Tango’s tale

Cats are aloof, they say. Cats are dignified, they say. So tell me, any of you, has anyone ever seen a cat quite like this one?

If you know me – or at least my blog – very well, then you will have met Bouncer. Pictured above is his brother.

What prompted me to suddenly give Tango a bit of screen time was something actually quite sobering. Earlier this week, with little warning, he took ill rather dramatically. Having vomited copiously in at least two rooms, my mum and sister found him in a state of collapse. While the picture above indicates, not entirely incorrectly, that collapse is a normal state for him, he was rushed to the vets, put on a drip and kept in overnight.

Meanwhile, we were told he probably had something wrong with his heart. I inwardly accepted that this blog post was going to be something between an obituary and a eulogy.

To get a diagnosis, he had to be taken to a feline heart specialist in Derbyshire. Two car journeys, a heart scan, and a three-digit-long fee later, it turned out there was nothing wrong with his heart. So much for that.

Tango’s defining trait has always been his docility. At least one of the vets described him as “such a dude”, and at no point during his x-ray at the vets, or heart scan in Derbyshire, did anyone feel the need to anaesthetise him. For him, there seems to be a very fine line between illness-induced lethargy and normal behaviour. He barely woke when, as an animal care student in my teens, I had to give him a physical health-check for an assignment. I think he was a bit disconcerted when I started flexing his legs, but I was finished before he even got around to reacting.

We went on holiday a few years ago and left the cats in the care of one of my stepbrothers who, at one point, rang Mum and John, because he was worried about Tango. Needless to say, we had to reassure him that no, nothing was wrong with Tango, and yes, lying with his legs in the air and rarely waking up is perfectly healthy behaviour. For him.

For such a placid cat, he is a bit funny about late-neutered males. He hated Basil, my late grandmother’s cat, on sight. While Basil bullied Bouncer relentlessly, Tango pursued Basil with a Mr Hyde persona if he so much as looked at him; it was as if, for every blow Basil gave Bouncer, Tango would dole out two. When George kept turning up in our garden as a stray, it looked like he was in for similar treatment. Now, give or take the occasional fur-flying squabble where collars go pinging off, they seem to have come to a truce. In fact, George is fascinated by him, and doesn’t seem to understand that, while bottom sniffing has its perks, Tango doesn’t share his enthusiasm for it.

Now he and Bouncer are 13 1/2, having joined our household when they could still fit in one hand. Tango may be the soppiest cat I’ve ever met, but I’ll say this for him: in his own way, he’s stoical. He may be inclined to roll off beds in his sleep, he may panic if your keys rattle too loudly. But, as the brother who drew the short straw healthwise, he continues to be his usual trusting self throughout eczema medicine, eyedrops, and at one point a cone collar, being forced upon him. And while we’ve all been losing sleep over the thought of losing him, he has dealt with the ordeal with his usual unconditional trust and affection. Couldn’t we all learn from that?

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Customers versus shop assistants

A while back, I found a quote on Facebook, which – to paraphrase – went something like this. When a shop assistant goes home, and someone asks how their day at work was, you, as a customer, are part of the answer.

I’m coming to the end of my Christian bookshop internship, and I have seen all manner of customers. Different ages, races, walks of life, you name it. Many interactions I have with them are fairly bog standard. Hello, can I help with anything? I’ll have a look…they’re right there/no we don’t have that in stock. That’ll be pounds, do you need a free carrier bag? Thank you, have a nice day!

And some people know exactly how to brighten someone’s day. Some regulars actually give us chocolate. Or a bottle of juice each. Some even need a listening ear. They’re ill. Lonely. Disillusioned. They see the shop as a safe place to vent, and I always feel honoured to have gained someone’s trust.

But of course, some drive you crazy. They expect all shop assistants to know everything. They take it very personally when something they swear we had 10 years ago is unavailable. Before opening time, they might be waiting outside the unopened door, then getting huffy with us for not opening, because they need to get back to where they’ve parked illegally. Or they come waltzing in straight past the opening times stuck at face level, one minute before closing time, and ask when we close. Before spending ages browsing.

