Stargazing with Matilda

Home schooling is a very real and present challenge (understatement) for millions of parents and families in the coronavirus lockdown, but Matilda and I had an enjoyable adventure at the end of what has been a tough day. There was a homework task in her school app inbox from before Christmas, to explore the night sky. So off we went in the car (including Chippy the Elf, don’t ask) to a quiet country lane a few miles from home.

Winter is the best time to explore the night sky in the northern hemisphere, because it’s darker than the summer (obviously) and because there are more distinctive constellations, with Orion dominating.

It was muddy and windy (my flat cap blew off) and a little scary for Matilda, but we had a great time and saw some wonderful objects in the night sky once our eyes had adjusted.

The most obvious object in the sky was the Moon with Mars and Uranus appearing close in the sky, although the latter is too faint to see with the naked eye unless the location is exceptionally dark. We saw the dramatic constellation of Orion and used his belt (three stars in a line) to point down to Sirius (the brightest star in the night sky) and upwards to the constellation of Taurus and the Pleiades star cluster. We spotted the distinctive W (or M) shape of the constellation Cassiopeia, and the plough shape of Ursa Major.

It was a very short lesson as Matilda soon wanted to get back into the car, but we could still see quite a lot inside the car and on the way home. A positive experience of home schooling at the end of the day.

Food Supplements and Vitamins

They say that if you have a good, balanced diet you don’t need food supplements and vitamins. Now, I’m not a doctor, but I feel there is a place for them at times and in certain circumstances. I’m only making personal suggestions here, so it’s important that you use common sense, and seek medical advice if necessary because there can be adverse effects if taken inappropriately.

Because I’m over 65 years old, I take a number of food supplements and vitamins daily: a multivitamin and mineral tablet (formulated for men), a glucosamine and chondroitin tablet to protect my joints (especially as I’m a runner), an omega 3 fish oil capsule (unless I’ve eaten oily fish that day) to help maintain a healthy heart, and a vitamin D capsule.

Vitamin D is essential for the optimal performance of our immune systems, and is produced naturally in the body with the help of sunlight. Unfortunately, it’s easy to become deficient in this sunshine vitamin in the UK and other countries with short days and little sunlight in winter.

A few years ago I was diagnosed with a vitamin D deficiency and was prescribed a high dose of this vitamin. I now take a high daily dose of vitamin D in winter, and a maintenance dose during the summer. In the current coronavirus pandemic, it might be worthwhile thinking about taking this vitamin, but please take medical advice as you can take too much.

Each of my young children also have a daily chewable age-appropriate multivitamin pastille, and they always remind me at teatime in case I forget.

Do you take food supplements and vitamins?

Tales of Home Schooling

It’s Saturday morning (9 January 2021) at the end of a draining week. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the schools were safe on Sunday, opened them after Christmas on Monday, and then closed them on Tuesday.

It was a tough call taking our children to school on Monday morning, of which the practicalities of getting the children to school was the easy part. I had trouble settling down on Sunday night as we were concerned about them going back to school. The circumstances were far worse than last September, and Boris Johnson had already suggested that stronger coronavirus restrictions were likely soon. The lockdown was announced on Monday evening.

On Tuesday I wrote on social media, that despite the personal challenges and societal problems (which I acknowledge are huge), the lockdown seems right, and I feel safe at home with my family. Taking the children to school yesterday didn’t seem right, and it felt very different compared to last term.

Although safe at home, like millions of other parents, we faced the immediate challenge of home schooling again – this time more organised and a legal requirement.

We felt a little shell-shocked, and sent the following note to Freddy and Matilda’s primary school teachers: We’re motivated for home-schooling and looking after the welfare of our children during lockdown, but this morning we’re a little shell-shocked. So we’re just stepping back today in order to adjust to this new reality. We’re being kind to ourselves as a family and trying not feeling guilty. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow and not beat yourself up. We really appreciate you and value your professionalism, but we don’t want to feel too pressurised. We’re not experts and we want this to be relaxing and fun. Our default home schooling position is simply reading books (of which they have many) with them, and then moving on to the other tasks. Be affirmed and encouraged.

Home schooling is a messy mixture of frustration and satisfaction, but we’re really grateful for teachers who are doing everything they can in very challenging circumstances, delivering interactive, downloadable, and Zoom classes.

We recognise we’re fortunate that neither of us are working, but that can bring its own problems, and we really feel for those who are having to juggle competing responsibilities.

By Friday, we’d started to establish a routine, felt that we’d bossed the technology, and sorted out some workarounds when the tech didn’t scratch where we itched.

