Advent – on life’s lessons learned – life and the alternative

when thinking about what to write in this year’s advent I had to bear in mind the fact that my hubby and I, together with several close friends and family are living in worrying times.

Is it perhaps, a sign of growing older, when so many people we know are ill or fighting illness?  Can this be the beginning of a roller coaster ride, until, as my eldest relative is fond of saying ‘everyone has gone, there is only me left’.  Something I have listened to for years, and while understanding where she is coming from, not really paying any heed to how it must feel.

So we began this year knowing that hubby had a medical issue, his broken heart has been well documented here and elsewhere, as has the wonder of the medics who fixed it for him.  It has been somewhat of a shock to discover that all is not as well as we had hoped.  Never mind, we say, life goes on, and it does.  Yet the life that is going on is one that is immeasurably different to the one we expected to be living.  The same goes for several friends, who are also managing to live the life they have, rather than the one they thought they would have.

I am minded to think of others for whom life changes with the spin of a coin, the twist of a wrist, the decision of a politician or the change of the wind. The people who have run from all they know towards a hell on earth, still trying to live and love and make things work.  I am thinking of my family members from childhood who lived through the blitz, at a time when medicine and doctors were for those who could pay.  My Dad’s sisters, one who lost a leg, and continued determined and strong to live a life not disabled by the lack of a limb, but enabled by true courage.  Her sister, lost her life in childbirth, a family gone for the price of a nurse.  Truly tough times.

Challenges, that is the lesson today, the side swiping, crazy, tipping the world upside down moments that come without warning and change everything forever.  How do we cope, and what do we learn?

Following on from our very own year of change, we are coping, as we have always done, by holding on tight, looking for the good, finding and relishing the happy hours in dark days and by refusing to be beaten.  We learn we are stronger than we could ever have believed, that the world isn’t fair, and not everyone has a happy ending.

It seems to me it is not where we end up, but how we travel the road, that is what is important.  At the end of our time we will take nothing away with us, but what will we be leaving behind?  That is the lesson.  For a struggle is just that, a tough time, they all will pass, as do all the good days, the sunshine and the glad to be alive moments. I think the lesson I have learned is to stay in the moment, not to overthink, and above all to not allow worry to diminish joy. For worry has never changed anything, but joy, well that changes everything.

Advent Day 5 – on life’s lessons learned, power of poetry

I love poetry.  My poetry books are old friends who I reach for in the good times and the bad times, when they help make everything better.  I seldom re read fiction, but some of my poetry books have literally fallen apart over the years with constant reading and turning of the pages.  Sharing verse and poetry with children is amazing, the rhythm of the words dance on a page, then later discovering the big poems, the words that reach into your heart and stay there, well that is nothing short of magic.

Maya Angelou to Brian Pattern, Seamus Heaney to Roger McGough, Wilfred Owen to John Betjeman and many many more, they all have written a manual for life.  Here you will find hope, and loss side by side, joy and tragedy sitting close by, each there for you,  to be used as entertainment, as consolation and also for reference.

Roger McGough’s Defying Gravity, speaks of loss like no other, while Maya Angelou being Phenomenally a Women is inspirational.  There are so many more I could speak of here but this is a quick blog, it all there to find.  Seamus Heaney’s Digging with stay with me forever, conjuring up images of fatherhood, of difference and of solidarity.

I would urge everyone I know to read a poem, at least once a week, dip in and find your favourite, you will be surprised just how relevant words can be.  In a world of chaos and darkness it is a true comfort to settle down, open a familiar book and step inside.  Indeed I think it should be compulsory for everyone.

If you have a favourite poem, do let me know, I am constantly open to new adventures of the written word.



Advent Day 4 – Life’s lessons learned – on resilience

It is fair to say that my lovely hubby and I have had our ups and downs over the past year or two.  Things we thought were forever sorted slipped away from our reach and we found ourselves with a whole new life.  A pattern developed as each time we made a decision the universe tipped us in a different direction.  It has been quite a time.

Resilience is gained through adversity.  Each time any of us face a tricky time we learn from it, and that learning stays with us for the next time.  I think our resilience is strong  Together we are sitting out storm after storm and still have much to be thankful for.

It is true that no one can choose what happens to them, good or bad, but we can all choose how we deal with these times.

We are keeping on keeping on in our brand new life, grateful each day for the little things, and holding tight, there is no other way to be.

