Project Awesome

Making my life more awesome

Sadness and hope

For the past few months, I’ve been seeing someone.  Sadly, now I’m not.  It turns out that it’s much harder to get a relationship working when you’re in your mid-thirties with two children and all sorts of baggage than when you’re a student in your early twenties.  And sometimes, even if you try really hard and both do your best, some things are insurmountable.

It’s been interesting though.  And enlightening.  And fun.

Stopping seeing him has made me very sad.  For a while, it felt as if all the joy had gone from my world.  Things I had hoped for are not going to happen.  I woke up at 3 o’clock the following morning with the searing realisation that he is gone from my life forever, that his interesting thoughts and perspectives are no longer available to me.  A friendship I had valued and enjoyed is lost.

However, it’s much easier to survive this knowing that it’s not the most terrible thing to have happened to me.  I know from experience that actually, with time, pain does lessen.  I am waiting because I know I will feel happy again.  And, while I feel sad now, the girls still need collecting from school.  I need to get their uniforms ready for the next day and the dishwasher still needs loading.  I find that if I keep putting one metaphorical foot in front of the other, it keeps me moving forwards.  The act of keeping our lives continuing despite my grief forces me to believe that life does continue.

And, this weekend, while the girls were at their dad’s house, I was kind to myself – and so were my friends.  On Friday night I went to a games night where we played K2 – one of my mountaineers died not once but twice due to bad luck and ineptitude – and ate chocolates.  On Saturday I met my best friend in Leeds for coffee, cake and some shopping, and then spent the evening watching Doctor Who and wishing for a boyfriend like Rory.

Then yesterday I headed into Manchester for a Quaker meeting full of inspiration about austerity, protesting and how we relate to the Tories and state power, then a Quaker business meeting and a silent vigil on the steps of the Meeting House about poverty and inequality.  Finally I joined friends for the anti-austerity march through the streets of Manchester, followed by a rally at Castlefield, hearing Owen Jones speak, and discussion on the way home with my friends about how we can bring about effective change.  Being part of a crowd of 60,000 – 80,000 people who all believe, in diverse ways and with different language, that something better is desirable and achievable, is incredibly uplifting.  Seeing so many people I know, and thousands more that I don’t, being prepared to come out and march and take action gives me a sense of hope and purpose.

My mum says that at least I can have the confidence that there are people out there for me.  I’m not so sure just now – having tried to make a relationship work with someone I really liked, its ending feels more like evidence against her theory.  Despite this, I still look back and think this has been a good experience: I’ve learnt things about myself and what I want, and how to do this relationship thing as well as I can.  So I’m moving with hope into the next good part of my life.

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Raging against the machine. And trains. And everything which is not exactly how I feel it should be.

I was looking forward to my Quaker meeting this morning.  I was eagerly anticipating the silence and seeing friends, and had planned to do some useful shopping while I was in Manchester: stabilisers for Small Girl’s new (to her) bike and some running shoes which don’t let water in.  And I’ve missed quite a few Meetings recently due to failing to get to the train on time.

Well, today the train failed me.  I arrived at the station on time, having got up early and got ready, only to find ‘cancelled’ on the display screen next to my train.  I felt outraged.  No apology, no explanation, as if it acceptable to just cancel trains – and my train at that! No replacement service and apparently no understanding that with only one train an hourto Manchester Piccadilly  on a Sunday, this constitutes a serious inconvenience.

I realise, eventually, that my anger is probably not entirely reasonable.  I dislike change.  I particluarly dislike unexpected change which is outside my control.  I perceive it as some kind of offence against the natural order of things: the unfortunate cancellation of a train becomes a breach of a social contract which almost cannot be borne.

