3. nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

Any time I take a dawn flight into the outrageous pinks of sunrise, I am floored by feelings of nostalgia.

I am reminded of the long-haul travel across the Atlantic of my 1970s childhood. Airlines back then had names like Trans World Airlines and Pan American World Airways. Air-hostesses gathered static in their nylon uniforms and there was no vegan option on the menu. The in-flight entertainment consisted of one film projected onto a wide screen at the front of the cabin; the interior was stained with nicotine.

I would sleep for most of the journey, missing the endless yaw of the Atlantic and the icebergs of Canada, and wake up as the plane banked towards Logan airport, Boston. The cabin flooded with the purple hues of another dawn and I would peer out of the window, imagining that I was reeling America in by magic. Landings in those days were different, sudden and screeching.

Waiting for our luggage was a humiliating family ritual of heaving half-open cardboard boxes off the carousel to the amusement of our fellow passengers. The boxes contained ‘very-important-papers-my-dad-needed-for-the-novel-he-was-working-on’, fishing rods, golf clubs, surf boards, guitars, packets of British biscuits. Suitcases, apparently, were bourgeois.

US officials, bemused by our British accents and US passports, would wave us through immigration. Then I would run into the expectant arms of my grandparents, swooning at the delicious smell of my grandma; Emeraude by Coty. During the journey from Boston to the Uncanoonuc Mountains of New Hampshire, someone would roll down a window and the smell of pine trees would fill the car. To this day, the smell of pine makes me feel inexorably at home.

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Nostalgia, which translates as ‘a painful longing to return’ was considered a sickness when the term was coined by Johannes Hofner in the 17th century to describe the malaise experienced by Swiss mercenaries yearning for the mountains of home when traveling through the flat lands of Europe. The army even banned the singing of Swiss songs, likely as this was to induce the ‘disease’ of Nostalgia among troops. 

By the 19th century, nostalgia was considered less of a disease and more a melancholy state, a psychological yearning which helped fuel the Romantic movement and the tubercular masses who headed for the Alps to dream and recuperate.

Now, in my later years, nostalgia is a daily occurrence; it’s an ache, a hunger for something I cannot satiate, a mote of dust in the corner of my eye. In the time between the then and now, I imbue my experiences with an emotional potency they didn’t necessarily have originally, and it serves a purpose. Research suggests that nostalgia has many functions; increasing well-being, providing existential meaning and comfort. Feelings of loneliness can lead to nostalgia, which in turn provides feelings of social connectedness. It worries me that super-connected Generation Z, are, according to research, also the loneliest*. Locked behind their smartphones and Fortnite games, they are less exposed to the complex nuances of sensory experience that might bring them nostalgic joy in later life. Potent triggers for nostalgia are smell and touch, which pass straight through to the emotional seat of the brain, along with things like music and even the weather. Instagram and Snapchat offer fleeting histories, they are memory banks owned by someone else. Perhaps the reason online connection feels so incomplete, is because it lacks the subtleties of smell and touch, and the small visual clues that one day in the future, will give us a past.

I’ve heard it said that ‘memory is let down like a rope from heaven’, and the older I get, the more conscious I am of determinedly creating sensory moments in time, of making memories that might one day be ‘ropes from heaven’ for my children when I am no longer here.

I have some home-movie footage from the 1950’s of my grandparents and my father skating on a lake in the Uncanoonuc Mountains. At one point, they all turn towards the camera, squinting in the low winter sun, and wave towards the lens, arms around each other, laughing. All three of them are gone now, but this is the way I like to remember them; in grainy, saturated colours, surrounded by pines, skating joyfully on some ethereal surface between now and then.

 

* https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/02/cigna-study-loneliness-is-an-epidemic-gen-z-is-the-worst-off.html

How to Get Your Kids into Poetry: Granny is a Vintage Cheese

I’ve been a lifelong fan of poetry. My love of it was instilled in me by my dad who called it ‘poultry’ and for years, I thought the written word was closely linked to chickens.

When he wasn’t reading poetry aloud in a wildly theatrical voice, my dad would be listening to it and crying.  33rpm vinyl Dylan Thomas crackled into my childhood dreams as he played the records at midnight.

