Friday, 30 December 2011

Advent Obsession

"Helen's made a paper village" James told his mother during a discussion about Christmas decorations.

"Why?" she asked me, looking at me with that blank look of affectionate incomprehension that so often features in our conversations.

"Because it made me happy," I answered.

And I realised as I said it that I really didn't need to add anything else.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Christmas Morning Magic

There's nothing quite like waking up in the dark of the morning to feel a lumpy bumpy stocking weighing heavily on the foot of your bed.

There's nothing quite like the crackle that it makes as you pull it close and feel the weight of its promise in your lap.

There's nothing quite like the sleepy sickness that engulfs you as you jump out of bed, giddy with excitement, and peek breathlessly into the top.

There's nothing quite like the pure joy that comes from those first  pre-dawn presents, no matter what they may be.

There's nothing quite like passing these moments on to your boy and sharing the magic with him.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Christmas Eve Nativity

I wanted him to be a shepherd. I wanted him to stand beside the manger that flickered with the glow of two dozen candles and I wanted him to place his little stuffed lamb at Mary's feet whilst the other children grasped their candles and sang 'Silent Night'.

I wanted him to feel the shiver of magic that I felt as a child, when I stood beside that manger on Christmas Eve evening, knowing that a miracle was at hand and that I was included in its magic.

But instead, he opted to sit on my hip and watch.

He laid his tired head on my shoulder and watched as the tiny tinsel-topped angels tripped down the aisle, as boyish shepherds ran in their eagerness to reach the manger and then arranged themselves awkwardly before the crib, and as Mary looked out over a darkened church and sang with such guileless innocence that it almost felt intrusive to watch.

For at least half an hour, my busy little boy - who normally runs laps through the kitchen screaming with excitement at that time of night - didn't move an inch. He just sat in my arms at the back of the packed-out church, his eyes wide with wonder, watching the nativity story unfold around him.

He reached his face towards mine as I sang 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' in his ear, swaying slightly as the melody unfolded, and then he stared in spellbound silence as the children lit their candles and sang 'Away in a Manger' to a church that held its breath in awe.

And as I watched him watching the re-telling of that first Christmas story in the little crib service that hadn't changed one bit since I was a child, I felt tears of wonderment slipping down my cheeks and knew that this experience would be stored forever at the back of his subconscious and that every Christmas for the rest of his life would be a tiny bit richer because of the miracle that had touched him at that moment.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Bags of Love

Somewhere at the start of the pre-Christmas madness, I decided to make personalised book-bags for some of John's little friends (yes, John's friends are all girls.) 

I stitched them in the late hours of the weeks before Christmas, ticking the names off my list as each new bag was hung from my curtain pole, and I thought about the sweet little people for whom these bags were intended, and I thought even more about their mothers.


And as I thought of them, I realised that they were the reason why I was laboriously hand-stitching names on bags late at night in those full days before Christmas for children who were too young to appreciate them.  

They were the people whose friendship had made this year such a joy, whose visits had stopped the days from dragging in an endless succession of emptiness and whose presence in my life was such a blessing.

Two days before Christmas I drove from place to place, dropping off brightly wrapped parcels here, and jars of fudge there, and greeting those that I loved. 

I drank tea with friends and I brought my boy into bright, warm houses to play happily with other people's toys.

And as I drove home through the dark, with a pile of parcels that they'd given me in return, scraps of chatter floating through my head and a smile still lingering on my lips,  I thought of the web of connections that I'd formed in this town that was a stranger to me just a few short years ago - and all I could think was just how lucky I was.  

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

On The Cusp

This year, as the Christmas season surrounds and engulfs us, John teeters on the brink of understanding.

He says "Di di dee" (Christmas tree) over and over again in a world bedecked with tinsel and lights, he says "O-o-ah" (ho ho hat) whenever images of Father Christmas flash before his eyes, he opens Christmas card envelopes with glee and then points emphatically to the wall where they must hang and he even says "baby Jee" whenever we see a  baby lying in a manger or a bright star in the sky.

But beyond that his understanding of Christmas is vague and mysterious. He can't quite understand that glitter glue ought to be splodged on the tissue paper tree, he can't sit and decorate salt dough ornaments, he can't sing carols with me or understand that he must wait to unwrap his presents, and whenever anyone asks me if he's excited I have to say no because he has no concept of time and lives entirely in the present.

