Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lost in Translation - or "Sheeps are Disgusting"

I was in the post office the other day, trying to squeeze in one more errand before lunch.

Without warning my stomach began to rumble. It started as a low gurgle but the gurgle was soon accompanied by a strange and high pitched squeak.

A little girl who was sitting in the child seat of her mother's shopping trolley looked up from her stuffed toy and glanced around.

"There's a cat". She exclaimed. Her mother smiled at me but was too polite to say anything. I placed my hand across my stomach. "It's my tummy". I told the little girl and as if to prove a point, my stomach made the catlike noise again.

The line moved and the mother and daughter were called up to the counter.

When they finished their transaction the woman smiled at me and said, "Good bye".  I responded and gave the girl a little wave. She waved back but looked a me suspiciously, staring at my stomach as she passed.

I wondered what was going through her mind. Has she understood that my stomach sounded like a cat not that there was a cat inside it? Sometimes it is easy for things get lost in translation if an explanation is confusing or incomplete.

Seventeen years ago I was living and teaching in London. My daughter, Amy, was just about to turn three and attended the nursery (kindergarten) attached to the school where I taught. It was an ideal situation. The nursery was wonderful: large well equipped rooms, a lovely play area and an excellent staff. Plus it was  slap bang next door to a City Farm. It was also very convenient because I took Amy with me, to and from work.

We were driving home one day and I was aware that Amy was unusually quiet. She usually chattered non stop about her day as we drove home. In face the only time Amy ever stopped talking was when she was asleep. I watched her in the rear view mirror as she stared silently out of the window. I wondered if she might be coming down with a cold or a sore throat.

I was about to ask if she was feeling O.K when out of nowhere she announced, "Sheeps are disGUSTing."

I was rather taken aback. 'Sheeps are disgusting' is not a sentence you hear everyday.  I clearly couldn't let this go and so I said "Why?"

Apparently Amy's class had visited the city farm that day. A call had come through to the nursery that one of the ewes had gone into labor and if the teachers rounded up the children quickly enough they would have a chance to see the lamb being born.

The class had arrived in time to witness this wondrous event but Amy had not been impressed. "A baby sheep came out of its Mummy's bottom and it was covered in blood. It was DISGUSTING."

I tried hard not to laugh. I always loved child's eye views on life. It was one of the reason I became a primary school teacher.

But with this cute, child's eye perspective on an incredible but every day event, there was opportunity. Although Amy didn't know it,  I was nearly four and a half months pregnant at the time and I decided that this would be a marvelous time to initiate a conversation about where babies come from and the miracle of birth.

"Ahhhhhh." I said. "That's not disgusting. It's wonderful. A new sheep has been born. The mummy sheep must be feeling so happy tonight."

I glanced at Amy in the rear view mirror. She was listening, although she still looked rather doubtful.

"That's how you got here" I told her. "You lived inside my tummy and then when you were big enough to be born, you came out of my bottom (I decided to leave the introduction of vaginas until another day) and you were covered in blood. But the nurse washed you and you were beautiful and Daddy and I were SO happy."

Amy's eyebrows raised in disbelief. "Is that REALLY?" she asked.

"Yes" I nodded. "It is."

"Oh".  She said, she sounded quite surprised but she seemed satisfied with my story and let the matter rest.

Several months later,  a group of friends came round for lunch.

I was large, my due date was fast approaching and Amy was now well aware that there was a brother or sister on the way. People were constantly touching my belly to feel the baby kick. The conversation turned to where I would be having the baby and what type of birth I was hoping it would be.

In the middle of the discussion Amy suddenly piped up, "I lived in Mummy's tummy before I was borned."

"That's right." said one of my friends, putting an arm around Amy and giving her a little hug. "You did."

But Amy hadn't finished. "When I was big enough to be borned......" she looked around the room  and paused as if for effect.

"Yes...?" my friend prompted her.  Amy waited until everyone was listening.  "........I came out of Mummy's bottom, and I was a baby sheep."

                                                      * * * * * * * * * *

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The perfect sense of self.

At the weekend my cousin, Joanna's daughter, turned three.

