Spinal Tap and the Art of Survival

Another Spinal Tap week. You know the kind, when every time you manage to tweak your personal stress dial down to maybe a 6 or 7 (with autism in the house, it will never be below 5 unless several of us are unconscious), the Universe decides to crank it up to 11. So just as I was trying to build some order into our days, organising days out, insisting on chores and that Lily did some studying… a friend was hospitalised for almost a week. She has no family and is a single mother, which made her heavily dependent on friends to bring in changes of clothes, wash laundry as needed, bring her son in to see her. Most – almost all – of this fell to me, as it seemed very few were stepping up to help. It’s not possible to say NO to someone who is in hospital alone, scared and desperate, at least not for me. So my two have been left to their own devices – literally, computers and phones – while I’ve been driving to and from the hospital, dashing into the supermarket, collecting her son, cooking and houseworking, and still trying to squeeze in a couple of trips and activities for the summer holidays, all the time knowing that this wasn’t sustainable. Thankfully, as I write this, she’s now been released, but will still need a considerable amount of help at home; her home is half a mile away though and not fifteen miles, which makes it easier.

Several things emerge from all this. Firstly a documentary by Paul O’Grady about the working classes that I caught during the week in which he suggested that being working class was an attitude and set of values – the unspoken implication being that working class people had a stronger moral ethic about looking after each other. It had to be that way, helping each other out in times of illness and hardship, creating a web of kindness and loyalty that was the earliest version of the Welfare State. You helped each other, because you might be next in need. You helped each other, because you were up close with each other’s suffering, and one family going under could be any family going under. I’ve heard it argued that going wayyy back in history, the tribe’s hunters would share out the meat they’d caught – it wasn’t exactly easy to hoard it, pre-refrigeration. Stockpiling it or demanding that others paid a high price for it (pre-currency) just wasn’t feasible. Sharing it was not only generous, it boosted your social value to the tribe and created a debt of gratitude. If the hunter was injured or ill, it was then more likely that they would be looked after by the others. The anarchist creed; from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Until relatively recently I’ve always believed that most people acted in this way, now I’m not so sure; a lot of people seem to be walking around wearing the attitudinal equivalent of Melania Trump’s I Really Don’t Care jacket. So; care. Help. Be kind. It’s revolutionary.

Second – thank God for the NHS. I’m trying to avoid politics on this blog, but it’s not as if politics are separate from real life. Things that our grandparents and older generations fought for are under attack again, as chunks of the NHS are sold off to private companies, workers’ rights are eroded through zero hours contracts and enforced “self-employment” for firms such as Uber, meaning that people lose the right to holidays, sick pay, pensions etc. Again, I thought that those battles had been won on the understanding that it was right and necessary to pay workers fairly, give them enough time off, look after them when they’re sick… but no, there are still too many bosses and CEOs who really Really Don’t Care and are more than willing to exploit others for wealth. I’m in despair at where our society is heading and that the fight – basically the fight to get everyone to treat each other with respect and fairness – is neverending. But in the meantime there’s a 10 year old boy who still has a mother, thanks to the NHS.

Third – if it were me that was ill, I’d be screwed. I don’t have any back up, no one to look after the kids, drive them to school etc. I really don’t know what I’d do and it’s terrifying. I will just have to add it to the list of things I’m not allowed to think about.

Fourth – I can’t change the circumstances. I can’t magic good health for my friend, a house with a parking space for me, or take away Lily’s epilepsy or ADHD. So it’s going to have to come down to changing my attitude – grrr, my hackles are up already at the thought of it – and developing better coping strategies. I’ve been complaining too much, which seems fair given the stupid amount of things I’m having to deal with, but which doesn’t actually help any. This creating a life worth living isn’t easy, particularly when the pressure keeps getting turned up, but I’m so aware of how my days have become about surviving rather than thriving, and wanting to change that. Better support systems are required – and let’s face it, we’re talking self-support here – somehow finding habits and actions that build positivity and peace of mind. I also need more downtime and mental space, particularly if I’m going to seriously start writing again; I can squeeze in the time, but my brain is too frazzled to do anything with it. Which makes it sound like I need to take up meditation. Bother. Perhaps I can transmute this into more gardening instead?

