Is it OK to run in a cemetery?

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I rarely visit my sister’s grave. I feel self-conscious, like I’m stepping into a role. Should I stand forlornly in front of it? Talk to her, like someone would do in a movie scene (the kind of cheesy scene that Helen would rip the merciless piss out of, I might add)? It’s worse because it’s so public. Anyone passing through the cemetery could see me and (in my mind) scrutinise my grieving.

But the truth is, barely anyone does pass through the cemetery. It’s a shame, because it’s a beautiful space- the biggest in the UK, apparently. It has grand old trees, and well-tended flowerbeds, and acre upon acre of stones of all types. When you are standing in the middle of it, you can’t see the main roads that roar around its perimeter. In the winter, when frost evaporates from the wings of stone angels in curls of sunlit steam, you feel like you could be in Narnia.

Recently, when tinkering with my running route, I decided to take in a loop of the cemetery. I hadn’t intended to visit Helen, but once I got there, I found my feet drawn to her ‘patch’- where her neighbours are mostly other children and young people who died too soon (I think the cemetery team plan it that way, which is kind- it makes you feel less alone), with the tree in the middle that was the size of a large Christmas tree when we buried her, and now towers way above our heads.

I would have made a strange sight to anyone passing: leaning on her headstone dripping sweat and tears, my running rush sending sobs crashing through me, Sean flipping Paul blasting through my headphones. I didn’t think about what I should be doing or how I should be mourning, I just wept there for a few moments, then said ‘bye’, and ran on.

At that moment, Don’t Stop Me Now came on my playlist- one of Helen’s favourite songs, and definitely in my top five running songs. Something about the lyrics, and Freddie, and the profound knowledge that I still had life in me to run, sent me powering along- past the angels and the crumbling old graves, the newer shiny slabs and the piles of flowers for those recently gone, through the Manchester rain and the blossom petal rain. I ran my fastest 1k ever through the cemetery, Strava told me later.

A couple of days later, I stumbled across a thread in a high-brow cultural discussion group I’m a member of- oh alright, Mumsnet. It was about whether people should or should not go running in cemeteries. Many people felt that it just isn’t right, that it could offend those using the cemetery for ‘proper’ reasons, that it’s not appropriate to steam through a place of quiet reflection in neon lycra.

It puzzled me, that anyone would find it disrespectful or offensive.

I mean, I understand that there are limits. I wouldn’t advocate having a Parkrun in a cemetery (actually, I think it would be joyful, but I appreciate that somebody trying to have a quiet graveside moment might not appreciate 400 pairs of trainers thumping enthusiastically by). I wouldn’t do many other sorts of exercise there- nobody needs to hear me grunting through ten sets of burpees while they are trying to mourn. And of course, if I saw a burial taking place up ahead, I would make a discreet u-turn, just as I would stop my car to let a funeral procession pass.

But I do think we should bring these little-used spaces into our everyday lives more- not just because they are green spaces, and god knows that in our cities these are precious. But because we should stop pushing away death, as if isn’t part of life.

What do we do with our dead- bury them away and only engage with them when we make the sad little pilgrimage to stand awkwardly at a grave? I loved dropping in on my sister in an impromptu way- I can’t do that in ‘real life’, but I loved that she was part of my real life, as I ran that day. I’ve now incorporated the cemetery into my regular route, and sometimes I’ll stop by her grave for a minute (I’ll do anything for a breather), and sometimes I’ll wave as I jog by, or just glance over at ‘her’ tree with its wind chimes jangling.

I think we should run, and walk, and cycle in cemeteries- hell, let’s do yoga in cemeteries. And I think kids should go on school trips and nature walks in cemeteries. I think we should make them into places filled with more than memories and silence and ne’er-do-wells doing inappropriate things. More than spooky Halloween places.

And you know… there’s something about running in particular. If you run, you’ll know that it just feels human, in a way you can’t explain. On paper (and sometimes in reality) it’s crap: monotonous, knackering and torturous. But it feels elemental and instinctual. I’m sure that other people, who have done actual academic research and stuff, can back me up on this, but frankly I’m too tired to google.

As Bruce (king of my running playlist) sang, we are born to run. And we’re born to die, too. So at the risk of sounding like an absolute arse of a running bore, when I run, I’m respecting what it is to be human. And when I run in the cemetery, I’m respecting that it’s also human to die. Running in a graveyard seems to me, actually, like the most natural thing to do.

