The Virtue Signal

I can’t quite believe that it was so long ago that I started this blog. In 2013, S was still a little boy, with little boy legs and a little boy voice. Now, he is a man grown, if a somewhat short one. In a rush of enthusiasm, and finally getting things off my chest that had long sat there, suffocating me, I wrote post after post, two, three times a week. It was cathartic and freeing. Finally I was managing to DO something – even if it was only tapping on a keyboard that ended up broken. Looking back from tonight, tired after nearly two years in school in the middle of a pandemic (I have gone home at night, honest), I can’t quite believe I had the energy (or that level of irritation). Today, tonight, I am all but all washed up, guarding my energy carefully so that I can make it to the end of term.

And I’ve writing enjoyed it – largely. I’ve enjoyed telling my – our – story, hoping to enlighten, to change a few minds, to make a point. To give myself an outlet for a creative energy that had nowhere to go. I’ve not written much lately because that energy, the stuff I am guarding so carefully now, is, if not all used up, in need of a bit of rationing. If you’re a teacher, you’ll know. You’ll know if you, or your family members need to look after themselves in the winter. Sometimes I think about it and I feel a bit sad – because finding my tribe, readers who engaged with me, who agreed and often disagreed with me, was a joy. I even won an award for it and that was lovely – especially for someone more used to being told she was wrong than right. I wrote a book.

Not that I particularly mind criticism about this blog though. I mean, I can take it or leave it – it’s mine after all – and often it makes me think, think deeply and be better (or that’s what I hope, anyway), especially if I’ve written something in a rush. The time it got my goat though, (not the time someone told me to get in the sea – although I didn’t particularly enjoy that experience!) was when someone accused me of virtue signalling. I got cross about that.

The thing about the virtue signal, you see, is that there’s an awful lot of it about. I’ve been seeing it lately particularly in response to this Down’s Syndrome Bill (you can read the draft here) , a private members bill sponsored by Liam Fox MP. All sorts of people, including those who voted for austerity, for cuts to services to disabled people and their families and whose policies starve local authorities of the cash they need to meet their obligations properly (I could go on, but I’m going to stop because I can feel my temper rising) have posed for photos, tweeted their support, declared what good people they are because they support people with Down’s syndrome (in general, presumably, because the Bill doesn’t say much – yet).  I saw that signal the day I was shouted at in a public place for asking a few questions and having expectations of inclusion (only one person helped me and it wasn’t the ‘friend’ from church). I see it every time a connection with disability is trumpeted in order to make the trumpeter look better – and it annoyed me and it hurt me that someone was accusing me of the very same thing.

I guess it’s an understandable assumption. Many people do it. They make out they are marvellous people because look at all the charity work they do or the selfless giving (Children in Need can just get in the bin with that one) when they are anything but. It can even be a cover, because who could ever think that a person who supports people with Down’s syndrome would ever do something not nice. It’s not a new thing and I got annoyed because I don’t write this blog because I want to look good – I want my SON to look good. I love him and I put that love on show because I want people to understand something about love – not about me.

I do worry though. I do worry that my words, my thoughts, my digital footprint could be used in a way that I didn’t intend; that someone could, because THEY want to look good, hijack what I was trying to do, and twist it, turn it into something it was never intended to be. My Battle Weary post – my most read for some time – did that contribute to the bias away from inclusion that we see today? Did I contribute somehow into making out that Down’s syndrome was a special case because reasons and other people can bother about Them Others, because that’s what I write about? Will the words I wrote about the children I taught and how much they matter, will they be lost in the push for a single issue issue?

A wise man once told me that you need to be careful about how your words (in his case educational research) are taken because there are unintended consequences. You have to be very careful, he said, how you frame things, because people take it the wrong way and use what you said to justify a policy decision that is almost exactly the opposite of what you intended. Nancy, he said (well, he didn’t say Nancy, he was speaking to a room full, but you know what I mean), do your homework, don’t rush and get your communication thought through carefully before you start. 

Otherwise, YOU’LL be the virtue signal.

A letter to my sister in law, who died last April

When I saw you I ran out of words. Not like me I know; I don’t usually find myself casting about for things to say. Most of the time it’s a case of asking me (politely) to stop talking, or at least let someone else get a word in. I’m sorry that it happened, it wasn’t what I intended.

I meant to remind you of when we first met. Do you remember? Lying in the spare bed in your room, chatting in the dark, an easy conversation and an even easier lie in. Giggling in terror in the back of the car as we hurtled from pub to grocer to butcher to somewhere where they sold spoons (but not the right ones). You had a job in a pub; you told us all about the steaks, sizzling on stones, and balanced the plates all up your arm.

