The things that really matter.

I have been thinking.  Again, I know.  About the things that really matter.

The first is good health. After the last decade I consider myself a bit of an expert on this, because I haven’t had it and have been around and caring for people without it in a terminal, eventually sort of way.  I know we’re all terminal eventually and the realisation of this as it truly applies to oneself is quite something.  Tomorrow is something tricky to appreciate until it is in short supply.  After the cancer diagnosis and the bungled surgery I had plenty of days where I thought tomorrow would not come.  It came for me but not for my cousin.

The first time a close acquaintance buys the farm, hands in their dinner pail, goes the long journey and even, horrors, actually dies is a very sobering moment. It happened when I was fifty and the school friend who shared my birthday died.  She had had a hysterectomy but the cancer was ovarian, and missed, it was just a few weeks from the real diagnosis to death.

In the modern world we have used many advances to distance ourselves from death.  In most countries we pay specialists to care for the dead person, to attend to whatever last rites there are and dispose of the body.  For many people in the developed world the first sight of a dead relative may come late in life or never.

Instead we worship at the platform-heeled, gold-sandaled foot of youth.  We cherish inexperience and appearance and devalue age and knowledge. This is strange because as a species we have more age and knowledge than ever before.  Five hundred years ago when life expectancy was around forty years, senior members of the village were venerated and their opinions, formed of long experience, were sought.  Now anyone who can flick through a smart phone has access to the wisdom of ages but actually only knows how to flick their thumb up and down a small screen.

To acquire the wisdom of age you have to live a long life.  I wouldn’t say I had the wisdom of age, despite just having had a very significant birthday, but I do know a very great deal more than I did when I was thirty, when I believed I knew enough to mother a child.  Having been a teacher, maybe I did, but I would have to say the bulk of knowledge of what people are like and what they do has probably been garnered in the last twenty years.

The last ten years has taught me that surviving life-threatening disease and medical conditions is largely a matter of luck.  If you happen to get the rubbish surgeon on an off day you will be in for several years of suffering while your body sorts itself out.  If you go to A&E while the B team are on diagnosis, it can take up to a year until someone is bright enough to figure out what is wrong..

If you are like the OH and have inherited a constitution from some very wiry long-lived survivors you can push your luck quite a long way uphill.

Unless your N&D are made of strong stuff you will be on your own eventually.

There is an episode of the Simpsons in which Marge tells Bart: you have to be kind to your children because they get to choose your old folk’s home.

What all of this means is that if you have any good physical capability left anywhere, including basic stuff like being able to digest food, walk on your legs and heal when you are broken, enjoy every minute of that and give thanks for it.  Add it to your gratitude list every night, so that when it disappears you won’t be bitter and twisted but will remember that you did have it once and appreciated it.

The other thing that really matters is freedom.  You would think in the modern world we would all be free.  Nothing has pointed up the case that this is not the case more than the pandemic.  Countries with free citizens who voted in their politicians and had the freedom to vote them out again if they decided they didn’t like them are the countries where the population are in the process of being vaccinated.

Freedom is life.  Good health is life.

Be grateful if people are kind when you are poorly, selflessness is a rare and wonderful quality.  Be kind yourself and hope it comes back around to you.

If you have health and freedom be grateful and happy because you have possibilities.

And with possibilities anything is possible.

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Quilting

I think it is good for any artist to reach beyond their zone of familiarity and essay another medium altogether. 

Many years ago I did crazy patchwork from the very pure motives of using up expensive pieces of material, rather than throw them away.  There is a cushion, recovered often, with a crazy patchwork cover underneath, in velvet, and a stool cover, the same.  All hand sewn with interesting stitches. I also sleep under a quilted bedspread which I made, more than thirty years ago, from some good fabric found on a market stall.

However it wasn’t until I went to the Festival of Quilts at the NEC that I saw the stupendous levels  to which some quilters take the craft to produce actual artworks in fabric.

I am so far behind that, as to be grovelling on the floor, but I have made a quillow for the step-mum-in-law.

The quillow is a handy invention , a quilt that turns into a pillow. If you are speaking British English rather than American English it should probably be called a quushion.

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Here is one side of it

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Here is the other.

The entire quilt fits into the cushion.

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This on one side and

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this on the other side.  Everything is patchwork, including the pocket, at the left of the picture that it all fits into.

I didn’t have a pattern I just saw one and had a go.

It is imperfect but I enjoyed every minute of it.  In the middle the sewing machine which I had bought from a shopping channel, broke down, entailing hours of online correspondence, a trawl of Tinternet to find a repair shop still open in lockdown, miles away.  I took the machine there and left it, retrieving it some weeks later.

For the first time I used a walking foot, a sewing machine foot which passes fabric through from the bottom and the top simultaneously, thus avoiding the wrinkles.  It  worked well, all the mistakes are my own originals.

This is definitely not art.

Incidentally to fold the quillow into its own bag you need to place it, bag underneath, fold the sides over each other in line with the edges of the bag and then turn it all over.  Place your hands inside the bag which is now uppermost, turn that inside out and fold the  quilt into the bag.

It lives on your comfy chair, looking like a cushion until you fancy a nap, whereupon you unfold it into a blanket with a very handy pocket for your book, or chocolate.

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I really enjoyed this.  It was probably the work of a week, if I hadn’t had to lose the machine in the middle and it would have been quicker if I hadn’t patchworked everything in sight, but that’s me. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it a lot.

Stay tuned for more adventures in quilting.  A lap quilt is a nice gift, it’s the hug we aren’t allowed to give yet and a very good way to pass the time in creativity of a different and interesting sort.  It also has the benefit that, if you are giving it away, you cannot hit the ‘I hate this rubbish thing, why did I make it?’ wall that usually occurs a few days after perpetrating anything, because you’ve packed it in the box you can see on the floor and sent it off.

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Teaching them what needs the learning of it.

I have been watching, with interest, a video tutorial on how to fold a made item back into a bag which is part of it.

In the opinion of this blogger who could not set up a film studio at home for toffee (be grateful) this facility is far too easy to access for those who have the platform but nothing to put on it.

