Too much noise, not enough communication

It has taken me a long time to put my thoughts on paper regarding the ideas in this post. However please forgive my rambling here – I have another piece of writing jostling in the background pushing this blog post into the world, perhaps before it is fully formed.

So much and yet so little has happened in the days since lockdown, yet each new onslaught from the world has sent me rushing to my garden for peace and solace.I know that I am incredibly privileged to have the large garden and simple life that I share with my husband. Our simple pleasures, and regular income from my work, grant us the ability to close the front door to the world, and go out of the back one. We enter a world which, although has neighbours, is a large space of trees and flowers, where tranquility is punctuated only by bird song. We have only ourselves to please and have found it easy to change the rhythm of our day and it’s pace, and change our routines, to fit the needs of any moment in time. The many days not being able to hold my family were hard, but during lockdown I felt certain that not seeing them face-to-face was the best for their health and safety. Of course we ‘spoke’ via video-call but it just wasn’t the same.

Photo of holding hands

Similarly as a university lecturer working from home, overnight my world changed radically and became a series of online tools used in order to enable me to teach, collaborate, meet, and support my students and my colleagues. I found it so tiring to be online everyday, and I discovered it made me anxious too, so that by the end of each day I was irritable. Escaping into the garden to poke around in the soil, deadhead a rose, or pull a weed was the respite my soul craved. I could feel my heartrate decrease as I listened to the birdsong and buzz of bees, sharing the companionable delight with my husband. As I sat on my gardening stool my toil was often punctuated by moments of reflection. As I stopped in reverie to allow the Robin to pick over the soil at my feet, I unravelled the squiggling thoughts to some semblance of order: I missed social connection and communication during my online exchanges, and felt constantly as if something vital was missing. It was unsatisfying, and like finding a puzzle with one piece missing, it was deeply frustrating. My brain kept trying fruitlessly to fill in the gaps between the words I heard and the person on the end of them.

I have watched and listened to the Twitter chatter and the DfE’s cry that children missing schooling because of COVID would be somehow forever lacking. I hated this attitude that formal education is the only way for children to learn meaningful things. It is so disrespectful to them. Yes, they missed some teaching, but many gained so much more. Children are inherently clever, if we trust them they can discover their own learning. The role of adults becomes as a facilitator…light the blue touch paper and stand well back. Humph. So to go back to connection and particularly communication – my reflections confirmed how they are both a vital part of my life. As we know, speech, language and communication are separate things although often intrinsically interconnected. Speech is the physical ability to form words. Language is the symbolic, structured use of those words in order to express oneself effectively. Language and speech are complex, requiring important cognitive skills so that you are able to know and understand the sometimes complex rules of word order, structure and grammar. I often delight in the tongue-twisting attempts at pronouncing new words for our youngest children, the muddled sentence structure, or the inappropriate word-endings. I marvel at how most children are able to navigate and create their worlds to learn these complexities and become able language users, in whatever form that takes. They just need a wealth of experiences which involve speech, language and communication, and a supportive adult, (or “more able other” as Vygotsky suggests) to scaffold attempts at new words or ideas, and to manage the frustration when the desire to express does not match up to their current ability.

Of course both speech and language require communication and a repertoire of intrapersonal and interpersonal skills in order to assign, as well as convey the intended meaning behind the ‘spoken’ words. We need to ensure a shared understanding. This skill is such a complex one; that ability to listen and observe body language, gestures and facial expressions, knowing when to speak, clarify understanding, question (or not) and analyse. All of this happens alongside listening to the words spoken, not only to make sense of the meaning, but to listen to the nuances of how they are expressed. How clever are children to learn to navigate these things, and how important for adults around them to be supportive when they get it wrong?

Communication is what I have missed so much during the onslaught of online living. When I teach face-to-face I watch for the effectiveness of my words. I watch for the response of the audience in front of me. Are they communicating ‘misunderstanding’ in their facial expressions or body language, whilst verbalising that they understand? Therefore do I need to revisit the topic, or scaffold their understanding now? Are they communicating engagement or boredom? Distress or enjoyment? Has a light bulb flicked on or off? What do I need to change now, or later? A good teacher can read the room, reflect and decide an action to adjust their delivery, and co-construct and walk-beside their student to support learning and development.

When it comes to meetings I use the same skills, but in different ways. The rules of a meeting depend on the hierarchical structure of those involved – it shouldn’t perhaps, but in my experience it almost always does. Those with more power seem to expect that listeners will accept the words that fall from their mouths as truth. I have discovered that sometimes a question from my black face can be seen as aggression, or disrespect. I have learned that I have to read a situation and particularly the wider signals that sometimes belies the words. My challenge is that I have always had to rely on my communication skills in order to interpret ‘true’ meaning. I know that often I am hypersensitive. My eyes and senses are attuned to seeking the truth behind the words, to observe the feelings of others, to know whether to hold my tongue or speak my truth, all in order to respond in the best way. Online I am deafened by the noise caused by the torrent of words, so many words, and blinded by the inability to see, feel, or touch the speaker. Communication misfires as people forget to unmute microphones, or share their camera so people can see their face as they speak. They talk over each other sometimes because those cues that tell us it is our turn to speak are absent. I wonder if like me the silent shy away from engaging at all, perhaps fearful of how much they can reveal, and how little is revealed from others in this online world, where in reality you sit alone. At times you feel like you are actually talking to yourself, or into a void. Social feedback is missing.

A key skill of communication is using memory for recall of similar experiences or learning, in order to interpret and respond to conversation in the best way. We all learn the most effective ways of communication based on our social experiences. I have had a lifetime of watching and mapping the words of others to make sense of how their words don’t always equal my interpretation, constantly looking for the hidden meaning. “Well, you’re Annie, I don’t mean you” (but you are talking about people who look like me?), “it’s just a joke” (but it still feels like a punch in the stomach), “I am not racist but…” (I’ve actually stopped listening because you are being racist) etc etc.

I am hyper-vigilant looking for communication signals in order to remain safe, or work out how to fit in a group where I am usually ‘other’, or to support people who for whatever reason are also feeling ‘other’ at that moment in time. I observe to notice the need for physical connection, so that I can provide it. Without the face-to-face contact all I hear are words. Words without communication are just…well, words! . It puts me in mind of young children that I’ve worked with who notice the hidden signals and miss the words. They notice the subtle changes in body language, or feel a change in the atmosphere and just react. Adults may have missed those small changes, and got mad at the reaction of the child in front of them because they were unaware and unobservant of the antecedent. I also think of those children who miss the communication and only hear the literal meaning of the words. Both are hyper-vigilant desperately trying to navigate the complexities in order to understand how to behave/respond – and too often words just get in the way. Attunement and connection with another is what they need.

This is what I miss too in this online world that has far too much noise, and not enough communication. I bumble along making the best of my current world of faces on screens. I fight to overcome the crashing of the tools used to interact, or the strength of the broadband to power them. I tire quickly as my brain tries to join the dots to truly understand the faces in front of me…but my heart misses communication and connection. When I have had enough and there is space in my busy online life, I leave my desk to walk out of my back door and take lungfuls of fresh air. I put on my shoes to walk through my garden and connect again with the peace of the real world.

Chapter 5 – What makes the magic?

Joey and Robin had been walking a while. They had called and tweeted for Ben but the hedge seemed to muffle the sound. A mist had been forming around their feet as the time went on, and now they could hardly see in front of them. Suddenly Joey heard the crunching of leaves, the hedge began to move just ahead. “Well, this is it” Joey thought and strung an arrow on his bow ready to shoot. The arrows weren’t sharpened, so they wouldn’t hurt anything, but would give them a bit of a donk as Granny called it. The rules were ‘no aiming at living things’, however this was a bit of an emergency. The rustling was now behind him, and he span around quickly walking backwards, his heart racing. Bow at the ready. WALLOP. He collided with something. He turned quickly bow at the ready, when his eyes met the eyes of… Ben! They were just about to burst out laughing with relief, when there was a louder rustle behind them. The boys looked ahead. The mist was swirling around mysteriously, when two glowing golden eyes appeared in the gloom. The boys looked at each other and raised their bows… “Prrrrrp. Prrrrp. Prrrrp” A small tortoiseshell cat with the black eye-patch of a pirate appeared in front of them. “Mim” shouted the boys, relieved once again. Ben put out his arm to stroke her, but Mim seemed to have other ideas. She ran back in the direction she had appeared from. “Mim. Where are you going?” shouted Ben and started running after her. “Ben, don’t be silly! Come back” shouted Joey running after Ben as he disappeared into the gloom.

