Grace’s Guide to Stress-Busting [at a stressful time of year!]

Many years ago, when I was  young teacher [and yes, I can remember that far back], I underwent some kind of training for something or other [I am vague about this part of the story] during which an older, more experienced ‘old lag’ mentioned that his most commonly used phrase to the students was ‘do your best’. As a new teacher I was happy to adopt others’ ideas and to try out their methods-even to use their phraseology, so I went away and back into my classroom to give ‘do your best’ a go.

On the face of it, ‘do your best’ doesn’t come across as an innovative, pioneering new educational method, does it? It would be unlikely to make a headline in The Times Educational Supplement or be lobbied for in Parliament, yet having tried it out in my own classroom I became an instant convert, finding it useful in a multitude of situations. Can’t find a glue stick? Do your best. Can’t solve the problem? Do your best. Can’t do your laces up? Do your best. Don’t like the person sitting opposite you? Do your best. Teachers of young children often find that while they are attending to one child they are beset by queues of others clamouring for attention. ‘Do your best’ works wonders.

All this was aeons ago, of course, even the final death throes of my career have faded into   the furthest reaches of the back shelves of the memory archives; but ‘do your best’ has not entirely disappeared from my vocabulary-rather it has metamorphosed into another, commonly trotted-out phrase: ‘I’m doing my best’. I advocate this retort to anyone struggling with anything. Behind with getting ready to go out? – ‘I’m doing my best’. Can’t manage the yoga Head-Down-Dog?  Can’t find a gift for your mother in law? Can’t get a novel published? Aha! That last one is complicated!

Then there is ‘I’m doing my best’s’ close relation, ‘I have done my best’; because while ‘reaching-for-the-stars’, ‘living-the-dream’ and all those other epithets for ambition are laudable aspirations only a few can actually say this is what they have done. Excellence is fine, applause, accolades and glory are desirable and fun, but all most people need is to be good enough; to be a good enough parent, an adequate bread-winner, have a comfortable enough home, scrub up well enough for a night out, ensure those around us are happy enough.

So with ‘do your best’ in mind, I would like to wish all readers, visitors, critics, the interested and the disinterested a most relaxing, uneventful, contented, unremarkable but good enough Christmas. Do your best. Don’t worry that you may be not having enough fun. And don’t attempt to change what cannot be changed or attempt what is impossible. That’s all.

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Fiction Month-The Exchange [part 2]

Check last Sunday’s post for Part 1…

I ask Ava if she has any photos of Lucy and I am rewarded by her feverish, relieved smile as she replaces Matthew’s guilt-inducing image with that of her student daughter.

Plates of beer battered cod with potato wedges and mushy peas are delivered to a neighbouring table, momentarily distracting me with the waft of delicious, hot grease. It is what I would choose if I were lunching.

We three have less in common these days; now that our children have grown. Once, as young mothers meeting at the school gate, starved of adult company, we could never see enough of each other. When I look at them now I think how age is most cruel to the once beautiful; Beverley no longer the willowy, well healed style guru, Ava’s slender, elfin appeal grown brittle as a dried twig. Beverley didn’t understand Rob, she’d explained when justifying her adultery to me. He’d needed someone to talk to, someone to console him when things went wrong with the business. If I’d considered that she’d undertaken the consolation with a little too much enthusiasm I’d kept the thought to myself. In any case, Beverley was too embroiled in her own dalliance with Mr Smirnoff to care or even to notice what her husband did.

All that remains of the hot chocolate is a circle of glossy, brown sludge in the bottom of the mug, a last scraping I might attempt to access with the long spoon if I were on my own. Ava still has half a cup of cold, black coffee, impressive as ever in her ability to make a coffee last for the duration. She is reaching into one of the bags to bring out two small parcels wrapped in co-ordinating Christmas paper from Marks with matching gift tags. Not for her the ironed out, salvaged wrapping from last year or three-for-a-pound from Savers. I wonder why it is we’ve continued with this ritual.

We have exchanged gifts every Christmas since we met, the first few years’ offerings being humble, home-made items, sewn or baked or grown, rather than the competitive quandary the exchange has now become.

Beverley presents her own gifts. They will have been purchased from a craft stall or a tiny, beach front gallery; a driftwood photo frame, shell jewellery or a hand-thrown pot. They are wrapped with that artful carelessness she retains, as though she has scoured the beach for cast off paper and string. Ava plucks her package from the table and turns it in her red-tipped fingers, exclaiming how interesting it looks. I assume from the shape that she has the pot this year. Sensing their expectation I withdraw the two, identical parcels from my bag.

