from making do?

Sunday 23 October 2011

Once upon a time

Once upon a time there was a little child.. This child was three, and had a sore finger which was threatening to turn septic. It bothered the little child, and the kind mama put some special herbal cream and drops on it every night to help it heal. All was well and the little child enjoyed having the soothing salve smoothed on to the sore finger at bed time.
One night however, the little child was especially tired, after a long busy day with friends, and everyone was tired and a little cranky. The kind mama had a headache and lots of fractious, squabbly children to put to bed, she also had at least ten very important tasks which she needed to complete that evening. The kind papa was out. Bed time stories were read, teeth were cleaned and after alot of effort and struggle, the little child was snuggled into bed with Sleepy the doll.
'Time for the magic cream to make your finger better', announced the mama in what she hoped were bright, breezy and encouraging tones. (Were they laced with a little exhaustion and desperation? Maybe)
' No! 'said the little child and hid under the covers
'Now darling', began the mother in as calm and reasonable voice as she could muster 'you know we must put your cream on or your finger will not heal'
'No,' the child buried further down and began to cry.
This exchange was repeated a few more times until the kind mother felt her blood begin to boil, just a bit. The child was screaming and sweaty under the bed clothes.

Now the kind mama had seen the sore finger and knew that it was quite nasty, and the cream really did need to go on. She could also feel white hot anger and frustration rising up inside her like a simmering volcano, her head seemed too small for what was inside. She could only think of two options, one, admit defeat and leave the child and the festering finger to sob themselves to sleep; two, she could rip back the bed covers and forcibly apply the cream. Neither option seemed that appealing, and both were guaranteed to make both herself and the child feel worse. However she didn't have the energy for finding another option.

Fortunately, just at that moment, the kind mama remembered to breathe, she felt her feet on the ground and looked at the sobbing heap of bed clothes below her, and the voice of her child's wise nursery teacher floated breezily through all the volcanic activity in her head.
'Just tell a story, that's what I always say to parents, it's very easy, it always works...,'
And right after that, a little mouse scampered in to the tired mama's busy brain and she took a deep breath started to tell his story.

A little mouse had found some delicious cheese and, tempted, had ventured too close and caught his beautiful long tail in a trap. A kindly grandfather rat was passing by and helped the young mouse free himself, and then took him home to his wife who boiled up some magical healing herbs on the fire. The rats took the herbs and some bandages and gently put them on the sore tail, and invited the little mouse to come back each day to have fresh herbs put on until it was better. The grandfather rat showed the little mouse his own paw, which he had healed a long time before, after his own mishap with a human trap. Before long the little mouse was well and his mother sent round a pot of hazel nut preserve to thank the rats for their kindness.

About half way through the story, the little child emerged from beneath the covers, and with wide, wet blinking eyes, silently held out the sore finger for the cream to be applied. The wise mama, never pausing in her tale, swiftly smoothed on the healing salve and calmly continued until the end of the story.
She kissed her child lovingly goodnight and left the bedroom, calmed, energised and strangely serene. The child drifted to sleep.
And that's a true story!

I'd love to hear about your tales of the amazing healing power of stories

Thursday 20 October 2011

Where we live, and where we are leaving

This is where we have lived for three years, a mobile home in the middle of a wood in South Devon. We arrived as a family of six, fresh from our 18 foot yurt on Dartmoor, and before that our five bedroom house in North Devon!
In just under two weeks we will leave as a family of five for a two month respite in a house, courtesy of some lovely friends, before moving onto our own piece of woodland nearby; this time in an eclectic blend of a dwelling..part timber, part caravan, part bender. The first two parts of the eclectic blend are already in place, and the third part, the bender, will be built when Hugh returns from a ten day wilderness survival quest in the Pyrenees. I will be busy harvesting hazel poles in the meantime and chopping firewood, lots and lots and lots. Ready for a hungry woodburner and a cosy home.

