Knowing someone

Someone I know died this week.

I would love to say a friend of mine, but I’m not sure I ever earned that privilege. Social media has created a situation where you can be constantly in touch with someone and still not be sure whether you are a friend, or just a voyeur.

She took her own life.

I feel like a voyeur, not a friend.

I was with my dad when I heard, and he said (as he has many times before in similar situations, where we’ve heard news of a suicide amongst colleagues or distant connections) “It’s so awful for the family, and for her friends. I always think it’s such a selfish thing to do”.

But I was thinking. I knew this person. She was not a selfish person.

She was a happy positive person. She talked about friends and family. She empathised. I was also thinking that the person I knew would not do this.

Which raises two points. Firstly that I didn’t ever know the real her, and secondly that I am not good at seeing beyond the cheerful disposition people show to the world, because clearly there was more.

There have been several articles on the radio recently about the harm of our social media image. That fictional us we portray to the world, showing our best selves, our cheery dispositions. I don’t know how guilty I am of that (my sister helps keep me real by posting unflattering photos of me eating or talking with uncanny regularity).

She had reached a point where suicide felt like the logical thing to do. Life had concentrated itself down to one option.

I have no idea what that feels like, but I know this. I have felt down. I have felt lonely. I have talked about it here, and on social media, and endlessly to unsuspecting new mothers in my village, and people have offered me help. A coffee date, an offer of a visit or a playdate with children, the freedom to call them at any hour.

I haven’t taken up any of those offers, because somehow they didn’t fit in with the gap I was trying to fill. The quite probably Mum-shaped gap.

I have really appreciated the very good friends who just turned up, or emailed, or called, but most of my very good friends have small children of their own, and full time jobs, and live far away, so this is understandably rare.

The point is that these cries for help, and responses, my rejection of those responses and sulky petulant wish for better, closer connections with the people I love, made me feel like a terrible person. Like I couldn’t mention it again.

My cries for help led me to feel worse about myself, and not find the help I was after. I can see how that spiral can start. I have never been anywhere near where it ends.

I’ve been considering recently whether I should reduce the number of connections I have on social media, because the idea saddens me that I might meet (one day in real life) someone I haven’t seen since university, and I might not ask how they are, how they’ve been, what their life is like now, because I already feel like I know, because I’m keeping a low level background surveillance on them, checking in from time to time. I already know all about them.

And really, obviously, I know nothing.

Wouldn’t it be nicer to actually know nothing, and to ask, and to listen to the response?

I can’t decide.

Someone I know died this week. I’m not even sure I can claim that.

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Resolutions

I had resolutions for this year.

I didn’t dare voice them here, but I gave them a go, and I thought since I hadn’t been entirely honest about them at the beginning of the year, the least I could do was turn up here now at the hinge of the year (lovely phrase stolen from Emily Portman song) and fess up about what I did and didn’t manage to achieve, and whether it matters.

My first was based on the assumption that Lovely Son would be two and therefore about to receive free childcare, thus freeing me up to venture into freelance work. This has not been the case, we are not quite on a low enough income to qualify, which is a good sort of bad news, and since I discovered this early on in the year I haven’t really put much oomph into resolution one, which was to prepare two series’ of writing workshops for two different audiences.

I still want to get this ready and raring to go, but I’m not feeling as pushed for time. I can relax and get it right.

Resolution two was to complete the NHS Couch to 5K podcasts. I took this on twice before, finished once, and didn’t quite make it the second time, but this year I smashed it. I started in May and finished as Lovely Husband finished his school year and had a healthy summer of three 5K runs a week, which collapsed when the dark cold wet nights arrived, and I haven’t run in months, but I got there, and I think I’m still there, I might just need to ease into it a little. Time and sleep have disappeared with a two year old’s sleep regression.

Resolution three was to take part in a Park Run. I nearly managed this, but it turns out getting up to run by 9am on a Saturday morning is logistically the trickiest thing I have ever attempted. Timing it around breakfast and who is watching Lovely Son while I have a shower, and making sure the cars are juggled correctly on the drive the night before so I can get mine out. I was about to say this weekend is my only hope, but as I type I realise it’s Saturday night, on the last Saturday of the year, and this officially isn’t happening.

Resolution four was to finish a second draft of my novel and let someone read it.

I am so so close to doing this. I planned to get it done for June and out to a handful of readers for feedback, but I was nowhere near that and I almost gave up at that point, but I grabbed back my impetus, and I have pulled at this thing in every direction, I have transcribed it from third person past tense into first person present tense. I’ve filled in endless plotholes and smoothed things out, and it still isn’t anywhere near right, but it’s much closer to being readable. It’s eons on from this point last year, so I’m not going to feel like I’ve failed.

