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On seams, songs and serial studenting

Everyone needs a hobby. I have some which have endured for decades – singing, reading, getting excited whenever I see a dog, a cat or a baby – and some which are more recently acquired – sewing, accidentally trespassing in pursuit of public footpaths, putting little jumpers onto the dog. And, it would appear, studying.

It’s taking Naomi and I a while to get settled in our new town. It’s hillier than Naomi anticipated, the public transport is less frequent than I expected, and there don’t seem to be many people near our age. There are things which are lovely about it, such as the quirky independent shops, the forests and fields where Benny can run off-lead and play with other dogs, the beautiful seafront just a few minutes’ drive away, the friendly acquaintances we’re starting to make. I wouldn’t say we’ve made any friends exactly, but there are people who we see quite often, either because they work in shops we visit, live nearby or also have dogs, and for me at least that goes a long way towards satisfying my admittedly low need for in-person socialising. Naomi, of course, goes out to work and to the Quaker Meeting, so her extroverted little heart gets a better fill of people than it would if she stayed at home with me.

I did start to feel that I needed something to do other than tutoring, babysitting and cleaning the house, so I’ve taken up two new hobbies: attending a local sewing class, where an experienced seamstress helps her students (mostly middle-aged and retired women) with their projects. I’ve made Naomi a skirt and just started on a dress for me, both of which I bought fabric and patterns for months ago but never got round to. It’s fun and I get far more done than I would if I relied on ever being motivated enough to carve out time to sew at home.

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I made Naomi a new work skirt, complete with penny farthing-riding hares in bowler hats (totes legit office wear)

I’m also intending to audition for the local light operatic society’s spring production which will be a Gilbert and Sullivan show. I’m quite looking forward to having a reason to sing regularly again, although a trifle nervous of joining what is probably quite a tight-knit community. Then again, it’ll be nice to be part of said community, which probably has a lower average age than the sewing class!

I’ve been struggling a little with a sense of purpose, which is an ongoing process of restructuring my concept of what is worthwhile, what is work, what is contributing. In coming to terms with my choice not to pursue a “conventional” career (whatever that is), I’ve returned to a long-term aspiration: to be a foster carer. Right now we’re not in a position to start the process of being approved, since we plan to move in three years or so, but with that as a goal, I have decided to go back to studying.

From January I’ll be doing a MSc in Child Welfare and Wellbeing. It’s a distance-learning, part-time online course with Oxford Brookes University, and I’m really excited about it! I started looking into the same course about a year ago, while I was still working as a Family Worker, but the timing wasn’t quite right then. It is now, and to my delight they accepted me, subject to receiving two suitable references.

It will be interesting to see how it works out, having a Doctoral student and a Masters student in the family at the same time. The MSc involves a research dissertation and a module on research methods, which are totally alien concepts to me, so I’m fortunate that Naomi will be able to help me there! It’s also handy that our fields overlap; Naomi’s Doctoral research project is going to be on paediatric psychology, so we can chatter excitedly about our work to each other and actually understand the discussion (thank heavens she isn’t studying astrophysics).

Over Christmas I plan to have a careful think about how I will fit studying around my other commitments, and whether I need to, and can afford to, cut down on my paid work a bit. I feel like I’ve got the balance right in terms of tutoring and babysitting, but it might be prudent to return to only occasionally taking on audio transcription work when I have time for it, so that my current two days a week allocated to typing can be repurposed for studying.

Plus, I really need to organise the office! It’s the one room in the house that I don’t consider “finished”, meaning that there are still boxes that haven’t been unpacked and I’m not happy with the layout of the things that are in there. It’s tricky to get it sorted because Benny whines and barks if he’s left downstairs alone, and if I bring him up with me, I have to spend all my time policing him or Paige’s food gets eaten and they have a vicious, hissing standoff. We’re still working on that particular relationship!

