Friday, 27 June 2014

Looking after my future self

On an impulse between deadlines and work obligations, I dashed out for a swim the other day. I used to swim every week, but haven't gone for a while. I just grabbed the opportunity and my swimming bag and went. After thirty lengths, I had just enough time to wash my hair before heading on to the rest of a busy day. In the shower, I delved into my bag to find my shampoo bottle... empty. A tiny and very first world problem, I know. But an inconvenience, a small stress added to a number of small frustrations that day. Cumulatively it was the last thing I needed. Feeling (disproportionately) put out I slammed the bottle back in my bag and found, to my delight and surprise, a new full shampoo that I have no memory of buying or putting in there. Sincerely, I have no memory of this.

This is such a tiny insignificant thing. The smallest of small issues. But I really value this idea that I'd looked after my future self. At some point in history, I'd had the forethought to imagine my future needs and supply a solution. Nothing life transformingly forward thinking like writing a will, or organising life insurance, or flossing. It was something very tiny, but tender.

Generally speaking, I'm quite good at being kind to others. I really like listening to people when they need to talk something through. I try to be a good friend - text or ring when people need support. I enjoy encouraging people, spotting what they're good at and being positive about it. But I'm often not very good at this with myself. If I thought about other people the way I think about myself, I would consider myself a pretty horrible person. I don't regard myself very kindly. I berate myself a lot. I tend to pull apart things I've done, looking for the mistakes, rather than what went well. I agonise over stuff I've said, thought or done that didn't come out right, instead of focussing on the larger percentage that is positive and uplifting. I can be a thoroughly nasty person, when it comes to me. With myself, I'm often not very kind or thoughtful.

I  know I'm not the only one. Perhaps this berating of self resonates with you. If it doesn't and you find it easy to be kind to yourself, I'd love to know how to do it. I think this is why the shampoo-in-swimming-bag touched me deeply. it was a cherishing, thoughtful act to myself - my future self. A tiny but loving act of kindness, that I'd forgotten all about.

So, in a resolve to continue this, today I've written a kind letter to myself a year in the future, via FutureMe. Through this website, you can write a letter to yourself at some date in the future and it will be forwarded to you then. You can make it private (I did!) or anonymously public. There are some touching and intriguing ones up there on the website to read. In my letter I was encouraging, supportive and mindful of where I might be in 12 months time. I'm hoping when I get it I will have forgotten I sent it, a bit like finding a full bottle of shampoo on a busy day when I thought I'd run out. A kind and surprising message in a bottle.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

A Review: A Song For Issy Bradley

This book may challenge the way you think about faith. It will also make you laugh and cry - I promise.

Carys Bray's novel A Song For Issy Bradley is the story of a British Mormon family in the aftermath of the death of the youngest child, Issy.

The story is about how each of them journey through grief. The narrative switches between characters; Issy's parents, Claire and Ian, and her siblings, Alma, Zipporah and Jacob, take turns unfolding the family's story. Every character sees things in a different way. Every voice matters. For Claire it is a paralysing experience that sends her into catatonic shock; a passive rebellion against faith. For the youngest family member, Jacob, negotiating the familiar (if amplified) confusion of stories we're told as children; God, Father Christmas, spirit beings and the tooth fairy, his response is to hatch a plan to resurrect Issy.

However, this isn't a novel all about death. It is a book about family; the dynamics, struggles and joys of being part of one. It is also about the challenge to make sense of the things that can, and do, happen to us all. Bray has this incredible knack of seeing the details that count. You smile at the familiar moments; Ian's desperation to be the figurehead, holding everything together, Teenage daughter Zippy's first love and the fantasies of what it is to be grown up, Alma's rebellion against the family obligations that take him away from his football.

The multiple viewpoint structure is the perfect way to tell their story. I don't always think it is helpful to compare books to other books... but I can't help mentioning that it reminded me strongly of The Poisonwood Bible in the sense that it takes an incredibly accomplished writer, like Kingsolver, like Bray, to handle a range of divergent voices so exactingly. You can open any page, read a line of text and know with absolute certainty whose narrative you are in, purely because of the voice. This brilliant handling allows the reader to get beneath the skin of the characters and feel what they feel acutely. You will probably grapple over who is your favourite character. They are superbly drawn and I'm fond of them all for different reasons. I feel like I might bump into Jacob at the penny arcade at the end of Southport pier, or Zippy trying lip glosses in Beales. I would recognise each of them anywhere.

It could have been tempting for Bray, who was brought up in a Mormon family, before leaving in her thirties, to have made this novel a vehicle to ridicule the Mormon church and faith. A less skilled writer may have gone that way, as a cheap trick. What is going on here is far more nuanced. Bray presents aspects of the faith that may make us feel queasily outraged - particularly the treatment of women, the teaching of sex and sexuality and the legalistic doctrine. But Bray is even-handed and also depicts details of Mormonism with great dignity and gentle affection; the kindness and support shown from the community, the culture around sharing food and eating. It is funny. It is life affirming. There is the reality of a living faith in characters like Brother Rimmer. There is measure and balance sustained through to the last page. There is shade and subtlety to the writing that I admire hugely.

This is a beautifully written novel. Tender without being mawkish; real, sincere, brutal and also uplifting. An incredible debut.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Gifted Children

This month I have an assortment of children's birthdays to attend and source gifts for. I don't have any children. But I'm blessed with lots of lovely friends who do. This is awesome until it comes to birthdays/Christmas/baptisms etc. when I'm faced with the dilemma of what the hell to buy for them.

I LOVE giving presents. This isn't the issue. The dilemma I face is twofold. Firstly, I have no innate gauge for age appropriateness of gifts for little humans. Some shops helpfully label toys with ages, but often I look at them and think they're underestimating how advanced all my awesome little pals are. I won't give a gift that makes them feel talked down to or patronised. (Although I did recently give a Mr Grasshead, labelled age 3+, to a friend in her mid twenties because I secretly wanted it for myself and I hoped she would appreciate it, too.)

The second problem is that I know a lot of my friends' children are already overwhelmed with toys. Brightly coloured plastic stuff seems to be breeding in every storage container of their homes. The parents tell me it's getting out of hand but you really can't rock up to a kid's birthday party armed only with a card. That would be hugely disappointing.

So a while ago I made a decision. Unless children have specific gift requests, from now onwards, everyone's getting books. It means I get to spend lovely purposeful time in bookshops picking what I hope will be a much enjoyed story and something to instil an early love of reading.

But first, let me release a bit of a bee from my book-buying bonnet and clarify what I Will Never Buy. It deeply saddens me when bookshops and publishers sell/ do this sort of thing:

I mean, come on... look at them?! 'Nuff said.

So what do I make a beeline for?  I love children's books that make me properly laugh. Why shouldn't children get to enjoy dry, clever humour from an early age.... along with the adult reading it with them. Elys Dolan's brilliant, award winning book Weasels made me actually lol in the shop. I bought multiple copies. Her superb illustrations and witty storytelling are fabulous.

I also really like books that don't shy away from difficult emotions, too, such as The Storm Whale by Benji Davies, which has also won awards. The story is about a young boy who finds a baby whale washed up on a beach near his home and  keeps it in his bathtub for company. With its gorgeous narrative and perfect illustrations it is an absolute beauty. A lovely story, but also helpful in exploring issues of loneliness, love and friendship with children.