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 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.