It’s official. I have bad taste.
Oh yes indeedy. If you have been questioning my taste for a while now, there is now proof that those who consider themselves the arbitrators of good and bad taste have got my card marked. You see when the designers on the Big Brother set this year were producing the cottage of nightmares, I do believe they must have come round and rooted about in my linen cupboard.
The set this year is designed as a rather pink village. Complete with beauty salon (the bathroom) and cafe (the kitchen) and there are two bedrooms: one an ode to good taste in peach and blue and the other, the graffitied, apparently abandoned delight you see above.
Now let it be said that I will no more apologize for watching Big Brother, than I will for who I vote in the General Election (heck, that could start a kerfuffle), but even I felt a bit discombobulated when I realized that the designers had layered the beds of those supposed to be suffering, with duvet sets, quilts and cushions that I OWN.
Yup. I am Alison and I have shocking taste.
Case in point? This moss green velvet cushion I grabbed at rather greedily in Marks and Spencer a few months ago, and ran home to pop on a chair in a rather redundant corner of my bedroom. Thrilled with myself I was. Thrilled!
And now here I am, suffering the slings and arrows of the TV set designer who has summarily declared that such a cushion and the other items I am frankly not willing to own up to possessing now, are the stuff of nightmares and will be used to PUNISH those housemates who will be denied the pleasure of true luxury.
The shame of it. The absolute shame of it.
Now here’s the thing: I rather feel as though I am betraying my cause if I do not announce that it is NOT ok to be a Crap Housewife, but oh what a hypocrite I would be.
Because someday’s I too, am a crap housewife. Some days my sausage casserole looks like Jessica Rowe’s. And yup, mince has long been my fallback ingredient on the days when I would rather boil my head than cook up something truly tantalising.
So, umm, yeah. I’m not exactly advocating crap housewifery. I’m just saying that some days we are all channeling a little Jessica and it would serve us well to accept it. You got me??
I am about to show off and feel the need to warn you first. You see I am so stressed, the house is immaculate. Lickably, laughably clean. For when the going gets tough, I get the hoover out.
I do believe you see that the world is divided in to two types of people: those who create mess during stress and those who try to create order out of emotional chaos by going a bit bonkers with a squeegee. I am the latter. A lunatic with a damp-cloth permanently clutched between my worried fingers. A freak determined to control a life spinning out of control by standing on chairs to deal with errant corners.
Today I came home from the school run and suddenly appalled by the state of my skirting boards, dashed through the house to fetch a pail of warm water and a cloth with which to banish all evidence of my neglect. It was only when I found myself down on my hands and knees, coughing and spluttering with flu that will not fly away, worrying at a tiny mark that would not shift, did I notice I was still wearing my coat, a scarf and one finger-less glove.
Should you attend my premises and find it a little slovenly, then rest assured all is well. I will be busy looking after myself, reading, taking long baths, dashing hither and thither, enjoying the slings and arrows of motherhood and entrepreneurship and love and life and vintage housekeeping. But should you open the front door and sniff, basset hound style at air fragranced by tea tree, get ready to grab me by the apron strings, force me to sit down and take stock of my compulsion to clean anything standing still. Including the poor teenage child probably sprayed head to foot in deodorant and scrubbed at with the kind of tissue I have taken from my pocket, licked and applied to his face. Oh yes. Sometimes I am one of those Mums.
Stress comes in flutters. Sometimes in a sentence. Sometimes by the barrel load. Occasionally stress even comes dressed as a person.
Take Mark. The Father of my child. Now married to Hannah and father to another (adorable) child. Twice a week this relatively inoffensive man knocks on my door and I swear its as though someone pops batteries in me and winds me up. For in he comes and off I go. I run the tap for no good reason. Wipe down the stove. Get a dust pan and brush out. Swipe a duster over his bald spot. And he follows me around making small talk and telling me to step away from the sink and I chat away and fail to keep still and when things are really bad I start spritzing the greasy glass in the conservatory doors and he laughs and tells me I’m mental and then we have a cup of tea and all is well. But something inside me anticipates stress around him. So I clean. Which is really rather bizarre because I’m pretty sure my Dad would swear blind I never clean so relaxed I am in his chirpy company.
Today the house is spotless and Mark hasn’t even been over! A sweet-smelling, cosy antidote to Storm Doris raging outside my front door and Storm Alison raging inside my head. Cleaning then is sometimes a means to an end. Sometimes a coping mechanism. Something to keep my hands busy and my mind deliciously empty.
