Sunday, 13 November 2011

Freedom food

People have exclaimed in wonder at the number and variation of mushrooms in my garden. It's not entirely surprising - they like nutrient rich soil, a food base of plenty of decaying plant matter, and each prefers its own situation - hedgerow, sunny field, etc. In the twenty-nine years that my dad owned and worked this garden, he deliberately created a rich and organic haven for wildlife of all kinds, not with birdseed and bee-boxes, but by letting nature do its thing: encouraging the plants that birds like, allowing slugs to feed the frogs, leaving undisturbed areas for the shy creatures to hide. 

Many fungi thrive in great numbers if the autumn is wet and mild, so this is a particularly good year to find them. If I speak like an expert, I'm deceiving you well, because everything I know I have learnt in the last twenty-four hours from Richard Mabey's 'Food for Free', and a brief Google Search.

Now, I'm not great advocate for self-sufficiency. I think that as an ideal it is flawed and impractical. I would prefer to aim for community-sufficiency. You know, I'll provide the apples and the mushrooms, you give me a few of your eggs and walnuts, Fred over there knows how to build a house, so we're well on the way to a happy life. But what I do believe in is being able to live without outside help. To not be one of the people who, when the system collapses and the shopping malls have all been looted, are panicking and considering cannibalism.

So, considering I'm a little too squeamish and sentimental to pop outside and shoot myself a woodpigeon (especially as they kindly eat my slugs for me now the toddlers have scared most of my frogs away), I'll have to get my protein from somewhere, and the mushrooms in my garden seem a pretty obvious place to start. But - big, stinking, screaming, almost insurmountable but - I really don't want to accidentally kill myself and my family!

Richard Mabey considers why so many people feel like this, considering that "there are 3000 species of large-bodied fungi growing in the British Isles, yet only twenty-odd of these are seriously poisonous." Yes, but what if I accidentally pick one that is? He does, after all, also state that, of the poisonous ones, "each one resembles maybe half a dozen edible types". He goes on to list many reasons why fungi are taboo, including mystical reasons and psychological associations, but for me it simply comes down to the scary possibility of death. Then again, I'm happy to pick berries and leaves from my garden, and there are deadly ones of those in Britain, too!

So I have decided to learn as much as I can about mushroom identification and usage this year, so that next year I'll have the confidence to consider them as a food source. Richard Mabey assures me that as long as I am absolutely exact about matching descriptions, locations and times of year, there will be no mistake. He also advises, mind you, to discard any mushrooms I'm unsure of, as "indigestion brought on by uncertainty about whether you have done yourself in can be just as uncomfortable as real food poisoning!" Less deadly though, I'd imagine.

The picture shown at the top of this post is, I believe, a group of parasol mushrooms. I took this photo last week, down by the woodpile. If you wonder why they're called "parasol", the next picture is what they looked like a few days later. Mabey suggests stuffing them or making fritters out of them.

 Next is (I think) field blewit. And if you know me to be wrong about any of my identifications, please, please tell me! These ones were amongst the dead leaves and fallen Bramley apples, and were spaced out in a straight line in the shade of a hedgerow. Mabey suggests using them as a tripe substitute (why would I want to do that?) or making an omelette out of them (much better).

Finally, on the slope of my front garden, I found a fairyland of these tiny specimens. They're not food, but Google searching suggests they're probably a kind of mycena (I hope so), though they look scarily like liberty caps. Hm. Well, I'm not breaking any laws as long as I leave them right there in the grass, and I won't be shouting about it to the local kids, anyway, just in case!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Friday Frolics

We haven't spent much time in the garden recently, so I thought today we'd better put that to rights. We found some work to do, and some games to play, and some activities that fall somewhere in between. We also found lots and lots of mushrooms, which warrant their own post, so I'll try and get to that tomorrow! For now, here are our frolics:

This is a game we call 'Good Apple Bad Apple'. We would ideally play it every few days at least, but as you can see there were three weeks' worth of apples on the floor today!

Next came the job of raking up the leaves. No-one wants unsightly piles of leaves, right?

Much better to have pretty piles of leaves.

Finally, when the work was done, there was enough daylight left for some skittle action. After all this fresh air, Minnie ate exceedingly well at tea time, and is no doubt falling asleep quickly as I type!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The home education debate continued

Blogger wouldn't allow Kay's essay as a comment, so I'll reverse things a little by posting her words here, and my own comment below.

What are schools for? Why do we have them? Why do most people assume school is a legal requirement? It's an idea that developed along with the industrial revolution. Suddenly, the people with the power and the momentum of the era wanted most people to be *workers*: people who could read and write and count and, more imporantly, people with a deeply ingrained work ethic. That is, people who feel that going to the same place, to do the same thing, every day, whether you think it's a good idea or not, is necessary, sensible and virtuous. That idea does NOT come naturally to humans. You have to train them to it from a young age.

And once the industrial revolution had put paid to the old ways of families and communities organising themselves, you had a population that mostly lived in towns, and mostly worked. Unwatched kids, hanging around getting up to mischief when the parents and older siblings were at work were a nuisance. Daily school was a way of containing them.

