Not Without My Father

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I was lucky enough to win a copy of this book, by Andra Watkins, from the wonderful and inspiring Nancy at My Year of Sweat, so I was really excited to read it.

And it didn’t disappoint. Although at first (being brand new to Andra and the Natchez Trace) I was a little confused about this Meriwether Lewis character she kept talking about, and what his relationship to the Trace was, I soon found those thoughts pushed aside by the sheer enjoyment of accompanying her on her walk.

I loved the way she described moments between herself and her parents, the way she interacted with her father and the bright light she exposed her family relationships to. I shed a few tears over the whole beauty of family love because she so effectively illustrated that, as with all of us, families are imperfect, frustrating, irritating, incorrigible and can hurt us deeply, yet we still love them.

But for me, the most memorable part of the book, and what convinced me that Andra is not only a wonderful writer, but also an incredibly strong woman in her own right, was how she dealt with sudden diarrhoea and no toilet paper mid-walk. After an improvised clean-up, she writes:

“I quit! I quit! I quit!” Waves of pain shot through my legs as I ran down the grassy embankment, pounded my backpack on the pavement and screamed. I whipped out my mobile phone to summon my father, to tell him I wasn’t an adventurer, to come get me, to take me home, to embrace the failure I was. NO SERVICE taunted me from the upper-left corner of the screen.
“Dammit!” I slung my abused pack into tarmac a final time and sunk to my knees. “I can’t even succeed at failing.”

But she doesn’t quit. After ten minutes of total silence on the road, she gets up and carries on.

That was the moment I fell in love with Andra. Because, although I’ve never been in quite the same set of adverse circumstances, I know that feeling. That feeling of when everything is just too-bloody-much and you’ve had enough of it all.

It’s a wonderful account. If you get the chance to read her work, do. She’s honest, down-to-earth, and wonderfully human. In fact, just the kind of person you’d like to have with you if you were ever mad enough to walk 444 miles 😉

The Right Book At The Right Time

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I’ve just finished a book that has been sat on my bookshelf since June 2008 (I looked it up in my Amazon history, cool huh?).

It’s 160 pages long and it took me three days to read it, with copious amounts of highlighting. And it is such a brilliant book, I wanted to share some of it with you.

The title doesn’t really do it justice, but it’s called Women At Work, by Anne Dickson.

In a nutshell it’s a book about being more assertive in the workplace. But it is so much more than that. The advice in this book can apply to everyone you have to deal with – from family and friends, to neighbours and shop assistants. It’s a blueprint for dealing directly, openly and clearly with people and for always respecting your personal boundaries.

Reading this has cleared up such a lot of confusion for me. My mother, who was abused as a child, is a very timid, submissive person (which was her survival strategy). As a result, I grew up thinking you always had to be nice to others, never let anyone think you disagree with them and never do anything to hurt someone else’s feelings.

I’ve allowed people, on some occasions, to walk all over me. And more frequently I’ve ended up wound-up and upset by things people say and do. I thought maybe this was a problem with the people that I chose to spend my time with, but this book has allowed me to see that it’s primarily a problem with setting my own boundaries, retaining my own sense of personal power and taking myself seriously enough that other people will take me seriously too.

A revelation!

All those horrible comments that I should have challenged. All the times when people have been too busy, or too dismissive to talk through my concerns. All the times I’ve felt that people just didn’t understand me, when I was giving them NO clue at all as to what I wanted or expected from them.

All that time I’ve been allowing people to (unknowingly) chip away at my own sense of who I am and what is acceptable. By never challenging anything (or occasionally just having a tearful/angry meltdown), my sense of self, my sense of personal power has just diminished.

Here is a quote from the book:

Consistent failure to make requests, express feelings, say ‘No’, and set limits leaves our personal boundaries indistinct under a haze of confusion and resentment. We end up experiencing our boundaries only when other people clumsily, repetitively and habitually invade them.

Anne talks about how it is okay to be anxious, even at the very moment when you are trying to be clear about your preferences and feelings. She talks about starting difficult conversations from a position of what you want to achieve, not by worrying about what the other person is thinking or is in the middle of doing. She tells you to give yourself the importance you deserve.

So, after finishing this book, I looked Anne up online and she has a website! And one of her other books, which is also sitting on my bookshelf (as yet unread), has a 30th year anniversary edition: A Woman in Your Own Right. I can’t wait to read my copy of this.

I had a quick look through the reviews on Amazon for and I found this:

5.0 out of 5 stars This book is a must for you if you’re feeling overwhelmed about anything.

