Category Archives: Fresh Air

October, you beauty

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Hello.

Here I am, which is unusual enough, because whenever I have a spare hour and have to decide between Lying Still or Anything Else, the Lying Still tends to win. It’s frustrating having to slow down, especially now the sickness has gone (whee!). I like to get on. I keep having to remember not to define myself by things I can’t always do.

I feel quite anxious about this pregnancy, in a way I didn’t with the others. Oddly my visits to the midwife make this worse, not better. Most of the time I can assume (or tell myself to assume) that everything’s fine. When I go to the midwife, I have to wait the agonising three minutes before she finds the heartbeat, and get test results back where ‘this is a little unusual, but nothing to worry about’, I mean CLEARLY I WILL NOW WORRY ABOUT THAT THING, WHAT DO YOU TAKE ME FOR.

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Still, without the sickness, I am gathering myself together again, bit by bit. Folding some laundry. Taking the boys out for walks in the woods. Making proper dinners, and eating them. Meeting deadlines, cleaning the kitchen. Reducing my snack breaks from seventeen a day to an entirely reasonable eight. On Sunday I wore a dress that I loved, and pushed Tim off to bed while the boys and I went exploring and did not eat a single bag of beef crisps all day, and it felt like the best day of my life.

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Yesterday I baked a new kind of apple cake that turned out to smell (like apples) a great deal better than it tasted (mostly like baking powder). Still, the baking was therapeutic, and it was a much cheaper way to make the house smell nice than dropping £30 on a White Company candle.

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I feel like doing a Rocky air-punch on the rare occasions I get to hand out fat slices of homemade cake after school. It makes me feel like Mary Poppins. Although –

H: ‘What are these on top?’

Me: ‘They’re called almonds.’

H: ‘Urgh.’

Me: ‘They won’t taste of much by themselves. You’re supposed to eat them with the cake.’

[Five minutes pass]

Me: ‘H, haven’t you started yet?’

H: ‘No, I’m taking out all of the Normons, because they look awful.’

Take that, Normons. Sorry for the body-shaming.

We’ve got our back-to-school bugs and September Rages mostly out of the way now, I hope (T is feeling ‘asspalootely better’, if you ask him). Both boys have settled into their new routines. We cycle to school whenever the weather’s kind, and then after school H and I do a mad dash from one playground to the other, a mile and a half away. T comes bursting out of nursery, jumper sleeves rolled up to the elbows, usually filthy and clutching all his bags, which he hands over to me before they race their bikes home. H would always win, except that T cheats.

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See? Cheating.

See? Cheating.

It feels like autumn has been slow in coming, but now we have crunchy leaves, misty mornings, and reddening holly berries all over the place. There’s a whole colony of enterprising mushrooms growing out of the gigantic pile of horse poo down the road, and I feel compelled to point them out every time we pass, for educational reasons. While also holding my breath. Motherhood is weird.

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I’ve been reading a lot. There’s something about cold weather that gives me permission to retire with a blanket and a book – which is what I really want to be doing all the time anyway. I read a very unusual book (From A Clear Blue Sky) about grief and siblings by Timothy Knatchbull, who was on Lord Mountbatten’s sabotaged boat when it was bombed by the IRA in 1979 (Mountbatten was his grandfather, and Timothy was in his mid-teens). Timothy survived, and so did his parents – just – but his twin brother Nicholas died. Years later he wrote the book to come to terms with the griefs he’d buried at the time. It’s not political at all, very honest and completely fascinating. I thought it was wonderful.

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I’ve also reread The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver has never written a better), Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (because I watched the BBC adaptation, and missed it), an Agatha Christie every other week (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. FLAWLESS) and last week got hold of David Mitchell’s new-ish novel, The Bone Clocks. Which is as mad as David Mitchell ever is, and as delightful. And if poetry’s your jam, or you would like it to be, you must get hold of The Emergency Poet. It was compiled by a superhero woman who literally bought a discontinued ambulance and drove around in it, offering consoling poems to people who were struggling. What a life! It’s a gorgeous thing.

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Are you watching Poldark? It’s as beautiful as ever to look at, but I’ve been put off a bit this series by the fact that Ross Poldark is kind of a jerk. Look, screenwriters, if you want us to believe that everyone likes him, you have to give us some reason why. It can’t always be scything topless and glistening in golden fields. That combination of getting into debt, being surly and condescending to his wife and galloping worryingly near cliff edges is not calculated to set the heart afire.

Also Bake-Off. BAKE-OFF. Every episode brings us closer to the last one ever, and the fact that this series is so delicious is both helping and hurting. Like eating an entire plate of Tudor pies in one go (I would. Did you see them? I WOULD).

Who ate all the pies? (Me, probably.)

Who ate all the pies? (Me, probably.)

T helped me watch the first Harry Potter film a few weeks ago. Some observations:

‘Dumbledore! He’s the master…head’. (‘Headmaster?’ ‘Yeah.’)

‘Look, it’s Yogrid!’

