This too shall pass, too fast

This morning, I dropped off Rupert, aged 7, at his first school residential. Two nights in the woods. He was a bit tearful, because he is a sensitive and emotional little soul, and driving to work afterwards, so was I, because so am I. But we talked about all the exciting things he’ll be doing, stuff with compasses and camp fires and bunk beds and beetles, and he’ll be fine.

But it is a rite of passage, sending your small people away for the first time in the care of teachers, rather than family or friends. A necessary one, though, more than ever: when DH and I were Rupe’s age, or thereabouts, we were cycling off by ourselves on adventures. I’d never let my kids do that; modern childhood just seems to not be so free and easy, so school trips away, with no contact, are sort of “controlled risk” independence.

Bridget had her first ever residential, three nights at Ironbridge, in February, and she got so much out of it. Having left her sobbing on the Monday, (and feeling like my heart would break in the meantime: the house felt all wrong and I HATED the idea of the long coach trips without me; the lack of control and contact) she came back on Thursday very tired (I don’t think they sleep much on these things), rather grubby, with a huge smile on her face, and just that little bit more grown-up and swaggery. She took a tiny leap forward in her development that week. Version 2

Which I find reassuring and alarming in equal measure. Good good, I think, when they survive “firsts”, I am doing the parent job OK, this terribly important job of raising my children to be capable, kind, brave, interested, interesting, and independent members of our global society. And also: I WANT TO WRAP THEM IN COTTON WOOL AND NEVER LET THEM OUT OF MY SIGHT.

When you have really tiny kids, like 2/3/4 year olds, parenting can be really, ahem, “challenging”. People say “this too shall pass” to you, a lot, during this time. But what I wish I could tell my past self, who I can see is frequently reduced to an exhausted mess with a non-sleeping snotty 18-month old and a delightful but clingy 3-year-old, is this.

It really will pass.

In a handful of years, when you have a 7- and a 9-year-old, you’ll all go and see a movie the adults actually want to see, and chat about it with them for ages afterwards, with insane questions about ski jumping or CGI or sloths.

You’ll eat good food, in good restaurants, with your small people, after 5pm, and the adults will get to chat and drink wine and laugh without loo trips and kids menus and cutting up stuff, while the smalls are actually having conversations with each other or their friends.

Holidays will stop being merely “childcare with (potential) sunshine”, because you can read an actual novel near a pool without fear of anyone drowning, eat interesting food together, do a few cultural things, and play Scrabble with margaritas or practice the flying trapeze till late. The kids might join in, might be on their tablets or might be with new friends.

You’ll stop being quite so desperate for weekends away without them, for a “break”, because they have turned out to be rather good company and you want to show them EVERYTHING.

Don’t get me wrong, you will still lose your shit and yell and have some very challenging and scary times in your relationships and health, and you might feel on occasion like you are losing your fucking mind, and you will probably drop balls, because there are too many to keep in the air, frankly.

That, my friend, does not improve quite yet.

But then, before you know it, you will find yourself talking to your children about aspects of puberty, and suddenly all your parenting peers are talking about is applying for secondary schools, and the smartphone rules you’re going to have, and how to teach your kids to respect themselves and others online, and worrying about Snapchat and trolling and body image and encouraging them to make healthy choices and all of that.

And then… Then, I don’t know. That’s stuff that’s starting now and will take us into next year. That’s the limit of my prescience. Beyond that, I still have blinkers on.

Because I absolutely cannot bear the thought of us not all being or wanting to be together, Team Sims, above all things. I can’t bear the idea that they will stop talking to us, and think we don’t understand or remember, all too clearly, about adolescence, or friendship confusion, or heartbreak, or what it’s like to have a proper existential crisis or really care about a cause.

Let alone them leaving home. (In about eight years. Gulp.)

So I’ll wait for some reassurance from someone else about that stuff, and carry on with the Lego and fishfingers and ferrying them to clubs and play dates and juggling school holidays and work deadlines.

And I’ll continue to fervently kiss their sleeping, innocent chops every night as I tuck them in before I go to bed, and to express silent gratitude that these two extraordinary little souls are gracing my life and teaching me such enormous lessons about love, and letting go.

Because, in the end, this too shall pass. And too bloody quickly.

Kids, creativity, and Minecraft

 

We were listening to the BBC Radio 2 breakfast show on the school run the other morning when I heard something that really irritated me. Sheila Hancock, who as one of the grand dames of theatre is almost beyond reproach, was chatting to Chris Evans as part of the build-up to the 500 Words kids’ short story competition, when she said, in passing: “Technology kills creativity”.

I inhaled, sharply.

The context was a conversation about getting kids off screens and using their imagination and creativity to write instead.

Reading and writing are obviously very, very dear to my heart. They are my vocation, my income, my beloved companions, my education, my therapy and my escape.

But I truly don’t believe it’s an either/or. And to say “technology kills creativity” in children, from my experience as a mum, is just plain wrong. It’s lazy, ignorant thinking.

Take Minecraft. For those of you without children aged over five, this is the incredibly popular virtual block-building game. Minecraft was created in 2009 by a Swede called Markus Persson, better known by his fans as Notch. He was inspired, unsurprisingly, by Lego. He loved Lego so much, he built a digital homage to it.