Fifth – I’ve been determined to keep up with my newfound exercise. I refuse to use the word regime. Still fitting in an early morning swim, a yoga class, a Pilates class before heading off to hospital or the To Do list. Before now I’ve had gym memberships that went entirely to waste – exercising was something I should do rather than wanted to do, and working out felt like punishment. Now, I’m treating it as me-time and approaching it gently, making it far more sustainable. I’ve still got absolutely no desire to head into the proper gym and attack the treadmill or cross-trainer, and so I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I might be the youngest in my exercise classes by a good 20 years, but hey – it’s working. Exercise is becoming my support rather than a bugbear, which is a lovely, positive shift. Along with intermittent fasting and a general reduction in snacking and comfort eating, I’ve been able to lose almost a stone over the past month. I guess this ties in with the previous point, creating support systems and positivity. Finally, I’m seeing some kind of recovery in action. Now I just need to expand that into the rest of my life…

On anger and housework.

Bone weary. The house unravelling around me. A month ago I had the downstairs looking reasonably clean and tidy to the point where I wouldn’t be embarrassed if someone called in. Now I’d have to barricade the door. The relentlessness of it is wearing me down, while frustration and resentment build up that the kids ignore the chores while I nag and nag until I’m screaming. When I finally crack and yell and get either of them to at long last do the thing I’ve spent days asking them to do – take a bath! Take your clean washing upstairs! Bring your laundry down to the basket! Please fetch the dirty glasses and plates from your room! – they look at me like I’m being entirely unreasonable.

This is not how I want my life to look. Or feel.

Last weekend I had to drop everything to take a friend to hospital, about fifteen miles away. I sat with her for two hours, until they decided she needed to stay in for 24 hours. She didn’t have anything with her, so I drove back again to pack an overnight bag, making sure I washed the dishes sitting in her sink so she wouldn’t have to come home to them. I stopped off to buy a couple of drinks and snacks to make sure she didn’t go hungry if the NHS food wasn’t up to much, and because there’s not a lot of choice of drinks other than tea and coffee. Back to the hospital, keeping her company for another hour until visiting time was over and she was being taken away for an X-ray. It was about six hours all in all, and I didn’t mind any of it, I’m glad to be of use to her. “This is the closest thing I’ve had to a night out in a long time,” I told her. I wasn’t even joking.

What I minded was texting the kids at 9.15pm to let them know I was on my way home, only to be told that they hadn’t cooked enough food for me after all and I’d need to stop off and buy some dinner for myself. Thank God there was a Tesco Express close to the hospital. Getting home after 10 to discover that no one had thought to wash the dishes but had just piled up more, and that the laundry – my bed linen – was still hanging on the line in the damp evening air. Lily was still playing on the computer in the living room – despite having assured me in an argument earlier that day that she was perfectly capable of self-regulating her computer time, breaks, conduct etc.

“Lily, you’ve been playing on it for over seven hours straight.”

“No, I’ve taken some breaks, I was doing Wii Sports with Ivy.”

Taking a break from the computer to play on the Wii is not what I consider a legitimate break. It took another twenty minutes to chase her off it and into her bedroom, then I sat down with a sad-looking microwave carbonara that went against all of my dietary rules, in a living room full of computers, wires, papers and general detritus.

This is not how I want my life to look. Or feel.

I wanted to flop down on my bed, exhausted, and go straight to sleep. I had to make it first, with slightly damp sheets. I tried to convince myself the dampness would be refreshing after another hot day.

Morning, and the messy kitchen still needs to be tackled, the dishes are still waiting to be washed. A mouldy glass of water appears overnight, brought down from someone’s bedroom. It takes some doing to create mouldy water. The garden needs watering, and the weeds need pulling before they take over. Another load to put in the washing machine, and when did Ivy last change her bedding? A meal plan needs putting together, a shopping list made and presumably shopped for. There are bricks to collect from a house around the corner, before the skip is taken away tomorrow, they’ve said I can have them for my garden to make paths with. I need to cancel my car insurance and hire a handyman and fill out the forms to reclaim the travel costs from Lily’s last appointment, and sort out a new password for my bank account. I’m still feeling angsty and agitated after a week in which several strangers saw fit to have a go at me over things that really didn’t warrant it – triggering as hell after 4 years of Simon blaming me for stuff that wasn’t my fault. Half of me wants to curl up under the sheets and not get up, the other half is screaming that I should just jump in my car and drive away, escape and leave it all behind. I’m going to have to have the talk with the kids again, the same one I keep having, the one that goes I need you to help me. You live here too. You know what jobs need doing. Please do some of them without me having to constantly nag and beg for help. I really can’t do everything on my own. I am so so sick of this one-sided conversation. I’ve left a sign saying No Computer on Lily’s computer, but I can hear her playing. When I go down, she’s on the Wii instead, no chores done, no studying done, wearing the same clothes she’s had on all week and when I try to remonstrate that she shouldn’t be playing games when there’s jobs to be done, she’s utterly unrepentant.

