Each year, as soon as the clocks go back, I begin to look forward to the fresh start a new year will bring. A pessimist might say that if I haven’t yet mastered time management, financial planning or decluttering, a new year is unlikely to make a critical difference. But I’m an incurable optimist, and in the last few weeks, chance sayings by three people of my acquaintance have inspired me for the year ahead.
Catching up with an older friend after a couple of years apart, I was taken aback when she declared, “I reckon I’ve got another eight good years ahead.” From a less exuberant, busy type, that might have sounded like self-pity, but she was filled with gratitude. Never mind carpe diem, she plans to seize the next 2922 days and squeeze every drop of life out of them.
Trying to reach an elderly gentleman by phone, I was tickled by his answerphone’s announcement: “I’m busy having fun right now but leave a message and I’ll get back to you.” He’s right: fun is not the preserve of the young. Focusing on fun for however many days remain to you is a sound philosophy.
The third arresting statement came from a much younger friend: “I’m proud of the life I’ve curated for myself.” Curated? I thought. What is she, a museum? Then I realised it was the perfect shorthand for purposeful management of your life. Like a good museum, she takes regular stock of her assets, jettisoning any that are irrelevant or surplus to her personal mission. A good museum doesn’t stash away its best possessions for fear of breakage or loss – it exploits them with gusto.
Curating a Life of Fun and Gratitude
When I went on a writers’ retreat last month, it came up in conversation how sad it is when someone dies leaving gifts or purchases unopened, having saved them for a special occasion that never happened.
My writer friends and I vowed that when we got home, we’d crack open all those fancy notebooks no writer can resist buying but often cannot bear to sully.
By the same token, in my kitchen, I moved to the top of the drawer all the pretty unused tea towels previously nestling beneath the much-laundered, greying, and holey ones in constant use.
In my bedroom, I rejected snagged tights that I’d been eking out to the point of decomposition and ripped the wrapper off a beautiful, patterned pair I’d bought about three years ago, even though I had no plans to go out that day.
My daughter, with the natural assurance of the teenager, has a theory that the older you get, the more you are pleased by small things.
Given the pleasure I’ve just gained from a fresh notebook, a virgin tea towel, and brand-new tights, I can hardly disagree. But I’m also reassured that whatever the new year brings after the stress of a post-Brexit pandemic year, it won’t take much in 2022 to make me happy.
I wish you a contented and peaceful Christmas, and a new year of living your best life.
(This post was originally written for the December 2021/January 2022 issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser.)
Recommended Reading on the Theme of Fresh Starts
In three of my stories, the main characters are seeking fresh starts for a happier life:
Sophie Sayers when she moves to the Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow in Best Murder in Show, first in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series
Gemma Lamb as she starts a new job at St Bride’s School for Girls in Secrets at St Bride’s the first in the Staffroom at St Bride’s series
Juliet Morris when she accepts the loan of a car with extraordinary powers in Mrs Morris Changes Lanes, my stand-alone novella
If you haven’t already read them, why not give one a try?
As the world begins to open up again, I buy a new mid-year diary twice the size of my old one.
After crossing out practically every event in the last sixteen months due to Covid restrictions, I’m hoping I’ll need more diary space to make up for lost time. I have so many missed social engagements with family and friends to make up for, not to mention practical appointments with doctors, dentists, hairdressers and garages.
My favourite time for appointments is 11am. With 11 as my default, I am more likely to remember when my meetings are and to turn up on time. Similarly, when I’m working at my desk, I generally down tools at 11 for a coffee break.
I follow Winnie-the-Pooh’s advocacy for elevenses – “Pooh always liked a little something at eleven o’clock in the morning” – although I don’t share his taste in refreshments.
