Finding My Happiness

“Even if happiness forgets you a little bit, never completely forget about it.” —Jaques Prevert

You would often say to me “Jane, be happy” and I know that you would hate to see me as unhappy as I have been these last few months. So I am making steps to find my happiness again. It’s not that I am unhappy all the time – there are always the moments of happiness that creep up on me and take me by surprise. It’s just that there were more of them when you were around.

I knew when my marriage failed that I was not destined to be alone, I am a people person and I value those I hold close beyond all else. So I actively sought you out, sifting through the chaff of internet dating was a bit like panning for gold in the River Thames. I know I struck lucky.

You put the smile back on my face. You gave me memories to treasure. You made me feel loved & beautiful and cherished. You held me when I cried. You shared my laughter. You loved my children. You even cleaned the oven! We talked for hours and hours.

Your last visit we talked about getting married. Your last contact was troubled yet hopeful “life is so difficult here, but I dream of growing old with you all”.

The trouble is I am still that same person who wants a special someone in their life but I cannot see how anyone could withstand comparison to you. Unresolved grief they call it.

There is no difference between happiness and love. Will I ever know what happened?

In the mean time I have decided grain by grain, to try & find my happiness and this is part of the process.

 

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The girl and the dance cannot be separated.

…Or what dance training has given my daughter (a mother’s point of view).

For my daughter’s 18th Birthday, her friends and I compiled a scrapbook of her life to date. It turns out that it was the best possible therapy I could have ever had. In all their comments and letters and Facebook posts and chats, in their photographs, shared memories and the secret afternoons spent with them, I was given a unique view of her from the perspective of others.

One thing became obvious though…We couldn’t imagine what this girl would be like without dance in her life.

I don’t have a dance background myself; I never went to classes as a child so why did I choose ballet classes for my daughter?

She was clumsy, always falling over, usually splitting her lip and when she did so she would leave a horror scene in her wake! She couldn’t skip either – it was a funny one legged attempt. I thought all girls could skip naturally! I enrolled her in the local ballet class when she was just a tiny three year old! I hope you dance (small)

I was a good dance mum; I made the costumes, supported the shows as a chaperone & matron. I loved watching her dance more than anything. She stood out because she was mine and for no other reason than that. At seven her dance teacher pulled me to one side after her lesson and said “she has something special, a unique quality. I want her to audition for The Royal Ballet School”. YOU WHAT!?

She didn’t get in. It had nothing to do with me sewing her elastic on her ballet shoes and forgetting to take the pins out either! Not getting selected at that audition may have been the best thing that happened to her, ever. She was successful at her next audition and has never looked back since.

I hope you dance (doors)So in the very first instance, dance taught her that rejection is not the end, if you keep at it the right opportunity will arise. There have been other disappointments in her training and in her life outside of dance but she has always referred back to that first rejection, gathered her thoughts and moved forward. It was an important life lesson to have experienced so early on.

She has learned to appreciate all people, from all walks of life and from many parts of the world due entirely to her dance network and experiences. After the Royal Ballet she auditioned for The Urdang Academy in London. It took her (us) into London most weekends and London is very different to where we live. It taught her how to read bus and train timetables more by osmosis than actually reading them because at such a young age she clearly wasn’t travelling by herself!

Her first show, at The Place in London, was just a couple of days after the 7/7 bombings, the bus in Tavistock Square exploded just a street away from the Theatre where she was due to perform. I don’t mean to oversimplify things but this brought into sharp focus that not all humans are kind, that life is for living. These were the kind, simple, gentle explanations that you would give to an eight year old. We looked at the pictures of missing people pinned to the railings outside Euston Station and we talked. This was a sad lesson in man’s inhumanity to man. I could have stopped her going, but doing that would have let down her classmates. The entire cast turned up as always, the show must go on. I think the media coverage after 7/7, rather than the event itself, left her with a fear of the underground for a while, but she also learned to overcome that fear. She has engendered a passionate interest in world events, conflicts and difficulties, determined to change the world someday.I hope you dance (faith)

I separated from her father when she was just about to start secondary school and at this very difficult time in our lives I know that dance gave her escape. Escape from the troubles at home, escape from the arguments, and escape from me trying to hold things together. Her dance teachers at this point were incredibly supportive becoming almost surrogate parents. Without dance I could have had a very troubled teenager on my hands!

