Is it OK to run in a cemetery?

running

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.

 

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The Magic Number?

two

I’ve never been a person who ‘just knows’ about things. Sure, I’ve been with the same man since I was 19, but there has been no ‘just knowing’ about it. There has been a lot of choosing, and working, and talking, and sometimes freaking out.

It’s the same with most things: houses, jobs, hairstyles. My approach is never to ‘just know’, and always to deliberate. Trust my gut? Nah. I prefer to trust many hours of tortured overthinking and introspection, and list-making. With tick-boxes.

But there was one thing I did just know about: I wanted a child. And then, when we’d been lucky enough to have her, I just knew I wanted another one. No overthinking required.

Two kids was a no-brainer. But THREE? Three is a possibility that I think I’ll always be on the fence about- at least until biology kicks me unceremoniously off the fence onto the side of ‘no can do’.

I have friends with three kids, and they just knew they wanted three (and they’re doing a damn good job of it). I’ve got friends with two kids, or one kid, and they just knew too. Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one having a constant internal bicker with myself about this subject, with one voice bleating ‘yes, a baby, now please’, and the other admonishing bossily: ‘hell to the no, woman’.

(Here come the lists…)

In the “yes, a baby, now please” corner:

  1. Babies are lovely. Children are lovely. Being a mum is lovely, a lot of the time.
  2. I always wanted lots of children. That was before I had any, obviously. But having been one of four, and knowing how fantastic growing up in a big family can be, I think I’ll always feel a pang for a tribe.
  3. Babies really are lovely.
  4. I’m going to say this, and I’m not proud of it, but… There’s a swotty part of me, the part that got straight As at GCSES, that wants three in order to score top marks at mumming. It’s quite aspirational, having three. Not wanting another would feel a bit like an admission that I wasn’t loving having two- like proclaiming a cake delicious, but then declining another one. (Note to self: not a reason to have baby).

In the “hell to the no” corner:

  1. While I’m sure I could manage, technically, with three, I suspect I’d be frazzled. I’m not a coper like my mum-of-three friends. When we’re in the park, I panic if I can’t see both the kids, my head swivelling constantly from one child to the other like an electronic toy that has been through the washing machine, and I come across as really, really rude to whoever I am talking to. I have a tendency to break into a sweat when both are yelling MUMMY from different parts of the house. My hands feel full, literally and figuratively.
  2. The bits where being a mum is not so lovely, and even some of the bits that are lovely, are, well, really hard. There seem to be so many scenarios in parenthood where you are stretched to capacity: having a newborn; having a newborn and a toddler OMFG. Let’s be honest, even with older kids, leaving the house is sometimes like a mad dream where everything plays in reverse (why do they stand in the doorway like that, when you are trying to shut the door?). But these days, now that they are 4 and 7, I can manage. I can manage to put them both to bed without nearing breakdown, on my own when need be. Weekends are somewhat relaxing. It’s doable, having two. I like doable. Could we go back into the breach, really?
  3. As someone who has known the dark side of love and loss, having lost my sister at a young age, I know only too well that love also invites pain. And we’ve been so lucky, so bloody lucky, to get the two that we knew we wanted to have. Choosing to stick, rather than twist, feels like a way to protect my heart somehow.
  4. I don’t ‘just know’, and when it comes to whether or not to have more children, I’m starting to think that ‘just knowing’ is the best barometer.

So maybe it really is time to hang up my uterus, and appreciate that I am, actually, hashtag blessed with two, and borrow other peoples’ babies for  squishing and surreptitious head-sniffing.

And if that fails to quell the broody beast within, well, we’re still in our mid-thirties- by the skin of our teeth- and I do warn G regularly that I may simply lose my mind in a couple of years and suddenly demand another one (assuming it’s possible, obviously).

I mean, babies. They are so very lovely.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One: Turn

This weekend we reintroduced forgotten concepts, like jumpers and socks and closed-toe shoes. The thousandth season of X Factor started, which means it’s basically a speedy downhill sleigh-ride to Christmas, and there was a slight nip in the air. All of it gave me the sweet and salty sense of seasons turning, a mixture of nostalgia and optimism and uncertainty.

This summer’s transition to autumn is more bittersweet than usual for me, because this autumn there will be huge changes. Like, turn and face the strain Changes. I’ve been floating preserved in the slightly surreal time-out-of-time that is maternity leave for ten months now (preserved is perhaps the wrong metaphor, given how rapidly this two-kids business has aged me *pulls out another grey hair*), but pretty soon I’ll be back to work. A prospect I can’t really grasp right now so will put in a little box marked ‘la la la I’m not listening’ down here in the sand next to my head.

