Tuesday, 11 September 2018

My brother, Myself

I choose this image since it is so fitting. Vague, hazy, faded, obscure, an unknown and almost faceless child. I flick through the thick albums of photographs, some that belonged to my long gone grandmother, others to my mother that have been passed on to me. I find many images, some in particular that lend a predictable, joyous narrative and yet I return again and again to this one and so I accept the decision is made for me. Each time today that I wrote the date or told any child in my charge todays date it was unavoidable, I thought of him. This boy in the picture. I thought too of my mother and the feelings that may have been stirring in her. A part of me wonders if this boy in the picture might surface and make an unexpected visit, just like that time before. I ponder speaking with her to see if this has been the case but in my heart of hearts I know the truth. The truth is silence. Silence. Unquiet silence. Silence can shatter the heart into a million little pieces and sometimes it's just that one piece that digs in, like a tiny, awkward, painful and bothersome stone in your shoe. The kind that stops you in your tracks and forces you to find a solution. Do you know the frustration of not finding that stone even when you know you felt it just seconds before? You question yourself. Is it the shoe itself that carries the fault or something alien that has found its way into the shoe that is the source of the problem? Could the stone simply have found a way to bury itself in order to no longer be seen and no longer a problem? That's how it feels, like all of these questions without a definitive answer. These days, this is is how it hurts, like that tiny, tiny stone. The one doing its work and battling always to resurface.

He would always protect me, him being seven years older than I and being the eldest and I being the youngest. I would run to him and speak desperately, asking for one thing or another. I would delight in every touch between us, a nudge or a squeeze, an arm around my shoulders, a piggy back, a leg-up. The hairs bristled on my arms whenever he would unexpectedly return from boarding school and I would enter our home to his presence and if I remember correctly, I would cry happy tears at him being returned to me. Mine. Solely my big brother. Of course, he is a brother to my two sisters, a father to my nieces, a son to my mother and many other titles of belonging to others but today he is solely mine. My big brother. Much like how I fantasised as a teenager writing a diary that one day my diaries would be discovered and published, making me an Anais Nin of my generation, I sit here tip tapping at keys in the vaguest of hope that he may come upon my words. I would feel sadness, deep shattering sadness if he ever thought he was forgotten. You are not and neither could you ever be so. 

He was brother, helper, hero and in exactly that order. I cannot use the present tense because I no longer know him or do I? Estrangement is so very different to separation, it is not geography or circumstance that is keeping us apart but the silence. The unquiet. The gap. The a part or no longer a part keeping us apart. My own offspring are both curious and enchanted, perplexed and baffled by this family secret of sorts, this oddity, this stranger that lives in photograph albums and in the closet with the many, many pieces of shattered hearts. I skim these words of mine and the ones that stand out are 'shatter' which in dictionary defining terms means: devastate, shock, stun, daze, dumbfound, traumatise, crush, overwhelm, greatly upset, distress. I nod for each word, for each emotion I connect to the word, for each time I have woken in the night from a dream about him, for each uncomfortable conversation explaining to others, for each milestone I would have liked to share with him, for each success and victory that my nieces have experienced, for each practical joke either I and now my offspring have pulled off that I learned in my early days and passed on, for each memory from childhood that I long to speak of nostalgically with him. All of this and so, so much more, a burdensome amount more. He was my brother, my helper and my hero. He is my brother but like this hazy, faded picture I cannot see his face and I don't know what he looks like. Our future is unclear, unknown and yet I have hope. The many pieces of my shattered heart made whole again as I read the words 'The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song.' (Psalm 28.7)