…I must have bought at least 20 copies since, but I’ve given them all away during my practice as a volunteer in miscarriage support. Grief and bereavement can cause serious breakdown in clear conversation. Everybody thinks they know what you are going through and how you should act, but they don’t as “they” are not you. Being able to tell your truth in a clear, consistent and honest way literally does save relationships at these overwhelming times and allows the right things to be said and understood and for grief to flow fluently.

The fact that a miscarriage support worker was recommending her book for the exact thing that I have been struggling with over the last few years was amazing.

It was like a message from the universe :-).

The point of this post was going to be that you should read your books, not let them gather dust on the shelf.

But actually, I think this was the exact right time for me to take it off the shelf and give it my undivided attention.

So I only have one other thing to say: read this book if you are a woman of any age. I wish someone had handed me a copy when I turned 16.

The Funny Thing About Non-Fiction

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I’ve had a really literary few days and I’ve finished ALL FOUR of the fiction books I have been mid-way through reading for years. Hurrah! Which means fiction-wise, I just have a couple knocking around the house to decide on and then I’m back to a completely fresh start. I’ve already been gathering ideas and recommendations so I have a nice selection to chose from next time I want to start a story.

Yesterday then, I gave some serious thought to my non-fiction books. I have a LOT of them – especially in ebook format. And many of them (most of them?) I have read the first third or half, and then not carried on.

There are two reasons for this, and it’s down to the type of books that I buy, which tend to be along the lines of self-improvement (parenting, assertiveness, diet, productivity, how-to books etc.):

1. Non-fiction books of this type tend to require you to take action of some sort. You know, make lists, practise things, organise things – and I get stuck because I stop reading to fulfil the actions, but I don’t fulfil the actions, and therefore I never get around to really “working” through the book.

2. Sometimes I stop reading simply because owning the book (and not having read all of it) means that I own the potential to change, in the way that I want to change. If I read it, and don’t change, I have failed. And given how badly I do on instigating action items from books (as per point 1), owning the potential seems like a better thing than reading and failing to fulfil that potential. Which of course, is madness.

So, I’ve decided to approach non-fiction in a different way. I’m going to select a non-fiction book, and read the whole thing. Cover to cover. I’m not going to stop to work through exercises, or attempt to change the way I do things before I get to the end.

Instead I’m going to highlight parts that I think are relevant and summarise what I want to take away, when I’ve finished the whole thing. Then I have at least digested the book, even if I never do anything that it says to do.

I have this terrible fear of losing information. Of not remembering something that might be crucial to me at some point in my life, which of course is also madness. No one can remember every word of every book they read.

So, I’ll try this new approach, and see if I can actually start finishing these books that I buy and then leave on the shelf to gather dust.

I’ll let you know how it goes…

The Joy of Reading

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Over the last year, I’ve started reading more than I have done for a long, long time. Importantly, I’ve started reading more fiction. I used to devour fiction regularly when I was younger – I LOVE a good story. And it’s no coincidence that I’ve started writing more in the last year too. I love to write, and I love to read, and the two go hand in hand.

I’ve always had this idea in my head that one day I would have just one book that I really wanted to read at a time, instead of dozens that I am so-so about. That I would have no unread books at home, and going to the library or book shop would be a chance to slowly browse the shelves, looking for that one story that I could totally immerse myself in for the next week or two.

Instead, my reading tends to be haphazard – more now than ever before. I tallied up all my fiction books and I have four on my shelf waiting to be read, and four that I am currently reading – one of which I started over three years ago.

This is symbolic of how fragmented my life has become: I jump into things and never finish them, with something else always vying for my attention and drawing me away. My choice of books has been unconsidered, which means I tend to start them, feel disillusioned and then don’t finish them.

And those books that are unfinished – they are mental baggage, mental to-dos. I feel guilty for not finishing them. Sometimes, I even stop reading a book that I really like, and it sits for months before I pick it up again, because I have been distracted by some life event, or some general busy-ness and I forgo taking that time for myself, allowing myself the pleasure of reading.

I want to change my relationship with books to something simpler. I want to have more focus, on just one book at a time – and not any old book. A book I have chosen because I truly want to read it.

So, I’m going to finish those four book that I’ve been (not) reading all this time. I’m going to decide if I want to read the other four that are still sat on the shelf. I’m going to clear the decks and establish better reading habits. I’m going to seek out authors I love and find stories that speak to me.

I’ve updated my Goodreads account so I can keep a record of what I like and don’t like, in my quest to find more books that I truly LOVE, rather than constantly reading stuff that I am really just not that bothered about.

I’m reinstating and elevating fiction in my life!

How a Book Can Change Everything

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I have a lot to say in this post – it’s almost difficult to know where to start!

Firstly, after paring down my books (yup, I know I keep going on about it), I found that something interesting happened. I left 5 books on my bookshelf to read and I have been reading them – almost every day!

