Allotment Honeymoon

Crazy about a plot of land

‘We’re gona have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and live off the fatta the land’, says George to Lennie in the classic American tragedy ‘Of Mice and Men’, a novel that I taught for fifteen years and know pretty much off my heart, along with all the themes, motifs, figures of speech and structural features. Now I also know the dream of land and why it’s so important as I walk the mile to my new allotment, with my spade at my side and a snack and drink in my rucksack.

This morning I could have written a journal for my counselling course, done some housework, gone to the gym or tidied up a bit before my daughter and her boyfriend arrive for a visit. But the lure of the allotment won out and once again I wondered up to the grassy, brambly, overgrown rectangular plot, 8 X 10.5 metres, that I can now call mine. It’s actually the council’s, but never mind that. My mum had an allotment for twenty odd years and I remember thinking it so tedious when I went to see it. She gave the kids little sections to cultivate in whichever way they chose. Abi had a flower garden, Kirstin had vegetables, Billy had a mix, and they all had sunflowers. They all enjoyed it but I used to drop them off and collect them with complete bewilderment at what the fuss was about.

My morning companion

I’m not sure what’s changed but gardening has grown on me over the years. I like to be physical and strong and enjoy working hard, and renovating the Victorian house that we bought has reinforced the sense of satisfaction when a tough job is completed. Hiring a concrete breaker and removing most of a kitchen floor (my stepson did some, too) was an absolute joy. Making concrete crumble into piles of rubble that could be removed to reveal the original brick floor which was then transformed again into modern polished concrete for a modern family kitchen made me feel productive in an act of creative transformation. I also liked the aching shoulders and the happy tiredness because I knew that part of me was going into the house in the form of my labour and my energy.

I think the allotment taps into this same energetic drive as I’ve spent three sessions now digging over grass and pulling out huge weeds and stinging nettles. I’ve piled up wood, netting and beer bottles left by the last allotmenter and sat in between efforts with my water bottle, admiring the evidence of my efforts. This morning, I munched on some chocolate covered almonds and realised that I’d got stronger as I managed to dig for an hour and fifty minutes instead of getting exhausted after an hour. There’s now a wholesome looking strip of soft, brown, crumbly soil with none of the irritating builders’ rubble found in gardens. It’s inviting, healthy and full of enormous, helpful worms, along with an extremely friendly robin who has visited on each occasion hoping to grab one.

The other allotmenters are friendly so far. My mum recalls when she started and all the others were sexist old men who told her that the last woman ‘didn’t last long’ and ‘didn’t do much’. She went on to win the ‘best kept allotment’ award for two years running so screw them! There are lots of women at the Barnby Road allotments and it’s good to see that times have changed. I do not have my mum’s green fingers but I do understand now what she loved about her plot. It’s peaceful, in the way that there is literally no sound except the fork crunching into the soil, the wind howling through the trees, a loose bit of somebody’s fence tapping away in the distance and your own hard breathing as you work up a sweat that’s more productive than any weight lifting in the gym.

I hope to get the plot cleared myself. Alan with the rotivator could do it for me for a charge of £30 but I’ve got stuck in now and I’d like to put myself into the work as I put myself into the wallpaper stripping, floor digging and wall-painting in the house. I want that allotment to have my energy in the soil and the produce that we grow. I’ve learned about green manure, plastic sheeting and where to get seeds at a discount and I’m good to go. Tim will be the shed man and the designer of an aesthetically pleasing outcome and Mum will be the consulting expert.

Abi at her Grandma’s allotment

Decisions decisions

The frozen state of instant indecision

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Over the past year, these are some of the things that I’ve told my friends: ‘We are going to adopt a dog’, ‘we’ve applied to become foster carers’, ‘we are getting an allotment’, ‘we’re planning to rescue some chickens’, ‘we’re going to Canada to see my brother’, ‘we’re not going to do any more long-haul flights’, ‘I’m going gluten free’ and ‘I’m applying for a job at a nursery’. There are probably dozens more and frankly I’d be amazed if anybody believes anything I say.

When I say the plans, I mean every word of it. But when life changes so completely and at such a fast pace, it’s almost impossible to make sensible and realistic plans. Over the last few years, we’ve gone from owning three different houses (long story) to owning and living in one, to our own vast relief (although there’s enough stuff in this house for three, and that’s another post). I’ve paid off a mortgage. Our youngest sons have both become independent. I left my teaching job after fifteen years and am now a supply special needs teacher for my local council. I can work whatever hours I like, as long as I do a minimum of ten hours a week. This new life is a big experiment as I calculate my new earnings at my new hourly rate, with no holiday or sick pay. I’m also training to be a counsellor, through evening classes at a college in Lincoln. For years I was restricted by school hours, timetables, planning and marking, and now, although still working, there’s more freedom.

First, there was the fostering idea. Through my years as a teacher, I’ve always loved the troubled kids with their pain manifesting itself in a million difficult ways. I’ve had children in my classes who shout, scream, walk out in a temper, try to ingratiate themselves with me whilst ignoring instructions or distracting the class at every opportunity. I’ve had students with challenging behaviour put into my class from elsewhere because I could keep them in the room. The secret to this is, surprisingly, to treat them with kindness and unconditional positive regard (a great counselling term). Helping these children to have a go, to trust that they won’t be in trouble, to see them realise that they will always and only be met with kindness, has always been incredibly rewarding.

