The great outdoors …

Sunday 18 April 2021

Week 2 of the Easter Holidays; the sun shines, a8t times the snow even falls, but the big news is that pubs and cafes re-open for outdoor hospitality. Our politicians and leaders caution us to be careful and ‘take this next step safely’, but it is hard not to feel just a teeny bit giddy…

In our household, we all get out to meet our friends! Lunches, brunches, take-out picnics, shopping trips and alcoholic tipples. Gosh it does feel great …. even though it is all in the fresh air. Because, I had previously dismissed the notion of ‘outdoor hospitality’ as a terrible concept when it was first muted in February. How happy I am to be proved wrong! Sitting outside – I’d venture that it actually adds to the experience. But why?

Here in the bracing North of England, we are a perfect stomping ground for your ‘good muddy walk’, but are not traditionally associated with alfresco dining, so is it just the novelty? Very possibly. Re-thinking, re-invention and innovation are very much part of our 21st Century world and the phenomena of falling a little bit in love with the pandemic driven pavement culture has been seen in other urban areas too. In December 2020, in his Guardian article “Outdoor dining has been a Covid bright spot. Let’s make it permanent”, Gene Marks reports on the decision to extend outdoor permits in New York and the drive to address some issues so that this can be replicated across other US cities too. Marks recognises that eating outdoors isn’t actually new, rather, like ‘like work from home, e-commerce and virtual meetings‘ it is a trend that has been accelerated by lockdown restrictions. Additionally, it offers cities a chance to re-invent themselves as we emerge into the ‘new normal’

“As we begin a long-term recovery, we’re proud to extend and expand this effort to keep New York City the most vibrant city in the world. It’s time for a new tradition.”

City Mayor New York City

In an era where we have been drilled to ‘follow the science’, the glad tidings are that scientist too support the benefits of the outdoor culture. Countless articles suggests that being outdoors boosts our mood, our creativity, our vision and our immune system. It makes us feel better and also be better! The Huffington post, in its article ‘Here’s proof that going outside makes your healthier‘ finds that exercise feels easier and is proven to be more motivating when outside. An ‘Ask the Scientists‘ summary by Sydney Sprouse, claims that it can even help us to live longer!

A 2015 study followed 108,630 American women to determine the relationship between nature and longevity. Women who lived near parks, lawns, trees, and forests had significantly lower mortality than women living far from nature. 

And it doesn’t have to be about venturing far or extreme physical challenges, bringing nature and the outdoors closer to us, via gardens plants and even views of the natural world from a window will also bring benefits. Essentially there seems to be no right or wrong way to get outside, so as it is currently our only way to start re-connecting with all the people we have missed for so long I say what better combination than fresh air and… delicious refreshments?

Yes, chinwagging over an alfresco latte, can be a touch chilly at times, but for me it’s a big thumbs up to digging out the layers and popping a pair of mittens into my handbag. Feel a bit continental! Feel the outdoor glow on those cheeks. Feel a frisson of excitement as you balance those sunglasses on your head once more. Outdoor hospitality – I am a definite convert…

The baby massage class…

Saturday 27 February 2021

This week, a couple of friends make wobbly returns from lock down maternity leaves and I reflect upon how incredibly tough the last year must have been for isolated new mums. I am not sure how I would have coped without my ‘mum friends’ and toddler groups, even if this did all begin with the baby massage class …

It is true to say that I didn’t find new mother hood the easiest of times! I was exhausted, frequently frazzled and struggled to stop my Eldest from crying for, what seemed to be, the entire day! In hindsight, it was probably a desperate appeal for help from my poor daughter. Maybe, if she made enough noise, somebody capable might appear to rescue her from the clutches of the hapless amateur who had brought her into being!

Anyway, feeling pretty useless and fearful of the judgemental gaze of the public, I began to avoid leaving the house at all, until my Dad arrived. Sensing that I had lost confidence, he booked himself onto the direct train from Manchester Piccadilly on a quest to get me to re-join the world. And he wasn’t taking no for an answer! He dug out the programme of post-natal classes and told me I was going. The session that week… baby massage.

