Moving on

Life is rather like a novel, consisting of a series of different chapters that vary in both length and intensity. Of course, some chapters are more compelling than others, but each one has its part to play in the ‘novel’ as a whole, either endorsing what went before or striking out in an entirely new direction.

Yesterday afternoon, my eldest son’s primary school ‘chapter’ drew to a close and it won’t be long before he finds himself embarking upon the next one. He is by no means unique in having reached this particular milestone, and the wide range of emotions that he has been exhibiting over the past few weeks will have been typified by countless children around the globe. Nevertheless, he is the first of my children to have reached this stage and (quite apart from having made me feel incredibly old!) it has spurred me on to record my own feelings on the matter. After all, in a vain attempt to ‘keep all the balls in the air’ we sometimes neglect to give our children the resounding endorsement that they so desperately need.   

‘Moving on’ by Gaynor Hall

You’ve learnt so much already, achieved things great and small,
Managed each disappointment, risen bravely from every fall.
You’ve nurtured each tendril of friendship, and shown that you understand
That laughter and humour don’t always suffice, so instead you’ve offered your hand.

You’ve laid the best of foundations, established healthy routines,
You know your strengths (and your weaknesses) and appreciate the value of dreams.
You’ve experienced the shame of wrongdoing, and faced your punishment well,
Each one an important learning curve, not something upon which to dwell.

Step boldly forth on your journey then, and embrace the next new phase,
(You’ll be shocked to learn just how fast it goes, that 7-year ‘secondary’ haze!)
Embrace every opportunity with courage, good humour, and joy
But don’t forget to have some fun – after all you’re still a young boy!

Believe in yourself, be honest and true, stand firm in all your endeavours,
Success is by no means guaranteed, there’ll be plenty of storms to weather.
But know that whatever befalls you – be it fortune, or perhaps a low tide –
We’ll always be right there beside you, ‘midst a surfeit of devotion and pride.

The Adolescent

Parenting is undeniably one of the greatest challenges that I have ever faced, and I frequently question why quite so many of us put ourselves through this particular ordeal…

As voluntary jobs go, it is ‘right up there’ in terms of emotional investment and logistical planning and (once the prepubescent hormones kick in) the ‘goal posts’ certainly seem to move with baffling proclivity.  Nothing that I have encountered in either the exam room or the classroom has even come close to the dramatic surges in blood pressure that my own children have managed to induce, and (for a reasonably confident person) I’ll admit to having given in to feelings of utter inadequacy at one time or another.  It is then, as they say, just a happy coincidence that I am writing this now – before my two boys decide that they are old enough to contradict me!

Despite frequently thinking that a user manual might have been helpful, I’ve never been one for reading vast tomes on parenting. Besides, who actually has the time to read that type of stuff whilst frantically trying to juggle the demands of their job with the day to day needs of their offspring? On the other hand, if someone (who has done the necessary research) could please just explain to me how two children from the exact same gene pool can be so utterly different in temperament and outlook, I’d be ever so grateful!

What follows then, is my (deliberately tongue in cheek) ‘Attenboroughesque’ commentary on the ‘Adolescent’ – that most complex of human species!

If one looks carefully into the dense urban undergrowth, it should be possible to pick out a lone adult female scratching her head in bewilderment. The eldest of her offspring (at just over a decade old) is seemingly ill-equipped to take responsibility for any aspect of his existence and looks to her to ensure that his every need is met. Multiple items of clothing lie strewn about the enclosure whilst the parched bristles of a toothbrush show no sign of recent activity. A pair of glasses (the lenses of which look oddly opaque, buried as they are under a thick crust of grime) lie discarded upon the ground, whilst the pages of a book (heavily dog eared from the nocturnal pursuits of the past 11 hours) rest casually within the creases of a hollow fibre duvet. Contained beneath the solace of the cosy bedding, glimpses can be snatched of a bleary pale blue iris, tentatively attempting to take in its immediate surroundings, braving the relative intensity of the new dawn. But alas, this brief display of energy proves utterly overwhelming and (having issued a deep guttural groan for good measure) the adolescent willingly submits himself to the clammy darkness of his natural habitat once more.

