Working and parenting from home? You’ve got to be kidding!

These are strange and novel times and we’re all adjusting to new ways of living that change daily. It’s a time of adjustment for everyone. Some people find themselves working from home for the first time. Not only are they adjusting to the new habits of working from their living room or kitchen table, many are doing so while caring full-time for children and/or adults. And while everyone’s situation is different and unique, I thought I’d share some of my experiences of working from home and how I’ve adapted (and am daily adapting) to this new situation.

I’ll say, first of all, that my daughters are 9 and (in three days from now) 11 years old. They are great friends. They’re also very self-sufficient (and will even make a cup of tea, a bowl of soup, or make a batch of cupcakes, if the mood takes them). I’m aware, therefore, that I have it a lot easier than people attempting to work while caring for younger children, or children with big age gaps, or children with disabilities, or children who simply don’t get on with each other. But there might be something in my daily work practices that you can adapt to your working home life to make it all run a little more smoothly.

Remember, this is a huge adjustment period for everyone in your home. Forget ‘productivity’. Forget trying to ‘home school’ your children (see my last blog post). Don’t beat yourself up. Get plenty of rest. And remember that the transition to working from home is not something that will happen overnight. It’s taken me months to find a system that works for me and to find a work-life balance that suits me and suits my family.

BC (Before Corona), my typical day involved getting an hour or two of work done before the children got up. I’d then take two hours off – the first to get the children up, fed, presentable and out the door, and the second to walk the dog, shower and get dressed for the day. My children only have a five-hour school day, so that left me with four hours. My work requires high levels of concentration, which I can only keep up for short periods of time. So, I’d intersperse 30- or 40-minute bursts of work with chores – washing the dishes, hanging out the laundry, preparing lunch, and popping to the shop to buy groceries. Doing the chores like this got me away from the computer for short periods of time, got me moving about, and gave my brain and eyes a break.

The girls came home from school just after 2pm, and from then to 4pm was work-free, when we ate lunch and hung out together. Even if they didn’t want to hang out, I was available if they needed me. Most evenings, the girls were out from 4pm to 7.30 or 8pm, during which I got back to work, again interspersed with chores when I needed a break from the computer. If I had a pressing deadline, I might find myself doing another couple of hours of work after the children went to bed.

Most days didn’t work out quite like this. A phone call from a friend, a mid-morning invitation for coffee in the village, hour-long Spanish classes two evenings a week, the girls’ friends coming around to play, could all get in the way of my ideal work day. That didn’t matter, so long as I met my deadlines and produced quality work.

As for weekends, holidays, birthdays – those were sacred work-free days. It wasn’t always that way, but over time I discovered that for my physical and mental health, taking plenty of time off, and taking those important times off, was essential.

That was then. Now we’re into new territory, and I’m adapting many of these practices to this new and evolving situation. I have made some decisions that impact my ability to work effectively and to look after my children to the best of my ability.

First, I made the decision to cut back on the amount of work I do. I’m a freelancer and I don’t earn a salary. Instead, I only get paid for the work I do. Right now, I’m spending far less money than usual. We’re not allowed to leave the house other than to buy food. So, there are no morning coffees with friends, no Friday evening gin and tonic at the bar, no mid-week lunches out when I can’t be bothered to cook. No cinema, no trips to the beach, no shopping for anything that’s not food. So, I don’t need as much money as before. Therefore, I’ve cut back on the number of work assignments I accept each week. Instead of doing my usual 30-ish hours of work last week, I did fewer than 20.

I realize that, for some people, this is not financially possible, and for others, work targets set by others must be met. But think about areas of your work where you can cut back. Is everything you currently do absolutely necessary to the effective completion of your work, or are there elements of your work that you can drop? Prioritize your most important work, and drop or postpone the rest. Don’t make yourself ill by trying to simultaneously work at full speed and care for your family at full speed.

