Eight Weeks to Wed: An Update

Last weekend I went to Las Vegas for my hen party with six close friends. It was predictably fabulous. We crammed an enormous amount of fun into a short space of time and did ourselves – and Vegas – proud. Wild, unbridled hedonism like that is harder to come by as you march inexorably further into adulthood, which is why it’s so important to appreciate it when you have it. The same applies to friendships. Whilst they should be nurtured throughout life, opportunities to  celebrate them become fewer and farther between as the myriad demands of life creep into our daily existence. And so the memories of last weekend and all the laughs we shared will stay with me forever. I am truly grateful.

And now it’s time to look ahead. Eight weeks ahead, in fact, to my wedding day. As a child I always dreamed of this occasion, wondering who I would marry (or, more specifically, who would want to marry me!) Now it’s nearly here it feels surreal, like a dream. The organisation has been a  challenge, but I know it will be worth it when we look around at the hundred or so loved ones who are so generously travelling to Austria to share it with us. I feel so blessed not only to have met the man I want to spend the rest of my life with, and to be so utterly confident in that statement, but also to have such wonderful and supportive people in my life.

Getting married feels like such a grown up thing to do. I feel ready for it, yet at the same time the little girl in me is tugging at my sleeve, chewing her nails down to the stub with worry. Will I be a good wife? A good mother? Am I actually mature enough to take this step? I have always felt a dichotomy within me. On the one hand there is the dreamer, the thinker, the artist; the one who likes to party and who yearns to travel, to explore, to be free. And on the other is the planner, the matriarch-in-waiting who wants nothing more than to care for others, to have a family and thrive on being responsible for others, instead of being concerned only with myself.

In some respects I suppose I’ve always felt that having a family would save me from myself, and stop me from pursuing the relentless search for meaning that drives my every waking moment. But now I’m on the cusp of that I’m filled with fear; of all that I ‘should’ have done up to this point in my life, and of all I will not be able to do if and when I take that next step. I suppose these worries are normal, and that everyone has them at some point in the run up to making such a big commitment to another person.

I don’t expect for one moment that getting married will mean a life free of worry and drama; far from it. But what it will do is cement our partnership in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of God, in whom I do believe, at least in some form. It is a statement of intent on both our parts that we are prepared to put each other first, to work through all our issues together, and to co-create a stable and loving environment for our future children. The divorce rates reported so gleefully in the news don’t bother me at all. Marriage has always been important to me, and I am entering into it with my eyes and heart wide open.

The fun-loving, free-spirited party girl will always be a part of me, I have no intention of shunning her or locking her away. But despite my fears what is becoming ever clearer to me is that I owe it to myself to explore the other side of who I am, to get to know the girl who wants so desperately to help, to make a difference, to put love above all else.

This is a new chapter in the story of my life. And I am ready to turn the page.

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In Memoriam

Yesterday I was deeply saddened to learn of the tragic deaths of four children at the Mants’ase Children’s Home in Lesotho, which a friend is involved with. Whilst the loss of a child is always devastating, what makes this story especially heart breaking – besides the fact there were four of them – is that they died trying to rescue a duck from a dam, which they believed to be ill and in need of help. The children were aged between eight and twelve, and a six year old who was with them when the tragedy occurred did not comprehend the seriousness of the situation and did not report it immediately for fear of being told off.

Incidents such as this are a huge test of faith for those of us who have it. If there is a God, it is difficult to understand how He could let four innocent children die in the pursuit of saving another living being. But if there is anything we can learn from such incomprehensible tragedy let it be this: the importance of compassion, of loving for our fellow humans (and non-humans), not just in word but also in deed, and of living every moment as if it was to be our last.

God bless you and keep you Nthabeleng Kibe, Mpho Mafa, Tebello Machona and Reitumetse Mohale. Sleep tight little ones. x

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Should anyone feel moved to make a donation to the children’s home to show support at this difficult time you can do so here. Thank you.

