Archive for February, 2009

The Importance of Keeping Busy

February 24, 2009

I think I am lucky that my mum suffered from Depression.

No. Really, I do.

This isn’t a new realization.

I minded that Mum got sick. Certainly. I still do. But the minding (how ironic, how appropriate that I should find fit to use the prefix mind here) was for her. Not for me.

And now, at an age my mother was when she had already endured numerous crippling episodes and a couple of hospital admissions accompanied by several thousand volts of electricity (though even that failed to shift a monster which was clearly wearing rubber soled shoes) I am struck again by my fortune.

Mum says Depression is the result of Loss. She says Depression is not the opposite of Happiness. It is, instead, the antithesis of vitality. I am inert, she once told me, as the spiraling vortex which thrust her downwards lost its impetus and she was left floundering about in the gloom at the bottom of a familiar hole. That’s what Depression does: drags her down, where it is so dark she cannot see which way is up, and holds her there where oxygen is so scarce she can hardly breathe and scarcely function. And then suddenly, and it’s always suddenly, lets her go so that she pops, cork-like, back to bright surfaces.

Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy, warned Be Not Solitary; Be Not Idle.

Too late: I am. Solitary. Like it or not (and I don’t – in case you had not gathered – like it. Much).

But the idle (imposing, rattling around redundancy born of Loss of definition, erosion of a role, not couch potato slothfulness; my mum has never been lazy) – that is where my luck lies. I know the dangers that lurk behind an apparently benign little four lettered word, one that rolls benevolently and easily and kindly off the tongue – like a purr – giving no hint as to its acidic hazards, and so it is a state I labour to avoid.

If I remain busy, I reason, the Solitary will feel less overwhelming. If I am occupied, I will notice less the swallowing silence.

My mother had a kitchen soap dish once; it read ‘Happiness is Busyness’.

Trite. But true. I wonder, now, who gave it to her?

I tick the long, lonely hours of my days off in tiny, tiny achievements. Like stepping stones across a quagmire in which I might drown without a trace, not even a single bubble, were I to slip and fall in. I tread carefully upon each one from the time I get up in the morning to the time when the sun begins to sink and I can crack open a cold beer in brief self-congratulatory praise at having got from one end of my day to the other.

So I gather 18 baby tomatoes from the vines which have flourished in the rains. I drop them into a white dish as I count them … one, two, three … and I note their plum rose full cheeked redness against the pallor of pale china. And I hear them fall, one by one: small, slow applause. Clever old you, they murmur. I harvest five maize cobs. I will, I tell myself, strip the kernels and serve them in a cheese sauce, bubbling brown, for Hat and I for lunch. I will tell Hat, ‘My mum used to make this for me, when I was little’. And it will taste good for the memory and the comfort that comes with warm, salty, nursery foods.

I trail about the garden with a bored Sylvester in my rather uncertain wake. We establish what needs weeding and where we should plant parsley and rocket. I make a batch of muesli, tipping floury oats into a basin and stirring in softsage green pumpkin seeds and glossy ivory sunflower pips with my hands and I add molasses-black raisins, like fat little ladies who have spent too much time in the sun. Tomorrow – at breakfast – my husband will say, as he helps himself to a bowlful, ‘Oh great, muesli’. Later I will make the telephone call I have been avoiding, I will load the washing machine, I will sort out the ironing. I will think about what to feed everybody for supper.

Mundane, banal, some of it smacks of 1950s stereotypes in white pinnies (note to reader: I never wear an apron). And most of it could wait.

But I, you see, cannot.

Despite all the time in the world, I cannot wait to fold fresh linen into piles: Hat’s, Husband’s, Mine.

For it is in the waiting, in the hiatus between being occupied and being idle, that Depression is wont to slink in. If I keep my bodyweight pressed firmly against my front door shouting, loudly and rudely and determinedly, ‘Go Away! I’m busy! Can’t you see?’ perhaps I shall be safe. It is no guarantee, of course; I am sufficiently well acquainted with Depression to know that there is no surefirequickfixcure just as there is no warranty any one of us will never succumb. For therein lie’s Depression’s greatest skill: its cunning.

And that is why. That is why I am lucky. Because I know the nooks and crannies and tiny gaps through which chilly Depression can squeeze.

And I know how important it is to try to fit draught excluders into every single one.


Side Stepping Shadows

February 20, 2009



Somebody observed, not long ago, that I oughtn’t do what I do – live in not-so-splendid-isolation – if it makes me unhappy; that more than anything children need happy mothers.

They do. I agree.

So, briefly, I am stung by the remark. I want to be a good mother; does that mean I must be happy 24/7? That unless I am, I have failed?

I worry for a bit. Feel niggled in the way you might when you are trying to remember something you fear you have forgotten.

But my mother was not happy 24/7. And she was, is, a good, a really good, mother.

She might even be a better one because her own happiness has sometimes been mercurial quicksilver slick so that you – she – can’t tack it down dependably and know exactly where to look when she needs it. Growing up with a mother who wasn’t able to hang onto happiness despite gripping white-knuckle tight to the last fleeing frayed ribbons of it with both hands, taught me two things:

Happiness isn’t a dead cert.

And you need the shadow to recognize the light.