Another thing that frustrates me is when people ask for a very specific item, but can’t give me a title, author, or publisher. A Moroccan leather Bible? Tempting to say “Damn, sold the last one five minutes ago.” A Church of England booklet on the rite of confirmation? Said customer was very cross with me for not finding this, when they’d come “all the way from London” and we’d “never let them down until now!”

Yes, some people can be downright unpleasant. We recently had someone ask us to change a £20, and make it quick, thank you very much. We were reluctant; having done so earlier had left us short of change, and we needed to preserve what was left for real customers. The person asked if we would give them change if they bought something, and got angry when they realised we had enough for that. They were more cross with my poor colleague, who was trying to explain to them, and even said so to “reassure” me. You know how it is when you feel more angry when someone messes with your friend than with you? I do!

This, by the way, was hours after my other colleague, who speaks English as a second language, got yelled at by someone for struggling to understand them and not speaking clearly enough. And about a week after I listened to a customer’s complaints about life and compliments on my job performance, only to learn they had been banned for making sexual innuendos.

To finish, I would like to thank every customer who shows nothing but respect, good manners, and the occasional treat (!!!). And to the minority? Kindly remember that shop staff are not God, or computers. We just want to survive the working day, and get home to our families. Don’t you?

Our New Wine family

“I don’t know what to expect from these meetings…I’m on the outside, wishing I knew someone closely, but not feeling comfortable enough to say anything…”

Ten months ago, I wrote myself a letter. I was at my course’s church, surrounded by other Christian interns, and we had been asked to write to our end-of-year selves. Two days ago, these letters were returned to us, and we were asked to take time to reflect on how far we’d come.

I was enrolled on the weekly New Wine Discipleship course as part of the internship I’m doing at a Christian bookshop. And if I’m honest, there were times when I thought I’d never find my feet there. Everyone was getting to know each other. No-one else had to calm down in another room when asked to write and perform a talk. We were all advised to “go deeper” with each other in conversation, and quite frankly, this terrified me.

In situations like this, you can either go running back to safety, or you can push yourself forward. So when I tried to act sociable and relaxed, or remember people’s names, or make a beeline for anyone I now recognised, that’s what I was doing.

I don’t know how I’ve gone from that stage, to thinking about how much I’m going to miss it, but I have. Each Monday session has been draining, but we’ve done so much together. Our first weekend away. Our Christmas party. The Ukraine mission trip. Jennie and Jan’s wedding. And finally, to go out with a bang, our end-of-year graduation ceremony.

Our last day was the most uplifting and exhausting yet. After opening our letters, we all sat in a circle with someone in the centre, while everyone else voiced words of encouragement and special memories. A real reminder of how we value each other.

But what could anyone say about me, the quiet one who always needs help? Let’s say I was humbled by how many things my friends appreciate about me.

Once half the group had stopped crying, we moved on to Jess’ game. In two teams, we each had to decode clues about where in the city we should go to, take a group selfie once there, receive the next clue, and so on. I don’t know why we had to run everywhere, but when my team decided to race, I started at the back, and out-ran all of them. Just saying.

And onto the most important part, the graduation ceremony! While we were hitting the town, Jess had prepared our paper graduation hats and certificates. Once we were assembled, she even dedicated a short speech to each of us before presenting us with our certificates. A true ceremony if ever there was one!

To end the festivities, we had drinks and a meal at a local tapas bar. Thinking about it, having a cocktail on an empty stomach and zero energy probably wasn’t my wisest choice. I shifted between feeling increasingly sociable, and overly anxious. And lightheaded. But hey, tripping over a downward step, and talking about my feelings to the next person* who would listen proved entertaining, if nothing else.

At this point, I’m going over my preferred word count to conclude with a personal shout out to everyone!