When I got increasingly tired and frustrated with teaching in schools, and could finally afford to take a pay cut, I was delighted to accept this special needs work. But I can’t afford not to work at all, so fostering is out of the question. I discovered that the ideal foster carer is around for visits, pickups, school meetings and problems during the day. There’s also the indisputable fact that my husband would be unlikely to react very well to potential police visits, destruction, mess or rudeness. Nothing wrong with that; it’s better to be honest. It’s no secret that I have fewer boundaries than most people, am rarely shocked and have pretty endless patience. These qualities are ideal in the job that I’m in and I get to work with kids who need me. So that’s all sorted for now!

Adopting a dog. See above. Not going to happen. I can’t help but wonder how people DO have dogs! All I’ve read makes it clear that they shouldn’t be left for more than four hours. Does everybody get a dog sitter or a walker? Really? It’s pretty expensive to do so. As a perfectionist, I would want to be the perfect dog mum and leaving it all day wouldn’t work for me! I did go gluten free because I read that it can help with Graves disease, which I am undergoing tests for. However, the bread is the worst thing I have ever eaten and it’s not vegan, so that’s on the back burner for now. I’m sorry for people who have coeliac disease and I hope they make you better bread, soon.

Supply teachers don’t get paid in the holidays, so I have applied to work as bank staff at my local nursery. I’m quite looking forward to working with littluns again to be honest. This one was a decision that I definitely made well. Another one was planning to go to Canada to see my family over there and, other than that, no long-haul flights. In fact, no flights at all.

Having time, space and fewer financial commitments presents so many choices that it’s overwhelming sometimes! But the one thing I’m really glad I decided to do was to get an allotment and rescue some battery hens. The allotment is now ours. It’s a mess. I’ll need to take considerable time clearing and rotivating the overgrown plot. It’s right next to a field and I’ve already met the resident Mr Robin, who hangs about hopefully waiting for worms. There are inspirational plots around me for all the good ideas. I’m excited about the future raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries. Tim is excited about sprouts, cabbage and potatoes. We are both waiting for our first rhubarb moment. Being allotment and chicken parents will be a new high.

Younger me would have scoffed at this sedate life of allotment plans and part-time work. It’s not what I dreamed of as a young woman, although even back then my dreams were mostly to do with raising a family and earning enough to afford the odd holiday. I never longed for a life of glamour. Success is about being happy with a life of our choosing, not making a load of dough and wafting about in overpriced clothes in a house with a gym and a pool. I would like a gym in the house, to be fair.

Making big decisions is difficult and making these sorts of ‘how shall I curate my life now’ decisions is also a challenge. But trying them out for size, speaking them to friends and then carefully sifting through the possibilities is possibly the most fun opportunity I’ve ever had the privilege to engage in. Hurrah for midlife, allotments and rescue battery hens!

Decluttering

Hoping for space

Every day is declutter day around here. I’ve married a man who has accumulated a vast array of everything just in case it fits again or might be used again. There is a bewildering amount of stuff that surrounds him; too much, in fact, for the house. We have a lock box on the outskirts of town which is bursting at the seams. It’s full of boxes, weights, fridge freezers, tables, chairs, pictures, clothes horses, hairdryers, torches, books, elephants. cars, worlds and entire planets. I am on a mission to get rid of most of the stuff that we own but it’s a long, arduous and time-consuming affair. As for why there is so much of it, it’s one of life’s mysteries. I’m a would-be minimalist, on the other hand, and love the idea of only owning things that are useful or bring me joy. But how many of us could actually achieve this?

Starting with my own stuff seems like a better way of approaching decluttering than trying to throw out the endless galaxies that belong to my other half. So I went through some boxes today. Dressing up stuff. So many memories in there! There’s a green felt hat that must have been worn for a Peter Pan day. Also a burlesque outfit from a Christmas party with the Leicester Road Hoggs running club where we all did the can-can and then threw ourselves at the ground and rolled around in hysterics. A superhero costume that my son Will wore for Halloween one night. And finally, two 1980s floral Bo Peep bridesmaids dresses that have been in the box ever since my first wedding day 30 odd years ago. There were others but these are the two I’ve still got. It’s hard to part with the memories more than anything else. That August day with the warm sun, green grass, colourful guests laughing and joking on the New Bradwell green, my face aching from the endless smiling for photographs and so much happiness and hope. Obviously we got divorced in the end but let’s not ruin a good memory by going over all that.

Nobody needs this stuff but who throws away dressing up stuff? You really never know when you might need it again. A burlesque outfit is a good shout – I don’t know what for but it’s staying. The superhero outfit can go. Will might want it and if not it’s going to the tip. But the Bo Peep dresses will need to go. They’re massive, bouffy items that, despite the fond memories they evoke, are a drain on the brain. Even knowing, now, that they’re there, in an enormous box, is tiring.

If anyone knows of a theatre company who are putting on a show that involves an 80s wedding, a vintage fan who likes 80s stuff or a child who loves wafting around in large dresses, please get in touch. Or here they are on ebay! https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/174995193387https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/174995193387

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Don’t sleepwalk through life

Tim and I went to watch Derren Brown yesterday in Leicester
and, despite the majority of the audience being maskless dickheads, had a great time. Derren wrote the show in celebration of his Dad, who died of Covid in March, and a recurring theme was authenticity. One of the regrets of the dying is, apparently, ‘I wish I’d lived the life that was my choice, and not the life that others chose for me’. The only life I want for myself and my kids is the one we choose for ourselves.

Now, an empty nester, in a quiet house and only two people to cook for and clean up after, life has changed. It’s a wide open space of opportunity. It’s time to ask the question: ‘what do I want?’ The question itself can be scary. I am with a life partner who I love, which is great, and not everybody is in such a happy position, but what do we do to be happy and enjoy life? I suppose the thing to consider is how to avoid sleepwalking through it all.

