The fresh start of September

I do like the September feeling of a new academic year.  And this year I had expected the academic element would be totally irrelevant for us.  One son should have been living in a houseshare and the start of school where he works would have been something observed from a distance.  Younger son would have been firmly ensconced in the workplace element of his apprenticeship.

Would, could, should – they are the themes of 2020 aren’t they?  Instead of what should have been happening…

Everyone lives at home.  And we’re witnessing the return to a school job and it’s the basis of dinner time conversations this week.  The apprenticeship led to furlough, combined with a college course taking place over the summer holidays instead of the term.  And then very suddenly the furlough ended and it was back to work this week (literally he was informed on Friday!).

The expectation of last September that that was our “last academic year start” have been confounded.  Like so many expectations this year.  This one is very minor and actually is a huge positive.  I had missed all this energy in the morning, the constant stream of people moving around our relatively small house in a short space of time.  Turns out it was this feeling of movement and energy – and frankly the need to be out of the way of the movement – was needed to drive me to write.

Today is the day many youngsters head back to school.  Good luck everyone, from what I hear over dinner, schools have put so much thought and care into keeping everyone safe, I am sure it’s not going to be an easy morning for many, but I wish you the energy and patience you need to get through it.

What have I learnt so far

At the beginning of the “stay home” phase, there were a lot of articles about what we could all achieve in this time of lockdown.  There was a much-quoted theory that Shakespeare wrote King Lear whilst in isolation.  The implication was that being locked into our homes meant we now had the time and space to achieve all the great things we have failed to achieve so far in life because, so the articles implied, we have too much freedom and too many friends and family to hang out with.  I have not written my version of Lear, or anything else for that matter.  Everything I have learnt has been much more introspective.  

I have learnt that we get on well as a family.  It has been a while since we all lived together for any great length of time.  But we enjoy being together and we laugh a lot. 

I have learnt that we all have a good level of emotional intelligence, we can recognise when someone is down or frustrated and we seem to be able to help each other intuitively. 

We all have a strong work ethic, I think I knew this before this started, but the lack of work for some members of the family has really affected mood and wellbeing.  The fledgling plans of returning to work have been greeted with a real uplift in energy.  We are definitely a family that likes to work.

I have learnt that singing helps your mood and that I cannot sing a harmony. Whatever the person next to me is singing is what I can sing, I have no independent singing ability. I am enjoying my virtual choir experience, but I am not likely to be welcomed in a real choir any time soon.

I have learnt that I am good with change, I am happy to try things out and tweak and amend to make things work, or just abandon things and move on.  We have done this a lot with various home routines and work has involved a fair amount of this.  I have also learnt that continually changing is tiring. I have also learnt that many people do not find this easy at all.

I know now that seeing people in the flesh is much better than seeing them on a screen.  Screens are just not the same.  Even seeing someone from 2m away is more soothing than seeing them on a screen.

I have learnt that listening to the news all the time does not help you adapt to a new way of life, in fact it makes you less able to adapt as confusion abounds as we get deluged with not just official guidance, but everyone’s commentary on what that could mean.  But it’s ok to occasionally get swept up in the news cycle, as long as you can get out of it fairly quickly.

I have learnt that I genuinely need a good level of physical activity to make me feel well, being sedentary all day is very unhelpful.  I feel that much more now that there is not even a sense of movement which I get from being in a car.  The days I achieve closer to 15,000 steps are better than the ones where I graze the 10,000 total.

On a more practical side I have learnt to use many more video conference platforms.  I have learnt to make facemasks and laundry bags.  And the reigning lesson has been making sourdough.  A very delicious thing to have achieved.  It may not have the gravitas or the legacy of a great Elizabethan tragedy, but hey, it is making life much tastier at the moment.

The Easter weekend

We had a really good Easter weekend, everything considered.  It was definitely difficult at times, but the celebrations of Easter Sunday outweighed the sadder moments.  The day was a virtual gathering of our extended family over six households which were all isolating.  Usually four of those households gather physically in my house. The day was planned around our usual Easter morning church attendance and the usual lunchtime Easter feast.  

Neither of those two points in the day were usual of course, Mass happened via YouTube in our sitting room. The lunch was only for four instead of the usual thirteen. But they happened as always and were very good.  

The day was further punctuated by planned zoom conversations with everyone joining in.  The first was a coffee (ok so I was on Bucks Fizz) greeting fairly early in the day, it was lovely to see all the children early on and see their excitement and just generally to all come together on what is always a family celebration. 

The following calls got down to the serious business of egg hunting, fiercely-fought Easter themed competitions.  It was hilarious.  For me anyway.  I spent the calls quietly sipping coffee (and more Bucks Fizz) watching over-excited younger children or slightly reluctant teens on cameras and feeling lots of sympathy for their exhausted parents.

