Changing lives one cup at a time

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Machynlleth (from 19 October 2013)

(The first in a series of posts from last autumn that were never published due to our move.  Enjoy!)

This is one of our favourite places in Wales.

Machynlleth is a historically significant town, nowadays full of unique shops, yummy cafes, the best fish and chips ever, and Mr J's favourite sweet shop.  The sweet shop owner remembered the boys from our trip in August and offered to send them sweets from Wales even after we've moved to the States!  They were beside themselves with gratitude.

It's always lovely to be back... a little bit like having one of those "going home" feelings.  At the local park, which looks out over hillsides dotted with faraway sheep, Coo learned to use the monkey bars.

Machynlleth was in the news last year for a difficult reason, but it's a place with an incredible sense of community; because of that I still think of it in a positive light rather than a negative one and hope that others do too.

We love the Quarry Cafe and all the treats it has to offer.

We even found a hobbit house door! Time for the hobbits to go on a great adventure, so we're saying goodbye to the Shire Machynlleth, for a while...

Friday, April 11, 2014


I'm finally back in this little world, after such a long absence! First, I'll catch up where I left off.

Our final week of living in the UK was without a doubt the most hectic time of my life, so far.  It doesn’t even begin to compare to moving into our home more than a decade ago.  I thought that was crazy!  With two busy babies who were not yet a year old, moving our possessions from a flat into a house a few carloads at a time seemed like a big deal back then.  I can look at my twenty-three-year-old self and laugh a little bit.  Not too much, because it wouldn’t be fair to her.  

But this!  Our house was crammed with busyness, constant activity, people.  Last minute meals with friends, frantic sorting out of belongings, throwing away things I never thought I’d throw away, giving even more away — literally encouraging people to leave my house with their arms full of our possessions.

We went to Wales for a final weekend, with Nanny and Grandad.  Then Mr J began to complain of an itchy head.  I did a rushed check, and found nothing more sinister than his usual cradle cap-like dry scalp.  In a more thoughtful, slower time I would have massaged coconut oil into his scalp, and continued to do so until the itchiness cleared up.  Thoughtful? Slower?  These days were anything but that.

Our last family day out before leaving had been planned for ages: a trip to Birmingham, to see the new library together and visit the Botanical Gardens.  Armed with Pizza Express vouchers, we crowded round a table at the restaurant and enjoyed a meal in the bright sunshine together before heading over to the Botanical Gardens.  Finding myself sitting in light so vivid I could barely see, I moved to the other side of the table to escape the glare, holding Mr J for a few moments on my lap.  Absentmindedly, I stroked his hair, and suddenly spotted something tiny moving on his scalp. No!!!!


Instantly I knew that both Coo and I would have them, too.  And I was right.  Somehow, Dan and the older two boys totally escaped the scourge.  

So our last week at home was filled with the craziness of an international move, as a shipping company arrived to pack our remaining belongings into their boxes, and brave friends gathered round to help me cut and comb out my dreads.

In spite of the fact that the bugs could probably have been eradicated and my dreads saved at the same time, I didn’t feel able to complete our move into my parents’ home in the US with a question hanging over my head —ahem, hair.  Nope, they had to go.  My friend Hannah cut them. She and my neighbour friend Beckie, along with other friends here and there, spent hours helping comb them out.  It was a tedious, unbelievably long job, but I wouldn’t trade those last few days —not for anything.  We laughed, talked, and watched the house empty out around us.  

I wish I could have taken photos, documenting for posterity those last seven days.  However, true to the chaos around us, my camera was dropped and broken on that fateful day in Birmingham, and I have no photos.  

Of course, grabbing a few moments to blog, here and there, would have been helpful too.

But the morning of our day out in Birmingham, I poured an entire cup of hot coffee all over my seven-year old, previously well cared-for Macbook.  Not purposefully, of course, and I can’t even really explain how it happened.  It just did.

And I was the person who always felt myself above managing to ruin my technology with spilled drinks or food.  Talk about eating humble pie.

Dan’s Macbook would have been available for us to share, had the motherboard not inexplicably died the day before mine drowned in coffee!  

I think it would have been less bizarre if we were accustomed to destroying our things; but we're not!  We only update and replace if we absolutely have to, so this forty-eight hours of total destruction was unprecedented.