Sleepwalkers often buy lots of stuff. Our house is full of stuff that accumulated during years and years of life with other partners for both of us.  Boxes of books, weights, paperwork, magazines, photographs, tins of paint, rucksacks, weird spiky rollers that nobody ever uses, plugs, mugs, odd earrings, Feliway, screws, tat, tack and pointless rubbish. I think the first thing to do in the pursuit of happiness is to jettison, jettison and jettison some more. Keep the things that actually bring enjoyment and chuck the rest.
Ebay is my friend. Freecycle is my second best friend. The tip is next, and the shops are only to be approached with care, and a thought out list.

Sleepwalkers keep busy all the time. It’s tempting to fill the spaces and silence of an empty nest with projects, work and social occasions. Nothing
wrong with any of them but one of the things I’ve learned over lockdowns is to sit with myself. It was hard at first, all that quietness. But I came to the
fortunate realisation that I am my own best friend and a very good one at that.  Reading, playing the piano, looking at the sky and stroking the cat whilst
listening to some music are all very worthwhile ways to spend an afternoon.  When I changed jobs I deliberately sought something with more flexibility, so that I can have afternoons off, to see my poor old parents, or rest. I could fill up my time and earn more money but I feel that money is only useful as a means to an end. It’s not necessary to get as much as possible, which links to point 1 – getting fewer things.

Sleepwalkers get really involved in social media. I am addicted to social media just as much as the next person even though I don’t
post all that often as a way of curbing the craving. I can still occasionally lose the last ounce of sense in my brain and spend hours scrolling through and
looking at the lives of people I barely know. It doesn’t lead anywhere good. I either get FOMO or a massive inferiority complex. I keep Facebook off my phone and somehow I’ve weaned off Instagram, only going on now and again and looking at a heavily curated feed, full of people who I find inspirational and who actually teach me something.

So, what to do? How do we live purposefully? I think it’s
important to carry out experimental activities and if they make you feel good,
do them again and make them happen regularly. Since I’ve had all this gift of time, I’ve played netball (can’t at the moment due to counselling course taking
place on the same night), gone for a million walks, discovered beautiful local places, learned the first part of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on the piano, read some great books, written a blog because I enjoy writing, laid in bed for whole mornings, listened to new music, chatted to friends, gone for coffee and cake, or wine and crisps, camped, watched the sun rise over the ocean and watched it set over a mountain. Life is for living. The fact is that it’s never perfect.  Our wittering minds get in the way. But it’s definitely got enough potential
for joy to stay awake for.

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Purposeful living

The Art of Failure

Making things better is the mission that drives me. In every aspect of life, I try to make things better for myself.

Making things better is the mission that drives me.  In every aspect of life, I try to make things better for myself.  Relationships, nutrition, work life, home environment, fitness and strength, education and understanding of the world.  It’s not just myself that I try to better: other people and animals are a part of my mission.  In my teaching career, I have strived to provide children with a better understanding of literature and the worlds within the texts that we read.  As a mum, I worked relentlessly to give my children a better childhood than mine, and better opportunities as they grew up.  As a friend and acquaintance, I try to support others to achieve better states of mind and happier lives.   As a vegan, I want to improve animal rights and the environment.   

Alongside these worthy thoughts and dreams, I have become aware of a subtext, born directly from my inner ‘truth’ that I must always get better.  I regularly find myself pestered by thoughts and ruminations about all the times in my life that I have got things wrong, and I haven’t known how to handle the sense of failure.   The list is long and goes back to incidents at school where I made up stories for attention.  ‘My cat has had kittens’, I told the class one afternoon, in circle time.  When a friend turned up at the house, with her mum, to buy one, the truth was revealed.  I’d made it up because I wanted the class to look at me with the ‘oohs’ and ‘aaaahs’ that other children received, with their exciting lives.  I can still feel the shame of that doorstep conversation, with my mortified mum denying the existence of any kittens, and my friend’s accusatory voice.  ‘But Ruth told the whole class!’ she persisted, disappointed and shocked. 

I don’t intend to write a list of my failures here.  The kitten story is difficult enough to confess, even now, although it happened when I was five.  There are many more.  I’ve been bitchy, two-faced, untruthful, cruel, weak and immature.  I have a failed marriage, which still bothers me.  He wasn’t the only one who messed up.  I did, too.  Many, many times.  It’s true that we were never compatible, and something was always off from the get-go, but there were times that I behaved badly and it’s difficult to live with that.

Why is it so difficult to know that I haven’t always been ‘good’?  I guess in my case there is a lot of conditioning behind that.  A Christian girl should be (insert a list of self-sacrificing bullshit).  Raised in a small sect of conservative Christianity, wearing a headscarf in church and being taught that men are leaders and women should submit to their leadership, I knew that I wasn’t supposed to feel, or express, anything challenging.  Taught that self-denial is a virtue, I learned to keep my true self hidden, and I simply behaved ‘well’ and mimicked the words and actions of others, to ensure my own acceptance and safety.  It has always felt like a terrible thing to say, ‘I failed’.  Getting things wrong is not acceptable.  I have tied myself in knots, time after time, trying to convince myself that what I did was understandable, and what I said was actually alright.  Given the circumstances, I couldn’t have done different etc etc.  ‘I failed’ has never been a phrase that I could live with.  It has seemed like a pointing finger – pointing to damnation and self-loathing.  In trying to forgive and accept myself, I have exhausted my frazzled mind attempting to justify and explain away my mistakes and wrongdoings.  When asking myself, ‘Am I a good person?’, I find that the failures make the answer a firm ‘no’.

