Time. It’s a slippery thing. There have been seasons of my life where I’ve had too much of it, waiting for it to pass, knowing that each ticking second is a second’s worth of healing, or a countdown to freedom. In other seasons, it has vanished in the blink of an eye, too fast and too fleeting for me to even register it was ever there.

This week, Big Dreamer and I were given the gift of time passing at the pace of our heart beats. My wonderful mother-in-law minded the bairns and kept the home fires burning, while we spent six days in a holiday cottage, deep in a wooded Devon combe. And this week, I felt like my soul caught up with my body. This year marks a big birthday for us both, and though it isn’t really any more significant than any other birthday, we felt the need to take a moment, mark time. We’d both felt the sands shifting beneath our feet and needed to take stock.

And things have been shifting for a while. Wren, our smallest child started school, taking to it more like a duck than her namesake. Little Owl, no longer very little, started ‘big school’. A surprise job saw me moving on from my beloved District Nursing, and taking on a full-time, employed role – one, I’m loving. My award-winning children’s novel finally made it onto bookshop shelves, an event I’m unsure whether to chalk up as a beginning or and end. And Big Dreamer and I, have other dreams we want to pursue, dreams and hopes that slipped in under the door like the rays of sun on the dawn of the first day of Spring, unexpectedly bright, and unexpectedly right.

If I could give myself one gift for the years after this birthday, it would be the gift of everything in its proper time: to not have to rush the children into their school clothes and out of the door each morning; to not resent the minutes spent making packed lunches because I’m so desperate for bed; to savour writing my shopping list (I know that sounds ridiculous but aren’t well-stocked shop shelves a miracle to savour?); to daydream over my morning coffee, appreciating the unfolding of the seasons outside the window; to give our dreams time to grow.

But the truth is, that would turn my days into weeks, my months into years, which reflects another truth – I am doing too much. In the last couple of years, my friend has given up having a diary. She says it has made her more “zen”. She realised she was micro-managing. I’d love to do the same, but I know I can’t at the moment, because it would expose me – there are too many spinning plates, too many balls in the air. Without a list for this and a note of that, it all comes crashing down. I know, I know, what’s the worst that could happen? What exactly am I afraid of? But the alternative is not the way I want to live. I don’t want to spend my time lurching from one near-miss to the next, most of the time saved by other’s preparedness or convenience food. But, and it’s a big one, I also want to live everyday at the pace of my own heartbeat, not just special breaks.

So, we have taken stock this week and one of the difficult things I have decided is, to only write a blog post once a month. I don’t know if that will matter to anyone at all, but for me, it’s a hard thing to say because this blog has been a weekly practice that has nourished my writing, both good and bad (sorry about that!). This blog is just over ten years old, and as we explore new things, it seems the right time to step back a little. My plan is to post something around the first of each month. I hope you faithful readers will continue to stay with me. Here’s to 2022 – a year of exploring new things and starting to live at heartbeat pace.

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January often sees me turning reflective, seeking out essayists like Kathleen Jamie and Alistair McIntosh, to give me the words and images to navigate the dark winter days. Old folk songs sing of the ‘ghosts’ that visit us at this time of year, and for me that’s a very apt description – the ghosts of paths not taken, the pang of loss, the bittersweetness of time passing and my children growing (no matter how well spent or wonderful), and the finger-tip touch of my hopes for the coming year. The old songs advise us to entertain these ‘ghosts’ – today we might call that allowing ourselves time to ‘process’.

These are words from John O’Donohue’s book, Blessings, which my sister bought me, and this January has given me words for the dark days. The idea of these blessings is rooted in old Gaelic prayer traditions, captured in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica – blessings spoken over the routines of the day, from Grace at mealtimes through to milking the cow or taking a journey. These prayers were also often called ‘charms’, revealing the awkwardness of language in trying to capture the nuance of the human spirit. Words like ‘charm’ bring out Fundamentalists in a rash, and attracted the fire and brimstone of Presbyterianism back in the day, but these prayers are a practice we now understand to be deeply contemplative. 

