The dangerous business of tidying up

Someone told me, back before The Paleontologist was able to say “Argentinosaurus”, that hours with a newborn would seem endless, but years would pass in the blink of an eye. It’s a great description of parenthood; it also sums up perfectly how I have felt about February. There have been moments that felt like they stretched into millennia (OK, that might be an exaggeration, but they usually involved testing my #sugarfreeFebruary resolutions to the limit, so I feel I’m allowed a little hyperbole now and again). But now that we’re here, on the last day of the month, I suddenly realised all the things I meant to do that I haven’t done yet, and am getting weirdly nostalgic. Not nostalgic enough to continue either of my February challenges into March, obviously, but still, this is enough of an ending to make me wistfully look back over my golden initial intentions.

My #ChallengeFebruary was to sort and rehome 10 things from the midden that was my bedroom. Looking back on this process of decluttering through my current hazy gold-tinted spectacles, a few realisations have fizzled their way to the front of my mind.

  1. When a job seems impossible, start with the thing right in front of you. In my case, this meant that the first 3 days of February were spent working my way through myriad clusters of receipts and clothes tags. As the clutter started to disappear, however, I realised the solution to problems I hadn’t even realised were bugging me. Sometimes, you have to start along a path before you can see the way through the brambles. And sometimes, you have to clear away the abandoned pasta bracelets before you realise that this space will never work for jewellry and makeup, and all this time, you have needed something completely different.
  2. Routine is helpful, but so is keeping the spirit of the task in clear sight. I know that I respond well to deadlines and clearly defined tasks. Decluttering 10 things every day is easy to track, to record. That makes it something I am much more likely to stick at; but it also means that if I don’t follow the rules, because I am tired, or away, or I just forgot until way past bedtime, I end up beating myself up and missing the moments of joy caused by genuine successes.
  3. Always check under the bed before you decide a job is finished. Sometimes you can’t finish a job in the time you have. An important thing to remember when deciding whether to call it a day is that, however tempting it might be in the short term, it never saves time to hide everything under the bed. Well, unless the Bishop or all the family are staying. Then you just need to follow realisation 2, and do what you have to in order to get through…

In the process of clearing at least some of the room formally known as The Midden, my #ChallengeMarch also gradually crept into focus. I have found a huge number of half-done projects, and unmended clothes, and fraying bags. They were layered like sediment in a variety of corners; and when I dug to the lowest levels, I found clothes that felt like old friends, that I had been trying to find replacements for for years, though the replacements were never as good as the originals – isn’t that always the case? My goal for #MendItMarch, then, is to get the number of projects squirreled away low enough that they will all fit comfortably into my newly-created Projects Box. The fact that it is currently full, and there are at least two other mending piles still waiting to be dealt with, will give some idea of the size of the task ahead.

My all new Projects Box – or as it will probably soon become know, the Box of Doom…

The reason for choosing this challenge is two-fold. One is the intention to reduce the amount of things I buy, getting old favourites back into circulation instead. This will probably be helped by my decision to only buy new/charity shop things if I have already fixed at least one thing in that category – so no new bags until I have fixed at least one of the broken ones currently cowering in the top of a cupboard 😪. It may even convince my children that the automatic response to something shattering across the kitchen floor is not “oopsie, oh well, we need to buy another plate/cup/cake stand” (delete as appropriate).

The other reason for choosing this challenge is more psychological. Many of the things in my mending pile are there not because I really think I will ever be able to fix them, but more because I once really liked them, and now they’re worn through, and I am not at all good at letting things like that go, even when the only other option is hiding them away and feeling guilty each time I notice them. So, following my realisations from February, I have recognised that sometimes you have to start the process before you can see how it will end. And sometimes, you have to try to mend something in order to be able to accept that actually, life changes, new things sometimes need space in our lives unexpectedly, and the only way to have room for everything is to let the broken things go, freeing them from their dejected and dingy hideaways.


Letting your life speak: Quiet acts of everyday rebellion


One of the things I find hardest about parenting is working out how to pass on deep-rooted principles. In the years since becoming a parent, I’ve done reasonably well (if I do say so myself) at keeping my children fed, clothed and with a decent number of books around them. My husband does an epic job of sorting out health problems, and has seen the inside of children’s A&E more than anyone would ever want to in one lifetime. Between us, we make a good team and have the essentials nailed. But none of this is the same thing as teaching them how to be good humans.

As may have already become clear elsewhere on this blog, I am a Quaker – a member of the Religious Society of Friends. In Britain (and a few other parts of the world too) we don’t really do evangelism. We get terribly uncomfortable if anyone asks us to describe our faith, and usually end up explaining everything Quakerism isn’t, rather than anything it actually is.* Over the years, I have found that the same thing is true with just about anything else that means a lot to me. The more important it is, the more I struggle to put it into words.

So here I am, facing the daily dilemma of how to help my children grow into Good People – which, as it turns out, is something I really, really care about, and therefore don’t know how to talk about at all. That’s OK, I tell myself. I don’t have to talk about it. I’ll follow a classic Quaker instruction, and let my life speak instead. We all know that actions speak louder than words, so I can let my actions do the speaking for me.