And the day I took you trying on wedding dresses. I’d got married the year (or was it two?) before, so I knew the ropes (sort of). I bossed you into different dresses until you found a style you liked and then, in typical style, your mum made the dress and the ones for the bridesmaids too, while you sewed your invitations. I’ve still got it somewhere, I think, where I keep precious things, together with my memories of your interest in things and how they work and what they do.

I’m not sure if I’m in your wedding photos. The top of your head is only just in mine, visible if you know where to look, hiding in the background with your dad and your new boyfriend, the man who cares for you so tenderly now. You are wrapped up in a shawl your mum made you wear, because that’s what people wore to autumnal weddings – or something like that. I played the piano at yours, hiding under my big hat, do you remember that?

And after weddings (not so long after yours as mine) there were babies, first yours, then mine. Do you remember sitting on my sofa and telling me all about the maternity clothes you weren’t buying because you were getting yours from Dawn French and then you’d be wearing them after? And do you remember christenings and birthday parties and tea at your mum and dad’s and in-car DVDs that only needed a Light Tap to make them work the right way round but while they entertained your kids they caused mine to overflow. There were family weddings we did and family weddings we didn’t attend and Ruby Dos in the garden. A holiday. Competitive cakes. Do you remember?

You were my alliterative sister for more than half my life, my birthday twin. I don’t want to think of you with sadness, and I know you didn’t want that, but I am.  We are.

Nurture 20/21

It seems like a very long time ago since I started writing a looking-backwards-looking-forwards post and I almost wasn’t going to write one this year; however a lot can change in a day and here we are. After a very dry year of blogging, two in a two-week period (it must be the holidays).

Last year I didn’t write one. Instead, I wrote something about wellbeing. You can read it here if you like. I can’t remember why this was; it certainly didn’t have anything to do with some sort of foresight. In fact, last year saw me not write very much at all for a whole bunch of reasons including not having either the time or energy. To be fair, I haven’t got much energy today (the young people in the family are determined to stay up til at least midnight on NYE and I haven’t yet reached that stage of my life where I am prepared to go to bed before them unless I am ill) so I’m going to keep it short and sweet.

Good things and Gratitude

One teatime in the summer we made a list together. Everything was getting on top of A – the anxiety, the enforced stillness, the nothingness to do – so we sat, after the tea had been eaten and before we tackled the washing up and made a list of things for which we were grateful in the face to trying circumstances.

They included:

  • Clear air
  • The garden
  • Gaming with friends
  • Home made curry and naan bread (this is fast becoming an institution)
  • Online bingo
  • Daily walks
  • Lack of traffic
  • Family time
  • Bike rides
  • TV series watching (Merlin, Dirk Gently, I-Zombie, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Warehouse 13, Battlestar Gallactica) (we have yet to find another one we like as much as we are back to Merlin)
  • Different zoom backgrounds 
  • Fixing up the house (that was R)
  • Social distancing (that one was me)
  • Seeing more of friends – I suspect I am not alone in ‘seeing’ more of my far-flung friends this year than I have for years.

It was a good thing to do, when everything seemed a bit much, and helped us to focus on the things that we have, right here, right now, instead of the things we lost. The only thing I have to add is that I am thankful that, so far, we are well.

2021

At work, I have developed a mindset called ‘Steady as She Goes’ which I am taking forward into 2021. When I say it or think it I imagine a steam ship shuddering into darkened waters, not knowing what is ahead, only that it won’t be easy. There might be rocks upon which the great vessel may founder, or a storm or a tidal wave. No-one knows the details except that there is peril that might or might not be avoided. There is a certain relentlessness suggested in it that, for me, captures well how it has been and how we know it will be before the spring comes and we can breathe freely again.

It’s hard for me to look too far forward, which is something I have become, strangely, used to. When the future looks scary I have learned not to examine it too closely and I try not to spend too much time fretting over the difference between what ought to be and what isn’t, even though I fail sometimes and start thinking about the difference between my experience at 17, at 19 and theirs.

So that’s it. We are where we are and all that. Control what you can and try not to worry (or get too angry) about the things that you can’t etc. Better days will come (we hope) and when they do then we’ll see.

Ordinary Tears

Tonight I find myself with a dilemma. Yes, I have eaten too many chocolates and the fridge is stuffed with tempting goodies but, even considering the state of my lockdown middle, it is not the when-do-i-start-the-diet dilemma that concerns me. To be honest there are a number of concerning dilemmas that I could choose from now that I am living in Tier 4, but it isn’t any of those either. No, the focus of my wondering sits in my eyeline watching telly.