It is easy to be biased where family members are concerned, but Freya Grace is truly one of the sweetest little girls I know.

Not only is she is very pretty, with shiny blonde hair and enormous blue eyes, but she is well behaved, confident and articulate. She is a joy to be around. We are a loud family when we get together and Freya is never in the least bit fazed. She visits everyone's chair in a restaurant and is happy to share all her news.

I am sure it is the same in all families. When a new member is born we are all keen to chase the connection and see how this perfect little person is connected to ourselves. A new shoot on the family tree. A chip off one of the already existing blocks. Who does she take after and why? So here are some links - just for starters....

From her father.  - Freya inherits her incredible blue eyes and her aptitude for sport.  (No sign yet of a passion for Luton Town FC but maybe that's a good thing....)

From her mother - many things of course, but when I heard that  Freya was excelling in her ballet class, I couldn't help thinking of the tap dance routines that Joanna used to perform for we the relatives.  Any hard surface would do....

From her Aunty Emma -  Strong will and determination. Freya recently found a way to scale the kitchen cabinets in order to steal a muffin from the counter top. The muffin was taken away from her and she was told not to do such a thing again. But Freya was not put off. She risked the fairly dicey climb a second time and was caught, muffin handed, once again. Freya's Aunty Emma was a notoriously strong willed and inventive toddler, so perhaps that trait came from her..?

From my daughter, Amy - A love of handbags. Both Amy and Freya's handbag collections would turn Paris Hilton green with envy as would the hair clips and rings and bracelets.

From her Cousin (a couple of times removed) Isabelle - the preference for dresses. Isabelle is famous for doing everything, including horse riding, bike riding, rock wall climbing, snowball fighting, water rolling......... in a dress. I have yet to see Freya wear anything else.

From her grandfather, Frank the Farmer, - an interest in horticulture. Freya had a plant in her room. Most two year olds would refer to it as her pink flower. Freya uses the correct terminology and calls it her pink pelargonium. She also remembers that it should only be watered on Sundays. Apparently it is reaching quite a size.

And so I could go on. Whose laugh is that? Whose smile? Who else in the family has a tendency towards x, y or z?

What would Freya think about all this? Not a lot, because she does not see herself as an extension of any other person. She has such a strong and healthy sense of herself.

 Last Christmas, Santa bought Freya a Cinderella outfit but she refused, point blank, to put it on.  In spite of her love of dresses and accessories she could not be persuaded to don the beautiful blue and white gown, the glittering tiara and delicate 'glass' slippers.  The family were astounded. They had expected Freya to love the costume and to put it on straight away. Everyone tried to talk Freya into wearing it. "If you put it on you'll be like Cinderella," they told her.

 Freya's answer was emphatic. 'But I'm not Cinderella. I am Freya Pueschel'.

When Joanna told me this I laughed. I could just picture the stubborn shake of the glossy blonde head and the upward tilt of the chin.  But when I thought about the conversation later I began to love the story for what it said about Freya. She does what she does because she is who she is. She is not copying someone else or trying to impress. She sports the clothes and accessories because she likes them, dances because she loves the feeling it brings, kicks a football and runs because she can and, if the opportunity presents itself and she is in the mood, will find a way to reach a forbidden muffin, even if it is high up on a counter top and she has been told a definite 'NO".

How wonderful it must be to feel so confident and free. To be completely happy living in ones own skin.

So now, when  I find myself wishing that I was someone different, (or at least a better, more organized, more successful version of myself), I will remember the words of my young relative and be happy being just being me. 

* Photo of Freya  included with kind permission from her mummy, my cousin, Joanna Pueschel

Monday, May 2, 2011

Celebrating a death?

Last night, along with hundreds of thousands of others across the world, I watched President Obama announce that Osama bin Laden was dead.

This was monumental news and we were witnessing history unfold. After the announcement, the cameras switched to the celebrations taking place outside the White House. Throngs of people, many of them waving flags and chanting "U.S.A." crowded together to share their joy.

All over the U.S people began to party in the streets and  not just outside the White House in Washington, and in Times Square, NYC .  Even over here on the west coast in Portland OR, far away from Ground Zero and the Pentagon, crowds gathered in the center of town to cheer and celebrate the death of the most wanted man in the world.