I discussed the school-or-home thing with some of my associates and there were elements of the work ethic in the worries that surfaced. What if the kids don't learn to put up with things, stick at things, find ways of dealing with things? I know what they mean, and it concerns me a bit too but most of the time, the thing that concerns me most is the way most people DO accept things, put up with things - you know, little things like managing to ignore mass murder, state-sponsored torture, the wholesale destruction of the environment, the majority of taxpayers' money being spent by ministers' chums in the city, the cynical destruction of the welfare state...

To the people who say 'how can you teach them everything, you don't know everything' I'd reply, go look up 'education' in the dictionary. It means 'drawing out', not 'stuffing stuff in'. One of the features of the 21st century is the extraordinary amount and variety of information that's available. What kids need is not facts (many of which, I daresay, you won't know) but how to find, judge and make use of facts. Make bags of use of that magic phrase "I don't know, let's find out..." Have lots of projects that explore finding and evaluating information sources. Lots and lots of "who is saying this?" "Why are they saying it?" "What evidence do they have?" "Why *that* evidence?" " Do *I* think that evidence makes their case, or could it be interpreted another way?"

Someone I discussed it all with was worried about the kids not getting maths or scientific method. I love (and have) that idea that all would-be home-educators are artsy and can't count! So yes, make sure they get scientific method - the ability to observe and record events, to experiment, to develop, question and test theories, to evaluate other people's scientific work - especially to evauluate statistics. Most of the people, most of the time, are flummoxed and misled by bad statistics. Bad statistics are all over the internet and the newspapers (remember that newspaper report that said SHOCK, HORROR, MOST UK CHILDREN ARE NOW BELOW AVERAGE IN MATHS!) So, in short, if they've got information and science methodology, they can learn just about anything they want to.

Another worry is that they won't 'fit in', won't have the chance to be 'normal'. Quite a large proportion of life's great oddballs either didn't go to school or went sporadically, or went to a variety of schools. When I say oddballs, I mean writers, movers, thinkers, hackers... anyone who's had to learn to think for themselves, you might say. The big question is what made the fork in the path between the bright, brilliant, world-changing oddballs and the seriously deranged, misfit oddballs. In some cases, you might say they are two sides of the same coin but, if I were you, I'd make a study of it! I suspect the answer might be having the consistent attention of someone who cares and knows how to listen and question. Kids can take quite a long time to voice their concerns, and often need inspired questions - ones they know how to answer - before they know clearly what their concerns are.

There is the danger of claustrophobia - for you and for them - if the family gets too closed and inward, the ideas and the assumptions too easily agreed. Outside influences cause friction and chaos. If there are no compulsory outside influences, it's all too easy to reject troublesome ones, and waste opportunities as a result. I don't think I got much out of being at school, but I did get the experience of having to get along with a wide variety of people with a wide variety of backgrounds and views. You need to make sure the kids get that - not just the 'BBC balance' that says, 'here's the normal way, and here are a couple of whacky alternatives'. I suspect that, if the claustrophobia worry does manifest, it will do so during adolescence, when school is a daily bolt-hole to get away from home and parents (who are, for a while, the fount of all evil) and then at the end of the day, home is the bolt-hole to get away from teachers/peers (who are of course, etc)... mind you, I didn't actually GO to school much at that stage of my life. Er... how do home-educated kids go about playing truant when they're 13?

Anyway... as to your assessment of what's wrong with schools: for one reason or another, I've spent quite a lot of time in quite a lot of schools in recent years. My conclusion is that there are (or have been) some very good primary schools - but most of what I liked was going on because I was visiting Creative Partnership or Arts Council or Community Regeneration projects, most of which are currently being starved out. Secondary schools I found less attractive - mostly a boring, containment exercise and yes, I was astonished at the frequency and persistence of stuffing the students with sweets, cakes, fizzy drinks and other such garbage. I simply can't figure out how they get away with it, in this era of dietary panics and allergies and diet-related ADS concerns.

Nothing there to make me think they're missing much. So with all that in mind, I suppose my ideal would be for children to have a year or so of primary school education and as much secondary school education as THEY want, plus a plan and an opportunity to get into college/uni later.

And finally - cost and resources. You need to find sources of materials in a wide variety of subjects. There must be courses... oh and, those old-fashioned things, what are they called? Oh yes, BOOKS! (All home educators, in fact all parents, should (in my view) be members of Alan Gibbons' Campaign for the Book.  Is there any kind of organisation that funds home-educators for buying resources and doing courses? It'd be worth agitation for if not. I mean, now concepts like 'free schools' and 'faith schools' and 'technology academies' allow all kinds of weird people to teach kinds in all kinds of odd ways at the tax payers' expense, I don't see why parents shouldn't get some of that money. That is, I don't see why they *shouldn't* but I can see why they might not - funding parents to teach kids to think doesn't, after all, comply with the original purpose of schools (see para one, above).


I can quite see why you're taking Dawn out of school and I think I would possibly do the same, at least for a while but beware assuming what's right for one sister is right for both. I think I'll suggest you and Dawn working together for now, sort out some of the difficulties she's been having, try out this whole home-study lark, let Min join in as much as she wants and then when the time comes, put Min in school for a year or so, then she'll have the experience, the evidence, and the habit of independent thought, which will allow her to decide whether she wants to go through school or join in the home-study world.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Yes, it's legal, and yes, I'm sure I want to do it!

