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.

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.

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.

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.

Crowd pleaser or individual?

I remember coming out of my A’ level English Literature exam feeling reasonably confident about my performance, and hopeful of a good result. There were just twelve of us who had taken the exam and we all met up for the customary post-exam analysis, sprawled out on the grass and basking in the knowledge that the long summer holidays were almost upon us.

Our teacher happened to be in the vicinity and came over to see what we had all made of the final paper – and that is when I experienced that utterly sickening feeling, deep in the pit of my stomach. It seemed that literally everyone else had interpreted the final essay question differently from me, and I was more than prepared, therefore, to accept that I had simply got the ‘wrong end of the stick’. I decided not to draw attention to my obvious faux pas, choosing instead to listen good naturedly for a while and then slip away quietly, just as soon as an opportunity presented itself.

As results day loomed, I felt certain that my error of judgement would prove costly and so the elation (and if I’m honest, surprise) of being awarded the top-grade all those weeks later felt all the more precious. Indeed, the whole experience taught me a valuable lesson – that just because you are in the minority, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are wrong.

The notion of having the confidence to ‘plough one’s own furrow’ is no less pertinent all these years later and yet parents up and down the country will almost certainly (like me) have found themselves in something of a quandary. On the one hand, we try to teach our children that standing up for what is right is vital to our integrity and self-esteem and that individuality is to be encouraged, even celebrated. But on the other hand, most parents secretly want their child to fit in, to be accepted, and we go to significant lengths to make sure that the way in which they behave (right down to the clothes that they choose to wear) doesn’t attract the unwanted attention of a would-be aggressor.     

Hans F. Hansen once stated that “It takes nothing to join the crowd. It takes everything to stand alone.” My younger (more forthright) self would no doubt have embraced this statement wholeheartedly. Today though, I would possibly champion a slightly modified version. Yes, I would acknowledge the pitfalls of ‘blindly following the crowd’ (whilst urging my children to ‘be true to themselves’) but I would also remind them that ‘no man is an island’ and that there is something to be said for maintaining ‘safety in numbers’.

Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it!

A brief encounter

Many years ago, I had the privilege of meeting someone truly remarkable. It was one of those chance encounters that renders you momentarily speechless, then acts as a powerful catalyst for change.

It was a dismal February evening and I had just left a rehearsal in central London. We’d been working on Michael Tippett’s five spirituals from ‘A Child of Our Time’ and it had been one of those rehearsals where you come away feeling as though your soul has been suitably nourished, and that something within the music has transcended human understanding.     

I had been experiencing some problems with anti-social behaviour in and around the housing development where I lived, and I was seriously considering handing in my notice at work and moving away from the area. However, having just been part of something so utterly inspiring, I was loath to concede defeat and allow the local ‘Youf’ to drive me out of my home and away from my Monday night refuge.

Having caught up on everyone’s weekly news over a quick drink, we all went our separate ways, as was the usual routine. I headed for Victoria station and, upon arrival, gave the departures board a cursory glance. My heart plummeted when I discovered that, not one, but two trains to Swanley had been cancelled and that I would have just over an hour to wait. There was nothing for it. I would just have to grab a coffee and a magazine and set up residence on platform 5.

When my train did eventually arrive, I was delighted to note that two cancellations had not rendered this three-carriage-wonder ludicrously full, and I settled thankfully into my window seat. Before long, the train pulled away and I felt reassured that home was now within reach.

The first part of the journey passed without incident and I became quickly engrossed in my magazine. There were additional stops to make, but there was something pleasantly mesmerising about the staccato rhythm of the wheels moving over the track and the sound of needles of rain bouncing off the windows at jaunty angles. And then I became aware of a different sound. The sound of raised voices and dull thuds.

I felt myself stiffen and the all too familiar feeling of fear and unease (associated with broken windscreens and trampled fences close to home) resurfaced. I looked around the carriage in an attempt to establish where the noise was coming from. And then I spotted the silhouettes of three men looming in the doorway of the adjacent carriage. It was not immediately clear what they were doing, but their presence was both threatening and unwelcome, reminiscent of an ITV drama, but sickeningly real. In a matter of minutes, the train slowed, and all three men came hurtling through our carriage, disappearing just as suddenly into the night.        

A little later, a young man staggered into view and gingerly lowered himself into an aisle seat. He had a cut on his face and looked badly shaken but there was a disarming aura of composure about him too. I didn’t know what to say. I mean, “Are you alright?” seemed painfully inadequate and yet I couldn’t just ignore his plight altogether. So, I made do with frequent glances in his direction, hoping against hope that he would somehow sense my feeble attempt at compassion. He must have done, because he looked straight at me before giving me the most tender of smiles. But rather than providing the comfort that was no doubt intended, the warmth of his gaze made me feel even more ashamed. How could he be so calm, after what he had just endured? Hadn’t he just been badly let down by his fellow passengers? By me?