Everyone’s challenges are unique in the overall situation. It’s not a competition, there’s no prize for who’s coping best in lockdown with all its common (yet uniquely individual) challenges. We all need to encourage and support one other. One day it’ll be me screaming inside and you can encourage me. Another day it’ll be the other way round. None of us is immune. But, even in our struggles, we can choose to be an encourager.

Thank you teachers, you are amazing!

See also Freddy’s Self-Isolation Homework

Note: the photo is Elmer, made from the top of a milk container by Matilda as part of her homework.

Normalising Abnormal Stress

We are living in strange and stressful times. We may feel we’re coping or might be run down, weary and possibly at the end of ourselves. We may be berating ourselves for falsely believing we should be coping better. We may even have experienced the whole range of emotions and feelings over the last few months.

In this final month of 2020 there are still many signs that our lives aren’t normal, for me it’s a sense of sameness every day. Yes, I know I’ve retired, but even allowing for that there’s an absence of variety in daily life that we possibly took for granted before coronavirus.

I wonder if we’ve normalised the abnormal levels of stress that living in 2020 has created?

Back in March 2020 we quickly adjusted to our new reality and easily adapted to our new circumstances, even if it presented us with huge challenges and struggles. We generally understood the need for the lockdown. We made allowances, we cut ourselves and others some slack, remembering we were all in exceptional circumstances. For the most part, we lowered our expectations of ourselves and others.

But, here we are, nine months later, and feelings and circumstances are different. We can easily forget that life isn’t normal. We’re living with fear, uncertainty and isolation, all of which are difficult in so many ways. Have we have forgotten what it’s like to live without this background stress, this constant weight bearing down on us? Have we stopped making allowances for ourselves and others?

Don’t beat yourself for not doing more. Don’t criticise yourself for not coping better. Don’t feel bad for not being as productive as usual. Don’t expect to be upbeat all the time.

There’s hope for the future with a coronavirus vaccine on the horizon, but there are still struggles ahead. Christmas is going to be different this year, and so we can’t necessarily rely on the usual comforting traditions to carry us through. We have to find other avenues of strength and support. We’re still in tough times.

We have to make allowances for ourselves and others, we can easily act ‘out of character’ because of circumstances. Lowering expectations of ourselves and others is vital, even though it’s counter-intuitive. When we or someone else acts in a negative way, we need to ask ourselves what might be causing it.

This approach helped us recently in dealing with a problem that could so easily have resulted in a confrontational argument, but we approached it sensitively to achieve a win-win situation. The presenting problem was actually a symptom of deeper issues related to coronavirus stress. What could have gone badly wrong (we were also stressed) became a wonderful opportunity to draw closer together. I merely use this personal example in the hope that it helps you, we could equally have been the ones causing the problem because of our background stress.

Humility and thoughtfulness for others are always vital.

Our Christmas Newsletter 2020

2020 has been quite a year for everyone, but for us it was the year John retired and we moved from Wallsend to Norton (Stockton-on-Tees) to be near Naomi’s family and our friends. Our first encounter with coronavirus was in March when we had to change the venue for Freddy’s 5th birthday party.

Our children were unsettled by the challenges of lockdown, as well as the move. Freddy and Matilda had benefitted socially, academically, and emotionally from the daily toddler groups and play cafes they visited before they started school nursery and then full-time school. They also got to go to nursery from the age of two for 15 hours which really built their confidence. Then the coronavirus lockdown happened, resulting in Freddy and Matilda being ripped abruptly away from their school in Wallsend in March, and not being able to return to say a proper goodbye to their school friends before we moved. Pollyanna had just started her school journey at Shining Stars Nursery before lockdown stopped it in its tracks. We remained sensible and only left the house to go for long walks in open spaces, and filled the rest of each day with home-schooling (not easy), learning games, drawing, talking together, playing, lots of cuddles, and togetherness as a family.

John’s retirement was never going to be a normal one with three young children under six, but that was before the coronavirus pandemic which well and truly threw our plans into disarray. The earliest John could have retired was February 2020 but, for a variety of reasons, he decided to work for another five months until the start of July 2020. Although John won’t have any work responsibilities in retirement, he’ll remain a Salvation Army Officer. He’s looking forward to Christian ministry in different circumstances, with possibly new areas to explore. One thing he won’t miss is administrative responsibilities.

It was a nightmare having to carpet and furnish our new house in lockdown, while packing up and preparing for a new occupant to move in (as an officer you move into a house that has been cleaned and prepared for you). We were originally going to move on my retirement day (1 July) but had to postpone it for a week (8 July) and even that made it very tight, we only just had the carpets down and furniture in before we moved. The supply chains and lockdown regulations made life extremely difficult. Trips to the local tip were by appointment only, and we eventually used up our limit. The tight timescale also made it difficult for property work that needed to be done before the new officer moved in on 16 July. Of necessity (not choice) John had to do numerous trips between the two houses before and after our move to finish off.