Minecraft has two modes, one of which is called Creative, where you can assemble blocks of materials – from brick to ice to obsidian– to create fantastical landscapes, underground diamond mines, or villages topped by intricate castles. There are little square pigs and ocelots and other animals tootling around. And then you can blow it all up with blocks of TNT, which is oddly satisfying.

minecraft

The other mode is Survival. This is the gamified version. Resources and lives are limited and hard won. You need to build weapons. Zombies might kill in you the night. The terrain may hold unpleasant surprises, or hidden treasure.

DD, who is nine-and-a-half, prefers Creative mode, building beautiful palaces and waterfalls. DS, who is seven-and-a-half, equally likes the peril of Survival. They design and build and modify incredible creations on Minecraft, with their fingers flying across the screen. It’s totally intuitive for them.

But it doesn’t end there.

Minecraft is creative in and of itself, but it also leads to offline creativity: designs, drawings, and written stories (all DS’s ideas for his 500 Words entry involved Minecraft in some way).

It inspires real-world block building with Lego (which pleases me greatly in its neat circularity, although Lego developing sets inspired by Minecraft is possibly a Borgian step too far…)

Minecraft is a prompt for imaginative games in the house and garden with each other and their friends. It is also the subject of quite sophisticated conversations and debates about planned Minecraft creations, including stuff about cause and effect.

And it’s part of their fledgling adventures in coding: we bought the children the fab Kano kit to build a computer and learn to code, and making your own modifications to Minecraft is among the coolest things you can do with it.

It’s also a brilliant teaching tool: there’s an official education version of Minecraft for teachers to use in the classroom. One dad even wrote a piece in the Guardian about how Minecraft gave his autistic child a voice.

YouTubers didn’t exist ten years ago. You couldn’t earn money from vlogging until very recently. But if you’ve seen some of the leading YouTube videos about Minecraft – the kids’ favourites include Stampylongnose/Stampy with his memorable laugh, Dan the Diamond Minecart and iBallistic Squid – you’ll know that this is now a bono fide job.

These videos get millions upon millions of views. Stampy (otherwise known as Joseph Garrett) was even invited to deliver the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Christmas Lecture last year, attracting its biggest ever audience.

And Notch, the 35-year-old creator of Minecraft, hasn’t done too badly for “just a gamer”: he sold his company Mojang, including Minecraft, to Microsoft in 2014 for $2.5 billion.

Not everyone can be Notch or Stampy, but Minecraft is going to be a huge influence on more familiar careers for years to come. There is unlikely to be a designer, architect or engineer of any discipline graduating (or starting their own business) in a decade who has not cut their teeth on Minecraft.

We can’t even begin to imagine the lives, jobs and opportunities our children will have as adults. But this kind of “tech plus creativity” skill set is likely to be critical to whatever path they embark on.

So I’m as happy for my two to explore, create and build on screen in Minecraft as in Real Life. Because far from killing creativity, technology can enable, boost and unlock it.

Turn and face the strange

This week, we lost Ziggy Stardust and Severus Snape, both aged 69, to the ravages of cancer. It’s no age, really, is it?

I have been quite surprised at my own distress at both deaths. I was just a twinkle in my daddy’s eye when *that* Starman moment aired on Top of the Pops in 1972, after all. I can’t claim that David Bowie changed my life, as he did for so many others. I just thought he was an awesomely cool creative force (even if my favourite Bowie song is the super-cheesy Absolute Beginners). But I still cried.

As for Alan Rickman, he was in some of my very favourite movies. My first year at uni was more or less back-to-back viewings of Truly Madly Deeply. Plus he was Professor Snape, for goodness’ sake.

And you just feel that bit chillier when a star has gone out, even if it wasn’t shining directly on you.

There’s another obvious thing, of course. An awful lot of people die from some form of cancer every day. Those rogue cells are complete and utter bastards. And every time there is a high profile death from cancer, I do some kind of quasi-non-Catholic-sign-of-the-cross thing in my head.

There, but for the grace of the universe, go I.

It resonates, deeply.

During this very sad week for creativity and movies and music, though, I have been doing this mental manoeuvre without the added acrobatics of crossed fingers, because on November 5th 2015, I got my official five year sign off.

This was very much a WHOOP WHOOP! moment.

My oncology team are no longer interested in me. I don’t have breast cancer anymore.

There’s no such thing as being “cured”, of course, and disclaimers abound: there are no guarantees that there won’t be a repeat performance at some point in the future.

But my prospects are excellent: I’ve had amazing, pioneering surgery, a super-powerful chemo drugs trial, belt-and-braces radiotherapy, and I’ve got another five years of daily Tamoxifen tablets as an insurance policy. I also get annual mammograms until I’m 50, and an annual chat and check-up with the breast clinic. It’s all good.

I felt, yet again, like the luckiest girl in the whole world when the consultant stood and smiled and shook both our hands and said: “Well done. You did it”. Me and DH cried outside the hospital, with relief and happiness. It really did feel like we could exhale after holding our breath for five years.