Once I realise the problem is mainly in my head, I try to reshape my day.  No, I’m not in Manchester experiencing silence in my soul as I had hoped.  This is not a disaster and perhaps the day can be saved.  I can go to the nearest Halfords to get stabilisers – and also wander around looking at Bike Things.  I love specialist shops which sell a range of things that I didn’t know existed, and had never imagined people might need.  (I read Bikenomics recently and am now a little obsessed with the idea of becoming a cycling family.  I’m not sure how long this phase will last).  I can do a lot of that tidying and laundry-sorting and washing up which wil make the rest of the week run more easily.  I have been to the park and looked at some ducks and I’m about to sit on the sofa and watch an episode of West Wing, which is like having a very undemanding social life.  It’s not a spoilt, ruined and wasted day, just an unexpectedly different day.  I hope to train my brain to understand this eventually.

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Little by little

This morning I ran my third Parkrun.  I got a new best time, and I think I ran more consistently, and I had a coffee afterwards with someone I know and someone he knows, so it felt like a good start to the day.  This was followed by a long stint in the bath reading the Saturday Guardian magazine, and now I am lounging around in my pyjamas eating chocolate.

One of the things I enjoy about running is the sense of accomplishment it gives me, of challenging myself and meeting that challenge, at my own pace.  Often I settle into a comfortable pace and then realise I could try a little harder, run a little faster.  I suggest to my legs that perhaps we could, if we wanted, pick up the pace ever so slightly.  And then I congratulate myself on just doing a little more than I thought I could.  It’s very affirming, and I am grateful to my legs for the valuable role they play in improving my self-esteem.

I also find, in Quakerism, that sense of challenging myself to try a little harder.  ‘Advices and Queries‘ is a little booklet with a gramatically dubious title, produced by British Quakers.  It poses questions and offers advice but is not prescriptive: the introduction says that “we are all therefore asked to consider how far the advices and queries affect us personally and where our own service lies”.  It encourages me to think about where I would like to develop or stretch myself, what things I could do differently, but there is no pressure to conform.

I have been thinking recently about what I’m doing with my time and how to balance the different parts of my life, and the extent to which I see the point in doing any housework.  I was looking through Advices and Queries during my Quaker meeting last week and came across no. 26, which seemed to speak to my questions:

Do you recognise the needs and gifts of each member of your family and household, not forgetting your own? Try to make your home a place of loving friendship and enjoyment, where all who live or visit may find the peace and refreshment of God’s presence.

So things are worth doing to the extent that they increase our enjoyment as a family and as individuals.  Housework which contributes to a peaceful and refreshing environment is beneficial.  And although my primary relationship to and responsibility for Big Girl and Small Girl is as their mother, I try to do this in a manner of loving friendship as much as possible.

  • Recently I’ve been feeling that I need some quiet time to myself at the end of the day.  When Big Girl is in bed, she wants to ‘just tell me something’ or hurts herself or wants me to help her with something.  Every time she shouts to me I come to the bottom of the stairs to hear what she is saying, disrupting whatever activity I was involved in.  Usually I am doing something like hanging up laundry or getting clothes ready for the next day or loading the dishwasher.  I am not enjoying myself or having a party.  But I would like to finish my jobs in peace and, possibly, then enjoy myself after a day of caring for my children and responding to demands and complaints and needs at work.  So I’ve bought a gro-clock.  This is after only about four years of people suggesting it, so I hope friends feel I have been listening.  During sleep time, the clock face is blue and has stars on it.  When it’s an appropriate getting-up time, the face turns yellow and the sun comes out.  So when the sun is on the screen, they can ask me things.  When the stars are out, I’m available for emergencies only.  Of course, they can still climb into my bed when I’m asleep in it, but they can’t get me up until the sun comes up.  Probably.  So far it seems to be reasonably effective and I am delighted.
  • It is far more efficient to sort the laundry once a week or so and put everything away than spend ten minutes every day rummaging around for pants and socks.  This reduces stress and frees up time for playing and sleeping.  I’m planning on teaching the girls how to sort their laundry with me, although they mainly see laundry-sorting as an opportunity to roll around on my bed in the middle of all the piles of sorted clothes.  It’s a work in progress.
  • I have been asked why I tidy up when visitors are coming if I’m not bothered by the mess.  This question was posed by someone who cleans a lot and has never been to my house, but still, it’s a good question.  Now I have an explanation.  I want people to feel peaceful and refreshed when they come to my house.  I’m not bothered by my mess, but that’s because it’s mine and I’m used to it.  It’s much nicer to go to a house where there’s space to sit on the sofa and there aren’t bits of guinea-pig hay and toys strewn around the floor causing mental distress for those not used to this degreeof mess.  And there’s a tendency to equate messiness with dirtiness. I think it’s courteous to save visitors the anxiety of wondering if they may get typhoid drinking a cup of tea in my house.
  • If there are clean bowls and plates and cups ready in the morning, and school and nursery clothes are set out, there is much less shouting and much more kindness in the morning.  It’s worth running the dishwasher before I go to bed to give us a better chance of a peaceful start to the day.

