Freedom From Fear During Covid-19 Quarantine

First of all, it’s ok to be feeling fearful right now. Whether that’s because you are physically or mentally vulnerable, concerned about the virus affecting your loved ones, worried about your finances, stressing over a trip to the shops, frightened by the Draconian changes to the law, or contemplating the possible fallout of this situation; there is a space here for you.

As an asthmatic single mother who has also been side-tracked by dystopian imaginings due to China’s social credit system and last year’s Event 201, I have gone through a range of these fears. The words to note there are “gone through”. For, although we remain in lockdown and still have no idea when or how this will end, I currently reside in a state of equilibrium and remain informed by new developments without feeling emotionally swayed by them. That does not mean the fear will not arise again, but that I can take joy in the moments of taking pause and noticing that – right here, right now – all is fine. There is food in the shops, the children are playing, the earth keeps spinning, and – if you’re reading this – here you are blessed with another day in this crazy world.

Anyway, I hoped to share with you a few of the ways I’m staying calm and collected during this global crisis. These will not be right for or applicable to everyone, but if just a few of those who need these ideas find them, my job here is done.

I write this from the perspective of an ‘unsupported’ lone parent to four children, the eldest of whom is autistic and the youngest breastfeeding. By ‘unsupported’, I do not deny that I have some incredible friends who step up to help me when they know I need it, but that on a day-to-day basis I cannot assume help from anyone. I am self-sufficient to a fault, but this has also made for some pragmatic and philosophical crutches that I share below.

1. Compile your hospital / grab bags

My main fear as a lone parent – even before Covid-19 – is that I will become severely ill and have to figure out at what point I call for help. I long ago reached the conclusion that “Who would have the children?” is a pointless worry – if I’m that ill, I’d shed my pride to call friends, or social services would deal with them.

So, apart from that, experience tells me that when I or one of my children has had to be admitted to hospital in the past, I have been let down by my lack of preparation for unforeseen circumstances. If there is one lesson we perhaps all learnt from the panic-buying just a few weeks ago, it is that it pays to be physically prepared in advance of a crisis hitting.

Something that puts my mind at rest with regards to the scenario of being rushed into hospital is that both myself and each of my children has a bag prepared for a sudden change of scene. There is nothing worse than being told you have to immediately leave your home yet having a mad scramble for all the things you might need whilst simultaneously feeling emotionally charged – I know this due to being evacuated from my home due to a sinkhole scare when my youngest was just 10 days old.

What people put in their grab bags is unique to them, but there are some obvious necessities: a change of clothes, basic toiletries, any regular medication, a notebook and pen, important personal documents, non-perishable snacks, a bottle of water, a little cash, and something to keep you occupied.

With regards to the children’s bags (and taking this preparedness task beyond this pandemic), you will want to factor in an annual refresh for age-appropriate needs, correctly-sized clothing, and to ensure that snacks are replenished for those with a longer shelf-life.

It also makes sense to keep a short list of daily-used items which you still need to grab separately as you leave, e.g. your mobile phone and charger, the kids’ favourite cuddly toys (or, more likely, electronic devices), and spare house keys for the person who may support your family during your time of need.

This simple task can go a long way towards maintaining peace of mind despite an unknown, unpredictable future.

2. Know your support networks

Admittedly, at the best of times I’m not great at making the most of the support on offer to me. ‘Official’ support services have often seemed patronising and perfunctory, and the selfless support of friends leaves me feeling indebted, however much they protest that I needn’t feel that way.

But times have changed and we all need to be helping and accepting help at every opportunity – building connections and community even while we can’t socialise (especially while we can’t socialise).

When we went into this crisis, I dropped into worst-case scenario thoughts. I imagined civil unrest and extreme isolation. I became anxious about the authoritarian policies we would be living under. I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen to those people already suffering from mental health problems or trapped in abusive relationships. I projected my worries of a future not yet here right into my present reality of peace and plenty. I had to allow these thoughts full expression in order to relinquish them and move into a more mentally-healthy state.

An important part of letting go of unconstructive thoughts is to recognise what is actually happening in your immediate here and now. For me, that was seeing all the helpers appearing, even if just through the window of social media. There have been so many people offering friendship and support to one another, so many willing to step up and help people they have never met before, so many friends checking in and sending love, so many local initiatives arising to fill the gaps that neoliberalism has created in our communities.

There is so much order arising out of what could have been disorder. It fills me with hope that, whatever happens, people will come together to look after one another. And it makes me realise that, however unsupported I have felt as a single mother in the past, I am currently recognising and appreciating all the options I currently have to seek support should I need it. And there is such freedom from fear in that.

3. Relax about ‘schooling’

As an ex-home educator, I really must make the distinction between ‘education’ and ‘schooling’. Between ‘learning’ and ‘curricula’. It has saddened me to see how many parents are struggling to adjust to lockdown, not only because they are suddenly yanked from their own routines, not only because their children are suddenly yanked from their routines, not only because the whole family are suddenly foist together 24/7 without a their usual breaks or freedoms – but on top of that they feel pressured to replicate school at home and ‘keep up’ with schoolwork.

Stop! So many people have just been told their jobs are not really that important. So many people are recognising that the sociopolitical paradigm we have been living in is not necessarily that which supports human flourishing. So many things are being turned upside down, that perhaps we can question that which we took for granted – not only those things which are precious and deserve deeper gratitude, but also those systems and institutions we are conditioned to that may not be strictly necessary for our family’s health and well-being.

For some children, continuing with the routines, schedules, and activities of school will be their sense of normality amidst this chaos. If both parent and child are able to work together with that, that’s great. But for many children and parents, this time at home with family will be a precious breather from the pressures of school and after-school activities. It is a chance to step back and appreciate the moments we may usually have to rush through.

This is a chance to create a rhythm tailored to your own family. To focus on creating a nest of love, safety, and security. To witness that which truly lights up your children and allow them freedom to explore those things while the demands of school don’t call. And you will find that – amidst the lie-ins or late nights, the lack of interest in reading or writing, the ridiculous amount of screentime, the times when you worry that the kids “aren’t doing enough” – there is learning, there is connection, there are realisations, there is growth.

Children are ‘learning all the time’ (that is also the title of an appropriate and inspiring book by the educationalist John Holt). Please don’t worry about them ‘falling behind’ or ‘missing out’ – the priority right now is our health, both physical and mental. The most valuable things we can teach our children right now are equanimity, resilience, and refuge in the face of struggles. And that love is always the answer to the most important questions.

4. Recognise your simple pleasures and mini freedoms

While here in the UK we are currently allowed our daily fresh air to get our exercise, I am well aware that this isn’t true for countries in strict lockdown and that stricter restrictions may be coming here. In light of this, I have already started planning for the things I will do or notice to secure my little freedoms during lockdown.

We have communal outdoor space here, and I will be cherishing the sunny days that I can go and put my washing to dry on the washing lines, even if that is a mere 5 minutes of outdoor time. I love springtime laundry airing most years, but this year it has a bittersweet poignancy from which a keen appreciation arises.

We have a double-aspect south-facing living room, and I will be lifting my blinds and opening my windows to let the sun and air stream in. I will sit in the sunlight even as I sit in my home (and will be encouraging my children to do the same to get their natural vitamin D).
Your living situation will be different to mine – for better or worse – but I hope you can also find the nooks in your day and your home that give you opportunity to momentarily taste the outdoors.

I will also be giving thanks for the simple pleasures that we so often take for granted. The whole-hearted hugs of my children. The sloppy kisses of my 2-year-old. The fresh fruit and vegetables provided by local businesses. The private messages to and from friends that have taken on such significance in this physically-disconnected yet emotionally-connected crisis. The running water, electricity, and emails of reassurance from food stockists, that tell us that we are safe and abundant – times are strange but the infrastructure on which we rely for survival is still ticking over.

This is, relatively speaking, a comfortable crisis for most people in the Western world. While it is usually considered crude to pull the cards of having it better than people in warzones or famines or shanty towns because it diminishes our valid concerns about the difficulties of those who are vulnerable in our own locales, I think there is no better time to be grateful for the basic necessities of life than during a global crisis. Our true needs are brought into stark relief.

I do appreciate that not everyone is as privileged as I am to have a comfortable life in the UK, and that many people are in less than ideal domestic situations. However, if you have your own home to sit in, with food in the fridge, energy and water on demand, people to love and be loved by (whether near or far), and something to entertain you, you are doing pretty well in the grand scheme of crises.

It is hard – but it could be a lot worse.

5. Develop and cherish your intellectual and spiritual freedom

It’s ok if you’re not interested in the positive psychology of ‘self-development’ and would rather watch your favourite TV series, play games, and enjoy goal-less chill out sessions with a beverage. The self-development industry has a lot to answer for in rallying people to thrive despite their outer circumstances – we’re not all in the financial or psychological position to do that, and spiritual ‘quick fixes’ are rarely quick for those new to such mindsets.

However, I will say that – when physical and external circumstances are beyond our control – having the time and space to think for ourselves is where our true freedom lies. Whatever the media narrative or mainstream social discourse, ultimately only you can control what you think. We might be stuck within the walls of our homes, but mind, imagination, and spirit have no such restrictions. Be free!

This is the perfect time for the realisation of those oft-quoted ‘spiritual truths’ that tell us our only boundary to inner peace and enlightenment is the monkey mind. We can rail against the practical and mental frustrations of social distancing and self-isolation, but where does it get us? It is evidence that, so often, our felt ‘reality’ is not about our physical circumstances but how we conceptualise those circumstances.

If it wasn’t for having 4 children to care for, I could well see this period of isolation as the silent spiritual retreat I have long sought after. For others, maybe it’s time to escape into the things you really enjoy or have long aspired to do – things that will divert you from the fear-filled and fear-fuelling news reports and transport you to the internal place from which joy and creativity arise. From meditating to reading to playing guitar to painting to gardening to studying to doing messy crafts with the kids – being in the moment with what you love is the key to taking this indefinite period of quarantine one purposeful step at a time.

Above all, you didn’t choose this. There is no part of this for which you can turn the blame on yourself, as we are apt to do when our lives don’t go according to plan. This awareness of our lack of control is a wonderful portal into the spiritual or philosophical equanimity this situation can afford us. If we can let go of what April 2020 was ‘supposed’ to be, we can be present and loving with what actually is.

