Baby Holmes & Baby Melling

Dear Miller,
I honestly didn’t think having a daughter would be that different from having a son. And it hasn’t been until now. Now that you are trying to talk and are starting to form words though, it is very, very different. You were both so similar as tiny babies, when I look back at photos from the day you were both born, I can only tell if it’s you or Leo by whether I have my wedding ring on a necklace round my neck. (We got married between having you both so, Leo is Baby Holmes on all his hospital records and Miller, you are Baby Melling.) Now, not only are you looking less alike, your different characters are beginning to shine through. Miller, you will sit on my knee with one arm hanging round my neck, speaking into my face, kissing and kissing… Leo never sat still on my knee (or on anything for that matter) for more than 30 seconds. And still doesn’t. He just wants to be off. Off and away to who knows where. He was climbing out of his cot and hurling himself over stair-gates before he was 18 months old. He could drag himself up stairs and slides before he had even put one foot in front of the other to walk. Miller, you are not proving to be as nimble. But what you lack in physical prowess, you more than make up for in loving nature. And your little gravelly voice kills me every time. The crying in the morning though, really needs to stop. The other morning when you were staggering around our bedroom dramatically, with three bunnies grasped in one hand and your chocolate bottle leaking all over the floor from the other hand, and you were wailing and wailing for absolutely no reason, your Dad said “Miller, if you stop crying in the mornings, I will top up your ISA by £150.” That incident sums up our differences as people and parents – your Dad thinks a financial incentive will appeal to a two-year-old and I had no idea you even had an ISA.
Love.
PS I’m also not entirely sure what an ISA actually is. But there’s definitely money involved, so you’re a very lucky girl to have one.

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Nothing good gets away

Dear Leo and Miller,

It’s Valentine’s Day and I want to show you my favourite photo of our wedding day. I can’t remember who took it. Someone with a broken phone because there’s a strange line down the image and there is definitely something not quite right with the light. But it is my favourite photo from that day. I love it because we don’t know it’s being taken or at least we aren’t looking at the camera which is good enough. Your Dad looks at a camera like he hates the world or at least his life: it’s very rare that a photo captures him looking even neutral never mind happy. So to have a photo where he looks like he’s enjoying himself is a wonderful thing. I love that you can see my dress riding up at the side because I have a 5 month old baby bump beneath that beautiful dress that was getting bigger by the day.

There were only 17 people at our wedding (including us) and we all went for lunch at our favourite restaurant. We ate oysters and drank champagne – it was perfect.

You should probably know that I fainted twice during our marriage service. It was a very sunny day for October and the sun was beaming down through the stain glass windows in the church directly onto my face. I also hadn’t slept that night because, Leo, you were poorly and I lay on the floor by your cot all night convinced you were going to be sick again and choke to death. I was also wearing very restrictive underwear to try and make my dress fit a bit better. It was a perfect storm of terrible conditions that physically and literally floored me. Twice. After the second time, I remember someone saying “Give her some sugar.” And your Uncle Mark gave me a soft mint. Then we tried again and eventually got through the promises and the vows etc. And then we were married. (Incidentally, the vicar who married us was a brilliant man called Nick Chamberlain who became the first Church of England Bishop to openly be in a gay relationship.)

I want you both to know that your Dad is the love of my life and I am lucky that I met him (again) when I was old enough to appreciate a good thing. We have barely spent a handful of nights apart since the first night we spent together. I understand now that love means wanting the other person to be happy. And you can’t be happy if they aren’t happy. Also, being married means taking it in turns to be strong. Without him my life would be a mess – in all ways. We were parents before we were husband and wife, we have always been more than just the two of us. Our lives are full, sometimes too full. But there is no amount of chaos we can’t get through together.

Love Mum.

PS. I am trying to stick to the ethos that these letters don’t have to be perfect, they just have to exist. So I started it today and I’m finishing it today like all the rest and it will just have to be good enough.

So always be kind

Dear Leo and Miller,

Since I started writing these letters, I am now constantly thinking about advice or words of guidance that I want to tell you. There are lots, of course, or this blog wouldn’t last very long. Every day I hear or read things that I want to pass on to you both. But if there was one lesson above others I would ask you to hold on to it would be this “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about: so always be kind.” It more or less sums up everything that is important, everything you need to know about life is in there – it is the To Kill a Mocking Bird of advice. I can’t remember who said it to me or where I read it but if you only follow one instruction from me, let it be that.

