54: one of those weeks

It’s been a funny old week, really. At work we were coming to the end of the consultation period for what we hope was the last phase of the restructure (for a while, anyway) and, being a union rep, its been a bit frenzied for the last couple of months. The people I have been supporting have been angry, confused, upset, worried – about themselves, their colleagues and friends, and the collection – and frustrated. It’s been made more difficult as there was an anonymous leak to the press before it was announced to the museum staff, so the process has been happening under scrutiny from the broadsheets, Radio 4, a few of the arts journals and even parliament, where an early day motion was brought about the National Art Library.

I have come away from the process knowing a lot more about the workings of the conservation and curatorial teams, and have seen the museum values of generosity, collaboration and innovation demonstrated by the staff on a daily basis. The term ‘grace under fire’ has never made more sense, particularly as some of the meetings were being led by people whose jobs were also at risk of redundancy. It’s never felt more important to be a part of the union.

The kids have also been at home for their Easter holidays, which always makes online meetings more of a challenge! At least I wasn’t trying to manage home learning as well as the meetings, which really would have been the final straw. As it was, I made it as far as Wednesday and then decided I’d take Thursday off to clear my head.

Wednesday evening was a bit of a treat. As part of the rehoming of the learning collection I had sent some boxes off to Northern Ireland to Time Steps Living History, which is a historical interpretation company. Owned by Ireland sister, Time Steps provides sessions in schools, community venues, care homes, and historic sites and celebrated 10 years in business this week. ‘Sent some boxes’ sounds quite straightforward, doesn’t it? It skims over the fact that in the process I have had to raise a complaint with Hermes who won’t accept parcels for NI as they think it’s international (their international site thinks otherwise), and have a lengthy web chat with DPD whose delivery driver was unable to raise the museum contact despite having two phone numbers, a one hour slot when people were actively looking out for them and detailed instructions on which gate to use. Still, they got there in the end.

Where was I? Oh yes, Wednesday evening. Ireland sister and I videochatted while she unpacked the boxes, as I’d forgotten what was in them. It felt like Christmas for me, watching her discover tiny clogs, lots of ephemera, historic costume replica, toys, and more. All these things have been hidden in boxes in our cupboards, and now they’ll be having a new life when she can get back into schools and the community. My niece and nephew were also on the call – she is a mini history buff and he is incurably curious, pouncing on the wooden toys and experimenting. After a really hard few days (weeks!) it was wonderful to bring a bit of joy to someone.

My gorgeous niece Catrin modelling a replica bonnet. Image © Time Steps/Stephanie Lavery

Thursday became a bit of a mental health day, with reading and making things and generally not looking at screens except when I wanted to. It was lovely to be able to talk to the Things without having to take a pair of earphones off, be able to listen to the Minecraft explanations without half my mind being on my next meeting, and to be able to sit in silence at times. Silence is under-rated in these days of working from home and hyperconnectedness.

I have also managed to swim twice this week. The urge to get back in the water – chilly or not – has been so strong in the past few weeks that I’ve been able to visualise the chill of the water as it creeps up the legs of my wetsuit. On Monday I was so happy afterwards I got the giggles, as well as the silly grin we all get. The air was warmer than the water, which was sitting at 9 degrees, so getting changed was quite pleasant. Yesterday, the water was 10.6 degrees and the air was in single figures with a biting wind, so I was glad of my onesie with no awkward fastenings. In the van next to us a little girl had put her face underwater and got brain freeze – luckily I still had some hot chocolate left in the flask to share with her!

Copped Hall walk

Last Sunday my beloved and I dragged Things Two and Three out for a walk (Thing One was having a bit of a wobble so didn’t join us). We parked up behind the cricket pitch in Epping, crossed over the M25 on the Bell Common tunnel and followed the footpath up to Copped Hall. I’d never been up there before, but had always had the footpath earmarked for exploration at some point.

