Entries in childhood (9)


wing's beat

Twice weekly I sit pool side as Joel swims into the early evening and those little pockets of time have become an unexpectedly pleasurable part of my week. Once I've thrown off all the layers I need in the world outside, and am better placed to withstand the throat-catching heat, I settle into my nook at the back of the stands and gaze on the activity around the pool.  

For a few minutes it's like watching birds flock and gather: all is flurry, noise and motion as busy chattering mingles with the slip-slurp of wet feet and the colour-flash of swimsuits as girls bend heads to knees to fold long hair into hats. The young boys laugh and wheel their arms in animation; their long limbs lengthened further by the monochrome stretch of knee-length lycra. The older ones hold their bodies awkwardly, watching the girls shyly from under still-dry fringes. Then groups begin to slip into the pool, stopping momentarily with the cold shock of water, before arms and legs start moving and the whole pool becomes alive with the grace of bodies in water. No longer boy and girl, in the water they become swimmer - athlete. Finally, as the air calms into the regular soothing rhythm of churn and splash, the busy hum of my mind calms and I reach into the chaos of my bag and pick out a book.

Over the last couple of sessions I've been reading Kathleen Jamie's intimate, weather-filled essay collection Sightlines. I close my eyes and think about the book. I think of wind, light, birds, sea, sky, home. Transience. A startling, poetic precision of language that sometimes made me shiver. But I can't separate my experience of reading of it from the sensation of itchy, chloriney heat and yellow light on blue water and the simple, touching pleasure of watching children determinedly ploughing back and forth. Watching, amongst others, my child. In the final paragraph of the final essay - Wind - she writes:

'There are myths and fragments which suggest that the sea that we were flying over was once land. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, it was a forest with trees, but the sea rose and covered it over. The wind and sea. Everything else is provisional. A wing's beat and it's gone. 

That wing's beat echoes in the arc and stretch of the young arms pulling through water in front of me as I read; pulling, striving, growing. Growing up and away. A wing's beat - and they're gone. 



early world


I sometimes think my vision of the sea is the clearest thing I own. I pick it up, exile that I am, like the purple 'lucky stones' I used to collect with a white ring all the way round, or the shell of a blue mussel with it's rainbowy angel's fingernail interior; and in one wash of memory the colors deepen and gleam, the early world draws breath.  (from Ocean 1212-W - Sylvia Plath)

For Plath, the sea. For me, the cold Canadian lakes - some of which were so big they seemed like the sea. And the little sandy shored, pine-ringed lakes that we'd drive to on a weekend; my legs swinging and sticking to the leather beneath my short 1970s dresses. The regular peel and slurp of skin released from leather mingled with the car radio and my own low singing. Sometimes, to fade out raised voices in the front, I would sing harder. As we drove, I watched for patterns in the clouds that dominated the big skies. Some days, there would just be blue. A bright dazzle - just blue and the yellow disc of sun. 

At the lake, the first slap of cold against hot summer skin. The scent memory of sun cream and pine, earthy lake water and the rubbery swim hat I was sometimes made to wear. Then into the water and the freedom of moving further away from my non-swimming parents. My dad taught me to swim by making me arrow towards him underwater; and as he gradually moved further away I found myself to be a swimmer. The transition from the speed and grace and cool shadow underwater to the splash and struggle of swimming in the air was one I made reluctantly. So when the shouts and splashes and noises of a busy beach began to drown out my daydreams, I'd happily submerge and swim long, slow pulls underwater. That water is glass green in my memory, striped at intervals by the sun. 

My early world, encapsulated by those lakeside moments, is tucked inside my own seashell - ready to open at any time. I'm opening it now.


at home

Stepping out into the early dark last night to pick a pair of bay leaves, I stood for a while looking up at Jupiter and Venus shining particularly brightly in the clear, cold night. Bats flickered under the willow. Walking back into the warmth of the kitchen, I felt a surge of contentment and sense of place that surprised me. We've lived here for nearly five years: longer than I've ever lived in a house, or a place. Being settled doesn't really settle me. Or so I thought. This odd little house that contains most of Joel's memories until now, with the garden that frustrates and delights in turn, has become a home that will be hard to leave. 


tilt and shift

As a child I spent a lot of time on my back: trying to feel the motion of the earth (and I did, I swear), watching the patterns of clouds, and pretending that the ceiling was actually the floor and imagining how life would be different in that scenario. I feel like I need a little of that altered perspective this week. Life is shifting but how it is changing is as subtle as sensing the tilt and rotation of the earth through one's skin. Perhaps that explains my recent preoccupation with photos of the world upside-down and reflected; a sort of modern day reading of runes.