This doesn’t feel revolutionary, or a work of domestic genius – just a change in focus from aspiring to external standards of a well-run house, which I could never hope to meet, to finding ways to make our routines work for us.  And if I am working towards an increasing sense of peace and friendliness, I find things run much more smoothly than if I’m motivated by an unachievable domestic standard – my children respond better.  In the words of the lovely Dr Greene*, ‘I set the tone’.

*ER nostalgia never really goes away.

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Finding space for silence

It’s much harder to find time to be silent in between getting up, getting the girls up and getting to nursery and work on time, than it is when on retreat.  It’s hard to find the energy for silence in the evening between the chaos and stress of bedtime and the desire to be asleep, not forgetting to feed the guinea pigs and take all the poo out of their cage.  It’s hard to settle into silence with thoughts of a hundred things I need to do and arguments replaying in my head and emails to reply to and plans to make.  And the more often I give up on silence to do something more urgent, more achievable, the less rewarding it feels, the less I expect it to be beneficial, the harder it is to commit to doing it.

Until Sunday I’d had the girls non-stop for two weeks, including a weekend away with the Quakers which I helped to organise, and a six-and-a-half hours-each-way trip to visit my grandparents.  By Saturday we were all tired and grumpy.  Big Girl had been a bit poorly, and she and Small Girl were arguing.  Small Girl wanted constant attention and to be cuddled and picked up, which is fine except for when I am trying to make breakfast.  Or get dressed.  Or make a cup of coffee.  Any attempts to put her off for five minutes induced crying and clinging and attempts to climb up my body, all of which made me want to hide in the bathroom and lock the door, except that they know how to unlock the door from the outside. Sigh.

So, when things were a little calmer, I thought I would try to have a little bit of silence, hoping to find a sense of peace to get me through the rest of the day.  I went to my bedroom.  The girls followed.  I explained that I was having some peace and quiet, and they were welcome to stay, but they had to sit still and be quiet – I want them to learn to respect my needs like I respect theirs, and to see how I practise my faith.  Small Girl got into bed next to me.  She wanted to sit on my knee.  I explained that she could sit next to me but she had to be quiet.  She asked me to pretend she was a dog.  I explained that she needed to be quiet while I was having some peace and quiet. Big Girl got into bed too.  She pretended that Small Girl was a dog.  Neither were sitting quietly.  So I decided to abandon my bedroom, leaving them playing at sleeping dogs, and make a new plan.

I’ve really struggled to find somewhere which feels conducive to silence, even when the girls aren’t in the house.  My attic should be ideal, being a room the girls aren’t allowed in without me, and being a lovely room, but it feels isolated from the rest of the house.  In the lounge I feel likely to be observed by passers-by, which is distracting.  My kitchen is… well, between the piles of washing up and the crap on the kitchen table, it’s not a place I choose to be.  And my bedroom is about sleeping and getting up and putting away laundry, but not about sitting in peace.  However, as I crept away to hide from my girls I found an unexpected solution – their bedroom: it has a door which shuts and it’s remarkably comfortable due to the piles of soft toys, clothes and bedding on the floor.  And it has almost no associations for me – in my mental picture of the house it barely exists.  In my mind, it’s more like a big cupboard than a functioning room, where I put the girls away at night, and store their clothes, but not a room I spend any time in.  I tucked myself away, sat and found calm, and then returned to my girls and their chaos: I’m not sure they realised I’d been away.  I visited again yesterday, while the girls were at their dad’s house, and enjoyed the silence, shut away from the world and the rest of my life – my own space for retreat.