16 Decluttering Tips for Families

There is a common struggle that arises when it comes to trying to simplify our lives, and it comes in the shape of other family members. Decluttering may make perfect sense to you, but do your loved ones agree?
In my journey towards becoming a minimalist, I have had to accept that the stereotypical image of minimalism is not what you will find in my home (see second photo below) – not with three children aged eight and under as my companions in life. However, chances are these days that if you give me a 15 minute warning that you’re going to drop in for a coffee, I can get my home looking reasonably ‘guest ready’ by the time you arrive.
This is one benefit of decluttering that has been apparent to both myself and my kids when it comes to tidy-up time, so my path towards minimalism is one that I feel able to continue walking down with their mutual awareness of the ease it is bringing.
Yet creating a new family mindset does not happen overnight – there must be a mental readiness to let go of our possessions before the physical letting go even happens, and just the idea of getting rid of something that has potentially been in your lives for years (even if has been unused and unloved) can come as a shock to some family members.
Considering the varied reactions to the idea of decluttering, I have compiled a few ideas to get your family into the frame of mind for the task ahead – practical solutions for the child who might not know where to start, through to deep and meaningful discussion points that can help you understand why both children and adults alike struggle with the idea of parting with their possessions.
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Family Clutter
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Family Minimalism
1) Easing in
Firstly, see what your family members are prepared to part with without much fuss – some items will be obvious to them once they realise they don’t have to keep something just because they can (e.g. toys that are broken or defaced).

You yourself must be open to modifying your view of ‘quality’ where children’s toys are concerned. When your 4-year-old wants to get rid of the expensive, wooden play sets (that they rarely play with) but keep the cheap, plastic one (that they frequently play with), your view of quality may have to reflect the value of their play rather than the value of the item – there will be plenty of occasion to discuss the concept of quality and environmental concerns further down the line when it comes to gift-giving and receiving (see point 3).

Grab a couple of bags, give everyone an incentive (one that works for us is promising to snuggle up on the sofa for family film night in our less-cluttered living room that evening) and ask the kids to fill one bag with anything broken or otherwise not suitable for donating, and another bag with items to pass on to the charity shop.

2) Give logical incentives where possible

My son was aware that he no longer wanted some of his Lego sets but the thing that helped him to let go of it was telling him how well it holds its value – that if he sold it, it would help him save up for the new computer he wanted. He didn’t look back after that!

Where you can, find other logical incentives to lend inspiration and reasons for your family members to join you.

A couple of ideas:

Perhaps your child wants somewhere to display their nature collection yet has a shelf or chest of drawers covered in clutter in their room – is this the space they seek?

Maybe your child has been asking for new clothes or shoes even though they don’t really need any (like my 4-year-old daughter!) – could you get rid of a whole bag of old or unworn clothes in exchange for one special item of clothing they really want?

You are sure to find a logical incentive that works for you and your child.

3) Discuss big concepts like ‘need’, ‘enough’, ‘abundance’, ‘poverty’ and ‘quality’

When we start decluttering we quickly realise that we have much more than enough. Just because the issue of clutter may be a ‘first world problem’, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem – and this first world problem is often the result of third world problems (and vice versa).

There is a balance to be had, and accompanying the physical act of decluttering is a lot of reflecting on what is really important in life and how privileged we are in a consumerist society.

When we reflect on aspects of consumerist culture, we find ourselves in discussion about huge global issues – environmentalism, throwaway culture, cheap labour and quality rather than quantity, to name just a few.

Once they’re aware of the level of lack that some children in the world live with, you may be able to encourage your child to part with some toys for charitable causes – they may recognise their abundance and be more willing to part with it if it is about giving. This would work best if passing on directly to children – such as to a local women’s refuge or to children fleeing war.

This isn’t about instilling guilt for their privilege (like the proverbial “You should eat up your dinner – there are starving children out there who would love that meal right now!”), but about recognising our true needs, our impact on other people and the planet, and how we can therefore make wise decisions about what we choose to own and de-own.

4) Be brutal!

If the mess = stress, let your family know that you WILL be removing items from your home for the sake of your health and well-being. I correctly identified clutter as being a huge cause of daily stress that I could no longer sweep under the carpet.

At one point I became so overwhelmed with the mess in my home that I had to lay down the law and openly accept that my well-being (and therefore my children’s well-being) depended on decluttering.

This directly works for the children too, even if they don’t recognise it as such – quite often the mess is because they have so many options for what to play with, yet the options become overwhelming and lead to distraction. Which means you’d be well advised to . . .

5) Limit your options

It’s the difference between owning two jigsaws at a time or ten. I’ve found that when the children have two to choose from, they sit and complete them – and when they have ten, they end up tipping all the puzzles out onto the floor and then become too bewildered to do anything. Just like how I feel during the rare occasions I step foot into Asda and freeze up in the face of too much choice – how many different flavours?!

Choice is not necessarily a luxury – it can be an enemy of efficiency.

We can give our children plenty of opportunities without overwhelming them with choice.

6) New for old
Relating to the above – yes, they would get bored with just the same two jigsaws or board games to choose from all the time. Hence, once in a while, we will donate one to a charity shop and buy another in its place (preferably also from a charity shop to limit the consumer demand for brand new toys).
This is one way we can start turning around the novelty that comes with consumerism – rather than accruing more and more, we donate and swap. The novelty is no longer about getting something new just for the sake of it, but in getting something new-to-you in a conscious manner.
We still consume but in awareness and with intention: do we really need what we buy? Does what we already own still fulfil its purpose? What buying choices can we make to limit our consumer footprint?

Try implementing this ‘something in, something out’ rule, so that at the very least the number of possessions you own isn’t rising. You might want to tailor this  – “Something in, two things out” can also be a manageable challenge, especially during the early days of decluttering.

7) Clear the clutter before birthdays/Christmas

Similar to the last tip, these are good occasions to think about what you already have, think carefully about is needed and/or wanted, and make space for the new.

I do not worry about the influx of new items that is likely to end up in our home over Christmas or birthdays if we’ve ensured that everything we already own is being loved and utilised, and that we are creating space where possible.
Anything that is broken or in otherwise unacceptable condition can be thrown away or recycled; we discard duplicate/similar items where one alone would suffice; as the children grow, we pass on anything that seems too young for them; if things are unused, we can donate or sell them.
This also allows us to receive graciously from those who do want to give physical gifts as part of their celebrations – while it is nice to have other people understand our lifestyle decisions, we do not need our friends and extended family on board with our minimalist lifestyle if we’ve done the real work at home and within ourselves first.
8) Gifts for minimalists
The above said, it helps to signpost people if they do want to honour your lifestyle and give something appropriate.
If asked what the children want for birthdays or Christmas, I think carefully – yes, there are some physical possessions we all still desire, but these are limited where possible and we think carefully about the value they will have in our lives (e.g. this Christmas I have just bought my children one ‘big’ present each – my 8-year-old son a Nintendo 3DS, my 4-year-old daughter her first proper cycle, and my 2-year-old daughter her first scooter – things that will last and be used well beyond the festive season!).
I’m finding I’m having to be increasingly creative about giving presents to other people seeing as it fills me with dread to think that I might be cluttering up someone else’s home.
However, there are so many options these days and my preference for both giving and receiving is in experiences and consumables. Consumables could be a luxury food hamper, an eco-friendly toiletries set, homemade sweets or chocolates, a gift voucher for a favourite supermarket or clothing for the kids to grow into. Experiences might be days out, an annual pass to your favourite local attraction, a theatre trip or money towards an outdoor activity residential. These are just a few of the many and varied things that could be enjoyed.
And what are we more likely to remember? A token gift for the sake of a gift that didn’t really mean anything to us, or something that creates joy and lasting memories?

9) Space-saving

Allocate a certain amount of space that a child’s personal possessions can take up and place limits on what is in your home at any one time. If their possessions start encroaching into places they’re not supposed to, discuss what needs to be done about it.

Some families ask children to limit things to their own bedroom, whilst others keep the bedrooms clear of toys and have a dedicated playroom where toys must generally live and stay. Others again (as we do) keep toy storage in the general living area but have a set of storage cupboards or drawers that must keep everything contained when tidied away.

As we progress on our decluttering journey, we may find that we have an abundance of storage solutions that were previously full of stuff. This means that those items we do decide to keep can have their own home and, ideally, be hidden from view until required.

10) The myth of “I might need it someday!”

No and no again. If stuff is encroaching onto your sense of calm and happiness, this scarcity mentality for what you might (but probably won’t) need tomorrow doesn’t help your peace of mind.

In most cases if we need an obscure or little-used electrical appliance, we can probably borrow one. This is where community organisations such as LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems) come in, where people share both skills and goods. Having less may make us occasionally more dependent on others, but this is a factor of community-building.

I also recently came across the 20/20 rule – that most things we get rid of today can easily be reacquired in less than 20 minutes for less than £20. This makes all the more sense if the thing you’re dithering over can be sold on in the first instance and you might not ever need it again anyway.

There are just a few things that I rarely use that I DO keep just in case I need them tomorrow – a small tool set, a sewing kit, a limited supply of stationery. These are things that you KNOW will be required one day in the daily wear and tear of life.

As for 101 glass jars to re-use or something that “looks like it might be part of a craft project” – unless you’re going to make everybody jam for Christmas or are an avid crafts-person who is regularly utilising random bits of shiny card and off-cuts of ribbon for your creations, just ditch it (please read this as: recycle or pass it on to someone who really would use them).

11) Travel!

Or just get out of the house as often as possible. It’s hard to let the clutter weigh you down if you can’t see it!

But seriously – travelling isn’t just about freedom in terms of escaping the daily grind of a 9-5 job or the school run, it also teaches us how little we really need to get by and be happy.

When you’re living out of a suitcase in simple accommodation and focusing on exploring the big wide world, it really puts our home lives into perspective. And if you’re away for more than a couple of weeks, you actually start to forget what you own at home – truly breaking the grip of the sense of ‘possession’ over these inanimate objects that are not actually adding any value to your life.

Draw your children’s attention to this as well – maybe even while you’re away! See what both you and they actually miss from home. I bet neither of you can actually remember what all of your possessions are – thus, are those things truly loved and needed?