So if you’re walking by the largest cemetery in Britain and you see a woman with a beetroot face waving at a gravestone and perhaps weeping, or perhaps singing along to Dizzee Rascal- don’t worry, I’m fine. Come on in, instead. It’s actually rather lovely.

 

The Middle Years

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My little boy has the roundest, softest face. When I creep in to stare at him sleeping, it is so much like a peach that it’s tempting to have a little nibble when I lean down to kiss him.

The other night as I was standing there in the dark, I suddenly realised that one day he will- fate willing- be a giant teenager, and then a man, and his cheek won’t be round anymore. It’ll be all chiselled and bristly. Would it be weird, then, for me to creep into his room and kiss his face? (Yes. Yes it would).

I could almost hear my heart constricting, when I looked at his shoulders, smaller than the span of my hand, and imagined them big and hulking.

It wasn’t knowing that he would grow up that made my breath catch in my chest. It was the sudden realisation that when he is grown or even just a teenager, there will sometimes be hurt bruising the space beneath those shoulders- hurt that he might not be able to, or want to, tell me about; hurt that won’t be solved by me folding him into my lap and hugging it away, and telling him that everything is OK, and him believing it.

It made me realise that this time in our child-rearing journey- these middle years, when the babies aren’t babies any more, but aren’t yet grown- is a sweet spot.

I’ve never yearned to go back to the baby days- even when I inhale the gorgeousness of a newborn’s head. Even when I pick up one of my kids and grunt with the effort, and they are all gangly arms and legs all over the place instead of a curled up little bean on my shoulder. Or when I scroll back through old photos, and feel a pang for Leila’s big birthmark that sat like a cherry on her forehead and has now faded. Although I loved having babies, I don’t want to travel back in time, or even to stop time. I seem to be missing the mum-nostalgia gene.

In fact, I love my kids getting older and seeing their personalities and interests unfold. But I hear that there are rocky times ahead in the teenage years- and then of course they will be adults, and I won’t be able to kiss away their troubles.

So I’m cherishing the middle years, which are, there is no doubt about it, easier- even if it often doesn’t feel that way.

They can talk, for a start, which means that not only can they tell me what they need and how they feel, but we can have conversations, and proper chats and laughs. At mealtimes, they sit on a chair, with cutlery and a plate made of china, and I know that they won’t throw it on the floor. When we go away for the weekend, we don’t have to take a maddening fold-up cot that is impossible to put up and even more impossible to collapse. When they cry, words and hugs can soothe them, instead of having to circle round the house doing a bouncy space-walk and going SH-SH-SH into their ear for three hours.

The other weekend they built a den in the garden with an umbrella and blankets,  and played together, without us, for over an hour. It was great. (Though of course, the minute G and I dared to be smug enough to comment on how well they were playing, the deathly shrieks of sibling rivalry echoed from the garden and someone pulled the umbrella over in a strop). They are learning new things, every day at school, and it blows my mind.

I may not get mum-nostalgia, but perhaps I am guilty of the opposite- of wanting to move on to the next stage too soon, to find out what lies in store and who they’ll become, and (let’s be honest) feel the relief of having got through another phase or stage without fucking it up too much.

But then real life pulls me back to the present. The night when I watched Asher sleeping curled up on his side, and imagined him as a man, he woke long after I had got into my own bed and yelled “IT’S TOO DARK!”. We had to go in and soothe him and stroke his sweaty hair from his head and tuck him back in. The next morning, he had a tantrum because daddy has drunk all of the imaginary tea he had poured into a toy teacup, instead of waiting for it to ‘cool down.’

I was reminded that, as much as I may be diving into the middle years with relish, he is still tiny. Even Leila, who reads to herself, and horrifyingly knows the words to several Little Mix songs, none of which are suitable for a seven year old- she’s still so little, too.

I don’t want to stop time, but I mustn’t hurry it along, either. For now, while things are slightly less intense- the space between a bumpy take-off and teenage turbulence, perhaps- it’s time to lift my head, and breathe, and enjoy the view from the middle.

The Seven Stages of Childfree Holiday Time

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Like many people, as a child I spent much of the school holidays at my grandparents’ houses. Of course, at the time I thought it was all for my own entertainment. Those were the innocent days before I discovered the two words that strike cold fear into the hearts of working parents: holiday childcare, and realised that Grandparents are truly the superheroes of the school hols.

Never mind sleepless nights, sore nips and two-hour tantrums- why does nobody warn us about this before we have kids? (I mean, it should have been obvious, but it never occurred to me). I can still remember doing the sums with a rising sick feeling when our oldest started school: 2 parents, 4-5 weeks annual leave a year each… it does not add up to 13 weeks school holidays, plus inset days.

