Scrambling through Summer

Time to catch breath. It’s been one of the best and busiest summers for some time: a whirlwind of travel, incredible sights, jet lag and work. I’ve felt pressure to grab on to each moment and not let them pass me by: the new experiences, the sunshine, the time away from the daily grind. And it’s been exhausting.

Back in July, I went to Tanzania with my husband and my parents. For the most part, my brain is still trying to compute the extraordinary otherness of such a place: the wildlife, the landscape, the threatening city, the wild roads and the inescapable poverty. I’ve never travelled much – I was never a ‘gap year’ kid – and I am not a person who takes travel for granted. I left Europe for the first time in 2014, age 28. Until then, far-flung countries and felt as distant and untouchable as the Land of Oz, or travelling back in time. Going to Africa – and let’s face it, you can’t really get any different from my safe little pocket of England – is as big a culture shock as I’ll probably ever experience. To look back weeks later, I’m still overwhelmed by the scale of the difference. I could pick out small specific things: the sound of waking to the call to prayer at 5AM in Dar Es Salaam, the smell of fresh turmeric in the market, the smell of fresh fish under my nails after eating it with my bare hands. But there are so many little things. One day I’ll write it all down. Right now, I’m still reeling.

It took us twenty four hours to get back to Birmingham airport, and I went straight into teaching the next day. I signed up for a month’s work with a summer school again. One of the reasons that being a teacher is such a demanding job is the need to enthuse, to light up every word you say with perky inspiration – even when your head is pounding and all you want to do is sleep. You have to just keep going. These children had travelled from all across the world for a great experience in Oxford, and for so many of them, I had the responsibility of teaching their favourite thing – creative writing. Wow, these teenagers love writing. (They’re not all that good at it, but they love it). For four exhausting weeks, I had to find that energy, that enthusiasm. It was hard. By the end of it, I wasn’t sure I liked writing all that much anymore, which is weird. I’d taught the same sessions so many times, I’d become a teaching robot. I got bored, and the marking and report writing got me down. The students were lovely, and as much as I loved their company, the strain of the last month’s work was considerable. Still, it paid for the adventure in Tanzania, and life is about compromises.

Then, seeing two friends getting married in Prague. The bride was Czech, and the groom was Spanish. The ceremony was beside a lake with mountains and forests as a backdrop – a true fairytale setting. I loved that not only was the bride given away by her father, but the groom was given away by his mother. There was a perfect symmetry and equality to this. The Czech ceremony, translated into English, showed marriage as a practicality and legality. Both had to swear that they’d planned and thought of how their lives were coming together, how they would live, and treat each other fairly. There was no mention of God in this former Communist state: this was a legal binding rather than a spiritual one, which makes it sound unromantic, but it was the opposite. The rest of the day was peppered with fun, happy Czech traditions, and a superbly quirky disco compiled by the bride and groom.

I’ve scrambled through summer, and in two more weeks, I’ll be back at school, and normality will resume. I’m ready for it. This week has been the first week I’ve had to just tootle about and enjoy my own company, and while I’m enjoying the rest, I’m ready to get back into my usual routine. The house is clean. The washing is done. I’m almost caught up on my freelance work – almost – though I seem to have a bad habit of always leaving things until the last minute. All is calm.

 

Writing Group

Image result for writing groupI feel full of energy today. It’s lunch time and I’ve already rattled off 1200 words of decent writing. Yesterday I met with my writing group and I shared my great master plan – the outline for the novel I’ve been dabbling with for four or five years.

Writing a book never feels like a real thing when it’s just a mess of Word documents on your Dropbox, only ever read by you. It feels like a pipedream. Just an indulgence, perhaps. Is it merely something I comfort myself with when I don’t feel interesting or clever enough? These are the doubts that can seep in.

Today, though, this novel feels much more solid. I encourage myself with the thought that all writers are just human beings, and every piece of literature starts life as a bunch of notes and scribbles. All writers write rubbish. Even F Scott Fitzgerald. Even Harper Lee. They’re just humans – but their genius came out because THEY KEPT GOING.