Serendipitously, it was Fireworks Night, so obviously we had a handful of family members and close friends and excitable small people over for low-key sausages and fireworks and champagne. It was awesome to be able to say, out loud, that, as promised, I have well and truly fucked cancer. Pretty emotional, all round.

Life was good. We could all chill out and move on.

Well, for six days, anyway.

Because on the seventh day after my victorious sign off, DH got made redundant.

“FFS!!!” doesn’t really cover it.

I felt like we were bloody Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games. We’d just wiped out one deadly opponent when another poisoned arrow came hurtling out of the woods towards us.

katniss

Me and the boy, recently.

My mum said, sagely, that you expect things to calm down by your 40s, but actually it often ends up being the most life-changing decade. It’s true that almost everyone I know is going through, or has gone through, some sort of Major Thing in the past couple of years: separation, divorce, serious illness, parental illness, bereavement, redundancy, financial stress.

Your 40s, in other words, are when you have to finally, properly, grow up. We are the adults now. The shit is happening to us and no-one else is going to make it all better or write a sick note excusing us from responsibility. That’s pretty scary.

DH had had a crap year at work, to be fair. After nine years doing extremely well in the same company, there’s nothing quite like being wrong-footed by your new boss at every turn, so your confidence is utterly destroyed. If he were a different man, he might have seen the eventual departmental reorganisation and redundancy as a blessing.

It was nothing personal, but my boy took it deeply personally. He has always worked hard, and cares very much about doing the best job he can. He’s all about achievement, and problem-solving, and efficient processes and spreadsheets and excellent relationships with clients and colleagues.

He’s also got the risk profile of a 70-year-old, according to our IFA: security, stability, salary, savings are his watchwords. My frivolous spending habits (“Ooh! Look! I must get that resin cockatoo for the mantelpiece!) and freelance life drive him potty.

Redundancy was literally his worst nightmare. In the days after he was given the shocking news, I could see he was imagining, somehow, that being made redundant would inevitably lead to losing the house, me, and the kids, until he was destitute and homeless.

How to support someone you love, who has got into that state? I was still out of breath from completing my own long, dark marathon of the soul. I had to put something of a shield up, to protect myself and not get dragged into the slough of despond. No use two of us crumbling under the pressure. I could definitely have given him more cuddles and sympathy, but at the time my gut instinct was that there was nothing to be gained by indulging the catastrophising.

Instead, I automatically went into Coach Mode, and encouraged him to Take Massive Action. It’s the only way of regaining some sort of control when all seems lost, really, isn’t it?

Reach out. Zsush up that CV and LinkedIn profile. Email and call everyone who might have a job, or might know someone who did. Take people for coffee. Arrange meetings. Go to every interview. Keep an open mind.

Above all, do whatever you need to do to keep your head in the right place, darling. Accept all offers of professional, moral, medical and therapeutic support.

Chin up. Smile. Shiny shoes. GO GO GO!

As with all of life’s big landmarks and crises, one finds out who one’s friends are. The lawyer and the headhunter truly stepped up, using their skills and love to support and advise, on a daily basis, sometimes for hours on end. Many others chivvied and cheered and were generally in touch and checking in. And DH was truly humbled by the number of colleagues and contacts who were as shocked as he was, and said lovely things about him.

Of course, when you take massive action, good things cannot help but happen eventually. And so it was that just five weeks later, on the very last day of term, just as he was breaking up for Christmas before being redundant on 31 December, DH was sent a contract for a very exciting new job Up That London.

He was never out of work for one second, after all. And I could not be prouder of him.

Two weeks in, and he’s loving it. Great, interesting people who have made him feel very welcome and can’t do enough to help. A boss who already knew and liked and respected him. A huge and stimulating challenge. Lovely jubbly.

So we started the New Year with me being officially healthy for the first time since 2010, with a job I love, and DH enjoying a proper silver lining in his career. Our quite extraordinary small people (DD is nearly nine-and-a-half and DS is nearly seven-and-a-half) have settled beautifully into their new school, where we moved them at half term, after all that nonsense with the last place.

There’s no way of knowing what 2016 will bring for us. But as Baz Luhrmann once wisely said: “Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind. The kind that blindsides you at 4 pm on some idle Tuesday.” True dat.

And, appropriately, in the words of the visionary Starman: “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring”.

PS – I wasn’t kidding about the cockatoo…

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The one where Pinchy gets a proper job (sort of)

So I haven’t blogged for a while. I’m sure you’ve all been feeling terribly deprived of my wit, pathos and insight since November, but hey. I have been busy, people! Busy doing what, Pinchos? you may enquire. Busy getting an actual grown-up proper job, THAT’S WHAT!

My new walk to work :-)

My new walk to work🙂

Yup. This die-hard solitary writer now has a regular income for the first time since leaving my last salaried employment, 14 years ago. And actual colleagues! Since the start of January I have been working for one of the very biggest PR consultancies in the world, supporting the EMEA marketing team with copywriting, editing, editorial consultancy, social media content, training, and other word-related stuff.

Cool, huh?!

