Father Valentine

Firstly, a quick explanation as to my lack of new updates recently – I simply haven’t been able to coagulate my thoughts into postable material. There have been things I’ve wanted to write about but they’ve stuck around for a very short period of time, much less than it takes me to mull something over and decide on what angle to pursue in my writing. I think part of the problem might be my thinking a blog post needs to be a long, in-depth affair, whereas it’s really fine for me to write only a few paragraphs on something. Am going to try harder in the coming weeks to remedy this.

A friend of mine, luvlymish, introduced me to a very interesting tradition a couple of years ago, which she heard about from a different friend of hers. Originating in Norfolk, the annual tradition of Father Valentine is a rather quaint idea that can really spread a lot of happiness and smiles around the place. Also known as the tradition of Jack Valentine, a lucky person would be called upon and St. Valentine’s day by a mysterious visitor, the enigmatic Father, or Jack, Valentine. A knock on the door would signal the arrival of a gift for someone in the house (children and unattached people were just as likely to receive gifts as lovers). Father Valentine himself would be long gone by the time the door was answered but the tradition was to yell “Thank you, Father Valentine!” into the wind in case he was actually just hiding in the wind.

Being a truly sentimental romantic at heart, this idea appeals to me immensely. The opportunity to give and potentially receive anonymous gifts is one that I can’t pass up. The gifts can be anything, from a chocolate bar to jewelry and more. A pair of sunglasses rests amongst my ornaments, Father Valentine’s gift from last year.

In some ways, it’s a shame I feel like I need this kind of sanctioning in order to give tokens of my love and appreciation to my friends. However, I’ve found that random gifts aren’t always a good idea. The last random thing I gave a friend got accidentally left in Manchester without even so much as a thank you. I don’t like sounding whiny and petulant but that stung. So, something a little bit more organised this time.

I am tempted to bake goodies for my valentines, but our kitchen is small and often quite messy (my housemate’s insistence that the recycling goes HERE obviously didn’t apply to him, if the empty pizza boxes are anything to go by). Also I’m not sure how I’d deliver vast quantities of yummy cakes and the like – I’d need to scour the land for small boxes. Aside from that I have scant few ideas, but there’s plenty of time. Mostly, I think, I need to write a list of people. I’m lucky – I have many people in my life whom I love dearly and want to lend a smile to. But that needs lots of ideas, so off I go to come up with some.


The thought that counts.

I’ve always thought of myself as a ‘good daughter’ without ever exploring what a good daughter is. However, I realised a couple of weeks ago, around my twenty-first birthday, what it takes to be a good daughter. I’ll tell you that later.

In a lot of ways, despite being considered weird by many of my peers, I was a fairly normal teenage girl. I fought with my younger brother, sneaked out of the house to get drunk with friends, played truant from school and fed table scraps to the dog. The living room was always full of my clutter, I kept secrets from my parents, I hated doing chores and I nagged and whined to get bought sweets, clothes and other things.

Nothing particular there that makes me a good daughter, right? In fact, when I look back on my teen years, I can see that I really wasn’t very helpful at all. There are so many small things I could have done and should have done – the smallest things really would have made a huge difference to my mother. The only way she got through the last eleven years is by being a secret superhero.

About a year (at an estimate – the timeframe is very skewed in my head and I can’t be certain) after we moved to Ferryside as a family of four, we became a family of three when my mum ended her relationship with my dad. I remember walking the dog with mum along the cliff in the summer, and she asked me what I thought of the possibility. I was eleven, but understood one small thing about adult-types. They needed to be happy just as much as us kids did. I told mum that if she wasn’t happy then she needed to make moves towards becoming happy. Nonetheless, when I got home from school on a Wednesday afternoon and my dad was gone, I was shocked – I couldn’t fathom why he’d left so suddenly, without waiting to say ‘bye to my brother and me.

After that, my Mum had to take care of two preteens, a happy-grumpy old dog, a small business that often needed her to be in several places at once, and herself, without any support aside from what her parents could provide (which was a lot, don’t get me wrong, but mum needed more than a lot). Over the next ten years, my mum would face many challenges. The business that she worked so hard to bring back from the ashes started to flutter out, her children hit their teens, she had relationships with men ranging from a bit flakey to full-blown violent alcoholic (the guy in question was eventually removed from our lives when my mum discovered his profiles on some very questionable dating sites). As well as the business, the house started to fall apart, too – holes in the kitchen roof, leaky plumbing, decrepid chimney and all kinds of other things. In the winter, we were always cold and there was never enough money. Eventually, our happy-grumpy dog died – he was fourteen, and too arthritic to get out of the way of the vehicle that hit him.

