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.  

The Mask

 

I have a selection of books from my childhood that sit upon the bottom shelves and that the husband periodically tries to throw away (without getting rid of a multitude of build your own model aeroplane plans, I hasten to add) and which I occasionally come across when looking for something else and take an impromptu trip down memory lane. It happens a lot because I am invariably looking for something I have put in a Safe Place. This last week though, I haven’t so much found a long-lost book, more thought of it and smiled inside. It stands amongst the corner cobwebs with the pink Abba annual and the book of famous forgeries, next to the fairy tales and the world atlas, part a set of hardbacks you’re supposed to keep because otherwise why would someone have given them to you, many Christmases ago?
On the front cover sits a young woman on a horse, attractively backlit and wearing the kind of knitted jumper someone’s mum would have made who understood the need for everything to be oversized rather than fitting nicely, it’s title “Teenage Beauty” enticing the young-and-interested-in-growing-up to the exciting secrets contained within. Inside its still-glossy pages there is advice about spots (everyone gets them), sleep (you need a lot when you are a teenager) and eating healthily (you are what you eat, drink lots of water, your cheekbones will magically appear when you are in your twenties), exercise (find something you enjoy) and washing (do that lots). And, of course, hair and makeup for all manner of different occasions.
Not for the teenaged me the guidance of the youtube star and beauty blog, instead I had my trusty manual (honestly, I took a lot of it word for word and looked very odd indeed for long periods – how my mother kept her mouth shut is beyond me…actually, it isn’t entirely, at around the same time – 1986 – she was reading ‘how to bring up teenagers’ books) and devoured magazines, making my way through Jackie and Mizz and 19 and Smash Hits and graduating to Cosmo and Elle (and never Good Housekeeping, I mean, why?) and soaking up the problem pages, the relationship analyses and how to make the best of (and decide which are) your best features. My sister used to practice on me (she made me look like I’d been punched in the face once, possibly intentional) and I on younger relatives in turn (she never let me return the favour, funnily enough).
I learned from experience that following the instructions on how to apply those blushers that had four shades including highlighter wasn’t necessary, and neither did anyone (apart from people in books and magazines) call it rouge. I spent hours perusing the makeup shelves in Bodyshop (and the soaps and the shampoo and the hair dye) and slowly built up a small collection of powder and paint that moved beyond the clownish (my dad delighted in buying makeup sets for his daughters, the more garish the better for some reason) and the electric blue towards Heather Shimmer and lots of (black) eyeliner (why did no-one call it kohl?), a little for the day and more when going out. Which was a lot, at one time.
And then I started work. And then I had a family. And makeup became something that was squashed out, something I had little time for. I’ve always been one of those people who would rather spend those extra ten minutes in bed, rather than getting ready, you see. I’ve never been one of those women who wouldn’t leave the house unless they were properly done, hair and nails and everything; I’m more the sort who’d forget to wash it off, or forget I had it on and rub my eyes in an effort to make myself wake up. Forgetting to take care of myself is a long-running theme.
And slowly, over the years, makeup became something different. It aged and solidified into a mask; a cover up to hide the fatigue or the sadness; a show. Lipstick to create a smile. Concealer to hide a bad night. The more makeup I wore, the more there was to hide. Yet another uniform to put on for the working day; a professional face.
And now? The mask is gone. The real, tired me is on display and makeup has changed its role again. No longer concealing, hiding, but performing an act of self-care.

Thank you to everyone who joined in my twitter thread on makeup.

Going Back to School

Are you ok? I mean, really ok? Are you ready to go back to school?

I mean, let’s be honest. The lockdown has not been easy. Despite a garden, a bedroom of my own (if you don’t count the husband), (relatively) easy access to food and toilet roll (admittedly, it took us a while to get ourselves a supply of flour), a family who actually get on well with each other and kids who are (relatively) low maintenance, it’s been hard. And I’m in a relatively privileged position. I dread to think how it’s been for people who haven’t had the same access to resources we have.

And are you anxious? Speaking for myself, I never used to be so grey. I have the start of a silver streak that starts just to one side of my forehead that didn’t used to be there. Anxiety has been my constant companion since the messaging about underlying health conditions kicked in (you know, the one about how you don’t need to worry unless you have one). It might not dominate my so-called sleeping hours in quite the same way as it did in March and April, but it is still there, making me jumpy, driving my desire to stay away from pubs, to stay at a distance from my parents, to keep on washing the shopping.

The sudden loss of social support systems, friends, colleagues and family, for an extended period, has been… traumatic. We have had to adjust to a world in which the antibiotic-ed certainty has been whipped away, where suddenly post popping through the letter box has become suspicious and visits to the doctor are no longer comforting but frightening. I’ve grieved for the lack of hugs from my mother.