12) Suggest a trial

If you’re finding some of your family are particularly resistant to the idea of decluttering, you could suggest a trial period where you store little-used items away for a set period of time. You might want to box things up and put the boxes out of sight (therefore out of mind) in an attic, spare room or garage – just make sure they don’t stay there! Put a note in your diary for 3 months, 4 months or even 6 months down the line to move them on.

Try to do this with items belonging to every family member, rather than just those who are finding the process challenging – it’s not about putting anyone on the spot and it shows that you’re all in the same boat.

If the items are not needed or wanted during that trial period, you can then make the joint decision to part with them. Don’t go back through the box again though (only the person in charge of sorting the items for charity, selling on or the bin should see the items again) – invariably, children will say they really want the thing they haven’t even noticed was gone for 3 months.

Be conscious at the start that the things you box up to potentially get rid of are already unloved or under-used items, and 3 months without them should prove that is the case.

13) Celebrate your wins

If one of your children seems keen and another doesn’t, be grateful for engaging at least one family member!

In our household, if my son gets rid of something it can inspire my 4-year-old daughter who is usually more reluctant: she may say “Actually, I want to get rid of this!”. Alternatively, she may say “Please don’t get rid of this, I love it!” If it’s the latter? Rejoice that she’s able to discern what really makes her happy (even if a 4-year-old’s choices sometimes seem odd to us!).

Rather than looking at what still needs to be done, give thanks every time an item is parted with and with each bag that goes to the charity shop – it might be a low process but at least there is progress!

14) Find your ‘Why?’ together

This is not about throwing perfectly good things out, it’s about moving towards something better.

There are lots of reasons why you might want to declutter your home. Perhaps your large house is unmanageable and you want to downsize? Perhaps you want to travel full-time? Perhaps you need to free up an extra room to make into a studio or guest bedroom or in preparation for the arrival of another baby? Perhaps you just want more space to build dens and engage in rough and tumble play? It probably has something to do with your inner vision of what an ‘ideal family life’ looks like.

Whatever your why is, deciding on it as a family or discussing the benefits of it as a family can help you all join in on a shared goal. Whenever there is resistance to the process, you can return to your reasons why and find renewed motivation to work together towards your aim.

15) Dig deep
There are many psychological barriers to decluttering and minimalism that people may not even be aware of, subconscious beliefs that drive the course of our lives without us even realising we hold those beliefs.
Those who have had to scrape by just to pay their bills or who have lived through a dramatic economic downturn may have adopted a ‘scarcity mindset’, holding onto things today just in case they should fall on hard times tomorrow.
From a young age, children are taught to use comforters to satisfy their basic needs – utilising an inanimate object for their emotional comfort rather than seeking the warmth of another human being.
These barriers can generally be ascribed to fears of loss (conscious or subconscious) which lead us to cling to anything we can attach emotional or economic significance to – and whatever sentimental or financial labels we attach, if the underlying feeling is anxiety rather than joy, there is work to be done.
So is it any surprise that the idea of parting with our possessions can cause such resistance?
The good thing is that we can make these barriers conscious, question their purpose in our lives now, and break the cycle. Whether people are ready to hear this or not is another thing – I offer this as an idea, but will leave you to decide if your loved ones are ready to reflect on such matters.
(Please note, if you’re concerned that someone close to you actually suffers from obsessive compulsive hoarding, this is another matter entirely that needs to be dealt with by a qualified mental health practitioner – bringing up the issues above may be very distressing. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and urge them to seek the help they may require).
16) Be the change you want to see!
 
If you’re really in it for the long game, this is above all the best way to inspire solidarity. I have read stories of some spouses taking over 5 years to catch on to the benefits that clutter-clearing brings.
So, if all else fails, continue to stay on top of your personal path and where you do have authority over an area to declutter (e.g. maybe you do the most cooking, therefore require the kitchen to be as efficient and uncluttered as possible).
Decluttering isn’t just about making space in our homes – it affects the way we look at all areas of life, seeing where we can simplify in order to experience more physical, mental, emotional and spiritual spaciousness.
When you have successfully completed your personal declutter of physical possessions, move onto digital clutter, then mental clutter and social clutter. Be the example and enjoy your own simplified life as best you can even in the midst of others’ stuff.
When those around you notice the rewards you have reaped from your decision to live more simply, just maybe they’ll catch on?
Do you have any of your own experiences or tips to share? Have you successfully (or unsuccessfully?!) put any of the above suggestions into practice? Feel free to let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you.

From Clutter to Clarity

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Something pivotal happened this year in our journey to be ‘free to be family’.

I recognised a long time ago that a great source of daily stress as a single mother, home-maker and home educator was the amount of clutter I was surrounded by. My ideal home-life was locked away in a land of dreams, somewhere behind the mountain of washing, the sea of shiny plastic tat and the pyramids of paperwork. Yes, I tried to make it fun (Look at my abundance! The evidence of a lively family life! The gorgeous, glittery, sticky mess of my toddler exploring the overflowing craft supplies again!), and yet . . .

Disclaimer: this post includes associate links to relevant resources.

Much too often, the need to clean up got in the way of actually playing and connecting with my children. Before I could even clean, I had to tidy. Whole days could be spent just moving and organising our possessions – whole days of feeling guilty because instead of spending quality time with my children, I was grizzling over all the toys and paper and other miscellany that had accumulated everywhere.

I’ve never considered myself a big consumer, yet the evidence of a typical life in a consumerist society was on display in my home – as well as the evidence of a frugalista’s inability to say no to freebies and hand-me-downs.

Catching the travel bug instigated the desire for less, a realisation that both myself and my children could relax when on the move in a way we couldn’t at home. The simplicity of living out of a suitcase in sparse hotel rooms!

So, inspired by a vision to ultimately be free to pack it all up and fit my life inside a camper van if the whim occurred, I returned from my first trip to Morocco in 2010 with a desperate need to declutter. On subsequent trips to the developing nation I also noted the benefits of having non-materialistic children who were grateful for the simple things in life.

I’m not a hoarder by any stretch of the imagination, yet it still seemed like I was unduly hemmed in by material possessions. I recognised that personal freedom involved ensuring that these possessions lessen their grip on me.

Quite apart from whether we choose to travel or not, the root of it was that I wanted a family life that was as happy and harmonious as possible – and I had identified that a home full of the distraction of ‘stuff’ was not helping me to achieve this aim.

I had found my ‘why’ for decluttering but I had not found my method.

Having been making trip after trip to the charity shop with donations for nearly 5 years, yet still feeling overwhelmed by the amount of clutter I was surrounded by, early in 2016 I decided to implement the Konmari technique of decluttering and tidying. It showed me how half-hearted, sentimental and unmethodical my previous attempts to remove the clutter had been – I had been trying to fix my disorderliness in a very disorderly way.

The Konmari method was developed by Marie Kondo, an organising consultant whose book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying would suggest that she has an obsessive compulsive need to tidy and organise. Some of her suggestions seemed odd (I’d certainly never ascribed animism to the contents of my underwear drawer), yet I decided to trust the system and see where it took me. Nothing to lose after already spending 5 years of my life attempting to achieve a more minimalist lifestyle.

The basic method with the Konmari technique is to hold each item individually and decide whether or not it brings you joy. It’s an instinctive and intuitive process and, while it doesn’t float everyone’s boat, I love it. It is a clear indicator of what we really want to have in our homes – the place that should be our sanctuary.

It means that what we are left with are items that we truly value and enjoy.

The method is not without its critics. Using a term like ‘joy’ can seem a wishy-washy concept when the problem and solution appears very practical. One criticism might be “Well, my clothes pegs don’t bring me joy, but I’d be stuck without them – what a ridiculous premise to base your decluttering on!”

Let’s pick this apart. The word ‘joy’ is usually associated with a high energy sense of bliss and, indeed, most of us do not look at our clothes pegs and feel quite so strongly about them. But let’s turn it around. Imagine if you came to hang your washing out and there were no clothes pegs. What then? What if you can only hang your washing out just the way you like it with those pegs? I will admit, I am quite particular about the way I hang the clothes out on the washing line (given that my ironing board was decluttered many years ago), and the pegs are part of a routine that does lead to the simple pleasure of having crease-free, air-freshened clothes. It is a very tiny part of the jigsaw that makes up my experience of living joyfully – but it is still a part of it and the jigsaw would be incomplete without it (and how annoying is it when you realise there’s a jigsaw piece missing?!).

We have to consider everything’s place within and effect upon the bigger picture.

All of these little things – the mundane everyday items that make our lives more convenient – they add up to comprise our own, unique version of what constitutes a ‘joyful life’. Other people may well be glad to declutter those pegs straight out of the ‘random’ drawer (you know, that drawer in the kitchen full of bits and bobs that have no real home? Apparently, everyone has one – until you decide to declutter Konmari-style!).

Similarly, Joshua Becker – a ‘rational minimalist’ and author of The More of Less – uses the concept of bringing joy to the decluttering process but covers his back from the criticisms aimed at Konmari by also including the concept of need – “If you love it or need it”. Unfortunately, I think the word ‘need’ can be even more vague in the decluttering process than the word ‘joy’. We can believe we need something, but do we really? Advertisers create needs where none before existed. ‘Needs’ have developed in consumerist societies that, in the grand scheme of things, are not needs at all.

A skewed concept of need also encourages the “But I might need it one day!” blockage that prevents us from decluttering effectively.

If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there are many things taking up space in our lives that do not come under the banners of safety, survival or social well-being. And, as many luxuries as we have available to us, how many really assist us on the path to self-actualisation? I would suggest that true self-actualisation is better achieved with minimal belongings – and minimal accrual of other unnecessary cultural clutter. There are so many options that we have in an individualist culture to layer up our self-image and ego with both material and intellectual resources as if self-realisation is taking place, yet there is a big difference between self-actualisation and self-indulgence.

The other side of this is that we can consider what we really want to be surrounded by, what genuinely resonates with us and expresses our individual styles – not out of a false need to “keep up with the Jones’” or show off, but in order to feel in harmony with our environment.

With home décor, it may be an easy task to know what we really like and what we really don’t like. For more functional items, it is a time to reassess. I definitely do not espouse the Konmari habit of just throwing things out (how wasteful and environmentally destructive), but I do encourage people to really think about the replacements they make when items do come to the end of their life or otherwise become redundant.

