Family time

We are half way through the autumn half term break from school. My husband has taken the week off work and wanted to go away for a few days but nothing was sorted so we have spent the time at home. Given the recent weather here in the south of England I am fine with this arrangement.

The forecast storm last weekend came and went with the only casualties we saw being a littering of leaves in our garden and a missing ping pong table cover that later turned up in a side alley. Lying warm and cosy in bed, listening to the rain on the window panes and the wind whistling through the trees, was actually quite comforting. I appreciated once again the luxury of being safe and warm in my own home. Too many these days are not so lucky.

My daughter had made many plans for this holiday week so we ate out as a family on one of the few nights when we were all free. We opted for the informal, relaxed atmosphere of our local Pizza Express and were not disappointed. Sometimes the company and ambience matter more than the food, and I do still enjoy eating pizza, despite my advanced age!

The morning after the storm that never really happened, my husband set out to deliver our daughter to the first of her many appointments: a three day private gathering of her writer friends to critique, encourage and continue with their respective stories in a sociable but intensive environment. With our resident vegetarian away we decided to treat my younger son to a meal at one of his favoured eateries. He enjoys a freshly made, thick and meaty burger with ketchup and chunky chips far more than any fine dining experience. I tried one myself and it was satisfyingly tasty.

Alongside these outings, my boys and I have been working on the finishing touches to my daughter’s Loki costume. We have still to create the helmet though; it is proving particularly tricky to make. Today, both she and my younger son have arranged to attend the opening of Thor: The Dark World with friends. The rest of us will probably wait for the release of the DVD, by which time we will undoubtedly have picked up the majority of the plot from other sources.

All of this activity and it is not yet Halloween. For me, it has been a good holiday thus far. I have managed to find plenty of opportunities to read and write as well as spending time with my little family. There has been no pressure to perform and plenty of treats along the way. Had we left home for a few days it is unlikely that I would have felt so relaxed.

I would also have had to leave a poorly hen. My little flock have now completed their winter worming week and are, once again, wandering free in the wider garden by day. One of my older ladies is looking unhappy though. She is moulting, which doesn’t help, but is also moving with the slow gait of an unhappy hen. With no other outward signs of problems it may just be old age; I am glad that I am here to keep an eye on her.

I can understand why some animals hibernate. When the temperatures drop I find it comforting to wrap up warm and snuggle down indoors. I enjoy the long, dark evenings when the curtains are drawn and the lamps have been lit. I feel content to relax in my armchair, feet up with a good book.

And still we have half the holiday left. There are jobs to complete around the house and garden, but no sense of urgency. I am keen to maintain this contented atmosphere, to allow the days to flow with just the occasional highlight to draw us together.

Family time is so fleeting and precious. ‘This is now, and now, and now. Live it, feel it, cling to it.’    

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Writing challenge

I have signed up to take part in National Novel Writing Month (NoNoWriMo). This is a writing challenge that requires participants to produce a unique, short novel (50,000 words) between the 1st and 30th of November. The point of the exercise is to write a complete, lengthy story. The result is not expected to be publishable.

I have no plans to attempt to write a book for publication. Although I have plenty of ideas in my head, I do not consider that I have the skill or the discipline to put together a polished manuscript. I am under no illusions about the difficulties that writers have getting their work accepted by a publisher. I am well aware that there are a very large number of people out there who think that they have a book inside them. Many talented writers do and will still not achieve their dream.

What I wish to achieve is an improvement. I play the piano (badly) and would like to refine my limited skills. No matter how much I practice though, I am never going to make the grade as a concert pianist. This does not mean that I should give up playing; I enjoy making music, even if I am only doing so for myself. I see my desire to improve as a worthwhile aspiration, even if it will lead nowhere tangible.

Likewise with my writing. I would like to be a better writer and the only way this is likely to happen is if I practice. I can read widely, compare and contrast the styles of various authors and commentators, but if I do not sit down and create my own, unique text then I will never hone what limited skills I may possess.

Writing is my hobby and gives me pleasure. WordPress is my club, where I can share with others who pursue the same interest as well as enabling me to put my thoughts and ideas out to a wider audience via social media. Feedback from readers gives me an insight into how my writing comes across to others; the pieces that I am most satisfied with are often not the ones that are best received.

I also create works of fiction but these are on going and incomplete. By taking part in NaNoWriMo I will be encouraged to finish a story, even if it is not as polished as I would wish. I have a habit of returning to works again and again, changing a word or a phrase here, tidying up the plot there, rather than getting down a complete first draft before entering the editing phase. I want to see if I am capable of taking a tale through to a decent conclusion.