Until this morning.  As I bumbled about, getting my breakfast and cogitating on the previous few days, analysing everything and anything as usual, something changed in my thinking.  I considered a recent failure, and instead of trying to justify it to myself, I said aloud, ‘I failed’.  The world did not change.  I said it again, with a growing smile: ‘I failed’.  It was strangely freeing and acceptable as I found myself accepting that failure is human.  We can be glorious and we can be diabolical.  I have been glorious and I have been diabolical.  We all fail.  Instead of justifying and explaining, I accepted, this morning, that I sometimes fail, and that’s not great but neither is it a disaster.  It is a fact.  If I wish to forgive myself, I must first acknowledge that I was wrong.  It wasn’t OK.  It was crap.  But that doesn’t make me any worse than the next person.  I’m no better and I’m no worse.  The average person gets many things wrong.  Even the most saintly type has a bad day.  So today I see my failures.  They make me human.  ‘I failed’.  And what?  It would be impossible to stop trying to get things right, to take the better path and to be the kindest version of myself possible every day.  But when I fail, I fail – and from now on, those are the times that I will put my arms around my fragile, failing self and remind myself that forgiveness and compassion are the most important qualities of human kindness, even and especially when it comes to ourselves.

Teaching, holidays and Tory stupidity

This is a ramble about breaking up for Christmas and the mental space that accompanies that.  Every time a term ends, I feel weird for the first few days of the holidays.  Often, the weirdness is accompanied by illness.  Everybody likes to mock teachers for our apparently pathetic moanings, holiday ailments and constant tiredness.  But it’s an experience common to most, if not all of us.  And the reason is that we go from fast and furious, bustling busyness to mental silence, overnight.  The adrenaline continues to pump, the cortisol levels are up, and the only thing to stress about is, in my case, vegan Christmas dinner.  So the adrenals are pumped and primed for constant fight or flight, and there’s a shopping list and some wrapping.  That’s it.  The body then decides to get ill, just so that it has something to do with itself.  Orange juice, vegetable smoothies, little walks and plenty of sleep don’t seem to do anything to help.  Fingers crossed this year might be a healthy first.

Now I’ve got a day to reflect, though, I’ve decided to acknowledge the facts, in writing, to remember every year, in order to respect my 47 year old, understandably tired end of term self.  I started a new job in September, in a very different school, with kids who are more defiant and a lot tougher than those in my previous job.  I stepped back from having additional responsibility to being ‘just a teacher’, which means more lesson planning and more marking and more time in the classroom for less money.  I’ll be applying for a TLR again asap!  These kids rubbed their hands together in glee when I stepped into the classroom.  Year 10s who had had four different teachers over the past two years, had developed a self-appointed reputation as being a tough class and saw a kind, smiley new teacher, older than their parents, with a ‘posh voice’, thought that they’d have a ball.  They did.  There was paper throwing, loud singing, noise so loud that I couldn’t speak over them, a perpetually husky voice on my part and four hours a week of hell in a classroom.  The same, to a lesser extent, with two year 9 groups.

I had to ask for support from my HoD.  I felt ashamed of this.  The class were rude, obnoxious, loud and manipulative.  They’d behave impeccably when the HoD stepped into the room.  They behaved beautifully when I was inspected by Ofsted.  But the minute it was just them and me, they went wild.  Blue slips, detentions, arguments and about a hundred confrontations in the corridor later, they now like me.  At least that’s something.  But the reality is that they’ll never be a well-behaved class.  And I had to decide whether to up sticks and leave the school in despair or stick the bugger out.  It’s a very good school, outstanding in fact.  But the teachers are tough and I’m having to get tougher.  I’m from a council estate in Margate but I’ve become middle class and I’ve got used to teaching ‘nice’ kids.  This is a journey into the rougher-edged side of teaching.  I’m not going to leave.  These kids are little shits but I was one, too, and still am, deep within, and I’ve stopped being ‘posh’ and started shouting back, louder and stronger.  I hear myself yelling ‘WHAT ARE YOU SMILING AT?’, ‘HAVE YOU FINISHED?’ or ‘GET OUT OF MY CLASSROOM UNTIL YOU CAN BEHAVE’ in a way that I’ve never done before.  It’s strangely liberating and the children seem to like it.  Very bizarre.  But my lessons are still a circus.  It’s like being an NQT again.

Every morning, we wake up in the dark and try to dress in a professional manner.  We get to school and have to lead a tutor time and 4 or 5 hour long lessons with children who will do anything and everything not to complete any work.  The lessons have to be planned to the enth degree so as not to give any opportunity for unstructured talking time, which can get rapidly out of control.  There is no time in between except for a 20 minutes break, 5 of which is taken up with behaviour talks and another 5 taken up with setting up the next lesson ready to go the minute they stroll through that door, shouting and hollering like hooligans.  Lunchtime often comprises of sitting with a defiant detention completer, or even worse, a chatty one who just wants to be mates, when all we really want is a cuppa soup and some quiet.  Admin, planning and marking has to be completed outside of school time and we are never up to date.

This term my anxiety got out of hand again and I got diagnosed with severe Generalised Anxiety Disorder and moderate depression.  I’m back on meds, Citalopram this time.  It works a dream and I’m much calmer now.  Lots of teachers are on anti depressants but we rarely discuss it, because there’s little tolerance for mental illness in schools.  This is still the case, ironically, because my GP said that her most stressed patients are teachers.  She offered me time off but understood that, as a teacher, this is often a career killer.  Self-help sounds like a great option but it takes time and attention, neither of which we can afford in term time.  We either change our circumstances or change our brain chemistry.  In my case, the former isn’t an option and the latter is practical and works.