“Get off my ass,” I hear her muttering as I leave the room. I explode at her, pent up with all the jobs I’m trying to do at once.

Do I have to die? Do I have to actually die before someone helps me?

It’s the relentlessness of being a single parent that’s grinding me down. There’s no pause button, no support, no respite. Not a single day off. Not a single night off. I need a holiday from my life, basically. A week where the stress and struggle can stop. I may as well be asking to go to the Moon. And beneath all this – the hurt. The injustice. The anger burning a hole through my chest. Because this is what Simon has done to me. I’m struggling day after day after day with no hope of respite, no hope of any improvement, while he lords it up in their big house, with parking and garage, with holidays whenever they want, with absolutely no responsibilities, no kids to make a mess or interrupt their plans, while still claiming that he is the victim in all of this. I want to scream. I want to throw rocks at his windows and plenty of other stuff that for legal reasons I should definitely not admit to in a public forum. And I despair. Will I ever be healed of this? Of him?

This is not how I want my life to look. Or feel.

I don’t want my life to be a constant reminder of the abuse that I was put through. But it’s hard, when every single day the house is still too small, and I don’t have anywhere to park, and I’m bent double under the weight of holding it all together and raising the kids single-handedly …and Simon’s got away scot-free. Without Legal Aid, there’s no way I could afford to take him back to court to get a fairer settlement, even if that was an actual legal possibility, which it probably isn’t. There should be a free tribunal, a couple of years after divorce, that you could go back to if it’s obvious that your ex lied about finances and circumstances and have any imbalances redressed. Too often divorce settlements are based on equal childcare that somehow disappears once he’s won himself a bigger house and more money than he’d have got if the judge knew the kids would end up with you full time. Sadly I’ve heard too many similar stories to mine and the injustice burns; what I went through, what so many other women have been put through, or are going through right now.

Every time I struggle to find a parking space for the night while I’m exhausted and having to carry shopping bags a quarter mile back to the house, I think of Simon with his garage and driveway. Every time the house feels cluttered and overwhelming and I despair of ever turning our too small house into a comfortable home, I think of Simon with his four bedrooms and two receptions. Every time I give up and close the holiday websites, knowing I just can’t afford to take us away during school vacations, I think of Simon, able to jet away with Astrid off-peak, whenever he wants. Every time I’m faced with Lily raging at me over school work, or being asked to take a bath, or refusing to get off her computer for a break, I think of Simon, who never has to bother with her behaviour. And so on, and so on. How do you heal when the very cornerstones of daily life are a trigger?

This might not be how I want life to look or feel, yet I have no idea of how to get from here to there. So many of us are in that same boat, trapped by financial circumstances that we have little chance of improving, certainly not when other factors are in play; children, disabilities, divorce, trauma, illness, family, lay-offs. If you have money, a solution is affordable for so many of the obstacles in life. If not, the obstacles seem insurmountable, blocking the path to earning the money that would ease the situation.

My friend texts me, she’s going to have to stay in for another 24 hours and needs me to bring more clothes. Here I am complaining about my life while a friend is fighting cancer. Another wake up call, but I’m getting angry at how it’s the good people who seem to suffer most. Prayer, Lottery ticket, a giant red button to just make things stop for a while; I don’t have the answers to how to make life better right now. I really wish I did. In the meantime; just keep breathing.

The Grand Plan

Garden design starts with a plan. Usually. Except, as I’ve mentioned, the dimensions of my garden simply don’t make sense on paper, it’s absurdly long and narrow. I’ve tried sketching out ideas, but the garden refuses to be pinned down. Instead, I’ve found myself feeling my way into it, having a rough idea of what I want and kind of where that might end up, but working it out as I go. Building from the ground up and seeing where it takes me, rather than imposing any artificial design that’s been sketched out from the comfort of my living room.

Here’s the starting point, from the estate agent’s pictures before I moved in. Sadly, that’s not my bench.

All very clean and tidy – but there’s nothing there. An old rose bush and the plum tree, plus straggly grass with trip-holes for the unwary dug by the previous owner’s dog. No flowers, no herbs, no soul. A fence halfway down to contain said dog, and the garden office/cabin beyond. A blank canvas, in other words.

