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Into the dark

Heads down to the shortest day. Nine more days, then the light levels will start to lift again.

I can’t wait.

I remember reading something by Monty Don, the gardener, a few years ago. He wrote about the difficulty of gardening in that October – December slot, the time of shortening days.

(There is the dreich-er kind of comment that can be made after June 21, that ‘the nights are turning in again’. I choose not to go there. Not in June, for goodness’ sake.)

Anyway, I’m with Monty on this one. I find the whole descent into the dark difficult, though that difficulty can vary year by year, depending on what I’m doing.

In this current season, it’s working better for me. Yes, I get the kids up most mornings, but it is light before they leave the house for school.

I get my hit of daylight mid afternoon, at school pickup – and potentially at other times of the day too, on bright days. I’m not tied to a computer monitor these days – I can stop to soak it in.

So all that helps. As does a quick belt round the park before school comes out. But still.
It’s dark out there, folks. I feel the need to hibernate more as the month goes on.

Some days I get a bit of extra sleep – and yet I still want more sleep, in December. That has been a clear message this month.

So what to do in the dark times – in the belly of the beast, as it were?

Feed yourself. Grow stronger on the inside.

I’m finding myself remembering old favourite blogs, picking them out again, catching up with what the authors have been doing.

All that colouring is taking a back seat at the moment to reading, and that’s fine.

It may be dark here, but on the other side of the world, it’s summer. I can read posts about what is growing in an Australian back garden, or about whale watching off the Southern Cape.

If I want some perspective, I can read blogs where the writers are into their four- or five-month-long snow on the ground time of year. North-Eastern US, Canada, Alaska, and so on.

To be honest, it’s not about the vicarious travelling (though that can help when the dark mornings bring on more than a hint of Groundhog day here). It’s about the words.

It’s no surprise that storytelling comes up as a way of dealing with the dark. We make sense of our feelings about this time of being kept inside.

Drawn into an interior space through cold and dark, we find our way back into the wider world through stories. Memories. Recipes. (And I’m enjoying how much those food writers can write well as well as eat well.)

For the first time in years, I’m borrowing more library books than the kids.

That’s partly about them both being in school – and me having some more time to read.

But I have put down the colouring pens for a bit in favour of stories. Particularly science fiction of various kinds.

Some of it lighter, some of it more philosophical. Much of it genuinely page-turnable.

I’ve pulled the actual cookbooks off the shelves too. Maybe it’s a need for stews, soups, foods that warm you up just by reading about them. (I’m not against cooking some of them either.)

I’ve never got around to trying out daylight lamps, to help with the growing dark. I guess I’ve sought out other means of adding some light.

And of course, there are those ceremonies of light that come at this time of the year: Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, and so on.

They remind us that light can follow dark; sometimes, that light is still there, even when the darkness is particularly overwhelming.

I went into this season hoping, in part, that my own words would come up for air again. That some of them might have ripened in the cellar; might even have transformed into something new.

Not quite yet. But then maybe there is a need for some of that dark. It gets our backs up against the wall.

It forces us to say what is necessary – and, also, what we long for to change.

And that, as my science fiction reading is showing me, is powerful stuff.

 

Moments: October 2014

Having reminded myself not to worry about how often I write, I now feel ready for a bit of a Moments round-up.

Another month is whizzing by, and I feel the need to pin a few pieces of it down.

Fresh moments seem as plentiful as leaves on the tree. You think they’ll stay just fine, but turn around and they’re caught up in the wind, crunched under car tyres and the like.

It’s not that the quality of the experience goes – it’s just that I lose sight of them with the next set of leaves in front of me.

Time for a spot of autumnal nature table.

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We try a park-based playdate with a nursery friend. I smile at the two little things sitting there, essentially swapping the contents of their lunchboxes around, doing their very best sharing while also tearing through the calories.

It’s hard work, going to nursery.

We do a long overdue library trip. My back is sore. Mini is determined to use a toy buggy to take a friend along. I manage to find a working compromise, and the faithful friend rides on the top of some of the lighter books.

New foods join the table. Mini joins Junior in demanding porridge for supper. To add to the autumnal feel, there is even a sudden interest in mince and potatoes. I can only hope we might make it as far as stews when it really gets cold.

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Sickness decides to stalk us, and hasn’t let up yet.