The path takes you down through a field where we could see a herd of deer ahead of us, and past a pillbox which is part of the Outer London Defence Ring – it was the second one listed in this blog post if you want more details! You then follow the road up past some very large houses (Rod Stewart is a former resident on the estate) and finally come up to Copped Hall itself. The kids loved climbing the tree outside and sitting on the haha watching the world go by. The walk back took us past woodlands swathed in primroses and violets, past the deer again and up a steep hill bordered by blackthorn in bloom. Copped Hall itself is being restored by volunteers, so it’s not open to the public apart from a few days a year, but we are planning to go back on one of those.

So that’s been my week! Today I was out at 7am ‘checking to see if the Easter Bunny had been hiding eggs in the garden’. I had hoped that this phase of my life was over, but the horror on the face of Thing Two when I tried to suggest that the Easter Bunny had already given me the eggs for them melted my resolve. This afternoon we are going to see Timeshare Teenager #1 and the grandchild for the first time since last summer, and the sun is just coming out so hopefully it’ll be a bit warmer! Happy Easter to you all: may it be peaceful and filled with the things that bring you joy.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

The Animals at Lockwood Manor – Jane Healey

A Private Cathedral (Dave Robicheaux) – James Lee Burke

A Dangerous Man – Robert Crais

Vesuvius by Night – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

A Comedy of Terrors (Flavia Albia) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

Week forty seven: it’s half term, give yourself a break!

We’ve made it! It’s half term – for the kids at least, though I have booked a day off on Thursday – and so we have a week off from daily Zoom lessons, Google classroom and the constant round of nagging about doing the work set. I cannot fault their schools, and am in awe of their teachers who are planning and delivering online work and feeding back on it, while also doing the same for the key worker children in school, managing pastoral care and also looking after their own families… but I am so glad it’s half term.

Not just for me, but for my mum (and dad) friends as well. We are working parents, without exception, and while we are expert jugglers and plate spinners – often holding at least two conversations while simultaneously sorting laundry, thinking about dinner, and praying for bedtime – there is a limit to the number of plates we can keep spinning before something drops. Right now, we are spinning all these parental plates and at the same time juggling the work oranges as well. I know that I am not the only one who feels like we aren’t giving enough time to either. It’s hard to help with maths when you’re in a Teams meeting, for a start. Children – especially young ones – don’t understand that there are other demands on your time and don’t respect the boundaries of an online meeting. Older children can be a help sometimes, but they have their own work to do and its not fair to put extra responsibility on them.

In ‘normal’ times we have our work heads and our home heads, and often we have a commute in between so we have a chance to swap them over, to decompress on the train home, to think about dinner before we are faced with actually having to cook it, to read a few chapters of a book or to listen to a podcast. You don’t realise how valuable that down time is until you don’t have it. Over the last couple of weeks I have been finishing work quite late (for me, anyway, as a committed morning person!), getting up from the dining table where I’ve been working, and starting on dinner straight away in response to the ‘what’s for dinner/when’s dinner/how long till’ conversations. By Thursday I’d completely lost the will to live cook and resorted to the chippy. My head was so overfull that I couldn’t contemplate dinner as well, let alone trying to cook something that everyone would eat. Dinner that night was just one too many plates to spin, so I gave up.

On Friday all three of mine were on a screen-free, mindfulness, wellbeing sort of day as decreed by their schools. An excellent idea, and the secondary school sent home ideas of things they could do (I really approved of the one that said ‘make your parent a hot drink’). I, on the other hand, did not have a screen free, mindful sort of day. I was trying to focus on what my museum learning might look like in three years time. It was too cold – with a wind chill of -8 – to send them outside for any length of time. I couldn’t stop to play board games or do jigsaws, or to go for a walk in the sunshine, so their wellbeing day didn’t do a lot for me.

