A Lady Called Anabel

I met Anabel a couple of weeks ago, the day before our current Corona lockdown. She was selling The Big Issue on Buchanan Street. At first I thought she was handing out fliers for some show or other – she had a theatrical look about her. But no, it was The Big Issue. I bought one and we got chatting.

She’s kind of…unique. Tiny, bird-like, seemingly fragile and yet incredibly strong. As with anyone who finds themselves homeless and on the street, she’s been through a lot. But meeting her was the highlight of my day. Not because her resilience impressed me, though it did; nor because she was so open and friendly and brave, though that too. It was an indefinable something, a connection I felt the minute we began to talk. You know that way when you unexpectedly discover a soul mate and everything they say makes complete sense and relates to something in your own life…

Moments like that seem part of a different life now. Now that we’re stuck at home keeping our distance from everyone else. I have to confess that I didn’t personally look upon it as much of a hardship, being a somewhat anti-social character not much given to hanging out in pubs and other crowded noisy places. So staying at home and not having to feel guilty about it actually suits me just fine. Or so you would have thought.

Truth to tell, unsociable sod that I may be, I’m not really very good at it! I find I miss having places to go, things to do. Even when I’ve had to force myself to get up and out, it’s always worth it in the end because there’s always that unexpected conversation or chance meeting – like the one with Anabel – that takes you out of yourself and reminds you that humans are indeed social creatures. Even me!

So there I was last night banging away on my saucepan doing the Clap for Carers with all my might and feeling that sense of involvement with all the other people who were out on their doorstep doing the same. We waved at each other before we stepped back inside. It felt good to be connected.

And this morning, for some reason, I’m finding the way cleared to do what I’ve been putting off for a while now – write in this blog. It’s not a big thing, but when you keep putting it off it becomes a huge barrier. And when normal inertia is added to the thought that now you’ve got lots of time and no excuse not to get on with it, it somehow becomes insurmountable. But I tricked myself today, I just started writing before I had time to think about it.

And there you are, I’ve managed to conjure up some thoughts about my take on the catastrophe that’s obsessing the whole world right now. It IS like being in some apocalypse movie – things were different before and may never be the same afterwards, who knows? But I’d like to think the afterwards will encompass taking a walk down Buchanan Street and finding Anabel firmly ensconced in her pitch just outside the House of Fraser selling The Big Issue in her utterly charming and unique way.

Click this link to read about Anabel, by kind permission of The Big Issue and the lady herself.

Anabel, 65, House of Fraser, Buchanan Street, Glasgow

 

What Defines Us?

If I had made a New Year’s resolution to define myself as a weekly blogger, that definition would be in the bucket already as its been a month since my last post! Just as well I didn’t make any resolutions then.

I find myself quite hard to define – grandmother, mother, sister, babysitter, friend, part time administrator, volunteer, trainer, writer, environmentalist, knitter, member of an older generation…? Truth to tell there’s no easy one-size-fits-all word I can find that would sum me up to my own satisfaction. Choosing between those possibilities would ignore all the others and would seem inadequate as a definition. I suppose really I rebel against the idea of receiving a label and being put in a box.

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The title of this post has been borrowed from a book I just read, “What Defines Me” by Amy Kingham (daughter of a friend of mine). The story (among other things) concerns a young woman who is diagnosed as bipolar, which becomes an all-consuming definition of who and what she is, and how her family and friends engage with her and she with them. In the end she comes to the realisation that who you are isn’t to do with what label society has given you, but more about what you do, the actions you take. Because, no matter what your label is, it’s what you do that defines you, reveals who you are, what you feel, what you believe.

I think this was brought home to me very strongly when I was exploring the lives of my parents earlier in this blog. The idea that the people who, as children, we relate to as Mummy and Daddy have a whole other life apart from us, a history that we only really glimpse in old photographs, or in the – highly edited! – stories they choose to tell us. Perhaps when we grow up we can come to see them as fellow adults, get a different perspective and start to understand better how they relate to the world as people in their own right. Perhaps we never really reach that point.