At Christmas, my six-year old daughter will be leaving school. We are all very excited about the decision to educate our children outside of school, and I’d like to share with you our reasons, arrived at after years of research, thinking, and discussion. We have recently had some problems with Dawn’s school, but I won’t go into those because they have not been a major influence in our decision. We believe the state school system has inherent faults (as do many of the private schools, but they vary so widely that generalisations are unsafe), and the best teachers in the country, with the best management, do not have the power to overcome them.

Here are the things which have convinced me:

There will never again be a situation in life where you are forced to work solely with 29 other people your age. The closest comparisons to school socialisation would be among homes for the elderly and prisons. What a child in school learns about socialisation is how to survive or thrive in a culture where bullying is rife, usually by making yourself exactly the same as the other children, from the Disney merchandise you carry and the TV programmes you watch to your attitude towards education, drugs, or which people are cool. Home educated children have plenty of opportunities to become friends with people of all ages in a variety of settings.

Plenty of studies have shown that home educated children are consistently one to four years ahead of their school age-group, and go on to successfully complete university degrees and join a wide variety of career paths. 

It has been proven that there are no benefits to making children learn academic skills at a very young age, and some professionals believe it may even be detrimental. It certainly robs toddlers of creative play time, and gives them unnecessary stress, particularly when tests and targets are introduced. Also, the age gap between the oldest and youngest in the early classes at school is developmentally significant, meaning that summer-born children are very disadvantaged in lessons such as phonics, which are developed for and aimed at specific age groups.

In most schools, children are taught to follow rules, not to ensure the safety and happiness of everyone involved, but because they will get rewards if they do and punishments if they don’t. I don’t believe this to be an effective way of teaching children to discern right from wrong, or to be truly considerate of others.

In many classes, the child who is lucky enough to find a subject easy and interesting will be rewarded with sweets, toys, and other rewards. But the child who tries hard, but struggles with the subject, has no way of getting attention unless they resort to bad behaviour. I find it hard to believe that in this diet-conscious time, when most parenting books strongly discourage using food as a bribe or reward, schools are actually allowed to dole out sweets to high-achieving children!

It is well known that everyone has different strengths and learning styles. Some people may struggle to pay attention when asked to sit still and listen for a long time, for example, but may absorb information easily when it is introduced via an active game or artistic exercise. It is impossible for one teacher to find the best way of engaging 30 different people, each with their own learning-style, intelligence level, experience and background. At best only the average people will thrive, with the majority of children either bored or struggling.

If you know anyone who has learnt everything, I’d be very interested to meet them! At school you study a limited selection of subjects and topics, decided by the government, most of which you will have dropped by the time you reach your A-Levels, and forgotten completely a few years later. Outside of school you can study those very same subjects if you wish, or others which the government haven’t thought of, and are not restricted by timetable clashes or forbidden combinations. You can also teach them life skills in the real world rather than classroom simulations – for example using real money in a real shop, or cooking a real meal for your real family to eat.

Yes, I get ratty when I’m around my children, especially in the holidays. But it’s hardly surprising, when my daughter has been fitting herself into school all term and is suddenly let out and given no direction for a few weeks. The boredom and the hyperactivity kick in, and it’s such a contrast that it’s hard to deal with. But getting the best out of children requires putting a lot in, and many home educating parents find that once the stress of the constant school runs and early mornings and tired children having to walk home and unwanted homework has worn off, they actually learn how to live with their children and enjoy their company, and family relationships are improved all round.

Yes, adult life can be hard. But I don’t believe that putting children in scary situations is the best way to prepare them for scary situations. Making them feel loved, confident, and able to find things out and make choices for themselves will go a long way to teaching them to be a successful adult. Throwing them in at the deep end simply forces them to deal with difficult issues before they are emotionally equipped to do so, resulting in all kinds of insecurity and bad decision-making.

I very much resent the amount of money that the school ask for on a regular basis, for trips and activities which I wouldn’t choose for my child, but which they must attend to avoid feeling left out. For the most part, education need not cost anything, but just think how many exciting art materials and reference books you could buy with the money you save from taking your children on holiday in term time rather than in August! 

I hope it won’t, but if it does, you can always send them back to school! The only complaint I’ve heard regarding home educated children entering the classroom is that they are less likely to blindly follow the herd, which can be inconvenient for the teachers. Plenty of people choose to send their children to school for GCSE’s and A-Levels (although plenty don’t), and this doesn’t usually present any problems.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Lovers

Back in my maidenhood, much of which I spent exploring Wicca, I was well used to the process of raising energy from the earth, letting it fill me, spill over, and flow back to the earth, completing a give-and-take circle of energy that was rejuvenating and satisfying. And, walking across green fields in Cheddar, shortly after reading We Borrow The Earth by Patrick Jasper Lee, I could feel the buzzing energy welling up beneath my feet, even with thick shoes on.

But recently, in the harried, distracted time that is my adult life, I have been finding it much harder to feel that connection. Since the beginning of my time working with the Earth element, I have tried to recall the technique of raising energy, and it just feels like going through the motions. I can put down roots, ground myself, but that's about as far as I get. Then I just feel cold.

I'm a real Gemini, predominantly ruled by Air, and the earthy experiences of touch are easy for me to neglect. I prefer to have an intellectual debate than to hold hands, particularly as I tend towards eczema, and there's no limit to the things that can set me off. But thankfully, I have children, and children leave no room for being physically disconnected.