Through the eyes of a child

At lunch time today I walked over to the river and sat down beside the water feature, which spurts jets of water intermittently out of the ground. As I watched, a little girl and a lady who was presumably either her mother or carer came over to look at the water feature. At first the girl, unsure what to expect, was hesitant to get close to it. But as soon as the water shot out of the ground she ran away, squealing with pleasure and clapping her hands. Moments later she was back in her original position, her gaze fixed intently on the spot where the water had originally exploded from. She did the same thing several times over before they eventually walked away, and during that time it struck me there’s a lot that adults can learn from children. Like, for example, the following:

  1. Delight in simple pleasuresChildren can derive pleasure from the simplest of things; a ladybird, a spurt of water, a feather on the ground. If adults took some time each day to appreciate little things in the same way, might it not alleviate some of the stress their busy lives create?
  2. Look at everything as if for the first timeThe older we get, the more of that childish wonder about the world we lose – wouldn’t it be nice if every day we tried to look at things we regard as ordinary and imagine it’s the first time we ever saw them? Not so ordinary now, right?
  3. Don’t waste time on things/people that/who bore youIf a child is given a toy to play with that isn’t very interesting to them, what do they do? Play with something else. Similarly, if a play partner doesn’t make the grade they’ll wander off and either find one that does or simply play alone. Why, then, do we adults put up with things and people that bore us?

Of course there are also many lessons children could learn from us (“Don’t throw your toys out of the pram” among them – didn’t we all learn THAT the hard way). Food for (childish) thought, anyway.

A roller coaster day

Today I rediscovered my inner child on a work trip to Thorpe Park. After an absence of ten years (and the rest) I wasn’t sure it would elicit quite the same thrill but I’m pleased to report it was just as good – if not better – than when I went all those years ago. It was funny experiencing it through the eyes of an adult chaperone rather than a young person though. Our group was a diverse but lovely bunch and I couldn’t help but pick out the ones that reminded me of my group of friends when I was that age (needless to say these were, generally speaking, the ones at the gobbier end of the spectrum), and observe the way in which they interacted with the quieter members of the group.

There were moments when I felt the ‘adults’ (I will never get used to referring to myself as such) were more excited about the rides than the young people, and none more so than when me and my colleague ran off to buy fast track tickets for two of the rollercoasters – Saw and Colossus – and the two boys we were with at the time just ambled off to the arcade games, completely disinterested. In the end though there was something for everyone, and I think it’s safe to say the day was enjoyed by all, whether or not they partook in the rides. It was just lovely to see all of the young people interacting and enjoying the experience together – amazing when you consider these are kids who were deemed at risk of dropping out of school and becoming disengaged before they took part in the Teens and Toddlers programme in year 9 or 10 of secondary school. It just goes to show that encouraging young people to believe in themselves and develop to their full potential really does work.

Keep the dream of reading alive

Last night was World Book Night. Described on the official website as “a celebration of reading and books which sees tens of thousands of passionate volunteers gift specially chosen and printed books in their communities to share their love of reading,” it also happened to fall on the birth and death day of the Bard himself.

To honour the occasion a host of events were held across the country, among them the Southbank Centre’s annual soiree, hosted by Hardeep Singh Kohli and attended by a wealth of current literary greats including two of my favourite authors, JoJo Moyes and David Nichols, who read passages from this year’s list of books.

But this year’s World Book Night comes at a sad time for literature, at least of the printed variety. Worrying levels of literacy amongst the younger generation can in no small part be attributed to the advent of the digital age. Today children up and down the country prefer to spend evenings playing computer games rather than reading fiction. Even if their parents loved nothing more than curling up beside the fire with an Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl book when they themselves were children, it seems the art of reading for pleasure seems to be dying out – and not just where young people are concerned.

That’s why the idea of World Book Night is such a charming concept. Not only does it encourage people who have drifted away from reading back into the literary fold, it also reminds them of the joy of holding a book rather than just seeing it on a screen (don’t get me wrong, the e-reader has its place, but it’s no substitute for the real thing; the touch and smell of a brand new book are amongst life’s greatest pleasures). And even more than that, it helps people to get back in touch with their imagination – something that this hectic world can all too easily oppress.

Whether your bookshelves are lined with alphabetised classic novels or the whole Fifty Shades series, it’s likely reading has had a significant impact on your life, whether you realise it or not. The digital age is here to stay, and children who are born into it won’t know the joy of reading unless we teach them. It’s up to each and every one of us to keep the art of reading alive for generations to come.

I thought it would be appropriate to post a pic of what I’m currently reading – so here it is!

Plea for street children

It’s hard to sleep when the streetlight’s shining into your bedroom through a chink in the curtain, or when the temperature’s just a touch on the cold side but you can’t be bothered to get out of your nice cosy bed and crank the heating up.

Imagine, for a moment, that the streetlight isn’t shining through the curtain but directly on your face. You’re cold because you have no duvet and are instead huddled beneath thin sheets of newspaper. And your ‘bed’ is a bench or – worse than that – the hard ground. Oh – and did I mention that you’re five years old and all alone?

