Can a book discombobulate you? “The Fault In Our Stars” certainly can

dis·com·bob·u·late  [dis-kuhm-bob-yuh-leyt]. verb: to confuse or disconcert; upset; frustrate

The fault in our stars coverYesterday morning I finished reading ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ by John Green.  “Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw” shouts the back cover in bold, narrow, handwritten type.  If I take the “disconcert” and “upset” parts of the definition above, this book most certainly discombobulated me.

Sundays are my ‘morning off’, which usually means I snooze for a while before sneaking in some reading.  Not so yesterday.  As soon as Mr H had reluctantly succumbed to Littlest H’s insistent and boisterous ‘I’m HUNGRY, Daddy’, on went the light and out came the book.  I’ve been tired all week from staying up late to read it, and yesterday I wasn’t leaving my bed until I was finished.

At which point I gathered myself, wiped away the tears and re-engaged with family life.  But I was unexplainably snippy with Mr H, and then, while on my bike, straining up a hill in open countryside (usually a positive experience of ‘yay I’m exercising’ and ‘yay, I’m on my own’), I found myself full-on bawling for no obvious reason.  Yes, I was exhausted from the effort of more uphills than I anticipated; yes I was frustrated with my recklessness in planning a route I didn’t know when I had a finite amount of time to get back to pick up Littlest H from a birthday party; but neither of those would usually be reason enough for such an uncontrollable emotional outburst, even for me.  So I can only conclude I was letting out the emotion this book created in me.

Why did this book affect me so much?  Its subject matter was never going to be light and fluffy – it’s about children with cancer.  But I don’t think the awfulness of childhood cancer was what got me.  It was the real-ness of the characters and their emotions, the breathtakingly intelligent banter of the teenage protagonists, so beautifully observed and written, and the power of the writing to put me right there in the lives of the families and the truly awful situation they were in.

I want to read it again, to take it more slowly, to savour the bits I didn’t stop to fully take in.  There are no wasted words in this book.  I remember reading Thomas Hardy at school, skipping the first one to two pages of every chapter with their lengthy, flowery descriptions of place and time.  None of that here.  I am in awe of John Green and his skill.

No, this is not light and fluffy.  Yes, I cried tears of anguish more than once.  But mostly, I found it incredibly uplifting – how these teenagers and their families function in a terrible and terrifying situation.  How they find a path to life, rather than giving up on it or focusing on death, however close it may be.

To me, books or any other art form, work if they make me feel.   This book made me feel on every page.  I feel the privilege of life, the privilege and preciousness of healthy children, family and friends, and the temporary nature of that privilege.  I feel the truth of how humour, ‘real-ness’ and a lack of melodrama or sentimentality could help make cancer or other disease more bearable. I have a new perspective on how my and others’ behaviour could look or feel to people suffering with cancer or other disease.  That point struck me in particular reading how some family members acted around someone dying – remembering them to their face while still alive, using the past tense, being sentimental.  It is beautifully handled in the book.  I have a tendency to melodrama and sentimentality, and I hope I managed to avoid making my father’s two years with cancer more difficult by acting as these people do, however understandable the reaction is.  Even if I did, I can’t change it now, but perhaps I can handle it differently if, god forbid, I’m in the situation again.

I completely agree with the proclamation on the back cover of this book.  It is insightful, bold, irreverent and, more than anything, raw.  The irreverence is its brilliance in my view.   I’m sure it wouldn’t work for everyone going through cancer, nor do all the main characters manage it in this book, but it is a real, unsentimental coping mechanism that I can relate to.

In Western society we are increasingly used to the expectation of long life.  Our politicians and finance gurus discuss the problem of pensioners living longer.  More and more  diseases are eradicated or managed with sophisticated drugs. The vast majority of us are used to clean water, sanitation, heat, excellent medical care, jobs that won’t lead us to early death, limited immediate threat of war.  Long gone are the days of high infant mortality and fifty being a ripe old age.

