Tending one’s garden

My mum used to love the onset of Spring. Watching ‘old friends’ find the courage to pop their heads above the surface (following months spent shying away from the harsh winter elements) seemed to provide her with a renewed sense of energy and optimism. Indeed, she greeted each flower with the same level of affection that she might have bestowed upon a family member following a prolonged period of absence.

As I looked out of the window this morning (marvelling at the many vestiges of new growth that met my gaze) I was reminded firstly of Mum, but also of the huge responsibility (that we must all shoulder) to look after our world, and to preserve the many wonders that are contained within it. And much like the plants and shrubs that adorn our gardens, our relationships need cultivating too because it is only by furnishing them with care and nourishment that we give them the best possible chance of survival, and the opportunity for future growth.

Put simply, there’s no point in complaining that someone else’s ‘grass is always greener’ if through neglect (wilful, or otherwise) you have allowed your own ‘lawn’ to wither and perish.   

‘Optimal growth’ by Gaynor Hall

I’ll keep you fed and watered, point you gently towards the sun,
I’ll shield you from the harshest winds lest you be overcome.

I’ll provide you with the nourishment that permits your features to shine,
Whilst remembering that your sheen might fade with the inevitable passing of time.

I’ll allow you the room to spread your roots, so you don’t feel as though you are trapped,
I’ll help to preserve your identity, so your spirit will never be sapped.

I’ll lend you support when you need it most, once your limbs become flimsy and frail,
And laugh as our heads gently nod in the breeze and we write the next page of our tale.

And when we’ve finally ‘gone to seed’ and our (once green) leaves have turned yella,
I’ll remember the memories lovingly made and be grateful that you were my fella!

Skyscrapers

When my two boys were younger, they used to spend hours building towers out of anything that they could lay their hands on. The materials were largely irrelevant, but the challenge remained the same; to build something bigger and better than the one before. And, having witnessed the amount of time that had been invested in the construction process, I used to be somewhat dismayed at how quickly their creations were ruthlessly demolished. Now that they are older though, I can see the value in what they were doing and how their approach was, in fact, inextricably linked to the personality traits that were slowly evolving. And I suspect that my penchant for preserving their creations was possibly short-sighted. After all, the ability to be able to pick through the rubble and transform it into something bold and new is undoubtedly a skill worth honing.

‘The sky’s the limit’ by Gaynor Hall

Don’t imagine for even a second that the path was meant to be smooth,
Or that there’ll be a single moment when you won’t have something to prove.
Life’s a competition you see (‘though your opponents may sometimes be hidden)
With hurdles and problems to overcome on that horse that just begs to be ridden.

Don’t imagine for even a second that the playing field will be level,
Or that you can afford to take a back seat whilst in past achievements you revel.
There’ll always be someone who’s hot on your heels – charming, yet full of tenacity,
Waiting to seize the advantage should your work rate fall shy of capacity!

Don’t think for even a second that success needs to come with a ceiling,
The doubt that dwells within your mind is a very common feeling.
But don’t be content to throw in the towel, make sure that each battle is fought
With the maximum strength you can muster, no danger of selling yourself short.

Don’t think for even a second that failure must link arms with shame,
The hurt and disappointment will pass and then you can rally again.
Pick yourself up, dust yourself down, get ready to fight tooth and nail –
For victory is just ‘round the corner; blood sweat and tears will prevail.

Meet me near the bridge

It was shortly before 10pm that Josh finally made up his mind. There was no way out. He’d done something terrible, cowardly even, and now he would have to face the consequences.

If only he’d listened to his sister.

Then again, what did she know? Her circle of friends spent most of their time swooning over some cringe worthy chick flick or other or experimenting with the latest tone of eyeshadow. Hardly a thrill a minute! 

Being in a gang had made him feel important. Given him a sense of identity.