Wish me luck, everyone. It’s been over 18 months since I last studied. That’s the longest I have gone without being a student since I was four years old. That’s kind of ridiculous, actually. Ooh, and I just realised something: back to school means STATIONERY SHOPPING. Fab!

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So, what are you all about?

I met someone today who asked me the question that’s become this post’s title. We were meeting with a view to me becoming their occasional babysitter, which is always an odd mixture of relaxed and casual, and job interview formality. I have profiles on various childcare and tutoring websites which set out the rough details of my work history and current situation, but without exception I have always been asked to tell the prospective client family what I do (which seems only right, if they’re considering entrusting their offspring to my care).

I liked this turn of phrase particularly, though. Not, ‘What do you do?’ or ‘What’s your real job?’ – I was once asked that, immediately after I’d told the questioner what my jobs were; apparently they weren’t real enough for his tastes – but, ‘What are you about?’ It seems to take the focus away from paid employment and onto purpose. For some people they’re one and the same, and that’s great, but for many of us there’s more complexity to it.

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Share Sunshine

It’s an unseasonally warm day here on the south east coast. I left the house this morning in boots, a hooded jacket and a warm coat, wishing I’d thought to find my woolly hat. By lunchtime I was carrying my coat over my arm, jacket unzipped, and wondering whether I might need to find my sunglasses instead.

I’m more aware of the weather these days, because I’m outside in it every morning, walking the dog. We’ve walked through thick fog, in depressing drizzle, in bright sunshine and on dull grey days. If it’s been raining lately, I make sure I wear boots instead of my thin-soled pumps, and if it’s really hot I carry water for both of us.

Nevertheless, the weather is more of a footnote to my day than a major issue. Even really bad weather isn’t often life-threatening here. A typical British drought means brown lawns and unwashed cars, and most British storms just damage trees and distrupt broadband connections. When it’s really cold outside, I make cups of tea and huddle over them for warmth, or warm myself up with a hot bath. On hot summer days I freeze diluted fruit squash to make home-made ice lollies, and take a lukewarm shower to cool down.

Water is so mundane and everyday, but it’s critically important. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that when we can so easily turn on a tap and get clean, safe drinking water. I first began supporting WaterAid at the height of the Ebola crisis, because I suddenly realised how essential it must be to be able to properly wash when you’re caring for someone with such an infectious virus. I couldn’t invent a vaccine or manufacture cheap diagnostic tests, but I could help people to wash their handswateraid-logo-colour-blog_full

I don’t know why it hit me so clearly in relation to Ebola; I grew up being constantly reminded not to waste water, and I knew that water-borne diseases cause millions of deaths every year, but it was an intellectual kind of knowledge rather than the deep, visceral, urgent knowing that leads to action. It was the realisation that nurses in remote villages in Western Africa would need clean water to practice the sort of hand hygiene I’d had drummed into me during midwifery training that spurred me into becoming a monthly WaterAid donor.

I’ve now been asked to work with WaterAid and trnd on Project Sunshine, which is an awareness campaign featuring Claudia, a teenage girl in Zambia who now has access to clean water and toilets thanks to the charity. When I was fifteen I was worrying about whether my crushes were reciprocated and arguing with my parents about the state of my bedroom, not singing for joy because I could collect water in a bucket.

I’ve been feeling a bit flat this week, a bit down and joyless. The thing about depression is that it can make you, or at least me, incredibly self-centred. Getting an email asking me to share the first video from Project Sunshine shook me up a bit and reminded me that not only do I have it good, I have the power to do something to help people who have it far less good than me. I can spread sunshine and help bring clean water to Zambia, even while I’m sitting on my sofa feeling glum and directionless. Listening to that happy song helped too – Claudia’s song was my bit of sunshine on an emotionally rainy day.

Who’s the Tutor?

In a recent short-lived but productive panic about money (I have them occasionally, since trading in my smattering of unsuccessful careers for life as a full-time home-maker and freelance child-wrangler), I reactivated my old tutoring profiles on a couple of websites. Within days one of them bore fruit, and last week I trundled off to the same seaside town in which I recently spent a week babysitting an adorable toddler, to conduct my first tutoring class for some years.