A close second, and one I have been conjuring up a lot recently, came from the most unlikely of sources. It was stuck up on a wall in a conference room at a business seminar I attended last week. (The very last place I thought would provide inspiration for these letters.) However, it said “If everyone likes what you’re doing they’re probably lying.” I think it was aimed at employers trying to manage their staff effectively in the work place but it has become my current favourite mantra. It suggests the time to worry is when you aren’t getting any criticism and is much better than something similar “You can’t please all the people all the time” which just sounds vague and defeatist.

You will encounter criticism in your life, it’s unavoidable. And people will show a lack of encouragement towards what you’re doing that puts doubt in your mind. But you don’t need everyone to think you’re brilliant: you don’t even need many people to think your brilliant. What other people think isn’t that important: only your attitude towards it. So ignore the negative and don’t buy into the positive too much either. You just need to battle on regardless with whatever it is you think is worthwhile.
Love.

Show up. Dive in. Persevere.

Dear Leo and Miller,

I think I need to reassess the frequencies of our letters. I didn’t think it would be too ambitious to write one per week but it is certainly proving so. So instead of once a week it’s going to be when I have something worth sharing with you – then I know I will find the time. I am finding Instagram a better place to stay consistent and connected with the project – it’s much more immediate and practical. But I won’t abandon the blog, I promise.

Christmas went over in a blur. A beautiful blur but a still a blur. The tree stayed standing, no presents were tampered with before the big day and tempers remained at reasonable levels throughout the entire festive period. I think this was mainly due to the fact we didn’t do half of the things we planned on doing. Parties were missed, loose arrangements weren’t kept, half-made commitments were cancelled but I think it was a welcome relief to everyone. From the 28th of December we just hid. Hid in our house and only left it when we absolutely wanted to and completely on our terms. The four of us walked into town and went for dumplings at the market, sometimes soft play. All your normal favourite things. We didn’t even go to Beadnell. The weather was freezing and the advantages weren’t weighing up the disadvantages so we just didn’t go. The last time we went up for the day (sometime in early December) I forgot that you Miller had never stood in the sea before. I led you by the finger, I let go and then you fell in. You were soaked to the skin and so we all had to race back to the house and change you into the only clothes I could find, which weren’t many. When the work is finished to our house, I promise we will go up more, regardless of the weather. But this winter was not the one to spend by the sea.

I do have something worth sharing with you which is taking up a lot of my time but I want you to know how important it is. I touched upon it in my last letter and now there is a real plan. Some friends and I are organising a fund-raising event for Syria. We are raising money for the International Red Cross who are doing incredible work out there. This event is becoming a much bigger thing than I first imagined and to think it’s only 8 weeks away makes me nervous. We’re calling it Something for Syria. It needs to do justice to the cause and I just hope we can pull off something very special.

The picture with this letter is from The Economist and it shows Syrian children play next to a destroyed building in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus (January 9th 2017. Credit AFP/Abd Doumany.) I saw it on Instagram last night and at first, it made me think of you both and then, it made me even more determined to make the event a big success. It’s a good image to hold on to.

Barack Obama gave his farewell address last night, his last speech as President of the United States of America, and, regardless of politics, something he said was also worth holding on to. “Show up. Dive in. Persevere.” Useful to conjour up when a task seems impossible or hope is losing.

Love.

 

A small step for Syria

Dear Leo and Miller,

A lot has happened in a week. One day at work I made the mistake of reading too much about the situation in Aleppo and almost started crying at my desk. There was a letter on the BBC website from someone working as a doctor for the International Red Cross. He or she spoke of what they had seen on one particular day in December which happened to have been my birthday. What they described was like the end of the world. When I got home that night, I couldn’t look you both in the eye until I was doing something. Something useful to raise money or awareness or to try and make something happen no matter how small. Maybe a fund-raising event? A charity night? I didn’t really know. So I emailed a handful of friends about what I was thinking and within 24 hours we had a venue and a grand plan. This kick-started a project that I think is going to take over my life for a bit. But you will understand one day why I couldn’t do nothing. 