We try to keep cheerful in different ways. A new sticker book to raise the invalid’s spirits. A made-up outing to the supermarket to occupy the one that’s well.

The bug is a strange one – enough to knock any of us for six, yet a few hours later, you’re able to be bouncing about, waiting for an outing. (At least, Junior and Mini are.)

We make our way off on holiday in the midst of it all. There are two bathrooms; extra sets of sheets. This is all very helpful when you need to clean up after the next bout of nausea.

I find my own way to rise above it all, doing the supermarket run several times over to find a place that sells chicken pieces so I can make chicken soup for the invalids.

The sun on the sea is dazzling. The fields are full of birds chasing after the plough. There are a few moments of peace, even in the midst of the task at hand, and I breathe them in.

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One of the cupboards at the cottage has a model Tracy Island. Junior is overcome with excitement, being the owner of a Thunderbirds box set.

Mini has other thoughts about what the swimming pool cover is actually for, but starts flying the models around just the same.

We make it to the beach a few times. The sand is particularly yellowy; more granular. Soon the bathtubs have a layer of sediment when we come back and wash off feet again.

I improve my skills of reversing over gravel in tight spaces. No one is allowed to sit in the car while I get it in and out of the drive. I try to avoid looking in the direction of the cottage; I am being vetted, just the same.

Meals keep changing depending on who is ill. We get through stacks and stacks of toast. Something safe for those delicate tummies. Somehow we still seem to bring back half the food I packed.

===

There are other moments to add, I’m sure of it. If I close my eyes for a while, I may be able to bring the leaves back again, before they become just another covering for the ground.

It is October, and my boots crunch over the leaves, as I walk another round of nursery and school and everyday.

 

Moments: September 2014

September comes round, and for once this year, it’s not about starting up writing again.

But it might be about not getting stuck when I don’t post for a while.

I like September. It’s often one of the best picture months on the calendar (have you noticed? Go and look at your own wall calendar and come back to me about it).

I like the sunshine without as much heat. I like the brambles (as referenced before, and once again, and so on).

I like the sense of purpose and routine – usually around going back to school – without the being completely worn out bit. That’ll come by the end of the autumn term, I know it.

One of my grannies had her birthday at the start of September. It was another reason to like it. And you should know that C. S. Lewis was a big fan of autumn – as I discovered when I read a biography of him some time back.

Here’s where we’re at this time round.

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Sunshine. Day after day of it. Sure, the temperature goes up and down, you get the coat/jumper/length of sleeve bits wrong at different points.

Part of me is uneasy at the relative lack of rain (it is Scotland, after all). And part of me is very happy to send Junior and Mini back out to the trampoline after tea. Again. And again.

We experience that early September burst of summer. Year after year, back in my office days, I would set out around Scotland at this stage in the month, and enjoy sunshine all over the country. I smile at the prospect of it coming round again.

Sometimes, the sun and the light combine in magical ways. At the mid September long weekend, it’s nice enough to go down to the sea and paddle.

Mini has already dispensed with Crocs, trousers and sleeves pushed up as far as they will go. The swell of the Forth is coming in, and I watch a certain amount of wave jumping and sand scrabbling.

We retreat when a jellyfish is washed in (just in case), but in those few minutes, I breathe easier. And we take a little seaweed home to remember it by.

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There is a trip to feed the ducks on the river by my parents. Suddenly, there is a benefit to the ongoing refusal to eat crusts.

The obligatory basket is brought out to put the crumbs in – and I learn that my mother used it as a little girl when she did the same thing. The binding around the handle is coming loose in one place, but other than that, it is the perfect size for a child’s hand to carry.

There are three adults to one child. The afternoon stretches before us. There is no rush. Plus there might well be pizza for tea.

===

We play and play and play at the park. At least, Mini does. I watch the process of increasing confidence; learning tricks from other children; coming back to the same elements day after day.

Small climbing wall. Scrambling net. Rope bridge (with added potential to swing it sideways, once you’ve built up the courage).

We discuss the possibility of making a list of all the new jumping and swinging skills. Maybe there’ll be enough for some kind of a reward. Mini thinks so. (I do too, to be honest).

We see a succession of junk model robots come home, courtesy of Junior Reader. In true inventor style, they have numbers for the new upgrades: Frank 1, Frank 2, and so on.

As I write, Frank 3 has come home today. He makes rude noises if you press his eyes. I am encouraged to do so.

