There’s An Unexpected Item in my Bagging Area

unexpected item in the bagging areaI want to talk to you about shopping, those tiny exchanges conducted under strip light.

Buying stuff is the coal-face of human material desire,  the location of our drama about value and fairness.  It’s a simple and ancient idea, the swapping of one thing of value for another of (what we deem to be) equal value.

Buddha and lots of other enlightened beings tell us not to do it, but most of us do; we buy shizzle. We buy shizzle we don’t need. Singing fish, unwearable hats, items that go from gift to thrift store in days.

There’s the ‘necessary’ shopping, for food and pants, and then there’s ‘trigger shopping’ (for me, books, can’t resist the buggers). Then there’s what I call ‘human’ shopping where we’re telling stories with our purchases:  the new suit that reveals the first job interview in 10 years; the size 10 dress indicating small victories in the gym; the pots and pans for the kid who has just left home; the newly weds sheets; the funeral flowers; the fresh set of acrylics that give away a creative surge.

One of my favourite jobs was working in a health shop that smelled of patchouli and lemongrass. People would wander in like walking wounded and all with stories. Shell-shocked new dads looking for something to stop the wife crying, old men and their goiters, a lot of beleaguered eczema. 

So, it will come as no surprise to discover that I hate self-service tills. To me, they sum up the cold, hard, robotic vision of the future predicted in the 1950s. The self-service process offers no warmth, no humanity – for heaven’s sake, human experience is not binary.

Self-service scales are more sensitive and spiky  than a dopey end-of-season wasp. The SKU codes on items are unreadable, and loud accusatory alarms go off if you try to purchase a bottle of wine or condoms. Then, there it goes, “There’s an unexpected item in the bagging area”. Except there isn’t.

You shuffle your skin-thin plastic bag around a bit, as if re-jigging your items will somehow calm the hissy-fitting machine. You try talking to the till, escalating from reasonable to exasperated within thirty seconds. You wait to be rescued by someone in polyester, but help is busy manually inputting the SKU code for a fellow customer’s kumquats. 

I think perhaps it is the Ghost of Redundant Shop Assistants Past setting off those scales. Or an incumbent fly.  More likely however, is that the unexpected item in my bagging area is simply the unbearable weight of words unsaid, pleasantries unshared. 

Once you have extracted the lottery of coins from the obscurely-positioned change tray and fended off the vomiting of vouchers, you may think as I do,  “Fuck you Robo-Till and your cold, steel heart.”

I just want someone to chat about the weather with.  I want someone to say… ‘Oooh I love these too .. I ate them when I was pregnant with my first’ as they pass my jar of gherkins through the scanner. 

I want snippets of lives freely offered and freshly packed. I want a mutual exchange.

Give me a human, give me a human story any day.

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8 Things Every New Mother Needs: Where’s My F**king Medal?

New MotherhoodI don’t know about you, but after I gave birth, I expected some serious adoration, praise, and general worship. A small eulogy on the wonders of my cervix or a small (cushioned) pedestal would not have gone amiss. However, like most women who give birth in hospital, it was quickly made clear that as a new mother I was not, in fact, a goddess, but part of a prime consumer market.

Most rites of passage involve symbolic gift giving, and so it is with hospital birth. You will be visited by men and women in strange outfits who will proffer words of wisdom and hand you … The Bounty Bag.  This is a plastic bag containing a disparate collection of ‘goodies’ supplied by various companies who, make no mistake, do not love you. Sorry, but they just want your baby bucks.

This demented version of the frankincense, gold and myrhh story usually consists of some leaflets about formula breast milk, a free nappy, some leaflets, a pot of Sudocrem, some leaflets, baby wipes and some leaflets.  And just in case you are in any doubt about your new role as Queen of the Laundry, there will also be a sample of washing powder. WASHING POWDER!!!!!! What is this? 1952?

SOD THAT! This is what should actually be in The Bounty Bag:

1. A medal. This should ideally be forged from enough quality gold that it equates to the value of lost income over a lifetime that every mother experiences.

2. A big vat of chicken soup containing all the nutrients a new mother needs. Also, several laminated copies of the recipe to be handed to friends and relatives with the words, “Do not arrive on my doorstep without tupperware filled with this.”