This was the main message I gained from writing group yesterday. I value this group of people so much… there are twelve or so of us, all alumni of the Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes. We’re a mixture of men and women, all ages, some with children, some with grandchildren – perhaps a rather disparate group of people, apart from our interests in literature. I’m not a fully fledged published writer, but many of them are. I’m talking deals with the big publishers, but also small presses, poetry magazines, and self publishing. Whatever our levels of experience, theirs an equality and supportive atmosphere in this group. My fellow writers’ advice is just as thoughtful, detailed and practical as the guidance our university lecturers gave us. They’re well trained. They’re experts, each of them. We all read different things, have different life experiences… and this is all so valuable.

Now, I’m conscious that not every writing group is quite as wonderful as mine. I’d suggest that if you’re serious about writing, and you want to surround yourself with others who are properly serious too, then something like an MA or an Arvon course is worth the money. This isn’t because of the ‘teaching’ – it’s because of the peers you’ll meet. If they’re paying for the experience, you know they value writing as much as you do.

I’ve never tried to sign up to a more casual writing group, but I’d be worried about doing so. What if the other writers are not up to the task of giving vigorous feedback? What if I spend most of my time correcting their grammar? I do enough of that in my day job. I wouldn’t have the patience to support newbie writers who were just dabbling… and maybe that’s selfish, but it’s true.

Still, paid writing courses are expensive, and not everyone can do it. Maybe it could be worth a shot. I’m intrigued by poetry and short story slams. There are artsy bars and pubs that do that around here, and I’ve heard of local libraries doing it too. Anything that makes you read out your work and feel it as something real has got to be of some value. I’ve read out my work in public a few times now, and it’s an amazing rush.

Hearing my fellow writers discuss my characters and themes like they’re in a real book felt a bit like magic, and I’m still going on that energy. I feel much more confident now that I have a bit more than a bunch of notes. I have a novel. I’ve had one for a while, I’ve just not had the confidence to crack on with it. Today, the process of writing felt different: I felt myself just getting on, without thinking too much.  I stopped second guessing myself. I just went with it.  I have a plan, I know roughly where I’m going… but there’s a freedom and joy to that too.

It’s back to school next week, which will make it harder to keep going… but I must. I’m going to find the discipline to write as often as I can, and I’m going to keep going to my writing group. Even when I’m tired, and I think I don’t have the energy… because stuff like this gives you the energy. It’s going to be so much fun.

Wonderful Summer Optimism

I’m starting to feel so much better. I feel healthy. I’m not getting icky spots between my eyebrows, as I always do in bouts of stress and tiredness. I’m sleeping well (save the epic Week of Three Job Interviews – but that’s over with now). I’m eating lots of green things and waltzing around the city like I own the bloody place, because I’m feeling optimistic. The sun’s out, and the streets look beautiful. There are frickin’ bluebells sprouting up in our front garden – even the weeds look good!

The chirpy mood is partly down to the time of year – I feel so much better when the weather’s warm, and the days are long – but for another exciting one, too.

I have a new job.

I applied for a post at an amazing private school, thinking I’d never get it because I’m not clever or posh enough, and I’d never get that lucky. Then I got an interview… and it went really well. The interviewers seemed genuinely interested in me as a person, asking about my degree, my hobbies – not my ‘strategies for making progress’ and my classes’ GCSE results. The children were an absolute delight: eager to learn, sweet and earnest. They made me wait a week to find out if I got the gig, and I spent seven days thinking there’s no way – there’s no way I’ll get it. (Even though they interviewed me first. Even though they invited me to interview before the deadline passed. Even though everything went really well. Why do I beat myself up so much?)

Well, I got the job. From September, I’ll work four days a week at this lovely, tiny little school in the prettiest part of the city. I’ll teach lovely children Drama and English. I’ll get a free lunch every day, longer holidays… and I’ll feel valued and respected by my employers. I’ll say it again: they didn’t ask me about results, they asked me about me. That’s got to count for something.