A lot of people look on NaNoWriMo as an exercise in creating bad writing. By demanding a set word count in a given time frame, with no quality checks along the way, the resulting ‘novel’ is unlikely to be the next best seller. For me, however, this is not the point; I will use it to see what I am capable of producing. I do not expect anyone else to read the results of this exercise, just as I do not expect anyone else to listen to me play the piano (I really am an untidy musician).

There seems to be a certain amount of snobbery amongst some writers. Those who are capable of earning a living from the regular, quality output that they produce may look on the plethora of amateurs who populate the blogosphere with a degree of contempt, but I find this attitude disappointing. If writing gives pleasure then I would encourage this pursuit as much as I would encourage those who partake in any other creative hobby. I admire the established writers who are willing to help and encourage the amateurs, even if their output leaves much to be desired.

November is already a busy month for me and by taking on the NaNoWrMo challenge I am setting myself up to be more time pressured than I am used to. It will be interesting to see how I cope. I will not be putting the story that I write out on this blog; I have no wish to share what is likely to be an unimpressive piece of writing.

You will, however, be able to track my progress via the little widget I have installed on my sidebar; the aim is to reach a word count of 50,000 by the end of November. It is easy to start a new project fired with enthusiasm. I wonder will I have the resolve to continue when life demands my time and my ideas wane. It wouldn’t be a challenge if I expected it to be easy; roll on November that we may begin.

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The things we do for love

The topic for this week’s blog hop is: Remember the time you got really scared

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I had my three children in a three and a half year time span. Having them all so close in age was a major challenge when they were pre school age, but has meant that they have been able and willing to do the same sorts of things at the same time over the years. As they have got older, the small age gap has made life easier for us all.

I gave up my full time job when it became clear that I would be unable to leave my babies in anyone else’s care. The cost of childcare for three children would have been huge and I wanted to experience every minute of their development myself. I was fortunate in having the choice of staying at home to be with them, and thus to be able to care for them in the way that I thought was best.

My husband and I have always been reasonably active and this continued after we had our kids. We would take them for days out to play parks, gardens and beaches where we could run around, kick a ball and picnic in the open air. I was always strict parent whereas my husband was fun parent. I would insist on sunscreen, hats and healthy food while he would run around, join in on the climbing equipment and slides, and build massive sand structures for them on the beach.

My kids were active and able, learning to swim and ride their bikes pre school. I bought a single seat stroller but, once the kids learned to walk, insisted that they do so. Sometimes this meant that it took a long time to get anywhere but this was fine. I used the stroller for luggage or to confine a naughty child rather than as a means of transport. Given no other option, the kids would walk as required.

When my daughter was eight and my elder son seven they went away for a week to a PGL Summer Camp; I think that I was more nervous about them going away from home so young than they were. They must have enjoyed it though because they opted to go on several more such camps in the coming years. They took a cousin along on a couple of occasions, their younger brother when he was old enough to join them, and then went on several PGL weekends with their various Scout groups.

My husband read up on the activities available and wanted to join in. I must have been feeling particularly loving towards him at the time because I agreed.

We booked ourselves in for a Family Active Multi Activity weekend. The rest of the family were full of excitement, especially as I had surprised them all by agreeing to not just go along but to take part in everything offered. For once I was determined to be fun parent; to step outside my comfort zone and give things a try.

Did I mention that I am afraid of heights? I coped fine with the quad biking, the archery and the fencing (although it felt icky putting on the damp, sweaty, protective fencing clothes provided), but when we moved on to the climbing activities I could feel my nerves tingling. I told myself sternly that all the safety equipment made falling unlikely; I was not going to make a fool of myself.

Determined to honour the promise that I would try everything, I made it half way up the climbing wall before declaring that I had done my best. Both boys were up and down the wall like little monkeys and my husband was in his element. My daughter shares my fear of heights but also coped with a limited climb.

We moved on to the trapeze and again I managed to get about half way up before calling time on my attempt. I was actually feeling quite pleased with myself for getting so far without panicking. On this equipment I had to let go and swing on the safety rope in order to get back to the ground. I did not feel comfortable with that lack of control; these challenges were getting harder.

However, so far I had held it together and, although I was being laughed at for wimping out before I had gone particularly far off the ground, at least I had taken part as promised.

My undoing occurred on the Giant Swing. For this activity two participants are strapped in, side by side on low slung, canvas seats. The swing is then hoisted up to a maximum of thirteen metres above the ground before being dropped. There is a free fall of a few metres before the ropes tighten and the contraption starts to swing. Because of our relative weights, I was asked to sit alongside my husband. He, of course, ignored my pleas to only be hoisted a short way up and called for us to be taken as high as we could go.