Watching historical drama or current documentaries about Africa or other areas of the world where life is less certain, I wonder at that sense of living with death.  Parents of the past expected some of their children to die – I’m certain it was still hugely traumatic, but perhaps one felt helplessness and inevitability about it compared to the shocking, terrifying, gut-wrenching feelings towards it today.  We believe it will never be us.  We expect to live until we’re old, crinkly and bad-tempered, necking gin at 10am and pushing to the front of the queue because we can.

I do think cancer is changing that perception in current generations though.  More and more of us experience it ourselves or in our close family and friends, and it makes long life feel less certain.  Many cancers are survivable, yes, but it is a disease we fear because it strikes hard and indiscriminately – there is little we can do in our lifestyles to manage our risk of getting it, or indeed, to not be the wrong side of the survivor statistics.  How the teenagers and families in this book handle that process in the extreme, is a lesson for me and no doubt any other readers.

If you read one book this year, read this one.

Random musings on 40 year old teenage angst and uncertainty

Golden_Eagle-Soaring

Some days I feel grounded in myself, my family, my friendships.  I soar, wings wide, feeling secure and confident in who I am, in knowing I have the emotional intelligence and control to handle feelings and situations as befit a nearly 40 year old adult.

Other days, I falter.  I feel like my wings don’t work.  I feel blown by the winds of emotion and uncertainty; like a teenager, unsure of myself and lacking the life experience and perspective needed to ground my behaviour and feelings in an intelligence of any sort.

Why is it that I so often find myself taken back to those teenage feelings of angst and uncertainty?  Sure, now, I recognise them for what they are; I know I can mostly control them and rationalise them and they feel far less raw or all-consuming.  But still, they are there.  Do we ever escape them?

Parenting is harder on days I falter.  Not to mention on days when the children demand more of me than I can give them; when tasks need doing that aren’t about them and that need my thoughts focused elsewhere and their presence where they don’t want to be.  I question my own judgement.  My self-control falters.  My mental energy is not sufficiently focused.

Those days need all my effort to manage.  And when I have some space, I employ the tactics I have learnt work for me to bring my feelings to the fore, analyse them and pick my way through them to the things I need to do to move past them.  I work hard to stop myself wanting to run away from the feelings and the implications – the often uncomfortable-feeling actions needed to sort things out with others, big or small as those things might be.

I have often wished I wasn’t so analytical – approaching life with more levity and less reflection.

But the reality is that I am who I am.  There is little value in wishing I were otherwise. Nor will mentally running away from hard things, small or large, solve anything.  Strength of character and self-esteem come from facing and dealing with situations, even if they don’t feel comfortable.

Just recognising the feelings, and what I need to do about them, allows my wings to spread once more, to feel the lift of the currents.

And as always, tomorrow is a new day, a new opportunity.  Parenting, more than anything else in my life, has taught me that.  We are not perfect, we will always be flawed, but each day we can strive to be the best we can be and pick ourselves up again when we don’t quite make it.

Keeping the connection alive: Relationship 101


tides ebb and flowIt’s interesting, isn’t it, how relationships ebb and flow.  Just over a year ago, Mr H and I split our weekday jobs into diametrically opposed roles: he would keep working, focusing on his career and bringing in the dosh; I would stop working and do everything else.

On the face of it, you could say I have a cushy life.  We live comfortably without me working.  With Littlest H now at pre-school every morning, I have time (in term) to myself I can decide what to do with.  If there’s a snow day at school, a child is ill or there’s something at school I’d like to attend, my life isn’t turned upside down.  Yes, some rejigging is required, and things I planned to do go un-done, but in comparison to the stress created by the nanny calling in sick or figuring out how to be at home to attend a school event without missing meetings I couldn’t really miss, it’s pretty manageable.