I always felt uncomfortable about the idea of private education, because I come from a family that couldn’t even consider paying for school – as is true for the majority. I’m not happy with the idea that your parents’ wealth should be able to pay for a hugely advantageous start in life. But then, I’m not happy with what’s happening in state schools either. I’m afraid the government has largely ruined it for me, what with the circus of testing and brutal, pointless bureaucracy of constantly covering backs in case Ofsted show up. It’s change for change’s sake, constantly. I feel teachers are suffering at the hands of the DfE’s ambition and misunderstandings.

Of course there’ll be high standards at this fee-paying school, and of course I’ll have to work hard. I’m OK with that. I’m looking forward to looking forward to work. Feeling purposeful, and secure in my work – because I know the school is managed well, and free to make their own decisions. I’m looking forward to knowing happy children who want to be taught and are hungry to know more. It feels a selfish move to abandon ordinary kids for a cushy job with free lunch (yes! literally free lunch!), but I feel I’ve done my time in the state sector. I’ve worked hard for so many kids who didn’t want to work for themselves, and at times it was truly gruelling. It feels good to be moving on. Yes, summer optimism is flooding through me.

Relationships, etc.

0995.jpgSo the husband and I met a rather big milestone today: ten whole years together. Ten years  since we were uni house mates, both a bit shy, both a bit weird, and both tentatively deciding we rather liked each other. Most of our friends are coupled up now, but we were first. We’ve survived the turmoil and general awkwardness that defines being in your twenties. Hell, we did more than survive – we’re doing really well. Now we’re both 30, we’re still very much together, and I’ve gone all sentimental about it.

We were kids when we got together. Two kids in love, who’d never had proper jobs, and spent their student loans on books, nice pens, cheesecake and pizza. In that third year of uni, we didn’t often hang out with anyone other than each other, and it was awesome. I mean, not many relationships get the luxury of that, do they? Months on end with no work pressures, and just the odd essay to write. Evenings spent watching films, walking by the sea. No early mornings. We lived in each other’s pockets and it was perfect.

When you’ve just turned twenty, your whole life is still a big undecided blob of possibility. We didn’t have to work to ‘fit in’ with each other’s schedules, work lives, homes. We could mould the blob of possibility to suit our relationship. Beyond university, when we first dipped our toes into the scary dream pool of careers, we did it together – and we knew we needed to make certain choices if we wanted to remain a couple. It was a bumpy start, as I decided to live with my parents and save money (and stress) while I did my PGCE. My other half was doing an MA more than eighty miles away, and we were both studying really hard. We missed each other desperately, often not seeing each other for weeks.

I suppose it helped us see that living together was really going to be a priority in our happiness. So, aged twenty-two, we rented our first flat. I found a teaching job close to a university city where he could gradually get a job in academic publishing. We didn’t have much money, and it was difficult – but it made us happy. It’s also quite special that we knew each other before we had careers – there’s so little explaining to do, because we feel we know the ‘real’ versions of each other, the ones not expressed by job titles and CVs.

Now, I’ve blogged before about renting from an early age and now feeling trapped by it (see my post on house ownership anxiety). Paying high rent through our twenties might’ve been a tad financially stupid, but it was good for our relationship. We liked being at home. It was important to us to live together in a nice place. While friends were still at university, living at home or going slightly mad in shared houses, we gave up our cash for a little nest of our own. I cooked, he cleaned, we paid the bills, and we didn’t argue much. It was all pretty easy, but not boring. We were content with a kind of low-key happiness that perhaps most people don’t look for until they’re much older.

We were boyfriend and girlfriend for seven years before we got engaged – ending the rather irritating speculation of friends and family. I’m the oldest amongst my group of close friends, and the one who’d been in a relationship the longest – so it was a cruel mirroring of being the oldest sibling who has to do every milestone first (I’m also an oldest sibling, if you’re sensing any bitterness). It wasn’t a surprise engagement. I think it was around the time of our seventh anniversary… I commented that we’d been together a long time, longer than lots of married people. He made a comment that maybe we should get married, and I buzzed with excitement, though I tried not to show it. We looked at rings. I only needed to try on one… a delicate little number with a small diamond, criss-crossed by a string of tiny ones in a sort of Celtic pattern. (I’ve been wearing it for three years and I still like to stare at it.) The ‘official’ engagement was a picnic by a lake. Not many words, just a ring slipped onto my finger. Oh, and prawns and dip.