Joey sighed. He seemed to have lost Ben again. “Where had that boy gone this time?” he thought. “Robin, we need to find them, and Grandad… and save Granny!” The Robin flew upwards from his shoulder, and away over the hedge and as he too disappeared Joey felt a little alone. “What would Granny say in this situation?” Joey wondered. The wind blew around him “Always with you. Onwards…onwards…don’t give up!” came a voice on the breeze. Joey looked left and then right, but which way? As he stood trying to make a decision a red-breasted form flew back over the hedge. It was Robin singing, “Follow me. This way. Follow me. That way. Follow me, follow me, follow me.” Joey did as he was told and as he turned the corner of a particularly large hedge he blinked as his eyes were blinded by the sun. As he blinked again to get used to the brightness, he saw that there were four familiar figures in the square in front of him. The centre of the maze. He looked at the scene. Ben and Mim, with wrists and paws bound by electric blue rope, looked sadly at a large cage. In the cage sat the familiar tall bearded figure of Grandad. He looked pretty comfortable all things considered being in a cramped space. He was sat in a wooden chair which looked a little bit like the Whacky Chair now waiting for them in the meadow. He was carving a piece of wood. A yellow bird was appearing from the wood as Grandad used his pocket knife to whittle it. Next to the cage on the other side stood the small figure of a wizard. He was dressed head to toe in bright blue. He had the typical sort of pointed wizard hat, but it looked scrunched up like something had bounced on it. He had blonde messy hair which seemed to escape from under his hat. He looked evil, but a little ridiculous too. He was standing on his tip-toes to look taller, and was pointing his wand at Grandad. The wand was also bent like something had bounced on it. Blue sparks were dripping from the end, sizzling as they fell to the floor. “I have asked you to help me. I have been nice so far, but now I have your lovely little Grandson, and your grumpy cat I am sure you will build me a chair just like yours that can travel wherever I want and to whatever time I want. I am going to go back to when Boris whatcher’m-call-it became prime minister. I am going to take his place. I am going to rule the country, and the world. I am getting rid of all the green stuff, and all of those, those small things with feathers or fur.” He pointed his wand at a blackbird which had appeared at the top of the hedge. A snake of blue light appeared from the end and encircled the blackbird which disappeared in a little puff of feathers. “There. Aaaa…AaAAAATCHOO” the Wizard sneezed and as he did he got a little smaller. “I am allergic to those trees and plants, and all those birds and small beasts. I need to get this sorted…I can’t keep getting smaller. I have lots of beautiful things. I live in a wonderful castle. I have gold and jewels, everything I want…but that chair. Now I need that chair. I see people like you, all out in your gardens. Laughing, laughing. Growing those green things, encouraging the birds, the bees, the bugs. Just like your witchy wife whom I have sorted out! [Insert evil laugh here]. There you all are hugging and laughing, all having such a lovely time. You shouldn’t be happier than me because I have EVERYTHING. Anyway, it gives me allergies. So I am going to get rid of it all. Concrete, I need concrete, and you all need to just get on with working for me to have more gold.” By this time the wizard was right up on his tippy-toes. More blond hair was peeking out from his hat. “It’s for the best you know. I only want what’s best for you all! So just get on with it…” with that he lifted his wand in a threatening way towards Ben and Mim.

Joey could stand no more of people threatening his family, and jumped in front of the wizard, bow raised. “Oh, I thought I recognised him” hissed the wizard pointing at Ben. “You two thought you’d defeated me last time in this maze. You left me a bit bent” he said straightening his hat, and looking angrily at his wand “but I still have all my powers.” He raised his wand towards Joey and a blue snake of light began to form. The wizard moved his hand back ready to flick his wand and the magic at Joey, when Grandad shouted “Joey throw me the Raven Stick” Joey did two things – he threw the stick with all his might towards Grandad’s raised arm and ducked at the same time. The blue lighting bolt grazed Joey’s ear as he dived to the ground. As the Raven Stick landed in his hand, Grandad caught it and speared it into the ground. Several things happened. The beak of the Raven opened letting out a loud “Caw”. The rails of the cage fell to the ground freeing Grandad. One half of a gate flew over their heads into the woods beyond. The Wizard shrank with a small “plop” sound to the size of Grandad’s thumb. He stepped forward, picking up the tiny little figure between his finger and thumb, and was heard to say as he put the small wizard in his pocket, “We’ve had quite enough of that sort of thing, thank you.”

The companions walked through the beautiful trees now alive with birdsong. Everyone was happy, apart from the angry meow of Mim who thought those birds were taking liberties, and the very small sound of a sneeze from Grandad’s pocket. The wizard wasn’t getting any smaller thank goodness, or he might have disappeared. However, Grandad couldn’t make him any bigger either, despite trying. “This is a problem for Granny. She’s good at growing things” Grandad said as he patted his pocket. “Talking of Granny, where is she?” “Well” said Joey guiltily “There is something I need to explain.” They were just arriving at the edge of the woods where the Elder tree had stood. However, instead of a tree, Granny Annie was laying on the ground. Her eyes were closed as if she was asleep, and she looked oh so still except for her dreadlocks which were still rising upwards from her head, but were motionless like the branches of a toppled old elder tree. “Oh no. Granny!” shouted Joey. Grandad, Ben and Joey ran to her side. Grandad held her hand as the three gazed down at her. The Robin circled around her head. Mim climbed onto her, curling herself into a ball. One dark brown eye suddenly opened and then the other, blue stars brushing her eye-lashes. “You took your time” she said smiling.

Later after telling of their adventures, they climbed into the Wacky Chair, and it seemed to expand once again to fit them all comfortably. The Robin flew onto Granny’s shoulder depositing a little poo as it landed. Grandad, Ben and Joey pointed and laughed. Mim curled herself into a little ball on Ben’s lap, tired after her adventures. She thought, as she began to have a nap, that she might need two lots of dinner tonight. Joey held the Raven Stick. Grandad held Granny’s hand. Both the boys held onto the knobs of the chair. Granny put her other hand in her pocket to join the three lego pieces. Nothing happened. “It’s not working Granny” said Ben sadly. “What do we need to do to make the magic work?” said Joey. Granny and Grandad looked at each other before reaching over to tickle each of their Grandsons. As the both of them started to giggle, blue sparks flew out from the knobs. The chair began to bounce up and down. The Raven Stick began to jiggle. The Robin began to sing at the top of its voice. Granny’s eyes seemed to fill with blue stars. As the chair exploded into a sea of blue and a small sneeze emerged from Grandad’s pocket, Granny Annie was heard to say “Something that small wizard needs to remember: Plenty of laughter, and lots of love – that’s what makes the magic!”

The End of the adventure…at least for today…

Chapter 4 – The garden within a garden

Granny Annie opened her eyes “Oh no, we’ve been transported to Australia – the world is upside-down!” She groaned. There was a giggle next to her “Granny you are upside down.” A grinning face appeared in front of her vision, and the small hand of Ben helped pull her upright. “Oh-er” said Granny “I feel a bit dizzy like I have been on a rollercoaster” she added, holding her head. Joey appeared. The Raven stick was in his hand and the bow and quiver of arrows could be seen peeping out from over his shoulder. “Yes, it was rather fun wasn’t it!” he laughed. “Fun? Call that fun. My head is spinning…Oh gosh, is everyone here? Is everyone here?” said Granny panicking and trying to stand up, but sitting down again with a thump. Joey made a whistling sound and there was a small rustle of wings as Robin landed gently on his shoulder. A kissing noise was heard next to her. It was Ben and as he clicked his fingers too, Mim appeared, to wrap her tricoloured tail around his legs, before sitting next to him to accept the strokes under her little furry chin. “Well I see that everyone is very happily getting on whilst I was left upside down! Where are we?” She cast her eyes around her. It felt rather familiar. Joey and Ben came to stand next to her where she sat on the Wacky Chair which seemed to be all in one piece, although still there was the odd blue spark bouncing off the two shiny knobs. “I have had a quick look around” said Joey. He lifted his hand to point. “That way is just a beautiful flower meadow. Not much to see. But Ben and me went that way, and there are woods. You really need to see what we found.” He was pointing towards the edge of the meadow where there looked to be a dark forest. Granny pulled herself to standing. “Right” she said in a very determined voice. The boys looked at each other. That voice meant that Granny would stand no nonsense. She placed her hands on her hips. They knew that stance. The whole family called it the double-teapot. All the aunties did it. Mummy did it. It usually meant there was thinking being done and something was about to happen. They weren’t quite prepared for what happened next however. As Granny looked her eyes seemed to get darker and blue sparks seemed to dance off her eyelashes. Granny’s long dreadlocks began to rise in the air to stand above her head like the waving branches of the trees ahead. Robin flew from Joey’s shoulder to perch perfectly in her branch-like hair. Mim miaowed once, before running tail up to stand next to her feet – her whiskers seemed to twitch as she looked at the trees ahead. “Right” she said again. “Have your bows and arrows at the ready boys” she declared as she pointed towards the woods. “Joey, you lead the way. Show me what you found.” Joey and Ben were staring open-mouthed at their Granny. She often played their games with them as did Grandad, but this was something else! She looked like the elder tree near the patio. Although it had long since died, the trunk was left to support the clematis flowers. At the top of the old trunk, small branches spread out like hair. Granny called it “Mrs Elder” and often talked to her like she was alive. Granny liked to laugh when she did it. “I’m completely bonkers – all the best people are you know.” Joey thought that he quite liked her that way as he led the small group through the long grass and meadow flowers, the butterflies and bees rising up as they were disturbed by the footsteps of the companions.