It's so strange to think about leaving, my heart feels settled here like nowhere else. We have very kindly been allowed to live here by some more lovely friends, well past our expected  stay of six months, and for me it will be hard to go, I have felt so close to life here, close to my family, close to the earth. Part of the surging swell of the year's cycle.

Life is lived close to the weather, we feel the spiky frosts through the thin walls and huddle close to the fire in woollen long john's,  snuggle deep under the blankets for stories and hot chocolate. We know the winter so thoroughly, the dazzling ice ferns painted on our windows, the ice in the water pipes. We live the winter.

Life is lived close to the sunny open easy summer days, pattering barefoot, picking lettuce,  a jay noisily flustering away among the trees, a precious blue feather caught in the ferns. The sun soaks us, fills us until we drift away into the cool trees quiet in the sun, dappled and entrancing. A golden bug, a shimmering damsel fly, the flutter of wings among the flowers. We live the summer,

Life is lived among the scents of May, the ringing of the bluest fairy bells, the promise of the unfurling burgeoning wood, spring swirls around us, dances with us, spins us around in the dizzying energy of new life, eggs crack among the leaves. We live the spring.

And we live autumn now, the settling down grumbling surge of the earth shifting under its leaf mantle, gathering, enfolding, hurrying to rest before the winter chills. Madcapping squirrels and their  autumn carnival,  chestnuts cracking in  the fire,  

We feel the change of the earth, the movement of the seasons here. We cannot escape the chills and changes, the mud and the hurried night trip outside in sheets of rain. We live in a very small space but have many acres of trees around us....outside happens alot.

Every corner of the wood, every corner of our home, holds a memory, an occasion, the skeleton of a den, a forgotten birthday song, a whispered secret, a lilting lullaby. Laughings, cryings, bakings, makings, firewood foragings, tree scrambling days, we have lived so much here. This wood has held so many tears and ragings so much loving and sighing, so much life in all its tragic and majestic complexity, in  all its magnificent splendour. The flow of life, which moves on.. and on, and with us and through us and never ends.
And so we will move on.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Moments of solace

These days are challenging.

There's nothing like the whisper of change to cause brewing storms around our home. The threat of 'different' , the worry of  the 'not expected'  the anxiety of a changed routine. When there's definitely a big loud change right on the horizon, well that brings up all our anxieties and throws them into the pot together and gives them a good old stir.
So when we're say, moving house in 2 weeks and again in 2 months, you can imagine we have a potent mixture brewing.
When we're leaving the place where we have our last memories of our daughter and sister, and where her accident took place, you can begin to see that these are challenging times indeed.

I'll save the challenges for another time, because right now I'm trying to focus on keeping a positive flow running through myself and my family.

Actually, I haven't really been looking for help. So tied up with my anxiety, grief, dread, worry and a million practical concerns, I have been forgetting that help and solace is all around me and in me too. Luckily it comes searching for me sometimes, even when I forget to look.

  • Yesterday, it was a huge flock of wild geese flying in formation over the busy street in town as I scurried late to the dentist. Lifted from my distracted thoughts, my gaze was captured by the power and beauty of their unity and purpose. A moment of magic that provided real soul nourishment deep down, and brought tears to my eyes.

  • The day before it was a little toad hiding under a log as we cleared the garden. And a midnight badger waddling into the hedge as I drove home under the round silver moon . They danced into my clunky day deepened my breath, and reminded me of my connection to all four leggeds, and six, eight, or two legged beings. Life became simple and beautiful again.