The teacher of how to fold this into that, got it wrong twice before there was a break in the video, during which she went off to someone else’s site and watched how to do it.  Sadly, by the time she returned to her own broadcast the knowledge had wriggled through her fingers and off down the drain that is Tinternet.  Twice more she paused, to absorb the knowledge that would classify her as an expert, were she only able to teach what she knew and each time what she knew proved to be less than she had hoped.  The more she struggled, the less she knew.  If only I knew how to embed the reference to take you to the video you could watch it yourself, however you will not struggle to find would-be professors of this and that online, a few may know what they are on about and even fewer may be able to transmit their knowledge.

I always underrate my teaching skills even though I have taught probably hundreds of dyslexic readers with my own system, which always works in two hours twice a week for two years.  The S&H has inherited my skills and can talk the most terrified through anything computer-related and make them think it’s their own cleverness, without speeding up the pace or raising his voice one scintilla.  Last week he talked me through getting my printer working again, which involved reading numbers, (big ones) out of the inside of the machine (right inside near the little fused wires, all written in gibberish.)  By the time the printer worked I felt as if I had successfully fought several dragons and won and he didn’t even smirk, and I am his mother.

However, in the matter of teaching the grandchildren………………

I offered to teach them to read by video conference call at the start of the lockdown.  I was greeted with disbelief:  You couldn’t teach them because we can’t even make them sit down. How are you going to make them sit down?

Teaching lesson One, you know.

The OH is in line for worst teacher of the century.  He cannot demonstrate, just takes over, does the task with swearing and then goes away.  The S&H might have been a million pound footballer if the OH, requested when the S&H was a baby, to teach him to catch a ball hadn’t just thrown it at him, said ‘Oh you are hopeless’ and walked off.  The S&H was about ten months old.  I would have done it but was too occupied in running him through the interrogative pluperfect and similar joys.  Should I not have attended to his ball skills as well?

Tinternet is a seemingly inexhaustible source of inexpert help.  I am reminded of my dim cousin teaching me how to smoke cigarettes.  We purchased two cigarettes and one match in a small conical paper bag at the local sweet shop and them walked the area around the shop.  ‘Suck,’ she instructed, and, a moment later, ‘blow.’

It was harder to unlearn the habit thirty years later, which I did on my own.

I failed miserably at playing the piano, which was a mixture of my own reluctance to practise and a terrible teacher.  She would let me in and I had to admire what she was wearing.  I sat at the instrument and then had to admire her legs, poking like two sticks for building a fire out of the bottom of her none-too-clean pleated skirt.  To this day if anyone asks if they have good legs, it takes me right back.  I began with scales and, as soon as I was settled into them, she would pop off to the kitchen for a nip of sherry.  Mostly, if I faltered, at the start of the lesson she would remember to put the glass down before appearing at the door to give instruction.  She also taught Latin from ‘Teach yourself Latin’ and I knew more than she did from lesson one.  Her main trick was to write : Caesar adsum iam forte  and read it out as Caesar had some jam for tea and then laugh, less at the start of the lesson and more as the bottle depleted.  I eventually mentioned the sherry to my mother, hoping to avoid lessons altogether but was sent elsewhere to fail my first exam and give up.

There are demonstrators aplenty on shopping television and online.  The good ones are in short supply and the dreadful ones are hilarious.  The television camera does nothing to indicate who is a successful teacher and who is pants until the sales roll in or roll away.  There is nothing quite as good as 120 children from a sink estate on a Friday afternoon and just me to keep them instructed and entertained, for accelerated learning in teach yourself teaching.

It’s interesting learning, teaching, what you mainly learn about at first, is yourself.

And, of course, how to put the blanket back in the bag (had another look, no still no joy.)

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Tall and thin.

No, not me dear.  Chance would be a fine thing.  There is recent research that has discovered that people with huge thighs live longer than the lean flanked, so that’s all your top models not getting out of bed for less than a heap of money, doing it in a time-limited way.  Whereas us chunky-thighed folk will continue to waddle good naturedly to the door at any time of day or night for years and years and years.  Of course, the answer could be  a built-in to the question: maybe your lanky unwilling riser is unwilling to do anything else for you at all and gets regularly offed by enraged would-be employers, but people are kind and helpful to the cheerfully thunder-thighed well into old age.  I am still waiting on health news that is favourable to the short and shrinking.  One day there will be science that says it’s the best you can be, to be short with fat legs and straight hair and I will be so IN you’ll be glad to know me. ‘Oh yes.’ you will say, ‘I know her very well.  She has often oscillated past under my nose somewhere, cracking a joke.’

My time is yet to come, meanwhile what I have been making that is tall and thin, is cards.  There is apparently a vogue for tall thin cards that has nothing to do with rumours put about by paper mills who think they have sold us all the square cards we are going to buy and are yet resisting the blandishments of octagonal envelope manufacturers.

Here, therefore, some of my efforts.

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It’s the Ikebana next stage.  The Japanese lady’s face is made from a silk cocoon.  There’s a man as well

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doing some very masculine looking bonsai.  These both contain my original watercolour miniature paintings out of the window.  In fact out, as a direction, is figuring in everything arty I’m doing at present.  I think art is an expression of hope in the same way that science fiction is an expression of fear.

My hope is all about all of us escaping from lockdown.

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A small steel rule die of butterflies by Tim Holtz enabled me to cut butterflies from diverse materials. Thick card covered in gilding flakes coming out of the jar.

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And alcohol ink decorated acetate that I made years ago but had never been able to cut with thin metal dies,is coming out of the bottle.

Either way it’s all about escaping.

The OH turned 70 a couple of days ago, so we went out on a bit of a shopping trip to Stratford on Avon because it was Shakespeare’s birthday too, Will was 457 and neatly, died on his birthday, some think of the celebrations.  We found an orthopaedic shoe shop and I bought the OH some mind-bogglingly expensive shoes and then we went home because my intestines are playing up.

This is the thing about age.  Bits drop off as your art improves.  Think of the stuff our William might have written if he had lasted a bit longer.

I would never have used a day of my life making one card when I was younger.  Each of the efforts above took several days and I have every intention of sending them to people who will probably just bin them.  I think it’s worth doing.

I will be following the OH age-wise in a week or so and the way I think is the most noticeable change in me from my youth.

When I was younger I was extremely keen to be tall thin and cool, having failed to grasp that people who invest time in appearance do so because that’s what they’ve got.

I thought the best thing you could do was to earn a lot of money, having failed to realise that the more money you have, the more expensive things get.