Advent Day 3 on life’s lessons – learning to put the right foot forward

I have always been a bit chaotic, preferring to be getting on with things rather than actually thinking about what I should be doing.  I will never read instructions, always unplugging, connecting, building and eventually returning to the manual to find out how I should have done things.  Attention to detail is not my strongest point.

Over the years this lack of care has put me into situations that, frankly, are embarrassing.  Not looking in a mirror, getting dressed in the dark and generally being to impatient to get doing, well it seldom ends well.  During my teenage years this reached a pinnacle, when up late and rushing to get to school I flew out of the house without any thought.  This was not an unusual thing for me, I was probably up in plenty of time, but engrossed in a book I would forget to check the time, meaning a panic to leave in time.   One such day I remember well, I had left it to the last minute and couldn’t find my shoes.  Eventually I went upstairs and grabbed them from under the bed.  With a quick wave goodbye to Mum I was off up the road, school bag in hand.

I arrived at our large school before the bell, and was just about to go into the playground when a friend came to say hello.  As we are chatting I notice she is staring at my feet.  I followed her eyes and suddenly felt very warm.  A couple of the older boys were nearby, we were always trying to impress them, as she said, more loudly than was necessary, ‘your shoes’  She looked, the boys looked and a passing teacher of PE, who had a mean throw with the board duster stopped and looked.

In my defence it was a winter morning, I had paid no attention to what was under my bed and I even now I think a black patent leather slip on and a brown moccasin style shoe are a natty combination.  ‘how did you not notice?’ she asked, ‘on is a slip on the other has laces’  I have to admit she had a point.  I then had to go to the classroom and ask our form teacher if was ok if I popped home to change my shoes.  Trying not to laugh he agreed and I dashed out of the school quickly before anyone else could notice.

Do you think that when I returned, wearing the brown moccasins if you are interested, I had got away with it?  Not a chance, for the next week or two where ever I went there were jokes about two left feet, getting dressed in the dark (not entirely far from the truth) they followed me everywhere.  Eventually someone else became centre of attention and people seemed to forget.

You would think something like this happening would have taught me to take more care, but sadly that is not the case.  In fact only last year I got to work and realised that I had odd boots on. As were both black and slip on, albeit one had a tinier heel, they were virtually identical, I did get away with it this time.  I suppose I really should learn to start paying attention to such things.

This palls into insignificance when I think of the mix up in the swimming pool, but that is a lesson for another day.


Advent 18 Day 2 Lessons learned on staying afloat


As a toddler I held a fascination for water.  We lived on the coast and spent many family days on the beach.  Even at three years old I would want to be in the sea, so much so that while the family were unpacking the car I raced off down the slipway and jumped into a large pool, left by the outgoing tide.  The commotion that followed involving my Uncle dashing down and jumping in himself to scoop me out, Mum and Aunty being both furious and scared witless at once.  I was told never to do that again, and I didn’t, not at least until the next time we went to the beach.  The pool was always there, and I would always attempt to jump in.  I had no fear of the sea, but the family feared for me!

When I turned four, my elder cousins started swimming lessons in the local pool.  Mum went along to enrol me.  On being told, ‘we don’t teach them until they are at school’ Mum famously replied, ‘she will be drowned by then, she keeps jumping in the sea’, needless to say, I was the youngest learner in the pool.

I remember some of the swimming lessons.  We were taught by a pair of brothers, who were fair and tough. We were put through our paces and I soon realised that there was more to swimming than jumping in and out of water.  Eventually I got the hang of it, and over the years I went through the various certificates. The pool was my place of choice for exercise, and later for meeting up with boys.

Thinking back to these times always makes me smile, life really was simple then.  I was blessed with a warm loving home, with an extended family of cousins, aunts and uncles who were regular visitors in our house and with whom I shared some fabulous times.  It also makes me think of how my parents worked together to make sure that we knew our boundaries at the same time as encouraging us to reach for the stars.  That is such a clever thing to do.

I guess it would have been easy for Mum to stop taking me to the beach, or to strap me into a pram or put me on reins to keep me from the sea, but she didn’t.  She simply decided that if her daughter loved the water, then she must learn how to respect it, and to keep herself safe.  That is a lesson for life in itself.