The first idea was to have three circles cut into the grass – I marked out the first couple last year, but ran out of time and energy to properly cut them out. To get rid of the unwanted grass and cut down on weeds in the meantime, I put sheets of cardboard down – it looked hideous but helped to get the job done.

Phase one, the first circle with a large new flower bed between it and the patio is pretty much complete. More plants could be fitted in, but planting will be an ongoing process according to finances and hopefully the ability to raise some from seed – at the moment the priority is to mark out the bones of the garden. My instinct has been to create at least one small area that feels like a garden in the meantime, and seeing the flowers from my bedroom window always brings a smile to my face.

Phase two is to cut out the remaining two circles of grass, edge them and weed the newly created planting beds surrounding them. Both circles have been cut, and one has been edged, albeit wonkily, with timber edging that I managed to get on sale. The weeding wasn’t completed, and as a result both circles are being invaded by an eye-watering amount of convolvulus – bindweed. Nightmare. I want to garden organically, but have started to fantasise about a large dose of Weed n Feed, as there’s no real way I can beat the bindweed, especially as it’s burying its pernicious roots into the “lawn.”. Even if I miraculously beat it back to the fenceline, it will just keep creeping back in from next door’s garden as Mike isn’t much of a gardener.

Phase three; my much-wanted herb garden, just beyond the now-removed centre fence. Based on a mandala design, a circular area of path that buds into the surrounding planting area, giving a larger reach. This has been marked out for over a month, the edges outlined and cut halfway – until the weather became so hot and the ground baked solid. So progress has halted until we get at least one decent rainfall to soften the ground. Plus it’s just too hot to start digging, even if I didn’t have to use a pickaxe to get through the soil. It’s been left, as Lily said, looking like I’m marking out some kind of satanic ritual. This picture was taken a few weeks ago – the grass is like dried straw by now.

With these areas marked out, it’s easy to see that a little potting shed would be perfect in between the grass circles and the herb garden. A strip of decking outside the shed could double up as both a path and a place to sit, and the little space left is where the pond should go. It’s easy to see all of this, in the bliss of my imagination. Creating it though is another story. I need a new car and my shower is still broken. Three doors need the attention of a handyman, for three different reasons. While there are sheds at B&Q that seem fairly cheap, by the time delivery costs have been factored in, never mind assembly costs, it’s just too expensive. Realistically I need to build the shed myself, from pallets and scraps. Rather more realistically – I have zero building experience, and as Ivy would say, have obviously been spending far too much time on Pinterest. Ah, Pinterest – the mythical realm where inspiration triumphs over actual ability. A pond? That seems doable, until I likely unearth a large sunken concrete bunker, or fail to drive the spade in more than six inches deep. Oh, and of course I can’t handle the electric pump installation, neither can I afford to hire someone… and so it would be a stagnant swamp rather than pleasant pond. What should be phases four and five are fast becoming a personal Everest, the litmus test that decides whether I can manage to seriously push myself into new skills or whether in fact I’m just seriously deluded. More pallets are required before I can think about starting the shed though – and it’s far too hot to be trying to lug pallets up the street, or so I’m telling myself.

Phase six – and by now I’m probably fortune-telling rather than planning – would be to build a covered pergola adjoining the cabin to create a social space that’s further away from the house. See, my head figures that by now I’ve already managed to build a shed from scratch, so a pergola should be a breeze, right? This would be the perfect place for an outdoor sofa, I’ve always wanted somewhere comfy to sit outside. There’s a gap between the herb garden and the pergola area, that the kids are asking to keep as long grass, although eventually this could become a veggie patch. And finally phase seven or eight would be to spruce up the hidden orchard area that lies beyond the cabin, pop in some woodland plants and tame some of the tangled undergrowth. Oh, and if I could, I’d also pop in a covered porch along the back of the house; we built these in our last two houses and it’s soooo useful to have a little rain-proof area outside your back door, whether that’s to have a clothes airer standing outside, or to nip out to the firewood pile without getting wet.

That’s the plan then – technically more of a dream than a plan, given the issue of my having no idea how to construct it all. But a dream is a starting point, right? And until then… there’s always Pinterest.

Exhaustion and the quiet of the suburbs.

Saturday. The alarm switched off the night before, being able to sleep in until the heady delights of 7am, when my bladder can’t hold out any longer. There’s the list of weekend chores to tackle, but I’m exhausted. I manage to wash up, put the school uniforms in the wash, start emptying the bins… by lunchtime I’m struggling to keep my eyes open. Today would be a good day to start work on the herbal garden, but instead I crawl back to bed for a nap.

