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How I stopped writing and learned to love felt tips

Hello again. A month passes. I make plans to write, really I do.

Instead, I head back to doing some colouring, when the evening comes round and my time is (relatively) my own.

Because, at least for now, colouring is good. Colouring is peaceful. Colouring gives you something nice to look at the end.

And colouring is really the last thing I would have expected to find myself doing, even a year ago.

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Somewhere near the start of this year, one night, I found myself out of sorts. I needed something to do with my hands.

Not cooking. Not typing. Not sewing. Just something that felt like…not work.

I found a few of my kids’ colour-in birthday cards that hadn’t been done. I half-inched a pot of felt tips out of a sleeping child’s room, and made a start.

It was…peaceful. I even sent a few of them, to other grownups who know me well enough that I can send them coloured-in birthday cards done by me.

===

I had a set of fine tipped felt pens, bought for a journalling thing that didn’t quite take off.
I had a couple of books of geometric colouring designs, bought for the kids’ craft stash.

At some point, I decided to combine the two. And the whole thing took off.

Much later, I started to see colouring books everywhere. In bookstores, bargain stores, in magazines sent by people who want you to buy their books.

There was all this mindfulness stuff mentioned in the blurb for the colouring books. And I’m pretty sure it’s there. If you want it to be.

But maybe for me, the six- or seven-year-old me that used to colour grids of squares and triangles and hexagons had made a reappearance.

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I’m not great at drawing. I understand, yes, that I can be better, that practice is true for drawing as well as for writing, cooking, roller-skating, and many other key things in life.

But in the meantime, I can do colouring. In fact, I can imagine I’m in somewhere in North Africa, or maybe southern Spain, gradually putting together a mosaic floor.

That’s the kind of colouring I find myself doing the most. Sometimes there are flowers and leaves, and tendrils, and, you know, I put up with them too.

But what I like most is the geometric stuff. And what I like even more than just the colouring is the outlining, especially where you do a lot of it.

Then it starts to feel like you are not just involved in the shapes, but that you are somehow creating them. Straight line after straight line combine, and all of a sudden you have a twelve pointed star, that you would not have been able to manage otherwise.

===

What I also really like are those moments when you look up from what you are doing, or turn the paper a bit to do a fiddly bit.

And suddenly, you see a new element in the design that you hadn’t been able to see before. The squares that interlock between the triangles; the succession of new shapes marching off across the page.

There’s something that is both very small (line after line after line after LINE), and something that is very big: the way that space works; the way that shapes fit together.

That’s not the kind of thing I’ve been used to looking at so much. But I could get used to it.

I find that I do.

Moments: November 2014

November is a funny month. Not in a funny ha-ha way – not enough ice lollies for that.

It’s not as busy as October, which includes a school holiday. Nor yet as hectic as December, for obvious reasons.

There is activity around the corner, but you can hide from it in November, for the most part, if you want to.

There are still plenty of moments, though. Here are a few.

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We’ve reached that point in the year when the leaves outside my window really shine.
There’s lots of rain, yes, but in the bright sky moments, the trees opposite are still in leaf.

It’s a brassy orange, really. Not a hair colour. Not as deep as many of the other leaves that are now just so much soggy underlay on the pavement.

Today, I set my timer, and sit with my cup of tea and look out at the leaves. The blue of the sky contrasts with the orange on the trees.

I remember a school art teacher telling us all about blue and orange working together, and me disbelieving him at the time. (I was eight, and not terribly artistic.)

I’m in agreement now. Add an occasional soar past from the pigeon formation team, and I’m really very happy.

===

We have our first go at packing up the trampoline for the winter. It feels like a big job.

We are all out in the garden together. The kids go up and down on bikes for the most part, and Dan and I try to work out what attaches to what on the trampoline, what might go inside which bag.

We neglect a set of potatoes in grow bags for over a year, but here they are, producing a little crop. I smile at the automatic gasp with each new discovery, whatever the size, as Junior and Mini go to it, a bag apiece.

It’s a scramble, really, dealing with short attention spans, and other garden jobs.
I try to farm out raking the leaves to Junior.

That lasts all of twenty seconds, but when I offer the large garden fork to make holes in the black bin bag (think: future leaf mould), there is much more excitement.

Mini is particularly serious on clearing the potato bag, going and going with a tiny trowel. Part way through, there is a request to sit down, and I manage to find a small kneeler in the shed.

Potato hunting continues, and I can fill one bag of leaves; prune the peony; help with some poles for the trampoline.

The sky is dry, not quite bright. We are in one of those brief respites.

Later, there’s popcorn, and a board game. I think that I should offer these kind of rewards to myself for extra labours, not just to help the kids through the task.

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The evenings after teatime shift. We’re done with trampolining, scootering. It’s dark.

Instead, there is fighting over who gets to blow out the candle at the end of the meal – an extra token from me, to help us through these days when the curtains are drawn before we even sit down to eat.

Sometimes, we make it round the table all at the same time. The kids may be on supper, Dan still on tea, but we’re there, eating together, attempting to follow conversations round and round.

===

The days shorten. The effort to get up in the mornings is clear. Both kids are sleeping beyond the point I have to get up.

I try some gentler ways to help them wake, but in their own time.

Partly opening the curtains. Leaving a door open, so the sound of me wrestling the dishwasher can offer a little encouragement to stir. Putting on a low light in a nearby room.

There are hats now, and gloves, and scarves to add to the morning routine.