The egg hunts were brilliant.  My brother set up a proper one with each family hunting for eggs which had been hidden in places that corresponded with clues coming from hundreds of miles away – magic.  There was a very good egg hunt with the camera operated by the oldest cousins who were well able to gently guide the younger eyes to the eggs.  It must be noted that the older eyes of the grandparents got very excited at egg hunting too.  The funniest egg hunt involved younger cousins operating cameras – their parents were very brave to let their phones be used.  The camera operators moved very fast and a bit randomly, but almost all the eggs were collected as they were yelled at by family members.  I am not sure we really got to see all the eggs, but they all ended up in a bucket as intended.  Expcept for one which was rather close to a hen named Bill and the young camera operators declared themselves far too scared of Bill to retrieve the egg.

There were competitions in many different categories. The best Easter joke – most of which were of the surreal nature that young children seem to favour and which I generally find hilarious anyway.  The best bunny hopping and the most chocolatey face, both involved video and photo entries as well as live inspection of hopping abilities.  There was much egg decorating, with so much creativity on show.

At the end of the day I felt like we had really spent the day together, five zoom calls had been tiring that is for sure and hugely chaotic at times.  But a usual Easter Sunday together is tiring and chaotic, but that does not make it any less brilliant.  Looking back on the day now it really does feel like we had a great day together, good memories were made.  Chicks were born during the day in the hen-keeping household which was a lovely thing to see happen.

And there were demands for us all to regroup on the Monday morning to check in with each other again, which I am taking as confirmation that we all had a good time.  

I hope your Easter was as fun as it could be.

The best of the holidays

This is my favourite of all the high days and holidays, I adore the Easter weekend.  I get some extra time off work as we close on Holy Thursday and Easter Tuesday as well as the regular bank holidays.  We usually have family visit, along with small members of the family, so the days leading up to Easter Sunday are a strange mix of noisy fun in the house and quiet, reflective services in church.  On Sunday itself the house fills even more as everyone spends the day here having Easter egg hunts (“Auntie Abbie I want 17 Easter egg hunts today” – may not have been 17, it was a lot though!), decorating Easter eggs and hanging them on the Easter tree.  Church is full of people and flowers and loud singing, it is truly delightful.  The day is long and happy and lots of wine and chocolate is consumed.  I had planned a huge family party on Monday, with a different part of the family, but although I wrote all the invitations, I did not get to send them at all.

This year will be a bit different, but it will still be joyous.  It’s a strange time for everyone, so hopefully everyone in the family is in the same sort of frame of mind to make the best of it all.  The weather is set to be beautiful for a few days at least, which makes it easier to relax.  And we are involved in the church services of the Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil service on Saturday and then Easter Sunday) in the strangest of ways.  The husband volunteered to help our priests stream all the services live, so attending mass now includes conversations with the priest beforehand as he checks the camera feed and the sound.  And last night’s mass ended with an odd conversation in our house about when the feed should be cut.  I say odd, just unusual in the old world, it will become normal in the new world I am sure.  The worship aspect of the weekend will provide a clear framework, even if it feels different, they are after all the same Easter traditions, just attended in a different way.

As for the more secular – well video conferencing is our friend.  Family will come together even if we are hundreds of miles apart.  I am plotting games and Easter egg hunts.  Games include Easter bingo, egg decorating, bunny hopping, chocolate consumption and more.  For the Easter egg hunts – think Anneka Rice’s Treasure Hunt from the eighties.  But with small children, a slightly technophobic grandma and a control freak of a party planner who will likely be through her first bottle of wine since she gave it up for Lent. Nothing can possibly go wrong can it?  There will be a lot of laughs I am sure.

Today is not that day full of joy and chaos though, it is a more quiet and sombre day, a day to reflect on the sadness of the situation.   But it is also a day of hope and preparation for happiness to come.  And I love planning a party.  However odd this weekend is, it is still my favourite holiday of the year and I know it will be a good one.

Delicious moments

At times I am loving this lockdown. There are times of sheer joy and I am relishing them.

The other evening there was a short time that could have been from a family in the 70s.  All four of us were in the sitting room, just there.  No TV was on, there was no specific reason for being there we had just gathered in our own sitting room because each of us wanted to hang out.  We sat and chatted, not about anything in particular, just chatted. I am not sure it’s ever happened before, I hope it happens again.

We eat lunch together every single day.  We have never had a holiday longer than two weeks, so this is a record now as we’ve all been here for longer than that (although I have just checked and it’s only two and a half weeks since we’ve all been home).