Around the world there are countless children who call the streets their home. The International Day for Street Children is celebrated every year on April 12th (that’s today, by the way). It provides a platform for millions of street children around the world – and their champions – to speak out so that their rights cannot be ignored.

However, the day is currently not owned by any one organisation. Which is why this year the Consortium for Street Children – the leading international network dedicated to realising the rights of street children worldwide – is calling for the United Nations to adopt and recognise the day as UN day. When the United Nations adopts a day it gives the issue greater global exposure and increases pressure on governments to act.

To show your support for street children please sign this petition or alternatively text STREET and your name to 62233 (UK only, standard network rates apply.) You can also visit the website and download pictures to put up on your social media networks for the day.

Help a street child today – because if fate had played its cards differently it could just as easily have been you.

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Past Post: Montessori nursery article

I recently stumbled across some articles I wrote as part of my Freelance and Feature Writing course with the London School of Journalism a few years back, and thought I’d share this one about Montessori teaching today:

The truth about Montessori teaching

Maria Montessori’s work with special needs children in the last century led to the development of a new and unique approach to teaching, with the learning environment being carefully planned from a practical standpoint to better equip children for adult life. In recent years it has come under criticism for impressing discipline at too young an age, but few people have a true understanding of what Montessori teaching actually involves.

Nicola Greer is the co-owner of the One World Montessori Nursery in Brook Green, West London. She explains: “Two fundamental aspects of Montessori teaching are cleanliness and order, with order being particularly important. Montessori is all about teaching the child to be self-sufficient – an important part of which is learning to take care of their environment. But it is also a child-centred philosophy that allows the child to progress at his or her own rate. They are given choices and are not pushed beyond their readiness. If you push a child it is counter-productive, but it is equally important not to hold a child back.  They should progress at the rate they need.”

Montessori nurseries differ from mainstream nurseries in that children are able to choose what they want to do.  Practical life tasks involve such activities as learning to dress and clean using scaled down versions of adult materials.  Sensorial tasks involve the use of geometric blocks, fabrics and smelling bottles to name but a few.  Cultural tasks utilise globes and science materials, and mathematical tasks incorporate number rods and counting beads.

But surely, if given a choice of activity, most children will persistently gravitate towards their favourite activities, ignoring all of the others? “Without guidance they might,” admits Nicola, “but children don’t have a long attention span and are therefore unlikely to spend too long on any one activity.  If they do, the teacher will introduce something else.  Practical life activities are generally very popular.”

So what would Nicola say to the critics of Montessori, who feel that children are encouraged to learn discipline unnecessarily early?  “It does work,” she says, after a moment’s hesitation, “that’s what I’d say.  Generally speaking, children at Montessori nurseries tend to do well.” But why is it so important for children to learn practical tasks like cleaning at such a young age?  “It teaches them the accomplishment of performing a task with a beginning, middle and end,” she says, “and children love to imitate adults, for example by pretending to cook with a toy kitchen.”  Wasn’t Maria Montessori very grounded in reality though? “Toy kitchens aren’t entirely in keeping with the Montessori philosophy, in the sense that Maria Montessori was opposed to anything fantasy based,” Nicola concedes. “But I feel that as the nursery is open from 8am to 4pm it is too long a day for a child not to have any fantasy at all.”

Nicola agrees that not all Montessori schools follow the original teachings exactly.  “The majority do,” she says, “although you can’t be too rigid because Maria Montessori lived a hundred years ago and we must move with the times and adapt accordingly, as well as complying with Ofsted regulations.  We are not a ‘pure’ Montessori nursery as such, because we have had to adapt to the requirements of the Foundation Stage where there is a greater emphasis on creative play. Montessori would say that children learn through doing.  The generally accepted modern philosophy is that children learn through play, and I think it is essential to encourage role-play to some extent.”

So to what extent does the One World Montessori Nursery follow traditional Montessori teachings?  “Well,” smiles Nicola, “essentially we are a pure Montessori nursery, but we also have a role-play corner which is definitely based in fantasy.”  The wizard costume just visible through the door of the tiny wardrobe beside us bears testament to this.  But as I leave the nursery, I can’t help feeling that Nicola has interpreted the original philosophy very well, and despite my own initial misgivings about Montessori methods I find myself wishing her all the best.