For years he’d been that kid. The one who’d never really fitted in. It’s not that there was anything wrong with him, he just didn’t seem to have the same interests as other kids his age and hanging about making small talk had always felt so alien to him. And then, out of the blue, Jake had approached him. Extended the arm of friendship. Made life seem exciting.

They’d spent Saturday afternoons hanging out together watching video clips and indulging his sweet tooth. The age gap hadn’t seemed to matter at first – and anyway, Jake always seemed to have lots of money on him which had been kind of handy for all those trips to the precinct. Josh hadn’t really noticed when Jake’s other friends had started tagging along, although he had a faint suspicion that it was at about the same time that Saturday afternoons had begun to make him feel a bit edgy.

The sweets were promptly replaced by something more substantial from the chippy and although the cans that got passed around had a rather bitter flavour, Josh gradually got used to the taste and barely noticed the hours that he couldn’t quite account for the following day.

The pranks that he and Jake had laughed at on the video clips they’d watched together provided the inspiration for their Saturday night antics – although Josh had noticed that it always seemed to be him that got volunteered for the dangerous stuff. When at last he’d plucked up the courage to ask, Jake’s friends had claimed that it was Josh’s size that made him the obvious candidate for clambering through windows and shinning down drainpipes and he’d tried very hard to shrug off the suspicion that he was simply being used by these much older (and stronger) men.

Eventually, the ‘collections’ turned into deliveries and Josh had to admit that he much preferred his new role. Being gifted a bike and a phone to carry out his rounds had also been pretty cool. And although he knew (deep down) that the packages that he was delivering were probably causing the recipient harm, he kept telling himself that it had been their choice to put in an order, not his.

Josh couldn’t really remember when he’d first been asked to find new customers from amongst the younger kids at his school. However, he did remember the look on Jake’s face when he’d tried to refuse, and the scar located at the back of his calf served as a constant reminder that he no longer seemed to have any control over his own destiny.

Most of the younger kids had been eager to try a free sample or two (in exchange for a quick go on his bike) and Josh had told himself that his part in all of this was simply an act of self-preservation. He wasn’t even sure what was in the pellets that they were trying. Which was precisely why he had refused to believe that what had happened to dear little Tilly had had anything to do with him – at first, anyway.

But the papers had mentioned a history of depression and, having looked it all up on the internet, Josh discovered that there was indeed a link. Her image had been praying on his mind ever since. That timid little smile and those watery blue eyes.

A life needlessly cut short. Thanks to him.

That’s why, when a text from an unknown source had lit up his phone earlier that evening, Josh had known that it was Game Over. Tilly’s brother had worked it all out and he wasn’t going to let it lie. Josh was going to pay, it said. One way or another.

As he reached for his coat, Josh glanced around his bedroom one last time. It still bore the signs of the young boy who used to spend hours immersed in the pages of a book, curled up on the window seat, enjoying his own company. Carefully pulling his door to, Josh crossed the landing where he paused (just long enough) to take in the carefree laughter of his sister and her friends, their lives so deliciously free from complication. And with a heavy heart, he ventured out into the night.

He had been instructed to head for the railway bridge at the east side of town. He knew it well; it had been a regular haunt of his, ever since he’d allowed himself to become caught up with Jake and his gang. As he trudged further and further away from the relative safety of the well-lit High Street, Josh felt certain that the author of the text had chosen the bridge so that they would not be disturbed.

He’d gone over the options in his mind time and again. He could go to the police – but Jake (or one of his cronies) would no doubt see to it that he didn’t live long enough to stand trial. He could run away – but Jake had always been extremely careful to emphasise just how far his reach extended. And so, in the end, Josh had concluded that facing Tilly’s brother and his mates was probably the lesser evil and he’d been steeling himself for this moment all evening.

As he turned the final corner, Josh was struck by the realisation that nothing could adequately have prepared him for what lay before him. Plastered on every conceivable surface were the faces of all the ‘customers’ that he’d ‘served’ glinting defiantly in the moonlight.

