Wednesday, 30 September 2009


On Saturday, my eldest son joined his brother and me at Bedfont Lakes parkrun, a 5 kilometre time trial, part of a national series. My middle son does it every week and, since my illness, runs on his own, without my ‘gentle’ coaching. He has taken nearly 3 minutes off his personal best in the 13 runs he has completed. My eldest is not so sports minded but he has marshalled a couple of times and was keen to give the race a go. I ran with him and offered him support and encouragement, occasionally allowing a quick walking break but keeping him jogging most of the time. It is a two-lap course and he had the option to stop after one but wanted to keep going. He found it tough and I was not a very sympathetic running partner. He made it to the finish in a very respectable sub-35 minutes but swore that it was the worst experience of his life! After a couple of days to absorb the experience and to savour the achievement, he is now considering having another go in a couple of months.
Monday morning sees our biggest hit of what would look to an outsider like ‘school work’. All three children have maths workbooks and do some writing practice and the boys do some work on their book-reading project. It isn’t working very well: it is too much in one go and has driven my middle son to tears nearly every week this term. I am finally wise enough to encourage him to stop, to have a break, to have a snack and to come back to it, but he is adamant that he wants to finish, to get it done. Often this means that he makes rushed or angry mistakes, slowing the whole process down, leading to more tears.
Yesterday it was me in a sobbing heap. I had the washing to put away, the house to vacuum, a blind to fix, my blog to write, all before quarter-to-ten because I wanted to take the children swimming early so that we would be home in time to read two chapters of our chapter book which we won’t have finished in September unless we get a move on. It all just felt too much and I was yelling at the children for not getting on with their chores and so taking up my time by making me nag them. I am not sure where I feel all this pressure from but I know that it has a bad effect on us all.
I have declared today a day off. The children have been released from their chores, including getting dressed and brushing their hair (we’re not going out so I don’t have to worry what the neighbours will think.) I’m hoping to get the paints out later and I’m going to bake some gingerbread so we can have a poetry tea. They have just been in to find out if I really mean it: I do. But we have agreed that they probably still need to brush their teeth!

Tuesday, 29 September 2009


My six-year-old daughter is learning to read. Yesterday we were spelling out the word S-H-E-D. One thing she has trouble with is keeping the "D" sound in her head and it is often transposed to a "T". Mix this in with some random vowel changes and we had a few interesting words. After a few tries we reached "shed", but there was not that face of sudden comprehension as the sounds become a recognisable whole in her head. To try to figure out if she'd understood the word, I asked her to put it in a sentence. "Jesus shed the wine." Now it was my turn to look blank: "Do you mean shared the wine?" She still looked puzzled. "No, he shed the wine, or his blood, or something." Aaah, yes, of course, Jesus shed his blood for us. She has been to enough communion services to know that. Not the first meaning of shed that comes to my mind, I was thinking of where I keep my spade!

Monday, 28 September 2009

Rope climbing

I spoke to a woman at my church yesterday whom I only know very superficially. We have been part of the same church for seven years and I have spoken to her on many occasions, but I don’t know her well. Our church is currently meeting in a school, the church building is undergoing some refurbishment, and this lady and I were chatting in the gym. She commented on the ropes and mentioned that she had enjoyed climbing ropes when she was at school (a feat I never once managed). I was taken aback. She is further along the age spectrum than I am and she is on the plumper side of slim. She is a busy and involved member or our church family and helps out at most events and she actively supported our trip to Uganda. But I just couldn’t see her climbing ropes. She went on to tell me that she enjoyed gym as a girl. In fact, she was quite sporty and had enjoyed ice-skating, badminton and swimming. This was a side of her which I would never in my wildest dreams have imagined. She told me that she had stopped badminton when she got married and then, when her husband had taken it up later, he had not wanted to play ‘a woman’, and that had been that. She didn’t tell me what happened to the skates or the bathing costume. It was a passing conversation in a busy church service and I was not able to assess whether this was a great regret in her life or just one of those things.
I was left wondering what the next generation might find surprising about me when I am older. Writing a blog? Writing novels? Running half-marathons? Taking an alternative to mainstream education and home schooling? Mountain climbing? Really? Her? (Not all of these examples are really me, not yet anyway.) I would like to think that what is important to me now always will be and that, in later life, I would in some small way be an inspiration, an old lady who wears purple. But I would also like to think that I am happy not to be defined by what I do, that I am willing to let things go when they no longer fit my life, that I can enjoy what I enjoy and treasure happy memories.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Custard Pies