All at once, possessions we took for granted were gone, like the proverbial slate being wiped clean.   

Five months away from the insane changes of that last week, here I am blogging again on a laptop that was recently gifted to our family by some wonderfully generous people.

Life goes on.  My hair is growing longer, the kids are taller and eating even more than usual, my youngest brother has left home and gone to Australia, and we are here now.  

Now for us is a multitude of different things.  I've been doing quite a bit of sewing, and am replacing my stock of cold-process soap supplies so I can start making soap again soon.  The kids run wild in the woods, finding out about new birds and other wildlife every day.  Dan is busy exploring work options, and together we're trying to get to know people here, a world away from where we've been.  

As soon as I possibly can, I'll be replacing our camera, so I can blog photos that give you an idea of what our now looks like.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Everyday vs Different

I push my way through the slog of normal everyday life.  Making breakfasts and lunches and dinners for a few of us or many, cleaning up messes both substantial and miniscule, washing clothes and dishes and small people's hair, reading aloud, thinking aloud, talking loudly, speaking softly. All these things I've done for so long, here in this place, standing still yet so busy.

But my thoughts are occupied in trudging through a long, slow goodbye to all I have known and grown to love in the last thirteen years of my life here in Britain. My normal is changing. Not just that gradual change of passing time, but the all-encompassing change that a move brings.  And not just a move down the hill, or across the city. This is a move to the other side of the Atlantic: a "big" move.  Culturally --yes-- but literally, too. This is going to be something Different.

I've written before about how it feels to think of returning to the culture in which I was born and raised. Today, I'm thinking about how it feels to be leaving this one.

So many thoughts, all sketchy but infused with feeling.  I remember the day I stepped from the plane onto British soil for the first time, sixteen years ago.  Late August sun blazed bright, but the air was fresh and crisp. I fell in love, totally enamoured, with the velvety purple colour of the heathered hillsides.  Blinking in that sunshine, watching the cloud shadows skim across the moors of the Borders, everything seemed new and invigorating but also somehow familiar. I felt as if I was returning to a place that had once been home. 

After that first year, I returned, this time to England, two years later.  I spent many years settling, easing, establishing, learning.  It was much easier than I'd imagined, as if I was slotting my self into a place that was waiting for me.  So much of it fitted with me, with who I was as a person, just as if I were returning to a faraway home.

But now, all feels different.  Different is not knowing when or if we will be back.  Will it be as a family, or one by one, or not at all?  Righty is already saving money to visit New Zealand someday, and Lefty is currently [this week] considering a future career with MI5 when he's not storm-chasing.  I have a feeling that my wandering feet have been gifted to my children, too.  

But someday I will return, even if alone, retracing steps to the places I love.  I will go back to Figsbury Ring, on the Salisbury Plain, and remember.  I will stand in the biting wind and look for my children, my friends, my father and mother, my sister and brother, my husband, there once more. The grassy mound will be empty, apart from myself, but I will see them as they were when we went there together.

I will return to this town, this grubby bustling Midlands city that so many seem to hate, and search for familiar faces.  They will have disappeared, but I will remember.  The familiar treks and paths will open again to me and the past will be there, waiting for me.

I'll go back to the north, to Scotland, where I first arrived.  I will see myself as I was then: seventeen, breathing in everything that was fresh as the cold sea-salt air, new and exciting, and wonder where the years have gone.

It's a weight, this responsibility as a parent.  Which culture to choose for our children?  Because, unlike many, we can choose. We take our own with us, I know, but as parents we're not everything to them.  They will soak up their environment with us, the beautiful as well as the ugly, but the further culture will wash over them too and become part of them. Their accents will change and their horizons increase. Their days of riding round in tiny muddy circles on little bikes in our pocket of a back garden will expand to include gravel roads and grassy fields and bigger bicycles, and something Different. Our car trips and adventures to National Trust homes, our train journeys, the hours spent walking around our town, will all be exchanged for something Different.  I'm capitalising Different because for me it is like the personification of the new.

I don't want to fear Different even though there is so much to fear, because in reality I have no idea what Different will look like.

I only know what I will miss right here, right now, in this Everyday.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Library of Birmingham

When building work for Birmingham's new library commenced in 2010, I hoped that we would still live in the Midlands by the time it was in existence.  

