Learning to meditate

I have been an advocate of meditation for years. I used to love dropping into the London Buddhist Centre whenever I got the chance, just to soak up the atmosphere if nothing else. I held the thought of finding that inner peace, that inner silence, on something of a pedestal.

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When I started teaching I quickly became interested in holistic approaches to helping teenagers cope with the stresses of school, and enthusiastically read reports of daily meditation transforming students’ experiences. I tried to find ways to feed it into the school day – created resources featuring links to guided visualisations for my colleagues to use in tutor time. It seemed to make such perfect sense: take the time to breathe, to reconnect with yourself, and suddenly everything would be so much easier to cope with.

I have a confession to make, though: I had absolutely no idea how to actually do it.

I still don’t.

There was a leadership course I went on that sticks in my mind. It was about Project Management I think, and there was a whole section of it focusing on Work Life Balance. I’ve always struggled with that. Once I get stuck into something I find it almost impossible to let it go, only to collapse in a heap when it’s finally done. Harder to take that approach with a kid to look after mind… The thing I remember about this section of the course, other than being told by the facilitator that I really needed to work on my Work Life Balance (thanks) was being led through a guided meditation at the end of it.

Being a Teaching Leadership course, this was as with everything couched in its potential in the classroom. That I could totally get behind. But to do it? To actually stop moving and quiet my brain enough to attempt the meditation myself? That kind of scared me a little bit.

I’d never really stopped to think about how odd this all was. How I can be completely won over by something both in theory and through the positive impact I’ve seen it have on other people, how I know that this thing is probably exactly what I need to help me deescalate my tendencies towards stress and anxiety, and yet how I have never, in the twenty years or so that it has been on my radar, made the effort to include it in my life, for me.

I guess ultimately reaching for a glass of wine at the end of the day is a whole lot easier to get my head around…

But part of my ‘kick 2017’s ass‘ plan of action is to change that. January is proving a little bit extreme in my efforts to jumpstart this year of productivity – I’m going for a full-on no booze, no caffeine, no dairy, no gluten, no sugar (etc) detox, upping my activity levels with more walking, swimming and yoga, doing all sorts of life-organising, goal-setting, motivation-boosting work related stuff AND trying to find the time to meditate, every day.

And mainly it’s working.

Almost every single day I’m managing to fit in ten minutes of guided meditation. I don’t think I’m very good at it – stilling my mind is perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever really tried to do – but I’m giving it a go, and I’m learning.

I’m learning what kinds of meditations work for me, and which ones don’t.

Visualisations, for example, are really tough. I think it’s the writer in me – I find myself either judging the narrative for its plethora of cliches, or else getting drawn in just enough to begin to flesh out the story around the scenario. Why am I in this secluded cabin in the woods? Am I really alone? Is that safe..? This beach… Where is it exactly? Can I swim? I’d like to swim… And so on. It’s a real effort, trying to stop my mind from riffing on the words. And as for being able to turn them into images that’s really not working for me so far.

Stuff focused on my breathing is better. I like breathing – consciously. It’s a bit of a hangover from my acting days I reckon. And as long as I don’t get too competitive about it it seems to work to chill me out.

There was a new meditation I tried tonight, on cultivating kindness and compassion. I was a little sceptical I admit, but actually there was something incredibly healing about all of those positive vibes. (Especially when directed towards the people who have been monumentally stressing me out over the past 48 hours, but I’m not going to dwell on that…)

Basically this is a journey that is worth continuing. And possibly one I should have started a lot earlier… But hey – we have to let go of the past, right? Focus on the present, and build our resilience for the future.

That’s what I’m going with anyway.

 

 

The last feed

I remember the first feed like it was yesterday.

That tiny, alien creature, all purple and waxy white, placed upon my exhausted body as I lay on our bed at home, high on gas and air and the enormity of what I had just achieved. Holding my baby close, the baby that for the past nine months had lived inside me and for the past nine hours had pushed me to the limit, feeling the unfamiliar suckling at my breast.

I had hoped, before he was born, to feed him for a year. When I realised, as his weight began to plummet over his first few days on the outside, that things would not be as straightforward as I’d planned, I hoped that maybe we would make it to six months.