Letting your life speak is a wonderful guide to live by, and a fantastic way of avoiding difficult conversations. However, it does rely on one fairly vital ingredient: that when your life speaks, it agrees with what your mouth would say if you had the right words. As our children grow, they tend to mirror back to us our own traits and habits; and this sonic reflection has forced me to acknowledge that actually, what my life is saying is not necessarily what I want my children to be hearing. Why would they believe me when I talk about simplicity, when they also see my congenital weakness for sales racks and charity shops? Why would they believe that faith is central to my life when they see me drifting off not fully focussed in worship? And that’s before we get anywhere near The Cowgirl refusing to even contemplate doing anything that wasn’t her idea, or The Paleontologist developing a serious case of selective deafness whenever she is asked to do chores…

And then, I look around me at some of the amazing people I’m lucky enough to call friends, and I realise that I do know what letting your life speak looks like, even if I forget what it feels like sometimes. I see people who say yes to everything that life offers them, and take leaps of faith that would leave me petrified. I see people slowly and steadily cutting plastic out of their lives, one disposable cup at a time. I see mothers fighting for their children when they hurt so badly that they can hardly stand up themselves. In everything the people I love do, I see tiny acts of global rebellion; their lives shout from the rooftops that there is more than one way to do things, and that the world does not need to have the individual at its heart and self-centredness as its watchword.

The answer to how to help my children be Good People is in fact there right in front of me. It’s remembering that all these things are a process of tiny actions, not one big moment that will change everything. It’s showing them that no-one is perfect and no-one does the right thing all the time, and that what matters almost as much as good intentions is how we deal with doing the wrong thing. It’s about recognising and celebrating all the times I, and they, manage to be Good People together, and remembering that there is another chance tomorrow when we all get it wrong. And it’s about saying yes to every opportunity to let my life whisper, through acts of everyday rebellion, that there is another way. That is how I can really change the world.

*Actually, when I say we, what I really mean is me. I am awful at putting my faith into words, which may be a bit of a problem in this particular post…

Nature Ocean Waters Sunset Dusk Reflection Dawn
The calm before the storm, or sailing straight into one… Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.

An air pie and a walk around

Having said I was going to completely avoid making life harder for myself this year, I decided on the spur of the moment, at the beginning of this month, to comprehensively ignore my own sage advice. As well as continuing to gently declutter (which is already showing pockets of improvement, and not just in the number of coffee cups making their way down to the kitchen each day), I have also taken on #sugarfreeFebruary. As well as helping me to remember how to spell February each time I write out the hashtag – my Entry level students are right, it is much harder than it looks – it also means that I am trying my absolute best to cut out all added sugar for the whole of February. It’s a sponsored activity, raising money for Cancer Research, and if you would like to sponsor me, that would be amazing.

Like too many other people, when someone says cancer, my immediate thought is of my Dad, who died a long time before we were ready to say goodbye to him, from pancreatic cancer – a cancer that still has survivial rates that are far too low. He died before I qualified as a teacher (following in his footsteps, something that would both delight him and make him call me an absolute idiot). Even worse, he died before he could get to meet his grandchildren, and that’s just not fair.

My Dad and me on my wedding day. He died 3 months later, of pancreatic cancer.

However, much though I would like to see a cure for every form of cancer, giving up sugar is not just about raising money. It’s also an incentive to do something that I’ve been thinking about trying for a while. As I’ve said before on this blog, I have a curvy, lumpy figure; some in good places, some really not. I’d like to lose weight. I’d like to fit in better with society’s expectations of both a healthy figure and an attractive one. I know that shouldn’t matter that much, but sadly, to me, it does. I’ve tried diets and healthy eating plans, though not as many as some. Some have worked for a while, and others haven’t, but right now, I’m heavier than I’ve ever been. In my head, that definitely means desperate times and desperate measures.

So here I am, a week into avoiding added sugar. Here is what I have learned so far:

  1. Sugar really is added to everything. When I started looking more closely at ingredients lists, there were some unpleasant surprises. I guessed that breakfast cereals and mayonnaise would be out, but crackers? Crisps? Gherkins? That just seems mean.
  2. It does reduce food waste. It has made me stick to my food plan. It has made me use up leftover vegetables rather than cheating, going for the easy option and having frozen pizza for tea. It also means I won’t be eating food I really don’t need, because I’m bored or stressed. Eating food you don’t need is just another kind of food waste, and one I am happy to be mostly avoiding.
  3. Don’t believe the hype. Lovely though it would have been to have woken up at some point this week, over the hump and discovering the extra enthusiasm, glowing skin, and perfect sleep promised by many sugar-free websites, this is not how real life works, it seems. I do not suddenly have amazing skin and glowing eyes. I have headaches, and a dry mouth. I am tired all the time, and I have had more exhausting dreams this week than I have for months. Admittedly, though, I may not be able to blame absolutely all of this on no longer eating biscuits…
  4. You do lose weight. But not that much. Or at least, I haven’t lost that much. It turns out that cheese and gin don’t actually have added sugar in them, which means that giving up sugar is easier for me that being pregnant was, but it is not an instant cure for eating too much.
  5. The people around me keep me going when I would blatantly give up on my own. When I start something, I want results straight away. If I don’t get them, I get bored. If I get bored, I give up. (This obviously doesn’t bode well for the rest of February.) If I hadn’t committed to sticking to it for a month, and if I hadn’t already got some sponsorship money because I said I would do it for that long, I would already have given up.
A mug which says "money can't buy you happiness, but it can buy you tea and cake, and that's pretty much the same thing".
A gift from my children. This probably tells you all you need to know about how obvious it is that sugary food makes me happy…

Overall, I’m glad I’m doing it. For the money I have raised (and hopefully will continue to raise), and for what it’s taught me about my own willpower. It’s also shown me that I am never going to enjoy an air pie and a walk around while everyone around me is tucking into cake. Should I eat less sugar? Yes, probably. Do I know a lot more about what has sugar in it? Yes, definitely. Am I going to keep this going after the end of February? No. Absolutely not. As Jed Bartlett once said, “Does it make you live longer, or does it just seem longer?” Life is for living, and enjoying, and laughing through. This week has shown me that it is worth seizing the day and enjoying the cake. And if that means my lumps, curves and traditional build stay right where they are, then you know what, I need to learn to be ok with that.