To Ruth B, my first friend on the course who looked out for me from day one, and who always goes the extra mile for the group

To Wole, whose God centred enthusiasm is unmatched, and whose random singing had us all in stitches

To Matt, a good worship leader who can start and finish any theological debate

To Ruth G, who I commute with, discuss the course with, and also happily be alone together with

*To Mary, who translated in Ukraine even though it wasn’t easy, and who let me chatter aimlessly about how I shouldn’t have had that cocktail

To Elijah, who also translated, and helped me navigate Ukrainian cafes

To Jan, who trod the Christian bookshop path before me so we could compare experiences

To Miya, who, in Ukraine, listened to me complaining about how useless I sometimes felt

To Jake, who, like me, started off in super-introvert mode, but is actually pretty fun to watch at a wedding disco

To Alex, whose sense of humour is equally questionable and brilliant

To Cameron, who made a good second-in-command in Ukraine

To Nathan, always the cool head in any tricky theological discussion

To Isaac, who frequently gives positive feedback on this blog

And of course, our leaders: David, who got us through the first tricky term, Jess, mother hen and vicar-to-be, and Simon, who led us through Ukraine and made sure I didn’t get lost. Hats off to everyone!

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DISCLAIMER: the photo belongs to Jess, not me

 

Getting healed?!

A few weeks ago, a customer came into the shop, and, as customers often do, asked me a lot of questions at once that I was struggling to make sense of. When trying to get him to clarify what he wanted, I told him I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, and sometimes communication is confusing for me. But alas, there is hope, fellow Aspies. Because according to this man…I could ask God to heal me!

My reaction, as a Christian, is this. I believe in praying. I believe that people can be healed. I also believe that, just because God can heal, it doesn’t mean that He should, or will. I have to say, though, I wish my immediate response had been that eloquent. What I actually did was falteringly explain that autism is not an illness to be cured, but rather a difference in the brain, and that implying otherwise can hurt. He got it in the end, and surrounding colleagues and customers were impressed. So clearly I did something right.

But then I thought to myself, no matter how many times I hear how important it is to embrace our differences, I do get frustrated. I do wish I didn’t need extra help. I’m often fed up with my struggles, yet I couldn’t help feeling offended at the notion that I should change. Am I just acting like a special snowflake?

I don’t know. But not every struggle is a problem that needs to be “cured”.

I recently had an interesting message exchange with a friend who, as we were chatting, was watching a documentary about children on medication for conditions like autism and ADHD. She asked me how I felt about that. Now, I respect people’s decisions here. It’s up to the individual. If medication proves more beneficial than not, then good for them. But I’m wary of people who treat Asperger’s as an illness, when it’s not caused by germs, or hormones, or bodily harm. So I gave her the following analogy.

Imagine a group of people, all from the same country, faced with someone from another country and who speaks a different language. Chances are, they are lonely. They want to communicate, but they find their limited vocabulary very frustrating. They might wish they were the same as everyone else, but should everyone be praying that they suddenly become British? Or American, or the nationality of your choice…

No. Of course not. It’s up to them to learn English (or whatever), and it’s up to the others to be patient with them. And it will always be their second language. But with enough learning and patience, they may speak fluently, and become a popular, respected group member. And they can bring to the table a language and a culture that everyone else barely knows about.

Do you get what I’m saying? In a similar way, learning differences can be a bummer. But they don’t have to stop you from flourishing. The trick is working through it, seeking support when you need it, and finding a way forward.

 

Ode to Jennie – marriage, madness, and much more

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At a wedding, you hear all manner of speeches. And I never did get to give my “intern of the bride” speech. So here it is.

After 10 months of messing around in a shop together, on Saturday 1st July I got to celebrate the marriage of one of my dearest, craziest friends Jennie, and fellow New Wine course member Jan*. It was fun, it was heartfelt, and it was an event that my colleagues predicted from the moment Jan became the intern at the bookshop where we work. Well, that’s what they say. Jennie hotly denies it.