Meanwhile, movement can be detected from inside enclosure two. Light streams in through the main observation point revealing meticulously organised sleeping quarters and a spirited young male engaging in the final throes of his morning routine. As he nonchalantly casts his towel over a nearby radiator, deftly selecting a playlist at maximum volume on his Echo Show, it is clear that this young mammal has no intention of awaiting instructions (or seeking approval) from the adult male who can be seen lethargically arriving upon the scene. Hackles rise as the two males begin posturing for supremacy, and the early threads of conversation swiftly escalate into the loud staccato tones of conflict. For now, at least, the young male grudgingly accepts defeat and beats a hasty retreat. From the confines of his den, he sets about laboriously (and vociferously) pacing the perimeter until the call of the alarm clock finally beckons. With a degree of calm temporarily restored, the adult male can be seen lavishly preening himself, as he basks in his first (and probably last!) victory of the day.

Three Lions

Lions are frequently depicted as symbols of strength and courage and, as such, they feature in the works of various literary heavyweights. Aesop’s fable ‘The Lion and the Mouse’ used to be a particular childhood favourite of mine, not least because I fell in love with the idea that the humble mouse could lend such crucial assistance to a creature as formidable as the mighty lion. Of course, the lion is not portrayed in a particularly good light here, exuding vanity and arrogance as opposed to dignity and valour…

As I grew up, I discovered C.S. Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ and (like so many) found myself drawn to Aslan, one of the main characters. And whilst the description of his physical appearance (and irrefutable status as the ‘King above all High Kings’) was genuinely awe inspiring, it was perhaps his compassionate nature and strong moral compass that left the greatest impression on me during my teenage years.

More recent examples include Jessica Olivia Sinatra’s book ‘Leonardo the Lion. A leap of faith’ (written in 2018) which introduces children to a courageous and determined lion cub. The stories explore the many challenges commonly faced by today’s children (making friends, being accepted by others, and embracing diversity in the community) and each book in the series is centred around the core values of love, kindness, and respect.

The lion (sometimes referred to as a leopard) is also a dominant feature of the royal arms of England, having been adopted by the Plantagenet kings who ruled over the country from as early as 1154. There is something truly majestic about the sleek (golden) lions placed against a background of rich crimson and this bold image of heraldry has endured over the centuries – despite our country’s rather chequered history.

As I have mentioned before, I spend most of my Saturdays ‘braving the elements’ in order to watch our boys play football. At times, the biting wind and driving rain has tested my resolve to the limit, and I have frequently noted that ‘grassroots’ might reasonably be substituted with ‘mud bath’ (football) instead! (My washing machine would certainly agree…) However, the notion that healthy roots are the most likely catalyst for abundant growth and development has not been totally lost on me, and the ethos of Grassroots Football is one to which I can wholeheartedly subscribe. After all, bringing children together through sport “whatever their age, gender, physical condition, skin colour, religion or ethnic origin” is a powerful vision and one utterly worthy of the 40,000+ clubs that are represented by this organisation.

Since England’s defeat in the Euro finals last week, there has been much discussion in the media about managerial tactics, individual (under) performance and of course those missed penalties. And it would seem that everyone has an opinion on the matter, with little or no reluctance to share it! However, with the power of social media to reach an audience of epic proportions (instantaneously) it has been sickening to read the comments of a reprehensible minority who have seen fit to deride and wound this group of young players with their vitriolic remarks.

I am in no doubt that all 26 of the young men who were chosen to represent their country wore the ‘three lions’ with pride and I am also absolutely certain that each one wanted desperately to ensure that ‘football (was) coming home’ thereby putting an end to all those ‘years of hurt’.  However, for whatever reason, it was not meant to be, and it is now time to regroup and move on.

I, for one, enjoyed every minute of England’s progress to the final. If nothing else though, it has highlighted the need to address the abhorrent behaviour of some of our so-called ‘fans’ once and for all, and for us to take this opportunity to educate our children on the vital issues that have once again disgraced our nation. By exercising the compassion, wisdom, and humility of Aslan and casting aside the narcissism of both Aesop’s central character – and those individuals who feel that they have the right to boo the national anthem of every other nation – we might just build a national identity of which we can justifiably be proud.