Granny stopped. Her mouth opening and closing like a fish once more. “This is what I found Granny” whispered Joey. In front of them stood two iron gates – the same gates that stood in Granny’s garden. They were still hovering in the air, still blue sparks bounced around the lock, but this time the gates stood ajar. “Well, well” said Granny “This is a turn up. What now? Through the gates, or go back?” Granny and Joey, Robin and Mim stood looking at the gates, and as they stared a waving hand and grinning face looked at them from the other side. It was Ben. “Gotta save Grandad” he declared “Come on.” Granny starting blustering and waving her hands. “It may not be safe. What are you doing? What would your parents say? What would they say if I had to tell them I let you be eaten by a…by a…by a um…dragon or something!” Joey and Ben looked at each other and laughed. “Oh Granny. We can look after each other. Did I tell you about our A-maze-ing adventure the other day?” Granny shook her head “Joey we haven’t time at the moment. Look Ben is getting out of sight!” Granny grabbed Joey’s hand and pulled him through the gates, Robin sat on her shoulder, and Mim was striding a few steps ahead. As Granny passed through the gates, a large snake of bright blue lightning shot upwards towards the sky like a firework, and exploded into a sea of blue sparks that fell around them. As they hit the ground, big shoots of green began to erupt from the soil. Leaves appeared on each new branch to join with the next tree until a long, tall hedge appeared in front of them. “Oh Granny. I know what this is. This is what I wanted to tell you about. This is where Ben and I had an adventure, with a wizard, in a maze. We got him in the end…with a bouncy ball of all things!” Granny was unusually quiet he thought as he finished telling her. He turned to see what she was doing. First of all he noticed the blue sparks still falling from the sky, and then he saw where they were landing. A new elder tree stood before him, and as he looked up he saw that it had the face of Granny. Joey was shocked and stunned until suddenly a voice said “Well, blow me down. Now look what has happened. What a day!” The voice sounded remarkably like Granny. Eyes opened at the top of the tree. They were dark like Granny’s and there were long dark twiggy eye lashes which danced with blue sparks. Lips suddenly appeared and two side branches bent to touch the trunk. A definite double teapot. “Well, don’t just stay standing there with your mouth gaping like a goldfish, you need to get going. Grandad and I won’t save ourselves and your brother is off somewhere, probably up to mischief.” Joey shook his head. This was all getting just a little strange. However, he knew that voice – you just had to go with it or she would just keep on. He turned to make his way through the gap in the hedge, the Raven stick in his hand. “Ummm, haven’t you forgotten something? Mim ran off when the hedge grew, but you’ll need a friend.” With that Granny’s twiggy hair waved as if a breeze had moved it, and Robin flew up from one waving dread-loc branch. He tweeted with a flutter of indignant feathers, depositing a tiny poo on the trunk before landing perfectly on Joey’s shoulder. “I really hate it when you do that” said Granny. The Robin tweeted a song again as Joey turned. It sounded distinctly to Granny like a little laugh.

Chapter 3 – The Chair and the stick

Granny Annie opened her eyes and all she could see was the blue sky and the green leaves of the Strawberry Tree above her head. She began to sit up making that noise which all older people seem to make when they try any sort of movement requiring the use of their backs. It’s a cross between an ooo-argh and a hissss, and of course they have to hold their back too, for good measure. So Granny sat up, holding her back and making that noise. As she started to look around, her eyes seemed to swivel as she noticed a smiling Joey and Ben in front of her. She smiled, said “Oh no, it’s true, the sun and lockdown have got to me,” and then quickly screwed her eyes up shut. She began to open her eyes again slowly, one then the other. “Hi Granny!” the boys said in unison. Granny for the second time in this story started to gasp, her mouth opening and closing like a cod. Then it started – a Granny tirade of questions. “What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here because it’s lockdown. What would Boris-oojamaflip say? I know he told us we had to stay at home, but not if we had to go to work, and only if we could beam down without using public transport. Or was that last week? Anyway…What will your mum and dad say? What would Grandad say? Oh Grandad where are you?”

By the time Granny had finished her outpouring Ben and Joey were sitting munching on biscuits, the red biscuit barrel with the yellow pattern sitting on the patio table in front of them. Both boys knew exactly where the biscuit barrel lived in that house. Joey finished his last bite, before reaching for the next biscuit and saying “Well Granny, you invited us!” Granny huffed loudly, “Huff, I did no such thing!”

Joey smiled “Well Granny that’s not strictly true. Do you remember on our last day here, before lockdown, when we were all playing with lego? Remember first I left, then Ben left to go to the loo?” Granny nodded. She was listening but had that face on which said ‘I’m not yet quite convinced’. “We didn’t have a wee, we buried lego pieces in the garden” Ben added, giggling loudly “and they were magicked!” Joey pointed his biscuit towards Ben “Exactly! So when you put the two pieces together Granny, you invited us here…to help you with something.” Granny now had the look on her face that said ‘almost convinced’. Joey waited for the ‘but’ that often came next. “But what about the third piece?” she declared brandishing the black lego 8-er. Joey shook his head, “There wasn’t a third piece Granny, just a yellow one for me, and a white one for Ben.” Granny still didn’t look like she quite believed that the boys had learned magic, but she smiled as she placed the black lego piece that Grandad had given her into her pocket. “Well, you are here now. Let me tell you what has happened, but first…” She reached out her arms to hug them as she told them what had been happening in the garden, knowing that the magic kept them safe.

Granny Annie had finished telling the boys about what had happened earlier in the day. They all looked thoughtful. “It’s no good, I just don’t know what to do.” sighed Granny. Joey looked at her. “Sometimes it’s good to think about things you’ve been doing before, to remind yourself of anything important. You know, retrace your steps”. Ben jumped up nodding, grabbing Granny’s hand “Come on Granny, let’s go!” So the three of them had a tour of the garden. They had now been all around and looked at flowers, bushes, and lots of empty soil. Ben noticed something towards the bottom near the Apple tree “What’s that?” Granny looked to where Ben was pointing. “Oh that’s a chair that Grandad was making. It’s not quite finished. I don’t think that’s what we are after.” “Well Granny, I think Ben might be right. Let’s go. What is it you always say?” He knew full well that Granny always had a saying or a song lyric. “Never leave a stone unturned!” she stated. Joey wasn’t quite sure what she meant but led the way towards the chair whilst she seemed pleased with herself.

The chair was slightly wacky, something that summed up Granny and Grandad’s house and garden nicely. It seemed oversized, made of larger tree branches for the legs, and woven with smaller branches to form a seat. Well, actually it looked more like a boat than a seat. On the arms there were two knobs both with a hole in the middle, one on each side of the chair, one light brown and one a deep red-brown, and both incredibly shiny. “See, I told you. Not finished” declared Granny plonking herself down on a step. “No, but it’s pretty cool” said Joey. He plonked himself on the Wacky Chair. It was a large chair. “What now?” said Ben sitting himself down next to Joey. Joey looked at Ben. That was strange Ben seemed further away than expected. “Did Grandad make anything else in the garden recently?” asked Joey still puzzling how the Wacky Chair seemed to have grown. “Well just one thing. I’ll get it” Granny said as she made her way up the garden. When she returned she was carrying what looked to Joey like a spear. It seemed to blend into the shadows whenever she passed through them.