It’s been a very slow burner, but there was something inevitable about it. I’ve been working with this team since my earliest days freelancing: as soon as I resigned as features editor of trade mag PRWeek on a whim in 2001, my now-boss commissioned me to help her with some case studies, and to turn a couple of PR campaigns into entries for industry awards schemes. We discovered we worked well together. We became friends. Over the intervening years, our combined skills built an incredibly efficient, successful awards strategy, which has helped the consultancy become the most award-winning across Europe. I worked for her throughout both of my ‘maternity leave’ periods (which don’t really exist when you’re self-employed), and was even editing stuff to meet a looming deadline while strapped up to my drip on the chemo ward.

I also started doing award entry writing, editing and training for other agencies, of all sizes, around the world. I created a niche: there aren’t many former journalists who really get public relations and can do this sort of stuff well. My clients were often shortlisted and frequently won. But there was one problem. It was a rollercoaster. In the run up to awards entry deadlines, I was rushed off my feet, working for clients in several time zones, all charging PELL-MELL towards the same cut-off date. At peak times, midnight shifts (and beyond) were common. I was working while the children were at nursery, and then school, switching to mummy mode for a few hours, then back to my desk when they were in bed. I was frequently juggling dozens of pieces of work, including many first drafts written by people whose first language is not English, all of which had to tell an equally engaging story to convince the judges, all at the same time.

But then, the week after deadline: silence. I never quite worked out the trick of doing marketing and filling the pipeline with other non-time-sensitive stuff while you are rushed off your feet, so my working life was essentially manic peaks and then depressed troughs. I could have been writing my taking-bloody-forever novel during the down time, or spending hours in the gym, or decorating, but mostly I used to sit at my desk fretting. (And pissing about on Twitter, obviously.) Not having a deadline doesn’t really work for me: I descend into the slough of despond pretty bloody quickly if I haven’t got a pressing to-do list.

On paper, I had an amazing work-life balance. I worked school hours, was able to drop off the children and pick them up every day, and was there for every single school thing, while still earning a good living doing something I really like and am good at. In reality, I was stressed out and constantly worried about money – cash flow was ridiculous, as some months I’d be billing thousands and then other months, practically zero. And when you haven’t quite had the five-year sign off from your oncologist, this level of stress is probably a bad idea.

Something had to give.

Last summer, as I hit my 41st birthday (so much less dramatic than 40…) I took some time to reflect on what I had achieved with my career, and what I wanted my next decade to hold. As I pushed towards the 10th anniversary of starting my limited company, Besparkle, in August 2015, I knew I had two choices. The first was to change things dramatically to make it into a real business rather than a winging-it one-woman band. This would involve sorting out childcare, working pretty much full time, finding other contractors and partners, and investing in marketing. Maybe even writing an actual business plan for the first time! (Told you I was winging it…) The second option was to chuck it all in and find a job.

I dropped my biggest client a casual email, on a whim (this appears to be a pattern): if anything came up at her agency, job-wise, that she thought I might be a good fit for, would she let me know? She read between the lines (and presumably decided she didn’t want to lose me to a competitor) and within a couple of weeks had created a new job description, just for me.

At that point, obviously, I got cold feet. I felt utterly torn. One the one hand: oh my goodness, the bliss of never having to worry about whether I was earning enough again! And it wasn’t even that big a leap: I would still be doing a job I know and enjoy, with someone I work really well with. On the other hand: do I want to give up my independence, my flexibility, the children being my priority? Did I want to hand them over to a nanny? Do I want my days to be owned by someone else? Could I still go to all the school things? Aren’t I happy just working alone? Do I really want to do any commuting at all? Do I need colleagues? Do I want to say goodbye to my business? It’s only little, but it’s still mine, and I built it, and I’d just had my most successful year since having children.

Many of these points of resistance were incomprehensible to DH, who was just over the moon I was even considering it. He’d never really forgiven me for resigning without any discussion with him, and doesn’t exactly embrace financial insecurity. But he had another, more positive, reason for encouraging me, too: he reckoned that having colleagues and getting out of the home office would do me good personally, in terms of my happiness and emotional stability. Other high-flying (mostly male) friends also told me to basically ‘get over myself and get a job’.

Then HR got involved, and it became apparent that what they could offer me in terms of a full-time salary was below what I’d need to earn to factor in childcare and travel. The numbers weren’t adding up on either side. But we all persisted, going backwards and forward on possible scenarios: the will was there to make this work, somehow. Then I had a lightbulb moment: Option 3 – let’s stop talking about employment, just put me on a retainer contract for a few days a week instead. This was a win-win: they wouldn’t have all the overheads of a new employee but still had priority over my time, and I would get to stay in control and keep my independence. Essentially, this is the holy grail for a freelancer.

And so that’s what happened.

The logistics have sort of fallen into place. After a couple of false starts, we finally found a fabulous, cheerful, capable after-school nanny who does pick up, tea, homework and bathtime, enabling me to work two long days and spread my other hours out over the rest of the week. The smalls are in breakfast club a couple of days, too. And despite my worry about not being there for them, they are, of course, absolutely fine. They are eight-and-a-half and six-and-a-half this month, after all, rather than babies. I still mostly work at home, I can still do school stuff (though the school campaigning has had to go on the back burner) and still do some work for selected other clients, and still manage my own time.