Everyone says that the nicest thing about our wedding was that it reflected how much we have in common. We had a literary theme – the cake was a stack of books, the centre pieces were made with bits of old books, and the favours were literary classics. All the family did speeches – in-laws included. It was a rather extraordinarily happy day that still makes me flutter with happiness when I think about it. We went to China for a honeymoon, though we had just as much fun kicking about in Wales in the rain for our ‘minimoon’.

I read Bridget Jones as a kid, and I think I’ve become a smug married. I feel a little guilty sometimes that the romantic side of my life has proved straightforward. I knew very early on that I was with the right person and I’m very lucky that he agreed. I generally get very nervous when any one of my female friends asks me for dating advice, because I really have no idea. The last time I was single, Facebook didn’t exist, and people still took pictures with actual cameras. I  ‘dated’ very little (though the ‘dates’ I did experience were excruciatingly bad). I’m sorry I can’t help you if your sort-of boyfriend won’t answer your messages on Whatsapp. I’m sorry if you only find losers on the internet who send you hideously intimate pictures of themselves. I can’t offer advice, because I never had to go through all that crap. Thank God.   I just fell into a happy relationship when I was very young, and I’m very, very fortunate.

We’re not perfect – I know I’m super annoying when I demand attention like a six-year-old, start a play-fight and complain that he hasn’t brought me a glass of water at bed time (yes, I’m hard work). I know he’s not perfect when he eats all the biscuits and cannot make ONE SINGLE DECISION (I even pick his food on a menu sometimes). But that’s real life. Sometimes we fight and grumble like  teenage siblings. Sometimes we probably take each other for granted. But we agree that we’re staying together, that we’re probably as compatible as it’s humanly possible to be. I don’t believe in fate, but as my father-in-law said at our wedding, it seems quite amazing that two people so alike ended up in the same house in the same seaside town on the same university course. And now we have a lot of shared history, a shared family. I remember reading a lovely metaphor about two trees that grew side by side, so close their roots became entwined. If I’m sad, I think of us as those two trees, growing in the same spot of earth, drinking in the same shaft of sunlight.

two trees.jpg

The New Me: Freelance Teacher

I feel like I’ve smashed through a few frontiers in my teaching career this week: my first time as a one-to-one A Level tutor, my first venture into private sector education, and my first professional steps into an Oxford College. A few months ago, I wouldn’t have believed it possible. I thought I was quitting teaching for good – but I’m now glad I gave this career a second chance.

After seven years working in state secondary schools (or should I say academies), I’d had enough of the workload and pressure. I’d worked in two schools that were very unhappy places due to the pressure of inspections, the constant merry-go-round of government changes and increasingly brutal target-setting culture.  I loved my subject, and I knew I was a good practitioner… but my job made me sad and anxious. Back in January, I had to take some time out. I’ve always been a worrier, but I was starting to get ill from the constant demands of my job. Even over the two week Christmas break, I hadn’t been able to switch off. My 30th birthday was on New Year’s Eve, and while I had a lovely day, I crept off to bed swiftly after midnight, tearful and miserable that now I had just a few days before term began again, and I had so much to do. I worked hard. I managed three days at work before I was full of cold, with a terrible headache. I had to take a day off sick, and then another. Before long, it was the anxiety of returning to work that was the real problem. I got dressed for work on the third day, and then cried, because I felt so incapable of going back. I got signed off, and after a few weeks, full of guilt, I asked to be released early from my contract.

Once I knew I was leaving that job, I felt instantly better. I applied for lots of different types of jobs, feeling free, and excited about trying something new. I applied for admin roles, school librarian jobs, and a tutoring job at a university. I didn’t get much of a response, so I resolved that my back up would be signing up with a teaching agency. I put my CV online and it suddenly felt like my phone exploded: so many voicemails, emails, missed calls. I genuinely had no idea there were so many agencies out there. There was lots of work, too.