Dance gave her friends; it gave her friends outside of school. So when friendships got tough in the teenage years there was always dance class later and other friends to be with. I am very sure that some of them will be there for the rest of her life. You cannot measure the value of the gift of friendship.

Ah, what about body confidence? I do remember when she was a baby promising myself that I would do all that I could to make her feel beautiful. I didn’t want her to have any of the emotional attachment to food that I have. This is always a tricky subject in the teenage years, but regular exercise had seen to it that she had a neat, strong little figure, yet also had the ability to eat more than you would think could physically fit inside her torso. She still does and I am jealous! She doesn’t weigh herself and eats only when she is hungry, which is quite often! She loves food.

Fitness and stamina come next. This girl has an innate hatred of running for exercise. If she sees runners or joggers she will spout forth a diatribe of why…why would anyone do that, what’s the point? Completely blinkered to the fact that they could be just as passionate about running as she is about dance! Yet during the school years on Sports Day she was a secret weapon for her team; she was always in the long distance races. This girl who hated running would start at the very back of the pack and just keep going without even breaking into a sweat. She only ever ran once a year. To my knowledge since leaving school she has never run again. Dancing for 5, 6 even 7 hours some days gave her incredible stamina packed into a tiny physique. Little did she know that by the time she would attend University the dance day would often be double that.

Does she sound like she was a perfect teenager? Honestly, she wasn’t! But finding a passion early in her life meant that she always had something to work for, a goal or a target. Young dancers are also used to criticism and corrections, they don’t harden to it and you have to be there for the tears and the breakdowns but they do know how to take it. You cannot answer back to your ballet mistress. Dancers  have tenacity, persistence, perseverance and every other synonym of determination that you can think of. Dance kept her busy with little time for distractions and unnatural stimulants had no part in her life, she preferred instead the endorphins and adrenaline of performing. For this I am incredibly grateful.

She had learned from a young age to plan time for her homework; I always used the threat that if homework wasn’t completed there would be no dance lesson. By the time she was studying for GCSE’s she was so good at time management that I could just trust that she would just get on and do her school work, I never had to check or nag. At ‘A’ Level she was an expert; she already knew that by studying during her free periods whilst physically at college it left evenings free for dancing and now also teaching.

So this brings us to confidence, at just 16 she could command and control a class from ages 3 to 13+, she could confidently liaise and converse with their parents and was well liked and respected by all. She could travel confidently alone to other towns and cities to take a new class of her own and immediately integrate and socialise with her peers.

There have been turning points and defining moments. She has had some wonderful mentors and role models. She has had dance experiences with many less fortunate than herself and they have been life changing. She worked with Epic Arts (Cambodia) one year and communication was almost impossible initially but within a week there was mutual respect, affection and understanding between all the dancers. This was a major lesson in learning to trust.I hope you dance (dance)

Dance has cost me dearly financially, but if it had been a conscious investment I consider that the returns have been priceless.

The girl and the dance cannot be separated.

Lee Ann Womak – I Hope You Dance

New York ~ People & Food, Inextricably Linked

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Flying is boring, you have to get to the airport hours in advance and in our case the plane was delayed and we ended up sitting on the tarmac for an hour at Heathrow and then again at JFK when we landed. All this is bad enough, but when someone in close proximity (that’s most people when flying economy let’s face it) has poor personal hygiene it’s enough to try the patience of a saint.

I had been warned to make a run for immigration at JFK as soon as we landed and were allowed off the plane, but to be fair we had no energy, 10 hours sitting down with only airline food had seen to that. I was expecting difficulties here; my sister had been interrogated when travelling as a lone parent going into the USA. During this ordeal she was separated from my then very young nephew and she vowed never to visit again because of it. My anxiety levels were rising whilst trying to retain a cool, calm collected exterior for the benefit of my children! I’d like to offer a big thank you to Juan, the official who greeted us with smiles and courtesy after a VERY long wait.

