When the mornings aren’t quite dark enough

It is difficult to recall a time when our country has faced a more diverse set of challenges. A period of post-Brexit economic uncertainty was quickly eclipsed by the global pandemic and, in addition to the heavily publicised failings of the Metropolitan Police, the last few weeks have seen widespread disruption caused (in part) by a shortage of HGV drivers, but also by the subsequent panic-buying of fuel.

Those members of our family who continue to live in the Southeast of England, frequently regale us with stories that would strongly suggest that many local councils are close to breaking point too. One such council has had to suspend its garden waste collections – despite its residents having already been hit with paying an additional subscription for this particular service – and I’m told that its household waste and recycling collections are currently somewhat sporadic too. I gather that hospital appointments around the region are also something akin to gold dust at present, with NHS trusts working flat out to cover staff shortages whilst also trying to meet the ever-increasing demands posed by the ongoing pandemic. It would certainly seem that (in this respect at least) the North-South divide is currently tipping ever so slightly in our favour because, since relocating to Derbyshire in 2014, we have been fortunate enough to see little or no reduction in either the quality or availability of our local service provision. Any medical concerns have been promptly dealt with (to the point where my husband saw his GP one morning and, rather impressively, attended the local hospital for a range of tests the very next day) and our various bin collections have continued without disruption – and, better still, with no hint of a surcharge either.

Much to the relief of us all, I might add. Especially this week.

For half term week (regardless of location) is challenge enough for any family. With countless sibling disagreements to mediate, a range of interesting activities to mastermind, unpredictable weather to surmount, and one’s own last few shreds of sanity to retain, there is one household collection that positively NEEDS to take place. And boy, did our neighbour take full advantage this week…

As I reluctantly stepped from the shower cubicle this morning, I was met with the (all too) familiar sound of clinking glass and falling dustbin lids.

‘Grown-up’ cordial evidently forming part of this week’s coping strategy for other households too!

But this raucous ‘dawn symphony’ lasted well beyond the expected 4 movements, eventually culminating in an elaborate cadenza of aluminium cans too. And as I chuckled to myself (noting that perhaps a wine box or two might have been the wiser option here) I caught a brief glimpse of the ‘conductor’ surreptitiously wheeling their recycling bin towards the pavement. The irony being, of course, that in less than 48 hours (when the UK reverts to GMT) their identity would likely have been well and truly protected.

Outstaying one’s welcome

I’m not usually one for submitting a formal complaint, preferring instead to speak with the individual(s) concerned and see if a solution (or even a compromise) might be found. I am, however, a firm believer in giving praise where it is due, and offering thanks where it is justified, and I am always genuinely grateful when someone takes the time to formally acknowledge my contribution to a ‘job well done’.

Today though, I have decided to break with tradition and (rather publicly) lodge a series of complaints against that most insidious of uninvited houseguests…

‘Dear Covid’ by Gaynor Hall

The purpose of this missive is to state a few home truths,
I don’t suppose you’ll listen though, you’re renowned for being aloof!
The thing you need to understand, is your welcome you’ve rather outstayed,
And although we’ve tried to tolerate you, a reprehensible card you’ve now played.

You arrived here in 2020 and boldly knocked at our doors,
You ‘befriended’ not just the vulnerable, but the young, the rich and the poor.
You wandered the streets of our cities, closed all of our restaurants and shops,
Disrupted our kids’ education and caused foreign travel to stop.

And rather like a squatter, you insisted on extending your stay,
Disrupting another calendar year, refusing to go away,
Ensuring that plans (though cautiously made) were unceremoniously trampled
At will by you, mean spirited fiend, your path of destruction most ample.

I applaud you for your timing, disrupting half-term was inspired –
Preventing adventures further afield that had been (by us all) so desired,
But for every disappointment that you’ve ‘kindly’ sent our way,
There’s the hope of better times ahead that keeps the blues at bay.

So next time you target my children, and choose all our lives to disrupt,
Don’t expect any nicety of language – just a tone that’s both sharp and abrupt.
I’m hereby serving you notice, not withstanding the absence of rent,
That you’re really not much of a lodger and isn’t it time that you went?

Be sure to pay it forward!

My dad was a firm believer in treating others as you would wish to be treated yourself and this is certainly something that I have tried to put into practice over the years. And should you find that the truism ‘kindness costs nothing’ lacks resonance for any reason, then ‘be nice to the people you meet on the way up, for they are the same people that you’ll meet on the way back down’ might just help to focus the mind!

Perhaps one of the few positives to be taken from the ongoing pandemic is that there have been countless stories of people (from all walks of life) ‘pulling together’ and that the dying embers of community spirit have, to some extent, been rekindled. As we move forward into a period of recovery then, let’s try to hold on to those desirable behaviours, casting aside the all-consuming self- interest of before.