In my opinion, the only thing that will make teaching a feasible and enjoyable job again is another curriculum reform and a re-visit of teachers’ employment conditions.  The kids are bored of Shakespeare and Dickens and trying to teach this in a low ability 11 plus fail school with some kids barely being able to spell or punctuate properly is utterly pointless and frustrating for all concerned.  They love writing stories, creating characters and settings, reading relateable stories and sharing their own experiences.  Not reading about Victorian England in language that they cannot access.  I feel sorry for them and was delighted when said Year 10s announced that Pip is a ‘wasteman’ and a ‘melt’, because at least it showed some engagement.

Most of us love teaching and are good at it, given the right curriculum, support and time.  But teachers are leaving in their droves, feeling like failures, when it’s the system that is failing, not them.

This term has been challenging.  There have been some good moments with lower school:  Year 7 and 8 are fantastic fun to teach and my Year 12 language class are equally lovely.  But the daily reality and the Sunday anxiety has been quite crippling at times and I fully understand why young teachers leave in their droves.  What should be a wonderful career is blighted by the stupidity of education ministers who know nothing about a classroom, and by expectations of achievement that are beyond all possibility, given that socio-economic status and home circumstances are far more influential in a child’s life than anything a school or an individual teacher can do.

This has turned into a rant about teaching, but sadly this term has been very much about coming to terms with a new job, and that has taken precedence over setting up a new home with my new husband.  When we need the steady income and the personal sense of efficacy that a job brings, it becomes a pressing priority, and I can but hope that the work-life balance rights itself as the new year progresses.

And to all struggling, tired, anxious and disheartened teachers out there, have a bloody good break, do whatever you have to do to get some quality time and don’t give up unless you have to.  Things will eventually get better.  They always do.

 

 

 

 

 

The many functions of running

1.  Weight Management

I started running, age 31 or thereabouts, to help with weight loss.  I’d gained a couple of stone during three pregnancies, breastfeeding and several years of being a stay at home Mum.  I ate for comfort, to relieve boredom and to reward myself for the hours of cleaning, cooking, wiping up, tidying, entertaining, comforting, teaching and training.  When Billy was 3 I went to university to do an English degree and after that, to become a teacher.  It was then that I lost weight, through healthy eating and exercise, and began a regular jogging practice.  My love of the peace and quiet of a solitary run through fields and lanes developed during this time.  The calming sound of my footsteps, the steady breathing pattern, the gentle sounds of wildlife and the rustling of grass became necessary me-time.  This really helped me to tone up and maintain the weight loss, and I built up to half marathon distance and ran my first Leicester half in 2 hours and 4 minutes (I think).  But my speed didn’t really pick up until we moved to Stoneygate and I decided that some running buddies would be nice and joined the Leicester Roadhoggs (with Jackie and Clare below).

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2.  Friendly Competition

My first training run, on a Wednesday night, was with the now legendary Jackie Brown, who is a regular winner or in the top 5 in her age category in league races and other events across the country.  She is a brilliant runner now, but then, on our first Roadhoggs run, we were well matched.  She pushed me on, being slightly quicker and much more determined, and I came away feeling exhausted but happy.  Regular training runs with other people made me quicker.

I began running league races and my first Glooston 10k I did in around 48 minutes.   I was very competitive with others of similar ability, and really enjoyed xc.  My fastest time was on the Boxing Day handicap at Barrow-upon-Soar, where I achieved a 46 minute 10k with a slight hangover.  I began to experience a runner’s high, which I only got when I pushed myself to the max.  Like a drug, it made me feel exhilarated and, when it happened, I felt as though I was floating around the course, all pain gone, no effort, totally in this wonderful, bubble-like zone.  I’d be aware that I was overtaking other runners and was smiling as I glided along.  It was incredible.  I began to chase the high and relish it when it came.

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I started doing some speed work with Roadhoggs at Saffron Lane and built up to my first London marathon, which I ran for YMCA.  I trained up to 39 miles a week and achieved a sub 4 (just).  But a chest infection kicked in about a month before the marathon and my asthma flared up badly.  I had to take a couple of weeks off and began to consider that doing that mileage as well as being a full time teacher was a bit much.  I know people who run 100 miles a week and can only admire their incredible stamina and commitment.  My problem might have stemmed from the sudden increase, due to following a training plan, and a more consistent pattern would have been better.  I also became obsessive about maintaining a low body fat percentage, counted calories religiously and worked out every day, always worried about loss of performance or weight gain.

Deep Connection

Shortly after this, my daughter became ill and many troubles began at home.  She developed an eating disorder and ran to shed excess calories.  There were two awful years and I undertook the steepest learning curve of my life.  Supporting her through the ED was the most difficult thing for a parent to do, and I tried to do it well.  There were many failures and difficulties on my part but she persevered in her recovery and she taught me how to help her.  She got good help eventually and, in turn, I began to recognise my own problems with food and exercise.  During this time, albeit for negative reasons, she got very good at running and, as she recovered, she used this ability to set herself the goal of completing a half marathon.  Running over the finishing line with her was one of the proudest moments of my life.  She’d experienced rock bottom at such a young age, had achieved so much recovery, ran her half in just under 2 hours and, most importantly, raised several hundred pounds for BEAT, an eating disorders charity.

