How often do you acknowledge that you’ve made a mistake, and how much time do you spend beating yourself up, imagining how you might have done it differently, feeling inadequate, feeling bad, regretful?
On the other hand, how often do you take the time, literally stop doing anything else and take the time, to admit that you’ve done something well, that you’ve set yourself a challenge and come out on the other side, that something you’ve set your mind to has been a success?
If you’re anything like me, the proportion of the first to the second is painfully high. Why is it so much easier to take blame than to take credit? Even “take credit” isn’t quite right. “Take pleasure” in a job well done, an accomplishment to feel good about?
Last week I was “graduated” from my first social work family with the divine organisation Home-Start. Since it’s an entirely confidential service for supporting families at risk, I can’t tell you anything about “my” family, nor can I show you any photos of them. So I’m going to intersperse my happy account with some lovely autumnal scenes from our village life, and leave you to imagine.
You might remember that last January, I began my training with Home-Start, a part-charitable organisation, part privately-funded, designed really to CATCH families with small children — at least one under five years of age — at risk of falling into despair. Of course despair can come in many guises: post-partum depression, multiple births without enough support, divorce, job loss, bereavement while trying to raise a family.
In this wonderful country, the government and private sector have long recognised that CATCHING problems when they are manageable, keeping them from descending into a spiral of chaos and hopelessness, saves sanity, saves families, saves money. Amazing people called “health visitors” turn up after parents with new babies leave hospital. They visit homes to assess how those new parents are coping, and they report back to GPs when they flag a problem.
And then the GPs know that the Home-Start organisation is there to help, for FREE. Home-Start’s trained volunteers kick into gear. So after my 12-week training (really gruelling and upsetting at times, with visits from professionals from the most harrowing walks of life: parole officers, spousal abuse police task forces, child abuse counsellors) I was introduced to “my family.” All I can tell you about them is that an illness had changed their lives. Every member of the household was teetering on the brink of real life-changing depression. The whole household lacked breathing space, were too upset to listen to each other, too tired to offer any sort of support to each other.
Over the course of the next five months, I visited once a week. Just once a week. For two or three hours. At first I wondered why I was there, why a friend or a babysitter wouldn’t provide the exact same function of two hours’ company and a listening ear.
As the weeks went by and the dark, short days of winter blossomed into the warm, cheerful days of spring and then summer, I watched “my family” blossom too. The hardest thing to learn was how not to cry when someone you care about is sobbing. It was desperately hard the first time. It was also hard to see family conflicts pushing and tearing people apart, and merely sit and listen. It was difficult to leave at the end of each visit when I sensed — for whatever reason — that it had been helpful for me to be there and it would be wonderful if I could just stay.
But gradually I realised that no one was crying anymore. There was a subtle shift from coming into a house of sadness to a house of recovery. People laughed! Everyone got involved in the games and play I suggested, instead of just one or two. As the days got longer, there was a palpable sense of normality and cheer returning to the family. There were cancelled appointments — wonderful! — because of new ballet lessons, new playdates. Real life was coming back.
Of course the result of this beautifully satisfying development was, for me, goodbye. I could feel it coming. My supervisor explained, “We will make this work with the family. Everyone knew you were coming in temporarily to help them through a crisis, and the crisis is over. It’s like giving a child a pet knowing that someday it will die, and that that’s part of life, saying goodbye. You did your job, and now you need to do it for another family.”
Goodbyes were said. Cards and little gifts and flowers changed hands, many, many hugs were given and received. Most wonderful of all were long talks about the journey from the dark days (“life will never be that hard again”) to the normal life the family lives now.
And what on earth did I do? I just WENT, and listened, and played. Importantly, the family felt I didn’t JUDGE. Home-Start volunteers apparently have a certain quality of serving as something different from a friend, more approaching a family member before whom the people in need don’t have to PRETEND or apologise or do anything that’s just beyond them at the time.
As soon as I cycled away into the sunset — literally! — I had to make a conscious decision not to start pulling back from feeling GOOD, from saying to myself, “How important could that have been, anyway? Don’t take yourself so seriously.” It WAS important. Why is it so much easier to blame oneself for mistakes than to feel good about success? Why should we let the blame last so much longer, wake ourselves up in the night with doubts, when the good feelings that success bring are as fleeting as a display of autumn leaves, just blowing away before we have a chance to appreciate them?