Monday, 13 August 2018

White Hair - A Story of Difference

I see you, shifting your gaze from my eyes to my hairline, from my mouth to my hairline and then back and forth and back and forth. This is not new to me. I see it often. I see you, old and young, black and white and all the different shades between. What is it that stops you in your tracks? Is it unfamiliar to see me, a woman of forty three years with strands of silver in her hair? Some sitting pretty looking intentional, others acting the fool springing in different directions like they're seeking attention. The young ones around me who speak of the white hair, I do not find bothersome. I am charmed by their blatancy, their stares and their direct comments. They reveal so much about the adults in their lives with the words they share, 'my mum has that, that's why she uses henna but don't say because she doesn't like anyone to know', 'once a week I have to sit down and pull the white ones out for my Aunty', 'if you no have this then you look nice', 'this one (pointing at my white hairs) is no good', 'my dad says when this happens it's because you don't want to take care of yourself anymore' ( so I prompt you child and ask what you think about this and you reply 'I think it will make you pretty if you take away the white hair.') These are just a few of the comments I scribble down 'out of the mouths of babes'. These are words which they share openly and willingly, words that leave me intrigued and of course not in the least offended. Their words are a powerful reflection of what many in our society believe is a standard of beauty, especially although not exclusively for women. Do we view men and women differently as they age? Are we inclined to perceive men with greying hair as 'silver foxes' and as 'suave gentleman' and their female counterparts as simply past their sell by date or as simply elderly as so many of the articles I read as I prepared to write and comment  on this topic. I don't ask in judgement but truly out of curiousity, I sit and watch and ponder from week to week, from month to month, from year to year. 

I have exchanges with women where they tell me that this greying or white hair is a reflection of a lack of effort, as a surrendering of self and a succumbing to old age. I have other conversations in which men tell me they see it as a bold and confident statement, a choosing not to conform in holding these white strands as friends and not as enemies, as a part of a chapter rather than a concealed secret left in the confessional pages of a journal. There are those too who suggest that I affiliate myself with the subculture of 'The Hippie Mum', they suggest I'm one of those breastfeeding types, the ones that don't dye their hair or wear proper deodorant, the ones that use moon cups and worry about the environment, that spend lots of time ion nature, that love plants and natural dyes, the ones that probably have hairy legs and hairy armpits and eat quinoa. Truth be told, all of those things bare some truth and reflect how I might feel from one day to the next. I do lack effort in making myself presentable in the way that is more the norm, I do feel bold at times and brace myself ready for the eye rolls and nose twitches that my body hair can provoke in folks, I am a bit of a hippie and I don't like all of the chemicals in antiperspirants and I do like quinoa. There, I said it.  

However, my hope would be that choosing to not change the colour of my ageing hair or choosing not to remove the hair that grows on different parts of my body would not define my identity. I would hope that my attractiveness as a person would be defined by the words that I utter and the acts and kindness that I show rather than being boxed off neatly into a category based on refusal to comply with the surrounding societal views of beauty and the compliance that it demands. Do I feel the pressure? Of course I do. Do I often feel unattractive when compared with my  counterparts (either by myself or others) who spend more time and money on removing body hair and changing hair colour? Yes. But when I change my appearance under duress, out of peer pressure, for fear of being called out, then I feel disappointed in myself and a sadness overcomes me. A sadness greater than the sum of all the other negative parts. This is when I try and draw on the strength that goes way beyond anything I could muster alone. I draw on my faith and belief in a maker who has made me, uniquely me, who knew me when I was being knitted in my mother's womb.

The legacy of family gives me confidence too. I am proud to have been surrounded during my childhood by strong, proud, feminine African women, who did not worry about hair dye or hair removal or saggy breasts or wide hips. I am proud to have had Czech and German Aunties who were more concerned with teaching the children around them about language and culture and strategies for life and about outdoor culture and fun, there wasn't a lesson that focused on 'fitting in' to a way of looking or presenting oneself. I had the example of a mother who was more concerned with work ethic and principles and of 'sticks and stones breaking your bones but words never harming you', a mother who would so often say 'oh, take no notice!' and Aunties who would exhale wise words denouncing judgement followed by the very African retort of 'DON'T MIND HIM/HER/THEM!' I have too, the acceptance of a husband, who was once a boyfriend who I may never have been initially attracted to had he judged me on the things of which I now speak. Had he found me unattractive for choosing not to wear bras or for not shaving my body hair when we first met then our story would be very different. Had he judged my body differently after bearing our children and gaining weight and a different body shape and reflecting the signs of wear and age and battles fought, then our story would be very different. Had he not persistently told me not to dye my greying hair  and uplifted me and complimented me and told me my worth in a million different ways, then perhaps I would feel differently.