  • A little while ago it was Jo. Our cat brought him in one evening and I put him in a box with some sheep's wool and a saucer of goat milk over night. A rainy disgruntled Sunday at home was transformed. Squabbles, insecurities and demands melted away as all the children united in the care of a tiny blind baby rat.  Fed from a dropper with milk and nestled down again for 'naps,' Jo was lovingly tended all day. I was amazed at the change a rodent 2cm long could bring to our small home.
  • Every day it is having an outside toilet! Having no drainage in the woods, we have a compost toilet a little distance from the caravan. Even when the winter frosts freeze me to the core, to walk out of an intense little home into the woods is always a blessing. A little wren hops on the handrail outside the toilet door, a tree creeper whisks up the big old oak tree nearby, a squirrel races off the woodshed roof and back into the wood. A moment of quiet to put my troubles in perspective. 

  • It is a sunset streaking pink and gold over the hills of Dartmoor beyond our woodland enclave. opening up my narrowed vision.
  • It is a moment of shared understanding with a friend at a busy school pick up.
  • It is my four year old offering me a foot massage 'because I love you so much'
  • It is good that feels.. to break throught the tension and stress and connect with someone else light heartedly.
It is so many things, and they are always there, I just need to see them.
I guess it's all about connection. When I am stressed, I disconnect and burrow deep down in my own private little pit of misery, when the world reaches out to me and I respond, well my whole family benifits from the change! I just need to remember to keep open, the universe isn't the one closing down....

Saturday 8 October 2011

When the light turns blue

A few weeks ago I was driving to school for what felt like the tenth time that day to pick up the final batch of children. My mind was busy with a hundred concerns, such as what to cook for dinner and how to survive without a bedroom, and did I bring that cheque, and oh God I forgot the form that had to be handed in yesterday, will I have time to squeeze in a quick phone call at school..where is my phone?
You get the picture.
 I was one hundred and ten percent in head mode and needed someone to comb my brain smooth and clear with a silken brush and remind me that actually I have a body and don't need to exist entirely in my head.
And so it was in that frame of mind that I was held up half way to school by traffic lights. I grabbed my phone.. a few precious seconds to tick something off my to do list. Texting, texting ......

'Mummy what happens when the light turns blue?'

There was someone in the back.. I'd almost forgotten, it was Leo.

'Well there isn't a blue light Leo, just red, yellow and green.' Why was my predictive texting not letting me write what I want?

'But mummy what does happen when it turns blue?'
I abandoned my texting, as the combination of trying to work out how to write thankyou (my phone seemed to be defeated by this challenge) listen to Leo and start driving again, was proving too much for me. I drove.

And then something changed.

What it was I can't remember, was it a glimpse of a glistening bunch of Guelder Rose berries in the hedgerow, or Leo's round eyes, trying to catch mine in the rear view mirror.  Maybe I just managed to breathe a little deeper.

Instead of launching into a rapid fire educational explanation of what the red, green and amber light do in our practical world, I listened to Leo, really listened, and of course knew what he meant. Knew in my heart, not in my head. He didn't want rational, thought based answers, packed with nutritious information and facts. He doesn't have to exist in that reality yet. For him, anything is possible,
The traffic slowed again and I turned round briefly and whispered,
'Leo, when the light turns blue we have to fly'
His face lit up and his eyes shone, his whole body shivered in excitement..that was the answer he wanted.
We spent the rest of the journey to school in a blissful golden land of wings and blue lights. I felt much better, I'm guessing Leo did too.
I was reminded of a very similar incident when Tansy was tiny and wanted to know what the black tube running through our garden was. When I told her that it was the hosepipe to water the plants with, she actually looked at me as if I was slightly crazy. It took a few promptings from her before I breathed, left my head, and said,
 'Well actually Tansy, it's a huge shiny snake that lives in the buddlea bushes and if you look carefully you might find her nest of babies.' The same shining eyes, the same shiver of excitement.

We live in the age of Too Much Information, it is a 21st century god
Every day, every hour, every minute, we are bombarded, attacked, cajoled, coerced, persuaded,  by much, so much, and how handy, just at our fingertips, at the touch of a button, day and night. The internet is a vast gluttons paradise, trillions of luscious morsels, to gorge on without ceasing, leaving us full, uncomfortable, dissatisfied and uneasily wanting more. Bloated and saturated. And yet we keep feeding. And we force feed our children.