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Retreating and returning

By fortuitous coincidence, I had five child-free and work-free days at the start of this week.  (By ‘coincidence’, I mean that I booked the week off work for the half-term holiday and then arranged for Big Girl and Small Girl to stay with their dad for half the holiday).  Between work, single-parenting two lovely but demanding children, and the effects of my depression, it’s been quite challenging recently and I felt I needed a break.  So I’ve spent a couple of nights at Woodbrooke, a Quaker study centre in Bourneville, having a bit of a retreat.

I went to Woodbrooke about 18 months ago to go on a course for Quaker parents.  I’d expected it to be worthy and a bit lentilly, but the food was lovely, the grounds were gorgeous and it had a fantastic library with lots of interesting books.  I thought it could be a good place to head to for some space and a rest.  And I was right.

A lot of my time was spent in the Silent Room, a small room with a comfy sofa and a lovely view, reading, thinking, knitting and napping.  I wandered round the labyrinth in the garden, my mind wandering and creating metaphors for my life as I followed the path.  I went to the half-hour Quaker meeting each morning but failed to make the evening one as I was already in bed by 9.30 each evening.  I borrowed ‘Creating a Purposeful Life‘ by Richard Fox from the library and spent some time reflecting on how I’d like my life to look. In the Art Room I did some drawing.  I unpicked some questions I’ve had about God and found some new and interesting things to consider.  I ate delicious food and talked to interesting people.  What I most liked was feeling part of a Quaker community – feeling accepted and not quite a guest, not quite a visitor.  There was an open hospitality – cake at 4 pm, drinks and fruit available all the time, tea bags and little pots of milk near all the bedrooms, and the library open to all stopping there, with no concern that I might take advantage of this by stockpiling coffee or stealing books.  I was slightly tempted as I was about a third of the way through a novel when it was time to leave…

I’ve come home feeling that I have more inner resources (though how long they will last before my children deplete them by arguing with me and each other and threatening to ‘never be my best friend ever again’, I couldn’t say).  Practising silence at Woodbrooke will, I hope, make it easier to dip back into when I need to at home, like a swimmer lifting their head out of the water to breathe.  I’ve had time to think about who I am and what I would like my life to look like, and space for thoughts inside my head to unwind and rearrange themselves.

I’m glad to be home again (although after three days of not cooking for myself or anyone else I’d forgotten how to cook a meal so that everything was ready on time) and so pleased to see my girls again (there’s a thing, when they come back, where I just want to pick them up and hold them and put my face against theirs  and enjoy the sensation of having them physically close to me.  It wears off.  Quite quickly) and wondering: how long can this peace last?

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Finding strength

We Quakers – I like to say this now that I’ve been accepted into membership – worship in silence.  We sit, arranged in circular rows around a table with a vase of flowers on, and wait quietly.  We are waiting, together, for God, or the Light, or the Seed, or some kind of shared spirit of love (depending on how you think of God, or if you conceive of a literal deity at all) to speak to us.  When someone feels led to share something, they stand up and speak, and everyone listens, and then they sit down again and everyone reflects on it.  Good practice is that people do not respond directly to what has been said, and that people only usually speak once during a meeting, and it is always supposed to be something you feel ‘led’ to share rather than a nice idea you’ve had, or an interesting story you think people would like to hear. ‘Quakers’ got their name because, back in the 17th century, they would often feel so strongly pushed by the spirit of God to speak that they would be visibly shaking.  And even now, while some people seem calm and confident when they speak, others are clearly speaking because they feel they must, and as they come to the end of what they have felt urged to say, there is a sense of winding down, of coming to the end, almost abruptly, of the words they have been given.

Today I spoke in meeting for the first time.  In the silence I was reflecting, and suddenly felt that perhaps I would share something.  There was a nervous, sick feeling in my stomach and some sense of inevitability – not that I was compelled against my will to stand up, but that it was what would happen.  Despite feeling apprehensive, I realised that the very worst outcome would be me giving a rather dull description of the state of my life at this time.  I looked round to see if anyone else was going to stand.  I counted to five.  I looked round again.  And I stood.