I have sons that see their mother, a woman with greying hair, hairy armpits and hairy legs. An individual that may or may not remove said hair depending on how great the pressure is to behave as the majority do. They see me with greying hair, with my afro out or with my hair tied back, they see me with my head wrapped in different ways, they see me. They compliment me. I tease them, that they will connect and have a relationship with all of these views and behaviours of mine that I take a proud stance with, that I often choose not to overthink and in fact that I sometimes do not even give a second thought to since they seem so natural and insignificant. 'My mother, myself' rings in my ears and I hope in theirs too. This is important work, this legacy stuff. I am thankful for the examples that I witnessed as a child and I take my own work in this field seriously. People have so often asked me, why do your boys have long hair? I always stop and smile and think how strange the question is but I think too, quite simply 'because their hair describes so much about their identity that words cannot in an instant'. The narrative of hair is incredibly powerful and it belies such multiple meanings. It is an entity that can so easily be replaced by any body part or emotion that we struggle with or want to guard or honour. We need to remember this. Remember that people see you as you look to understand all that this entity belies. They see you searching, they see you. Tell your story proudly, whether you choose to grow or colour, to display or remove, to disguise or reveal. I see you. I see your story and it is beautiful and significant and truly powerful. Spread the good news, wear your joy and if the storms do come, just remember that the rainbow is still to follow.  

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Move slower, search for the things that fall between the cracks.

I enjoyed making these a couple of weeks ago. I was going to attempt a collage a day but somehow I always end up distracted, lose my way or simply life takes over. However, I am committing to getting stuff off my phone and stored into this space as somehow it makes it real then. Again, there's something about the immediacy of 'Stories' on Instagram that allows me to be more spontaneous, I'm able to hit a button and not overthink a little bit of doodling. Oh, for spontaneity and not overthinking, everyday, forever and ever. And ever. 

Monday, 19 February 2018

Scraps and notes and scribbles - journalling stories.

So, nearly two weeks ago it was my older sister's birthday. In my usual fashion, I had a birthday card sat on my bedside table for her but never actually got round to sending it to her on time. This meant that the night before her birthday, I pulled out the family heirloom photo albums and took some shots of the photos in bad lighting, late at night in order to send a makeshift card that would, hopefully, make her smile and distract her from how disorganised and rubbish I am as a little sister. Now, I am no photographer, I say this not to be self deprecatory but because it's just not a strength and so something like 'Stories' on Instagram totally appeals to my love of the simple, my love of low fi. It allows me to feel like I'm scrap booking or journalling without having to find scissors and glue or a bunch of different coloured pens with different thicknesses of nib (which is sometimes a tall order). So these are the results. I know the framing is off and the size is odd but I like that it was quick and I didn't get bogged down in the whole 'why are everyone else's photos on IG so amazing and mine are ALWAYS blurred' and more importantly, it took me back to the good old days of daily journalling with pictures, words, photographs and found images etc which is where my heart lies.

Last week-end we took my mum out for breakfast and a catch up as we hadn't seen her for two weeks and she'd returned from visiting my sister in Nottingham. We found a place in Knowle that sold pancakes which was perfect for the boys on the rainiest of rainy saturday mornings. This picture, even though my husband and mum are not pictured in it, reminds me of the car journey. For some reason, my mum likes to direct my husband in the car even though she doesn't drive and despite my husband trying to quietly reassure her that he doesn't need the guidance. It makes for a little tension that also makes me want to laugh out loud, kinda. I have never mentioned it to anyone and so feel a little naughty mentioning it here but hey, this is real life with all the nuances and complexities of family and it's one of the advantages of having so few people following the blog now. I can say a lot more than I might have at one time because I'm aware so few are reading it which is both empowering and isolating. I feel a little sad that my very neglected blog now has a very, very limited audience. Mostly a biproduct of choosing not to use Facebook which is where I used to post links to the blog. I'm not keen to re-engage with Facebook but it does present a dilemma because I do want others to read what I write. Any ideas? Food for thought.