Do. Or do not. There is no try.

As you might imagine, living with three ‘boys’ has meant that I have had to work hard at broadening my knowledge of anything (and everything) pertaining to a certain galaxy ‘far, far away’. And as movies go, I have to admit that the Star Wars collection has made for an enjoyable (and considerably less demanding) alternative to studying for either a master’s, or a PhD.

Almost inevitably though, I have found myself pondering the phrases of certain on-screen characters and wondering why on earth their ‘pearls of wisdom’ don’t feature rather more extensively in the material of modern-day motivational speakers. After all, they certainly make some cogent points!

Having always secretly admired a baddie, Darth Vader’s warning: ‘Be careful not to choke on your aspirations’ (in response to Director Krennic’s self-seeking lust for glory) definitely makes my top 5! I guess that it’s simply a more sensational take on the proverb ‘Pride comes before a fall’, but delivered with such a generous helping of contempt, it certainly makes an impression!

Shmi Skywalker also has a valid point when she notes that ‘You can’t stop change any more than you can stop the suns from setting’ (‘The Phantom Menace’). This is definitely something worth remembering, particularly if you are getting rather ‘long in the tooth’ like me, and more than a little weary of all that career related hoop jumping! However, the notion of ‘change for change’s sake’ is not one that I find easy to subscribe to, preferring first to understand the reasons behind implementing a host of (time guzzling) new procedures, before rushing to comply. I have a sneaking suspicion that Obi-Wan Kenobi might have had a similar view. After all, his question ‘Who’s the more foolish? The fool or the fool who follows him?’ resonates here.

Some of my fondest childhood memories stem from sitting around the kitchen table as a family and playing a variety of board games. Being the youngest of four (until the family increased in size again 7 years later!) I was frequently outperformed in any game that required either knowledge or strategy and yet I was genuinely grateful that no-one ever ‘let’ me win because it gave me something to strive for. It made me smile, therefore, when C-3PO, following a graphic description from Han Solo as to how Chewbacca’s strength and temperament might play out (rather unfavourably) in the event of being defeated at a game, sensibly suggests that R2-D2 should ‘Let the Wookie win’. I’m all for putting up a decent fight, but it pays to know when you are ‘outgunned’ too!

With Speech Day rapidly approaching, I found myself wondering which Star Wars character would have the greatest allure as guest speaker, particularly if the event were to clash with a certain quarter-final match in this year’s European Championships… And although we might need to make allowances (in order to give him the necessary height to surmount the lectern) and possibly provide a translator (in order to help with syntax) Yoda would appear to be the perfect choice. Notable for his enviable wisdom (and frank appraisal of a situation) what better parting advice to offer a student than: ‘Do. Or do not. There is no try.’

Learning to dance in the rain

As a young child I was definitely a ‘glass half empty’ sort of person. I can remember grumbling about all manner of things, frequently behaving as if the world were about to end. Looking back, I’m quite sure that this pessimistic outlook on life was one of the main factors in earning me the title of ‘Mummy’s little ray of sunshine’ in my mid-teens. The irony certainly wasn’t lost on me, even then!

Of course, some of our character traits are inherited, whilst others develop in response to our experiences and surroundings. However, I’m inclined to believe that certain aspects of our personality can’t really be altered and that it is, therefore, simply a case of embracing those desirable qualities that essentially define us, and then working hard to dilute the less favourable ones – petulance included!

Like so many parents, my husband and I have (inevitably) had to weather countless ‘storms’ where prepubescent hormones have clashed violently with parental exhaustion and (as someone for whom a strong sense of justice is inextricably ingrained) I have genuinely struggled to tolerate such bouts of unreasonable behaviour. On each occasion though, I have just about managed to remind myself that I am the ‘grown up’ and that being drawn into a full-scale shouting match with a 9- or 10-year-old boy is neither dignified, nor productive. I’m not going to lie though; it’s often been a close-run thing!

Then came covid-19, a global aggressor intent upon flaunting uncertainty, fear, and anxiety galore. With daily liberties revoked, livelihoods at risk and a substantial threat to life, perspectives began to shift, and families had no choice but to adapt.