I can’t even add up all the hours in my life I have spent swimming.  The fun I have had, eyeing up the boys in the outdoor pool in the summers of my teenage years; swimming competitively, though seldom ever winning a race; under warm sunshine on holidays across Europe, with my children; floating on a wave and being at one with the world.

There have been a fair few disasters while swimming, but these will appear later this Advent, each one a learning curve in itself.  More tomorrow.


Advent 18 – Day 1 on life’s lessons learned

on choosing the theme for this years Advent I needed a subject broad enough to fill a months worth of posts, while at the same time being diverse enough to be interesting.  Here you will read of hilarious attempts to master riding a bike and on teaching a pal to swim, alongside the bigger lessons on life and death.  I needed a starting point, and it seemed right that in an advent of life’s lessons learned I should begin with my earliest memories of learning.

For this I am right back in my family home, I am young, not yet at school and I am interested in lots of things.  The days had a pattern to them, meal times were fixed, the food predictable and leisure time was playing with dolls.  The highlight of the day was always the bedtime story, when Mum would read, usually poems or short stories to me.  I had a book of 365 stories and verses, one for every day of the year, and I loved to listen to each and every one.

I can put myself right back to those days, sitting with Mum and looking at the pages as she read the tales out loud.  I remember being fascinated that the patterns on the page next to the pictures related to words and sounds.  I found myself understanding more and more of the words and I became hungry for more. I can see myself now, picking up Dad’s Daily Mirror and picking out the patterns I understood.  I can remember him saying to Mum, that she had me reading the newspaper!   Dad was so happy about this, he hadn’t gone to school very much and always struggled with the written word.  Mum tapped into my interest and began to explain the words to me, and quickly I could understand.

One Christmas, I think I was about five or six, my baby sister was still a baby for sure, I received a dictionary in my stocking.  This was not a children’s dictionary with pictures but a proper grown up dictionary full of words and their meaning.  I have a clear picture of me sitting on the floor beside the French windows in our living room, in awe of this little book, containing all the words I thought I would ever need.  I spent hours reading from it, working out connections between words and finding new words.  I also remember my Uncle explaining to me about alphabetical order and showing me how to find words quickly.

At the time I was not aware that this was slightly unusual for a five-year-old child. To me it was exciting, then and now words were important to me.  It was when I arrived in school, aged five years and three months, that I discovered that not all my peers were able to read.

I was sad to only spend a couple of months in the baby class, the teachers telling Mum I was already a good reader and my writing was coming along nicely too.  Thanks to my dictionary, my spelling was acceptable.  I can remember leaving school one day delightedly telling Mum I had ten out of ten for spellings, one of the words I had learned was promenade, I think it was the longest word I had learned so far. They moved me into the next class up, and there I stayed, I remember missing out on the play house in the ‘baby’ class.

By now my love of the written word was so firmly embedded in me, there was nothing better I could do than open a new book.  One morning I came into the living room to a pile of books left on the table.  I still don’t know who gave them to me, but this was the day I discovered reading for pure pleasure.  Now We are Six, a book I loved because I was six years old and thought it had been written for me, together with the House at Pooh Corner, became firm favourites. These were the first books I read to myself, and the beginning of a lifetime of joy in the printed word.

Later, trips to the Children’s Library, a magical place set in a large house with huge windows looking out onto a park, became the highlight of the week.  There I could choose from so many different books, and I have never looked back. I have read every kind of fiction and a fair bit of fact.   Learning to love reading and later writing, has been such a precious gift to me for my whole life long.  Over fifty years of being able to access information, escape into fiction and put my thoughts onto a page, a lifetime of learning began here. It seems a good place as any to begin this years Advent.


on living memories

yesterday was the day of my Dad’s birthday.  Ninety four years ago, he was born, the first son and second child to a family who had very little of anything.  We have been without him for thirty three years, and he is missed every single day.

Talking with my cousin last night she told a story from our childhood.  Our Dad’s had taken us out to fly our kites. I remember the day well, it wasn’t often my Uncle and Dad were in charge of us girls.  We went to a park with hills, in sight of the sea, it was sunny and windy, perfect kite flying weather.  We ran up and down completely failing to get our kites into the air, we didn’t care it was fun.  Later a ball was found and our Dad’s began kicking it about with us.  I have no memory of this bit, but my cousin has never forgotten it.  The ball was decorated with stars and my Dad told us he would kick it high into the sky where it would catch more stars. My cousin totally believed that her Uncle, my Dad, was magical.  She remained in awe of his ability to collect stars for many, many years.