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I come to the end of reading Pippi Longstocking to Junior Reader. I am initially sad, then I remind myself that there are two more books still to have fun with.

I am not sure whether it sits in the category of books that are funnier to read to yourself than to read out loud. (The Hyman Kaplan books are also in that group, but those are a way off for Junior Reader.)

In the meantime, I discover a new Church Mice book, second hand. Junior Reader appreciates the dry humour, the word play, and all the little injokes in the drawings.

Mini discovers Meg, Mog and Owl. I have another opportunity to revisit my own childhood, reading and reading them over again.

We talk about which one we like the best – I still think Meg on the Moon is the greatest, with their tea of egg and chips floating around in zero gravity. (Sadly, I can’t show you the individual picture – but you can see the cartoon version online.)

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There is one golden Saturday morning when Junior and Mini get up, eat breakfast and keep playing. No real squabbles. Dan and I look at each other, get our teas or coffees, and stay in bed as long as possible.

There is a discovery – and rediscovery – of Duplo. Larger and larger blasters are made. Longer and longer trains are put together, along with their various passengers. A clown figure pushes another clown figure in a Duplo pram.

There is a sighting of Yorkshire rhubarb in the supermarket. It’s not the early sprouting stuff, true, but it is also on offer. Rhubarb and brambles. I feel the need for a crumble, and maybe some custard to go with it.

===

There are plenty of other days and hours and minutes that are less moment-y. There are forgotten lunchboxes that come home smelling. There are abandoned socks and argued over food remains, pushed to the side of the plate.

There are attempts to use up food that don’t quite work out. Refusals to do X. Arguments over who gets to open the front door first in the morning.

Still, the light reminds me that we still live in the afterglow of summer. It is autumn, true, but of the pleasantest kind.

I choose to write about the brambles, and the light, and the swell of the sea on an afternoon that seems without end.

In the time it takes to cook an egg

It’s that mad dash to put food on the table in the evening. Back from a sports class, small people’s need to eat – and their limited patience while food is cooking – mean it needs to be quick.

Mini and Junior aren’t entirely reading off the same menu at the moment. That’s OK. Tea for three of us on in the background (an easy favourite); and now to time an egg for Mini.

Mini has decided that egg white is OK; egg yolk is ‘yuk!’. So I decide on a well-done boiled egg – not quite a hard-boiled one, but done enough to make the yolk easy to scoop out.

So what can you do in the time it takes to cook an egg? (Seven minutes in this case, in case you were asking.)

Turns out, quite a lot.

===

Open window to check for favourable noises from small people on the trampoline. (So far so good.)

Get today’s lunchbox items into the dishwasher; try and assemble some food for tomorrow.

Haul the laundry basket in and see if there’s enough for a full load of either colour.

Put away some washing that’s dry but has been hanging about on a chair for a day or so.

Put other items away in Junior’s school bag; check for any significant paperwork that might not have been mentioned to me.

Put a few other items in the hall ready for tomorrow.

Round up a few stray pairs of shoes in the hall.

Realise I am in close proximity to a bathroom, with no competition for it. Seize the opportunity…

…and the timer for the egg goes off, just as I’m reaching for the tap. So be it.

I realised, as I was going around doing the various things, I was also starting to compose a blog post in my head. So that ought to count as an extra.

===

The thing is, it’s hard to get those few moments when the natives are quiet/occupied.
The ones which mean you can get a run at those tasks that have been eluding you.
The moments that might mean you have less to do in the evening.

(If only you can decide what is you actually want to do in the evening, after bedtime, once you no longer have small people in front of you, demanding any number of things.)

I wrote up this list, not to berate others (or equally myself, on the days when eating anything after five o’clock feels like an achievement). Maybe to capture some of that crazy back and forth productivity of parenting.

The type where some days, you’ve feel like you’ve conquered the world AND cleaned the cooker in just a few minutes, because nobody needed a) a story b) the toilet c) your peacemaking skills or d) made any other simultaneous demands.

Much of the rest of the time, it’s a-d (at least) and more besides.

Still. The egg calculation worked. The washing went on. And no one fell over a pile of shoes when coming back indoors.

I’ll take that as a win.

Lit Kid: books with holes in

I’m not here to encourage you to get the scissors out (and you’d have a hard time doing so with board books).