Second, I thought about how I can organize my work day in such a way that I get to spend time with my children, when we’re all at our best. We’re all sleeping in a little later these mornings and going to bed later. I’m no longer setting the clock for 6am, but rather getting up around 7.30am and working for an hour and a half before the girls wake up. Once they wake up, we have breakfast together, followed by study time, and then some exercise (a YouTube workout, a game of padel in the yard). I spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon pottering around, cooking, baking, and being available for the children. In the last few days, I’ve saved my work for three or four hours in the late afternoon. The girls play together or are engaged in some activity, and sometime between 5 and 6pm they sit down to watch a movie. In those few play and movie hours, I pack in as much work as possible. In this way, I spend a lot of time with the children, or am available for them while I do housework, but when their energy is flagging, when fights are most likely to break out, when the chances of tears are greatest, they can curl up on the sofa with a movie.

Third, I’ve revised my thoughts on weekends, holidays, and so on. Do weekends even exist now? I have the privilege of choosing, to a great extent, not only how much I work but also when I work. I’ve decided that, over the coming days and weeks, rather than sticking to my Monday to Friday work schedule, I’ll work when it feels appropriate to work, and I won’t work if I feel the children need me more, or if I need a day to process what’s going on.

Fourth, I talk about all of this to the girls. On the day they finished school we sat down and made a plan (more about this in a future post). Included in that plan was my need to work. Every morning over breakfast I tell the girls the hours of work I will have to do that day, the times I will be available to do things with them, and the times when I will, for the most part, need to be left alone to do my work. I also ask them to think about what they want to do during my work times. Do they want to do something together? Does one of them want to do something on her own? How are they going to negotiate those different plans and come to a compromise? Clearly communicating and working out our plans right from the start of the day makes their execution all the easier.

Finally, I accept that there are going to be interruptions. Hungry children will come begging for snacks, fights will break out, knees will be grazed. I just have to accept that it’s going to happen. For those of you who work as part of a team, chances are your colleagues are in the same boat, many working from home while caring for others and running a household.

As I write all this, I realize that much of what I have written about working from home might not be true next week, or even tomorrow. A few days ago, this post would have included the long walks we go on every day. Two days ago, it would have included the solo walks I take with the dog every day. Those are no longer options for us. Right now, my girls are getting on incredibly well with each other. I don’t know if or when they will start to tire of each other’s company. And I don’t know that work assignments will continue to flow into my inbox. So, maintaining flexibility is essential and remaining open to anything that might come around the corner.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself and be kind to the people you live with.

Tomorrow’s post: Staying positive

Remember, you’re their parent, not their teacher

Over the next few days (and weeks? months?) I’m going to offer some tips and advice about home educating, working from home, and maintaining positive mental health. In future posts, I’ll focus on more specific topics – to stick to the curriculum or not, educating children of different ages and/or abilities, good communication, home educating older children, etc. Today, I’m going to start with some general thoughts about home education, so that you keep these in mind when you’re planning what to do with your children at home in the days and weeks ahead.

Many home educators resist using the term ‘home schooling’, and for a very good reason. Home is not school. We are not teachers – apart from those of you who are teachers, but even then, you’re generally not your own children’s teachers. Teachers are an incredible bunch of dedicated, hardworking people, who do an amazing job of caring for, educating and socializing our children. However, they are educated and trained to teach children in specific situations, namely, large groups of children, in classrooms, for a specific number of hours each day. They have been trained to follow or adapt a curriculum, and they have been trained to work as part of a larger team of people with a shared vision and commitment to the institution of school (in the general sense) and to their own school institution (in the specific sense). Home is a very different environment, and the dynamic and relationship we have with our children is very different to that between our children and their teachers.

Forget about trying to turn your home into a school. It’s not going to work and you’re going to end up with frustration, anxiety and tears from everyone (and, believe me, no-one wants to see Daddy crying over the conjugation of French verbs).