Thirteen metres up, dangling on a rope whilst sitting in a cut out sack I realised how truly terrified I was, but it was too late. I tucked my head in, closed my eyes and felt the drop. At this point, my animal instincts for survival took over. Apparently the cry I let out reminded one lady of the pain and fear of childbirth. The sound resonated around the site.

When the instructors were able to get to me they looked almost as scarred as I felt. I was pulled from the seat and collapsed, curled up in the foetal position on the ground. I realised at that moment that some things are not worth pushing yourself for. I could live with being the boring parent so long as I didn’t have to do such a thing ever again.

My husband was due another swing (each participant had two tries) so grabbed a son and went again while I recovered. I became aware of strangers watching me, looking concerned. Shakily I stood up and made my way up the steps to help pull the rope that hoisted the swing to start position.

Something in me had changed. The guilt that I was made to feel when I acted selfishly by not doing what others wanted had been assuaged. On the final day, when we went to a nearby lake for raft building and kayaking, I sat the activities out on the side.

There have been times since when I have been persuaded to do something that I have felt uncomfortable about, and regretted afterwards that I did not refuse to take part. So many times I am expected to do what others think I should. As I experience these events, I learn that I need to say no and to somehow make myself heard. I cannot take sole responsibility for other’s happiness; I do not wish to live my life by other’s standards.

I have a fear of letting those I love down, but I am learning to listen to my own inner voice and to insist that I have a right to have my needs considered when decisions are made. My fear of heights may be no more rational than my discomfort in certain social situations, but being forced to partake because this makes things easier for others will not always work out as expected. My cry may be internal but can be just as desperate and perspective changing.

After our Family Active weekend, my husband volunteered to help out at a couple of group activity weekends that our children took part in. They all enjoyed these events while I enjoyed staying at home. We are all different. Accepting that will make life more pleasurable for everyone.

English: Free Fall Image

To read the other posts in this week’s blog hop, click on the link below.

Pride

Many years ago I was sent on a training course by my employers, where attendees were asked by the lady running the course to think of one thing that they had done and were proud of. I could think of nothing; not a single thing. I had worked my socks off to achieve many of the things that I had been aiming for: exam results, landing a decent job, buying my first flat. None of these filled me with pride. I could have done better in the exams, I was still in a very junior position at work, I was up to my ears in debt after buying my own home.

Of all the challenges that I had undertaken up to that moment, the one that had been the most important to me at the time, and which I had been most nervous about, was sitting my driving test. Passing that gave me my first taste of freedom, but I couldn’t say that I was proud of it. Most people of my age that I knew had managed to pass their driving test.

When I look at each of my achievements I cannot help but see how they are simply milestones along the way. There have always been people in my life who have done better than me at each stage.

Some of the ladies on the course cited a child as a source of pride. I am certainly immensely proud of my children, but they are individuals; their achievements belong to them. Of course, I can look on and feel happy and proud for them, but I cannot claim credit. I know plenty of people who have done their very best to be good parents, whose children have struggled more than mine. I am simply lucky.

This feeling of luck is one that I consider regularly as there is such a high risk of transience.

When my husband asked me to marry him, we set a date for the wedding a little over eight months away. I felt so incredibly blessed to be marrying the man I loved, and was terrified that something would happen to him before we could get married. Even at the time I knew that this fear was bizarre; I placed such value on this momentous event it seemed too much to hope that it would actually happen. A number of my friends were surprised that I was getting married; they had never imagined it happening to me.

Once my wedding day passed (it was a very happy day) my life continued to be filled with blessings. We found our fabulous home, enjoyed the novelty of married life and, in time, created our family. So much good fortune that I could never quite believe was being granted to me. When I say that I try to live life each day, enjoying the here and now, it is because I still harbour a fear that it cannot continue forever. Some disaster could take it all away, and I value this life I lead so much.

I still do not feel pride in achievements. Somehow I can always see the reasons why it is not just down to me that milestones have been successfully reached. Others put in the same effort, yet are not granted the same blessings. I can see that I have made some good choices along the way, but it is only with hindsight that I can be sure those choices were so right for me.

I have no idea if this way of thinking is unusual; it certainly helps me to appreciate what I have got. My fear of losing those things that I value, that make my life so good, bubbles uncomfortably below the surface but it does not spoil my enjoyment.