Row upon row; an album of betrayal and of lost innocence. And he might as well have been the photographer.

Consumed with self-loathing, Josh made no attempt to fight off the two dark figures whose blows rained down upon him. He reckoned that he’d cheated enough people during his pitifully short life; he had no intention of cheating Death now too.     

The Circle of Life

I often wonder what my parents would have thought of our boys, had they lived long enough to meet either of them. I feel fairly confident that Mum and Dad would have enjoyed having the boys to stay from time to time, but I fear that they might have come to relish the prospect of ‘handing them back’ too! Having brought up six children of their own, I also suspect that they might have viewed some of our more challenging parenting chapters as being an appropriate form of karma, secretly quite enjoying some of the (all too familiar) power struggles being played out before them. After all, history seems to have an unfortunate habit of repeating itself – and revenge can be deliciously sweet!

I wonder how much of what follows will sound familiar. In truth, we have only really reached verse 3 so far but (with raging hormones rapidly becoming a regular feature around the house) the remaining ones didn’t take all that much imagination!  

‘The Circle of Life’ by Gaynor Hall

Freddie kept us up all night – he had a bout of colic,
(It was shortly after twenty to one that he embarked upon these frolics)
I paced the kitchen floor for hours, hugging him to my shoulder,
Rubbing his back and stroking his hair as my toes grew steadily colder.

Freddie kept us up all night – his teeth are coming through,
(It was shortly after 2 o’clock that he worked himself into a stew)
I paced his bedroom floor for hours, whilst his gums gnawed into my finger
And in no time at all the dawn had come, with scarcely a moment to linger.

Freddie kept us up all night – his temperature worryingly high,
(It was shortly after 3.00am with no indication why)
He begged us to let him share our bed, and keeping him close did make sense,
But the constant kicking and writhing about left us both feeling terribly tense.

Freddie kept us up all night – he was fretting about his exams,
(He’s had months and months to prepare of course, but now it’s ‘out of his hands’)
He paced the living room floor for hours whilst we tried first to soothe, then cajole
But nothing we said was well-received, so we crawled promptly back to our hole!

Freddie kept us up all night – having gone into town with his mates,
(We studied the clock for hours on end imagining why he was late)
A car pulled up, a door was slammed, before promptly driving away
The remaining extraneous noises merging into the next working day.

Freddie kept us up all night – his wife had gone into labour,
(We tossed and turned ‘til the early hours just hoping for good news to savour)
A healthy boy, tall like his dad, and sporting a strong pair of lungs
Mother and baby both doing fine, and all close relatives rung.

We hear that Freddie’s been up all night – with ‘Junior’ causing a stir
(He’s rather lively apparently, and it’s night-time he seems to prefer)
We’ll pop over in a day or two, kindly cutting the parents some slack
Then later we’ll take full advantage of handing the little one back!

Of all things visible and invisible

I would imagine that these words will resonate with Christians throughout the world, not least because they form part of the Nicene Creed and, as such, are central to the beliefs of mainstream Christianity.

As a child who was naturally drawn to the Arts as opposed to Science, I rather liked the idea of ‘God the creator’ making heaven and earth from scratch and I would try to imagine an ‘almighty Father’ fashioning each element in some vast workshop somewhere. And the fact that He was able to shape not just the visible, but the invisible too placed him at least on a par with any superhero that I had watched on the big screen!

I’ve recently started running again (having finally taken the plunge and joined a group) and I can honestly say that I am thoroughly enjoying it. The camaraderie and company are second to none and it’s surprising how quickly the kilometres pass when you have other people to talk to. Not only this, but I had begun to see some faint glimmers of progress – an unexpected (but nonetheless welcome) bonus – with the ‘staggering to flight’ ratio of my gait gradually moving in the right direction. And then, just as I dared to believe that I might finally be on the cusp of developing something akin to a running ‘style’, my left calf rather forcefully demurred; a salutary reminder that I am simply not (nor will I ever be!) an athlete.