When my toaster stopped working earlier in the year, I decided it would be nice to have the worktop space back (having reduced items on the worktop to just the toaster and the kettle) and I would do toast under the oven grill instead. It does the job without taking up unnecessary room, hence we’re still just using the grill – a much more multi-functional product than the toaster ever was anyway!

Likewise, when my kettle stopped working, I decided to boil water on the stove. However, this really wasn’t the most efficient way to make frequent mugs of tea, so I recognised that I actually quite like owning a kettle. This doubled as an opportunity to choose something I liked aesthetically (read: brings me joy to glance upon) rather than just buying something based on its price – so, a funky glass kettle that lights up the water blue it was!

Decluttering doesn’t just involve getting rid of what you already have – it means making more conscious, considered decisions about what you let into your home in the first place.

One of the best things about minimalist living when you’re on a budget is that you can invest in the few quality items that you really love rather than living by the false economy of spending less per item in order to acquire more. It also means that your sense of abundance is not measured just by the level of your income.

Buying new items only when absolutely necessary and reassessing habitual purchases means that I can afford to do something that is truly important to our family – travel. As well as the practical day-to-day freedom that decluttering has brought us in our home, it has refined our entire lifestyle in numerous ways.

We live in a privileged society, but our material wealth has a way of distracting us from what is actually important – it can distract some of us from even considering what is actually important, so entrenched is the social conditioning in which some people even consider ‘shopping’ a valid pastime. Is this what anyone truly wants to recall of their lives when they are on their deathbed?

Living with less has also increased our gratitude for what we have – consciously choosing that which promotes a sense of love and joy allows us to genuinely count our blessings. Freed from the lure of the next consumerist fix we can be free to follow our hearts, which invariably releases us to focus on our inner values and our relationships with other human beings rather than the pressure to conform and our relationships with inanimate objects.

Remember:

“Clutter is not just physical stuff. It’s old ideas, toxic relationships and bad habits. Clutter is anything that does not support your better self.” – Eleanor Brownn

Have you successfully decluttered? Do you want to but don’t know where to start? Share your story with me below – I’d love to hear what inspired you or what’s stopping you.

For further inspiration:

The Congruent Blogger

Integrity

Congruence: in counselling terms, this refers to the outer self being in harmony with the inner self – that what you display to others reflects what is occurring in your inner world. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you disclose your every thought or feeling, but that you find a way to present yourself authentically.

I have been reflecting on whether this blog is in accordance with the above.

Free To Be was inspired by my travels to Morocco and launched at a time when I was seriously considering emigration; I was expecting baby number 3 and investing in work that I could ultimately do from anywhere in the world. It felt like an exciting time and I knew I had to write about my travels and what it means to be part of the human family.

The themes of peace and freedom and adventure ran through those first posts.

Peace.

Freedom.

Adventure.

The biggest questions I had when I began blogging were:

“Do I really want to share these personal stories with the whole world?”

and

“If I present myself as this person, don’t I have to continue to be her?”

How can I be honest and real without compromising my privacy or my Geminian tendency to, well, just change my mind about anything and everything? And not just change my mind, but my entire lifestyle on occasion (for I continue to shake off labels that I once upon a time made use of to shape my identity).

In the past I posted a personal social media status at least once per week, but this gradually diminished to big life events only (at least the birth of a child is a fact that can’t be altered!). My personal opinions can be garnered through calls to petitions and choice news stories – in someone else’s words of course.

It was from a sense of feeling more private that I decided to go public. I finally felt safe in my own skin and no longer needed my friends to comment on day-to-day trivialities for my sense of self-esteem. Hence, I gained the courage to invite strangers to comment on my writing; writing that is generally sourced from experience, sometimes garnished with facts yet often doused in personal philosophies and opinion – always an expression of one’s sense of self.

I just hoped to offer something that could inspire others or be a call to action, with a life of inspiration and action to provide such material – to walk the walk as I talk the talk.

Yet I occasionally feel, for as balanced and open as my accounts of our travels have been, our family circumstances have been less exotic and more excruciating than might be assumed. I have many articles drafted regarding travel advice for Morocco, being part of a mixed race family, language learning and other topics, all liberally seasoned with personal anecdotes which include many casual mentions of FreeToBeB as if our cross-border relationship is normal and sustainable – for it is neither. Between issues of finance, language, immigration law, culture and religion to downright personality clashes, it is – frankly – incredible that it survived its first year, let alone four years and two babies.

The question on everyone’s lips: When is the next trip to Morocco?

The answer: Sadly, less of a when and more of an if.

So, as I found myself at the mercy of a 6 year old’s distress at a 2 year old’s temper with a baby wailing in my arms at 8pm on a rainy winter’s night in Britain, seven months beyond any adventures abroad, feeling somewhat alone and isolated, and wondering why the universe was testing me in such a way (and breathe!), I pondered those themes.

Peace?

Freedom?

Adventure?

Thus, from this low point, I questioned my congruence this week with regards to this blog, wondering how the person reading these posts perceives the person writing them; wondering if my current lifestyle lives up to what the blurb promises.

Where is the peace?

Where is the freedom?

Where is the adventure?

Well, the answer to these is right here.

Even as I castigated myself for yearning for the icing on the cake in the modern mother’s repertoire (i.e. time to myself), I also knew that was not the solution.

We don’t fight the monsters by running away; we don’t escape the inner demons by changing our outer environment.

For anyone who’s ever read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now or even has a basic understanding of living mindfully, you will know that the power always resides in the very moment that you feel powerless.

And so I realised:

Where there is love, there is peace.

Where there is thought, there is freedom.

Where there are children, there is adventure.

Winter as a home educating single mum with a new baby has been challenging. But I like a challenge. And within that adventure, we are free to be family – for there is many a country where home educators or single mothers would fare a lot worse than I do in the UK.

And there is always, always peace when staring upon a sleeping baby’s face.

It all begins at home.

A part of me feels like I’m grasping at straws, that I have lost the person who wrote the inaugural How I Caught the Travel Bug.

Yet as I centred myself and dealt with the siblings’ squabbles, I found that person.

FreeToBeP screamed (real tears and all) as his little sister angrily disagreed with something he said. He chose the misery of wanting everyone to agree with his stance – isn’t that how wars are started?

And so I thought of a quote that I’d spotted on my social media news feed earlier that day:

“It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them. So throw away your baggage and go forward. There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet, trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair. That’s why you must walk so lightly. Lightly my darling…” (Aldous Huxley, Island)

“Choose the happy path, P.” I advised, before doling out suggestions on how to cope better (note to readers: I was taking my own advice as I said it – for I do not always handle such bickering with such grace!).

And as part of the happy path I tried to lead him upon, I thought of all the memories I hope to make with my children this year, all the opportunities we have to make life one big adventure . . .

Aha! Here comes that train of thought which includes getting the camping gear out, attending festivals, booking flights, travelling to new places, trying new things, meeting new people and, yes, perhaps even emigrating. Yes, here comes the fever of the travel bug.

If having children has taught me anything, it’s that I still have a lot to learn. And as we learn, we grow. And as we grow, we change.

As such, I can always give my promise that at any moment my writing comes from the heart and that congruence exists despite a change of heart. If anything, it is all the more congruent in that I invite you along for the journey, as witness!

And I can always give my promise that for as long as this blog exists, I shall be striving towards those themes even as they seem to elude me:

Peace.

Freedom.

Adventure.

Embracing the Ennui: Retreat, Respite and Relaxation

Written early August 2014, a few days into our summer trip to Marrakech, Morocco.

Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Sometimes there’s nothing to do but sit down, smell the roses and drink tea (Atlas Mountains, 2011).

Here I am. In Morocco.

Here I am, needing to refine my ability to ‘just be’. For someone who spends a lot of time reading about and agreeing with Buddhist teachings on mindfulness, I’m not very good at it.

I’d been in Morocco for less than 24 hours before I began to sense the ennui that sometimes overcomes me here. I had to take a step back and recall some of the aims of my visit – the ‘3 Rs’:

Retreat.

Respite.

Relaxation.

At home I’m constantly busy, something FreeToBeB finds difficult to comprehend (despite it being obvious to me that between being a lone parent to two young children, running a household, engaging in various social and voluntary pursuits, working on creative endeavours, not to mention trying to pursue my many and varied interests, I am invariably burning the candle at both ends). Yet from his point of view, I appear to have better things to do than chat to him via Skype – for when I do find the time, I’m often distracted by the kids, trying to multitask with work on the computer, in the middle of cooking dinner or cutting our conversation short in order to pick FreeToBeP up from school.

In Morocco, the opposite happens to me: freed from most of my usual household duties, my social circle, the school routine and the variety of other things that usually keep me occupied, I find myself at a loose end here. This time, I don’t even have FreeToBeP with me to keep me on my toes.

I should be grateful for the rest.

But it’s all part of the culture shock, and there is a period of adjustment.

I keep thinking of Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’. I’m aware of my need for self-actualisation – the top of the pyramid, the pinnacle of human life, the gateway to transcendence – being unseen, unrecognised, unfulfilled. It’s a distinctly cultural issue, as I don’t think the idea of ‘hobbies’ and many concepts of personal development are particularly prevalent here.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Creative Commons License)

And with the more simple way of life in Morocco, oftentimes my own thoughts turn to more basic needs rather than anything of a ‘higher nature’.

Rather than considering what educational activities I can come up with for the kids, I’m thinking about the need to boil water for a wash. Rather than having my hands and mind free to complete other tasks whilst keeping an eye on dinner cooking safely up on the stove and/or in the oven, I’m trying to figure out how to cook a full meal on a single hob over a gas cylinder on the floor whilst keeping intrigued children out of the way.

Up in FreeToBeB’s family home in the Atlas Mountains – without a bathroom or running water – I am quite literally functioning at the base of the pyramid (“Where can I find a private spot to go to the toilet [outdoors] tonight without risking the attention of wild boars?”).

Thus, time passes differently for many people here, especially for those who have grown up in the countryside.