Infrequent as they have become, I have grown weary of these meetings; weary of these two self absorbed women and their confessional outbursts, the inconsequential chatter and the shadowy events that lie under each rendezvous like bubbling volcanic pools. I have extracted what I needed from them only as recompense for my services over the years as confidante, counsellor, shoulder-to-cry-on and keeper of secrets. Now I am ready to move on.

Ava thinks the parcels look the same. They look like books. Is it a novel? Do they have the same gift? I nod. The same book?  Yes. Is the author someone they’ve heard of? I’m still nodding. When she tells me she hopes it ends happily because she can’t bear sad endings I say she will have to wait and see. Bev has shown little interest and has stowed her holiday reading away in the leather appliqué satchel she brought and stood up. I’m guessing she is anticipating her first, warming, reassuring slug of liquor of the day as if she were going to meet her own secret lover.

Ava straightens and tuts, rearranging the silk scarf around her neck, smoothing her blond, highlighted hair. I wait for her to say she must look a sight but she gathers her bags and reels off a list of appointments she has before picking Matthew up from nursery; travel agent, chiropodist, the returns counter at Burberry. She wants to know where I’m parked because we can walk together and I know she is anxious to find out if I think Bev suspects anything. I could tell her that Beverley wouldn’t notice if a bomb exploded here in the café but I surprise her, instead by deciding to stay here, in my seat, alone at the table.

Then they are gone; the farewells said; the promises to meet again soon and the air kissing are all done. I don’t need to consult the menu before returning to the counter, since the seductive, lingering aroma of cod and chips is pulling at my senses and cannot be ignored. I am happy to sit alone now while I wait for my lunch, and contemplate a future which exists without Ava and Beverley but with a significant upturn in my fortunes, now that the royalties for ‘The Exchange’ are flowing in such a satisfying way and my account is inflated by a substantial advance for the second novel. Is it a sequel? No. I have said everything I want to say about those two parasites. They can edit their own future. I’m still working on mine.

Snap!

                It is accepted that to be good at something, to excel, to be an expert-you must love that thing. You must have dreamed of doing it since childhood; have worked, or practised or studied at it in all your waking hours. It is true for great musicians, artists, sportspeople and of course, writers. But what if there is a pursuit you love, that you spend time on, you practise and you study-but you are, you remain, you continue to be completely useless at it?

                At school, for instance I was very fond of both geography and biology. In geography I loved drawing maps, shading in the contours and labelling everything. In biology I got enormous pleasure from drawing diagrams and again, labelling the bits. I’d spend time over these tasks, colouring along the coastlines in blue on a map, or shading in the joints on a skeleton. But it was to no avail. I bombed at both subjects and was [not unkindly] advised to ‘drop’ them like hot potatoes before ‘O’ levels loomed.

                So it is, nowadays with photography. I love photographing things. When walking in a new place I am rarely without my camera in my pocket-or more often-in my hand. I do, however have to have a compact, idiot-proof camera that will do everything for me except press its own button. I confess to no understanding at all of shutter speeds, lenses, exposures, filters and zooms [although I do have an excellent zoom on my little gadget]. I take snaps. I take many snaps of objects that have just gone past, or that are too far away for the camera to see, or are blurred or are in the dark, or are anyway, unrecognisable. But in this automated, computerised, digitalised age it matters not a flash, because that master capability exists-the delete button.

                These days anyone can have a go at photography and be ‘published’, [in much the same way as blogging]. Holiday snaps on Facebook must have become the new ‘postcards’. Myself, I’m not sorry about the demise of the postcard. They were a complete chore, a duty to be executed and got out of the way as quickly as possible. You had to choose them, buy them, get stamps. The shop selling the postcards might not sell stamps, or would sell stamps only of you bought cards from them. Then you had to think of something to write to Aunty Elsie or whoever. What could you write in that tiny space that would be interesting or amusing or informative? You could write in barely legible miniature documenting every moment of your vacation or you could use up the entire space with a vacuous ‘wish you were here’ kind of statement.

                No-I prefer the FB approach, except that due to an entrenched phobia about having my own phizog snapped I like to be behind the lens rather than the subject; and I get to be a published photographer –just like everyone else!