It’s when I start manically baking that you really need to worry…
What if today was the day you decide to do as much as you can manage? No more, and here’s the rub, no less.
If you are anything like me (please say you are like me – I feel better in a crowd) then this business of housekeeping is a fluctuating matter. One day full throttle. The next nothing at all. And equipping yourself with all the fancy scrubbing brushes and ecologically sound cleaning fluids you can find just doesn’t make a jot of difference to what comes to pass on any given day. Rather it seems to be a matter of the very careful weighing up of hormones, energy levels, mood, kids, and reason to be interested.
Oh yes, let no man or women assert that we are all in the mood for disinfecting the u-bend at any given hour of the day. In fact should this be true then I must insist you find a hobby. Housework exists to support our way of life – not to be our way of life and the minute it becomes obsessive, is the very minute I suggest you have a lie down with a flannel soaked in hot water and rosemary oil so you can take a thorough squint inside your empty soul.
Ahem. I’m clearly feeling feisty today.
Anyway my point is this: housework has to be done. Surfaces have to be lickably clean. It is awfully nice to have fresh sheets and so much easier if the children aren’t careering around the house naked in search of clean underwear. We have to do it and we do it because unlike some of those we live with, we have a certain amount of home-related pride and we feel better when life is primped and preened.
But some days housework is hard. Some days tipping milk in to our tea seems like an effort so chances are such days are not those we are likely to find ourselves dragging a step-ladder upstairs and tackling the dust bunnies in the eaves. And it on those days I am urging a new “as much as we can manage” attitude to keeping the house spick and span. Even if that means hoovering the living room with your bottom parked firmly on the sofa. Or swiping the shower screen with a squeegee just before you step out to get dry enough to go and swoon in dramatic, melancholic style on the chaise lounge.
If however, doing what we can on the days we don’t feel like is important, then so too is doing as much as we can manage on the days when our hormonal stars are a-lining. The days we feel so fully alive we rather fancy hopping around the shops and buying lots of things we don’t need and dragging the dog around the woods, and meeting everyone we know for coffee and generally wasting entire days busy doing nothing when we could be channeling our energy in to scrubbing, sorting, getting wildly KonMari about the insides of our cupboards or getting ahead on a decorating project.
Oh yes: those days when we have got energy and determination beaming out of the top of our head are just right for really throwing ourselves in to the domestic melee and getting a grip on it, so on the days when we are wearing fat pants, eating chocolate for breakfast and feeling more than ready to launch the next cheeky chappie who tells us to smile, we can feel more than OK about skulking in our bedrooms and losing ourselves in our much loved stack of Georgette Heyer paperbacks with a truffle stolen from our comfort drawer and earplugs jammed firmly in our ears.
This then is doing “as much as we can manage” and it requires us to be totally honest about how we are feeling: to tune in to both our body and mind, assess what we are capable of and act accordingly. You see if BrocanteHome is about anything it is about extreme self-care and we practice that both when we are gentle with ourselves AND when we are disciplined enough to do what we are more than capable of doing.
What can you manage today?
So a few days ago I wrote about the lull and now I want to talk about the frenzy.
Heaven knows why but Christmas arriving at the weekend thrills me. Christmas on a Sunday seems just right to me. Much better than Christmas on a Tuesday! So this year I do believe we are blessed with festive order and if we play it right we can truly enjoy the week before the holiday arrives, without feeling the kind of demented we only ever experience when we can’t decide whether to ice our stockings or stuff our Christmas cake.
You see it is time. It is time to work yourself in to a complete frenzy and get everything left on your list done. While I usually try to encourage a graceful swan approach to the season (even if those webbed feet are crazed beneath the water), today I am saying, nay, ordering you to go bonkers; to work yourself in to a complete festive frenzy so that you can declare yourself done by Monday morning, and then sit back with a smug smile and truly enjoy the abundant gifts the season has to offer.
Right, so that means there are three days left to do everything. E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G.
I’m talking close family Christmas cards written and gluten-free stuffing shopped for. I mean the kids presents wrapped even if it means staying up until the early hours to get them done. I mean getting to the shops at silly o’clock in order to pick up the last of the gifts on your list, taking that trip to the farm to pick up fresh mistletoe, anything that can be cooked and frozen now for Christmas dinner, cooked and frozen! I am talking about rooting out the Christmas stockings so you don’t find yourself clambering in to the loft on Christmas Eve,and wrapping that gift you bought for yourself so you can pop it under the tree.