Honestly, if you haven’t been out, even if you’ve only been bored and you haven’t gorged on graphs of death and devastation, even if the losses in such numbers haven’t touched you and you think that you’re basically ok, you need to adjust to being back in school. You need time, time to plan, to settle, to visit and see that everything is safe and controlled, manageable, to get used to the ‘new normal’. You need time to say hello to colleagues missed, to laugh together over lockdown haircuts (or lack of) and realise how much you’ve missed each other.

You need it – and so do they.

What I Learned at School

One of the things I’ve been struggling with lately is forming my thoughts into something coherent. I’ve been caught up in a vortex of fear and work; it’s not pleasant, I can tell you. Sometimes, everything feels OK and we all carry on much as we do every summer (it has helped that the weather has been so lovely), with the added advantage of having daddy around. Other times, like last week and this morning, I, and the kids, feel like we’ve hit a wall. We want back the things we enjoyed. A takeaway. A hug. A chat and a giggle that just happens and doesn’t have to be organised and filtered through a screen. Movement. Someone different to the same five faces.

Most of the time I can almost persuade myself nothing much has changed. Over the years I have become used to periods of isolation. I’ve lived most of my life away from my parents and sister (funnily enough I am seeing more of them now than I have in a while). Chicken pox, nits, fevers and the, shall we say, digestive nature of many childhood illnesses have been good training for weeks of being housebound. I gave up going to church at Christmas some years ago – and my health at that time of the year has improved dramatically as a result. So far, so same old, same old.

This strange time has highlighted some of the sadnesses that are easy to ignore when you are all busy, beetling about, doing all the things. My younger children are hanging on in there with the support of friends on Whatsapp and Discord, but S…he has a phone but noone has helped him put a friend’s number on it, and I can’t because I’m not there where his friends are. Like many disabled children and young people, he is doubly lonely, the barriers to friendship amplified by this lockdown, a sinister foreshadowing of his future if we aren’t careful.

And mortality. I mean, I’m not saying that I forgot I was mortal, but I kind of did. Giving birth to S was the last time I had a proper brush with death, and that was nearly twenty years ago. It’s easy to pretend we will go on forever and fail to plan for the fact that we won’t. My biggest fear is that the hubs and I will be carried off and A will be left with the responsibility for both his older brother AND his younger sister. It isn’t to be borne, it really isn’t.

I do wonder what the medicine of fear will do to us all. In the short term it is keeping us safe, but there are side effects. Will we be able to function in the workplace when we feel breathless with anxiety about being there? How will I reassure everyone else who leans on me if I can’t reassure myself? And the children. Mine are older, but they are still young. How will this caution we have drummed into them – and I know we have because S doesn’t know what to do when he sees a stranger – affect their friendships? Will they judge friends who took a different approach to theirs? Social media has been great – but the FOMO is still strong and maybe even stronger now. Will they be afraid?

I’m not one for wishes and I don’t believe in luck, but I wish it was the summer holidays. I wish I didn’t have to cut myself in two, ignore my precious loved ones, in order to work from home. I wish that we were already at that natural break. I wish the economy that we have created, the giant hamster wheel we all seem to be trapped on, hadn’t taken advantage of the second wave of feminism and ensured that a household of expense needed to be serviced by at least two people working – and pretending that their familial commitments were managed by someone else.

I don’t know how we are going to get back to school, to some sort of run of the mill, humdrum, ordinary existence (I’m avoiding the word normal), but what I do know is that we need a plan. And more, it needs to be simple, clear and created together. I learned that at (specialist) school.

Things must change

Sometimes I think this must be what it is like to have a comfortable retirement. Every day, I go out into the garden, potter, pull up a weed here or there, think about which plants are in the wrong place and can I move them; I gain pleasure out of discovering which survived a move last spring and are putting out their first, tentative shoots. Most days, I go for a walk with my daughter. Not too far and nothing too strenuous, just around the block or down the lane and across the field (we saw a deer the other day); we soak up the early spring sunshine and delight (well, I do, anyway) in the faint fuzz of green that is beginning to decorate the hedgerows, the freshness of the ploughed fields.  There is, despite my anxiety about the news, always the news, a positive to be found in my relative privilege; a home on the outskirts of town, a small garden, a daughter and two sons who don’t need me to supervise their every move.

If you care to look, there are plenty of good things. There is more time with distant family, my parents and my sister; it’s easy to be consumed by working life, to put off the phone calls and wait for news second hand. This crisis has prompted us to create family group chats, video calls and, when we at home have become tired of constant requests for bingo, they have stepped into the breach to help us out. And all those thousands of volunteers. Deliveries for the vulnerable, stepping up and into roles they wouldn’t usually do. Countless people making useful things, from re-purposed pillowslips, a drawstring conversion so frontline key workers don’t have to shake the laundry out, to masks and scrubs and 3D printed visors. Communities are reaching out, beyond the 2m distance. It seems that government is surprised that the people have acted to protect their loved ones. It gives you a lift when the anxiety fades.

