Grateful for volunteers

This week I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity through work to spend a few hours volunteering. To caveat this post immediately: I am not including myself as a volunteer that I am grateful for! I felt like rather a fraud to be feeling good about giving just a few lone hours to charity, when others commit on a much more permanent basis – especially when our allocated activity was gardening; a field I am, shall we say, less than proficient in – but I was glad to be given the opportunity all the same. 

Our chosen charity was a school for autistic children in North London, and – having got over the disarming sight of my colleagues in casual, non-work clothes – I was grateful to have my mind broadened about the challenges faced by those with autism: an area I previously knew very little about. Only 20% of the pupils use the spoken word to communicate, and many of the children deal with multiple other conditions too. I was quite taken aback by these facts, and humbled that we were able to provide just a little support; I had never appreciated how much harder everyday life can be for these individuals and their families. 

The school is available to children up to 19 years old, and aims to be ‘Ambitious about Autism’, providing each child with every opportunity to ultimately take on some sort of paid or unpaid work, and to live as fulfilling an adult life as possible, despite the additional obstacles they may face. Each child is given the chance to try out various different vocations, one of these being horticulture, and this is where myself and my colleagues put our hours to (hopefully) good use: helping to prepare an area of land for use in gardening lessons.

Several hours of weeding and chopping brambles later, I learnt that my fitness definitely needs some work, but thanks to teamwork and the additional skills of many of my colleagues, we made a noticeable difference to the area. What made me sad is that the school relies on groups like us – starry eyed office workers on an away day from their desk jobs – to complete tasks like this – and I wished that we could have done more. 

It got me thinking about all those wonderful people who give their precious time to charity on a regular basis, and made me think that I really must find a way of giving my time too. How many different charities and organisations up and down the country rely on volunteers to help them operate? In a world where money is always tight, I’m sure there are a great many. But there’s a reason people give their time: helping others feels good. Thinking of others less fortunate than yourself helps put your own life in perspective. And why shouldn’t volunteering be totally selfless?! If it helps others, why the heck shouldn’t you feel good about doing it?! Of the people I know who do volunteer their time for charity, a hundred percent of them seem to get something from it too. 

My father volunteers two days a week at the Marie Curie hospice that cared for my mother; something that I could never do and that I am so proud of him for. Whilst this is definitely a case of ‘giving something back’ in exchange for the fantastic care my family received there, it also provides Dad, who is self-employed, with a structure to his week, a way of socialising with others and feeling like he’s made a difference. In palliative care, a squeeze of the hand, a smile or a joke can make all the difference to someone’s day. My Dad helps an old lady smile, lends somebody a ear if they need to talk, cuts up a gentleman’s food if he isn’t able to eat alone. He officially volunteers as a kitchen assistant, but this role is much, much more. 

A friend from work has volunteered at the Cancer Research MoonWalk for many years, and you only have to look at her face when she talks about it to know how much she takes from the experience. Anne looks forward to the event each year, to seeing her friends and to experiencing the electric atmosphere of solidarity and hope that is apparent throughout the night. I saw just how much of a difference people like Anne make in a Facebook post by a lady who had been helped by Anne when she was feeling like she just couldn’t make it to the finish line. She was so grateful to have had someone throw her arm around her shoulder and tell her she could do it. What a fantastic thing to be part of.

My friend Becci, who recently got married, volunteers at a charity for homeless and vulnerable people in Cardiff. I thought it was absolutely amazing that Becci and Andy chose to involve some of the individuals who receive support from the charity in their wedding, and testament to how passionate Becci is about her volunteering work there. The charity runs a choir that helps to raise funds, and they sung during the signing of the register in church. Hearing these individuals, who had clearly not been dealt the fairest hand in life, belt out ‘Something Inside So Strong’ with such passion and feeling was extremely emotional. 

I know I have lots of other friends who also give their time to charity – people who don’t necessarily talk about it but just make it a part of their every day life – and I have no intention of discrediting the work anybody does by not mentioning them in this post. To anybody who volunteers, whatever you do and however often you do it: thank you. Time is one of the most precious gifts that you can give, and I’m inspired and humbled by all of you. 