“When we were cutting down brambles and digging up roots, Grandad noticed this piece of wood. He decided it looked a bit like a raven and that it would make a nice stick top. This is it.” She held out a long piece of wood and on the top the shiny black head of a wooden raven. Grandad must have polished it, because it was shiny black, with some ridges like feathers, and on the top of the head he had placed a feather. “The Raven Stick” declared Granny. As she handed the stick to Joey to see, the Wacky Chair seemed to give a little jump and then another. “Well, that’s weird” said Granny overbalancing and falling into the chair. Joey was waiting to be squished up by a rather cuddly Granny joining he and Ben in the chair. However, no, she seemed to have fitted in with plenty of room – that was impossible. The Wacky Chair seemed to have stretched. It seemed to jump every so often, but nothing else seemed to be happening. Ben was kneeling on the chair next to one of the shiny knobs and began to trace his fingers over the light brown one. Tiny blue sparks bounced off his fingers. “That looks fun” laughed Joey and moved to touch the red-brown knob on the the arm of the chair. He giggled as the blue sparks bounced from his fingers. As he and Ben laughed the chair seemed to react by bouncing up and down a bit more. “Something seems to be happening. We need to think of other things from your day Granny.” “Ummm…Robin” she remembered. Robin flew down from the Apple Tree where he had been watching these events. He looked at Granny Annie and sang her a little song, depositing a little poo on her back as he flew onto the chair behind her. “That’s a pretty song Granny” said Joey but to Granny it sounded like Robin was saying “Time, time. About blinkin’ time!” Ben meantime was giggling and pointing at Granny’s back and nudging Joey.

“This doesn’t seem to be enough” declared Joey looking out at the garden. The Wacky Chair had been hopping about for the last 5 minutes like a fairground ride. The blue sparks from the knobs on the chair were tickling the boys making them laugh. The Raven stick placed on the back of the chair was jiggling about. The Robin was singing loudly. It was chaos. Mim the tortoise-shell cat appeared having been awoken by the commotion. She yawned and started to stretch – her bottom in the air. Ben held out one hand to her (the other was busy being tickled). He made kissing noises to try and call her to him, and at the same time rubbed his fingers together. People kept saying that Mim was getting incredibly podgy. Granny and Grandad couldn’t understand it. They were only giving her the usual meals, yet it looked like she had been eating twice as much. Anyway, Mim thought they were very rude to comment on an old lady’s weight – she decided to ignore Ben’s invitation and turned her back on them all to have a wash instead.

Granny decided that it was time to come clean. “ummm, I have a confession to make” she said, having to raise her voice to be heard over the giggling, tweeting and jiggling. “It was me that buried the Black piece of lego in the garden”. Everything stopped for a moment and there was silence as Granny held out the black piece of Lego which had been in her pocket. ‘Held out’ wasn’t quite accurate, actually it was hovering above her hand “And you aren’t the only ones who can do magic!” she added triumphantly.

With that two things happened at the same time. Mim decided she would not be left behind and jumped perfectly, landing with a flop into Ben’s lap, and with a loud thunder-clap the chair exploded into a sea of blue sparks.

Chapter 2 – We need to rescue Grandad!

Granny Annie shook herself down. She felt shocked, a little sad (and perhaps the tiniest bit frightened too), but she knew she had to find Grandad. She walked up to the gates. They just seemed like ordinary gates now. The sun was shining and as she looked closely she saw they had flaky black paint peeling off them. The red-brown rust spotting the surface showed their age – these gates had been outside for a long time. The strange thing was that the gates seemed to be just suspended in mid-air. Granny ran her hands around the outside…along the bottom…up one side…along the top…down the other side – no secret wires holding the gates in place, no transparent platform to hold them up. She had seen all those TV programmes where detectives tried to find out the secret, or reveal the tricksters. She just needed a special hat and a magnifying glass and she could be Granny Annie Super Sleuth! Perhaps there was someone hiding behind the gates – she ran around the back. No nothing – but perhaps the villain was super speedy and had moved lightening-quick to the other side? She would need to take them by surprise…she started whistling and looked at her nails, then up to the sky, and then back at her nails, pretending nonchalance…and whoosh at super quick speed (well at least for a granny) she raced around to the other side trying to catch them unawares. But no, no-one and nothing to see. That’s when she realised something. When she looked through the metal bars of the gate she no longer saw her garden, but some other garden. She walked around the gates again to the back and looked through the rails. Yes, this was another garden she could see, although similar to her own. More trees everywhere in the distance, a meadow in the foreground, and she thought she could see shadows of figures in bright-coloured garments in the distant dark too. How strange, but perhaps one of them was Grandad.

How to get in? She looked at the front of the gates again. The only thing that looked new was the lock. It was shiny gold glinting in the sunlight and intricately carved. Here were two figures carved on it – boys with bows and arrows facing a figure in a pointed hat with a wand held high. Granny reached towards the lock and as she did a blue lighting bolt snaked out from the small wand of the wizard and struck her hand. “Ouch you pesky thing” she cried, sucking her fingers “It must be static electricity!”

She reached again, more tentatively this time. The blue light that shot from the wand was larger, and it wrapped itself around her wrist and gave her a little shake. She snatched her hand back quickly. “Well, I don’t think much of that” she snapped and added in what she hoped was her bossy voice and pointing her finger like her mum used to do, “And that is quite enough of that!” However, she was slightly worried as she reached again to try the lock – what if her bossy voice and pointy finger didn’t work? She closed her eyes as she reached to touch the lock, squinting with one eye to see just enough of what was happening. The blue string of light that sprang out flew into the air, twirling and whirling like a giant lasso. It made a whipping noise as it became a circle which got bigger and bigger before falling with a “plop” over Granny’s shoulders and around her waist. It pulled tight and lifted her high into the air. “Thank goodness I put on my leggings today or next week’s washing would be on show” she thought as she was moved high across the garden to be dropped unceremoniously into a chair on the patio.

Granny Annie was dazed for a moment. She felt a little sad and a lot scared, and for a moment very very alone. Her eyes began to fill with tears – she was feeling sorry for herself. She sniffed. Suddenly next to her was the beautiful sound of Robin song and Robin sat on the back of a chair next to her, with his head on one side – shiny eyes looking gently at her. She wiped away a single tear that had run down her face and onto her nose. She sniffed again. “AAAATCHOO” she sneezed – trumpeting like an elephant… just like Grandad often did. The poor Robin was blown from his perch. Granny started to smile, and then to snigger and then let out a belly-wobbling laugh, just like she often did. “Sorry to laugh Robin. You cheered me up. There is really nothing better than a belly-wobbling laugh to cheer you up! I was just so worried. Grandad has disappeared behind that blinking gate and I can’t get to him. It’s lockdown and I can’t see anyone and get help. Anyway what would the police say if I rang them and said “Well Officer, my husband seems to have been magicked away to a garden behind some gates and I got picked up by a bolt of lighting, and plonked in my chair!” That policeman would laugh his socks off and think I was bonkers. What am I going to do? We need to rescue Grandad!” Granny’s voice began to wobble a little as she finished. What was she to do?

The Robin had reappeared next to her, and was busy straightening his feathers which had been displaced by Granny’s massive sneeze. When she finished her stream of words the Robin bobbed his head once tweeting “Le-go, Le-go”. Granny sat staring out at the trees, her shoulders slumped. The Robin hopped closer again tweeting “Le-go, Le-go.” Granny looked up “This is no time for playing! We… need…to save…Grandad!” She shook her head, here she was talking to birds again. The shock had sent her completely dollaly! The Robin jumped onto her shoulder. It pecked her sharply on her ear once and then twice, before tweeting very loudly “Pock-et, Pock-et, le-go, le-go”. It pecked her ear once more for luck, deposited a little poo on her shoulder, and flew to a branch where it turned its back on her and began to sing a beautiful song.