While consuming ice-creams before splashing through 'Pirate Falls' at Legoland yesterday (a birthday treat), we watched the entertainment provided for those in the long weekend queues. The scene did not include any dialogue, just a lot of 'Ooh Aar'ing and gesticulation from three pirates, the middle one holding a tray with three custard pies. His companions were taking it in turns to pull various items from their jackets (a rubber chicken, for example) in an attempt to pay for a pie. Three custard pies, three pirates. You can see where this was headed. I watched, cynically amused by the sheer obviousness of the set-up, really, how would anyone find this funny? And then I looked at the faces of my two sons. Enraptured by the goings-on, their mouths slightly open in fascination, their whole attention was on the unfolding scenario. Eventually, coins were found and pies were paid for. The first pie went smack into the unsuspecting first pirate's face. My boys laughed out loud, "I guessed that was going to happen," said my eldest, with the triumphant delight of one who has been proved right. They continued to watch and giggle as the second and then the central pirate received a face-full of custard.
I wish I had a little more child-like joy, a little more silliness, a bit more kid in me. I would like to take myself a little less seriously and laugh a lot more. As I pass another sign-post on my way to maturity, I hope I am a little less grown-up this year!

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Happy Birthday

It is my 38th birthday today. My incredible children made me cookies yesterday for today's 'traditional' birthday breakfast. They insisted that I offered no help at all, they worked together and I did not hear one cross word from behind the closed door, they make perfect, delicious cookies and the kitchen was spotless at the end. They have showered me with gifts and affection, (which has gone a long way to making up for the fact that my husband is away on a school trip,) and I am proud of them and also of how their behaviour reflects how special birthdays have been for them.

The cookies were chocolate chip cookies which has added to my Fair Trade angst which leads me to my Baby Steps. Baby Step Number One is going to be making sure that all the things that we sometimes buy Fair Trade, we always buy Fair Trade: that is coffee, tea, sugar, bananas and orange juice. Yes, these are more expensive but they are easily available in my local supermarket so I cannot fall back on the excuse of it being hard work.
Baby Step Number Two is to start using Fair Trade chocolate chips. I cook with quite a lot of chocolate chips and I have found that Doves Farm produce a Fair Trade version and that a local health food shop is a supplier. (Does anyone in the UK have any other suggestions?) They are not cheap, especially if I do end up ordering them on-line, and I guess that is where principles can bite. But I know the truth is, if this is a fair and right price to pay, then I have to ask myself what paying less is.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009


My eldest son is growing like a sunflower and few of his trousers reach the top of his socks. He has also decided that he would like have a go at the 5K time trial which his younger brother and I run together on a Saturday morning. So yesterday I popped into our local supermarket and bought him some cheap trainers and some new trousers. Earlier in the day I had read this post by my very good friend Jane. She writes of her own convictions to buy fair trade and I am challenged by my own recourse to the easy and convenient. I have my excuses to hand: I am very busy and 'time-poor', searching shops with small children in tow is an unpleasant experience, every penny could be spent ten times over and low-cost clothes really help; but these excuses are not exclusive to me and I am not sure what to do with this. I would like to live differently, I would like to make the time to shop more ethically, I would like to arrange my finances to prioritise what I believe in, but right now it feels more effort than I can manage and so I live with my low-level guilt. And this is tied in with the feeling of it being one more thing that I will do when I have more time. The phrase 'baby-steps' come to mind. So, Step One: here, in this blog, which I already make time for, tomorrow, I will think through which choices I would like to change. And, Jane, you can hold me accountable to that!