Instead, create an environment in your home where children are self-motivated to learn and grow:

  • Televisions, tablets and phones are the enemies of imagination and enthusiasm. Turn them all off – and that means you too, Mum and Dad. Set aside long periods of the day when no-one uses these devices. (In a future posts I’ll discuss how to effectively communicate this to children and how to maintain cyber silence while working from home)
  • Be patient. This is new territory for everyone. If your children have always been in formal education, then this is a big change for them too. Reassuring them and caring for their emotional needs is far more important right now than making sure they know their periodic table.
  • Limit the time you spend doing ‘sit-down’ classroom-style educating. My children’s teacher has set up a WhatsApp group and is now sending work for the children to do. In addition, on the last day of school, I asked my girls to bring home their geography, science and maths books, as those were the subjects I think need most work. However, rather than sitting at the kitchen table or wherever for hours on end, limit these sorts of activities to two 20-minute sessions a day. If there’s frustration after 10 minutes, don’t beat yourself up, or get mad at your child/children. Accept that it’s not going to be, and give it another shot later or tomorrow. And if, on the other hand, the 20 minutes turns into half an hour or an hour and the child is wildly enthusiastic – run with it. Because chances are, they won’t show that same enthusiasm tomorrow.
  • Accept slowness. Standing over your child and expecting him or her to complete a task in a set period of time is going to end in frustration. Be present for your child, to help and assist, but accept that it may take the child a long time to complete an activity. We’ve all got extra time on our hands right now, so what does it matter? This doesn’t mean that your child dawdles and draws out 5 minutes of maths homework over two hours. Gently encourage and assist your child, but accept that just because you can write a sentence of five words in five seconds, or can solve 6 x 3 in the blink of an eye, that your child can too. Work at their speed.
  • Accept that things probably won’t work out as you had planned. You know all those awful YouTube videos of people making crafts? You know all those nice cakes in children’s cook books? You know those photos your friends post on Facebook of the amazing things their children have made? Let’s get one thing clear. In 99.9% of cases, your activities with your children are not going to meet the vision you had for them before you started. And that’s perfectly ok. The education, the learning and the fun are to be found in the process, not in the finished product. If you imagine that by the end of a 20-minute history session, your child will know the names of all Henry VIII’s wives, accept that there’s a good chance they won’t. If you imagine that your child is going to build some spectacular castle out of cardboard boxes and toilet roll inserts, accept that it will probably be a spectacular mess and look nothing like the castle of your imagination.
  • Change your expectations. It doesn’t matter that your child knows the names of all of Henry VIII’s wives. What matters is that you sat down together (or stood at the kitchen sink together, or kicked around a football in the back yard together) and talked about Henry VIII and his six wives, and why he had six wives in the first place, and what became of some of them. It doesn’t matter that your imagined castle is a pile of cardboard and PVA glue rubble. What matters is that you and your child planned and made something together, or that you left your child to his or her own devices to plan and make something.
  • Finally, follow their lead. Listen to what they want to do. Find out what interests them. Use this time as an opportunity to learn about things they might not otherwise have time to learn about. Your child is curious about something? Dinosaurs? The First World War? How peanut butter is made? Do the research together and learn together. Many children are asking about the Corona virus right now. Well, there’s a biology lesson in virology right there. Forget about this particular virus, get out your actual or virtual dictionaries, reference books, resources of all kinds and find out what a virus is, how it works, what it does. Rather than being teacher and student, you are learning something new together.

I hope this provides some reassurance that you’re doing just fine. I’ll further unpack these ideas in future posts. Tomorrow I’m going to write about juggling working from home with home educating.

Home education? Check. Working from home? Check. Social isolation? Check.