Anyway. My first memory of Jennie, assistant manager extraordinaire, was at my interview last August, as Jan’s potential successor. Picture it: the bookshop’s back office, papers and packaging everywhere, and me, dutifully answering every question my now-boss was firing at me. Jennie, meanwhile, was sitting to one side silently judging me. If she had a beard, I bet she would have been stroking it.

Weeks later, and the dynamics in our relationship had changed enough to be able to communicate “difficult customer alert!” with just one glance. We bonded over our love of to-do lists, and it wasn’t long before the ones she wrote for me included “squash the world in a garlic press” or “High five yourself and then the nearest apple.” And when our conversations got too weird, we mastered the ability to stop whenever a customer came in, and resume without missing a beat once the shop was empty.

For all Jennie’s quirks, the main reason we’ve become so close is that we never felt under pressure to befriend each other. I mean, we’re super introverts. We don’t thrive under high social demands. Although I did rely on her to show me how things were done, other than that, we happily kept our heads down until we were comfortable enough to talk properly. I’d say that was a major breakthrough.

And somehow, we just connected. I love it when that happens. She has shown infinite patience with me, by the way, no matter how many times I screw up because I thought I knew what to do. Wedding preparation has been stressful for her, but throughout it all, she has remained kind, funny, and brilliant at everything she does.

She has also very generously given me a say in certain aspects of the wedding. I have to say, I think my suggestion of a giant, hollow chocolate orange as a carriage was a stroke of genius, even if she did say I’d be the one pulling it. And her hen do: 9.30am – 5pm, in a Christian bookshop, selling books, eating biscuits, and winding each other up.

And now the wedding has come and gone. Apart from anything, it was fun! It was another bonding experience with the other New Wine interns, and we had a lot of laughs playing air guitar in time to some good old disco music. I feel honoured to have attended, and know that they will have a wonderful, long life together. Jan is friendly and funny, and it has also been a pleasure to get to know him along with the other interns.

Now, in just a few weeks, they are moving to Mattersey, Nottinghamshire. Jan will be going to Bible college. Jennie will have a new job. I’ll be twiddling my thumbs in a shop where no-one sneaks up behind me, then laughs when I scream. Or finds endless good things to say about me no matter how wrong I prove them.

Jennie, thank you for a great year. Keep on doing amazing things in life!

 

 

*Think German, and pronounce the J as a Y. Please. He gets sick of being mistaken for a woman.

 

Life so far: growing up, autism, and 100 blog posts!

Years ago, I often thought about starting a blog. With my big dreams of becoming an author, it sounded like the sort of thing that all the high-flying writers are doing. Of course, it was just a crazy idea I had. Nothing serious. Right?

On receiving Blogging for Dummies for Christmas, I thought I’d at least show my appreciation by doing a quick summary of my world as a trial blog post. Now, four years and 99 posts later, my blog has definitely stood the test of time. It’s my way of reaching out, entertaining, and making my mark.

And this is my 100th post! So I thought I’d offer a much bigger summary of my life up until now.

Starting with Taipei, Taiwan, Wednesday 17th March 1993 at 1.13pm. My parents joke about how typical it was of me to come out at lunchtime. To which I say, how many people do YOU know who were born in the middle of the day, week, month, and academic year, on their due date?

People sometimes ask me what I remember about Taiwan. Kind of awkward because my earliest memories include me and my (British) mum hiding from my (Taiwanese) dad after they had been fighting. But hey, I also remember playing with our pets, walking through mountain scenery, and my 4th birthday party. It wasn’t all bad!

Just after said birthday, my pregnant mother and I hastily headed my grandparents’ way – Cam, Gloucestershire. My sister was born. I started school, and was happily oblivious to my teachers telling Mum how weird I was and blaming it on bad parenting. Then we found a council flat.