I’m leaving my permanent job later this year to go freelance, and I’m only half joking when I say that it’s partly so that I can avoid at least some of the dreaded holiday childcare planning, by being more in control of my time. (That’s the theory anyway, though I can almost hear the howls of laughter from my freelancer readers).

But for now, the school holidays- with accompanying Spreadsheet of Doom- are a hodge podge of annual leave days, swaps with friends, the odd stint in holiday club. And, now that both kids are a little older, the first trips to grandparents.

And so last week, the children went away for three whole nights to their grandma’s house. This was the longest either of them has been away, and the only time (apart from one night) they have both been away at the same time. In a different city.

They had a fantastic time. It’s wonderful that they get to start building the kind of holiday memories that I treasure now. But for me, it was a mixed experience. God knows that, when I had a gigantic baby who wanted to cuddle all the time, and a toddler who ran rings around me mentally and physically, I dreamed of the day when me and their dad could have a night or two to ourselves. But now they’re big kids, and that time has finally come, it turns out that I am the only gigantic baby around here these days.

So if you’re looking forward to some kid free holiday time, here’s some advance warning of how it might pan out for you (or if you are not prone to melodrama, perhaps not so much):

Separation. For the days leading up to the parting you try extra hard not to shout. You take deep sniffs of their necks and heads, and push back their hair from their faces so you can drink in their features. All of this because, in the back of your heart you fear you will never see them again. You say goodbye, and then…

…Melancholy sets in. Hear that sound? It’s silence. Initially delicious, very soon  hollow. You may or may not stand in their bedrooms when darkness falls and want to cry. You may or may not bury your face in their pillows. It literally feels like parts of your body are in another town.

Hysterically making the most of it. Suddenly, you can almost hear the ticking of your freedom trickling away. You tidy like a mad thing, revelling in the fact that nobody will follow you around scattering Lego in your wake. You turn to your other half in a panic. We should go out! Go for walk- in the evening! Get lashed! Get naked! Instead you eat tea in front of Peep Show as normal.

Transient glee. You are woken the first morning with a cup of tea instead of a small child roaring MUMMY. It is not 6am. You can piss about on your phone in bed without feeling guilty or anybody demanding to watch videos of cats falling out of trees. You put on so much make-up you look like you are going to the Oscars, just because you have the time. The house is still tidy. It stays tidy. You go out for a meal, with your partner- in the evening!

Pining. Before long, you are  spending 60% of your time looking at photos of the kids. You text Grandma too frequently for updates. You still secretly half believe that you will never see them again.

Joyful Reunion. As their train pulls into the station you have butterflies in your tummy and you, embarrassingly, burst into tears. You squeeze their cheeks too hard and want to devour them whole. You will never, never get cross with them again.

Immediately stressed and knackered. Within minutes, you feel as if they have never been away. Hustling across the station repeating ‘hold my hand, hold onto my hand, watch where you’re going, STOP.’ By teatime you have heard MUMMY ten thousand times. You are tired. You could do, to be honest, with a break.

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Parental love is so bloody rampaging and giant that I don’t think it can really get any ‘fonder’. Unless it’s ‘fond’ in the Shakespearian sense, sometimes used to mean ‘mad’. In which case, yes, absence did make my heart grow fonder- madder, and more irrational. But it also taught me, that, truly, if you can step into your childrens’ bedrooms and see them sleeping safely in their own beds, there is nothing more you could possibly need.

On Long Term Love and Celery Leaves

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Britain’s longest-married couple have hit the headlines recently. Phyllis and George Loftus got hitched when Phyllis was seventeen, and they’ve been married for 77 years.

My partner G and I met when we were 19 years old (almost literally children, really), and we marked seventeen years together last week.

(I say ‘marked’, but in truth, it went like this:

Me, the day before: You’ve haven’t got me a card, have you?

Him: No, I forgot!

Me: Phew, I did too.

And on our anniversary itself, I was wondering whether we should do something romantic that evening, when I heard his voice ringing through the house: ‘Sit down on the loo again, you did a bit more poo when you stood up then.’ Such is life with small children.)

We’re no Phyllis and George, not yet. But still, seventeen years. That feels pretty big. I’m starting to feel like we’re due a small column in the local newspaper, at least.