The best bit, though, is Wednesdays. My London day. My grown-up, proper job day. The day I get up early and put on a smart dress and get on a packed train and go to a big open-plan office and see my inspiring, clever, creative colleagues, new and old. I have a half-hour fast walk from Waterloo in my trainers, through a historic bit of London that is very easy to love (I only forgot shoes and had to buy a new pair of fierce heels once, honest), and get sushi for lunch, and have meetings in cool little break-out areas with some of the cream of the communications industry.

It’s the one day of the week where I’m a professional first, and mummy second. I leave before the kiddies are up, and DH does the morning routine and school run. I get back around 7.30pm to find tired, happy, freshly-bathed kiddies in their PJs watching the Simpsons with a glass of milk, with the nanny having handed over to daddy. That this is possible, and everyone is OK, is a revelation for me.

I know this is already a very long post but I have to make one final point: I could not have done this without DH. He has totally stepped up. He has a greater childcare role than ever before and has taken on more of the domestic burden without blinking. I feel like he takes my work really seriously for the first time in a long time, and he is doing his bit (thankfully with a pretty flexible employer himself) to make sure this new level of formality in my career works for all of us. We’ve always been a team, but now it feels more like we are equals again. It’s turning out to be good for us. And I have to admit that he and our friends, who are all a bit ‘I told you so’, were right all along, damn them: creative solitude is all very well, but sometimes you’ve just gotta put your lipstick on and get out there. Who knew it could be such fun?

Check your boobs, people!

So Breast Cancer Awareness Month rolls around again: yet another disease awareness campaign during which the women’s mags, weekend supplements, Twitter and Facebook feeds will be full of pink ribbons, real-life stories, tips for examining yourself and reminders of the importance of a Healthy Lifestyle. If you, or people you love, haven’t had a brush with cancer, it’s pretty easy to skip over those pages. I know I used to: those features and posts just didn’t seem relevant because young women don’t get breast cancer, right? And anyway, it’s too scary. And maybe even a bit too much information. And then, ironically, I was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer actually during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, four years ago. I’ve always had immaculate timing. breast_cancer_care_checklist_0

Funnily enough (not funny, obviously, but I’ve always needed to laugh blackly about this stuff – the alternative is dissolving into a soggy pile of woe, which is not really my style), the week I was diagnosed I had, in fact, just read one of those ‘real life experiences’ about a young woman with breast cancer in Grazia, about which I wrote a couple of years ago. I was 37 years old, with a four-year-old daughter who had just started school, and a two-year-old son. That month, everything changed.

Four years on from that surreal whirlwind – from discovery of lump to oncology department in a matter of days – Breast Cancer Awareness Month resonates rather more. But it’s complicated. I sort of glance at the features and the information sideways. I still can’t look at them head on. Even having gone through it – or perhaps because – it’s possible to have ‘cancer fatigue’. And it’s just too close to home – I have my Year 4 mammogram at the end of this month, won’t be officially in remission for another year, and my consultant is now making noises about me being a candidate for the new 10-year protocol of taking the crazy-making Tamoxifen instead of the standard five years. And even when I’ve got through all of that without so much as another twinge, cancer haunts.

People I know who are well past the five years, even ten, 15 years after diagnosis, still say they are not ‘over’ it. That it never really leaves you, having had cancer. That every year around the anniversary of diagnosis, even if it was decades ago, they still have a frisson of fear. The memory of that utterly life-changing, bowel-liquidising moment when they say ‘chemotherapy’ to you for the first time is too powerful to ever fade completely.

And then, inevitably, giving rising rates of all cancers, someone else you know is diagnosed and starts going through the exact same treatment pathway as you, and it brings it all back again. This happened recently to me – an old colleague posted her shocking news on Facebook and it knocked me sideways with nausea. She is handling the treatment with humour, eloquence, stoicism and immense calm, which I much admire. She says my blog posts when I went through it were inspiring, which is very kind, but I think it’s more that the human spirit is quite remarkable. Many, many people who have complete breakdowns at stuff like lost luggage or being hit up the arse by a man in a white van will end up dealing much better with a genuine, life-threatening crisis.

Nevertheless, reading her upbeat updates on her treatment was, I think, the reason why I found myself sobbing in the car park at Surrey Sports Park a couple of weeks ago. I was due to meet my best friend for a swim after dropping the children at school, and just as I parked the car, a propos of bugger all, I had a flashback. During which I was lying topless on the bed in the assessment room at the Royal Surrey County Hospital’s breast unit, with one arm in the air and the consultant taking a biopsy of the lymph lump under my armpit. On the computer, there was the mammogram of my right breast, the terrifying, obviously-not-good-news white mass of tumours shining out of the screen. It was a split-second memory, but it was very, very vivid, and I just burst into tears and sat in the car crying by myself, thinking ‘I am not in any way over this. I have not really dealt with the utter nightmare of what happened, and I am really scared of it happening again’.

It’s over (probably forever), but it’s not ever going be be over, at the exact same time. You forget, and then you remember, and it’s like being winded all over again.