When I eventually reached the sanctuary of my car, I tentatively unveiled the offending limb expecting to see bulging veins, significant bruising, severe swelling – or at least some visible indication as to the reason why I had been so unceremoniously reduced to a limp…

Nothing. Rien. Nada.

Accepting that it was merely my pride that had taken a bruising, my thoughts returned once more to the notion of ‘all things visible and invisible’ or ‘seen and unseen’ (depending upon the version that is being used) and I found myself dwelling upon the issue of mental health problems and other ‘invisible’ illnesses.

It has been widely publicised that the global pandemic has had a negative impact upon mental health and the enormous amount of uncertainty surrounding employment / financial security (not to mention the curbing of many basic liberties) is explanation enough for this. However, the number of children suffering from a recognised mental illness has risen dramatically too, with a staggering one in six children aged 5 to 16 identified as having a probable mental health problem in July 2021. Not only is this a huge increase from the 1 in 9 recorded in 2017 but, to put this into perspective, this now equates to roughly 5 children in every classroom – and the ‘signs’, of course, are not always easy to spot.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who is desperately trying to support her daughter through a lengthy period of anxiety and depression and whilst the school, CAHMS and family GP have all become involved in her daughter’s care plan it is more than apparent that the emotional strain is beginning to take its toll upon the entire family. With perseverance, patience and understanding it is hoped that the situation will gradually improve. However, the current status quo is certainly a far cry from a time when the application of a sticking plaster or ‘magic cream’ was all that was needed to alleviate her child’s suffering.

And it occurred to me that in much the same way as Christians assert that the Holy Trinity (or in other words the unity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit) is central to their faith, perhaps the Body, Mind and Spirit form the ‘earthly’ equivalent. After all, unless all three of these elements are in good ‘working order’ it is all but impossible for a person to thrive. 

Write-off or Roadworthy?

Do you ever have one of those weeks where you seem incapable of formulating a coherent sentence, and the simplest of tasks seems to require a gargantuan effort?

Well, that’s me. Right now. Although (if I’m going to be completely honest) it’s been closer to ten days – not that I’m counting, of course!

And so, what better way to draw this period of inertia to a close than to perk oneself up with a dose of humour, propped up by the indomitable scaffolding of verse:

‘The scrap yard can wait!’ by Gaynor Hall

My spark plugs hint at excessive wear,
I’ve got a sticking clutch,
I’ve insufficient fuel to combust –
 Don’t feel like doing much!

My catalytic converter
 Is well and truly clogged,
I’ve sprung a leak (from God knows where)
And my engine is waterlogged.

My tyres are feeling squashy
And my chassis has started to buckle,
My tappets tend to rattle a bit
Each time that I dare to chuckle.

My paintwork has started to look a bit dull
And my brake pads are wearing quite thin,
My cambelt could do with being promptly replaced
And both headlights are ever so dim!

But for as long as my engine ticks over
(Though it be at a purr, not a roar)
I’ll be grateful for roads smooth or bumpy
Keeping laughter and love at the fore.

Embracing the extraordinary

Continuing Professional Development (or CPD) is one of those terms capable of striking fear into one’s heart. Whilst the concept of developing and enhancing one’s professional abilities is something that most of us are more than willing to subscribe to, the quality of a training course can vary dramatically from provider to provider, and it is true to say that there have been times (throughout my career) when I have been left seething at the hours that have been lost to a ‘Mickey Mouse’ course that has failed to deliver on any level.

As you might imagine, most of the courses that I have attended have been child-centred and the arrival of my own children certainly brought about a distinct change in my outlook. Almost immediately, my focus switched from judging a course purely on the quality of its biscuits(!) to determining whether I could use any of the skills acquired to make my homelife just that little bit easier…

And I suspect that the data management courses designed to track pupil progress (and inform future planning) would probably work equally well for tracking the mood swings of a tweenager or evaluating the volatility of a child’s palate – if you were so inclined!