Remember these? I used to love mine more than anything (and yes, I did try to put the plastic tray in the REAL oven like the girl in the advert)

Past Post: Laos

I wrote this last year when I returned from my travels and submitted it to a newspaper writing competition. Sadly I wasn’t shortlisted, but I do think it’s good enough to share here, so here it is.

When the minivan driver hit his second chicken and narrowly missed a child toddling by the roadside, I felt moved to intervene. “You’re driving too fast, it’s not safe!” He responded with a maniacal laugh and slammed his foot down harder on the accelerator. I sighed. This was going to be a long journey.

I have heard many travellers claim that the people of Laos are amongst the least friendly in South East Asia and, based on this experience, I might have said the same. But to understand Laos and its people one must first understand its history. When you consider the ‘Secret War’ waged against it by the US from 1964-1973 – during which over 260 million cluster bombs were dropped on a country with less than three million inhabitants to dent the spread of communism from Vietnam – it’s easy to see why distrust and contempt against foreigners may exist.

It is estimated that up to thirty per cent of cluster bomb units did not explode on impact, and to this day there are still thousands of unexploded bombs located throughout Laos, many of them nestled unobtrusively in paddy fields where ordinary farmers are trying to eke out a living for their families, and where they and their children risk life and limb every day as a result.

We passed through many such fields on our kamikaze minivan adventure from Phonsavanh to Vientiane. In my more lucid moments, I relaxed my grip on the seat and pondered what it would be like to meet some farmers and ask them in person what it was like to live under the constant threat of such unimaginable horror. Perhaps then I would get under the skin of the country I had previously – and shamefully – only heard of in the context of its popular tubing tourist attraction in Vang Vieng.

Tubing is fun, and arriving in the country on a slow boat down the Mekong River is an experience not to be missed, but both are essentially just part of the tourist trail. Even the Plain of Jars and nearby ‘bomb village’ lack genuine character, the touts having sucked it out with their sterile production-line tours. It doesn’t help that a lack of infrastructure makes getting around a strain for even the most hardy of travellers, particularly in the wet season when roads can be impassable due to flooding.

My lasting memory of the country won’t be floating down the river in an inflatable tube, nor wandering around a field of ancient, unexplained relics. It won’t even be the suicidal minivan driver or the touts and their soulless tours. It will be the ordinary but heart-warming sights I witnessed as we drove for hours along death-defying roads; bright eyed children playing and whole families working the bomb-littered fields. Whilst such glimpses by their brief nature fail to yield any real insight into the Laos Peoples’ character, I will always feel respect for them, going about their business despite all that has been inflicted upon them.

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I took this on a day trip from Luang Prabang to a stunning waterfall, and was struck by the contrast of crisp, brown landscape and bright blue sky.

Friends like these

Today I’ve been trying to remember the world before social media took hold. This shouldn’t have been difficult, considering I pre-date it. And yet it was. I actually struggled to remember how people – myself included – expressed themselves (read also: showed off) to their peers and wider social groups. I’m certain we did use online networks (hazy memories come to mind of painstaking waits for screeching modems to connect, woefully basic Internet chat rooms and a now long-redundant profile on Bebo, the amateur precursor to Facebook), but I can’t honestly remember more than that.

Further rumination on this subject has me wondering if we actually cared as much in the ‘old world’ about what people thought of us and how we were perceived. Or was it, in fact, the dawn of the social media age that was responsible for turning a whole generation (and most likely all subsequent generations) into shallow, self-obsessed egotists who would rather spend their leisure time posting photos to make their friends jealous than actually enjoy whatever it is they’re doing?

I think the reality is that people – children, adolescents and adults alike – have always and will always have an inherent desire to be liked and to feel part of social groups. Before Twitter and Facebook were invented we flirted with rudimentary forms of social networking to extend our reach into such groups. Before those existed we made do with making friends in ‘real life’ situations. Our need to be accepted and popular was just as great, but we just had smaller social circles.

Now that social networks have become stratospheric in their popularity we have grown greedy for more. It’s a natural progression, but a dangerous one. Having hundreds of ‘friends’ on a social networking site can make you feel popular, but if you can count the number who would be there for you no matter what on less than one hand it speaks volumes about the meaning of those ‘friendships,’ and how much homage we should really pay them.

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Thinking about friendship groups and the importance of being accepted reminded me of this group photo from a holiday last year in Windermere. We had such a fantastic time and all got on so well – it’s times like those you realise the importance of having REAL friends who are always there, through the good times and the bad.