After a few delays, the new library actually opened in September. We've often viewed it from the outside through many stages of building, but to finally walk through the doors today was so exciting!

It is phenomenal: a real work of art.  As we rode up the escalators through the central rotunda, we were surrounded on all sides by books. Floor after floor, bookshelves curving and definitive.  

Another library visitor stood in front of me on the escalator and I couldn't help overhearing his conversation.  "You could spend all day here," he said to his companion.  "Especially if you wanted to read books."

I couldn't help laughing.  All day?  I could spend all YEAR in there reading books, mate!  

There are two outdoor garden spaces. The Discovery Terrace, on the fifth floor, includes fruits, vegetables, and flowers.  [as well as Righty and I, silhouetted against Birmingham's skyline]

The Secret Garden, on the seventh floor, has many benches and seats and there are fantastic views of the city from there.  We discovered landmarks on the horizon that helped us pinpoint the location of our house, miles away.  

After climbing up nearly one hundred stairs [Righty didn't want to use the lift] we reached the Shakespeare Memorial Room, on the ninth floor.  This room was originally in Birmingham's old Victorian library; when that building was demolished, the room was dismantled and packed away.  It was mind-blowing to walk through the light, glass spaces of the modern library and then suddenly step into the darkness of the Shakespeare Room.  Wooden panelling and ancient shelving define this room and the difference was striking. Apparently this collection is one of the two most important Shakespeare collections in the world, containing 43,000 books, including a copy of a First Folio 1623 and copies of the four earliest Folio editions.

We ran down the stairs after that, all the way down, humming "Far Over the Misty Mountains" from The Hobbit movie.  The acoustics in the stairwell were perfect for it.

We both felt reluctant to go; it was as if we'd just stepped into a vast world of fascination and imagination and had to leave it too soon.  I'm hoping we have a chance to return just once; a day would be sufficient to fully explore the building while, sadly, ignoring the books for lack of time.

Later, upon reading more about it, I found out that the new Library of Birmingham is "the largest public library in the United Kingdom, the largest public cultural space in Europe, and the largest regional library in Europe." [Wikipedia]

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Thirty-Six Hours in London

The entire purpose of this trip was to renew Lefty and Righty's American passports.  Each time one of our American passports needs renewal [every five years for under-16s] we make an almost ritualistic trip to the American Embassy in London.  We've also visited the embassy to register our children's births as American citizens born abroad, collect my American passport [lost by Royal Mail], pick up emergency passports, and most recently, Dan had his visa interview there. We've counted eleven trips so far, but this is definitely the last one to the embassy in Grosvenor Square.  We're leaving, obviously, and in 2017 they're packing up and moving to the new embassy building in Wandsworth. Judging from the design --the new building looks like a silver ice cube with giant hairpins sticking out of it-- I'm sure the security there will be boundlessly adequate. And to think we just walked in off the street when we went to register Lefty and Righty's births back in 2002!

Over the last two days, I've been reliving our last trip to renew these guys' passports.  They were five and a half, and Mr J was two.  We visited the Natural History Museum and enjoyed the dinosaur and earthquake exhibits, had bread and homemade stew for tea from our food thermos, and stayed in a hotel that hadn't been decorated since the 1970s. Mr J stuck his finger in an electrical outlet the next morning before our appointment at the embassy and fussed the entire time we stood in the security queue because he thought we were taking him to the hospital over his sore finger. He'd had two ambulance trips already that year [it was only March]; but that's a story for another post.

We stayed at a "boutique hostel" in Willesden Green this time.  It lacked the silence, retro decor, and fabric-covered mattresses --probably bedbug infested-- of our 2008 hotel. [Have you ever slept on a laminated mattress? My advice: don't. It's rather sweaty.]

However, the hostel was full of European tourists, mostly under the age of 25, so the atmosphere was noisy and friendly, and we definitely helped liven it up with our crew.  

Not long after arriving on Thursday afternoon, we took the Tube to the Science Museum.  Dan, Lefty, and Righty came here for a Christmas trip one year and they were looking forward to showing us some of their favourite things.  We saw a piece of the Moon, which has never been in contact with the Earth's atmosphere, permanently preserved in liquid nitrogen.  We viewed an exhibit on the history of flight, complete with remnants of flying apparatus and machines dating back a few centuries.  The kids played for a long time in "Launchpad", an interactive gallery.