I am absolutely determined to reverse that tendency. My new school-year resolution is to take the time to feel good when I deserve it, and, I hope, to pass along that life skill to my daughter who already shows signs of inheriting my tendency to set aside taking satisfaction in favor of taking blame. She’s young enough to change. It’s really not about taking “credit” but more taking the opportunity to feel good when you HAVE done good. It’s an enormous privilege to be able to help anyone, and taking a moment to savour that should be part of our emotional menu, I think.
Speaking of change, of course, there is also change-ringing to make me happy! The bells have been particularly giving lately, all of us having fun ringing at a wedding over the weekend, enjoying the sight of the glorious chapel, dating from 1215, decorated for the festivities.
We’ve all been learning “Plain Hunt on Seven,” which means following a (to me!) complicated pattern of bells changing position, speeding up, slowing down, producing the unearthly mathematical music of bellringing. That bellchamber is one of my favorite places on earth, scene of so many scary failures, but then again so many moments of fun and achievement.
Change, too, has been in the air with our diets. I’ve been pretty much wheat-free for about two months now, turning my back on bread and pasta in favor of little rice crackers, rice itself, wrapping things in lettuce! Do you have leftover ham you’d like to celebrate? Try my fabulous ham salad. Now, keep in mind that here in the UK, if you ask for ham salad you’ll get just that: ham, and salad. If you want the slightly creamy, savoury mixture we Americans happily grew up with, but in a much lighter, less gloppy version, ask for “ham mayonnaise.” More happily, make your own.
What I’ve been challenging myself to do is take dishes traditionally calling for wheat and think outside the grain box. Take Nigella Lawson’s recent mouth-watering suggestion for a pasta dish, spaghetti with olives and anchovies. Why not use the sauce as a salad dressing? I concocted a slightly different version of her sauce and my dears, with some crunchy Red Gem lettuce, rocket and tiny watercress, it was ADDICTIVE.
Olive and Anchovy Dressing
1 cup green pitted olives
4 anchovy fillets in olive oil
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 tbsp capers, rinsed if stored in salt
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1–2 cloves garlic (depending on how much you love it!)
2 large handfuls flat-leaf parsley
2 tbsps mayonnaise
enough olive oil to achieve the consistency you like: perhaps 1/2 cup
Put everything in a food processor and blend steadily until emulsified.
This past week has been happy for me as well because believe it or not, the school autumn holiday has arrived! As always, looking up in the middle of the afternoon and seeing Avery’s shining head across the room is a wonderful thing. It’s lovely to have her home to make lunch for, to listen to her various enthusiasms (the evils of trickle-down economics, the beauty of learning Russian!), to get her late-night requests for “popcorn, if it’s not too much trouble!” and to make a chocolate cake for her. She’s not wheat-free by any means! This last-minute invention got rave reviews. Try it warmed slightly with a slathering of butter, for breakfast. Avery says it’s just fine.
White and Milk Chocolate Chip Cake
2 cups all-purpose (plain) flour
3/4 cup sugar (caster)
1 tbsp baking powder
pinch of fresh-grated nutmeg
3/4 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup milk
5 tbsps butter, melted
handful white chocolate chips or buttons
handful milk chocolate chips or buttons
Heat oven to 400F/200C. Butter and flour a loaf tin.
In a large bowl, stir together with a fork the flour, sugar, baking powder, nutmeg and salt, combining thoroughly. In a small bowl, beat the egg. Stir in the cream, milk and butter and blend well. Stir the wet mixture into the dry, stirring only until they are combined, not overmixing.
Pour the batter into the loaf tin and sprinkle on the chocolates. Of course, you could substitute semi-sweet chocolate, or butterscotch chips. I made this cake with what I had in my pantry! Bake for about 40 minutes, checking then to see if the center has cooked. Bake until a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
She’s off now, though, on her own to Sicily with her fellow Greek and Latin students, for a week. She reports a wasp-infested hotel room and sweltering temperatures, and sounds completely happy with both so far. And, “It doesn’t look like Italy!” We’ll get her back in the middle of the night on Saturday, full, one expects, of stories.
In the meantime we’re enjoying the foggy days of late October, complete with scary spiders…
Would you believe you can walk a block from our London home and enjoy this beautiful, haunting reservoir? I know that all too soon, in the next week or so, all the leaves will be stripped from the trees, but for now I am enjoying the vista.
I simply love the quiet evenings when Avery and John have gone to sleep, sitting up with a cup of lemon and cinnamon tea, a cosy mystery, an alpaca cardigan to button up around my neck in the chilly bedtime breeze. Feeling good.Print This Post