“Ewww. That…is…disgusting” Granny grimaced putting her hand in her pocket to find a rather crumpled old tissue. Granny always had tissues in her pocket, you just couldn’t be sure how old they were. Ah well. She looked at the tissue and gave it a few licks, before rubbing it vigorously to clean away the poo. Granny called this method ‘Spit-washing’. She had only managed to leave a faint white trail, a bit like the old toothpaste trail on her front, when suddenly the beautiful bird song was replaced with a different kind. A rasping cry “POCK-ET” reached granny’s ears as a large crow swooped dangerously close to her head. As the crow flew over her, Granny’s other pocket felt suddenly warm and she carefully put her hand in. Her fingers closed over three pieces of lego, one black 8-er, and one yellow and one white 6-er. She pulled the pieces from her pocket and put them one at a time on the table in front of her. She looked sadly at the pieces, remembering the last time Joey and Ben had been to visit, and they all had a lovely time playing with the lego after Sunday Lunch. She smiled remembering the lovely thing that Joey had said that day: “Granny, playing always helps cheer you up. It can really help you when you need it too.” As she remembered she found that her hands automatically began to join the pieces together. She really did love to play. As she put one piece on another, the figure of Joey seemed to appear in front of of her, a bow in his hand. As she added the next piece Ben also appeared a bow in his hand too. Granny looked from one to the other her mouth opening and closing like a fish. As she began to faint she was heard to mutter “oh my goodness, it’s happened. Lockdown has sent me completely bonkers”.

Granny Annie’s Lockdown Adventures

May 2020

By Granny Annie for Joey and Ben

Chapter 1 – Gardening is safe isn’t it?

Well, that Boris-what’s-his-face had told everybody that they had to stay indoors because of that catchable Carumba-virus thingummy. “It just isn’t fair” Granny Annie thought as she stared vacantly out into the garden. We had all washed our hands to various rhymes, we had dutifully sneezed into our elbows and here we were, having to stay at home. No going out to the places we liked…or visiting those people we liked to see. No hugs. No cuddles. No snuggles watching TV. Humph. She was missing seeing her grandsons, Joey and Ben. Incidentally what happens to all those sneezes you catch in your elbow? If you throw your hands in the air, will people have to duck as a monstrous sneeze trumpets out, throwing you backwards onto your bottom? Mmmm, definitely something to research later.

She looked down the garden. She needed to find a way to keep cheerful until she next spoke to her lovely grandsons. The sun was shining. The weeds were up to the windows and something needed to be done before they trooped into the house and stole the TV control buttons. She pulled on her old shoes and stomped down the garden path to see grandad. “Something has to be done!” Granny Annie exclaimed. “Um, about what?” said Grandad sounding confused. He was busy sorting out a new poly tunnel – he was already doing something! “I need to get busy in the garden and beat those weeds back. They are staging an attack!” explained Granny. “I will help” said Grandad looking down towards the bottom of the large garden “Joey and Ben will have lots of places to investigate and enjoy new adventures! Let’s go.”

So Granny and Grandad set about their battle with the weeds. As they dug the soil they found strange iridescent beetles scuttling away from the trowel, red and black earwigs their small pincers held towards them, and fat white grubs moving oh so slo…w…l…y. With the unearthing of all these bugs Granny and Grandad soon had company. A Blackbird and Robin arrived, coming close to pick up those bugs in their beaks, and fly off to take those tasty morsels (at least to birds!) to feed to their babies. Everyday Grandad and Granny Annie would work hard to pull those weeds, and dig the soil to remove those thorny weeds, and everyday Blackbird and Robin would harvest those delicious bugs and carry them off to their nests. Occasionally Mim the Tortoiseshell cat would saunter over to take a look at how well her humans were working in between her meal times. The effort of moving was sometimes too much for a cat in the sun in her fur coat, and she would collapse into the nearest shade. At these times both Robin and Blackbird would fly into a frenzy, escaping to the nearest tree to cry “alarm”. To Granny Annie their birdcall sounded something like “Cat. Cat.Cat.Cat. CCCCCAT.” They would continue this shouting until Mim, annoyed by the ear-piercing noise, would wander off to find somewhere quieter to sleep. The Blackbird and Robin could then get back to singing nicely for their supper, and afterwards picking over the tastiest bugs.

Sometimes Granny would find more exciting things than bugs as she dug; pieces of broken pottery, an old white plastic football from a key ring, and an old bouncy power ball. One day she noticed something yellow in the soil, it seemed to glow and shine. Granny Annie bent towards it and a small shock went through her hand as she bent to pick it up. Oh. It was only a small piece of yellow Lego. A 6-er. She was just going to throw it back into the soil when the Robin appeared next to her. “Keep it, keep it” it seemed to sing and so she put the dirty yellow piece of lego in her pocket.

The next day she got up bright and early and made her way to the pond. She had nearly finished dealing with the weeds here. Just one more. It was a big heavy bramble. She dug and dug and pulled and pulled and as the last root broke she fell backwards, straight onto her bottom. “Ouch” she said “what have I sat on?” She stood up and turned around. “How on earth did that get there?” she thought as she stared at the piece of white lego – another 6-er, how strange! The Robin sat in the tree next to her. “Tee, hee, hee. Another, another, another” it seemed to say. Granny Annie thought she might be going mad in the sun – imagining birds talking. “Don’t tell Grandad” she thought.

She made her way slowly up the slope, pulling weeds. The sun was hot, but she felt good. “Just this little bit and I’ll have some lunch” she decided. She walked up towards the corner of the house and as she did the sun went in. A cold breeze made Granny shiver. She just had one bramble to get and then she was done. As she pulled the bramble and cut the thickest bits with her secateurs she noticed something metal poking out, covered by bind-weed. As she pulled the bind-weed off, more of the metal was exposed revealing a black gate. Well, to be exact half a gate. “Wow” exclaimed Granny “This is lovely. This gate would have been the entrance to a grand mansion. What a shame it isn’t whole.”

As she and Grandad sat munching a sandwich a little time later, Grandad suddenly put his hand in his pocket “I forgot. Look what I found over there in the garden. For you.” He opened his hand to reveal a piece of black lego. It seemed to shimmer slightly as she looked at it. An 8-er. She popped it in her pocket with the other pieces, and for a moment her pocket seemed to get warmer. Strange. “Oh yes. I found something exciting too” Granny Annie said pointing up the garden. “It was half an old gate. I thought it might make an interesting sculpture in the garden.” Grandad looked excited. “Well guess what? I know where the other half is! I will go and find it!”

As Grandad left the table the Blackbird appeared on the fence “No.No. Don’t do it. Don’t do it” the bird seemed to shout. Grandad made his way down the path towards the darkest part of the garden. The weeds were still so high you couldn’t see anything in the blackness beyond. The wind seemed to build and blow through the tall trees as he disappeared into the shadows. The sun had hidden behind a cloud taking the warmth out of the day. For a moment Granny felt a little scared, but soon Grandad reappeared dragging the other half of the black metal gate with him. “Is this the same as the one up the garden?” he asked. “Yes – that’s it” Granny said excitedly. “Let’s go and get the other half then” replied Grandad rushing back up the garden carrying the gate. Granny could hardly keep up with his long legs, and the Robin’s call of “Alarm” was distracting her. What was it saying this time – she couldn’t hear properly. As she reached the top of the garden she saw Grandad looking triumphant he had both halves of the gate. Granny at last heard the Robin’s cry “Don’t do it! Don’t do it! Danger, don’t do it!” Before Granny could shout a word of warning there was a big crash of thunder which seemed to make the earth shudder beneath her, knocking her off her feet. As she staggered back to stand again she knew that something had changed. As she looked up the garden to where Grandad had been standing just a moment ago, there stood instead a pair of beautiful black metal gates. They swung shut with a clang as she watched, and the key in the lock turned. It was surrounded by a little electric blue lightening bolt, and with a quiet ‘pop’ the key disappeared. Grandad was gone.

Stories for my grandsons

Lockdown because of COVID-19 saw me flee ostrich-like to my garden. I am privileged to have a very large garden on the edge of a small country town. For years because of poor physical and mental health, work and lots of excuses, the space became a haven for wildlife including birds, squirrels, foxes and even the odd badger. In less kind and more honest words it became a tangle of giant weeds – dock, dandelions, brambles, creeping black rooted buttercups and wild raspberries. These are the brutes of the weed world that had taken over a vast proportion of the garden. We were just too tired with the business of living to get on with wrestling with those sorts of heavy-duty weeds. The attraction in buying the ex-council house more than 25 years ago was the size of that garden. We were both born in the heart of the country-side and longed for that, but couldn’t afford a house in a village – the garden was a compromise for living in what we saw then as a large town. As we got older, the enthusiasm and energy for keeping it neat waned…of course as my mother-in-law a keen gardener always said “It takes an hour a day dear (to keep on top of it).” The trouble is I found myself not clocking on every day, then every week, and then every month until as my dad (another avid gardener) said “A year of seeds, means 7 years of weeds.” There is a truth in those words!