‘Harry is using a… a feather crayon.’

‘My-knee? Who’s My-knee?’

(Harry, onscreen: ‘And Snape wasn’t blinking.’) ‘I’m blinking. Look.’

[sigh] ‘I am weally not a-pwessed.’

I’ll win him over eventually.

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This feels like the stuff childhood is made of

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Sometimes I disconnect during our camping trip to Dorset – mind buzzing up and away from its normal constraints under all that empty sky – and wonder what our ancestors would think, if they could see us leaving our safe, waterproof Life Boxes to sleep under a flimsy, pegged-down balloon. Voluntarily huddling round open flames to cook our dinner and warm our bones.

I’m not putting myself forward as a candidate for the Stone Ages or anything, but camping really isn’t as mad as it sounds. Sometimes. This time, the boys a tiny bit older, the weather better, friends and their baby with us, and all our plans working out like a dream – it felt like five days of bliss. Even though there is such a thing as camping hair, and it visits my head with the wroth of a thousand fuzz-fires. I just try not to look in mirrors.

Camping haaaaaair

Camping haaaaaair

Our little experiments, back when we first tried this in 2012, have solidified into traditions we look forward to for weeks. Plan to arrive before dark. Actually arrive after dark, and put up tent in glare of headlights and frayed tempers. Eat breakfast overlooking the valley and the steam train. On the sunniest day we head to the beach, all purple heather and white sand. This year H surprised us by galloping into the sea first thing, and staying in there most of the day. Apparently he’s not afraid of water anymore? I wonder if I will ever learn not to assume his dislikes and fears are permanent. Probably not, but it’s one of those occasions where it’s nice to be proven wrong over and over again.

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After a hot and windy day in Studland bay, we drove into Corfe for the Purbeck Film Festival, which runs an open-air cinema every year in the castle grounds. We order hefty boxes of fish and chips from the local pub, and eat them under blankets, waiting for the sun to set. This year we watched the new, live-action Jungle Book, which Tim and I thought was ace, and both boys decided was ‘weally scary, actually’. (It was, a bit.)

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The next day we went to Brownsea Island, surely the Enid-Blytonest day trip ever invented. We park on Studland Bay, take a chain ferry over to Sandbanks, and then a little yellow boat over to the island. Brownsea is a nature reserve (red squirrels! Peacock babies!), and also the place where the first Scout camp was held in 1907, though it’s much older than that: a solitary hermit monk set up camp there in the 9th century – lording it up spectacularly, I’m sure – and it hasn’t been left alone since. These days there are amazing clifftop views, lots of bright heather, a cracking wooden adventure playground in the middle, and lovely forest for little hikes. The island is small enough that even the longest hike is a doable challenge for toddler legs. It’s my favourite day, this one. No matter how many people get off the boat with you, you always feel like you’ve got the place to yourself.

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Then, of course, the castle day. I keep expecting H and T to get bored of coming to Corfe Castle, but they haven’t yet: they loved it this year more than ever. We got there on the steam train – always a pants-wettingly exciting experience for these two – and then had a good ramble around the ruins.

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And a sword fight. Can I get one of these furred tabards for casual leisure wear? It was like being embraced by a bear who respected personal boundaries.

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We always take the same photo in this window, and it always takes us at LEAST half an hour to find it again. Which leads to me bellowing across a crowded castle yard ‘I’ve found it! I recognise the mould patterns!’

They are very distinctive mould patterns, to be fair.

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(If you open this in a new tab, it’s bigger.)

That evening I settled into my million layers and read a book under a duvet, while Tim and our friends played cards, and Teddy wailed through firmly-zipped canvas ‘BUT I WANT TO KEEP THIS HOLIDAY FOREVER AND EVERRRR’.

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The next morning we packed up, loaded the car, and drove away in the direction of Durdle Door.  We’d never actually been to Durdle Door – silly, because it’s one of the main tourist attractions in the county – and it was busy, but utterly breathtaking. Not a beach ideal for little ones, because it’s pebbles rather than sand, and you have to climb an awfully large hill to get back to the car. But the view! I couldn’t stop looking.

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On the road out we always pass a little footpath sign that marks 2 1/4 miles to Corfe Castle, and I think ‘one day, when their legs are long enough’. Maybe in a few years. In a few years they’ll spend rainy mornings reading in their sleeping bags. In a few years, we can cycle. It’s rather a lovely thing, knowing that your August bank holiday is only going to get better and better – even if that’s not true, alas, of your hair.

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(The castle, the island and the beach car park are all owned by the National Trust – we already use our yearly membership to death, but even if we didn’t, this one holiday would make it even out. The steam train, the film festival and the little ferry (still free for under-sixes!) tend to be our only activity expenses, which is extremely happy-making.)

Wild things

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Welcome to the danger zone, where your kids are old enough to remember what you’re doing.