Tired and hungry we arrived at our destination 710 St Nicholas Avenue, Harlem, NY 10031. Oh, this was also another of my worries- what was the apartment going to be like? It had good reviews and looked beautiful on the website but what if it was fake and we had nowhere to stay? This was possibly a little irrational, but you can see why I had a few sleepless nights beforehand. As you can see, we were staying in Harlem and many, many times when mentioning this to friends, family and others they drew a sharp intake of breath. What if they were right and my instincts were wrong?

Our host Michael was just wonderful, as was Tracy his housekeeper- her friendly smiling face and welcome “Hello, this is home” was enough to feel the stresses of travelling leave my body and that is where I left them for the rest of the week, on the steps of a beautiful brownstone building! The apartment was much bigger than the photos conveyed, my daughter fell in love with New York when Tracy showed her the door to the terrace (here’s the photo, #8) at this point she said “I want to live here” and I know that one day this will break my heart.

What about the neighbourhood? What is Harlem like? One of my most everlasting memories will be how friendly, welcoming and genuine people are in New York and in Harlem in particular. People smile, they say hello, good morning and pay you compliments time after time (to be honest these were mostly, directed at my daughter). I was told that I had a beautiful family by a complete stranger- imagine how that made me feel? We should try & make gifting compliments to strangers a more acceptable and common practice in the UK, it’s very uplifting whether you are giving or receiving the compliment! They initiate conversations with real interest in hearing the answers, that is culturally quite different here. The toughest looking young men will offer you their seats on the subway. I never felt isolated, like I have at home and I never felt unsafe, as I have done in London. If I have one complaint it would be the assumption that New Yorkers make that everyone from England is interested in Football- they would ask what part of the UK you are from and launch into conversations about this team and that team and to us that was like speaking ancient Greek!

My biggest worry about travelling to New York was how my son would settle. Any changes to a normal routine can throw life into complete turmoil, but we had over a year to prepare him and it worked out well! He responds well to calmness and the apartment, beautifully decorated by Michael had such an aura. The reassurance of some familiar foods like Cornflakes courtesy of Fresh Direct also helped although more adventurous types could find about a million different types of breakfast cereal on this site! All food was ordered in advance from the comfort of my own home and delivered bang on time for our arrival.

The food highlights of the holiday are linked closely to the people we met. The best food was to be found where the people were most friendly.

Why do you think this would be so?

Here are some of our food memories:

Molly’s Cupcakes with toppings lighter and less sweet than the UK equivalent, the desire to eat your way through their varieties will be Berry Cupcakestrong. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! You are encouraged to stay, wait a while, chill and relax. There are even board games available for you to play at the tables; water is readily available for you to help yourself to. A cynic might say that the longer they keep you there, the more you would spend, but they do not need to do this as their product speaks for itself. The store has a lovely relaxed feeling and the cakes are beyond wonderful. I cannot go through the rest of my life without having another at some point.

Carroll Place, 57 Bleecker St, Greenwich Village Recommended to us by a (handsome) friendly local. Apparently, this is a chain restCarroll Placeaurant and had only been open a couple of weeks but I would never have thought so. The vibe is quite young and trendy, but I am neither and did not feel out of place. The waitress was lovely and although we made a mistake ordering my son’s meal it was no trouble at all for them to re-cook it. The food was delicious, simple, Italian gastropub.

Il Brigante is a small trattoria-style Italian restaurant in South Street Seaport. Much of this area is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy but the restaurant offers a friendly welcome and delicious food. Although we didn’t travel with young children we could see that they were given raw pizza dough and semolina on a plate to play with and I thought this was charming. WP_000192 The waiting staff were attentive and friendly and the food was the best meal we had in New York. I have read that the owner refuses to have a microwave in the kitchen, never buys any frozen produce and does most of the shopping for the restaurant himself! The food tasted clean and fresh so I would imagine this is all true. We went back again for our last meal in the city, that’s how much we enjoyed it.