All was not lost. We kept the top bit of the garden relatively ‘tidy’. We love unruly gardens (luckily) and ours has spaces to sit depending on the day – important in a North facing garden. We have a small pond which, as always, was first full of amorous frogs and then tadpoles earlier in the year. We have beds and borders with mostly pretty flowers (and some couch grass which for some will strike terror), and a tiny jade green summer-house for two. We have a shed which isn’t really big enough for everything that needs to live in it, as well as provide enough room for a husband who needs more space to make weird and wonderful things. We have a climbing frame and swings for grandsons although this space was rapidly being attacked by previously mentioned pernicious weeds…and there it is. My mind released the source of my angst. The main reason for me fleeing to the garden was to try to escape the sad heavy feeling when you miss those you love. I also wanted respite from the confusion of a different uncertainty day after day, which at the same time weirdly felt the same as the day before, like the record was stuck. I fled to escape the stress when working from home, of navigating different people’s own confusion and longing and demand for answers. So I ran from those big emotions which threatened to overwhelm me to dig and fork the soil, and chop and snip the weeds. Head down, listen to nature.

Shortly after lockdown I had 2 weeks of booked annual leave and so my holiday was in Costa-del-Sussex. The weather was kind, and everyday from morning until evening my husband and I worked in the garden. I found that I could block out all the painful stuff as I sank my hands into the soil, or sat on my green garden stool to listen to the birdsong. Once a week me and the husband would sit together on the sofa to video call my beautiful daughter and her family. I never realised that joy and pain could be so deeply connected until those times. The pure longing to hold them and stroke their backs as was my habit when I hugged them, was like a deep ache during those conversations. I so loved talking to them and seeing their faces, but afterwards it was as if I’d held my breath all that time, and a weight now sat in my chest causing a physical pain…and once again I would flee to the garden. I had stopped writing. I often wrote things in my head as I sat on my little green garden stool contemplating and musing, but I did not have the inclination to put those words down on the screen. I needed to be physically busy to block out my mind and the unthinkable. What was happening in the world beyond my garden was too big to comprehend, it was too uncertain, and there was no end in sight. So I just carried on gardening…

Last week things shifted for me. My older grandson and I have a special-time at the end of the video-call – just him, grandad and me. It usually comprises of him lying in his mum and dad’s bed eating snacks whilst we talk silliness, laugh and joke just as we did every normal Sunday before COVID-19 so rudely interrupted us. I commented on the things I had been finding in the garden, and that perhaps it would make a good story for me to write for him. He was excited by that and declared that he had written a story which he wanted to send me. I realised how much he was missing us. He and I spent weeks of Sundays at the computer writing a Harry Potter story. It was a time of connecting on many different levels and far beyond the act of just story-making. We both missed that. His story arrived by email and I was bowled over by the brilliant tale he had created about himself and his brother’s adventure with a maze, and a wizard. It was clever and funny just like my grandson.

The next time I was in my garden I realised that every time my husband and I opened up another area of the garden, the first thing we spoke of was how we could design it for the family to use. I had spent the time with my head down, trying not to look outwards, but my heart returned to the need to move beyond and share my love for those I love, in that space. I was unable to share the actual space with them physically at this time, so instead I decided to share my story of the space with them. Stories for my grandsons started to be written down rather than staying in my head. The weaving began…

So the stories attached to this post are for my grandsons. I have woven in actual events, found objects, and live things. There are memories of happy times, and people long gone but still missed wrapped up in these chapters. Some aspects are true, some are embellishments of the truth – spot them if you can. Family will notice that the jokes and sayings often used by family form a big part.

I am not sure that those outside the family will appreciate these tales in the same way, but delve in if you wish a taste of our family and it’s silliness. I have tried to incorporate things to make my grandsons read, gasp and giggle. The stories are first for them, and they are the inspiration for the creation of these tales too. Enter if you dare…

Watching you sleep

Today I walked into your room. You looked up confused, from your seat on the bed. “Hello mum” you said as you smiled at me. My heart lurched. Were we at this point so soon? Was I lost to you? The confusion remained as you stared, but a blink and your eyes cleared momentarily. “Not mum, you just look like her.” You reached your hand out to me. The warm touch that I remember so well. The hand that had held mine so often through my 58 years to offer comfort and to ground me when I felt lost, “Hello my Annie”. And then you were gone again, mumbled words and names I knew, but no sense to be had as I heard them, no story to be grasped to bring you back to the present day. So instead I lifted your legs onto the bed, they were hot and swollen not the slim ankles of your youth. I rubbed them gently “mmm, that feels nice. Lovely darling”. I plumped the pillows behind your head, and pulled the duvet to snuggle you in as a mother would: “Have a nap, you look tired”. Roles reversed: this had been the deal for many years. However today it was that stark reminder of the frailty of life. The realisation that the dementia was doing its worst – your body was present but your mind was lost to me in this moment. You were lost in a different life, one that I couldn’t see or make sense of. I was sad that we were apart.

Your eyes closed as I sat watching you, but still you mumbled the script for what you were experiencing in your head. Your face smiling and then grimacing, your hands plucking at the covers. Happy or sad memories it was difficult to see. I reached for your hand, and we joined together in warmth: physically if not mentally. You opened your eyes, “Ah, still here”. You smiled and your eyes slowly closed again. Time passed – your restlessness continued. It hurt because it seemed a reflection of the restlessness within. I watched the twitching of your face, wishing for you to feel your usual calmness, the gift you had given me. I often exuded the calm despite the storm around me – but would this be my fate too? In my old age when my filter had been lost would I too feel such agitation, no rest or respite from the squiggling thoughts?

The sound of a motorbike backfiring through the open window woke you again from your troubled sleep “What was that noise?” I decided to play my usual trick, a joke to break the tension “Oops sorry, pardon me!” You giggled; a lovely sound to my ears, an example of the role I have played for you for years. I am your joker, your teaser, the jester, the fool, always the part I have played, the mask I have donned with love. Again you closed your eyes to sleep but this time no mumbled words, no plucking at the covers, no grimace on your face. Instead your face was smooth and soft – you looked like the photo of your mum as you rested peacefully at last. Now I could leave. I reached for your hand, kissed you once on the cheek and then on the forehead, “Sleep tight. Sweet dreams. Love you.” You squeezed my hand without opening your eyes “Love you too”. I quietly left the room, the door closing behind me. I stood in the dark corridor outside your room breathing deeply. Who would I see the next time I visited? My mum, or that person living between worlds?

As I sit and write to soothe my squiggling thoughts following today’s visit I feel such a mix of emotions. There is the devastating realisation that day by day my mum as I remember her disappears in front of my eyes. However, I feel honoured that she gave me her mother’s name – as the forenames given me when I was born, but also in her exclamation as I walked through her door today. She loved her mum fiercely. She waved goodbye to her on leaving her island home when just 16 years old, never to see her mother again. She talked often of her mother’s love and strength in life. I am proud that these strong women are part of me and I hang onto this knowledge as the storm comes ever closer.

My hair, my choice, my identity

I have been reading with anger and disbelief of children and young people being punished for their black hair. My disbelief is that in this modern age we are still having these conversations. Isn’t it about time that certain parts of society stopped the black-hair shaming? These news articles took me back to my reading of ‘Don’t touch my hair’ by Emma Dibiri last year, and from that memories of earlier personal experiences jumped into my head. This weekend I sat with my beautiful older sister reminiscing and all sorts of pieces fell into place of how society has influenced notions of black hair.