Light shone on snow so that it dazzled diamond brilliant and I had to squint and rummage deep in my bag for sunglasses. Ten days passed in a blur, so fast that they merged and morphed oneintoanother so that now, a week later, I can’t remember: which day were we in Bath? When did we go to Cambridge?




A good ten days. A happy ten days. And I did what I promised myself I would do: I let my daughter decide.

Where do you want to go? I asked, once the choices had been viewed and considered and carefully analysed. She collected a sheet of paper and a pencil. Right Mum, she demanded, pros and cons? And better shopping is NOT a pro, she teased.

We sat up until midnight, my elder daughter and I, deep in conversation, in our pajamas. ‘Shut the door!’ a trying-to-sleep Hat instructed crossly. We giggled. And did as we were told.

My daughter chose. And I gave up better shopping and wrote to the school in question, ‘We would be delighted to accept the place, thank you’ and I said to Mum, ‘not, perhaps, the choice other people would have made’. Good, she said shortly, ‘you rarely do what other people do, why start now?’

And I smiled. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. But she made it sound as if it was. Is that what good mothers do? Endorse their children’s choices? The cab driver, on the way back to Heathrow, imparted uninvited wisdom: ‘people who go against the grain but have money are Eccentric’, he said, ‘Without attendant wealth you’re just crazy. Touched.”

I, alas, cannot claim Eccentricity.




I think I wondered, wonder, sometimes, ‘What is it I do?’ Often, it is that – that lurking, questioning, doubt-riddled redundancy – which makes me …. Discontented. Frustrated. Lonely. (Unhappy is not quite the right word). But after that, after our snowballing, snowmanbuilding, schoolvisiting sojourn I think I am, briefly, a little more confident of what it is I am doing even when I appear kickingheels superfluous and Outpost bound.




I think, for now, I am doing the best I can for my children. Sometimes I think I find it hard.

I keep their dad company. Sometimes I do it with grace. Sometimes I don’t. Occasionally I spit and snarl and my forced smiles paralyze as grimaces. I keep my children’s father company whilst he earns the wherewithal to send them to the schools I help to choose.

Is that enough?

Sometimes you need to step outside of yourself. To be able to see precisely what it is you’re doing. Sometimes yardsticks are only available one big, wide step and a long reach to the side.

Before my sidestep, I had worried, ‘Is Hat really OK?’. For I often feel, fret, think (and there is much too much time here for that – for thinking) that I am not. OK.




But I watched her, with friends, en route home (a journey that took three and a half days, just to prove how far flung our Outpost really is), a surprise birthday party (her eyes welled big bright glad tears, ‘Aw, thanks mama’) and I thought, ‘Yes. You’re alright, I really do think you’re alright’.




And then I came home and I heard my husband say ‘I missed you’. And I watched his face and I thought, yes, I think what I’m doing, for now, is the right thing to do.

There is light and there is shadow and sometimes you need to step into the shadow to feel the warmth.

Anyway. That’s what I think.

Is bullying ever useful?

February 5, 2009

I wrote this almost six years ago.

I wrote this yesterday.

Time’s a funny old bird: her gnarly hands massage pain and anger and disappointment away. But I pinned emotions wont to fade to a page, captured memories prone to escape with words. I read them again. And they still sting.


Bullying is a horrible thing. Bullying that is so calculating, so persistent that it leaves its small victims sleepless at night so that their eyes seem wider for the creeping shadows beneath them.

But. But.

I will always be sorry my son endured such unhappiness.

But I cannot be sorry that it was a catalyst for change.

It re-routed my son’s school career; it’s been a much more rewarding one as a consequence.

I didn’t sit down then, back then, with a pen and a sheet of paper and list what possible good could come out of the emotional fallout that attends a case of bullying so bad children have to be relocated.

It evolved gently over time so that I was able to pick each unexpected bonus from the wreckage and hold it in my hands.

He is, as a result of what happened to him, without question, a happier kid. He might even be a better kid. He says, ‘we all learned a lesson’. He learned what constitutes strength and what makes a person weak. He learned bad things happen to good people. And he learned, and this is the best bit, that you can get over it. Come out the other side and feel the sun on your skin. Psychologist Dr Helene Guldberg acknowledges, to some outrage, that children can learn from bad experiences

And me? What did I learn?

Then, back then, I thought there was some formula to raising and educating children. I thought I needed to do it the way my parents had done it, or the way my peers were doing it.

Conforming is often easier. Somebody’s already made all the rules.

But the action of flouting the experts, the teachers, most of my friends and plucking my son out of a school that wasn’t working for him to send him to one that ultimately did – and brilliantly – liberated in me some latent bloody minded unconventional streak.

And left me with the self belief to do things differently. Sometimes.

It’s why, for example, Hat goes to school in the ether, whilst sitting at a desk in an Outpost despite criticism from friends. It’s why I supported my son’s decision not to take up a place at a sixth form college. And it’s why, on my way to a snow bound England to consider two schools for my elder daughter I will watch her face carefully and I will ask, what do you think?

But it could be such an opportunity for her, friends urge. Perhaps. But opportunities are quite wasted unless children are happy and have the attendant confidence to exploit them.