Managing to leave the house on time is a true logistical challenge for any new mum and on the morning of this fateful day, it was one that I was veering dangerously close to failing. Just about time to skim read the reassuring guidance for the class; ‘all you need is a towel and your favourite oil’. Simple enough you’d think? But I was now on the last minute? ‘Oil, oil, oil?‘ I muttered furiously, flinging open the kitchen cupboard to survey my options. The olive oil seemed my best bet. ‘A bit more sophisticated than sunflower’ I told myself, as I zipped the flagon into my baby bag and raced out of the door.

Fortune, oh how it smiled on me as I rattled up the hill! My daughter actually fell asleep in the buggy! I arrived at the local community centre in a rare moment of calm and was able to nod and smile at other participants. A tranquillity that was, alas, to be sadly short-lived! The class began and with reluctant dread I woke my sleeping child and transferred her to the towel. She was already beginning to squirm.

Time for the oil ladies,” beamed the session leader

The other mums, reached for their bags and brought out dainty phials of … jasmine or lavender oil and my heart actually stopped for a moment. As the woman next to me rubbed a few drops of beautifully scented lotion in to her hands and then began to expertly massage her child’s tiny feet, I hoped no-one was looking as I fumbled a litre of cooking fat out of my bag, trying to half hide it under my coat. The cursed olive oil gushed from the bottle like a torrent, coating my hands and arms right up to my elbows. In growing panic, I slathered it onto my Eldest and she was quickly gleaming from top to toe, like a basted turkey ready for a roast in the oven! Understandably, she was not impressed. As other infants, cooed and gurgled with contentment, I saw her mouth open and heard her screams beginning to fill the room. I tried to intervene and pick her up but, by now, she was a slippery as an eel and I fumbled about powerless to prevent her building up to a full crescendo. It was a living nightmare. My mind went utterly blank, my throat too dry to speak… until I remembered the towel. I just about held it together long enough to wipe us both free of grease, return my daughter to the buggy, stuff all my belongings underneath and head for the exit. It was then I felt the tears begin to well.

Out in the cool corridor however, my Eldest immediately drifted off to sleep again. And in the sudden peace, I had the chance to gather my thoughts. Pretty silly to go home when I had got this far… and I’d have to face my Dad! Gulping back a sorry sob, I realised that it was time to be brave. I took lots of deep breaths, dried my eyes, gave my cheeks time to calm from a mortified puce back to an acceptable pink and slipped back in. We swerved the rest of massage and just sat quietly at the back of the hall. But we stayed for coffee and cake at the end. And that was the start; the start of mum friends! A supportive circle of also-new parents, for trips to toddler groups, play dates and eventually nights out .

Did any of them even notice my massage mayhem? I am not sure that they did, because, poised or fraught as any of us may have looked to each-other, I realise that we were all just pre-occupied with our own version of new-mother hell on most of those early days! The challenge of navigating parenthood for the first time, united us and the companionship would be a life-support mechanism to see us through both joyful and tough times with laughter, empathy and … plenty of alcohol!

As for baby massage, well there I had learned my lesson. When, in later years, the class popped up on the schedule for Prom-dress daughter and Small Boy, I made sure we had other plans…

Milestones

Tuesday 26 January 2021

Twenty six days into my 2021 resolutions, I have 26 runs and 82 km on my Strava . Gracious me, that’s over 50 miles!

Throughout January, inspired by Ron Hill and his 52 years and 39 days record of running every day, three and a half weeks of tootling around the block every day, and a little bit further at weekends has brought me to this landmark. Incredible! Who knew that a 10 minute jog on a daily basis could add up so quickly!

I am ready to stop though. Yes, come the 1 Feb, I will be giving my running shoes a well earned rest. I have really enjoyed the daily dash. I go a little bit further each week. I go a little bit faster too. I feel energetic, oxygen fuelled, clear skinned and bright eyed. More importantly I feel calm, refreshed … and self-indulged. And this is why I love a New Year Resolution. Whilst psychologists may decry resolutions as needless self -pressure to impose upon an already demanding world, and even the health and well-being experts queued up to espouse this view as we finally consigned 2020 to the history books, I think the complete opposite. I find that our new year tradition is one of the only times in the calendar when I do focus on myself. It may only be 10 short minutes each day, but it is , nonetheless, time when I just think about me. Not my teens. Not my job. Not my mortage. Not the sometimes bleak future….just me… and my crazy January goals! And as 2021 dawned, after a year when the demands, stress and, above all worry, about everyone and everything had threatened to crush me , I needed this more than ever.