Kirstin and me

During these difficult years, several good friends forced me to go out running, and it served as a kind of therapy.  But three years after the marathon, my marriage was over and I was a single parent on anti-depressants.  I completely lost the urge to run beyond a jog.  The pills made me calm, relaxed and clear-headed.  They were definitely worth it for the benefit to my mental health, and helped me to benefit from counselling, but I gained over a stone in weight as I addressed my obsession with dieting and found ways to manage my now very different life.  My metabolism seemed to have slowed and I felt bloated every time I ate.  On the plus side, I went from crying for hours on the sofa every night to feeling normal.

Part of a Balanced Lifestyle

My full recovery to pill-free mental health took a year, and during that time I ran my second London marathon.  But it was a different animal this time.  My training consisted of one long run every Sunday, up to 20 miles, as I ambled along from Stoneygate to Billesden and back again, thoroughly enjoying the view and the experience.   My weeks were too busy to run.  I struggled to find time between working full time, running around as chauffeur to my youngest, and conducting a long distance relationship.  I ran the marathon in 4 hours and 16 minutes, with my partner cheering me on in his rugby coach voice that boomed out across the crowds and made me feel like a champion.

Since then, I’ve maintained a commitment to running but it’s very different.  The competitive streak has disappeared and I’m genuinely happy for other people to overtake me and improve beyond what I’m prepared to commit to.  I always aim to run for 2.5 hours a week and often manage 2.  My last half marathon took 2 hours and 4 minutes (back to the early days) and the only way I’d get quicker again would be to lose the stone and train more.  The thought of doing that fills me with gloom.  My latest health check revealed that I’m in excellent shape.  My diet is good and I’m happy and healthy.  I no longer count calories and I eat to nourish my body and mind.  Nowadays, it seems unnecessary to get all worked up about improving my speed.

So I run a few times a week, because it’s enjoyable to explore the lanes and fields, to hear my breathing, to feel the mind-body connection and to enjoy my physicality.  My long runs are slow ambles for 6-7 miles, more if there’s a half or a big event coming up.  I enjoy doing 5k fundraisers, like the Louth Run for Life, with Tim.  I do yoga most days, which would have bored me to tears previously.  Meditation has become part of my overall self-care, and I’m much better at acknowledging how I feel, what I need and where to find support as well as when to give it.  And when I occasionally feel energised enough to push myself, like I did at the Hungarton 7 2017, I still get the runner’s high.  It’s great when it happens, but I don’t chase it, because life is sweet enough to go without.

 

 

A teacher is, first, a person

Packing up my house contents for the second time in two years means re-visiting the memory box.  It’s more interesting than Ebaying vintage die cast cars.  In my memory box, I found things I’ve kept since the age of 10.  My school projects (that my Mum did), cards and letters, and my signed Clarendon House Grammar School for girls blouse, covered in scribbles containing advice such as ‘watch out for the boys’ from when I was 14 and about to move to Milton Keynes.  I did watch out for the boys.  I bloody loved them.

Some excerpts from my diary age 14-16.  I feel they show my development:

Maths – ah oh!  More algebra – I HATE the stuff!

Pete’s got his eyes bandaged ‘coz of welding with no wotsit.

I’ll write out the Greatest Love of All now OK?  (and did)

PS I’m badly in love.  I’m only 14 but I swear to heaven that this is love.  Sorry, I don’t swear, but I’m positive that I’m IN LOVE.  AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!

(in mirror writing) I’m going out with a boy called Jason.  He’s black. 

Last night Mum, Dad and I had a massive WAR over Shaun.

I love Wig more than I did Shaun, and if I love someone, I’m not just gonna give up.  It really isn’t so unreasonable at 16 to want a boyfriend.

In 10 mins I’m going!  Breaking out at long last – I can’t quite believe it but I think it’s gonna happen!  I’ll write back later.  I’ve written Mum a note.  She’s playing with Jonathan – I’ll slip out soon.  Man am I scared!!  Hi.  It’s 11.10pm and I’m back.  Wow I did it!!

Dad blah blah blah mum moan dad wants to meet Wig to tell him off dad don’t respect Wig cos he won’t finish with me no pocket money and they’re selling the piano.  Wow that did hurt.  The piano goes and my main life goes.  I’m not joking I’ll be depressed without that piano I need it it’s part of my life.

Hi.  All I’ve done today is talk to teachers.  First, Mrs Lawrence was persuading me to stay on the 6th form because she said I’m too intelligent HAHA and I’d be bored doing typing.  Thing is I really want to earn money and be independent.  I think in my situation that would be good.  Later on Mr Andrews said the same thing and we had a really long talk about Mum and Dad and Wig etc.  He said he’d come across very religious people in a Christian guest house who based their whole lives on the bible and so he could understand Mum and Dad.  I didn’t slag them down at all and Mr Andrews noticed that.  He said he’d heard me talking to Ceilidh and she’d said ‘Oh you just oughta tell them to ____ _______’ and I said ‘yeah but they mean a lot to me’.  So he said he wouldn’t know what to do. 

Every day I’m gonna say whether or not I stuck to my diet.  I did today.  Had 952 calories.  Exercise – walked in woods for ages and did some exercises to my fave songs for half an hour.  Cor Richard is nice.  I’m getting badly behind with the Bible and prayers and it is showing.  I am HARD and COLD again and at the mo I’ll fall in lust and be besotted and GIVE IN if anyone pays me any attention so I MUST pray hard and read the bible even when I don’t feel like it.  See I’m eyeing Richard up and I’m neglecting bible and those two factors make things very dangerous indeed. 