So this week it’s half term and I still have work to do, and I am going to give myself a break. If they spend a whole day on Minecraft while talking their friends, I am not going to worry about it: they can’t go on playdates with them, so this is the contact they can have. If Thing 1 wants to stay in bed watching emotional teen movies till lunchtime, fine. We can all benefit from a bit of a break, whether its from parental plate spinning or algebra. And yes, there might even be takeaway one night.

Creative chaos

After last week’s ramble about wanting to learn to draw, I picked up my sketchbook and did a couple of Craftsy classes online – I started the ‘Urban Sketching in 15 minutes a day’ course, and then yesterday I tried a line drawing one about how to sketch a house. I really enjoyed them and am learning to embrace the imperfections, as one of the tutors was very keen to impress on me. Craftsy is a great source of courses at the moment, and I took advantage of an offer a couple of months back to get a year’s premium membership for about a fiver rather than $70.

In the year of the handmade gift I sent off a TARDIS cross stitch to a lovely Whovian friend – he and his husband have just bought their dream home, so I used a design by NERDpillo to make this one. I almost didn’t want to fill in all the blue as the black lines were so clean and sharp, but I did. I’m so pleased they like it!

It’s been proper brass monkeys weather this week – today is the first day in a week that the thermometer has gone above one degree. I was quite excited on Tuesday when I got to add a new colour to the Temperature Tree as it was so cold. You can also see a little toadstool in a hoop that I did purely to try out a string art backing technique, and an ombre string art heart card.

Finally, I chopped all my hair off on Friday morning – I tried the unicorn horn method that I used last time and it was still too long at the back, so I put it in pigtails and chopped both off at collarbone level. I love it, it’s curly and I can get a brush through it in seconds flat.

Tiny work doodle

(I was also really, really chuffed to be told on Friday that my article for CPRE had received 2000 views.)

Happy Valentines Day

A shout out to another creative friend here – the very lovely Emma, whose Etsy shop provided my gifts to my beloved for my anniversary last weekend and Valentine’s Day today.

There’s been a sweet theme this year: he indulged my passion for liquorice, and as well as torpedoes I have been given several bags of Spogs. These are a standing joke between us: when we were first together I had a bag of liquorice allsorts, and I’d saved all the spogs for last as they were my favourites. I came home to find he’d eaten them all as he thought I didn’t like them.

So that’s week 47! Happy Valentines Day to you all, you gorgeous bunch. See you next week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

The Grave Tattoo – Val McDermid

Inspector Hobbes and the Blood – Wilkie Martin

Week forty five: Pollyanna rides again

I was all set this week to write a thoroughly bad-tempered, miserable post, I really was. It’s been a long and frustrating week, after all. On Tuesday evening an article I’d written was pulled at the very last minute with no explanation or communication: by that point it had been through four editors, had been built on the web platform by another colleague, had had all the photos retaken, and was scheduled to go live. It was a piece I was proud of and had worked hard on, but with no feedback from the person who’d rejected it…what do you do? All writers (get me! a writer!) send work into the void, to a certain extent, but that void should not exist within your own workplace and certainly not your own department.

By Thursday I was so miserable about the amount of time I’d wasted on this piece – particularly as I’d sworn after the first experience back in October that I absolutely, definitely wasn’t going to do another one – that I’d decided I’d had enough of museum education and started looking on all the job sites for something else. (Dramatic, moi? Never!)

I had also had a conversation with one of our little team about the culture of toxic positivity that exists at the moment. Our reaction to everything that’s thrown at us is ‘yes, we can do that!’. I know we can do it because we are really, really good at what we do and we have an amazing project to showcase our talents, but right now thanks to Covid-19 we don’t have the breakout spaces to sit with our colleagues and share our fears and worries. We don’t have the space to think about failure and to work through potential pitfalls. Whether that space is a Friday lunch at the Japanese Canteen, pizza in The Florist, or a walk around the lake in Vicky Park, those moments with our work family are so important to our wellbeing. Sometimes we need to throw our toys out of the pram with people who understand the pressure we are under to deliver in a time of huge uncertainty, when the whole sector is in a state of recovery and restructure. Sometimes its having a safe space to say ‘well yes, of course we can do it, but we need x, y, and z to be able to do it properly’ without fear of being thought of as negative. I have so much faith in our project and the amazing things it will do, but sometimes our faith in ourselves wobbles.