When I sat down to write this post this morning I had a different one in mind. That little paragraph above is where I got to before it started to go awry. As I wrote it became clear to me (and maybe that's why I write here) that looking for signs in cups and mirrors and clouds is an evasion. I had an image of myself lost in a forest, waiting for someone to come along and show me which way to go. As I pictured myself just sitting there, waiting for the all-knowing 'someone' to direct me, I realised that's how I've been acting in regard to my own life. Waiting for a sign that it's time to act; for 'someone' to show me what to do.

Chastened, I stepped away from my laptop and put on a pot of coffee (default delaying tactic). As I waited, I flicked through one of the A4 plastic-sleeved folders in which I file snippets that inspire me. I stopped at an article by American writer Anne Lamott. I attended a couple of her readings in the mid-nineties while I was living near San Francisco and enjoyed her dry humour and commitment to her writing life. So I paused to re-read it. Another blow to the heart. She wrote about making time to do what you most value. I realise I have time but I don't use it to do what I most value. It's as simple as that. I don't do enough of what I most value and I wait rather than act. When I sat down this morning I wanted a shift in perspective and I've got it; just not in the way I expected. Time to get walking.

All your life, you wait for the propitious time.

Then the propitious time

reveals itself as action taken

 (Louise Glück 'Landscape' Averno)


oranges not lemons

Growing up in the seventies, orange was a familiar sight on clothes and in homes. One house we lived in was painted orange outside. In another, the entire kitchen was orange. Even the floor was terracotta. You had to look up or out to rest your eyes on any other colour. And if it wasn't orange, it was brown. Brown carpets, brown cars, brown cord trousers. 

Nowadays, in our white worshipping society, you don't see orange around so much. But it happens to be my boy's favourite colour so I've felt compelled to use it around his room and in splashes around the house. Last year, I stretched some orange bird-printed IKEA fabric over a very large handmade wooden frame as a cheap (temporary, I thought) hanging on one of our high, breakfast room walls, but it's still there. We took it down, replaced it with more tasteful this and that, but the wall looked so lonely and cold without the vivid splash of colour so it's back up again, reflecting warmth back into the room. It's cheer-making, especially when the days outside are increasingly grey.

This bonfire weekend was heaven for orange lovers and as a contribution to a bonfire feast I made an orange saturated almond cake. Similar to the lemon cake I mentioned previously but moister, it's been a staple of ours for years as you can cook it in advance and let it really soak in the juices or whizz it up quickly on the night as I did, making it a lighter and drier affair. I like it straight with coffee but it sits very happily alongside ice-cream or crème fraîche and simply gets more richly delicious and moist over a number of days.

The recipe below is based on Claudia Roden's orange almond cake, the main difference being that the oranges are squeezed and zested rather than boiled and used whole, so it's that bit quicker to make.


4 eggs, separated

125g caster sugar

grated zest of two oranges

100g ground almonds

For the syrup

juice of four oranges (add an extra one if you want more syrup to pour)

125g caster sugar

a good splash of brandy or cointreau (though equally happy without it)

Preheat oven to 180C/350 F/gas mark 4. Beat together the egg yolks, sugar, orange zest and almonds.

Beat the egg whites until stiff, and fold into the yolk mixture. Pour the mixture into a greased and floured loose-bottomed cake tin.

Bake for 45 mins until golden brown. Meanwhile, place orange juice, sugar and brandy (or whatever) in a pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5 mins.

Pierce the cake all over, then pour over the syrup and leave to soak in. Jug any extra: rest assured, it will all be used.

By now your kitchen will be full of orangey deliciousness and November will seem a pleasant time of year. Enjoy.



faded beauty

In my eyes, hydrangeas are at their best now, their sometimes brash colours faded to softness. At home I have them in jugs, drying slowly, to appreciate their papery beauty for a few weeks longer. Not a fashionable plant, my attachment is sentimental.

They remind me of summer trips back to my grandparents' house, leaving the humid heat and yellow of a Canadian summer for the cooler air and colours of England. Sprawling mop-headed hydrangeas lined the front gardens of the avenue they lived on, hanging heavily over the brick walls that bordered the pavement. As I wove my way to the local shops each day with my grandmother, I pondered whether to prefer the blue or the pink. The fading of the flower heads marked the approach of going back home. And while I was itching to get back to my friends and my own little world, I'd by this time grown fond of the rhythm of days with my grandparents: the rituals of meals, walks, butcher and sweet shop.  