Take my mum. I couldn’t say that I ever had that kind of easy relationship some people describe where their mum is their best friend. No matter how much I tried (and perhaps I didn’t try hard enough) we never reached a way of connecting with each other on an equal footing; it was always that parent and child dynamic. Even when I was decades in to my adult life and had children and grandchildren of my own, visiting her at home always felt like stepping back into the past. It was as if she couldn’t escape from the definition of herself as “Mummy” and couldn’t resist judging me, telling me what to do, approving or disapproving of my actions. And of course I would mentally slip into rebellious teenager mode and so the unacknowledged cycle would continue.

I’ve just noticed that I didn’t include the word “daughter” in my list at the top of this. On the one hand I’m not a daughter any more as my parents are no longer with us. But it’s problematical, that one. For me it contains a whole world of expectations that for large parts of my life I found myself unconsciously resisting. This was because I felt I was part of a kind of family conspiracy where we had to present a front to the rest of the world about what kind of family we were. Things like “don’t mention your father is a bus driver” or “you are as good as anyone else”.

Of course the other side of that coin is that you don’t feel free to just be yourself, warts and all. You can’t do anything that would reflect badly on your mum and dad. Most of all, you don’t share things with your parents, or anyone else, because you are frightened of their disapproval. And that carries on until well in to your adult life.

I may not have actually rebelled as a teenager, but I did eventually come to a – rather wonderful – realisation. Which was that whatever the failings of my relationship with my mother (my dad had by this time passed away), I could choose the kind of daughter I wanted to be rather than just re-treading the old well worn path. I’m not saying it transformed the family visits, but it did enable me to have a more honest conversation with myself and my sisters.

In the end, I always believed that my mum did love me, and I loved her, however problematical that was. I never felt that love more strongly than in her last days when she lay quietly in her hospital bed with life gradually slipping away from her. We’d all come to visit in her final weeks, to say goodbye. You could always see that, even if she could no longer bring your name to mind, she always knew who you were. I felt that, stripped back to the bare essence of herself, what remained was her love for her family and her trust in our love for her.

How surprising that I should have alighted on the word “daughter” quite so conclusively – I wasn’t expecting that at all when I started. And equally startling is the lack of mention of the word “wife” or “ex-wife”. There was a time, many moons ago, when I was defined as the wife of someone, or when I felt defined by the whole getting-over-it process. Today, a week after my 66th birthday, it’s but a faded memory, though I remain friends (at last!) with Peter, the ex.

It occurs to me that how you define yourself depends largely on the context, doesn’t it? In a casual conversation you tend to fit in with what the other person is expecting – “Maggie’s mum”, “Charlie’s granny”, “Brian’s office manager”. You don’t break out and reveal that thing which is actually obsessing you, despite outward appearances. For me at the moment, I’m in trainer mode for the workshop I’m going to be giving at this weekend’s Samaritans conference – should I make some final tweaks to the script; are my props and handouts ready; what am I going to wear? In the couple of months before Christmas I was frantically knitting during every spare moment in order to fulfill my eBay orders for hand knitted mittens – “eBay entrepreneur” perhaps? Right now, this moment, I’m a blogger (hooray!)

As I get older, I’m not really that interested in labels. I know what the truth is – I’m me, and as I said in my New Year blog, my greatest desire is to be as true to myself as I can at each and every moment of each and every day. Sometimes I may be defined by overwhelming sorrow, or concern for a friend or the harassment of a work deadline. But as George Harrison said “all things must pass” and I know that sadness or wisdom or joy will be embraced and absorbed into my being and become part of that definition of self that is constantly shifting and evolving as I journey through my life.

I suppose I’m a fairly private person, but I’d like to think that the people who matter most in the world to me can see beyond any easy labels and know that for all my shortcomings the definition I’d be happiest with is this:

Someone who is capable of love.

 

My non-resolutions for 2020

I don’t like making New Year resolutions, they just seem like a list of ways to fail in the coming 12 months. Or, more accurately, by the 3rd of January! Apparently just 8% of people keep their resolutions, did you know that?

Anyway, I already don’t smoke or drink (never have, never wanted to); I walk or use public transport to get about (don’t own a car); I recycle everything I can, always have. As you can see, I’m perfect already! Ha ha ha, excuse me while I roll about the floor laughing at this ludicrous notion.

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Anyhoo. I can’t get away from the fact that the turn of the year is nevertheless a time to take stock and re-evaluate your life, to clear the decks for the new year to come. And if you’re like me, to berate yourself for projects left undone or never started, time wasted, clutter collected, all my best intentions lying in ruins at my feet.