Then yesterday I had my first session with a life coach. This was a contact from a friend who is training to be one herself, and she and her fellow trainees need people to practise on: I had never thought of this as something I needed to do, but why not help people out? It costs us nothing but time, they achieve their qualification and who knows, it might be interesting.

And oh, it was. I have done a coaching for management course so was aware of the process, but hadn’t really experienced it myself. When we had our introductory chat she asked me to think about something I wanted to work on – at that point I hadn’t just had a really miserable week, so didn’t have anything specific, but luckily my crisis of faith turned up at just the right time. We had an hour session, and it was so interesting to feel the way my energy rose when I was talking about what I love about museum education and why I do the job I do. We talked about some steps I could take to get some perspective on our project and to rebuild my confidence in my own skills, and by the end of the first session my sense of purpose and pleasure in my job was starting to be restored.

I ended the week feeling a lot more positive than I did at the start, and this post is considerably less grumpy than I’d planned.

The power of a puddle

Another thing that’s cheered me up has been a couple of good welly wanders with friends (only one at a time, of course). Yesterday, despite the miserable weather (promised snow, got copious rain) Miriam and I took her house-elves/hounds Dobby and Kreacher round the aptly-named flood meadow, then left them to warm up in the house while we carried on for another couple of miles down to Dial House and back. The rain mostly held off while we were out, and we had a good chat that didn’t include Minecraft at any point, which was definitely a plus!

Jill and I went out for our usual sunrise ramble this morning, making our way through the woods towards Tawney Common and round in a loop. We both slipped over on the ice – my hand and arm are really painful and I expect there will be a bruise on my nethers later, but when we’d finished laughing we carried on. The route we take faces due east, so we get the best of the sunrise over the fields.

Where we have had so much rain over the past few days and then a freeze overnight, the flooded fields had frozen around the plants and trees as well as in the footprints, leaving ice patterns. It was good to see from the hoofprints that even deer are prone to the odd slip and slide in the mud too!

We were in very good spirits this morning, frightening the wildlife with our renditions of The Hippopotamus Song and The Gnu Song, not to mention A Windmill in Amsterdam and stamping on the ice in puddles. We are missing the swimming but we’re so lucky to live where we do: it’s not Yorkshire, and it’s not Wales, but it’s not bad, as we are wont to say when looking out over the Essex countryside.

Ivy and fungus on a tree

Other stuff….

I haven’t got a lot to show this week as the main thing I have been working on will be a gift, but here’s the latest Temperature Tree (up to the 26th, I think – count the leaves!) to be going on with. My very colour deficient sister wants to know where the key is, but since she has difficulty distinguishing between shades of green and blue I’m not convinced a key will help!

I went to the optician’s this week for my annual eye test (only nine months overdue!). At forty I didn’t need any glasses at all, and was very smug at my glasses-wearing family. Then came the glasses for looking at the computer, which at my next eye test became my distance glasses and there was a new pair for the computer and close work. Now I need new distance glasses, my computer/close up ones are for middle distance and I require a third pair for reading and close-up work. This is just getting silly….

On Friday I took a day off as I had been asked to write a crafty piece for a charity’s website, which I was (and am!) really excited about: I love to write and to make things, so this was my dream project! Hopefully I’ll be able to share it next week, along with the citizen science project it will support.

A film I was interviewed for last year, about the importance of teddies and wellbeing, was finished and added to YouTube: I hate seeing myself on camera but I’m proud to be part of this. You can find out more about Workshy Films here. I have put the film at the bottom of the post, or you can watch it on YouTube.