The Loftuses put the longevity of their relationship down to having a hot meal together every night. I think that makes a lot of sense. And just in case any local journos do come knocking, I’ve put together a list of the secrets to a long relationship, according to me and G:

We are never irritating. Neither of us have any annoying habits, like shoving things into cupboards so that everything falls out when the next person opens it, or offering helpful advice on the best way to load the washing machine.

We are never irritable. I would never shoot daggers at him because of the way he is eating an orange.

We never argue. Especially not about anything stupid. We’d never have a blazing row about whether you should save celery leaves or put them in the compost bin, for example.

Obviously, all of the above is bullshit. I think too much emphasis is put on there being a ‘secret’. I don’t buy into #relationshipgoals (hey, apart from the Obamas. They get a pass). You never know what a relationship is really like from the inside, no matter what instagram might tell you. Even those relationships that seem ideal- maybe even the Obamas’- are most likely a mass of complexity.

For me, it’s simply about the threads that bind you together. The threads are made of the big stuff: respect, love, intimacy, trust, shared values, family. But they are also made of the everyday. Texts reminding each other to buy loo roll and nit lotion. The time when we got rat-arsed in Tokyo and roared Born Slippy at each other in a private karaoke booth. Having a hot meal every night, like Phyllis and George.

Sometimes, even after years, you can find yourself suddenly weaving threads that bind you closer. A family camping holiday where I remembered that life is, actually, about more than loo roll and nit lotion, and that my fellow grafter at the coalface of parenthood is my friend, too. The way he picked me up off the floor when I was crippled with grief, and carried me through the days until I found my feet again. Or just a day like today, when we climbed on rocks (again) and ate lunch in the garden, and felt quietly proud of the way the kids were playing together.

Sometimes- some days, some months, some years even- it feels like you’re slicing through the threads carelessly, with the way you speak to each other, the way you disregard each others’ needs, or don’t look at your own behaviour while being quick to criticise. Sometimes the threads just get frayed and worn away, because life is tiring, and busy. As Cheryl Tweedy Cole Fernandez Versini Just-Cheryl once sang, ‘now every day ain’t gon’ be no picnic/love ain’t no walk in the park.’

Sometimes, let’s face it, you’re hanging by a single thread or two. We’ve been there. You can bind yourselves back together again, though, somehow.

Or maybe you can’t. Sometimes the threads wear away completely, or sometimes one or both people decide to slice through them for good. I’ve seen enough relationships that were strong and good in many ways end to know that there is no guarantee. Not all relationships that end are bad. Some that last forever are deeply flawed. ‘As long as we both shall live’ is a lovely sentiment, but the statistics show that it isn’t the reality of all relationships now, and that’s often not a bad thing. ‘As long as we both shall love’ seems more apt, somehow.

And as long as there are more threads binding you than threads coming loose and breaking, then it’s working. That, for me, is the secret, if there is a secret at all.

G and I aren’t married, and never intend to get married- so anyone who’s stashing their hat fund can go and blow it immediately on Easter eggs. (But please note: I do like a good wedding. Invite me to your wedding! I will cry at the ceremony, and sing very loudly in church, and get just the right sort of merrily drunk. I just don’t plan to go to my own wedding at any point).

But, married or not, I suppose long term relationships are about choosing the same person, over and over again. Consciously or unconsciously evaluating the threads that bind you, and choosing each other again. Kind of like a document autosaving on the computer.

This may be the least romantic anniversary post ever. I guess that’s how we roll, but it seems to have served us OK so far. So, happy (very belated obvs) anniversary to us. I hope we continue to autosave. And I promise never to throw celery leaves in the bin again.

How to raise perfectly behaved children*

(*Spoiler alert: I have no idea)

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I am a great parent, me. I am patient and engaged. When the children step out of line, I am firm yet kind. I give gentle warnings and follow through. I am consistent.

I am all of those things, when the conditions are right. When I’m not stretched thin, and the kids are being best of friends instead of high-pitched fight-magnets, and nobody is climbing on my back.

The problem is, sometimes, that doesn’t seem to be very much of the time.

Before I had children, I thought that you were one sort of parent, or another. A grumpy mum, or a kind mum. A stern dad, or a relaxed dad. I was sure I’d be a patient mum, because I am many things, but I am not cross or shouty.

Was not. Was not cross or shouty. Two kids later and I’ve discovered that I am a kind mum, but I am also sometimes a grumpy mum. I’m not a monster- but I’m definitely less patient than I thought I would be. And discipline is the hardest part of parenthood for me (apart from the beautiful and terrible love that leaves me in constant fear of losing them, obvs).