It seems impossible that a humanitarian crisis, which looks almost biblical in scale of destruction, could be happening right now in a country not so far away. I don’t think I am any more affected by what I see now that I am a mother. In fact, I find it vaguely insulting towards people who aren’t parents to suggest that they feel less intensely when confronted with suffering children. But I do weigh up the faces and little bodies with more of a reference point than before and think – you’re about Miller’s age or that group on their own with no adults to be seen aren’t much older than you Leo. It’s terrifying. They look so like you, right down to the clothes they wear. These aren’t refugees in rag cloths and sandals: they’re in Adidas and children’s clothes I almost recognise. They could be you. On sight, they’re just a dirtier, heart-broken version of you two. The only small sliver of hope to come out of the relentless and brutal footage we’re seeing day in and day out is that it is so shocking and so vivid, that we in the West might start to choose our words differently. Because that will be the start of a wind of change. We talk about the threat that refugees pose to our nation and our way of living, and we talk about the threat of what we call our migration crisis. But the only real crisis we face is a moral one if we continue to look on and do nothing. I’ve done what I suppose most people do and donate some money to Unicef or Save the Children or another charity. And feel a bit better that we’ve ticked a box that says we’ve given enough money to keep x amount of children in warm clothes and full bellies. But it isn’t enough and it will never be enough. The one tangible thing I can do is make a promise to myself to bring both of you up as best I can. To protect you fiercely but not to protect you from too much. I want you to know what kind of a world we live in: the good and the bad. And I want you to be free enough of mind to come to your own conclusions. All that is up to me is to arm you with information. I won’t allow you to become complacent about all the privileges you enjoy – that I whole-heartedly promise. I will make sure you know that not everyone you come across with a foreign voice has come here with a happy story. I will be rigorous with the language I use around you. I won’t slip up and let prejudice and judgement filter into our conversations. I won’t let you hear views I heard growing up about ‘bloody foreigners’ or even worse. Or at least I will make sure you know it’s not OK to speak that way. The world is tiny now. It’s on the screens of our tiny phones. Pictures of war zones so clear and close you can practically taste the dust. You will have no excuse to say you didn’t know. I will make you both realise that these pictures aren’t the problem of another country. You have a responsibility to pay attention because they are part of your own lives and your story. Muhammad Ali got it right when he said: Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth. There is no doubt in my mind about that. How you fulfil that service will be up to you.

Love Mum.

PS. You can read the letter here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-38257312

 

55.5588° N, 1.6342° W

Dear Leo and Miller,

So I missed a week… It was bound to happen eventually. I think I’ve done well to get this far without slipping up but I’m sorry this letter is late. Last week was all over the place because you finally got chicken pox too Miller. After 3 weeks of all the symptoms minus the spots, the spots made an appearance. Just a light smattering compared to Leo’s (which looked like cigarette burns) but they came nonetheless. And with them a continuation of the crying and sleeplessness and the upset. It was also my birthday mid-week and even though everyone was tired, irritable and not in the mood to do anything, your Dad and I made the effort and had a night out. To the Tyneside Cinema of course. We promised each other after you were born that we would make the effort and go out together once a month, which at the time seemed reasonable, almost easy, but now is laughable. Quarterly is about what we manage these days. I’m sorry if all I seem to do in these letters is list the ways you are an inconvenience to our lives. But I can’t deny that you’ve destroyed our social life. It wasn’t back-to-back parties before, but we did love going to the cinema and I can’t even remember the name of the last film we saw…  The closest we get to watching films these days is the first 20 minutes of Toy Story, Cars or The Little Mermaid about 10 times a day.

My only spare time recently (to sit and write a letter) has been taken up driving to and from Beadnell because we’re having work done on our cottage. To prevent it falling down or being condemned, which would certainly not help increase bookings next season. Neither of you really appreciate it yet but Beadnell is going to be very important to you. That is my hope anyway.  It was to me and I want you to have the same connection with the place. I want it to be our refuge from town and school and work and all the other pressures in life that seem to evaporate as soon as you step onto the beach. It is the only place where your Dad properly relaxes and for that alone it is worth all of the trouble and strife it takes to keep it going. We bought the cottage before we had you two, before we were married, before we even had our own home. In hindsight, it’s difficult to argue that it wasn’t a huge mistake. A big expensive mistake. But neither of us would have the heart to sell it now and so instead of ruing the day we bought it, we have to start looking after it.

Love Mum.

Sail Happily On

Dear Leo and Miller,

You have both been very poorly and I have spent the best part of this week grappling with both of you, trying to keep you calm and settled. This has meant both of you being in my bed most nights – sometimes all night, sometimes just for a stint, always a struggle. Not much sleep has been had by any of us. Or reading or writing.

But now you are both back in nursery and normal life can resume. Or at least what has become our normal. I have not been wearing mascara for the last few days and I do that when I am tired or over-whelmed, and when I know I am most likely  going to cry at some point in the day so I just don’t bother putting on any make-up. At the best of times I feel as though I have been taken hostage by parenthood but when one of you is ill, all bets are totally off and I don’t know what I’m going to be faced with or how I’m going to react. The lack of control over what used to be a selfishly led life is still something I struggle to resolve with myself.