We laugh every single day.  Without fail.  My offspring are hilarious, I rarely have time to appreciate their humour, some of it is irritatingly silly, but generally they are masters of wisecracks and comic timing.  I get to relish that.

My dog is loving having us all at home.  He is very poorly (that is far from delicious, it’s awful) and may not survive the rest of the lockdown.  He is being very cuddly, we suspect because he feels a bit rough at times.  He comes and asks for cuddles quite frequently during the day.  It is wonderful to be here and able to provide him with the comfort he needs.  Even when he is not in need of a hug, he is loving wandering from room to room and checking what the humans are up to. 

I can be in my space, my house and my garden every single day.  Ok so this is also a pain, obviously.  But you know what – I love my house and my garden. That may change, ask me again in two month’s time and I may have gone off it, but for now, my physical space is absolutely perfect for me.

I have time to do some of the creative stuff I rarely have time to do.  Pottering around with a sewing machine, with some lino cuts, calligraphy pens.  Nothing very serious, but fun to potter.  

I have time to stare at the moon, the sunsets, the birds singing in the garden.  I have time.  What a treat.

A routine of sorts

My brain settles quickly into a routine, it is one of the reasons I find my usual life fairly complicated, as I have no daily routine, working in various places throughout my week.  Those days are moving into distant memory, but having a routine is a comfort.

On the very first day of the instruction to work from home, the youngest offspring drew up a daily and weekly routine.  Both have flexed a fair bit as we have settled into the rhythm of the week, but the evening activities have stayed pretty much the same.  We now gather together most days of the week.   Monday is board games night, that has been the hardest to stick to somehow.  Maybe we just need a break from the organised routine after a weekend together.

Tuesday is a new invention (not the offspring’s) of singing together with SofaSingers.  Wednesday is possibly my favourite and is craft night.  It a loose definition of craft (fitting the old handle to the new broom head was one activity), but we all focus on something practical and or creative around the table.  Friday is a bit hazy, but we’re trying to make that board games night – last week we did a 3d puzzle and all agreed we did not enjoy them as a family, but we have never done one before, so good to try something new.

Saturday is movie night – surprisingly (or not if you know me!) – this is the hardest one, as we rarely agree as a family on a movie, but we have had a couple of hits so far – Green Book and then Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  

Sunday is TV night – another big challenge for us as a family.  But we are forcing the offspring to watch Star Trek Picard, after two episodes they are not that impressed.  Then we watch Friday Night Dinner – two episodes of which apparently offsets the pain of Star Trek.  Friday Night Dinner was a recommendation from friends who think we are like the family. I tend to agree!

It is definitely comforting having some sort of a routine to demarcate the different days and I am really grateful everyone in the family put in the effort to create the framework for the next few months. If you have any other good ideas of things to do, do let me know.

The gifts in isolation

Thank you for the support yesterday, I was feeling very down when I wrote.  Yesterday felt calmer, and in no small part because I felt less alone in my emotional roller coaster, it does help to know you’re not the only one feeling all the feelings every day.

But today I feel the need to be more positive and look at what we have done and achieved and experienced in this strange time.  I started keeping a list last weekend of all the new things I have done.

This week there have been a couple of crackers.  Last night the whole family “went to the theatre”.  It’s been a long time since the offspring came to the theatre with us; one does not usually live with us, the other has declared himself a theatre hater. But last night found us all waiting for National Theatre to start their streaming of ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ at 7pm.  Mum was ‘with’ us and watching from her own home and friends ‘joined’ us from their homes.  It is sublime, my stomach muscles are noticing the laughter workout this morning.  If you have never watched any theatre in your life, I recommend this at this time.  James Corden is comic timing and physical theatre at its best.  We all roared with laughter and the world was a better place for the laughter.  It is available to watch until next Wednesday.  Do watch it, it will help I promise.

On Tuesday evening we joined Sofa Singers to sit in a Zoom room and join hundreds of other folks in their sitting rooms around the country to sing James’ 1990s anthem ‘Sit Down’.  A favourite anyway and a delight to sing it.  Singing helps you feel good and you forget all else as you belt out (badly in my case) an anthemic chorus.  And then there on the screen appeared Tim Booth, the lead singer of James.  He spoke about having written the song in a time of isolation in his life and how moving it was to see so many happy faces at home singing and clapping along to his song and being soothed and brought together in their own time of isolation.  An amazing moment, to be treasured as we sang with Tim Booth.  Not that he could hear us, nor us hear him, but we knew anyway.  Amazing.

There have been other brilliant experiences, the list grows longer every week.  Which gives me hope that this period is not without learning, not without expanding our world, not without joy and community.

