A lot to be grateful for

Life is like shifting sands, it changes so quickly. Something you are grateful for a year ago sometimes is no longer there for you to be grateful for today – last year, I was grateful that I had all my children sitting in church with me, but this year, one has gone away for a tour of duty as an officer of the British Armed Forces in a dangerous part of the world. I had to search very hard in my heart to be thankful for that, namely to feel grateful that I had 25 amazing years with him and hope that with the grace of God, there will be more of those years with him.

But one thing I am eternally grateful for, which never changes, is my mother-in-law Anna. She is my second mother, because I was just a teenager, a spoilt one, when I joined her family and though her judgement of me was harsh, she never gave up on me, believing in me always. My mum taught me the pleasant things in life, such as cooking and planting flowers, and my MiL taught me the less-enjoyable things such as cleaning, getting up early, mending clothes, budgeting, serving … and kneeling in church for what seems like hours. Both are equally important, there is no doubt.

My MiL taught me to serve without resentment. That was a difficult lesson for me to learn, because I have always had someone serving me. I did not know how to give without taking pleasure in the giving. For example, I resented being in her small dark kitchen cooking for the family when they were all out there in the garden laughing away. I would bang the pots and pans, and heaven forbid if someone dared to shout for refreshments. But over time, as I matured and loved my MiL deeply, I saw that hers had been a life of sacrifice and service, and she bore her load in life with equanimity and even happiness. My MiL’s mother went blind when she was 11, and my MiL had been a carer since she was 11. But my MiL spoke of her mother with love only, never the difficulty, even though other members of the family often commented over the years how heavy the burden was. My MiL’s mother spoke no English, only Spanish, when she moved to live in a working class suburbs of South East London. Her husband died early, so her daughter, my MiL, shouldered the load all by herself since she was 11. If she could do all that for that many years but yet has not a single trace of resentment of being robbed of her childhood and youth, how could I then be resentful about having to spend an hour or two in the kitchen?

I can see my MiL’s grace and beauty in my daughter Kat. Kat has always been my tower of strength and voice of wisdom, and I have my MiL to thank for the genes. But I see her strength and resilience in all my children, in the way they triumphed over the little adversities in their young lives undaunted and emerging with a smile on their faces.That will be from my MiL.

My MiL taught me to love God in the deepest sense and to see that God hath no greater love than family. My children’s father is her beloved son, but sometimes, for the family, she would take my side…me, the ‘silly little girl’ who was immoral enough to have a one-night-stand with her son despite promising herself to another man.

Yesterday, walking through the streets of a Spanish city, I felt the desire to embrace every white-haired Spanish old ladies who walked past me to transmit the deep love I have in my heart for my MiL. Dearest Mum, my love for you is unchanging in this changing world. I have done my duty to your family to my best ability in the name of love and I hope you will know that, somewhere in your Alzheimer’s ridden mind.

This is the article I wrote about my much-loved MiL: https://raisinghappystrongkids.com/2014/09/25/my-much-loved-mother-in-law/

“Teaching Them to Find Beauty in Themselves”

Last week, when I was back in my hometown and staying at my parents’ house, I walked past my 14 year old daughter’s former nursery. Laughter and happy chatter assailed me as I walked past the high brick wall and wrought iron gates. I couldn’t resist peering in.

Inside, in the paved compound, about eight pre-school children were charging round energetically on a variety of mini transports, making a lot of noise. A young teacher valiantly managed his boisterous little charges as they zoomed round him boisterously in a sea of toy cars and toy trucks. He almost had his feet run over on several occasions by little wheels. It was a happy scene, what every childhood should be, despite this being in a school setting.

I was compelled to ring the doorbell to connect with this place once more.

For it was a happy place, and one that played a big role in G’s life. My niece Katie attended this nursery ,too, so we have a lovely sense of history within the warm brick walls. G was one when I moved back to my hometown. I was suffering from cervical cancer, and I had four other young children. I moved home with three of my youngest children. Moving home to a house within a stone’s throw from my parents’ seemed a logical decision, and it was. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

My children thrived despite my illness. We lived in a peaceful house not far from the sea, and within walking distance to my parents’ and brother’s houses. Every morning, we would walk to school together. Though it was physically and emotionally exhausting for me to be a single mother throughout the week, it was a happy time for us all.

Though I would have preferred to keep G at home with me – I do not believe in children starting school too early, because I believe strongly that home is the best place for them to learn – I had to send her away for a few hours each day in order for me to get some rest and to get my household in order.