I love autumn. It’s my absolute favourite season. I love the colours and the leaves and the conkers and the low sun, and the return of my preferred uniform of opaque tights, short skirts and long boots. I love the ‘return to school’ feeling, the hard-wired desire to buy new stationery, the urge to make the home organised and cosy in preparation for winter nesting. I love the start of ‘roastie season’, where every Sunday involves friends, family, red wine, open fires, a sizzling joint (the meaty kind, obvs) and all the trimmings. But on top of that, autumn has become my most fearful season, and October is now the weirdest month. There are so many layers of reminders: every year it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, every year I am getting jittery as my annual mammogram approaches, every year I remember all over again those dates: the 6th, when I went to the doctor to report The Lumps; and the 13th, when I had the first mammogram and was immediately diagnosed. (October 6th is also the day we moved into our silver lining house three years ago, even more weirdly).

There is, though, the lightness and exhalation when the good news comes back from the radiography department: all-clear, I can relax and start planning Christmas. And the bigger picture stuff: I am so, so blessed. I had the most amazing treatment, from my incredible surgeon to my risk-taking oncologist and the lovely radiotherapy team. I am still well looked after, and in very good hands, and if I have any worries at all, I know I will be seen within days. I can tick off another year and am almost there, almost signed off! And then we can open the vintage Dom Perignon I have squirrelled away!

And, of course, I am still here, and well, and life is to be lived and enjoyed. I’m still around to see my babies grow up into wonderful, kind, funny, clever, dazzling young people and to hug them endlessly. Still here to laugh and cry and eat and drink and dance with my husband and my friends and my family, all of whom are so special and lovely and generally awesome, I must be the luckiest girl alive.

None of which would have been possible if I hadn’t known, via my flicking through all the features in women’s magazines over the years, what to look for, how to examine myself, and the importance of reporting anything that ‘just doesn’t seem right’ as soon as possible. Most breast lumps and bumps and pain are benign, and your mind will have been put at rest. If that’s not the case, and Stuff Needs Sorting Out, you’ll be whisked through our amazing healthcare system and have the best chance of effective treatment. So do give Breast Cancer Awareness Month a tiny bit of attention this October. It might just save your life.

 

In which Pinchy swims for bloody hours

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to blog about this. I’ll probably work it out while I’m writing. Last month, I did my Biggest Ever physical challenge: I swam 5K for Sport Relief. Yes, I know! Me! The doyenne of exercise-avoidance!

Five kilometres, I can tell you, is a bloody long way. It is, in fact, 200 (count ’em) lengths of the Surrey Sports Park pool. It seems even longer when you can only do a ‘majestic’ (ahem) breast stroke and have never done more than happily bob around a holiday swimming pool for 40 years prior to taking on this challenge.

I’m being slightly disingenuous, of course: I didn’t just get in the pool on the day and hope for the best. I had been training for it since September, along with my two co-swimmers, my dear friend S and her oldest buddy A. Well, when I say training, it was more like swimming up and down for a bit twice a week, and then going for a natter, a cuppa and a panini because we were ‘famished’. At first, anyway. We were all comfortably swimming a mile – 64 lengths – by November, although that was taking me an hour. And then I sort of… stalled. I didn’t really get in the pool much during December and January. Or February. I started to seriously think about pulling out of the swim. I hadn’t started fundraising and was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task for a non-swimmer.

Come to think of it, I was overwhelmed by much over the winter. It’s true that you only realise when you emerge from a tunnel how dark and cold it was in there, and how long it has been since you felt the warm sun on your face. Sitting here now, feeling broadly OK, I can’t quite believe what a struggle those wet, overcast months were, in all ways. It was probably a combination of seasonal glumness, a stressful time re finances, my natural tendency towards depression, and big bad life-changing stuff going on for friends who I love fiercely. Plus I was working almost every evening to meet deadlines and very involved with our school campaign after our head teacher left suddenly. (See my previous five posts for the full story!)

This period of General Rubbishness, pre-swim, was topped off nicely by a week in Egypt. Our first family holiday abroad for three years, and the first since I finished my cancer treatment. We took the kids out of school for a week and could still only afford it by hiving off a bit of the money we’d borrowed for a basic refurb of our decrepit kitchen, combined with DH’s first bonus for a few years. In other words, we were quite desperate for a holiday. The kiddies were looking forward to it so hard I thought they would burst before we hit Sharm. We were going to have an amazing time!

There is a small but important life lesson here about ‘non-attachment to outcomes’: the more you want things to be a certain way, the less likely they are to meet your expectations.  I’m always quoting Alain de Botton on travel – something very true he once said along the lines of ‘the trouble with holidays is that you take yourself with you’. The trouble with Egypt was that I took my tearful, short-fused, exhausted self there and expected to be transformed instantly by the sunshine, sea views and all-inclusive package  into the easy-going, cheerful version of myself. What actually happened was that I sat on the lounger with cause-less tears running behind my shades while our delightful and beautiful children had an amazing week in the pool. My Kindle died, both our phones were stolen from our hotel room, necessitating far too much interaction for DH with hotel security and management, reps, and Egyptian police stations, plus there was the worst torrential rainstorm Sharm had seen for decades. My energy was in such a shit place, frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if I manifested all of the above, like a frickin’ witch.