He’s wearing a rather nice pair of new trainers his grandfather (my dad) paid for but hasn’t seen (and who hasn’t seen him in the flesh for over a year), gently flicking his overly long hair out of his eyes. He looks tired but I am reluctant to send him to bed. It’s nice to have his company.

Lockdown isn’t easy for him. He’s been bored today because there isn’t much for him to do and there is nowhere for him to go, regardless of the weather. His world shrank significantly during the spring and summer and it’s going to shrink again, thanks to a letter from the doctor.

I could tell you all manner of things about him, but here’s the thing: tonight (today), it all feels a little bit too much like justification.

People are tweeting and journalists are writing, chatterers chatting and they are discussing the latest numbers in relation to deaths from Covid and somehow the ‘worth’ of ‘people with underlying conditions’ has found its way into the mix. Only the ‘sick’ or the ‘old’ should be shielding, or, ‘they would have died anyway’, or some other nonsense that implies that only the strong survive and the ‘underlying conditioners’ are there to be looked after and ‘shielded’ and that somehow proves that We Who Suggest Such Things are Good People and so that’s OK then or something, and people who haven’t got a condition, underlying or otherwise, or not one they know about anyway, are breathing sighs of relief and advocating for an end to lockdowns because reasons.

I mean, what do you say to that? What do you say that you haven’t said before?

His life doesn’t need justifying, and neither does his safety or anyone else’s. And while I’m at it this pandemic isn’t a political matter – or it shouldn’t be – and if everyone is off sick (or even about half) we haven’t got an economy or an education anyway and yes, we should be scrutinising legislation that diminishes our rights (here’s looking at Brexit, kid) and we should be worried that if too many people have covid they will turn up in the hospitals and said hospitals won’t have any time or space for anything else except to deal with the most urgent right here and right now so we ought to be taking care and following public health advice because not following it will do exactly that.

And finally we aren’t the only generation to find our lives turned upside down by circumstances beyond our control; we aren’t the first and we won’t be the last. We’re not the first to shed tears over the state of it and wonder what will our young folk do when we come out the other side, and to hope that maybe we’ll rebuild things better because now we can see inequalities we don’t like and perhaps we’ll have some energy for change when it’s all over. There’s nothing special about us at all.

Exposure

There is a beach at Lyme Regis where you can walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs, if you know where to look and the time is right. I’ve never managed to find them, although I do have a lovely photo of my daughter, aged 6, standing on an enormous ammonite, wrapped up in boots and a yellow coat with a furry hood, protected from the cold, Easter wind, too young to understand the significance of the event, but impressed nevertheless at the strange rock formation standing proud from the hard, wet sand.  When the tide is in, and the cold, grey sea laps against a closer shore, you’d never know they were there. They are covered up, hidden by the ordinary circumstances of the everyday.  

If you hadn’t read the information on the website or on the noticeboards, you probably wouldn’t realise that you were standing on a rock-frozen giant seashell, even without your overenthusiastic parent explaining. You’d assume that the shapes that swirl gently across its surface were created by the smoothing action of sea. You’d think that there was nothing special about this set of rock pools, that the crabs and starfish and sea anenomes were living nowhere more spectacular or interesting than anywhere else along the shore and that little girls exploring there would need nothing more than a bucket and one of those nets that hang on the end of a slim bamboo pole and a mother to exclaim on a sunny rather than a cold and windy day. You wouldn’t know that if you looked with different, more informed eyes, you would find endless echoes of lives gone by, etched forever into the earth, reminders that things were not always as they are now.

I’m not a particular fan of dinosaurs, it must be said. I never coloured them in or had posters on my wall (although I do seem to remember, from my own dim and distant past, being taught a song about triceratops), but I am fascinated by the fact that they left their mark. Millions of years sit between them and me and yet their footprints still march across the shore. And it’s not just the natural wonders; a good cathedral will have me awed, a castle ruin, a mosaic floor. Monuments to the past from which we have come.

But the dinosaurs didn’t last forever. One meteor and they were gone, snuffed out like a candle. For millennia no-one even dreamed of a lizard as big as a bus. The tide came in and it went out; the secret footsteps lay undisturbed and children played on ordinary rocks. Castles and cathedrals rose and fell, testament to changing times, victims of war and greed, thunderbolts and gravity. They, too, sank into the ground, falling asleep after years proclaiming conquest, human and divine.

And there they waited, a snapshot memory of loss in stone, biding their time until the soil fell away or the tide went out and we wondered and understood what had been exposed.