A year later, while we were on holiday, my now-stepdad made his debut. From then on, he kept turning up on our doorstep. And we on his. This went on for about three years, until he and Mum married, and we invaded his house for good. Did I mention what a cute bridesmaid I was?

Now in Loughborough, I ended up at a school that was actually competent, and hey presto, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. My response to the news? “Oh…can I have a piece of cheese?”

Secondary school pulled my head out of the clouds with a jolt. It was a scary world of social hierarchies, sport, and teachers with varying levels of empathy. I struggled with friendships. I struggled in classes. Most of all, I struggled to accept that autism was nothing to be ashamed of.

But gradually, I got involved with various social groups at church, and I finally started to make friends and open up about my difficulties. Meanwhile, I was studying animal care at Brooksby College. It comprised manhandling animals of every size and species, essays, poo, and overnight lambing. Pretty grim, but I passed with straight distinctions!

Because I wasn’t ready for uni afterwards, I did a couple of years of home study, and realised that my heart was in becoming an author, not a vet nurse. The second year proved eventful when my Grannie died of cancer, and I still regret not visiting more. But it was also the year I started at De Montfort University, studying Creative Writing and Journalism. It was challenging, and falling out with my friend when we tried living together was hard. That said, I learned more about writing than I ever had before, and I don’t regret it for a second.

And now, here I am, coming to the end of my Christian bookshop internship. It’s been a great year, with great people, and I can’t help wishing I had more time left. But few things in life are permanent, and as I reflect on my significant life events, I do wonder what the next one will be.

 

 

To John: a very happy, hot, and sunny Father’s day

As usual on a Sunday, I am trying to come up with witty, informative reading material that really captures my chosen subject. Unfortunately, it’s so hot, I’m struggling to think of anything remotely clever. Fortunately, my chosen subject has reassured me that he is not remotely clever. Introducing: husband to my mother, father to my stepbrothers*…my stepfather John!

When John first turned up in our lives, we were a single parent family – Mum, five year old me, one year old sister Rhian – living on benefits. My father, for all his apparently fine qualities, had not come up trumps, my earliest memories comprising me and my pregnant mother hiding in her locked bedroom after a particularly nasty fight.

A year on, and we were on a single parents week at a Christian holiday/retreat centre. I don’t remember much about those early stages, except that this man who Mum met during the week kept visiting. And sleeping in our living room. It’s been 19 years, and in retrospect, moving in with him was probably a hint that he was here to stay. Or we were.

I’ve told John several times that of all the dads I’ve had, he’s definitely in the top 50 per cent. He fits all the basic “dad” criteria to a tee. He makes predictable jokes. He makes them again. He sings out of tune. Over the years, he’s helped me and my sister with revision, job applications, and unwanted bits of food. Or food that he mistook for being unwanted. And, despite his earlier assurances, he’s actually pretty clever.

Plus, he’s had a role in many a family anecdote. Like when, pre-marriage, he took six year old me and two year old Rhian to the smallpox museum. Picture it: photos of hideously scarred, dying children everywhere, and a video all about a disease that killed everyone. Mum knew it hadn’t been a success when we came back white as a sheet, and unable to finish our dinner. It seems that John’s stepdad potential could only go up from there.

And of course, bedtime reading. It was John who got me reading people stories as well as animal ones, when he said he was going to read a surprise book. He did a good job of hiding the cover as well; I only got a split-second glimpse of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone before he started reading.

During my sister’s Enid Blyton phase, he had a real knack (or was it need?) when it came to livening up tales of pious schoolgirls with zany French teachers. Not satisfied with his old trick of inserting funny words, he had to give each character a badly-portrayed accent. Welsh? Afro-American? Dalek? You name it.

Yep, John is very much dad material. And I fully appreciate what he’s done for us. I’ve often thought it must take dedication to take on someone else’s kids and help raise them as your own. So I want to raise a glass to all dedicated fathers, and specifically those who take on the role, no matter how late in their children’s lives. Who better to teach me how to quickly predict a dad joke?

 

 

*one of whom features here