But for me there was something wrong about the images and I couldn't quite say what. Bin Laden deserved punishment that is certain. The people who lost loved ones on 9/11 deserve some kind of closure. And the world is probably a better place without him, (although Ayman al-Zawahiri is still free and there are plenty of others who will step into his shoes).   But regardless of how I viewed the situation I simply couldn't  feel the same level of excitement and elation that the people partying on Pennsylvania Avenue so clearly felt, and I wasn't quite sure why.

 And then, just a few minutes ago, I checked in on facebook. The most recent status update in my news feed had been posted by my daughter. What she wrote summed up what I had been feeling all day.

"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
Martin Luther King Jr. -  via Amy Cleary, my wise and compassionate daughter.

Monday, April 11, 2011


Upcycling. I'd never heard the word until yesterday. It was brought to my attention by my friend, Nicky Stackhouse.

According to Wikipedia, Upcycling is . . .
 "the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value". 

Nicky is in the process of launching a business turning recycled bags into beautiful, exquisite, original, handmade greeting cards. The ones in the photograph below are made from used Trader Joe's bags. Hard to believe, but true.

The idea is fantastic, so simple and so now. The execution is skillful, the result a joy to behold.

But I think there is a whole lot more to upcycling than wikipedia describes. Upcycling can be applied to many things besides waste products or useless items. Therefore, I think a much better definitions is  "Upcycling - the process by which something that already exists is turned into something even better than before".

 Nicky is the reason for my definition. Nicky is upcycling more than just discarded bags.

Last summer Nicky was diagnosed with breast cancer and spent last autumn and this winter fighting to beat the disease. After many grueling hours of tests and doctor consultations, months and months  spent recovering from or preparing for bouts of chemotherapy  and a double mastectomy she is well again. And boy, is she now upcycling herself.....

Nicky always was full of energy and life. Whatever she did she did well and with enthusiasm and she was always fun to be around. But she seems to have taken things to a whole new level.  She is like a whirl wind. She radiates energy and a lust for life.

After lunch with a few days ago she left me on a high. She told those of us present that she had spent too long as a 'sofa slug' and now she was raring to go. Her eyes were bright, her skin was flushed and her eagerness to get out there and do something was infectious. Her ideas were flowing, her mind was spinning, there were not enough hours in her day.

And it doesn't stop there, this upcycling thing. Before Nicky's bout with the Big C she and I were friends but our lives sort of bumped at the edges. We knew people in common and met at the occasional party or lunch, but we did not see each other regularly. A crisis brings people together and that is what it did to us. Apart from being part of Nicky's Knockers, a team that entered the Race for the Cure, I got to know Nicky in many other ways.

During her illness she kept a Caring Bridge Blog. The entries were funny, poignant, informative and well written. Through her blogging and talks about writing we learned new things about each other and our relationship developed. Whenever we see each other, our mutual interest and respect for all things creative and innovative bring us closer.

Our friendship has also been upcycled. We are taking something that already existed and turning it into something even better than before.

So here's to upcycling. What will you upcycle today?

 ******* Cards are available at The Libertine ( ) and sure to be in many other places soon. ********

Friday, April 8, 2011

Short Story.

Today's post is something slightly different. It is not inspired by an actual person but by someone I have never met and whose name I do not know.  It owes its existence to the person who came up with the sentence"It was on a bright, starry night that the traveling circus rolled into town." and invited subscribers of Writer's Digest to  finish the story in 750 words or less. 

I had never felt any previous desire to write about a traveling circus but writing outside an area of comfort or interest is even more challenging than writing about what you care about or know. So, I decided to give it a go anyway.  I didn't win or it would have been published in Writer's Digest, not here. But it seems a waste to work on a project that never sees the light of day. So I hope it is something that you will enjoy. 

It was on a bright, starry night that the traveling circus rolled into town. Eliza stood in the shadows and watched the wagons rattle past. The moon was already high, casting its silvery light and draining all color from the scene. The horses hauling the loaded carts looked ashen. The men who held their reins were pale as ghosts. Eliza realized that she would not know him if she saw him and felt a rush of relief.