And even though there's a small part of me that's longing for him to topple into understanding so that I can share the magic of Christmas with him in all its magnificent glory I know that I need to savour the innocent joy of this simple and special year - a year in which he doesn't know or care that I'm still stitching his Advent calendar on the 1st December, when I can buy his presents whilst he's watching me from the pushchair without fear of spoiling the surprise, when I can loose it completely whilst picking out the Christmas tree and know that he won't remember it for life, when I can shop with peace knowing that a single present would fill his heart with happiness, and when he has no preconceptions or expectations of what this Christmas season should mean.

Because soon this too shall pass, innocence will be replaced with excited expectations and I'll be held accountable for Christmas by someone other than myself.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Christmas Come Early

When I was a girl, I never decorated the house for Christmas. I never draped tinsel across the branches of a tree or got lifted high in my Daddy's arms to place a star atop its uppermost branch; and when I went to bed, sick with excitement on Christmas Eve, there was not a shred of Christmas in the house.

There were boxes of wrapping paper strewn about the place, candles on our windowsills, a bag of freshly cut holly in the hall and perhaps a naked tree sitting in a bucket outside the front door. But aside from that it was a mess of half-polished floors, wax-splattered nativity costumes and all the glorious chaos of Christmas Eve.

But when we woke up on Christmas morning, everything was transformed. We woke in the small hours of the morning to a house that smelt of polish and fresh pine, we tiptoed down stairs bedecked with Christmas garlands, through a hallway sparkling with fairy lights and then we saw it: the magnificent tree glittering in all its Christmas glory.

I remember sanding still and silently and soaking up the awe of this Christmas morning magic; I remember sneaking to the top of the stairs before my brothers were awake to catch my first glimpse of the tree; I remember being too enthralled by the magic of the moment to care about opening my presents, and even all these years later, the memory of waking to a world that had been transformed into a wonderland whilst we slept brings a shiver of magic to my soul.

As Christmas never arrived in our house until Christmas morning itself I have difficulties with decorating in early December. I hold off bringing the box of decorations down from the attic, I delay the day when the tree gets brought in from the cold and I feel almost guilty if the house starts glittering in its Christmas finery long before Christmas itself.

But this weekend, in a world where distant hills wore thin capes of snow and puddles creaked against the constraints of their first icy caps, we journeyed out to find our tree, and bring it back into the warmth of our home.

We erected it whilst our boy slept and watched sleepy awe and wonderment wash over his face when he entered the room and saw it.

And even though it wasn't Christmas morning, gifts weren't piled high beneath it and there wasn't a faint smell of stuffing in the air, there was a magic in that moment nonetheless.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

An Obligatory Visit

It was mid November when my friend Pauline first asked me if I'd like to go and see Santa, it was late November when the date was set and the tickets were bought and today was the day that John and his little friend Pippa were washed, brushed, dressed in brand new coats and taken out to meet Santa in his Grotto.

I was not the only one that was excited. Pauline greeted me with a giddy smile by the farm gates, clutching a grumpy, sleepy toddler to her chest, and even though our offspring were unimpressed by the offer of a biscuit in a darkened room that still smelt distinctly of cow muck and had all the ambiance of a walk-in freezer, Pauline and I ate our mince pies quite happily as we waited to be ushered in to see Santa.

Because this visit was something that we'd been imagining for some time and something that we as parents felt strangely obliged to do. Regardless of the fact that I feel faintly uneasy about the whole Father Christmas production and despite the fact that I know John is too young to understand or appreciate the visit - I had to take my boy to see Father Christmas. I had to sit him on his knee. I had to get the photo.

And so once the mince pies had been eaten and the little ones had been torn away from the television, we dragged them through an avenue of sparkly trees into a claustrophobic little den where Santa was waiting for another two confused and frightened children to be photographed reluctantly on his knee.

"Hello," he said, with admirable enthusiasm, "Who do we have here?"

And once we'd introduced John, who was clinging miserably to my leg and Pippa, who was hiding behind a chocolate biscuit and whimpering pitifully, he launched into a spiel of questions that Pauline and I did our best to answer on behalf of our terrified toddlers.

