The Summer Manifesto

“What on earth is that?” my friend asked, staring at the corkboard in my kitchen. On it, a piece of paper covered with writing and drawings, proudly bearing the title Summer Manifesto.

“Oh, it’s just a list of things we’d like to do this summer,” I answered, suddenly embarrassed by her tone. Was this yet another thing that normal people didn’t do? And if so, how did they keep track of all the different activities on offer, places to go, films to watch, stuff to try out?

That was a few years ago, but the Summer Manifesto has now become a tradition for us. Everyone is encouraged to come up with ideas, on the understanding that these are suggestions, and we might not be able to do all of them- it’s critical to manage expectations when dealing with Aspergers. Suggestions range from going to a particular park to swimming in the lake, having a picnic to going on holiday. The unlikelihood of being able to afford a holiday makes our Manifesto even more important when it comes to making our summers special. It means on days when there’s nothing planned we’ve got a ready made list of suggestions. It also lets me know what the kids’ priorities are, rather than me setting up activities they’re not that interested in, and that sometimes their wishes are remarkably simple. Plus it gives me a chance to look in advance for Groupon offers for things we might not otherwise try.

I’m a firm believer that kids need downtime, so I don’t pack every hour of every day with non-stop activities. In fact it’s vital to build in Decompression Days after a big day out to prevent everyone getting overtired and overstimulated and generally hellish. The flip side of that is that it’s easy to let the school holidays slip away without really having done much. Having a manifesto means I can make sure we’ve got at least one activity or outing planned for each week, rather than realising we’re into the final few days of the holidays and need to cram it all in at the last minute. It makes it more likely that I’ll have thought about things in advance and therefore have time to invite a friend to join us. The main benefit is that by the end of the summer, we’ll have had a bundle of good experiences as a family which otherwise wouldn’t have happened. Given the nastiness of the divorce, I’m keen to pack as many positive experiences in as I can before the kids are grown in the hope of giving them at least some happy memories to look back on.

The Manifesto also lays out expectations around chores etc, making it clear that no electronic gadgets are to be used until chores have been done. When the kids were younger, the rule was they had to choose 2 out of 3 activities; something creative, something educational, or something helpful. Allowing them to make a choice made them feel more empowered, meaning it was more likely that they’d cooperate with what was basically an attempt to make sure that they didn’t spend all day every day watching TV or playing on the computer. This year, aged 13 and 15, I’m just laying down the law as to what needs doing around the house; if it doesn’t get done, the planned activity isn’t going to happen. I’d really like to encourage Lily to spend some time studying as she enters her final GCSE year – it’s unlikely that I’ll achieve this without a massive amount of conflict though.

So on Day One of the school holidays we sat down together to work on this year’s Manifesto, complete with a Pinterest inspiration board to back it up with. This year’s suggestions vary from make smoothies to have a campfire to fix up the bikes and go for a ride, all the way up to hold a festival in our garden. Allrighty then, I’ll see if I can get The Killers booked in for next Thursday, and maybe a Portaloo or two. Like I said, it’s an ideas list so everything is allowed but not everything will happen. Alongside it is a weekly planner sheet to write on the day’s activities and chores, plus any reminders about appointments etc. It’s what works for us, another example of how ADHD requires us to be more organised in a way that has other people describe us as OCD or anal or asking What on earth is that? Whatever. On the second day of the holidays we were running round shooting each other at Laser Tag, which wouldn’t have happened without the Manifesto. Next week it’s Tubing at the nearby ski centre, courtesy of Groupon. We all want to think of ourselves as spontaneous but it’s worth planning for fun; the sands of time will keep on trickling through the hourglass of our days regardless of whether or not we’ve planned for them. Let’s try and make sure that some of life sparkles on its way past.

Grand Day Out

(My Nan would have called this a “Knicky Knacky Noo Shop,” but I’m sure they’d prefer “Antique” or “Vintage”, Notting Hill.)