Leila, meanwhile, is due to start nursery school full time in around three weeks. Which, well. She was only just born the other day, wasn’t she? I feel confident that this is the right thing for her (perhaps her doleful bellows of ‘I’m bored! I want some friends to play with! Not you and Asher! Real friends!’ gave me a clue). But still! Where did this long-leggedy, long-haired girl, who draws angels and cats and whales’ tails rising from the sea, come from? This girl who walks around narrating her imaginary life out loud (‘the prime minister was having a very busy day, she had so much to do’). I know, I KNOW that this is how all parents feel, that their kids grow up mind-boggling quickly. Soon I’ll be urging people earnestly to ‘enjoy every minute’, I’m sure. But it’s a great conundrum of having children, that the two hours before bedtime can last for ten years, and yet in the space of a second, your child goes from a baby who can’t make basic consonant sounds, to telling you that they’re not picking their nose, their finger is next to their nose, so you can’t tell them off.

At least Asher is still a big, dribbly, cuddly, toothless little one, the very essence of Baby. But he is changing too, woah-so-fast. His repertoire of skills may be pretty limited to slithering on his stomach, wobbling round the edge of his cot, clapping, waving and being unbearably cute. But the very beginnings of language are starting to take form (G came in late from work while I was giving Asher his bedtime feed, and kissed his head. Asher looked up at me as G left and said, smiling, ‘dada’), and today he slithered hastily to his highchair when he saw dinner being served, and fixed us with an urgent and expectant stare. Soon he’ll be walking, and going to childcare some of the time, and sleeping through the night! Did you hear that, Asher? Sleeping through the night!. Before we know it, we’ll be wondering whether we can still call him a baby. Oh my heart.

We’ve had, all things considered, a great summer. That’s We, the British Public, what with all the beautiful sunshine; and also we, me and my family. Sure, there have been some extremely knackering and challenging moments- in fact, there probably hasn’t been a day without them. But to be able to spend a large chunk of my mat leave with the kids in such glorious weather has been amazing, especially as it came about just before Leila starts her school life. Hard moments feel less so when they’re bathed in sunshine, and great moments feel fantastic. We’ve had some times. Asher indulged a love of icecream that verges on sinister; Leila finally stopped insisting on wearing a tutu every day and embraced shorts. We had a lovely family holiday and I finally learned that going away with children doesn’t have to be stressful.

And soon we’ll embark on the next stage. Despite none of the changes being bad ones per se, I am me, so I’m partially wracked with a gnawing anxiety. But then, with kids, things are always changing, with or without major life transitions. You’re always leaving something behind, and starting something new, and you’re never quite sure if or how the new thing is going to work out.

Far beneath the constant change, there’s an ever-present tug somewhere inside my heart, that’s sweet and sad at the same time. I think I can sort of name it now. It’s the same feeling I get as the seasons change, only magnified hundreds of times. Leaves turn, and feet grow out of shoes, and the temperature drops, and words form. The world turns russet and gold, and little girls put on grey pinafores and red jumpers, and days get shorter, and kids get longer. There’s nothing you can do to slow any of it, and you can’t wait to see what’s next, but at the same time you still want to stay in this season, right now, for just a little longer.

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Chapter Ten: Boys Will Be…

Boys will be fat, lazy, trouble, a nuisance, dim, slow and destructive.

That’s according to a variety of throwaway comments made since I was expecting, and then had, my own little boy.

This is a man’s world (though for the sake of my daughter AND my son I hope that continues to change)- but boys sure do come in for some shit. And while much is made of the pinkification of girls, I’m starting to think (as I watch my tutu-clad daughter playing with a toy truck) that some of this pink panic might be something of a red herring. There are more worrying and deeply-entrenched stereotypes at play, and many of them are around boys, not girls.

The latest remark came from a woman in a shop. We got chatting after she admired the patchwork quilt on Asher’s pram. I mentioned by way of an anecdote that my mum hadn’t finished it when Asher was born, as he surprised us by being a week early.

‘Huh’ she replied darkly ‘that’s boys for you’, her tone implying that boys are- what? Inconvenient? Selfish?

Of course, it was just chitchat, but she felt strongly enough to say as I left ‘get used to it… That’s boys for you’.

Meanwhile a midwife I know tells me that it’s also common to hear people complain of a ‘typical boy, keeping mum waiting’ when a baby boy is born late. So which is it?

Even when I was pregnant with Leila, a common response when we found out the gender was ‘oh you must be glad it’s a girl’; and then with Asher ‘it’s best you had a girl first, she can keep the boy in line.

It seems even as babies, even BEFORE BIRTH, it’s been decided how a girl or a boy should/will be. This isn’t news- but I’ve been surprised at the expectations levelled at girls (to be good, sweet, sensible), and the lack of them for boys.