I always feel like we get a bit of a free pass for the first couple of years – it’s not actually a free pass, of course, but as you cry through their injections and fail to lovingly home-make their pureed food, at least you can console yourself with the thought that they won’t remember it later. Not so now. Their long-term memory cells are steaming away. We are building a childhood, between us.

There’s nothing like knowing that your children will talk about your foibles in their future therapy sessions to make you regret TOTALLY LOSING IT in a hotel room, one Spring Bank holiday when they were four and two. And, um, all the other times you totally lost it.

I hope they’ll also remember the good stuff. We try so hard. Sometimes it comes off alright.

This was a completely impromptu trip, that started on Friday night when we were giddy with weekend and bedtime and chocolate (always dangerous). One Holiday Inn booking later, we were off to the New Forest for a couple of days. The last time we went, we stayed in a magnificently weird horse-themed B&B and H looked like this.

DEAD

DEAD

When we went back, I wondered why we’d left it so long. Just over an hour away, and so much of this.

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We had gorgeous, gentle sunshine on the first afternoon, and went off on a ramble through the forest. It felt wilder than our woods at home, with lots more to see. Two deer ran across the path and carried on grazing as we walked by, totally unafraid. Tim reached peak Dadness when he made two sailboats out of bark and leaves, and they set them going on the river. Then sunk them with stones. No, maybe that was peak Dadness.

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I would never in a million years think to do this. Dads are the best.

This boy. He walked four miles on both days with no complaining, getting excited about everything. ‘I thought that trail was astounding’, he said as we finished on Sunday afternoon. Then, after a pause: ‘I got that word from The Gruffalo‘.

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You can’t do the New Forest without New Forest ponies. This one was loving all the attention. Emboldened, H approached the next one when our backs were turned. And it tried to kick him in the head. SORRY ABOUT THAT, H’S THERAPIST.

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After a moderately chaotic night in the hotel, we went off to spend the second day in Portsmouth. If you’re ever wondering what to do with your Tesco Clubcard points, I can recommend times one thousand using them for a yearly pass to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. We paid almost nothing for ours at Christmas, have been back three times since and done something completely different. Today we took the waterbus out to the submarine museum, and toured the HMS Alliance (plus a couple of smaller submarines too).

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I just cannot think of anything more suited to small children than a huge iron structure filled with levers, knobs and wheels they can play with to their heart’s content. We peered through giant periscopes, sat in pilot seats in front of blinking screens and dials, and were all in a perfect lather of excitement.

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I’m not saying the best bit was when T embraced a random woman’s thigh, thinking it was me. But it was pretty hilarious.

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After a quick jaunt round the Victory, because you always need a quick jaunt round the Victory, we followed our hearts to some Nutella Krispy Kremes, and then headed home. After we’d arrived and I’d unpacked the suitcase and made them dinner, it only then occurred to me that H is off school for the rest of the week. The New Forest, a giant submarine and no school run for a week. Never mind them: that feels like total joy to me.

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Mo-Town, and other stories

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I have finally – with the help of back-to-back Alias episodes and a pretty indecent amount of Phish Food ice cream – finished sorting out photos from the last week of our trip. So here goes!

We drove from Ashland to Salt Lake over the course of a day. We figured it would be easier to handle a road trip than another flight with the boys – I mean, if you have any conception of how often H needs the loo, this is pretty obvious. But actually, this was one of my favourite days. We stopped at three-hourly intervals for petrol, snacks, ice cream and to stretch our legs, and in between listened to Roald Dahl and Harry Potter, sang very loudly, and saw some magnificent scenery. Somewhere in Nevada we spotted a sign for ‘Deeth Starr Valley’, and thought ‘hey, nice Star Wars tribute; shame they couldn’t spell it’. Turns out Deeth and Starr Valley are two separate places, but next to each other. If they don’t get together for a sci-fi film festival every year this life means NOTHING.

The last part of the journey, before it got dark, ran through the Utah Salt Flats. We hit them just at sunset. Excited to see family and entering the twelfth delicious hour of binging on M&Ms. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling.

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Then Utah! Another place I’d never been but was excited to see. After so many distant horizons it felt very odd to sit in a valley entirely ringed by mountains. The sun rises in the morning behind them, so by the time it peeks over the top and into your living room it’s hot and full, all of a sudden. We were there for my brother’s wedding at the end of the week, so that was the most important thing, of course. But there was plenty to see, too, especially for a 30-something Mormon who’d never been before.

The first weekend was General Conference for our church. Which we normally watch under blankets in our living room, with plenty of M&M’s on hand. Since we were actually there this time, we went to the real thing. It was very surreal.

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Guys, you do not know how much I am praying that some of those mother genes have come this way.

Lots of other lovely buildings around Temple Square, including the eponymous temple.

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We were staying with my brother and sister-in-law – and their cat, Moses, much to the boys’ delight (Moses could not be reached for comment. I think Ted’s demented ‘Where is Moooooseeeey’ rallying cry is still ringing in his ears). We took up so much of their space and ate their food and terrorised poor Moses night and day, and they were the absolute BEST for putting up with us. I kind of want us all to move into a commune now; could this happen; let’s try.