G loved her little nursery. Storytime is run by Mrs. Janet Storey, who was a calm, strong presence in the nursery in G’s time. I was delighted to see Mrs. Storey still at the helm almost ten years later. One could immediately sense that she tolerates no nonsense, but there is an air of fair play and serenity about her.

Mrs. Storey, as serene as ever
Mrs. Storey, as serene as ever
Snapshots of Storytime Nursery with its sweet homely touches
Snapshots of Storytime Nursery with its sweet homely touches

Storytime Nursery was exactly how I remembered it to be. The classrooms were furnished like a home that is composed solely of activity-filled playrooms. Little touches of home are all abound, from the childish drawings tacked to the wall to misshapen clay statues to ornaments and toys. There was lots of artwork going on in this nursery, with chubby fingers pasting leaves or bits of coloured paper, creations that will be hung up on the walls to give it a colourful, homely ambience.

G used to love these art sessions, though she does not excel in the subject these days except when it comes to tribal war paint on her face and body before big athletic events that she is nervous about. Or designing my next tattoo. This is the extent of her artistic activity, despite the many hours spent cultivating it.

She couldn’t read when she left the nursery at five. In fact, she couldn’t read until she was ten. And I am eternally grateful to Mrs. Storey and her staff for not forcing her. You hear horror stories these days about competitive primary schools that expect five years olds to do written entrance exams.

“H is not for hamster,” G used to say stubbornly when shown the alphabet card hanging on the wall. “And that’s not a hamster, that’s a guinea pig!”

She was right, of course, because her father who is from South East London pronounced hamster as ‘amstah. Dear Mrs. Storey devoted her time teaching elocution, getting her collection of Portsmouth oiks and my Cockney child (as well as the well-spoken ones) to say “hot water” in three syllables instead of ‘or woer. I am pleased to report that in this endeavor of hers, Mrs. Storey had been successful: G is often complimented on her elocution. Here’s a short clip of her at five: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RFONbabE6A

Though I am not an educator, I am a believer (from personal experience as a mother of four grown-up children) that the ability to speak well, charisma, charm and a touch of boldness should be included in every child’s success toolkit.  Sausage-factory education seems to be churning out bland, personality-less exam-taking machine that one begins to wonder, “What is the purpose of education?”

 

There is this famous Jesuit saying: “Give me a child for his first seven years and I’ll give you the man.”

There is no doubt that this little nursery had shaped my child in a beautiful, unusual way. She is physically confident, she speaks very well and she has an unbridled sense of curiosity about the world around her. Though she is not academic by nature (homework is done on the bed in the shortest time frame possible), she has great enthusiasm for learning new things. She speaks four languages, she is in the top set at school for all her subjects, she plays sports at international levels and she has won many trophies. I strongly believe that she is able to develop in this direction, because she was not forced to read and rote-learn things that should only come later in a child’s life. Indeed, she spent those precious early years growing other aspects of her being. A more focused nursery would not have the time or the space to allow her this sweet, beautiful exploration and organic growth.

In parting, Mrs. Storey said to me, “We cannot make children into who they are not. We can only help them find beauty in themselves.”

And dear Mrs. Storey, you have indeed helped my child find hers. Thank you. This is the happy, strong, confident, creative and fearless young woman you have helped nurture during her formative years. G: a force to be reckoned with.

G - a force to be reckoned with

 

 

 

 

 

Across The Counties

Lionheart

Yesterday was officially the end of the British summer as the cold front came in with vengeance. Fierce storms, 70mph winds and driving rain were the forecast, and indeed, when I went out for dinner last night, the roads were relatively quiet as people opted to stay indoors. The forecast this morning was meant to be the same.

Overnight, there had been several fatalities on the road in southern England. This morning, at 6am, there was a massive accident on the M4 at Langley. There was a tailback going back 10 miles.

But over dinner last night, Knight had dared me to do something I have never done before: swim on the River Avon with him.  I have never swam on the Avon with anyone.  What a ridiculous suggestion. Because at the best of times, I hate swimming.  I am a strong swimmer based solely on this very dislike of the water – I swim fast, to get myself out of the water as fast as possible.  But to voluntarily swim on the swollen Avon on the first day of autumn? I must be mad.  Even my normally implacable mother had wailed, “But darling, people have drowned on the Avon!”

But meet Knight’s challenge I must.  After all, isn’t growth all about coming face to face with your inner boundaries, and stepping out of your comfort zone? it’s what keeps us young, as we draw new confidence and new exhilaration from taking the step off our usual daily existence.