Grateful for an escape

After two weeks away on a cruise with my Dad, it’s no surprise that this week I am grateful for having had the opportunity to go on holiday. The cruise was a bit of an extravaganza, a ‘you only live once’ situation, and I’m so glad we took it. To be able to up sticks and leave your life, even just for a week or two, isn’t a luxury that’s afforded to everyone. And coming the day after the terrorist attacks in London Bridge, I was extremely glad to have the opportunity to escape for a while. 

I’m not the most well travelled person in the world, but it got me thinking about some of my favourite holiday memories. 

Neither of my parents liked flying, so as children we holidayed mainly in Devon and on the Isle of Wight – and had some fantastic times. I’m sure it’s just rose-tinted glasses, but it seemed to be much more consistently hot in those days; ice creams rapidly melting into the sand, Mum desperately plastering my fair skinned brother’s protesting face with suncream, long balmy evenings where we were allowed to stay up late because it was simply too hot to sleep. (There were also, of course, plenty of times where in classic British style we would stoically remain on the beach, protected from the force 10 gales by a fortress of wind breakers and parasols).

The Isle of Wight has been a holiday destination for my family for many years (my parents even had their honeymoon there), and the place names roll off my tongue like familiar friends: Ryde, Gurnard, Carisbrooke Castle, Blackgang Chine. We visited again a few years ago, on what would turn out to be Mum’s last holiday; enjoyed the peaceful walk along the seafront between Cowes and Gurnard many times. I’ll forever be grateful to my brother for travelling to meet us as a surprise, waiting for hours in the rain just so that he could be there. That holiday was in no way perfect, but just being there meant the world. 

One of my favourite family holidays was in, conversely, the popular haunt of the over 85s: Eastbourne. Myself and my brother were teenagers and for a reason I can’t recall, Mum and Dad ended up booking the trip very last minute. Consequently, the only accommodation available was the grimiest student digs imaginable – and having never seen a student house before, this was really quite a culture shock. Due to the fact that every surface seemed to be coated in a sticky brown film, and that in most of the rooms the windows had been painted shut, we spent absolutely no time in the house. I remember takeaway pizza on the beach for dinner; walking along the seafront each evening and nosing into the geriatric hotels, laughing at the entertainers with their Casio keyboards; eating breakfast in a streetside cafe each morning, marvelling at the mini pots of jam. We spent so much time together as a family that week, that despite the grim surroundings, we laughed more than ever.

In stark contrast to this, one of my first holidays without Mum and Dad was to the extremely classy and culturally significant destination of Magaluf. Again, this was a culture shock for many different reasons, and I certainly wouldn’t rush back – but I had a brilliant holiday for about £100. Yes, I ate McDonald’s for dinner, baked on sun loungers crammed around a tiny pool each day, binge drank every evening and suffered for it the following morning, and stocked up on dubious Spanish-branded spirits to take home (in the days before a 100ml liquid limit existed on planes) – but I spent the week with three lovely girls (two of whom I barely knew before the holiday), and had a whole lot of laughs. The holiday was also perfect preparation for the three years of binge drinking that would follow (and also gave me a great tan for Freshers Week). 

As I have grown older, my holiday choices have (I think) improved somewhat. One extremely memorable trip was four days in New York with seven girls. Fresh out of a break up, it was the perfect tonic for me: a decadent extravaganza of shopping, cocktails, rooftop bars and very little sleep. The trip showed me how much fun I’d been missing out on, and gave me some of my very best friends. 

The first time I travelled alone was to visit a friend in Canada – she showed me around Toronto, introduced me to her family, took me to a Polish street festival, to Niagara Falls and to Canada’s beautiful wine country, as well as for a quick trip across the border to Buffalo (we made it as far as Target, having been detained at the border for a number of hours thanks to my non-Canadian passport – great fun! Although I’ll never complain about an hour in Target: think Supermarket Sweep on steroids). I loved that trip, loved having the opportunity to see somebody else’s world. 

A very different holiday was a trip with Dad, my brother and my sister-in-law shortly after Mum died. That really was the definition of an escape; we were still so raw, still working out how to deal with things. The beautiful Lake District was the perfect place to do so: I loved the clean air, boat trips on the peaceful water, a calming change of scenery. 