Settling in took a while, there were still things to be done (and several problems encountered along the way) and we didn’t get our sofas until the middle of August, but we managed. Freddy and Matilda are happy in their new school, although we’re still looking for nursery options for Pollyanna. The pandemic continues to be a concern, as it does for everyone. Overall, we’re moving on, settling into our new routines, and actively building our new life together as a family.

Note: For a printable PDF file with photos click here.

Humans (TV Series)

I recently posted on Facebook and Twitter: We’ve watched two episodes of HUMANS on Netflix, but we’re not totally hooked. Convince us to keep watching…

We received a variety of responses, mainly ones that suggested we give up, with some only managing one or two episodes. Equally, there were those who were very positive and urged us to keep going.

We actually gave up and watched another series, but came back to HUMANS, and we’re glad we did. From the third episode we were hooked and we’re currently on the second season.

Like all good science fiction drama and writing, it asks deep questions about life, and in this case what it means to be truly human. The series explores the themes of artificial intelligence and robotics, focusing on the social, cultural, and psychological impact of the invention of anthropomorphic robots called ‘synths’.

Without giving too much away, some of these synths become fully sentient and experience consciousness, a truly difficult concept to get your head around. As I write this, I know that I am a sentient being, but I have absolutely no way of proving that you have a similar experience, I simply have to make the assumption that you do.

So, if you like drama that asks difficult questions, then this is for you. If, like us, you nearly gave up on it, you might like to give it another try.

Update 10/11/20: We watched the final episode and were pleased we did. The whole series raises so many ethical and philosophical issues that are totally relevant to life today, brilliant and thought-provoking. Be prepared to invest in it and you will be amply repaid.

Sunshine in Lockdown (Naomi Ager)

I’m really pleased to share this guest post by my wife Naomi, one she surprised me with late last night.

Yesterday’s (Thursday 15 October 2020) visit to Sunshine Wood turned out to be quite emotional for me. No, not in a gushy crying way, but instead a rush of overwhelming relief that finally I’d found somewhere lovely, stimulating and safe for my youngest child Pollyanna to explore and enjoy learning opportunities again, one that involved little people like her and not just with mummy.

My older children, Freddy (5) and Matilda (4) have benefitted socially, academically, and emotionally from the daily toddler groups and play cafes we toured before they started school nursery and then full-time school.
They also got to go to nursery from the age of two for 15 hours which really built their confidence.

Then coronavirus lockdown happened, resulting in Freddy and Matilda being ripped abruptly away from their school in Wallsend back in March 2020, and not being able to return to say a proper goodbye to their school friends before we moved house to Norton in Stockton. Pollyanna had just started her journey at Shining Stars Nursery before lockdown stopped it in its tracks.

I found myself, like many thousands of other parents, at home with the prospect of a whole new ‘adventure’ – home schooling! These children had been used to proper organised activities, play groups, nursery etc. How could I compare?

We remained sensible and only left the house to go for long walks in open spaces, and filled the rest of each day with learning games, drawing, talking together, playing, lots of cuddles, and togetherness as a family.

Eventually, the schools reopened, and in September, the big two started their new chapter at their new school. This left Pollyanna and me at home alone facing long daytimes, still with toddler groups closed. A few places I had heard about from friends only took bookings, and I guess because I wasn’t used to being pinned down and kind of forced to attend, booking felt too official for this mummy and daughter duo who just liked to wake up and go where we felt like going.

Anyway, when Pollyanna’s little friend and her mummy invited us to go, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and get us both back into the swing.

Sunshine Wood greeted us with such warmth and friendliness, whilst still making sure the rules they had implemented were followed and understood. The facility itself was so clean and well set out and having a number limit really allowed those parents that were there to have a really quality experience with their child.

Pollyanna explored most areas at least once. Though she was particularly drawn to the excavators and rocks in the sand pit. She relaxed for ages there and found it really therapeutic to explore with the sand. In the hour and a quarter we (Mummy, Daddy and Pollyanna) spent at Sunshine Wood, watched our little girl come out of her lockdown shell and remember the fun she used to have with children her own age. She was a vet, a farmer, a shop keeper, and a builder. In those precious moments and she sparkled her way through every role. She also loved the painting area and proudly clutched her numerous works of art when it was time to leave.

As a doting mummy, I take copious amounts of photos so I can look back on the memories. Today, at Sunshine Wood, my heart took a photo, and they are always the best kind.