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Water Bottles

This summer, my big brother paid the UK a visit. My children are always delighted by their Califorian, crazy Uncle and they were particularly amused by his pink drink bottle and his dire warnings about what might happen if you were ever to go hiking without water. He is a cub scout leader and is experienced in taking young lads into the wilds, avoiding the rattlesnakes and hanging his food in the trees to outwit the bears. His bottle is pink because, in a group of adolescent boys, no-one, no-one at all, is going to mistake it for theirs or even think about stealing it!
Yesterday we received an exciting package all the way from the States and he had been thoughtful enough to send the children bottles, pink, green and blue, and to include one each for myself and my husband. Not just water bottles, but carabiners too to hang them off our back-packs:
It was a warm day so we grabbed the inspiration and headed out.
We parked by a pub and, in the beer garden, met Duchess, a grey parrot. Apparently she can sing all of 'Half-a-pound of tuppeny rice' but she was quiet today, too scared of her new toy! We did get a 'hell0', a couple of 'yeahs' and a wolf-whistle though. Fin the park, fallen trees need climbing, and investigating for homes for the 'little people'.
And water needs teetering on the edge of, as far from the car and dry clothes as possible.

We found a bright blue jay's feather, collected sticks, ate our supplies, lay in the sun, and not a rattle-snake in sight!

Monday, 21 September 2009

Community Transformation

Community Transformation is a phrase that has always left me a little cold. Maybe a brief flame of interest, but nothing that really catches light. It sounds great for another place, another world, a far-off, South American city with gang wars and drug culture being radically changed by the Holy Spirit. But not here. Not in my suburban street. Not in the ordinariness of middle-class, middle-England dullness.
In Uganda I saw lives, villages, a city, a nation, being transformed. Not from the outside, not from some big NGO or some innovative government scheme, but by the church. The needs are much more obvious: the ravages of war and AIDS, orphans, child soldiers. It's clear. Not so clear is what can be done or how, but God has given his people vision and resourced them and now they are getting on with it.
The challenge for me on returning has been that I don't know the needs of my community, I have no idea of the hurts, the problems, the issues confronting the people I live alongside. Tonight, for the second time, I will be meeting with a handful of other people who live in my road. We have committed ourselves to asking God to show us the needs and to open up for us opportunities to be his church and to do his work here in this place. In the last week I have made a point of smiling at my neighbours and of stopping to talk and I have learned of the possibility of a community garden. I don't know where this will lead, but I am sure that with God in charge it will be exciting and I have faith enough to say that I will keep you posted!

Friday, 18 September 2009

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Deep calls to deep

One of the many wonderful experiences on our trip to Northern Uganda was the joy of seeing Murchison Falls. Astounding in their power and beauty, here the flow of the River Nile is forced through a 7m gap to fall 43 m, transforming the nature of the river to a calm, unruffled saunter.
Our first glimpse of the falls was on our River Safari, when we approached them from below. Spectacular in the distance, they were silent: we could see the huge waves smashing into the rocks but could hear nothing.
The next day, after a gruelling two hour trek along unmade, dirt roads, we were able to walk to the top and to see their full majesty and appreciate the thunder of the roaring water as it crashed through the gorge.
I was reminded of the psalmist writing, "Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls' (Psalm 42 v 7), of how this is Creation's echo of God's wonder, of how even the rocks will cry out in praise to their Maker.
And I am reminded now that, no matter how my day-to-day is feeling, whether I am battered on the rocks, becalmed and unmotivated or rejoicing in life, the water of the Nile is still thundering over the edge, the waterfall is still roaring and there is a place of praise and peace.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

