The subtle art of being skint

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How to live life on the edge of your pants when you don’t have shed loads of money to throw at fancy trips.

Becoming a parent is absolutely humbling. That, and just about the most challenging thing any of us would ever have to contend with. Just imagine someone gave you a precious sports car and told you to drive it through the Namibian dessert at night. Not only that, you don’t get a map, you have never had a single driving lesson and you actually have gone temporarily mad due to 3 years of sleep deprivation and worry about said trip. Your body will feel like it has been battered with a hammer during said torture and you have forgotten what a hot meal is. It’s a winning combination for success. If we approached the work place with such a lack of preparation, it would be insane, but instead you have to study for years, get some experience, have a mentor check on you and a bi-annual review.

My children are constantly re-educating me on how to be a human. Hedonism is something which is slowly drilled out of us as we get older. My quest this year to complete 52 micro adventures has led me into all kinds of new and terrifying experiences. We also stop taking risks and I think as we do so, we progressively stop believing in ourselves. The biggest asset my new year’s resolution has given me is a massive confidence and happiness boost.

I am currently at adventure #41: Go on a cray fish hunt.

Here are some of our best family Micro adventures (with minimal cost)

#1 Go fossil hunting. My kids genuinely thought they had found a fossilised dinosaur poo. They were thrilled.

#2 Make art on a beach with found items. It never ceases to amaze me how children can only concentrate for 10 minutes in a classroom but hours on a beach.

#3 Breakfast picnic. Our favourite is to go to a bakery early (one of our kids wakes at 4am) and sit in the park on a sunny morning in complete solitude apart from us four, the birds and the flowers swaying in the breeze.

#4 Climb a mountain (or big hill). You may have to invent a creative game to entice them up, but the views are humbling to all. Seeing places you recognise gives you a humbling reminder of perspective in life.

#5 Go on a fungus hunt in a forest. My kids get points for each different type and bonus points for especially ugly, colourful or massive ones. It is amazing how attentive they are. They nearly always triple my score.

#6 Tell a shared story around a fire. Anyone can make a fire and we could all make up a tale, but google has replaced creativity and experimentation. Sometimes I long to not know the answer to a question, to ponder and consider. Some of the times my kids have absolutely laughed the hardest is about one of my ridiculous stories.

#7 Make dinner together. We have arrived at a really strange state of cultural climate where it can feel like our offspring are small princes with which we constantly serve. Kids these days don’t seem to do chores, partly because the likes of dishwashers, washing machines etc have made life easier, but I am constantly astounded at how the art of cooking, a basic human need, is one which we leave too late to teach. Kids bloody love cooking!

#8 Collect forest treasures. The world is full of wonder and awe when you are 5. I have rediscovered my inner child by finding pleasure in examining acorns, looking for four leafed clovers and singing Victorian songs long forgotten about nature.

#9 Draw an observational sketch of a found object. There is a great deal to be gained from slowing life down and disconnecting from screens. Children’s vocabulary is suffering in this digital age. The sheer act of using language to do art together is deeply wonderful. They will disclose all kinds of weird and wonderful thoughts about the universe.

#10 Watch clouds. Do you remember that? Being bored as a child and finding the mundane fabulous. Nebulous thoughts are so relaxing. Sharing this moment with your children is an act of bonding.

So let’s try to stop distracting our kids so we can “Get on with stuff” and realise that perhaps it is the stuff, which is distracting us from our kids. Because they are the most precious and important thing we have in our lives. Everything else is just glorified dust.

Macro-adventure: Scotland

Once a year, we would all like to go on a big adventure. It is good for the soul and reminds us of our humanity before we created a society based on valuing only written language and staying in man made dwellings.

The Isle of Arran

The things we all do on holiday, are in fact things that bring us deep pleasure. Buying and cooking good food. Exploring a new location. Turning off the TV and playing games with our children. Reading a great book while milling about on a sandy beach. Having a glass of wine at 5pm with the love of your life. Going outside to look at the starry sky. Taking a boat ride. Having a picnic after a long bike ride.