This observation has been confirmed by a Moroccan author whose work I have been reading this week:

“When it’s hot, people go to ground in their homes until dusk, learning to wait, learning to do nothing. They don’t talk about the climate and its hardships. They sit cross-legged on mats, shifting positions, then changing places. They don’t even look at the sky . . . they forget about the hours that drag by. Instead of passing from one person to another, words seem to bump into the walls and crumble away. So no one speaks. There’s nothing to say, nothing to do . . . Life is simple, and simply terrible.”  (Tahar Ben Jelloun, A Palace in the Old Village)

Yes, at least I can sit and read, something I can see as ‘productive relaxation’. Yet reading for pleasure does not seem to be a typical pastime for many people here, which may be directly linked to literacy rates in Morocco or perhaps it is our more secluded lives in the UK that allow us to partake in such pastimes.

Reading forms such a fundamental basis to my own learning and aspirations, that I can’t imagine life without written material to study, digest and philosophise over. I accept that this is my personal way to access my own ideas and dreams, and yet everyone needs something to inspire new ideas and dreams. Don’t they? To what extent do people in more traditional societies – not caught up in the same individualistic society as I am – even embrace their own ideas and dreams? Surely, I’ve thought, my striving for ‘something more’ is a normal, human drive to explore and discover and create? How indeed has the human race got where it is today without that drive?

And then I remember: life up in the Moroccan mountains is pretty much akin to how it must have been for centuries. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a sharp and sometimes grating contrast to my own lifestyle, full of my need for change and contrast, full of options and choices and everything around us telling us to personalise our content – create a unique identity and prove what we’re doing to make our way in the world.

There have always been trailblazers, explorers and inventors in the world who help push the human species into new territories. Yet for most of human history, these have been but a few faces upon backbones of larger communities. These days, in so-called ‘developed’ countries, we are encouraged not to make our way as a community but as individuals, thinking about how best to progress life for I, Me, Myself.

And not forgetting Maslow’s hierarchy, we are lucky in the UK that most of us don’t have to worry about those bottom two layers, but can take it for granted that we have 3 meals a day and a doctor’s surgery, free at the point of service, just up the road. This isn’t true in places such as Morocco, where as many as 1 in 4 people have a hand-to-mouth existence and cannot afford basic medical care. What time or motivation is there for self-actualisation when your number one concern is ensuring you have a few coins in your hand at the end of the day in order to procure an evening meal?

And, whilst we have seemingly unlimited choice in what we choose for our intellectual and creative pursuits in Western nations, that’s not to say that those in less eclectic cultures can’t pursue valuable and valid personal projects. Who am I to say that a mountain woman making blankets or rugs is merely doing it for survival and following tradition? Yes, it is a tradition – but perhaps it is also her passion and her creative outlet that allows her to reach her own sense of self-actualisation? Who am I to say she isn’t creating her own individual style? Who am I to say that my own ideas of living a creative and fulfilled life have universal meaning across cultures? Of course they don’t.

And perhaps this is why, like a fish out of water, I struggle to adapt my ideals to my reality here. One has to work with what is at hand, and if the country you are in has different things at hand than the country you are used to, your ideas of how to work and what to work on may have to change.

The silly thing is that I feel I should be better equipped and better educated to deal with these differences than I seem to be. I’ve attended so many academic courses, meditated and prayed my way through so many spiritual traditions, owned and read so many books, that on the one hand I feel I “should know better” and on the other hand I’m not quite sure what to do with everything that crowds my restless mind. I have the unsettling feeling that I’m always missing the point.

Conversely, FreeToBeB spent about seven years in formal education as a child, being taught in a language that he had to pick up as he went along. The only books I’ve seen in his possession are bilingual dictionaries and other language-learning materials that actually seem quite surplus to his requirements as a polyglot who can speak seven languages to differing extents, self-taught through interactions with other speakers of those languages.

Occasionally the phrase “At the mosque they said . . .” will emerge from his mouth, but even this he says with detachment: he repeats what he’s heard but admits he doesn’t know enough about the subject at hand to either verify or deny the claims. And it doesn’t bother him that he doesn’t know. He shrugs and lets the subject go. He doesn’t understand why I’m always asking “Why?”, like an eternal child.

My point? FreeToBeB seems untroubled by the ever-changing thoughts and questions and the pervading restlessness that punctuates my own mental life. Yes, he sometimes feels fed up, but not in the desperate manner in which I do, whereby I feel selfish for sitting still and doing nothing when world peace has not yet been achieved (note to self: don’t hate – meditate!).

However, it’s now our fourth day here and I think I may well be settling into ‘relax’ mode at last. We were intending to attend a family wedding in Beni Mellal today (the marriage of one of FreeToBeB’s many nieces), but last night I felt ill and tired and worried, so I bailed out.

So much for an adventure! I’m afraid this bout of ‘travel blogging’ doesn’t involve a great deal of your typical traveller stories, much more concerned am I about taking the time to sit still for a while and look after my pregnant body.

Anyway, I couldn’t fathom if the nausea, dizziness and headache I was suffering were a psychosomatic response to heightened emotions (having allowed an issue with FreeToBeB to degenerate into an argument), whether the heat or some dodgy food was having its effect, or if I should be wracking my brains to recall the symptoms of pre-eclampsia. Whatever it was, it was enough to put me off a journey which would entail the generous use of Rescue Remedy in order to calm myself about the dubious road safety record in this country.

Yet I awoke today feeling just a little lethargic and checked myself to see if I was annoyed that I hadn’t committed to honouring the wedding and gone anyway. No, it’s fine; I’m not going to regret this missed opportunity on my deathbed.

We’d all had a late night and didn’t awaken properly until 2pm. We started the day slowly, still eating breakfast at 4pm, treating myself to a favourite yoghurt of cream and cereal which would be way too much of a guilty pleasure at home, where I adhere as much as possible to a vegan diet. I balance it out here knowing that my asthma (exacerbated by dairy products) is usually at bay in the dry heat where I don’t have my damp flat to contend with.

During our leisurely breakfast, I sat daydreaming about lush, green forests and clear, flowing streams of water. I’m yearning for the greenery of England and the seaside of my hometown. But here I am, in Abouab, Marrakech: I know I will exit the front door here to a view of dust and litter and ill-kept streets full of trip hazards. Am I looking on the negative side? No, I’m just looking; saying it as I see it. Here I am.

Despite the daydreams, I actually feel like they’ve come of a desire to ‘retreat and relax’. Let’s just sit here and observe my thoughts.

I’m glad I didn’t rush around purchasing fancy clothes and gifts in order to attend a wedding. Instead, I’m reading a book by a fellow ‘mum blogger’, a read I chanced upon whilst browsing the Kindle store for free downloads to keep me occupied (yes, always that need to be ‘occupied’!). [For those who may be interested, the book is Trees As Tall As Mountains by Rachel Devenish Ford].

This book is balancing. As this fellow mother talks of the joys and pains of parenting her 3 young children and her need to remember to connect to the divine in times of difficulty, it’s a good reminder to myself. Having exchanged some angry words with FreeToBeB last night, I feel I can live today in more grace.

Spontaneous smiles of love and contentment are blooming on my face as I watch FreeToBeZ playing exuberantly, a simple pleasure as I sip sweet, smooth coffee that tastes nothing like the bitter beverage I’m used to at home. The electric fan stirs the skirt of my dress around my ankles as it attempts to penetrate the stifling summer heat and, focusing on this gentle sensation, it’s enough to remind me: here I am; I am alive; what a wonderful world.

So, here I am: overcoming an inner battle of ‘shoulds’. I’m in another country, I ‘should’ be exploring, I ‘should’ go somewhere new. If I’m craving the sea, perhaps we ‘should’ hop on the coach to Agadir? I’ve never been there and have always wanted to see what it’s like. But at the moment it intuitively feels as likely a trip as saying “Ah, New Zealand – I’ve never been there.”

No, here I am trying to embrace the ennui and instead think of it in terms of those 3 R words: this is my retreat, my respite, my relaxation.

Last night I managed to find a place of peace as I prayed and visualised the amazing lifestyle of my dreams. It seemed all the more attainable thanks to being in a country that still relies so much on community and extended family, and due to the aforementioned book being based in an intentional community.

I saw myself amongst a group of people building together, cooking together, cleaning together, helping each other. Between us there were many children, playing as a pack outdoors, laughter streaming after them as they chased through meadows of tall, sun-browned grass . . .

What a cliché! All I need now are some John Lennon specs and flowers in my hair.

But the combination of my knowledge of the more communal, traditional Imazighen life here in Morocco and the impression made on me by an article a dear friend shared with me just before my trip (I Miss the Village) has watered a seed that has rested in my mind for a long time.

I notice that many of the challenges I experience stem from being an isolated single mother, which I keenly feel is not a natural, human state of being. And how ironic that within this isolation I never get the chance to rest and retreat, so consumed am I by being solely responsible for so many things, not least the two little people who depend on me 24/7.

I needed to get away to reflect on what I really want and need in my life. Our times in Morocco are such a contrast to our life in the UK that I can more easily see the pros and cons of both places and wonder how and where I can carve out an existence for my family that embodies the pros of both.

I always come to the conclusion that a commune in a warm climate is my ideal home.

Retreating into myself as FreeToBeP is cared for by my parents back in England and FreeToBeZ is entertained by her father across the room, I can sense my genuine needs, pick out the life ideals that may be desirable but not altogether attainable and/or necessary, and really sort all the wheat from the chaff.

I’m sitting still here, happily observing the mundane yet mighty moments of everyday life.

How can I be anything but appreciative as FreeToBeB cooks and serves me food and I temporarily escape from it being my own daily duty?

How can I be anything but appreciative as I soak up my daughter’s smiles? Such food for the soul. As I bask in them, I nourish myself in a way that I often neglect to do.

I’ve spent the past few hours thinking “Here I am – nowhere else but here”, reminding myself to be truly present in the moment, cherishing the little moments that make life a life lived.

FreeToBeZ just took both FreeToBeB and I in her tiny hands and led us to the shower room, wishing to play with water and wanting us both to witness her splashes. After performing the necessary ablutions to ensure her cleanliness, FreeToBeB blocked up the plughole with a plastic bag so she could sit in the water and enjoy a ‘bath’.

Moroccan bath

This is what I meant in Paltry Packing when I stated that kids are generally easy to entertain without all the toys and gadgets, providing you are present and patient. Rather than the rushed, pre-bedtime, functional ‘bathtime’ of home, I sat gazing adoringly at FreeToBeZ as she giggled each time she tipped a jug of cool water over herself. She doesn’t need Agadir.