My current state-of-life is one of pressure and overcrowding.  I feel sometimes, when I’m with my children, as if I’m being nibbled away by tiny crabs.  Their demands, and my anxiety about whether I am meeting their needs, can be exhausting.  Work is draining because I deal with people who experience domestic abuse and who think about suicide and who are stuck in unenviable situations, sometimes of their own making but often not, and people who ask me to help them when I don’t always have the resources or influence to do so.  And dealing with colleagues and establishing who should be resolving problems can be very challenging.  And then my house is full of toys and mess and books I probably will never read again, and baby items I hope not to need again, and clutter and chaos.

Since starting to attend Quaker meetings I have been drawn to the idea of simplicity – something I long for with the hunger of someone who knows they are unlikely to ever find the thing they seek.  I want it more *because* it is so alien to me.  I am trying to let go of all the things which fill my life and hold me back and weigh me down in order to make space to grow into, to do the things I want to do.  I am relinquishing responsibilities that are not right for me, and which often fail to fulfill anyway.  I am trying to let go of the inaccurate ideas I hold about myself so that I can live as myself rather than as someone I’m not.  And I’m trying to clear out some of the things I no longer use so that they can be used by someone else rather than being wasted in my house.  It feels like stealing, morally rather than legally, to keep something for myself which I don’t need or want, when someone else could be getting use or pleasure from it. So I’ve given my film SLR camera, which was a very special birthday present from my parents but hasn’t been used for at least ten years, to my brother’s girlfriend and now, rather than feeling guilty about not using it, I am enjoying imagining how much she will use it.  And some other things I was unsure what to do with because of their emotional link to Ex-Husband – well, my Warhammer models have been given to a friend’s teenage son, who tried to convince his friends that Warhammer was not completely uncool by virtue of the fact that I had played it.  This may be one of the best, if seriously misguided, compliments I have ever received.  And I sold the Magic cards back to Ex-Husband.  This was a bit weird, because he had originally bought them from a friend to give to me, back when we first started going out.  So essentially he has paid for them twice.  And it was a strange to be carrying out a financial transaction with him.  But I think someone might as well be using them, and he might as well be happy, and it’s an investment in us having a positive relationship even if I could have got more money selling them on ebay.

After I shared this, I sat down and reflected on the experience.  There was no bolt of lightening, no dove descending from heaven to land on my head, no feeling of euphoria.  But I felt glad to have spoken, because it will always be easier to do it again.  And after a while someone else stood up to speak, picking up the theme of simplicity, sharing his own reflections and the quote that “a simple life, freely chosen, can be a source of strength”.  It spoke to me, and felt like confirmation that I had been led to speak.  And afterwards other people came and talked to me about their experiences and their struggles to live more simply, and I felt drawn further into this community of people moving together towards the life they feel called to.

We Quakers – it’s how we roll.

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Becoming Friendlier

Last weekend was incredibly Quaker-ish.  I had a visit to discuss becoming a member of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). I read the book of this year’s Swarthmore Lecture, a lecture given by a Quaker to Quakers on an issue of importance to Quakers.  I went to my Quaker meeting.  I went out for lunch with some people from my Quaker meeting and talked about Quakerism.  It was altogether very satisfactory.

I applied for membership in the summer.  As with most things Quaker, it’s very considered, and very slow.  First of all I wrote a letter to the Area Meeting (this covers five Local Meetings, and my Area Meeting is Manchester and Warrington) explaining why I wanted to become a member.  This letter was read out at the Area Meeting meeting (Quakers’ diverse array of uses of the word ‘meeting’ is remarkably confusing) and two visitors were appointed to come and see me: one who I know, from my Local Meeting, and one who I don’t.  The visit was arranged, and I was looking forward to it, and then Ex-Husband broke his leg, and it was postponed, and I had my operation, and felt very tired, and Big Girl started school, and then, finally, we made it.