With trips to restaurants quite literally ‘off the menu’, the focus on home cooking intensified. With cars sitting redundant on the drive, walking or cycling became the favoured mode of transport or exercise. Little by little, daily routines evolved and (with them) so did our expectations.

We simply had to accept that instant gratification had been placed (rather ironically) ‘on hold’.

And it was being forced to live through this strange new existence that really made me stop and think. The stark realisation that my ‘glass half empty’ approach to life would be of absolutely no use to me now, hit me like the proverbial sledgehammer. With no legitimate timescale in the offing, I figured that ‘waiting for the storm to pass’ was probably not the best strategy here, but that ‘learning to dance in the rain’ might just be the better option! 

Is social media your new best friend?

I sometimes wonder if we, as a society, have lost the ability to really engage with each other. After all, the growth of the all-encompassing world of social media has meant that we can ‘friend’ (or ‘connect’ with) literally thousands of people, many of whom we have never actually met. And whilst this has enabled us to grow our business networks, expanding our virtual ‘audience’ with relative ease, I suspect that it has done nothing for that humblest of relations, Friendship.

When was the last time that you rang the friend who recently lost their partner to cancer? Or checked in on the mum who was worried sick over a recent spate of bullying at their child’s school? Or asked after the colleague who was struggling with mental health issues to the point of leaving their job? And yet, like me, I’m willing to bet that you have ‘liked’ at least five posts on Facebook today, without truly stopping to consider whether or not the author of that post might simply be putting on a ‘brave face’.

And so, in honour of my many wonderful friends (who frankly repeatedly put me to shame!) this poem is for you. Thank you for all that you have done for me (during lockdown and beyond) and I hope that you know just how much I have appreciated every text, every phone call, and every frantic wave that I have glimpsed as I have rushed about the neighbourhood trying to darn the holes that have inevitably appeared in life’s rich tapestry!

‘I owe you one!’ by Gaynor Hall

For every time you’ve texted, to see if I was OK,
For every time you’ve offered to have my boys to play,
For every time you asked me if there was a reason why
A tear or two had inexplicably formed and leaked just outside my eye.

For every time you’ve remembered an important family date,
For every time you’ve forgiven me for arriving a little bit late,
For every time you’ve invited me to unburden myself at leisure –
Or arranged a breakfast at ‘Wetherspoons’, indulging my guilty pleasure!

For every time you’ve allowed me to simply tease you rotten,
For every time you’ve allowed the odd cross word to be forgotten,
For every time you’ve offered me a friendly shoulder to cry on,
Showing me (time and time again) that you’re someone whom I can rely on.

Thank you, most sincerely, for all that you have done,
For supporting me, and celebrating each small battle won.
If I can return the favour, then you only have to say –
I’d be ashamed to take for granted those who’ve helped me along the way.

Otter or Platypus?

I recently walked in on the tail end of a class debate. Rather uncharacteristically, I had arrived a few minutes early – and I was instantly intrigued.

A young lady was standing at the front of the classroom, merrily extoling the advantages of living with friends (as opposed to parents) promoting this as an enviable alternative for today’s adolescents. She was busily siting a multitude of (perceived) benefits to her peers, and she certainly had the support of the room. Now, I won’t go into exactly what these benefits were, but the look on my colleague’s face was enough to indicate that (like so many discussions with young children) things had moved in a very different direction from that of the original remit! To say that she looked horrified would have been an understatement.

Much discussion is currently taking place in the media, about the rapidly spreading Indian variant of Covid-19, and how this might impact the next phase of lockdown easing measures in the UK. And yet, only a matter of days ago, friends and families were celebrating the ability to embrace loved ones once more, with the ‘humble hug’ having acquired almost celebrity status following such a lengthy period of enforced abstinence!

As with so many issues relating to the global pandemic though, views have (of course) been divided. One person’s sheer delight at being able to return to a more tactile form of interaction, has no doubt been met with absolute dread by a person for whom the notion of ‘social distancing’ has provided the perfect excuse to remain rather detached from others.  

So, where do you stand on the whole issue of physical contact? Are you similar to the otter, for example?

We know that otters are sociable creatures, for whom ‘safety in numbers’ is undeniably a watchword. They frequently hold ‘hands’ in groups (called a raft) whilst eating, resting, or sleeping to prevent them from drifting apart and losing each other.