The silly thing is that we could be doing these things on any weekend, but we tend not too. We probably tell ourselves that we don’t have the energy. But it is probably not physical energy that is lacking (unless you are one of the few people who do heavy manual labour these days) it is in fact, entirely mental energy that we lack. In an attempt to create a world where we have more leisure time, where computers allow us to work from home, and electronic devices reduce time spent on household chores, we have created an environment where we are totally unable to switch off from stress. Our workplace can contact us at any time of the night or day (I have received emails at 5am!), our banks send a text message to tell us we have no money, and social media bombards us with adverts 24/7 to our phones to remind us how fat/ugly/hairy/poor we are.

Our holiday to the Scottish highlands and Islands was absolute bliss. The cottage we rented was cheap compared to Cornwall or Pembrokeshire and it had no TV, no gas connection, and no mains water. The water was from a local spring. If you opened the windows you could hear the twin waterfalls which cascaded nearby. We had a log burner for heat and the nearest shop was 35 minutes drive. The journey was long, but the rewards were priceless. We had to improvise and re-adjust our expectations. The children did not even mention to TV and it was as though they had remembered how to be children again. The adults looked though the small library and forgot about Brexit.

Kilmory beach

Our nearest beach was a short drive away and when it was sunny, it was like the Bahamas. Beautiful clear water and white pure sand. On one day we took our bikes on the small ferry over to the Isle of Gigha. From the port we rode round the bay where you will find a small campsite with it’s own beach, pub and jetty. The pub served us bacon butties and fresh orange juice before we headed off to the twin beaches. On arrival, we were hot and sweaty and strode straight out into the sea. Below, by my foot was what looked like a pipe fish (native sea horse). “It can’t be?” I thought but as I put my hand into the cool water, it swam away from me. As we walked along, baby plaice scooted away from us. My older son dug in the sand to make a sand castle and pulled up live clams, big enough to eat. The sea was teeming with life. I had never seen anything like it. It was like a little Heaven on Earth, how I imagined the world was 100 years ago. The Mediterranean was pretty on the surface, but dead beneath. If you wanted confirmation that human impact was not killing everything on the planet, if you wanted hope that nature could recover, here was the evidence.

Cool sea Lochs mirroring the sky

This type of magical holiday experience cannot be had all the time. We were incredibly lucky with the weather and lack of midges. No one got ill and we made some fantastic memories. I called in to see an old friend who greeted me with “I know you like cheese, so I brought you this.” Local cheese. She knew me so well. She spoke of the new life she had created two years ago when she bought a house on a remote island. It had a different pace, with a close community. She said ‘hello’ to friends, as we sat and ate on ice-cream on the shore with a view to the mountain beyond.

But my absolute favourite day, was the one where we built a beach fire. We headed down around 3:30 when most others would be going home. We had purchased fresh herring fillets, venison sausages and scallops and cooked it on sticks over the heat. I am 39 years old, and this is something I have never done. You can keep your fine dining, this was the best food on planet Earth, with the most incredible view and we were all alone, save for one curious seal which cruised around the bay and a sailboat with a couple who had docked for the night.

Prosecco, scallops and loved ones. What more does one need?

The art of hedonism

The world has a song and no one hears it

Dave Jones
The beauty of simple things

I managed to squeeze in two micro adventures this weekend. #27 was a family walk round Warmley forest park. I have lived in this city for 16 years and I had no idea of its existence. It is not the most striking of beautiful places, but what amazed me was how much public space there was. We hardly saw anyone. People seem to prefer malls and fast food and being glued to their phones.

I have recently met some incredible women as part of a new group. I was chatting to one husband while out for a drink. We tried to bring him into conversation as he was the only guy, the rest of us having failed to bring our partners and all us women are pretty big personalities. “What do you do?” Is a question social norms tell us to ask. “I am a farmer.” He replied. “He absolutely loves it!” Said his wife. “I love every day.” He said. And he had a wonderful poetic soul and spoke of his connection to nature and meaningful work.