Perhaps if I had managed to reach the dizzy heights of achievement that I watched good friends reach when I was younger then I would have felt that I had done well in something. When I entered sport or dance competitions, the best I could manage would be the occasional runner up prize; at school I was given one progress prize but never a cup or commendation. I do not remember ever being first in anything of significance.

My dogged determination to succeed in something, anything, drove me through many challenges. I needed to find the drive and the energy to keep going to avoid the feeling that had been so prevalent growing up, that I had failed in the goals I set myself. As an adult I do not aim for success, but rather to avoid that empty feeling of failure.

Accepting what we are can be such a challenge at times, especially when those around us are critical. I suspect that I would not be where I am today if I had not demanded so much of myself. I cannot feel any pride in that though; the emotions that I experience when I consider my achievements feel too negative. I have the wonderful life that I lead, shared with the people I love and value, because I have been granted the blessing of good luck. I may not deserve what I have, but I thank God for it every day.

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Changing seasons

I was cold in bed last night for the first time in several months. Today I have donned a favourite, comfy, shapeless hoodie in an attempt to stay warm. It is raining outside so I am not inclined to venture out on my planned walk. Instead I have been catching up on housework and entertaining myself scrolling through my dashboard on Tumblr. That site is a time machine; I log on and the hours vanish.

There are so many things that I could and probably should do, but none of them are urgent or appealing. I will allow myself some down time; a chance to rest and snuggle after an active few days. Summer is ending and I must look out my warmer clothes; swap sandals for boots and add layers when I venture outside. I enjoy the changing seasons, the shift in outlook and expectation.

The long, sunny summer allowed me to open up the house for fresh air to circulate through windows and doorways. Home life merged between inside and out as we enjoyed meals on our patio and played games in the garden. Long, light evenings allowed family time and relaxation to gravitate around airy, outdoor living.

Now the evenings are drawing in and the temperature has dropped. Windows are closed and curtains drawn against the encroaching dark at an ever earlier hour each day. Evening entertainment revolves around screens and books and music. We become more solitary in our thoughts and pursuits, even when sharing the same space.

Yet I enjoy this time of year. There is change and hope and growth. Soon I will have a multitude of ripe apples and blackberries to make into cakes and crumbles; I will swap eggs from my hens for the fresh, home grown vegetables that my talented friends can coax out of their little plots of earth. We will feast on this bounty and walk off the energy given through woodland that is wondrous to behold with it’s kaleidoscope of colour.

I feel blessed to live where I do. I am surrounded by beautiful countryside and friendly people. However socially awkward I have become I am still accepted and greeted by those around me. I need only walk a short way to escape the trepidation that I feel when I venture out; to be surrounded by fields or woodland; to experience the beauty of a fabulous view.

After the long, summer break my family are settling back into a new academic year and I can spread my wings and wander at will through whatever challenges I have set myself. Or, as today, I can snuggle up with my thoughts and live my own life as I please, at least until evening when my duties return.

I will read my books, watch new films and allow my thoughts to wander. How dull must be the lives of those who do not create fictional worlds in their heads and then live out the lives of their characters. As I walk through the real and imaginary paths that I explore each day I am filling out the lives of so many who do not exist. As I create and develop my characters it feels as though I am getting to know new friends, even though the real me is never introduced to their worlds.

There are so many things that I want to do and see and be; most are within my grasp and close to home, all demand time and commitment. As I apply myself to making them happen (as only I can) I will do my best to make the most of this season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. I will also allow myself time to snuggle, although perhaps not too often.

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“Follow no path, make your own.”

Exam results

The long summer break from school is progressing with only two full weeks of the holiday left before the autumn term of the new academic year must be faced. My teenage children are acting bored at times but show little interest in suggested activities. The essential shopping trips have been completed, dental appointments and haircuts endured, bedrooms have been tidied and the clearout of last years books and papers accomplished. The main challenge still to be faced is exam results which are due at the end of this coming week.

Naturally I want my children to do well. They have high expectations and I do not wish to see their self esteem knocked. Whatever their results though, I hope that they will accurately reflect their abilities.

I did better than expected in the exams I sat at sixteen, largely due to the fact that the friends I had at the time were conscientious students who were willing to coach me in aspects of the subjects I was studying and struggled with. I was eager to impress and responded enthusiastically to what was, in effect, private tutoring. Whilst this did wonders for my eventual grades it did not make me any more clever. Once I moved on from this group and was left to manage purely on my own resources my exam grades fell. I felt, thereafter, a disappointment to my parents who did not realise that I had been helped to prepare for that first set of important, public exams.