This story reminded me of how no one can ever be truly gone while people still talk of them and remember them.  It also made me think of how we are all connected and how our lives impact on others all the time, whether we know it or not, we are making a difference.

I think I believe that we are the sum of the memories we leave behind.  I am not only talking about once we are no longer alive, I mean all the time.  People will remember things we do, things we say and how we behave, and those memories will be different for everyone.  We are actually the sum of our behaviour and our actions.

Maybe my Dad wasn’t really magical, perhaps he didn’t collect stars, but he had the ability to give my cousin a memory she has never forgotten.

So, from now on I shall be a careful about how I behave.  I will try to keep in mind that this footprint of my life will leave it’s mark on those I interact with.  I am not going to overthink it, but instead take comfort in our collective memories of simply being alive.  We are indeed the fortunate ones.

on life and death

yesterday I was at a funeral.  My lovely Uncle, my last living Uncle, had passed away, suddenly and swiftly, his life was over.  Ninety something years of living, of laughing and loving, all done.  Except it isn’t done at all.  Each one of us in the chapel has memories of him, of times gone by and of shared moments.  It is these memories that keep us alive in the thoughts of others, long after our bodies have given up.

As he arrived to this resting place, he was carried by those who had loved him.  His son, son in law, granddaughter and grandsons, tenderly taking him on his last journey, carrying him safely and with love, just as he had carried each and everyone of them throughout their lives.

I remember the times when there was only two of us, my big cousin and me.  Our annoying little sisters were yet to be born, and the families attentions were all ours.  Our Dads, both now gone, were buddies.  They would come back from working away from home with tales of hilarity and fun.  They never spoke about working in tough conditions or how they lived in boarding houses, while earning money for us at home.  We laughed so much in those days, it all seemed really simple.  There would be family parties, during which our Dads would fool around and sing along to the crooners of the day.  Happy, happy times.

As quickly as we could blink, it seems we are now the grown ups.  Our children have children of their own, and we have become the last generation, for all those before us are now gone.  It made me think about mortality and about making sure we make the most of this life, right now, today.

The opening words in the chapel yesterday talked of judging the success of a life by looking at how it was lived.  I think this is really important.  You see it is easy to judge success by wealth or by worth, by a career or a bank balance, but actually in the end the only thing is this.  Did you leave the world a better place, for you being in it?  Did you step up and offer a helping hand?  Did you listen endlessly to childish tales, each one heard before, and still smile and encourage?  All the truly important stuff is actually really simple.

I know, because I have been there too often, the pain my cousins are feeling today, I also know that with time they will remember and smile.  There will come a day when it isn’t the first thing they think of, and another when they realise that they have been so busy living they have not thought of loss.  They may then feel a little guilty, but they should not.  It is in those days, the busy, happy days, that those we have lost are closest to us.

So, we have said goodbye to our last Uncle, and this morning we greet another day.  A day to get things right, to make the most of life and to hold each other a little closer.  You see there is never a good time to say goodbye, the best remembrance of all is to live a life well enough and to make most of it, now, while we can.

on when it’s not your turn

yesterday was a good day.  Lovely son has come to visit, first time we have seen him this year, and it was great to take him out to the beach, we ate fish and chips on the sand and paddled in the sea.  Ordinary things, part of an ordinary life, all the more precious given the ups and downs of our lives so far this year.

Also yesterday hubby went to have a medical, it is part of his requirements for his job.  It was just such a medical, a little over a year ago that began the whole process of a broken heart being eventually fixed.  There is little doubt that medical saved his life.  This year, this time it is different, all is well, the heart is mended, the doctor is happy to sign his form.

So we head home, feeling blessed and positive, we are beginning to believe that this all may soon be over, that normal, real life is around the corner waiting for us.  We can almost touch it.

Reflecting on all that happened, on the weeks and weeks he spent in hospital, how the whole team worked hard to fix him I often think of the others that shared that ward, that slept in beds next to and opposite hubby and whose wives and mothers became part of my team, a club we didn’t want to be in, we reached out to help each other get through those tricky times.