12 into 8 won't go

The plan for the day had been to go to the Natural History Museum. I like to have a "Day Out" every week, it seems like a "Good Thing" and one of the primary advantages of Home Ed; but my gentle forays into resuming running and normal life after 'flu have left me literally weeping with tiredness and so I decided that a day home would be better all round. So far so good, but that is when I begin to think of all the useful, fun and educational stuff we could do if we did stay home, and my list of all the things I suddenly feel I have time for grows and grows until there are less minutes in the day than minutes of planned activity. So I was hoping to bake cookies, and a cake, and watch a film, and read poetry, and have some time by myself to work on the family history, and type up my middle son's book review, and update the family accounts, and give my eldest son a piano lesson, and order a book on the internet, and read to the children, all by 5pm when I need to leave for an appointment. It's not going to happen! I take it as a sign of the maturation process that I can spot this at 9am and, hopefully, head off the impending disaster, cut out a few (most?) of these ideas so that the rest can be done at a leisurely and enjoyable pace. I'll really know I'm there when I no longer even begin to think I can do 12 hours of stuff in 8!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Hard Times

People often ask me why I Home Ed and I often answer that it is fun. It ought to be fun, I believe that it's fun, but some days it just doesn't feel that way. Sometimes the four of us seem unable to say one kind word to each other, sometimes maths feels impossibly hard, sometimes the last thing on earth I want to do is go swimming.
Perhaps it is the change of seasons and the approach of winter; perhaps it is the return of my husband and many of my friends to their proper jobs after the summer, leaving me home alone; perhaps it is the last few swine flu viruses flowing in my bloodstream, but today feels like that. It's hard to believe that I'm getting it right, that my chidlren really will grow up literate and numerate and will fit into society, that I'm not wasting my own education, that it really is worth living on one salary to do this.
Yesterday the sun was shining. One child and then another went to scoot on the drive. Requests to cycle in the road were turned down on safety grounds. When the third child asked if he could go out on his scooter or his bike, I threw my carefully planned afternoon out, grabbed the keys and we headed for the local park. Lots of energy was expended and fresh air breathed, I got to read a magazine article and we all got some sun on our faces. And I remember that this, among many other reasons, is why I continue to Home Educate my children.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Great Uncles and Aunts

Now that I term has started again and I am feeling back to health, I am beginning to pick up where I left off with my family history. I am very excited to have discovered an Open University short course entitled 'Start Writing Family History', a sister course to 'Start Writing Fiction' which I took earlier this year. This sounds just what I need to draw together the facts and anecdotes, the photos and memories of my predecessors. While I will undoubtedly need some help refining my research skills, I have a number of people well practiced and skilled in this area I can ask. As I reflect on my family tree, what I want to do is to make some kind of sense of these lives, of who they were and of who I am, of where I come from and of my place in history. Sitting in my in-box I have three e-mails from relatives, two of whom I have only recently re-established contact with, one with snippets of news, one with tales of an eccentric Great Uncle and one with a promise of photos of my great-grandmother. I am also looking at my husband's side of the family with a view to creating a photo- and story-album for my children telling them of their Great-Great Grandparents.
Suddenly I am aware of the brevity of life as my grandparents' generation reach their tenth decade and their memories of their grandparents, parents and siblings slip closer to being lost. While I develop these precious relationships I am trying to gently ask questions and to learn more of the personalities of the people gone before. I regret the relationships I have missed, my grandparent's siblings I could have known better and I am grateful for the opportunity to get to know the remainder of my Great Aunts and Uncles.

Saturday, 12 September 2009


I may be a long way from self-sufficient, but I am quite self-satisfied!

