Why I’ll be sending my kids to camp

I’ve just got back from girls’ camp – well, not just: I’ve been back long enough to sleep for a couple of hours, to unpack all my moss-covered, grease-covered things, and to realise I’ll be doing a full-body cringe for the rest of this week while my fiery sunburn dies down. I’ve only been involved in a few camp activities this year, but the feeling is always the same, and it made me think of this post I wrote the last time I was there.

Here’s to helping our girls feel their bright, brilliant, ferocious worth, right to the ends of their muddy fingers. 

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that August is a month worth camping in.

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Yesterday I came back from girls’ camp. Forty-eight teenage girls, thirty-ish adults, twenty-seven million clumps of knee-high, prickly grass. It’s been a long, hard, exhilarating week we’ve been planning obsessively all year. I’ve sat in a smelly marquee eating dinner from a tin plate, sung ridiculous songs in the heat of a campfire, listened and talked and run around like a lunatic, and all of it surrounded by talking, shrieking, singing, laughing girls.

I think there must be nothing on earth like this. I watched them arrive on Monday morning and wanted to reach out for them because I remembered being in their place – impatient, self-conscious, unsure of myself, my place in life, my body. Making decisions that would affect the rest of my life and frightened to death of doing it wrong. I wanted so much and didn’t know how to get it. What do they hear from the adult world we inhabit, these girls? You must be beautiful. You must be popular. Don’t be stupid and don’t be clever. Be funny. Be skinny. Wear this. Take this off for the camera. There, now you’re something. They see a hard, bright world of boxes we created for them to fit in, and they’re lost in it. How could we do it to them? How could we?

We spent last week making spaces to tell them something different. You are something, and somebody, and valued on your own terms. You have potential. You can make decisions that bring you self-respect. You are a daughter of God, and there is so much happiness ahead of you. Not one of you, not ever, needs to be lost.

As I sat with these girls, I knew I’d be entrusting my children to them in fifteen years or so. I want my boy, my girls and boys to come, my girls yet unthought-of, to know the truth: that they are worth more than their skin, that their destiny is their own, that they are loved more than they can comprehend. I do not want them lost. So I’ll be sending them to camp.

The week that was…hot

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I am supposed to be doing – haha – SO many things right now, but it’s been a good while since I checked in here. Sometimes my days and nights fill up so much I have to put blogging on the back burner. I miss it when it’s not there.

Some catch-up, then? Here are some inconsequential snippets from our week.

We just got back from a dinner date, where we wandered around looking into restaurant windows for a while before going to Five Guys like we always do. Tim managed three full cups of drink from the special flavours machine before our food even arrived. We decided to pretend we were on a first date, and talked about which character we were most like in Harry Potter (Oliver Wood and Hermione, obvs), and what our favourite films and music were. I confessed my undying love for Inception and Tim decided that whatever type of music Kings of Convenience make, he likes it (Google says they do Indie Folk, so now you know). Also, when you sit up on the high chairs by the balcony, you do actually feel like the Queen of Five Guys.

‘BRING ME MY MANIFOLD FLAVOURS OF DRINK, MAGIC MACHINE.’

‘I WISH FOR AS MANY FRIES AS THE SANDS OF THE SEA.’

‘PLEASE PUT ALL THE FOODS OF EARTH INTO THIS BURGER BUN.’

And they did.

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We are about to head into camp season – Tim is gone for the full week (!) with the teenage boys, though I’m only doing a ten-mile overnight hike with the girls, over a day and a bit. I have started to break it down, and ten miles + carrying a bed roll + sleeping on the floor in the woods without a tent + what the cheff is a bed roll have started to make intimidating sums in my head. It’s alright, guys. I’ve totally got this [am terrified].

this is not a bed.

this is not a bed.

Tim has genuinely got this, because he’s the sort of chap who looks casually hot in a canoe.

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(From last year.) What the.

Henry had a nursery induction this week, where the following exchange occurred:

H’s new teacher: ‘So Henry, what’s your favourite thing to do at home?’
Hen: (top of voice, hands in air) ‘SCREEN TIIIIME!’
Me: (*ALL THE SHAME*) ‘we do, ah, do other things.’