It will be one week tomorrow since all schools in Spain closed. Schools in Ireland closed the day before and, as I write, schools in the UK are preparing to close tomorrow. I know we’re expected to say we’re bored and fed up and can’t wait for things to get back to normal. But actually, here in my house, we’re having quite a good time. (Am I allowed to say that?) It dawned on me that there are three reasons why we’re doing alright: 1. My daughters were home educated in the past; 2. We lived for six years in the confined space of a 36 foot yacht; and 3. I work from home.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether to blog about life in social isolation. Goodness knows, there is nothing but Corona virus news on every social media platform you turn to. Do I want to add to this relentless and overwhelming mass of information (and misinformation), and people sharing their personal stories?

However, over the past week, a number of friends and family members in far-flung corners of the planet have asked for my advice on home schooling. At the moment, like many others, I am home educating while working from home under conditions of social isolation.

Even though I no longer home educate my daughters (or do I?), I still give the subject a lot of thought. Apart from chocolate, sex and spaghetti bolognaise (not necessarily in that order, and not usually at the same time), education is the thing I think about most. I wrote an anthropology Masters on the subject, and a PhD on the passing on and sharing of environmental knowledge and skill between and across generations (i.e. informal education). This past Christmas, I wrapped Tim Ingold’s Anthropology and/as Education in Christmas wrapping paper and placed it under the tree for myself. That’s how much I love thinking about education. And, although I don’t have as much experience as many home educators who’ve seen their children through from babies until they left for university, I have been through the trials, tribulations and joys of home educating my girls, and what I learned from those years continues to inform how we learn together today, how we approach their school work, and how we think about learning and education in general.

I’ve also worked from home for the past number of years. I’m a freelance editor and writer, and my working life is spent at home, alone, in front of my laptop. Over the years, I’ve also learned by trial and error what works and doesn’t work for me, which practices improve my productivity (and which sound the death knell for productivity), and how to ensure a good work-life balance. What works for me may not work for others, but I have some thoughts and ideas that might be helpful, especially if you’re mixing work and education at home.

Finally, we lived on a boat for six years, so sharing a confined space with my family, while working and getting on with the daily tasks of life, is no news to me.

Therefore, starting from tomorrow, I’m going to write a series of short blog posts with tips about home educating, working from home, and caring for your own and your family’s mental and physical health at this challenging time. These will be based on my own experiences over the years, the experiences of others, and what’s working and not working for my family right now. Of course, what works for me may not work for you, but it might provide you with some food for thought.

If you want to get involved with questions, suggestions for posts, or feedback, then I’d love to hear from you.

I’ll start tomorrow with some basic thoughts and best practices for home education. Hope to see you then.

Reading, part II: If she can see it, she can be it*

*Motto of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Katie’s exciting first foray into the world of novels. As I was writing that post I was also thinking about Lily’s reading habits, and about the lack of female protagonists and heroes in the types of books she likes to read. And, as I was thinking these thoughts, it transpired that Lily herself was thinking exactly the same.

Currently, Lily is working her way through the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz. Before that, she read all the Harry Potter books and she’s also a big fan of Percy Jackson and has asked for more of those for Christmas.

So, when she got out of bed one night a few weeks ago to come share her thoughts with me, I realised we had the same concerns. ‘There are no girls in the Alex Rider books’, she announced. ‘And, apart from Hermione, there are no girls in Harry Potter. It’s all boys.’ She backtracked a bit, explaining, ‘Well, there are girls, but they don’t do anything. They don’t do the stuff the boys do.’

A couple of weeks before this, Lily had a sleepover at her friend Luisa’s house, and accidently left her Alex Rider book there the next morning. Going to bed the next night, with the book still at Luisa’s, she didn’t know what to read. Not wanting to start a new book while in the middle of another one, I suggested she read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay ‘We should all be feminists’ (here’s a link to the TED talk of the same), that I had left on her bedside locker some weeks earlier, when she’d moved into her own bedroom. She shrugged and, unconvinced, took the book from my hands for want of anything else to read. An hour later, she was out of bed, wanting to talk about the essay with me, about the hotel reception scene, about men assuming Chimamanda couldn’t have money of her own. The essay exercised her already feminist view of the world and added a new layer to it.