Prior to the clear-out I would read maybe half a book every couple of months and never finish anything. In the last week I have finished one book without being distracted by anything else and now I am half way through another.

So I guess point 1 of this post is that reducing choice makes choice easier, and that easier choices seem to mean greater focus on the task at hand.

The book I am currently half way through is called How Children Learn, by John Holt. I bought it ages ago and had been meaning to read it as an insight into DS1’s behaviour as he can be such an enigma to me – he’s smart and fiercely independent, but can also be almost impossible to engage with when he isn’t happy or when he’s bored (seemingly more and more of the time).

This book is excellent. It talks mostly about children under school age (like mine), and reading the author’s objective observations about their behaviour has totally transformed the way I see my own children’s actions. Suddenly I can see with so much clarity why they behave the way they do.

I am only half way through, so I can’t really review it with justice, but point 2 of this post is that I think this is an amazing and worthwhile book to read.

The effect of this book on me over the last few days has resulted in one of the best days as a mother that I have ever had.

To explain this in a little more detail, I’d like to compare some aspects of a typical day in our house with the day I have had today.

A typical day

DS1 spends a lot of his time trying to physically wrestle DS2, which inevitably starts with hysterical laughter and ends with tears. At various points in the day DS2 will demand huge chunks of my time and affection by screaming and wailing. DS1 ignores this and plays alone. After freeing myself from DS2, if I suggest playing anything with DS1 he isn’t interested and will say No to every idea I can come up with.

As soon as I need to do anything independently (like stack the dishwasher, or make food), DS1 and DS2 start fighting over the closest toy. Neither of them can be appeased with substitutes and it almost always results in meltdown from the one that doesn’t get to have the toy in question (or from both if I just take the damn thing away because I’m so fed up with it).

Sometimes I feel like I split them apart and try to explain sharing 100 times every afternoon. I often despair because I don’t seem to be able to engage DS1 in any activity any more – he just doesn’t want to play or do anything with me :-(.

By the time they are in bed I often feel as though I have clawed my way through another terrible day and all I can do is hope that it might be better tomorrow.

Today

After a couple of hours of reading last night, I woke up this morning and couldn’t wait to see the boys. I couldn’t wait to see them behaving in ways that I had recognised in the book with my new knowledge about what they might be thinking or trying to achieve.

I have paraphrased some things from the book in parenthesis.

I got DS1 to prepare most of his own breakfast (little people want to do what big people do). He was bright and chatty and sat really nicely at the table. After we got back from the supermarket shop and once DS2 went down for his nap, I waited for DS1 to suggest a game or activity and I willingly jumped right in (take the opportunity to play a game when it is presented). I didn’t try to lead or guide the play, or end a game so I could get something done around the house, I just followed his approach.

Amazingly, this started with hide and seek, and killing monsters (me, actually), but then it soon changed to us as a team killing an external monster, then settled down into putting out fires. Then he wanted some activity time and asked for things I normally have a very hard time getting him interested in. We played with a dice (don’t explain or teach, just follow the child’s lead), letters, did some colouring and threading (don’t teach or test) and then eventually it settled into him becoming absorbed in pretend play with a dumper truck and cars and lego while I just sat next to him on the floor.

We played for almost an hour and a half without any moaning, indecision, boredom, misbehaviour or refusal to be involved.

And I didn’t instigate any of it.

And then the really big deal of the day – we went upstairs to get DS2 up from his nap. This normally results in lots of wrestling and screaming over toys until they “get used to each other” again.

Today DS1 shared out his cars with DS2 and they took it in turns to send them down a ramp. They are 3 and 1.

Did I say that they took it in turns??

I didn’t step in, I didn’t guide them, I didn’t do anything at all apart from set up the ramp on the initial request.

It could be coincidence, it could be the start of a new phase, but I think DS1’s patience and willingness to share with DS2 was a direct result of having just had a huge chunk of patience and openness and willingness to play from me.

I found the afternoon took more effort – it is harder with 2 – but we played at having ‘tea’ in the garden (with cups and water), for as long as they wanted. Then DS1 spent some time playing alone while I read to DS2, but today there was no anger or provocation in his playing.

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Right at the end of the day there was some wrestling, but because I felt so relaxed and happy about how the day had gone, I didn’t get stressed about it and DS1 didn’t persist with being overly rough.

Both boys went down like a dream at bedtime.

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I am so grateful to have had today, even though I know there may be a big part of it just being a lucky day, because it has taught me that I don’t need to worry so much about getting my kids to do things.

I just need to play with them, without criticising, teaching or trying to make it logical.

I just need to play exactly how they want to play, because playing is how children learn.

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