Most of us start our working lives following rules which tell us we should strive to join a “profession”. If we do this we will earn lots of money, buy a nice house, get a flash car and then we will be happy. Career advice at school fails (like so many things in school) to ask us the most important question “what do you enjoy?” If the starting point for decision making is based on money, it will almost certainly end with pain. If the starting point is happiness, the rest will probably follow.

I text a friend about a year ago. “How are you all?” Her reply has been indelibly marked on my grey matter “We are poor, but happy.” For a while I had visited this friend while her partner was working. I would cycle over and have cheese and wine and we would analyse life and motherhood. As I would go to leave, I had to unlock my bike and happen upon a scene of the two adults through the window who showed each other pure love. They looked so happy.

You never stop learning nor growing

Sy

Adventure #28 was an adventure with the little one and I. He had been feeling jealous that the big one was having a Granddad day. So we bunged our bikes in the van and went off to Colliere’s way cycle path. I had been along it when Z was about 2 but not since then. He sung and weaved around in the dappled sunlight. It cost us nothing and he was happy as it encompasses two really great play parks.

A cycle through the mendips

I accidentally took us on a 10 mile trip. By the end we were both really tired. But it cost us nothing apart from the ice cream we chose to buy.

Three books changed my life. One of them is called ‘lost connections’ by Johan Hari. He talks about uncovering the real causes of depression and cause six is “Disconnection from the natural world.” The wonderful thing about this book is that you realise by the end that there is no barrier to you really feeling better. The resources are right in front of you and at your disposal.

It was while on this micro adventure that I devised a new idea for a business. Could I build a new carrier path based on what makes me happy? I knew it would not pay as much as teaching but imagine waking up every day excited! Most of us spend 50 weeks of the year being miserable in order to be happy on a two week holiday. What if we, like the lovely farmer, could flip that idea on its head?

Sensory stimulation for the soul

Pembrokeshire coastal path with crashing waves

Last weeks of Easter break have been incredible. I managed to squeeze 4 adventures in, and I have been able to share them with my favourite people.

Adventure #22 : pack a picnic and your toothbrushes and see where you end up.

We stayed in an unusual b&b and ate at a local pub with a kids play area and open grass. I sat inside and enjoyed the peace while the other three played fotty. We feasted on steak and lasagne and things we would never eat at home.

The beach was deserted as we went after breakfast and we enjoyed chasing the squealing gulls. At the end of the beach we found Victorian gardens abloom with carefully selected fauna to create a reason to be present on the cusp of spring.

Bridge building

The point at which we stop playing is the point at which we have lost joy in our lives.”

Syreeta

The next day of weather was terrible. I had found a new forest park to explore, but everyone else was reticent to say the least. Heldon forest park is cultivated for people , to be sure, but it has the charm and usefulness of all forestry commission sites. It is 3,500 acres of woodland just 15 minutes from Exeter. There is a really good cafe with a covered outdoor eating area and a log burner inside if the weather turns funky. We sat and drank hot chocolate while the windows turned blurry with rain. Eventually it did ease off and we stomped up the hill through majestic trees. The boys were singing and I was breathing deeply the smells the fallen rain had thrown up from the forest floor.

One of the activities we did at a Forest School training the week before was called sitting tree. You choose a spot and sit for 10 minutes. As she said it, I could feel panic rising in me. I have always suspected that I have ADHD. This would feel like 3 hours. I would immediately ‘out’ myself as a weirdo with no concentration. But an interesting thing happened. I took my shoes off and felt the grass below me. I felt the breeze on my face. I listened to multiple bird songs. I touched the different ferns around me. When the tutor finally called us back I was surprised. “How long do you think you were there for?” I was convinced it had been less than 10 minutes. “It was actually 20.”

Smells of wild garlic in spring

“How was it that I don’t have ADHD in the forest, but struggle to be in a room for 2 minutes? And how is it that my son has autism in school, but is suddenly cured at the beach?”