My father left behind reams of his own poems, written in his spidery handwriting, the wiry, right-leaning slant of which I inherited. It is because of him that I love words, and it’s something I wanted to pass on to my own children.

This is a great game to play with your kids as soon as they have developed any kind level of symbolic imagination. I call this game, Granny is a Vintage Cheese. I find it works best from about age 6 plus, but it depends on your child.

Here is what you do to play Granny is a Vintage Cheese

  • Grab a pen and paper.
  • Ask your child to think of a person they know and keep them in mind. Get a photo out if it helps.
  • Then ask your child what colour that person makes them think of .
  • What kind of weather would the person be?
  • What kind of road, fruit, sound, flower, music, country, smell, sky, animal, temperature would they be? What kind of journey, what texture?
  • Write everything down.
  • Ask any questions that inspire your child to think symbolically.

You will end up with a list something like this ~ The Biscuit Thief aged 6 describing one of her friends:

Yellow, Strawberries, Bells, Scotland, Sunny day, A muddy path through a field, Chilly, A cup of tea.

Then, you put the images into some kind of shape like this:

MUDDY FIELDS

I loved that sunny day in Scotland,

When the yellow light helped the wild strawberries grow.

We ate them until our cups of tea,

turned chilly in the wind.

We walked home;

a muddy path through the fields,

to the sound of distant bells.

Voila! You have a poem by a 6-year-old (with a little help).

Give the poem title by picking one of the images, or just using the person’s name. Obviously, the more images you get out of your little one, the richer the symbols in the final poem will be.

The poems make great presents by the way! (Unless the all the associations seem to be about poo, wee, and plop.) Just print them off or get your child to write them out and then frame them.

Here’s another one, based on the images the Biscuit Thief associates with me:

MUMMY, by the Biscuit Thief, aged 6.

I ate old bananas,

In the heavy rain storm.

The pig smelled of roses

and an old rusty car that had broken down

In Guernsey.

Thanks Biscuit. Please add yours in the comments…I would love to see them!

When Did I Become the Oracle at Bollocks?

The Family Trivia

Confession: I am held together by Post It Notes

In ancient Greece, the area of Delphi contained a sanctuary where Apollo was said to speak through an older woman ‘of blameless life.’ This woman, Pythia or the sibyl, was the priestess of  ‘the Oracle at Delphi.’ She would fall into a trance and her ecstatic ramblings would be interpreted by priests who put them into neat rhyming verses. People consulted the Oracle on all sorts of important matters from the timing of wars to personal and political crises. That Pythia had power…such PowHer!

And I too,  a woman of <cough> blameless life, am consulted regularly by my offspring and husband.  They wait until I have entered a trance-like state fuelled by caffeine and the therapeutic vapours emanating off Liz Earle products (hopeful brand mention, fishing for freebie) before asking me questions of vital importance such as:

“Do I have any clean pants?”

I take a moment to gaze into the small crystal monkey that I won in the school tombola and, before I know it, cryptic couplets just, like, materialize. Enlightenment comes pouring out of my gob. My wisdom positively SPRAYS FORTH like spittle from a cross footballer’s mouth.

“Do you have clean cacks? I’m not sure what you mean,

But there’s this thing in the kitchen called a washing machine.

You put in dirty pants and clothes that you have worn,

Put in soap, turn the dial and press the button orn.”

Or:

“What’s for dinner?”

“I’m not sure, 

it’s hard to discern

But it will be something you don’t like

and very likely burned.”

Or:

Muffled voice from behind locked bathroom door:  “Argghhh…<ruffling sounds> Do we have any more toilet roll?”

 “If the silver roll thing is empty

The answer my child, is no.

When did I become the Oracle at Bollocks?

That’s what I would like to know.”

Etc etc, you get the picture. And so my question is, when exactly did I become the Oracle at Bollocks? The Font of all Shizzdom? When did I become the receptacle of all family trivia? I am like a human fucking cork board. I am the person equivalent of a fridge covered in crappy notes and timetables held on by crappy miniature Eiffel Tower magnets and those ones that say ‘I Love Ibiza’ on them. Post It Notes should come in flesh colour so that  when I stick them on me, from a distance it will just look like I’m one of those really cool women with lots of ‘up yours’ tattoos all over my body when actually I am a walking To-Do List of Trivia.

