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.

…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.’

Calling all Superheroes!

I often think that parenting is akin to an extreme form of superhero training. There may not be any kryptonite involved (and I’ve yet to encounter any infinity stones) but daily survival has, nonetheless, been known to present its own challenges with everyone’s wellbeing (especially mine) frequently left hanging (rather precariously) in the balance.

However, even the most stressful of mornings (when the relatively straightforward task of leaving the house as a family unit, suitably equipped for the day with one’s sanity broadly intact) has nothing on the abject horror of the ‘in-tray exercise’!

Yes, with one foot firmly seated in middle age (and the other desperately seeking a new and exciting chapter) I finally came up against this veritable instrument of cognitive torture. And I have to admit that I was more than willing to wave the white flag of surrender just a few short minutes later!

For those of you who haven’t yet had the ‘pleasure’ of such an experience, let me attempt to give you an indication of what to expect.

Now obviously, my little Pandora’s (In)Box was full of school-based scenarios – the likes of which (if they were to occur simultaneously on a Monday morning as suggested) would literally require the help of the ‘Avengers’ and the ‘Justice League’ combined in order to demonstrate even a modicum of managerial supremacy – but if you can imagine apocalyptic levels of employee, client, or customer dissatisfaction, coupled with a lack of resources and wholly unrealistic deadlines, then this should prove universally relevant!

In just 30 minutes one is required to ‘solve’ a seemingly near exhaustive list of ‘problems’, ranking them in order of priority and explaining what course of action should be taken. Simple, right?

Wrong!

Because for every choice that you make, you are basically providing your future employer with a Velux style window to your soul, laying bare your capacity (or otherwise!) for compassion, logic, and leadership. And the final straw here, is that your line manager will almost certainly be ‘unavailable’ to lend any support to this fire-fighting exercise, and your future colleagues are apparently representative of the very small percentage of the population for whom physical or mental impairment should really have rendered them unemployable – and thoroughly deserving of every benefit going!

The final twist, of course, is that (having prioritised the immediate safeguarding concerns of any pupil who has been hypothetically placed in your care; having dealt with any pressing staffing shortages; having provided pastoral support to a distressed team member; having prepared the necessary academic data for a governors’ meeting; having written a captivating article for the newsletter; having responded to a parental complaint; having disciplined a junior member of staff and having referred a parent back to the school’s policy on the administering of medication) your own child is apparently in need of urgent help too.

What to do now? Where exactly should your own ‘flesh and blood’ rank in all of this? I mean, if you deal with your own son / daughter ahead of a school issue, then there’s a strong chance that you will be inviting criticism along the lines of
a) not being very dedicated to your job or
b) failing to take your professional responsibilities seriously.
Then again, to ignore your own child’s ‘cry for help’ paints you in a rather unfavourable light too – not to mention lining you up nicely for a child protection concern that is frankly a little too close to home!

Thirty minutes later, I left the confines of that tiny office a mere shadow of my former self.

My head was literally throbbing with the strain of trying to deal with such a kaleidoscope of child-related chaos; the academic data had been delegated to possibly the only other suitable senior leader (assuming that they were not, of course, amongst the previously mentioned high numbers of staff absences); my newsletter article was about as engaging as a bowl of tapioca (having managed to devote just 2 minutes and 48 seconds to it, off the back of far too much ethical and logistical deliberation) and try as I might, I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that I had more than likely overlooked something of real significance.

In summary, I suspect that my performance was moderate to mediocre, and it was undeniably an experience that I would be in no particular hurry to repeat. However, in a humble attempt to adhere to my original analogy, I would suggest that certain qualities would be a minimum requirement – if ever (like me) you should find yourself bravely pursuing ‘in-tray utopia’…

At the very least, you should aim to exhibit the genius of Iron Man, the leadership of Captain America, the resilience of Thor and the compassion of Superman. Otherwise, prepare for the comparative ignominy of, for example, Marvel’s Jack of Hearts.

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?