The purpose of the visit is to ensure that I know what I’m getting myself into, that I have thought about what membership would mean, that I understand what Quakers are about, and that I have sincere intentions.  We talked about why I had started attending Quaker meetings, and my spiritual journey, and my experience of and involvement in the Local Meeting, whether I had been to any other Meetings, whether there were things I found challenging.  It was a really affirming experience – I enjoyed an opportunity to talk about myself and my experiences, and to talk about Quakerism.

Following this, my visitors went away and wrote a report on the visit, which goes back to Area Meeting for consideration.  I loved reading a summary of our discussions, and seeing how what I said had been heard by someone else – my observations and experiences as someone new to Quakerism can be quite different to those of a longstanding Member, and articulated differently by someone who speaks Quaker fluently.  Area Meeting will then discuss the report and any concerns they have, and then decide whether I can be a Member.  This may sound a little harsh, but having experienced (and loved) Quaker decision-making, I’m happy to trust that a good decision will be made well.

One thing which became clear to me during the discussion was just how much I lead a double life, and these two lives collide at Meeting like nowhere else.  To a casual observer, it may appear that I turn up at Meeting most weeks, sometimes with children and sometimes alone.  But watch more carefully and you will see: this week, alone, I arrive at Meeting on time, say hello to people as I arrive, sit quietly in the silence, and afterwards, have coffee, attend to the Meeting Library as I am on the Library Committee, chat to other Quakers about interesting things, perhaps go out for lunch with some Friends afterwards, engaging as an adult and an individual, and go home feeling peaceful and thoughtful.  Next week, however, I arrive a harassed harridan, having hurried Big Girl and Small Girl to the train station with threats of missing the train and not going, and then from the station to Meeting, trying to be patient with their interest in bridges and shop windows and trams while also wanting to arrive before Meeting starts, and then sitting in the children’s room for the first fifteen minutes (because they *really* don’t enjoy sitting in the main Meeting with all the adults), and then when the other children arrive, attempting to extract myself from the Children’s Meeting without too many tears, and finally sinking into my chair, into the silence, trying to focus and keep my mind inside the room rather than wandering to who I’d like to talk to afterwards and Big Girl’s homework and what we’re going to have for tea and a thousand other domestic concerns.  And then I set Big Girl and Small Girl up with their lunch, and try to eat my lunch, ruefully looking at what I’ve managed to scrape together for us to eat because I’m never really prepared for a packed lunch.  We usually sit with other famillies and it’s lovely to catch up with friends, and then Big Girl and Small Girl go to play with their friends, and I try to make sure I have a rough idea of where they are and if they’re safe and behaving well enough, while also trying to chat and also wondering if I should be putting away some returned library books, and still thinking about the train home and homework and dinner.  Attending another Meeting is valuable part of the process of becoming a Member, because it allows you to see the breadth of British Quakers rather than just your Local Meeting.  But for me, for the two ‘me’s, who each get two Sundays a month to attend, to be involved, and for Big Girl and Small Girl, who only get two Sundays a month at best to see their friends and participate in the community, sacrificing a Sunday at my Meeting to experience another meeting does not feel like the right thing to do.

In both parts of my life, Quakerism has become very important to me, as a community of like-minded people, as somewhere to belong, a new way of looking at the world, something which challenges and stretches me, something which gives me hope, and something which has played a large part in my transformation over the past few years.  It’s good to have found a new home.

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Yellow doesn’t really suit me anyway

Along with my colleagues, I spent most of today attempting to be motivated by our annual(ish) conference.  We had two guest speakers: someone who was involved with the British cycling team, and a former world-class runner.  This was followed by two hours of clapping endless streams of other people receiving awards, which was more than a little demoralising.

The sprinter talked about different people who have inspired him on his athletic journey, and about teamwork, and showed us a clip of him winning a race.  I imagine it must be nice to be paid to show people clips of your successes and then be applauded for them, thirty years later.  When I have an Olympic medal to talk about, I’ll let you know.