(You DID buy YOURSELF a gift didn’t you? NO? Have I taught you nothing at all?? Add it to your to-do list RIGHT NOW and get thee to the loveliest boutique you know post-haste! And for heavens sake stop making me SHOUT in capitals please!).
I am deadly serious about INSISTING that you make a big fat long list of absolutely everything left to do before Christmas and blooming well getting it done over the next seventy-two hours…
You see work until you drop now and from Monday you will have one lovely week to just be. Right there in the bliss of the season. Work until you drop now and you can spend your free time in the week before Christmas enjoying the proper pleasures of the season. You can watch cheesy Christmas films and play board games. You can sit and stare at the pretty lights on the tree and sip at a glass of mulled wine in utter peace. You can read the kids Christmas stories mindfully, wholeheartedly, without wishing they would fall asleep so you can get back to playing hunt the sellotape in the piles of wrapping paper downstairs. You can take yourself to a steamy coffee shop, drink a gingerbread latte and feel calm in the midst of the chaos, and step out late in the evening wrapped in scarves and gloves to walk around the neighborhood feasting on the festive displays of lights and loveliness.
It would be worth it wouldn’t it? Feeling bone-tired for a few days so you can relax those shoulders come Monday and enjoy Christmas the way it is supposed to be enjoyed. It would be worth it because sometimes the after-glow of frenzied activity is a joy all by itself, and feeling smug is something we should all treat ourselves to at least once a year don’t you know?
Ready, steady… go!
The turkey is ordered and at least some of the presents are wrapped. The tree is up and dripping with nonsense, and all the films I want to watch have been marked in yellow highlighter pen in the Radio Times… a ritual from childhood I am not willing to give up, though if the truth be known there is so little time at Christmas to watch anything peacefully, particularly anything that does not please this house full of boys!
But school is not yet finished and the internet has not yet delivered all the gifts I have ordered. I have not iced the Christmas Cake and I am yet to churn out a single mince pie. The weather is mushy. Drizzley and yucky. Not crisp and white as Hollywood insists it should be. For the first time Finn refused to accompany me to the Christingle service and a little drop of sad fell on my Mummy of a Teenager heart, and today I have got a little tummy bug about which you really don’t need the details.
My Christmas isn’t picture perfect. But I feel Christmassy regardless. And Christmassy feelings are most of the battle aren’t they?
(For without them Christmas can feel like the most awful drag and those who harbor draggy feelings in December really aren’t good for our souls and must be banished to festive Coventry without so much as a nod to their inner Grinch).
This then is the lull. The calm before the cinnamon scented storm. It is the moment when much, if not all of Christmas is done and there are only fripperies to be organised and enjoyed. It is the time to notice. To sit by the lights of the tree and experience Christmas. To stop and actually listen to the words of the songs piped in to every store and to savor the first sip of that oh so retro bottle of Babycham. It is time to take flowers to the graveside of those we have lost so we can wish them all the love of the season, and to spend quiet time with those old or ailing and for whom Christmas has become just another day. Time to watch the children’s nativity and to truly treasure every single second of it, (for all too quickly they are too old to play silly shepherds or haphazard fairies), and it is without doubt time to get in as many early nights as possible with a stack of Christmas chick-lit and a flask – yes, a flask!- full of cocoa…
In my own lull, I tend to contemplate and reflect. I spend evenings with my Leonie workbooks and a pink pen, tearing through sentences for my eyes only, trying to make sense of what has happened in the year just gone and fashioning dreams for the year coming, with my fingers crossed and bound for a year better than those in my recent past. Another ritual of my own devising I cannot see myself ever wanting to give up in any given December in my future… for in its own way it shapes my year and though during this year there have been occasions when I have been barely able to breathe, let alone achieve, still I have been ticking off so many of the 100 things on my Leonie list and it continues to astonish me that writing a wish down is often enough to have the universe conspire to deliver it to you…
Tonight, I have got a couple of silly Christmas novels on my bedside, lavender starched pajamas laid out on my cosy yellow eiderdown, and a row of twinkly tealights lined up along the cast iron mantel of the fireplace in my bedroom. It is cold and I am not sure I can face a bath, but I will shower quickly and coat myself in the sandalwood and germanium sleep balm I am currently obsessing over, read through the wonderful descriptions of all your Christmas’s described in the Living Room, and kiss my family goodnight.