I have read that straight A students struggle when they first fail. Whether this happens at school, university or the world of work, life is never going to be filled with unmitigated success. Learning to pick oneself up after a fall from grace and move forward with renewed determination to succeed is a life lesson that all can benefit from. It is, however, such a difficult experience to deal with at the time. The fear of failure can cause bright students to aim lower than their abilities could allow, leaving them questioning thereafter what might have been. The stress of overly high expectations can cause hard working students to burn out rather than flourish.

As a parent it is difficult to know how to approach the subject of exams. I know that my children are capable and wish to encourage them to stretch themselves. I do not, however, wish them to think that the results of exams will define them. In the world in which we live their exam results matter, but so too does personality and ambition. How we treat others and our attitude to the world around us can have a greater impact on where we end up than an A grade in a subject studied as a teenager. The exam result may be needed to get the interview, but genuine interest, determination and resourcefulness will impress an admissions tutor or an employer at least as much as a top grade.

I would guess that my children have heard all this before but do not perhaps understand just how important the ability to cope with set backs is. My son in particular has sailed through academia without much effort; I wonder if he will know how to apply himself when he reaches the point where this becomes necessary. He has an expectation of success without trying. He is not learning the importance of planning and preparation because, thus far, he has not found effort necessary in order to achieve.

These are lessons that I cannot teach. When I try to encourage more focused endeavour I am accused of nagging; when I try to talk about the importance of achievement I am accused of causing stress with my high expectations. I cannot seem to get my children to understand that it is not the absolute result that matters so much as trying to be as good as one is able. I do not need my children to shine so long as they have done their best.

Whatever the outcome of these exams, and they will be the first of many that my children will have to sit in the coming years, I hope that I can respond in whatever way they need. Whether we are celebrating a success or supporting a setback it is how they move on from here that matters.

Good grades may make things easier at this stage in their lives, but the performance of schoolchildren tells us nothing about the grown-ups that these children will turn into. Whatever their abilities and potential, how they use and develop these, their attitude, treatment of others and how they manage their life experiences matter more. The people they become may be shaped by the options available based on exam results, but how they utilise the opportunities available will define them.

English: School children doing exams inside a ...

Possessions

A number of years ago we had the roof of our house converted into rooms leaving just the space above one bedroom for the water tank and miscellaneous storage. By the time the Christmas boxes and suitcases have been squeezed into this small area there is little room for much else. We have to be quite ruthless about what we keep that is not required regularly.

A water leak, now dealt with, caused some damage to a few pictures I had stored here recently. These needed to be disposed of so, last weekend, I decided to go through the accumulated boxes and clear out anything else that I felt we could part with. I find clear outs therapeutic. I am not a big hoarder but, over time, things do tend to be put away just in case they may one day be used again. They rarely are.

Unlike many people, we put our cars in our garage so have limited space for other things here. We have a shed for our bikes and a second shed for chicken feed, a few garden chairs and outdoor toys. As all require regular access they have to be carefully managed to prevent them being overrun with what is, essentially, junk.

Having gone through all of these spaces I now have a very full bin and a sizeable pile of items that need to be driven to the local dump. We still have far too much ‘stuff’ sitting around, but much of it is treasured by the children so will be held onto for the time being. It would be too much of a wrench for them to be made to get rid of the papier-mache and clay creatures they lovingly created, or the many DT projects of which they are proud.

As a teenager my bedroom evolved into something of a shrine to my memories of travel and romantic attachments. When I moved out of my parent’s home to start work in England I unceremoniously dumped most of the items that I had gathered over the years. In my mind I was starting afresh and wanted to put all of these things behind me. I think that my mother was more upset than me as she watched the cards and tokens of affection that had adorned my shelves and walls for so many years being consigned to the bin.

Although I like my home to be clean and comfortable I do not like clutter. I have photographs of my family on display but no longer hang pictures on the walls. The ornaments that remain generally have some sentimental value having been gifts from loved ones. I try to keep my home in good condition but will not fuss if marks or stains are left on furnishings in the course of using them. I prefer a relaxed and happy environment to a pristine one.

As I have got older I have found that my attitude to my possessions has changed. I no longer feel a need to put on a show or to try to impress. I like order and to know where I can find things, but beyond this I aspire only to comfort and reasonable hygiene. I have never felt the need to follow fashion and can live with a chosen decor for many years before tiring of it.

None of this means that I do not value the things that I have, but more that my priorities have changed. My reasons for holding on to possessions tend to be practical (they are in regular use) or emotional (they make me feel good). I hope that I will always be able to keep my books and teddy bears, however much space they take up or dust they gather.

