The cake is up for grabs

Last week at counselling class we were asked to think about our “family motto”. What’s our strapline. Our USP. The script we were handed down by our parents or the script we hand down to our kids.

The Jones….setting the bar. I’m not a Jones and that wasn’t mine. Actually it wasn’t anyones. I made it up just now. This wasn’t an exercise to see who could be most clever. We were to say what first came to mind. And for me, there were no contenders.

“For the service of others”.

It might be good ad copy for a department store or the army corps but not for a family. The message was to put others before ourselves. Our own needs and wants were secondary. I think the rationale behind it was that if everyone had that motto the world would be a better place. But they didn’t, it was mostly my family so we were operating from a higher ground but at a loss.

Next I got thinking about the message I relay to my husband and kids. I think it’s probably something along the lines of ‘Be Kind’. Better. Or maybe not. Is it not more of the same. Be kind, and give way. Be kind and let that other child have that last slice of cake at that birthday party. Why shouldn’t my kids get the last slice of cake. Why should they settle for crumbs.

So I’m rewriting ours and I want it to be one I’d have liked growing up. “Follow your dreams” . You want that last slice of chocolate fudge cake – you go for it!

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Busy bodies

Driving home on the school run last week, I spot an elderly woman pruning her rhododendrons . I know her now as Joan. Some months ago, Joan held a plant sale in her garden . I bought a forget-me-not clipping rehoused in a small pot. I didn’t forget her or a remark she’d made to us then. As well as the plants there were teas, coffees, cakes and homemade lemonade for sale. Myself and family sat at one of 6 tables while elderly waitresses took our orders. Joan moved between the tables engaging her guests in conversation. She had a good opener for our kids “Children, do you know what this is?” She offered up a rusty old horseshoe for inspection and went on to tell us that her property was once a foundry and she’d uncovered the horseshoe when she was planting. Her husband is long since deceased. I am guessing that Joan is 90 or thereabouts.

She gave us a little tour of her garden, pointing out her pond and identifying various shrubs, trees, plants and flowers. I appreciate a pretty garden but don’t need to de-construct it. I was far more interested in learning about Joan. But this wasn’t the time. There were others waiting to be shown around and lemonade orders to take. I did ask about a ‘hole’ in her front hedge. She said she had it cut out herself to resemble a window and she likes to look out when she’s in her garden. Then a throwaway comment that I caught and sat on since “I might go 4 days without speaking to anyone”.

Last Friday, when I fleetingly caught a glimpse of her through the hedge window, I put my foot on the brake pedal and parked on the road by her gate. I waited until she spotted me and made my introduction. She didn’t remember me but she recalled the plant sale and offered to give me my choice of clipping to take away if I wanted. I suggested we do a swap and promised to bring some home baking in exchange for the cutting.

Yesterday I placed a couple of my butterfly buns in a pretty muffin box and knocked on her door. I was aware of her vulnerability, of any elderly person’s. I left my calling until 10.30. Maybe she slept in the mornings but then again maybe she was up at dawn. She looked very industrious dressed in a housecoat. People don’t wear them so much anymore. She remembered that she’d promised me a plant so after very graciously accepting my buns ‘ you clever girl’, she took me through to her garden. With secateurs in hand “Tell me what you need?” Well, a Horticultural tutorial for starters. She was bound to call my bluff. I have mostly lawn and have difficulty telling weed from wonder. She enticed me with her pineapple mint plant and her bay tree, reaching up to leafy branches, then snapping them in between her fingers. She suggested I stick the Rosemary sprigs she’d cut me in the soil and watch them take root. The exchange complete I took my leave. I had expected tea but it wasn’t on offer yesterday. She probably has a daily routine that doesn’t budge for anyone and doesn’t include elevenses. She asked for my details and spelling my name perfectly (she gave me the French inflections) she scrawled into a notebook by her phone.

She mentioned a shop she’d been to in the town and I asked her how she’d gotten there. “By bus”. She had my number now so I said to call me if she wants a lift next time.

Later when I recounted my morning to a wise pal she scolded me over my presumption that Joan needed help shopping. “Don’t do it! Don’t take that away from her. That keeps her mind and body active. You’d be doing her a disservice. When she can no longer do it, then you help. Not before”.

She’s right. The visit didn’t go as I had expected. But that’s not to say it wasn’t a good visit. I had been so busy trying to find a time to pop in, squeezing it between two other social meetups that I hadn’t factored in Joan’s schedule and in a way she gave me short shift. Which was good. She had a friend coming to stay on Thursday night so she was preparing for that. She’s all her plants to tend to, maybe even a bus/shop expedition. Reflecting I can see that she didn’t have time for idle chat, as pleasant as that might be, over tea and cakes. Her generation of women fought in wars and toiled in factories, they aren’t ones for coffee cliques . Though she did take my number and said she would call me – “when things quieten down.” It might be next week or it might be in a couple of years. And that’s fine too.

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The 7.21 to Waterloo has left the station

When I was a commuter I was cheered in the mornings with a little ticket window banter from the sweet man at the train station, taking my fare. We’d talk about my job, his job, my impending redundancy, his looming retirement. A couple of times I took him one of my buns for his elevenses. I knew his last day fell on a Saturday so myself, husband and two kids dropped by to wish him well. He’d served my husband, and they’d also had polite banter in the mornings but he hadn’t made the connection, that the man on the 8.51 lived with the woman on the 7.21. He seemed really touched that we’d remembered he was leaving and with our small token.

I worked another couple of months before taking redundancy and mornings weren’t the same with Chris gone.

