Talk to strangers

Dear Leo and Miller,

A few days ago we were in town, sitting outside the café where we always go, and across from us was a man with a big beard in his forties or thereabouts drinking coffee. He looked up and started smiling; and the more noise the two of you were making, the more he smiled, which is very unusual. He came over to us, patted Leo on the head and said how beautiful you were. Then he gave you a Kinder Bueno (which was lucky as it’s the only chocolate you like) and pinched your cheeks. To be honest, it was more of a grab than a pinch, a proper fistful of flesh. The kind grannies back in the day used to do. He spoke English but with a foreign accent. This and the cheek-grabbing silenced you both into wide-eyed staring mode. This made him laugh more and he said, “I’m sorry but in my country it’s not unusual for men to fuss over babies. I love children.” I said “Where is home?” And he said “Iraq.”

 

His name was Hessan. He said he had a niece and a nephew back home who were about the same age as you. He talked about missing his Mum and that he went home recently to look after her because she was ill. He was still beaming at you both as he was saying all this and continued giving Leo more Kinder Buenos. (Miller, you were less impressed with Hessan because for some reason he gave you very adult coffee chocolates which you silently spat out when he wasn’t looking.) He said that these days in Iraq the boys and young men think only of guns and money. In a weird way, it was reassuring to know that other cultures wildly generalise and stereotype their young people too. We’re not the only ones. He told us he had lived in Scotland for eight years but moved because it was too cold. I pointed out that it’s bloody freezing in Newcastle too and he just shrugged and said, “But the people are friendly.”

 

I’m not encouraging you to talk to strangers. Actually, I am encouraging you to talk to strangers. Not just every stranger you come across but if someone bothers to make conversation, bother back. I hope you’re always interested in other people. Stay curious. Everyone has a story that will have some similarities to your own – even if it’s just that you both like Kinder Bueonos. Your Dad thinks I’m just nosy and that I talk too much (in general, not just to strangers) and is horrified that I speak to people I don’t know in the street. But it’s in my bones and I hope you both get a little bit of that too. Promise me that you will always ask questions. Because, if nothing else, you owe it to a kind stranger who misses their country, to ask – “Where is home?”

Love Mum.

P.S. For clarification, when considering talking to a stranger, context is important: there is a big difference between being down a dark alley in the middle of the night and outside a really busy cafe in the middle of the afternoon,

Happy Birthday Miller

Dear Miller,

I always find these letters hard to start. Because I see you every day and because you're only two. I have to try and remember that these letters are for the future you…

Someone said write what you know and start with the truth. The truth is I never thought I would want a daughter. Being a girl myself I know how much trouble they are. Especially teenage ones. I remember thinking (when I was a teenager) if I ever had a daughter, what on earth could I teach her?  I am a hopeless person so what advise could I give? But that’s just because I was failing miserably at being happy and couldn’t imagine what use I would be as some kind of role model for another girl. I know that a lot of people want to be their child’s best friend, well, Miller sweetheart, I don’t want to be your best friend, I want to be your Mum. For me a friend is a pal, a comrade, a partner in crime – I am here to set an example and keep you out of trouble as best I can. You’ll have a thousand friends Miller, I promise you that (and with a bit of luck five or six proper ones who mean more than the rest combined) but that’s not the role I’m here for. My position in your life is more difficult and important than that. You will hate me a lot because I will try and ruin your fun. You will wish I was like some other cooler Mum who lets their daughter run wild. Don’t forget I know how this goes. I only hope I can be like my Mum and deal with the terrible times to come (and they will come) with good humour and utter faith that it will all come out in the wash. I remember her trying to comfort some family friends who were having a nightmare with their wayward son. They were in absolute despair that he was lost to them forever and all she said was "they always come back.” And she was right.

Sometimes I still feel like a hopeless teenager who has no idea what to do with a daughter (or a son) but luckily I still have a bit of time to grow up myself before any major bumps in the road present themselves. Maybe I’ll even discover some of my Mum’s patience and perseverance in me to ride the storms ahead. But more than that, when you really need it, I hope I’m strong enough to be a Mum and don’t just try and be your friend.

Love Mum

PS. Happy Birthday darling.

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.”