My first supply role, which I will return to next week when the Easter break ends, is in an FE college. It’s been a great experience so far. I work four days a week, and I have very little planning to do, as all the classes are GCSE retake students, studying the same skills. These kids missed out on their magic ‘C’ at school, and many are disillusioned, frustrated or simply struggle. But they’re interesting kids. I’ve seen some challenging behaviour, but nothing worse than I’ve experienced in secondary schools. The pace of the day is easier – longer lessons, but longer breaks, too. I don’t feel exhausted at the end of the day.

This week, I’ve signed up with a tutorial college to teach A Level revision. It’s well paid, and the students are paying a lot for an intensive course, so I’ve definitely felt the pressure. Fortunately I’m teaching subject matter I know well, and I can rely on resources I’ve used before. I have two students, both lovely, and very appreciative of my efforts – which feels great. I’m teaching in a beautiful room in an Oxford college with views of daffodils and the quad, complete with obligatory ‘keep off the grass’ sign. I’m enjoying it, but I’m also pleased I don’t have to work this hard every week.

I’ve also been invited to work for an education publisher on a text book, which is a privilege, and something I’d never have time for if I was still a full-time secondary school teacher. It’s work I can do at home, though I’ve been asked to go into the office too and help out. It’s flattering that my skills and experience are valued, and I’m grateful to develop another string to my bow. It gives me hope that I can continue to teach part-time, and find other ways of making money.

I’ve been an examiner before, and I signed up for the summer exams as back up in case I didn’t get enough work. I’ve been offered so much, that I won’t have time to examine as well – but again, it’s another source of income if I need it. I don’t particularly enjoy marking dozens of papers, especially under immense time pressure – so it’s not the kind of work I’d choose. But it’s an option, and something I know I can do well.

All in all, I think I now qualify as a freelance teacher. It’s a new way of thinking about my career, and I like it. I feel like I’ve got a bit of breathing space. I don’t feel trapped, waiting for the next half term holiday. It’s giving me time to write, too, which is of course what I really want to do (as is the case for so many teachers, I’m realising). I think it’s opened my eyes to see working life in a different way… something to fit around my own well-being, perhaps. I do miss the relationship you can build up with classes over time, and there might be a time when I want to go back to more full-on teaching. Maybe when the government stop messing about with everything (will this ever happen?). Until then, I’m content with part-time work, and going freelance.

Hypochrondriac?

Some days I feel like a vitamin-deprived blob of a person. I try to be vaguely healthy, save the odd takeaway, and my habit for grazing on chocolate biscuits. I don’t get these ‘clean eating’ fads, but I do eat a lot of vegetables, and I’ve really tried to cut down how much meat I eat. I don’t drink coffee. I rarely drink alcohol. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my whole life.

So why do I feel like shit all the time?

I thought it was stress. Now I’ve switched jobs, and feel much happier, I thought I’d feel physically better, too. It’s taken a while, but I’ve learned that mind and body aren’t really so separate. And my mind feels so much better… but I’m still getting headaches. Cold sores. Mouth ulcers. It’s like I’ve permanently got a virus in my system and I just can’t shift it.

Yes, I need to do more exercise. Yes, I could do with giving up the chocolate biscuits. But let’s get real here: I’m never going to be one of those Instagram health freaks that glow with the goodness of a thousand spiralised courgettes. I like pasta, OK? And not the wholewheat kind. I also use real butter – on white bread! Yes, I do! And I like it!

Am I my own worst enemy? Should I stop faffing about on the internet, and go for a run? Possibly. I do need to do something, because I’m bored of feeling wretched. Like most normal people, I’ve been a bit of a hermit through the bitterly cold winter months. I don’t know about full-on running, but I can certainly walk more. I’ll save money on bus fares, and see more of the detail of the beautiful city I live in.