My recent cruise with Dad also allowed plenty of time to appreciate the relaxed pace of being on water. Dad’s first cruise without Mum was always going to be something of a challenge, but I am delighted to say that we both thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Two weeks of sunshine, food and plenty of opportunity to make new friends: I was pleasantly surprised by my first nautical holiday. 

Of course there have been many more trips: Mexico, Croatia, Kent, Yorkshire, Barcelona, Berlin to name just a few. I’m so lucky to have been able to travel just a little bit; to hear different voices, try different foods, see new sights; to escape from the every day and to make memories that will last forever. 


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Grateful for my Mum

Dear Mum,

This week would have been your 61st birthday (although you never looked anything like your age), and I can’t believe it marks almost two whole years without you. It seems like such a long time in many ways, and I’m often confused at how Dad, Greg and I have managed to simply live our lives since then; how we’ve just carried on with the day-to-day things, managed to smile, have fun – without you. I don’t really know how. I think of everything in terms of before and after you now.

Dad is doing well, all things considered, and don’t worry – I’m looking after him; making sure he doesn’t go in the garden in his new slippers or out of the house with food down his shirt (you know Dad, it’s sometimes a losing battle in the food-on-clothes department! We’ve always been such a clumsy family haven’t we.). Beth the cat keeps him company; she misses her brother Charlie but I think he just missed you too much in the end. Greg is doing well too; he and Hazel are a proper little family now, with their own house and their dog, Kim – she’s hilarious, you’d love her. Auntie Rosie visits often and we carry on our tradition of loving awful TV; Anne and Keith still keep us entertained with their stories of the super six.

When you died, somebody said to me that eventually the good memories would outweigh the bad ones – and I am finding that to be true, slowly but surely. I surround myself with photos of you before you became ill; photos of the real you. I still dream about you all the time, but now, more often than not, in the dreams you’re healthy again. I still hear your wonderful laugh, the warmth in your voice and how you’d call me ‘darling’ or ‘love’. How I wish I could hear it again now, for real.

I remember billions of wonderful times with you, and I’ll be forever grateful for each and every second we had together. It’s hard to define even a few moments, and I feel like I can never do you justice, because you were always just a constant in my life: there after school or at the end of the phone every single day – always with a warm hug and all the time in the world for your family. Always with a story to tell about one of the girls at work or something that happened at the gym; the only person who I could chat with for hours about completely mundane, irrelevant things (although Dad does a sterling job nowadays!). Dad used to laugh at the way we loved to gossip, how we used to try and make suppositions about everything, to work out what the couple sitting in the corner of the restaurant were talking about, why that woman across the road was looking cross. We were the same; I guess you’d call it nosy!

You were always so thoughtful, always thinking of fun things for us to do, planning days out, finding different meals to cook or buying thoughtful little gifts; Greg and I never wanted for anything. You loved to have a dance around the kitchen, to sing along to the new music Greg would play for you. You were the glue amongst your different friendship groups; always the one to instigate a get-together, jumping at the chance to try somewhere new. Dad still sees the girls now; they were so touched when he asked each of them to choose a piece of your jewellery to keep (don’t worry I had all the Swarovski!). Everybody misses you so much.

As I grew up, we only grew closer. Remember when we tried to wax our legs at home?! I don’t think we even managed one strip each, the pain was so great and we were laughing too much. Shopping was our thing: a proper day out with Costa coffee on arrival, then hours walking around the shops, treating ourselves, convincing each other that every purchase was essential; followed by lunch, more shopping, then home to parade our new wares in front of Dad and Greg. We had some great days out in London, theatre trips, dinners, spa days, so many nights in front of the TV together. That one year we got obsessed with Big Brother and used to watch the catch up at breakfast time over big bowls of Rice Crispies and ice cold milk. And remember when we accidentally knocked the wing mirror off Dad’s car and couldn’t stop laughing?! So much to remember, I’m not sure there’s space for it all in my brain. You were my best friend.