Resolution five was to own less stuff. I don’t know whether looking at my house you would see any difference, but I know I have removed boxes and boxes of stuff from my life this year. A new kitchen removed several boxes of unused kitchenware. Finished books I might have kept in case before, have gone as soon as they’re finished, as have books resting on the shelves I know I’ll never return to. Half of my clothes are gone. All the cases from our CDs are gone and the shelf that used to house them, replaced with a small compact case. This feels like a win.

Resolution six was to start toilet training Lovely Son. He is so not ready for this yet I’m not even going to pretend to have tried.

Resolution seven was to finish the fields quilt. I have not done this, but again, I have done so much. I’ve finished the patchwork, the really slow work, and I’m ready to start on the quilting in the new year. Next year could be my year for this one, but this year has been a lot of work and a sense of achievement too.

Resolution eight was to weigh no more than I did pre-pregnancy at the end of the year. Even with eating nothing but chocolate, cheese and crackers for the last few days I am currently two stone lighter than I was when I got pregnant, and not overweight for the first time in my life. It took about a year to do that, but I did it and then some.

The final resolution was to work my way through a pile of books on my bedside table that I’ve been meaning to get around to and putting off for years. I couldn’t really afford to buy books this year, so I dipped into unread gifts, and aborted starts and I had stacked up an unreasonable amount, which had started to judge me from the top of my desk.

I plodded through them slowly. Some were fiction, some non-fiction, some plays (nice and short), some achingly long, some favourite authors I’d been saving to linger over and one was the last book Mum read before she died and I didn’t want to waste it.

They are all read, some disappeared from the house instantly, some were passed to Lovely Husband, and some have become cherished favourites, but they are all read.

A new pile awaits for this year, we;ll have to see how we go. I’m currently struggling through ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ which I bought more than a decade ago and have started reading about three times. I’m further in than ever before. Wish me luck.

Others waiting to be tackled include Catch 22 and a biography of Mao. Anything could happen.

There may be more secret resolution for 2019. I haven’t decided yet, but I promise I’ll tell you about them at some point, succeed or fail.

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Me too – an afterthought

When everything came out about Harvey Weinstein and the ‘me too’ campaign was launched, my social media feed was deluged (as I’m sure many were) with short anecdotes about incidents of sexual harassment my friends and acquaintances had experienced over the years, and I was genuinely shocked by them.

In truth I’ve read a lot of blog posts by predominantly US writers talking about their ill treatment by men, and society’s acceptance of it, and I’d become used to a sort of internal tutting, and resignation to the fact that America seems decades behind the UK when it comes to men being able to express emotions healthily, and not through violence, or women being expected to act or look or dress a certain way (I’m basing my opinions on feminist blog posts and US tv here, so I might be incredibly wrong about the whole thing).

Essentially the problems being railed against across the pond are not problems I’ve encountered. Wolf whistles, creepy men on public transport who won’t take no for an answer, and many more have not crossed my path.

And #metoo left me with the same sort of feeling. I’m walking a lucky path, I cannot think of a single example of anything like that ever happening to me.

And then, the other day, out of the blue I was thinking about my old job as a newspaper reporter, and I remembered how my editor, who had a bit of a drinking habit, once came over to chat to me about something and started giving me a shoulder massage.

I remember the sympathetic looks from other women in the office, and from men.

I remember him walking out of the office, and everybody laughing about how creepy and weird it was, regaling each other about things he’d said or done to them.

And I remember feeling freaked out, and then normal, because everyone had a tale to tell, between us we had normalised it.

And then years later, faced with a barrage of other similar stories, I had normalised it so much I didn’t even think ‘me too’, I thought ‘poor them’.

I don’t know what I’m getting at here exactly, but I’m an enlightened feminist, I think, so really I guess I’m wondering how my mind got to be this blinkered. How bad is it out there? How bad is it in here?

I guess there should be a writing lesson here, and having just transcribed my entire novel out of third person past tense and into first person present tense, I’m going to say it’s this.

I need to start thinking about my blinkers, conscious and subconscious, because we all have them.

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Doing my best

So I started writing a post earlier this week about weight loss, because reasons, but I stopped because I was boring myself, and because I think what I really want to write about is the psychology behind things like weight loss, or any targety thing I do, maybe people in general do (I’m not sure how weird I am with stuff).

In context, recently I have lost some weight. I set myself a target to get back to my pre-pregnancy weight by the end of 2018.

Just before I got pregnant I was about 12st8, and after a year and a bit of coffee, cake and breastfeeding I was about 13st2, so I downloaded an NHS weightloss app (you’re bored already, right), and started counting calories, last November, and then around January I did that, I reached pre-pregnancy weight, and started eyeing up something bigger, more spectacular, one of my actual life goals. The idea that I might not be overweight.