I read a very good piece of advice in The Telegraph at the weekend. Graham Norton writes a problem page for the Saturday paper. If you are familiar with his television persona (of which I have never been a fan) you might consider him an unlikely source of sound and sympathetic advice. But he is surprisingly compassionate and sensible. One letter was from a woman who thought she might be suffering with depression and he replied: “I understand your concerns for the future, but try thinking about this afternoon instead. Is there a pile of magazines you’ve been meaning to go through? A lampshade that needs to be washed? Stress and anxiety consume us when we feel the world is going to crush us, but the truth is that our lives are made up of moments. Manage them, enjoy them, endure them – you will get through them.”

These words rang true and I want you to remember them. Because there will be times when you won’t have it in you to bound through life enjoying every minute. There will be many times you’ll be lucky just to pick your way through without hurting yourself. And that’s alright. Do not compare yourself to other people who seem to sail happily on through whatever comes there way: some people simply find life easier than others. Do not be disheartened: it’s all a series of moments that don’t last. You must find joy in the ones you can and try to stand the rest.

Love Fa.

x

God Bless America

Dear Leo and Miller,

Donald Trump is president of the United States of America. You will discover in your own time how this is an incredible turn of events that only 12 months ago seemed an impossible joke. Like Brexit, there is very strong feeling surrounding the subject and people are angry. One of the things being said a lot is “What kind of a legacy are we leaving our children?” and I am going to be honest: I don’t know. It’s difficult to not have some kind of political point of view and I have fallen out with good friends over both Brexit and Donald Trump. You can only speak as you find and we are lucky enough to also speak as we wish: that is the beauty of living in a democracy. I don’t consider myself a political person – I don’t know enough and I don’t make it a priority to know more, which is a failing. I live in a bubble: a tiny bubble that won’t be directly effected in any huge heart-breaking ways by either of these historic events. So I look on in wonder (mixed with a bit of horror and a battling hope) at the millions of people whose lives will very probably be turned upside down. Will the world be a very different place by the time you both come of voting age? Almost definitely. Will your generation be the one that brings about the changes this generation so desperately wanted to? Again, I don’t know. All I can hope for is that through more information and more understanding, you become better equipped than me to speak freely and boldly about what you find.

Love Fa

PS. As always, when I want to make sense of something confusing or over-whelming, I look to well-written words for a smoother path. No-one has the answers but some are better than others at making us think clearer about the questions. The following are some things I have read – in articles, on forums, on blogs. It doesn’t even matter who wrote them or whose side they are on: they just have something to say and they say it well.

Unknown: “For well over a year, many people including myself who have been wary with Trump’s rhetoric have relied heavily on media to make sense of it all. But media did a great deal of disservice to public by shoving itself up so high into Hillary camp that they started mixing their bias with actual events, mostly by highlighting trump’s palaver and ignoring people’s sentiments. Media has voluntarily taken the role of going after trump, and promoting Hillary. But the majority of the country has spoken, and the outcome of Trump’s presidency is a smack on Media’s chosen position. Media is the sore loser now for betting on the losing side. People need to distance themselves from the self-serving and click mongering media, and support the president that the majority have chosen and act as one America, just like what we all did with past presidents.”

Emily Henderson, American stylist, author and TV host: “I consider myself a liberal because I strive to care about all people, equally, and I believe that left to our own devices, we are innately all selfish and will put our needs, our wants, our dollars in front of the greater good. It’s not that I don’t think that conservatives care about people, I know they do, my parents care more about people than anyone I know, but like another commenter said liberals value equality over freedom and conservatives value freedom over equality. Both are good, its just a matter of what you want to place in front of the other…” You can read the full blog post here: https://stylebyemilyhenderson.com/blog/voted-trump-comments-helped-grow