I’m in a bit of a mood.  Mr Mawer called me to this office in Maths.  Said about my denim jacket and I argued a bit and he arranged for us both to count how many people in leather or denim jackets.  He won the argument but he’s ok he was really nice and I like him now.  Then after that he asked me about the time Nicole offered me crack.  I didn’t know how he knew.  Paul takes drugs too and I say it’s up to him if he wants to. 

So it seems I liked my teachers and talked to them.  I don’t remember any of that.  I was kicked out of school half way through sixth form due to doing no work and spending most of the time skiving.  I hung out at people’s houses or on the field mainly.  I didn’t see the point of school any more and I started drug taking.  I think I was depressed.  I never knew it at the time, or for years later, or that I had a significant eating disorder.  It’s so obvious looking back.  I was troubled and anxious, eager to please and attention-seeking, upbeat and positive, and I wish I could talk to her, the girl in the diaries, whenever I read them.

I realise now that that’s what I do when I teach.

My latest set of cards, on leaving my current teaching job, will probably always move me.  I have so many cards from vulnerable kids.  This letter is a couple of years old and already getting tatty from being in my memory box.  So I’m going to write it out as for me it proves that my life has become meaningful and my early experiences have formed my understànding.

I’ve been seeing a counsellor for my diagnosis of what experts call “Being a miserable fucker” for going on 5 years.  When I finally mentioned it to Mr P, he was nothing but understanding and reassuring.  He told the rest of my teachers, and a few of them even went out of their way to awkwardly ask me if I was okay.  I appreciate their good intentions, but you were the only person who managed to say it and sound like a human being at the same time, and as you regrettably may know from your own experience, that goes an incredibly long way.  You were always a great teacher, but I can’t thank you enough for being able to show empathy to somebody that at the time, desperately needed it.  As it stands now, I’m both improving of my own accord and seeing a clinical psychologist, so fingers crossed for the future not being quite so grim.  If I told you that you made learning fun I’d be a liar, but you were and are still a real inspiration, if not in English or Critical Thinking, then as a person.  For a school that seems so full, it sometimes feels hard to find other human beings – for offering support, mercy and kindness when I needed it, you easily count for ten in my books.  I hope this letter can convey at least a fraction of my appreciation, and I wish you all the best in future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The inconsequential and the meaning of life

Little things over the years have included: my son jumping into my car to fetch his bag, accidentally sitting on the handbrake and rolling the car down the road, damaging the door badly (April 2014), me writing off a car because I drove it very quickly through a ford, for no logical reason (March 2003) and a car being stolen from outside our first house (1993).

These things were very stressful at the time, with phone calls galore, insurance claim wrangles and unexpected expenditure.

Bigger things have included negative equity (1995), moving to Japan for several months with two small kids (1997) and training as a secondary school teacher with three (2005).

The biggest things have been falling in love (1992 and 2015), having children (1994, 1996 and 1999), getting divorced (2015) and my daughter’s bulimia (dates are a blur).  The trouble is with Generalised Anxiety Disorder is that there is little difference in the stress levels between the levels of perceived threat like financial loss and practical inconveniences and the biggest, most life changing situations.

I had a moment today, though, when I got a blinding moment of clarity as I was driving home from Aldi.  I have these sometimes, pootling along through life, and BOOM there it is.  Sudden awareness and a spine tingling, tearful moment of pure joy and gratitude for the insight.

For the last four days I’ve been stressing (nothing new there) about my buyers suddenly announcing, last Tuesday, that they wanted me to complete decking as a condition of their offer.  They told me that the estate agent should have told me.  It wasn’t on the offer, nobody had mentioned it before, and the estate agent denied all knowledge.  I had promised ALL my house viewers, upon viewing, that if my buyer wanted decking I would do it, as the garden is half finished.  But she never said that she was going to offer, never mind that decking would be a condition of that.

I’ve got two weekends left in Leicester before going away to Scotland to get married and then, hopefully, completing and moving.  So it isn’t much time!  I told my solicitor that the buyer can have decking but will have to pay a further £1000 to cover the costs and the inconvenience.  She already got £13000 less than the asking price.  I haven’t heard back since last Thursday.  She texted me today to ask if everything is ok and it seems that her solicitors haven’t passed on any message.  I’m wondering if the sale’s going to fall through.  I need to move by September as my new job starts then, and blah and blah and yadda and yadda and the full screamo band of crappy nonsense was skadoodling around my poor, addled brain when I remembered, with a smile, an earlier phone call from my daughter, pictured above as a cute little babby.  She wanted to catch up about life and talked a while about her Summer job.

After completing her first two years of a degree course at the University of Durham, my girl has secured a Summer job prior to going to Germany then France for her year abroad.  She has just started work as a National Citizenship Service group leader, working with a group of 16 year olds.  She was tired and a bit frazzled after a weekend at an outdoor camp, and long working hours, but feeling engaged in the role, chattering enthusiastically about managing the youngsters and clearly enjoying their company, their talk, how they share their problems and how she might encourage the quieter ones to contribute more and be less dominated by the few noisy ones.  As a teacher, I knew how she felt and how rewarding she was finding it and I loved hearing about her experience so far.

When my baby was 15, she had anorexia.  She was brave and honest and told me just after Christmas how hard she was finding her obsession with dieting.  She went to the GP, got a diagnosis, and we waited hopefully for treatment.  Anyone who has a child with a mental illness, however, will know how naïve we were.  The CAMHS waiting list was long.  The most acute cases took priority.  The anorexia morphed into bulimia, accompanied by depression, anxiety and self-harm.  She got some interim CBT which didn’t help much.  I wrote letters monthly.  I quoted NICE guidelines.  My local MP, the wonderful Jon Ashworth, got involved and after a year, she received treatment and made a good recovery.