As if he could read my thoughts, he said simply “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”. And as he left the train, I wept uncontrollably; not just for him, but for humankind.

The sands of time

2020 has not been an easy year for anyone. There has been uncertainty and loss in abundance and trying to juggle work with home-schooling (during lockdown 1) certainly tested the parenting skills of even the most adept of multitaskers!

However, venturing out for local walks and bike rides (during the permitted daily exercise slot) became our way of looking after our emotional and physical wellbeing, and I found myself feeling immensely grateful for those precious family moments and (by association) the many opportunities for self-reflection that they afforded.

Being a Sagittarian, I have just ‘celebrated’ another birthday (groan) and I have to admit that my natural instinct was to dwell (rather unflatteringly) upon the ‘sands of time’. After all, feelings of frustration, a loss in confidence and (to some degree) a sense of inadequacy are incredibly common in women whose career path has (understandably) been re-routed in order to accommodate the raising of children.  However, I have tried instead to acknowledge some of the aspirations that I held when I was young, whilst also being mindful of the ‘bigger picture’. Let’s hope that I can carry this (frankly rather uncharacteristic) brand of positivity into the next decade – when the time comes! 

Another year older

When I was but a tiddler, I dreamt of being a teacher,
(My brothers said my bossy streak would be a useful feature!),
I’d line up all my teddies and issue clear instructions,
Or take a crafty polaroid of their end of term ‘productions’.

When I moved up to ‘juniors’, I thought I’d be a dancer –
Not Ballet (requiring elegance) but ‘Tap’ the obvious answer…
I had an excellent memory for dance routines straightforward,
I just lacked poise or presence, and looked extremely awkward!

As I approached my teenage years, I decided to become a swimmer,
(I’d entered a single gala and been proclaimed an ‘almost’ winner!),
I joined a club and practised hard – the lengths offered time to think,
But a lack of pace (or stamina) caused my dreams to quickly sink!

When I was in my twenties, my love for music flourished,
Spending hours at the piano and keeping my soul well-nourished.
I rattled off countless ‘études’, ‘rhapsodies’ and ‘sonatas’,
And still I lacked the confidence to really raise the rafters.  

When I was in my thirties, I yearned for far-off lands,
The type you see on postcards – turquoise waters, golden sands.
I set about visiting heritage sights, monuments great and small,
Sampling different cultures; in truth, I had ‘a ball’!

And now that I’m in my forties, wondering what’ll come next,
I find myself re-evaluating, and feeling truly blessed,
I may not have ‘set the world on fire’ – but perhaps there is still time…
But I’ve found my soulmate and borne two sons, and I’m proud to call them ‘mine’.

If I could teach you anything

In a world where the desire for possessions and status often belies the value of priceless commodities (such as decency and integrity), I found myself wondering what it was that I would wish to tell my children – when they are of an age to be a little more receptive!  The following is written very much from the heart:

If I could teach you anything

If I could teach you anything, I’d urge you to be kind,

It doesn’t really cost that much to keep an open mind.

And every time you choose to give the ‘benefit of the doubt’,

You might just be affording someone the confidence to strike out

Into a world offering something good, to all who walk her path:

From the fiercely inquisitive toddler, to those in the aftermath

Of grief and disillusionment, where loneliness abounded –

Where the air grew dense with silence, though laughter had once resounded.

If I could teach you anything, I’d ask you to show love,

It’s surprising how such a simple thing gets passed down from above.

By showing someone tenderness, or a modicum of compassion,

You’ll help them healthy relationships to build, sustain and fashion

Into something all encompassing, a possession to be cherished –

Where once a sense of self esteem had very nearly perished.

With love you ‘pay it forward’, through deeds both great and small,

It needn’t be a luxury; it’s the right of one and all.

If I could teach you anything, I’d strive to give you hope,

I’d deliver the gift of resilience and tell you not to mope!

Things tend to have a curious way of working themselves out,

If you can just stay positive, and not succumb to doubt.

For every lesson painfully learned – obstacle or mistake,

There’ll be fresh opportunities, a new direction to take.

Just re-evaluate your goals, and craft your dreams anew

The most important message here is ‘Just be true to you!’

And when the ‘Day of Reckoning’ finally arrives,

I’m certain that our Maker will look with kindly eyes

Upon our life’s journey, our achievements big and small,

And tally up the times we chose to help those who’d otherwise fall.

“No man is an island” as stated by John Donne,

And when we leave this ‘mortal coil’ (our battles lost or won),

Remember that I loved you, far more than any other,

The most remarkable privilege, that of being your mother.