Apart from this, he had a lovely time, and we are crossing our everything that we can move before September so he can go. Between you and me, my dears, I have so much anxiety about our unmoving house move that it makes me want to curl up into a little foetal ball every time I think about it. If you’d like to throw any of your good vibes in our direction and/or politely hustle our solicitors with eyebrows and bribes, consider this my blessing to go ahead.

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This week’s morning adbentures included hot walks/bike rides, train journeys to Goring for weir-watching and ice cream by the river, many playgrounds, the library and a cousins’ trip to West Green House Gardens. The weather has been in the thirties, which sounds fabulous until I remind you that the British do not really understand or see the need for air-conditioning. On the other hand, this has also meant a continual excuse for ice cream, and we try always to take this and run with it.

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Teddy has fallen in deep and profound love with our pop-up version of ‘Dear Zoo’. He’s not allowed to look at it by himself, because he gets too excited and rips off the flaps. I put it in different hiding places, he finds it and takes it off to secret corners to chuckle over; rinse, repeat.

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DIS MY FAVOURITE.

I got a small pile of books from the library that turned out to be all thrillers and Books of Tense and Obscure Emotion, so got out Sadie Jones’ The Unexpected Guests again on a whim. It’s as delightful as I remember. Everything about it is perfect and lovely, and I wish I’d written it so I could tell everyone it was mine.

Instead I wrote this post, and a thing about toddler tantrums and Sirius Black for TalkMum, which is here if you fancy it. It’s no Unexpected Guests, but it was fun.

Oh gosh, 1am. Over and out, you guys. Over and out.

Henries were here

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Summer! Allow me to let you into a secret: when faced with sunshine, my top half converts it all super-efficiently into freckles and third-degree burns, while my bottom half simultaneously takes on a whiteness so blinding all light rays are reflected back into space. This is my superpower, and when I become a time traveller I will use it to be considered fashionable in all eras of history.

I know it’s no adamantium claws and accelerated healing, but.

We’ve spent as much time as possible outside this month. On one day, when the boys and I had driven out to our almost-new-neighbourhood to drop off some forms, we drove a little bit further out to The Vyne, in Sherborne St John. This is one of my all-time favourite National Trust places. Large gardens, a huge front lawn stacked with deckchairs, a lake, an adventure playground, a tea room, and the house – which was visited by several Henry Tudors and Jane Austen, AND has the ring that inspired Mr Tolkien to write the world’s manliest fantasy epic. The little chapel has medieval Flemish tiles, and the back corridor is hiding the biggest, oldest map of England I’ve ever seen. You need a torch to read it, it’s so gloriously faded and mouse-nibbled. They actually provide one (a torch, I mean, not a mouse).

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That morning we had a picnic lunch, with the boys in twin high chairs and me passing them sandwiches and yoghurt and mopping up spills at frantic speeds. Afterwards we spread a blanket on the grass, ‘wilaxed’ in deckchairs (ha!), poked busily around underneath trees, and used every bribery tool in the book to get Henry to leave the chickens alone and come home.   

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Any gardeners know what this flower is called? It smelled amazing

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Toddler picnics make me fervently wish for an extra pair of arms, but somehow I always do feel very relaxed at The Vyne. Maybe it’s the one ring. 

On losing Two, and trying not to be sad about it

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Second birthday. The cheeks have it.

He is on the verge of being three. Hanging onto Two by his fingertips. You can see Three coming in those long skinny legs, the bony bottom in little underpants. Three is in his self-awareness, the jokes with a random punchline, the sentences with multiple clauses. There are Threeish days he wants books with more words than pictures, and days he wants me to pull stories out of my head. I can smell it on the days he sleeps till 7.30 instead of 6am, and doesn’t want a nap because it’s obvious he doesn’t need one.

You’d think this would be good news. It is, it really is. Two has been a marvellous, multicoloured fire-storm. I have sensed for a long time that he and I are very similar, and I’ve butted heads with Two so often we have bruises. I can see the seeds of logic in Three. There’s the unremarkable everyday use of the toilet coming (!!!), and the point at which he can get himself a seventh glass of water. I can see, very VERY distantly on the horizon, a day in which he can put on his own socks.