This is no good for boys, and it’s no wonder they achieve less than girls at school, with these stereotypes ringing in their ears.

But it’s also no good for girls, because if they grow up believing that they must be sugar and spice and all things nice, whilst boys can apparently get away with being slugs and snails and lazy and naughty- and STILL bag all the power, money and places in the boardroom- well, what message does that give them?

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(Real boys wear tights)

Chapter One: Mumboots

[Disclaimer: I am going to write about my kids a lot on this blog. Like, alotalot.]

There was this moment, when my eldest, Leila, was younger. I’d just been to the chemist for some calpol, and was heading back to the car when I caught sight of myself in a window: slightly frazzled expression; North Face-style bulky anorak; skinny jeans tucked into brown, riding-esque knee high boots; calpol in one hand, carseat in the other; about to get into my VW estate.

Let us deconstruct some elements of this ‘look’. The jacket I had bought for work (filming) only but had ended up wearing all the time, what with it being waterproof (good for the daily nap walks, and if you’ve ever had a baby you know what I’m talking about). The car: not sexy. But reliable and spacious! The calpol: well, as delicious as it is, it wasn’t for me and spoke of sleepless nights and squalling. Hence the frazzled expression.

I was, I realised, a Mum. I still felt like a girl who had thus far managed to trick the world into entrusting her with the care of a real human child; but I looked like (and perhaps… actually was?) a capital-letter Mum. A full-blown, grown-up, ordered-in-from-Central-Casting, Mum. I was the woman politicians try to woo with their talk of ‘hard working families’ (blech), the one who some pity, some envy, and some just find intensely boring. The one who talks about sleep (oh, endlessly) and sick. Closer inspection would probably have revealed some actual sick somewhere on my clothes; and a toy sheep and a few smashed breadsticks in my handbag.

Shit. When did THAT happen? Not the breadsticks. The Mum thing.

Crucial to this picture were the boots. They were, they are- it cannot be denied- Mum Boots. Heeled enough to avoid clompiness, not so heeled that I will tumble into the road whilst carrying a squirming toddler. Classic rather than high-fashion, because what with childcare costs and working part-time and having to buy things for the kid (now kids), I’ll only cough up for boots I can wear for many winters to come- and something tells me the snakeskin-bondage style I saw in Grazia won’t endure the fickle tides of fashion. From Clarks (nuff said).

Yes, cast your eyes downward at the playgroup or school gates and you’ll see a swarm, a veritable stampede, of similar boots.

And this is, so I gather, A Bad Thing.

Whilst checking if this blog name was already in use, I unearthed several threads on-yes- Mumsnet, posted by women concerned that their new boots were Mum Boots. Woe betide the woman who wears Mum Boots. And, worse, apparently the tucking in of the jeans into the boots is intensely Mum-ish (me, I labour under the idea that it makes my legs look thinner ; maybe that’s why it’s Mum-ish).

Because another defining feature of the ‘Mum’ of today is a cringing self-consciousness, a horror of being put into a pigeon hole- which inevitably she will be (just read the Daily Mail: old mums, teen mums, working mums, breastfeeding mums, mums who drink…  In they go, into their boxes, come along dears), a desire to not be defined as that which, probably/hopefully she once longed to be and which brings her immense joy.

But why this aversion to defining ourselves as mothers? Yes, I do want to be seen as myself, as well as a mother. But to me,  the two aren’t separate. I don’t get the widely held viewpoint that when you have kids, you lose your identity. I no more buy into that than I buy into the idea of your job, or your hair, or your hobbies, or your cat, defining who you are. Having Leila and (since two months ago) my boy Asher, has enriched who I am. And I’d rather define that myself, than keep quiet and let the Daily Mail do it.

So, maybe my boots are not the coolest. But I love my mum boots. I am reclaiming the Mumboots. They are fine boots and I enjoy wearing them, and actually if you look at them without the calpol and the cagoul and the carseat, they are just boots. I’ve worn them to make TV programmes, meet friends, even- on occasion- to go to a bar (kapow!). They are not just Mumboots.

And that, now that I have squeezed every last drop from the metaphor, is why  this blog is called Mumboots. Because this blog is largely (but not totally) about the ‘Mum’ part of me, which is, in fact, just me.

Here is where I click the heels of my Mumboots with abandon, where I write about being a parent and parenting and my toddler and my baby and goodbye 50% of potential readers who have now just clicked away.

I’ll write about this quirky little creature, Leila:

Leila swing

And this chunky little beast, Asher:

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And a life that veers from ear-splitting shrieky chaos (in which I’m often the one shrieking), to happiness that explodes my heart daily, but is never-to me- boring.

[insert carefully chosen photo of my Mumboots, cleverly taken to make my legs look thinner than they really are].