More recently, echoes of this spiritual practice are also to be found in the beautiful book Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris, which was re-imagined by traditional musicians in Spell Songs, reconnecting the written text with its oral, spoken roots. Here is a link to one of the songs, The Lost Words – Blessing.

As a busy, working mum, I recognise in these blessings or charms, an imaginative response to exactly what John O’Donohue describes – the rushing and fast travelling of modern life. These prayers were, and are, the tools of ordinary folks to anchor themselves, rocks dropped on ropes to the stormy depths, so as to keep noticing the “small miracles” amidst the waves and currents of the daily grind, and to keep themselves “slow and free” in a rapidly industrialising world.

And so I have begun to collect my own blessings, short strings of words, inspired by my daily routine – getting up in the morning, putting on my clothes. When I speak a blessing over the quick evening tea I’m serving up, asking for the food to nourish my children, I slow down, and the task becomes a “small miracle”. The words make me take notice. In our consumerist society, which both despises, and erases, the work and the worker, my little blessings ground and dignify my work to provide for my family and my community. Now there’s a thought for dark days.

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Picture Books 2021

We spent a truly magical Christmas, and I hope you did too. We even found snow up in the Yorkshire Dales, which was nearly better than all the presents. Back at home, the water meadows beside the river were flooded. A heron paddled the path along which I usually cycle to work. One of the very special things about my new job is being being able to cycle to work, all the more special in the stillness between Christmas and New Year.

We celebrated ‘midnight’ at 7pm on New Year’s Eve, in the company of friends with small children – the clocks around the house moved forward by five hours (tee hee!). It was perfect, and we probably enjoyed it more for the earlier hour! As we walked home in the dark, Finch yawned and commented, “I’d better get to bed quickly as there’s not many hours left until morning.”

Now we are back to the usual flurry of school and work, marked by the ‘bringing out of the hyacinths’ from the shed to cheer us through January. Their jewel-like flowers and powerful scent always feel very apt for the coming of the Magi at Epiphany. As is now tradition, this time of year also marks my round up of our favourite picture books from the last year, bought, borrowed or given…

Favourite Picture Books of 2021 - Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

The Day Fin Flooded the World by Adam Stower is a hilarious story about a forgetful boy called Fin, who leaves the tap on after remembering to brush his teeth. Fun illustrations with loads of details to spot.

Saturday by Oge Mora is a picture book that makes me cry, in a good way. It is the story of a little girl and her hardworking mum. The only day Mum gets off in the week is a Saturday. It’s a really special day, which they both look forward to, filled with special things they will do together. But the day doesn’t go to plan – everything goes wrong, from missing the bus, to forgetting the tickets to the puppet show. It’s a story many mums will be able to identify with. You set aside precious one-on-one time with your child, and make every effort to make it as special as you can, but all your best laid plans go awry and the world feels as though it’s determined to remind you how far you fall short of being the sort of mum your kids deserve. Just before Christmas we had a day like this, and when we got in the door, Wren went and found this book, plonking it in my lap. Oge Mora’s beautiful book is here to remind us that these days are still precious days, because you are spending time together, and that’s the most important thing of all.

The Catchpoles, a pair of literary agents who describe themselves as having one working leg between them, are tireless campaigners in raising awareness about representation of disabled people in children’s literature. I have learnt so much from them and continue to do so. What Happened To You? is James Catchpole‘s picture book about a boy with one leg, much like James himself. This little boy doesn’t want to continuously answer questions about his ‘other’ leg, he just wants to play a game of pirates. This book is a story to help us all understand that a person’s health is no business but their own, so how about we mind our own, and just get on with playing awesome swashbuckling adventures?