But I realise tonight, as I burst back into the house, trainers muddy, leggings soggy and face glowing with the cold, that I am better. And that means, that 5 days from now, it is time to stop. Because I am ready to get back, back to the grind and the gruelling but above all the glorious roller coaster of life a mum, an educator and someone who thinks life is about probably about something more important than kilometres and run schedules! Of course I’ll still do my weekly 10k, I might even do occasional circuits of ‘the block’ but its adios to charting my progress, checking Strava every evening and thinking that a day without a run is a failed one!

On the news today there is a far grimmer milestone . Covid deaths in the UK top one hundred thousand for the first time. It certainly puts life into perspective. I need to start focusing on the small contribution I can make to this current situation. Because if miles are covered one step at a time, who knows what we can achieve with many individual efforts to see this through and play our part. Rejuvenated by my month of running , I now have the energy and strength to try again…

“To get through the hardest journey, we only need to take one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping…”

Chinese proverb

From hot tub to …

Saturday 19 December 2020

… to hollering, to humdrum, to … hissy fit? I am still not sure which of my alliterative choices to plump for! What it is, sadly, safe to say however is that ‘hot tub heaven’ did not quite go according to plan!

The tub is delivered and installed without a hitch on Thursday evening. By Friday morning, it is brimming with hot bubbles and up to temperature. I pop 2 bottles of prosecco in the fridge and head to work, for the final time this tumultuous term, in high spirits. Upon arriving home, alas, we peel back the covering to find the tub has lost around 50% of the water. It takes a good hour to refill and another 3 for the company ‘engineer’ to come out and give us the ‘all clear‘ to hop in. This they do, assessing that ‘the plug‘ has most probably, ‘become dislodged.’ Nonetheless by 7pm it’s cozzies, flip-flops and hot tub here we go!

And it is simply glorious. The tub and awning take up half the back garden, spectacularly transforming the outside of the house into our own personal spa. As all four of us sink into the warm froth, the sounds of laughter and happiness fill the air. We are no longer in a grey, drizzly corner of a Northern Tier 3 town; we are on holiday, in a luxurious alpine retreat, pampered, relaxed and without a care in the world.

We should just buy one mum!” enthuses my Eldest as the fizz flows in our glasses.

“I am staying in for ever!” grins Prom-dress daughter

I have drifted off into a more immediate dream of my own. This weekend! This weekend, there will be no; housework, no supermarket trips, no cooking, no thinking about work and mass testing and …. stop! None of that! Nothing but ‘the tub.’ Run then relax in the tub. Read a new book in the tub. Watch the teens having fun in the tub. Wine and beer in the tub. Utter bliss! After a year dominated by stress, worry and sadness I realise that it is just what I need! A wonderful evening ends and we head to bed.

I actually set my Saturday alarm for the first time in weeks and at 7:30am, pull on my run gear with thrice my usual enthusiasm. As I open the kitchen door however, I hear beeping and it is coming from …’the tub’. Outside, I find that, once again, the water level has dropped; this time dramatically to a level that might just about cover your toes. The machine flashing in panic, I despondently re-tap the engineer’s number on my phone. I am directed about, for a mad half-hour, trying out various ‘ home remedies’ before they announce that I am booked in for an afternoon visit. At this point I take stock of the situation and suggest that instead, as I face yet another 12 hours unable to make use of the 4 day-hire and there is no guarantee that the problem is fixable, we call it a day. And so it is that the hot tub is taken away.

The company could not be nicer. They insist on a full refund and also offer a free booking in January. Nonetheless, as the van pulls away from my drive, I sit down and burst into tears. Yes, I am ashamed to confess, I blub like a baby. With the back garden back ‘to normal’, the mirage of ‘weekend-away’ evaporates and my usual Saturday of drudge and dreariness descends like a heavy cloud. It’s covid life: grimy bathrooms, dusting and cleaning, battling around Tesco, no meeting friends, no playing music, no nights out and just never-ending worry – worry about everyone and everything. It has taken its toll on many. It has taken its toll on me. The teens fuss around with cups of tea and kind words and, lovely as they are, to escape the guilt of feeling like a ridiculous child instead of the parent I am supposed to be, I wave them away, dry my eyes and head out for a run.