And yet, such a stark split of roles is tough.  Especially as a reasonably feisty, independent woman who enjoyed working and having financial parity with my partner, and who also has a pretty highly honed radar for female stereotyping.  It certainly took a while for us to get used to the new arrangement, without me feeling defensive about perceived expectation of ‘little woman’ behaviour, or a lack of understanding about just how much juggling there is in managing the day to day commitments of two kids. (To give an example, after a typical logistically-challenged day early on last year, that ended with tired, awful children, when Mr H arrived home to discover no milk, he questioned how I could not find time to get more.  A rare reaction, I might add, and rarer still since that particular instance and my response…)

Most of the time I can genuinely say I am happy managing the kids and the household by myself Monday to Friday, although I’ll admit I count the hours to Friday nights.   I’m used to it; we have our established routines and they work well nearly all the time.  I love hearing about the kids days first-hand and being the person ferrying them here and there and getting to know their friends.  I love being part of a community of mums who support each other through good and bad days, emergencies, building work, appointments or just the need for time out or a rant.  It’s also easier now I have some time in the day for decent exercise, as that keeps me sane (Mr H’s hours mean I can’t exercise early morning or evenings).

But I can’t pretend it hasn’t felt a bit dull and mundane sometimes too.  I love my children dearly, but the level of conversation is more “Mummy, I have a joke.  What is it Littlest H.  What do you get if you have a farmer?  I don’t know Littlest H, what do you get.  A farm.  Get it, Mummy?  Isn’t it funny, Mummy?” than discussing whether Cameron is right to call a referendum on Europe or even gossiping about the latest workplace drama or thorny issue.

I don’t think I noticed that mundanity last year.  Alongside the novelty of being with the kids, there were plenty of ‘projects’ that kept me occupied – redecorating, the allotment, planning a home-building project, writing this blog and children’s stories.  It’s only struck me since I started setting up a business with a friend this year.  It feels so purposeful, so constructive, so stimulating to be thinking about the world outside my domestic enclave in a pretty tightly circumscribed corner of Surrey.

But it hasn’t really changed anything about the roles Mr H and I have.  It won’t, as the whole point is for me to find fulfilling work that fits with family life.  In a way it’s harder – the volume of time I need to work on the business competes with time to spend with him, so the need to schedule ‘us-time’ is almost more important.

Being brutally honest, our set up has put a big strain on us, and we’ve fallen into lazy habits that haven’t helped.  Mr H is knackered when he’s home, and rightly puts his limited energy into the children first, who clamour for his attention.  Then there are the outings or social engagements, exercise, and sometimes it feels like we come last.  Not by planning or design, just by circumstance.  Us can feel like a mostly practical, sorting-out thing, a managing-our-lives thing.  A co-existence, not a fulfilling, positive relationship.

Last night we went out for dinner.  Just the two of us, to our favourite local haunt. I think it’s the first time we’ve been out by ourselves since mid December.  It’s been too long.  We’ve let our commitment to weekly date nights, or at least weekly ‘cook together and eat/chat without putting the telly on’ nights, slide.  It shows in our snippiness and lack of connection.  It’s easy to get lazy, but that connection is so important – I’ve seen at close hand what the loss of it has done to other relationships.  Without it, all our relationship is is a vessel for the children’s lives and our own separate existences.

Family life with young children, at the age when careers break through or risk being left behind, is tough.  You’ve survived years of sleep-deprivation. The time, money and energy for things you used to love doing are harder to find.  The fun of life requires more effort.  But allowing a lack of effort towards one’s relationship to slide into routine is a big risk.

So in a way I feel thankful we had a row on Thursday that triggered a rearranging of commitments to go for dinner last night.  Because we talked, we re-connected with each other’s lives and each other’s feelings.  We acknowledged the situation we’re in, the risk and the need to do it differently. We discussed ways to achieve regular date nights that don’t get canned by unavoidable work commitments or opting for the easy way out of tv and laptops.  We’ll book in some fun things to do together.  The ebb will return to a flow.

No doubt we will face another ebb at some point, but I am certain we are strong enough, and have open enough communication lines (albeit sometimes at higher volume than we’d like), to turn it around.  It might be relationship 101 to stay connected, but it can be all too easy to forget.  Marriage was never meant to be easy, but it definitely needs to be fun.  Time to bring on some more fun, I think.  Nevermind the Year of the Snake, let’s make 2013 the Year of Fun.