This is the undreamable dream. I have never not been overweight. For my height I should be somewhere between 8 stone something and 11st2, and I hit obese at around 13st3, so I’m always teetering on that edge, or half a stone away.

When I was 29 I was nearly 15 stone, and I decided to just go for it, and spent seven months on a strict diet, and got down to 11st4 for my 30th birthday, which was crazy and which lasted about 24 hours, but I’ve never gone all the way back, so losing two stone, doesn’t seem that impossible.

Skip forward several months and…

The thing is this. I am currently 10st8. I am the lightest I have ever been as an adult. I checked through my teenage diaries even, and when I was 14 I was 11st1.

This is unprecedented.

I want to reach the middle of my healthy BMI before I stop, and I’m pretty sure I’ll get bored before then and give up, but I have no idea what people do then. How they stop themselves going back up. My body will want to go back up. We shall see.

And I could waffle on about what I’ve done. I’m happy to, except I bore myself. I don’t have a lot going on in my life at the moment, so this has been my thing for the last nine months. Lovely Husband is tired, I’m pretty sure.

But the other day I saw this quote/motivational thing/ bon mot/meme…

FRIENDLY REMINDER THAT ‘DOING YOUR BEST’ DOES NOT MEAN WORKING YOURSELF TO THE POINT OF A MENTAL BREAKDOWN.

And I thought, there’s no chance of that.

Then I thought, am I doing my best? Is this my best?

I’m bringing up my son. I’m doing okay at that. I shout too often, (more than Lovely Husband who works with children and knows how to stay calmer for longer) but we have fun together, and we try new things every now and then, and he smiles a lot.

I’m trying to read a stack of books that have been sitting on my bedside table for years. I’m plugging away at them, but there are other things I should/could be reading, and I have reading guilt.

I’m trying to redraft my novel, which I’m doing very very slowly, and not as well as I want to be. I can feel it missing where I want it to be already, which is annoying.

I’m trying to manage my allotment, which is failing to grow many different vegetables, but has produced strawberries and rhubarb and raspberries and gooseberries, which I have used.

I’m trying to get fit, in tiny 15 minute slots every day, and I’m doing this big fat diet, but I will stop, I will probably fall short of where I’m aiming.

There are friendships I’m not keeping up with, so many projects I’d love to be doing, and the thing is, I don’t know.

Am I doing my best?

Because what is my best?

How do I know?

This is my big self-revelation. I have no idea what my best is, what I’m actually capable of.

I constantly feel like I’m not hitting it.

I had a school report in primary school which graded me A for ability, B for effort, and I feel like that’s followed me round my entire life.

But I don’t know how to know. I just know, or feel like I know I could do better, if I could just work out how.

I have no idea where my ceiling is, and I’m too tired or lazy or maybe even scared, to look up.

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In the home stretch

I’m not here, you haven’t seen me.

I’ve just decided to stop procrastinating and get on with rewriting my second draft of the novel in first person present tense, following advice that the best way to edit a novel is to rewrite it from scratch.

I’m holding in it one hand on my Kindle and retyping it, changing the tense as I go, and fiddling with the awkward bits.

I have no idea if this is a good idea, but it is slow. I’m only up to about 15,000 words, which knocks my original plan of finishing a second draft by the end of June on the head somewhat.

I’m managing to rewrite about 1,000-2,000 words a day at the moment, so that’s another couple of months at least before I’m done, not including the few scenes I still have to write for the whole thing to make sense.

Wish me luck.

In the meantime I also finished the patchwork element of my patchwork quilt of fields. It looks like this (excuse the birdbath blocking the top right hand corner).

patchwork

Here’s the original plan for reference.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

It is huge, but I think I’m quite pleased with it so far. Only seven years work, along with a few other things. Now for the quilting bit.

The quilt and the book are both on a list of things to get done by the end of this year, so watch this space and I’ll stop procrastinating and get back to retyping.

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You matter

I’m feeling a little lost in time at the moment.

I finally managed to visit my Gran recently after more than a year. She’s living in a care home, down near my uncle’s house, and her dementia is pretty severe now. She doesn’t speak or look you in the eye, but she was marking her 95th birthday, so we visited her, me, my dad, my son and my uncle, and we talked to her.

The whole time I was there I was thinking about something I’d read recently. Her memoir, a telling of her childhood, growing up in the 1920s and 30s on the Isle of Wight.

It mentioned her mum and dad, her brother (who is still alive and well on the island at 97), her sister (who died during the war in childbirth), her grandparents, and all the characters and friends she was surrounded by in those years.

