Her room is different from any room in the house, she chose it for that very reason aged six. The window into the loft faces to the east. It is the only window in the house that catches every sunrise, letting the early morning light flood in each day. It would always awake her and bring a clean new day. A new start in which she would see, in her sunny constancy, opportunity, hope and industry. She would arise with purpose and energy. The energy was now but a whispered memory. Now we know each evening that room fills with gloom, something which never mattered when it was not her sanctuary, her retreat. The gloom seems to soothe her day time sleep, compensating for the fitful nights punctuated by painful coughs.
Today, she slept through most of the morning. Ignoring the brightness of the day. Before noon, I hear the strains of Puccini’s Humming Chorus shimmering through the air from her room. It is a blue day and there is no intervention which can salve the dull pain that accompanies it. I decide to enact the kindness of a breakfast tray knowing, even as I carefully assemble it, it will go ignored. But there is so little time, so little opportunity to show even the smallest acts of love.
I know she walks down a path from which there is no return and I fear it with every fibre of my being. My beautiful child, vacated from life and waiting.
I set the tray down on her bedside table and she almost raises a smile as I sit next to her, pressing my weight onto the mattress and causing the tiniest of movement in her still frame. Her golden hair is matted to her skin by sweat as I push it back from her cheek, but her alabaster skin shines with an ethereal radiance as if all she has left is the luminescence of angels. She reaches her slight hand to mine and interweaves her index finger with mine and squeezes almost imperceptibly.
“Thank you mummy.”
I almost choke at the sound of her raspy and ravaged voice. It’s the first time she has been able to speak in days. My heart is broken at my baby’s change from vibrant 22 year old to crumbling, fragile patient.
The following morning I look out of the windows, see the brightness of the sunrise picking out the greens and blues of the summers day. The yellows, whites and violets of the spring flowers cheerfully nod in the gentle breeze and a murmuration of starlings undulates in the sky above the kitchen window as I stand by the sink. I go to her room with a jug of water and, on entering the light filled room I set it on the side without looking to the bed. But as I straighten back up I see the utter stillness of the bed. It is occupied, but empty.
My lungs evaporate.
• This flash fiction was first published on my old blog Quiet Radicals on 16/7/2016
This morning my boy drew himself into bed, exhausted after his share of caring for the twins in the night and with hot coffee on the bedside table for me to awake and to take over care. He held me close in his hot arms and spoke softly in his low, deep tones to me about love, our love, in the terms of kindness that are habitual for us. The safety, the intimacy and the feeling of the pieces being put together. This is it, for always, all at once familiar and new, exciting and reliable, home and adventure. For all the scars we carry are held as jewels which led us to this very moment, every moment.
On a morning last week my first-born, my golden haired girl, crawled into that same bed, afraid and frantic from a nightmare, having quietly scaled the stairs up to our room in the dark. I brought her close to me and whispered words of comfort to her, intertwined with threats to the spectres of the dark, from the burning ferocity of maternal love. As she melted into safety, into my concerned but tired embrace, we fell asleep in the dark, my heart held in my arms and swept over by the honeyed sensation of knowing she is safe.
Twenty-four years ago, sitting with my arms around my grandmother as she wept, having fallen in the hospital toilet in what turned out to be her last months, promoted from 12-year-old to the first familiar face of comfort in a moment of fearful realisation. She told me not of her pain but of her shame. The love and protection she always had given me became a well to draw upon to quench this sudden, terrifying need for reassurance. I held her close and spoke words of love which I hoped were enough.
It started with a simple dream, a hammock under a tree…
Stuff. It’s a bind isn’t it. I’ve been accumulating it like lint for years. I’ve never been wealthy. Much like everyone else just modest gains in income, but roughly breaking even each month after consumerist drives have led me to the acquisition of a cool what-not, the must have doo-dad or the pretty, shiny thing. Stuff that keeps me in the exact same position I’ve been in all my life – treading water.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fortunate comatose position to be in – but lord knows it’s a waste of a life if stuff is all you have to show for it at the end.
In finding the boy, my soulmate (a concept I never believed in, much less daring to hope he was an actual, real person) I found a real dream. First mooted as a donkey sanctuary, where I could rest my weary head in a pretty, flower covered straw hat, it evolved into the simple idea of a house in a wood with a hammock. Security and a home in which to go the long way round for coffee (coffee via stopping for a kiss naturally). We wanted a home where we could run as close to self sufficiency as we could – green energy, harvested water and a garden to eat. We didn’t want for much, just a simple and quiet life spent with our babies and each other.