It was late September and Eliza had not expected to still be here. The harvest was over. The fields were dotted with mounds of fragrant hay and the silos were brimming with corn. Casual labor was no longer required. There was no reason to stay.

But three days ago, as Eliza was retying her bundle, a peddler had arrived in the small town square.

“I saw them myself,” he told the women who bent to examine his wares. “The tents and cages and that. I could hear the animals roaring and smell their stink from the road. Packing up they were. They’ll be here any day.”

Eliza stood close, fingering the spools of ribbon and lace, turning buttons and hairpins in her work-worn hands. She would wait now, and see her mission through. The bundle on her back was heavy and with winter coming, it was time.

Eliza remembered the day, almost a year ago, when she’d watched the circus setting up in her hometown. Men, muscular and stripped down to the waist, heaved on oily ropes as the blue and yellow big top rose and took on shape.

Women walked between the men, sloshing beer into large tin mugs and playfully shoving anyone who grabbed at their swaying behinds.

One woman in particular caught Eliza’s eye. She was older, matronly, laughing as she coerced and hugged and chastised. Everyone called her Ma and Eliza loved the way she smiled.

Eliza’s brothers had accompanied her to the show. She’d clutched at their arms as fearsome tigers swiped the air with heavy paws, and had laughed until her sides ached, at the antics of the clowns.

But the acrobats had left her wide-eyed and speechless with awe. Four men, dressed in tight, sequined leotards, sprang effortlessly from hands to feet across the ring. They were sleek as fishes darting through a stream. Then audience looked up, heads tilted, mouths open, as two men climbed to the top of the tent and swung on a trapeze. As they sailed effortlessly above the crowds, passing in midflight. As Eliza watched enraptured she was barely able to breathe.

When the acrobats took their final bow, everyone rose to their feet. The applause was tremendous, the shouting loud and full of joy. Eliza stood too. Her eyes shone and her cheeks were pink. She laughed and clapped and cheered. One of the men paused mid bow. He caught her eye and stared at her with a gaze so penetrating that she saw it in her sleep.

The next day her feet led her back to the field. She spotted him immediately, standing on the steps of a brightly painted caravan, talking with the woman they called Ma. Ma prodded his arm and wagged her finger. They laughed and Eliza saw that their eyes and smiles were the same, mother and son, so it seemed.

The acrobat spotted Eliza. He performed a low, sweeping bow and offered her his arm. With barely a second thought, Eliza placed a hand in the crook of his elbow, and the pair began to walk.

Later, much later, Eliza stumbled home. Her face was streaked with tears and her skirts were torn. She ran a comb through her tangled hair and changed her dress. Her father and brothers must never, ever know.

But by the time the frosts turned the grass rigid, the results of that fateful day were impossible to hide. Eliza’s father lamented her motherless state. Her brothers set their faces hard and old her that she could not stay.

Eliza took what she could carry and set out across the fields.

And now here she was, alone and far from home, waiting for the circus folk to pitch camp and retire. When the campsite was silent and dark, Eliza found the caravan she remembered and lay the baby down. Choking back tears, she crept away.

The boy was quiet. His tiny fists jabbed at the air.

On his shawl she’d pinned a note.

“I cannot manage. He is yours.”

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The old hag at the castle gate.

If I had seen her anywhere other than at the door leading into a 16th Century castle, would she have looked quite as strange? Was it the back drop of crenellated battlements that gave her a ghost like quality or would she have unnerved me anyway?

Her hair was long and limp, hanging about her face like a nicotine stained net-curtain. It was so greasy I believed I could smell it, although I was several meters away.

Her hands were gnarled and corrugated with veins. They shook as she lit her cigarette. Her nails were  curled and grey like the fossils known as Devils Toenail.  They had not been cut or filed in many years. She was a female Fu Manchu.

She was sitting on the step, this old woman, her head bowed low to concentrate on setting fag to flame. The day was bright and clear and the spring sun warmed my back and yet she still looked icy cold.

I could not slip by and reach the gate unnoticed and so I said "Hello."