But I am being reacquainted with certain categories of books, following in the wake of Mini Reader, who has some very definite ideas about what makes a good book.

One with holes in, for example.

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We can agree on a particular one, certainly, which is the classic book with holes: The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle.

I’m sure I initially came across this in paperback – and you need to be a bit more careful poking your finger through the holes in paper. This works even better as a board book, though we have it in both versions.

The conceit, of course, is that the aforementioned caterpillar, being very hungry, needs to eat, and so there are little holes in the pages where he has supposedly chewed through them.

There is some gentle maths thrown in, where he gradually eats one more item over the course of each day of the week – plus you have the days of the week element too.

But there’s also the visual aspect: each day of the week has a food of a different colour, as you progress over strawberries, plums, and so on.

Saturday is the biggie, when the caterpillar has his blow out meal, and regrets it after.

(There may not be terribly many supermodels nibbling just one green leaf the day after breaking their diet, but surely ‘just salad’ is following in the steps of the caterpillar.)

Saturday is of course the day that sticks in my mind from reading it as a child. It is partly the greed factor of so many items of food, partly the attraction of all the different things.

I’m sure it also drew me in to notions of more cosmopolitan fare – its pickles and salami, for example – years before I sampled either.

Mini Reader doesn’t necessarily put a finger in the holes of the book. But the days of the week are flipped very fast, so that you have to read quickly to keep up with them.

And we’ve had some happy discussions about just what is going on in that cocoon to bring the caterpillar into being that amazing butterfly of the final pages.

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Junior Reader and I are fans of Harry and the Dinosaurs: a small boy with a proud pudding bowl haircut, but also (importantly) a plastic bucket full of his special toy dinosaurs.

I’ve mentioned Harry before – particularly when his older sister Sam riles him – as a good example of recurring phrases. But Mini Reader has introduced me to another book with holes: a story where you see colours through a hole in the page.

Harry and the Dinosaurs Play Hide and Seek introduces colours and shapes, as does another in the series, Harry and the Dinosaurs have a Very Busy Day.

Harry is hunting for his dinosaurs – and thinks he sees a different shape, page by page. You then lift the flap to see a larger object, each with its own dinosaur on it.

The book is therefore an additional way to talk about form and colour – as well as a chance for your own mini reader to test your pronunciation of Apatosaurus and Scelidosaurus.

It’s lighter on words than the conventional Harry books – but if you are looking for quickies to add to the growing pile of bedtime stories (Mini’s book total at bedtime seems to be on the increase), it’s light and fun.

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I’ll add in a slightly different book with holes: a fold-out book which then forms a series of dioramas. (Mini Reader rather likes it too, at least to look at.)

I have a copy of Thumbelina from my own childhood – and am very pleased to find
a picture of the same issue, so you can admire it too.

There are I think six scenes, with not so much text per page – just enough to take you through Thumbelina’s initial escape, and the other places she seeks to find a home.

The plus side of the book is that each double spread folds out, so you can see two or three layers into each page. But the big excitement is that the covers of the book have strings, so you can fasten the whole thing into a lantern shape.

I think the notion, for the publishers, was to create some kind of mobile (think decorative hanging device, for those gentle readers who might think just of phones). There is a little loop at the top too, so you can certainly hang up the whole book.

The downside of this is that the pictures are quite small and detailed, and at ceiling height, it would be harder to admire them.

And it is worth admiring them: they are reminiscent of a do-it-yourself cardboard theatre
(I had one of those too as a child), with lots of levels of scenery to look through.

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I can’t leave without mentioning Peepo again – one that I referenced before, in relation to the way the text rocks you along.

Peepo allows you to see a tiny part of a scene – then you turn the page and see the whole scene.

It is partly the fun of imagining the whole before you see it all, and partly a play on the notion of the book: the peeper is a baby, exploring his home, the park, the back yard, and so on.

Peepo is a classic too – known in particular for its illustrations that conjure up a world of baths in front of the fire, coal cellars, children making their own toys, Dad in his ARP uniform, mum in curlers.

Even as an adult, we want to look through the hole in the book – back to the world we may only just remember, or (for me anyway) recognise through stories and films.

Whether we find out more with our eyes – or whether our mini reader explores with their fingers – a book with a hole is an invitation. The world we are about to find is engaging – and safe.

As long as we don’t eat too many lollipops on Saturdays.