Rabbit said, ‘Honey or condensed milk with your bread?’ Pooh was so excited that he said, ‘Both,’ and then as not to seem greedy, he added, ‘but don’t bother about the bread, please.’*
My plan for more outings is soon scuppered by increased traffic congestion. (Yes, I know, I’m contributing to those traffic jams by driving places.) One Friday afternoon in early July, when it takes me two hours to drive the six miles between Junctions 18 and 19 on the M4, I resolve to avoid motorways at weekends until after the summer holidays.
Consequently, the Monday to Thursday pages of my diary are soon choc-a-bloc, while the rest are almost empty. But that’s fine by me. Being self-employed, I am fortunate in being able to work whichever days I choose, including weekends.
My next challenge is to fit a whole week’s work into Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Nearly 100 years ago, leading economist John Maynard Keynes predicted labour-saving technology would soon shorten the standard working week to 15 hours.
In my teens (not quite 100 years ago), futurists were still predicting a four-day week for us all. Even so, to avoid burning the midnight oil, what I really need is a five-day weekend.
But after more than a year of not being able to tell one day from another, that’s a good problem to have.
(This post originally appeared in the August 2021 edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News *Copyright The estate of A A Milne)
Summer Holiday Reading
Two books in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series take place in the summer holidays:
Best Murder in Show(first in series) revolves around the annual horticultural show, where Sophie finds a dead body on a float in the village carnival
Murder Lost and Found (seventh in series) takes place just after the end of the academic year at the village school, when Sophie finds a dead body in the school’s lost property cupboard
All of my novels are available in paperback online or to order from your local bookshop and in ebook from all the popular ebook store sites. Best Murder in Show is also available as an audiobook from all the major audiobook sites including Audible – or you can buy it at a very special rate via my AuthorsDirect shop here.
Summer Diary Date
The highlight of this month in my diary will on Saturday 28th August – the fabulous Hawkesbury Horticultural Show, in the Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton where I’ve lived for over thirty years. I’ll be manning the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival stall – if you’re at the Show, do come and find me and say hello!
In my Young By Name column for the Tetbury Advertiser‘s June issue, I’m anticipating a return to almost-normal life – and being careful what I wish for.
Inheriting my parents’ strong work ethic and optimism, I have developed a lifelong tendency to try to do more than is physically possible in the available time. Even so, people often remark that I’m prolific, usually in the same breath as asking me to do something for them on the old “ask a busy person” principle. (I really need to learn to say no.)
The upshot is that most of the time, like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, I feel as if I’m running to stand still. “It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place,” the Red Queen tells Alice. “If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”
I occasionally write a ‘done’ list to prove to myself that I have been more productive than I think, but who has time to do that every day?
Jumping Off the Treadmill
When in 9-5 jobs I stepped off the treadmill for holidays, I was conscious that my work would come to a standstill while others beavered away in my absence. My favourite time to take a break was therefore during the Christmas/New Year break, when almost everyone else went on leave too.
When I worked on a year-round contract in a school office, I rejoiced every time term ended, because in the absence of teachers and pupils, much as I loved them, I felt I had time to catch up with myself.
Stopping the World
To help me stay on top of all my tasks, I used to wish I could put the rest of the world on hold, in the manner of Sleeping Beauty’s fairy godmother making the kingdom sleep for 100 years. My only proviso was that I wouldn’t age a century by the time I woke everyone up again. What a shock that would be for my poor husband!
Covid-19 has put paid to that fantasy for good.
As we emerge, blinking, from the quasi-hibernation of lockdown, I’m hoping this past year is the closest I will ever get to casting that magic spell. As I predicted in the April 2020 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser, for me lockdown resulted in tidier bookshelves, larder, wardrobe, etc, and I’m pleased about that. But going forward, my priorities have changed.
Top of my to-do list post-lockdown will be hugging my parents.
That’s one action I’m happy to keep adding every day.
My column for the June issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser
As I delete the latest task management app from my phone, my quest for the perfect automated to-do list resumes, in parallel with my perpetual search for the ideal handbag.
