Choose life*

Can anything really be freely chosen if it is introduced to you at gunpoint?

Quakers have a series of Advices and Queries. They are phrased very gently, whilst pointing out in no uncertain terms that it is probably worth re-evaluating at least some of the fundamental principles by which you have chosen to live your life. If books could speak, they would be heaving a heavy sigh and murmuring “I’m not angry, just disappointed…”

Part of Advice number 41 says this:

Try to live simply. A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength. Do not be persuaded into buying what you do not need or cannot afford.

Weaving into my mind like bindweed – beautiful, clingy and impossible to get rid of – is this question: Is it actually possible to freely choose a simple lifestyle?

It is possible to live a simple lifestyle in order to reduce your personal impact on the environment. But if you are compelled by the driving terror of global catastrophe, is that really a free choice?

You can do it as a way of living within your means, on a limited budget. But when I think about that, I think about counting coppers out of a jar to buy bread, and borrowing from friends to be able to call the bank and find out why I had no access to any money at all. I am very lucky, and have only been that desperate once. It might have been living simply, but it was not even close to a choice.

You can stand as counter-cultural, deliberately rejecting what is seen as of most value to the modern British mindset; refusing to buy into societal norms, rejecting capitalism with acts of rebellion. But if you define yourself by what you don’t participate in, can that be either a free and personal choice, or a source of strength?

Maybe the real question is what am I thinking when I talk about a simple life? Whenever I think about it, I mostly think about how my life is the complete opposite of simplicity. I think about the chaos of everyday routine, pushing the whole family out of the door Every Single Day before any of us really wants to even be out of bed (except The Paleontologist, that is. It seems that being willing to get out of bed as early as possible is another of those things that skips a generation. It missed her father out by a country mile and landed straight on her. Unfortunately, she inherited the full measure from her Grandad, leaving none at all for her sister.) I think about balancing homework, cooking, phonics, play time and downtime in the witching hour between getting home from After-school Club and sitting down to eat. I think about the school holiday we have just had, balancing church commitments, family time, lesson planning and jobs that never get done in term time, leaving us all more tired at the end than we were at the beginning (and with the washing baskets just as full. How is that even a physical possibility?)

Given all this, I am clearly the perfect person to talk about freely choosing a simple life… I often say, when justifying being a family with two cars, that it is necessary for us to have two cars in order to meet all our obligations. What I actually mean is that we need two cars in order to live the life we have chosen. Could we both get to work without them? No, not with the public transport we have here. Could we move closer to the area we both work in? No, not when the Church chooses where we live. Could we form local connections to help pick up our children so that we can lift share more? Um, yes, but I may have already mentioned that I’d rather chew my own arm off than ask for favours I might not be able to repay. Could we change our work patterns to avoid the necessity of two cars? Yes; but only by one of us leaving a vocation we have both sacrificed a lot to pursue. And we just don’t want to do that.

Given the fact that so many people live lives balanced between chaos and breaking point, how can we picture what a simple lifestyle would even look like?

The need to be better – better than Them, better than ourselves last year, better than our wildest imaginings – drives many of us to never just be. We must always be doing something, because we must always prove, to ourselves and the world, that this is the best moment ever. It is drummed into us from the days of Paw Patrol onwards that that is what is required for a day to be worth living, or recording, or remembering. It is, of course, an entirely unachievable ambition, though the pursuit of it can lead to beautiful moments, as well as the inevitable meltdowns that come when, for instance, this year’s Easter Egg Hunt was not quite up to last year’s standard…

The only way that a simple lifestyle as an achievable desire makes sense to me is to think about what I want to be choosing, not what I would be avoiding. Choose community. Choose fun. Choose habits that lead to satisfaction with yourself and those around you. Choose to be happy with what you have and not compare it to other people’s Instagram lives. Choose local food and playing in the garden. Choose giving away things you still like to others who can’t afford them.* Choose to think in a whole new way, that looks at what is there to enjoy not what is not there to envy. Choose to learn from others’ acts of love and generosity, not sulk that their house is bigger (or cleaner…) than mine. That’s the simple lifestyle I am looking for. And it is only achievable through determined choices, day by day, year by year, one picture, one blog post, one memory at a time.

*For those of you who are my generation, and now can’t get a Scottish voice saying “I chose not to choose life. I chose something else” out of your heads, yes, it was deliberate #sorrynotsorry

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A stunning autumn day; The Cowgirl, just learning to run, heads off into the distance.

Plastic: Superhero, evil genius, or a good old-fashioned scapegoat?

Scooters. Phones. Toothpaste. Glasses. Roller skates. Fridges. Ankle Foot Orthoses (mobility aids, usually known as AFOs – so inevitably, my family only ever use the term UFO. In fact, I just had to Google the proper name…) Bicycles. Hearing aids. Cars. Lego (said in a growly, so-excited-the-hyper-just-screams-through kind of voice. The only way to say it properly; trust me.) Plastic is everywhere. It makes everyday life more accessible. It is a key ingredient in making modern living as (relatively) cheap as it is. It is used to make a marvellous mosaic of machines and games that have no purpose other than to just be fun. The Paleontologist, in particular, would not want to live in a world where 280-step Lego rollercoasters were not in existence. Of course, she would probably have picked up far less swear words too, but nobody’s perfect…

I give you Lego Jurassic World. With a snow mobile in the background, because frankly, why not? This is normal decoration for a dining room, right?