Despite all those problems – despite everything that could go wrong doing just that, we never went hungry. None of the men that my mum was trying to make a life for herself with ever laid a finger on my brother or me, and I’m sure that if one had tried, they’d have been out the door (or window, I don’t think mum would have been too picky) quicker than blinking. Our clothes were always clean. I doubt either of us triggered any warning signs in the eyes of our teachers as kids coming from anything other than standard home lives.

Things have settled down considerably in the years since I turned sixteen. My mum met and fell for Julian and before long he moved in with us. They’ve been married two years now, and while being far from perfect, Julian does seem to make my mum happy. Both my brother and I have moved away from home now and they live together with little dog and the cats (of which there are three), making the house my mum bought with my dad into their own place. My mum even has a regular 9-5 day job.

The thing that made it all bearable was my mum’s ability to hold it all together. Through every scrap of chaos she has had one eye on me and one eye on my brother. Even now, living hundreds of miles away, I can feel it when I’m at my worst – I want my mum to give me a hug and pick up the pieces I’ve dropped along the way, because she has that look in her eye that tells me that there’s no path I could take so far from the right one that will lead me away from her. Even when I leave the path to walk in the trees, she’s never far away.

Obviously I can’t say for sure yet, but I think I learned from my mum that the three most important things to give your kids are love, trust and time. Even though I did plenty of teenaged things to make the first two things hard for mum to provide (did I mention sneaking out the window?), the third thing has always been available, even when it hasn’t. Being in a hurry to get the shopping done never stopped my mum from taking me to lunch when possible. The cost of a phone call from landline to mobile never stopped us talking for hours. The delay between sending and receiving never stopped us writing letter to each other.

The crux of this post is meant to be what being a ‘good daughter’ entails, and the most astute among you might have noticed that I’ve said nothing on the subject at hand. That’s because the day-to-day stuff really matters very little in the end. The important thing in the mother-daughter relationship is that the daughter learns to see and appreciate every inch the mother gives. Every time she carries your jumper, every time she gives you an extra piece of chocolate, every time she drives you to college, every tissue she gives you when you cry.

When I was sixteen, I was selfish and really did focus on myself more than my family (as sixteen year olds often do). Now I’m twenty-one and the thought of spending any prolonged period of time thinking of myself is abhorrent due to my anxiety and depression, I find myself thinking for hours at a time about the other people who play a part in my life. Through this I realised everything that it takes to raise children and really did genuinely puzzle over how my mum managed it all.She is superhuman.

What it all comes down to in the end is that there are no good daughters. There are good mothers, with daughters who will eventually look back and want to apply their own lessons to their daughters.

Then sometimes, there are great mothers.

Remember that I’m judging you

From a young age, one of the core values that society attempts to drum into our subconscious minds is the idea of acceptance and not judging people. This non-judgemental quality, coupled with acceptance and open mindedness is supposed to lead to a more tolerant and culturally diverse society.

We’ve all heard the term ‘political correctness gone mad’. The idea of the exaggerated health and safety official running around renaming blackboards as chalkboards and banning Christmas trees to avoid offending some minority or another is probably something we’ve all had a good laugh about over time.

I think, however, that people seem to missing a trick here. Humans, as it’s well-known and documented, evolved from certain species of apes and we’ve taken over the planet. The reason for our continued success as a species isn’t the same reasons lions continue to thrive (nothing can kill them) but it’s more because we’re so damn good at killing other stuff.

There are several reasons why we’re such good death dealers. Mainly, it’s the inventiveness we display as a species – we’ve got the fire. However, one of the other tools at our disposal is our ability to make snap judgements about situations that are a threat to us. If something’s flying through the air towards your nose, you duck. (I, on the other hand, dear reader, merely cower and wait for impact; I would not have been successful as a hunter-gatherer)

That reaction to danger, that instinct to duck out of the way at whatever might be attacking your face is one of the strongest assets we have as a species. They don’t say ‘human in the headlights’ for an expression of fear, because the human has already reacted and thrown themselves out of the path of oncoming danger.

I would like you to pause for a second, reader, and attempt to apply that concept of ‘flight or fight’ instinct to everyday life. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Done? Good. You probably couldn’t think of many situations where this applies. Entirely fair. The human mind and body are two immensely complicated things (it’s been said that if we could understand the human brain, it would have to become so simple that we’d lose the desire and ability to understand it anyway). Due to the vast swathes of intelligence allowed to us, our societies, cultures and lifestyles have evolved faster than poor Mother Nature can keep up with, and we haven’t evolved very much in response to this growth. As such, we still live and operate with the same flight or fight, snap judgement, instinct driven responses as our ancestors. Handy for protecting oneself from predators, not so much for explaining to your boss why you’re reading a blog on work’s time, extra adrenaline, increased breathing and tunnel vision being just a few of the physical responses of the human body to acute stress.