3. Another laminated sign aimed at parents and in-laws that reads, “No advice necessary. You have already shown me all you can about parenting.”

4. A tube of Touche Eclat and the sort of mirror Dorian Gray might use.

5. Gin

6. Some sort of wank machine for your partner, or alternatively some “Closed for Business Until Further Notice” stickers that fit nicely across your newly arranged croissant.

7. An electronic sanding machine to run over your nipples thereby toughening them up for breastfeeding.

8. Gin. Oh God, have I said that already?

What have I missed?

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.

In Andalucia

Spanish bullBy the time you read this, I will be floating on a lilo in a pool. I will have a blank, can’t be arsed facial expression, like someone whose OD’ed on Botox, been slapped by a fish, and then had a shock.  I will be roasting like a piggy on a spit, slowly browning like the meat gyro up the kebab shop on the Harrow Road. I will occasionally look up from my paperback, its spine melting and pages wrinkling in the heat, and utter the words, “more figs please” to whoever will listen. I will have a sweaty lip ‘tache and clammy nethers, but this is not the point. The point is, I’ll be in Andalucia, Southern Spain, one of my favourite places in the world. Land of the poet I love the most, Federico Garcia Lorca, and, more importantly, home (via La Mancha) of the best cheese ever, Manchego. It’s from SHEEP!

I’ve always had a bit of a ‘thing’ about Spain; it’s been a long-term crush. In my late twenties, I took myself off to University having originally bypassed the whole degree thing, choosing instead to pursue a rock n’ roll life on the road armed with my acoustic guitar and a handful of songs about being dumped. Ultimately, my rock n’ roll years were actually spent in the back of a transit van that smelled of vomit and boys. Disillusioned and practically brain-dead after saying, “Check…1… 2…check 1…2..” for the 35,000th time, I decided to go to back to school and exercise my brain.

My chosen course was a BA in Humanities with Hispanic Studies. Over the four years of my degree, I was immersed in all things Spanish and South American in terms of literature, art, music and language. I spent some time in Madrid. I conjugated a lot of verbs. And I sussed out the many things that pull me in about Spain.

For a start, I love the language. It is BRILLIANT because there is something that I call the verb of diminished responsibility. In Spanish, it is perfectly legitimate grammatically to say, “The car crashed itself” or, “The table broke itself” or, “The wee, peed itself all over the floor mummy”. You can blame inanimate things for human weakness linguistically! Genius!

The hair. Gotta love Spanish hair. It’s everywhere! The men are all, “Ooh, you may look admiringly at my Erik Estrada ‘tache and rest your head on my wiry chest forest while I read you something by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a schmexy voice.” Yes, I like it.

And the women! Those long, black, shiny tresses. Sigh. As the owner of some flaky, brittle, blonde fluff up top, I am so envious of that long, black, shiny hair.

And I love the whole flamenco thing. Yes, it may be a cliche, but stomping around on the earth and shouting is EXACTLY my kind of medicine. I ended up doing my thesis on the Spanish concept of duende which is this intangible thing that happens in flamenco; a cross between frenzy, enlightenment, excitement and an existential moment of realisation about death, sex, love, pain and the futility of human experience. As far as I can work out, most women experience a moment of duende in childbirth at some point, and will tell anyone who can hear it exactly where they can stick their duende, but I didn’t know that when I was in my twenties studying it.

I like the way flamenco as a dance form is directed at the earth. None of this pointy uppy toward the sky stuff or being contorted into a masculine shape like in ballet. Flamenco dancers usually have busts, waists and curves, and that’s just the men! Some of the best female flamenco dancers are bloody ANCIENT and have all the grace and power of fire. They strop around with a pained facial expression like I do at parent’s evening.

And the time signatures in flamenco music, wow. None of your standard 4/4 stuff here. No, time signatures are in things like 78/3, 196/4.8. They make prog rock bands sound like kids with a Casio drum machine when the batteries are wearing down! OOh and the cajon. That big, booming box that is used to beat out the rhythm. That’s what I like. I nice, big, phat cajon being slapped by a hairy man in 78/5  time on a hot, steamy night. I also like the way flamenco embraces musical notes that aren’t generally considered part of the standard music scale. They use quarter-notes, eighths, wibbly-wobbly-in-between stuff that only Andalucian dogs can hear. What’s not to love I ask you?