I’m tracing back the moment in time where I became the Oracle at Bollocks. Ah, there it is. The moment I had a baby. The baby came out of me. My partner was sent home while I, broken yet enjoying the opiates, was left holding her. Yes, my partner went home and ‘got some rest’ and I was taught my first bit of bollocks ~ how to put a baby grow on a wriggly new born whilst still looking sexy.  Women’s work don’t you know.

And I didn’t wholly mind it, for a while. Being the Oracle at Bollocks. When my children were very small. But now, they’re both at school and I have time and a brain. Can someone else hold one of my bollocks now please? I’m tired and I want to do something clever.

15 Things I Want My 7 Year Old Daughter To Know

Our cat eating Barbie

Molly our cat protests at the impossible standard of physical perfection demanded of women which contributes to epidemic cultural body dysmorphia and continued gender inequality…

The Biscuit Thief is turning 7 on… wait for it… 12.12.12. YES she is my magic, alien, mystical baby. In preparation for this milestone, I have been thinking about all the things she is now ready to know:

1. It is awesome that you get yourself dressed for school now, but it’s always good to include pants on the inside of your leggings.

2. An apple is a kind of fruit and a mac is a kind of lightweight coat that keeps the rain off.

3. It is not funny to say “cock” in front of granny even though it appears to make daddy laugh.

4. Barbie is not representative of women. Anywhere. In any way. And the cat was right. (See photo)

5. No, it is not acceptable that, as a woman, you are likely to be paid less than your male counterparts doing the same work. The fight for equality goes on and I’m sorry we still haven’t fixed that for you.

6. The one hour kazoo concert you gave was… unforgettable…and  mummy is REALLY SORRY that she can’t remember where she hid put your kazoo afterwards.

7. Disneyland is closed.

8. The ‘F’word is not ‘fanny’.

9. Shreddies are not really “knitted by nannas”.

10. The Tooth Fairy can do all that stuff because a) she’s magic and b) she’s a woman.

11. The feisty, determined, rule-breaking, wildness in you that is so hard to parent sometimes, is exactly what will make you an awesome adult.

12. It is not going to be possible to meet Rapunzel. She’s a fictional character.

13. There isn’t really such a time as ‘Gin O’Clock’.

14 . Mummy and daddy are not perfect, but we love you very much.

15. Actually, mummy is perfect.

5 Half Term Projects That Cost Less Than A Sausage

[This is a reposting of a blog I did for the Spring Half Term but with a Halloween update… enjoy!]

I’m really looking forward to half term week with my 6 year-old Biscuit-thief, and I’m determined not to watch Cbeebies even once, however much I miss it.

This is my top five list of things we’ll be doing that cost under £1! Yes! These activities cost less than a sausage and yet, are somehow priceless.

1. Do a mind control experiment

I seriously LOVE this experiment and can still remember doing it when I was 7. IT CHANGED MY LIFE and is the best possible way to teach children the power of positive thinking. Literally, mind blowing.

You will need:

  • A packet of cress seeds
  • Some kitchen towel
  • Three trays/old ice cream containers or similar
  • Three labels/stickers
  • Some thoughts
  • Some words

Pad the bottom of each container with kitchen towel then, with a measuring jug, pour equal amounts of water into each tray – just enough to dampen the towel, not soak it. Then, sprinkle roughly the same amount of cress seeds on top of the dampend kitchen towel in each tray.

Make three labels; one that says something nice like “love”, one that says something horrible like “hate” and leave the third blank. Put one label on each tray. Place the trays side-by-side so that they get equal amounts of light and heat.

Now, here’s the important bit: over the next week, encourage your Biscuit-thief to say or think really lovely things towards the LOVE tray. They can say and think equally mean things about the HATE tray and have to ignore the third tray. Every day, they need to pour equal amounts of water into each tray to keep the seeds moist whilst thinking and saying lovely or mean things to the relevant seeds.

You and they will FREAK OUT when, by the end of half term, the LOVE tray of seeds has grown faster with thicker stems than the seeds in the poor little HATE tray. It’s a bizarre, brilliant life lesson courtesy of cress. And watch the penny drop as your sproglets realize the damage they are doing when they call you a smelly fart head.