I was sitting this morning, as I often do, with Minnie curled up under my arm, leaning against my body, silently reading a book and putting off the time when Things Need To Be Done. And in that time, I became aware of how impossible it felt to move. I couldn't bring myself to end the moment, because we were busy exchanging energy. I could feel Minnie's whole being, merging with mine, an echo of the time when she was part of me. We were nourishing each other with warmth and love, and to move away at that moment would have painfully wrenched something fragile and important. This is not the first time I have felt this mutual energy-flow, but it is the first time I've really been aware of it and realised how precious it is. So thank you, Minnie, for reminding me how to make a genuine physical connection, how to feel that flow of energy that makes it all work.

(photography by Dawn and Minnie)

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Hardest Thing To Do, but well worth it!

I'm afraid I have no photo for today's blog-post, but there are plenty of really good ones on Ember's blog, so please go and have a look!

Penelope Wilcock is the mother of my long-time best friend, and I was very proud and happy to be asked to join in with the musical festivities at the launch of her most recent book, The Hardest Thing To Do. I have to admit, I haven't actually read this one, due to current shortage of money, but I enjoyed the earlier ones, and the chapter read aloud at the launch party was moving and funny and interesting and stirring and all of those things that a book should be.

OK, plug over. But the party was magnificent! The theme, in keeping with the book, was medieval, so I was able to pull out my wedding dress (If you follow the link, I'm the musician with the blue dress and red bandana). I had a chance for a recorder performance, which I always jump at as most people forget recorders exist outside of primary schools, as well as some fiddling and singing which are always good. The audience sang well too, which is even better.

The party was held in Ember's church, a beautiful Gothic-style building lit with candles, with lavender strewn on the floor, and sheepskin rugs wherever people might wish to linger. The food and drink were varied and very very yummy, and I found good company wherever I looked. I haven't had such a good chat with a bunch of strangers for a long time!

Thursday, 13 October 2011


I've been neglecting this blog for a while, because I have been extremely busy in Real Life. I spent last week preparing for a concert to raise funds for a local church, which involved singing and playing and hilarious merry-making with various groups of friends, and was great fun, if somewhat stressful at times! I've also had numerous birthdays, other people's events to visit and help at, meetings, groups, all the usual things.

 This past week, I have had plenty of bloggable thoughts, and time to write them, but have not been able to decide where to begin. So I thought I'd cheat, and do a quick photo roundup of where I'm at, and clear my head ready for the next proper post!

 I'll let this little hairy fella start me off. I'm not sure who he is, but my girls found him in their "Secret Hole" in the garden, and came running to fetch me. Looking online, the closest match seems to be the Ruby Tiger Moth larva, but if anyone can correct me, please do!

This was my Druidry homework for my Bardic Course (if you want to know more, see the link for The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, on the right).  I'm immersing myself in the element of Earth for a while, to see what it has for me. Now, I know mind-maps are good for getting the creative juices flowing, but this turned out to be a really fun exercise, writing down absolutely any old thing that came to mind relating to Earth, however absurd. It was quite interesting seeing which things just kept cropping up over and over again, which I won't list now because they mostly come under the category of 'you had to be there'.

It was my mother-in-law's birthday last week, and I made this needlebook for her. Anyone who knows how traumatised I was by my experiences in textiles and school, and how averse I have been to any form of needlework since then, will know what a huge achievement this was for me. And what's more, I had really good fun doing it! Turns out it's just as addictive as those silly free computer games, but it produces real presents for people. This was based on the pattern given at Rhythm of the Home by Linda of Natural Suburbia (see link on the right).

And here is the inside.

While I have been getting into my needlework, Dawn has also taken it up. I can't tell you what she's doing here, because it's also a Christmas present, but I can tell you that she loves it and it's gonna be great!

Finally, this was my supper. Shortcake made with Rapadura, which I eventually managed to source relatively cheaply online at this store. I expect you've heard of unrefined raw cane sugar. The trouble with that stuff is that it's neither unrefined nor raw. It is cane sugar, but has usually had the molasses heated and spun out of it till there's not much left. It's only because they haven't got around to making it white and fine that they get away with the 'unrefined' label. Rapadura is cane sugar juice that has been pressed out, dried, and made into crumbs, but has its nutritional content intact. With tinned fruit and evaporated milk, I think I've managed to make up for the cost of the sugar! It tasted good too.

That'll do for now, I think. I'll leave the ethics of hair and my frustration regarding the school system until another time. See you soon!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Friday Frolics

Friday is the day when I get to spend most of the day alone with my youngest. We have a short swimming lesson in the morning, then it's mum and daughter funtime until the 3 o'clock school pickup. Here are some snapshots of our manic rush to do everything we'd like to do! Today we were rather heavy on the cooking, so now my kitchen looks like a baker's shop. Which is awesome.

Mr Plasticine Man

We don't use washing powder any more. :-) I am a recent convert to soapnuts. We are trying them here for the first time, and the washing comes out very clean and very soft, and they're safe for little hands to help with.

Minnie 'helps' make some cakes. Or does this count as washing-up? 

Having made too much chocolate glaze, I thought I'd try dipping grapes. It turns out they look a lot like acorns. If you simply melted milk chocolate, rather than making a runny glaze as I did, I bet they'd look great. 

In our family we love the dining table, but we don't always sit at it. 