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After the weekend we paid a visit to the Museum of Ancient Life, otherwise known as the BEST dinosaur museum you have been to in your liiiiiiiife. There are more assembled dino skeletons than I have ever seen, including the really cool ones like the supersaurus, taking up an entire hall by itself, and a triceratops, and that gnarly one with the bone crown on its head that it uses to fight with (you know the one). There were mammoth skeletons and sabre-tooth tiger skeletons, huge terrifying prehistoric fish skeletons in abundance, lots of interactive exhibits, and – best of all – a bit at the end where they could dig out a fossil for themselves in a big sand pit. I’ve gone on about it too much now, but we are pretty much breathing dinosaurs in our house at the minute, and the boys were beside themselves.

They both got a dinosaur toy from Grandma at the end. ‘I’m going to call mine Chomp!’ said H.

T wanted to copy (standard) but misheard (also standard).

‘Mummy, listen! Listen! Mine called Jump too’.

We had a free day mid-week, so took a road trip down to Moab and the red rocks. Oh my. We took our lunch down a kid-friendly trail, scrambling through a canyon and dislodging irritated lizards. It was the kind of day where you keep saying ‘look – will you LOOK at that?!’, even though you know it’s getting annoying. I couldn’t stop looking. We could’ve spent a week there. Maybe one day we will.

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On the way back we drove through a dust storm, in a valley like wide, flat bowl. There was a raised railway line just to our right, and all of a sudden a big flock of tumbleweeds came rolling over the top and down past the car. Some of them were as big as armchairs. I like to think those were the alpha mamas of the pack, and they were leading them all off to a better life. Before we went home we spent the evening with some lovely friends, who used to live in our town years ago, before they moved back to the States. They had not only a dog but ROOMS full of toys the boys hadn’t seen, and I feel like between us we nearly died with happiness.

The next day, in between various wedding errands, we hiked up to the big Y on Y Mountain, in Provo. (The story of why there’s a giant letter painted on this mountain is a weird, torrid saga involving forcible head-shavings and heat exhaustion.) We managed to get up there without anyone shaving their head, though we took the pushchair halfway up, and pushing it nearly gave Tim a heart-attack. Good views, though. Excellent views.

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Then a wedding, a wedding. I love a good wedding, and this (we hope!) was our last one. The service was in the morning, at Provo City Center temple – a gorgeous brick structure with turrets and arched windows and stained glass in abundance.

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My brother, we all agree, got astonishingly lucky. We love this girl.

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We had a lunch not long after, including root beer floats for dessert and some speeches and games afterwards.

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Then we finished the day with an evening reception. Waffle bar, photo booth, first dance, tears. A dance party afterwards where we all jostled together and everything felt hilarious. We saw them off with confetti. We said goodbyes that were too brief and too sad. And we left. After all this time, it never doesn’t suck.

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So concluded the trip we christened #Whereismosey2016. We don’t usually take big travelling holidays, and the whole time we kept pinching ourselves that we were lucky enough to do this one. It was so good for the soul. Come back, come back! You were such a good one.

*rips open Phish Food*

Oregon pie

I have spent much of today folding an Everest of clean clothes into drawers and playing Judge Judy – wisely, gracefully, then with increasingly snarkiness – in the boys’ endless toy arguments. After a mid-afternoon meal masquerading as lunch, I got a respite. T in bed for a nap, H and Tim watching that terrible Ice Age film with the dinosaurs for the millionth time. No need for me. I took the hint and scarpered upstairs with a book and a bar of chocolate. So now I have finished both (I get a terrible itch in the last quarter of a book, and can’t focus on anything till I’ve finished it), and am at peace with the world, and this is a good time to tell you about Oregon. Then I will make sausage pie, with fat sausages, apples, sage and crags of puff pastry. This has been a good Saturday after all.

The morning after the Chin Disaster, 2016, we packed up the hotel room, jammed all our stuff into a rental car, and set off through SF traffic. Tim driving, me shrieking gently whenever we seemed to be going too close to a traffic barrier. A pattern that would be repeated often over the next few days. The boys fell asleep just before we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, so (thinking that H at least would be peeved to miss it) we woke them both up on the other side. Look how delighted they were.

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The drive to Oregon was astonishing. Our first introduction to the mind-boggling space in the States, something so utterly foreign to small-island people used to being boxed in by hedgerows. We would be driving on a road, and I would look left and right and see hills just visible on the horizon on either side, and nothing – nothing – but farmland and the odd rare building in between. Imagine living in a house like that, with miles of emptiness around you. It makes me shiver. Do you not come out of your front door in the wide afternoons and get flattened by the sky?