We've found a new hipster(ish) cafe that we like a lot in town. We love Digbeth in Birmingham and the cafe is actually in the Custard Factory which is a creative hub for Birmingham's makers and shakers. My husband gets his art work framed by a great framer based there, buys his spray paints from the graf shop there and gets frustrated that the great jeans in the skate shop never do his size. I've had lovely bespoke necklaces bought for me from indie stores based there and there's a great feel to the place. We like to park up locally in Digbeth and have a good walk around, looking for new graf and new eateries as things tend to close and other things re-open in their place pretty frequently. 

My eldest boy has really got into making music more recently, using samples and Garage Band. We had loads of fun the other day when he asked me to record a vocal for the chorus of his track. It felt a little bit special that he acknowledged something that he knows I love to do and that I don't do nearly enough of, he's sensitive and a sweetheart in that way. I loved collaborating with him. We still do battle over his guitar practice, he plays classical. He's far exceeded any capability of mine or his fathers as far as playing a traditional instrument,  particularly as he reads music, something which neither of us can do and which I for one would love to be able to do. I keep reminding him that the lectures from me to practice, come from knowing that the future will only bring more commitments and time constraints, so please, please please do this hard stuff now and not later - said all parents and previous generations everywhere! My twelve and a half year old is changing by the day. This new phase is moving so quickly and I can hear the jubilant chorus and testing cries of all those that have gone before, I see my errors and parenting fails and there are the highs and joys and trials and feeling ways, the feeling so, so many ways about stuff all at once. One of the reasons I stopped blogging was because so much of what I talked about was my children and I wondered if it was fair to air so much about their lives here, although I always check with them before posting content that relates to them. Somehow though, I feel compelled to come back to that, to document this next chapter because I know I certainly won't remember it all. For today it feels ok and so for now perhaps that's what's right. These things too change daily and by the minute. Feels good to write and talk and say and lay it all out. It makes more sense of it all.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Ilam - Sunshine on a Rainy Day