The wild poppies and the stars. In rural Spain you still get incredible starscapes at night as there is little street lighting. By day in the spring, the wild poppies mirror Orion, Perseus and Cassiopeia on the scorched earth. It’s heavenly.

Everyone has their ‘other’ land do they not? The place where we sketch out a fantasy other life, places that speak to parts of our soul that lie dormant at home. Spain speaks to my wild places; I am barefoot all the time, I eat with my fingers and swim in the moonlight, shedding pounds of London grey and lard.

Where does your heart sing that is not called home?

Little Alchemies: BritMums Live 2012

Sleepy MummyLike most of the 500 mums and handful of dads attending the BritMums Live blogging conference this weekend, I found doing something out of the usual routine pretty damn special. As a consequence, I am experiencing a come-down of Glastonbury-esque proportions.

Perhaps the air at BritMums had a special quality to it, or maybe it is just the nature of any collective experience, but I suspect that few of us were unmoved or unchanged by the things we heard this weekend . I love how just the right blend of adrenaline,  inspiration, insight, empathy and empowerment can weave the kind of magic that can turn a simple conference room into a crucible. Alchemy at its finest. Mothers, among the most unheard, unexpressed, economically frustrated groups in the world, are beginning to respect themselves, shedding layers of guilt, self-depreciation and anxiety about ‘getting it wrong’. Revolutions are rarely this quiet, but in the shared tears and laughter of recognition during sessions and keynotes, BritMums Live felt like more than just a conference to me. It is a truly exciting time to be a writer, and a mother.

When I got home last night, it was to an empty house as the husband, the Teenage-Songbird and the 6-year-old Biscuit-Thief were still out. It was strange entering a completely darkened space, shutting the door on a noisy London street and climbing our stairs into unfamiliar silence. I was greeted by an abandoned pile of laundry in the shape of a lioness, desolate cups and plates piled high in the kitchen sink, a scrapyard of crockery. A window left ajar let in a cool, evening breeze and the blinds tapped out eerie morse code against the wall.

Our home, the heart of us; tapping and ticking, both empty and expectant.

The family cat circled my legs, demanding either food or love (I’m never sure which, and often get it wrong).  I was not yet ready for noise or light so I ran the hot tap to fill a bath, and  sat in the semi-darkness. I need more of this, I thought to myself. More solitary time. Not all the time. But just some of the time. Decompression. Each day is stretched to the edges of itself, there is always something more that needs to be done even though I am one of the lucky ones.  Even in sleep, time is spent unravelling complexities; my children, my marriage, my work, my life and what the hell it’s supposed to look like.

Lying in the warm bath, the silence meant that I could hear my heart for the first time in years. I had almost forgotten how it feels to actually BE HERE. Just, here.

How many of us skate above life, keeping going and keeping going, until all we have time to know is the surface of things?  The more I heard my heart, the more I knew I would have to let the thing happen,  the thing I always deny. The thing that is always in the corner of my mind, threatening  to climb aboard my raft and sink it. The thing is surrender; surrender to the imperfection of it all, to the inevitability that they will grow and they will leave, and that you can’t fix it all for them; surrender to the fact that it is joyous and also painful to mother.

Last night I surrendered to the fact that I am Just. Bloody. Knackered.

I allowed fifteen years worth of tiredness to pull me in, all syrup and quicksand, and on a current of restless dreams, I gave in to the Mother of all Sleeps.

What Your Nickname Says About You

Daddy Pig

What’s in a name?

The husband I made a pact to stop calling each other ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ in an attempt to rekindle our pre-parent identity.

The first hurdle was actually remembering what we used to call each other before I was mainly in charge of the dishwasher. Somewhere in our past lurk names whispered passionately in the dark, murmured down phone lines at 3am, names that in the interests of privacy, I would NEVER share on a public forum such as this (Moneypenny and Batman). OMG HOW DID THAT GET IN THERE? I could swear I edited that bit out.

Our pact was going pretty well, except Batman kept calling me “Sair” which has always been my least favourite diminutive of Sara. It’s just not very interesting or committed is it? ‘Sair’ sounds like ‘air’; vacuous, invisible, drifty yet life-sustaining. OH GOD, IS THIS  WHO I AM NOW?