It’s not been the worst week, but it’s been tiring and stressful – battling with school over meeting Ivy’s needs, the strain of the car breaking down again and worrying at one point that we weren’t even going to make it into town for the school bus without having to push the car ourselves. Taking a friend to the shops even though I didn’t need to go myself. More arguments with Lily, a paediatric appointment, and having to contact the two other hospitals we deal with to get advice about her medication and whether it could be affecting her behaviour. Lots of niggling jobs were ticked off the To Do list; emails, bills, the Tax Credits form. Possibly I over-exerted myself planting pretty much all of the remaining pots that were waiting on the patio. But by Saturday – total exhaustion. It seems to go this way most weekends – the plans I want to make fall by the wayside as I don’t have the energy to carry them out. One day at home to catch up with homework and chores, to decompress after the busy week, and then a day to go out and have fun as a family, get a change of scene – that seems ideal to me. In reality, it’s one day spent feeling like The Walking Dead, barely able to do anything at all, and one day spent catching up on twice as many chores.

Lily and Ivy know that there are chores to be done, my new system is write out a list on Friday evening – everybody then chooses a couple of jobs and gets through them as quickly as possible on Saturday morning. I’ve had to enforce this by changing the Wifi password until the jobs are done; tiresome but effective. Otherwise I have to do absolutely everything on my own until I’m on the floor with exhaustion and frustration – it’s impossible to make progress on the home and garden fronts when you’re struggling to manage the daily chores. Or to put it another way – it’s depressing to spend most of the day working hard outside; clearing, digging, painting, mowing, trimming, shredding, planting, weeding – then come back in and discover the kitchen is piled high with dishes that nobody else is washing. Yet still, even though they know that the chores need doing, even though they know that they’ll lose their internet access, nothing gets done unless I nag and chivvy them into it. On the days when exhaustion wins out, I simply don’t have the energy to fight to get the kids to do their part. Frustration and resentment bite hard.

No sooner have I decided to give in and take a nap then out they come. The strimmers, the mowers, the hedge trimmers, the pressure washers, even at times the cement mixers and circular saws. All the noisy outdoor appliances that the suburbs can muster. I close my window and try to relax, but the noises grate on my tired mind. From her bedroom, Lily lets out random shrieks of insane-sounding laughter as she watches endless YouTube videos- a noise that grates even further as it’s proof that she’s neither doing her homework, nor tackling her chores. It’s not as if I can throw my windows open and order my neighbours to shut up while I get some sleep, and I’m done with arguing over Lily about what she should be doing. I’ve been spoiled by the House in the Sky – being detached, with only two neighbours to worry about, the other houses spaced out far enough for noise not to matter. When people mowed their lawns or set to with the strimmer, it didn’t sound as if they were waving them around right under my bedroom window. Am I right in thinking that there’s areas in Europe where there are very strict times about when you can and can’t mow the lawn? It sounds very oppressive to say that lawns can only be cut at 9am on Sunday mornings, but then – what bliss to enjoy the quiet for the rest of the week.

I’ve always beaten myself up over days like this, the days when nothing gets done, intentions swirling down the drain of exhaustion. Now I’m trying to give myself more wiggle room, more compassion. Accepting that much of day to day life feels like a battle, that ASD/ADHD makes life feel harder, uses up more energy. That it’s been a week of doing things that I find difficult, that the stress means paying a price, several shiny gold tokens extracted from my energy levels. When Lily was a lot younger, we learned the hard way about her need for decompression days – generally after a day or so of absolute hell when we were supposed to be on holiday. It didn’t matter how fun it was, how many activities there were to do, how great the swimming pool was or how many places we wanted to explore – after a big day out, we needed to spend the next morning at home (or in the tent, caravan etc), letting Lily chill out, watch her videos etc. If not, she got over-stimulated, over-tired and there was hell to pay – screaming tantrum after screaming tantrum.

I’m only just realising my own need for decompression days. Society isn’t very good at taking a pause though, something that’s getting worse instead of better, an endless push for faster, harder, more. If you’re ASD/ADHD, your head is full enough already, 50 brain tabs running all together while being constantly bombarded by sensory overwhelm. Noise is a big one for me, something I’m noticing when trying to drive; it’s why I’ve bitten Lily’s head off at times when she starts immediately fiddling with the radio and changing it to one of her CDs while I’m still absorbing the energy of both kids coming out of school full of complaints and chatter, the frenetic car park of pupils and vehicles moving in and out, the queue to get out, the cars whizzing past on the main road… SHUT UP ALREADY! I guess that’s why when I travel earplugs are essential, otherwise I can’t sleep – my brain recognises that the noises around me aren’t right and starts freaking out, trying to pick up every sound in case I’m in danger.