I thought the point of art was to be sold and that sales validated the worth of the art.

But that will be the end of the art for a while because I’m back to writing.  I know everyone else did a lockdown novel.  Lockdown is when I stopped, now everyone is getting out and about I’m sitting indoors scribbling.  I’m the antithesis of the tall cool trendsetter with the long lean flanks, striding ahead waving a flag in this year’s Panettone colours.

I am your comically undertall pal with one foot in philosophy, the other in art and the whole self in writing.

Scribo ergo sum.

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If you’d like to scribble back, just click on the link below where it says ‘Leave a comment’.

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Stupidity in the older woman (localised).

I am part of a Covid study from a London University, which is being done quite scientifically apart from not taking into account the Stupidity of the Older Woman.  This could also encompass the Stupidity of the Older Man for all I know and, as it turned out, all I know is not a lot.

It started last July.

I got an email asking if I would take part in a study, to see if I would die of Covid or not, and, as I was quite interested to find out too, I agreed.  This involved putting a drop of blood on a window in a little plastic doodad, photographing the result and emailing the photograph back to them and then filling in a questionnaire. They said, unaware of the Stupidity of the Older Woman that I could do it all on my phone.  As my phone comes out of the wall on a curly wurly wire, I thought this outcome unlikely.  I got out my apparatus for taking photographs, which is, amazingly, a camera (who knew?  How quaint.  (I still have the reel of film in the fridge to fit the camera that got stolen from my bag at the S&H’s graduation.  I can out-quaint anyone. And I have irrelevance down to an E – but you know that.))  So I completed the mission, and a questionnaire, which kept asking me how tall I was (same height as The Queen, dearie – wish to argue?) which made me worry that they thought Covid was going to drift downwards until all the little spiky bits on the virus had found a new home.  This might account for the shortage of garden gnomes, I know the papers are reporting that they’re all stuck on that container ship jammed sideways in the Suez Canal, but maybe the gnomes got wind of the lower levels infection jeopardy and lent on the tiller en masse and are, right now, sitting in the bar on to the third packet of peanuts.

Eight months later, the university is asking again. Naturally I thought it would be the same process and readily agreed.

I really must learn to read the small print.

First I had to go to a web site that would explain everything. Or it would have done so if I had gone to the right web site.  Some clever clogs had laid a pratfall for people like me.  The address of the official website was lengthy involving many hyphens and repeated letters.  One letter wrongly entered and predictive text placed me swiftly to the website of someone having a laugh and leading me around many screens, then to some advertising and then back to the start, always with references to the ‘test’ video. . After half an hour of my life I found the right site, I bet some folk gave up before then, my search engine took me after just a few letters to the wrong one.

Having finally arrived at the right place I watched a ten minute instructional video teaching the correct way to shove a swab up your nostril.  Having proved that I was me and still willing to participate, in two days I received my test kit.  It had a simple tube, a simple swab and a sheet with approximately twenty assorted sticky labels, including some that were arrows pointing to other labels and identifying them as labels and some with apparently random numbers and letters on them, some with barcodes, some with pretty patterns and a separate sheet with just one label on it very huge and warning that it was a seal.  No, not the better kind of seal that can swim on its back while washing its whiskers, very cutely, more like the kind of seal that separates my swabbed snot from the rest of the universe because I AM A BIO HAZARD. Yes it’s ET and the blokes in the hazmat suits delivered to your doorstep by courier.

There was also a booklet purporting to be explanatory.  More like obfuscating short novel. It contained dire warnings not to think of shoving anything at all up your nose until you had booked a courier.  This, naturally was via another website, so I had a go and booked for – tomorrow, first thing with dire warnings about the time.  It must be ready and in the fridge by eight o clock in the morning.  It must be the morning when the courier is booked and no other morning and it said in the book and it said on the courier site and it said on the original, real, website YOU MUST NOT POST THIS SAMPLE.  DO NOT PUT THIS SAMPLE IN A POST BOX.  And there was a picture of a post box crossed out in case you were unsure.  And the novelette reiterated the ten minute video at length with pictures of someone poking a swab up their nose and dire warnings about how far to poke it and the necessity of stopping before it came out of the back of your neck and how poking it up just a bit simply wasn’t good enough and how your throat swab should ideally make you gag even if you have had your tonsils out.  And then there was some more about finding the web site and doing a questionnaire before you began after you finished and HOW YOU MUST NOT PUT IT IN A POST BOX and how to lay the stuff out on a flat surface with washed hands.

And even though I had set the alarm for seven I had got myself in such a state about it I woke up every half hour to check the alarm in the night.  So by the time I leapt from bed at six forty five, I was knackered and terrified but certainly not about to pop along to the post box, being too fond of remaining at large.

So, knackered, terrified, bleary eyed but with hands that had been washed for twenty seconds, twice, and with a blown nose, I swabbed till I gagged each tonsil for the correct number of rotations over the prescribed number of seconds and then I did each nostril without poking the swab through my cranium and out of the back of my neck, even though the swab was long enough. Then I placed the swab in the tube, ready unscrewed as per the instruction, then I broke the swab off at the correct breaking point because I knew It was too long to go in the tube unbroken because the video had told me and the website had told me and War and Peace had told me (twice).  And I washed mine hands for twenty seconds as thrice instructed and I did place the tube in the bio hazard bag after I had placed a sticker, identified as a sticker in a picture of the sticker sheet on the sticker sheet along the tube on top of the label. I did not place it around the tube because that was not allowed and there was a picture illustrating the bad bad thing to do and a cross, so you knew it was wicked. And I put the stickered tube, correctly labelled in the bio hazard bag and I stuck another identical sticker (labelled sticker in a picture) on the bag where the picture showed me to stick it in the correct orientation to fit the little rectangle drawn on the bag with the legend ‘stick sticker here’  so I did.

Then I did take my seal (but not cute near the boat, at all) and did seal my bag with it and I did place my bag in the cardboard box which I constructed from flat as per several pages of War and Peace and I did stick my BIO HAZARD WARNING STICKER FROM RADIOACTIVE NASAL SWAB DO NOT BREAK, DO NOT COLLECT £200 DO NOT PASS GO, GO TO JAIL IMMEDIATELY upon it and the address label (as depicted in the picture entitled address label)  upon it and I did put it in the fridge as requested.