Remembering the fun of the roaring mechanical dinosaurs and the "earthquake room" that really shook, we decided to move on to the Natural History Museum, which is right next door to the Science Museum.  However, both exhibits were closed for maintenance.  Disappointed, we decided to carry on, to our doom.

As we rode up the majestic escalator into the giant Earth sculpture to reach the first floor, Coo's tiny foot somehow became trapped between the moving step and the side of the escalator.  After lots of shouting on our part, we managed to get the attention of someone below, who stopped the escalator.  Dan held her while a helpful bystander and a designated First-Aider worked to free her foot. It was twisted at an odd angle, and though my memory of the experience is a blur, I remember thinking that we were definitely going to be making a trip to the hospital.  The three boys were terrified --mostly because Dan and I had shouted, but also because their little sister is their treasure.  She went off, carried by Dan, to have her foot examined once it was free.

To our surprise, they both joined us not long after.  Apart from a small bruise below her toes, she was fine.  I guess it pays to have her bendy foot joints; her little foot twisted quite far but not far enough to cause a sprain or a break.

Everyone was ready to call it a day after this, so we headed back to the hostel, via a long walk through Hyde Park where we saw a heron and herds of tame ducks, geese, and swans.  

Another visitor to the Park shared bread with the kids so they could feed the birds, who were clearly accustomed to being fed by the public.

We put together a tea of beans on toast with rocket salad, and I chatted with other hostel residents while preparing food in the communal kitchen.

We had an early start and were downstairs munching through breakfast by 7.45.  The boys enjoyed the free juice, unlimited toast and cereal, and jam packets. Yes... my kids eat jam from their tiny single-serving packets with a spoon. I guess it's too hard to spread it on the toast.

Our embassy appointment was mid-morning, and the sun was out, so we had a lovely, stress-free journey into the centre of London.

We negotiated the passport process at the embassy and went for lunch at Whole Foods in Picadilly.

Post-lunch, we spent the remaining hours of the afternoon in the British Museum.  Coo fell asleep in the mei-tai on my back, so missed everything!

We saw the Rosetta Stone, of course, and the Ancient Egyptian rooms, and four out of five portions of the Middle East exhibits, all Assyrian.  Coo woke up as we were leaving, just in time to catch a glimpse of the Rosetta Stone. Mr J was relieved; he had been disturbed that she was missing it!  My mother figured out that we saw about one-twentieth of the museum, in the three hours we spent there.  I think a week would have been more sufficient in order to fully appreciate the treasure trove of artefacts and history contained within this palatial space.

The three boys were totally exhausted inside the museum; however, back on the Tube they were rejuvenated enough to work out as the train sped through the Underground.

We returned to Roosevelt, and then Dan negotiated rush-hour London traffic all the way east to Shoreditch, so Mom, Coo and I could investigate the People Tree sample sale.  Dan and the lads stayed in the car and watched east London Friday night wildlife; apparently Shoreditch is the new Camden: a hipster's paradise.

Driving home to the Midlands, all was going well until we were stopped in a traffic quagmire not twelve miles from home.  As four lines attempted to merge into one, we travelled three miles in the space of an hour!  All seven of us were so relieved to step through the door at home, no matter that it was much later than we'd intended.  

Today, all four children have played quietly, subdued by their hectic travels.  

I like London, and have many happy memories of times spent there with family and friends --not just at the American Embassy!  It is diverse, fun, and full of all the things I love: quirky small shops, healthy restaurants and Whole Foods, theatres, enormous bookshops, super-easy Tube travel, never a dull moment.  

Yet Edinburgh still is, and always will be, my favourite.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Eleventh Birthday Interview With Righty

Righty chose a raw chocolate cheesecake for his birthday cake this year.  He often prefers healthy options if they are available and tends to stay away from dairy products, recognising that he doesn't feel as great when he has them.  However, out of all the kids, he is probably the most adventurous with food, and never hesitates to try something new! 

What is the adventure you would most like to have?  
A mystery-solving adventure like the Hardy Boys.

What would you like to do when you grow up?  
Storm chase.

What's that going to be like?  
Fun and amazing.

What's your favourite supper?  
Bread, houmous, salad, chicken, and cheese.