More interesting was hearing about how the British cycling team went from winning one Olympic medal in 76 years to being arguably the best cyclists in the world, and the strategy which achieved that.  Some of this was unsurprising; other parts involved reference to your inner chimp.  What stayed with me was her comments on commitment.  If you ask cyclists if they are willing to commit to winning the Tour de France, most of them will say yes.  But if you ask them to commit to missing school holidays and all their children’s birthdays, to losing pounds of weight and eating a special diet, to training for six hours a day, very few cyclists will commit to that, to what it really takes to win the Tour de France.

As soon as she mentioned missing holidays and birthdays, I recoiled – I cannot imagine choosing to miss that time with my children.  And I realised that it’s ok not to want to commit to winning the Tour de France.  Actually, I’ve never wanted to win the Tour de France, beyond the obvious fact that I’d like to win everything in the world ever.  Cycling is not my thing.  But aside from that, there are many other things I don’t really want to commit to just now.  And maybe that’s ok too.

I spend a lot of time feeling inadequate.  I don’t engage with world events much; I am not fighting poverty, campaigning about injustice, working to solve climate change.  I am not writing a novel.  All I am doing is working and bringing up children, and I’m not even doing those things well.  I only have one life and I feel I am wasting it.

But in reality, looking after a three- and nearly-five-year-old is hard.  It’s time-consuming and demands energy, and I want to do it well.  Just now, that is what I am committed to doing.  Whatever sacrifices it takes, I’m there.  I’m committed to my job, because it gives me an opportunity to make a difference for the people I work for, and even there I need to focus on doing the bits where I can make a difference and achieve something.  And I’m committed to Quakerism, because when I sit in Meeting, in silence and when listening to people speak, I believe in the potential for goodness, and I believe there is some hope.

When I was younger, I was busy.  I was changing the world.  I stayed up late talking and doing.  I was hard-working and creative and I had dreams and ideas.  And one day I may do that again.  But just now, I’m committed to the things I need to do, and the things I can do, and to doing them well.  The Tour de France, and everything else, will have to wait.

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It’s taken a while to feel I can say this without betraying everything I have ever thought

After Ex-Husband left me, and for a long time after, we argued about contact arrangements – when the girls would see him, and for how long. I *think* he had believed the girls would live with him, and that we would all be happier with that. I *think* he thought that I struggled to be at home with two children under two because I didn’t like it, rather than because it is hard to look after a toddler and a tiny baby, surviving on almost no sleep.  He did not expect me to challenge his plans, to fight the idyll he assumed he would walk into.

So for a long time we argued about what arrangements would be best for the girls, exacerbating and complicated by my grief at being separated from my children, at not being a constant in their lives, and the terrible sense that something which could never have happened, had.

And so, for a long time it was unthinkable that I could want anything other than to have my children with me. Slowly I came to appreciate the opportunities my free time afforded me: to sleep, to go out, to do grown-up things. But still, I would have preferred to have my children with me. To feel anything else would have been a betrayal of them, and of the months of fighting. And to have admitted feeling it would have undermined the credibility of all my claims that they needed to be with me.

But slowly I have begun to look forward to my free time. I miss my children, especially when I am around other people’s children. A girl comes to Quaker meeting who is two weeks younger than Small Girl: her toddle and her developmental stage are so reminiscent of Small Girl that I feel hot sharp tears when I see her and my children are gone. But there is a joy to the pure pleasure of missing them, experiencing love for them apart from the wearying challenge of managing them, feeding them, caring for them, keeping them happy and loved.

And today felt like a gift, a tightly-wrapped pass-the-parcel of treasures. After the girls were collected at 9, I headed to Quaker meeting with no real plans. There’s something about this freedom from obligations: nowhere I have to be and no-one to please, or even think of, but myself, and I can feel tension ebbing until I want to cry.

An almost-silent Meeting was followed by coffee and conversations with people I don’t know but hope might become friends. And then an unexpected invitation to lunch with Friends* resulted in a further lovely couple of hours chatting and sharing and eating chocolate brownies. And then I went to the cinema to watch Begin Again, a ‘musical comedy’ about relationships ending and being redeemed, and finding happiness in life after a broken heart. I’m not sure it will receive critical acclaim, but it spoke of where I am and where I’ve been. And I stepped out of the cinema into a warm, sunny, breezy afternoon, feeling that I have been given a fabulous present.