The chemical brothers blasting repetitive high pitched 303 sounds whilst my husband critiques other drivers driving skills or lack there of. Heater blasting to clear the fogged up windows of the car as we battle against the dreariest of grey, drizzly days. We are road trippin, we'll have a great time, we utter to ourselves whilst not entirely convinced. This is not helped by the spray from other cars, the least scenic route that we have opted for in quite some time in a bid to be less repetitive. But then, the roads quieten and so does the insanely irritating sound of the 303 that my husband is enjoying accompanying today's drive, which I endure since he is our driver. Then the road opens up and all feels well. One boy in the back of the car now fast asleep after consuming the whole family's snacks and having been chastised for his actions has now succumbed to rest. The older boy, headphones in, immersed in his own world, occasionally emerging to check in with the olds. He stirs to mention 'snowdrops!' and we gasp at the first sighting of spring. Spring, the hope of spring. We stop the car, to watch the sleet covering the peaks of rolling hills and suddenly all of the romance of the narrative of Catherine and Heathcliff surrounds us. A little further and Ilam appears, all ginger bread houses and windy roads and we hotfoot it in the sleet to seek comfort in the familiar spaces we've frequented as a family, often on grey days. Cream tea and hot jacket potatoes and memories from my husband of visits to England from his beloved Spain (where he spent his childhood) and the memories are not all fond, I might add. Coleslaw is all I need say. If you are not English, coleslaw is very confusing. Bellies full and hands and bodies warmed, we head out of the tearoom to explore Ilam hall grounds and the park and land nearby. We make up a story about 'The Curse of Ilam'. We walk in sleet and then snow, we muddy our clothes and argue a little. The youngest boy returns from the adventure with a mud spattered rucksack. The entire back of his coat covered in thick mud. His hiking boots completely caked in mud, dog mess and water. His hands and finger nails embedded with ... stuff. The words 'just stick to the path' uttered over and over again by some. Yet he, marvelled at the rushing river water, gushed at the falling snowflakes, was thrilled to play pooh sticks and gasped as we looked on at the snow covered peaks of hills. And there was that hat, the £2 hat, has been making him ever so, ever so happy, even if it does magically turn his curls into dried out dreadlocks. 'Happy is the man who finds wisdom, And the man who gains  understanding; For her proceeds are better than the profits of silver, And her gain than fine gold.' The older boy falls asleep in the car on the way home for the first time in forever. It reminds me of his younger years, of just him and I. I think of some words that I read by a new mum of two recently, who shared how it hurt a little to share her time and heart with two children now. It reminds me of those early years that I haven't thought about for some time. They were golden. Time was slower then, a day could be just us in the garden looking at slugs and worms and beetles and ants. I think of this the following morning when I hear the older boys to his dad ... 'everything is such a rush' as I shout for us to hurry and head out of the house. 'I hear you, my love. I hear you.' Time to make time move slower again. So we dig out some home movies of our boys from yesteryear and we are overwhelmed and amused and excited with what we find, and as expected we recognise ourselves and the fact that very little changes in our character, we are much the same as our twelve month old selves. I cheer and perhaps swallow hard at those simple early days, cup full from the happiness that was that time and cup overflowing with the knowledge of how far our family of four have come. So, the sunless overcast skies of those grey, grey days are never wasted because they manage to cast some of my favourite shades. A road trip is always worth taking, even the rainy day, slightly edgy ones because you just don't know what it will stir from the recesses, whether it's magic or mayhem, it is really worth the risk. 

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Colouring Outside the Lines

When I gave birth to my second son it was a different experience. From the moment he was placed on my chest, I could literally feel the difference in weight. His older brother had weighed in at nine pounds and three ounces and so that size of baby felt familiar to me. Yet when this second boy of mine arrived and was placed on my chest, I was so aware of how light he seemed, so very little, my little puppy dog curled up into a six pound and eight ounce ball. He immediately reminded me of my childhood dog 'Sindy' (a high honour) whom I had held on my chest in much the same way when she too was very young, whom I instantly fell in love with and who changed my life forever. Much like this second son of mine.

I have often said of this boy, that he is my 'out of the box thinker', never one to follow the crowd or to want to please the crowd even but neither a rebel nor an 'outsider' either but definitely 'Marmite', you love him or hate him! That may sound harsh but I mean it in the best possible sense, it is hugely reflective of his temperament. Some might call his 'energetic', 'hyper', 'spirited', 'fidgety' and really all of those descriptions apply and whilst I realise they could and do apply to any child, I am speaking specifically about him. 

I often find myself saying 'I don't worry about him, he's one of those people that will land on his feet, he'll be alright, his head is switched on, he's savvy and wonderful, creative and interesting, a great problem solver, practical and brilliant'. But I also know that as he's getting older there are some challenges to face,  ones that I remember mentioning here when he was younger when we first began to suspect he, like his father, was dyslexic or as the jargon goes ' had some 'learning difficulty'. I have also known that there is often a loss of confidence that follows as children grow older and become more aware of differences. I hoped that it wouldn't happen but I definitely have seen it emerging over the last twelve months. It is subtle but mean, it can be both brushed under the carpet and almost forgotten or can whimper loudly before burying itself with hardly a trace of the sadness. My mother heart breaks with it and wants to roar loudly, especially to protect my boy from those who should know better, from those that don't see him and all the potential, from those that just see a boy colouring outside the lines. 