 2. Colour code the week

On Monday morning, decide with your sproglet what the colour theme of each day will be for example, Monday = Red, Tuesday = Yellow etc. Whatever you do that day, from the clothes you both wear to the food you all eat, there must be an emphasis on that colour.  They can count how many red cars, how many people they see wearing red jumpers etc on that day. The screams when they see a purple car on purple day… you have no idea. Not only will you realize that very few of us can really get away with that pastel orange Top Shop are trying to sell us, it’s also brilliant when the kids get to Friday and realize they have to eat lots of greens. Crafty eh?

3. Play Boredom Bingo

Boredom Bingo
Play Boredom Bingo this half term!

My 6 year-old is never happier than when she has a clipboard and pen in her hand. Maybe she’s going to be a polling officer or telly-offy type person when she grows up. I worry about her love of bureaucracy, it’s as if I’ve taught her NOTHING. Anyway, she makes lists in connection with whatever we’re doing. For example, on a trip to our local corner shop, the Biscuit-thief will make a list of ‘expected sightings’ to tick off like:

  • A woman crying
  • Some dog poo
  • Someone hugging a hoodie
  • An abandoned mattress
  • A really cocky urban fox

Apart from the fact that we REALLY MUST MOVE house, an average trip is transformed from boring milk run to fascinating detective trail. If she spots all five things, she has to shout, “BOREDOM BINGO” at the top of her lungs and wins a kiss from mummy. I really must copyright Boredom Bingo.

4. Make a sculpture from your tears

This is genius because you can turn your nervous breakdown into a science experiment:

You need:

  • A jam jar with a lid
  • Some string
  • A spoon
  • Some water
  • Some salt
  • Some tears

Make a small hole in the lid of the jam jar and put a piece of thickish string through it, tying a knot at the top so it can’t fall through the lid. Fill the jar with warmish water and add a few table spoons of salt. Mix with a spoon and let the salt dissolve. Every time you or your sproglets cry over half term, catch a few of the tears in the jam jar to add to the salt mix. Place the lid with the string onto the jam jar and behold as over the week, the salt clusters around the string to form a gorgeous, crystalline gem. The size of the crystal will depend on how many tears have been shed. BRILLIANT.

5. Make an Ancestor Tree

There is almost nothing that makes the Biscuit Thief happier than full permission to CUT THINGS UP or HUNT FOR STICKS. This timely Halloweeny activity is perfectly suited to her forager tendencies. First you need to find a nice big tree branch. If you can’t find a real one, draw a tree on a large bit of paper with lots of branches sticking out. Then you need to print off pictures of as many of your relations as you can, as far back as you can go, and stick them onto your tree or hang their photos from the branches of your stick. Even if you don’t have photos or much knowledge about your relations, it is amazing to jot down the family myths and stories you have inherited on post-it notes, and stick them all over the tree. It is a great way to engage your sproglets with their roots, bringing an element of storytelling and rembrance to this magical time of year. Obviously, you may need to edit the stories to be ‘age appropriate’. I’m not going to mention Aunty Stella’s over-fondness of gin to the Biscuit Thief just yet.

The Enduring Perfection of Nadia Comaneci

One of my most abiding Olympic memories is of the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Montreal games. As I recall, there was a heatwave that summer, one that scorched its way across the US like a smoldering fuse-wire, raging through cities and forests, melting tarmac, setting prairies alight and drying my lips to paper.

I was 9-years-old, watching the Games while on holiday at my grandparent’s house in the New Hampshire mountains that smelled of pine trees at sunset. A chunky colour TV beamed Nadia’s hipless frame right into my pre-pubescent consciousness. In her unforgiving white leotard, stripes up the sides popping like arteries, 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci performed like no gymnast had ever done before.

She was fearless and focused way before life coaches brought the Gospel of the Goal to the mainstream. Nadia was angular yet kittenish, pure muscle, with an anatomy of metal and spirit of steel that shames the chronic public anorexia of today. She also had these huge, brown, sorrowful eyes that betrayed the fact she was still a child. I was transfixed by her every move both on and off the apparatus.  She was like no girl I had ever seen before.