Really: if some folks travel all the way to India to sit in a monastery on silent retreat, why can’t I have my own retreat in Morocco, a place where I have already enjoyed a significant amount of exploring?

Why must I be ‘doing’ when I could purely be ‘being’?

Perhaps, here, I can teach myself to relax. Surely that would be a worthwhile occupation? I may even (guiltily, self-consciously, apologetically) ask FreeToBeB for a shoulder massage later.

Quite apart from making my children aware of different traditions and lifestyles across the world, what better thing to teach them than effective self-care?

For there is no better springboard towards caring for and understanding others than to care for and understand one’s own self first.

The Quiet Zone: Tranquil Travel with a High Spirited Child

High Spirits (public domain image)
High Spirits (public domain image)

Oh, how we were glared at when we entered the Quiet Zone carriage on that evening train home from Legoland Windsor.

The harried mother had arrived with her two young children, noisy at the transition from waiting to boarding, said mother harried due to the realisation that their reserved seats were in the dreaded area that could just as easily be named the designated ‘Child-Free Zone’.

The old guy at the table adjacent to ours put his head upon his hands and muttered some complaint about our arrival. The lady with him, who I presume was his wife, basically told him to stop being such a miserable git. I silently willed my children to do as they usually (touch wood) do when we make a journey: once settled into their seats, transform into angelic, thoughtful beings who are actually placated by the excitement of our trips.

I’m often amazed by FreeToBeP’s complete change in character when we travel – he forgets to annoy his sister, adopts a slightly dreamy look and becomes absorbed by the travelling. Or resigned to it? Either way, if only we could both learn how to adopt this somewhat meditative state in our home lives.

Six year old FreeToBeP could be described as being on the upper end of the ‘boisterous boy’ scale. A day doesn’t go by where I don’t hear myself frantically asking him to “Calm down and just listen!” when I’ve asked him to stop doing something for the umpteenth time and it appears that, despite his actions being obviously questionable to the adult eye, he has lost any capacity for either hearing or self-control (and, yes, I do realise that my own reactions are a big part of the picture!).

FreeToBeZ, having recently turned 2 years old, is naturally highly spirited by virtue of her being a toddler.

Yet travelling often seems to put children into a different state of being – for leaving familiar territory can quieten the restless mind. It’s true for all of us to some extent.

The mundane everyday realities become somehow more exotic, especially to those who are still relatively new to the big wide world. Perhaps the sandwiches are out of a self-chosen packet from a shop shelf instead of mum’s (boring and familiar) homemade cheese and pickle.

Even the opportunity to sit on the loo seat of a clattering train or as the plane hits some turbulence tinges even our most base needs with an element of adventure.

And, wow, the unknown quality that hangs in the air as you see the look on mum’s face when she realises you’ve just pooed your pants at 30,000ft, minutes away from the compulsory seatbelt-wearing descent whilst all the loos are occupied. Such priceless moments which are just impossible to recreate in the comfort of your own home.

Some children are thirsty to explore the world and seem to become different people when they travel. ‘Demanding’ and ‘wilful’ children are often trying to tell us (through challenging behaviour rather than words) that they’re feeling bored or isolated or under-stimulated. In all of these instances, travelling helps to address these underlying needs.

Also, whilst travelling with minimal possessions and without the daily distractions of our home and working lives, we can become more attentive parents, able to enjoy the beauty and bustle of the great, wide world with our children beside us instead of allowing the little stressors of day-to-day life to become the focus of our days together.

I have no doubt that my children become more relaxed in the knowledge that, on a journey, I have become a captive audience to all their needs and verbalised thoughts – much more genuinely ‘with’ them than if I’m preoccupied by cooking or tidying or the obsessive-compulsive checking of communication devices.

Travelling puts everything into perspective.

When I see my son carrying his own cabin bag between connections or passing through the airport security scanners on his own, it occurs to me just how young and vulnerable he still is. Practicing the empathy and compassion I always hope to practice with my offspring suddenly becomes easier when we’re ‘out there’. My role as protector and provider comes to the fore as we leave behind the security of home sweet home.

I do believe that the earlier you start with family travel the better. My children have always known long car journeys due to our 4-5 hour treks to visit my immediate family at least 4 times a year. I expect that this – along with my natural inclination to practice a flexible lifestyle based on each new day rather than adhere to strict schedules and routines – has helped my children become the adaptable and obliging little travellers that they are.

However, most children’s natural curiosity and malleable nature means that even without having travelled extensively during their early years, older children – however ‘spirited’ – may benefit from the out-of-the-ordinariness and new experiences that travel offers.

Whilst I know many families who feel that the lifestyle I share with my children would not be appropriate for their own children (some of whom have diagnoses for various behavioural issues and learning difficulties, and who need carefully preparing for any changes in routine), there are different degrees of family travel that can allow any family to experiment and note how their children respond. You needn’t jump in the deep end and plan a backpacking trip in another continent; just a family day trip on the train to a town you haven’t visited before can help you gauge how your children react to the concept of travel.

I’m certainly not saying that my own children’s generally calm response is how all children respond to travel. Your child may well be the opposite, and turn from generally obliging and thoughtful to over-excitable and disorganised. This over-exhilaration is perhaps what is expected of children when they travel – but can you blame them? Whilst, as adults, we can usually control our excitement internally, the joy and expectation of ‘holiday time’ is expressed physically by many young children.

We can either live in dread that we’ll have difficult journeys to our destination or reframe our outlook and deal with it creatively (see 10 Mind-Altering Family Travel Tips for more ideas on keeping family travel full of sweetness and light).

All the sights and sounds of travel provide parents with ample opportunity to channel high energy appropriately – all the waiting and sitting gives us lots of time to engage our children in conversation about new and unusual experiences. Shared observations and conversations aid our loving connection to our children which in turn serves as the basis for a strong, respectful relationship (i.e. ensuring it’s more likely that they’ll listen to us when it’s really important that they do).

I also tend to think that the more we look to the spirit of adventure, the more new things there are for everyone – ergo, the more distractions and novelties there are to limit or prevent tantrums of boredom and under-stimulation.

The last leg of the journey to a Mid-Atlas hamlet: travel needn't be a trial and can actually be a treat. There was no chance of FreeToBeP being a bored passenger here.
The last leg of the journey to a Mid-Atlas hamlet: travel needn’t be a trial and can actually be a treat. There was no chance of FreeToBeP being a bored passenger here.

Travelling also gives children the opportunity to take on little responsibilities that they may not usually have, thus keeping restless feet and hands occupied. FreeToBeP often takes care of his passport when we queue for passport control. I was initially wary of this, but in trusting him with the responsibility, I have learnt that he takes it very seriously: the bored child wanting to swing on the barriers becomes a child so focused on using his hands to hold onto his very own important documentation with all his might that nothing else matters.

So, if you’re a parent with a desire to travel yet hear a little voice telling you about all the things that could go wrong with your lively 4 year old, I would encourage you to put aside the worries and give your dreams a chance.

I always say that it’s better to try and fail than to never try and never know.

Yes, things could go wrong. They could also go very, very right.

 



Have you noticed a difference in your children’s temperament (for better or worse) when you travel? Do you concur with any of the above observations? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to leave a comment below if you wish to share your experiences.

Next week: Paltry Packing: 10 Tips for Travelling Lightly

10 Mind-Altering Family Travel Tips

New Eyes

If to be mind-altering something must change one’s mood and behaviour, then I hope the following post will live up to its title.

I would like to share some ways of doing and thinking that may allow your family more freedom, fun and flexibility as you journey to new horizons. My focus is on adopting an open and relaxed mental attitude to ensure you truly embrace the adventure of travelling with your children.

There are plenty of resources out there sharing information about practical matters such as documentation, transportation and sights to see, but little about actually nurturing yourself and your family to make the most of the travel experience.

If you travel with a genuinely positive and relaxed attitude, any obstacles and challenges can be experienced with a level of grace and acceptance that may be much harder to accomplish if you pressure yourself to stick to a predetermined plan shaped around ideals that work well at home but may not adapt so well to the spirit of travel.

This list has no particular hierarchy and can certainly be added to, but herein are 10 pieces of advice for anyone hoping or planning to take a family trip anywhere in the world (yes, even Skegness). Some of them may go against conventional parenting advice but I would like to suggest that your best ally as you travel is the ability to think outside the box . . .

 

1) Prepare Your Self

Body and mind are as important as bags and money (or, indeed, bags of money) when it comes to anticipating a trip with children.

I tend to get the packing and paperwork sorted well in advance of travelling – not because I’m super organised, but because I’m super excited! This gives me a bit of space and time to ensure I’m well-rested before embarking on our journey (or at least as well-rested as a restless single mother to two young children can be).

I can’t emphasise enough how useful it is to ensure you have some well-sharpened relaxation tools in your metaphorical toolbox before you go, whether that be a well-tuned meditation practice or merely the awareness of a need to take some time out and have a drink.

I’ve heard many stories of family holidays being the absolute opposite of the relaxing and bonding experience that was hoped for, and I’ve wondered how many of these families have well-established mental anchors when the stress levels start to rise. My own anchor isn’t always heavy enough to keep me from allowing the anxieties to get the better of me at times, but I generally avoid being too buffeted by the ocean of emotion when I remember the many relaxation techniques at my disposal.

If all else fails – keep quiet and just breathe!

Before I embark on my journey, I also take some time to reflect on what I’m hoping to get out of the trip, yet also how I can be mindful and accepting of whatever comes our way.

Whilst the logistics and practical concerns of travelling as a family take precedent, we make ourselves better able to deal with any strains or unforeseen events if we are mentally prepared to accept that:
a) we can never be 100% prepared; and
b) in choosing to go beyond our usual environments and comfort zones with our little ones, poo happens (sometimes quite literally).

2) The Group Mind

Travel as a group.

Taking your own community of friends or extended family with you is a big bonus. Though perhaps not the norm, it is a set-up I would recommend whenever it is possible. I suggest that you and your travel companions speak in advance about what might be expected of each other, the details of which may be dictated by whether or not they also have children with them.

The old adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” seems somehow all the more appropriate when you’re in strange new places and in need of that extra support when the kids go hyper just as you’re queuing at passport control or involved in some other such non-negotiable event.