"Where do you live?" he asked us merrily. "Do you have a chimney?" "What do you want for Christmas?" "What's your favourite colour?" "What will you be leaving for me and Rudolph to eat?" "Have you been good?"

And with each new question we all waited expectantly as though our toddlers, who are only capable of yelling random vowel sounds at us at their most eloquent moments, were suddenly going to answer this kindly old man, before answering him ourselves in that strange squeaky voice that grown-ups use when they speak on behalf of their children.

"Yes," we said, "We have a chimney." "Yes, we'll remember not to light the fire." "We like tractors and trains and lorries, don't we John?" "Yes, we're very good, most of the time," whilst all the while becoming more self-conscious about our part in this strange charade and trying not to explode into giggles.

"Will you be going to bed nice and early on Christmas Eve?" persevered Santa, after more minutes of awkward silence, during which John stared fixedly at the glowing fake fire and Pippa stared determinedly at the back of her chocolate biscuit.

"Ooh yes" Pauline and I both answered dutifully.

"And sleeping right through the night? You mustn't wake up now must you..."

"No," we chorused obediently. "We'll be fast asleep."

And suddenly, the giggles could be held in no longer and I had to quickly plonk John on Santa's knee and take the necessary photo so that I could get out of that grotto before I crumpled in a fit of hysterics.

We coaxed our miserable children onto the old man's knee, snapped away swiftly and then emerged back into the cold sanity of the farmyard to release our laughter into the clear December air.

And as we walked away, wondering what on earth that had all been about I remembered that it was all about the photo. A classic look of confusion and fear captured forever on camera.

Clearly my life would not be complete without it.

Glorious Mess

This week Christmas has landed in a glorious pile of mess.

There have been floury messes on my kitchen worktop and scary toddler-made messes involving cheese-graters and kebab skewers on my kitchen floor. There have been piles of inviting fabric sitting on top of my sewing machine, and piles of cut threads on my floor. There has been paint and glue and glitter on John's hands and face and hair, sellotape and wrapping paper-aplenty, decorations strewn hopefully on chairs and lists on almost every surface.

It's been busy and crazy and fun.

I think I enjoy the chaos of the pre-Christmas mess almost as much as I love the magical sparkle of the Christmas Eve clean.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Understanding Johnish

These days, from the moment he wakes 'til the moment he sleeps this boy of mine wants to communicate. He names the objects in his world, he talks endlessly of the tractors and trains that drive through his imagination, and he expresses his desires and dislikes by shouting them at me until he's satisfied that I understand.

And so every day from the moment he wakes until the moment he sleeps I listen to the jumbled sounds that pour out so purposefully from his lips and try to decipher his language.

My progress is slow and tortuous, but day by day I'm becoming ever more fluent in Johnish.  

I now know that "Da-dar" is tractor or possibly breakfast whilst "da-dow" is definitely water. I know that "dee" is cake or grapes or bike. I know that "bee-a" is dried apple, "di di" is bread stick, "ewy" is berry or telly or wellies, "bum" is down, "ah" is hat, and I know very well that "choo-coo-dac-dar" is 'please may I watch videos of tractors and steam trains on YouTube?' (although I mostly pretend not to understand.)

But I still have no idea what "m-ba" is or why he screams "dya" at me several times a day. And even though I cheer and clap every time I hear a sound that vaguely resembles a word, and even though I experience the most intense gush of elation when I finally guess the meaning of a noise and for a second we understand one another, I can't pretend that the road to mutual understanding is easy, that being shouted at incessantly in gibberish doesn't sometimes feel like a slow form of torture, or that there aren't times when my frustration builds to such an unbearable intensity that I have to leave the room for a second - because if he shouts nonsense at me one more time I'm afraid that I might just shout it back.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

A Beginning

Sometimes the thought of Christmas is so vast that it seems overwhelming. It's the awesomeness of the traditions, the collective weight of childhood memories that still shine in my soul, the urge to create magic, to bring beauty into my home, to give gifts that show my loved ones the deepness of my love, and behind it all the longing to be touched again by the silent miracle that angels sang of long ago.

And when I think about all I want to make and give and bake and achieve, I feel the pressure of time pushing against my plans, and wonder where on earth I can begin.

And so, with endless lists and plans and dreams flocking through my mind I begin by making my wreath. I  gather scraps of red and green from the garden whilst my little boy sleeps, and twist and bind them until the sight of them make me smile.