The fastest way to improve the everyone’s work-life balance would be to make the weekend a day longer. The bliss of having that extra day during Bank Holidays or Inset days but all year round- we get a decompression day, a chores day and a fun day. Personally I think it would boost the economy and the nation’s productivity no end, reducing sickness and stress and giving neurotypicals another day to go to the Mall and spend money. In the meantime, I may have to buy ear plugs for home use too, or fantasise about a return to scythes and old-fashioned non-electric mowers like my Grandad had. Wasn’t Poldark supposed to have sparked an interest in scything again? Thinking about it, I know one of the actors in the TV series… could I get Poldark himself to scythe my overgrown grass and set off a quiet new suburban trend?

On Imperfection, Barrels and Buddha

May has brought a very unBritish heatwave, followed by its very own monsoon season, sometimes in the space of a single day and most usually when I’ve hung the washing out to dry. After over a week of scorching hot weather, the ground was too hard to dig and so I’ve shifted to other jobs; painting the fence and bench, revamping the patio area as well as trying to keep everything watered. Watering is tricky as there’s no tap at the back of the house and so watering cans have to be filled up in the kitchen or bathroom, carried dripping through the house and out into the garden. I’ve now managed to install a water butt, almost correctly, and so there’s some water available at the back, as well as a large barrel further down the garden, although this isn’t connected to any gutters and so only fills from rain falling directly in it. I’ve been setting out as many containers as I can to catch rainwater and manually refill the barrel – my garden looks like an episode of Bear Gryll’s The Island at times. It’s only when you don’t have water that you appreciate how sacred it really is. I will say nothing of the constant hiss of hosepipes in neighbouring gardens as I’m slogging down the path carrying watering cans of my recycled bath water. I’m so glad I mulched the new flower bed after planting, it’s done a lot to help my precious new plants to get through the hot weather.

Unable to make much more progress while the ground was so hard, I turned my attention to the patio. Oh dear. A large pile of thorny trimmings from the overgrown rosebush and trellis that needed shredding, bags of compost and mulch, plants awaiting a home, pots that once were plants and now were weeds, random bits of wood and pallets and much general debris. Not exactly a space that cried out to be sat in and enjoyed. After a good tidy up and sweep, the trellis repainted and the table and chairs reinstated, it’s now a lovely little patio where we can sit outside and chill, read on the bench, or have a meal. One of those jobs that feels overwhelming but doesn’t take all that long once you get down to it. It was all so much better… except for the barrel.

Yep. Not great. The barrel was left behind by previous occupants, and judging from the state of it, I imagine they inherited it from their predecessors. It was now a sad accumulation of weeds and building rubble, too heavy to even move. With the blazing hot weather still preventing me from digging elsewhere, it was time to tackle the barrel. Once I’d started digging out the soil, I discovered why it was so hard to move – the bottom of the barrel was full of bricks. I’m not sure if someone thought it needed bricks for drainage, or whether they just wanted to get rid of them or were hoping to use less compost, but it was as much brick as it was soil. It all came out, then fresh compost went in and I was ready to plant.

Back at The House in the Sky, I had bought half-barrel planters for Lily and Ivy, let them choose their own plants from the garden centre to create their own mini-gardens. It’s a lovely idea for kids, as it’s more manageable than a patch of ground and way cuter – the main issue is to make sure they get enough water. Lily chose a strawberry plant amongst others, and would proudly give Ivy the one, precious strawberry that it grew each year. There should have been others, I don’t know why it only generally managed one, probably slugs, snails and woodlice were to blame. But still, a moment of cuteness and generosity, a very rare thing to be treasured. By the time we moved, the barrels were falling apart and we left them behind along with so much else, so many hopes and dreams. All this was running through my mind as I planted, along with the interruption of a phone call from Ivy as the school bus had broken down yet again in the hot weather and could I come and pick them up?

I’m just in the middle of something, give me ten minutes and let’s see if they get a new bus out to you quickly.