One training course that I recently found utterly inspiring though was ‘Working with Autism’. What made it unusual was the fact that a sizeable portion of the information imparted was by teenagers or young adults who themselves were learning to live with autism, and the integrity of their testimonies was incredibly powerful. Listening to the many ways in which they found ‘everyday’ scenarios stressful provided a valuable insight into the challenges faced by those who are neurodivergent. And with between 30 and 40% of the population falling into this category I began to realise just how vital it is that education professionals develop a deeper understanding of the subject. Otherwise, how else can we ensure that we provide a positive learning environment for everyone?

It is generally understood that certain qualities tend to be prevalent in those who display autistic tendencies and even those with limited experience will know that taking things literally is a common trait (meaning that it’s best to avoid using confusing idioms) and that by keeping instructions to a minimum we are being sensitive to the additional processing time that will probably be needed too. However, one thing that I had totally underestimated was the extent to which most of us use visual clues in our routine interactions with others – one activity bringing me up short.

Working in pairs, we were asked to hold a short conversation – but with our eyes closed. Almost immediately, it became clear that not being able to see when our opposite number had something to say meant that the conversation became incredibly stilted, and we found ourselves either talking across each other or leaving lengthy gaps in between exchanges. In short, the whole experience felt unnatural (and more than a little awkward) and this was despite being in the fortunate position of working with a close friend with whom I usually have a good rapport. How much harder must it be for those who struggle to interpret the visual clues so readily accessible to the neurotypical?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a ‘glass half empty’ sort of person and, as such, prior to attending this course I was inclined to focus on the negative aspects surrounding ASD. In my defence though, the very fact that being on the Autistic Spectrum is classed as a Disorder seems to invite this type of response. However, I came away from the course with a renewed sense of optimism and a deep-seated respect for the remarkable individuals that make up almost two fifths of our society.

Perhaps by celebrating their talents (such as attention to detail, drive for perfection, extraordinary memory, exceptional honesty and alternate problem-solving skills, for example) rather than focusing upon their struggles, we might begin to eradicate the stigma associated with this condition, once and for all.  

Marmite Month

January is one of those ‘love it or hate it’ months that seems to demand much, whilst delivering very little.

Part of the problem, of course, is that its arrival heralds the beginning of a sort of ‘Christmas Comedown’ when the lights, laughter and liberties of December fade (somewhat abruptly) from the memory, and the outlook becomes altogether bleaker.

Take for example, January’s unremittingly dark (and gloomy) mornings. Not only do they do little to improve your chances of kick-starting that (much needed) fitness regime, but the school run rapidly assumes the characteristics of an extreme sport (both in terms of parental coaxing and tantrum avoidance) because the kids (much like their parents!) are genuinely struggling to get back into any sort of meaningful routine.

There is also the somewhat stubborn existence of those (excruciatingly noble) good intentions to consider too…

Having finally realised that the Christmas ‘nibbles’ (that often resembled an extra meal) and rich assortment of alcoholic beverages (that wouldn’t normally grace your drinks cabinet at all but have nevertheless been consumed in quantity) have taken their toll, the only logical solution is to start a diet, detox or gym subscription. But a couple of days (or even hours) in, you remember just how difficult it is to find the energy or enthusiasm for any of these things, and the prospect of finishing off those festive treats quickly becomes the only thing that gets you through those long and dismal afternoons back at work. Thus, the lethargy attributed to overindulgence is deftly prolonged – with a keen sense of failure thrown in for good measure! Cue the (almost inevitable) arrival of those January blues…

For others though, January is the personification of hope; it is the month for new beginnings, and for ‘wiping the slate clean’. Put like this, it begins to sound a great deal more attractive and the mere process of setting new goals can be a powerful catalyst for optimism.