So now, here she was, complaining that her action/adventure/espionage books were devoid of female heroes.

I had been thinking the same thing, while also contrasting those books to another favourite author of Lily’s, Jacqueline Wilson. Although Lily is no longer as interested in Jacqueline Wilson’s books as she once was, there was a time when she devoured everything that the prolific Wilson produced. And I realised that she was, on the one hand, reading books with girl protagonists in domestic settings, with domestic problems involving families, school friends, mothers in bad romantic relationships (a recurring Wilson motif) and, on the other, boy protagonists charged with saving the entire world, involved in international espionage, the sons of gods and wizards.

She reads all sorts of books, of course, and I’m being reductive to some extent, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I see the domesticity of girls and the world-saving of boys in the books that my 10-year old daughter reads. Even Susan, Lucy, Peter and Edmund, in their equal roles as kings and queens of Narnia, conform to gender stereotypes when Aslan confers on them their symbols and tools/weapons.

Because I haven’t, as either a child or an adult, ever been interested in those genres of action/espionage/fantasy that Lily is currently so fond of, I am in no position to advise her on books with female protagonists. I know the Skulduggery Pleasant series has a girl hero (who is Irish, to boot). Apart from that, I’m at a loss. Therefore, if anyone can recommend books in those genres with girl protagonists, I’d appreciate it.

Alternatively, as I’ve suggested to her, she may just have to write those books herself.

 

Reading, part I: Wonder

BloomKatie, nine-years old, is reading her first novel, Bloom by Nicola Skinner. She reads it aloud to me, a chapter a night before she goes to bed. We’re almost 90 pages into this delightful 350-page book about a play-by-the-rules girl who finds a packet of magic seeds that turn her world upside down.

A few nights ago, Katie stopped reading mid-sentence and turned to me with a look of wonder and bliss on her face. ‘I can really see all the people and places’, she proclaimed. ‘Can you?’

I got a lump in my throat. You’ve got it, I thought to myself. You’ve cracked the joy of reading, words creating entire worlds in your imagination of people and lives and places.

She’s read before, of course, but short books that can be read in one sitting and that don’t involve the immersion of the imagination that comes with reading a lengthy novel. She’s invested in the world of this book far more than she’s been invested in any story she’d read before.

What particularly made me emotional about this epiphany of Katie’s the other night is that she’s long held this misconception that she’s ‘bad at reading’ or ‘not very good at reading’. These are her own descriptions of her reading ability and, try as I might to dispel them, they have persisted. It’s probably younger sister syndrome (if such a thing exists). Lily, who is only 17 months older than Katie, was an early reader, and by the time she was the age that Katie is now, she had read all but two of the Harry Potter novels, most of the Narnia series, as well as a huge number of Jacqueline Wilson books (more on all of this next week). Lily is a voracious reader with very particular tastes and has been reading beyond her age level (if such a thing exists, which I doubt) for a long time. Katie, by her own comparison, is ‘not very good at reading’.

My past attempts to instill confidence in Katie’s reading ability have fallen short. She simply wasn’t ready. Her frequent mistakes, her slow reading pace and her lack of understanding frustrated her and deterred her from wanting to read more.

But something about this book has flicked a switch. She bought it herself, for one thing, choosing it and paying for it with her own money at Easons when we were passing through Cavan town earlier in the summer. Reading it every night, she has become highly invested in the characters and in the place. She is the one dragging me to her bedroom each night so she can read the next chapter.

At first, she read slowly, stumbling over words and ignoring punctuation. But chapter-by-chapter, her reading speed has increased, her word recognition has improved remarkably, her ability to understand new words based on context or pre-existing knowledge of similar words has improved, and she now reads with correct intonation and timing (most of the time). Her confidence has grown in leaps and bounds. Listening to her read is a joy. Her joy in reading is a joy.

She’s now got a pile of books on her desk, stacked in order of what she wants to read next. If this carries on, we’re in for a cozy winter ahead filled with adventures of the imagination.