Back home in London, my city was agitated.  IRA explosions had rocked the West End earlier in the year, the punk movement was bubbling under with the Sex Pistols just months away from signing to EMI. I was slightly too young for punk to get under my skin, but Nadia felt like a peer. To me, she embodied subversion with every sinew of her slight yet powerful frame. She was the pale, mechanical, aloof ‘other’, perfectly fitting the cliched perception of ‘Eastern block’ citizens we had back then, before the walls and Ceausescu came crumbling down.

Nadia’s performance on the uneven bars on July 18th 1976 is etched on my mind forever. After a gravity-defying routine, there was a delay before the Omega scoring system showed a result of 1.0. The crowd and the commentators were initially confused before it became apparent that Nadia had actually scored the first ever Olympic perfect ‘10’ in gymnastics. “She broke the machine!” I thought in wonder. The computer had, quite literally, said “No”.

I was entranced by this idea of unexpected perfection. A completion so exquisite that it broke the rules, a perfection so persistent that an outdated system had to redesign itself. We did not know then how symbolic this would come to be. Nadia’s faultlessness seemed so transgressive and useful and desirable, anything less seemed suddenly pointless.

I learned everything I could about perfect Nadia. I was delighted to find she shares my birthday, 12th November, my Scorpionic twin ~ I took this as symbolic of our probable affinity. She was my first female icon, the one that led me though puberty. Nadia set the bar for what one could achieve by aged 14; suddenly the possibilities of my life as an adult had some tangible form.  Whatever I did, I wanted it to matter. In my young mind, she was the embodiment of Cold War austerity and pain and I was embarrassed by what I perceived as the flabby ‘too-much-ness’ of the West. Our gymnasts had breasts, curves, cellulite and no medals. It is probably because of Nadia that I studied Russian at school.

But over the years, like my personal dreams of perfection, Nadia’s image was replaced by pictures of women who symbolized other ambitions, new guardians of my creative journey. My photos of Nadia would be covered over by ones of Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Joni Mitchell and other goddesses of music. Then by writers and artists who stole my heart and weaved their magic; Sylvia Plath, the Brontes, Toni Morrison, Frida, Georgia, Elisabeth Frink.

Sometimes I think of that bedroom wall in my childhood home and imagine how an archeologist, chipping away through the layers of my own personal iconography would find at the foundation, a pull-out-and-keep spread of Nadia Comaneci in the saturated inks of 1976, still perfect.

Dear Girl I Do Not Know: Notes from a field in Yorkshire

The Biscuit ThiefI watch my youngest daughter, the Biscuit Thief as she sleeps in our tent. Her hair, damp with morning dew, smells of last night’s campfire; charcoal, pitch, ash and bread. She breathes softly into the earth while her feet, shaped just like her father’s and blackened with soot, stick out from under the covers.

It’s  a long time since I spent significant amounts of time alone with the Biscuit Thief and I have been hoping this camping trip in Yorkshire will help us bond. In fact, I can’t remember being alone with her since the lonely days following her birth by emergency caesarean when I, numb from painkillers and vacant while a blood-transfusion rioted through my veins, could do little more than stare at her from my hospital bed. I could not feel who she was. I have, if I’m honest, spent the last six years searching for the Biscuit Thief, trying to intuit her; a blind snake belly attempting to sense the rain.

Yesterday, the Biscuit Thief jumped from a tree trunk to catch a branch several feet away. She swung wildly from her natural trapeze, beaming from ear-to-ear as I admired her new-found bravery. She leaped again and again until her hands were raw, her knees were bruised and her elbows greened with grass stains. She watched an owl scoping the dusky fields for twilight mice. She ran wild and free and slept deeply, next to me. We curled around each other like a couple of cashews, two quarter moons entwined.

Today, we returned to London from the wilds of Yorkshire. Returned to the metallic fixtures and melancholy squeak of the local swings, to the tiny space that comprises the Biscuit Thief’s bedroom, and I realize it is just no longer acceptable to me, this shrinking down, this boxing-in of life, of her life.

I know that my Biscuit Thief is in the hollowed-out trunk of the oak, she is in the rocks and clover, the shooting stars and the ankles that ache in the cold morning dew. It is no wonder I find it so hard to find her in the city we call home.

I know so many parents, like me, are torn between the countryside and the city; between the raw and the cooked. What choice have you made and do you regret it?