When I was much younger, I sang in a choir.
The secondary school I went to took great pride in its musical magnificence. Unusually for a state school, it had a special junior department for kids so musical they couldn`t wait until age 11 to get there. Being linked to the Minster (not York, the other one) the music was not the kind of stuff 90s kids usually rocked on down to. I attended history lessons with someone who earned golden-boy status for achieving 4th in the choir boy of the year competition. I took chemistry with a semi-celebrity in the pipe organ world.
You get the drift.
The musical snobbery was such that my grade 7 (out of 8) piano barely counted as being able to play an instrument. So, under my piano teacher`s advice, I joined the school choir in order to improve my pathetic musical ability.
The school choir was not a cool place to be. That was OK. I had no illusions of being, and made no attempt to be, cool.
And I really liked it. I liked learning all the extra parts to Christmas carols. I soaked up the buzz of performing in front of 5000 people in a proper theatre. Most of all, I loved being able to sing, in public, and instead of telling me to shut up or put their hands over their ears, those in hearing distance usually clapped.
I miss my choir days. It`s one of the things on my list of “what I`m going to do when I have more time”. A list I try and pretend is not really a list of “things I`m never going to get around to”.
A few weeks ago, as research for a book I`m writing, I visited my friend Sarah`s barbershop chorus, the Lace City Chorus, to see what had changed and remind myself of what choirs were like.
What was it like? Breath taking.
It made me miss my choir days even more. I quickly ran through the days of the week trying to find an extra day I`d forgotten about that wasn`t taken up with meetings, or volunteering, driving my children about or actually sitting down and having a conversation with my husband. Nope, still only 7 days in the week.
The sound these women made when they sang together made my heart sing back at them (quietly, inside my chest so I didn`t spoil it).But what struck me more than what I heard, was what I saw.
Looking at the faces and body language of the singers as they lost themselves in the music, it struck me how every one of these women became, for that short practice, no longer a mum, or a stressed out employee, a pensioner or a student.
Age, size, status became irrelevant.
And let`s face it – how often does that happen for most women?In that moment, they were a simply a choir – working together to create something wonderful. How incredible to step off the busy treadmill of life so many find ourselves on, and for a while forget about everything else but the music.
It reminded me of when my husband played football – for 90 minutes no-one cared who you were or what you did off the pitch. You were a team, working together with one goal (or hopefully two or three…)
So, watching the choir, I had to acknowledge we humans need this. Opportunities to cast aside our labels, our roles, our place and position in life, and just be a person, working with other people to produce something far greater than we could alone.
At times I`ve considered other stuff (coincidentally, the type of stuff I did – important, scientifical stuff like cancer research and teaching antenatal classes) more worthy, superior even, to those “non essential” areas like arts and sports. That it was right and good to slash their funding when people were lingering for months on NHS waiting lists or failing maths and English at school.
I stand corrected. These things are way more essential than I once gave them credit for. Maybe not to life – but to lives that are endurable, meaningful, soul-ful. Lives that are worth living.
You can find out more about the fabulous Lace City Chorus at www.lacecity.net/
How about you? How do you step outside your everyday life, the to-do lists and the hassle and just be you?
I`d love to know what you think. If you are reading this on my home page, click on the heading to leave a comment or share this post.
At this time of year, my thoughts turn to hats. This is for 2 reasons:
1. I am, as we say in my part of the world, extremely nesh. This means that if you`re wearing a T-shirt. I`ll be in a jumper. If you`re in a jumper, I will probably be in a long-sleeved T-shirt, a jumper and possibly a big cardigan. Being nesh does not work well with sitting immobile at a laptop all day. I sit and type like a poverty-stricken writer wearing 2 jumpers, enormous slipper socks, gloves, and a hat. Except I`m not poverty stricken so I have the heating on, too. Being nesh, I also wear hats a lot everywhere else.
2. I like the way they can change how I look. As someone who rarely irons her clothes, let alone accessorises them, I enjoy putting on a hat and feeling a little bit like someone else – like I`m not afraid to look slightly different, or be noticed. After a long, long time of trying very hard to be invisible as I worked through my serious social issues, wearing a hat is something of a personal triumph. I also try – and fail – to convince myself that wearing a hat can make me appear more stylish. This might be true, were I to choose my hats on the basis of style rather than their anti-nesh properties.
So, I have a few hats. Most of them woolly. But this year, most of them are also unwearable:
One has a huge stain.
My favourite one is now more hole than hat.
One of them is a colour that makes people ask me if I`m ill.
Another, my family call “the chav hat” and they won`t let me wear it outside (it is my warmest hat, so if there is a snowstorm I will defy them on this).