I am tired. Tired and Christmassy. Tired and content. This then is the lull.
And so it has begun. The season of the carrier bag. Those relentless days where one seems to do little else other than walk in to the house laden with this, that and indeed the lovely other in our efforts to create the Christmas of our dreams.
On the one hand I rather adore what becomes one long shopping opportunity and the other I feel every vein in my body tightening in dreaded anticipation of buying the wrong thing. Of forgetting to buy a little something for someone altogether. Of buying lots and lots of teeny little things I could surely create Christmas without.
Ready then for understatement of the year? I sometimes feel as though the commercialization of Christmas has gone a bit far.
Though I am not quite ready for a true Buy Nothing Christmas, some of me thinks that reigning things in a little bit might go some way to saving our bank accounts, waistlines, sanity and soul. Some of me thinks that if only we could hark back to a time where kids were happy with a tangerine and a handful of copper and grown-ups didn’t see Christmas as one long gin soaked endurance test then the festivities might just be a little easier on all of us…
Oh heck. Am I turning in to Scrooge’s lady friend? Probably not, for I am nothing if not a bundle of contrary emotion when it comes to Christmas. Take yesterday for instance when under the guise of helping her choose a unit for her lovely bathroom, I accompanied Kath to a furniture shop neither of us had previously visited.
And in we went. And with delighted eyes on stalks, and senses so very gently assaulted by quiet festive tunes that were just right and big fat candles emitting the scent of Christmas without rendering our noses outraged, we took mugs of milky coffee from polite men in checked shirts and wandered about in something akin to awe. Here was Christmas made perfect. Cabinets painted in milky colors describing a lifestyle we suddenly found ourselves desperate to step in to. Nothing too festive but on every surface a nod to the season. A tangle of seedpods. An amber scented candle. A pile of Welsh wool blankets. Rooms in which a Christmas without the garish truth of the festivities could be played out. Rooms in which we could hole up, sip hot chocolate laced with red wine (my two favorite things in one cosy bowl, oh heavens yes please!), pretend television didn’t exist and instead spend those precious few days of the holidays talking, and laughing, playing games and eating food cooked exquisitely well: feasts of saddleback ham and red onion marmalade, sloe gin and homemade truffles.
You see I want Christmas but I want a Christmas that doesn’t exhaust me. I want to choose one or two presents for those I love that are just right instead of the endless stuff of carrier bags I tend to offer people. I want to start Christmas the traditional way it has long begun for us with the Christingle service, watching Finn set his hair on fire while holding a candle and singing “Away In a Manger” (one year the Verger sprinted across the aisles to offer a wet flannel to be flung upon Finn’s singed brow!). I want the house twinkly without glitter and baubles. I want an afternoon around Kath’s kitchen table, just me, her and our suddenly teenage babbas exchanging gifts, a quiet Christmas Eve spent wrapping gifts with Ste and Christmas Day at home. Nowhere to be. No people to see. Just the pleasures of the day to be enjoyed without any pressure to entertain.
Though it does of course reek of the lure of commercialization in itself, I want a Christmas like the one in that furniture shop. A mood. An atmosphere. A sense of space in time that had Kath whisper “Oh Ali, I could cry” at which we both burst out laughing and so thoroughly and completely understood.
So much of what is heavenly about Christmas is lost to the very chaos of it and this year I want to experience wonder all over again. While it may be hard to set aside the season of the carrier bag we can at least do our very best to focus on festive hygge, to reign in the relentless urge to throw money at that which cannot be bought and instead to indulge ourselves and those we hold most dear with the kind of joy that the bestest kind of memories are made of.
It is raining here today. The tapestry of leaves on the ground sodden and untidy. There were no teabags left in the copper pot on the counter. Only a trickle of the skimmed milk I favor lingering in the fridge. My feet have turned an unusual shade of purpley-blue because I have not yet made it back upstairs to tuck them in to pompom slippers. Finley came downstairs fully dressed! And Donald Trump is on stage: a confusing mix of humility and gloating shaping his now softly spoken words. That circle he makes with his fingers slightly less pronounced now he is no longer raging against a country that just yesterday seem unwilling to bend to his manic will.
Not so long ago I used to to tell my Mum that the world scared me. And she would say that the world had always been a scary place. That in her lifetime there had always been terrorism, the threat of war, crazy men, religious lunacy. That we have learn to live with a certain level of potential fright or else we might as well retreat under our patchwork quilts and whither away.