I think it is important not to place too much value on material things. Perhaps this is just easy for me to say from my privileged perspective; I am well aware that I have all I need and more. I can get quite frustrated when my children seem to want so much; I need to remember that they have still to build their nests, that they are just beginning to create their own spaces.

My big clear out has inspired me to continue to sort through the things that we are using less than we once did. Our large collection of CDs could be put away as they are only used regularly in one car now so do not need to be kept beside our in house music player.

Sometimes my tidy ups unearth items that intrigue my children. I have held on to my original Sony Walkman only because it amuses one of my sons by it’s bulk and ability to play only a single cassette tape when the memory card on his phone can hold his entire music collection. Likewise my other son wishes to retain the first laptop my husband bought, which still works but has such limited memory and processor power that it cannot handle most modern software. These museum pieces entertain them, especially as we remember them as being so innovative.

The things that we have, that we choose to surround ourselves with, can say much about the people that we are. I wonder what others make of me from the way I have organised my home; what impression is given of the sort of person that I am. It is my sanctuary and my safe space; I am happiest when I am here. Would I even want to know what others may think that it tells them about me?

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Playing my part

‘All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players’

The theatre represents a microcosm of society. It exists as a thing of elegance and beauty, but much of what is experienced and enjoyed by the individuals who pass through it’s rooms is an illusion. A good performance will leave the participants feeling cultivated, educated, entertained and sated. They may then walk away; return to the lives that they live unseen; gain from contemplation of the experience or set it aside as just another memory, soon forgotten in the bustle of future encounters.

In this costly facade there will be the few who will shine and the many who happily follow the cues of the crowd. Each fulfils their role, then bows out feeling richer in mind and spirit. Live theatre has a buzz that cannot be conveyed by cinema or television; a personal interaction between audience and players. Yesterday I experienced the other side to theatre; the workers who toil diligently in the background to make it all happen.

In order to be accepted as a volunteer Audience Host, a role that I had applied for a few weeks ago, I was required to attend an afternoon training session at the beautiful theatre located in our nearest city. I was nervous and excited, looking forward to the prospect but having to make myself continue when it would have been so much easier to simply continue with my quiet life as it is. The personal challenges that I faced were numerous: leaving my children to arrive home from school with no adult to greet them or cook their dinner; driving to the bustling city and finding a suitable parking space on my own; walking into the theatre and introducing myself to the staff running the training and the other volunteers participating in the scheme. I had to push myself, ignore my anxieties and make myself go through the motions required of the part with apparent confidence and grace.

I strongly dislike being late for appointments so arrived much too early. Knowing that this was likely to be the case I was prepared and spent an enjoyable hour sitting in the sun with a cup of coffee and my book. Arriving at the theatre I then settled into an interesting period of people watching as I assessed the other volunteers and tried to remember the names of the members of staff we were introduced to. It was a fascinating afternoon.

The theatre itself is a beautiful, old building with a warren of corridors, staircases and both public and private doors that the volunteers were required to get to know. One of the main aspects of the role I was there to learn was the ability to direct members of the audience, who I must now refer to as patrons, to wherever they wish to go. We were shown the restaurants, bars, cloakrooms and stores; we were instructed in how to use the lift, how to access the members rooms, how to remember the names of each level of seating and the best way to reach each area; we were taken backstage and allowed to view the theatre from the actor’s perspective, a first for me.

As with any role, costume and props are important. As members of the Front of House team we must be visible to those who require our services but merge into the provisions of the building. The patrons are as important as the players in the experience that everyone will remember. The hosts role is to facilitate; to be available discreetly to ensure that all needs are met before they become issues; that issues, when they arise, are dealt with quietly and efficiently with minimum disruption to others. When at all possible, the illusion of the patron’s experience must be maintained whatever unforeseen circumstances occur.

After training had been completed, each volunteer was issued with a ticket for the evening performance and dismissed. Already some of the volunteers were deciding that the role was not for them; I remained eager to take part. Stepping out into the late afternoon sunshine I walked around the city centre watching the workers as they hurried home, the school children as they congregated and parted, the young adults as they met up at the bars and restaurants, the elderly as they strolled and perused the menus outside the many eateries. I am so unused to such bustle it felt strange to be a part of it. I relished my invisibility as I familiarised myself with the streets and open spaces.