But, over the last year this dream has seemed to become ever distant with the pressures of work, the new challenges of housing a family which all of a sudden was being added to by two new girls and trying to accommodate the wants and desires of our older, more vocal brood. With these pressures come little oddities. The need for “spoiling” ourselves which, roughly translated, was just spending money on a takeaway, or two, or more a week – because of convenience and exhaustion. Little treats to myself included buying books, many of which are on a pile of books that I continue to have little time to read; items for the babies – often which are not needed but that I wish to have just in case; objets- little bits of art, ephemera and, for the want of a better word, tat; finally food – spending on what I fancied at the time rather than engaging in the tedious exercise of packed lunches or cooking what I had in (which in turn has led to obscene levels of waste.
As I say, although I’ve had the luxury of being able to sustain these behaviours, I’m not wealthy and it has been just enough. The boy, bless his heart, has quietly and without comment left me to this wasteful waistrel approach to my disposable income whilst using all his earnings to support our family and to ensure he is able to drive the many miles to collect his children each weekend. He has no space in that to treat himself.
But this accumulation of stuff has brought us no closer to the dream of hammocks by a house in the woods. It has simply given us more things to move, more things to dust and less freedom to make our modest dream come true.
I can’t even tell you where my attachment to things began, but it has been a long standing fixation it seems. I remember being a precious child about the tea chest of toys I had. My mother couldn’t afford much when we were growing up – until I was two she was a single mum, having given birth to me at 18 years old – even with the support of my adoptive father as he became – we didn’t have much for many years. Even so, I had an old tea chest, enterprisingly coated in a piece of poly-vinyl faux matt leather, about a foot and a half cubed (I recall emptying it out and sitting within it – a toy that held toys). It was full of toys – some home made such as the full wardrobe of Sindy clothes lovingly produced by my mother and aunt – many second hand or donated to us – with the rest made up of the biannual occasion of new toys at Christmas and birthdays. All in all my parents did well for us on a limited budget. The point of this segue into nostalgia is that I would cherish each and every fragment in that tea chest – right down to the broken bits in the bottom – and would never cede an item when it came to being persuaded that some of it had to go.
This continued into my adolescence when I became increasingly precious about stuff. I’d walk a portion of my two bus route across town to school to save the fare and would take to spending it on things in charity shops along the route. Things only ramped up when I remained at home and went to uni for a year, a squandered period in which I invested my student loan in clothes, things and going out – further supplementing my habit with money from my part time job. As I embarked on a career aged 20 – already with a substantial cache of crap – I left home and continued to buy, buy, buy unfettered by the criticism of my parents.
I moved several times, each time hauling a greater and greater quantity of things, moved in with partners and broke up with partners. I never allowed the disposal of more than a handful of items each time. It wasn’t until, after one break up which meant I had to store all my earthly belongings in my parents garage and my precious stuff was destroyed by a fire, that my collection was reduced.
I remember a friend of my mother’s remarking at the time that, although devastating to me, it would be liberating in the long run. I didn’t see it like that then, especially as I was aware of that friend’s own attachment to things, so I picked up where I left off.
By the time I met my future ex-husband I had less stuff and it wasn’t until our marriage fell apart and I moved out that I realised how little I had. I remember moving into my own flat for the first time, the first property I had ever owned, and scraping together what free furniture I could to put in it so my then toddler daughter and I could build a home. From this starting point I dedicated myself to filling that place, taking my solo earnings and investing them as and when I could, with pieces of second hand furniture and new bits and bobs. I did so and by the time I met the boy I had once again stuffed a space with things. Fortunately, due to his own disasters, he came with very little, so once again I got away with maintaining the collection. He even diligently moved all of this when it came to moving into a bigger house, which circumstances meant could only be a rental property, literally filling the house with all this stuff.
The time has now come where, with the arrival of our twins, any gains I’ve made in savings are being put into the luxury of maintaining my maternity leave. The dream is no closer and I have to reflect on my role, or lack of therein, in that. I cannot change my income situation and the boy does his thing to just try and keep the plates spinning. I’m certainly in no need of handouts and would not accept them – so I have to think of what I can do to change these circumstances.
In honest reflection it means I have to deal with the stuff and my need for the stuff. It has to make a contribution to our lives or it has to go and contribute for its previous upkeep by being sold. It is of such volume I’m not even certain where to start, but go it must and not for any sort of zen, tackling the clutter reason. I have to accept that my attachment to things stands between us and a dream.