So like two misbehaving teenagers, we set off from London at the crack of dawn on this supposedly vicious day to travel to Avon. To our surprise, the sun followed us throughout, with no sign of grey skies or dark clouds, as we drove past the roads of our past. We laughed joyously, and the years melted away.

Whilst at University (though at separate times) we were both members of the Oxford Stunt Factory. I joined, simply because I wanted to go to its Pink Pimms Party in the park after the May Ball. I ended up being catapulted across the river at 3am in the morning, still in my ball gown. After that, I was hooked and became the Club’s fixture.

River Avon is rich in history.  It is 75miles long, slow, meandering, with hidden dangers.  In the past (maybe 5,000BC), when it was young, it was a powerful torrent that the limestone outcrop could not push back. The river gradually wore away at the rock eventually forming the 300 feet deep gorge that is the seaward entrance to the city.

And it was into this river we jumped in, swam briefly, emerged with shivering bodies and chattering teeth, exhilarated, alive.

Warning: Do not attempt this. In April 2014, a man drowned on the same spot on the Avon that we swam in. 

Bristol,_Avon_Gorge_from_Clifton_Down

 

Same view, different eyes

A year after I graduated from Oxford, my family remained in our Oxford house whilst I started work in London. I had to commute. It was a nightmare, but there was no way out. Housing in London (where I wanted to live) has always been exorbitantly expensive, and I was the main breadwinner. We also had lots of children.  So. for almost a year, I had to endure the long commute.  I could not afford to commute by train, because a huge chunk of my salary would have gone to British Rail. The bus would have been too slow. I had no choice but to bike it. My machine was a Ducati Monster, which was a thrill to ride buy quite unreliable.  And it was hellish on winter nights. I just wanted to rush home either to put my kids to bed or to have breakfast with them, depending on my shift.  Life wasn’t easy then.

Thus, I travelled on these roads for over a year without noticing how beautiful they are.  Today, I did.

Avon 2

 

The strength of a nation

Avon 1

Avon and Somerset, Oxfordshire and London. We set off at 6am, and caught the morning sun burning the mists off the grounds in Oxfordshire. We both have great fondness for this county, because Oxford is our alma mater. We had a lot of lovely memories here, punting on the Isis and Cherwell in summer, pubs of St Giles in winter, the higgledy piggledy bookshop on St Giles, friends’ houses in Jericho and summer parties on our colleges’ quads. It was a magical interlude before ‘real’ life began.

We drove on, passing rolling farmlands and pastures, fields ready for winter cereal or those with tall corn already growing. We drove past deer, horses, cows and sheep. The leaves are starting to turn auburn and gold at this time of the year. It is this that deeply binds Englishmen and Englishwomen to our country rather than the glitter and opportunities of the capital. I hope my son will return after his 6 month tour of duty of the Middle East back to his beloved England once more. He promised me he would do his best to come home, and to bring others safely home too. We have one Englishman whose time is running out, a John Cantlie. My son said, it is worth the sacrifice of his own life and others like him to bring John Cantlie home, because all the British men and women involved had gone into this voluntarily, with their eyes wide open, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.

“We will never leave one of our own behind, Mum,” my 25 year old Lieutenant said. “It’s not machismo, but a simple ideology.”

My boy is young, passionate, idealistic, fiery and so proud to be English. Someday, he will make a fine leader. But as his mother, I just want him home where he belongs. Here, in England.

Knight touched my hand lightly as we drove into the capital at nightfall. We had driven in silence for the last few miles and I had tears running down my cheeks.

“What I said in my speech just now, though I misquoted slightly, is something you have shown me,” he said. “That you can judge the strength of a nation by the face of its women.”

And through my tears, I smiled for him and my son.

I Don’t Want My Daughter To Be A Fashion Victim

OK, here are the statistics:

The total UK household consumption on clothing and footwear is € 59 billion. To put this figure in perspective, the spending on Education is €16.1 billion whilst Health is a paltry €17.9 billion. The Chinese textile industry creates about 3 billion tons of soot each year. Millions of tons of unused fabric at Chinese mills go to waste each year when dyed the wrong colour. Think about the negative impact.

Yet walk down any high street and you see a dominance of mass-produced clothing shops with happy, frenzied shoppers: Matalan, Primark, Peacock, H&M, Next, Topshop, Uniqlo, to name but a few. In the UK, supermarkets are getting into the scrum as well, with Tesco and Asda churning out their own brand at impossibly low prices. Internet companies too have sprouted from nowhere to push dubious, cut-price fashion into an already over-polluted fashion world. What do these purveyors of mass clothing have in common?