Really? Well that’s what it feels like. Never mind that I did a big clear out before Christmas, took a whole pile of stuff down to the charity shop, caught up with my to-do lists, wrapped up and sent home made gifts to my family… That’s all very well I tell myself, but what about all the stuff I didn’t do? The blog left untouched since last October, the workshop I should have written by the beginning of December, the friends I meant to have lunch with and didn’t… Now that list literally is endless!

endless

It’s not all doom and gloom, well it is, but not because of the undone stuff. As I went to bed on Hogmanay (way before the bells by the way), I did allow myself to resolve (as I have for several years now) that in 2020 I would carry on striving to be more true to myself, not to be diverted by irrelevant stuff, whether of a physical, mental or spiritual nature. And therein lies the potential for the doom and gloom. Because of course the question then arises “Who AM I anyway???” Aargh!!!

But, dear reader, there is a small candle of hope in the midst of all this endless introspection. It comes in the shape of a Prayer for the Day which caught me unawares as I was texting/messaging New Year greetings to all and sundry while Radio 4’s Today program played in the background.

This bishop chap started telling us how during a new year retreat years back, he’d been given the task as a spiritual exercise of writing his own obituary. Once he’d got over the thought that it was a rather macabre thing to do, he discovered it was a really helpful way of forcing him to reflect on what it’s worth spending time on and what it’s not. What he really cared about and what he didn’t. What’s worth fighting for and what’s not. What, in short, he’d want to be remembered for.

And just like that, I had suddenly found the right questions to ask, a helpful perspective. So, I can do no worse than finish by repeating Bishop John Inge’s New Year prayer, in the hope that it will inspire me (and perhaps you?) all the way through 2020 and beyond:

Loving God, give me the grace to make good use of the time given to me here on earth. In the coming year, give me the wisdom to know how best to use my time, my talents, my energy and my resources. Help me to discern what it’s worth spending time on and what is not; what I really care about and what I don’t; what it’s worth fighting for and what is not.

Amen.

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Mothers Day & Two Years of Blogging

I started this blog coming up to Mother’s Day 2017; I write this one on Mothering Sunday 2019. Didn’t really know back then what the blog was for, other than a desire to share what was in my head. I am somewhat surprised to find, looking back, that I have actually carried out what I intended to do – write about family ramblings, history and observations. I don’t even need to edit my “About” page – except to note that I’m now 65 – as it’s pretty much what I would say today.

I don’t know why I should find this so surprising. I suppose its reassuring to find that I can look back on my 60-odd posts with a degree of pride, and realise that it was probably in me all the time to write consistently and regularly, instead of my rather sporadic attempts in the past. I suppose there was a fear at the back of my mind that I’d make a start only for it to peter out after a while. But it hasn’t. I have what you might call a body of work behind me now and I no longer worry that I’ll run out of things to say. I have screeds of topics lined up that will keep me writing for weeks, months, years to come.

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Some posts almost write themselves, pop in to your head practically fully formed. Others (like this one!) are more of a process of discovery, of delving into one’s skull to try and find out what it is I want to say about a topic. Even when there’s a lot of research, there’s always the question of how to present it, what to leave in, what to leave out. Because I’ve realised that the way you tell a story reveals much, above all, about yourself. You don’t necessarily write it all down, but the process forces you to examine and perhaps re-evaluate what you thought you knew. If you are delving into the past it’s almost inevitable that you will find pain and hurt, whether its your own or someone else’s.

I’ve mentioned before that my intention here is not to uncover dark secrets, but rather to appreciate better the circumstances that made people – and yes, myself – who they were. And more than that, to understand and forgive. The stories, the facts, are always fascinating, the truths universal, and, I venture to suggest, worth sharing!

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I have to confess I felt a bit bereft when I recently came to the end of what turned out to be the 10-part saga of the history of my childhood home. I’d imagined it would be worth two or three posts when I started, but once I got into it…! And the latter part of course was largely about my mother, whose story, for more than half of her long life, was inextricably entwined with that of our house.