Now, the last time I did a silly minded challenge to self was in ridding myself of a wardrobe full of clothes in 2016 – what a ludicrously decadent thing to be able to do – but it meant I was able to shake off my fast fashion habit (chronicled at my Quiet Radicals blog).
I’m giving myself a year, yet again, a year to turn it around. I’ve no expectation of that meaning by this time next year we’ll be ensconced in our house in the woods. What I’m aiming for is a turnaround in my behaviour and laying a foundation to make that dream a reality, to save (for) that dream.
More early morning dispatches – today I sit typing onto the laptop at 4am. An odd sort of kindness to myself, waking up in the early hours to be fully awake to feed my children, but it has helped me carve out thinking space and in turn writing space. This is time I am starting to make my own, to tap into something that is ill afforded to me in the hours where it is easier, and more acceptable perhaps, to go about the business of tidying and binge watching television.
Self kindness is something I have always struggled with. I have not been as kind to myself, by a long chalk as I have been to others. I’ve always been subject to a greater level of criticism, scrutiny and intolerance from my own view of myself, something I would not impose or even consider applying to anyone else. I’m hyper critical of my appearance – I can’t be seen dead in public without any make-up, the dimensions I see in the mirror are apparently not what everyone else sees and I worry constantly about not being a good enough mother. Even in the introduction to this blog I’ve managed to knock the fact that I’m doing my best in being a mother of twin newborns, a seven year old and stepmum to an eight and six year old, a partner, a daughter and all the other roles I strive to fulfil, and reducing my lack of time to pursue my intellectual ambitions as down to being lazy.
I suppose by reflecting on how kind, or more importantly how unkind, we are to ourselves goes a long way to answering what kindness might be.
For me, this clearly involves addressing judgement. I don’t consider myself as judgemental of others, but I am aware of how judgemental I am of myself. I’ve discussed the matter of self kindness widely with others, both in person and via social media and it seems it is as complex as anything else. One of the themes that has emerged is the link between self kindness and worth. For some of us we don’t treat ourselves kindly because we simply don’t believe we are worthy.
For some people this meant they struggled to do themselves simple kindnesses such as making themselves a cup of tea in the morning, or to make sure that they even ate during the day. For others it meant that they actively tortured themselves with the details of their own perceived shortcomings.
In my own experience it was the prioritisation of other’s needs beyond my own basic welfare – every time. Putting others first is not a completely negative thing – it is the basis of service and duty. When unmitigated self-pressure and sacrifice go unchecked and unrecognised over a long period, however, it leads to self-neglect, burn out and serious health (mental and physical) implications. Almost two years ago I found myself in a situation of burn-out and stress at work. I had been putting work ahead of my own welfare for around a year, whilst trying to balance my responsibilities as a parent and to care for a relative. I came to the point that I was almost unable to go into work – how I carried on going in is still something I am not able to explain. My temper was short, my memory was poor and daily I found myself searching for vocabulary which could not be called to mind. The worst of it was the physical panic reactions – the feeling of my heart racing, the sensation of being trapped and the inability to remember anything.
It took me a long time to learn that I deserved to be factored into my own priorities. I had to train myself in the skill of saying “No” whilst being able to reconcile this with my own sense of what was right. I took to taking little steps towards self care – giving me time for myself, starting to acknowledge my self imposed high standards and how I should let go of all my “shoulds”. It is important to note however that I started to resolve this with the help of a very talented and eminently qualified consultant psychologist. Accepting help is a vital self kindness I wish to address at another point.
As it was, when I became stressed at work, it still wasn’t for myself that I went for help. It was for my daughter, when she became the victim of my short temper, albeit just with a single snappy comment made to her, but once was enough.
Ultimately for me, drawing on my own experiences of behaviour and therapy, and the discussion with friends, my conclusion on kindness to the self boils down to two elements:
1. Recognition of self worth
2. Honouring needs and wants
And I don’t mean this in a manner of two separate things in isolation – these factors work in a cyclical fashion – one feeds the other. You can’t honour what you don’t recognise and unless you honour your value then how can you recognise it?
When it comes to honour I’m not considering devotional offerings of animal sacrifice or utilising an altar – I’m considering small ways of making sure to share kindness with yourself.
As I write I have my littlest, big twin balanced in the crook of my arm, trying to relieve her of the wind which I can hear gently growling within her belly after nursing her, as her minutes-older little sister, already full of milk, gurgles softly within the safety of her moses basket a few feet away.