There are mountains in northern California. We didn’t know. Mountains, and forests of pine trees, and tiny hidden lakes with mist thick on the surface of the water. ‘Watch Out for the Stag’ signs every few miles (we never saw one on the roads). A white-topped dormant volcano named Mount Shasta. The roads swirl up and down and between the hills like trails of fudge on ice cream. It’s a weird, untracked world. Once, we stopped at a rickety old gas station so I could use the loo – and I use the word ‘rickety’ advisedly, as the wooden boards on the deck buckled under my feet on the way to the door. I went in to the little shop and cafe, and found a woman behind a counter, chatting to a big man at a table. I asked the way to the bathroom and she nodded towards a corner door. I went in, and found not only the blessed toilet, but a bath, in which lay a fully dressed mannequin with a brown bob and an insouciant expression. The head had been turned so she watched you while you peed. I hope I screamed quietly.

When I came out, having spent the entirety of my bladder-emptying in a nervous staring contest with Ms Bathtub, the chap at the table belly-laughed. ‘Good one, eh?’ he chuckled.

‘Yeah’, I smiled, trying to look appreciative and unmurderable. ‘Yeah, good one’. And then I ran-walked to the door, and the next mountain road. An hour later we were in Ashland.

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My friend – one of my favourite people in the whole world – works at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival based in Ashland, and lives there most of the year. Their house is halfway up a mountain, all windows and views and extremely beautiful.

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Since Ashland is a town whose economy is built almost entirely on the drama festival, it keeps an eye on the sort of people who’d come somewhere for a week in order to see two plays a day. Fancy restaurants, little cafes, quirky shops, gorgeously designed parks. A big university, and (of course) the big theatre. And lots of mountains. It was lovely.

We spent the first day wandering a trail near the house – ask the boys what we did in Oregon and they’ll reply immediately ‘WE SAW A SNAKE’ –

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– and meeting my friend after she finished work for a sneaky tour of the indoor and outdoor theatres, and the rehearsal rooms for the actors. On the outdoor stage, the boys ran immediately to the back row of seats and sat down. ‘Are you going to play something for us, then?’ H yelled. Like a true Elizabethan.

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A personal challenge.

On the second day, we spent some time meeting my friend’s marvellous parents, who let the boys charge around in a big red wagon and embodied every last one of my When I Am Old dreams, then went to find the playground at the big park. Then we found a cafe that did both lunch and ice cream, and where the waitress didn’t blink when we ordered ‘the PB and J – ooh, but actually he doesn’t really like peanut butter, so could we just have…a J?’ for Teddy. That night, we tucked the boys into their matching beds and ran off down to the theatre to see Twelfth Night. Which was wonderful. Charming, hilarious Viola; sympathetic and weirdly dignified Malvolio. It’s been so long since I went to the theatre I felt like an escapee from a previous carefree life.

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The next day we left on the Long Drive. More about that tomorrow. It was a very long drive, and I have sausage pie to make, and Oregon to miss.

About this Dear Diary situation…and San Francisco

I don’t often use this blog as a diary anymore. I had a big no-one-is-interested-except-you-and-your-mum kind of crisis about it a while ago, and since then I’ve tried to be as inclusive as possible. Sometimes, holiday photo posts on other blogs, especially when they’re impossibly curated and lovely and I’m looking at them sat in holey pyjamas and covered in other people’s nose effluent, make me a bit ragey. Out of respect for your rage and your nose effluent situation, I tend to shy away from posting overly about prettified activities, on the grounds that the subtext might come across as Look At Our Glorious Selves, Peasants.

There are some things in our day-to-day that I do record. I hope the boys will read what I write about the minutia of our daily lives and their milestones, when they’re too old to remember it or to jostle over wiping their noses on my shirt. And I want to write about every single holiday we ever take with my family. They will never be able to swing by their American auntie’s house after school for a chat and a biscuit, anything over a few thousand miles being a basically unswingable distance. So these holidays are now and will be what holds their relationship together. Big, messy, lively, loud holiday relationship glue. I want them to know that we were making the effort to do this since before they could remember.

So I’m not attempting to turn the next few posts into Seven Cool Things You Can Do In San Francisco, If You Want. Bear with me. This is for us (and if MANY holiday photos aren’t your thing right now, as they sometimes aren’t mine, you may cheerfully mute me with a guiltless heart; I love you; you look miles better than you think in those pyjamas). Ironically we didn’t even see my family till the week after this, but I can’t do the whole holiday in one post or we’d be here till Michaelmas.

SAN FRANCISCO THOUGH.

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BAM, in with the photos immediately. No waiting.

Does anyone really call it ‘Frisco’ in actual fact? Because it seems to hover on the line between Dorky and Too Cool For Me To Attempt, as so many things do, like for example playsuits.

Once we arrived, and struggling with three suitcases, two car seats, one pushchair, four carry-on bags and two small children hopped up unbearably on free aeroplane pop, we took a cab through the city to our hotel. The sky was blue, and we weren’t wearing coats, which made the pastel-coloured wooden houses perched on hills even more exciting. We didn’t do much that first evening except sleep, except for Tim, who ran off his jetlag with a half-marathon around the city (WHAT KIND OF METAL IS HE MADE OF). The next morning we attended an hour of church – our first sweaty experience with pushing a pushchair up those hills, argh – and then came back afterwards to change and catch the bus.