It is always there, though, just under the surface. While I’m in the garden I can pretend, if I choose not to notice the clarity of the air, the silence punctuated by birdsong and the occasional wail of an emergency siren, that nothing much has changed. It’s the Easter holidays after all, and we’d be hanging out at home, not doing very much regardless of what was happening in the world. But everything is different. Check out ladies are putting their lives on the line every time they go to work. I feel like giving the bin men a round of applause. There is a strangeness about it all; the burgeoning spring, birds nesting and trees bursting into blossom, the results of two weeks of sunshine following an interminably wet winter are a strong contrast to the constant reports, the rising numbers of disease and death. We, the privileged inhabitants of 21st Century Western Europe are getting a taste of the knife-edge lives of our ancestors. It hasn’t taken long. The cracks in our communities have been sharply focused. It makes you think.

The other day I posted a Thread of Things. You can read it and the comments/additions here. It’s a brief list of ideas that I think would make our lives better, once the danger of this plague has passed and we can all breathe freely again. I was pleased with it and I told my dad (he doesn’t approve of video calls, so we had to make to with the phone – the house phone, no less). After we’d discussed the relative improvement of our respective gardens and considered whether it all might be getting a bit competitive, we talked about how many of my ideas are not so much a description of how things might be as of how things were.

 

After I’d written this, it occurred to me that this desire to go back to an era when people felt more ‘heard’ and more at the centre of policy-making that there might be something of Brexit about it, so I am re-publishing my thread here, with ideas in more of a logical order (as opposed to as they happened to pop out of my head) and I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  • Housing standards. Regulation on the size, occupancy and outdoor/green space for dwellings
  • Cost of living, in particular mortgage size. People shouldn’t have to have two people working flat out to pay the rent/mortgage.
  • Price of food. We have become gluttons. We can choose anything and have it any time. We have lost the specialness of foodstuffs and that needs to change. Supermarkets as the mode of distribution – we should probably think about that a bit more
  • Abattoirs. I know it’s not the most lovely of things, but there needs to be more, smaller ones so that animals are not transported so far.
  • A continuation of working from home for at least part of the week where firms can. This would have all sorts of improvements for everyone.
  • Working practices and contracts. Self employment should not have to happen because it’s cheaper for firms to have people be self-employed rather than employ people properly (see: builders and gym workers – I suspect there are more) – the same goes for zero hours contracts.
  • There needs to be a greater recognition of the responsibilities of private life in public work. We need greater capacity in our workplaces to ensure that people can have time away from work if they need it. We could start with public service jobs.
  • More bank holidays. I’d have at least one between September and December, and possibly increase half term to ten days in October on health grounds.
  • Local authorities. a. We need them and they are massively understaffed, particularly in the area of social care. We need people doing face to face things like meals on wheels and being home helps  b. Disability social care – for adults and for children. We cannot carry on like this.
  • Regulation of water and water supply. This needs to be done by a person not remotely – and we shouldn’t be relying on a single reservoir to serve whole portions of the country.
  • The role of competition in public service. Competition is not what brings about better public services. Public services are not businesses. Good supervision and accountability is what makes improvement.
  • I don’t really need to say anything about ownership of public utilities do I?
  • Education – to start with, a focus on wellbeing rather than exam success (although the two are not mutually exclusive). Wouldn’t it be great if we took the opportunity to look again at how we could make our system properly inclusive
  • I do think that capacity (lack of) is a major contributor to strain in education, health and social care work. We need more people doing the work and more admin staff to support.school term length (thanks to daughter for this one) 8 weeks is too long.
  • Terms should be no longer than 7 weeks max.
  • Do I need to say anything about change for the accountability system in education? Anyone want to say what they think it should look like?
  • Education – funding for higher education (you know what I think about that, right?) I’d wipe out remaining debt for students who had to pay, too.
  • A set of regulations about car use/emissions in towns and cities. Quality of air would help us all to live better lives
  • Air travel. We don’t need to be zipping around the globe like demented bees. One flight (there and back) should surely be enough. Any more and it comes with a serious price tag
  • A review of the role of charities, in particular where they are performing the functions of the state. We cannot rely on ‘good will’ for essentials.
  • The constitution. I’m not convinced on the need for a written constitution, but I do think we could have some constitutional reforms for better clarity and greater checks and balances. E.g. a redesign of the upper house with room for proportional representation.