Having recently stumbled across my horoscope for 2022, however, I’ll admit that I was sorely tempted to strike through the entire calendar and take to my bed. I even considered leaving nothing but a white flag tentatively poking out from within the folds of my duvet, just to make my position clear. You’ll have gathered by now that the predictions were not very reassuring and, even the slightest cause for positivity, seemed to come with such a range of caveats as to render them firmly null and void! Perhaps that’s why those born in the relative ‘no man’s land’ of early January (i.e., Capricorns) are described as “ambitious, organised, practical and goal-oriented”. You’d certainly need to be!

So, what might 2022 have in store for you?

Perhaps you are hoping to change jobs, or to move house? Perhaps you are tempted to venture abroad once more? Perhaps you are going to make this the year that you repair any fractured relationships – or maybe, you’ll simply nurture the ones that you have?

Whatever your goals this year, there is genuine cause for celebration here. Because (if you are reading this) you have already survived 50% of Marmite Month, the days are gradually getting longer and the opportunities for getting out and about are steadily increasing too.

In short, better times are ahead.       

Books. And their covers.

The daily school run used to be a rather sombre affair – two thirds of the journey being completed in a deeply resentful silence born initially out of sibling conflict, and then cemented by maternal rebuke!

Having first barged passed each other on their way out to the car (often accompanied by some strategic ‘following through’ of the elbows and / or feet) the incessant verbal needling would then begin, serving as a brief prelude to one (or both) of them dealing a meaningful blow – and all of this before my key had even turned on the ignition! No amount of adjustment to the morning routine seemed to dilute the intensity of their testosterone charged rivalry and I used to arrive at work wondering quite where it had all gone so horribly wrong!

Now that my eldest is responsible for making his own way to school, however, the school run has changed beyond recognition. It has become a conversation rich environment in which my brain is frequently left scrambling for answers that are (almost) equal in quality to the myriad of questions posed by my youngest son. Being someone who deals in facts (rather than opinions) and takes things literally, he used to struggle to understand the meaning behind commonly used figures of speech. However, dogged determination on his part (no doubt bolstered by an unrelentingly competitive streak) has meant that he is now able to casually toss one or two examples into sentences of his own – delivered, I might add, with a generous helping of conceit!

One early example of the kind of confusion that can easily arise from speaking figuratively, was when (in response to a damning assessment of one of his classmates) I cautioned him not to ‘judge a book by its cover’. No sooner had the phrase left my lips than I was met with a plethora of reasons as to why the cover of a book was, in fact, a useful tool for deciding whether to read it…

Conceding that he had a point, I have since dropped that particular phrase from my ‘repertoire’. However, I was reminded of it again today when I saw a friend’s post on Facebook and very nearly fell foul of my own cautionary advice…

My friend had uploaded a photo of a chocolate bar and the accompanying caption was along the lines of being excited about eating it later. I’ll admit that I was about to scroll on when (sensing that there might be ‘more to it’) I realised that, far from being a frivolous post about harbouring a penchant for a particular brand of confectionary, this was a touching and well-written explanation about something (or rather someone) close to her heart. In this case, that chocolate bar had been given to her daughter as a birthday gift but instead of keeping it for herself, the little girl had chosen to give it to her mum.

Further explanation is needed, however, because this is a young girl for whom life did not begin favourably. Having suffered untold sadness and neglect, she had eventually been removed from her birth mother before embarking upon the long and painful road to adoption. With the continuing love, patience and support of her adoptive parents, the healing process has evidently begun in earnest and (no longer fearful of going hungry) this little girl was happy to part with the entire chocolate bar.  

Parenting can be hard – even when your relationship with your little one began with a totally clean slate. One can only imagine how much harder it must be, when a veritable cocktail of emotional and physical trauma, deep-seated fear, and an almost blanket distrust of adults stands in the way of that crucial relationship building process. Only by having read the post in full, was I able to begin to comprehend its significance.

By all means then, use the cover as a guide – but don’t forget to read the ‘book’ in its entirety before you attempt to form a judgement of any kind.

And even then, it’s probably wise to tread carefully.