Autumn resolutions

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January is never a great time of year for me – I’m not good with the cold, dark days of winter so it’s pointless me making New Year’s resolutions. In contrast, Autumn is, for me, the perfect time of year to reflect and think about the future. As a mother of three school-age children, my life is, in any case, dominated by the term time calendar, and there is something about the feeling of newness (shoes, pencil cases, planners, etc), the fresh start and the enthusiasm (yes, really, even the kids are usually excited to get back) that screams hope. Outside it’s the time of year associated with decay, when the blooms in the garden are starting to fade, the leaves on the trees begin to turn brown and fall, and the nights are definitely drawing in. In a funny way, though, I find this reassuring. It makes me feel that everything is in the right place, the natural order of things is safely on track, and that is a comfort to me in this era of accelerated climate change.

Big MagicSo, September is my month of choice for resolutions. My reading challenge this month is to read a self-help book and after a bit of indecision I’ve decided on Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s actually been on my list of books to read for some time, but seems particularly appropriate now as my main resolution is to complete at least a third of the book I am writing by half term (and hopefully another third by Christmas). I’ve been tinkering with it for months, and made some good progress with Camp NaNoWriMo in July, but I feel really focused now and am keen to capitalise on my motivation.

2017-07-26 20.42.01Before the summer break I also read WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel and it caused me to reflect on the time and care I give to myself. I think it’s true to say that, as a mother, when you have young children you can often put yourself and your needs at the bottom of the priority list, well after the rest of the family. Ultimately, this often takes a great toll. Now that my children are older, (all at secondary school as of this week, my eldest now in sixth form), I find myself not so much with more time, but definitely with more mental space to tend to my own needs, pursue some of my own passions and award myself more respect. So, I am re-reading WE, slowly and deliberately, a little each day, and working through the exercises.

As a Mum I feel I have for years ricocheted between feelings of resentment at the extent of my ‘self-sacrifice’ and guilt at not doing or being enough! I hope that over the coming weeks the reading and the exercises will help to shift my mindset more towards contentment, resilience, and gratitude – the Holy Grail! I don’t find it particularly difficult to change my habits, get a better eating or fitness regime, etc, but mindset change is much harder. Wish me luck!

Are you one of those who prefer to make their resolutions in September rather than January?

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Book review: “On Chesil Beach” by Ian McEwan

I read this for my August reading challenge, which was to choose a book, the title or cover of which was reminiscent of summer. I chose On Chesil Beach because I love Dorset, possibly my favourite county in England, and I love Chesil Beach, which we visited on a family holiday about three years ago. Chesil Beach is one of those fascinating geographical features, dating back to Jurassic times, which reminds you that human habitation on earth is a mere blip in time. It’s an 18-mile stretch of shingle beach, separated from the mainland by a saline lake called the Fleet Lagoon, and formed thousands of years ago as deposits of sediment were plopped near to the coastline, but not on the beach, so creating a ‘barrier beach’ separated from the actual coastline. It’s a haven for wildlife as well as being one of those mysterious oddities that Wessex (yes, I’m a huge fan of Thomas Hardy!) does so well.

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The front cover of On Chesil Beach shows a picture of a woman in a white dress walking along the beach at what appears to be either dawn or dusk. She is walking away from us, into a vague distance. The sky is grey-blue, twilit, with a slash of brightness from the emerging or receding sun. In the far distance are cliffs and the sea on either side of the beach is grey, somewhat forbidding. The skirt of the woman’s dress, and her hair, are blowing in towards the land; there is clearly a strong breeze coming in from the sea. This image is everything I love about the English coast. It reminds me that nature is in charge here, that the earth will prevail. This area is part of Dorset’s Jurassic coast where fossils are easily found and where there is much evidence of the prehistoric past. It is a humbling place to be.

Chesil Beach is the setting of McEwan’s moving, domestic tragedy. Set in the summer of 1962 it begins in a hotel where Edward and Florence are having dinner in their suite on their wedding night. The awkwardness, the tension and the weight of expectation are apparent from the outset, and the detail with which McEwan describes every aspect of the scene made me feel like I was living every excruciating moment of the evening in real time. It is clear very quickly that this is a book about sex. It’s 1962 so the couple have not yet experienced the benefits of the sexual liberation of the 1960s and are still victims of the much more staid post-war attitudes of the 1950s. Despite being newlyweds, and therefore supposed to be a happy young couple, it is clear very early on that each is in a very different place; it is apparent that they have had little intimacy, sexual or otherwise, prior to their wedding. Edward has been ‘patient’ assuming that all will be well once they are married, while Florence has been hoping simply for strength, that she will be able to endure what she thinks will an unpleasant duty once within the confines of marriage.