Any recovery from an ED takes time, patience, setbacks and triggers.  Going to university was difficult for her even after a year out.  Transitions are difficult times for people with mental health conditions.  I know that even more as I now realise that I have had similar mental health issues for years, although mine were more buried beneath layers of denial.

I’m not going to go into the hell of her ED.  It’s in the past and it’s private.  If you know, you know, and if you don’t, good.

All I’ll say is that my baby, my beautiful, innocent, precious child who I swore to protect and love forever, was hurting so badly that nobody and nothing could help her.  I felt guilt, frustration and deep, raw, gut-wrenching, soul-destroying pain.  Knowing that her pain was worse was only bearable because she needed me not to fall apart.  I learned so much from her.  Her courage and honesty led to mine.  She has become an advocate for the mentally ill and has promoted mental health in her role as president of Heads Up Durham.  She was determined, brave, even humorous about her illness.  She became my hero.

And as I drove home from Aldi, with my head full of decking, house sales, buyers, deadlines and completion dates, I suddenly remembered the phone call and I thought, ‘she is ok’.

And that – THAT – is a Big Thing.

 

Why I’m chegan and proud of it

People hate chegans more than vegans.  They say ‘you’re the worst vegan I ever met’.  They say ‘you can’t have that’.  They despise us.  They’d rather encounter a preachy, perfect, peachy skinned health blogger holding onto a kale smoothie and prophesying the doom of the planet.  But despite the hatred for my kind, this isn’t a grovelling, snivelling apology to the righteous among us, the ‘level 5 vegans’, those who ‘never eat anything that casts a shadow’.  For a start, veganism is like religion: you can never do it perfectly.  If you ride a bike, your tyres are probably made with some sort of animal derivative.  If you breathe the air, you’re breathing in the suffering of animals somewhere.  You’d have to dig a hole with your bare hands and hide in it if you weren’t going to contribute to animal agribusiness in any way, shape or form.

So it’s impossible to be a perfect vegan.  But a proper vegan, worthy of the title, does everything within their power not to contribute to the use of animals.  This is a worthy goal for the animals, the environment and the human psyche.  I was one for around 7 years (probably not consecutively) and now I’m officially a chegan.  The seven good years were pretty much down to my daughter, a fully fledged, paid up member of the proper vegan club, who is worthy of worship and adoration and doggedly persists in her vegan ways, converting the most entrenched meat eaters with her rare combination of intelligence, charm and irrefutable logic  However, she’s been away at university and without her, my angel, at my shoulder, I find myself falling into the hands of the devil.

I only contribute to animal suffering once or twice a week.  I only use the slave trade now and again.  I’m only responsible for the separation of calves from their mothers and their subsequent slaughter at the hands of the veal industry when I eat the occasional block of cheese.  I am aware of how vile the dairy industry is and yet I choose to eat cheese sometimes.  It often repels me and attracts me simultaneously.  It’s addictive yet revolting, tasty yet scummy, irresistible yet – there’s no alternative for this one.  It’s just irresistible.  To me.  Once or twice a week.

The transition from vegan to chegan only happened at Christmas 2015, when my fiancé and I hired a house for all of our families and there was a large cheeseboard.  Previous to meeting my fiancé, I often didn’t encounter cheeseboards and, when I did, I was sufficiently immune to their temptation, having gone years without.  But something about the presentation, the people around me nomming on it, the combination of relief that our first blended Christmas had gone well and the exhaustion of planning it all, led to me, alone, in the dining room, scarfing down pretty much the remainder of the cheese.  The next day I was ill.  But the damage was done.  I was re-hooked on the addictive, creamy, vile substance derived from the suffering of bovine mothers and their enslaved babies.

I’d love to substitute cheese for olives, or hummus, or whatever I did before, but ever since that first taste, I can’t.  Now I’m with Mr Lishman, cheese features in the fridge at least twice a week as he brings it with him to my house and he usually has four different varieties of it at his.  He has made the significant transition from a fully omnivorous Lincolnshire country gent to a happier and healthier pescatarian weighing three stones less and feeling great about the change.  So, given that relationships involve compromise, I suppose I have an obligation to go chegan.  No?

I tried some vegan cheese from Sainsburys and, in fact, made a yummy macaroni cheese dish with it.  But this initially positive experience coincided, later that night, with the worst sickness bug I’d had in ten years.  Twenty seven vomits later, the idea, image and smell of that coconut-derived hell has seared into my memory and ensured that I never touch a vegan cheese again.

So I do my best.  I eat vegan most of the time.  If somebody makes a cake and brings it to work and used an egg in the mixture, I didn’t buy it, I didn’t make it and I didn’t ask.  If I eat the occasional half pound of cheese (I don’t eat dainty slices), I’m not going to apologise to everybody in sight as they eat their chicken salad, pulled pork burger or steak and chips.  I do more than most people to reduce the land used for animal agribusiness.  Vegetarians use a quarter of the land that omnivores need and vegans an eighth.  That makes cheganism a few steps away from perfection, which of course would be non existence.

As humans we’re all bad for the planet and we all leave an eco footprint.  I’m done trying to be perfect.  So, chegan haters, stick your plate of ‘happy meat’ where the sun doesn’t shine, go to a quiet spot somewhere and deal with your own planet damning habits before you say another indignant word about mine.

 

 

 

 

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