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A wonderful thing about the under-fives. You think it’s public transport: seedy and a bit stressful. They think it’s magic. We stayed on the bus all the way to Golden Gate Park, a long and unpleasantly-scented journey if you’re an adult rubbing your face in someone’s armpit, but a lurchy rollercoaster of joy to a toddler. When we got off they were already buzzing. So we went to the California Academy of Sciences.

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Which was ace! A bit like the Natural History Museum in London, but with live animals as well as stuffed ones. We’d been lured there with the promise of a T-Rex skeleton in the foyer, but there was also a rainforest dome, a pretty extensive aquarium, and an albino alligator lounging all casually in the back.

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I know it’s standard Instagram practice to say things like ‘We found Nemo!’ when you visit aquariums. But they had actual Nemo and Dory fish IN THE SAME TANK, and we lost it a bit.

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Then we popped across the road to the de Young Museum, which is artsy and a bit beyond (beYoung?) them, but which does have an excellent observatory you can visit for free. It was jaw-dropping.

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Superman.

Superman.

We finished the afternoon at a huge playground, and then headed back for dinner at The Cheesecake Factory. We were seated in a booth, separated from an outside table by a sheet of glass. T was sat next to the sheet of glass, and took the opportunity for some jetlag-drunk mime. They were not amused. But the food was excellent.

Next day! Miraculously and beautifully, a good friend of mine from university happened to be visiting her aunt at the same time we were there. So we met up for breakfast at a little cafe called Savor. Classic rookie mistake: forgetting how big American breakfasts are. ‘Of course we want one each!’ we chortled. Then the plates arrived, and the boys could have used one of the pancakes as a Professor Quirrell-style turban. We were all grateful that they didn’t.

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I should’ve put something else in here for scale. Like my head.

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We made it back across the city and then up to the pier by tram – cool in itself – and had a picnic lunch with another dear friend. Attention: SF buses have audible timetables at all of their stops, read by robot men. If you happen to be in a public place where a small child is doing something very annoying – like, I don’t know, pressing the Audible Bus Timetable over and over – then it’s because they could be doing something even more annoying and/or dangerous, and the parents are picking their battles. Signed, the mother of the toddler pressing the Audible Bus Timetable over and over.

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Then came the disaster. Poor T, perched on the end of the pushchair with his hands in his pockets, fell off with a distinct, meaty crunch and split open his chin. Cue blood, an ambulance, a swanky children’s hospital, a long wait, a sedative, a very bad reaction to a sedative, more sedative, and finally five stitches put in while no less than four doctors held him down. When we got back to the hotel nine hours later he was still too dozy to walk and I couldn’t eat anything because I was sick with crying and the smell of his blood in my nose. How does Adam Dalgliesh cope?!

Five minutes before It Happened. Much prettier.

Five minutes before It Happened. Much prettier.

Anyway, my friend was marvellous, finding me a tissue and the right people when all my brain was doing was ‘there is blood. So red. Very blood’, and cheering H up round the aquarium with Tim once we’d gone. And San Francisco, you have FANTASTIC nurses. Sorry for all the kicks to the face. (It’s healed really well, and he’s fine. Despite pulling out one of those hard-won stitches the next morning *face palms till death*)

Thank goodness we’d already booked tickets for a boat cruise, and H got to do this as a cheer-up measure:

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GAH, I love him

I’m only a little bit jealous.

Tomorrow: across that mildly famous bridge and onto Oregon!

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Living Arrows in January: how we get lost

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(Living Arrows is a portrait project run by Hayley at the Shutterflies blog, capturing the little moments of childhood. The title comes from a Kahlil Gibran poem called ‘Children’, which I’ve reproduced at the end of this post. It’s supposed to be one a week, which I definitely don’t have the staying power for, alas; but I thought doing one a month would be a nice record and encourage me to get the big camera out more often. Hope you enjoy!)

I’ve read a couple of articles recently about letting children off the leash. Not straining to fill their every hour or worrying constantly about their development, just letting them entertain themselves and be children.

I think it’s a great idea in theory. Or maybe a great idea in a few years. Though I try my hardest to shoo the boys towards their toys and independent play, they want to include me constantly. They ping back towards me one after the other, wanting my opinion, my approval, my ability to put right an injustice. It’s like they’re a gang, and I’m the ringleader. Well, obviously, I can’t deny my street cred. It’s not that I want to be a helicopter parent; it’s just that, at the moment, they and I don’t know any other way to be.

The only activity they truly don’t need me for is screen time. So I save that for the witching hour, otherwise we’d never eat dinner, ever.

That’s why I like getting out to the woods (also because if I go too long without walking I start feeling claustrophobic, which I realised for the first time this Christmas. Blimey. Am I one of those people now?). They don’t need my approval for puddles, or stone-throwing, or poking things with giant sticks. It doesn’t matter if they get dirty, though my car and the washing machine weep bitter tears when we get home.