Or rather, not discipline per se. I am perfectly fine with discipline. I believe in boundaries, and I don’t mind having a stern word or withdrawing a privilege. I think kids need discipline, and some kids need it more than others. I often say that getting our eldest through the toddler years was like breaking in a gorgeous but feisty little horse.

What I find really hard is disciplining in the right way. Not letting my own frustration or exhaustion or anger, or sometimes even tears (this has happened more than once, oh dear) screw up the way I am teaching them right from wrong.

And then there’s comparison, that thief of joy. When you’re sure that every other parent is counting to three with some kind of idea of what will actually happen when they get to three. When you suspect that their version of losing their shit is saying in a slightly louder voice: ‘That’s unkind, Indigo.’

And then there’s the mine-strewn maze of co-parenting your way through discipline. When one minute you are whisper-hissing ‘just be patient with him’ at your partner, and the next you are snapping at your kid: ‘No, UP the stairs, not lying at the bottom of the stairs, UP them, UP, NOW.’

Back when we laid our brand new first baby on the bed, and stared at her, and at each other, and laughed- because how on earth were we supposed look after this tiny little thing?- we had no idea of how much more ‘looking after’ meant than getting the hang of nappies and swaddling and feeding (and that’s hard enough!).

See, I’ve been writing this post in my head for ages, and it was filled with LOLs. But after a challenging couple of weeks, behaviour wise (theirs and possibly mine), I’m finding it hard to find the humour. So here, you can laugh at me instead, as I recount a selection of my finest discipline fails. Because if there is one thing that makes me feel better about this whole issue, it’s knowing that other parents make a balls-up of it sometimes too:

The time with the class teddy. 

You know the score: the class soft toy comes home for the weekend, and your job is to cram in as many museum trips and healthy walks as you can, so your page of the scrapbook will look dead good and cultural. Your job is not, when your nursery-aged child refuses to open her mouth to have her teeth brushed, while simultaneously pulling two handfuls of your hair as hard as she can, to shout out in pain and frustration so that she says “Stop it mummy, you are scaring Barney!” And you turn around and there is Barney, watching you from the sink with his judgey button eyes. Let’s just say, we didn’t take a photograph of that moment for the scrapbook- and I lived in fear, for the whole of the following week, that this part of Barney’s stay would be recounted to the whole class at carpet time.

 All the stupid things I’ve said:

“If you don’t [x] now, I am going to throw the television in the bin.”

“If you haven’t [y] by the time I count to three, I am going to throw the treat tin in the bin.”

“I am a person. Mummy is a person. I have feelings!”

“MY LIFE MATTERS TOO!” (this was last week, when they were refusing to get ready, and I had a meeting to go to).

Of course, there is also all the time I spend bleating “Guys, could you just- guys- guys- why are you- guys just-” while they completely ignore me until I feel like throwing myself in the bin, just to make a point.

The time I lost it in Co-Op. 

This time it wasn’t my kids who were on the receiving end, but a member of the public. It had been a wearing morning, and I had managed, against all odds, to actually be a good, calm and consistent parent. I was sweaty with the effort of it. Something had to give. My four year old was taking a break from being an unbearable arse, to carefully manoeuvre a little pushalong basket around Co-Op. He was concentrating so hard that he didn’t notice when he very gently and briefly, bumped it against a man’s legs….

Man: ‘Don’t say sorry, then.’

Me: (Turning round slowly) I’m so sorry, did he bump your legs? I’m so sorry.

Man’s wife: It’s fine. Reg, you shouldn’t have said anything. It’s fine.

Me: It’s just (tears and rage welling)- it’s just, he’s four, and he’s concentrating, and he didn’t even realise he’d done it, so he didn’t realise he had to say sorry.

Wife: Sorry. Reg!

Reg: Sorry.

Me: But I’m so sorry. It’s just- I’m just… having a REALLY HARD DAY!

Wife: REG.

Me: *runs away to the milk aisle to have a small weep, bumps into Reg and his wife in every single aisle of the supermarket*

I’m not proud of any of the above. But I do take heart from the last example, because at least it shows me that I am trying. I am trying so much that I burst into tears at a stranger in Co-Op. We are trying, their dad and I. We have strategies, and we try. Because they’re worth it, those babies.

We don’t always succeed, and frankly sometimes it’s impossible (do you know how infuriating it is when someone climbs on your back while you are loading the washing machine?) But I think trying is really all you can strive for, in parenting and in life. And if that fails, throw the TV in the bin. That’s bound to work, right?