Because sometimes you need to finish what you’ve started. The barrel was going to be something beautiful, a contemplative spot, somewhere for me to sit and enjoy. If I ran off now and left it unfinished, everything would likely sit there for several more days until I could get back to it, plants drying out in the heat, weed seeds blowing into the fresh compost, resolve dwindling in the face of new chores. So I planted, and put down a layer of cardboard between the plants and piled up cobbles and placed the centrepiece I’d haggled over in the garden centre…

Ta da! My new garden meditation spot. Not that I do any kind of proper meditation, but sometimes sitting peacefully outside is as Zen as it gets. My little Buddha is there to remind me to do just that, to take a moment and rest and breathe while enjoying the quiet, the birds, the flowers. To contemplate beauty and stillness, rather than the To Do list. The bus brought the kids home okay after all; Lily noticed the difference straight away and declared it to be our Japanese garden, while it took Ivy a week to notice, by which time the slugs were attacking the hostas with primordial vigour. No matter. My garden will never be perfect, neither will life be. I’m learning to try to make the most of it anyway.

What’s working now…

Pukka Lean Matcha Green Tea. I’ve long been suspicious of the bitter taste of a lot of green teas, but this one has a light, sweet taste that doesn’t go acrid if brewed too long, for people like me who tend to forget to take the teabag out. I’ve switched to a cup of this first thing instead of my usual builder’s tea and it feels like a cleaner, brighter start to the morning. Potentially a better source of caffeine than regular tea or coffee in my search to self-medicate for ADHD.

Sunshine. Good weather really makes a difference, especially in terms of getting out of bed for the school run. I try to compensate in the Winter with one of those alarm clocks that gradually starts to get light half an hour before you need to wake up. It helps. The weather has been uncharacteristically gorgeous in the past couple of weeks and so I’ve been trying to make the most of it.

Gardening. I always always feel better after working in the garden. It’s worth dashing outside even if it’s just to water the pots for five minutes. A decent session in the garden has a dramatic improvement on my mood, plus the bonus of being able to see my progress also lifts my spirits even if I’m just glancing out of the window.

Water. Drinking more of it, swimming in it (although I really hate public swimming baths), bathing in it, being next to it whether a little pond, a stream or the sea. Is it something to do with negative ions? I’ve decided my garden definitely needs a pond, plus it would be worth finding a little local spot where I can sit in relative privacy and enjoy the river.

Menu planning. At my worst I couldn’t think five minutes beyond my nose. I literally couldn’t manage to decide what we’d have for dinner a day in advance and so we ended up in the supermarket every single day after school, picking out a ready meal. A HelloFresh subscription got me cooking properly again, and made it easier for the kids to also help out with preparing meals – I’d definitely recommend them, although due to Ivy developing gluten and dairy intolerances, we’ve needed to switch back to our own meals. I’ve realised that even if I don’t have the brainpower to come up with a menu that covers the whole week, I can split the week into two (Mon-Thurs, Fri-Sun) and just make sure that the next 3-4 days are sorted. Cue better, healthier meals and a lower grocery bill. Current favourite cookbooks; The Happy Kitchen, and Jamie’s Five Ingredient Cookbook.

Magnesium Flakes. I’m not sure what peculiar sorcery is going on here, but a handful of these in my bath has transformed my skin from reptilian to baby soft. I’m hoping that the same magic is working somewhere on the inside too; magnesium is apparently an essential mineral for overall wellbeing. It’s apparently also good for plants, so I’m reusing the bath water in the garden whenever possible.

Massage. Wrongly seen as a luxury, this has been a lifesaver for both my physical and mental/emotional health. Stress leads to muscle tension which builds up into pain and headaches and ultimately looking like Quasimodo. Hot stone massage by a good therapist really helps to unwind me and keep me grounded; whenever I skip a few weeks because of budget or busyness, I end up regretting it.

Lifesum. A food tracker app, available on subscription. I used it for a while, then stopped when my comfort eating was getting out of control, but am now going back to it while I attempt the 5:2 plan. Lifesum has several different programmes you can follow with recipe suggestions, but mainly it makes it easy to record what you’re eating and keep an eye on the balance of carbs, protein, fats etc as well as counting calories. I’ve found that even just the act of recording what I eat means I make healthier decisions. I’ve not even been trying very hard, but week one and I’ve lost two pounds – not life-changing but the first time in four years that the scales have moved downwards.

Think Small. Book by Owain Service. A relatively short, easy read about goal-setting and making small, manageable tweaks to your daily routine in order to achieve the desired result. There’s plenty of stuff out there already, but this one really brought it home about how to schedule in new habits so that things actually happen.