Tonight on our walk home from the childminder, as he talked about his day he described some of his frustration and he we talked things through. I got on with making lunches for the next day, then cooked dinner and then whilst my husband cleared the kitchen and the eldest boy was in the shower, there was a window. This youngest boy was playing at the dinner table with his beloved lego, with characters he's been role playing with for days and I was suddenly hit by a wave of nostalgia thinking of the hours and hours I spent playing with various toys and characters with both of the boys over the years. Back in the days of full time mummying, when there was enough time and time had a different rhythm. 

So we played, not for a long time but for long enough for me to hear his deep belly laughs. Long enough for me to stroke his face and cup his chin with one hand and tell him how precious he is, long enough for me to get competitive and start to use language like 'I will destroy you with my laser carving weapon ha ha ha ha!!!'. Long enough to leave behind the debris of the day and to see him, in his full scribbly lined garb and it was great. Parenting is hard and wonderful and exhilarating and exhausting and all kinds of crazy brilliance and heartbreak, it's tough to get it right and to sustain getting it right and many days, I fail, miserably. However, tonight, it's one point to mama, for remembering to take photos to capture a moment, even when the broken ironing board is still up and there's washing on the radiator and mess in said pictures, for remembering that play is so important and can heal cuts that sometimes words fail to heal, and for remembering that a little distraction and a little love go a long, long way. I won't worry about this second son of mine, he'll be just fine, he'll colour and brighten up this world and I hope he never, ever, learns to colour inside the lines.

This post has been written with his permission ... kind of, although I may had said more that I intended to.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

There's never a good time to start from the middle.

It is a fact of life that it's hard work to do things that are good for us. It is an even harder fact to swallow to actually do things that are good for us consistently, no? Perhaps it's just me and I'm projecting although deep down, I suspect not. Journalling, keeping a diary, writing down memories, stories, snippets of conversations, to do lists, life dreams and goals, these are things that I have done for as long as I can remember. They are the things that keep me sane, that make my life feel balanced, an act that allows for the overspill of life to be filtered and channelled correctly, so that the sewage doesn't seep into everything else. I know this. This is an act that is good for me, it tends to my needs and yet, it's one that I stop and start, one that I abandon. 

In the times of abandon, I pretend that I have no need for her. This act, this ebb and flow of words, this rhythm of thinking and of telling, of collecting and storing of spoken word and actions, whispers and shouts of comings and goings, of memories and events, of correcting and of marking of occasions. All of it gets abandoned and I feel a pit in my stomach. With the passing of time, that pit grows and festers and begins to feel like a goading in my ribcage, it builds and builds albeit slowly, very very slowly. It is stealthy too, I hardly notice the robbery taking place until one day I open the safe and it is empty, so very empty. I am able in these times to convince myself that I have no need for the contents that once filled that safe, the contents that I had previously and so carefully gathered. Eventually though, I hanker for them, one by one, piece by piece. In those moments, I realise I have once again, lost it all. All of it. 

So I wait and ponder, wait and ponder, wait and ponder. Till the pondering turns to sulking, then over time to waiting until it trudges along at an abysmal pace and faces the door marked denial and surrender. I've waited here for some time not sure whether to open the door and head in to the party of dispute or whether to just turn around and knock on a different door and simply stop being so dramatic. 

The drama I can handle since I know it has a cosy home inside myself but the silence, the silence kills me. It makes me weak and afraid. The silence is not the same as the quiet, no. The silence is the ill kind, like when you have to keep quiet to avoid trouble, serious trouble. There is no trouble here, I finally hear her say. 'Listen for the quiet, it is safe now. I chased away the silence' she says. I breathe and listen and wait and ponder. And wait and ponder. And wait and ponder. Till the time comes and just like that it spills from me and it's just not as hard as I thought it would be all of those times. 

It is hard to do the things that nourish us, it is a discipline to commit to doing them regularly, consistently. It is a discipline to prioritise, to nurture and grow and spill and ponder. So sometimes I wait. I pause. And that's okay too but the silence, no. No more. She is banished. I cannot guarantee that it's for good but silence is banished for the time being and I am all ears for the quiet. All ears.