They still both like to keep me in sight. But it’s as though the very short pieces of elastic that connect me to both of them get to stretch out a little.

And T kept his bear hat on for a good half hour this time. Re-sult.

Living Arrows

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Kahlil Gibran

Christmas Impossible

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I hate airports. Stuff Hugh Grant with his ‘my favourite place in the world is an airport’ thing. The Arrivals part is brilliant – marred only slightly if you are the owner of the child dragging his brother along the floor by the foot – but sooner or later you’re making that inevitable return visit to Departures. Heartbreak, raw for everyone to see, in the middle of all the horrid jolly souls going on holiday for New Year.

All the McDonald’s Festive Pies in the world can’t make up for it, I can tell you that.

This is why I am to be found eating bananas and custard for dinner at 8pm, watching Tom Cruise do tiny ridiculous things in Mission Impossible, and compiling the BIGGEST PHOTO POST EVER of our last week. Indulge me loves; it’s nice to put it all in one place.

So! My sister got married this Christmas. I am one of four, and half of us live overseas. Which meant my mum and step-dad, two younger brothers and their other halves all came here for Christmas week. Since some of our party had never been to the UK before, we crammed e v e r y t h i n g in. It was wonderful.

Wedding first. Absolutely lovely. How classy do they look, eh?

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The boys were already rabid about having so many extra adults to play with.

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Then some play time. On Sunday afternoon we ran quickly over to Silchester, the ruins of an ancient Roman town nearby. I bet the Romans had sunsets like these too.

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Of course, you can’t do England without London.

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We tripped around Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey and some other pretty fancy stuff. You know London. Full of it. Embarrassing, really.

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The next day, minus siblings, we went to see Nelson’s flagship at Portsmouth, the Victory. It was fantastic.

H got a bit into it.

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Please zoom in on that photo by the way: his face is hysterical. Full-on Power Ranger.

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Listening to the tour really brought home to me how splendid and patriotic and yet how irredeemably crap it must have been to serve in the Navy in the 1700s. Body parts. Everywhere. All the blimming time.

Then we did Oxford. City of my heart. Seller of excellent noodles.

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After all that, there was Christmas. I made my first giant Christmas dinner and it was intensely stressful and, like a miracle, came out beautifully even so.

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Even better, my littlest brother proposed to his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, and we all cried, especially when she said yes.

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After Christmas everyone started to go home. Time for some leftover turkey, and one last walk.

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I am wearing (fake)fur-lined leggings in this photo below, by the way. Thanks, Primark. I felt like Lyra Silvertongue ALL DAY.

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Phew, still alive? That brings us up to today, with me sat in pyjamas, eating banana custard and watching hobbity Tom Cruise do implausible things, in a doleful sort of way.

It was a great Christmas. Once-in-a-lifetime, really. I’m glad I get to remember it here.

Starting school has actually made us happier. Cheers, school.

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It’s the last day before half term, and I’m being entirely serious when I say: now we’re mostly over the big settling-in phase, having school back in our lives is the bizniz.

For H, definitely. He’s happy when he’s learning new things in a structured environment (I noticed that last year with nursery, but even more so now it’s full-time). I know school environments are trickier for some kids than others, but for this one we seem to be lucky: he really thrives. For the first couple of weeks he refused to tell me anything (‘What did you do at school today?’ ‘Hmm, I’ll tell you tomorrow’) but now he chatters the whole way home: facts about bones, about rhyming words, about experiments he’s done with cars and inner tubes. He tends to need a small circle of friends to call his own, and now he has one he’s much more settled and content.

For me too, though. In hindsight I think he was ready to move on to something I couldn’t give him. Honestly, we spent the last few months before September driving each other up the wall. Now I look forward to him coming home all day, and squeeze him to death all evening. He’s enjoying being the older, responsible sibling at the moment, and is nicer and funnier with it. So I’ve got more energy for tantrums and the bedtime routine. I am tired when Tim comes home, always, but not usually emotionally beaten down. And spending one-on-one time with E. bear during the day is just loveliness, from start to finish.

Then there’s the weekend. Do you remember getting through lunch in the dining hall, at school, and knowing you had just one set of lessons left before the weekend? You could smell it, in the whole building, a buzz of excitement and release. Friday. Almost there. I don’t know about you, but when I had babies that was one of the things I missed the most: no more Friday feeling. Now we have it back, because at the weekend we get to spend time with each other, all four of us. It feels like a holiday all over again. SATURDAYZ RULE. I feel like switching on SMTV Live again and doing the Postman Dance.

We spent last Saturday at Cliveden, a rambly old NT property that we haven’t been to for a couple of years (follow that link for hi-larious Tiny Bald Hen photos). There were bright leaves on every surface, a big maze we got thoroughly lost in, and a woodland walk that turned into a gorgeous path by the Thames on the way back. The boys were killing it in their woolly jumpers. We stopped in the tea room for scones and hot chocolate before we left. I genuinely thought that it can’t get much better than this. Jumpers. Scones. All of us together on a Saturday. We’ve got school to thank for that, I think.