But plastic is the villain in every good story about the oceans, city parks, farms, even Mount Everest. Bags that sea creatures mistake for tasty jellyfish nibbles, or nappies that will still be around a hundred years after their wearers have themselves grown old and died, or teabags, for goodness sake – is nothing sacred? We have all been part of the creation of a culture of throwaway values, of putting convenience before worth.

I have been trying to cut down on plastic – particularly single use plastic. I have, of course, put as much plastic into the kerbside recycling as possible for some years (increasing dramatically when I realised I could rinse it out in the dishwasher instead of doing it by hand 😳) Recently, I have increased my efforts: toilet roll now magically appears on our doorstep, wrapped in paper and made from bamboo; milk arrives in glass bottles; and it turns out it is possible to get through a period without plastic. Well, except the ibuprofen boxes and chocolate wrappers. Oops…

The problem is that cutting down on plastic does not just mean saying no to throw away Costa cups and regifting Enchantimals. (No, I hadn’t heard of them either, until The Cowgirl got given some for her last birthday. Half skunk, half girl, and a build so skinny they make Barbie look rotund. So of course, the children love them.) Cutting down on plastic really means cutting down on the things that make it possible to work, have fun, have kids, have a hobby, all at the same time. It means forward planning, and being willing to go to different shops for different things, rather than just doing a Morrisons shop online and accepting that peppers and aubergines will arrive in polythene netting encased in shrinkwrap. It means aiming for a picnic bag that puts Mary Poppins to shame, filled with metal straws, collapsible cups, cloth handkerchiefs and bamboo cutlery. It means having the disposable income to invest in reusable options, and the disposable time to put in the groundwork, find the alternatives, make cleaning products at home, grow your own food.

As real life kicks in the questions get harder. Should I avoid plastic altogether, buying new non-plastic storage containers, or is it better to keep using old ice cream pots and takeaway tubs, which at least mean they are getting more use than they were intended for? How about going to a plastic free shop? Should I go there to do my shopping, even if I have to drive miles and end up wasting a huge amount of time and fuel? I always intend to buy vegetables without packaging, but then I have a week of mocks to mark and end up buying ready-cut vegetables in even more plastic than usual. Can you get medicines without plastic; and even if you can, should you? Children make their way round zoos and aquariums, entranced by the occupants and engaging with fantastic interactive displays educating them about the impacts of plastic waste on the environment; then they stock up on Haribo and Fruit Shoots for the drive home.

A few weeks ago, I helped my mother clear out her loft. Buried near the back, under 30+ years of slate dust, were a few bags of the toys my brother and I had outgrown a lifetime ago. We put them onto Olio, and after the usual confusion of not quite managing arranged pick-ups, they were passed on to someone intending to share them between her son and his nursery. When she saw them, her response was “They’re gorgeous. Almost too good to be played with.”

Almost too good to be played with? Toys that were second-hand 35 years ago and have been abandoned for years in a way that fills me with guilt (Toy Story has a lot to answer for) are still remarkable for their quality? What have we done? We all, as consumers, have a part in this. We have accepted as the status quo toys that become worn after 6 months – but that’s ok, because after that they will have been forgotten anyway, and something else will be in favour. Our phones last 18 months if we’re lucky, but that’s great, because the blistering pace of progress means we’re already eager for faster processing and better cameras after half that time. With a daughter so keen on excavations, I can’t help wondering: if there is still humanity on this planet in 500 years time, what will they find if they excavate a 21st century dwelling? What of our lives would be on display in museums of the future; and is that the picture we want them to form about us? It is a baffling contradiction that the things we consume break so easily, yet are made from materials that take centuries to degrade.

I don’t know how to fix this. I think it’s time to start making these links out loud, and talking about them more. It’s time to get back to looking for a form of protein The Paleontologist enjoys that doesn’t come wrapped in single-use, non-recyclable plastic. It’s time to acknowledge the power and responsibility we all have in these things, and use that power wisely and collectively. And after that? I think it might be time to sit down with my super-smart children, over a snack that doesn’t come double-wrapped in plastic, and work out together how we can possibly make this a better world to live in.