My student is 9 years old, a bright boy who I’ll call Livewire. His brother is 13 and his moniker can be Steadfast. I’m officially only tutoring Livewire, but Steadfast has hung around for at least part of the two lessons we’ve had so far, and has joined in our end-of-session chats. I think this is probably going to be a very useful thing, because it means the two boys can discuss what we’ve covered in the lesson and work together on figuring things out.

I was tasked by the parents to get Livewire ready for transitioning to secondary school in just under two years. They were concerned because Livewire is less quiet and studious than his older brother (hence the nicknames) and worried that he wouldn’t achieve his full potential when he did his GCSEs. I spent twenty minutes after the first lesson reassuring his mum that Livewire is a bright boy who is clearly motivated to learn, and that the fact he learns in a different way to Steadfast doesn’t mean he’ll be any less successful. She admitted that she was heavily influenced by the fact that she was taught using the head-down, textbook-open, memorise-and-repeat method and anxious about the unproven record of any other approach.

Point of interest: all my tutoring students to date have been from Asian families, their parents either first or second generation immigrants to the UK, and very eager for their offspring to achieve highly in exams. They’ve also, oddly enough, all been boys, but that’s beside the point. I did once turn down a job tutoring a 5 year old for four hours a week on the basis that the poor little mite shouldn’t have to endure extra classes after fighting his way through a full day of school when he’s very probably still in nappies at night, but on the whole I admire my employer parents’ desire to give their children a good education and am quite willing to work with their children towards their goals of academic excellence, but using my own methods.

My own methods are essentially based around three premises: that the student will get enough rote-learning and fact-instilling at school, that learning is most successful when enjoyable, and that knowledge is worthless without understanding. With Livewire, I’m tutoring both maths and English, although really we’re just discussing philosophy and the mysteries of the universe under different headings.

In our first session I got Livewire to spend 15 minutes on each of two practice maths SATs tests, to get a baseline for his knowledge at present. He didn’t complete both papers or get all the answers right, which is precisely what I expected since he won’t take the tests for real until the end of next year, and will get three times as long to do them, but he did enough for me to tell that he is intelligent and has been taught well. I identified some basic gaps in his understanding though, so that’s what we’re targeting first.

On Friday we spent nearly 45 minutes trying to figure out why the order of operations does, and doesn’t, work. He didn’t know the concept, but that didn’t stop him discovering, within minutes, that the claim I had been taught at school and parroted on to him, that you can do multiplication and division in any order and get the same answer, was wrong. You have to do it left to right, and we couldn’t figure out why that was the case.

I came home determined to ensure that I understood the underlying mathematics to the rule so that I could explain them to Livewire and Steadfast, who was also baffled by the discovery that his teachers had mislead him. I’ve spent quite a few hours on it over the weekend and have figured out how to explain addition, subtraction and multiplication in real-world terms (represented by marbles and a number line), but I’m still wrestling with division. Why is 8 divided by 4 the same as 8 times 0.25? I can dimly recognise that it is logical that division is inverse multiplication, but I’ve not managed to grasp it with the same certainty that I now have regarding subtraction being inverse addition (or rather, addition of a negative number).

I’m really enjoying this new tutoring venture, but I’m not convinced that it would be true to say that I’m teaching and Livewire is learning. Rather, we’re both rooting around to figure out why things are true, and he’s leading the discoveries at least as much as I am. I always preferred to understand the mathematical reasoning rather than simply learning the formula, but my GCSE teacher was so dismissive and critical of my questions that he completely put me off the whole thing for nearly a decade, so it’s fun to come back to it and start again from the very basics. Who knows? This time next year we might both be moving onto the sort of advanced maths I never studied at school!