There are experiments with mittens on strings, and more emails to the bus company to see if a missing item has turned up. (It hasn’t.)

===

Welly socks are out in force. We have a welly routine now, and it is mostly going well.
As is jumping in puddles at any opportunity: coming home, going back for school pick up, on the way to sports class.

The bench in the school playground is often too wet to sit on. There’s more interest in coming straight home, not staying on and playing.

There still need to be snacks, though.

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There are questions; new observations. Numbers on gear sticks. Emergency buttons on the inside of bus doors.

I sit through another round of Minecraft explanations. Nodding and smiling is surprisingly low energy, and I can quite often cook at the same time.

We enter a season of babies: ones arrived, ones on the way. Friends, acquaintances, all are material for fuelling the toy buggy at home, back and forth, back and forth.

Sometimes, the stories overlap: buses and babies. ‘Under-five please..thankyou.’

===

There are new books. Stories from British history: my new favourite read-aloud.

I get to dip back to the topics at other times; find atlases to identify Brittany, Cornwall, parts of Wales. I hunt out stories about King Arthur from the library; make promises about Irish folk tales.

There are old books made new. Mini and I go on the wondrous journey of discovering Timothy Pope, his telescope, and suspected sharks.

I even manage to pull out a book for myself now and then.

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Music makes a return to the evenings. We need the boost; the argument smoothing.

Junior listens to Blues Brothers tracks, and recognises that there is comedy and music combined. Mini hears soundtracks from musicals, and immediately starts twirling.

We do a big weekend drive; the kind that feel like car trips from my childhood. We watch the colours of the cats eyes on the road on our way back in the dark; we pass the miles by singing along.

Evening by evening, Mini’s song repertoire grows a little more. By day, these are mostly overwhelmed by the new set of songs issuing from nursery. Nativity season is coming.

===

There are friends to see, and maybe cinema trips for the mums (whisper it).
There are Christmas plans, and the beginnings of lists.

Only the beginnings for now. Maybe there are still some more leaf piles to jump in.
They may be soggy, but there are wellies, and big boots, and thick socks to protect us.

Separately or together, we jump right in.

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.

===

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.

===

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.

 

Specialist subjects

Do you ever remember thinking about the things you would share with your kids, when they came along?

All those things you love. All those things that you know something about. All those things that you think might even be helpful to them when they grow up.

Well. Some of that happens. Occasionally they even listen to you about something you’re keen to tell them about.

Just like any of us, kids develop specialist subjects, and they expect you to be expert in them.

Whether you are or not.

Mini is all about cars. Car identification: tick. Identifying old cars never previously seen: tick. Ability to continue to identify cars, at speed, even when tired or grumpy: tick.

I have been apprenticed to the school of digger appreciation in the past, so I have learned a little in this respect. Part of me rails against it; part of me is genuinely fascinated by the interest in something that would never have taken my fancy at that age.

So we talk about cars. Turns out I do know something about them now. Driving helps. As does looking at badges of Suzuki vs Seat close up, so we can tell the difference between them. (You’ll be off to check for yourself now.)

We start to introduce some car part terminology: hub caps, exhaust pipes, soft tops. Mini is entranced. I am quite proud of myself. This level of car knowledge I can deal with.

Mini will tell you as soon as a car has different hub caps to its overall make. It never occurred to me to look at hub caps, unless they happened to be particularly shiny and caught my eye, but now we look at hub caps.

We play variants on hand sandwich. Somethings we use hands, sometimes we just talk it through when walking along. There is still bread on the bottom, but then we get windscreens, horns, seatbelts.

Just the kind of things you want in a sandwich.

Mini wants to know ‘how cars go to the toilet’. So we talk about exhaust pipes getting rid of what cars don’t need. And, for good measure (and because we’ve noticed them too), we talk about radiator grilles, and what the car does if it gets too hot.

There is even a particular red Ford GT that we look out for, on our way to the sports centre.

—-

When kids love diggers, you learn to love them too. You spot them when the kids aren’t even there. You might even turn and remark to the person next to you when you’ve seen a particularly cool bit of equipment.

Until you realise that they are just another adult at the bus stop next to you. Then you go quiet.

Actually, I’ve managed not to do that part, just about. And by now, I have forgotten more of my digger knowledge.

Plus Junior has moved on to other things, and I need some working memory to talk about spies, and the MI5 and MI6 buildings, and how much of the spy equipment in books is likely to be possible.

Fortunately, there are also specialist subjects where you overlap. I am discovering that Mini knows a lot of the songs and rhymes that I do. And is keen to learn more.

I can remember telling Junior about the phrase ‘once upon a time’. There was this frisson: I am getting to tell my child about this really wonderful thing. The magic phrase that starts so many stories.

Now Mini is prepared to hear other magic. Like Morningtown Ride, or Golden Slumbers. And, equally, songs like Yellow Submarine, or She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.

Every now and then, we’ll find another song we have in common. And hopefully sing it together.

(Sometimes I am told off for this. Including for singing along with a song on CD in the car. It’s obviously fine for Mini to sing along with it, though.)

—-

I’ve written before about those points of connection with a parent: where you share the thing they love.

There is a special status to those things. Even in memory, they have some kind of internal glow about them when you recall them.

I am very grateful that there are those points of connection for me with both Junior and Mini. And that Dan has his too.

And part of me can share a smaller glow when recalling things that are my children’s specialist subjects too.

Even when it’s diggers. Or hub caps.

 

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.

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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.