I have written previously about an early memory of my first days at school and telling my mum I wanted to be white like all the other children that surrounded me. One of the greatest wishes for me at that time was that I had long ‘swishy’ hair like my friends at school. I wanted hair that you could style high up on your head in a bun, or with a pony tail that moved of its own volition from side-to side, or fell in long waves down your back. I looked with envy at those girls seeing their confidence as they tossed their hair over their shoulders, or expertly tied it up with bright-coloured ribbons. It looked so…pretty. In my mind at that time my hair was a boring ugly mass – a black static frizz that did nothing but cause pain. This pain was dolled out everyday by my mum. She would either clamp my older sister first, then me between her thighs and use the ‘Denman’ brush with its solid unyielding teeth to pull our hair into submission. Or we would be sat on one of the hard wooden dining chairs with the red vinyl cushion, the seat of torture at those times, with one of mum’s hands holding our head still to stop our squirming and the other holding the brush to rake our hair and its knots relentlessly. I remember the feeling that my hair was being torn from my scalp. The tears would flow, and I would put my hand on my head to see if blood also flowed as it felt like it should. This act would be rewarded with that instrument of torture scraping the skin of my soft brown hand instead, or my mum would slap at it chastising me to be still. Eventually I learned not to wiggle but to submit as the pain was over quicker. My hair would be scraped into a round unmoving bump at the back of my head with an elastic band, or held down by Kirby grips – tamed, at least for that moment in time. The throbbing soreness of the attack on my scalp lasted a while, at least until I got to school but by then the mass of my hair had made a bid for freedom from its constraints and would have began to stick up in strange shapes from my head.

My sister and I had the pick of some amazing dressing-up clothes. I think now that they were my mum’s old clothes really but I loved to dress up. I remember the heavy blue silk kimono with flowers and birds embroidered as an embellishment on the back and the long draping sleeves. Mum had been given it from an employer from her cleaning job I think, and used it as a dressing gown for a while before we discovered it. We also dressed up in her wedding dress – I cringe now at the irreverent way we treated such a special garment with its little seed-pearls covering the white-lace frothiness. We tripped on and ripped the hem, we draped it through dust and grime as we imagined ourselves queens going to grand balls. On our feet we would wear the fur fronted wooden-soled mule slippers that my mum had also been given, clip-clopping in some imagined dance. My favourite item however was a full petticoat of purple and pink tiered net. It was seldom used for its intended purpose, instead I would bend forwards pulling the tiny-waisted skirt so it sat around my head. As I tossed my head back the petticoat would fall over my back, like long wavy hair in my mind. I would spend hours ‘combing’ my pretend hair – I could actually use a real comb rather than the ‘Denman’-brush-tool-of-torture. I would stand in front of the tall wardrobe with the long mirror, tossing my pretend hair like those white girls.

Talking to my sister we now understand that we shouldn’t blame our mum for the pain. As Emma Dibiri explains so beautifully in her book, the culture of how to look after black hair, to moisturise and style it was passed down generations. Such treatments and styles take time. My mum never learned this information coming from a colonised place where her ancestors had arrived as slaves. Cultural history was lost, and slaves were certainly not given the time that it takes to look after and ‘tame’ their curly hair. My mum learned from her mum instead how to brush hair whether wet or dry and to pull those knotted bits apart by force with the teeth of that tool. And my sister and I learned the same process for our own hair, but at least we could choose the force applied. When I was eleven and a half my next sister was born and we tortured her in the same way mum tortured us. However we added a whole other level of torture. She would scream and cry her way through the ritual – big snot-gurgling tears. Rather than submit as my older sister and I had, she would fight it. So to add to the torture we recorded her crying on our tape-recorder (the same one we recorded the ‘top ten’ on) and played it back to her – horrid behaviour as only sisters can dole out. I cringingly gave her a copy of that tape on her 18th birthday! As well as never having been shown how to look after our hair, we lived in a rural place where black hair products were just not available. I think the local chemist would have fainted had we turned up and made any such request!

This pain-filled battle with my hair continued through my Primary School years. People liked to pat or stroke my hair often without warning or asking permission. Grown ups would exclaim as they patted or stroked my head “Aren’t you sweet with your spongy hair”. Some of my peers would claim condescendingly that they would have liked curly hair too, and others repeated the usual jokes about velcroing me to the wall or called me Brillo-pad. My hair was a source of unhappiness for me marking out my difference. I have written before of my first eye-opening trip to a hairdresser in London. This was set out in my mind as freedom to express my identity. I opted for an Afro but my mum was disappointed in my choice and the following year she repeated the trip so that I could have my hair straightened. I hated it. The chemicals left burns on your scalp and the smell left you with smarting eyes. However as we walked out and I caught a view of myself in the shop windows I was astounded that I had straight hair. It didn’t swish like my friends but it was hanging downwards rather than outwards and upwards. I took every opportunity to look at this new version of me on the journey home thinking perhaps people would also view me differently. My mum suggested a hair net when I went up to bed, to keep it ‘nice’. I stared at myself in the mirror as I brushed my teeth. I was not as glamorous with my new bedtime headwear: more like Ena Sharples from Coronation Street than I would have liked. It took sometime to get to sleep. A small part of this was the excitement that with this new hair style would come a new identity – one that would make me blend in rather than stand out. The other cause of my sleeplessness was the soreness of my weeping scalp. However, as I finally drifted off, my mind full of the adventures of the day, I remember thinking it would all be worth it.

The first crack in my positivity about a new identity appeared as I jumped out of bed and removed Ena Sharples’ cast-off. Before I had donned that net my hair had still looked like it had as I left the hairdressers – it was shiny black and full of life reflecting my views of my young self. When I removed the night-time head gear my hair had lost its life and shine instead it sat flat on my head. I tried to tease it into life with a comb, the teeth snagging on the crusty sore wounds left by the chemical assault. It didn’t look as good as when I’d been gazing at my new image the day before, but better than my first view of the morning. I went to school with a spring in my step – a new day, a new identity. My friends reassured me that my hair looked good and one teacher commented with approval on the ‘neatness’ of my new hair style. Their approval felt good, but the second crack in my positivity appeared when we had ‘games’ in the afternoon. I loved netball, however as we played the weather decided to prove the fragility of my confidence that this new hairstyle would somehow make me more like my white friends. As the bright day turned to drizzly rain, my true curls decided that it was time to remind me that they would not be cowed. As it became wet the length of my hair shrank, and instead bulged outwards. Whilst my natural curls were tight and springy, the assault they’d experienced had singed their exuberance and what I was left with was a mix of straightness and frizz. It was neither one thing or another and I was distraught by the time I got home.

My mum tried to fix things – my hair and my heart. She used the products she had bought at the hairdressers to wash my hair and after greasing it with ‘activator’ rolled it around the big curlers that she used for her own hair, pinning them still with big black curly grips. She placed a flowery white plastic cap over those big curlers, and connected the white pipe that joined the cap to the hairdryer. She turned it onto the hot setting, and the white cap with its orange flowers expanded as the hot air was pumped in. After a short while those curly metal grips began to get hot and uncomfortable, making my crusty scalp burn. The rollers cut into my head and my ears. I pulled the cap so that my ears were free and stuck out so that I looked like a black gnome. Once I was ‘done’ – well and truly cooked – mum began to remove the curlers so that I was left with lots of strange separate coils over my head. Using her fingers under each coil, and a black comb she persuaded each curl to join to another. She was pleased with her efforts as she held up the mirror and I tried to hide my disappointment not wanting to hurt her. What stared back at me was an image of my mum – her staid older-woman hair-do was replicated on my head. So much for a new identity.

We couldn’t afford for me to go up to London to get my hair straightened very often but as I began to earn my own money I tried again. In my later teenage years, I loved punk and two-tone. I tried to get my hair straightened and cut in the same spiky hair as I saw on my peers. As I sat waiting for my appointment an image in a magazine of a black model with coloured stripes on each side of her hair jumped out. That was what I wanted – spiky hair with coloured stripes. I wanted to be like my peers: a rebel whose appearance shouted disquiet at society. The spikes didn’t stay sharp long, my hair wasn’t made that way. The sharpness softened again perhaps like my resolve for fighting the inevitability of my position in my world. I began to realise also that my fights with society weren’t the same as my white friends for whom much of their rebellion was about fashion rather than as a result of negative experiences. I also discovered that I was quite lazy when it came to looking after my hair and looks. I quickly got bored with making my hair do something in order to fit in and be the same as my peers, and I hated the feel of makeup on my face and the mask it created.

I turned instead to hairstyles which were easy to maintain and went for short cut natural hair, or later braids made with synthetic hair. The latter also involved pain too and long long days of sitting in a chair whilst someone plaited my hair into beautiful tresses. My scalp would still be sore as my hair was pulled to be joined with the synthetic, and my neck, back and bottom would ache after sitting still for 8-10 hours. I was so often told it took so long because “you have a big head”…no jokes please! The longest marathon was 12 hours when they decided to give me plaits that reached down my back to my bottom. This made me realise that I still hankered after my dream of that long swishy hair of my petticoat days. This desire was still rooted in a long held desire to fit in, to be the same rather than different to my friends. I wanted acceptance for something that would never happen – that little girl still wanted whiteness.