Sharing your trip with others also serves as a home base for everyone. You don’t have to agree on what to do each day and you may separate to pursue different outings or activities, yet it is comforting to know you will be seeing a familiar face for dinner or evening drinks.

3) Be Spontaneous

Whilst preparation is the key to making a smooth getaway and in ensuring you have everything you need for the duration of your stay, spontaneity is a good trait to practice during your actual holiday.

I generally have some idea of things that I’d “quite like to do” in a particular location, yet I do my best to avoid setting in stone what will happen when. Keeping a loose agenda takes the pressure off and, if you do have a day where it feels better to stay close to your accommodation for easy rest or if the kids seems a little off-colour, this can result in a fresh burst of energy the following day when – feeling rejuvenated – you may end up packing lots of activities into a single day.

Be dictated by the needs and feelings of your family rather than by a schedule.

4) I Repeat – Forget the Schedule!

I once spoke to a family whom had hosted another family in their Mediterranean home during the summer. Just envisage those balmy summertime evenings following siesta time, families gathered around for late evening meals and socialising…

Well, they were rather bemused when the visiting family told them that their children would be going to bed as per their usual early evening bedtime – and that the visitors also expected the hosts to impose the same bedtime on their own child!

Even if you don’t intend to tell a host family what to do with their own children (perish the thought!), I would also encourage you not to tell yourself that you must adhere to what is actually an arbitrary, culturally-prescribed set of expectations. What works on a school night is not necessarily the best rule for other nights. The sense of time passing and the sense of what is necessary to get done changes from country to country and culture to culture. And, as they say, when in Rome…

Many would argue that adherence to as close a routine as you have at home is desirable. Whilst this is true, particularly for young children, with regards to keeping things familiar and consistent (e.g. retaining the same comforting bedtime routine, whatever time bedtime actually falls), being too focused on this can be a stress in itself – especially if there have been delays during the course of the day (be it problems with transport or the need to accept some countries’ more ‘mañana’ attitude).

Here we must make the distinction between a ‘routine’ and a ‘schedule’.

If you’ve passed the usual 7pm wind-down time and everyone is still waiting on an evening meal, you’ll do yourself no favours by worrying about it. You all need to eat and you’ll all get to bed eventually. As long as you respond to (and, ideally, premeditate) your children’s needs for food, drink, toilet stops and sleep/rest throughout the day, kids themselves are incredibly adaptable and accepting beings who, depending on their age, aren’t that conscious of the actual time. As long as they’re with a loved and trusted caregiver who doesn’t berate them for behaviour that results from any tiredness, they can feel ‘at home’ in themselves.

By all means resume your scheduling when you return home, but embrace the spirit of adventure whilst you’re away – take a risk and see what happens!

Eat when you feel like eating, sleep when you feel like sleeping, and build your usual little rituals and routines around that. If all hell breaks loose and the kids start pushing for tighter boundaries on their time, rein it in again. But you could be pleasantly surprised by the opportunities it gives you and how liberating it feels to fall into natural rhythms.

5) Must have a GSOH

I find that remembering one’s sense of humour is most useful when around the inevitable grumpy old men you will cross on your travels (I can count at least three) who will invariably find a reason to audibly complain about your children, even when your little sweethearts are actually being on their best behaviour. Some people just aren’t child-friendly. Don’t take this personally.

I vividly recall standing in the queue for passport control when returning to the UK and both kids were tired and in need of a trip to the toilets. They were complaining very noisily. A couple in front of me did much staring and tut-tut-ing before the woman loudly announced to the queue “This is why I’m glad I never had children!”.

I actually felt quite sorry for her. Reflecting on this, I could just as easily have felt sorry for myself. Thankfully, I was quite seasoned at travelling with the kids by then and was able to shrug it off and even snigger about it when an airport official then let us jump the long queue precisely because I did have children.

I’ve also employed humour to get me out of many an argumentative situation with FreeToBeB. We don’t have the luxury of living together full-time in order to create a stable basis for our relationship before we’re travelling around Morocco together and dealing with the usual family travel gripes. It can make our time together as a family fairly intense.

Mid-disagreement I will remember to think about how ridiculous our concerns are in the great scheme of things, and I will break into a smile and laugh (if you want a reminder of how ultimately insignificant all our worries are, check out this link ). My giggles aren’t always met with a matching reaction, but at least my own tension is released, which means there is no animosity left for the other party to feed on other than whatever they still choose to dwell on.

I’ve also employed the method of making fun of our previous fallings-out to lighten the mood and remind us that we always make up in the end, so better to make it sooner than later.

Emotions are often heightened for couples during travelling, so I imagine these techniques could work for anyone – including with our children, whose own moods can only be calmed if we ourselves are calm.

6) Blue Sky Thinking

Turn holiday time into adventure time!

For some, the words ‘family holiday’ may conjure up images of all-inclusive excursions to busy holiday resorts.

I’ve never taken a package holiday with my kids (unless a night in Legoland counts), although I can certainly see the appeal in the apparent ease of this. Yet I’m not satisfied with run-of-the-mill ‘family entertainment’ (i.e. I tend to find it downright cringe-worthy) and tend to think there are so many more activities ‘out there’ that can open their minds, hearts and souls to all that is beautiful and diverse and possible in this world.

Some people may feel less able to think creatively when they have children to consider and perhaps assume more ‘outside the box’ activities just aren’t possible for families. This makes a good excuse for taking the easier option.

However, the easier option is rarely the one that develops us as individuals, and I heartily recommend going outside one’s comfort zone when it comes to planning a family break.

There are many other ways to ‘do’ family travel which allow us to introduce our children to new and exciting aspects of life which may not otherwise be easily available to them. Whatever your interests or ambitions, there will be someone out there catering to families or at least making provisions for adults who will be accompanied by children. And if there isn’t? Well, there’s that niche business idea you’ve always been after!

Volunteer programmes such as WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) offer families the chance to work and learn whilst experiencing different countries and cultures.

CouchSurfing is also a popular way to go out and experience the world. You are accommodated for the price of a gift or favour to the host (which itself isn’t obligatory but certainly good social etiquette) and you also benefit from experiencing the destination from the point of view of a local, including the added bonus that you might have a free walking, talking guidebook. CouchSurfing is great for people genuinely interested in cultural exchange, including language exchange. You may feel more comfortable staying with another family who are familiar with the ways of children, yet there are many couchsurfers without children who are more than willing to host entire families.

Backpacking is also an option. I successfully spent 5 days backpacking and CouchSurfing around Andalusia with a 25kg rucksack, FreeToBeP (then 5 years old) carrying his small backpack, FreeToBeZ (then 15 months old) on me in a front-carrying sling, as I hobbled along on an injured foot (brave or crazy? You decide!).

Yes, it was hard work. Yes, it was extremely satisfying and life-affirming.

I have even heard of families successfully being able to take their children on meditation retreats, with lovely tales of their offspring tuning in and peace-ing out amidst the calmness of the community. I’m yet to test this theory on my own kids and think this is the point at which I would really be pushing my comfort zone – given the way all hell has a tendency to break loose when I instigate our nightly bedtime routine (which often includes meditation), I’m not sure I’m quite ready to let them loose amidst a group of Buddhists. That said, we could be a good test for other attendees’ true level of enlightenment and Zen-ness 😉

7) Luggage That Fits Into The Kitchen Sink

I will be covering the topic of packing lightly in much more detail in a couple of weeks’ time.

However, many of us have a tendency to over-pack, and this can be an additional and unnecessary burden in an already challenging situation. There are also many lessons in doing the exact opposite and taking as little as you can get away with.

I try to pare things back by thinking about what I really need for survival and comfort, and about what I can do at my destination. Perhaps there are things you can purchase at your destination instead of lugging it around in your luggage? Maybe you could do a little washing every couple of days instead of packing more changes of clothes? This also does away with the mammoth laundry task when you return home.

Travelling has also truly alerted me to how much we have in this country compared to many places in the world and how bizarre some of our ‘necessities’ are. That’s consumer society for you!

It was very humbling (and somewhat embarrassing) to realise that I often take more personal possessions in a single suitcase than many Amazigh women have in their entire homes. FreeToBeP takes more toys in a couple of pencil cases than a whole family of young boys may own in the Atlas Mountains.

Yet every place has its pros and cons. In the mountains, nature is their playground. FreeToBeP can forget all about Lego for an entire day when he has tree-climbing, rock-scrambling, bug-hunting friends to explore with, with the required trees, rocks and bugs right on the doorstep. In urban landscapes, we make up for that lack of natural freedom by filling rooms full of toys.

The boys in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco
The boys in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco

I’ve found that the less you take, the more you are forced to really take in and take on what is around you. Ergo, you go from a sight-seeing tourist to an all-seeing traveller.

8) Be a Cheapskate

Don’t be afraid to do things on the cheap if you need to. Having a low budget does not prevent you from travelling – but it does make you more resourceful.

Most of the things we think we ‘need’ as families are actually things we’ve just become used to and dependent upon as adults in a highly commercialised, consumerist society, whereas children are naturally quite adaptable in new and different situations.

Indeed, as with the examples above about packing, this can help to highlight different cultural and societal norms that your children may not experience if you partake in a holiday resort experience in a country where the typical activities and living standards of a resort are not the embodied experience of the families who actually live in that country.

Depending on the age of your children, you may all be comfortable sharing a double room (or even one bed) for your travels. I once booked a single room for myself and the two kids in Spain with camping mats as our second bed; the hotel owners actually provided a second single mattress for the floor at a cost of 6 Euros (their standard charge per child), which still ensured the single room remained cheaper than the double, and much cheaper than a family-sized room.

Provided you are capable of doing a quick risk assessment upon entering a hostel room, there is nothing wrong with booking a low budget room for your family and doing your own safety-proofing where necessary and possible. Ultimately, you – and no amount of health and safety legislation – bears the responsibility for keeping your children safe. If anything, taking the cheaper and apparently less ‘child friendly’ option can make us all the more attentive and responsive as parents (by which I mean being more present for them opposed to wrapping them in cotton wool).

As with all things, trust your intuition.

That said, I’ve stayed in some really grotty places that I would never recommend to anyone. It has made me really aware of what I’m prepared to compromise and what I’m prepared to pay for. And, also, how clean my home actually is despite housework not being one of my strong points (for I’ve never entered my own home wondering what that awful smell is only to discover a decomposing toad lying under my bed, maggots and all. That’ll serve me right for staying in the cheapest place in town).