The Durrells. Ivy and I have been watching since the first series, now Lily has finally joined in and discovered this essential Sunday evening drama series. Funny, heartwarming and touching without being saccharine, we’ve absolutely loved it; please make another series very soon as we’re already feeling bereft now it’s finished. I’m secretly looking forward to the second series of The Handmaid’s Tale – rather less gentle and not at all comedic but very gripping, one for me rather than the kids. In general there’s a need to be picky about what I watch, The News tips me over the edge into panicked, hopeless depression, and I can’t much cope with depressing documentaries at the moment, no matter how worthy. I’m wishing they’d show The Gilmore Girls again, heartwarming, cosy dramas are a must.

Cultivating gentleness

I ebb and flow – the tides, the Moon, hormones, the weather. Whether or not I’ve managed to sleep, whether Lily has been in a cooperative mood. Anxiety levels rise and fall, energy, motivation. Sunshine helps, the returning light after the dark of Winter. Two weeks ago I could barely function, this week has been all go; the kind of go where you’re up at 6am baking brownies for a friend’s fundraising coffee morning, dashing from the school run to the supermarket to buy Lily’s ingredients for cookery and delivering them back to school, driving back for the coffee morning, then home for the boiler guy – the latest home visit in the Help to Heat saga – back to school to pick up Ivy and drive her to therapy, quickly head to the shops to buy food for dinner, back to collect Ivy, then back to the shop to collect Lily from the bus, home to cook dinner, wash up, and then remember to pay bills and renew library books online.

I’ve made it through to what seems to be the final round of the Boiler Lottery, another phone call and another engineer sent to the house to photograph radiators and pipes. The first guy could maybe have taken the same photos himself, rather than Guy 2 being paid to do the same thing, which might mean that there’s less of an admin cost in running the scheme and therefore more money available to pay for actual boilers, but what would I know? It will have been over a month without heating or hot water before I get the verdict, at which point either my boiler will be replaced, or I’ll have to get a quote to replace it myself. The not-knowing doesn’t help my anxiety, you can meet all the criteria yet still not necessarily get the grant. A mystical points scheme is in place. My fingers are crossed, and my Mum’s knitting group appear to be holding a candle-lit prayer vigil for my boiler rather than actually knitting. If I had money, I could have replaced it weeks ago. If I have to take out credit, it will cost an extra £1000 to the total amount payable, an additional 50% of the original price. Mum recalled working as a cleaner for a woman who obviously had more money than us, and who couldn’t understand why poor people didn’t take advantage of the deals at the shops, buying in bulk or the 3 for 2 offers. “I couldn’t afford to pay the extra,” Mum explained to her. When you don’t have money, you always end up paying more. Life is a lot less gentle without that financial cushion.

Anyhow, there were two major factors to Boiler Guy’s visit. One; there was no way that I was going to re-live the mortifying experience of Boiler Guy 1, in which I had made an effort to tidy up the kitchen largely by shoving everything into other rooms, only to discover that he needed to go into every room. Every. Single. Room. All of which were a total mess. I wanted to cry. It’s hard enough having someone else in the house, but for a complete stranger to come in and go through every single cluttered, messy room, including my own bedroom, was beyond hideous. So this time round there was much panicked tidying. Sunday = emergency tidying of Lily’s room, including mending her bed which she’d broken and not told me about, and trying not to scream because yet again she had completely trashed her space. That added a considerable workload to the panic clean, but it’s made so much of a difference; what seemed entirely overwhelming last week has been tackled in a couple of days. The house is far from done, but it has at least reached a state where I wouldn’t cry if someone else saw it.

One day later though and there is a pile of clean pants on the kitchen table, a stack of Lily’s loose recipes that should have been glued into her cookery book, and a fresh round of paperwork for me to deal with. I have to accept that my home will never look perfect, but then most people’s houses don’t look like a copy of Ideal Homes either.

Two, if you’re still counting, it was a beautiful sunny day on the Tuesday and I was desperate to get outside and garden. There simply wasn’t enough time, but the longing to be gardening felt positive, a recognition that this is what I need right now, body and soul. Another round of acceptance; it’s counterproductive to set myself artificial rules or deadlines – I must get out and garden every single day – as my life just doesn’t look like that. All or nothing tends to result more often in nothing, giving up. The process of making my garden needs to be as enjoyable as the final result; cultivating gentleness as much as seeds.