Or, perhaps you are more akin to the platypus? Solitary beings who spend their lives feeding along the bottoms of rivers (or resting in burrows dug deep into the banks) and don’t seem to have the stomach (quite literally, in fact!) for lots of company.

On balance, I suspect that (a bit like me) you sit somewhere between the two. I’m more than happy to indulge in varying degrees of physical contact, as long as it’s on my own terms!

0-60 in a matter of seconds

My husband and his family have been staunch followers of Formula 1 for as long as I can remember, and my sister-in-law has even gone as far as to dabble in the world of motorsport herself. As for me, I’m more of a footie fan, liking nothing more than to be able to settle down to a tense match where the action is ‘end to end’, the stakes are high and where the goal tally is (preferably) even higher!

However, whilst I have absolutely no interest in watching a series of emaciated looking cars (that don’t even have room for the weekly grocery shop, let alone the kids’ bikes) race relentlessly around a track, I will at least admit to being quietly impressed by the capabilities of the modern-day racing car. I gather, for example, that cars have been known to reach 0-60 mph in as little as 1.6 seconds, although I am reliably informed that 2.1-2.7 seconds would be a more typical range. Nonetheless, these are impressive figures – by any standards!

As tends to be the way with most things in life though, context is (of course) everything! After all, a child’s proclivity for achieving ‘naught to hangry’ (in the few short seconds that he or she has been made to wait for nourishment) doesn’t quite hold the same appeal, somehow.

And neither (frankly) did my own experience, just a few weeks ago…  

A group of children were gathered around a noticeboard upon which was written the names of the three school ‘houses’. A discussion was ensuing about the house leaders (all much-valued colleagues of mine) and the qualities that they each brought to their role. Words such as ‘competitive’, ‘funny’, and ‘encouraging’ all featured quite liberally and the inevitable analogies with Hogwarts were being made. As I deftly moved the children in the direction of their next lesson, I was inevitably asked about my own allegiances and, fully prepared for this eventuality, I did my best to exude an enviable mix of loyalty and diplomacy. So far, so good.

As we rounded the next corner though, the conversation moved seamlessly on to why two (out of the three house leaders) were members of the sports department, and the other was not. I explained that since many of the inter-house competitions were of a sporting nature, this was fairly standard in schools and that the ‘third’ member of staff was, in fact, a keen sportswoman herself, and that her infectious enthusiasm was more than compensation for any lack of specific sporting qualification. As a future member of the diplomatic corps, I was looking indomitable!

And that is when the conversation went from 0-awkward, in a matter of seconds.

In no time at all, I found myself fiercely defending the physique of the afore mentioned ‘keen sportswoman’, firmly pointing out that very few of us browbeaten teachers were any longer ‘in our prime’, and that what the teacher in question lacked in Jessica Ennis style muscle tone, she more than made up for in youthful exuberance.

Now, having spent a significant proportion of my adult life in sedentary jobs (and carrying a fair amount of excess weight) the response I received next was most unexpected…

Having been subjected to a cursory visual inspection from head to toe, I was then informed (rather candidly) that I was:

“in pretty good condition actually, Miss….”
(I felt myself stand just that little bit taller – the decision to start running in my mid-forties had clearly been one of my better ones.)

“…well, for your age, anyway!”
(Ouch! Children can be so cruel…)

Trailblazing (of sorts!)

We’ve all come across them. Those individuals who demonstrate an enviable flair for coming up with ingenious ideas. Or those for whom pushing the boundaries to the absolute extreme, is nothing more than idle sport.

For most of us mere mortals, however, we learn to content ourselves with exhibiting professional competency, and a good day at the office tends to equate to the conquering of one’s inbox (albeit only fleetingly) whilst perhaps managing to snaffle the last Dairy Milk Chunk from that rapidly depleting tin of ‘Heroes’!

Small victories, and all that…

Imagine my surprise then, when almost 12 years ago I unwittingly found myself poised to become something of a trailblazer amongst the ranks of my burgeoning NCT friendship group.