The truth is, I’ve never really enjoyed exercise. I’m a bit lazy. My hobbies – writing, painting – are sedentary pursuits. As a kid, I’d always prefer a quiet corner of the house to sit and doodle, rather than playing outside. I like swimming, but that’s something I do on holiday, rather than on a regular basis. Although I’m not overweight, I am unfit, and getting into anything active is going to be a serious effort, but something I know I need to do.

I’ll start with the walking. I’ll eat more salad and less comfort food now that the seasons are changing. I could do with losing a bit of weight, as I’m a bridesmaid in July, and I need to fit in the dress (it’s lilac, and gorgeous). If I get offered a permanent contract in my current job, which seems likely, I might treat myself to membership at the nearby hotel swimming pool and gym (as it seems I’m an indoor person). I’m not sure how I feel about gym memberships… would I actually go? I suppose it’s worth a try.

The only advantage to my current bout of mouth ulcers is it hurts too much to tuck in to my Easter eggs. Small blessings…?

House Ownership Anxiety

 

A little Oxfordshire town randomly became home when I got my first teaching job at the tender age of 22. I was the first amongst my friends to properly ‘live with my boyfriend’ in a sweet little flat with colourful kitchen tiles and a balcony for the cat. It felt terribly grown up, being out on our own, working hard to pay the rent while a lot of our contemporaries were still pulling student all-nighters or living with their parents. It was the year of the recession, and although we had quite good savings back then, we weren’t even thinking about mortgages. We probably wouldn’t have been able to get one, anyway.

Eighteen months later, the rent was increased on the flat with the colourful tiles, and we moved to another one, a little less charming, but spacious, and right in the town centre. We filled it with books and watched the cat lounge across the hot spots of the underfloor heating. Cue happy times baking in the huge kitchen, and parties, now we had space for friends to stay.

Then the rent went up again. We realised we could rent a proper house for a little more money, and although it was a bit of a financial stretch (I was working part-time then), the lure of more space and a garden was very appealing. So we moved again, and we loved that house. It was the sort of the place we’d happily have bought and stayed in forever. It had more space than we needed, and it was pretty. It had a wood-burning stove. It was great.

By this time, the economy was a bit better, and my friends were starting to discuss mortgages. Shit. Oh yeah. Sort of forgot about those.

I’d funded my own MA, and we’d had a lovely wedding. We didn’t really have savings any more, which we know is a bit stupid. But were we really so stupid to rent through our twenties? What was the alternative – put our relationship on hold while we lived at home and sponged off our parents? Should we have lived in a shared house? A hovel? We didn’t spend extravagantly. No big holidays, apart from our honeymoon to China – and that was our wedding present from our guests.

We worked hard through our 20s, and I really believed we deserved nice places to live. The trouble is that we’re now 30, and still renting. Perhaps naively, we followed our hearts and moved to a ridiculously expensive area. We wanted to experience cosmopolitan city life before we got too grown up. And I don’t really regret it. Not really. I love where we live, even if I do get stressed about the rent.

A lot of my friends have bought houses now. And yes, I’m jealous. I’m also in wonder as to how the hell they did it. Well, they didn’t choose to live in Oxfordshire, for a start – the most expensive county outside London. Some of them inherited money, which lets face it, is the most depressing way of getting on the housing ladder. I don’t want my relatives to die so we can buy a house. Some of them are better paid than us, and live in cheaper places – so the maths isn’t hard. One couple just didn’t leave their cheap rented flat for eighteen months, budgeting £4 a week for anything fun.

Most of them got at least a little help from their parents, and this is a tricky one. I would never ask for help. We had help with the wedding, and fully appreciated it. But we’d never ask. (I’m not sure my parents are open to us buying a permanent home anywhere other than right next door to them, anyway).

At the moment, we’re remaining firm members of Generation Rent. We’re not in a position to save much at the moment, but in a year or two, our jobs might change, and we might feel a little better off. There’s more to life than a big financial plan, right?  After all, we’ve had eight years of living together, in places that have made us happy. We’ve invested in each other, even if we’ve been a bit crap (but not explosively terrible) with money. We’ll get better at the money stuff. Here’s hoping, because memes like the one below are really scary…