Branson Got Juice Luckily this was just a few doors down from our apartment! I’ve never tasted smoothies and juices like them. My favourite was Morning Delight: Cider (not cider as we understand it in the UK – more of an unprocessed apple juice), Pineapple, Strawberry, Banana, Whey Protein (Strawberry) and Flax Seed Oil. If we had a day when colour had been missing in our diet these were a guaranteed pick me up. We visited many, many times.

Ciao Bella, 22 E 92nd Street, I was craving Gelato and this is just a short walk (short being relative to the amount of walking we did during the week) from Central Park. Serving staff were patient and friendly and you could try any amount of flavours before choosing. Seating outside allowed for you to relax and enjoy the Gelato and indulge in a spot of people watching at the same time. I’d say it’s in quite a wealthy area. The food memory is marred slightly here by the elderly customer who just glared at my son when he asked a simple question. What did he ask? I imagine that you think he asked something intrusive or perhaps inappropriate but he said “May I get the door for you, sir”!

Ladurée Now I love macarons and yes, they are expensive! WP_000186We took advice from TripAdvisor reviews and selected our flavours. It was a bit like playing a macaron version of Russian roulette. To the person who described the Orange Blossom flavour as orgasmic I would have to query your experiences! You are so wrong; drinking a shot of perfume would have the same effect. The rest were lovely though.

We had one really negative food experience at Ellen’s Stardust Diner. We were not expecting great food, just reasonable basic American Diner fare. We visited here for the entertainment which we had been assured was worth it. Normally, I would live by my mantra “if you can’t say anything good, say nothing at all”. But in the interest of your well-being I feel that it is my responsibility to warn you. You should visit here only if you like your food beige. My son’s meal came out wrong & was sent back not once but twice, the second time it was stone cold. Our other meals were also sent back as they barely reached room temperature. They did discount our bill by 20%, but we only ate about 10% of the meal overall. The singing by the waiters and waitresses was overly loud, confusing volume with talent and the person going round begging for tips with a bucket and tambourine couldn’t keep time with the music. Hideous place.

My one piece of advice if you are travelling to New York as a tourist would be to plan your days carefully and if good food and nice people are a priority then research a little beforehand and have an awareness of where you would like to eat during the day.

Obviously, every holiday has to come to an end and that means another long journey home. On the whole it was a more peaceful flight but did not start well. Just as the plane was boarding my daughter lost a stone from a vintage ring that she had purchased in The Market NYC understandably she was distraught, not only was it her single most expensive purchase but it was beautiful and irreplaceable too. Two British Airways stewardesses and a fellow passenger crawled around the floor and lifted seats helping us to search for what seemed like a needle in a haystack. To the man I will never see again THANK YOU so much for finding it!

I would love to go back at some time so please share your people & food memories too…

What is Normal?

 

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Is any family normal?

If the opposite of normal is abnormal where do you draw the lines?

Synonyms of normal might include usual, standard, typical, common, ordinary, conventional, to name a few. Do they describe your family? Those words don’t describe my family and for that I am quite grateful.

I have an autistic son; I have no idea what it’s like to have a ‘normal’ son because he is MY normal. In much the same way I have a fiercely tenacious daughter, it scares me at times but it’s quite ‘normal’ in our house. I really don’t consider either of them normal; they are exceptional in every way.

One of my biggest frustrations has been the measuring stick that is used in schools these days. My daughter was constantly told that she should be less sensitive. WHY? Don’t we need sensitive people in the world? My son had to learn to read from fiction books that didn’t make any sense to him, they seemed pointless. But give him a technical article about a ship or boat or train and he could read every word and remember every fact. Why was this so much of a problem?

At times I have craved normality, feeling  that we just limp from one drama to another, each one requiring more tolerance, patience and strength than the last and taking what little energy that I seem to have left these days. But I don’t think there is one that we haven’t conquered. I realise now that doesn’t make us normal – that makes us successful. But I am only just beginning to see this.

Discrimination

the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people

Is it possible for a white girl from a middle class village to experience discrimination?  A little while back, I read my friend Pavla’s blog Small is Really Beautiful and it got me thinking about my own childhood home. It was so interesting to read her views on racism in my own country.