It’s been a week of ups and downs, all in all, but today is the end of January which seems to have lasted about three times as long as usual, and this week contains not just Thing 3’s 10th birthday (how did that happen?) but my beloved and I’s 17th not-wedding anniversary and my niece’s 12th birthday. I have a box of deliciously gooey brownies from Ridiculously Rich by Alana which arrived as a surprise from London sister yesterday along with a new sourdough starter as I managed to kill Kevin (sorry Kevin), so snacks are sorted. I do love getting unexpected post!

I wish you all a good week, and I’ll see you at the end of week 46!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Nice Jumper – Tom Cox

Ring the Hill – Tom Cox

Educating Ruby – Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas

Week two: reality bites

Here we are at the end of week two, and cabin fever hasn’t quite set in yet – though I think the novelty of being at home has definitely worn off for the Horde. They are missing their friends, especially as we can see and hear some of them over the garden between us, and they are used to being in and out of each other’s houses. Limiting screen and chat time is frustrating for 13-year-old Thing 1, too, as she is used to working with her friends at school.

I – like so many other parents at the moment – have a renewed respect for teachers (and I used to be one!). In my case, it’s down to the really hard sums and various parts of speech that Thing 2, in Year 6, is expected to know. I got 1% on a fractions test in Year 7 and my relationship with them hasn’t improved over the years, so to be confronted with ratios and lowest common denominators and so on was a bit of a shock to the system. We muddled through, I think.

I have kept to my 7 – 2 working pattern, apart from the odd afternoon meeting (Thing 2: “They aren’t the people you usually talk to! Do you even know them?” – at least the internet safety chat has sunk in) which gave us the chance to try some new recipes. Thing 1 made gnocchi for lunch one day, Thing 2 made chicken, mozzarella and pesto filo parcels, and Thing 3 made cornflake cakes. 1 and 2 managed to make bread together one afternoon without all-out combat, and we tried making flatbread to go with meatballs too. I convinced them to eat cauliflower (#winning). All three of them have been painting, helping their dad in the garden (I think he is hiding from the chaos) and enjoying the sunshine.

Thing 2 and her latest creation – a gift for her nephew

When not negotiating tricky fractions or the perfect tense, I have been exploring the value of makerspaces for children as a way to increase their creative confidence – one book, The Nerdy Teacher Presents: Your Starter Guide to Makerspaces by Nicholas Provenzano, had me thinking about the potential for this way of learning as part of the planned school residency. It also has AWESOME geeky pop culture references.

As someone who was always encouraged to try things, to potter about as my dad built stuff in the garage, I think opportunities to make – to make things, to make mistakes, to go back and explore what you did wrong – are vital to children’s development and the growth mindset that’s so important to making it as a human being in the 21st century. It’s not something that can be tested in a SAT at Y6, for example, although project outcomes can be, so allowing children to fail has been off the agenda – children have been spoonfed knowledge and test content, which is great for school league tables but hasn’t done a lot for the children themselves. Project based learning is definitely on my mental agenda at this point, and how that can be condensed into a museum context, when our time with the students is limited.

Easter holidays start now

As the head of this here school, I declared an Inset Day on Friday so we started our break a day early.

Tuesday was a difficult day

Part of the reason for this was for the sake of all our mental health. Thing 3 has been quite unsettled, sleeping badly and having nightmares, which – as a very pragmatic little soul from the day he arrived – is very out of character. I also had a very bad day on Tuesday: one of the worst I have had for a while, with high anxiety levels and very low mood.

I am missing my daily commute: for me, this was a decompression between work and home, a chance to stop being ‘work me’ and be ready to be ‘mum me’. That hour of audio books or music and crochet makes a huge difference to my mental state. I’m usually pretty good at multi-tasking, but trying to be both my ‘selves’ at once is proving challenging at times. Still, no more SPAG and maths for a couple of weeks!