Having picked Dawn up, it's time for homework. I can't believe she's reached that age. My plan is to always do it with her, and never to force the issue if she doesn't want to. As you can see, once again Minnie is helping. Dawn appears to be asleep. That's fine, too.

Phew! Having got the homework out the way, it's time for more cooking. This time it's flapjacks. I provide the oats and the syrup, and the girls chuck in whatever they fancy. Dawn chooses raisins and coconut (neither of which she likes, but she hasn't learnt yet!) and Minnie chooses raisins and dried strawberries.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Staycation, The Sequel: Indoor Camping

A while back, a crafty friend of mine made these beautiful gifts for my daughters. They're Camping Books, and she instructed me to save them 'for their purpose'. Well, owing to all that rain and the car problems and so on, we haven't been camping yet, and now the season's almost over and we're not going to get another chance to camp this year, in the conventional style, so I thought it was time to try something unconventional.
A clothes horse, a dining chair and a large sheet took care of the tent requirement, and only consumed half the living-room, leaving the other half free for the fire (rolled up corrugated cardboard selotaped into log-shapes) and the activities. As Dawn struggled with building the fire, my dad got stuck into the role play and assured Dawn that it would settle down into a better shape once it was lit. Dawn looked horrified and explained to him with her Serious Face that we were not really going to set light to it, it was just pretend.
The first activity was a treasure-hunt. This was completely non-competitive, with the girls sharing a list (words and pictures, to cater for both the early-reader and the pre-reader) of things to hunt for around the 'camp-site'. There were conkers (which later became 'chestnuts' to 'roast' on the 'fire'), coins (for the Camping-Book games), corn-dollies (seasonal), toy ponies (no reason - they were just convenient and appealing), and individually wrapped cakes. All the treasure was pooled by the 'fire', and the cakes and coins were distributed evenly. Next came tea and, yes, you've guessed it, cake.
After the snacks, the girls got stuck into their Camping Books. Page 1 contains a space to draw your tent. Page 2 contains a space to draw any creatures you find. (The toy ponies made an appearance there, along with a spider, followed by various things Dawn could remember from real camping. My dad, whose house I live in, asked them please to not record the dust-mites.) Next are several coloured pages for free-drawing and writing, and then miniature board-games (using coins for counters and dice), and finally some camping-related sticker pages, full of beautiful drawings by my friend.
Whilst the girls were busy with this, I whipped up our traditional camping meal of sausages in buns, which we ate sitting around the camp-fire, along with some runner beans which we had 'foraged' from 'the woods' (our garden). We also had blackberry and apple pancakes, which was nothing to do with camping, it was just a result of the vast amount of fruit pouring into my kitchen at the moment.
Next came stories and songs around the 'camp-fire'. It was getting dark by now, so I drew the curtains and lit some candles to see by. The girls snuggled down in their sleeping-bags in the 'tent' and played with torches, making shadows and so on, while they listened to the stories.
Sadly, as we don't have much space in our house and we wanted our living-room back, the girls then had to drag themselves off to their real bed, but I'm pretty sure they'd had a good time while it lasted, and I know the adults certainly did. The best thing is, it was hardly any effort to clear up again afterwards!