And it was eight of the clock and all is apparently well,  well, only apparently.

And the phone did ring and the courier did speak and did arrive upon the drive eight minutes later and we did chat and I did give him the package and he did put it in his fridge and drive away.

Which is when I found the extra sticker. It was well disguised on the sticker sheet hiding in all the other stickers that said ‘this is a sticker’  (though they lied, for that sticker was long gone) and the barcodes and space takers and so on, including the label saying sticker sheet, in case you were unsure.

Mayhap, I thought, mayhap this is an item that will be required when I take the next step which is to fill in the many many screen survey that can only be filled in AFTER YOU HAVE DONE THE TEST AND NOT BEFORE.  That began : HAVE YOU DONE THE TEST?  Choices: yes (I am a clever girl) No ( I am bolshie) Not sure (I am stupid.)  2 HAVE YOU GIVEN IT TO THE COURIER?  Choices Yes, no, what?

And so on.

On I ploughed and on, entering my height, edukashun and so on, looking all the time for the question that would utilise the left-over label.  It was not there. For edukashun I should probably have done: can count on fingers (and toes in the summer.)

Later I realised that the unused label matched the titchy label on the outside of the original package as received THROUGH THE POST AND NOT BY COURIER.  And is probably the one that identifies me as me.

So someone in a lab somewhere is wondering just who the stupid swabber is.

It’s me.

Not bright enough to stick a stick up my nose and a sticker in another place which may have been depicted in War and Peace, but if it was I missed it..

See?  Stupidity in the Older Woman (localised.)  QED.

(If you are now saying: Qed? What does she mean, Qed? What’s Qed when it’s at home?  I am with you, right there with you, sister, get your socks off, let’s do maths.)

The worst of it is, they asked permission to follow me for twenty years and I said yes.

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Room 101

When my last laptop died it took with it a lot of photographs, some of which were of my old school.  These were garnered on a trip back to school organised by old classmates.  Not everyone was able to go, so I shared online with the absentees, who, to a gel, made comment on one particular photograph, of an empty room with a couple of cardboard boxes in it.  Everyone loved that photograph, it laid ghosts for many people.

It used to be room 101.

The building in which I went to a school which no longer exists was, in fact, two buildings, both of which had been built as private houses for wealthy people before they had fallen on hard times and the absence of servants and been bought and turned into schools.  They were some way apart, necessitating a walk from main school, which accommodated those over ten years of age, back to the prep school, which had more underground rooms that housed the kitchens, expert at turning out stodge with a skin on top and the playing fields, expert at turning out skinned knees.  One way or another they were going to skin you, never more so than in main school in room 101.

It was not designated as such in its day, indeed it had a carved name plate on the door.  The name belonged to the headmistress, as did your soul.

Main school was accessed, but never by the girls, by a set of imposing steps that ran up to the front door.  Entering the massive portal, surmounted by the knocker of doom, that was never knocked (or the world would have ended, obviously,) one had a choice. Across your line of vision going left to right was a corridor. If you took about ten steps forward and turned left you would encounter a classroom.  If you turned right the cloakrooms.  These were not the friendly little row of coat pegs with the picture on them, of prep school,  so you could find your coat among millions of other, identical coats.  My picture was an umbrella, up, which I sometimes feel has defined the rest of my life.  I bet I can guess who got the picture of a trophy, and which gel got a treasure chest.  Behind the coat hooks were the cupboards where the hyacinths were forced in the autumn to be produced like magic tricks in flower at Christmas.

Big school was not fluffy like that.  The coat hooks were on metal frames, like army coat hooks, stretching in an endless dystopian vista to the far wall.  There were no numbers or identification. Gels would remember the location of their coat, or else.  You may place your indoor shoes in the metal box below, neatly.  The bench is only to be sat upon if changing the shoes, otherwise not.

Beyond the cross corridor an archway led to other rooms.  To the right the blessed library with more books than you could read, ever.  To the right another classroom, where I struggled avec French. Up the stairs more classrooms and over the entrance hall and corridor below, the school hall with a stage at one end, a classroom behind it, (where I enjoyed grammar, it was, after all, a grammar school) and carved boards on the wall of gels who had gone on to glory in various universities.  I regarded these as the pinnacle of achievement. little knowing that my dear mother was going to send me loopy and lock me up to prevent me escaping from home.  As an adult, looking back, they strike me as what they were, an advert for the school to impress touring parents.  maybe they were a bit of both, I wonder what happened to them when the school was disbanded? The bonfire of the vanities? Chopped into named sticks and dispatched to the relevant gel?

On the floor above  were the attics where we had art, did art, produced art and sewing.

In the basement were the toilets.  They smelled awful due to the presence of a Bunny Brand incinerator, for incinerating young gels’ necessary sanitary supplies.  It did not smell like a cosy bonfire, it smelled like a hospital incinerator, when the wind is in the wrong direction, constantly.  The lower corridors  were permeated with the smell.

School days are such happy days.

Never more so than in room 101.

As you entered the school up the forbidden steps, to the right was a small room housing the school secretary, responsible for the parental SOS, keeping tabs on everything and helping gels.  She was grizzled like a small terrier, fearlessly efficient and mostly neutral.

In the room opposite, 101, the Head lurked like a spider on the periphery of a web, ready to pounce, wrap you in fluting scorn, torture you with a barrage of accusations off a crib sheet and eventually suck the blood out of you and discard you into the corridor with the mangled remnants of a soul and a massively swollen conscience for some miniscule misdemeanour.  It is a wonder the space between the two small rooms was not littered with sucked dry corpses.  The room felt airless as you entered it, you almost certainly were not allowed to breathe unless given permission and your socks must be at the same level and your hair under control or a ribbon and your handkerchief folded and your shoes polished, or else.

My friend A was none of these things.

She and I shared a birthday, a similar taste in shoes and difficult parents.  Her difficult parent was her father, a lone GP, who, like many in his profession, sought to cure the intolerable  burden of looking after the health of hundreds of patients, all alone, by self medication with alcohol, once the surgery was closed.  By seven in the evening he was unable to stand unaided and mostly propped himself up on the mahogany mantelpiece of his Edwardian lounge.  I thought he was quite glamorous as a child and his little, plump, apologetic wife was motherly.  From the other side of eleven years on Al-Anon I can see exactly what they were and why their child was a bit wild, often a little cruel to her long-suffering dog and rebellious in small ways.  If someone had pulled A’s socks up level she would have pushed one down.  If she ate a chocolate biscuit it was in a grasped fist with the chocolate oozing out between the fingers.  She loved Garibaldi biscuits but picked the raisins out and left the rest and I don’t remember her ever brushing her hair.  Her blouse was buttoned up wrong and her buckled school mackintosh belt was only ever worn tied in a knot. 