She mentioned music and adverts she remembered hearing through the walls from her neighbour playing Radio Luxembourg, music they played in weekly concerts at church, her mum’s singing voice, and flowers she picked.

Her memoir ends just as it’s getting going, in the middle of the war, before her sister died, and before she met her husband, but it’s a wonderful glimpse into her life, and looking at her in her care home (which was possibly the nicest care home I’ve ever seen in reality or fiction) I was seeing her as she was, as well as her as she is now.

After I got home I started reading a series of airgraphs (short letters) sent from my granddad home to his family during his RAF training in 1943. He asked them to keep them for him, and he kept their replies, so there are letters from four of his five brothers and sisters, and from his dad. I never really knew any of his brothers and sisters. Three of them died before I really had a chance to meet them at all, and his two sisters that I did get to meet, were very austere, and old fashioned, and more than likely telling us off when they did see us.

The people in these letters were a tight knit family, full of humour and good cheer and optimism. I had to look back at photographs from the time with new eyes.

Finally, after I’d mentioned my recent reading habits, my dad handed over a memoir written by his aunt, who is generally remembered as a family misery, and I set about transcribing that.

It’s true that her memoir is sad, it focuses on loss, from her new husband during the war, to her nephew of childhood leukaemia, and then her mother and father. However I think that was what shaped her life.

She never remarried, and she suffered with depression and she found it hard to rise above those things. I think the rest of the family failed to understand her. It’s really odd to think that she has the final word on that section of the family history, on my grandma’s childhood, and their parents, on my grandma and granddad’s marriage, and their children.

But she does, because no-one else wrote anything down.

 

What it’s made me realise, is that everyone matters. Your story is worth telling. You may have children or you may not, but if you have nephews or nieces, or any family at all, they may at some point in the future, be interesting in hearing what you remember.

And if they aren’t, their children might be, so write it down, record it in sound files, but do something, before you and your memory disappear.

We bought these for our parents, after our son was born, for him to give as Christmas gifts for his first Christmas, and I really hope he will cherish the replies he gets for the rest of his life.

Who are you the last living link to? Who do you remember? Write about your grandparents and your great grandparents, write about your brothers and sisters when they were kids, write down the story of how your parents met, because this stuff is gold dust to someone, it’s the stuff of life, and it matters. Stories matter.

You matter.

I am eternally grateful that anyone in my family chose to write things down.

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Human matryoshka dolls

A thought keeps buzzing around my head. It’s been there for roughly the time my son’s been alive, plus ten months or so, and I figure if I write it down and give it credence it might go away, so hear me out. Please.

Women are like human matryoshka dolls. You know those Russian nesting dolls, where you start with a large one (but never unfeasibly large) and when you look inside there’s a slightly smaller one, and inside that another and another and another.

I bought one once while travelling through Russia from a market outside Moscow, and despite being tiny, it still managed ten dolls, one inside the other.

When my mum was dying (roughly the age of my son, plus eleven months ago) I told her we were trying to get pregnant. We had been trying for nearly two years (if somewhat haphazardly) and I wasn’t feeling positive, but she made me promise I would name my baby after her. A promise I made, because I was so convinced that if we did have a baby it would be a girl. After all she had two girls, my sister had two girls. Seemingly all of my friends had two girls (they didn’t, but our wedding was like some kind of fairy rampage).

When we saw him on the scan, and the scan operator said he was a boy (she said ‘you can never be 100 per cent sure, but there’s his penis and those are his testicles’), we were both in shock, because we were SO sure we were having a girl.

And I had been having this thought, ever since I promised my mum, that here was I in the early part of the 21st century, a woman who came out of a woman, and she in turn came out of a woman, and her mother before her, back before records began, back to the dawn of humanity, women coming out of women coming out of women, too many to comprehend. And I was the end of the line, and I didn’t want to be. There’s something crazy powerful in that chain. It’s the branch of the family tree where the names change the most frequently, but the connection feels the most physical.

But ‘the age of my son plus nine months’ ago we managed to get pregnant and that was that. I’m a matryoshka doll.

But every man. Every single man (I newly thought after my shock at the scan) is the tiny doll at the very centre of the matryoshka doll. The end of the line.

What I can’t get past is, why that sounds sad, because it shouldn’t be. My son is awesome for one. Really awesome, but the end of the line feels strange. And it’s not just men obviously, And this isn’t about judging women who don’t have children, for any reason. I think it’s kind’ve selfish to have them if I’m honest. It’s not about that at all.

Maybe he should own it. Maybe all tiny matryoshka dolls should own it. Celebrate it!

It’s a weird thought, but apparently there’s no shaking it, so I’m sharing it instead.

And here, take a look at the last few dolls in my own personal matryoshka.

 

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