Lily has regular clinic appointments in London, which on the whole we tend to treat as a Grand Day Out, catching the first off-peak train and waiting until the afternoon rush hour is over before making our way home. A couple of times I’ve tried to fit in taking Lily to London while also getting Ivy to school but it caused to much chaos and stress. When the last trip meant an hour and a half’s delay on the train while Ivy was home alone, I decided enough was enough – Ivy comes too. Both children being off at the same time inevitably makes school suspicious, as if I’m determined to sabotage their education by secretly nipping off to the Seychelles for the day. But no – it’s a genuine hospital appointment, and I’m doing the best I can to balance everyone’s needs including my own. The trip is educational in its own way – as a former home schooler I recognise that everything has educational potential – and we usually end up in one of the museums, or exploring somewhere new. School holiday appointments bring their own problems – yes, we’re not missing school, but London is far more busy and crowded, proving too much for Lily’s Aspergers. Lily also refuses to use the Tube when it’s crowded, resulting in some epic walks across London to make it back to Paddington on time for the train home – this was especially difficult when I was hobbling along with plantar fasciitis, having to practise Lamaze breathing techniques to get me through each step of a three mile walk from Camden, having already been on my feet for most of the day.

(Sculpture or alien invasion, we couldn’t quite decide, River Thames.)

It’s hard to believe that I once wanted to live in London. I was all set on a career in The Media, without really knowing what that would look like, just that I’d be heading off to London to do exciting things in film and television or magazines. Instead I fell in love with Simon and moved to a tiny town where Media careers simply weren’t a thing. Now when I look back I’m not sure whether that was a wasted opportunity or a lucky escape – I’m not sure that I’d like the person that I’d have to become to succeed in that game. Certainly I quit my on-the-job training as a features journalist when I was being asked to phone an elderly woman who I knew was sitting in a hospital holding hands with her second husband as he was slowly dying from a brain tumour, to ask her whether her previous fiance had actually died in her arms or just on the floor. I couldn’t believe that anyone would think it was okay to do that, but the young woman on the other end of the phone didn’t seem to register that we were dealing with people’s very real lives and emotions and that there was a duty of care not to traumatise an innocent person for the sake of a single sentence of the story. I’d struggle to live in London now; the 24 hr hectic, non-stop pace, the busyness, the crowds, the glazed, unconnected look on people’s faces as they ignore each other in a bid to find personal space. It’s an entirely artificial lifestyle in a hard, artificial environment, something that I seem to struggle with more and more as I get older.

(We’ll take this one please, Notting Hill.)

The 2pm appointment cut into the day, leaving not quite enough time before or after to really do much. We decided to explore Notting Hill, finding brightly painted townhouses and a vibe on the chichi side of boho. One of the streets was unbelievably picturesque, each painted house seemingly trying to compete with the next, all with lovingly tended tiny front gardens that showed that even the smallest space can be transformed into a personal haven. We decided the house with roses spilling around the door and windows was our favourite. Neither of the kids have seen the eponymous film, but I pointed out some of the landmarks nonetheless; the Travel Bookshop, now a tacky tourist souvenir shop, the blue door that was supposedly Hugh Grant’s house, the cafe where he buys the drink he spills over Julia Roberts. The kids just asked who Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts were, and I felt ancient. We found a small public park in one of the squares, and sat to eat our sandwiches. There are countless such pocket parks around London, some public, some private, providing small sanctuaries of green to counteract the hectic pace of the city; more and more I find myself drawn to and appreciating such spaces.

(Pocket Park, Notting Hill.)

On the spur of the moment, we decided to take the bus to the hospital rather than disappearing back underground; remarkably I managed to work out which bus to catch from which bus stop. The drawback of the Tube is that you never build up a sense of London, how the areas connect and interact, the flavour of each district – each location is an isolated dot centred around the nearest Tube station. From the bus we could get a sense of people’s everyday lives, from the blocks of flats and corner shops, to the hidden Mews and gold Maserati. Plant pots balanced on windowsills, balconies dressed up with tiny gardens, a table and chair, or a washing line; little glimpses of lives being lived, of people claiming their spaces and dressing them up.