I am hugely grateful for the technology we have and the broadband connectivity to be able to reach beyond these four walls.  

Celebrating all the things

I love birthdays, especially my own.  But more than birthdays, I love festivities as a family.  As I may have written about before – I now make up festivities.  My brain seems to operate best in the framework of a specific celebration.  I have no idea why, but the days which I title seems more memorable and enjoyable somehow. It’s not even that I have high expectations of the days, I enjoy them whatever happens.

Yesterday though was a proper festivity with its own title.  One of the matriarchs of the family reached a milestone birthday.  She is not one for large celebrations, but we do have a favourite pub for lunch and a large enough family to make even a quiet celebration rather a big one.  There were the requisite badges proclaiming her age in an  unsubtle way. There were lots of helium balloons, fortunately enough for each of the smaller grandchildren to take one each home with them at the end of the day.  And to spend a good amount of the day having balloon fights – they were definitely well used.

As always the family worked together brilliantly and there was delicious cake (I am rather looking forward to another slice today), bouquets of cup cakes, birthday decorations, fizz, everyone in the right place at the right time (not as easy as it sounds, we do not all live close together and there is a lot of flooding at the moment) and lovely presents and cards.

At the end of the day the birthday girl declared she had had a really lovely day.  Good festivity celebrated.  

As a side note, I interrupted the writing of this to send rough and ready invitations to another family gathering in a few weeks’ time.  I am obsessed.

Coming home and snarling

I am writing this on a train about 60 hours since I last saw my home.  I am in the middle of high travel week – work and social – and am definitely feeling weary.  However also very grateful.  I have managed to avoid all delays caused by Storm Ciara and that is no small feat over the last 36 hours.

I love travelling, I always have, but, and I suspect this has been a blog post before, I do so very much love getting home.  It has not always been that way.  For many years home was not necessarily a haven from anything, so going home did not fill me with much joy.  

Now however, it does.  And however tired I am today as I get toward the end of a very long work day, (with a church meeting still to go), after a brilliantly full and sociable weekend, I am very much filled with happiness that I am nearly home. 

Although when I finally get there, I will do not much more than hug the humans and the dog and climb into bed, snarling at anyone who dares to ask me a single thing about what I have been doing in the last 60 hours.  I am never keen on the “how was your day” question.  In fact I am writing this in the hope that just writing the word “snarling” it will persuade my better self to come to the fore.  Although I suspect that the snarling version of me is why my family are all fairly happy for me to go away a lot.

This post was not supposed to be about me behaving badly, but now I’ve started the thought process, why on earth do I do it?  In my defence (and I should be less defensive I think!) it is part of my sheer relief and sense of being back in my own surroundings again.  I just want to relish it and not talk about it.  At least not straight away and not when I am so travel weary.

Although frankly, “how was your day?” irritates me when I am working from home with zero travel weariness in the mix.  I am self-aware enough to know I get irritated, but no idea as yet as to why.  At least when I work it out I shall have something else to write about.

Thoughts on a funeral

Yesterday I attended a funeral which was heartening in its beautiful memories of a kind, generous and clever man who had put his family and education of others at the centre of his life.  It was a life well lived by a man who was interested in other people and everything around him.  A life with travel and exciting work but balanced by very strong roots in the Welsh town in which he was born and ended his days.  A hugely successful professional life lived to its fullest.

And, maybe more importantly, a gorgeous family. I know his son better than I knew him, and his son is an amazing legacy of a man who spent years driving his children around South Wales to various activities and all the while encouraging and supporting them to try whatever they wanted to, persuading them to give their all to whatever endeavour they had chosen.  His son is kind, generous and interested in everything, a chip off the old block.  His wife speaks of losing her rock, her best friend, but has the determination to enter this new chapter of her life with the knowledge he would want her to find contentment and to continue being active.  The two grandsons I know well are confident, clever, curious lads who made their grandfather proud and who were dignified and mature throughout yesterday’s ceremonies.  The measure of the man is in those he has left behind.

Yesterday I learned so much about him and it was uplifting to know that marvellous people live and influence and leave behind so many great memories amongst those they worked and lived with.  Funerals are not always the most popular ceremonies (unlike weddings and baptisms?) and there is a sense of duty of attending them, but in the main I have always found them uplifting occasions.  Even in sadness, there is a comfort in coming together and sharing our sadness together.  Even in loss there is a strength to be found in sharing our memories and allowing a person to live on in those memories.

All of this is written from the perspective of someone on the periphery of the funeral yesterday.  I know that these are very hard times for those who are dealing with a huge loss and great sadness and my prayers are with them this morning, and I hope that they can glean comfort from yesterday.