“They separately worried about the moment, some time soon after dinner, when their new maturity would be tested, when they would lie down together on the four-poster bed and reveal themselves fully to one another. For over a year, Edward had been mesmerised by the prospect that on the evening of a given date in July the most sensitive portion of himself would reside, however briefly, within a naturally formed cavity inside this cheerful, pretty, formidably intelligent woman. How this was to be achieved without absurdity, or disappointment, troubled him…..But what troubled her was unutterable, and she could barely frame it for herself. Where he merely suffered conventional first-night nerves, she experienced a visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness.”

And therein lies the nub of the whole book really, how these inner truths reveal themselves, how the pleasant mask of their love begins to crumble and how the relationship is affected under the pressure of these problems.

The book is structured in five parts: the first part is the awful wedding night, subsequent parts provide the back story to Edward and Florence’s relationship, their early lives and their very different backgrounds – class difference plays a big part in the novel too and whilst this is not named as an explicit barrier between them, you get the sense as a reader of her as more refined, affluent, uptight, middle-class, while he is seen as ultimately more vulgar, preoccupied by earthier matters and that this is somehow a consequence of his socially humble background.

I don’t wish to spoil the ending for you if you haven’t read the book, but the final part, the denouement, takes place on Chesil Beach itself, as the two individuals encounter one another at the climax of their so far bitter wedding night experience. It is like a classical scene, like a game of chess as the two manoeuvre around their respective problems. It is a very fine, forensic study of a 1960s relationship that could barely be called a relationship.

A stunning read, which I didn’t expect to be so good. Highly recommended.

(Apologies for any typos I haven’t spotted – my daughter’s hamster gave me a nasty bite on the middle finger of my right hand it has badly affected my typing!)

If you have read this book, what did you think?

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September reading challenge: a self-help book

I swished through my August reading challenge very quickly (a book whose cover title reminded me of summer) having selected a fairly slim volume (On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan) that was absolutely compelling. I couldn’t put it down and since I was away visiting family at the time I decided to read it, I had plenty of opportunities to not put it down.  It’s a fabulous book, so look out for my review next week.

This month, the challenge is also related very much to the time of year. I have written on here before about how I find Autumn very energising. It is probably related to the fact that I have had children at school for twelve years now (by the way, allow me a proud parent moment – we are celebrating the eldest one’s excellent GCSE results!) My year is very much determined by and planned around the ebb and flow of school term times and holidays. After a period of repose stepping off the treadmill of the daily school routine, usually a family holiday and bit of sun, the change of pace again when school returns, and the sense of new beginnings seems to give me a sense of optimism and vitality.

There is also something about the climate and the light in England in the Autumn that makes my mood reflective: the days are getting shorter so I am reminded that time is precious. The weather is usually cooler but because I don’t have kids to entertain or days out planned, my expectations are lower, so I appreciate the rain (it waters the garden), I don’t mind the wind (it dries the laundry) and I am thankful when the sun appears, not cross when it doesn’t. It’s as if my mental goalposts have moved.

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For me, September is a great time to make plans, think about where I am and where I’m going. I also know that I will have more energy and fewer commitments in the next two to three months than at any other time of the year, so it’s an oppportunity to take some big steps forward. This month’s challenge is to read a self-help book.

I went browsing in my local bookshop as I did not have a very clear idea about what I wanted to read this month. The self-help section seemed to have a different sort of feel to it compared to the last time I was buying there. After years of exhortation to do better, be better, have more, look better (ideals that few of us can sustain in real life, leading to inevitable anti-climax, disappointment and feelings of failure) the general tone of most of the titles seemed to be more about acceptance, gratitude, and enjoying the smaller things in life. That has to be a good thing.

I spotted three irresistible books, and can’t decide which one to read this month. My biggest goal this season is to complete the first draft of the book I’m working on. I made some strides with NaNoWriMo in July, but I’m still only about a quarter of the way in and and I’m finding it incredibly challenging. So Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear seems appropriate, a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while. I also like the look of Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain, and Women Who Run with the Wolves: contacting the power of the wild woman by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. I am an introvert, and I’m also a feminist who believes all of us women have special inner resources that benefit the world, so both of these appeal.

 

Hmm. Decisions, decisions. What would you pick?

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