Today the women on my Facebook stream, my sister, my friends, my readers have declared themselves scared of Trump. For the world. For their children. There is a lot of pain. Disappointment. Confusion. And anger. There is also too much rage. Too much venom directed by those who consider themselves to be intellectually superior towards whom they consider to be “the great unwashed” – on whom they are firmly placing the blame, forgetting that among that majority there are Mothers scared for their babies too. The world feels broken and they want to have someone to blame so they look to those they consider less than them. An ugly truth if ever there was one.
I am no more political than I am religious. I find any kind of division between human beings to be distasteful. I am also stupid. I want people to be kind in an unkind world. I remain bewildered by angry men and warmongering women, and care only for the politics of my my own household. The politics of step-parenting. The politics of who takes the bins out. Who gets to choose what’s for dinner. And I am telling you this not because I want to publicly declare my own ignorance, but because I suppose, I want to appeal for calm among those of us who want to live a life less ordinary. Because I understand that politics is a necessary evil and we cannot always swing a vote the way we want it to swing. Because I want us all to feel safe within our own four walls despite what goes on beyond them.
We fear change don’t we? We understand career politicians but cannot (do not want to) begin to fathom a maverick, sexist business man standing at the head of one of the most important countries in the world. We confuse personality with politics and forget that in even the smallest of businesses liking or even respecting he in charge is not necessarily key to our own success. We cringe at the toupee, feel our skin crawl at the idea of hopping in to bed with such a vile creature, allow our own instinctive, female revulsion to dictate our feelings, wonder what the heckity-pie could be wrong with that wooden, soulless Melania woman and fail in the midst of our revulsion to understand that Trump will not stand alone. That there will be some good men and women standing behind him, guiding him, reigning in his arrogance, advising him and hopefully taping up his mouth. That a person does not get to be Donald Trump without possessing some nous. Some wisdom. Despite how utterly ludicrous he strikes us. How little we yet understand about who he will be as a President. For we do not know yet whether he will be the dictatorial oaf we imagine he will be. Or whether he truly will rule the world with one hand permanently hovering over the dreaded red button. Or more, whether we will all suffer the kind of catastrophe The Simpsons predicted should this have ever come to pass. We do not yet know and that is I suppose terrifying in itself.
We fear change even when we cannot prevent change itself and must instead, if not embrace it, then at least accept it. If only so that our children are not spooked by our own terror of something that has not yet come to pass. So that our little girls are not forced to see this as the vote for women’s oppression that it so blatantly is and are not immediately reduced by it. Our boys not kept awake at night by fear of war fueled by an impetuous, impulsive man. So that they are not weeping tears for something that has no impact on what we decide to pack in their lunchboxes today. We must therefore refuse to wrap their sandwiches in anxiety. Keep appalled conversation to a minimum in front of them. So that they do not sense our fear and are instead reassured that all remains well. For that it does. For today at least, for our children all remains well. That is our job and it remains our job whoever ends up living in the White House – to make our children feel safe despite whoever walks the long corridors of power.
It could have course have been different. We could have had a woman I have certainly never related to standing in Trump’s place and perhaps we would have rejoiced anyway for it may have seemed like a triumph for sanity. For more of the same. For the safety of better the devil we know. But we haven’t. Something has happened this morning none of us could have predicted and all the wringing of our collective hands will not, in the immediate future, make any difference. We have to be at peace with that for now. Or else we allow something we cannot immediately change to trouble our own four walls. To bring a sense of dis-harmony indoors at a time when we would be better served strengthening the minds of our little ones so that the politics of the future does not stink quite so badly.
Here, there are no teabags and I am sipping coffee instead: my taste buds already recovering from the shock of Booth’s Italian Blend where there should have only been Tetleys. Finley is joking about all the builders in the world lining up for a lifetimes work building Trump’s Godforsaken wall and calling the house in our garden New Mexico as the joiner finally staples up the fence between us and them. Dad is in the shower and Ste, nonplussed by the whole affair, preparing a Powerpoint presentation for an interview.
And I am here. Typing out words that may make no sense to me in the future when we better understand the impact Trump will have on all our tomorrows. Tutting at the fingerprints on the glass on the doors into the conservatory and about to splash my way down to the crazy Post Office for a pint of skimmed. Refusing to be scared.