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

A Birthday Party

Dear Leo and Miller,

We had your 3rd birthday party on Friday Leo and you were duly spoiled rotten. You were still up at 8:30pm delirious with tiredness and every now and again you would ask in a pathetic little voice – more present? more cake? I felt terrible for Miller during the party. Every so often I would spot her through the legs of adults, pushing her little pram about and staring up at everyone. It has always been a tradition in my family that you have a ‘party tea’ on the day of your actual birthday. Some cousins still have them now in their early 30s. It’s more a chance for grown ups to see eachother because the months fly by so quickly and everyone is so busy that making plans is just impossible. So at least you can rely on the next birthday coming up for an enforced get together or we wouldn’t see each other half as much.

I have reached the part in the Steinbeck book where he has sold the rights to Of Mice and Men to Hollywood which has enabled him to buy a new typewriter and go on holiday with his wife Carol. In a similar sort of theme (although I have nothing to celebrate, certainly not a financial wind-fall) – I have decided to buy myself a Mac Book Pro because I think it will help me write more and better. A holiday will probably have to wait however.

At this point in the book, his father has just died (not long after his mother) and his tone is so weary and sad it’s almost unbearable. But he tries to sound perky and cheerful at regular intervals, presumably to keep the reader from wanting to put the letter down and never pick it up again… And it made me realise why letters are a much more useful exercise than a diary. If you have some sort of audience to consider, it prevents you falling head-long into a wallowing outpouring of doom and self-pity. If that is your mood that day. So it’s good to have to consider the listener. Because all writers are vain and want their work to be read: I don’t care what they say. Me included.

Love Fa.

Happy Anniversary

Dear Leo and Miller,

Reading more of Steinbeck’s letters is certainly having the desired effect. Some people need physical exercise to keep a positive frame of mind and I have decided that I need good literature. It’s nourishing for the soul and quiets the mind. Even when it isn’t actually offering any advice, just reading something well written is comforting in itself: it can gather your thoughts for you. AA Gill (another writer who I think is brilliant) puts it like this “Writing, for me, is the great organiser. It’s while I’m writing that I think most deeply about things.” That’s what I hope, in some small way, these letters can offer you two. I’m not suggesting you are going to be blown away with any skills of mine but I am going to quote lots and lots of stuff that I read or hear that I think is note-worthy and which can help you navigate your way through difficult times. And I don’t mean devastating life-changing times, I really mean the little every day disappointments or worries that can slowly gain momentum and cause the most damage to a person. If I can provide even the smallest reassurance or just a distraction – then that makes me happy. Because life can be really really tough. But is always worth it. Always.

While we were on the subject of AA Gill he also said this which I think is good. When asked what people should know about him, he said: “‘Well one is that I’m a Christian. And I believe in being honest – that’s really important – telling the truth. I suppose to be kind whenever you can be. I also want to have an optimism about people – I would rather leave my wallet on the table and have it nicked once or twice than have it chained in my back pocket.’

I do have something quite important to tell you in this letter. Well, it’s important to me and consequently you. Leo, I have put you into nursery on a Monday morning (which take you up to 3.5 days per week) and Miller, your Granny (my Mum) is going to look after you on a Monday morning. And the reason for this is so I can be totally selfish and have four whole hours every week where I can please myself. Recently I have been feeling strange. Not myself, not quite right. It felt like I was craving something but I had no idea what. I wasn’t unhappy but I felt that I had to change something. It slowly dawned on me that what I was craving was time on my own. To the point that I would deliberately forget to buy something from the shops during the day so I had the excuse to go out later on my own. This is bad. This is ridiculous. I was getting excited to go to Waitrose to buy bread just because it meant 20 minutes by myself. So I have made the decision to basically get rid of you both every Monday morning so I can do the things I enjoy that have absolutely nothing to do with you, such as – playing with my clothes, ringing my friends, sorting out boxes of photos, reading fashion magazines full of clothes I can’t buy anymore. These activities have become luxuries because of time: you two take up a lot of time. They seem trivial but they are important because I do them alone and doing them makes me feel like me. And I cannot lose myself just because I am a parent. Karl Lagerfeld (a genuine legend) said this (which is slightly extreme but I agree with the sentiment): “Only being interested in yourself lets you be more available for others. My mother said “You should never sacrifice yourself too much because afterward you’ll have nothing more to give. So think about yourself, then you can be interested in others and be useful.”

I love you both very much but I am giddy with excitement at the thought of being totally alone in the house to do whatever I want. I had a brief taste of that freedom yesterday and spent it re-arranging my wardrobe and filing receipts. I won’t lie: it was bliss.

Love Fa.

It is our wedding anniversary today and we are going to the cinema. Which is our favourite thing to do. Even if we don’t go and see a film, we still go to the cinema, specifically the Tyneside Cinema. It is a wonderful place that I hope is still going strong when you are growing up.