Weirdo by Zadie Smith, Nick Laird, and Magenta Fox, is about a guinea pig called Maud who loves judo. When Maud is given to a little girl called Kit for Kit’s birthday, Kit’s existing pets don’t give Maud a chance, labelling her a ‘weirdo’. But before Maud can find acceptance in her new home, she has to learn to accept herself. It’s a tale about fitting in and standing out. Great message and super sweet illustrations. 

Don’t Get Your Tutu In A Twist by Jenny Moore and Barbara Bakos is a funny romp about the animals’ rehearsals for Miss Gorilla’s dance show. With a sloth who won’t stay awake and a crocodile who gets his leotard in a loop, what could possibly go wrong? Great rhythmic writing so a fab one to read aloud.

Many of you regular readers know what a fan I am of Clare Helen Welsh – her books regularly feature as some of our favourites. This year she has had a few new releases but the one we loved best was Time To Move South For The Winter, a non-fiction tale illustrated by Jenny Lovlie, which follows a tiny term from the Arctic to the Antarctic on her annual migration. It’s a really beautiful story with stunning illustrations, peppered with interesting facts which are explored further at the back of the book.

Margaret’s Unicorn by Briony May Smith is a gorgeous story about a girl who moves house and finds a baby unicorn. Briony is a phenomenal illustrator, whose wonderful use of colour and light elevates any book she’s involved with to classic status. It’s a longer picture book, in the vein of stories like The Mousehole Cat, which incomprehensibly, seem to have dropped out of favour at the moment, but suit children like Wren (5-7 age bracket) who aren’t ready (and who’d blame them!) to leave behind colour for the black and white of chapter books.

I love Autumn but I do find Halloween a tricky festival. Though we did do some celebrating this year, because The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle is particularly suited to the season, there are aspects of it that are problematic – y’know, like frightening the life out of little children, xenophobic and misogynistic tropes, etc, etc. The Little Ghost Who Was A Quilt by Riel Nason and Byron Eggenschwiler however, is a very sweet book, and ideal for children who find the whole Halloween thing just plain weird and scary. I don’t want to give too much away, but the little ghost in this book is different to the other ghosts. Let’s just say, scaring is not high on its priorities list.

The Night Walk by Marie Dorleans captured my kids imaginations this year. It’s a deceptively simple concept, immaculately pulled off. The world is transformed in the darkness when a family go on a walk through the night to see the sun rise. A very special book.

What are Little Girls Made Of by Jeanne Willis and Isabelle Follath is a retelling of classic nursery rhymes with a modern slant, and it’s really, REALLY good. Little Miss Muffet loves spiders, Jill saves the day when Jack crashes his scooter, and there’s even a quick lesson on consent in Georgie Peorgie. Absolutely brilliant. I internally cheer whenever I read it.

So there we go, that’s our round-up for this year! It goes without saying, huge thanks to the fabulous book reviewers and booksellers who have pointed us in the direction of some of these reading treasures. Here’s to a 2022 filled with many more wonderful books!

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Merry Christmas

We returned to a brief bit of routine this week after our spot of Covid isolation and before the festive holidays start. I remained negative throughout, and thankfully, none of us are worse the wear, though we have emerged into a slightly disorientating maelstrom of omicron variants and Christmas hubbub. It was the last day of term for Wren and Finch today so we headed up into town to see the Christmas lights and visit the Christmas market.

Exeter always has an avenue of charity Christmas trees. They are donated by local growers and decorated by local charity groups. I was delighted to find the Exeter and District branch of the MS Society in amongst them…

MS Society Exeter & District tree in Exeter's charity Christmas tree avenue. Photograph by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)
MS Society Exeter & District tree in Exeter's charity Christmas tree avenue. Photograph by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

In amongst the other Christmas trees I found these words…

Image from Exeter's charity Christmas tree avenue. Photograph by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)
Image from Exeter's charity Christmas tree avenue. Photograph by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

There was something very powerful about seeing those words hung on these trees that represent some of the most vulnerable people in Exeter. In amongst the bright lights and the shopping frenzy, these two words rang out like perfectly pitched little bells. Home and Community. Two such important things that many people do not have.