And yet she left it without a backward glance. I always felt, in that time when she became confused and lost the ability to safely be left on her own, that it was a kindness that her brain had drawn a veil over that period. She didn’t know it, but we sisters took over the care of the house from her, cleared it out, gave it a fresh coat of paint and, not without some considerable soul searching, let it pass on to someone else.

The one thing my Mum never forgot was her love for all of us. Names would come and go, but those feeling were at her core. I could (and probably will!) grumble on about the shortcomings of my upbringing, but at the end of the day none of that matters any more. I read once that one’s parents’ shortcomings are what make us who we are. I really hope that’s true because, though we do our best, we’re only human and we all fall short in one way or another. I never cease to be grateful and proud of the amazing, delightful people that my own children have turned out to be.

In the end, what matters to me on this Mothering Sunday is the love of my children and grandchildren and the infinite tenderness of my memories of that singular woman who was my mother.

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Blog, Book or Burial?

Well, blog of course – you’re reading it! Maybe bits of it will turn into a book in the fullness of time, I’d certainly like to think so. But for the moment, this blog is the perfect medium for gathering together and sharing the random material that constitutes my family – and personal – archive. And it also reflects the random way the subject matter has come to me, both physically and mentally.  The alternative would be that all these memories, reminiscences, new revelations would remain buried somewhere in the recesses of my brain, until I start losing my marbles just like my dear old mum and no longer have the ability to get it all down in black and white – or even the glorious technicolour that the internet affords us these days. The clock is ticking!

I think I’ve always had an urge to gather ideas and create something out of them. ballet artWhen I was a child, I used to make scrapbooks (sadly no longer in existence). I’d spend hours searching through old books and magazines – not always waiting for the owner to be finished with them I have to confess – hunting out suitable pictures and composing pages on themes that interested me, ballet being the only one I can now remember. scraps #9And while I’m thinking about “scraps”, I also used to spend my pocket money on sheets like this one, and collect them in the pages of a book. When the craze was on, playtime at school would see us endlessly flicking though our well thumbed books of scraps looking for doubles to trade.

And then when ‘scraps season’ was over, we’d go on to the next obsession – marbles, hula hoops, ropes made out of elastic bands. I suppose children have done this from time immemorial. I remember football stickers and Rubik’s Cubes from my children’s day and I’m sure you’ll have your own particular favourites.

skipping mural

I’ve diverted myself – so easy to do when you start trawling though Google! I wonder if you know what this is? roneoIt’s a Roneo duplicating machine, something I remember from student days in the 1970’s when I was involved in printing out hymnsheets, pamphlets, etc.  It was a lengthy, messy operation involving cutting a stencil by typing onto a sheet of heavy waxed paper and then cranking out copies while keeping your fingers crossed that the stencil didn’t tear or the machine have to be re-inked before you got to the end of your run. Said fingers inevitably ending up covered in the distinctive purple/blue ink the process involved.

roneo sheet

Having said all that, I loved this process of disseminating information – it always reminded me of the scene in the movies where the grizzled old editor would yell “run the presses” and you’d get a shot of the newspapers being churned out at high speed before cutting to a small boy in the street waving a copy and shouting “read all about it!” I know! I should have been a newspaper baron!

newspaper presses

By the time I was editor of I Spy News (playgroup newsletter) I’d progressed to photocopying. That makes it sound as if photocopying wasn’t invented until the 1980’s, but in fact a gentleman called Chester Carlston invented his electrophotography machine in 1938, way before I was born, I’ll have you know! Carlston’s machine utilised the properties of light and magnetism to make copies, but the detail I like best is that it took him a year of experimentation in the kitchen of his apartment, including several small fires and an angry wife, before he was successful. It took a further 20-odd years before Xerox started producing the first commercially viable machines, making Chester a wealthy man, so I’m sure his wife forgave him in the end.

What next? Word processing, desktop publishing, home scanning and printing, the Internet. We’ve come a long, long way since the Chinese first invented woodblock printing over 20 centuries ago. I would never have imagined when I was a child that “cut and paste” would come to mean something quite different from my scissors and glue activities. Instant communication is something we’ve come to expect in the 21st century. But I will never take for granted how wonderful it is to have a scrap book where I can draw upon a library of facts and illustrations from all over the world and have the ability in my own home to scan my precious old family photographs and share them with my kinsfolk and the world at large.

family collage