Our Colourful Cottage

Welcome to our cottage! It felt like home pretty quickly, but we’ve been steadily putting our stamp on it and it’s really feeling like our nest now. As you’ll gather, if you hadn’t already realised, we’re both big fans of bright colours and pretty things. We mainly use the back door which leads into the sunroom, so that’s where we’ll start our tour.

sunroom

Our little cottage is a bit topsy-turvey, with the sunroom that houses our dining table and white goods (and the dog crate), a tiny toilet off that room which doesn’t have a sink so is being used as our coat room and storage, then a little galley kitchen. It has a window through into the sunroom which is an extension, so there’s lots of light.

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Coming off the kitchen through the door you can just see to the left is the bathroom – I said it was topsy-turvey! – and at the other end from the sunroom is the door to the room we’ve made into our bedroom. That was the room we focused on getting sorted first, and it’s a really cosy space now. Naomi’s settee is at the foot of the bed with the blanket she crocheted. There are actually built-in cupboards behind the wardrobe but we decided we needed somewhere to hang clothes more than we needed more shelf space, so it doesn’t matter that we can’t really get at those.

bedroom

I spent several frustrating hours trying to put up the curtain rail, and we had to do a mad dash to B&Q ten minutes before they closed to get the right kind of drill bits, only to discover we hadn’t got any curtain hooks so still couldn’t hang the curtains when I finally finished with the rail at midnight! Anyway, it is sorted now. You can just glimpse the edge of Naomi’s bedside table – with giraffes! It has four shelves and was a present from my dad and his partner. It’s perfect, much more suitable than the little table we were using before which just didn’t have enough space for all the totally essential things Naomi keeps by her bed…

bedroom-window

Also coming off the kitchen is the staircase upstairs. The doors to the stairs look like they are for an airing cupboard, which is quite funny when we have visitors! We generally keep them as you see in the picture, with one door to the stairs open, the other closed and the door to the sunroom propped open so that Paige-cat can get up and down the stairs but Benny the puppy can’t follow her. They’re not friends quite yet…

kitchen-right

Upstairs there’s a small room with a single bed, chest of drawers and wardrobe already in it, and I’ve added my bookcase, desk, armchair and a beautiful colourful rug. It will be my office once I’ve finished unpacking all the remaining boxes. There are only six or so, but they’re the ones we don’t urgently need and have gravitated into that room from the rest of the house. I’ll take some photos once it’s tidier, it’s already looking lovely with a purple bedspread and the rainbow rug.

The other room upstairs would have been the main bedroom if we hadn’t put that downstairs, so we’ve made it into a sitting room. My daybed is in there and it has already served as a guest bed when Naomi’s parents came to visit, but its day job is as a sofa. Then there’s a gorgeous red-topped desk I found in an antiques shop, with my sewing machine on it and loads of drawers for all our crafting materials. The owner left a big wardrobe in here which is perfect for keeping spare blankets and pillows for guests, and a wooden chest in which I am keeping fabric for future sewing projects. My piano is in one corner and all our Christmas decorations are tucked away in a little cupboard. We still have loads of storage space to spare, which is such a change from all my tiny flats.

sitting-room

Paige is mostly staying in this room (we’ve put her second litter tray, some water and her food bowl in here) because Benny isn’t allowed upstairs yet, and he won’t stop barking whenever he sees her. I’m really glad to have a room where my sewing machine can stay out, and am excited about playing my piano more now that it has a place of its own!

I only really finished the sitting room yesterday, and there are still patches of disorder in other rooms – I took the photos strategically. It’s been good to let it evolve gradually, so that things are being put in places based on how we use them, but it does mean that we still have things in odd places. If we had just spent the last five weeks on the cottage I expect it would be finished by now, but we’ve also been tidying up the garden (lots of hedge trimming, grass cutting and weed pulling, and I found an unexpected path that our landlady hadn’t ever seen!) and, of course, getting to know our new puppy. You’ll meet him in the next post.