Monday, 12 September 2011

Minnie's birth

I was determined to have a natural birth and particularly to avoid an induction so I borrowed enough money to hire an independent midwife. Fiona (very experienced - really knows her stuff) and her assistant, Kerry (relatively new, very friendly, and someone I clicked with on a personal level) visited me for all of my ante-natal checks, each one lasting about an hour, so I felt very comfortable with them by the time I was full term.
This time there was no pressure on me to consider an induction. Fiona gave me the facts, and let me make my own decision. She recommended a homebirth website, which gave me a lot of confidence.
When I was forty-two weeks and one day pregnant, I sat up one night reading about birthing-pools. I was so taken by the idea that I decided, if I hadn’t gone into labour by the morning, to order one for myself.
As I turned my computer off and went to bed, I began to get contractions. I didn’t tell my husband, Alastair, as I hardly dared believe it was true. I slept for two hours before waking up and finding they’d got stronger. The first couple were OK, but then one came that was hard to deal with. I started doing the breathing and visualisation techniques from the Hypnobirthing book. It worked. For the next five hours, every ten minutes or so I’d have a contraction, but I didn’t want to call the midwife in the middle of the night unless something major was happening, so I just lay there, relaxed, and breathed through them.
Unlike the time before, I knew the sex and name of my baby, and it really felt like we were working together. When one visualisation stopped working, I’d make up a new one, and it was good. I imagined my belly as a hill, with all the strength and energy of the Earth, and I would breathe in, making the hill as big as I could, then blow the contractions over the hill and far away, on the wind. I made up a song, which I sang in my head to Minnie; it was a chant, to help us work her closer to the opening.
Finally morning came, and I woke Alastair up and told him to call his work to say he wasn’t coming in. Then I called Fiona, who was satisfied that I could do without her for a while. I packed Dawn off to playgroup with Alastair.
I wanted to cook some food for later, so that we’d all have something to eat when things got tiring (a bonus of homebirths). I found I had an ingredient missing, so I sent Alastair to the shop. A few minutes later, I discovered that my tomatoes were mouldy. Alastair didn’t have a mobile phone, so I set out to meet him. We met, and walked along the street together. When contractions came, I found that I could walk through them, but stopping was agony. Thankfully I managed a sort of Moses-act on the sea of traffic, and then paced up and down outside the shop while Alastair bought the tomatoes.
Back at home, I discovered that I couldn’t even chop a cucumber in between contractions, I was so distracted. It took me about two hours to make a salad. When contractions came, I would put my head on the counter and sway my hips till they went. By mid-morning, they were getting painful, so I got in the bath. That was nice for a bit, but my movement was so limited that I soon found I had to get out.
Fiona rang Alastair periodically, and at 2:00 she and Kerry came over. They brought their knitting, made themselves tea, and sat and chatted. It was good fun. I found that when I wanted a break, I could sit on my exercise ball and rock, and that slowed things down. I ate some lunch, and then got up to move around again.
Shortly before 3:00, Fiona suggested that Alastair and I go out for a walk. We went around the block, but this time walking was very uncomfortable, not to mention the embarrassment of stopping to have a contraction in full view of the neighbours.
When I got back, it took me a while to find a way of getting comfortable. I tried various positions on the ball, then clung to the banister, before settling in a doorway. I held the doorframe, swinging my hips in a wide figure of eight and blowing out through loose horsy-lips.
A little after 4:00, I felt the now-familiar, slightly sick, ‘I can’t do this’ feeling, and was sure I was in transition. Fiona offered to go and get the gas-and-air, but I asked her to examine me first to see how far along I was. She did, and told me I was only four cm dilated. I was devastated! I got up from the sofa, and instantly my waters flooded out, all over the floor.
Kerry dashed about cleaning it up, while Fiona stayed with me. Straight away I felt the urge to push, so I knelt down and leaned on Alastair’s lap as he sat in an armchair. I felt sick, and my perineum was burning, but half an hour later, with an unused sick bowl next to me and Fiona behind me to catch the baby, Minnie arrived, leaving only the tiniest tear that needed no treatment and caused me no pain once it had happened.
Fiona handed Minnie to me through my legs, which was difficult because my brain was elsewhere, the cord was short, and Minnie was so slippery. Then I sat back on the sofa to breastfeed Minnie while Fiona and Kerry performed the clean-up operation, hunted out towels and blankets, made notes, and delivered the placenta naturally, which took ten minutes. Fiona waited until the cord had stopped pulsating before helping Alastair to cut it.
I won’t go into all the advantages of homebirth here, because there are too many, but one I have only just discovered is that when you wish, three years afterwards, to write out the story, the midwife has already done most of it for you. Fiona presented me with a bound copy of all my notes from pregnancy, the birth, and the weeks afterwards, where she had thoroughly chronicled all our meetings and telephone conversations, with her own observations and some amusing anecdotes, as well as all the usual medical jargon.

 Me in labour. About 2 hours to go.

My newest baby.

Dawn's new little sister.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Dawn's Birth

I was forty-two weeks pregnant, and had tried every trick in the book to get the baby to come, but I’d had absolutely no sign of imminent birth. The midwives told me I’d need to have an induction. I was extremely unhappy about this, as I had read about the cascade of interventions and was desperate to have as natural a birth as possible.
I called my midwife, and at her suggestion went to the hospital to discuss my feelings. I asked if they could somehow monitor the baby and me for safety, but let me go longer, and she told me that was not an option.
So I went back to the hospital at 10:00pm and had the prostin gel pessary. My husband didn’t stay long, as it usually takes many hours for the gel to take effect, and I went to bed. However, after about an hour the contractions had become strong enough that I couldn’t sleep, so I was moved to a labour-room and my husband was called in, along with my birthing-partner, Grace.
At first I was excited and confident, breathing through each contraction, rocking for a bit on the birthing ball, and privately congratulating myself for managing labour so expertly.
Before long though, the contractions became very intense and the techniques I’d been trying were clearly not going to work any more, so I lay down on the bed on my side and began asking for some pain-relief.
This was a particularly busy night at the hospital, with most of the midwives occupied by emergency caesareans, so the remaining midwives’ attention was spread very thin. Having asked for a tens machine, I had a long and painful wait until one came. Alastair sat with me and tried to be encouraging while Grace disappeared to muster some strength for the time ahead.
I had no joy with the tens machine – maybe because I didn’t really believe it would work, maybe because the student-midwife who applied it had not been certain how to attach it to me or how to use it, or maybe because it was simply too late in the labour.
None of the midwives believed that my labour was progressing. At no time was I offered an internal examination, and I was not confident enough to ask for one. Around 3:00am I found that making a sort of deep, abdominal groan helped a lot with the pain – it was like an internal massage. A stern midwife came to see why I was making so much noise, and told me that I would ‘have at least another twelve hours of this,’ and that it would get much worse. That same midwife suspected gestational diabetes, from the sweet smell of my breath, and I didn’t dare admit to her that my breath actually smelt of the orange-juice that Alastair and Grace had smuggled to me because I was so exhausted.
At some point the midwives decided it would be a good idea to speed things up a bit, so they asked it I would like them to break my waters. I was in so much pain that I no longer cared what they did, as long as it got the baby out quicker, so I agreed to that.
Several times Grace asked if I could have gas and air, but because the midwives were so overstretched, it took hours to arrive. By the time it did, I must have been arriving at the transition stage. This was not the ideal time to learn a new technique, so I don’t think I was breathing deeply enough, and the only effect of the gas and air was a great deal of vomiting, during which Grace stalwartly passed kidney-bowls back and forth and comforted me while Alastair retreated in horror.
I remember confessing with shame that I thought I may have soiled the bed. The midwives lived up to their fantastic reputation though, and kept everything clean without so much as blinking.
After this, I became adamant that I couldn’t go any further without drugs, regardless of my previous intentions. It was now 8:00am, and the night-shift midwives went home. The day-shift midwife arrived, examined me to see what she was dealing with, and swiftly informed me that I was having a baby. Now.
My memory of this time is very hazy. I know that, at some point they became concerned because of the baby’s dropping heart-rate, and some meconium in the waters, so the midwives were keen to get the baby out quickly. A doctor was called in to help. I was on my back with my legs in stirrups.
I commented that I was scared of tearing, which the midwife picked up on, and amazingly I managed to find the clarity of mind and assertiveness to say loudly, ‘but I don’t want to be cut!’
With a bit of tugging, Dawn came out, facing backwards, at 8:23am. The midwife handed her to me to tell the sex, and I wasn’t sure! ‘Is it a girl?’ I asked, uncertainly, and the midwife confirmed I was right.
Alastair cut the cord, which delighted him. I held Dawn at my breast and attempted to breastfeed, which wasn’t very successful, mostly because she was so sleepy. But she stayed there inside my nighty with a blanket over us and a hat on. I delivered the placenta without an injection, after only two more contractions. After the pain of the birth, this felt surprisingly warm and soft and soothing. Then I had to have my tears stitched up, which took a long time and did hurt, but I was told I could use the gas and air, and this time I made it work for me!
Finally Dawn was taken to be cleaned and weighed and so on, and I had some tea and toast before going back to the ward.
An afterthought - I have since found out that they can monitor you and the baby as an outpatient for as long as you wish to go. They can't make you do anything, and loads of people have 10 month babies safely.