The world we now occupy is ever more 2 dimensional and this is getting exasperated by screen culture. On a screen you are seeing, and maybe hearing something but that is it. What we probably call naughty behaviour in children and depressed behaviour in adults could be seen as types of sensory seeking. A craving, if you like, for those parts of the brain we are not exercising. People are under the impression that over stimulation stops kids concentrating, but what if it is the other way round? Nature is a beautiful multilayered, multi dimensional feast for the mind. Interesting smells, sounds and textures are bombarding us from all directions. And are also constantly changing. We did not evolve inside four walls. We have spent hundreds of thousands of years living in and with our natural surroundings.

Perhaps the reason we all have a connection to nature because we actually feel at home and the man made buildings are actually the alien environment. Important neural connections are made by tiny babies who are touched and spoken to. Baby sensory classes are very popular because of research telling us that this is important for brain development. What if, in fact, this does not change with age?

My quest for 52 micro adventures has created in me the headspace to reconsider all of the reasons I thought I felt stressed and tired and stuck in a rut. I have been emancipated by my adventures. And dear reader, this is the most impressive part! You don’t need a shit load of money, nor time, nor permission from anyone. You could go and find a micro adventure right now.

Education rebellion

Why children need to be taken into the wild

Running through Wild garlic flowers and woodlands

Our children are growing up in a digital age which we have no experience of. They are guinea pigs for smart phones and 24/7 media. I am trying hard not to be the bastard parent who won’t let them have any of this stuff but I am failing miserably. My boys are 7 and nearly 9. Because I have worked with teenagers for 16 years, I have some strong opinions about the impact of “screen time.” Firstly, 4 out of 5 training sessions for work last year were on the rising child mental health crisis. I had workshops on mindfulness and dealing with grief and talking about self harm. The government has really pushed the agenda on rising anxiety and depression in childhood. But I feel we are looking at putting a sticking plaster on a problem, rather than asking why the problem is there in the first place.

My family when the boys were 2 and 4

Last week we went camping with my Dad, my cousin and her children. It was pretty full on with 5 kids from age 3 to 13. We were staying on a simple campsite on Hayling Island. My kids love being outdoors, understanding they can go off, climb trees, have fights, play games, make friends and collect dead crabs. (Don’t ask. The small one has some unusual ideas). Their cousins were not sure what to do when you don’t have WiFi, well apart from the 3 year old. He roamed around barely eating he was so excited. Trying to rewild a teenager is much more of a challenge. She seemed to speak a different language which consisted of text speak and American acronyms. FOMO?

I love my cousin to death. We laughed, we cooked, we gazed at the fire. There is nothing like two women watching their kids wade into the sea up to their knees and think “why?” We literally told them there were no spare clothes. And then proceed to watch them get drenched up to their elbows. We stayed up looking in awe at the starry sky. We made up fire side tales. We ended every day with salty hair and rosey cheeks and clothes bathed in wood smoke. We ate a LOT of cheese. Because calories consumed outdoors just don’t count. Kids toasting marshmallows after dark don’t count as bedtime pudding.

Fire. An essential element to a micro adventure.

We have taken our two boys into the wild from the week they were born. By the time little one was three, they could cope with a 5 mile walk thanks to a carefully constructed tale (lie). In your pocket hide 10 foil wrapped chocolate coins and tell them about the forest/ beach/ river goblins. These goblins hide treats for children, but they run away if they hear moaning or whining. Tell them that the goblins don’t really like people, so you have to go far from the car parks. When your kids start to flag, say “ooooohhhh. This looks like goblin territory. See if you can find goblin chocolate.” I recon, I have got my two to run the next 3 miles looking for the foil in tree trunks, under stones etc. …you’re welcome.

But let me come back to rewilding. Yes, it is a word. It is a very necessary word. Eventually, after three days and sunshine, and laughter, and fires the teenager relaxed. She slept better than she had done for a long time. She enjoyed playing croquet more than anyone. Pleasure we all got from scrabble was silly. Our hair was messy and wild. And in the middle of the night we walked barefoot in the dew to the toilets, amazed by how much shadow was cast by moonlight. No torch was necessary.

Brunch on the beach

We made our own rules and we made them as fun as we could make them.