And hey, who am I kidding – I miss being in work as much as the kids being in school. I love my team, and the office dynamic – having people to throw ideas around with, chats over boiling kettles and seeing all our lovely visitors. I get great joy from my work – interacting with teachers and children, seeing the wonder on the faces of our smallest visitors. Although the Teams app and Zoom are good for seeing faces, the spontaneity isn’t there. It’s been lovely to have the odd chat with colleagues which didn’t come with an agenda, and I definitely feel the lack of the lunchtime walks to Victoria Park to see the dogs and ducks.

It’s hard not being able to see friends, too – the other people in the village, and also my nurse friends who are on the frontline at the moment. One lost a colleague to Covid-19 this week, and we can’t reach out and cocoon her. She is quite naturally angry that people are ignoring the rules – the scenes in Epping Forest and other parks this weekend have proved that people are not taking this crisis seriously. My parents, in France, are in full lockdown and I wonder how long it will be before that has to happen here too – 90% co-operation and 10% enforcement doesn’t seem to be working.

I am still running (or I was until my Achilles tendon did something odd yesterday at mile 3) but going out at 6am, when the only people I am likely to encounter are distant dog walkers. I see a lot of rabbits, too, and was lucky enough on Monday to spot a herd of about 30 deer grazing on the common.

A very fuzzy picture of deer….

How’s that to-do list coming on then?

It’s actually been quite a productive week!

Today I spent a few hours in my shed, sorting through fabric remnants – a lot of cotton left over from various projects was donated to a woman in the village who is making fabric masks. She is not charging for them, other than to cover materials. I know they have been in demand, so the fabric has gone to a good home (along with some sewing patterns I know I won’t use!). Some yarn also made its way down the road to a friend’s daughter who has caught the crochet bug.

I’ve managed to tick two things off last week’s list! One, the purple jacket, only took about an hour’s work so I have had no excuse not to finish it before. I am not sure I followed the pattern instructions but it looks OK, so I am happy.

The purple jacket – Patterns by Gertie for Butterick.
Purple gabardine lined with taffeta – it’s sooooo soft.

The second finish was the Attic Windows quilt. I wanted to back it with a red fabric as a contrast to the navy, but couldn’t get enough as there has been a run on polycotton fabrics for hospital scrubs (I have signed up to make some for one of the local trusts, who are desperately short of them – one of my nursey friends tagged me in a Facebook post, and today I washed and dried lots of fabric so I can get started in the afternoons this week). Where was I? Oh yes.

I decided to add a border of red rectangles to get the contrast, and then repurposed one of the kids’ old duvet covers to make the back. I cut it in half and then turned one piece through 90 degrees and stitched them together to get enough width. I also added applique cats – they look quite small at the bottom of the quilt, but the perspective of the night sky is probably what the world looks like to cats anyway, or so I like to think!

Ready for quilting and binding

Another project that shouldn’t have taken as long as it did! The first 25 blocks were hand sewn on the Central Line, which started a lot of conversations, and then a woman in a quilting fabric shop told me I was doing it all wrong, so I felt all disillusioned and put it away. For 12 years. The other 35 blocks were machine sewn last week, as they were all cut out, and I can’t tell which ones are which for the life of me from the front. So, nuts to you, lady in the quilting cotton shop.

The finished quilt has been submitted for inclusion in a book about making at home during the lockdown (more here: https://wideopensea.co.uk/athome/). It’s not perfect and I now see why you start quilting from the middle, but I am happy with it – I am also happy that the process of this caused Thing 2 to want to learn to sew.

Because it’s totally impossible not to start new projects, as well as signing up to make scrubs I also put together another quilt top – only to use up the squares, honest!

Using up charm packs.

I’ll also be making a few of the Frontline Hero bears for some friends, I think.

And that’s it from me for the week – here’s Bailey, doing what cats do best. Same time next week!

Kirsty x

“If it fits….”