Friday, 11 September 2009

British Science Festival

This week has seen the British Science Festival held at the University of Surrey. We went along and learned about Glorious Blood, built a balloon rocket and tested tomato ketchup,
which required some deep thought.
The ketchup testing was a CREST Star investigation and I was very interested to find out about the award scheme that they run. A quick look on their website last night suggested that these might be a great way to structure some science activity into our week and to work towards an award.
The highlight for us was definitely the birds of prey. Although we did not attend the lecture, we were able to see the birds where they were tethered outside the exhibition and to stroke the hand-reared Barn Owl (who stretched out his neck to prolong the caress in a very cat-like way). We also tailed the self-declared 'bird-ferrier) who carried the birds from their station to the lecture theatre one at a time and who explained to us the fascinating adaptions of a peregrine falcon to being the world's fastest flier (like baffles in its nose!) And the most impressive, the Canadian Bald Eagle:

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Building a house

The focal point of our trip to Uganda was to build a house. A house like this one:In this house live 8 children and a house mother. One or two of the children may be the natural children of the house mother, the rest are orphans. Victims of the AIDS epidemic or the brutal civil war from which the country has known peace for a few years now.
When we turned up, a little past 8am on the first morning of the build, this is what we saw:
The corners had already been completed by the team of local builders. The corners require skill. Following a straight piece of string can be done by the inexperienced, i.e. us:
And so, the walls went up.
The large piles of bricks had to be moved around the site to where they were needed. Every so often we would set up a brick chain. Some of us passed the bricks along, some threw. Can you spot the flying brick?
And so, the walls continued to rise. I am third from the right, in the bright, clown trousers. Apparently they looked like pyjamas!
And so, the walls went up and up:
And on the inside:

The remainder of the skilled jobs, the pointing, the roof and the plastering, were left for the team to continue.
Job Done!
All that is left is to go back on the next trip, in two years, and see the family growing and living and loving in the house that we built. A house where the Watoto mission of rescuing a child, raising a leader and rebuilding a nation is lived out.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Learning to read

One of the good things about being laid up in bed is the opportunity to listen to the radio, and last week I caught an interesting discussion on the teaching of reading to very young children. The argument in favour of teaching pre-schoolers to read was that they needed to be "school-proofed". This put me in mind of "fire-proofed" and "fool-proofed" - protection against potential dangers.
When presented with the suggestion that Scandanavian countries do not begin to teach reading until the age of six, the interviewee replied that their languages are significantly easier to learn as they have a much more direct link between sound and letter: English is particularly tricky in that one sound can be represented a number of ways and one letter or group of letters represent a number of sounds. No mention was made of the fact that reading is also taught much later in the US educational system.
The opposing member of the debate was in favour of letting children learn at their own pace but the pro-early-reading chap declared that this was the definition of "low expectations". He said that, in his experience, the unhappiest kids are those who can't yet read.
This is not my experience. Although my eldest taught himself to read quite early, my middle son, also going at his own pace, didn't read until a little later than his schooled-counterparts. My daughter is still on the journey. None of them have ever been unhappy because they can't read. The joy of Home Ed is that, at this stage, they do not need to be able to read. If they can't read something, I, or an older sibling, can read it for them. They are not excluded or left behind as, by necessity, they would be in a text-based learning environment with one or two adults teaching 30 children. They are not considered failures, or "backward", because their developmental path has visited other destinations and not yet led through learning to read. They are able to achieve their own, unique, "high expectations" and celebrate those, safe in the knowledge that reading will come in its own good time.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009


Having spent a few hours awake last night, my frequent and 'productive' cough not only preventing me from sleep but also leaving me retching, I decided that I would visit the doctor again today and beg for antibiotics, cough mixture and a prognosis. He was a kind and patient man who examined me thoroughly and listened attentively to my symptoms and the course my illness has taken. "I think," he declared, "that you have been all the way to Africa and come back with 'flu." On further discussion, he admitted that he thought it is, in all likelihood, swine flu. On the one hand I always find it encouraging to have a label if I am ill and a description which I can easily give people, but on the other hand I am concerned that I will now be a pariah and may have infected my family. In the basesment of my mind, I am aware of the huge blessing of the NHS, how amazing it is that twice this week I have been able to access excellent medical care within a couple of hours of deciding that I might require it and have easy access to the drugs that I need. However, all the other storeys of my consciousness are filled with feeing very sorry for myself and thoroughly miserable.