And then I realise I have wildly misjudged timings and I’m likely to be late for the girls coming home. I’ve had no tea, and we have no bread – and barely any food – in the house. And some little shits are blowing chewed up paper through straws at passengers on the tram. The present is opened, the party is over and it’s time to take off the paper hats, tidy up and go home. But I’m left with the sense that perhaps the universe loves me, just a little bit.

* I am probably the only person who recognises this as a joke, let alone thinks it funny. Quakers consider this a normal way to refer to others involved in the Religious Society of Friends, and non-Quakers will just assume it’s mis-capitalisation. But still, I amuse myself…

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If you see me wearing a funny black hat, you’ll know I’ve gone too far

My friend Rachel introduced the idea of Project 333 while posting about positive things on Facebook.  As I love slightly ridiculous ways of complicating my life in the name of making things easier, this appealed to me. For three months, your entire wardrobe – coats, shoes, accessories, jewellery, jeans, tops, dresses, everything – consists of 33 items.  Underwear, pyjamas, things you would never willingly leave the house in: these are not included.  This 33-item capsule wardrobe should see you through a whole season, and then you can change it to another 33-item wardrobe.  Rachel is blogging about her experience and the challenges she’s facing here.

Apparently you wear 20% of your wardrobe 80% of the time (not your actual, literal, made-of-wood wardrobe.  That would be silly.) so Project 333 aims to simplify your life by removing from consideration all the things you don’t wear anyway.  All the things which don’t fit, or don’t really suit you, or the things you are going to wear when you just lose a little bit of weight.  All those things go away, either into storage or a charity shop or somewhere else where they do not fill up your brain with choices first thing in the morning.

I like this idea.  It appeals to me because it’s quirky and a bit extreme.  I went through my wardrobe and took out the things I don’t wear.  Bye-bye skirt that I’ve never found a top to match, and which was a present from my ex-sister-in-law.  And the skirt I love but which is too big.  And the work top which is actually a maternity top and therefore doesn’t fit me because I’m not pregnant.  Some things went in a bag to get rid of immediately (or, more realistically, to put in the cellar, where they are likely to remain until I die).  Others went in a bag of things I’m not quite sure I want to get rid of, which I will keep for a while until I make my mind up (let’s face it, they’ll be found next to the other bag upon the event of my death).  I’m left with 24 items of clothes to wear: one coat, three pairs of shoes, two pairs of jeans, a skirt, a dress, work trousers and some tops, and a few jumpers and a cardigan.

One thing I’ve realised is quite how strict my demarcation between ‘work clothes’ and ‘home clothes’ has been.  I do have clothes I wear outside work which I *could* wear to work, but I’ve liked to maintain the distinction.  I’ve been resistant to the idea that I might *like* clothes which are suitable for wearing at work, thus being a real grown-up with grown-up tastes, rather than still being a student in jeans and a t-shirt.  I’m not sure I can justify having four tops I don’t really like in my minimalist wardrobe, and, well, it wouldn’t be a complete betrayal of myself to wear clothes I actually like when I’m at work.  So it’s time to do some shopping.

I’ve been thinking about living more simply, particularly since going to Quaker meetings.  And dressing simply has always been a part of Quakerism – probably one of the images most associated with Quakers is those funny hats and very plain clothes. And I have wondered how this kind of project fits with Quaker ideas about simplicity – does it focus too much on what you wear and how you look?

I think it’s possible for that to happen. Obviously there’s nothing to stop you going out and buying 33 new items of clothing four times a year.  But I hope that having a collection of clothes which is put together with more thought will mean I don’t have to think about it so much on a day-to-day basis.  And that the clothes I do buy will be better quality and, ideally, more ethically-sourced, so they will last rather than needing to be replaced.  And the clothes I don’t wear can go to someone who will use them.

So far, I haven’t felt any huge effects from my reduced wardrobe – just a vague sense that I should probably keep on top of the laundry.  But I think I’m enjoying the experiment so far.

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