Again, I would heartily recommend options such as CouchSurfing to families on a budget. One of our big joys as a CouchSurfing family is hosting and meeting other families in our own home. I also know of families who have arranged home swaps via CouchSurfing for the purpose of taking a cheap holiday.

If cheap equals simple, I like to think simple is the blank canvas required for further blue sky thinking. A room without a TV and a hostel without family entertainment will force you to spend more time bonding as a family and to get out exploring as much as possible.

I know that my truly budget travels have been the times that have resulted in the greatest challenges yet also the greatest learning.

9) Slow Down

Going at a child’s pace may be something we’re happy to do on a leisurely wander up to the local shops, but compile an itinerary for a journey (particularly by public transport) and we suddenly see a list of strict deadlines which we will make our children adhere to.

Provided you factor it in before you’re due to make your trip, it is possible to take your time. The journey to your destination need not be one fraught with panicking parents and cranky kids as everyone gets hurridly ferried between connections.

If need be, book a pre-flight hotel stay. When booking in advance, I’ve been able to book a well-equipped, en suite family room complete with king size bed for as little as £18 a night at Gatwick, with kids eating for free in the morning.

I find this extra expense a good investment for a payback of reduced stress levels, well-rested children and an extra day of travelling adventure. I will often do this even if my flight isn’t particularly early, as the peace of mind experienced from knowing I’m already ‘at’ the airport when I wake up in the morning is invaluable.

I actually find it much easier when I’m away somewhere to factor in all the dawdling, fussing, staring and general messing about time that young children must do. At home I’m much more likely to be preoccupied by a to do list or the need to be somewhere at a specific time, yet the nature of taking holidays should enable us to stop clock watching, be more mindful of the present moment, and ungrudgingly take things at the pace of the slowest members of the group.

Yes: slow down, lest all the speed just blurs the scenery.

10) Through The Eyes of a Child . . .

. . . is an amazing way to view the world!

Taking this view allows us a greater understanding of children’s needs as young travellers, yet also allows one to be the most open, non-judgemental person possible in a new environment.

Zen Buddhists (yes, them again) talk of seeing the world afresh in every moment, and this is all the more apt as travellers – to leave behind our own cultural conditioning and experience a place for what it is rather than what we feel it ought to be. And, in meeting them in empathy, truly allowing our children to do the same.

 

Please feel free to feedback in the comments below. Do these tips have the capability to alter your mind? Which of them resonated for you and which didn’t? Do you already have success in utilising some of these things?

Keep following Free To Be for my top tips on travelling as a single parent, travelling with a baby and travelling whilst pregnant.

Next week: The Quiet Zone: Travelling with a High Spirited Child

How I Caught The Travel Bug

 

Almond blossom, Atlas mountains

I suddenly realise that I’m no longer scared. I have so much to tell you about my experiences of life as a mum who travels, yet have hitherto been possessive of those memories as if sharing them with the world will somehow betray my family. Yet, whilst I sense this first post may be somewhat navel-gazing, I now believe that my valuable experiences can translate into useful information for other people. I hope to share that information via Free To Be.

I have no doubt that I will find myself writing of things that seem ridiculous, naïve or irresponsible in hindsight and that, in documenting the life of my children and my partner via a medium that may never be erased, I will be careful to ensure that some things remain sacred. I am very conscious of the image I am putting across, whilst simultaneously very conscious that I don’t actually want to be putting across a mere ‘image’ – I intend to be open and honest in my accounts of our life. Just not brutally so.

I also recognise that the deployment of this blog is very much a commitment to the path I’m on. I’m not known for my ability to stick at something for long before being whisked off my feet by my next big interest. It feels exhilarating to come out and say “This is me. This is my family. This is my life.”

I have come many miles since my days of life as a new mother, and those miles aren’t just air miles.

I suddenly realise that I’m no longer scared.


The About page gives you a snapshot of where we are now, but I also feel a little background is forthcoming, a description of the seed which has resulted in the fruit of this blog . . .

It’s late summer 2010 and I’m in the midst of training to become a breastfeeding counsellor for a national organisation. I’m given the opportunity to travel up to Scotland for a study weekend and I decide it will also be a good chance to enjoy a brief exploration of a country I had always hoped to visit. Given the go-ahead to have the first spot of ‘me time’ since giving birth to FreeToBeP in Spring 2008 (thanks to my mum agreeing to be the babysitter for any study weekends I’m required to do), I decide to spend a total of four days away – two days for my course plus an additional two days in Edinburgh.

This is no simple feat, for I’ve never left FreeToBeP with anyone else overnight and “mummy milk” remains his comforter of choice. I also decide to fly there; it’s the quickest and cheapest way to get to Scotland from my home on the south coast, thus I deduce that I should just take some Rescue Remedy and go for it.

For some reason – despite only ever taking two short, uneventful flights between the UK and Holland some 12 or so years before – I had a huge fear of flying. That, plus my concern about environmental matters associated with excessive air travel, meant that I’d made some good excuses not to travel anywhere that required a plane. I didn’t even own a passport at that point – lucky for me that for domestic flights you don’t require one providing you have alternative ID such as a driving license.

I’d also developed what I still consider a healthy opinion that there is so much to discover on my own doorstep and so many places yet to visit in Britain itself, that the desire to travel further afield rarely surfaced. Oh, how I cocked my eyebrow and scoffed at the part of my astrological birth chart analysis that said I’d be very likely to live in another country one day (as I type this, I’m seriously considering emigrating).

Well, a mere four days in Scotland, including two days of being the tourist, kindled a fire that has been burning quite steadily ever since. It could be blazing by now, but family matters have a way of keeping this fire under control at the moment.

I sat on the outbound plane reading Sufi philosophy and decided I was quite at one with the idea of my own mortality. This helped with the nerves associated with hurtling through the air in a manmade object controlled by the hands of fallible creatures. I relaxed and felt awed by the fact that I was thousands of feet up in the air, experiencing views that I felt deeply privileged to see – I felt quite close to something that some might call ‘God’, lost in amazement that I could be looking down on the earth in this way, riveted by the sea of clouds, grateful to be living in a time when humanity has access to such technological advances. It was akin to the fascination experienced when all of the unfathomable mysteries of the universe layer themselves up in one’s very vision as one gazes up at the stars. I closed my eyes and felt more at peace in myself than I had in a long time; full of colour and hope. Yes, knowing I had four toddler-free days ahead of me probably helped, but it was much more than that. It was one of those transcendental moments that seem to come out of nowhere. As I opened my eyes and glanced out of the window, I saw a rainbow playing above the plane’s wing as the late afternoon sun bounced off it. Yes, it sounds clichéd and predictable but “it was a sign!”

Looking back, the sense of freedom and life and adventure I recall from this trip are more vivid than the memories of the trip itself. It was definitely a case of something being much more than the sum of its parts. I intend to return to Edinburgh one day – in some ways, it will be like returning to the point of conception; if the remainder of this post is about my rebirth into a new state of being, this captivating Scottish city was surely the place whereat it all began.

Makars' Court, Edinburgh
Makars’ Court, Edinburgh

A couple of months later and it’s nearing Christmas, the time of year when one starts reflecting on what might be to come during the following 12 months. A browse in my local library has furnished me with the book which is to irrevocably change the course of my life:

I initially picked up The Passion Test as I was a sucker for all things ‘self-development’, yet I didn’t necessarily believe this would have any more significant an impact on my life than the many other books on personal growth that I’d read in my time. But it involved a self-assessment test and, hey, they’re fun to do (at least I think so).

Wow! Years of studying and training in various spiritual paths and techniques didn’t get to the root of my personal destiny quite like this book did. Whilst on the one hand I feel that anything about personal desire does smack of the ego state that Eastern philosophy would have us all forego in order to find our inner (and therefore outer) peace, on the other hand I felt a very real connection with something immense and important as I contemplated what my personal Passion Test had revealed.

I intuitively listed 23 things that I felt passionate about when considering the opener “When my life is ideal I am . . .”

My list included such things as:

I am . . . writing successful poetry, essays and articles.

I am . . . loving and being loved by a partner who I connect with physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally.

I am . . . frequently having fun with family and friends.

I am . . . enjoying perfect health with vitality, energy and stamina.

Of this list of 23, I then picked the five things that set my nerves tingling, my sense of joy soaring and my face wondrously grinning in excited expectation. Four of them were more abstract ‘feeling’ items that would be very much a case of internalising and acting upon the spiritual and psychological theory I had spent years acquiring. Yet the fifth was much more tangible:

When my life is ideal I am travelling around the world visiting sacred sites, temples and places of natural beauty.

And so it appears that, after years of struggling to figure out my place in the world and wondering why ‘settling down’ is such an elusive state of being for me, all my desires, interests and inspirations boil down to one thing: world travel.

Something I had always said wasn’t an interest or priority is suddenly the single most important thing I know I must do.

The little voice of fear pipes up: “Running away again?” No. This is not about escaping something; this is about making the most of my freedoms and listening to the louder voice that says “You can!”

You can go and see all the wondrous sights and sites you would like to see.”

You can satisfy the part of you that has always been interested in and intrigued by other cultures.”

You can go wherever you want to go without needing to make excuses about costs or other practicalities: you know that when your heart takes the lead, everything you need makes its way to you.”

And the biggest one to clear the biggest doubt of that moment:

You can travel with children as a single mother.”

 

I suddenly realised that I wouldn’t be the first single mother to go out and see the world with her child.

I suddenly realised that I could spend all my life waiting to feel ‘settled’ only to never have really satisfied the constant internal restlessness.

I suddenly realised that the exclamation “I want to travel the world!” resonated to the core of my being.

I suddenly realised that I had nothing to lose and so much to gain.

I suddenly realised that this would be a huge part of my life’s purpose.

I suddenly realised that I was no longer scared.

 


Was there a big “Aha!” moment for you in discovering the desire to travel? Or, indeed, any other sense of purpose or destiny in your life? Did you trust it and act upon it? I’d love to hear your stories and to know of any other life-changing books, revelations or experiences that set up a new course of life for you – feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Next week: 10 Mind-Altering Family Travel Tips