What's your favourite cake or pudding?  
I have so many, but I guess chocolate cream pie.

What's your favourite book[s]?  
The Richard Hannay books; War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo; and the Hardy boys mysteries.

Who do you like hanging out with?  
Lots of people.

What do you enjoy doing with me?  
Playing games, like Kings in the Corner.

What do you enjoy doing with Dad? 
Spy games, like when we go to the Arboretum [park] and play spies.

What do you enjoy doing with Coo?  
Chasing her, or her chasing me.

What do you enjoy doing with Lefty?  
Playing Richard Hannay.

What do you enjoy doing with Mr J? 
Pretending to be the potion-making druids from Asterix and Obelix books.

What's your favourite thing to do on your own? 

What's your favourite family day out together?  
Going to Scotland together.

What makes you happy?  

What makes you sad?  
Having to wait for tea-time.

What do you enjoy learning about the most?  
Inspecting insects and bugs and learning more about them.

If you could choose any time in history to live in, when would that be?  
The present.  It's just perfect.

Is there anyone famous that you'd like to meet?  
I wish I could have met Tim Samaras, the storm chaser who died in Oklahoma this year.

If there were any imaginary/pretend things you could choose to do, what would it be?  
Be able to be an alien who lives in space.  I could fly in a flying saucer and everyone would be like, "What's that?"  It would be funny.

Righty's last birthday interview can be found here.  Our birthday interviews were an idea from Lauren, who blogs at Sparkling Adventures.  They're a great way of seeing the changes that take place as our kids grow older, as well as noting the things that remain the same.

I was a tired young mama when the photo below, with tiny Righty, was taken.  Weeks of interrupted nights --never sleeping more than an hour and a bit at a time before waking up to breastfeed again-- had taken their toll.  My life was a cycle of crying babies, endless walks with them in slings and pushchairs, learning to wash dishes with one hand, and kicking dust under the sofa in lieu of house cleaning.  Upon reflection, I would not change this one bit.  It is all part of who I am; it was boot camp, more or less, for being this mother: the one who has eleven-year-old twin boys with an unquenchable thirst for information, an eight-year-old who never stops, and a four-year-old with never-ending ideas of what to do next.

Eleventh Birthday Interview With Lefty

Lefty always knows exactly what he wants.  His request for a cake this year was "triple-layer chocolate fudge cake with vanilla ice cream"! 

What is the adventure you would most like to have?  
I'd like to be the character Richard Hannay in the book Island of Sheep, by John Buchan

What would you like to do when you grow up?  
Storm chase.

What's that going to be like?  

What's your favourite tea?  
Mostly everything.

What's your favourite cake or pudding?  
Mostly everything.

What's your favourite book[s]?  
Asterix and Obelix books, JRR Tolkien's books, and the Richard Hannay books by John Buchan.

Who do you like hanging out with?  
Lots of people!

What do you enjoy doing with me?  
Christmas shopping; I always love that.

What do you enjoy doing with Dad? 

What do you enjoy doing with Coo?  
Making a tent in the lounge and playing in it with her.

What do you enjoy doing with Righty?  
Playing cards.

What do you enjoy doing with Mr J?  
Playing "Clue-do".

What's your favourite thing to do on your own? 
Play figures and read.

What's your favourite family day out together?  
Go to a National Trust place.

What makes you happy?  

What makes you sad?  
Getting hurt really badly, like when I banged my knee on a brick wall.

What do you enjoy learning about the most?  

If you could choose any time in history to live in, when would that be?  
When Julius Caesar was starting his campaigns.

Is there anyone famous that you'd like to meet?  
The movie director Peter Jackson

If there were any imaginary/pretend things you could choose to do, what would it be?  
I'd like to have adventures like Richard Hannay does.  He solves mysteries that are very exciting.

Lefty's last birthday interview can be found here. Our birthday interviews were an idea from Lauren, who blogs at Sparkling Adventures.  They're a great way of seeing the changes that take place as our kids grow older, as well as noting the things that remain the same.

I was twenty-two when Lefty and Righty were born.  I had no clue what I was doing.  Does anyone, no matter what age they are when their children are born?  Their first few months were the busiest of my life up till then, but also the most blessed.  I am so thankful that these guys --not so little anymore-- were first.