Putting Down Roots Down South

I bet you’re all on tenterhooks to find out how the move went! I’ve been online a lot less frequently than before we moved, simply because there’s so much else to do (and also because we didn’t actually have internet in the cottage for the first two weeks). However, this evening it is raining outside, Naomi is studying statistics, the cat is in the garden, the dog is asleep and I am catching up on blogging.

That sentence gives you a peek into some of the things I’ve been busy with: we’ve got a garden! And a dog! Both of those are worthy of their own introduction, so I will write proper posts on each, but for now let’s recap how the move went. Continue reading

Facing the Future

It’s been something of a whirlwind few weeks. Actually, it’s been something of a whirlwind year!

July 2nd was the anniversary of Naomi and I meeting. It’s hard to believe that it’s been a whole year, and hard to believe that it’s only been a year. So much has happened, some of which I’ve blogged about, and we both feel that in many ways it has accelerated our relationship by testing it in nearly every conceivable way.

More tests loom: in August, we will be moving house. Not only will this be the first time we’ve lived together, we’re also moving over 100 miles (or 135, depending whether or not you can fly) to a place where neither of us knows anyone yet. The process of finding ourselves somewhere to live has felt little short of miraculous. Only a few days after I had posted a desperate plea for ideas as we were struggling to find anywhere suitable in East Sussex, we received an email responding to our similar plea on Gumtree. The sender had a cottage in East Sussex, and she was moving for work. The bathroom was on the ground floor and she would be very happy for a cat and even a dog to live with us there. Were we interested in renting it? Continue reading

What Are We Going to Do?

I slept well last night, surprisingly enough. In 2008 I struggled to sleep, wondering what was happening across the pond and whether I’d wake up in a world where the most powerful person on the planet was a man who approved of the death penalty but not contraception, opposes abortion but supports embryonic stem cell research, doesn’t believe my marriage will be valid before God, and thinks autism is caused by vaccines. A world of inconsistency, illogical reasoning, ignorance to facts and the imposition of beliefs on others. Thankfully, the morning brought a different result. My sleepless night had been for naught.

Last year I went to sleep on the night of the UK general election cautiously optimistic that I would wake to negotiations between the left-leaning parties with a view to forming a coalition government. I actually woke up to discover almost the opposite. A frighteningly high number of people had voted for a party with openly racist policies. A majority of this country had voted for a party which not only admits to but prides itself on prioritising economic value above all else, including the inherent value of human life. It would be irrational (and we know how I feel about irrationality!) to suggest that the result might have been different had I kept an anxious vigil. At least I was well-rested when I had to face the horrible truth.

Over the last year the consequences of that decision by this country, my country, Britain, a country and a people with whom I have had a very complicated relationship most of my life, have become starkly clear. I was still working in the NHS when the 2015 election results were published, and the mood in the hospital was grim. We could all see the writing on the wall: funding cuts, not just to the NHS but to the social care institutions that kept people out of hospital, benefit cuts to the already-struggling families trying to overcome generations of class discrimination and income inequality, an indefinite period in which we would be “all in this together” in much the same way that all animals are equal on Manor Farm. I was in shock. I really had thought that we had started to wake up to the fact that you can’t make decisions about people’s lives based on purely economic measures. I was wrong.

Yesterday I went to sleep believing that despite the fear-mongering, the inaccurate “facts”, the enthusiastic dividing of camps and the alarming rhetoric, the knowledge that we have more in common would win out. I thought about how much of the food in supermarkets comes from Spain, France and Portugal, and how EU export laws have made lower food prices possible. I’m in favour of buying locally, and personally I try to avoid produce that’s crossed oceans to reach my basket, but not everyone has the luxury of being able to afford that choice. Without the EU, food is going to cost more.

I fell asleep after an evening during which I read over the introductory chapter of my friend’s book, about feminism in Germany since the 1970s. She’s German, but she’s lived in this country for years and worked not only in academia but also in activism, striving for peace, unity and a fairer system which treats everyone with respect. She is just one of dozens of Europeans I know who live in the UK, work here, pay income tax and VAT and council tax and contribute to the British economy just as much as if they had been born here. They didn’t get to vote yesterday, but it is not an exaggeration to say that the vote they were excluded from was crucial to the structure of the lives. Britain leaves the EU and they may have to leave Britain.