Affordable ‘style’, of course. You could be forgiven for thinking that these value retailers are doing the public a service by striking at the heart of elitism through making couture affordable to the mass market. For research, I popped into Primark in Oxford Street and found that I could afford to dress quite well (in a blatant copy of this season’s catwalk offering) for under €20. Teenagers, even with their limited spending power, can afford to buy a dress a week at Primark prices.

And indeed, they are encouraged to do so by mass advertising campaigns and peer pressure. Venture anywhere in a shopping mall and you will see impossibly glamorous (and heavily airbrushed) models selling the lie that you too could look like this if you part with a mere €20, never mind the genetics and artistic manipulations.

When I was in Monaco in May, the mega yacht of one of the owners of these ‘value retailers’ was in port. It was a blatant advertising of wealth, with a Jacuzzi on the deck and uniformed deckhands polishing the brass late into the evening. The math behind it bothered me a great deal: how many €20 frocks do that particular fashion chain have to sell, in order to keep the gin palace afloat, never mind its purchase price?

I made my 14 year old daughter read this report in the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/business/2007/apr/22/clothes.fashion

According to War on Want, “Bargain retailers such as Primark, Asda and Tesco are only able to sell at rock bottom prices in the UK because women workers in Bangladesh are being exploited.”

It’s never attractive to wear clothes that were made off someone’s sweat in inhumane and often dangerous working conditions, whatever the external appearance may be. But this being the real world, women and girls want to look attractive, and since most of us are not blessed with ideal proportions, perfect features and flawless beauty, we aspire to achieve some modicum of that dream through fashion. And who could blame us: our sisters from the pre-historic era had been adorning themselves with bits of bones and stones.

Ladies, hear my plea. Embrace HOBOism. It’s a style concept without a label. It’s fashion without stores (or internet shops). With HOBOism, you wear yourself instead of being a slave to fashion (courtesy of poor women in Bangladesh and other parts of Asia).

HOBOism is a battle cry to women to be comfortable in their skins, to enjoy playing and living, and to express their individuality boldly. It’s sticking two fingers up to the dictates of the fashion czars. It is a reflection of your life, your life.

Note: HOBOism is most emphatically NOT wearing unisex long shorts and shapeless t-shirts.

Examples of my HOBOism

Pyjamas top and jodhpurs at 5am
Pyjamas top and jodhpurs at 5am

I have a functional wardrobe that reflects my lifestyle: mostly old riding boots that are falling apart (but which are oh-so comfortable!) and decades-old, faded warm jackets. And I have a rule: never more than 5 minutes getting ready.

This is an illustration of HOBOism at its best: I went riding last week with a dashing Knight in my pyjamas (because he woke me up at 5am, throwing stones at my window). I hurriedly threw a pair of jodhpurs on but kept the pyjamas top. As we were going for a rather elegant breakfast after the ride, I put on a simple, old, brass tiara and a torn, tatty scarf. Breakfast lingered into lunch, into late afternoon apple-scrumping, before we slowly meandered our way from Lyndhurst to London. Upon arrival at the capital, the Knight invited me for early cocktails at an incredibly glamorous location. A quick change in the ladies transformed the tiara into a glamorous choker and the tatty scarf into a stylish top, and despite still being in my jeans and muddy riding boots, I held my own amongst the well-dressed peacocks. In the process, I won the Knight’s deep admiration for my style and made a rather big impression on him.

From dawn to sunset: tiara and tatty scarf to glamour.
From dawn to sunset: tiara and tatty scarf to high-octane glamour.

And here’s the deal: both the tiara and the scarf are up for grabs. OK, the scarf is torn and tatty, but the tiara is very interesting. It is more than 30 years old, possibly more. Its provenance is probably Welsh, and resembles entwined stalks of the filix-mas. I found it in the attic of my parents’ house years ago.

To win both, email me a photo (or sketch) of an outfit that you think defines the HOBO fashion philosophy. The best entry wins. All entries will be published on my blog: www.raisinghappystrongkids.com

Entries should be emailed to: jk@sunyoga.com by the 17th of October. May the best HOBO win.

HOBOism - you don't have to dress up!
HOBOism – you don’t have to dress up!

 

Sources:
– British Retail Consortium
– National Statitistics Office (on UK business bysector and location)
– University of Southampton on Retail Recruitment and Graduate Schemes
– ‘Retailing in the UK’, by the Euromonitor
– Clothing Retailing in the UK, by Mintel
– Verdict Research: UK Value Clothing Retailers 2009
– British Council of Fashion Industry’s Facts & Figures 2009
– British Lifestyles, by Mintel