Returning to the theatre early to observe the Front of House staff dealing with the arrival of the patrons, I was able to fully appreciate the task that I will be taking on. Getting close to nine hundred people through the doors, up to the bars and on to their seats is quite a task and one that I had not observed fully whilst participating. This is the point of the Audience Host: to assist in providing a stress free environment, ensuring that the patrons may move smoothly to wherever they wish to go without realising that they are being assisted.

The show itself was well played, funny and highly entertaining. As instructed, I observed the contribution of the audience as much as the players; their reaction to the play is key to creating the atmosphere that all should enjoy. Sitting up in the gods amongst a large group of school children it was hard to appreciate the nuances and interplay between actors and patrons; the reactions of those sitting closer to the stage were quite different to those so far away. The extra money I have spent in the past ensuring that I may enjoy a show from a good seat has been well spent.

It felt strange to leave the theatre alone. I rarely drive in the dark but the journey home passed without incident. I will get used to walking through a city on my own and gain confidence in dealing with the more aggressive drivers in time.

The illusion of my very different, challenging but enjoyable day lasted until I walked through my front door. It was late, close to midnight; lights were out and my family were all in bed; evidence of their day was all around. I observed the school shoes kicked off and abandoned on the kitchen floor, the used pots on the hob and dirty dishes abandoned on the side, the unwiped surfaces, the laundry taken off the line as requested but then left in the basket by the door. It would seem that I have my uses after all.

My day was interesting and I look forward to returning to the theatre as a member of staff, albeit unpaid and transitory. It is a role that I wish to play and I will do my best to perform well. As hoped, I feel that I have been shown a different side to the theatre experience. I look forward to being a part of the invisible team.

English: Entrance to the Theatre Royal, Bath

Keeping calm, carrying on

Life seems to have stepped up a gear recently and I have been struggling to fit all of the tasks demanded of me into my day. Exam season is drawing to a close and those special, end of term activities are becoming more frequent. Although my boys welcome the break from the school day routine they rarely seem to gain much from Fun Runs or Art Days. My elder son needs extra time to finish coursework and would welcome more autonomy to enable him to make better use of his school day. He rails against the hours he considers wasted when he has so many important tasks that he wishes to complete.

At the end of last week we celebrated my youngest son’s birthday on the same day that my daughter sat her final GCSE paper. The sun shone and we had a very enjoyable evening out followed by a weekend of freedom from the demands of studying. For me the weekend seemed to consist of over indulgence so I am now attempting to compensate with sensible consumption and increased exercise. It is too easy to develop a habit of little personal rewards at the end of a busy and demanding day. With three teenagers in the house I need to work hard just to keep the peace; an evening sit down with a treat is so tempting.

With the summer holiday season approaching I am aware that I will see even less of my local, adult friends than is usual. Having voluntarily removed myself from so many sociable get togethers I am now trying to arrange walks to enable me to catch up with those I have neglected. My social health requires maintenance as much as my physical well being. My natural inclination is to ignore the one and overindulge the other, neither of which will benefit me long term.

I had a very enjoyable walk with a lady friend from the village yesterday. The weather has picked up and we had an interesting conversation that I have been considering in my head ever since. There are points that I wish I had made, arguments that could have been better expressed, opinions that we did not consider. I wonder why I always carry out this mental post mortem and regret missing an opportunity to elicit a response that would have interested me. Such conversations are rare in my life these days and so welcome, yet I am rarely satisfied with my contribution.

I have a week filled with activity ahead and several trips away booked over the coming months; there is so much to look forward to. I am feeling more positive than of late but also a little anxious. My role in the family has changed subtly and it seems more important than ever that I assert my right to live as an individual. My day to day job may require that I serve but I am not a servant. It will do us all good if I step back a little and force the other members of my family to cope. They are capable but unused to not having me there in the background at all times; many of the tasks that I complete for them are not so much unappreciated as unseen.

My mood is calmer and clearer; I am trying to maintain a self awareness that will allow me to negotiate my way around the potential pitfalls that bring me down. In recognising that I could not expect support I have started to build up my strength to cope alone. As with any challenge that I have encountered, I will manage because I have no other choice. This is the life that I lead and, with a little effort on my part, I can make it good.

For today then, the sun is out and my children have emerged from their slumber with no histrionics or unforeseen concerns. Once again I am aware of the privileges that I enjoy and determine to appreciate and enjoy them. I will do my best to make this a good day; to face whatever challenges I encounter with grace; to keep calm and carry on.

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Arts appreciation

I have attempted to learn to play various musical instruments over the course of my life. At a young age my father taught me the basics on the piano. Although I enjoyed playing, I did not practice enough to progress much. I still enjoy tinkering on this instrument, and still do not play often enough to improve.

