Friday, February 19, 2010

Postcard: A Travelling Mother's Guilty Pleasures

Driving our hire car, the biggest monster in the lot.
Eating a frosted donut and calling it breakfast.
Shoving clothes in the dryer, never glancing at the sky.
Leaving crumbs on the floor for the cleaner to deal with.
Gazing out the window, just doing nuthin'.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Valentine’s Tale

Valentine's Day. It's the sort of day I don't usually notice. If I do, I might snort at the advertising in the shops and make some curt comment about the greeting card holiday. But this week I'm in the US, Boston to be precise, and Valentine's Day is BIG. There are hearts everywhere; women are walking around with flowers and balloons; romantic music is drifting through the square opposite our hotel. People are lining up to have their photograph taken in front of an eight foot high Perspex heart. Horse drawn carriages circulate, couples snuggled inside sipping champagne. They are visible from our hotel room; my girls are glued to the window. The youngest is neighing.

As usual, my partner and I did our best to ignore the day. But the square has free WiFi and I'm wandering far from home, so I went down in the cold to check my emails. I was sitting on a concrete bench, hunched over my laptop while my tail froze solid, when a young man slid into my peripheral vision brandishing a single long-stemmed red rose. I looked up.

'I saw you; this is for you,' he said, smiling. I stared, flabbergasted. Then, because I am an unromantic cynic, I asked him what it was for. 'It's Valentine's Day!' he said, looking at me like I was an idiot. Then he smiled again, handed over the rose, and wandered off.

I was so startled, I laid it down beside me and kept on with the emails. Perhaps I thought I imagined it. After all, I've been married almost ten years now. I'm in my mid thirties, I've borne three children, and I'm always tired. Nice crinkles are developing around my eyes, but stronger, more obstinate lines mark my mouth. I'm getting a little grey. My hair is cropped unfashionably short and I don't even own any makeup, let alone use it. Since we've been travelling I've put on weight, my skin has dried out and I need a haircut. Also, I have a pimple on my bottom.

Other than this totally random pimple, I'm not ugly, but I don't use the usual feminine markers of attractiveness: long hair, pretty clothes, delicate jewellery. The world treats me accordingly. Much of the time I am invisible, particularly when I'm with the kids. No one checks me out, and I'm quite fine with that. There's not an ounce of flirt in me. Whenever I hear that some shockingly high proportion of people have extramarital affairs, I'm amazed. I'm so far off the market that I just don't get it. My husband maintains I'm the least romantic person he's ever met and I'm the last person you'd give a single red rose to – although he delights me with tiger lilies from time to time.

So I couldn't quite believe what had happened. But the rose still lay there on the bench and, whenever I glanced at it, seemed real enough. I finished my emails, picked it up, and sniffed. It smelled of nothing. Those Valentine's roses have no scent, and it's a crying shame.

But its petals were blood red, and soft as velvet. I stroked it against my cheek, remembering how delightful it is to be noticed. And a little voice cried out exultantly, See! You're not past it! Maybe you're more attractive than you realise!

– and then I was horrified. I asked the rose, Am I insufferably vain? And what on earth am I going to tell my husband?

I felt slightly guilty about this odd encounter: had I sent off an improper signal, staring into my computer in the freezing cold? And what did it mean and why didn't the guy stay and talk and what is this American culture anyway?

The rose was silent, silent and beautiful.

My frozen tush demanded I cut short my musings, and the surprising young man was long gone. So I gathered my things, picked up the rose again, and wandered back through the Valentine's throng to the one who loves me best, the one who knows about the self-doubt and the frown lines and the plain clothes and the pimple, the one who still wants to grab my butt anyway.

PS - Monday morning, I happened to walk past the giant Perspex heart again. In the absence of crowds I realised it was, in fact, an ice sculpture - heart, velvet-cushioned throne, balustrades, urns, vases and giant cupids. Wow!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Help Wanted!

I read each week at an inner-city school with refugee kids.

The school very much needs some other people to read to and with the preps on a regular basis, at least weekly but preferably more often. So if you live in Melbourne, have some time in the mornings, and like books and kids, send me an email and I can forward you more details.

If you have young children of your own, you are welcome to bring them and have them play in the classroom while you read.

You can read about my experience reading with the kids here (how I got into it) and here (looking for books for them) and here (some of the things I've done with them). I've absolutely loved the experience, and can highly recommend it!

Postcard: Black Crag, icy wind

UP>> I'm cold where are my gloves what can I eat why do we have to do this it's too muddy dada carry me mama hold my hand slow down my feet hurt isn't there anything else to eat I have a runny nose my hood came off you're too fast my legs are tired sore aching when are we going to be there why can't we go hoooooome???

DOWN>> running laughing leaping flying skipping jumping tumbling falling giggling yelling: There's a dog! It licked my face! There's a waterfall! And another one! A kissing gate! Two ponies! One sniffed my hand! The river! The waterfall! The village! Chocolate!!!

Please can we do it again?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Into the Clouds

My six year old grumbles most days on the way to school. It's about a mile, longer when we take the quiet way. She's tired, she's bored, why can't we drive? And I can't blame her. The traffic is deafening, the footpaths are hard on her feet, and the quiet way is loooooong. So we look around us, trying to notice the small good things: the Borzois running at twilight, the setting sun illuminating their flowing fur and transforming them into fiery angels; a fallen nest lined with down; a pole with a neck warmer (guerrilla urban landscaping at its best). But often it feels like slim pickings.