I did have one more hat, a Christmas present from last year. This was a strange present. Not because I didn`t want a hat – I always want more hats. It was strange because my mum, who hates surprises, had bought a hat and given it to me to wrap up and give her back on Christmas day. Later, I showed my husband this hat, and said “I like this hat, I would like a hat quite like this. But obviously NOT this one, as I am giving it to Mum.”
So, I was slightly surprised to open a hat-shaped present on Christmas day and find the one hat I`d asked not to have. But, it was an OK hat so I wore it anyway. Until one of my teenagers said, “You aren`t wearing that hat.”
I was, at that very moment, wearing it.
“That is not a good hat.”
“I like it!”
My other kids joined in. “Trust us, it isn`t a good hat for you. Don`t wear it.”
After many more conversations of a similar nature, I gave in and bought a new one.
So…as I sat in my house, wearing my brand new, good hat, I thought about this…
I`m glad to have people in my life who are honest at times, rather than being kind. I`m glad to have someone tell me when something is not good for me, doesn`t suit me or work well. I don`t like it when they tell me – it can feel hurtful, or like my decisions are being criticised, or that I`m being rejected. But I`m glad they do.
But in life we all wear a lot of different hats – at times I am a business associate, a leader, a follower, a musician, a speaker, a conference organiser – as well as a wife, daughter, friend and a dozen other roles.
Some of the hats I have tried don`t work well for me – they are not good hats. They make me stressed, or uncomfortable, or show up my flaws not my strengths.
They are out of season – or worn out, or spoilt. I hope when I fail to notice these things, when it is time to bin them, or pass them on, or put them away, someone will, with love, tell me – that`s not a good hat for you right now.
Even better, we need people in our lives who tell us when our hat looks great. I am so grateful to be surrounded by women and men who know what suits me, what fits well, and offer me plenty of encouragement and opportunities to wear the right hats.
What hats are you loving to wear right now?
Any old or out of shape ones that need taking off?
I`d love to hear from you. If you`re on my home page, click on the post heading to leave a comment or share this page.
I have a tiny room in my house of indeterminate nature. Too small for a bed, too big to be a cupboard, we call it the spare room. Home to stuff like bedding, camping gear and Christmas decorations. Somewhere in there are my babies` first outfits, and a wedding dress.
I say “somewhere in there” because it`s not exactly a room of orderly storage… Once a year I roll up my sleeves, stick some energising, inspiring, go-get-`em music on and give it a good sort out, splitting the contents between the dump, the charity shop and those I want to keep. I then replace the “keep” items in an orderly fashion, before my husband discovers I haven`t thrown out the ripped bridesmaids dress, the old cheese boxes shaped like a house or the cushion I made at school with a wonky tortoise on it.
But then, life happens, and I start dashing in and out looking for lost boots or wrapping paper. Somehow things fall off shelves, or pile up on the floor, and it reaches the point where I have to open the door, chuck something in and close it again quick before returning to the nice, orderly, presentable part of my life.
However, this year, during some particularly hectic few months, my spare room reached critical levels of mess. The stuff was spilling out onto the landing –dressing up clothes, winter duvets, an ancient computer. It`s embarrassing, and lazy and I dread to think what my mum would say if she`d seen it.
What anyone I know would think if they`d seen it.
But here`s what bothers me most about my spare room:
I have a secret fear my life is like that. I`m like that. Hidden away, there is ugly mess and broken junk and, yes, some things that are useful or precious. But when I don`t keep on top of the junk – when I let stress, or unforgiveness or self-importance pile up– it comes spilling out. And it`s usually ugly and embarrassing.
Maybe we all have a secret room where junk can fester if we aren`t careful. And if we keep cramming stuff in, shutting the door and trying to forget about it, one day it`s going to get embarrassing and messy.
So – as I make a commitment to clean up my spare room, and to keep it, I don`t know, tidy enough for me to actually get through the door – maybe I`ll take those opportunities to think about how my other hidden spaces are doing.
What techniques do you have for dealing with hidden junk?
I`d love to hear from you. If you`re on my home page, click on the post heading to leave a comment or share this page.
I got asked this ice-breaker question a couple of weeks ago in a meeting:
If you could be doing your dream job in ten years` time, what would it be?
The person laughed as they asked it me. They knew I`m already doing my dream job. My next dream, job-wise, is just to keep doing it, and hopefully keep getting better.
There are loads of things I love about writing. Being able to sit in a chair with a cup of tea staring into space and call it work is one of my favourites. But an unexpected bonus is that I now get to read other people`s books and call it “research” or “training” or “continuing professional development”.
Excellent news, since for years I have felt slightly guilty at the ridiculous number of books I read. Now I have the perfect excuse to feel guilty if I don`t read enough. Hoorah!