Toni Morrison, American novelist and professor: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

immediately, instinctively, spontaneously

Dear Leo and Miller,

Something you need to know about me is that I am obsessed with clothes and the fashion industry. It is what I wanted to do when I left school and what I went off to do in London when I finished university. There are many stories (good and bad) from that time. I never wanted to be a designer: I just wanted to play with clothes and write about clothes. I quickly realised that styling wasn’t going to be my calling. The stylists were the beautiful peacock girls who always looked incredible and were streets ahead of everyone else. They wore the clothes you wanted – about two weeks before you realised you wanted them. And then they were on to the next thing. It must be exhausting being that current. I was never going to be that directional or bothered to be first- I am inherently a lazy, lazy person (and deeply uncompetitive) and just want to copy how well-dressed people dress. But I could write about clothes and fashion as a subject all day long. I first knew that I was good at it when I was on a placement in London at a national newspaper and the ‘notes’ I was asked to write for the fashion writer were used word for word in her published articles. I would go above and beyond every task I was asked to do. So the ‘notes’ were polished and finished articles which I thought she might chop up or pull to bits and use some scraps – but more often than not, they went straight into the article untouched. I couldn’t have been happier. And I actually didn’t care that it wasn’t my name on the page – I knew I had written it and that’s all I was bothered about.

What made my mind wander to this time in my life was thinking about how I wanted to attack these letters. What I wanted them to be. I think the very point of Steinbeck’s letter (and most of his letters, and him probably) is that it isn’t perfect or polished. He replied on the same day as he received Thom’s letter, the over-riding importance was getting back to him quickly as opposed to pondering over a response and making sure it was eloquent and impressive. And that made me think about something Miuccia Prada  said in an interview when she was asked about how she designs.

“Designing for me is a very complex process. There are many ideas that I want to express in one object, very often contradictory. The creative process in Miu Miu is completely different from that of Prada. Miu Miu is not as complicated or thought out as Prada. Rather than being young, Miu Miu is immediate. Prada is very sophisticated and considered; Miu Miu is much more naive. The solution, when I am working on Miu Miu, has to come immediately, instinctively, spontaneously with what is available at the moment. If I think three times, I stop.”

So staying true to that idea, I don’t want to think too much about what I am writing. Certainly not the grammar or spelling which will most definitely be appalling.* If I had hours and hours or days and days to prepare each letter, would they be any better? Maybe. Maybe not. But that’s not the point. It’s the immediacy of them that makes them what they are, a sense of urgency to communicate my thoughts. And so, in that spirit, this blog is my Miu Miu and eventually, one day in the future, if I am asked to write a book (for large sums of money), that will be my Prada.

Love Fa.

x

* Steinbeck himself was particularly disdainful of grammar and spelling. Saying: “(sic) every nasty little comma in its place and preening of itself. I have the instincts of a minstrel rather than those of a scrivener. When my sounds are all in place, I can send them to a stenographer who knows his trade and he can slip the commas about until they sit comfortably and he can spell the words so that school teachers will not raise their eye-brows when they read them. Why should I bother?”

PS. I look very pleased with myself in the picture because the jacket I am wearing is an original YSL smoking jacket. It was given to me by a family friend and is my most treasured item of clothing: I have nothing cooler or of more value. 

Autumn

Dear Leo and Miller,

I am worried my letters are too boring and you won’t read them. But then I take comfort that JS also starts his letters like this sometimes: full of fear that what he’s writing isn’t interesting enough for the reader. My boring life and John Steinbeck’s boring life are very different however. He’s just come back from a research trip in California, has been in correspondence with the President of the United States about the migrant crisis and (from what I can gather) is just about to embark on an extra-marital affair. So he still has some fairly interesting topics to discuss. I have nothing, certainly nothing to (literally) write home about. At this rate I will have to do something dramatic in order to raise my subject matter.

It’s officially Autumn and this time of year is very special to me as it reminds me of when you were born Leo and life changed. At the time, we were living in a first floor flat that was surrounded by lots of trees and by this point in the year, out of every window, we were confronted with a riot of bright red and orange and yellow. The most beautiful view was out of the nursery window and it was a joy to do nothing more than sit and feed you just staring out of the window. I had read somewhere that listening to Classical music was a good way to create a peaceful environment in a baby’s room. Normally, I pay absolutely no notice to advice like this but for some reason I followed it and now I couldn’t be without Classic FM playing in the background at home or in the car or anywhere there’s a radio. I have learnt nothing about Classical music and couldn’t identify one piece of music from another but I am very attached to it all the same. It’s another transporter to a special and new time when everything became different and new and amazing overnight.

The flat I am talking about was my grandparents home and I loved that it still smelt like them – their furniture and polished brass and just the air in the place. It smelt grand and so grown up and it never lost it the whole time we were living there. It makes me sad that they didn’t meet you. They didn’t meet your Dad either. But I know how much they would have liked him. I think of them a lot and never more so than when I’m trying to teach you both manners. They were big on manners and things being done properly, in good grace. They were the best of people. I will tell you lots more about them.

Love Fa.x