Freelancing, foraging and feminist anthropology

A version of this article was, indeed, published by Green Parent magazine in October 2018.

Foraging: An immersive way to learn about nature

On the morning of the day my younger daughter, Katie, was born, I was out amongst the hedgerows with her big sister, Lily, gathering blackberries. We ate at least half of what we gathered, Lily’s seventeen-month-old face and hands stained purple with blackberry juice, and returned home with the rest in tubs. Two days later we were once again out amongst the hedgerows, blackberry juice staining the sling in which newborn Katie slept. At two days old, this was her introduction to foraging and she’s been at it ever since. By the time she was two-and-a-half, Katie could identify and gather wild carrot, fennel and mint, and recognised a handful of inedible plants.

Besides fantastic opportunities to put healthy, organic, wild and free food on the table, foraging is an active and productive immersion in the natural world. Through foraging, children come to understand ecology and local environments, to learn from and about nature, and to develop a sense of their place in, and obligations to, our planet.

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Foraging for clams in Brittany

As a nomadic family, we foraged for food in the middle of England, along the coasts of Devon, Cornwall, Ireland, Brittany and Galicia, and in southern Spain and Portugal. From trees growing in green city spaces to rural woodlands and open countryside, we have gathered almonds, apples, apricots, carobs, figs, hazelnuts, lemons, loquats, olives, oranges, plums and pomegranates. From seashores we have gathered clams, cockles and mussels, sea beet, rock samphire and wild carrot. We have gathered alexanders, asparagus, chard, fennel, lavender, mint, nettles and rosemary from woodlands, scrubland and walking trails, blackberries from hedgerows and camomile from fields. Lily and Katie have accompanied me as I’ve picked prickly pears and their dad as he’s gathered edible mushrooms.

***

As humans, we are increasingly disengaged from the natural world. And the more disengaged we become, the less we appreciate the incredible world around us, or understand our place in it and our obligations to it. Providing our children with opportunities to be immersed in the world helps them to develop that sense of appreciation, understanding and obligation. Immersion helps us to become part of the world again as we learn about the seasons, ecological niches, how plants depend on each other, and the lives and behaviours of animals. When we engage with the world, when we come to know it intimately, we are in a greater position to care for it, and to recognise our obligations to it.

Among the most ancient of ways to engage with the natural world is through foraging for food. Our ancestors have been doing it since before we were human. Until the late 1960s paleo-anthropologists believed that language, tool use and group organisation – those cultural characteristics that make us human – were developed and honed through hunting. The earliest tools, it was believed, were those used to hunt, kill and process wild animals; the earliest forms of communication were in the organisation of hunting parties. But in the late 1960s, female anthropologists began to study the previously ignored lives of women in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. And what they discovered radically altered our understanding of the development of human culture.

Rather than hunted meat being the mainstay of most hunter-gatherer diets, it is foraged foods – vegetables, tubers, fruit, nuts, eggs, honey, shellfish, grubs and insects – that are the staple and daily elements of the diet. From these observations of contemporary hunter-gatherers, a new theory of the development of human culture emerged. Rather than hunting tools being the first forms of material culture, it was foraging tools – bags for carrying foraged food, and slings and straps for carrying infants. (However, unlike stone tools, these leave almost no trace in the fossil or archaeological record.) Indeed, the organisation required to communally care for infants and young children while women foraged was most likely what necessitated the development of language and complex culture. Forget man the hunter. Human culture blossomed around woman the gatherer.

Our ancient ancestors were intimately acquainted with the world around them. They had to be. Subsisting on foraged food required a deep knowledge of edible and inedible plants, of where, when and how wild foods grew, of how their growth was influenced by the plants and animals sharing that ecosystem, of weather and seasons, and of how foraging practices protected or destroyed plants for future use.