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But oh, there is sweetness here I am not ready to give up. Two, with his chubby cheeks and flannel Thomas pyjamas. The process of watching him pull words from the air, awestruck with the discovery that things have names, and mispronounce them hilariously. Not ever again in his life will he forget how to say ‘porridge’. He won’t ever need my hand again to go down the stairs. That was Two’s thing, and Two has almost gone.

Three goes to nursery in September. We’re still waiting for the confirmation letter to arrive, but it should come any day. He’ll be someone else’s for five mornings a week, and he is so excited to go. Me, I’ve spent these sunny weeks holding onto Two with both hands: picnics, day trips, library books, lots of mornings jumping off walls and poking things with sticks, as much time as I can wangle with him wedged on my lap. For these last few golden weeks he is all mine, all day, and this life I make for him is the only one he knows. It was never going to last, and it shouldn’t, either. But I will close my eyes and breathe in Two for every minute I still have him.

Three is coming, lovely boy, and just wait till you see what you’ll find there.

Three is coming.

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How to listen to Elton John’s Greatest Hits, in ten easy steps

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1. You might want to start with Your Song, or you might not. Your Song is as much Elton John as he is pudding-basin haircuts and insane eyewear; it is the only Elton you learned to play and you sing it in your mother’s voice and Your Song is in your veins. If you do start here, it’s quite normal to slide nicely into Tiny Dancer, which you do not understand. You imagine Tinkerbell, which is an abomination.

2. What the Sam Hill is Honky Cat. Skip. You are ambivalent about Rocket Man, and this life is too short for ambivalence. Skip. Crocodile Rock sounds like it was made for a toddler’s dance party. You have often used it for this purpose. It’s not a casual listening song. Skip.

3. Ah, here we are at Daniel, which is where you start if you don’t fancy starting with Your Song. You sing ‘Daaaaaniel you’re a staaaaaar’ in a pleasant lilt. You imagine Seventies Elton, sky-rocketing to the top of the music business so quickly he’s burning, all glam and glitter and concealed gayness, thinking that catching a flight to Spain is exotic. I mean. The seventies, right?

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All birds were afraid in the seventies.

4. Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting gives you a headache. Skip. DO NOT EVER SKIP Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, because you skipped it for years until you realised how brilliant it was, and you have made an oath never to make this mistake again. There’s a line about hunting a horny back toad. You do not really think Elton has ever hunted any kind of amphibian in his spare time, but you give him some dramatic licence.

5. Sometimes you bypass Candle in the Wind, because – sorry – you feel it has been forever candy-flossed by association with Princess Di. When you don’t skip it, imagine teenage Elton wanting to love Marilyn Monroe as a real person, and feel some feelings. Then shut those feelings down. Benny and the Jets is next. Repeat. BENNY AND THE JETS IS NEXT. You have a special dance for this one, and you don’t know whether the dance or the stuttering consonants or the mohair boots make it, but you are as cool as ICE when you sing this song.

6. You prefer the version of Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me with George Michael, as all right-thinking people do. Skip. Then keep on skipping till Someone Saved My Life Tonight. It’s a slow-burner, this one, and you start with low-key piano mime to the octave chords and end with air-drums, butterfly actions and anguished faces. This is living. Do not forget it.

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7. Island Girl is meh. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is peppy. You watched the video for Don’t Go Breaking My Heart once, and all you can remember is their frantic, peppy faces and so much brown flared trouser you could have used Elton’s leg as a sleeping bag. You think for a minute about using Elton’s leg as a sleeping bag, and then feel weird. Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word is only to be left on if you have ice cream to hand and the death of a pet to mourn. (EDIT: this was later cannibalised by Blue, I find. Of course it was.) 

8. This point exists only to remind you that we are still only six years after Your Song. SIX YEARS. Damn.

9. Disc Two is patchy. The eighties, a place of both shoulder pads and Thatcherism: highs and lows came with the territory. Stop quickly in countryville with Blue Eyes, then hop onto I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues. You are only allowed to sing this song if you do the line ‘rollllin’ like thunderrrr/ under the coooovers’ with special growly voice and slightly salacious face. One time you will catch a glimpse of this face in the mirror, and realise it’s the same face you use when presented with a really good, sharp cheese. The rest of the songs are optional till you get to Something About the Way You Look Tonight. In an ideal world this song would be played at your funeral, and all the mourners would cast themselves down and pound the flagstones in memory of your radiance. Then be served crackers and a good sharp cheese. You have left instructions to this effect.