Chobham

I lived in a small affluent Surrey village between ages 9-18, in the only social housing in the village. As a teenager I found it very isolating as the “council house” kids were not considered appropriate friends for other wealthy villager’s children. My school was miles away, as was the nearest town. Transport out of the village was a single bus daily, miss it and you had a long walk! I hated it!

Without a doubt I have been discriminated against as a single mother. There will always be some article or report somewhere blaming a heap of issues on broken homes and single parents. Even people who I thought were friends distanced themselves when I became single.

It’s my experience that any small “difference” from the norm will get noticed, discriminated against or become the target of bullies. My son has been bullied at school because of his autism. My daughter has been isolated at University by a group that quite literally tormented her because of her drive and determination (she didn’t want to take part in the constant drinking).

I have a few questions for you all. What is the difference between bullies, racists, homophobes, misogynists and the like? Are they simply people who never outgrew the playground? Do they ever choose to grow up and think about their past and change or apologise?

Would you agree that education is the key? I think it is, but not formal education. It’s OUR responsibility as parents to teach our children respect for all human beings. To help them find the joys of being with people with different outlooks and experiences. Help them to learn that, for the most part, each individual wants a good life just as we all do. The countries that we wage war with – they have people there with families too, just the same as you and I.

My life has been enriched by people who are categorised as foreign, gay, autistic, disabled, but to me they are just my friends and family.

New York ~ Concrete jungle where dreams are made of. There’s nothing you can’t do.

(Lyrics from Empire State of Mind Part II, Alicia Keys)

We’ve been a family of three for about 9 years now. I would never have chosen to be a single parent as I really do believe that a family unit works best with two adults present. Many will disagree with this.

I’m not well travelled and my last experience of a “big” holiday was rocked to the core when my husband of 21 years decided to tell me he was leaving just two weeks before departure. The Disney experience was tainted, that’s for sure! Despite some fantastic memories laid down for the children it remains very difficult for me to recall this time with any fondness.

So when you have been living on a tight budget for a number of years and the daughter comes home with details of a college trip to New York for £2000 you have to explain that it’s really not fair to spend that amount of money on one person when the rest of us (yep, me) would love a holiday too. The hotel didn’t look great either! As it turns out, the weather in October 2012 also had quite an impact on this particular college trip.

So we decided to see if we could figure out an affordable, achievable holiday for three. First challenge – where would they like to go? Could two polar opposite offspring decide on a destination? Apparently yes New York. Well that’s not much of a break for me is it?

Challenge number 2. Hotels in New York are expensive, the budget might just stretch to 3 nights in February and they are really not set up for the kind of family dynamics that we have (one adult parent, one young adult female and a teenage male). The rooms are all 2 double beds and when you find one with alternative sleeping arrangements it’s usually a hotel for young travellers, students and the like. This is my holiday too and I didn’t want that. I wasn’t keen on the idea of living in one room with them either. I love them, but I like space. Who would sleep with whom? No, we didn’t like that idea!

New York was shelved. Challenge number 3. Come up with a different destination! Failed.Plan A

Apartments! What about apartments? YES! That worked. Space. More beds. Bathrooms. Privacy. Breakfast in Pyjamas. Cheaper too, for longer, in April. Here’s the deal kids, you have to raise your own spending money and you’ll have to go without some things like Christmas presents otherwise it cannot be done. I wasn’t convinced it could be achieved or that they would go for that idea, but I underestimated them.

So here we are, now just days away from departure to our New York Adventure. I’ve had wobbles; I hated not spoiling them at Christmas and saying “no” so often. I almost didn’t get the money together; I can’t believe that I have.

What do I want from this? To realise that really big, practically impossible things can be achieved, to make holiday memories that don’t hurt and to spend time with them before they don’t want to spend time with me.

11 days to go.

“Child of Hope”

It’s a harmless enough question when people ask about the age difference between my children. It’s almost 6 years. Nothing extraordinary about that is there?  My standard answer is “that’s just how it happened” and that’s true enough for most people. After all, when someone asks “How are you?” do you give them chapter & verse. No, I thought not.