My mother was my mother, so, naturally, I appreciated subversion.  We were, therefore, friends.

However, her parents were basically benign, if intoxicated or worried, whereas mine were basically deranged.  So, while A was lovely she lacked the iron core that was developing in me.

When we all got up to big school there were unfathomable rules, numerous regulations and power-crazed prefects who were allowed to report you to a teacher, your school house head, anyone older than you and the Head.  In such an authoritarian atmosphere the prefects proliferated.  Some modelled themselves on the Head, some were merely right wing government agents, all were self-important and vindictive.  Everyone said when they became prefects they would buck the trend and be lovely but no one did.  As soon as prefecture was attained they paid the miseries of the past down into the upcoming future.

In such an interesting society it took me a good five minutes to come out subversive.  Although, to be fair to myself, after motherly training I could suck-up with the best of them.  I had survival written through me like the lettering in seaside rock.  Einstein remarked that one decides early in life whether the universe is benign or not and behaves accordingly.  I had already come to the conclusion that the universe was malign and accordingly came out fighting, smarm in one hand, stiletto in the other.

I quickly formed The Dirty Jokes club.  We met at lunchtime on the side entrance steps. Entry was by subversive dirty joke.  I capped every joke with a better one.  As we were young repressed ladies of a certain age, some of us had been parentally provided with a book purporting to relate the Facts Of Life, which was called Knowledge for the Growing Girl.  This was singularly devoid of any kind of knowledge at all.  It mainly told you to pray a lot and wash the back of your neck.  However, one of our number had a brother and he got Knowledge For The Growing Boy. Aha!  Passed from gel to gel in The Dirty Jokes Club we swiftly put two and two together and made approximately nineteen and five eighths.

And we told dirty jokes, and we laughed a lot (on school premises) and every time someone passed on the way to the real school entrance round the back of the building we chirped: Lovely day!  Lovely day!

It would have to be said at this point that the dirty jokes were not very dirty at all.  We were eleven and half of us thought babies were brought by storks from under a bush.  I was the only one who had ever had alcohol, which I was force-fed diluted with water on a Sunday, in case, as I had come from an orphanage, I turned out to be Easily Lead.  No one had any idea of the mechanics of reproduction and we all had a better vocabulary in Latin than we did in English.  The dirty jokes, which mainly originated with me, were about plumbing, by which I mean actual drains, as my father was a builder.

The down fall, which, I’m sure you’ve already spotted, was the cry of: Lovely day!  Lovely day!

Cries attract attention.

We were by turns summoned into the Spider’s Den.

They broke A.

She blabbed, then blubbed and proved to have total recall and extra bits.

I was nearly expelled, having been fingered as the instigator.

The Head looked up as I entered and would probably have cracked her knuckles had they not been so fat.  From behind her round black glasses she peered first at me and then at the hand written charge sheet, two, count them two, leaves of foolscap, filled edge to edge with faultless copperplate, with curly points and underlining in a different colour.

The walls in room 101 dripped anguish and misery.  Every curlicue of the Victorian mantelpiece behind the Head was rammed with skinned glances and ocular meanderings.

The Dirty Jokes Club, which died there on a Wilton rug on a parquet floor was not alone in its suffering.  Countless gels were tormented and some, like A, were broken in that room.

Fifty years later I sent the image of it, now a store room, round by Tinternet and every viewing leached another little bit of its power away until it was just a store room. Every forwarded email broke another web, each viewing shone light upon what was just a Victorian fireplace and the fluting venom of the Fat Black Spinster was rinsed away by the laughter of generations.

And joy was unconfined.

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Recycled joy.

The pandemic has thrown up some strange anomalies. One is the requirement to make a booking to throw rubbish away.

Our local tip, manned by binmen, or, to put it in modern, our recycling facility, assisted by colleagues, lies at the junction of two towns on a very busy corner for traffic.  Once you manage to spot a break in the traffic whizzing round the corner towards where you are sitting, dangerously in the middle of the road waiting to turn right, you can enter and go up the hill.  On the way vast signs with titchy writing mutter about a list of items you may not dump, a list of items you may not dump if you are a van over a certain size, a list of items you must make a booking to dump and what you will incur in the way of penalties if you do any of the above.

If you are of an age to recall Alice’s Restaurant and Arlo Guthrie, you are not only in the zone but also far out, man (or lady, all readers welcome here.)  If you are not I suggest you put Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie into a search engine and listen to Arlo Guthrie singing it.  It was definitely one of the high points of 1967.

All the colleagues at our local recycling facility are not only aware of that song, they are keen to feature in it.

So, here is the background: difficult to get to, not welcoming.

And now,because of Covid you have to book.

Yep, you have to make an appointment to throw away rubbish.

How easy is the booking process, Jane?  I hear you cry.  ‘I’m assuming they want you to throw away stuff responsibly and therefore make it easy to book?  No?’

No.

The council engaged a specialist booking agency.  They book tickets for pop concerts and the like.  Having found the county council website and the correct page (three screens), you are redirected to the booking agency (two screens)  confirm that throwing away rubbish is the event you are booking, and a couple of screens later you get to the page that lists the dates and times available.  You cannot have today, even if it is empty or someone has decided on the spur of the moment to hang on to their old chip pan after all.  Today is right out.  Not even late this afternoon requested at eight in the morning.

The only space tomorrow is seven in the morning to seven fifteen.

No one can hurl old carpet over a wall that fast at seven in the morning.

Next day?  Fully booked.

Finally you find a quiet spot a week next Tuesday and click on book, whereupon up pops a scrolling list that has to be checked off to enable you to book.  You have to agree to being local, not dangerous, not sick, not in contact with sick people, not throwing away anything from the bad dog list, having read all the Ts and Cs, be of sound mind, be a responsible adult and have nothing better to do for half an hour than tick off some damn fool questions in a list.  Halfway down there is an agreement to let the organisers clog up your inbox with adverts for the next six years, which, if you do not tick it, the next step will not work and you will have frozen screen – go back to square one, welcome to the council tip website.