Now, as ever, that does stop the tears, if not the sadness in my heart, and as I turn the key in the door, I have ‘gotten a grip‘ and am ready to carry on. Which is just as well as my 80 year old mum has called. One of her ceilings has fallen in. By calamitous co-incidence, she is also Prom-dress daughter’s accompanist for today’s re-scheduled Grade 8 violin recording. This could take a bit of sorting out. I could almost be thankful not to have the distraction of a heavenly hot tub in the garden… almost …

Hair-cut!

Wednesday 5 August 202

‘Hallelujah!

After 6 months of hair-style wilderness for the females in our house, I finally secure us an appointment at the local salon. Does it feel momentous? Why yes it does! So much so in fact that I even take before and after shots. Hairdresser Nina, you are a ‘magician!

The set up at the Covid-aware salon is an impressive one. Staff have changed their working hours and shifts to create separate teams. Hand sanitiser, masks and visors are everywhere. Customers now have to hang up their own coats and the frothy coffee, with a Biscoff biscuit, is a thing of the past. Nonetheless, it is an hour of more pampering and attention than I can remember for a very long time … and Nina has surprising news!

“Your hair is in a great condition!”

Yes it is overgrown. Yes it has lost all shape. Yes with a cute animal mask I could re-invent myself as a lion. But none of that is news to anyone that knows me. My Gaelic roots ensure that I have always gallavanted through life with a signature crown of ‘crazy hair’, capable of reaching epic proportions in the wind and rain. What is less well know, however, is that my hair takes my stress. I pick it. I twirl it. I tear it. I damage it. I have been ruining my locks since high school. Some years are worse than others. A year or so after my marriage break-up, it was so patchy I actually treated myself to hair extensions to give my real hair a chance to recover. It worked brilliantly. Not only was I warded off touching my hair by the fear that the costly tresses would fall out, but it also won me over psychologically. I saw how great my hair could look if only I could mend my ways.

Hair extensions (2011)

Sadly no effect lasts forever and the ensuing decade has been one of highs and lows for the old barnet. What I was not really not expecting was that 5 months of social distancing, which I have found a real struggle, would help, But it has. The ever-supportive Nina is delighted and fusses over my curls like a proud parent. I have to conclude that although it has been decidedly dull and dreary at times, Lockdown has clearly been less stressful for this stretched single mum than our pre-Corona calendar. My hair is doubtless very grateful. I am left trying to avoid scratching my head as I try to square the circle of returning to the best parts of ‘normal’ without ramping the levels of stress right back up again …

Lockdown week 6: May

Sunday 3 May 2020

May! Oh my goodness. Was there an April ? How many weeks since I last saw a pub? Did I dream it, or was there once world where we used to eat somewhere other than the kitchen? Was I ever challenged by goals greater than clearing out the garage? Will life ever get back to normal?

The giddiness that marked the start of Lockdown now seems like a very distant memory. Whereas my eldest dyed her hair pink 6 weeks ago, this weekend, I have to confess to my slight relief, she purchased the chemicals to turn it back to a glorious, chestnut brown.

Prom dress Daughter redecorated her room and it looks terrific! The lime-green and peach colour scheme she chose 5 years ago is gone and in its place, we have clean, crisp, white walls and one feature splash of lilac. However her shopping list for new furniture, fixtures and fittings , a carefully, crafted creation as long as … lockdown itself has been put on hold and with it her motivation for each day ! (Cruel Covid means that none of our tips are operational and I have forbidden the dismantling of old beds and desks until they open their gates once more.)

Home schooling – what a roller coaster! More late marks for Small Boy this half term than in his previous 10 years of schooling, as I battle daily to get him our of bed. Prom dress daughter is sinking, under a sea of essays on complex , self-taught topics, and anxiety over the impact of all of this on UCAS predictions. My eldest, powerless to do anything about her exam grades and future now, does all the work sent, but without any of her signature drive and enthusiasm.

Gosh 6 weeks is a long time and they are struggling. No friends. No going out. No escape from each other. No break from me! I know that it is my job to fix them and I do try. I am trounced at basket ball most afternoons. I am there for Boris the Gecko’s bathtime. I turn my hand to homework. I try to be a counsellor, careers advisor, cocktail mixer and confidante… But the truth is that I am not good enough. No-one is. To quote the wisest of cultures,

“It takes a village to raise a child

And I am only one. One definitely stretched and certainly stressed single mum, who is finding the going very tough…