You know the punchline already: I woke up and the fear had won. That vile serpent Niggle Farridge is all over the news, brandishing his passport and crowing about independence. I wonder what his German wife feels about that? The £350,000,000 that supposedly was being sucked into Brussels out of the desperate fingers of the NHS has evaporated into the puff of hot air it always was and I want to run into the street screaming “WE TOLD YOU IT WAS A LIE!” but I can’t bring myself to get dressed and face the day. Maybe if I stay inside, in my bedroom, with my blissfully-unaware cat purring happily on my lap, I can avoid having to fully accept what has happened.

I hate change. I hate uncertainty. Even if I strongly believed that remaining in the EU was a bad idea, I would have found a Leave vote difficult to deal with. The fear and anxiety is magnified a thousand-fold by the fact that the uncertain changes that we are facing are a consequence of thousands, millions, of people making a choice based on inaccurate figures, simplistic divisions and xenophobic prophesying. Not everyone who wants to leave the EU is motivated by racism, but a frighteningly high number of them are. There’s no way to parse “Britain first” that doesn’t imply that everyone else, all those Others, come last. The UK must “take care of its own”, an alarming concept for anyone who identifies with any group that hasn’t always been embraced as part of the family: people with mental health problems, people with disabilities, people of colour, queer people, poor people… anyone, in short, who is too different from those glorious patterns of Britishness, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and our dear friend Niggle. A Turkish-Swiss American, an adopted Scot who turned his back on the Labour party, and single-issue rich boy with a German wife, German ancestry and a spectacular ability to spin reality into a tissue of deceit.

I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what is going to happen and I don’t know how we can cope. Things are going to get worse, and I don’t know if they can get better. How have we reached this point, where people genuinely believe that arbitrary lines on a map have more bearing on people’s worth than anything else?

I’ve never been proud to be English. For a start, that would be a betrayal of my Scottish heritage which has shaped my identity a dozen ways. I think “English” and I see drunk football thugs throwing bottles, skinheads hurling abuse and talking about racial purity, red-coated aristocrats galloping across fields to slaughter animals for sport. But I did used to be proud to be British. I grew up in the north of England, where immigration is a decades-old tradition which has enriched the culture, boosted the economy and broadened the minds of generations. My best friends, the three women who were designated my bridesmaids long before I knew the name of the bride, are all the children of immigrants. I speak three European languages, understand a smattering of three more, have lived in and visited a dozen countries and can’t think of a single area of my life which hasn’t been improved by people making use of the freedom of movement. Now that is in jeopardy.

This is a rambling post and I don’t really know how to end it, because this is only the start. No one knows what is going to happen next, but I predict it won’t be a sudden upswing in the welfare and prospects of the British people. Whoever they are. It won’t be a better-funded NHS, lower unemployment, cheaper food, fewer terrorist threats. I’m scared.

The Trials and Tribulations of Moving with Wheels

So we’re pretty much up to date around here: Naomi’s got a place on a doctorate, we’re moving in together for the first time, and we’re moving aaalllll the way south. Great!

brighton-pavilion
Sadly not currently available to rent

Except not quite so straight forward as that, of course. I’ve been incredibly fortunate when looking for places to live in the past. I took the first place I saw (twice!) in Birmingham, and then did have a bit of trouble finding somewhere in Cambridge until my school-friend popped up and said, “Hey! Fancy living in our spare bedroom and paying a frankly ridiculously low rent and we’ll feed your cat on the numerous occasions you’re away and not complain too much about the smelly litter tray?”. Turns out this isn’t because I’m an expert flat-hunter. It’s because until now, I have been incredibly uncomplicated to house. One room, running water, a roof, electricity and heating, I was good to go. Not any more! Continue reading