But tongue tie sorted, and after several weeks of learning from scratch how to carry out this most natural of functions, we sailed past that first milestone – and just kept on going.

He fed at least three hourly, night and day, for two years.

It was exhausting, but it felt so right. I was proud to have overcome those initial obstacles, to have figured out how to make breastfeeding work for both of us, to have mastered the art of feeding in the sling – to have written two novels with him nursing there.

I did wonder though, after that second year, whether he would ever stop.

That was my adjusted goal, in line with WHO recommendations: to “continue breastfeeding up to the age of two years or beyond”. And then as that new deadline approached I decided to let him lead the way as far as weaning was concerned.

I wasn’t expecting him to go quite so far “beyond”…

We had a few shaky moments, soon after he turned two. However gentle and respectful my parenting aspirations I really, really needed to get some sleep. But then just as I thought I might need to make the decision for us he decided he didn’t need to feed at night any more.

Daytime feeds continued, every three hours.

As we went into the fourth year, that eased off. It would be just twice a day, before his nap and at bedtime. And then just for his nap. And then sometimes not even for that. He would go a day or two or three and I would think perhaps we were done, and then he would ask again for booba and I did not say no.

I often asked him, in those last few months, if there was milk. It was hard to believe that my body could be so adaptable, keeping up a sporadic supply for as and when my boy decided he needed it. But he assured me that there was, and sometimes I still felt the letdown, the rush of oxytocin.

I miss that, a little, now that he has stopped.

I tried to remember to take photographs. It was easy in the early days (once I’d got over the initial insecurities), but my confidence dimmed again as he got older. Our society does not take kindly to the image of a preschooler on the breast, however much a nearly four year old is well within developmental norms to be not quite weaned.

Still, I captured a few. I am glad to have them now: those pictures of the (almost) last feed.

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The actual last feed passed unnoticed. I suspect it was a naptime, one afternoon when I snuggled beside him in his bed as he fought against the tiredness permeating his little body. Perhaps it was an afternoon when I dozed off, too: enjoying having my child close, the whirlwind of energy temporarily stilled.

It is a strange feeling, knowing that I won’t nurse my child again. I can already feel a levelling out in the relationships in our family: my husband has been so incredibly supportive of our sustained breastfeeding journey, and part of me is so happy that there is no longer that imbalance in our parental roles.

There is at the heart of it all, though, a sense of loss.

Something happened last night that brought it to the surface, made me realise that we are in the midst of a powerful transition.

Arthur’s cries startled me from sleep at about two in the morning. He very rarely wakes at night nowadays, and it is even rarer that he calls for me. But he was: shouting “Mama!” with increasing urgency. I leapt out of bed and down to his room, and found him kneeling on his new cabin bed peering into the almost darkness.

I searched out his eyes and held him close, his little body shaking. I asked if it had been a bad dream and he nodded, head still nestled in my neck. I wanted to ask what it had been about but I didn’t: I waited.

Moments later he pulled back and looked at me.

“I dreamt you died, mama. I dreamt you died.”

I lifted him out of the bed and we snuggled on his beanbag. His eyes wide open and breathing shallow as he rested his head against my chest, my hand gently stroking his hair and reassuring him that I was very much still there. Every now and then he would ask, “Why did you die, mama?” I didn’t know what to say, so I held him closer.

I felt my breasts fill with milk, but he did not ask to feed and I did not offer.

After a while of lying there I asked if he would like to come and sleep with us or whether he would prefer to go back into his own bed. He stood up and walked across the room, climbing the ladder up to his bed as I hovered close behind. He pulled the covers up to his chin and looked at me, smiling when I said he could come to us at any point if he felt scared.

He closed his eyes and went to sleep and I went back to my own bed and lay there in the almost dark, thinking.

In his world, one where he has been nourished physically and emotionally at the breast for as long as he has been alive, I suppose a piece of his mama has died. I am still here, though, and I can still comfort him.

Things will just always be a little different from here on in.

Now you are four

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Dear Arthur,

You know, you have almost got me lost for words.

I have been looking forward to writing this post, to reflecting on the wonderful little person who you have become, but now that I am here I have absolutely no idea how to contain you on this page.

Four really is the most magical age.