By now the thing you wish to hurl over a wall is the event booking organisation, but in order to throw away your old carpet you must allow them to pop up in your inbox and have a jolly rendezvous with them there.  And three emails later they refer you to your ticket which is secreted elsewhere on your computer.  I spent half an hour of my life I will not get back looking for it and called the OH in, who after some muttering and flattering gave up quarter of an hour of his life returning to the scarcely looked-at screen of how the computer works to find the hidden ticket.

Three goes later, it printed.

Then three days before the booked quarter of an hour throwing things away, I began to receive the emails.  Questioning in nature they asked:  Was I well?  Was I excited? Had I realised it was now only three days to my booked event?  Next day I got a reminder and again an enquiry as to my excitement level.

Today is the day!  Last night, naturally, hyped as owt, I could barely sleep, dear.  The unreasonable joy of making a slight space in the garage was such that I had to restrain myself from loading the car in my pyjamas.  Yes indeed, I had a car in my pyjamas, I was so beside myself and both of us were off the scale excited.  I just knew as I managed to drop off to sleep again that the event organisers would be utterly stoked too.

As I stacked the car with junk this morning I had uppermost in my mind the dire warnings that colleagues would not be able to approach me to help, not even if the ten ton block of concrete I was chucking was heavyish and that I was only allowed to come on my own with absolutely no one else allowed to join in the fun, no matter how they begged.  It’s a lonely road for us recyclers, I tell you.  Entire quarters of an hour with no company other than a load of rubbish.  Just like home, really.

Later

Veni, vide, chuckie. 

There were four recycling colleagues onsite.  One to sit in a little hut ignoring the bit of printout paper you were waving, because he was struggling with four down, two to stroll off round the corner with mugs of tea and one to be texting on his mobile.  The clientele, or eventgoers, were hurling with gusto, having been through all the screens until they were screening mad, just like me.  I threw stuff away, drove round the site, left stuff at the charity shop, came home.

You know that feeling you get after Christmas or a pop concert that nothing nice will ever happen again?

Haven’t got it.

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The great indoors.

How fortunate we are to live on this ball of rock with a wonky axis.  Unless you live on the waistband, which, like all waistbands tends to be out there and a bit overheated, you get seasons.  Seasons are our lump of rock ensuring the parasites never get bored.  Whether you’re a migrating whale or me putting my thick jeans away five weeks too soon, seasons keep you on your toes.  Pop to the shops in your thin trousers, or, if you are young enough, leggings, and you can guarantee your legs will be itchy for the rest of the day. I found some body oil in the cupboard, it came with a bundle of things that I actually wanted, from a shopping channel.  Having had itchy legs for days I thought it might help and spread it on my legs after my shower.  It helped but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should turn over under the grill, all day.

You have to get up early enough to notice the frost on the shed roof.  If you don’t, seeing the sunshine as a late riser, you might well be fooled into getting dressed without a vest.  You might sit outside with a cup of coffee wondering why the ice cube in it keeps chinking on the rim and not realise it’s because you are shivering.

You could also pop along to the supermarket later in the day, when the weather has suddenly got to grips with its obligations and find yourself melting in your jumper.

At such times I recall the seasonal phrase which sprang to my lips but never enjoyed utterance. My mother would say: Why aren’t you outside in the beautiful sunshine?  And I would go forth and freeze my nadgers off.  And never respond, wittily:  Oh both eff and off, for I was well dragged up.

The truth is that the changing seasons are the perfect time to enjoy the great indoors. The sudden icicle under your sandal, the rush of sweat beneath a sweater, the goose pimpling of the bingo wing creeping out from the shorter sleeve, the blueing of the knee under your postman’s shorts, these are why we invented walls and a roof, and insulation round the side of the door.

The newish neighbour invested many days in building a barbeque table.  I watched from my window.  It is standing height and has a line of tiles around a rectangular firebox.  Two nights ago they had a go and stood for four hours getting frozen round the back, red in the face, covered in smuts, eating raw singed lumps of something.  There was a visitor, for whom they were putting on a show, so the clothing, which started as casual summer evening wear became less elegant as layers of hats and scarves were added until the jewellery disappeared under thick gloves and the voices got higher and higher.  I was utterly delighted that I had not been invited.

I keep getting half-hearted invitations to gardens and have indeed accepted one, from a proper friend, at midday, in full arctic clobber, with scarf, for a limited time, after which I went home, had a hot shower and scalding soup for lunch.

This is the ideal time to enjoy the great indoors.  Not when you are meant to do so, in the middle of northern winter because that’s just too obvious.  It’s hard to be creative with the heating turned up so you can get the benefit of two jumpers and a cardigan.  No, this is the time of year, indoors with sunshine coming through the glass in an inspiring manner and something nice to stare out at when inspiration wavers.

Accordingly I have been making the cards I have been working towards all winter. They are paper shelves stuffed with junk, just like home.

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Mostly paper and mostly made by me.  Some metal and wood bits are collected.  The bowl and flowers are the Ikebana dies, which you may remember

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The old typewriter is stamped on stampboard, the ruler is Tim Holtz, the metal stuff is from LaBlanche, the fabric is all rice paper.

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the doll and the cat sitting on her knee are paperclay, made as I showed you a few posts ago.

It has all been a pleasure to make and an even greater one to give away.  I gave a similar shelf card to a family member which included a family photograph, shrunk on a photocopier to fit, which he loved.  The base is any frame made from a die set, though you could use any shallow card box, such as chocolates arrive in at this time of year.  A piece of matching card folded mountain and valley and glued to the back inside,  makes the shelves and a small folded card glued to the back makes a stand and somewhere to write the message.

It’s a celebration of indoors, protected from the unruly elements and full of your own lovely junk, a seasonal joy and delight to be thoroughly enjoyed before we conquer the virus sufficiently to be empowered to invite strangers and, worse, relatives, into the burrow and have to tidy up.

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And that’s going to be a shock to the system and no mistake.

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Smart remarks.