In primary school I learnt to play the cornet. Playing in the school band was fun, but carrying a heavy, brass instrument on the walk to and from school put me off continuing to learn when I moved to secondary school. Instead I chose to take up a small and light woodwind instrument, the oboe. I continued with this for seven years, passing all of the graded exams as well as music ‘O’ level. I considered working for my diploma whilst at university but was advised by my music teacher that, although I was technically competent, I showed little musical talent. This feedback was enough to persuade me to give the instrument up.

As a teenager I was involved in a lot of church groups. I learnt the basics of acoustic guitar so that I could play along to the rousing songs that we sang at meetings. Once again, I enjoyed taking part but showed little aptitude for the instrument. By the time I moved to England my career in musical performance, such as it had been, came to an end. I left the cheap guitar at my parent’s house where it warped and fell apart, traded in the beautiful French oboe that my father had bought me for a keyboard, and used this to encourage my children to learn to make their own music. My boys now play the piano and viola; my daughter listens more than performs.

My father’s beautiful piano playing was the soundtrack to my childhood. This, alongside my own experiences of playing in various bands and orchestras, led to me gaining an appreciation of classical music. My elder son is now showing a similar interest in this genre and we have managed to attend a couple of concerts this year together. My son often gets exasperated with me so I welcome these opportunities to spend time together doing something that we can both value and discuss.

As well as classical music, my son enjoys many of the books that I read and has recently shown an interest in theatre. I love the theatre. Again, I have my father to thank for introducing me to the variety of shows available when I was a teenager.

When my children were younger I would take them to see the popular musicals being performed in London’s West End. My sons showed little interest at this age, but my daughter enjoyed the outings and we went to quite a number of shows together over the years. She attended a weekend stage school when she was younger, has taken part in various school productions and studied drama for her recent GCSEs.

My trips to the theatre have sometimes been in the company of an old friend of mine who is a theatre critic for one of the national newspapers and editor of a magazine that publishes theatre reviews. It is quite a different experience attending a show on press night with an expert rather than for pure entertainment with family. It can, however, be frustrating being unable to discuss the performance afterwards as my friend will not share his views prior to having them published!

I do not attend as many shows as I would like due to the cost of the tickets. When I took my children to see the critically acclaimed ‘War Horse’ in London, which we all enjoyed immensely, it cost over £200 before transport and food. Such an outing can only be a rare treat.

Earlier this month I was lucky enough to be offered free tickets to a show at a more local theatre. I had been given two tickets and both my elder son and my daughter wished to accompany me. As I had taken my son to see an adaptation of a book we had both read and enjoyed recently (deadkidssongs), as well as to the classical concerts, I opted to have my daughter accompany me. The play, ‘Fifty Words’, was fabulous and made me determined to attend more theatre if I could.

With this in mind, I applied for a role I saw advertised to be a volunteer host at the theatre where the recent shows had been performed. I feel quite thrilled that I have been accepted and will attend a training session next week. I am also rather nervous. I do not normally put myself forward in this way, but the opportunity to become more involved in the running of a professional theatre is too good to miss.

My elder son’s reaction when he heard that I had applied for this role was rather negative as it is unpaid. He often berates me for not going out to work. My daughter has, however, been much more encouraging. I suspect that she observes how I spend my days and worries that she may one day be a housewife and mother, required to spend her time doing a lot of mundane chores rather than having fun. When I prove that I can do things just for me it gives her hope!

The cost of tickets for theatre shows and concerts is off putting for many and means that funding for the arts can be a controversial issue. When money is tight there is an argument that tax payers should not be subsidising endeavours that can only be afforded by the already wealthy. In many ways I have sympathy with this view but I also think that, as a society, we need the arts to nourish our souls. The industry generates revenue in terms of employment and spending both directly and in so many supporting sectors such as transport, accommodation and food provision (Arts and culture worth more than £850m to UK export trade). It is about so much more than just money though.

The arts are not a commodity, they are an experience that enrich our lives beyond measure. Drama may be enjoyed live, at cinemas or on television. The plethora of genres of music offer sustenance for all, from babies acting out ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ to the elderly reliving the happy memories triggered by a dance hall song or a Rodgers and Hammerstein soundtrack.

I look forward to the opportunity that I have been presented with to expand my knowledge of the arts and to experience the drama that a theatre can provide both on and off the stage. In taking on this new challenge I am stepping outside my comfort zone, but look forward so much to entering the periphery of a world that I have long admired from afar.

A trumpet, foreground, a piccolo trumpet behin...