It's hard not to do. How many times have I had to stop myself imparting an impromptu little educational speech?  I don't seem to need much encouragement. An innocent little wide eyed question.. and Boom ...straight into lots of facts,

'Ah well in this case you see if you put this bit in here then x travels more slowly and sometimes this affects y, or in cold weather, z,  and then .....' then I see the glazed, quizzical look in my younger children's eyes and stop.
But I am getting better, and with the little ones, often give the briefest of answers, or a story...or a cuddle. I want to let their minds stay free and dreamy and full of magic for as long as possible. Our children's minds are becoming as cluttered and overburdened as their toy cupboards, bursting with broken 'educational' toys. Little children are happier 'doing' not thinking..there's plenty of time to think later.

Do we really want them to think as much as we do? Do they need to know so much so quickly? Does it make us happy? Will it make them happy? What do you think?

Monday 3 October 2011


One of my favourite books as a child was a series of books by Elizabeth Enright, chronicling the lives of the Melendy family, a rambunctuous brood of four children in 1940's New York State. I loved those books for their simple idyllic portrayal of a childhood full of busy family games and adventures. As an only child myself I was captivated by their lives. One of their favourite games was to describe someone they knew, as a vegetable, fruit or food, and then challenge the rest of the family to guess who the person was.

 From then on I often felt  that a particular food item or even a colour or animal just seemed to encapsulate a certain person.
Yesterday was Tansy's 6th birthday. Before I got up in the morning I made a  promise to myself that my priority was not to rush around getting stressed about making party food or organising twenty games, but to ensure Tansy could glide calmly and happily through her day. So I started to think about her, and feel her presence around the home. When I thought of Tansy I thought of a bowl of creamy porridge, warm, sweet and uncomplicated. Or a plump turtle dove, burbling softly on a spring evening. Of a yellow daffodil opening its shy, closed night petals to the sun.  

When I started this blog I decided that I was not going to overly expose my children's characters or relay endless personal anecdotes about them, but I celebrated Tansy's steady, kind, sunny and determined disposition yesterday, and remembered her birth and early baby days as some of the most tranquil of my life.
Tansy was my first home birth and quite late to arrive. I spent the last weeks of pregnancy following the hypnobirthing program and doing daily relaxation exercises. Everything was calm. But the midwives had started to moot dates for me to be induced in hospital, so one Saturday, when I knew my favourite one was on duty, I ate lots of chilli, walked up lots of hills, drank lots of herbs and did all those things which we do when we need our babies to come out on their own, without medical 'help.'

As I cleaned my teeth that night I suddenly found myself on my hands and knees in the bathroom with a contraction, and an hour and a half later Tansy calmly emerged in my bed.  My CD of birthing affirmations echoed around the room as with each contraction I dropped deeper into my well practised relaxation.  My previous two birthings had been quick and straight forward, but agonisingly painful. With Tansy my contractions were strong but not painful and I could feel the presence of the inspiring mothers in my favourite birthing bible, Spiritual Miwifery by Ina May Gaskin, glowing all around me! Pain was the result of a tense body and my own expectations of childbirth, I was relieved that it didn't always have to be that way.

Minutes after the birth I was cosy in my own bed, toast, tea and beautiful baby in my arms, and Hugh ran a lavender bath for me next door. I felt blessed and elated to spend the rest of the night sleeping three in a bed, and to pass much of the following week five in a bed as we all read stories, made paper aeroplanes and cuddled a tiny Tansy.
Life was calm and easy then. Freddie and Lily walked across the road every morning to the village school, I cooked soup and nursed Tansy in the rocking chair in our big kitchen, and sat in the warm October sun among the autumn flowers in our garden. I remember those days with fondness and gratitude. The golden baby days of Tansy..
Happy Birthday love.