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Sorry for the long silence. I’m not doing so well at writing every day, am I?! My excuse this time? We’ve just had our annual ‘Crazy Birthday Bonanza’, where three members of the family have their birthdays within the space of 9 days. And yes, that DOES mean that three quarters of this family are food-guzzling, earthy, moody Taureans, with severe territorial issues.
This also usually means that I put on about a stone of pure cake-weight in May, but given that I’m now hurtling towards my mid-forties, I thought it would be sensible to make only ONE cake to celebrate all three birthdays this year.
However, that doesn’t mean I was any more organised than usual, so the evening before my daughter’s Harry Potter themed party found me sitting in Lidl’s car park, as I scouted for last minute supplies.
As it was relatively late, the car park was only 30% full, and I swung into a space, with spaces on either side of me. Annoyingly, within seconds, despite 70% of a car park to choose from, someone pulled in to the space to my left… and then one of those ridiculously and pointlessly enormous 4x4s tried to pull into the space on my right. The hapless woman driving was so close to my car that she set off all my parking sensors. She sat there, her car at a weird spatially-challenged angle, switched off her engine in a self-satisfied manner, as I wondered how on earth I was even going to exit my car. And then she took a good look at me.
Suddenly, she turned her engine back on and roared off, parking on the other side of the car park.
As I pondered this, it occurred to me with a great deal of amusement, that she had caught sight of my hair! From the left, I look pretty demure. From the right, I apparently look like someone you wouldn’t want to park next to, especially with children in the back.
This past month has been an interesting social experiment. For the first time in my life, people notice my hair before they notice my nationality.
Maybe it was naïve of me to think that I could change my appearance drastically without consequences, but I’d do it again. In fact, it has taught me something very important.
It has taught me that what other people think of me is completely immaterial. It changes nothing about the person I am.
About a week after my haircut, when the shaved patterns on my head were still very conspicuous, I arranged to take my kids and meet a friend and her kids at a National Trust house.
Now, I have been a National Trust member for nearly 15 years. I love old houses and architecture; I love historical artefacts and the stories behind them; I love the beautiful landscaped gardens; and I love taking my children to soak up the atmosphere and knowledge available in these well-preserved bubbles of British history.
In those 15 years, I cannot tell you how many times I have been approached by middle-aged-to-elderly people who want to compliment me on my children’s beautiful manners, or express their approval that my toddlers drank from a proper glass rather than a sippy cup, or exclaim over my son’s ‘cleverness’ in being able to recite all the kings and queens from William the Conqueror up to the present day.
In their eyes, I could always read the same story – “What a lovely, middle-class family! Not British perhaps, but Chinese/Japanese people work so hard, and really value education…”
However, this recent visit had a slightly different flavour to it.
First of all, when I showed my house ticket to the elderly volunteer at the desk, she actually took a step back from me. She peered at the ticket warily, and then back at my face, as if doubting my motives.
Then, instead of being constantly surrounded by people – it’s a familiar moan of mine that no one is interested in a picture/statue/cabinet until I’m looking at it – there was a respectful distance around me, and mothers kept their children close. Lovely.
I wandered into the music room and inspected the Broadwood piano in the corner. Many years ago, I did my degree dissertation on pianos, and though the dissertation itself wasn’t very good, I’m still interested to see if I can date a strange piano to within 3 decades of its manufacture.
I became aware of an old gentleman staring at me hard, as if expecting delinquent behaviour. Maybe I was about to scratch the mellowed varnish, or eat a Nature Valley bar over the open lid, or even – oh horror – play chopsticks raucously at triple forte.
I noticed a sign on the piano that said, “IF you can play the piano, you may try me. But please, not for very long.”
Inwardly, I chuckled. What a very ‘National Trust’ sign.
The old man was still standing there, frowning at me.
In a moment of defiance, I sat down at the piano and played the first page of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata – 2nd movement.
I was aware of the old man visibly starting, and he hurriedly exited the room - no doubt perturbed to hear Beethoven being played by someone who looked more likely to bite the head off a live chicken.
In summary, people still look at me and put me in a box – a box constructed of their own prejudices and opinions – but the difference now is that I have stopped putting MYSELF in a box of my own making. I have absolutely no problem with the strange contradictory effect of my clothes, my appearance, my accent, my skills, my personality – it may be a confusing and eccentric jumble, but it is a glorious jumble, and I realise I don’t need to find a category to define me.
I look at my kids and I love how free-spirited they are with their appearance. Admittedly I sometimes wish that my son’s supreme nonchalance didn’t comprise fishing out clothes that are too small for him, although he looks cute in a ‘homeless waif’ kinda way. Admittedly, my daughter’s sartorial flamboyance is occasionally utterly inappropriate (woolly jumper, polar bear gloves, stripy socks, ballet tutu, and flip flops, anyone?) but I wouldn’t change her for the world.
Hopefully my children have realised, much sooner than I ever did, that other people’s opinions cannot take anything away from you – not without your permission – and that conforming to a nebulous standard dictated by a murky, hypocritical society only robs you of your individuality.
I must remember that when my daughter comes to ask me if she can have every extremity pierced, and a tattoo of a spider placed in the centre of her face… #doublestandards #mumrules