November 5th 1999 I had a positive pregnancy test. Six days later I was in hospital with a suspected miscarriage.

Please tell me why they scan you in the same department as all the pregnant women with their swollen bellies? You hang your head, unable and unwilling to make eye contact with anyone. There is no joy in your heart or womb, just emptiness. You failed. I was sent home to let nature take it’s course. Miscarriage, even early on is bloody, painful and cruel. But that’s only half the story.

I thought that I was verging on insanity, you see, after years of infertility treatment I was fairly in tune with my body and its cycles. I felt pregnant. I felt crazy. I had seen what was flushed down the toilet. I honestly thought that if I mentioned it to my GP that he would have me sectioned. I didn’t mention it, I went back to work.

A week after my  miscarriage I had a routine blood test to make sure that “the products of conception” (Hey! That’s my baby you’re talking about!) had not been retained by my faulty, failure of a womb.

I took a call at work – I was working evenings – my GP said that I needed to go to hospital. I said “I’ll make an appointment in the morning”. He said no, that I needed to go immediately as my pregnancy hormones were still rising. What the hell did that mean? I think it meant that I wasn’t going crazy.

I’ll cut a long story short. More scans. More swollen bellies. More disgust with my own body. More failure. Nothing. There was no trace of the pregnancy, a “complete miscarriage” they said. That’s it then.child of hope

But it wasn’t, there was an ectopic pregnancy. This was a heterotopic pregnancy,  a rare situation when there was an intra-uterine and extra-uterine pregnancy occurring simultaneously.

I then had to sign a consent form to have the foetus and fallopian tube removed. It broke my heart. This is a very different kind of grief.

A healthy, very unexpected pregnancy followed very soon afterwards. My son is my Child of Hope. Even his name means gift. If I had to go through it all again just to hold him, I would.

 

My Daughter Wants to Change the World One Day…

Baby Emma - Copy…she doesn’t realise that she already has.

This has to be one of my favorite photographs of her, barely two weeks old, beautiful chubby cheeks, arms in 5th position – very telling!

Four years of infertility treatment was exhausting and soul destroying as anyone who has experienced it will tell you! She was conceived naturally following a decision to have a short break before trying IVF. That alone changed my world.

Her pacifistic tendencies were at work early on in her life. My parents, who divorced some years earlier, decided whilst passing each other in the hospital corridor that they would put their differences aside for the greater good of this beautiful human being. That also changed my world and that of my parents, sister and the rest of our family. DSC_8024  square bleach

She has taught me many things throughout her life so far and the ripple effect just keeps on going. I watch with immense pride as she matures into a beautiful young woman.

“Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.”
Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter

Grief

My Grief is Like a River
I have to let it flow,
But I myself determine
Just where the banks will go.

Some days the current takes me
In waves of guilt and pain,
But there are always quiet pools
Where I can rest again.

I crash on rocks of anger–
My faith seems faint indeed,
But there are other swimmers
Who know that what I need

Are loving hands to hold me
When the waters are too swift,
And someone kind to listen
When I just seem to drift.

Grief’s river is a process
Of relinquishing the past.
By swimming in Hope’s channels
I’ll reach the shore at last.
– Author Unknown

I read this (or at least tried to) at my Father’s funeral. I had experienced grief before, but nothing like this. My Dad always had the solidity that I valued, he was a rock. My sister spoke about him at the funeral too and one thing that struck me was that we had both had very different relationships with him! I didn’t recognise the man she was talking about at all.

He was not present in my younger days in the same way that he was in hers – there is eight years between us – but nonetheless, I knew that he loved me.

Four days before he died he phoned me on my birthday to wish “his baby” a happy birthday. I don’t remember him ever being so softly spoken or gentle of voice. He was a big man, ex boxer, ex Army and manual worker, it just wasn’t his way. It left me puzzled at the time. And by the way…I was 42!

What I am feeling now 10 years later, for someone else, is grief. A very different kind of grief. It’s ambiguous. Why do I grieve? It’s uncertain. Are you dead or somehow still alive?