Over the course of last year, you began to shed the things I associated with your babyhood: the night waking, the nappies, the breastfeeding. That last one you only called time on in December – I was beginning to wonder whether you ever would, but I am so glad I left it up to you to decide when to stop. We were both ready, I think.

We still have the sling, used sporadically now but invaluable for long walks and hectic crowds. I love still being able to carry you when you need it, but more often than not you are charging ahead, leading the way – and I love that, too.

You are so confident out in the world – within our little town especially, but it doesn’t take you long to get your bearings wherever we are. We’ve taken lots of trips this past year, and you really are the perfect traveller. Curious and engaged and full of energy. I’m looking forward to all the travelling we have to come – and to learning Spanish with you, I know it won’t be long until you overtake me!

I know how privileged I am to still be spending so much time with you. By rights we should be gearing up to you starting school now, but we’ve decided to hold back at least a while – and for that I am very grateful. You love your forest school – and hopefully we will find another that will take you when you are deemed too old for that particular adventure to continue. The forest certainly feels like a more appropriate venue for your learning than within the four walls of a conventional classroom.

The forest, and the beach, and the gymnasium, and the theatre. The town you love to walk or scoot or bike through and say hello to familiar faces as we pass, your friends that range from 6 months to 60 years.

And then there are the worlds that you create at home. I thought your imagination was spectacular this time last year, but it really has exploded once again. You are fascinated by Star Wars – though you have only read the books so far. When we finally watch the films I think they might just blow your mind.

You do still love watching movies, but it’s playing out the roles yourself that you have really revelled in over the past few months. Luke Skywalker. Peter Pan. Buzz Lightyear. Woody.

You put on the costumes – at least the closest we can find – and leap around reenacting scenes and creating new scenarios. Or you use your lego to create ever more advanced vehicles for your characters to inhabit, combining the mini figures to create original narratives which can play out for hours.

Your lego has become your favourite tool for building, though you are fascinated by the construction challenge of your new marble run too, and cannot wait to make something with your new tool kit. A doll’s house, you said, inspired by the one I used to play with many years ago that you discovered at my parents’ house this Christmas.

There is something so alluring about those miniature worlds, and I am excited about the prospect of (re)discovering them with you.

I get waves of anxiety sometimes, worrying that we are doing the wrong thing by following the road less travelled. But there is no escaping the fact that our education system is sick, and I think if we follow your lead then we cannot really go wrong, feeding your curiosity and helping you access the world of grown ups as and when you are ready to do so.

It’s amazing how, as you grow, all preconceptions I had about this parent – child relationship begin to fade away. You have so very much to teach me.

And I still have so very much to learn.

All my love for always,

Mummy xxx

 

In search of clarity

I have never been a huge fan of the January detox.

The thought of depriving myself of the treats that make the longer winter nights easier to bear has just never really appealed, and I have been far more often found curled up on the sofa with iPlayer and a glass of wine than sipping herbal tea and counting steps as the festive season fades.

This year, however, is different.

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There are lots of reasons why. As 2016 hurtled along, each day bringing new disaster on a global or personal scale, I found it hard at times to catch my breath. Even though my little corner of the world remained relatively unscathed the noise in my head escalated until it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other. I found some space on this blog to give voice to the flashes of inspiration that fought their way through the mire, but I never had the clarity to follow them through.

I found temporary respite in a newly kindled love of cold water swimming – I just kept getting in the sea as summer turned to autumn and have yet to stop – but aside from those rushes of endorphins I spent way more time than I should have done wallowing in despair at the state of society, and fearing that my own small efforts were doomed to be forever futile.

Christmas and New Year were a real escape from all that – even with the hecticness of a fourth birthday in between it all it was a wonderful couple of weeks of hanging out with family and friends, the physical reinforcement of the wonderful online community that kept me going last year.

January, though, has brought me down with a bump.

My head is fuzzy through weeks of too much booze and too little sleep, my body feels ungainly and sluggish, my heart aches for something that I am finding it impossible to put into words.

This New Year angst is making me want to raze everything to the ground and start again – to shelve my blog, to resign from the council, to scrap the plans I began to articulate as 2016 drew to a close. It all seems like pointless clutter – although, writing and Arthur aside, I have no idea what else I want to be doing with my time!