She raised her head and her eyes met mine. They were deep set, and dark as a the corner of a grave. She stared at me, not speaking, and I felt that she could read my mind.

Her back was bowed by age, her skeleton ruined by the sucking in of smoke. Her shoulders were hunched high and round and her head seemed to waver on the end of her neck, like a hungry vulcher seeking carrion.

But it was a face that gave me coldest chills. I could not believe that skin of any age could bear so many lines. Every inch in was marked, like inky letters of an unknown language scratched onto ancient parchment. This was no development of character but a sign of advanced and severe decay.

I toured the tower, seeing her out of the corner of my eye at every turn in stairs and behind each heavy  door.

When I emerged into the light of a dazzling afternoon, the old woman had gone.

(Inspired by a woman I saw at Bolsover Castle, Bolsover Derbyshire, England March 24th 2011

Monday, April 4, 2011

Truth is stranger than fiction.

Today I heard an interesting story and it was from an unexpected source.

As my facebook friends are probably aware, I am reaching the end of a long remodel. My house has been full of workmen for weeks and weeks and weeks.

Usually a tap on the door of the room in which I hole myself up during the day is a huge source of irritation. I dread hearing, "Have you got a minute?" or "Just a couple of really quick questions for you..."

Today there was the usual knock on the door. The painter apologized first and then was off with the inevitable "Sorry to disturb you but.."

 I was answering his inevitable quick question,  when he stopped me in my tracks and said "I have to say, I just love your accent."

Now this in itself is not unusual. As an English woman in America, it happens to me all the time. But the painter (let's call him Nick) is Russian and generally people who speak English as a second language don't hear the difference between accents in the way that other English speakers do.

To further pique my curiosity he added, "You sound just like my, Uncle."
"Your Uncle is English?" I asked.
"No" he shook his head. "Actually it's an interesting story. Have you got a minute?"

I said I had and so he told me this....

During the second world war his Grandfather was gunned down by a German soldier. His grandmother was left to raise seven children, alone in Belarus. In desperation she had to find ways to house, feed and clothe them. It was a huge dilemma and caused her enormous pain. Some of the children spent time in foster homes. She selected families who lived close by so that she could see the children regularly and take them back when times were not as harsh.

She did the best she could but some were sent away. One of Nick's Uncles was sent to military school in Moscow. He was just five years old at the time.

Being away from his family was tough but he received and excellent education and learned to speak English perfectly, with no hint of an accent. He literally sounded like a native.

As he entered adulthood he was singled out by the KGB.  They wanted to send him to London where he would operate as a spy. He would move in elevated circles, live well and at the USSR's expense. A life of glamour and opportunity beckoned.

However, his mother, (Nick's grandmother), had never recovered from the traumas and losses she suffered as a result of the second world war. She was adamant that he should not become involved in espionage because she believed that it could only stir up trouble between countries and lead to more death and despair. She told her son that if accepted the position,  he would be dead to her.

Nick's uncle chose his mother over his country and refused the position offered by the KGB.

As a result his life would never be his own. Rather than having a profession, he labored in a factory. Whenever he traveled he was interrogated about the reasons for his journey. He was even followed and spied upon at times. The KGB could not believe he had turned down the appointment because his mother had begged him to. They assumed he was working for another government and would not leave him alone.

As Nick talked I was captivated. I no longer felt irritation at having been taken away from my own work. I listened as he told the story in his rich, rolling accent. I waited patiently as he searched for the right words. The ones that would accurately convey his uncles triumphs, frustrations and pain.

 "So" he said, shrugging his shoulders and pursing his lips when he had finished. "That is that."
I was stunned. "Wow" I said, for want of a better word. "You really should write all that down."
He laughed "Everybody say that." he replied.

His uncle is living in Portland now. He moved here to join Nick and his family when they were all given refuge status by the USA after facing persecution in the former USSR - But that's a whole different story.

I never ceased to be amazed at the stories of other peoples lives.

 I will keep in contact with Nick long after the painting is done. I would love to meet his Uncle, the one who sounds just like me, and maybe, just maybe, we could get together and write this stranger than fiction story down.