I was planning to swim loads while we were there. I didn’t. I did snorkel on a coral reef with beautiful fish, like Actual Finding Nemo, though, and that lifted my spirits a little. When we returned, it was only a fortnight to the Big Swim and I had only covered less than a third of the distance in my training sessions. So I went Forrest Gump. I got in the pool and just swam, for 80 lengths. Then a couple of days later I swam 100. Then 120. And finally, on the Monday before Sport Relief Swimathon Saturday, I ringfenced three hours and swam 180 lengths. At that point, and not at any point before, I knew I could do it. S mentioned that last year’s Swimathon times were on the website. I made the mistake of looking and realised that I really was going to be one of the slowest in the entire country – no-one in my age group had done 5k nearly as slowly as my predicted time of 3hrs 20 minutes. The only women who had done that sort of time were (I kid you not) called things like Doris and Ethel, which I pejoratively assumed meant that I was as slow as a Very Old Lady.

That week, as I wondered again why I was doing this, the Sport Relief programme about Davina McCall’s far more crazy challenge to cycle, run and swim 500 miles from Edinburgh to London, was on telly. The documentary followed Davina on her trip to Africa before taking on the challenge. As she sat with the little girl whose days consisted not of school and games and fun with friends but the monotony of breaking rocks and breathing dust with her mother, hour after hour after hour, for pennies, I cried. I realised that the money I had already raised at that point would send two little girls like her to school for a year. THAT was the point. And I cried again the next morning when I tried to explain to DD when she asked why I was swimming so far. There was my motivation. To give little girls, just like my bright and funny and precious seven year old daughter, a chance at a better life.

Nevertheless, I still had to do the damn thing. I didn’t sleep the night before the swim. I woke up in a terrible mood, really jittery and anxious. S had an upset tummy and A had her back strapped up. It was not looking good. The worst thing was waiting all day: the event wasn’t due to start until 6pm after the  start time moved from 5pm. I went slightly ballistic, and pointed out to the organiser that this would mean I would be in the pool until nearly 9.30pm, meaning my children couldn’t be there at the finish line and our plans for a takeaway and champagne with my M&D, who were up for the weekend to cheer me on, would be buggered. After she realised quite how slow I was (and that she’d probably need to give me the keys to lock up…) she asked if I’d like to start an hour early, in my own special lane. Like a special person. FFS. My sister texted, accurately: ‘We are not a family of athletes, Pinch’. I graciously accepted, of course.

So we arrived at the pool. DD and DS had secretly made me a poster saying ‘Go Mummy Go!’ I got into my cossie. Put my goggles on. Still shaking. My lovely friend B arrived en route to her date night just to see me off. Good luck countdown texts arrived from other dear friends. Team Pinchy was cheering on the sidelines. I got into the water, put my bottles of sporty drink stuff raided from DH’s cycling larder on the edge, and started. I was not entirely in a lane of my own – there was also a small child, who swam the entire 200 lengths in less than two hours, and a series of elderly gentlemen doing the 5k as a relay, who also finished well ahead of me. It took me a good 40 lengths to get into any sort of stride. If one can be shaking while ploughing up and down a pool, that was I. I stopped briefly every 20 lengths for a quick gulp of drink, and to check in with the very patient lady counting for me. Every length took one minute, for the first couple of hours. Then, as everyone else in my lane finished and I had it to myself, I actually got quicker. I was coming in under target! photo 2

My family and S’s arrived to cheer us all on for the finish. The last 20 lengths were punishing: I was breaking new ground, and by that time my right arm was very painful. It’s the one that I had all the lymph nodes removed from; my movement is slightly limited on that side and it does get very uncomfortable at the top and in the armpit if I overdo it, risking lymphodoema and cellulitis ( I’ve only had this once, and it was royally crap).

Then, suddenly, it was the two hundredth length. My darling husband and babies stood at the end of the pool shouting ‘COME ON PINCHY!’, and I was trying to swim 25 metres while doing an odd mixture of sobbing and laughing. And then it was over. My official time was 3hrs 8mins. I’ve just checked and I was the 3,680th person to finish in the country. Whoop! Because I had started an hour early, I was actually out of the pool a few minutes before my much speedier swimming buddies, and was able to cheer them on at the finish. We had done it! Between the three of us we’ve raised a couple of grand so far, I think – you can still donate on my page at https://my.sportrelief.com/sponsor/majapawinskasims – I’m a few quid shy of £700 so all donations very welcome!

There was elation and achiness and lots of hugs. And we all got a medal, much to the smalls’ delight. Then champagne and a massive fat well-deserved Thai takeaway at home, followed by a bath in oil provided in my lovely school mum friend E’s ‘survival pack’ (along with bananas and jelly babies).

I woke up the next morning, terribly glad it was all over (although slightly surprised I had not turned into a size 6 sylph overnight). And at that moment, I began to feel better. Lighter and brighter. I had a health kinesiology session with my very dear friend Magic Emily, which helped shift things further and sorted out the achy lymph-free arm. And I have felt a little bit more myself every day since. I haven’t completely shaken off the Gloom, but I’m getting there. And that’s prolly why it took me so long to blog.