I tie a ribbon from the top and I hang it on my door. And as I see it sitting there in a bright burst of December sunshine I smile knowing that one little dream can be released from the to do list in my mind, and that even though there are many more still to chase I've brought a tiny bit of beauty to my home; and that, at least, is a beginning.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

A Chance Encounter

I was wandering aimlessly around the garden centre when she stopped me.We were ambling past bright racks of decorations and John was examining the colourful bird boxes, and suddenly a kind voice behind me said: "Excuse me, are you Helen?"

I looked around, my "yes" full of shyness and suspicion, and saw a lady smiling at me with the openness of recognition.

"I read your blog!" she said warmly, "I knew I recognised your little boy!"

And there on an ordinary Tuesday, I met somebody who knew me. Somebody whose face I'd never seen before and yet who knew me better than the friends I'd met that morning. I flushed and stammered as I tried to come to terms with my online retreat colliding with my everyday reality, and then I began to smile.

Because even though I write this blog purely for myself, and even though I've shied away from telling friends and family about its existence, I was so grateful for that smile of recognition. So grateful to know that my words were read and remembered, that my thoughts made others pause and remember; that my time spent here in this space is in some small way worthwhile.

So to the lovely lady who stopped me to say hello, I'd like to say thank you. Thank you for your kindness, thank you for your encouragement. Thank you for reading and thank you for being there in that garden centre on Tuesday.

And if anyone else should happen to see John and I walking aimlessly around a garden centre, please do stop and say hello. It will send me into a joyous spiral of surprise, it will make me think again about angels and it will make me smile for the rest of the day.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011


For weeks now I've been looking at life through a fog. The world's been dense and dark and exhaustion has held its heavy hand on my head. I've hauled my body through the endless days and then slumped miserably into bed at night.

I've written little, photographed nothing, smiled only when required to and cleaned my house a lot. The balance has been all wrong.

But earlier this week, for no discernible reason, the fog thinned and dispersed.

I awoke and the world looked bright and when I flung open my window I gasped at what I saw.

What - is it already Advent? Are there wreaths to make and presents to pick? Are there soups to make and bread to bake? Are there beautiful roses on my mantelpiece? Is that my happy boy saying "Choo Choo!"? Are there candles to light? Friends to meet? A house to build? Gifts to stitch?

Oh life feels full and fun again - I'm so excited to be awake.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Season's End

I keep waiting for the day when I'll wake up and the world will smell of winter. When the damp smell of decay will be replaced with the crisp smell of cold, and the soggy end of a season will be swapped for the sparkly promise of a new one.

And yet every time we venture out, we find that Autumn is still lingering around the edges of November.

The world is still damp, the air is still mild, the earth still squelches underfoot, and the last of the colourful leaves still spiral lazily through the air.

And so even though I'm anxiously awaiting winter, we're still basking in the glorious business of Autumn.

We're still running through bright, squelchy leaves, still spreading our arms and soaring like aeroplanes in wide, damp meadows, still lifting our smiles to the sky and watching leaves as they flutter towards our faces, and still running without the hindrance of coats.

Because any day now I'll open the front door and the air will be empty, light and cold, and if this is the last day of Autumn I want to make sure we enjoy it.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

First Art

For some reason, I put off John's introduction to painting.

I persuaded myself that we were always too busy, or John was too tired, or the light was too poor for photographs and I waited and waited for the perfect moment when his concentration would be complete and my camera would be at the ready and this momentous milestone could occur.

And then suddenly, on a rainy, no-nap afternoon, when exhaustion was crushing my capacity for patience, the dark was creeping in at the windows and I had no idea how to fill the time until my mum arrived, that perfect moment arrived.

I splashed paint into some dishes, sat him up at the table and watched in awe as my boy become an artist.

I watched him dip his brushes seriously into the paint trays and then purposefully arrange thick dollops of paint on his paper until a colourful symmetry had been achieved.

I watched the absorption with which he painted and the silent satisfaction with which he surveyed his finished masterpiece.

And as I laid my camera aside, knowing that we there would be plenty of other times when we could repeat this activity under the blessing of bright sunshine, I wondered why I ever bothered to delay such happiness and vowed to make more of an effort not to let my own agenda hinder my ability to parent.