People sometimes ask me, “How do you find the time to read so much?” The truth is, I can`t imagine life without it. I need books. Like sleep, or food, or peace. One day is bearable, two leaves me itchy and restless and unsettled. I don`t think there`s ever been a day three.
So, with two jobs, three kids, one husband and countless other commitments, how do I find time to read? Having considered how my book-heavy schedule matches up against other people, this is my conclusion:
I don`t iron. I never “do the ironing”. Occasionally, if wanting to wear a dress, I may spend 30 seconds flicking an iron over it first. Yes, you can tell. No, I don`t care. I once tried ironing my kid`s clothes to see if it made me a better person/woman/mum. It didn`t. It made me a grumpier one when I found the clothes in scrumpled heaps on their bedroom floors a few hours later.
I read for breakfast. I`m not a morning person. For decades I got up at the last possible minute, chugging down black tea while rushing around trying to get ready on time. A few years ago, sick of starting every day stressed and frantic, I reset my alarm to half an hour earlier. Now I sit for twenty minutes, eat a bagel, sip my tea and read. Something non-fiction, usually. Beautifully written. Something that reminds me of what matters, or fires me up for the day. I sometimes read too long and end up having to rush anyway. But it`s worth it. Whatever else happens that day I`ve read something, and fed my soul as well as my stomach.
I don`t have the internet on my phone. In those moments of nothing-time – waiting rooms, airports, coffee breaks – I don`t check my non-existent Facebook page, or the latest score, or my emails. Instead, I pull out a book and read, or a pen and paper and write. If I don`t have those things to hand I think about a story instead.
I don`t paint my nails or make my bed. I`ve never watched a “scripted reality TV show”. My garden is a mess and my hall and stairs have remained half-decorated for three years.
On the not-so-good side, I also have a tendency to go far too long without seeing my friends, frequently ignore the one million things on my to-do list and don`t get out into this incredible world as often as I should.
But we all have that thing – that connects us, restores us and makes us feel at home. Safe. Like we are ourselves again. My mum gardens. My friend swims in a nearby lake. I know someone who would keep baking even if her house was falling down around her ears.
For me it`s stories. No matter what else is going on, or how I`m feeling. Books are my solace, my education, my escape, my inspiration and delight. Life is busy, seasons come and go, time is precious. But despite all this, I keep reading. It`s who I am, and it`s what I do, so I choose to make the time for it.
What things do you make time for no matter what?
Is there anything you wish you made time for but haven`t been?
I`d love to hear from you. If you`re on my home page, click on the post heading to share this page, or leave your comment.
This has to be one of my favourite weeks of the year. Ripe with “back to school” promise. The smell of a plastic pencil case and the shine of new shoes.
I love September – the first breath of Autumn in the air stirring memories of crisp walks through fallen leaves, hot tea and crumpets. Embracing the potential of the changing season while still savouring the lingering warmth of summer.
This week is also tinged with sadness and loss, and the pain of “if only…”
Two years ago my amazing Dad died from a brain tumour. Still in his 60s, otherwise healthy, active and living life to the full, it felt like we lost him far too soon. As I write this I struggle again to believe he has actually gone. Cancer is a tragedy that happens to other people, other families. Not us. Not him.
Looking back, 2012 now seems like a terrible nightmare – if you`ve been there, you know. But as I nursed my dad, held his hand, wept by his bedside and missed him with an ache so strong I didn`t know how I would bear it, I had a choice to make.
I could fight against this tragedy, give in to anger and bitterness. Demand to know why him.
Or, I could remember Dad, and feel overwhelmed with gratitude. Wonder why me.
For 38 years I had an incredible father.
He understood me, knew me and still thought I was beautiful.
He delighted in my success, while loving me for who I was, not what I achieved.
He believed in me, absolutely, and gave me the confidence to believe in myself.
He always had time for me, and would drop everything if I needed help, or advice. Not because he felt he had to, but because it gave him so much pleasure.
He rarely told me he loved me, until his illness, but didn`t need to. He showed me throughout our time together that real love is something you do, an action not a feeling.
He was a great man, and I miss him. But I don`t feel angry, or that his loss was unfair in any way. If we`re talking about fairness, how come I got to have a dad like that in the first place?
It was an honour to have known him, shared my life with him, to have loved him, and to have been his daughter.
I choose to feel deeply grateful.
So as another summer fades into Autumn, I allow myself a little sorrow for what has past, but more than this, I am thankful. And this is what allows me to look to the season ahead both appreciative of what has been, and hopeful for what is to come.
What are you grateful for this September?