I blew it a few days ago when, tired and hung over, defenses down, I sighed, shook my head regretfully, and  called my husband ”Daddy Pig”  in front of some of our closest friends. Anyone who has watched Peppa Pig every night for four years will know exactly where this term of middle-aged endearment derives from, but it stopped me in my tracks to realise that Daddy Pig and I have been referring to each other by demeaning diminutives since our daughter came along six years ago.

It got me thinking about nicknames and how they can subconsciously reveal what we think about someone. My brothers, for example, call me ‘Boots’ as in ‘Too Big For’ or ‘Bossy’. I like to think this is because they see me as a gently commanding leader figure who is usually right, although they may beg to differ.  Older friends call me ‘Perky’ or ‘Miss P’ from my maiden name Perkins. Newer friends call me by my married name, ‘Brannie’ although I have never officially changed it . So, nomenclature wise, I have gone from the commanding ‘Boots’ via the rather saucy ‘Miss P’ to an extension of my husband/ reference to a bowel-movement inducing grain, ‘Brannie’. OH MY GOD. What has happened to me? Who am I? Sticks and stones will cause a nasty bruise and as for words, well, they contain me. I always wanted to be called Astrid, I think it’s time to bring her in before the menopausal ‘Muffin’ takes hold.

I’ve overheard some brilliant nicknames accidentally revealed by friends and their partners over the years; Bagpuss, Flap-lighter, Willy-nilly-woo-woo, Betty Boothroyd, Wifey, Boo, ‘Nanas, Pudding, Ninky-nonk, YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE. What is your nickname and what does it say abut you?

Top 5 Things I Love About Kids

It is with great joy that I have joined Kate Takes 5’s listography  with this post on what I love most about young children.  I could make a top 5 list just out of the things they say, always so true that it hurts ~ such as my youngest’s conviction that M&S stands for ‘Marks and ‘Spensive’ and that the F-word is ‘fou fou.’

The little biscuit thieves certainly take the DULL out of being and aDULLt don’t they? Here it is, my Top 5 things I love about kids:

 1. Hysteria

I love that children’s natural, ‘neutral’ setting would register somewhere between hysteria and OCD in an adult. If I screamed and nearly wet myself every time I saw a puppy or spent two hours readjusting my socks so that the seam didn’t ANNOY ME MUMMY, people would worry, right? Kids go up to 11, and I like that they make me seem calm by comparison.

2. Their dress sense

Leaving my daughters to dress themselves has been one of the great joys of motherhood. My youngest specializes in an ‘all seasons in one go’ look consisting of one leg warmer, a ballet skirt, a woolly jumper two sizes too small (that I’m pretty sure I gave to Oxfam) an empty toilet roll tube on each wrist and a necklace made of tampons.

3. Their slapstick humour 

I love that kids think the body is funny; I adore their raw, bawdy, bottom-worshipping hilarity. Children find being housed in this human form hysterical as  they haven’t grown to resent the restriction of it yet or torment themselves that their body should look like someone else’s. Kids seem amazed that they have a body  at all, and they LOVE the noises it makes.  If you want to make a child laugh, keep it body based and just punch yourself in the face with your own hand. You’ll see what I mean.

4. That they have no sense of occasion

How lovely to be a child and exist in happy bubble land with no sense of occasion.  I will never forget how my two-year-old blew loud raspberries while I read a eulogy for my father at his funeral. My daughter’s mouth farts echoed around the crematorium like swear words at a nunnery and it was brilliant. Her making everyone laugh was more testimony to my dad’s legacy than any of the words I had written.

5. Artwork

I agree with Kate that kid’s artwork is one of the greatest gifts of parenting. And, it’s a gift that JUST KEEPS GIVING, and giving, and giving. My girl is really into sculpture and made this ‘snow scene’ out of salt and her own freakishly sticky spit.

Sara Bran Sculpture

Salt & Spit by Mia Bran

Her portrait of me below really captures my.. essence?

Sara Bran by Mia Bran aged 6

My mum by Mia Bran aged 6

And finally, she has been dabbling in multi media with this performance based installation piece entitled Do Not OPen This Box There’s a Girl In It:

Sara Bran box

How to give mummy a heart attack

Kid’s are brilliant. I rest my case.