When I downloaded this cutely-named app, it seemed full of promise. I imagined my days streamlined and efficient, my desk and my conscience clear by wine o’clock every day. However, I quickly went off it when it began to take over the decision-making process. It refused point-blank to allow me to change my mind about priorities or even to move incomplete tasks to the next day.
I really need an action-list app with a mañana setting, although the ever-patient editor of this esteemed magazine may disagree.
The last straw was the app’s highhandedly adding events to my calendar that were of no relevance to me. Bank Holidays I could accept, and I don’t mind a reminder of the Queen’s birthday, but the Battle of the Boyne? Really? All that did was make me feel inadequate that I couldn’t think of an appropriate to-do action to add to my list. “Wear orange,” suggested one waggish friend when I protested the fact on Twitter.
Which brings me to a different approach to productivity management: the What Not to Do list, for logging time-wasting things to avoid. If you know of any app designers out there, tell them I think there’s a gap in the market for this. I don’t mean only for recording evergreen items such as “Don’t spend too much time on Twitter (except to “like” @LionsTetbury’s wisecracks, obviously)”. I formulate new ideas for mine every day.
This morning, for example, I’d have added: “Don’t match up the pile of odd socks that your husband has discarded on the bedroom rug while searching his wardrobe for a pair – he is not a toddler. He can sort his own socks.” Although to be fair a toddler would handle this task very well, if at the stage of enjoying shape-sorter toys and memory games of pairs.”
I must add to my action list: “Recruit affable toddler.”
So it’s back to the drawing board for me – or at least to pen and paper. A handwritten list by my keyboard will have to suffice. Sometimes old technology really is the best option, just as old wives’ tales so often prove to be founded in fact. Old-fashioned does not mean obsolete. My favourite sage old saying? “The best way to get something done is to do it.”
As in writing my column for the Tetbury Advertiser.
(You see what I did there?)
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With just a week to go before Christmas Eve, most households are likely to be going into overdrive just now, wrapping presents, writing cards and stocking up with groceries for the holiday season. Having lost most of December to illness, I’ve not written a single card yet, and as I type, my daughter, now 12 and old enough to be very useful, is wrapping all my presents for me.
I’d already started panicking about running out of time last month, when I wrote my column for the December issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, which you can read below. But if you’d like an antidote to this dilemma, I’ve also added below my short story, “Christmas Time”, which is one of twelve in my festive collection, Stocking Fillers.
CHRISTMAS LISTS (from the December issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News)
Don’t let anyone fool you that February is the shortest month. It’s actually November.
Being an old-fashioned type, I wait until after Guy Fawkes Night before I start thinking about Christmas. Then, without warning, I discover it’s nearly December, and I’ve still not done any Christmas shopping or written any Christmas cards.
In hope of catching up with myself, in mid-November I ask my daughter (12) what she’d like for Christmas. As she’s already planning her birthday party for next May, I’m surprised she hasn’t yet presented me with her usual A4 wish-list.
“I don’t really need anything.” Her candour is refreshing. She passes the baton to my husband, quizzing him on what he’d like.
“Socks,” he pronounces, with certainty.
“But you’ve got dozens of socks in your wardrobe,” I point out. “You just need to pair them up.”
“In that case, for Christmas, I’d like someone to pair up all my socks for me,” he concludes.
No-one asks me, so I ask myself what I’d like for Christmas. More time, I decide, I just need more time. Then when I flip the calendar over to look at the next month, I discover that my gift has already been delivered: December, unlike November, has a whole 31 days.
Well, that was a cheap round, Santa, but I think your work here is done.
Merry Christmas, everybody!
CHRISTMAS TIME (A short story from Stocking Fillers)
My annual Christmas present from my godmother, Auntie Fay, may be small in size because she has to post it all the way from Australia, but it’s always a tonic that helps me get through the whirlwind of preparing for a typical family Christmas.