Happily, though, we've ditched school for a while and are roaming around the UK instead. This week: the Lake District. Our house is in a tiny village, surrounded by fields and woods and rivers and mountains. So I dragged my reluctant daughter out for a walk. She grizzled as we put on her waterproof pants and snow boots, and stomped out the front door. 'Think of it as a treasure hunt,' I suggested. 'We have a map, we'll follow the clues, and we'll look for treasure: views, rocks, leaves – whatever is interesting.' She rolled her eyes and sighed.

So we headed down our street, over a river (saying hello to the ducks), past the pub, under the railway bridge, through a kissing gate (mwah, mwah), down a path between two dry stone walls, through another kissing gate, across a field, over a steep stone stile, down a driveway, and along the street home.

When we saw the ducks, she cheered up immensely. And from thereon she was exuberantly happy. She waded through the deepest puddles and sloshed in the mud, made kissing sounds at each of the gates, and clambered up the stile even though its height gave her pause. A train went by, and she waved. We saw sheep and a tractor and heard water everywhere – a tiny stream running beside the road and tumbling over a ledge; the drip of a misty rain; and of course the river. Mosses and ferns grew out of the stone walls. We inspected the fallen leaves (mostly oak); we looked at algae and the colours of the stone; we saw footprints in the mud and counted how many different shoes we could find. I read out the directions bit by bit, so she could locate the stile, the gates, the yellow arrows showing the way. The distance – longer than the school run – felt completely insubstantial. She raced home, described every step of the way to her father, and asked to do it again.

The next day, she begged to go for a longer walk. So while my husband and our middle child caught the train to Liverpool, home of Anfield football ground (motto for LFC and all families with young children: 'You'll never walk alone'), I strapped our toddler onto my back, took my six year old's hand, and headed out. Nothing heroic, just three miles. Our path took us past the cemetery (hello Elizabeth, there's always an Elizabeth), along the river (with a view to the weir and its endlessly fascinating falling water), across some farm land (investigating molehills and sheep poo, as one does), then straight up a hill into the twelfth century woods. After climbing for 45 minutes, we reached the ridge. We hung our jackets on a tree, sat on a damp bench, ate a chocolate digestive and admired the view: miles of rolling fields and hills, patterned by walls and hedges; sheep on a slab of rock, looking startled; patches of snow in the folds of the nearby mountains; and everywhere moss, fallen leaves, and trees. We saw and heard no one. It was just us, and the world at our feet.

Rest done, we rambled on. To my delight, I found Yggdrasil. Then, in a clearing, Yggdrasil again, but from this tree's massive branches hung rope swings. My daughter shouted and ran, leapt on and flew through the air; the ground sloped away. The trees were ancient; the view was glorious; the ground was covered with soft leaves. We had climbed a small mountain, and were so pleased with ourselves. And then this, an unexpected gift, treasure indeed. Heaven on earth in a rope swing.

After a while, we followed the path out of the woods and into the clouds which had rolled in below us while we were on the ridge. We walked through mist across the fields: up six foot high ladder stiles with slippery rungs, through kissing gates so narrow I could barely fit with the baby backpack, and over a stone stile which landed us in a stream. We learned more about how to read directions on a map, and how to find those little yellow arrows in the landscape which show where to go. (Rule One: It's always more obvious than I think.) All the way, we were engaged, talking, energised, relaxed.

As we trotted down the final hill, negotiating our way over a cattle grid (bypass gates are for wusses), I reflected again on the walk to school. It's a big issue for us, a long and often exhausting part of our day. How can a mile at home be a gruelling slog, when three miles here are pure joy? What makes walking in our suburb so hard?

If only our daily walk went over a stream, into the woods, or through a kissing gate; if only it had a slightly dangerous rope swing or a stile too high for comfort; if only it were quiet enough I could hear my children speak; if only there were no traffic and they could run ahead at will; if only...

If only our path led us into the clouds.


PS – We do plan to buy a courier bike, which will carry all three girls to school and back, but even so I will still need to negotiate traffic in a big way – and the girls will get no exercise.

PPS – The walk was such a hit, the whole family did it again the next day. My not-quite-four-year-old, who demands to be carried for any distance longer than a block, ran, leaped and climbed the entire ramble. Every time she began to lag, I'd point out the next stile and she'd shout with glee and sprint across the field. Joy.

PPPS – Incidentally, this walk is a simple loop around a town that barely features on a map. It isn't one of the Great Walks of the Lake District, just one of thousands of rambles in the area. Yet it was so beautiful and satisfying that I'd happily do it every day for the rest of my life – and I haven't even begun to explore the other walks in the local photocopied guidebook.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Postcard: English Food

Creamy potatoes freshly dug, so sweet, so sweet. This morning's mackerel look surprised, still shocked at being caught. Onion soup, unctuous, fragrant with beef stock. Apples crisp as frost explode with juice; my chin is sticky. Fat crumbs of cheddar fall from doorstop-thick bread. Clotted cream, heavily crusted, weighs down a scone. Baby chard, lamb's lettuce, watercress clean my palate. Hand cut chips are crisply golden; inside, clouds. Pale ale, bronze ale, winter ale, stout –

I think my jeans have shrunk.

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