Its 5.45am, just over two hours after I’ve relieved my partner for my share of the night shift. We’re working as a team and tonight I’m trying a new approach to my share of the night feeds. The last couple of nights I’ve found half-asleep breastfeeding a little trying, often ending with me dozing in bed with a child in my arms. This is a bad state of affairs – I’m more aware than most of the threat of co-sleeping – so I’ve had a think and decided a fully awake set of early morning feeds is the answer. It seems it has also given me time and headspace to create – so here I write.
In the last weeks I came to the realisation that I was thoroughly entranced by the scrolling of social media. It’s understandable I think, alongside the exhaustion of dealing with two newborns, to revert to mindless scanning of all the feeds, but it can become an exhausting and consuming process of mentally sifting words, concepts and news. It has stifled creativity in me and, although sparking ideas, has become somewhat obstructive due to its distracting ease. I came to realise that, having had months of a pregnancy so physically exhausting that it rendered me massively mentally diminished, that my faculties were back firing on all pistons and time was a-wasting. I decided on a full-blown act of self care and gifted myself the kindness of a week long break from the pressure of social media, full force cold turkey.
Kindness has become a new obsession, with the return of my capability to reflect and analyse. It seems that the threats to the world right now are rooted in a place where kindness is somewhat lacking. There is a lot of focus, globally on protectionist policies and a reduction in social provision which has seen the most vulnerable start to suffer – the news in the UK recently has reported increases in homelessness, the impact of benefits changes on the poor and increases in racism reports following Brexit. Globally the headlines have been dominated by the accounts of sexual assault and harassment, looming threats of nuclear war and mass manipulation of people and democracies using covertly collected data through social media. The world has become a dark place, without redeeming features.
This is a bleak setting in which to be nurturing new life, so its understandable that my brain might be reaching for answers to this darkness. Kindness, that most basic sign of the good that permeates humanity, is the easiest to go to. It leaves traces everywhere.
I’ve been lucky over the last six weeks to have benefited from kindnesses of several kinds. The kindness of strangers – the cheering comments of other social media users on the days when new baby exhaustion has been grinding; the kindness of personal values – the anaesthetist flying in the face of accepted practice by insisting I have the support of my partner’s presence as the doctor administered the terrifying spinal block needed for the birth of my children; and the kindness of love as my partner set aside the suffering of full blown ‘flu to ensure I did not have to deal with around the clock feeding alone.
This is all such great fortune and I know that in this I am supported by so much advantage and privilege. This is not the norm for so many people. In fact structures and systems in this world mean that so many people are exposed to discrimination, cruelty and exploitation. I resolved to set my mind to kindness, to understand how kindness might become a revolutionary act, how, with intention, kindness might change the world, starting small and growing outwards.
I am doing my own stepping forward, if only in trying to lead a more deliberate live of love and kindness…
Trite isn’t it. The idea of once every year the cliché of fresh starts. A barrage of fitness posts on social media, healthy eating tips and resolutions to effect change are abounds. Predictable, dull.
But in this world, this world that is so very different to the world at the start of 2016, normality is no longer predictable. In point of fact the world is becoming a darker and much more terrifying place. What we learned from 2017 was that in the war between good and evil is that a) evil is something that is contested and not agreed upon, no matter how similar it is to commonly accepted reference points from the past (I refer you to the ‘good folks’ mentality of the American right towards what ostensibly appear to be Nazis; and b) good will not always win, just because it should.
It is into this world that I have brought two new-born girls, alongside my eldest daughter and another son and a daughter I welcomed into my blended family. In these dark times I have to admit, I am afraid. I am afraid for my children. We appear to be at the precipice of epoch defining change and there are no apparent leaders stepping forward to contest that definition being written by those who would profit from it at the cost of all the precious attributes of humanity – kindness, humility, hope and shared progress. Who will stand to unite those who will not accept the sale of the world to the highest bidder?
But there is hope. There is always hope. From between the shadows there are quietly stepping forward thousands of men and women who are ready to make change. They are ready to lead – some in grand ways which might form governments – some of whom are willing to lead in the smallest of ways, making better choices at home and hearth – and neither of these types of leadership are of greater value – all world leaders begin with a home of whatever description and the better we make these homes, the stronger we make these families, the greater the chance we give the fight for good.
So, though the “New Year, New Starters” have previously been some sort of herd thought process, oft driven by consumer culture, perhaps we should see them as much, much more. These are the little manifestations of hope. Hope that we can all change and be better. Good has not yet lost.
So I apologise, with the launch of this new blog I am part of that wave of post-Christmas optimism. I am doing my own stepping forward, if only in trying to lead a more deliberate live of love and kindness, writing it out onto a message to stuff in a bottle and tossing that bottle out on to the turbulent waves of the present.