The world is divided into those who are adept at making a suitable retort and those who think of it three days later.  The S&H has always fallen into the former category, I am usually in the latter, though one of the advantages of writing is that you can accommodate your instant witty comebacks within a more forgiving time frame.  Some well-known television comedies have had entire rooms of writers working on one killer line for the principle character.

If you are a more normal conversationalist, concerned with what you are going to say and getting the words out there in one go, even trying to make a point, rather than just a noise, your only recourse may be learning some smart remarks to make in advance of the conversation. Retorts you can have to hand to produce as appositely as possible, with the flourish of a conjurer producing a duck from a beret.

Here are a few to learn, the exam is real life. This is the best time to have a go.  We are about to be let loose in company, out of doors, in a howling gale, half a mile away from the person you are talking to, double masked while drinking a coffee through a straw.  There could never be a better time to acquire a reputation as a wit, rather than a half-wit because come the late summer, we’ll all be banged up again.  People will sit indoors through the autumn thinking fondly of you as the person who was able to say something frequently and you’ll be able to go back to spending all morning composing one email to send scattergun to the wrong list of people.

I am taking the initial remark from some of the very, very old television programmes currently available, mostly from the Sixties when the world was young and script writers were paid in pounds shillings and pence.  There is a certain stilted quality to the utterances, mostly from fairly wooden actors (some may have been actual puppets, our telly is on the blink currently and no one will enter the house to give it a kick) unsure of which of the two cameras to fire their lines at.

Here we go, make notes if you wish.  The first remark is from the TV, the second is your killer retort.

Make your point, I have a tight schedule!

I thought there was something wrong with you…… it’s the way you’re walking.  Try to sit down.  No, maybe not.

Leave the money in an unmarked suitcase in the third locker from the left at St Pancras.

What type of suitcase?  Can you be more specific? I need dimensions in millimetres.  They have this cage thing, you know, if it doesn’t get in there, you’re out mate, no hand luggage for you. Well, I’m saying this, I can’t remember really, it’s so long since I was on a plane.  And, also, are you sure unmarked is what you want?  I think we used to tie balloons to ours, though they deflated in the hold, of course, but you could spot them on the carousel dead easy, one pink, one blue.  Snatch yours first and you’re on the bus, window seats of your choice all the way to the hotel up in the mountains.  Sea view, it was called.  Well you could slightly, you had to put the dressing table stool by the bathroom window and stand on tip toe and there it was. Turquoise the sea was, turquoise, well if the mist didn’t come down and when there were no container ships in the harbour..  Oh it was great.  A whole fortnight of sunburn and cheap sangria.

Open the safe, or the mermaid gets it!

But that’s it.  I don’t think she does, does she?  She’s not very bright and you can see the wires, well I can.  Not the most convincing character ever.

I am going to count to ten……..

I’m not impressed. sorry.  My grandchildren can count to ten in Welsh and English and the little one’s only four.

My men have wired the bomb to this hand-held device, all I have to do is press the button….

Oh well, good luck to you.  I can’t get an electrician for love nor money.  We’ve got dangling wires in the corridor, the light I was promised has been on some container ship, stuck somewhere for months.  The PIR light over the drive, which used to light up for a sparrow three streets away, is down to one bulb.  If you want it to work you have to wait until it’s pitch black and then jump up and down and wave the broom in front of it.  As a burglar deterrent it’s rubbish.  The website I bought it from has vanished and the fitting is European and needs a proper electrician because I’m not about to fuse myself to the National grid.

Quick – she’s going to blow.

Sitting on the settee for a year eating popcorn – are you surprised?  Stand up wind and put an extra mask on would be my advice.

Look out he’s got a gun.

I think that’s highly unlikely, don’t you?  I can’t even get the right type of toilet roll delivered.  And don’t get me on to pies.  We’ve ordered steak and ale three times now and not got it.  We keep on getting chicken; I’m veggie and he won’t touch them.  He says he’s all man, after a year of random pies, who’s going to argue?  Not me.  We had an incident in the corridor last week, stuck for a good ten minutes trying to squash past.  It is true, I do have slight gluteal development I didn’t have before lockdown but it’s mainly his pie gut I’m blaming.

Jenkins, you take team B and climb the South face of the glacier.

I’m beginning to wonder if these old TV series are a good source of normal conversation.  I can’t remember people saying this sort of thing to each other in groups, and, if they did, I’m not at all sure what an adequate reply might be. ‘OK see you at the top?’  ‘Last one up is a scaredy cat?’  ‘I’ll have one of those cones with a chocolate flake in it, if you get there first, please.’  Hmm, I’ll try a rerun of an old children’s magazine programme, that should have normal conversation in it.

In the studio today we’re lucky enough to have a tank full of terrapins.

Socially distanced, I hope.  Actually, they’re not.  They’re climbing all over each other.  What sort of example is that to set to children?  I might be better off watching current TV.  Let’s see, what’s on?  There’s a steaming romance in which a couple exchange glances from contiguous supermarket check-out aisles one apart and fall in love through the triple screen plastic and end up sending each other sperm and egg donations through the post but the donations end up at the zoo because the courier has a slight temperature so his friend does it for him so he keeps his job.  The friend can’t map read, you see. Eventually the giraffe has a cross-species infant which is half giraffe, half interior decorator, which goes on to terrorise Wiltshire and parts of the Home Counties.  Not much dialogue in that.  How about this?  It’s an astronomy programme with two brainy people talking indoors.

Directly above me, through my binoculars, Jonathan, I can see………….

The big light!  Yes I can see it too, slightly to the left of that stain on the ceiling.  And from where I’m sitting all three light bulbs are on.

Yes they are .  They are definitely on, at perihelion if I’m not mistaken, which is wonderful because of course you cannot see them in day time.

Well, no, because I switch the light off.

Marvellous.

Over at the wall switch there.

Yes, I see it now.  Have you ever considered a dimmer switch?

No.

I think that may be an example of real unscripted conversation.  I was remembering actual conversation as being rather more sparkling than that. It’s a long time since I heard any.  I did have a chat at the checkout last week.  It went like this:

That wrapper is torn.

There’s another one inside.

Oh.  OK.

It’s beginning to look as if, when we eventually meet people again (People – legs, arms, body in the middle, head on top, if memory serves) we might have to make our own conversation.  You could try memorising the TV weather forecast and saying that.  Used to be popular at bus stops long ago.  I think.  I’ll have one last go at the telly

Grasp the stuffing in your left hand and the chicken in your right….