***

While we no longer rely on foraged food to survive, the practice of foraging draws us into the world around us. My family has discovered that the more time we spend in search of wild foods, the more intimately acquainted and attuned we become with the natural world. Not only do my children remember the location of the best patches of asparagus from previous years, for example, but they have learned, through experience, the environmental conditions best suited to this plant and, thus, where and when to look for it in new places. They have grown to know the seasonal changes that plants undergo and the other plants that share and are vital to the health of that habitat.

When we forage, our senses are caressed, challenged and enriched by the landscape. We walk up and down hills, through bright sunshine and dank shade, through woods and across fields, our hearts and breaths racing with exertion, feet slipping on damp rocks as we leap across streams or sinking into muddy tidal flats. Stopping to enjoy the sound of buzzing bees, our children learn from which plants bees forage at different times of year. They learn that other animals like the same foods as we do – wasps and birds on plums and pomegranates, the snuffling marks of a wild boar that got to the delicious asparagus tips before we did, the hollowed circles of grass made by a badger amongst the blackberry brambles, or our horse friend who makes short work of carob seed pods. And they can observe how wasps, ants, bees, birds and other small animals are linked to the life of each plant.

Such observations connect children to the natural world, allowing them to indirectly observe that the wild foods they collect are part of complex ecosystems. Further, they come to understand that they themselves are part of that ecosystem, just like the badger, the ant and the honey bee. They also learn that, to a far greater extent than any of these other animals, humans have the power to nurture or to destroy the environment. We teach our children, by example, to not take more than we need and to take only a little from each individual plant or area. Our children observe for themselves the destruction caused by wanton use and thoughtless disposal of plastics, metals and other industrial products, or by the needless felling of trees.

***

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Lily in long sleeves and long trousers for the thorny work of asparagus hunting

Foraging is a deeply rewarding activity. We spend quality time with our children, engaged in activity together towards a common goal. The wild foods we bring home are transformed into delicious meals for immediate consumption or preserved or dried for use at some later date. When we return home after a few hours of walking, talking and foraging, we are often tired and grass or mud-stained, but our spirits soar from all we have seen and done, our bodies and minds enriched and enlivened from our immersion in the landscape. And with that immersion comes a stronger sense of care, compassion and empathy for the natural world and its many and varied inhabitants.

Productive procrastination and the tug of memory

The editing assignment I’m working on at the moment is one of the most interesting, and biggest, I’ve had in the three years I’ve worked as an academic editor. Each new editing assignment, written by academics in China, Japan, Indonesia and elsewhere, is a new and fascinating learning experience for me. But the one I’m currently working on is particularly enjoyable because it is closest to my own research interests and the suggestions I have made to the authors come from my own specific background as an environmental anthropologist, rather than from my usually broader background as a social scientist at the interstices of culture and nature. This week’s assignment is about intangible cultural heritage, about the conservation and transmission of knowledge, skill and memory.

However, despite my enjoyment of this current assignment, I find myself procrastinating. Having done the washing up after lunch today I knew I should return to my office and sit down for an afternoon of editing. Instead, I decided on the spur of the moment to make a coffee cake. I’ve never made a coffee cake before, but I have a hand-written recipe in the little recipe book I’ve been adding to and baking from for years.

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My ‘not as good as Cissie’s’ coffee cake

I’ve been craving coffee cake for weeks, probably since the end of March and what would have been my father’s 78th birthday. You see, for me, coffee cake is intimately and indelibly tied up with memories of my father and my aunt Cissie, Daddy’s oldest sister. Coffee cake does not exist in my memory and my imagination independent of those two very important people in my life.

Until I was five years old, I was the only child in a small house in rural Ireland that was home to my mother and father, my paternal grandmother, and my paternal aunt, Cissie. My uncle Tom was there most days too and each weekend, my cousins Sean, Declan and Colette and my aunt Lillie were there too. I grew up in a house filled with love and jokes and an obsession with Gaelic football. I never once questioned my place in that wonderful setting. I was grounded and protected and loved. When I was five years old, my baby sister was added to the mix, and when I was six, my beloved aunt Cissie died of breast cancer.