No surprise, then, that I can’t resist opening her parcel the moment it arrives. This year, it landed on my doormat on 23 December. Seeing her beautiful copperplate handwriting on the label beneath the showy Australian stamps made my heart skip a beat with excitement. Settling down at the kitchen table, I peeled off the outer wrapper to reveal a small Christmas card bent protectively around a tiny square parcel. I ripped off the glittery paper, sending specks of silver fluttering up around me as if heralding a magic spell. To my surprise, inside lay nothing more remarkable than a slim alarm clock. Its circular clock face bore a stylised world map, reminding me of just how much distance lay between Auntie Fay and me. Around the edge of the clock face ran the slogan “Stop the world!” repeated several times.
I flipped the clock over to see whether it was made in Australia, but found no clue. There were just the usual knobs, time set and alarm set, and three buttons labelled off, stop and snooze. I adjusted it to English time, then twiddled the alarm set knob to match the time so that I could check out the sound of the alarm. It was a pleasantly low vibrating purr that I didn’t think would be audible beyond my side of the bed. Then I noticed a raised pillow-shaped symbol with an arrow pointing to it, suggesting that the clock should be tucked under the pillow for the gentlest, most comforting of awakenings. I liked the sound of that.
Feeling vaguely guilty that, like a badly brought-up child, I’d taken stock of the present before the card, I set the clock down on the kitchen table and opened the card. It showed an unlikely scene of a wombat and a kangaroo exchanging Christmas gifts. What would they buy each other? I wondered. Inside, opposite the printed greeting, the page was filled edge to edge with Auntie Fay’s handwriting, its neat script at odds with the rambling message. She always wrote exactly as she talked.
“Jessie my dear, I hope this little gift will help you get more rest and catch up with yourself. I couldn’t help noticing you looked a little tired in that last lovely photo you sent me of you and Jake and your dear boys, haven’t they grown? More like your father every day, that’s no bad thing, he’s a dear boy too, at least he was when we were small, though always bigger than me, of course. Don’t try to do too much at this busy time of year, will you? Get plenty of sleep and you’ll all enjoy Christmas so much more. Those buttons on the back are there for a reason, you know, so make sure you use them!”
I put Auntie Fay’s card on the kitchen dresser, where it could stand in proxy for her throughout the season’s celebrations. Then I went upstairs to slip her gift under my pillow before getting on with my chores.
By bedtime I was bleary eyed from a long day of channelling the twins’ excitement into constructive behaviour. We really didn’t need quite so many paper chains, but making them keeps six-year-olds occupied for ages. I flung myself wearily into bed, forgetting Auntie Fay’s new clock until I fluffed up the pillows for a soothing late-night read. I showed the clock to Jake, who was sitting up in bed playing Hearts on his tablet.
“That’s cute,” he remarked. “But surely you’re not planning to set an alarm for tomorrow, are you? We’re on holiday! A fortnight without work, hurrah!”
“Are you kidding? I’ve still got all the presents to wrap, mince pies to make, vegetables to peel, stuffing to mix, plus loads of cleaning to do so the house looks half decent for when our folks come round for Christmas dinner. The kids are messing the house up faster than I can tidy. In fact, even if I didn’t go to bed at all tonight, I’d still have trouble fitting everything in.
Jake set the tablet on his bedside table, leaned over to give me a quick kiss, then lay down facing away from me.
“Well, wake me up when you’ve finished, love. I’m on holiday. Night night.”
I set Auntie Fay’s alarm for 7am and slipped it under my pillow.
I woke up to its gentle purring what seemed like moments later. The light was still on, my reading book had fallen sideways in my hand, and there was just enough traffic roaring past the house to confirm that the rush hour was about to begin.
Hazy with insufficient sleep, I pulled the clock out from under my pillow, flipped it over and hit a button on the back to silence the purr. Jake slumbered on peacefully as I threw back the duvet and wrapped my dressing gown around me. The refreshing silence from across the landing told me that, by some miracle, the twins were also still asleep. I stuffed my feet into fluffy slippers and stumbled downstairs to brew a sustaining pot of tea. I needed to be fortified before I tackled my to-do list.