(Matching planters extends the wall height, creating a private courtyard, Notting Hill.)

After the rather intense appointment, we headed to South Kensington – Lily into the Science Museum while Ivy and I went into the V&A, relieved that Lily is of an age where I can let her wander on her own, mobile phone in hand. We’d intended to go look at an exhibition, but by that point we were both too hot and frazzled. Instead, we took our shoes and socks off and sat in the courtyard garden, dipping our feet into the water, instantly feeling calmer and cooler. A group of men in suits sat behind us, remarking to themselves that the toddlers had the right idea, going paddling, isn’t that what we all want to do, take our shoes and socks off and get in the water? I wondered what was stopping them. There were no signs up telling you not to put your feet in the water, no members of staff patrolling the perimeter. It was a very hot day. On some days I might have turned round and asked them directly, my own feet firmly in the water; what’s stopping you? Not on this day though. Too hot. Too overstimulated. I let them stew in their business suits. When we were ready to go, we rescued the fallen leaves from the succulents that had been planted beneath two tall trees. It was clear that these beds were not the right environment for succulents, and from the looks of it they hadn’t even been planted properly. Ivy picked up the fallen, plump leaves and stored them in her packed lunch box, hoping to bring them home and replant them.

(Giant bubbles outside the Science Museum, London.)

We came out of the V&A by the new side entrance, all gleaming white tiles and stone. The sun bounced off the white steps, dazzling us. I wish they’d planted a couple of trees instead. I’m not a fan of sleek, minimalist modernism, not when everything in sight is manmade, unnatural. Put a few trees in, a couple of raised beds, and I’d be happy. Instead, they’d made a sun trap even brighter, even hotter, to the point where it was uncomfortable for our eyes. I thought of the YouTube video I’d watched in the bath that morning, a couple in Mexico who transformed a wall in their house with re-used, repurposed plastic bottles, turning them into chains of planters, each one dripping down into the one beneath, the water caught in a reservoir bottle at the bottom and poured back into the watering can. A refreshing wall of green. I thought of the tiny balcony and basement gardens we’d spotted from the bus, of the smart front yards in Notting Hill, all cramming as much greenery as they could into tiny spaces. It seems a human instinct to bring nature into our living spaces, to prettify and green up our personal environments. Yet too often nature is simply missed out of the equation when it comes to public spaces. I’m with Hundertwasser and his tree tenants and grass-roofed buildings. The city is an alien enough environment; we’re simply not designed for such high-density, fast-paced living – there are even video adverts on the side of London bin lorries, for goodness sake. If we venerate design as being entirely man-made, if we exclude plants and trees as being too messy for our sleek, hip, spaces, we create more artificiality. We contribute to the chaos of the city. Sitting around the courtyard pond, an environment with grass, trees and cloud-trimmed bushes, everyone was relaxed. On crowded tubes, busy pavements and visually over-stimulating unnatural environments – adverts crowded in to every space, people are frazzled.

(Wild strawberries growing in public park, Notting Hill.)

Often on the train home, I head into the corridor long before our stop, knowing that once we’ve passed the final station before our own, we head through wooded valleys where the river winds through. The window open, I breath in the cool air, smelling the damp earth, calming my hyper-stimulated senses with the greenness of it all. There’s still the drive home, the kids to be put to bed, jobs to be done – and then hopefully the first sip of a much-awaited cup of tea before falling exhausted into bed. Wondering how on earth people manage to live full-time in cities like London, so cut off from nature, knowing that I’m glad I’ve opted for a quieter life. Knowing too that we all need more green – in our homes, our gardens and in our public and work environments. And if anyone could work out how to cover a tube train in moss and ferns, we should give them the horticultural equivalent of a Nobel Prize.