Plums, Plums, Plums

On Saturday night I stayed at an old friend's house about 20 minutes drive away, in a beautiful corner of the Sussex countryside. She has a proper good old fashioned cottage garden, with breathtaking views of fields, hills, and a small pond - no houses, no roads, no people. And, despite both my friend and her partner having full-time, very demanding jobs, they have managed to get a huge harvest from their garden, and found time to use the produce, working hard in the kitchen to find ways of preserving the fruit and veg.

The night I stayed, I was served a bowl of heavenly fruit pie - it had plums and rhubarb and something else which I forget from my friend's garden, and apples from her neighbour's garden. She then casually mentioned plum leather. 'What's that?' I asked. I then got to try some - fantastic! I was a huge fan of Fruit Winders, and had believed that giving up refined sugar meant saying a sad goodbye to them, but apparently not!

On Sunday, Dawn and Minnie came home from a morning of church and visiting, with their grandparents, each clutching a 2lb bag of plums which they had picked from someone's garden (with permission)! This, I thought, was fate saying to me, 'Fine, you admire that cottage garden? You want to be a homesteader? You like plum leather? Here you go, do something with it!' So we ate a couple of the plums, then I got straight into making a plum pie. And a fine plum pie it was too.

Finally, next day, after much internet research and discussion with friends, I managed to make the fruit roll-ups you see above. Here's how I did it:

I took the stones out and stewed down 2lb of plums with about 1/4 cup of water (though less would have done, they were very juicy. After about 20 minutes of stewing, I put them in the blender and pureed. Next I added 1/4 cup of agave nectar (normal sugar will do, but I'm avoiding the refined stuff) until I thought it tasted sweet enough. How much you need depends on the fruit and your taste. Then I lined two baking trays with baking paper and poured in the gloop, spreading it out with a spatula.
It has to dry, rather than cook, and this could be done in any hot place (covered by a muslin or something I should think, because of flies) but as our weather has turned decidedly wintry, I put them in the oven on the lowest setting (about 70 or 80C) for four hours. I then left them to cool and dry more overnight. In the evening they wouldn't come off the paper without water and difficulty, but by the morning they were peeling beautifully, so I cut them into strips, rolled them up, and enjoyed. My daughter loves them too!

Monday, 5 September 2011

The (not so) new babies

The NCT Bumps and Babies group that I volunteer at has a scrapbook for birth stories. I sat down yesterday to write mine out, but since it has been longer than three years since I had a baby, and six years since I had my first, I found that I've forgotten so much! I'm glad I've got it all down now, before any more gets lost. I'll post the two stories here in due course, but with one warning - if any pregnant women read the first story, they should go straight on and read the second as soon as possible, as an antidote.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Holiday at Home