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10.  The best is here, at the end, with the late songs. This is older Elton, weary Elton, ready-to-cut-the-crap-and-say-it-like-it-is Elton. Never forget that the video for I Want Love stars Robert Downey Jr before he was supernova-famous, lip syncing these poignant things all biceps and hollow cheeks, and it is hotter than the sun’s core. This Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore is your favourite, and you love it for his exhaustion and his brutal honesty. You wish for nothing more in life than to sing the heck out of this song on a car journey and time it so the last notes play just as you pull in to your drive. Because this means you can ignore Song for Guy, all weird instrumentals and Elton creepily whispering ‘life’ over and over.

You find out it was written for a dead boy. Feel guilty. Skip.

Flying the flag for date night

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Real spouse talk: we find date nights hard these days.

Didn’t everyone say we would, and didn’t we think, all naively, that we’d find a way to work around it? I am in awe of couples who manage to get out once a week or even once a month. Whether you pay someone to come round (sometimes more expensive than we can afford, and difficult to do on weeknights) or just ask a friend (do they have kids already? What might the boys do to their house?), it’s bristling with awkwardness.

More real spouse talk: our relationship deteriorates, in measurable and significant ways, when we don’t have time alone.

And we do not want a relationship of pleasantries and routine. No, we signed up for hand-holding and intimate conversations and intimate everything else. I am here to make a stand and say that friendship, even best-friendship, is not good enough. Even with small children. Even with work and tiredness. I am here for heart-hurting love, and not a single thing less will do.

So it’s a good job, all things considered, that Timothy is the type to book tickets to BBC recordings on a whim, and take us off to London for the evening. All of us, because my brother- and sister-in-law were lovely enough to entertain the boys for the evening while we skipped off into the capital. They live just south of the river Thames, work in animation and theatrical makeup, and are the coolest and nicest people I know.

We were late, of course, so the first half of the date was characterised by sprinting: to the Tube station, onto the Tube, through a sandwich (awkward Tube eating is awkward), and then onto the theatre, where the lady told us they were already full. Great. So we took a long walk down through Bloomsbury to Covent Garden, and got a frozen custard from Shake Shack. Mine came with toffee sauce, chocolate pieces and a kind of malt powder that was like crushed Malteasers plus Horlicks plus crack. I ate it with blueberry lemonade at my elbow, and I honestly don’t think I’ll ever be the same.

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Pre-Raphelites woz 'ere. *shriek*

Pre-Raphaelites woz ‘ere. *shriek*

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Then – oh, my heart – we hired Boris bikes, and freewheeled over the river, Big Ben and the London Eye gleaming on the water, back to pick up the boys. I haven’t been on a bike since university, and went the whole way chanting ‘we’re not going to die we’re not going to die’. Three miles on a bike through London, while the sun sets? My date-o-meter just spontaneously combusted. We came back to chocolate fondue and some Peppa Pig talk, and it was all so perfect it hurt.

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On my flag of personal absolutes is painted ‘DATE NIGHT’. I believe in date night, however we wrangle it. If it’s on a Boris bike, so much the better.

Share with me your collected wisdom, o internet browsers: how do you make date night work? 

Slugs and snails: for Teddy

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You are one today, little boy. And what are little boys made of?

You are made of wrist rolls and chubby feet, big hands and big cheeks. Bounces and cowboy yells on a cot mattress at 6am.

Turbo-charged crawling. Clear blue eyes and wide beaming smiles, showing all six teeth, scrunching up your nose. A mess of corn-blonde dandelion hair falling into your face.

You are shouting and whooping in continual breathless streams. Delighted chucklesome laughter starting somewhere in your belly and spilling out past your cheeks. Unfortunately also that impatient foghorn bellow that takes up all our air space when you want some notice.

You are made of that look of intense concentration as you pick up cheerios with careful fingers from the floor, stuffing them into your mouth with your whole hand.

You are watchfulness, loyalty and deep, unquestioning attachment. You are ticklish between your shoulder blades.

You patch of sunlight on a stormy day; you streak of pure golden-haired grace.

You dream-maker, you heart-breaker -

wherever you’re going, I’m going your way.

(Happy birthday, Edward bear.)