Once since, I bumped into him walking his dog. He misses his commuters, enquired after my job prospects and even offered to write me a reference ‘ You made your train in plenty of time and were always so polite to me’.

I got a text from DH today that made me smile. He’d bumped into Chris. He’d called him Dave (not his name) and asked after Anne (not my name) and says he saw us on the bus the other day with our two girls (we have a boy and a girl). Though he remembered that I travelled to Vauxhall.

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Breaking with Good today

Seven days a week I set my clock for 6.26. The alarm goes and I hop out of bed. There’s no gentle entry into the day, no sneaky tap on the snooze button. I mightn’t be working earning but I’m not slacking. First one up in our house. Figuring out. The Purpose-hunter.

But I feel tired today. Weary. So I ignored the 6.26 call and rose at 7. I’m writing off this day. Well rewriting it. I have to do the school run. But afterwards I will crawl back into my bed in a room that’s messy and needs sorting (the metaphor for my life is not lost on me). I’ll sleep some. I’ll watch an episode of Breaking Bad. I’ll read. I’ll sleep some more. I’ll respond to my alarm and do the school run again. It’s OK to have a day like this. I’ll resume at 6.26 tomorrow.

Saturday: The Drink after the Think

There was more to my Saturday than Philosophy. I belong to a book club with benefits. Sure, we select, read and dissect a novel like most book clubbers but we do other nice things too. In March we attended the Oxford Literary festival and listened to the amazing and lyrical Edna O Brien talk about her recently published memoir. A year ago we fitted in a visit to Highclere castle (film location for Downton Abbey) between school drop -off and pick-up. And on Saturday we put on our best frocks for afternoon tea at The Lanesborough in Hyde Park, recipient of the award of Excellence from the Tea Guild these past nine years.

Before our sitting – we chose 4pm , the ‘correct’ time for high tea – we popped in to Fortnum and Masons in Piccadilly, setting the right tone for our outing. I love any good store’s stationery department. The smell and texture of quality paper and card coupled with a celebration of the quirky. Spotted emblazed on a paperweight: Accept the fact that some days you are the pigeon and some days you are the statue. In the tea department, a bust of Marie Antoinette hoovered overhead, her wig a nest for a china teaset. Clever.

We left the emporium without making a purchase. We were in town for tea afterall. F&M serve a jubilee tea but we were looking for something a little more regal and after researching locations I proposed the Lanesborough. The hotel is reputedly the most expensive hotel in London, with the highest rate being up to £18,000 per night for “The Lanesborough Suite”. The obligatory doorman doffed his hat as we filed past him and into the Belgravia room. Our table was set with white fine-boned gold rimmed china and lead crystal glasses on starched linen cloth.

We began with a glass of Taittinger’s champagne served with strawberries and cream. Swiftly followed by a shot glass filled with some sort of passion fruit and chocolate moose. Delicious. Our waiter presented us with a tea menu featuring a selection of leaves chosen by their Tea Sommelier. I chose Earl Grey Red Baron. Teas were poured from bulbous china tea pots with big sprouts. An audible sigh as the tiered plates arrived. Cute triangle shaped sandwiches with crusts cut off sat on the base layer: egg mayonnaise; smoked salmon; cucumber; cornation chicken, and ham and mustard. With cakes in their righful exalted place. Flavours and shapes merge for me now. I identified lemon, chocolate, hazelnut, pistachio, vanilla and strawberry in mini loaf, diamond, sandwich and disc shapes. It was almost a shame to disturb the arrangement. Almost.

All of this tea and pleasantries with the plucking of a harp behind us. Just when we thought we were done platters with scones, tea cakes, jams, clotted cream and butter arrive. We took our leave some time after six and maximising our ‘pass’ from family responsibilities prolonged the outing with a stroll back to Piccadilly and lots of reminiscing. We wandered into a lively Irish pub – an old haunt of one of our party. And quickly out again. So noisy and so young. We settled on a cocktail bar – a better fit all round before getting the train home to reality and a warm reception from sugared up children and husbands run ragged.

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Being Awake – for 3 minutes at least

John Lewis on Saturday morning. Business as usual for most. Not all though. Some of us are searching for meaning not a bargain. Eight of us at any rate. We are gathered together in the Community Room, a small space JL makes available free of charge to charities and local groups. Today The School of Economic Science has booked it to give us mind shoppers a shot of practical philosophy. 150 minutes on Being Awake.

A woman I met at a wedding in France over the summer suggested I look up the school and a google search had thrown back this meeting. A morning spent talking about wisdom and awareness fits in with my personal quest for purpose.

I’m also interested in who actually comes to sessions like these. Two very nice ladies are returnees from last Saturday’s taster session. Definitely seniors. White hair with a set look only achieved by a visit to a salon. In slacks. Fragrant – I detect lilies. A mother tells us she persuaded her teenage daughter to skip a Michael Jackson dance class for this. Later during the coffee break I hear another lady talk about “one’s fallibility and the meaning of life”. Heavy matter for elevenses.

Our tutor seems chilled, sorted, what I expected. He explains the Greek translation behind the word Philosophy – Love of Wisdom. How evocative. I’m already feeling responsive to that field of knowledge. He leads us on a 3 minute exercise that takes us to an awake state. It’s very effective and he urges us to grab 3 minutes whenever we can.

He sets us homework. Next time we find ourselves with a dilemma, stop and think “What would a wise person do here and now.
We file out of class, past shelves of stock and rails of ladies fashion. More awake than we were before we entered.

Later on returning home I find our car has a big dent where my husband miscalculated his exit from a multi-story. I channel the wise person and scarcily react.