Fixing things that ain’t broke yet

At every point in my life, I have thought to myself that this is it. I am more busy than I have ever been before, and I have reached capacity. I thought it when I was doing my GCSEs (oh, the irony!) I thought it when I was doing my A levels and learning to drive and working, all at the same time. (You know, just writing that made me realise why it is so frustrating when my students complain about balancing those 3 things. Should I have more sympathy, or should I tell them they ain’t seen nothing yet? Choices, choices…) I thought it at University, then again when I was working a few different jobs at once straight after Uni. I thought it when I was working full time and volunteering as a Quaker treasurer. I thought it when I was at home with one child, and then with two. I thought it when I was training to be a teacher. Now, as a full time teacher with still fairly young children, I know it’s true. I really have reached capacity. Never, ever let me take anything else on. Ever. Well, unless something better comes along, obviously. Or something really fun. Or something really worthwhile… And there I go, doing it all again.

Looking back on those earlier times in life, the thing I miss more than anything else is the time to stop, and read, and think. Even in the very early days of motherhood, I remember reading – book in one arm, feeding child in the other, making plans. Of course, I had no idea what was coming, so most of my planning was thrown out over the next six months, but what a glorious luxury that time was, and how little I realised it then.

Time is not something anyone seems to have any more. I recently realised that I have no actual physical parenting books at all, now that even The Cowgirl has officially outgrown Penelope Leach. (On a side note, any recommendations of good books about parenting pre teens would be really appreciated. I can buy them and feel guilty every time I see them unread on my bedside table…) Instead of having time to plan, I go with whatever works – usually whatever leads to a marginally easier life. And once I’ve found the sweet spot of something that gets the job done, I would rather chew off my own arm than change it. Bedtime is one example of that in our household. We still have exactly the same bedtime routine that we set up when The Cowgirl was six months old, at the same time in the evening, because you know what, it works, the girls sleep through, and we have some time in the evenings to do marking, catch up on emails, or, you know, watch The West Wing from start to finish. Again.

It’s ok, I reassure myself. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s working well, so let’s not tamper with it. The problem with this, of course, is that the world is changing all the time, and children tend to change five times faster than the rest of the world. As they change, our expectations and responses as parents need to change too. And if we’re going to do this well, they need to change preemptively. By the time you notice that an old favourite isn’t working any more, in my case at least, it’s usually not been working for quite some time, and I’m running to catch up lost ground.

When The Paleontologist was young, her desperate cry when upset was that she wanted a Mummy hug on the sofa. It was a beautifully simplistic time (except for the time when she refused to walk home because she was cold, wet, and wanted a hug on the sofa. It took me half an hour of persuasion, swearing and tears – all from me, obviously – before she agreed to start walking home so that we could actually sit on the aforementioned sofa to have said hug…) Could I use the same comfort now? Well, the hug and the location remain the same, but they have lost some of their magic. They are no longer enough to cure any ill, and instead of being all perfect, the hug is for comfort, not solutions, and the talking, and the crying, and the questions, and the not-having-answers-but-that-has-to-be-OK is where the magic is slowly, so slowly, being brewed. My ways of dealing with childhood devastations have been forced to shift and shudder and get through on a wing and a prayer in a desperate attempt to keep up with growing minds and developing bodies.

Almost every day seems taut with new decisions: tiny individually, but when matted together they become a hedge of thorns that it is almost impossible to get through without getting scratched to shreds. Do we let them open the door without an adult? (Answer: no – remember we live in a vicarage and so you never quite know who will be on the other side of the door, and in what state.) Do we let them check to see if the milk has been delivered? (Answer: yes, but never again – by the time we came downstairs, they had not only got the milk in, they had also drunk the lot of it…) How much freedom do we give them online? How much do we nag The Paleontologist to do her homework, and how much do we let her suffer the consequences of leaving it undone? Do we let her read as late as she wants to (just like her mother…) even if it means that she’s an absolute misery in the morning, because she didn’t get enough sleep (just like her mother…)? I let The Cowgirl choose for herself who to invite to her birthday party, rather than inviting the entire year, and my goodness me, the horror on some people’s faces when I mention this is frankly terrifying.

Looking at the world around us, and our relationship with it, I can see a number of parallels. It’s not broken yet – though the continuing devastation caused by Cyclone Idai tell us that it’s not exactly unbroken either. We don’t want to mess with what works. Our lives and our communities are doing just about alright using the methods and priorities we have set up over a number of generations, and frankly, we just don’t have the time to stop and work out alternatives. Particularly alternatives that will probably not be as convenient. It means letting go of something very dear to us, something that has seen us through some really tough times. It means letting go of the things that made us feel like we are in control and we have this, and moving into the unknown, where we might not be in control any more, and we certainly don’t have this, and accepting that we may never have it again. Why on earth would we do that voluntarily?

But we know the answer to that. Nothing lasts forever, and desperately clinging on to it with both hands still doesn’t stop time passing. Everything changes. The world might not change quite as quickly as our children do, but it still moves faster than we would like. We need to change our relationship with our children preemptively, before we destroy it by trying to keep it static; we need to change our relationship with the world just as much, or we won’t only kill our relationship with our environment, we will kill the environment itself.

Of course, with both parenting and, you know, saving the world, recognising you need to change the approach is only the first step. The even greater challenge is working out what to do next…

A canal in spring, the towpath fading into early morning mist, concealing the way ahead and the familiar landscape around.