It is with great sadness that on the very day hubby passes his medical, we learn of one man who was not so fortunate.  He had also had a broken heart, but sadly for him there was no fix, and now some five months on we learned that he lost his fight for life.  This news pulled us up shortly.  A stark reminder of what happens, of what could have happened to us.  My heart is sorry for his wife, I remember well how she would sit reading to her hubby, long hours at his bedside, it was tough, tough on all of us, but for me, I have my hubby back, and a chance of a new life.  I am thinking of his son, and all the grandchildren who clustered around his bed, and sorry that they have lost their Granddad.

So, all we can do is send love to the family and to count our blessings that this time it was not our turn.  In doing so, we will also promise to make the most of the life we have, to live it well and to grab every single opportunity that comes our way.  To never waste time worrying what might happen, that is something none of us know.  Instead we shall celebrate life, going quietly about this world, trying to help and remembering to choose happy every single time.


on navigating through the rocks

last week I spent time on an island in the sunshine with my gorgeous girl.  A brief holiday for us both allowing us time to chat, to talk about the past, the present and the future.  To make new memories and to recharge our batteries. It was magnificent.

I nearly didn’t go at all.  Once booked things changed, as they always seem to do, and it felt foolish to spend money on leisure that was needed for necessities.  My hubby and daughter felt differently.  I was instructed to embrace this chance of sunshine and sea, to give myself a break.  To be honest it was only once I was there that I understood just how much I needed this.

The sunshine is different to home.  It wraps you in a blanket of heat that is all embracing, the air you breathe is warm and the sea you swim feels like a warm bath at the end of a long day.  Indeed it has been a long day, one that has lasted a year.  A whole three hundred and sixty five days in which nothing was usual.  A roller coaster of confusion, fear, sadness and underneath it all I found some strength to keep on keeping on.  This is a strength I doubted I had the energy to find.  Yet somewhere, somehow, we got through this.

On the beach, we sat under an umbrella and watched the waves lap the shore.  In the distance was an entirely different country, the shape of it’s mountains forming the backdrop to this view.  Over there, people were also living lives we would never know about.  In a place I will probably never visit there are women like me, dealing with life in the best way that they can.  It made me smile to think that there maybe a woman on the beach looking over at our island and thinking about who we might be.

We love the sea, my girl and I.  Neither of us would ever choose a pool over real water, we spent many hours floating and swimming, laughing and splashing, and remembering other seas, other holidays when things were very different.   Times when my girl was little, when I was the only grown up.  This time we are equal partners, and at times she is my support.

This is fitting as throughout our tricky year she has often been my support.  At times I would not have got through without her.  This funny, friendly girl who attracts friends wherever she goes.  Her generosity of spirit and her sense of adventure make me ridiculously proud that she is mine.  Here on the beach she is once again holding my hand, this time literally as we head for our first dip in the warm waters of the Ionian Sea.

The journey from sunbed to the water is less than six steps on sun warmed sand, our feet feel hot, we rush to the sea.  As the waves tickle our toes for the first time we can see through the clear water to the ground beneath, and we can feel with our bare feet the shingles and rock we need to navigate.  It is not easy.  The broken shells and tiny pebbles are almost glass like, They prick and poke our bare soles, it is not comfortable.  I am holding onto my girl, she is steady, as the sands beneath our feet begin to sink, and we try to hurry on.  Next there is a line of rock, real hard stones, all different shapes and sizes and all to be crossed. It is hard to keep my balance, and yet with a hand to hold I managed it and within ten paces we arrive at the sandy bed of the sea, it’s smooth surface and the warm waves worth every tricky step we have taken to cross the shingle and the rocks.  It is perfect.

It seems to me that this beach, this sea, well it is just like life has been for the past year.  We have crossed sharp stones, dealt with being off balance and found our way through some very large rocks. The warm waters of life are getting closer by the day, things are looking up, and in a funny way, without the really, really tough times, I doubt I would understand just how good the warm waters of life actually are.  Never again will I assume that all is well, but also never again will I underestimate my strength, my bravery and my ability to cross the difficult bits, and to reach for those who will steady me.

I am back from the island now and ready for the next chapter of this thing called life. Thankful for those who have stayed with us and for the new friends we have found.  None of us know what is coming towards us, but at least now I know I can get through the pain, I can climb over the obstacles and I can make a tomorrow that is different from yesterday.

To steal a line from the play, Shirley Valentine, I really do believe that ‘this woman is alright’.  It has been a long time coming.