This is my final post before Christmas, so this year, as well as thanking you for your continued and generous support (thank you!), I would also like to wish for you a warm home and a loving community. To you and yours, peace and joy. See you in the new year!

Middler's Santa. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk).
Artwork by Middler
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Now the whole household has tested positive for Covid, except me… and though I’d like to put my good health down to a particularly strong and superior constitution, I think my Covid booster in October may be the key contributing factor. In the mean time, I’ll be the one nipping out to get the milk when we run out, homeschooling, ‘working’ from home, and trying to stop three housebound children from climbing the walls. See you on the other side!

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Definitely spoke too soon. Big Dreamer has Covid (like a bad cold, he says), and I am tireder than ever while he’s out of action, and also have a sore knee. That is all.

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Too soon

Photograph of Exeter rooftops in the evening. All rights reserved (www.hannahcatherinefoley.co.uk)

I spoke too soon. Our brief foray into normality has been brought back down to earth with a bump… the school Christmas play is off! And you can guess why… rising numbers of Covid. There was me bemoaning Christmas songs in November. I’m wishing I hadn’t spoken.

In other news, the new job means I’m in bed by 8pm most nights. Everyone is lovely but so much to learn. Zzzzz

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Time flies

Fireworks 2021 by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

It only seems five minutes ago that I was handing out burgers at the school fireworks display, cursing anyone who asked for onions, which are never easily served at speed and in the dark! So, I had to pinch myself when I heard Wren singing a Christmas song as she pedalled across the park, piles of golden leaves scattering in her wake. Rehearsals for the school Christmas play are well under way and it’s only mid-November. The poor teachers!

All Wren will say is that she is in the ‘Neighbour Group’ and the rest, she tells me very seriously, is a surprise for the big day. But given the lyrics carrying across the frosty air in the park, I’m almost certain it will involve a rendition of Rocking Around The Christmas Tree! 🙂

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Oak trees

Bench by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

This is a favourite bench under an oak tree where I have sat to eat my lunch, on many of my rounds as a District Nurse. It seems a little silly to talk of saying farewell to hedgerows and trees but I often think a community is made up of these non-human elements as much as it is by conversations at the Post Office. I said goodbye to this tree during my last week and wondered how many other District Nurses have sat here over the years, with their flask and their sandwiches.

There is a rather beautiful walled garden for me to sit in and eat my lunch outside my new office, and a whole new bunch of leafy, local characters to get to know!

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Half term adventures

Half term was full of adventures…

Author, Hannah Foley, visits Through The Wardrobe Books. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

On Friday, I visited the dinkiest, but most perfect bookshop in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, called Through The Wardrobe, to sign copies of The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle. I dropped off some extra goodies as well, which are available when you buy a signed copy of the book from their website.

The cat trail, York. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

On Saturday, we did the cat trail in York, in honour of Avery Buckle and Halloween. In medieval times, people put up statues of cats on the buildings in the city to frighten away rats which spread disease. Some of the statues are still there and others have been replaced with new ones. It was fun spotting them amongst the twisting, turning streets of York.

Author, Hannah Foley, visits Blue House Bookshop. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

And what better place to end our trail, than the Blue House Bookshop, a rather beautiful, specialist children’s bookshop on Gillygate? There I signed some more copies of Avery Buckle.

Author, Hannah Foley, visits Imagined Things bookshop. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

Then on Sunday, I headed over to the fabulous indie bookshop, Imagined Things, for an Avery Buckle-themed author event. We had Avery-themed biscuits, activities, crafts, and prizes for fancy dress. The witches’ door even graced us with its presence for a selfie station! Thank you so much to all those who came! It was a very special afternoon. And huge thanks to all the hardworking booksellers out there, sharing books with new readers up and down the country.

This week it is back to earth with a bump. I start my new job as an MS Nurse Specialist tomorrow!

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