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Yesterday, the final morning of our camping holiday in Devon, I`m standing on the bank of the river Torridge and thinking about my cycling proficiency test, 27 years ago. That, and my subsequent humiliation when a teacher announced my failure, so spectacular that all the assessor wrote was “What happened?” across the form. As I wheeled my bike home, I realised perhaps for the first time quite how bad I am at co-ordinated, balance requiring, grace requiring, athletic-type activities.
I`m thinking about this as I come face to face with the kayak that my teenage son and I are about to share. Usually, I stay away from this kind of thing. I don`t like it and I can`t do it, how ever hard I try to. But I figured kayaking was a pretty safe step out of my comfort zone into the world of outdoor pursuits.
What I didn`t expect was to feel really scared.
The hire-man reassures me the kayak won`t capsize unless I do something stupid.
I am not reassured. In situations like this, I frequently do something stupid.
As we glide out into the wide expanse of water, I have to battle rising panic. My son asks if I need to go back. But I know he`s looking forward to this, and if I turn back now, the fear wins. So we carry on, and for two hours I fight the fear – as I have been doing for so much of my life.
Feeling pathetic, embarrassed and irritated doesn`t help. Instead I remind myself of the things I quite happily do that other, normal, kayak-loving people might find terrifying – speaking in front of crowds of people, packing in my steady job to write a book, cooking a three course dinner for a hundred women.
I focus on moving forward, watching the oars slice the water, learning how to change direction to avoid obstacles.
I don`t think about what is swirling about a couple of inches under me or what could potentially happen if I mess this up.
I listen to my son, who encourages and reassures me.
I make bad jokes, and invent a song about all the things that scare me more than kayaking in a river (it`s a short song – right then all I can think of is getting stranded in outer space).
By the end, I`m laughing. Still scared- still pumping out adrenaline every time the kayak rocks, or I stop rowing, or I think about what I`m doing.
But I`m laughing anyway.
Did I enjoy my trip on the river? I enjoyed the sunshine, being with my family, working together with my son. And when I finished – sopping wet, aching from remaining frozen in the exact same position for two hours, tired, smelly and hungry – I enjoyed having stomped on my old enemy, fear, yet again.
Several years ago, sick of a life overshadowed by timidity, I made a promise never to say no to anything purely because I felt afraid. Part of my journey from fear to freedom means sometimes doing the uncomfortable, or downright terrifying, simply to remember the importance of that promise, how far I have come, and how far I have yet to go.
Next time I am tempted to back away, chicken out, make excuses, I will think about a trip in a kayak, and pushing forwards. Laughing despite my fear, and because of it, and in its face. And I will say yes to the next challenge, hopeful that even if I wobble a bit, I might not capsize, the worst probably won`t happen and I will still find myself laughing.
What challenges have you faced this summer?
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This time of year, in particular, my thoughts turn to change. We all know change is inevitable, things move on. There’s always new technology, new situations to face, new wrinkles in the mirror…But life is made up of seasons, and sometimes these seasons begin to feel like a pattern, and we quickly settle down and get used to the rhythm. We forget that change is happening. Even if it’s too small to notice until suddenly our daughter`s trousers are two inches short, or that friend we kept meaning to meet up with has moved away, or we are another year older and the list of things to get around to doing – dreams to realise, challenges to conquer, places to visit – has only grown longer and more distant.
But sometimes, change grabs our attention, slaps us round the face and hollers in our ears so loudly that our head spins and we can’t catch our breath.
This year, my eldest child has left the school across the road (the one where I could, if so tempted, spy on her from the bedroom window – I don’t do this, but the option is always there) to join a 6th form college 2 bus rides away. My youngest will start secondary school, so ending my long season of sports day, school gates, putting together last minute fancy dress costumes and actually having more than a vague idea about what he gets up to between 8.50 and 3.30 each day.
And for me, my Narnian winter of waiting to become a real life author – one with an actual book with pages and words and everything– has ended. The dripping icicles and tiny shoots of cover designs, professional editing and internet pre-orders have burst into a glorious spring of signings, and a launch party and – gasp – people buying my novel. Opportunities, ideas, appointments are rolling in – I feel like I’m careening down the far side of a hill and the scenery is whizzing past me in a blur. I’m an optimist, I love change – for me change is always the possibility of something better, bigger, more wonderful and exciting than before. It is hope, and adventure, and freedom. I embrace change for change’s sake and have to take care not to trample those around me who prefer a slower pace. But even for me, change requires moments to catch my breath, rest my legs, stop and assess my direction, possibly adjust my course. I am aware that when I don’t do this, it becomes scary and overwhelming and out of control. So, my strategy for this fast-paced, uncertain, rollercoaster season for our family? Stop, often. Breathe. Think. Plan. Pray. Talk. Take time to be. Make sure I hold on tight to who and what matters. Read the map. Admire the view. Enjoy the ride. Change.
What changes are going on in your life right now?
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