That’s enough of that.  I’m sorry, if you want witty repartee, you’ll just have to make your own up, while you are learning to juggle, or knitting, or basket weaving with your own hair or whatever it was people used to do when they met to talk.

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JaneLaverick.com – a handy service for the nation.*

*Or not, as the case may be.

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The new normal

I had every intention of being funny today but it just isn’t in me.

Naturally the stronger reverberations of the suicide in the wider family are going to take some time to die down. Many people will have lost a family member since the pandemic struck.  If you are new to the loss of someone who was part of your life, it may be difficult even to know what to feel.

As I am quite old I have encountered many losses in my life.  The first resource, if you are new to this and all at sea is Cruse  who you can find at www.cruse.org.uk  This is a UK charity with phone lines, and contacts in various ways to help you through the slough of despond.  If you put bereavement care into a search engine elsewhere in the world you will also find a person to talk to who knows what normal looks like in the circumstance of losing someone.

There are many types of loss.  They begin with miscarriage, also something I’ve experienced.  You would imagine the loss of a potential life would create less sadness than the loss of a born and aged person but, of course at the time, the potential mother is filled with the surging hormones to support the pregnancy, which can make the loss seem utterly devastating.

I am fortunate not to have experienced the loss of a child.  I think this must be dreadful, as in the sense of something you dread.  Until vaccinations against the childhood ailments became common place, the survival of children to adulthood was a happy surprise in most developed countries. William Shakespeare lost his son, Hamnet, when Hamnet was only eleven.  Hamnet had a twin sister, Judith, who lived to 77, in the process outliving all of her children.  By the time his twins were four or five, Shakespeare was beginning to be famous.  He was often away in London, writing and staging the comedies for which he was earning well, which were performed for Queen Elizabeth the First, and enjoyed by all sections of society.  Hamnet’s death, of the plague, had a huge impact.  Subsequently Shakespeare wrote the great tragedies.  Here is a quote: Grief fills the room up of my absent child, Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me.  Puts on his pretty look, repeats his words………’ I don’t think that’s about any of the characters in King John, do you?  In Tudor England half the children died before they were ten, Shakespeare’s words must have struck a chord in the hearts of theatregoers.

Most of us expect our parents to die before we do.  It is difficult to say whether the loss is greater if the parent is a good or bad parent, the only loss that will not touch us is the absent parent.  Whoever brought you up has had a great impact on your life, good or bad. Children know their parents better than anyone, it’s in our DNA.  Study of the parent and what will please them is necessary for survival of the child and humans are so complex we have a longer dependant life than other species.  I don’t think I ever grieved properly for my father, his death instantly plunged me into full time caring for my mother and the discovery, upon his death that he had left his body to medical science and made my cousins, who had financial expectations, as his executors and all that lead to, meant that I was consumed by the practicalities.  You don’t expect to have to protect your abusive and bereaved mother from having her home ransacked by her nieces and nephews.

One of the trickier aspects of bereavement may be the unpredictability of family members.  Saying and doing the right thing in the right order may not be a skill we get to practise often.  I have found it most helpful to regard the months surrounding a death that has affected me, as time out of normal time. This is a time to be like a sundial and record only the sunny hours.  If someone says something callous or rude, assuming they don’t know what to say and are having an unsuccessful attempt at saying anything at all, is an attitude I have found helped me.

Funerals are for the living because the dead person is dead.  They are part of the grieving process.  I have been to funerals where an extreme show of grief, with an oak coffin and a full buffet to follow were masking a more difficult truth, of neglect, accident or design and those where a cup of tea and a sandwich by way of mourning contained a world of loss and emptiness.  You cannot tell by the wrapping what is in the parcel.  If you are the principle bereaved person arrange matters to suit yourself, especially if the lost soul has given no indication of their preferences, and even if they have.  The university that took my father’s body held a respectful service in their great hall in which we laid a flower for the deceased, and where I found my father had aligned himself in death with a person whose family disowned him and a down-and-out.  The address preached to the choir, in telling the congregation that it was a good idea to discuss leaving your body to science with your family before doing it.  Amen to that.

Whatever marks the passing, the time afterwards can feel like an eternity.  That moment when you wake, and, opening your eyes, have a feeling that something is wrong, before the truth collides with you like a runaway truck, can persist for many months.

One of the more helpful pieces of advice is to look at the rest of your life from the point of view of the deceased.  No one would want a person they cared for to wreck the rest of their life with grief.

The OH worked for years in emergency and disaster planning.  The overall ethos, post disaster, was always damage limitation.  Personally this means, once the practicalities have been taken care of, to start to live the altered life.  Death is not a head cold from which the bereaved person will get better, recover or go back to normal.  What each day ushers you into is the new normal, which may take some months to become evident.  Part of the new normal is feeling guilty when you realise you have had a happy moment or a grief-free day.

Every reaction is personal and largely unpredictable.  You will feel sad but may also experience intense anger, exhaustion, or any one of a number of emotions unconnected apparently with the present moment.  Grief can hurl itself at you at unexpected and inappropriate or inconvenient times.  The bereavement websites will give you some idea of what is within the parameters of normal at a time when nothing is normal.

We are our scars.  All that we have endured is written on our souls which bloom with the bruises inflicted by life, love and loss.

Ultimately the lesson is to live every day.  To enjoy what is good in each day.  To appreciate each life that touches yours, whether you are surrounded by good souls. inexperienced souls, or flawed souls.  We are all part of history and just now in the middle of a pandemic we are made aware of it.

If you are trying to help someone who has suffered a bereavement, whilst you cannot undo what has been done, you can help by communicating, keep the bereaved person in the world with you even if only for the space of a conversation. I telephone my step-mum-in-law daily and feel like a dusty sparrow trying to fly upward with the world in my little beak.  All I do is ring and try to be cheerful and listen when listening is the thing that helps.  My step-mum-in-law has realised she needs to be around for her daughter and her granddaughter.  I consider it to be an achievement to look outside the grief and see your way back to life is through helping others.  If a death can be the loss of only the person who died by finding the positive in the most negative reality we experience, then that is what life and living is about, and ultimately the triumph of the soul that proves we can transcend circumstance with love.

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As always I read all comments that are not spam.  Just click on the link below where it says ‘Leave a comment.’

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