PHOTOS OR IT DIDN’T HAPPEN. I brought the camera but forgot to check the almost-dead battery – and it turned out to be the sort of place where not having a proper camera is like a dagger in the heart, so thank goodness for iPhones. Here’s one I got before the big camera packed up.

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In case you are fortunate enough not to be familiar with the Disney Planes universe, the plane T is holding is called El Chupacabra. Obviously perfect for a two-year-old to wrap his tongue around. He’s called El Blah Blah in our house, and I think it’s an improvement.

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May your photos always contain a casual hedge lean for extra sass.

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We’re all smiling because we made it to the centre of the maze before anyone died of starvation. RESULT.

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So help me, I am obsessed with little boys in jumpers. It’s all we’ve got, we mothers of boys. No little dresses to squeal over. It’s got to be jumpers, and I am all over it.

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The first of several hundred steps back up to the house, and between us we can count as high as twenty. It took a while.

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Ah, motherhood. To always be the head upon which they wish to dump their leaves. I’ll take it.

Happy half term, loves!

Ooh, October, you’re looking well

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I have given myself a towering challenge this evening. Well, two. One is to get rid of today’s lone nappies lurking in our house without gagging. I will track each powerful stench to its source like a veritable crap-hound, and throw them into the bin where they belong. The other is to write a blog post in half an hour. I have been writing more essays than rambles, lately, and I feel like my ramble output has been a little disappointing. Sometimes it’s more important just to write than to write perfectly. Not that I ever do that either.

ANYWAY.

October is looking well so far. Ooh, October, you’re looking well. Those oranges really suit you. H is mostly out of his screechy rage-demon phase and is loving school. I’m amazed by what it’s done for him in less than a half-term. He’s drawing things voluntarily, obsessed with playing an exciting new game called Tag (!), joins the queue at the classroom gate when the school bell rings, and went for a playdate and pizza on Friday with one of his new friends (‘I needed a wee during dinner’. ‘Did you go?’ ‘I put up my hand and asked’.) He also calls the school dining hall The Great Hall, Harry Potter-style, which I CAN’T EVEN. If he’s got floating candles and golden plates going on and I’m sat at home with T flinging around chicken supernoodles, I’m going to be peeved.

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He had a Harvest Festival service at the little medieval church down the road last week. I have been looking forward to standing in a chapel bellowing ‘Cauliflowers Fluffy’, while children bring baskets of cup o’ soup up to the altar, since I gave birth. It was completely wonderful. We also sang the ‘Autumn Leaves’ one about jet planes and it felt like the jauntiest moment of my life so far.

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Our school runs have become very autumny all of a sudden. I am trying to walk or cycle most dry days. Cycling is more time-efficient but pulling both boys up the hill in the trailer, oh legs, forgive me. There’s a route through the woods that T and I take if we’ve got the time (it’s off-road, so he can walk), and it’s been all dew-dropped spider webs and misty fields for a couple of weeks. The other morning we saw red spotted toadstools, and I was so astonished to see one in real life, outside of an Enid Blyton book. It was like seeing Moon Face waving from the nearest Faraway Tree and making awkwardly racist remarks. We moved into this house in autumn last year, and it was a big part of why I fell powerfully in love with living here: all crackly russet leaves underfoot, red holly berries, cold blue skies and brown forests of ferns. Coming into the season again has been a real pick-me-up for the soul. And has reminded me how hideous my damp autumn hair is. Like a bad Meatloaf wig. Especially after cycling.

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I am trying not to be weird in the playground. It’s hard when you’re wearing a Meatloaf wig and have no small talk. People are nice. It’s an ongoing project.

Spending one-on-one time with T – for the first time, really – has been great. We go to a playgroup one morning a week (‘traydroup’) and he barges from station to station, shouting ‘HELLO’ in people’s faces, making pastry cheese twists and then scarfing them down at snack time. He makes the bull in a china shop look like a refined sort of chap. He’s talking mostly in sentences and is too brilliant for words.

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I am trying hard to find a good balance between the different parts of my life. My big, scary aim for this year is to try to get paid properly for writing. Urgh. Writing is such a vulnerable and necessary part of me that wanting to succeed in it makes me feel very exposed. I’ve been spending too much time thinking about it and feeling insecure about it. Then too many late nights generally. Last night Tim was out, and I was determined to read a single chapter of my new book in bed and then be asleep by nine, as a symbol of how totally adequate and in control of my glowing and brilliant life I am. But the book was H is for Hawk, and it was saturated in grief and love and a completely transporting description of falconry and nature: lyrical and coldly beautiful. So I read all of it, obviously. And I was about to feel terrible about missing another opportunity for an early night, when I thought that reading an excellent book all in one go was exactly myself. And then I got up to sit H on the loo, and that was exactly myself too. And I decided that all this was a bit of alright, and then I went to sleep.

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