It is that, really, that’s giving me pause, and making me realise that I need to take control. I need to get my mind back in proper working order, and I know that the state of my mind is intrinsically linked to the state of my body.

So: detox.

A resetting of my physical state driven by clean eating (and clean drinking). A renewed effort to build on the physical and mental boost that sea swimming has given me with more of the same, reinforced by finding as many other opportunities as I can to get outdoors and get active. I want to build in regular yoga again, too – and to steal a few minutes each day to meditate. And to sleep, properly and deeply, to recharge and rejuvenate my soul.

I’m not setting myself strict rules or targets (I’m still too much of a rebel to respond well to those), but I do have a couple of tools that I’m hoping will help. For Christmas I was given a Bellabeat Leaf, a health monitor that in the couple of days I’ve been using it has already had a hugely positive impact on my motivation. I have sought out a goal-orientated diary, too – the Inspire Now journal, which I can see has lots of potential to help me bring about the clarity I crave.

And I might discover, as this month unfolds, that the detox will extend to other parts of my life too – that I will need to make some difficult decisions about how I use my time, to become more focused and more selfish.

2016 was a challenging year, but I fear 2017 will not be any easier – the seeds that have been sown point to things getting a whole lot more difficult before they begin to turn a corner. I want the resilience to deal with that, and hopefully in my own small way to make things better.

And that’s not going to happen unless I am physically and mentally strong.

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“A portrait of my child once a week, every week, in 2016”

This boy turned four – four! – this week. I will hopefully find the time to reflect on that properly in the next few days, but in the meantime I just wanted to take a moment to reflect on his awesomeness.

We had a Peter Pan party at home on his actual birthday – it was a little bit crazy, but lots of fun. Then the day after we went to see a theatre production of his current favourite story in Exeter.

Arthur dressed up for the occasion, and sat spellbound as a talented cast of actors brought the story to life. I was so proud of him as he perched on the front row, eyes and ears open to this new experience and emotions kept in check just enough to be able to enjoy it all, right to the end.

I am so very proud of him, always.

Home for Christmas

The unschooling diaries: week forty-nine

For the first time since Arthur was born, we spent Christmas Eve at home this year. And it was wonderful.

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The day began with a treasure hunt, starting with a clue in the last advent calendar pocket and ending with Arthur’s Christmas Eve bag – complete with new pyjamas and bedtime books, a bag of reindeer food, and a little elf for him to share the Christmas secrets with that by this time were almost exploding from his head.

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We settled down after that with a fire and a movie, Arthur building lego and me putting the finishing touches to his birthday Peter Pan costume whilst Leigh power washed the deck ready for his party! There are definitely challenges to having a birthday to consider so soon after Christmas, but having a few hours to chill and get things sorted took the pressure off a bit.

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There were still Christmas jobs to be done too though, and after a lunch of cheese and mince pies Arthur and I went off to deliver the last of our cards to the neighbours. He even treated one of them to his rendition of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer – nothing like a bit of impromptu carolling!

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Then it was down to the pool for a cheeky snowball fight…

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I had to pop down anyway just to make sure everything was ok, and it was the perfect opportunity to try out Arthur’s pom pom snowballs.

We had a quick scramble on the rocks first…

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And then ran off our excitement on the green overlooking the sea.

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Finally it was back home for some final Christmas baking followed by a festive family supper of pan fried local gurnard. Yum!

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The next morning we were downstairs before dawn so that a very excited little boy could open his stocking.

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He especially loved the bow and arrow he had requested in his letter to Santa.

We opened some bigger gifts too, including the humungous beanbag we’d bought Arthur for his reading corner, before heading over to my parents’ to enjoy the rest of the festivities with family.

The next couple of days were lovely, hanging out with my folks and my brothers and my new niece. But there was something very special about imbuing our home with a little bit of festive magic – and maybe beginning some festive traditions that will become our very own…

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“A portrait of my child once a week, every week, in 2016”

We went to the most magical grotto today: having met one Santa on the train at the weekend this was another quite lovely experience.

The wait was longer than we expected, and the boys were bouncing off the walls by the time we got in. Watching them, though, transfixed by the fairytale forest and hanging on every word spoken by the youthful elves as they readied themselves to meet the man himself, was a powerful reminder of just how young and impressionable they are.

It is going to be a very special Christmas.