‘Be sure to pay it forward’ by Gaynor Hall

For every act of kindness, however great or small,
For every ounce of encouragement that helped you stand up tall,
For every time you very nearly let the demons in,
For every time you fought a battle you had no right to win,
For every time the road seemed tough, and strained at each small sinew,
For every time a friend endorsed the strength that lay within you,
For every time a passer-by their smile on you bestowed,
For every time a colleague helped to ease your heavy load,
For every time the sun still rose in spite of deep despair,
For every time that someone showed you just how much they cared.
Be grateful for each kindness, there’s no need to feel awkward,
Just remember the difference each one made – and be sure to pay it forward! 

What doesn’t kill you…

I’ve touched upon the subject of ‘resilience’ before, and I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of us will have been forced to develop this ‘in spades’, following confirmation that the UK’s first case of COVID-19 had been recorded on 31st January 2020.  

However, ‘Risk and Resilience’ has long been a focus for businesses around the globe, both in terms of determining technological or financial vulnerability, and assessing the extent to which teams of employees possess the emotional resilience to deal with a range of challenges.

The popular saying ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ (albeit originally rather more eloquently expressed by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche) is one that I am particularly fond of uttering, and I don’t mind admitting that (at least nine times out of ten) it is accompanied by a cursory rolling of the eyes too! The very notion that the only feasible alternative to ‘coping’ with the additional stress of a challenging situation is ‘certain death’ would (to my mind at least) seem to be a rather extreme means of testing one’s adaptability. And anyway, ‘broad shoulders’ are arguably something best left condemned to the 1980s…

On the other hand, it could be argued that it is only by ‘pushing the boundaries’ that we learn the true extent of our capabilities and there is definitely something to be said for trying new things and embracing fresh challenges from time to time.

Last Sunday, we ventured once again to our happy place.

The Peak District (with its steep limestone valleys, dramatic gritstone ridges and stark moorlands) never fails to provide us with some much-needed breathing space, and our boys love nothing more than to scramble unreservedly amongst the numerous rocky outcrops. Having first consulted ‘ViewRanger’ (our Sunday app of choice) we had chosen a circular walk in the Upper Dove valley area of the Peak District taking in a line of pinnacles said to resemble the ‘plates’ along the spine of either a dragon or a dinosaur. The very mention of such dramatic imagery certainly piqued the interest of our youngest and it was with great relish, therefore, that he scampered ahead like the proverbial mountain goat.

Very quickly the going became incredibly tough with steep inclines, scant paths, and a variety of uneven surfaces that had a habit of crumbling at the most inopportune moments. Two legs were quickly exchanged for ‘all fours’ as we kept our centre of gravity close to the ground and (desperately clutching at anything that might lend some kind of support) leaned into the mountain in a fervent attempt to steady not just our bodies, but also our nerves.

Needless to say, with several more pinnacles still to navigate, this was an ordeal that was to be repeated more than once and I’ll admit to succumbing to brief periods of panic each time our boys vanished from view. I needn’t have worried though, because they were infinitely more agile than either of their parents – and in their element at being able to assist their old and feeble mum in her increasingly tentative attempts to conquer the rugged terrain.

We were ultimately rewarded with spectacular views, looks of admiration (from seasoned hikers with rather more specialist equipment than the humble trainers that we were sporting) and a well-earned (and deliciously peppery) pasty at the summit. Even the boys agreed that this was a winning combination, worthy of deserting the Xbox for a few hours at least. High praise indeed!

Once we were safely back at our car, the journey home offered ample opportunity for quiet reflection. Stiff legs and a sense of elation were proof enough that some risks are definitely worth taking.

And the best bit? ‘Death’ was cheated out of one more day!

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! 

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!

…And the wisdom to know the difference

Having undoubtedly stumbled upon the barren wastelands of middle age, it would be far too easy to look back upon past events and pay gratuitous homage to regret. The dreams and aspirations of youth seem strangely unattainable now, and life has acquired an almost brutal propensity for galloping inexorably onwards, whether we like it or not.

And yet, if one can just look beyond the aging reflection in the mirror (and embrace with gratitude the many blessings that life has bestowed upon us) there’s a chance that something of the indomitable adolescent spirit of yesteryear, just might endure.

Without a doubt, the last twelve months have afforded plenty of opportunity for reflection and a great many people have found themselves looking at ways in which they might alter certain aspects of their lives – either through necessity, choice, or a combination of the two. 

Only a matter of days ago, I was reading an article entitled ‘Mental Health and the Covid-19 Pandemic’ and it was fascinating (and somewhat alarming) to learn of the many and varied emotional reactions that are likely to have been triggered by such a virus. Mercifully for many, resilience will have come to the fore and indeed, some people will have found new strengths and developed fresh coping mechanisms. However, for those who have been exposed to significant trauma, depression and anxiety are likely to have either surfaced or intensified and will no doubt have been exacerbated by the need to shield or self-isolate.     

For me personally, the aspect I struggled most with was having my freedom (coupled with the ability to make any plans whatsoever) suspended indefinitely. Without the prospect of a family holiday on the horizon (and feeling utterly starved of any external form of social interaction) I’ll happily admit that the working week seemed significantly less alluring! However, having two young sons to take care of gave me the purpose that I so desperately needed – and we often talk about the endless bike rides and home baking sessions that carried us all through.