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Cissie and me on the lawn in Ballygibbon, summer 1974.

Cissie was 18 or 19 years older than my father, who was the baby in a family of eight children that spanned a 22-year range. They all grew up in that house, as had my grandfather before them, who had died on my father’s first birthday. Cissie was the third oldest in the family, and the oldest girl. In what would be the final years of her life (although none of us could ever have imagined that someone so full of life could die so young), and her most important years from my young perspective, she worked as a housekeeper for a country doctor. Dr. Hill was herself an amazing woman, family doctor to all of us and a woman who had gone to medical school in Ireland in what must have been the 1930s. She and her husband, Ger, who was confined to a wheelchair, lived in a big bright orange farmhouse up a long avenue, a couple of miles from my house. Cissie worked in the kitchen, cooked the meals, baked, helped with Ger and slept in the house a couple of nights a week. I have very strong memories of sleeping in Cissie’s bed in her room at Dr. Hill’s house once and feeling simultaneously thrilled and terrified by the vastness of the house.

Back home in our little two-bedroom, five-person house, I shared a bed with Cissie and we, in turn, shared a room with my grandmother. When I go home to Ballygibbon now I can’t imagine how or where we fit two large old beds, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers in that room. But, somehow, we did (maybe the confined space prepared me for life on a boat).

Cissie’s baking was legendary. She baked all the time and everything was delicious. Cakes, tarts, desserts, she made them all. My father, despite hating coffee, loved his big sister’s coffee cake. And, despite being in his mid-30s in the mid-1970s, when I was a little girl, he was still Cissie’s adored baby brother, Cinn-bán Paddy, blond-headed Paddy, and she indulged and cultivated his sweet tooth at every opportunity.

It would be incorrect to say Daddy loved coffee cake. He loved Cissie’s coffee cake. After she died, in 1979, at a time when I was too young to appreciate the grief of those around me, he rarely ate coffee cake again. On those rare occasions when he conceded to try a slice of coffee cake, his response was always the same, ‘It’s not as good as Cissie’s’. Coffee cake never being as good as Cissie’s became, and still is, a running family joke.

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With my parents and sister at Dublin Zoo on the day of my First Communion, May 1980, less than a year after Cissie’s death.

My father died fourteen and a half years ago. Although my grief is triggered in often odd and unexpected ways, twice a year, on the anniversaries of his birth (March) and his death (September) I am usually guaranteed to feel his absence particularly acutely. This year I was less sad than usual, but was overcome by an almost madness-inducing craving not only to eat coffee cake, but to bake coffee cake. For weeks the stars have failed to align – not enough eggs in the house one day, not enough of the right type of flour the next, the gas bottle too close to empty to chance baking in the oven. But the craving to make and eat coffee cake never went away.

This morning, I took a mid-morning break from editing, as I had promised Katie I would play padel with her. Padel is a game that’s very similar to tennis, but played on a court that’s some way similar to both a squash and a real tennis court. Katie seems to be a natural at most sports and as we hit the ball back and forth across the padel net, I told her (not for the first time) how much Grandad Pat would have adored her and about all the sports they could have played together. Talking like that set me off and I had to take a little break from padel while my eight-year old daughter comforted me.

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Katie approved!

So, with my head full of ideas of intangible cultural heritage, of memory and skill and the transmission of knowledge, and with my heart full of my long-lost loved ones, my procrastination was inevitable, as I took my recipe book from its shelf. So, I’ve made a coffee cake for the first time for my blond-haired girls, and the cycle of intangible culture, love and belonging goes on.

Would Daddy like the coffee cake I’ve made? Although he would never say so, for fear of hurting my feelings, I’m sure inside he’d be thinking, ‘It’s not as good as Cissie’s’. And I would have to agree!

 

P.S. Apologies to my mother, sister and any other family members who I have made cry by bringing back these happy memories. We’re a sappy bunch.