We’d all met during the summer months of 2009 and our babies were due to make an appearance in the autumn. Our group was an impressive mix of professionals, all eager to excel at the next assignment – Parenting. We’d sat through sessions on birth plans, pain relief, relaxation techniques and feeding and we were all now raring to go.

One by one the various bundles of joy arrived (delivered, I seem to remember, with wildly varying degrees of grace and composure!) and the journey began in earnest.

Many an afternoon was spent exchanging tips, sharing concerns, and I don’t mind admitting that a wealth of delicious biscuits and cakes were consumed along the way too. And very quickly, each new mum assumed their vital role within the group. It was almost as if we’d been cherry-picked to provide as broad a skill set as possible because (rather conveniently) we had two teachers, a surveyor, a designer, two amazing creators of ‘all things delicious’ and even a readymade parent in our midst. Surely, we were collectively ‘holding all the aces’…

Now as any new mum will know, the value of having a support network (particularly of friends who are going through similar experiences) should not be underestimated. After all, there is no postpartum handbook (and each ‘model’ seems to throw up sometimes quite literally its own unique challenges!) so being able to talk things through, surrounded by sympathetic company, was an absolute blessing.

Any chance of losing those post pregnancy pounds was looking pretty slim though, my little man being only too content to sleep soundly in my arms whilst I chatted away happily – and indulged (utterly unstintingly) in a wide assortment of pastries!

In the weeks and months that followed, there was plenty of laughter, a few tears and much soul searching over what would be best for our little ones and it was an unexpected honour when I began to sense that my friends might be starting to look to me as a sort of ‘benchmark’ for parenting. My baby had been the last to arrive, and yet it seemed that all eyes were on me when it came to feeding, nappy changing etc.

Was this my chance to shine? Was I to become a much-revered model of motherhood?

Of course not! For when the cake-induced vanity eventually wore off I realised that, far from setting the gold standard for parenting, it was more a case of “Well, Gaynor’s already done that (and her baby is still alive) so it can’t be all that bad”! And so, the gradual shift from breast to bottle, cotton wool to wipes (and oh so many other guilt-ridden adjustments) began.

Trailblazer?
No.
Source of reassurance – albeit tinged with mild dismay?
Let’s hope so!

What will be your legacy?

As a teenager, I remember hearing countless conversations relating to the unfortunate death of one individual or another. And whilst I suspect that this was possibly just one consequence of being the daughter of a GP, it always amazed me just how much misfortune seemed to have befallen my fellow Salopians. From the farmer who had met his maker at the bottom of a slurry pit, to someone’s uncle who had been found (quite literally) ‘dead behind the door’, there appeared to be a veritable catalogue of unusual demises being discussed over dinner. And don’t get me started on the poor individual who had suffered the indignity of having “If her bladder had been stronger, she’d have lasted even longer!” inscribed upon her headstone… I don’t mind admitting that it came as an enormous relief when I discovered that the ‘lady’ concerned had, in fact, been of canine descent!

As an adolescent, the idle threat of having something similar etched upon a family member’s headstone caused much hilarity. Now though, I find myself observing the advancing of ‘time’s winged chariot’ with far greater reverence! After all, ‘Life’ (that most precious of earthly commodities) can cease in an instant, and with scant warning too. So, when the time comes, what will be your legacy?

In essence

A life should not be measured by letters after a name,
Or based on newspaper cuttings, about those who’ve courted fame.
It shouldn’t be judged on salary, on possessions, nor on titles,
For success (just like misfortune) has a habit of coming in cycles.

For everyone’s ‘point of departure’ will have varied ever so slightly,
Their rate of progress remarked upon by relatives painfully politely.
Peaks and troughs; spurts and plateaux; deftly explained away –
Oblivious of their irrelevance once we reach our ‘Judgement Day’.

But what if we focused, instead, upon the things that really matter?
(Leaving behind the emptiness of words designed to flatter)
Like honesty, wisdom, and compassion (keeping pride very firmly at bay)
Showing tolerance, love, and loyalty to all along our way.

For when we leave this earthly realm, being finally laid to rest,
It’ll not be our wealth or possessions that serve to define us best,
But rather the things we did for those from whom we are now parted,
The lives we touched, the dreams we shared, true legacy of the departed.