This week, my husband has some annual leave, but due to lack of money, and complications with our house sale, they didn't, so I planned a Staycation. I daresay you've heard of the term, and you may have even rolled your eyes. As one or two people said to me, 'I don't get it - isn't that just not going anywhere?' So I shall explain.
When you have a job outside the home, a week at home sounds quite the thing. You can watch daytime tv, catch up on all those DIY projects, stay in bed as late as you like, switch your brain off from all those customers and deadlines and chores, and maybe spend some quality time with your partner and kids. But what if, like me, your job is in the home? My main job is looking after (ie, running around after) my children, cleaning, cooking, answering the phone, and a depressing amount of life-admin: sitting for hours on the phone arguing with the phone company about the recurring errors on bills, writing letters to the electric company for similar reasons, picking up parcels that arrived while I was at the shop, making sure the bills are paid, etc etc etc. For me, a week at home is a week of the same old stress and hassle. Only, if my husband is also home, I have an extra person to feed and run around after, and even less time to concentrate on frivolities like reading, writing and music.
So my aim, in planning a staycation, was to enable me to get a holiday-mindset. I was to ignore the phone, take a week off all my usual social and volunteering groups, eat out as much as possible, and spend every moment of every day doing things with my family, just for fun.
Well, that hasn't entirely happened. First of all our car stopped working. Combined with the persistent rain, this has kept us far closer to home that I intended, although it's better now and we still have a few days to go. Secondly, my husband was prepared to fight to the death to retain his right to watch football, saying that even if we were on safari in Africa he'd still find a tv showing the match. And finally, Nana and Granddad have claimed the one and only day with no forecast rain to take the children out and away from us. OK, so Mr M and I still get a day alone together, but we've forgotten what adults are meant to do when children aren't with them. Do they stroll? Do they lounge? I don't remember.
Still, all is not doom and gloom. Between the car appointments and the solicitor's phone-calls, we have attended a church fete, watched The Smurfs in 3D at the cinema, taken the scooters to the park, ridden the miniature railway, taken a real train to the next town to spend some pocket money on comics and visit an art gallery, and visited the local soft-play area. I think we're doing ok.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Mighty Oak

OK, first of all, let me say that if I knew how to change the colour of your names in the comments, and the descriptions under each of my links, I would. I can change every other colour - all of my colour scheme is considered and deliberate, apart from that shocking cyan which sends me into a dyslexic fit of flashing unreadability. So sorry about that.

I had half a mind to do a post about oak trees at some point in the future. I was going to wait until I had some relevant things to say about them, but they keep cropping up, so I suppose that'll be now.

I met two beautiful ladies today. I won't say too much here, but one of them, who shares a name with a certain Celtic Goddess I know, is someone I've seen around my local area and thought 'I'd like to know you'. Well, as fate would have it, now I do. The other had a tattoo on her arm of an oak tree. I couldn't take my eyes off it. The main reason I've never considered having a tattoo (despite going through a teenage phase of tattoo-obsession, buying tattoo magazines, learning all the terminology and symbolism etc) was that there was nothing I could be sure of identifying with forever. But, looking at this oak tattoo, it seemed so right. How can one go off oak trees? It doesn't seem possible.

Maybe it's because I was born under the sign of the Oak (Duir), according to the Celtic Tree Calendar, or maybe it's because one of my favourite campsites as a child had a solitary oak right in the middle of the field that we tent-and-van oddballs were assigned to, but the oak, to me, is the perfect tree. I love all trees, particularly native English ones, and the trees I would choose for my home would be rowan and willow or birch, but the oak is king.

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking in unknown countryside in Somerset (probably known to someone, but not previously to me). I saw an oak at the edge of the field, and I said, 'I have to go there'. So I did, and as I held my hand to its trunk, and looked up into the canopy, I spoke to the spirit of the tree. And what surprised me was that it wasn't a She or a He or an It who answered. It was a They - I was talking to a city. A huge city. A metropolis of activity and life and character and energy. And when I pulled away, They laughed at this little human who thought she could hold a conversation with an Oak City in just five minutes!

I'm not going to rush out to the nearest tattoo parlour. But I am going to do something about framing a painting that's been sitting in my to-do pile for too long. Shown above, this is a print of a painting by Lucy Tyler who, unfortunately, doesn't have a website, but can occasionally be found in odd corners of Kent!

Monday, 15 August 2011

Moonlight and new blogs

Hello, I am Donna. I am a wife and mother, a musician, and a seeker. This blog is intended as a shared journal of my travels on the path towards a kinder, more natural life, complete with my thoughts and ponderings as they crop up! I have dedicated the blog to Brigid, Celtic Goddess of the hearth and the well, as she represents all the things I strive for in life, and whilst I am not a hard polytheist (the terms confuse me - am I a soft one?), I do have a special place in my heart, and on top of my fridge, for this feminine face of the Holy Spirit.

This evening I spent some time out in my garden, alone in the moonlight. I have a beautiful garden, fairly large considering the 1960s cardboard housing estate I live on, and full of plants and wildlife introduced and encouraged by my parents over the last 30 years. But I don't spend anywhere near enough time in it. I went out after my daughters were tucked up in bed, and strolled around one of the apple trees, then sat in it for a bit, before giving in and finding a patio chair.

The moon is not quite full tonight, but definitely plump, and yellow, with the slightest wisp of cloud in front. I sat and contemplated the darkening sky, imagining what it would be like without the ever-present glow of street-lamps. The evening stars would just about be coming out, making way for the millions and millions that follow. I managed to relax enough to stop worrying about the colony of slugs travelling around my feet. The slugs are like the earth - not good, not bad, but something outside of those concepts. They exist. They do what they are meant to do. So I attempted some sort of meditation, every now again jumping out of my skin when people passed by, or dogs barked.

When I came in, I thought, as I have done so many times before, that my life would be so much better if only I could remember how good that felt - to be outside, breathing the air, feeling the energy, relaxing with the world and with myself. If I could, I might do it more often, instead of sitting around zombie-like in front of repetitive internet games. So, to bridge the gap, and provide some kind of focus and motivation, here it is: the blog of Brigid's Pilgrim.