A dried flower-head: a gateway to memory. 


my my..

Should it ever be a life-saving necessity to sing the entire back catalogue of ABBA I'll be just fine. My family moved back to England from Canada a couple of summers after ABBA won the Eurovision song contest and their songs were pretty much the only cultural currency I had with new school friends. I knew all the words, came to learn all the dances, and came to understand that my friends only had eyes for Agnetha.

With her guileless eyes, gappy smile and princess hair, Agnetha was friendly and familiar. She striped her eyes with blue and her lips with pink as we did alone in our bedrooms. But it was Frieda who drew me in. Who daunted me. Unlike Agnetha, she belonged firmly to the world of adults - a world that both attracted and frightened me.

Frieda looked like the terrifyingly sophisticated friends of my mother; the ones who held martinis in one ringed hand and coloured-tipped cigarettes in the other and gazed coolly and silently at the shy child before them. No friendly blue daubs for them. They circled their eyes with kohl and wet their lashes thick with mascara and those eyes seemed to appraise me and find me wanting. I didn't want to be like my mother, or one of her friends, with their messy lives and children they considered a bore. In control, a little reserved but still able to smile and sing and - yes - be a little bit ridiculous, Frieda offered a better version of womanhood. 

So not only do the songs of ABBA occupy vital storage space in my brain, they're also involved in my early thoughts about what it means to be a woman. Who says pop is shallow? 



risky behaviour

We strung a zip wire in the woods alongside our house last year and it's proved to be both a great source of entertainment and a way to develop and direct risk taking. Over time, we've raised the angle of the wire so it goes pretty fast, and ends just short of a tree. But it's possible to hurl yourself off the platform so that you hit the buffers with a bang and a slam of feet on tree trunk. I wince every time. But I'm happy for Joel to keep on doing it.

One of the things I've found hardest as Joel grows is to stop myself crying out 'be careful!' on a loop through the day. We're surrounded by woods and water to explore and have done so since Joel was tiny. Building dams, floating boats, stream dipping and tree climbing have taken precedence over traditional playgrounds for us, mostly because it's on our doorstep rather than a drive away. All lovely but so full of potential danger! 

Despite my fears (the endless dreams I wake from in a cold sweat and run through in my mind whenever we're near deep water) I'm the one who urges Joel on to keep trying to climb a little higher, or ride the track that seems hard or jump into the deep end. I know that surge of self-confidence that comes with being scared and trying it nevertheless. He'll grow and the risks will get greater. I'll keep being scared and urging him on neverthless. We're both learning. 



in praise of boys


I love being mother to a boy. In fact (deep breath) I don't feel a trace of envy for those of my friends who have a girl or two (or three). But what is it about society and boys? The consensus seems to be that boys are trouble and parents of boys are to be pitied. Disruptive, noisy, aggressive and doomed to fall behind at school. Too often that is the view of boys that I find in the press or, sadly, at the school gates. And it just doesn't fit with my experience. For instance, I could have chosen photos where Joel is drawing, reading or playing with his soft toys. Many of the boys I know love to do all these things; activities that are usually presumed to be the preserve of girls. 

But why should we denigrate, for example, the sheer force of nature that is a boy outside? Climbing, running, hunting for bugs, enjoying the world with all his senses. I love that the little boys I know have boundless energy and enthusiasm. Their default position seems to be 'hurray!' I love the physicality of the pillow fights and wrestles and chases and matches - and hugs hugs hugs. I love how slights and arguments are quickly forgotten. I love that no thought is given to mud on trousers or scuffs on shoes. I love the way my son wants kisses and affection and promises to do so even when he's old (by which he means 17).

Of course these are traits aren't solely attributable to boys (or even to all boys). And I acknowledge that some boys can be - ahem - difficult. But I do want to say that there is so much to celebrate about boys - and being the parent of boys - and I would love to see more focus on the wonderful. Roxanna is doing a sterling job on her all-things-boy website Frog & Snail Society, and I recently enjoyed Jules' post on the magical confidence of her baseball-playing son. This is my own small trumpet blast in praise of boys and I plan to give my own a special squeeze of appreciation after school tonight.