And so, being mindful of the fact that 2020 taught us that we can never be entirely in control of our own destiny, the sentiments of the ‘Serenity Prayer’ seem as pertinent now, as ever they were:

‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’

Preparing to be unlocked

Having recently entered the next stage of the government’s plan to ease restrictions, there’s a sense of cautious optimism in the air. We’ve been here before, of course, but with the roll-out of 30 million+ COVID vaccines, there is every reason to feel quietly confident that we are taking back some of the control that was so ruthlessly snatched from us 12 months ago. Here’s hoping that the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ is not simply a train coming the other way, ready to knock us off our feet once more…

‘Daring to hope’ by Gaynor Hall

Tell me it’s over, the incarceration
That stifled the freedom of many a nation,
Prevented the sharing of happiness or grief,
And threw up behaviour that ‘beggared belief’.

Playgrounds fell silent, parks were left bare,
Homes and gardens deemed unsafe to share,
Bus stops deserted, restaurants too,
Roads less congested; used by so few.

Hospitals quite literally bursting their seams,
Struggling to cope with a virus so extreme
That people were dying – regardless of age,
With figures quite simply impossible to gauge.

But slowly the tide has started to turn,
Children are back in their classrooms to learn,
Businesses fighting so hard for survival
Preparing to open, to start their revival.

And so, there is only one question to ask,
(Although it might seem an onerous task)
What will you cherish, and what will you change –
Having lived through an era unparalleled and strange?

‘Snow Day’

Since it was first published in 2014, ‘Snow Day’ by Richard Curtis has been a firm favourite within the Hall household. For those of you who haven’t read it, the blurb states that: ‘When Danny arrives at school, the last thing he expects to find is a deserted school and his LEAST favourite teacher. But that’s exactly what he does find. And what starts as the worst day imaginable ends as the most magical day of the year’. In essence, it’s a tremendously heart-warming story about finding friendship in the most unlikely of places – and my boys (and I) absolutely love it!

Over the past few days, much of Derbyshire has (once again) been shrouded in snow, and this inevitably brought back many happy childhood memories. However, as my husband and I regaled each other with various snow-related anecdotes, we were both suddenly struck by the harsh realisation that ‘Snow Days’ (complete with days off school) have effectively become a ‘thing of the past’. Courtesy of COVID (and the associated national lockdowns) the chances of a child being allowed to simply enjoy the snow are becoming increasingly slim. Remote learning is fast becoming the ‘norm’ and the teacher who finds himself unable to travel to work (owing to hazardous driving conditions) is now simply expected to calmly trade their ‘Toyota’ for ‘TEAMS’ and continue with their teaching. And so, it seemed only right and proper to pay tribute to that much hallowed (albeit largely obsolete) institution – ‘The Great British Snow Day’.  

Ode to a Snow Day

That shroud of white that doth appear
Forsaken by children, once held so dear.
Nor from the garden beckoning,
Her icy fingers languishing.

‘Tis time to draw a veil o’er thee
And venture towards technology.
The snowman spurned, the sledge bereft,
With hours upon hours of tuition left!

Those halcyon days, so free and guileless,
(Listening for school closures on the wireless)
So cruelly displaced by video lessons
And daily commutes that last mere seconds!

Oh, how we pine for those simplest of pleasures,
(Instead of fractions, or other measures)
The crunch of snow beneath one’s feet,
A well-aimed snowball yielding victory sweet!

My wintry companion! My childhood friend!
You afforded such joy for hours on end,
But now those adventures have drawn to a close,
Just another sad symptom of COVID, I suppose.

So long, farewell!

As this calendar year finally draws to a close, I’m fairly confident that most of us will be extremely glad to see the back of 2020. There have been challenges aplenty, moments of anxiety and despair, and my heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones to Covid-19; a virus that shows no mercy and seems intent upon wreaking havoc for some time to come. However, it is my firm belief that better times lie ahead and that this ‘new and silent enemy’ will eventually succumb to the fortitude and ingenuity of the human spirit. May the Lord ‘bless you and keep you’ until then.     

The Uninvited Guest

I don’t wish to sound ungrateful; I don’t want to seem unkind
But you’ve rather outstayed your welcome and taken up too much time.
When you crept up upon our communities, silent and somewhat shy,
None of us knew quite how potent you’d be – we hoped that you’d pass swiftly by.

You entered our homes uninvited, invaded our children’s schools,
You attacked the fit and the vulnerable, no thought for obeying the rules.  
You cancelled our hobbies and interests, you sabotaged parties and treats,
You even scuppered our festive plans; the latter was no mean feat!

And just when we thought that we’d found a solution – two vaccines quickly invented,
You chose to mutate, re-group and persist, local lockdowns circumvented.
You ripped through our cities, our towns big and small, without any sign of stopping,
Case numbers rose (as did hospital admissions) the death rates were truly shocking.

So, forgive me if I’m not a huge fan of yours, ‘Master Covid’ you cruel imposter,
You’re made yourself known through sadness and loss, and managed much fear to foster.
You’ve won a few battles (I’ll grant you that) but you’ve certainly not won the war,
With family, friendship and faith on our side, our spirit is sure to endure.