However, as life continues to be fairly slow-paced for the average human, and as these hyperarousal responses become less and less relevent (and in fact, harmful – you’ve heard of so many illnesses caused by stress – meet the real culprit), Mother Nature will eventually catch up and things will change.

Coming back round to my first point, about non-judgementalism, humans are doing what they can to help Mother Nature along in this process. No more flight or fight response, no more snap decisions. Humans will take as much time as Ents to make any choices and far fewer mistakes will be made.

Let me spin you a tale. You’re in an office, when a fire alarm goes off. You know that one of your co-workers is in a wheelchair. You take so long considering whether or not to help them out of the building that you both burn to death. Or, you are so non-judgemental that you didn’t realise that they were disabled, so you flee from the building and they burn to death.  Right now your flight response would give you the adrenaline and the oxygen and the other resources that your body needs to get out of there, and your previous judgement that your co-worker is disabled and therefore can’t get down the stairs in an emergency leads you to help them in getting out of there too. Imagine a world so devoid of judgement, where everyone is so worried about being politically correct, that they don’t help the guy in the wheel chair for fear of offending him with your assessment of his capabilities.

Judgement isn’t the bad guy – judgement is how human beings assess the situation and know how best to react. Acceptance is the more important aspect of life these days. Use your observations to judge the situation, the people, whatever else needs judging. That’s fine. What you then need to do is assess what you’ve judged to be acceptable. You’ve judged that the cashier in the store is asian, but you’ve then assessed that as an acceptable fact.

Everyone judges – it’s human nature. We just need to encourage people to accept the results of their judgements.

Remember, the phrase is ‘deer in the headlights’ and not ‘human in the headlights’ for a good reason.

People Watching

I like to watch people. I give their faces stories and think about where they’re coming from or going to. I wonder what they do for a living, and why they’re wearing what they’re wearing. What goes on inside their minds?

I like to sit in cafes with big windows and laugh privately to myself at the imaginary stories I’ve given people. I enjoy sitting with a milkshake and making it last long enough to see several sets of people come and go in the meantime. There is nothing quite like it.

One of the greatest places to watch people is train stations ( I imagine airports have a similar effect but I’ve never had the chance to watch people at one). I’ve seen people look happier than the sun as they are reunited, or more sorrowful than the waning moon as someone boards the train away from them.

The look on someone’s face when the person they’ve been waiting for, the person they love and want and need steps off the train is a look which is worth more than anything. They get the kind of crinkly grin that can change a person’s entire demeanour, the kind of smile that spreads from the corners of their mouth, up the curves and angles of their face and cheeks and into their eyes. The furrows around their eyes are unmistakably ones of joy and passion.

More often or not there will be an embrace of some kind. The most common example involves a man and a woman. The man will wrap his arms around the woman, as if to gather her to himself. She will fling her arms around his neck and bury her face in his shoulder. Not a moment’s thought will be given to the luggage, should there be any.

Just as often, you’ll see the opposite to this, the separation of two people who want very much to remain geographically together. They will often hold one another as though letting go will bring about the parting that much quicker. You can often see a man with his hands on the neck and face of a woman, looking into her eyes. A kiss on the forehead is commonplace. When the train pulls into the station, a tight hug and a quick kiss can often be seen. Hands outstretched, fingers entwined until someone is aboard the train, just for that second’s extra contact.

The train doors close and the remaining person will usually wait for it to pull out of the station before leaving. Often they will look for the seat chosen by their leaving partner and wave as they are whisked away. Slumped shoulders and a slow, dejected walk are often seen as they leave the train station alone, heart heavy with the knowledge that the person they love is being taken swiftly away by a great metallic chariot.

It is incredibly voyeuristic to watch these interactions, to see people say goodbye, or hello. This is a private moment and yet must be conducted in plain view of many others. A person’s world is totally cantered on the leaving or arrival of one other person, and yet the world around them continues to move and people can see them as they cannot see anything but the person before them.

There are very few other places you can see such extreme emotions. Hospitals, maybe, but they are relatively inaccessible. For day to day people watching, nothing beats the range you can see at a train station.

I think that watching people is an important past time for someone who reads, and even more so for someone who writes anything involving people. For the reader, being able to apply real life faces and reactions to what the author is attempting to portray deepens the experience of the book. For the writer, being able to aptly characterise the emotions is much easier if they are ones you are familiar with seeing regularly.

It could be that, or it could just be the fact that I am nosy and often bored, that compels me to watch people, but whatever it is, I wonder how many other people are infected by the bug, and I wonder how many times I have been observed by someone watching the world go by.