Times have changed. In my late 30s I decided that I no longer wanted to try and make my hair fit a white-ideal in order that I felt more like those in the majority around me. I didn’t have to protect their sensibilities by conforming to what many expected me to do to tame my offensive hair, which was so different to theirs. I spent many years growing my locs and after several years decided I wanted to look after them myself. Not everyone black or white likes them; to them I say “my hair, my choice, my identity”. I watch as many of my sisters have embraced their natural hair, and some supported their children with how to look after their natural hair to lessen the pain which I experienced in my childhood. They have access to information on how to do this through the power of the internet, something my mum never had to help her. As a result of a lack of knowledge she could not pass on this sort of wisdom to her daughters. Not all my sisters have decided that natural hair is for them – sometimes the pressure of the workplace has influenced their decision, sometimes it has been their choice because they prefer the look. It matters not – what matters is that it should be a choice for all black people to wear with pride the hair that they choose as part of their identity. It must not be used as a stick to beat conformity into them. Ignorance of how black hair grows is no excuse and the punishment must stop. Our hair, our choice, our identity.

Owning the space?

As always my squiggling thoughts have been working hard, but for many reasons the writing has been slow to follow. I recently finished a round of counselling which I have mentioned in a previous blog, and this resulted in a realisation that I needed to think more before committing myself to action. Self-protection has to be part of my decision whilst retaining my commitment to my authentic self. I have also realised that I don’t need anyone’s acknowledgement or acclaim for my words, I don’t need ‘followers’ or ‘likes’ as my aim is only to ‘speak my truth’. I share my writing to those who are interested in my story, if they want to share that writing with like-minded people I am happy.

A few weeks ago I took part in a brilliant BrewdEdEY Sussex event. This wonderful movement draws together those interested in early years education and care to hear different voices of the sector. It is a supportive environment where speakers give their time for free, and attendees pay just a small amount to cover the costs of the venue (from the name of the event you will understand that this venue is often a pub!). I had taken the leap to speak about ‘colourblindness’ in early years settings based on my experiences, drawing on a short piece I had written for an in-house university journal. I was stupidly nervous beforehand as it was the first time I had spoken ‘my truth’ attached to my life-long passion for the experiences of children in the early years. I am used to teaching and therefore talking in front of large groups of people. I am always nervous and imposter syndrome often rears its head. However, this talk used personal experiences to illustrate ideas of belonging, the power of relationships on children’s sense of self, ideas of white fragility and white privilege and the impact of equality when it goes no further than “we are all the same here” (when this is so clearly not the case for people like me). I was feeling vulnerable and exposed by my upcoming talk as I drove through the countryside early on a Saturday morning. I arrived at the venue, to see a smiley black man crossing the carpark. Without even thinking I raised my hand to wave at him as he entered the door of the pub. I knew that @jamel.carly was speaking too and assumed that this was him, although this was not the reason that I waved. I waved with relief that here was another black face when I knew from experience that many of the people attending would be white. This has always been my experience in Sussex and I am used to that – in my lifetime of living in a rural space I have learned how to navigate the white space. However, on this day I knew I would be addressing topics that would cause discomfort for me and those listening. I needed to see another black face.

I knew that the room would be supportive as early years colleagues so often are, but my concerns were that the subject of white privilege would be a challenge for some. I sat with some familiar faces, people I have known and admired for a long time. Yet still I sat on the edge of my seat, hand shaking as I sipped water and took pills for my pounding headache. I listened enthralled to the speaker before me – so many practical discussions about spaces in the early years setting. Her talk prompted interesting questions, connections and ideas. A wonderful buzz filled the room, but all too soon it was my turn.

I cast my eyes around the room at the sea of white faces, stopping at the one other black face in the room that I had waved at earlier. I began with a call for us all to be brave, to go with the discomfort that we may all feel during my presentation, because change would only come once that discomfort was acknowledged and moved passed. Once I started the words flowed. As I knew would happen I went over my allotted time, but the applause afterwards seemed to suggest that my words were received well despite the moments of palpable disquiet at points during my talk. There was no time for questions and I fled from the front seeking comfort in the arms of people I knew. I felt emotionally drained – I had shared a part of myself with others; a part of myself which had been hidden and buried except on the pages of my writing. I was close to tears at that point but at the same time freed because a significant personal barrier had been broken. I had been frightened to connect my thoughts on racialisation in white spaces with my passion for early years, in case the first tainted the latter. But at last it was done.

I answered a couple of questions about my talk during the lunch break, but when given the opportunity for the whole group, there were no questions for me. I felt a moment of disappointment before rationalising the fact that many people would need the ‘safe space’ to unpick their thoughts just as I had suggested during my presentation. The wonderful @jamel.carly then started his talk. His passion, energy and enthusiasm filled the room and there was a tumultuous round of applause as he finished his talk and the questions afterwards flowed. Someone turned to me as I said “wow that was brilliant!” and she responded “yeah he owns the room when he talks”.

As I drove home I mulled over the day as is my habit after any talk I share or teaching I deliver. I reflect on the content, my style, where I could have improved and what changes I would make should I do it again. The phrase “owning the room” popped into my head and there it has stayed ever since. I have never felt I owned a room – and I was curious as to why. I have had moments where I feel that I have done a good job, that I have connected with those listening, and co-construction of ideas (my ultimate aim) has been achieved by the majority in the room…but ‘owning’ that room?

I think “to own” means to feel possession of something as belonging to you. It requires a certainty of a right to something that I have seldom felt. Looking at the dictionary definition of “to hold one’s own” it states “to be equal to the opposition.” Perhaps I do not possess such confidence because of my personality – an inbuilt tendency for self-denigration and a belief that others should be put first as they were more deserving?

Or is it because of my gender that I do not feel ownership of a space? I have noted so often in different work places that many men had such confidence and assurance when they spoke. When they talked people listened. In my current workplace students commented on the wonderful talk by male colleagues, yet I had heard the more outstanding wonderfulness of the woman before him. More recently, when I have spoken my ideas they have been ignored, but a man has used those same ideas as his own and been acclaimed for his ingenuity. Frustrating but the experience of so many women.

Do I not own the space because I am black and so often in my lifetime I have learned not to expect ownership? I have been taught to step aside for white people, to defer to their wisdom, and their culture – hey you, that is the right way if you want acceptance. Being the only black face and voice in nearly every space I have found myself in has left me alone and vulnerable. However I have also felt a tremendous feeling of responsibility to all black people, and that I had to work smarter and stronger to prove my right to be there. My 10 years in academia have not helped with this. I entered those hallowed halls with wonder at my luck in landing my dream job, and a huge dollop of imposter syndrome to boot. What I discovered was that whilst there were many wonderful people those same rules which were applied to gender and colour in the outside world still applied in higher education…but with knobs on! Added to this however were the hidden rules of academia. A hierarchy of qualifications, of complex words and phrases and with some a hidden club which held these things in high esteem, whilst looking down on those without. The dance is interesting to watch as the outsider I am. It is a subtle but exclusionary dance: there is the positioning that takes place, the reverence of one type of knowledge over another, or the deal that is done in exchange for acceptance, before the choosing of the face and too often the gender that fits.

Is it some or all of those things that prevents me ‘owning’ a space?

Over the last year I have enjoyed my return to writing. I fought hard for it to remain my writing and my story. I have resisted the pressure from others (and myself) to justify my words with academic references. This academic structure is so much a part of my everyday work this has been hard to do and to believe in myself and trust my words for what they are – my truth. Today I read some blog posts by the wonderful Dr Muna Abdi discussing how she wrote her PHD recording the voices of Somali men in her job as a community youth worker. Her words in the second of her blogs resonated with me:

“academic writing often creates a paternalistic structure that excludes the groups of people who are often the topic of discussion. […] I fought the urge to theorise their experiences, and realised in my hesitation that it was not so much that the subaltern [marginalised peoples], lacked the ability to speak… but rather Western intellectuals’ lack the ability to hear different stories.”

Suddenly the penny dropped for me. To own the space I need to own my words. I do not have to justify my story by using the words of others whose words and ideas others may see as more worthy than mine. I need to believe in myself and the words I write and speak. At the start of my presentation for BrewEdEY I said that what I spoke of may not be the experiences of all black people, but that I spoke my truth as a black woman who has lived her whole life in a mostly white place. Now I hold onto a realisation that my truth is good enough, and I own any space where I choose to speak it.