I decided first to take advantage of the continuing peace upstairs to wrap all the presents. Job done, I hid them in the ironing basket (the last place Jake or the boys would think to look) before taking a cup of tea up to Jake. He was still spark out, as were the boys, so I left the tea on his bedside table. As I went back downstairs, I slipped one hand into my dressing gown pocket in search of a tissue, only to discover that I’d absent-mindedly put Auntie Fay’s clock in there instead of putting it back under my pillow. Turning it over to check the time, I realised with a start that it still said seven o’clock. Had I inadvertently dislodged the battery? No, it was still ticking. So why had the hands not moved on?
But I couldn’t spare the time to investigate, so I tucked it back into my pocket and hauled the Dyson out of the broom cupboard. The noise of vacuuming would certainly wake the boys, but it had to be done. Yet as I tucked the Dyson back in the cupboard half an hour later, there was still no sound from upstairs. Suddenly filled with panic, I ran upstairs to check the boys were still breathing. They were, but they were asleep, so I tiptoed back downstairs to start cooking.
Not used to such peace in the mornings, I clicked on the radio for company. I was just in time to hear the BBC’s pips marking the hour, immediately followed by the announcement of the seven o’clock news headlines. Spooked, I quickly pressed the off switch. Surely I’d done at least three hours’ work since Auntie Fay’s alarm woke me up at seven? For a moment I wondered whether it had reverted to Australian time, but that made no sense because the time difference between our countries is more like twelve hours than three.
I distracted myself by setting to work on the mountain of vegetables that I planned to prepare and leave in the fridge, ready to cook on Christmas Day. That job done, I started on the mince pies.
By the time the third batch was cooling on the wire rack I was feeling peckish, so I made another pot of tea and some toast. I thought I’d take Jake a fresh cup. When I nipped upstairs to get his mug, predictably still untouched, I was astonished to find that the tea in it was still as hot as when I’d poured it hours before. It was as if time had stood still.
I sat down on the bed with a thump, not caring whether I disturbed Jake now, and drew Auntie Fay’s alarm clock out of my dressing gown pocket. I didn’t need to look at it to know that it would still say 7am. I turned it over to double-check which button I’d hit to turn off the alarm. One was still depressed. It was the stop button. And then it hit me: with my Stop the World clock, I’d stopped the world.
I had a sudden panic. Was the action reversible? Quickly I hit the stop button again, and as it sprang back up the second hand started to move. At the very same moment Jake awoke.
“Is that my tea? Thanks, love. Happy Christmas Eve!”
All at once, from the twins’ bedroom came sounds of excitable boys on the cusp of their seventh Christmas. Having already completed my chores for the day, I realised to my delight that I could now relax and enjoy the day with them.
By the evening, I was in a mellow mood and unusually calm while bathing the twins and putting them to bed. Then Jake and I enjoyed a relaxing evening watching television with a jug of mulled wine. While Jake was out of the room on a quest for Pringles, I raised a silent toast of gratitude to Auntie Fay for her thoughtful, magical gift of time.
My gratitude to her did not end there. I’d told the boys they were not allowed to wake us on Christmas morning until six o’clock. I had the foresight to set Auntie Fay’s alarm clock for one minute before six. The moment I felt its gentle purr, I slipped my hand beneath my pillow and felt for the stop button. Then I turned over, snuggled down under the duvet and leaned in to the warmth of Jake’s back. Plenty of time yet for a nice lie-in. Christmas Day wouldn’t begin until I was good and ready. Smiling, I closed my eyes.
If you enjoyed this story, it’s not too late to order Stocking Fillers, the book of twelve stories from which it’s taken, in ebook or paperback form. The paperback’s available from various local bookshops, and both ebook and paperback are available to order online from Amazon and all the usual suspects. Just search under ISBN 978-0993087929 for the paperback, or for the title and author name for the ebook.