I was overwhelmed by all the cards and messages of support we received when you died; you would have loved all the flowers (except for the lilies of course – you could never stand the smell). One colleague sent me a poem by Bishop Charles Henry Brent that was read at her sister’s funeral, and we chose to read it at yours too (your lovely friend Annette read it):

A ship sails and I stand watching
till she fades on the horizon,
and someone at my side
says, “She is gone”.
Gone where? Gone from my sight,
that is all; she is just as
large as when I saw her…
the diminished size and total
loss of sight is in me, not in her,
and just at the moment
when someone at my side
says “she is gone”, there are others
who are watching her coming,
and other voices take up the glad shout,
“there she comes!” …and that is dying.

I love that poem. I think about you reunited with Grandma and Grandad, Auntie Kath and Uncle Ron, how overjoyed they will have been to see you again (perhaps you even waved to Cilla Black, who died the day after you!). I write about you so much; perhaps it’s a subconscious way of dealing with things. I just want to keep you in the present forever.

“If you know someone who has lost a very important person in their life, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you may make them sad by reminding them that they died – you’re not reminding them, they didn’t forget they died. What you’re reminding them of is that you remembered they lived. And that is a great, great gift.”

I hope it’s wonderful up there Mum; I hope they have the best jacket potatoes and an endless supply of liquorice. I hope they play all your favourite music and that you can have a dance whenever you want to. I hope the sun’s just right for your fair skin, and that you have a lovely bubble bath every evening like you used to. That you can see as many shows as you like and always find the right colour of nail varnish. I hope it’s full of people who love you just as much as we do.

Happy birthday Mum, I’m so grateful for the time we had and I love you and miss you every single day. Love you forever Mum.

All my love,
Clare xxx

Grateful for every minute (because they’re not guaranteed)

It doesn’t really seem right to be grateful for anything on the day after yet another horrific terrorist attack in the UK; the third in three months. I’m not even going to try and write about what happened because I can’t even begin to find the words. 

The planned theme for this post was about how every day I am reminded that life is too short, and that still seems, sadly, rather fitting.

The world that we’re living in can seem like such a monstrous place at times. I completely understand how people can become crippled with fear, terrified to leave their own homes. Living in London, I have definitely felt like that, wondered whether I’m putting myself in unnecessary danger, whether running away to a cottage in the middle of nowhere would be the best plan. 

I don’t subscribe to the belief that our destinies are planned from the second we’re born, that someone up there has already decided whether I’m going to get mown down by a terrorist one day, because that way of thinking brings me absolutely no comfort whatsoever. If you do, and it helps you deal with the world, then that’s great. Whatever gets you through. 

For me, it’s a daily struggle to find the right balance between ‘don’t worry about what you can’t control’ and news reports detailing what to do in a terrorist attack, how best to save your own life. I definitely fall into the worrying camp; I worry about everything, all the time – and I’m sure if I could just believe that there was a bigger plan, that one day this would all make sense, somehow, then it would be easier to deal with. But how can this possibly ever make sense?! 

Trying to find something positive on this day is hard; feeling grateful to be alive when last night seven innocent people lost their lives, and many more were left with life threatening injuries, is about as much as I can muster. Grateful for what though? For it being them, not me?! Of course not. 

But I am grateful for every moment I’m given on this earth – for every smile, every hug, every moment of laughter, happiness, friendship and love – because none of them are guaranteed. A quote I see a lot is that fear doesn’t prevent death, it prevents life; and it’s completely true – but it’s also completely ridiculous to think that fear is something that can simply be turned on or off. The world we live in is an increasingly scary place.

Every time something awful happens, we have to hold on to the outpouring of kindness that follows; it’s not much, it doesn’t negate the devastation and the grief, but it’s what will keep us sane and it’s what will keep us strong. The lines of people wanting to donate blood, those offering a bed for the night or a lift home, those fundraising for the families of victims: its vital that we pay attention to the good. Throwing accusations and generalisations helps nobody; it’s very easy to be a politician from behind the safety of your touch screen – but it will only cause more anger and hatred. Unless it’s your job (and if it is, thank you), don’t give them the dignity of a place in your brain. 

Today I’ll be going on holiday with my Dad, and I’ll try to treasure every moment. I’ll try my best to put the fear to the back of my mind and to be grateful for the here and now.

Sending love to all.