I’m never, ever swimming 5K again. But I quite fancy a different sort of physical fundraising challenge. I’m thinking trekking Peru for Breast Cancer Care next. Machu Picchu, anyone?

 

The F*ck Cancer Diaries project

I’ve stalled on writing my first novel. I don’t know why; it’s not writer’s block, exactly, just that I haven’t felt like writing it for months. I got to about 8,000 words and then sort of mentally put it in a drawer.

It’s called ‘Alexander Black’s Peculiar Year’ and it’s about a slightly depressed, lonely man in his late 30s whose life is turning out to be rather mediocre. One cold grey January day he walks out of his job as the editor of a business magazine, after hearing a the voice of a woman in his head. Then the mysterious young woman to whom the voice belongs turns up on his doorstep and moves into his spare room… I can’t let you in on what happens after that, but I promise there will be a happy ending. I do love a happy ending.once upon a time

I’m still excited about the story; it already exists in its entirety in my head, and really it’s just a question of getting it on paper. But. It just doesn’t feel like the right time, and I was confused by this (and feeling lots of ‘shoulds’) until me and DH had a slightly tipsy Thirsty Thursday chat about it and he hit the nail on the head. ‘Pinchos,’ he said. ‘I just don’t think the novel is meant to be your first book. I think your cancer blogs need to be your first book.’

Whoah. That’s an idea. We talked about it some more. We may have gone a bit Los Angeles, as words like ‘closure’ and ‘therapy’ (for both of us) entered the conversation. Then DH said he’d like to include his thoughts and emotions too, about what it’s like being a husband and father of young children when your wife is diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. Writing isn’t really his thang, particularly not writing about, y’know, feelings and shit. So we agreed that he would talk and I would take notes (dusting off my journalism skills) and we would include his perspective on key moments in the story.

The first step was to put all my cancer blog posts into one big document. I’ve just double checked and they amount to pretty much 60,000 words. Seriously. That’s a lot of cancer chat. Basically, it’s book-length already. I started with a light edit. Including our names, and our children’s names, for instance, getting rid of hyperlinks and giving a little more useful explanation of the terms, process and treatments involved. I began adding in stuff that I hadn’t talked about at the time for whatever reason. Creating a little more of a coherent narrative. Although because I spent so much time writing and editing each post in the first place, each post already feels like a natural ‘chapter’ – they are all of similar length, and have a beginning, middle and end. There’s funny bits and tear-inducing bits and warm fuzzy bits and plenty of drama. Real life, in other words.

I cried a lot, re-reading all the posts through as one body of work. Even at this distance, it makes me feel quite bilious. There were entire bits of my ‘journey’ that I had completely forgotten about, and aspects of the treatment came back to me with a jolt. I guess the subconscious has to tuck some memories away at the back of the cupboard; remembering everything, all the time, would be too much to bear.

I started work on the project in the summer. The wonderfully long, sunny summer hols caused a hiatus. Then the start of term was a bit weird because me and DH (and no doubt our families) were quietly counting down to the three year anniversary of my diagnosis, and therefore my annual mammogram and check-up with my surgical consultant Tracey Irvine. Throughout the weeks leading up to 13 October, I was preoccupied, and sleepless, and tearful. I began, like this time last year, noticing miscellaneous aches and pains. I felt a constant, low-level fear. Because what if it’s not good news, and we have to go through it all again, probably with less positive outcomes? What if I didn’t get that three year tick in the box? What if we weren’t actually over the hump in the five year period beyond which I would generally be considered to have escaped another invitation to the cancer party?

In the event, all was well. Tracey poked and prodded and squeezed every inch of my boobs, glands and torso, sneaked me in for an immediate mammogram (always a delightful experience…) so I didn’t have to come back again a week later, got my bloods taken, and then looked me in the eye and said ‘You’re fine’. Huge relief, I can’t tell you. The mammogram results came back just three days later confirming that there was no sign of breast cancer. Thumbs up all round. Phew.

So I’m again ready to pick up the work in progress I think of as ‘The F*ck Cancer Diaries’, and make it happen. It’s shaping up as half-memoir, half actually-quite-useful book for the growing number of relatively young women diagnosed with breast cancer every year, and their partners and families. One of our friends suggested we call it ‘Walking Two Abreast’, which is a marvellous pun.  I’ve had a huge volume of very positive comments over the past three years about the way I have written about my experiences, and I really hope the book is a worthwhile endeavour. A goer, as it were.

But I don’t know the first thing about book publishing, and I need your help and support, please. I would like, very much, your comments here on what you think of the idea so far. Is it a good one? Would you read it? What else do you think I might include? Know any agents or publishers? Have any advice on self-publishing? That sort of thing. If you could pass on the link to this post to anyone you know who might have thoughts or ideas or contacts, I would be terribly grateful. Merci beaucoup.

Because this feels like the right thing to be doing, now. The thing I need to do to finally close this extraordinary chapter, and move on to the next bit of the story. And one of those happy endings I am so very fond of.